Monday, January 31, 2005


At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, after the revelation of the aseret hadibrot, the ten statements, Moses reports God’s words to Israel. Almost the very last verses of this parshah, (19) “God says to Moses, Tell the children of Israel….”

Shemot 20:20-21

“You shall not make with Me gods of silver and gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves. 21 An altar of earth shall you make for Me…”

The prohibition is straightforward; don’t make idols out of silver and gold. But why does the verse say, “Don’t make images with Me?” The sages puzzled over this construction. They suggested a number of possibilities. Primarily, they understood this verse as prohibiting making the likeness of anything in the heavens, or of angels, or of those implements which were used in the Temple for the service: ‘Ye shall not make the likeness of my attendants’?
But then, why “gods of silver and gods of gold?” the Talmud in Sanhedrin 7b asks that very question “…Ye shall not make with Me gods of silver or gods of gold. Is it only gods of silver and gold that may not be made, while those of wood are permitted? — The verse, says Rav Ashi, refers to judges appointed through the power of silver or gold.”

The talmud suggests that the verse is targeting not simple idolatry, but a more virulent form; today we would hardly worry about someone making idols to bow down to, and yet, our world is full of gods of silver and gods of gold. People made small gods to worship, because by bringing idols things – food, or other sacrifices, - they could get what they wanted, they could manipulate the gods by making them happy, and through them manipulate the world

The Mei Ha Shiloach suggests something else. He says, “Gods of silver” means an external hue of love and fervor more than is appropriate …for the blessed God only shows love for a person when the truth is with him. “Gods of gold” means an external hue of fear greater than is appropriate.
When Jews speak of appropriate ways to regard God, there are two phrases that we commonly use, “Yirat shamayim” fear of heaven, and “ahavat hashem” love of God. Fear and love. A person needs both of these to have a relationship with God: awe for the transcendent God who creates the world, who commands the laws of nature and sets the planets in motion, to whom we are tiny parts of an immense cosmos; love for the God who is immanent, whose providence regards us, who dwells among Israel and loves nations and individuals.
When we make gods of silver and gods of gold, we elevate one way of relating to God above another, or even falsely act based not on our hearts, but on the gold and silver plating: what we think people will respond to.
When we make a god of gold, we elevate fear of heaven, or even just the appearance of the fear of heaven, above love of God. “Gods of gold,” are focusing on the minutia of ritual so much that it seems burdensome and beyond our ability. The other way of making “gods of gold” is sending heaven away from us, and turning God into a distant God who doesn’t care, at best a God who is not interested in our personal welfare, but only in the cosmos. To this, Deuteronomy/dvarim 30 tells us “12. It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? 13. Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? 14. But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.”

On the other hand, when we make gods of silver, we elevate love of God above fear of God. This is something I think we are particularly prone to today. We overemphasize the elements of our tradition that tell us that we are God’s partner, and forget that God isn’t our friend or our pet. Of course God does love us, but it is not a human love. God cares for us, but we still owe God our service, and our awe. We’re not on a first name basis with God. God still goes with the old-fashioned placement of titles: Sir/Ma’am, Adonai.

Gos of silver and gods of gold are plating. They are the things that cover over the truth. They confuse us as to what’s beneath them: When we act overawed so that we make a fetish of behavior without matching it to our thoughts, we gild ourselves with falsehood, when we act overly familiar with God, thinking we can do as we please in the world, we plate over the truth that we aren’t as important as we like to think we are. We have an obligation to submit ourselves to something higher than ourselves.

Rather, says the Mei HaShiloach, “only ‘an altar of earth you shall make for Me.’ Here, “earth” means simplicity, just as it exists in your heart.” God, unlike false idols, doesn’t ever have us hide the truth. We are to keep an honest account of ourselves. Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshishke told his disciples: Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words:"Bishvili nivra ha'olam. For my sake was the world created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words:" Ani eifer v'afar; I am but dust and ashes."

God created us to have both fear of heaven and love of hashem. But we aren’t supposed to make idols of fear and love. They must be in balance with one another, because both are part of the truth of our existence. I am but dust and ashes, and for my sake, the world was created. May we serve God this week, with humility and submission, with joy and pride.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Analyze That!

I have what must be the weirdest collecting habit ever: blank notebooks. I don't actually mean to collect blank notebooks mind you, there's just something irresistable about a brand new notebook with a nice sturdy cover that makes me want to buy one in which to write things down. Somehow, though, once I get them home (or into a tote of some sort), I always end up writing a few pages' worth and then wandering offf. I think it's actually the potential of a new notebook that lures me; the possibility of filing one up with something, rather than the actual discipline of doing it.
Not that I've never filled up a blank notebook, but only once has one of the notebooks I filled been one of the teasing tomes with the mellow fake "aged leather" (or whatever) covers. The ones I actually have succeeded in filling (nearly all of which were in one particular summer spent in Israel) were cheap, flimsy and not particularly compelling looking volumes. Go figure.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

How to rid yourself of noisy guests

Instructions from the Talmud, Pesachim 111b

The demons of caper-trees are called spirits: those of sorb-bushes are called]demons: those which haunt roofs are called fiery-bolts. What's that to me? For amulets. The demon of caper-trees is a creature without eyes. What's that to me? For fleeing from it. A scholar was once about to pee among the caper-trees, when he heard it advancing upon him so he fled from it. Well he had gone, it embraced a palm-tree, whereupon the palm-tree cried out and it burst.

The demons of sorb-bushes are called Sheid. A sorb-bush which is near a town has not less than sixty demons haunting it. What's it to me? Regarding writing an amulet. A certain town-officer went and stood by a sorb-bush near a town, whereupon he was set upon by sixty demons and his life was in danger. He then went to a scholar who did not know that it was a sorb-bush haunted by sixty demons, and so he wrote a one-demon amulet for it. Then he heard how they danced on his head and sang: ‘The man wears a turban like a scholar's, but he does not even know "Blessed art Thou".’ Then a certain scholar came who knew that it was a sorb-bush of sixty demons and wrote a sixty-demon amulet for it. Then he heard them saying sadly, ‘Pack your bags, we've got to go.’

Thursday, January 06, 2005


OK. I admit to amusing myself with this stuff. here are some of my faves:

Googlism for: alana
alana is an ethnic joke
alana is waiting in her dungeon
alana is a channeled energy brought through sandy breckenridge
alana is a mirror of your heart and therefore the familiarity that you feel in sensing alana's tone and bringing it into your nature
alana is a name for universal heart energy
alana is an executive board member of the high hopes 24 hour crisis hotline
alana is a world
alana is to be a model to imitate
alana is knocked unconscious and jenny runs to get help
alana is waiting in her dungeon in north london
alana is always aware that she is meant to be a princess trapped in a dungeon or tinkerbell being kidnapped by the lost boys
alana is more than just your average pop songstress
alana is the brainchild of leonard perry
alana is a raver
alana is very inspirational
alana is still evolving and there is much work to be done
alana is a very pretty wrestler with years of experience
alana is an amha and amhr registered sorrel filly

suskin is also not the irritatingly esoteric type who scorns the material things in life

Monday, January 03, 2005


The Abnormal Is Not Courage

Jack Gilbert

The Poles rode out from Warsaw against the German
Tanks on horses. Rode knowing, in sunlight, with sabers,
A magnitude of beauty that allows me no peace.
And yet this poem would lessen that day. Question
The bravery. Say it's not courage. Call it a passion.
Would say courage isn't that. Not at its best.
It was impossib1e, and with form. They rode in sunlight,
Were mangled. But I say courage is not the abnormal.
Not the marvelous act. Not Macbeth with fine speeches.
The worthless can manage in public, or for the moment.
It is too near the whore's heart: the bounty of impulse,
And the failure to sustain even small kindness.
Not the marvelous act, but the evident conclusion of being.
Not strangeness, but a leap forward of the same quality.
Accomplishment. The even loyalty. But fresh.
Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month's rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

This poem, written by Jack Gilbert, explains succinctly an idea that we find in this week’s Torah portion. So much of history is taken up with the extraordinary: with battles, with great men, with moments of transcendence, with the dark moment about which we swear “Never again.” Yet, to say that history is truly these turning points or those individuals seems to me to be missing the heart of history. Sure, it’s true that reading about the daily lives of a serf in the Middle Ages is hardly as exciting as reading about a king ordering his knights off to the Crusades, but those pivotal moments of history – as we think of them- rise and fall upon what the little people do behind the scenes. Without the serfs working the land, there is no bread to eat, and no taxes to be collected by those kings to raise the funds to go off and conquer other lands. It isn’t that there aren’t great men (and women) or that there aren’t moments in history when everything changes, but those people, and those moments are dependant upon an entire river of events and people which came before, and follow after them.

Judaism agrees with this idea. There is a midrash that every Jewish soul is a letter in the Torah. The Midrash (Genesis Raba) says: If the Jewish People were lacking just one person from the 600,000 Jews at Mount Sinai they would not have received the Torah.

Why is this? The Kabbalists point out that just as 600,000 Jewish souls stood at Mt. Sinai, so too there are 600,000 letters in the Torah (including the white spaces between letters). We are not permitted to read from a pasul Torah, a Torah from which even one letter is missing. And just as a Torah Scroll is invalid if even a single letter is missing, so too the Jewish People are handicapped if even one Jew has fallen away from our people.

Yet, today, we are more and more distant from one another. We come to shul, but we don’t know the person sitting next to us. We root for Jewish politicians, but many of us don’t keep kosher or shabbat. And why is that? Deep in our souls, many of us say to ourselves, we’re Jewish, but does it really matter if I have a cheeseburger? Does God really care if I go out for Chinese or go shopping after shul? After all, I’m a good person, isn’t that enough?

Of course, God cares for good people, whether they’re Jews or not. And it counts to be a good person. There’s no question of that. But what is a good Jew? It’s true that “ritual” mitzvot by themselves do not make a good Jew, but neither do “ethical” mitzvot. Because there is no separation between ritual and ethical mitzvot. God calls upon us to be holy in many ways. We don’t, it is true, always know the point of a given law which seems to be ritual in nature. But it is, for certain, teaching us something, and it has a reason, whether or not we not what that reason is. Some of our commentators explain that the reason we aren’t given the reasons for laws is because when we have reasons, we can find excuses for them not to apply to us.

In the talmud, it says, {Sanhedrin 21b} R. Isaac also said: Why were the reasons of [some] Biblical laws not revealed? — Because in two verses reasons were revealed, and they caused the greatest in the world [Solomon] to stumble. Thus it is written: He shall not multiply wives to himself, whereon Solomon said, ‘I will multiply wives yet not let my heart be perverted.’ Yet we read, When Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart. Again it is written: He shall not multiply to himself horses; concerning which Solomon said, ‘I will multiply them, but will not cause [Israel] to return [to Egypt].’ Yet we read: And a chariot came up and went out of Egypt for six [hundred shekels of silver].

When taken separately, many mitzvot don’t seem to have a meaning, but a single puzzle piece that you find between the cushions of the couch doesn’t seem to have meaning, either. Like the letters of the Torah, like the people Israel, it is taken together that mitzvot are powerful and meaningful, part of a system to set us apart in relationship to God.

This morning when we read the sh’ma, we read, ואהבת את יי אלוהיך בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאודך: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and might.

Rashi says that God created the world for the sake of the Torah. Each person has 248 limbs which corresponds to the 248 positive commandments in the Torah and 365 main veins which corresponds to the 365 negative commandments in the Torah. God designed each human this way to indicate to us that each person is part and parcel of the Torah and each person must fulfill it in order to function properly. Because each person's body is so strongly linked to the Torah, the foundation of the universe, the Talmud teaches: "Each person must say about himself: The world was created exclusively for me." Rabbi Nachman of Breslov interprets this to mean that each individual is responsible to correct any physical, spiritual, or moral deficiency that is found in the world. Just as the body cannot function properly if a limb is missing, the body is also unable to function properly if it is missing a spiritual limb which is nourished through faith and Torah observance.

Rabbi Nachman reminds us that just as the Torah must be whole, and our bodies function best whole, redemption requires wholeness from us both as individuals, and as a people. When God obligates us to love with all our hearts and our souls and our might, God asks us to take on a great responsibility: the responsibility of making the world whole. No other nation was asked to do this. For others there are other paths to God, but we are commanded to be a nation apart, with a task to make the broken world whole, not only materially, but spiritually. We must love God with our entire being, to be a letter in the Torah of redemption for the world, not just for ourselves. Unlike other religions, Judaism does not focus on personal salvation, but on national salvation, and in that context, we also carry the task of universal salvation. We are not out for ourselves – there is no limitation on how many can be saved: we hope, as a people that all the world will come to know God, and in knowing God, to love God.

So let me ask you: Do you really love God? Take a second and ask yourself this question honestly. Don’t answer what you think you should say, but take a second and really search your soul. DO you love God?

It’s a big thing to undertake, this “loving God.” It’s not a commandment to have a feeling, or to believe something; when God commands “Love your God!” it’s no different than the pleas of a beloved, “Say my name!” or “Love me forever!”

Of course you can’t command feelings, but when we get married, as we did to God at Sinai, we are committing ourselves: we’re committing to do certain things, and refrain from certain others. For example, we’re promising to be intimate only with our partner. Different marriages might have different promises, but every one of them has a deal, with actions that we have to do, whether or not we feel like them. And we go one doing them every day, whether or not we feel like them. There is no marriage on earth where both partners take joy and delight every day of their life without being bored, or angry or sullen, at least once in a while. And yet, in successful marriages, we get past those moments, by carrying on doing the things that we are obligated to do, and then the joy and love and emotion comes back – not because we are commanded to feel, but because feeling comes from the result of doing the hard work of acting, of being responsible for our partners.

But what happens when we stop doing those things that we’ve promised? When we stop talking to each other every day? When we stop discussing not only the important things of life, but also the mundane details –of eating, of paying the bills? We drift apart and hardly notice when the one we loved enough to commit to them forever has left the room. Until one day we turn around, and they’re gone, and we’re bereft. And suddenly we think, where has our marriage gone?

When we do mitzvot, we are creating a place for God to join us in the world. We are creating channels for God’s goodness to flow into the world. When we live in the system that is Jewish law, obligating ourselves to a life full of mitzvot, we are loving God. We’re living in the house that we built together to be partners in. God has an ultimate agenda for us, and that agenda is one in which we realize the vision of the prophet Hoshea (2:18) who says, “And it shall be that day, says God, that you shall call me “Ishi” my husband, and shall no longer call me “Baali” my master.” God sees a world in which we are together, in which we move towards a world of more holiness and more understanding. God believes that we are capable of attaining greater perfection. But perfection is a holistic thing; we can’t pick and choose it in parts. If we want a redeemed world, we can’t redeem here, and not there.

We need every letter in the Torah or it cannot do its job of bringing redemption to the world. We need every letter doing its part to create enough channels of holiness into the world. In the talmud it says that (R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai) If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths according to its laws, they would be redeemed immediately, (for it is said, Thus saith the Lord of the eunuch that keep my Sabbaths, which is followed by, even them will I bring to my holy mountain, etc.) (Shabbat 118b).

You might think to yourself, how could my keeping shabbat make that much of a difference? Yet the Torah portion this week tells us that it does. Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who saved the Jewish babies, are not anyone special. We don’t know much about them, except that they were midwives to the Hebrews. And yet, these two women were able to ensure that Israel was redeemed. They didn’t do anything grand. They merely made the choice, over and over again, to do the right thing. They weren’t spectacular rebels. Heck, when pharaoh asked why the boy babies didn’t seem to be being killed, they lied: the Hebrew women are like animals, they said, they bear before we even get there. I.e. there’s nothing we can do.

And yet, we know that there was something they could do, and they did it. Rashi suggests that the comment that the midwives “feared God” to be more than simply not killing the baby boys, but that they providing food and water. Again, this is not revolution: it’s a simple act of courage, being repeated over and over again. Within the simple act repeated daily lie the seeds of redemption. It’s true that it’s an inconvenience to keep kosher; it’s difficult to not work on Shabbat; it’s expensive to give to tzedaka, but since when has the right thing ever been easy? Love and redemption don’t depend upon the grand gesture; to the contrary, God doesn’t require grand gestures from us, but constancy. As our poet noted

Not the Prodigal Son, nor Faustus. But Penelope.
The thing steady and clear. Then the crescendo.
The real form. The culmination. And the exceeding.
Not the surprise. The amazed understanding. The marriage,
Not the month's rapture. Not the exception. The beauty
That is of many days. Steady and clear.
It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.

But we can’t write a Torah of redemption without every letter. It matters that I, as an individual keep kosher. It matters that I as an individual release the sparks of holiness that I come across, because who knows which baby will be Moses, the one that will bring redemption? Who knows which mouthful of food that I provide for a hungry man will keep him from starving? Who knows but that if you keep this shabbat with joy and care, refraining from work, that this one will be the one that brings redemption to all of us?

May we be blessed in this new year with the strength to do over and over again, the simple, the plain, the boring -the obligatory. May we find within the daily act of dedication the seeds of redemption which will bring redemption to all of Israel, and to all the world.