Sunday, December 09, 2012

Shlomo's Drash: Through The Darkness

IMG_2798As part of Hanukkah the first two parts of the story of Joseph come before and during the holiday. In the first, we are introduced to Joseph and the two times he is flung into darkness.
24 And they took him, and threw him into a pit; and the pit was empty, there was no water in it[Genesis 37]

20 (K) And Joseph’s master took him, and put him in the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were confined; and he was there in the prison.[Genesis 39]
In the next week, during Hanukkah, light dawns for Joseph:
40 You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than you.[Genesis 39]
Hanukkah is the darkest of the dark, it uses the symbol of light to dispel the dark. all the winter solstice holidays do in some way do the same. While Christmas is always close to the solstice, Hanukkah moves to the lunar calendar. The middle of the holiday is Rosh Hodesh, a new month signified by a new moon. Hanukkah always includes the longest night with no visible moon of the year, hence it is the darkest of the dark, but in the days after, also the beginning of seeing light, just as Joseph had.
I've written before about the darkness of the time, most notably in my fable The Tzaddik of Klaas. This year was especially dark, and I felt the despair that Joseph must have felt while lighting the first candle last night.

Oddly, it was the following that made me realize something.
UIView *myView = [[UIVew alloc] initWithFrame: CGRect(0,0,self.view.frame.size.width,self.view.frame.size.height] ; myView.background = [UIColor redColor]; [self addView: myView];
Now unless you too are a iPhone developer, you probably have absolutely no idea what I just wrote. I didn't two months ago. It is code to turn your iPhone screen red. Back in September, I started a project, a microscope camera app for work. The idea was for the app to be a companion to a product my company is making for the microscope. I developed the app, but with limited knowledge of how to program an iPhone, I used the easiest way to get at the camera. The problem is, it meant I had to write code for every button myself. That snippet of code is similar, though not the same as a lot of the code Iv'e written since then. Unlike many developers who are able to use the storyboard, a drag and drop way of building the user interface in a mere day, I was stuck coding it out for a month.
The code was grueling work. It was eleven hour days almost five times a week. I got to work in darkness and went home in darkness too many times to count. The work was exhausting and unsettling. Towards the end, I was in despair.
The app is done and in the submission process. I started to work on my next one and decided to use a few things I've never used before. Researching these new things, I was amazed how easily I understood them. Many of them used the same code I used for the red iPhone above. It was a clear as a sunlit day -- I understood them perfectly.
That shocked me, but it also was a feeling of enlightenment. I thought of Joseph and this time of year as I looked out to the street with all the people rushing about getting ready for the holidays. Joseph we are told started out as a real brat. Rabbinic tales in the Midrash make him out to be even worse than the braggart the biblical text does. Yet he changes so that Pharaoh would trust him with his kingdom. Maybe it was the darkness of the pit and the prison than changed him. Like I learned programming code, Joseph had to get through the despair to become cheerful enough to be of help to Potiphar and Joseph's jailer. That got him to be viceroy of Egypt.
The solstice holidays have always been at their root about getting though that dark despair of the season. The early church fathers and the Rabbis of the Talmud had a similar problem: people would celebrate the pagan holidays of Kalenda/Saturnalia and of the resurrection of Mithras, because getting through the dark is a deep human need. There is a story in the Talmud [Avodah Zarah 8a] that Adam just after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden was the first to be afraid in this darkness, what to him was the end of the world. When things got lighter and he celebrated. Both the rabbis and church fathers had to find a way to frame the solstice in their own terms. The church took the resurrection of a sun god Mithras and changed into the birth of the Son of God, who would be resurrected. The rabbis took the anniversary of the rededication of the Temple by the first religious zealots in history who invited Romans into Israel and illegally sat on the throne of Israel,(the Rabbis hated the Maccabees for those reasons) into a holiday of a miracle of light at the time of greatest darkness in the temple. After the solstice or the re-emergence of the new moon, we know we will live through the cycle one again, and into a successful year, like Joseph and my programming knowledge, into the light of success.
May your season, whatever you celebrate, be filled with light.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Noah 5773: The Tower of Babel and the App Store

There is more to the world than the United States. That should be obvious, but events this week floored me into realizing it. What floors me more is that the very liberal, open-minded person that I thought I was could ever make that mistake.
This week’s Torah portion has two known stories, and that second one dovetails into my current thoughts so well: God becomes dissatisfied with all flesh on the earth, and thus plans to destroy them, saving one family, that of Noah, and a handful of animals. In the wake of the destruction that follows, God promises not to try that stunt again, using a rainbow for a contract. Noah, with a bad case of Post-Traumatic Stress, gets drunk and stupid. After the unpleasantness of this incident, a few more generations are born. With only a rainbow as a contract, these later generations don't completely trust God. They decide to make a tower to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. 6 And the LORD said: 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they purpose to do. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city.[Gen 11]
Something about these verses interests me. God plans to confound their language, and instead scatters them. The text never say, that the people working on the tower first had their language changed and then were scattered. Genesis 11:9 seems to fill in that missing piece:
9 Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
I’m not sure they weren’t simultaneous acts. I’d go as far to say God confounded language by scattering people. We are limited by our perceptions, and even more by our physical senses. These limitations create a situation where we tend to think locally. What is outside our local sphere of perception is ignored, the lesson I learned this week.
Among the other things I do, I’m a budding app developer. A friend of mine who is a public health educator had an idea for a counter for smartphone which would count the number of time one would wash their hands. I decide to explore the idea, and for the various festivities around the globe associated with Global Hand washing Day on October 15th, I’d give away the app as an educational item. I wrote the Handwashing Counter in about a month, and got it into the Apple App Store on October 11th. Unfortunately, as of this writing I haven’t heard from my friend, so I assume she never promoted the app.
The marketing guru Seth Godin calls writing apps a sucker’s bet. The world is full of apps already. For you to be found in the top ten is not likely. If you aren’t in the top ten, you won’t make all that money you thought you would. I’m not making any money at this to be sure -- I’ve sold about 130 of my paid apps in the 8 months they have been in the App Store. I did not expect a lot from the hand washing app given my main promotional never happened. A week after introduction, there have been over 130 downloads of Handwash Counter, the most I have ever had for that period of time. There are now more downloads in a week than all the paid apps I have ever sold. But what got me was this: it was downloaded in 34 countries, yet only a quarter were in the U.S.
It was a shock to me, one that has got me thinking. The market is not the United States, it’s everyone else too. I had been thinking about one place, I was thinking local, when what I should have been doing is thinking global. God’s trick of making me distant from others got me. I did an analytics check on this blog and the numbers are extremely different. Two thirds of my shlomosnewdrash hits are US based. This blog is a lot of English. The average entry is about 1200 words. The Handwashing Counter app has very little in comparison. With a few localization changes, the app works anywhere. I’m planning to improve that. I’m going to add more graphics to the app in its next version, because I can see the less words, the better.
God split us up at Babel the story goes. Being too far away to talk or communicate meant variation came into the picture. In time that variation became different languages. But what happens when that barrier of distance starts to break down? A tweet I send right now is visible anywhere on the planet in a few seconds. We still have language barriers of course. The 18% of downloads by China and Russia require those users to know a Latin alphabet just to use the app. Yet 75% of my downloads was from outside the US. The Internet connects lot of people. With cell phones being the most common way in even developing countries to communicate, smartphones with web browsers are slowly becoming common in the most unlikely places. We are getting closer to all having a link to everyone else, if only we had a common language again.
Thirty years ago, Steve Jobs took some ideas from Xerox, whose executives thought it was not a profitable avenue for their company, and built an icon-based computer. The Macintosh led to the icons found in every program and app we use today. The idea that ancient languages had, of using pictograms as visual language, returned. In doing so it became so much closer to a universal language again. Those icons, buttons and sliders that make up my apps are still easy ways for people to understand things. It is a simple language. That I can transmit that anywhere is quite miraculous.
There is a bit of programming I do, actually mandated by Apple, known as delegates. Two parts of a program don’t talk to each other. In order to get them to talk, I have one program part, known as a class, have a requirement of what it thinks is communication, and the other class to do that part. If I want the communication both ways both classes need to have requirements and both need to make part of their code that requirement.
Babel was the time when we stopped communicating and started talking. We forget we need to be part of each other and know what that part was. We stopped having delegates to each other. The program, the building of a great tower, collapsed. God could have spread us half an inch apart from one another, but if we lose our ability to connect, we lose our ability to communicate. Even with the same vocabulary and grammar we can be talking different languages. This week I have hope we can connect. A little app showed me there is hope we can all communicate.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Is Religion A Good Thing?

Is religion a good thing? For the last few years, it has been a question that seems to loom over many of us. There definitely are sides. There are atheists and religious fundamentalist positions vying for their one Truth, and there are many of us stuck in the middle. In the last few years, fundamentalism has risen its ugly head, not just to dictate to their congregation but force their view as the law of the land.

 This is not the first time. Such corruption is as old as the Bible. One story is of course the story of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel and the Prophet Elijah. In their quest for an institutional religion, the king and queen massacre prophets, and Elijah has a price on his head. On the run, he heads south and ends up in a cave on Mount Sinai. Like Moses before him, Elijah gets to be in the presence of HaShem on the mountain:
And He said: 'Go forth, and stand upon the mount before HaShem.' And, behold, HaShem passed by, a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before HaShem; but HaShem was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but HaShem was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but HaShem was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' [I Kings 19]
Many many years ago a guy named Isaiah, inspired by God was angry about a corrupt priesthood. Isaiah cries out in the name of God:
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith HaShem; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations-- I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith HaShem; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
The sacred ritual had become mere rules, devoid of their meaning, static and unmovable. While there were times they listened under Jeremiah, the priesthood and the kings remained corrupt. The priesthood died at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar's army, but in the exile that followed, God was with the people. Jesus and his disciples was angry about a corrupt priesthood (actually political appointments from Rome). While they counted Cohanim among their numbers, The Rabbis of the Talmud also bristled at the travesty that the Temple had become. The Talmud [Gittin 56a-b] makes some rather remarkable statements in the story of bar Kamza and the destruction of the Temple. First, ignoring hospitality even to one’s enemies, leaving them embarrassed, destroyed the temple: The second was fundamentalism destroyed the temple.
Rabbi Yohanan said, “The discretion of Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas destroyed our House, burned ourTemple, and exiled us from our Land.”
The fundamentalist rejects diversity by believing only the static perception of someone else is the whole and entire truth. By this view one can not believe or even tolerate anything outside their truth, nor does their truth change and evolve. They do not acknowledge that there may be other truths for other people. The truth is not just the truth for them but must be the law of the land. It must be enforced by Earthquakes, fire and wind. To the fundamentalist, the Infinite One which each of us humans can only understand in limited terms can only be described in one way, not as many as the number of people on the Earth or stars in the sky.
The story in Gittin continues with Rabbi Yohanan b. Zakkai faking his own death to be carried out of Jerusalem, meeting with the Roman general Vespasian and essentially trading the old religion of Jerusalem for an academy at Yavneh and rabbinic Judaism, changing everything to hear the still small voice away from the corrupt institution. In the loss of everything, The Still Small Voice accompanied Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism wherever they ended up after the destruction of the Temple and Priesthood.
HaMakom is the omnipresent. The Divine is in all things, and it takes those who honor and respect that fact to keep and grow the holiness in the world. I am and know of many people who I will refer to as Benei Shechinah, literally children of the Divine Presence, people who believe in a greater power that can manifest itself in the world around us. We believe in God, but may not believe what God is exactly the same way, nor do we completely agree on how to serve God, or even if service is what we are supposed to be doing. What we can agree on is that the Divine calls to each of us in different ways. Those of us who agree enough alike to the questions “What is God” or “What does God want of us?” may form a community, both small and big, to grow together in their answers to those questions, or in finding new questions about those answers.
The Benei Shechinah are increasingly uncomfortable and questioning of what their greater communities, their religions, are doing in the name of God. Religions more often seem to take fundamentalist positions, or just acting corruptly and going against some the most important agreed on answers to the questions of service to God: caring for other human beings. Religion has become as Isaiah rails, and Jesus famously quotes:
Thus says HaShem of hosts, the G-d of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Don’t trust in lying words, saying: 'The temple of HaShem, the temple of HaShem, the temple of HaShem, are these.' But if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if you thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor; If you oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt; Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Here, you trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye have not known, Then come and stand before Me in this house, whereupon My name is called, and say: 'We are delivered', that ye may do all these abominations? Is this house, whereupon My name is called, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Hey, I, even I, have seen it, says HaShem.[Isaiah 7]
Organizations, interested mostly in their own survival, both in socially and financially have never been good at this. They get bogged down in rules, cannot hear the still small voice in the Thunder and Fire and Earthquakes of their rules and enforcement. They consistently give false witness, worshipping the false Idols, the Baal of Money, and marketing false prophets for profit.
I look to the biblical prophets, and the history of religion in the times after the prophets. Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah all look to the institutions of the land, the kings and priesthood and condemn them for corruption and for not doing what is the most important things: care for other people, especially those people who are strangers widows and orphans, those who cannot care for themselves without help. Yet time after time, the greater institution fails in this. Survival of the fittest is not holy, Atlas shrugging is the act of a pagan god, though institutions fall into the trap repeatedly. The prophetic books end with the destruction of the Temple, and exile to another land. Yet God goes with the people. Many of the thinkers of the first Century Israel were just as fed up with the corruption of the Second Temple practices, for very much the same reasons. The Temple became a profit center for the rich and powerful, not a prophet center. In Christianity, Jesus and his disciples had lots of problems with this system. So too in Jewish thought did the Rabbinic Mןnd. While the Tannaim of Talmud did preserve a lot of tradition of Temple Practices, they had no problem letting it crumble and be replaced by Rabbinic Judaism -- which has survived longer than Temple Judaism ever did.
Rabbinic Judaism, where prayer and study replaces sacrifice, has its origins in Biblical times. The centralization of all sacrifices in the Temple and destroying the high places, the Bamot, had an unintended effect. People couldn't afford the the time or money to come to Jerusalem frequently -- so they started studying and praying instead. The institution was replaced by the community. By the time of the destruction of the Temple, this was a common practice, coming together in small prayer communities instead of the mass institution and spectacle of the Temple sacrifice. Our smaller prayer communities, the synagogue, church or prayer circle, emerged from these original communities.
Some grew into larger organizations. There are advantages to larger organizations. There can be a consistency of message over many smaller communities. There can also be a bigger force of message and action when many people band together. Yet there is an even bigger chance of depersonalizing the Benei Shechinah’s diverse, personal witnessing of the Holy One. There is an even bigger, and fallacious idea that the survival of the organization, of the religion, is paramount to the the survival of the small communities and the individuals within them. Biblical precedent is clear here: the first and second Temples were destroyed, and with them the priesthood and sacrifice system. Judaism survived both, and in the ashes of the Second Temple, Christianity arose as well. The Shechinah will abandon the religion and it capricious rules made by humans, but The Shechinah does not abandon any of her children.
We are once again in a time where we see so many counter examples of “love thy neighbor.” People often treating the widow, orphan and stranger with cruelty instead of kindness in the name of religion and the Baal of economic necessity. There are many who are obsessed with what they would call Sodomy, that brutal force is necessary to suppress it, instead of believing what both Isaiah 7 and Genesis Rabbah make clear: the sin of Sodom was to treat the stranger, and indeed everyone, with evil intentions, not homosexuality. Sodomites were rapists, and would rape anyone, any way on sight, not care to the needs of the stranger or the weak. It is not the sin of those referred to in one small verse in Leviticus 18:22. The sin of Sodom, found dozens of times in the Bible, is the core sin of many fundamentalists today. Their religion stands on oppressing the weak. Their religions stands on oppressing women and denying the status of human being to GLBT people within and outside their community.
Yet, this is the voice of some institutions and religions -- there are others who have different views. Even more so the still small voice in the small communities of God, the Kehillat HaShem, who may even associate with a institution, work towards the goals of seeing the Divine in all things and all people, then act on that with a respect and goodness. It is not the big organization that will bring about the will of God and Tikkun Olam. It is the small community, as it was in days of old.
The Talmud [Sanhedrin 38 a] Gives the greatness of God being compared to to a king who mints his own coins:
Our Rabbis taught: [The creation of the first man alone] was to show forth the greatness of the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. For if a man mints many coins from one mould, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned all men in the mold of the first man, and not one resembles the other
On each coin is an image of the king and all are the same. But God mints coins in his own image, and yet no two are the same. We are God’s currency each witnessing and completing Creation differently. We are all unique and holy, but when we get together as a group holiness increases. As the Perkei Avot [3:3]tells us that for three to eat and talk of Torah, The Holy One Joins them at their table. Community is important and does makes us stronger, and creates a synthesis -- a presence of God -- that one person alone cannot manage.
Religion is a dressing of organization over our servitude to God. There is no word for religion in ancient Hebrew, -- it is an alien term to scripture, never mentioned. Religion is neither bad or good -- but its institutions, in their desire for self-preservation may lose their way, and often end up corrupt and evil. As thought they are prophets, It is up to individuals and the smaller communities who might be under the umbrella of a religion to stand up and make there voice and action known, for like the Temples before it, the institution will fall, but the Divine Presence will accompany her children wherever they journey.
As Elijah found out on Mount Sinai, the thunder and fire of religious institutions is not where God resides, but in the still small voice within the practitioner. To listen to the still small voice is not enough, we need to get together with others. Let us share our still small voices in community and heed them in doing gemilut hasidim, good works, in our selves, in our community, for the poor, the oppressed, and for our world.
It takes the individual to truly believe, not the organization. It is good to have a community who share experiences and ways of experiencing and bringing Ribbono Shel Olam more into the world in their own ways, like helping the widow orphan and stranger in their midst. Like Elijah, we may have the whole world, government, and priesthood after our head. But we do not listen to their thunder, fire and wind, because God is not there. We together listen instead to The Still Small Voice, for there is where הקדוש ברוך הוא The Holy One Blessed be sHe, really is.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Sukkot 5773: Is the Simple Life Complex?

Since I was about five years old, I've been involved in building a sukkah. My family did not have our own in our own yard, but we did put together every year a sukkah in the parking lot of our synagogue. Every year my dad led the congregational  effort, and came up with a new design each time. In Rochester, New York Sukkot was not just when the leaves fell but  the sun would hide behind clouds until sometime in late spring. Often there were a few snowflakes in the air, though it was never an accumulation. Building that sukkah every year is one of my fondest childhood memories.

That memory surfaces every year as I now build sukkahs along with my congregation. there is a holiness about making a sukkah that I don't find in many rituals, it is also one which I do the most in joy, no matter what the ever unpredictable Autumn weather brings.

Only five days prior to Sukkot we read about a sukkah in the Yom Kippur Mincha Haftarah. Jonah makes one to see what happens to Nineveh. The roof leaks light and heat of the sun burns him. Only the gourd gives him comfort, which promptly dies the next day.  IN other biblical stories, At the town of Sukkot Jacob builds a house for himself and builds sukkot for his cattle, naming the town.

We also have the סכת שלמך the shelter of peace from the liturgy.  In English we might call this a booth or a hut.  Hebrew’s verbal counterpart to Sukkah(סכה) is Sachach(סכך) a word meant to overshadow, screen or cover. Our sukkot screen or shadow us. The Talmud of  Sukkot begins the tractate by stating that if there is more sun than shade coming though the sukkah’s roof, it is not a valid Sukkah. Yet it is not a complete covering and must be made of plant material.

 While I was sitting in the sun on Brannake Beach on the Island of Kauai, a local family put up a portable tent in about fifteen minutes. I had some interesting conversations with them, but I was rather interested in their point of view as locals about being out in the sun and being on the beach. The point of the tent was to keep the blazing sun out while able to see everything in this beautiful place. It may not have been a sukkah, but it was doing the same thing -- keeping the sun out, but let them see the sea turtles swimming by, the crashing wakes against the rocks, the surfers riding a wave towards the shore.

The sukkah has a simple purpose. It’s supposed to be a simple booth. But when we put together the sukkah this year at my congregation, it took hours, not the fifteen minutes of the well-engineered popup tent. The complexity of the task is in fact amazing. It may be a simple hut but takes a good chunk of Talmud to describe its building.

My life is complex. Lately, I’ve begun to simplify things. I’m thinking about life in an idealized sukkah, the simple shelter, kind of way. I started to think about simple around the time of another Harvest festival, Shavuot, when I was told to pack up my office for the remodel of the offices at work. I realized I had a lot of stuff to pack. My office was crowded with stuff. For most of the summer, I was in a temporary location, either in another part of the building or in my own office, sharing it with others who offices were being remodeled.
There was a lot of stuff I shoved into boxes. As I unpacked however, something extraordinary happened. I started to not put things back, but throw them away or donate them.  I realized in my office and in my home how much stuff I had accumulated.

Some people are good at accumulating things -- they have problems throwing them away. I’m not not talking about hoarders here, just people who have a hard time getting rid of something. They reason the stuff might  be of use later. I’m one of those. In what I do there times that is a very good strategy.  But many times it is not.

Complexity in my life often come from collecting things and not letting go of it. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that is true of. Some of my things, as I mentioned in my Yizkor Drash, are hooks to memory, and cannot  be thrown out because I want to remember my mom through some of her stuff. There is my artworks and sculptures, there to remind me that I can accomplish things. And there is my book collection, a reference library on several topics I’m involved in: Programming, Web design, Jewish studies, Educational Psychology, Business, Science, and Regulatory Affairs.  That’s just the stuff I have reason to have in my office. There is also stuff I’m not quite sure why it is there.  I just ignore it like it is invisible. That would be the problem stuff.

This week, I stand in a sukkah. Everything is so simple. There is a table and I eat. I shake a lulav and etrog. So much like the way I’d like my office to be -- simple. In my dreams, I sit down in my office and I work on one thing until it is done. How nice it wold be but that is far from the truth. Looking out of that tent on the beach in Kauai, and looking out of the sukkah, I realize life isn’t simple. Outside the shade of  simplicity that is the sukkah is a complex life -- it can’t be avoided. Like the sun coming trough the windows of my office,  I will have infinite  interruptions and complexities in my day and I will get nowhere in any of the simple tasks of my day.

But complexity can be mitigated. The high holidays, besides ridding of what most would call sin,  also gives us time to remove the needless complexities of our lives. The evaluation of our sins is the sealed judgement of Yom Kippur. The evaluation of the complexities is Sukkot, in living in the simplest kind of structure. Similiarly, I can throw out the needless junk in my office. All of it leads to a new beginning, the beginning of the Torah cycle and of the story of Creation.

We come out of Sukkot ready to create a new world for ourselves, one we hope is better, and in some sense simpler than the last one.

May your new world be a good one.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Post Yom Kippur 5773: Return Again

I believe in Signs from God. That I just got one certainly colors my view. That it was the same sign as I got seventeen years ago just rattles me. While I’ve written about this before, there is a bit of my old history that you need to understand what happened this Yom Kippur.

Just after my Bar Mitzvah, after great Haftara reading, I was asked to do the afternoon Torah reading for Yom Kippur. In more traditional liturgy, this is Leviticus 18, the odd inclusion in the service which lists prohibited sexual conduct and other prohibitions like turning your child into a burnt sacrifice. In retrospect, it was not very smart of our rabbi to give me a NC-17 rated reading like that. It soured me, not for any one line*, but the entirety of the piece. It shattered my Hebrew school image of Judaism, and in the emptiness left I went elsewhere of a spirituality that worked for me. For many years, into my adulthood, I was involved in Taoism and Zen, not Judaism.

Everything changed on a summer study abroad program to Rome for graduate school when I had a dream. In the dream, a Hasidic rabbi and I were alone in a room freshly plastered, yet without doors. The Rabbi told me to fresco on the walls some passages in Hebrew, though he did not tell me what. Though I did not know how to read Hebrew at the time, I began to write perfectly, and even knew what I was writing: the Shema. As I got through the fresco of the third wall, somewhere in the middle of Haya Im Shmoah, the room begun to spin, and the letters spun upwards towards Heaven like a upside-down tornado.

I had never had a dream like it. It began a search for a place I would belong as a Jew. A year later, almost in the same place as the first, I had a second dream which told me a lot of where I would go. That place turned out to be a Jewish Renewal Congregation on Chicago’s South Side, Makom Shalom.

After my return, I wondered where the dream came from. Was it all original material? It took me a few years but I had an idea of its source. In the Yom Kippur liturgy is the stories of the ten Talmudic martyrs. One of these was the story of Hanina b. Teradyon:

His death was terrible. Wrapped in the scroll, he was placed on a pyre of green brush; fire was set to it, and wet wool was placed on his chest to prolong the agonies of death....His heartbroken disciples then asked: "Master, what seest thou?" He answered: "I see the parchment burning while the letters of the Law soar upward."(Avodah Zarah 17b et seq.).

By the time I learned that fact I was entrenched in the masters of Jewish studies program at Spertus, and could read that passage not only in english, but the original Aramaic. Shlomo’s Drash was born in the period, and for quite a while I was writing regualrly.

While I was faltering for a while before my mom’s death, as I wrote last time, her death killed Shlomo’s Drash, and in my anger towards God for taking her away, just about killed my motivation for anything Jewish. Then came this Yom Kippur, when God made absolutely sure I got the point. It started on Rosh Hashanah when a friend of mine was looking for people to do readings for the part of the Yom Kippur service she was leading.Without ever looking at the reading I agreed.

I looked at it Yom Kippur morning as I was getting dressed for services, and burst out crying. It was a poetic interpretation of the martyrdom of Rabbi Hanina b. Teradyon.

...He who will see this desecrated Torah avenged will make good, somehow, my dying I see the parchment burn but the Letters are soaring to their source You may burn a Torah But Torah will not be consumed You may kill Jews but the Jews will survive and serve witness to the Genesis-- patterns of creation and the Isaiah -- prophecies of hope. [ Danny Siegel pg 902 Kol Ha Neshama Mahzor]

When I got to services, I asked the friend who assigned the reading, if I had told her the story of the dream in Rome. She had no idea what I was talking about. Not to leave that to coincidence, while I wandering about, waiting for the doors to the sanctuary to open, there was a new display in this synagogue we were renting for services. It was a Holocaust torah, one of many the Nazis collected and stored when busy destroying everything else Jewish. It has been damaged to the point it could not be repaired, and so was on loan as a display piece. On the display was the words of Hanina b. Teradyon.

Maybe some will take this a coincidence. Maybe some will say it was my subconscious. playing tricks on me. I’m still of the belief that it was all too strange to be any of that but a sign from God. Like it did the last time, I was to return. As I got my seat and put on my talit for services to begin, I thought of the song that was popular at my renewal synagogue way back when:

Return again Return again Return to the land of your soul.
Of course that was when services started with the choir singing, yes, Return again.

The song makes sense. The word teshuvah means not only repentance, but return. Nothing like a blatant message from God. So, unlike Jonah’s vain attempt at fleeing, I’m back, returning once again.

Don’t think I have much choice, unless I want more signs.

*Though Lev 18:22 would dog me for my entire adult life, cause some of the most serious swings in my life-path, and in ways I never would have imagined. But that's another story and another Drash all together.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shlomo’s Drash Yizkor 5773

I went to visit mom in the cemetery Sunday. After driving there, my wife and I sat with her at her bronze grave marker for about a hour talking to her and then talking about her. Most of our talk centered around about how unfair it was for her to die, how unjust God is for taking her away from us. We talked about many other things as well. About an hour later, the cool but sunny day became cloudy and colder, and we decided to leave.Before I left I knew I would have some writing to do again.

Here I am in the days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, with Yom Kippur looming ahead. Like last year, I dread it because of Yizkor. For those unfamiliar with the traditions and the liturgy of Yom Kippur, a holiday whose whole point is getting in our last shot at repentance before our fate is sealed for another year. Yizkor is the memorial service, a time in the middle of all this to remember loved ones who have died. The juxtaposition of these two has bothered me for the last year and a half. On one hand we have the Netana Tokef declaring our doom and how it is decided by God. Leonard Cohen’s adaptation, Who by Fire gives some of the spirit of the Netana Tokef and a lot of Yom Kippur, a solemn, hard core fast holiday. While we are trying to keep ourselves alive for another year, we are remembering and honoring the dead.

 I remember Yom Kippur of my youth, when Yizkor was a welcome break in the service. There is a tradition to not tempt fate by those whose loved ones are still alive. They leave the sanctuary so not to hear or say words about the dead. Like most young families, our family would leave for the time of the Yizkor part of the liturgy. As we grew older first my dad, then my mom stayed to remember their parents. Last year, and now this year I stay for my mom.

Both the English and the Hebrew of Yizkor has a core word: memory. We remember someone we lost. While I said it was a welcome break, over a decade ago I began to stay for Yizkor, not for my parents but for those who had no one to say yizkor for them. I wonder now if I did tempt God to take away my mom because of that. Yet I think what I did was a righteous act. How horrible would it be to not be remembered but to be completely erased. Whether they died in the Holocaust or were abandoned somehow by their families, the dead needed to be remembered. They could not be completely erased, So I stayed.

 It’s different now of course, there is someone who I am remembering.

 In 5772, I watched her memory erased. In places and spaces where she spent a lot of time, she was erased. Visual cues to her existence were in these places. The space contained her spirit, memories of her were sparked by these objects around these spaces. As they were erased and replaced, I find those places that were once warm, cold and ugly. There are others besides me who bear the pain of her loss. It is not for me to decide how they bear it, or if by erasing her space and spirit it is so much easier to deal with the pain, not seeing reminders of her make it easier not to miss her as much. It might be an easy way to stop the pain, though far from a cheap solution, for erasers also lose something when they erase.

 It has me thinking of memory, how we have it and how we use it. I’m glad I took so many pictures on the trips I took with my mom. The ones of her are reminders to me and I can be transported back to times where we adventured together in Israel and Jordan, the Galapagos Islands, Alaska, and Africa. They are so precious they are stored not in one place but several, so I never lose them and no one can take them from me.Kiker Rock at Dawn, Galapagos Islands.

Memory can be hard because we remember what we have lost. For two reasons I have not been writing this blog for the last year. One is I’ve been mad at God for taking her from us. It’s been a matter of spite and a lack of spirit to write. There is a second reason: my biggest fan, the one who wrote me almost every week to say she’s proud of me and that she learned something new in what I wrote is gone. Remembering that and seeing the e-mail or comment absent from her is a horrible feeling. I too temporarily erased a memory that was too painful to bear — erasing memory is also my sin, and a very selfish one at that.

Yet it is one that I can change, I will have to listen to the silence, the lack of a comment or e-mail from my mom. That will always hurt. I will miss one of the two people who tell me regularly they are proud of me. I still will hear from my wife the thoughts on what I wrote, either over dinner or in a comment somewhere. That is a big comfort and a bigger blessing.

During these Days of Awe a few things happened that I realized writing is a part of me — it is part of the work I have to do. It is part of developing who I am and it is something that inspires others, as it did my mom. There are other comments on my blog besides my mom, and I have to remember that too.

 Elsewhere we are told to blot out the Memory of Amalek, it is indeed a mtizvah. During Yom Kippur to blot out the memory of a loved one seems to be a sin. If so, the placement of Yizkor is not counter to the point of Yom Kippur — it is the point. To erase memory is a sin, and it hurts the eraser as much as the erased. We inherit who we are from our parents and loved ones, not just genetically but emotionally and spiritually. If our parents hurt us, we can take that and rise above it. If our parents taught us good like my mom, who was compassion and caring personified, we need to take that inheritance and spread it through the world.

 I never heard my mom’s will — for whatever reason I was excluded from the reading, never told when it was. I have my inheritance anyway. The rabbis said that prophecy and wisdom can be transmitted like a candle. It lights another light, but does not diminish the first – so unlike an eraser. So too with the good in a soul, and that is what I got as an inheritance. It is a huge burden, one I’m not sure I’m capable of holding up, for to be my mother’s son is to risk being erased myself. But I will try. Because I will remember.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Passover 5772: Why I am Still a Slave

Tonight begins Passover, this year overlapping Shabbat. The last week has given me time to think, and the pain in my bones muscles and stomach have helped me ponder something I really hadn’t thought much about before: I still am not free.

The story of the Seder is about our escape from Egypt, in Hebrew מצרים mitzrayim, meaning the narrow place. In geography, the habitable parts of Egypt are narrow. Egypt is dependent on the river Nile. Too far beyond its banks, and there is nothing. Even on a satellite map today it is so very visible how linked the Nile is to Egypt. It may have many more square miles of land but a small narrow green  strip is where life is. The rest is desert. Without the water of the Nile there is no life.

All of Egypt is in slavery to that river, even to this day. They really cannot wander, or even conceive of it. There is only the narrow place. One can travel north and south on the Nile, but to travel east or west in inconceivable to most.

Yet a band of wandering Arameans did come from the east into Egypt. So did the Ishmaelites that sold one of those wandering Arameans, Joseph, into slavery, only for him rise to the heights of power, based on a dream and planning for the inconceivable time the life giving river would remain dry for a while. His family easily moved in and then began to overpopulate the place, leading to fear of these new eastern people. Racism, slavery and infanticide were to follow against these strangers in the land of Egypt. Not until the time of Moses did this change.

Pharaoh had dealings with all these people from the East, probably even the civilizations of the Tigris Euphrates valleys as well. But I wonder if a hardened heart of pharaoh was something besides stubbornness. It was impossible for him on one level to break his assumption one can travel east or west. Even Pharaoh’s gods didn’t travel in those directions – rarely is a temple found far from the Nile Valley. Pharaoh had evidence that there was east-west travel, but it just seemed impossible. For slaves to travel there was therefore impossible. The plagues not only were showing the wonders of God, but also trying to get Pharaoh to break out of his mindset, that people could live out there. The first few plagues intentionally attack this notion: the life giving Nile becomes Death.

I have preconceived notions where I only think along my own metaphorical Nile. Sometime they surprise me and anger me that it is still there. I find myself still a slave. At some time those notions may have been good for me, protected me, gave me what I needed to survive. Yet I wonder what they are doing now. I cannot move forward, and get to my place of freedom, away from the narrow spaces, and I hurt others being chained to them. I get angry and cry when I find myself so chained to them that I cannot move.

Many of them are chains to my continued growth, my own slavery to an internal Pharaoh. Mine keeps me from success in relationships and in success professionally. As I was reminded in of all places at my favorite morning coffee stop this morning in a friendly conversation between a barista and a customer, there are other chains to the Narrow Places that are far more dangerous. I hear in others lately, like that barista and customer, how easily racist, misogynist, and hate filled statements flow off the tongue. Such people are still enslaved to notions that will keep them slaves forever. Narrow places for them are good in their eyes: the wide-open wilderness is too scary to contemplate away from the comfort of the narrow place.

I have a tradition to read a country song written by Garth Brooks and Stephanie Davis. Sung at the President Obama’s Inauguration celebrations, We Shall be Free envisions a time when we break away from all the narrow places. I so hope for such a day, but the narrow places seem to head us toward the plague of darkness instead of the light of freedom.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Vayakhel- Pekudei 5772: Is Craft a Holy Thing?

This week’s double portion we have the building of the Mishkan, starting with Moses telling the people the last instruction told to him on Sinai: to be sure to observe the Sabbath. Then, like God first instruction, Moses asks for donations to the building of the Mishkan. Then he give directions for the components starting with the tent and working his way to the Ark, even though God started with the Ark. After Moses’ appeal the donations are overflowing from both men and women, and the men and women who are “wise of heart” began the work of constructing from these raw materials. Betzalel leads the project, and he and his crews get all the components made. Two years into their journey, Moses puts together the components for the first time, with the results that the cloud was over the tent and the glory of God filled the tent.
I haven’t been writing lately. I was otherwise occupied. Last year  I wrote I still had my teenage  dream to be a software artist. I put Shlomo's Drash in Haitus trying to figure out how to do exactly that. I wrote in that B’midbar drash about change. I’ve learned that change requires building, but I still wonder where this building comes from.
For several weeks, we have had the plans to the Mishkan. These two parshiot are the action. There is a lot of difference between thought and action, as much of Exodus shows us. Moses gets the Mishkan’s specifications solely and the people end up building a golden calf. In contrast, Betzalel coordinates and builds the Mishkan and everyone either wants to donate or help build. I have really spent decades planning and doing nothing. Maybe that was not idol worship, but it certainly was idle worship. So I decided to actually do something. On the suggestion of a classmate of mine, I put some software together, an app for the iPhone and got it into the App Store.
Like the Mishkan, the app, Rashi Decoder, is to help people get closer to God. Unlike the Mishkan, it is a marvel of high tech consumer electronics, written on the most sophisticated platform existing: iOS5. But it started with planning, and then building the individual parts, and finally putting together and testing. If the Mishkan was put together right, God would dwell there. If my app worked it would do as advertised.
The app is actually rather simple in purpose: a calculator-like program to convert Rashi script to block Hebrew. It started with a complaint from a fellow student of mine that he was having problems reading commentaries given the odd 16th century Italian script that commentaries are often written in. Like Betzal’s craftsmen and women I built this program, component by component. Unlike Betzalel, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing – I learned as I wrote each component. I didn’t think there was a voice from God helping. All the references books and videos often didn’t help much. I had to play with the code to get it to work. I had to make four different sets of buttons until I found one I liked the look of.
I’m one person, not an army of craftsmen and crafts women. I had two groups I needed to please, not God. My app needed to pass the Apple vetting process to make it into the App Store. Once posted in the App Store, it has to please and delight customers, so more people will buy it. It is the only app of its kind in the app store, not to mention the code the colors and fonts and the programing style is unique to me. This app getting sold is a very creative act. It seems like the building of the Mishkan was more a manufactured process – an exact specification like the specs for the circuit boards in my iPhone, than the artistic, creative flourishes of my programming and app interface.
The wise of heart as mentioned at the beginning of the portion might mean those who are creative and skilled at their craft. But no two craftsmen are alike. My programming is not like any other artist or app developer. How could all those separate elements come together so flawlessly that Moses pops the tent together? How can my creative work be as much of a wonder as that?
Rashi points out something about Betzalel, the man responsible for getting every specification of the Mishkan exactly right. Exodus 38:22 states that Betzalel did everything that God commanded Moses. Rashi notes that the text does not say that Betzalel was commanded by Moses but what was commanded of Moses. While God in Terumah gives one order to put the Mishkan’s components together when talking to Moses, Moses transposes them at the beginning of Vayakhel. Betzalel put them together in the order God said, not what Moses said.
To have Hochmat Ha Lev, wisdom of the heart, means that you are aware that your personally creative act is also an act of God. Even if you have strict specifications, if you give yourself over to that creative act, it will be a work of God. The Temple had three versions. Betzalel’s and Moses’ Mishkan version 1.0 in Exodus is very different than King Solomon’s and Hiram’s version 2.0 in I Kings or Ezekiel’s vision of version 3.0 in the time to come. The three Temples still all fit the requirements – all are holy.
There is parable in Mishnah Sanhedrin about a king who mints a coin with his face on it. Every coin has his face on it. The wonder is that the king of all kings mints a coin in the image of the first man, who is in the image of God. Those coins have a different image every time, but it is still an image of the God. Sanhedrin is trying to point out that we are all are in the image of God. I think this just does not apply to humans being made in God’s image, but all of our work when done with wisdom of the heart, when done congruent to the source of all, will be holy. Our own style may be there, but it will shine through as divine influence.
That holiness is in my apps. It is also in my paintings and in this D’var Torah blog. I cannot ignore it and be wise of heart. So once again, I’m back to write these weekly.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rashi Decoder for iPad and iPhone

 Have problems reading Rashi script? Rashi decoder is a calculator style app to change Rashi style fonts into block Hebrew for those who know Hebrew but not the flowing fine print of the commentators. Rashi Script is a 16th century Hebrew typeface. Like its Latin equivalent italic, the typeface was used to print small font sizes in removable lead type without chipping the type. Based on rounded Sephardic handwriting, it also gave a different look to commentaries and glosses placed around Tanach and Talmud on a printed page. The 11th century commentator Rashi was the first and most popular of the Hebrew Biblical commentators. Rashi's and the other commentator's work stands out on a page of Tanach or Talmud due to this unique looking font. Modern scholars, in tribute to the volume of Rashi’s commentary material in the glosses have named this font for him. Since this script does look different than block Hebrew, Rashi script decoder is a utility to quickly transcribe a word or short phrase into block Hebrew. Type in a word or short phrase and its block Hebrew writing shows in the display.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Rosh Hashana 5772: A Mourner at Rosh Hashana

I stood in the darkened anteroom corner of this synagogue my congregation rented looking out into the night while the choir rehearses. There were things I should not be doing tonight, on Erev Rosh Hashanah before services. One I’m sure is I shouldn't be writing, tapping out a Shlomo’s Drash blog post on my iPhone, but writing is my heartfelt prayer, and God knows I haven't prayed a lot with kavvanah in these last few months. Granted I’ve been going to services, and I said the prayers, but I didn't pray the way I prayed, praying fervently and with intension. The way I prayed what most would consider prayers when my mom was illl. When I said Kaddish for her the first time at her grave, I stopped praying -- tying to say the kaddish even moths after her death is so hollow. Flowing prose onto screen and paper seems to be the most fervent prayer I've managed.

Since February, my mom had beendead -- suddenly, without real reason. Now my family celebrates The High Holidays so differently. There is no family dinner that mom took two days off of work to cook, using the same pots she has for years. Due to differing timing of services, Sweetie and I cannot even eat at a family meal like I have for so many years. Timing doesn't work out --
For my family, there is a chain restaurant to replace the family meal at home. For us, dinner with friends.

The liturgy has a kind of centerpiece of this season. The Netana Tokef reminds us this is the season where we are judged on Rosh Hashanah and inscribed in the book. On Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who is to live this year, and who is to die. With my
Moms death, this brings up many questions, including the big one: Why did she die now? Why was such a compassionate, good woman inscribed and sealed in the Book of Death? What did she do to deserve that? There are people in this word who are hate filled and spread their hate to all who listen, why should they live and my mom, one of the most giving, caring people I have ever known, have to die?

I have no answers, I can only explore. I, along with many others have never liked the Netana Tokef theology. I have in other of these commentaries changed the Book of Life to the Book of Fully Living. It is not just enough to live, but to make the most of your circumstances to live fully -- to make your world and the world around you a better, happier more complete place. To learn and grow,to engage with God, to perform deeds of kindness -- that is fully living. As the liturgy reminds us every morning, as quoted from the Perkei Avot, the word stands on those three things: on Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut hasidim.

Pondering that, it is time for services, and I walk into the evening service. I hurt, and by the end of the service I hurt so much, I am numb. It makes no sense, I cannot pray at all. Halfway through the Amidah, a page before Modim Ananchnu Lach, I just sit down. It just becomes too difficult -- I feel nothing, I feel no connection. Later, I say the words of the Mourners Kaddish like a zombie -- there is nothing of my soul in me -- it too seems dead. Prayer has left me, and I fell no connection, I feel there is no one to serve. God and I are no longer talking to each other. Sweetie drives me home and I collapse into bed.

The next morning, the numbness is gone but the hurt remains. While dressing that morning, I think about how wonderful it would have been for Sweetie to spend more time with my mom, to go shopping and with her, for them to go to their favorite restaurant and share their favorite pizza.
When I get to the synagogue , and services start, I still cannot pray. I cannot even look at the words in the prayerbook -- although it is bulky, I usually can hold it with no problem. Today, I cannot even hold it. I go through much of the prayers by memory. My mind wanders to the trees outside, behind the window framing the Ark and the Torahs within it. I remember similar windows a long time go, and in my mind I am forty years in the past, in Rochester New York, standing between my mom and my dad, fidgeting at Rosh Hashanah services on my metal bridge chair. The synagogue I remember was rather dark, with a very large 3 steeple-like roof meant to be a tent held up by poles behind the Aaron Chodesh. The steeple behind the Ark was a diamond of glass, and bees or hornets would always be flying into it. I spent many a service looking up into that window out into the grey featureless sky beyond. My mom would point to an English paragraph in the Machzor with a look that told me I should read it. Following my mom’s instructions, I always did.

We stand up for Barchu, and I’m brought back to the present -- though there is a connection to my memory. In Rochester, that conservative prayer book never spoke to me, the english translation was a religion that I did not understand or accept -- the words about Ribbono Shel Olam, HaMelech are so empty and meaningless. There is no connection to something greater for me. In the present, everything I do is so half-hearted, so seemingly meaningless. Eventually we get to the Netana Tokef and we sing in Hebrew the concluding lines “but charity, prayer and repentance cancel the stern decree” as it would be translated in that conservative prayerbook. For the first time today I feel something. I want to scream across the room “BULLSHIT!!!!!!!”. I don’t, though. Instead I cry, tears streaming down my face. Then I hear the rabbi repeat the English for what we just sang in Hebrew., yet with a change: The English uses “comforts us” instead of cancels. Once again we are in the silent Amidah, and once again I cannot pray, I sit down without completing it, bewildered at what I am feeling. Like my mom told me to do decades ago, I look down at the text and begin to read a Reconstructionist response to Netana Tokef, and by extension, to much of the theme of Rosh Hashana. I’ve heard it in other forms before. There is stuff we are able to control, but there is a lot that we are powerless about. To acknowledge that we are powerless and admit that we need to trust God for those things is what ths is about. We do not choose the day of our death -- God does. Nothing we do changes that. But we can make the world a better place in the meantime, and know that it is so for our efforts.

That for me still isn't enough comfort. A kind deed, a small act of Gemilut Hasidim strengthens me enough to get home. I drive a fellow congregant to the train so he doesn't have to stand in the rain waiting for a bus. A thought occurs to me, one I don't like and have a hard time accepting.

What if one person lives life so fully, that it shadows others from doing so? Was my mom so good to all of us, that we could not grow into being as good as she was? Was her death removing her from the picture so we could truly live? Even with all the challenges that are before me personally, all the places I have to rise to the occasion, I have a he'd time believing this. I have not succeeded in many of them, and the future does not look bright for my success. I still don't know what to believe.

I have no answers, Rosh Hashanah leaves me with none. All I am left with is the dread of Yom Kippur, when Yizkor raises it's ugly head for the first time. Will I connect with God sometime in this holiday? I don’t know, but I fear the gates are closed to me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Ki Tavo 5771: The Evil of Tea?

This week we read the ceremony of the first fruits and instruction for the ceremony at Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim of the Blessings and Curses. As part of the first fruit ceremony we read:
12 When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithe of thine increase in the third year, which is the year of tithing, and hast given it unto the Levite, to the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be satisfied, 13 then thou shalt say before the LORD thy God: 'I have put away the hallowed things out of my house, and also have given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all Thy commandment which Thou hast commanded me; I have not transgressed any of Thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them. [Deuteronomy 26]

We also read in the curses:
18 Cursed be he that makes the blind to go astray in the way. And all the people shall say: Amen. {S} 19 Cursed be he that perverts the justice due to the stranger, fatherless, and widow. And all the people shall say: Amen.[Deuteronomy 28]

We keep seeing the same phrase: the stranger, fatherless and widow. In each case we are to deal with justice to them -- feed them. This phrase and the obligation to take care of those less fortunate than us show up not just here but in 19 places I could find explicitly:

Ex 22:21-25
Deut 10:18, 14:29, 16:11, 24:17, 24:19-21, 26:12-3, 27:19,
Is 9:16, 10:2,
Jer. 5:28, 7:6, 22:3,
Ezek 22:7, 7:10,
Mal 3:5,
Ps 10:18, 82:3, 94:6,

All say the same thing, and all state that God will take care of the stranger, fatherless and the widow in a very angry way -- with revenge:
22 The LORD will smite thee with consumption, and with fever, and with inflammation, and with fiery heat, and with drought, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish. 23 And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. 24 The LORD will make the rain of thy land powder and dust; from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed. [Deuteronomy. 26]

Most modern liberal folk have a hard time with this angry quid pro quo punishment stuff. I admittedly do too. The news for the last few weeks has me wondering. I have heard Politicians and fundamentalist religious leaders blame earthquakes, hurricanes and other catastrophes on passing gay marriage and not cutting the budget for public program that help so many. Yet earthquake and flood aren’t the curse we read about.

It is drought and famine accompanied by fiery heat.

I didn't think much about this until I watched a storm track of Tropical storm Lee, which seemed to go out of its way to avoid Texas and Oklahoma, and deny relief for the drought those beleaguered states are facing. A state with as many problems as Texas makes me wonder. It is a state, though by far not the only one, who oppresses the fatherless, the single mom, and the stranger in their midst. Many in that state, on religious grounds want to ban abortions and would never allow Gay marriages in their state. For this, they call themselves “righteous.” Their leaders believe in life for the fetus, yet Texas is the worst state in the nation for prenatal care. There is only two places in the entire Tanach mentioning a prohibition of homosexuality, and to my knowledge only one in Tanach which hints at abortion being bad. Indeed the Talmud interprets the laws for abortion much differently than this lot of “righteous” people, believing the life of the mother to be far more valuable than the life of the fetus.
If God says something twice, say "a man should not lay down with a male as he does with a woman"[Lev 18:22] it may be important, even though that says nothing about signing a contract of lifetime commitment under God. If you believe that two time is important, if God says something nineteen times, wouldn’t be a good idea to listen? The latter prophets and the book of Kings are statements that oppressing the needy is not a new thing. They also attest to God’s anger in doing so, for oppressing the poor is oppressing the image of God.
I still have a very hard time believing in a quid pro quo God, even on a macro level. Yet I watch the evil around us, and the evil that wants to lead us, and I wonder if such wonders as a massive drought are a sign or retribution from God. While I might hear something about climate change, I don't hear people stating that the catastrophes that plague us this year are because we oppress the poor. Yet I wonder.
The curses are set up to turn those who oppress into the oppressed. It is to turn a whole land, both the innocent and the guilty to a horrible fate. I really don’t know if this is God’s doing. Whatever the cause there are now more poor people in the world, and each needs help. I know what our role is -- and that is to help the stranger, widow and orphan.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

D'varim 5771: Pt.2 Resistance and the Yetzer Hara

In this week’s portion, Moses gives the people a review of the book Numbers. In this Cliff's Notes version he recounts their leaving Sinai, and the story of the spies. He goes into describe their adventure once getting there and the opposition encountered the Amorite kings of Sihon and Og and their armies, who the Israelites completely rout - men women and little ones all die. Moses then recounts the settling of the land by some of the tribes on the east side of the Jordan, ending with encouragement for their new leader Joshua.

What I read today was bloody -- a practically scorched earth policy. It seems so horrible -- a Genocide on a small scale. Is that what is going on? What is going on here?

Like Moses giving his history this week, I need to look at some personal history. On June 24 1979, I read Shlach Lecha, the original story of the spies that Moses summarizes this week, for my bar mitzvah portion. Oddly I was a lot like the Israelites -- I feared a lot. By the time I got to college I still did. In my sophomore and junior years of college I met and was in the very outer social circles of one of the most beautiful women I have ever met. Between her always dating someone else and with my fear, I was intimidated of even talking to her. My senior year she left for a year abroad in France, and I of course graduated. I never expected to see her again.

In May 2008, I put a pintelach in the Kotel asking to find my mate. In August 2008 I signed up for Facebook. On December 28 2008, I got a happy birthday message from that woman from college-- Sweetie. This time Fear did not grip me. Even going on vacation was not going to stop me, and I kept up communication. We met in late January 2009, flew back and forth between Seattle and Chicago from then until August 2009, and when we moved in together. In December, on my birthday I proposed to her. Next week, two years from moving in together, we will be married.

Looking back on the last quarter century of my life, I would answer that: Sihon v’Og zeh yetzer ha ra. Sihon and Og are the Yetzer ha ra, the evil inclination.

We often think of the evil inclination terms of some little voice on our shoulder telling us to do evil things. For example in terms of lust, as found in the Story of Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Meir, who even as sages were unable to control sexual urges when Ha Satan tries to tempt them with really beautiful women sitting in trees. We also find another case of greed leading to injustice in the Haftarah this week in a rather strong rebuke from the prophet to the government, one which sounds all too contemporary:
Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes, and follows after rewards; they judge not the orphans neither does the cause of the widow reach them. [Isaiah 1:23]

It is easy to succumb to such voices, as we have seen many times in public figures. Yet the yetzer hara is more than just doing evil to others. There is a phrase repeated several times (1:21, 1:29, 3:2) in this portion lo yira -- do not fear. Yet it is clear that in the wilderness hearing the report of the spies the people did fear. They even went into battle fearing their adversary and ended up with their butts handed to them. Sun Tzu’s art of war makes an important point:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Why does Moses start his farewell speech with this much edited and very personal take on the book of numbers? Why does he spend so much time rebuking everyone, only to conclude this portion with two incredibly big victories that happened only weeks earlier in Torah time?

I believe Moses was telling the story of the wilderness to make a point: know the enemy and know yourself. . The people, we have heard many times before are "stiff-necked." but what does that mean? I believe it means they gave into their own yetzer hara too easily. Moses was starting his speech with a very important point: there is a yetzer hara, an internal enemy. Give in to it and you can live in fear and failure. Alternatively, don’t be afraid knowing God is with you, and beat fear and resistance in the ground, and find yourself at your fullest potential -- the way God wants it.

There were many things standing in the way of bringing us here to this auf ruf -- the 1800 miles between here and Seattle, coming from very different backgrounds, and not least of all, two stubborn-headed independent individuals under the same roof. Each could have derailed us with a word from our Yetzer Ha ra. The fact that they didn’t is a miracle, and I get to marry the woman of my dreams.

We must know the internal enemy, often it is the most dangerous and destructive. IN anything that brings out our fullest potential and God given talent such is true. Knowing the enemy is the first part of strategy. As Steven Pressfield wrote in The War of Art:
To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius

Sihon and Og is that enemy for the people. The people cannot get to the Promised Land without going through them -- and Sihon and Og both want nothing but to stop them. Any remnant left will go back and stop them. I don't want to think of this on terms of political terms, for that too is a form of resistance to what I am going to ask. I want to think of this in terms of our inner selves, our potential for tikkun olam, for changing the world for good, put into each of us. I beat my fears of dating and am getting married next week. I have many fears of success to yet to beat. How can we all find the Sihon and Og in us so we can all get to our promised lands?


  • Are Sihon and Og metaphorically the Yetzer hara of resistance?

  • What is the nature of the Yetzer hara?

  • How do we overcome it?

  • Is it ever completely overcome?

  • What is the role of lo yira and God in overcoming resistance?

Parshat D'varim 5771: Tisha B’Av and Marriage.

This is my Auf Ruf D'var Torah at Emanuel Congregation and Congregation Or Chadash Erev Shabbat August 5 2011

Marriage...Marriage is what brings us here together today.

If there is any movie that my whole family likes it's The Princess Bride, where that quote comes from. At its core was a story of true love between a princess and a pirate. True love brings us together today too.

This week in Torah we begin Deuteronomy, where we find Moses beginning his farewell speech, since he will not cross the Jordan with the people into the Promised Land. Moses starts by reviewing the book of Numbers from the time of leaving Sinai, through the episode of the spies to the defeat of Kings Sihon and Og along with their Kingdoms.

This is also the Shabbat before The 9th of Av, Tisha B'Av in Hebrew, part of the cycle where we commemorate the destruction of the temple. This portion and its associated Haftarah are read always on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av.
For me personally this is full circle. Thirty two years ago, I read Shelach Lecha, the portion of the spies as my Bar Mitzvah portion. I was the first in my family’s generation to be called to the Torah. Here I am the last to be married. Like the Israelites I read about in that portion, I was terrified, so terrified I did not even give a D'var Torah. D’varim this week reviews that episode of the ten out of twelve spies giving bad reports about the land.

There is a Midrash [taanit 29a, numbers rabbah xvi:20] that tells the evening the spies gave their report was the 9th of Av. During the night of the 9th, we read in this week's portion
27 You murmured in your tents, and said: 'Because the LORD hated us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us.[Deut. 2]

God, in anger for this needless whining, apparently decreed: "They cry over nothing! I’ll give them something to cry about!" So the 9th of Av is the worst day in the Jewish Calendar. Both Temples were destroyed on the Ninth of Av, and the Spanish expulsion of the Jews started on the 9th of Av. The number of events related to the 9th of Av are innumerable.

Usually the Hebrew calendars and secular calendars do not match in dates. In a curious coincidence this year, August and Av match in their dates. The 9th of Av is on August 9th, and the 6th of Av is august 6th. August 6th and 9th 1945 is if course a date known to most of us: The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now since the Hebrew calendar did not match the secular one in 1945, there is another connection to the Manhattan project: The test firing of the first Atomic bomb at Trinty site on the 6th of Av 5705, or in the secular calendar July 16,1945.

When planning our wedding, we found out about this, and some other issues about the 6th and 9th of Av. While I knew about Treblinka's ovens and gas chambers getting fired up for the first time on the 9th of Av, I did not know about the 6th of Av 5702, July 23, 1942. The Gila River relocation camp, the fifth of the Japanese Internment Camps was opened on a barren patch of stolen Native American territory. 13,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated from their homes in California to Arizona to what FDR himself called a concentration camp.

While it has no connection to the month of Av, as a computer scientist, one of my heroes is of course Alan Turing, a man I had pause to think about a lot lately. One of the most brilliant men of the 20th century, he arguably did more to advance computer science than anyone else. He also was responsible for a lot of what was necessary to break German codes, and helped the Allies to defeat the Nazis. Yet less than a decade after the war he was arrested and convicted by the British government he so heroically assisted in wartime of the crime of merely being gay. In June of 1954, he took his own life with a poisoned apple. Turing’s story was really my first exposure to what the GLBT community has dealt with throughout history. I’m too aware today, there are still those who hurt and oppress those who are part of the GLBT community.

I think about all these horrible things and cry. It's hard to think about all of that and not cry. To know how much racism and hate continues, that it appears to become more and more institutionalized once again like it did in the 30's and 40's makes me cry. That was, according to the Midrash God’s idea, but it should not just make Jews cry. It should make everyone with a heart and soul cry. Indeed that might be the real motivation behind the 9th of Av: to prove you really do have a heart and soul, you have to cry. Until you cry you cannot truly repent as we approach the season of repentance. Not like I haven’t been crying this year. Without all this historical tragedy, Sunny and I have been crying for the last seven months since the loss of my mom in a totally senseless illness and death. I’ve been crying a lot in the last two weeks. I miss her so much as Sunny and I do what planning and preparation we need to do for next weeks wedding -- much of it she would have done with us or done herself. Grief I buried seven months ago is at the surface now.

Yet, It gets better, and you know why?

Marriage. Marriage is what brings us together today. True Love brings us together today. Because that's the good part of any story, of any fairy tale. This is the second Auf Ruf in two weeks. Ours is nothing special compared to the one last week right here. There are now civil unions here in Illinois. There is the marriage for anyone who chooses to in New York. Last week’s celebration here is one I hope we as a community repeat many Shabbats with many people. Unfortunately we only have half the battle fought, I do look forward to the day when I can say anyone in these congregations can be Married.

Through all that crying I see Treblinka and Auschwitz, Camp Grenada and Gila River, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the latest bullying incident and the insane homophobic statements of politicians and pundits. All go back to what Moses was doing with this week’s cliff notes version of the book of Numbers. To make a short statement objectifies us; it places us in a box. It’s easy to kill or hate something in a box when all you see is the box. For all you know there really isn't anything in the box - it is a mere idea, and you really aren’t hurting anything significant.

The world and the media tells us that we are to fit into a box. Marry someone of the opposite gender, have 2.5 kids and a house in the suburbs, some cars and a widescreen TV. Have a job and be loyal to your company. Have friends that also are in the box. If people do not fit in the box, make them uncomfortable or hurt them until they do.

Funny thing is, such a box a lie -- worse, it is a superficial crust. None of us really fit into that box. Many of us here cringe about even going near that box. Yet we often find ourselves in boxes. Everyone is put into boxes, willingly or unwillingly, and sometimes we find the boxes named not very complimentary names. These generalizations celebrate walls and boundaries. In doing so, generalities give birth to divisions between people. Taxonomies might be good for classifying insects, but what of people?

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in Who is Man?
Generalization, by means of which theories evolve, fails in trying to understand man. For in dealing with a particular man, I do not come upon a generality, but upon individuality, a person. It is precisely the exclusive application of generalities to human situations that accounts for many of our failures... my existence as an event is an original, not a copy. No two human beings are alike. A major mode of being human is uniqueness. (Heschel, 37)

We are told in Mishnah Sanhedrin we are all unique and all in Gods image. We are all unique, and we can communicate that uniqueness, our bit of holiness by telling stories, by including others in the narratives of our lives. It is harder to be heartless to someone you know their story, and that you tell yours. That is what Moses is doing in D’varim -- telling his story from his perspective.

We all have stories. I know a story of Shlomo and a princess. Shlomo met the most beautiful princess he ever saw but he had been cursed by an evil witch to be quaking in fear around princesses. He wished he could be close to the princess but she had other suitors, and she rarely noticed him. So the princess went away to a far off land and he thought he would never see her again. Shlomo spent many years learning to break the curse, and in time, he did. One cold wintery day he gets a message from the princess. He responds, and then she responds back. He learns she is in another faraway land, a land of seas and cloud and rain -- and really good coffee. They travel to each other several times until they decide to be together. And in one very hot, wet summer, they get married. I don’t yet know if they live happily ever after, but I for one am excited to find out with my princess, my true love.

Marriage, marriage is what brings us together today. May He who blessed our ancestors bless us with marriage and true love that will bring us together for many more Shabbats like this one and last week’s, with many more people and their stories, with civil unions now and weddings for whoever wants one soon.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shelach 5771: Sink or Swim

Last week I was at the bat mitzvah of our our Rabbi's daughter. In her D'var Torah, the Bat Mitzvah asked a very good question relating to last weeks portion "Who tells you when you are ready?" The answers to that question apply not only to last week's portion, but to this week's which is my Bar Mitzvah portion from so many years ago.

This week Moses at God's command sends twelve spies, one from each tribe into the land to find out what it is like. Ten of the spies report back with good tiding, then deliver the bad news that the inhabitants appear unconquerable. On the other hand Caleb of the tribe of Judah and Joshua of Ephraim disagree and believe that if the people have confidence and they believe that God can help them in their quest, they cannot be defeated. This causes a riot, and Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb are threatened with being stoned to death. God intervenes and after first wanting to kill everybody, decides to just let every adult who left Egypt die out through forty years of wandering in the desert. At this, some of the people, grumble and complain. Some who were at first cowards enter the land to conquer it, only to be completely defeated. We then have some sacrificial rules, and the short story of a man executed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, followed by the commandment to wear fringes on the corners of our garments.

But the question the Bat Mitzvah asked was sadly not answered by many. Many who tried did not even hear the question correctly. Many thought she said "When do you think you are ready?" But that was not the question, though they implicitly answered the actual question with "I am." and went off to tell when they thought they were ready for something. I have a different answer. I believe who tell us when we are ready is two fold: it is God and our own actions when placed in that situation by God. It has nothing to do with our personal opinion about being ready.

The people when told the bad report by the ten spies, say something interesting about being ready:

And they said one to another, Let us choose a chief, and let us return to Egypt.[Numbers 14]

Last week they described Egypt as:

We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic;[Numbers 11]

Next week we read:
12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; which said, We will not come up; 13 Is it a small thing that you have brought us out of a land that flows with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you also make yourself a prince over us?[Numbers 16]

All of this points to Egypt as somewhere comfortable, somewhere safe. It was, of course nothing like that in reality. These were the same people a few years earlier crying out to God to save them from captivity, from the people who wholesale murdered their children. They fell into a comfort zone of the knowable versus the unknown. We never feel we are ready for the unknown. It takes faith like Joshua's and objectivity like Caleb's to even look at it fairly, and that is only two out of ten voices. There are the ten voices of Doubt uncertainty and fear that keep us still. The story of the spies was a test, and a test the people failed. God said "you are ready" and the people said they were far from ready. So God waited till they were ready. It is in the Haftarah we read how ready they were forty years later:

And they said to Joshua, Truly the Lord has delivered to our hands all the land; for all the inhabitants of the country faint because of us. [Joshua 2]

What really changed was belief. The people forty years earlier did not believe the same as those forty years later. They took the long journey and had to erode the comfort zone. I've done this. The bar Mitzvah boy from three decades ago was too scared of public speaking to give a D'var. Time has changed me, and I speak in front of hundreds easily today.

It is not alwys a good idea to charge into things though. If you go do something not totally believing you are ready, or that God is with you, you might get handed your corpse in a hand basket. The people do try to go up in to the land after God tells him they will not, and they fail miserably. It requires both our own confidence and God to go up into the land, to succeed in anything.

I said nothing about this question, and we left just after Kaddish and Aleinu. Neither Sweetie or I felt much like celebrating at the oneg afterwards. Four and a half months into mourning my mom, neither of us felt like partying. Seeing the Rabbi and her daughter and a reminder of a good mother daughter relationship didn't help much. But on the way home in the car, I had a thought: I am facing dozens of crises right now, mostly due to my mom's death. She would have taken care of many of these issues, from filing my tax return to paying for our honeymoon to keeping the family business on a the same path it has been for many years to being the best friend and counsel of both myself and Sweetie, her death changed everything. There is a lot of things my whole family needs to do, and are now challenged to realize they are ready for them.

God said to the people implicitly by sending the spies out: "You are ready." The spies then needed to come back and give all the strategic data to take the land, instead they cower underfoot from the same people terrified of them only forty years later. What they did was rely on themselves and their fears to say "we are not ready." They went and cried and whined so much, Midrash tells us that God uttered a rather infamous line "your'e crying for nothing! I'll give you some to cry about!" the day they cried was the 9th of Av and we have bee crying ever since.

We have a choice, like I have a choice now. We can spend our lives in paralysis saying "we are not ready" living in a illusion of a comfort zone, or take up the challenge and do what is necessary. "We are ready" we need to tell ourselves, "otherwise God would not put us here." I worry a lot about our future without my mom as a support. Yet, I see one way this changes things. We now need to be ready or we can fail and fall into a chaotic wilderness. God set this up, and while I'm still not very happy about being in this situation, there is only two things I can do. One is know that God is with me in the next few difficult months and years. And the second is go ahead and succeed, go ahed and get to my personal Promised Land.

Behaalotecha 5771: Healing and Petitionary Prayer

Last weekend we had a discussion about Petitionary prayer in my Shabbat morning minyan. I said nothing in the discussion, though I had a lot to say. I was too busy trying not to cry. Here's why.

This week we read at the end of the potion, about Miriam and Aaron slandering Moses. Miriam takes the brunt of the punishment from God.
10 And when the cloud was removed from over the Tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous. 11 And Aaron said unto Moses: 'Oh my lord, lay not, I pray thee, sin upon us, for that we have done foolishly, and for that we have sinned. 12 Let her not, I pray, be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he comes out of his mother's womb.' 13 And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying: 'Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee.'[Numbers 12 ]

Moses' prayer, in Hebrew אל, נא רפא נא לה El na rafa na la is simple and to the point, "please God, please heal her" is all it says. I first learned it as an alternative Mi Shebeirach, the healing prayer at the first synagogue I attended in my return to Judaism. I've said it many times, many of those times last January.

Starting when I got a phone call that my mom was taken by ambulance to the local hospital I kept saying it, over and over again. I said it out loud when I could, I said it silently when I couldn't, on the road, at home, in the hospital when I was awake or lying in bed at night. I said El na rafa na lawhen we found out she needed emergency surgery for a rare condition that should have killed her already. I said it during her recovery, and when she slipped into a coma. I said אל, נא רפא נא לה when she came out of that coma, and when she slipped back into another. I said it until a few hours before her death when we were told it was hopeless, and my sister, Sweetie and I began our vigil to be with her at her last breath.

[caption id="attachment_311" align="alignright" width="225" caption="El Na rafa na la"]El Na rafa na la[/caption]

With my mom's passing our lives have been turned upside down. Our family is shattered by this loss and still trying to put the pieces back together. Grief does different things to different people, and all too often grief blinds us to another's grief. I once described grief early in our mourning as drops on a pond with ripples spreading out to others. When there is one drop in the pond there is little problem in understanding the concentric circular waves. But many drops in the pond produces confusing, conflicting waves.

El na rafa na la is a petitionary prayer. We ask for health and healing. I heard many things about petitionary prayer in our discussion. Much was condemning the frivolous petitionary prayer common in children praying for something for themselves, like anew doll or getting on the baseball team. It's selfish, most say, and not a good prayer. Yet I remember placing a small scrap of paper from my sketchbook into the Western wall and praying as hard as I could that would find my mate. I cried that day as Israeli jets flew over Jerusalem celebrating 60 years of independence. My mom shot a picture of me with tears still in my eyes from her side of the mechitza. A few months later, a freak snowstorm shut down the town Sweetie lived in at the time, and so she did something she rarely does -- go online. We started to chat, and that lead to everything else, including our upcoming wedding. Somehow that prayer in that little piece of paper is hard to ignore. It's hard to ignore that my mom did start to get better after all that prayer. She could have died that first night, but was with us for three more weeks, enough to let us say goodbye to her.

Interestingly this prayer ends with the word la meaning her. It is not writtenli meaning to me . The Cohanic blessing is in the second person. That prayer, expresses all the good things God may do to you, not me. IN that case maybe petitionary prayer does not work when it is selfish, when it is about me. Petitionary prayer does not work when I gain, only if someone else does. So one thought that keeps going around in my mind. I wanted my mom at my wedding. I wanted to see her joy at the day of my joy, one that has taken too long to come. Did all my prayer amount for nothing because my healing prayer had a selfish end? Since I wanted her to be joyous on that day, was it selfish? I don't know and the questions still dig at me.

I have many questions about what happened and the part prayer played. Prayer seemed to work then didn't. Should I have ever given up praying? Would she still be alive and another miracle would have occurred had I kept praying and not given up like everyone else? What if, as is likely that meant a very limited life for her? If prayer was just keeping her alive but in extreme pain, did I did the right thing by giving up? I did hear a voice while I was prying in those final hours say " stop. Let Go." I keep wondering about that voice and if I should have heeded it.

I also wonder the power of communal versus personal petitionary prayer. when she came out of the first coma and begin to have some function to her body, she had yeshivas praying for her, the second time, I'm not so sure who was. One synagogue I attend called me to find out my mom's status, ostensibly to take her off the mi sheiberiach list the day we found out the bad news she was likely to die. Does volume count in petitionary prayer. Does it count in healing prayer?

I keep thinking about how much I prayed those three weeks. I keep thinking how in the end it didn't matter, she didn't get better but died instead, and I'm left living in a shattered world. I prayed so hard and wasn't heard. She won’t be at the wedding, she won’t be there to support me, my bride-to-be, my sister or my father not just at the wedding but every day.

Does petitionary prayer work? Who I have become in large part because of my mom says in a still small voice "yes." My grief continues to shout "NO!" in the end I still do not know. I just know I hurt so much because she is no longer here.