Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Parshat Vayikra 5766 Sacrifice - So What???

This week we begin Vayikra, or in English Leviticus, which starts with the procedures for different types of sacrifices. We learn how we are to essentially deplete farmyards of animals for different types of sacrifices, some for transgressions, and others for thanksgiving. For vegetarians we learn that only one type of plant material, grain, is burned while all others are not. First fruits are not to be burned according to the text, but part of the meal offering is. Different classes of sins are then enumerated.

Every year I get to this point and I ask myself the same question -So what? If one were to summarize the first two chapters of Leviticus, between the meat and grain offerings it would be a simple recipe for fajitas, though without the grilled onions, peppers and guacamole of course. For the last 1900 years or so, there has been no way any of this makes sense. Thus the question one must ask is why this is important to us today, so far away in time from animal sacrifices. One answer, of course, championed by some Orthodox, though by no means all, is that wee need to be ready for the days of the Messiah, when the Temple is restored and we will once again be killing animals to atone for sin. Yet this doesn’t sit well with me. I have another way of looking at this text historical in its outlook.

Further into Leviticus we will read about the practices of other religions, including bestiality and child sacrifice. Given the context, this not just the practices of other lands but their sacred practices. The Medieval commentator Maimonides believed that the Israelites were not yet ready for no sacrifices at all, and so God created a system of sacrifices which was a lot less damaging - animal sacrifice. Yet as we read in the text of Leviticus we are to bring this sacrifice “before the tent.” This was fine during the Exodus when everyone was surrounding the Mishkan every day. Getting to the tent was an easy walk. When the Israelites settle in the land, things are not so easy. To get from the territory of Dan to Shiloh where the Mishkan was would be quite the journey - particularly for every sin. So the people adapted a native Canaanite practice for their own use. Called bamot or high places, these were local community altars where sacrifices were taken for the community. Sometimes, however, the bamot would end up also making pagan sacrifices, or having ashera, idolatrous trees plated around them. Such was the situation in the story of everyone favorite biblical pyromaniac, Gideon, who cuts down the ashera of his father’s high place to Baal to use as firewood in a sacrifice to God (Judges 6:25-26). Yet Gideon does use the high place as an altar to God, and later so does Elijah, who repairs a high place of the Lord at Mount Carmel in his contest with the priests of Baal (I Kings 18:30). In either case the bamot were acceptable because the sacrifice itself was either ordered by God or accepted whole heartedly by God.

Yet a few generations after Elijah, King Josiah, after finding the dire consequences of disobeying God in a lost copy of Deuteronomy (II Kings 22), goes on a holy rampage and destroys everything, including the bamot, that could be idolatrous and centralizes sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. (II Kings 23:8-9) Yet it was still difficult for people to go for every sin to Jerusalem to get expiated. Local communities came up with a substitute for the sacrifice and daily offerings. As Josiah was so obsessed with Deuteronomy, Passages of Deuteronomy would be read while standing together in an assembly of the community. Some of these included the Shema, and the Ten Commandments found in Deuteronomy. They also included a set of blessings which would be said while standing, a proto-amidah. Such were the beginnings of Jewish liturgy. When a generation after Josiah the first temple is destroyed, there was a system of prayer in place to take into exile. We read in Daniel 6:11 that Daniel prayed three times daily towards Jerusalem, thanking God. From the later Qumran documents of 1st century BCE there are pieces of the Qumran sect’s liturgy, including readings from the Ten Commandments and the Shema.

Yet when the second temple was built, and sacrifices returned, many people had forgotten much of the tradition. So as we read in Nehemiah 8, a Torah reading became part of the liturgy at the temple, including a panel of interpreters to explain the Ezra’s reading of the text. As this was easy enough to do anywhere, a community group would assemble in their own beit knesset, or in Greek a synagogue, and began to also read the text. Often one or two people would interpret the words there. There readers and interpreters became teachers and judges, in Hebrew rabbi. By the first century CE there was an established order of Rabbis involved in debate, most notably the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai. When Jerusalem was sacked and the temple destroyed in 70CE, there were no more sacrifices. Yet prayer continued to be used as a substitute, with the rabbis creating a more standard structure for the psalms, Shema and Amidah. But they also included something else:

The altar of wood three cubits high . . . . and he said to me, This is the table that is before the Lord (Ezek. 41:22) [Now the verse] opens with ‘altar’ and finishes with ‘table’? R. Johanan and R. Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now a man's table atones for him. (B. Brachot 55a)

As we will do in a few weeks, the observance of the Passover lamb, which was supposed to be done in the temple, was transferred to a man’s dining room table. Symbol and signs like the maror’s bitterness and Haroset as clay were introduced to the Seder. All of this work of revising a world without a Temple became the corpus of literature knows as the Talmud, and its authors promoted among the highest of virtues studying this text, which of course took large amounts of time. Yet in 17th century Eastern Europe most Jews were exceedingly poor and unable to study regularly, if even able to read. Another movement which emphasized not just study but the deep intention to cleave to God came into being. Combining elements of 16th century mysticism and the Pietism of 12th century Germany, this new movement, Hasidism, once again arose to address the problem. In a much later time of the 19th century, the Enlightenment threatened Judaism in several ways. Technology was creating a world very different than only generations earlier, and science was finding new rationale behind how our universe worked. The new rational philosophy also created a few dilemmas for the Jews. Of most interest was the call by Immanuel Kant, whose definition of ethics defined Jews as amoral, and thus calling for their "euthanasia". Some reacted by making an ethical Judaism based not on the Law of Torah, but on the ethics found in the prophets and thus be ethical by Kant’s definition. Around the same time, many German Jews started moving across the Ocean to the new country of the United States of America, and took up residence in the new cities of the Midwest like Chicago and Cincinnati. Faced with being a more scattered and smaller minority than they were in Germany, in a world that was often highly anti-Semitic Protestants, they faced hard times from all sides. In this crucible many forged something that had not been there before: Reform Judaism. In the reform movement first statement of principles, the Pittsburgh platform of 1885, three of the planks read:

3. We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.
4. We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.
5. We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.
In essence the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 created a religion which looked and acted like any other patriotic American religion, rejecting much of Torah in the process, and believing that the new Israel was the United States, and there would never be resettlement of Israel. Others disagreed and while the burgeoning Zionist movement took a while to enter Synagogue life, it eventually did, due in part to the tragic events of the Holocaust. Even Reform, who’s first platform opposed it, would eventually change their mind.

Over and over in this story, from a cut up cow to Reform Judaism, things change. Yezekiel Kaufmann, the Great scholar of the history of biblical Israel indicated that the Jews created something that no there people before them had ever created: the idea that things don’t stay the same, that time moves on, and that things can change for the better: the Jews invented revolution. But in the style of the rabbis do not read revolution but “R. Evolution.” We are the people who for millennia believe not in a static world, but a dynamic ever-improving one. We do not die as a people because we can change and adapt. Reform Judaism’s view of Torah today reflects that change, as written into the 1999 Statement of principles reads in part:

We affirm that Torah is the foundation of Jewish life.
We cherish the truths revealed in Torah, God's ongoing revelation to our people and the record of our people's ongoing relationship with God.
We affirm that Torah is a manifestation of (image placeholder)(ahavat olam), God's eternal love for the Jewish people and for all humanity.
We affirm the importance of studying Hebrew, the language of Torah and Jewish liturgy, that we may draw closer to our people's sacred texts.
We are called by Torah to lifelong study in the home, in the synagogue and in every place where Jews gather to learn and teach. Through Torah study we are called to (image placeholder)(mitzvot), the means by which we make our lives holy.
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of (image placeholder)(mitzvot) and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these (image placeholder)(mitzvot), sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.

Reform, revolution evolution for me they are all the same. A recent quote from a non Jewish source, Graphic novelist David Mack in his work Kabuki: The Alchemy (#6) for me describes Judaism in its answer to a question about revolution:

There is no finish to revolution. That is why it is always revolving. (Because it is evolving) revolution is evolution. The idea continues to adapt to reality. And the implementation should continue to adapt and change. There is no having made it. Forget about that. You are always making it. That is the entire point. The making is where you always want to be. To make something & try to maintain the status quo is against nature. That is what I’m fighting against. The revolution is the action not subject. Once the revolution becomes the institution, you have to revolt and revolve, all over again. Stagnation is death. Status quo is death. Celebrity is death. Once a government or agency is setup to worship itself and make itself richer & forget the ideas it is founded on, it is no longer for the people or by the people or of the people, but is very separate from the people. Just using them as pawns for its own gain.
When that happens, that institution is on the wrong side of history. History shows that a society on that path will crumble in on itself. --- Unless corrections are made from the inside out.

Judaism has always been in flux -- changing and re-inventing itself and in the process evolving, making those corrections from the inside out sometimes from new ideas and sometimes embracing traditions from the past. We are the only faith to my knowledge that whose sacred literature has stories which tell of our ancestors telling God to shut up and but out, (Baba Metzia 59b) which God finds hysterically funny, laughing “My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me!” That is Judaism -- in Torah study, prayer and practice, or social action -- Our three pillars which the world stands on, Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasidim continue the stand because they continue to change. The burnt cow, dove, goat, etc. of Leviticus is witness to how we don’t stay still, but do adapt, change and survive.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Shlomos Drash vayakhel 5766 - Shabbos Lists

This week we have Moses first giving the instructions for creating the Mishkan he learned on Sinai, employing the people to help in the construction with Betzalel as lead craftsman and architect. The people enthusiastically help out in its construction, so much so Betzazel has to ask for the donations to stop. When all the pieces are done Moses puts the components together for the first time, and the cloud of glory covers the Mishkan.

This is the end of the book of Exodus and, the last of my pieces on Shabbat for a while. Leviticus will take up other matters. Yet here is the first time Moses speaks the mitzvah of Shabbat, and includes in it a specific prohibition.

1. And Moses gathered all the congregation of the people of Israel together, and said to them, These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. 2. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord; whoever does work in it shall be put to death. 3. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day. (Ex 35:1-3)

In Torah and Tanach, we have very few specific prohibitions noting what kind of work is banned on the Sabbath. In Exodus 16, we are told not to collect Manna on the Sabbath day, to stay home, and to cook for Shabbat the previous day. Elsewhere in Tanach we have the prophets complaining about specific transgressions of the Sabbath, which by implication must have already been established. In Jeremiah 17:22 we have the prohibition against carrying things out of a house, in Amos and Nehemiah 13 lists several involving commerce:

15. In those days I saw in Judah men treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and loading them on asses; and also wine, grapes, and figs, and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day; and I warned them on the day when they sold food.16. Men of Tyre, who lived there, brought fish, and all kinds of ware, and sold on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, and in Jerusalem.17. Then I confronted the nobles of Judah, and said to them, What evil thing is this that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day?

Using a hermeneutic principle called parat u’kalal on this passage, the Rabbis of the Mishnah determined what other prohibitions of work would not be allowed on the Sabbath. Our specific case of lighting a fire in the week’s portion, and the instructions for all things used to make the Mishkan that follow that prohibition, would imply that the activities that follow are also prohibited on the Sabbath. Given this logic, the rabbis go on to list thirty nine prohibitions

Mishnah. The primary labors are forty less one, [viz.:] sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, bleaching, hackling, dyeing, spinning, stretching the threads, the making of two meshes, weaving two threads, dividing two threads, tying [knotting] and untying, sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, capturing a deer, slaughtering, or flaying, or salting it, curing its hide, scraping it [of its hair], cutting it up, writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters [over the erasure], building, pulling down, extinguishing, kindling, striking with a hammer, [and] carrying out from one domain to another: these are the forty primary labors less one.(M. Shabbat 7:2)

For observing the positive commandment of Shabbat there seems to be a lot of negative provisions. And for most except that small percentage of Orthodox Jews, it is impossible to follow these rules as closely as the rabbis. Considering my own situation where my synagogue is about ten miles from my own home put it in perspective. If I followed the rule about travel, and particularly lighting the fires that run the combustion engine in my car, I would never be able to go to the synagogue I go to now. Nor would I be able to sit in a Starbuck’s early Saturday morning before I go the Saturday morning services, and paint and people watch, which is a very sacred and precious time for me. That Saturday morning cup of coffee is so different than the other seven mornings of coffee, yet the Mishnah prohibits it on so many levels.

Yet as I discussed last week, what I do for Shabbat is still far more than most Jews do. As a friend of mine commented me recently, we tend to think of Shabbat in terms of all or nothing thinking. Even our euphemism for a very observant person, Shomer Shabbos, builds on that thinking. And so, if we believe we cannot do all of what the Mishnah or the Orthodox think is observance, we decide to do nothing.

Yet as we read on in this portion, Moses asks for donations of both materials and skill to help build the Mishkan. And the response is overwhelming:

21. And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and they brought the Lord’s offering to the work of the Tent of Meeting, and for all his service, and for the holy garments. 22. And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing hearted, and brought bracelets, and ear rings, and rings, and bracelets, all jewels of gold; and every man who offered offered an offering of gold to the Lord. 23. And every man, with whom was found blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair, and red skins of rams, and goats’ skins, brought them. 24. Every one who offered an offering of silver and bronze brought the Lord’s offering; and every man, with whom was found shittim wood for any work of the service, brought it. 25. And all the women who were wise hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, both of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine linen. 26. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun goats’ hair. 27. And the rulers brought onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate; 28. And spice, and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense. 29. The people of Israel brought a willing offering to the Lord, every man and woman, whose heart made them willing to bring for every kind of work, which the Lord had commanded to be made by the hand of Moses.

What I find so amazing about this passage is not everyone brought everything but individuals brought different things. It differentiates between man and woman, that all had a unique gift. Otherwise, verse 22-29 could have been skipped, and 21 would have said it all. What I believe this means is we are all individuals, uniquely crafted by God. We all bring something different to the building of holiness. So too with Shabbat, we all bring our own unique perspective and situation to the Island in Time. And just like a tropical resort on some island, if we all did everything exactly the same, it wouldn’t be much fun. Yes there are a lot of things we do alike at a resort like eat good meals and walk along the beach, yet not everything, and that is what makes the resort a better place. We all don’t play tennis and golf nor want to, nor do we all want just the beach or just the pool. Each has their preference. If we all did exactly the same things at the same time, many of the activities would be ruined. If everyone played golf or tennis at the same time, there would be too many players on the court or course to actually play the game.

When on retreat or in a predominately Jewish area, I have had the occasion to follow the more stringent rules, and I also agree they are somewhat satisfying for those short durations. But for me to follow all the rules all the time just wouldn't work for me -- I enjoy certain activities on Shabbat too much to give them up - I find things like painting, playing instruments or photography on Shabbat just as much a celebration and witnessing of creation as some find not turning on any electric switches. And it was in this spirit that when I first got back into Judaism about ten years ago, I created my own list of personal halakah for Shabbat, both positive and negative rules to follow. That list has changed over the years, but its current version is this one:

Shlomo’s Shabbos
Live Juicy one day a week. Celebrate it with candles. Read Torah and Talmud and contemplate them. Wear Hawaiian shirts. Do not use electronic devices-no Internet, iPods, or TV. Don’t buy anything but food or medicine. Eat a REALLY good meal. Love. If no one else is around love yourself. Don’t forget to hug! Dessert and sweets were created Shabbos!!! Try to walk. Be sensual. Use all your senses to consciously taste, smell, see, touch, and hear. Sense how wonderful everything is. Read and study. Read spiritual books and novels of imagination. Take naps. Paint the beauty in the world. Pray and Play. It doesn’t matter what or how -just play. Sing for the joy of singing, sing for the joy of God. With instruments, even if you can’t. Don’t do anything that has to do with work-unless someone's life is in danger. Spend time relating to other people. Have outrageous conversations. Bless yourself, everyone, and everything else.

My belief is that we all should have such a list, and we should all practice what we put down on our list. If you are doing nothing or have never written down a list like this, I challenge you to do so.

So here’s the challenge: pick five positive commandments to and for yourself to do every Shabbat, five things that you obligate yourself, with God as the witness, that you will do. Then pick five things you will forbid yourself from doing every Shabbat. If you would like a worksheet to do this on, I have made one up at my web which you can download or print out. You don’t have to use the form, but it is important to write them down - the act of writing them down makes them real. While my list has changed, mostly with additions, it has been close to a constant for close to a decade. Following this list, I really feel good about myself, and good about the world we live in. Your list may be different, and that is just as good and holy as mine, though you may use my ideas as well.* Like the holy place we build in this portion we all bring something different to Shabbat. Most of us cannot do all but we can do something. And only when we all bring what each individual especially can bring can Shabbat be particularly holy, so holy it may even build the third temple of messianic times.

Have a great Shabbat.

*In the spirit of building the Mishkan, I will also post to the Shabbosville website any lists that people send me at of their Shabbat practices, some already have. Mine will also be posted there as well; together we can build a list of ideas of how to make Shabbat a holy time, no matter one’s level of observance.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Shlomos Drash - parshat Ki Tisa 5766 Variations on V'shamru

After two weeks with not much action, there's a lot of story this time. Moses receives the last of the commandments on Sinai, then proceeds down the mountain, where he meets up Joshua, who thinks there's fighting in the camp. It turns out the people are worshipping a golden calf. Both Moses and God get upset, then Moses tries to save the people by telling God he'd look pretty bad in the eye of the Egyptians if he kills everyone. The people repent, Moses goes back up to get another set of ten tablets, after breaking the first set. Moses asks to sees God's face, but only gets to see his back, sort of. God inscribes another set of tablets, and reiterates several commandments. After this second time, Moses keeps his face covered, unless he was in the Mishkan.

Our portion mentions one commandment not just once, but twice, at the very end of the first ascent on Sinai, we read

31:12. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 13. Speak you also to the people of Israel, saying, Truly my sabbaths you shall keep; for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that you may know that I am the Lord that does sanctify you. 14. You shall keep the Sabbath therefore; for it is holy to you; every one who defiles it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work in it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15. Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. 16. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant. 17. It is a sign between me and the people of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.

After the golden calf, Moses ascends Sinai once again, and we read:
34:21. Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing and in harvest you shall rest.

And once again I struggle with Shabbat. Twice in the chapter 31 passage, including the verses including the piece of Liturgy we call v’shamru (31:16-17) we hear a definite death penalty (31:14, 15), and once the implicit death penalty of cut off from among the people(31:14) Twice we hear that Shabbat is a sign between God and the people Israel. Twice we hear that it is to be throughout the generations. This passage allows us to see the power of one of the Hermeneutic principles of the rabbis. Rabbinic logic, unlike Aristotelian logic allows for analogy by word phrases. Therefore if we have two places which have the phrase Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, (31:15, 34:21) then the rest of the phrases are connected. Therefore one can conclude if someone is found plowing or harvesting on the Sabbath, they are to be put to death. Similarly the Phrase Cut off from his people would therefore signify a death penalty. (31:15, 16).

But the rabbis, who were really squeamish about the death penalty given the numbers of people executed by the Romans, tried to avoid invoking the death penalty. And so, they came up with a rather interesting solution. While Cutting off did apply to the death penalty, they decided this was a death penalty that was executed not by humans but by God, referred to as Cutting or karet in Hebrew. The rabbis were able to use the logic above to come to a point where desecration of Shabbat could be a place where God will get you in the end. Granted, given the story in Numbers of the Stick Gatherer, there was a precedent for actually killing someone for doing things on the Sabbath. Yet in the end, the desecration of the Sabbath became one of the punishments which were executed by God, not man.

And in many ways I’ve always though about stress in exactly that way. With the amount of stress we put on our bodies by working seven days a week, we end up shortening our lives. It was Philo of Alexandria, who was trying to explain this rather odd practice of regularly taking a day off for Roman critics who really put this explanation into words for the first time. Others have taken other ways of looking at the Sabbath. One is the well known view of Resh Lakish, who uses our passage as a proof text:

For Resh Lakish said: Man is given an additional soul on Friday, but at the termination of the Sabbath it is taken away from him, as it is said, He ceased from work and rested [shabat wa-yinafash] that is to say, once the rest had ceased [shabat], woe! that soul is gone [wai nafash]. (Taanit 27b)

Resh Lakish in a word play, believes God grants us an extra nefesh, soul, at the beginning of Shabbat, one we lament at its end. Another rabbi, again using our text, describes Shabbat as a precious gift
Raba b. Mehasia also said in the name of R. Hama b. Goria in Rab's name: If one makes a gift to his neighbour, he must inform him [beforehand], as it is written, that ye may know that I the Lord sanctify you: It was taught likewise: That ye may know that I the Lord sanctify you: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, I have a precious gift in My treasure house, called the Sabbath, and desire to give it to Israel; go and inform them (Shabbat 10b)
Shabbat is a special time for those who observe it. It may feel like the Erev Shabbat Call of R. Jannai, immortalized in the liturgy as the last line of L’cha Dodi. : “boee kalah boee kalah, Come oh Bride come Oh bride.” For me that bride does come in the back of the synagogue every Friday evening and she is the most beautiful woman I have ever met. She is my bride and I am her groom standing at the Huppa. She is everyone’s mate one a week to those who are observing Shabbat. She is also tropical island resort in time, a place to kick back and take off the last day of the week, not just alone but with everyone we have a relationship with. A Presbyterian friend on mine commented about my busy schedule recently during a conversation about dating. She didn’t see where I could find time to actually date or spend time in a relationship. Then she answered her own question - I had the seventh day when there was nothing to do but relate; the Shabbath Bride is the room in my life for my own bride, who will be the only one more beautiful than the Sabbath bride. (May we meet soon!)

Yet for many that spiritual moment in L’cha Dodi and the sacred time for relationship with loved ones doesn’t happen. The National Jewish Population Survey of 2001 shows that a minority of Jews take Shabbat seriously. Across all denominations, only 27% of Jews attend services monthly or more and 28% light Shabbat candles. How many light them with their loved ones is not really known.

In light of this I find it ironic the counterpoint to this holy moment at Sinai. While Moses was receiving the eternal covenant of Shabbat on the top of the mountain, the people were building and worshipping the golden calf at the bottom of the mountain. Debauchery feasting and idolatry of a gold object replaced holiness. The golden calf incident did end in death, both with the Levites slaying 3000 men, and God invoking a plague (32:28, 35). Both human and karat death penalties were the punishment for the calf. Yet where is the punishment for the current generation? It may be, without transmitting the joy and holiness of the Seventh Day, of not transmitting the sign between God and the people of Israel, that the people of Israel, at least here in America, will cease to exist, to be assimilated into mainstream culture without any identity of their own. Shabbat has kept the Jews proportionally to Jews keeping and remembering the Sabbath. If some parents and teachers continue to set bad examples for their children, another generation is lost, ones who might look to Christianity or Buddhism for the identity that they could have found in the deeply sacred and spiritual beliefs of their ancestors. The same man who wrote of Shabbat as an island in time, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel also lamented that while the Nazis killed our bodies, America kills our souls. And sadly it is seen most of all in Shabbat.

In a remark which may be either sarcasm or a hopeful goal for the future, the Talmudic rabbis noted that if all Jews celebrated two consecutive Shabbats, the Messiah would come. Obviously not every Jew, in whatever way they observe Shabbat, did then or does now But if more of us did, and found the Island in time, then we could have just one thing that connects us as a people. We may not agree on whether iPods or cars are usable on Shabbat, but if we believe that there is something sacred about stopping our work for one day and bother to look around us and talk to one anther for one day how sweet would our world be - how much would it be like messianic times!

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Shlomo Teaching live - Haroset: A World History.

Hello Folks!

For those who want to have some quality learning time with me, learn about Passover halakah, and get some seriously interesting recipes you might be interested in the course I'm teaching a week from Tuesday (3/21/06)

This course follows the history of this Passover condiment from its rabbinic origins to the Seder table of today. What might seem like a simple story will turn into a journey where we will encounter many important texts from Tanach and Talmud through the work of Maimonides and Rashi determining the hidden significance of this observance. We will also discuss the Hillel sandwich from the Talmudic tradition to its modern incarnation and its relationship to Haroset. Recipes for haroset in various traditions will also be discussed and sampled.

Tuesdays, March 21 and 28 7:30-9 pm
Beth Emet The Free Synagogue 1224 Dempster Evanston, Illinois 60202
Members: $15, non-members: $20

Contact Mayta Spitz at (847) 869-4230 x630 to register and for more information on the content of the course.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Drash Tetzave 5766 More Masks

This week we have more commandments given to Moses on Sinai. While other things, such as the oil for the menorah and the procedures for sacrifices are mentioned, the main part of the text describes the garb of the Kohen Gadol, the high priest. Last year, I wrote this about “game face” and in the year in-between I had a lot of time to think about that piece and the idea of game face. We read near the beginning of the portion

1. And take to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, that he may minister to me in the priest’s office, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons. 2. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother for glory and for beauty. (Ex. 28:1-2)

For those who do not remember my thoughts from last year, I wrote about the need for all that stuff the High Priest needs to put on. Items like the breastplate and the stone have symbols encompassing all the tribes, for example. This is less about utilitarian clothing and more about the symbol one sends to other humans. God, of course, being omnipresent and omniscient, sees us in our underwear and naked all the time. It is not therefore necessarily for God, but for humans. When we put on our professional clothes and go out to do our trade, we put on a face that is not completely our genuine selves, much like the face a professional poker player or basketball player- our game face, a mask over our true selves.

I’ve though about that mask in several ways over the past few weeks. Last weekend, I went on retreat with my synagogue to Oconomowoc WI. This Shabbat in a very uncharacteristic move for me, I left much of what I usually carry in pockets and belt loops in my room, and spent the whole day without any of this stuff. And strangely I felt much lighter, both physically and spiritually. Physically was rather surprising, though it shouldn’t have. When you add up a PDA, handheld internet device, cell phone, iPod, wallet, portable keyboard, digital thermometer and flashlight there is a real difference in weight. Internally, it was also interesting - without any of these things on my person, I didn’t think about them, they were not screaming at me to check voice e-mail or voice mail, or catch up on the podcasted news clips. In fact, I did not miss them at all, so much so that it was not after I had packed the next day to leave that I realized none of them were still on my person, and most of them had been packed away in my suitcase by mistake. I really felt the weight when I clipped all that stuff to my belt or placed it in the appropriate pockets.

Secondly was the theme of the retreat: the upcoming holiday of Purim, where here again the clothes (or lack of them) make the person. We start with Vashti, and here the issue is whether she will show herself in royal crown and nothing else (Esther 1:11). Then we move the Esther dressing minimally, in only the few things the king likes instead of heavy ostentation (2:15). Later when she appears before the king unbidden, Esther dresses in royalty(5:1), which could be interpreted as either royal apparel(Targum Sheni 5:1), or only in the glory of the Holy Spirit and a smile (Esther Rabbah IX:1). Mordechai twice appears in the apparel of the kind first as a reward for his informing on a conspiracy to kill the king(6:8,11), wearing royal robes and the crown. The second time is after he is given the late-Haman’s job (8:15) wearing royal
robes of blue and linen, and a big gold turban and a wrap of fine linen and purple.

Purim itself of course is about dressing up in a mask that is not your own. As I’m busy looking for a hula skirt and my lost shaker of salt, I thought about that, about getting to try on a face that is not how you define yourself on any other day. Yet after trying on this face, you might even want to change into that person. The shy kid I am around people gets to be a Parrothead - something I would never think to do at a real Jimmy Buffet show. Yet in the craziness of Purim turning things on their heads, you can throw your game face in the dust and pick up something else, at least to try, and somehow like throwing my PDA and laptop in my suitcase, it is somehow refreshing not to have your regular mask on.

I did not watch the academy awards, yet it was with interest I noted that more press time was spent on what stars were wearing than what they accomplished professionally. Those who wear masks for a living are only judged by the mask they wear that day, not by performance they gave on the screen. Yet that mask they had that evening, sets the masks we all wear. As an artist, I also perused those fashions with interest, as I do with all fashions. As I can’t afford live models and beautiful clothes to paint live models, I very often turn to fashion magazines and catalogs for photo references while I’m painting. Yet the stuff I see there often disturbs me as these magazines primary job is to sell a certain mask that we, as both men and women are to either accept or to buy. Even the one fashion issue of Sports illustrated, the swimsuit issue, in remembrance of Esther and Vashti’s dilemma, tries to answer in a disturbing way the question posed by Victoria’s Secret: What is sexy? And in all of these it is a daily mask we are forced into that most cannot fit into. It does not even fit the models photographed in these magazines, which I realized once after meeting Elsa Benitez, the cover model of the 2001 SI swimsuit issue at an event I was attending. She was not even close in appearance, She was a bony anorexic compared to the image in the magazine. The camera added a few pounds and in the painting I had made from that cover photo I had to add a few more to make her truly look sexy. No, not even cover models fit their own mask.

And it is here we need to look at the mask on Aaron and the high priest. In Torah, His brother Moses and Sister Miriam the text is very clear about their emotions, as in their stories their emotions are explicit. Yet for Aaron he is oddly silent, even when watching the death of his own sons. It must be the outfit. While not carrying a PDA or laptop laden backpack, he is carrying the Urim and Thummim on his outfit. He is also carrying the breastplate, the ephod, the girdle the miter the stones of memorial, gold chains connecting much of this outfit together and solid gold bells and pomegranates along the hem of the robe. Physically this outfit weighed a ton, and particularly after the death of his sons Nadab and Abihu it may have emotionally have weighed heavily too, knowing, like a diver’s scuba gear, a packed parachute, or a biohazard suit, if his outfit fails to be perfect, he dies. Yet the threat of death is less than half the weight. The bigger weight gives Aaron and every high priest after him the same mask we now give to the supermodel and movie star. They must be perfect, with no vulnerability, to give us the ideal look for all of us, one we cannot even hope to mimic, though we try.

In that trying to be perfect and beautiful, there is stress and tension. Like Aaron, we feel that daily; yet there needs to be a place to release that tension. Hence Shabbat and Purim. While Aaron might have to be in the monkey suit on the seventh day, we on Shabbat can get rid of it, and be free of both the emotional and physical weight of the stuff we carry to do our daily lives. Purim goes one further, our regular clothes, indeed even our gender, may be thrown away for one evening of Purim spiel. A person who tries to look professional virtually every day of the year can look like a total idiot for a wonderful evening when things are turned on their head.

So this weekend, and next week may you enjoy the opportunity to relax your mask.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Drash Terumah 5766 - Willing Hearts, Wise Hearts

When we last left Moses, he was ascending Mount Sinai at the request of the people that he would be the exclusive representative of the people, and he would teach the laws to them. This week Moses receives the plans in rather interesting detail of the items found in the Mishkan, such as the ark and the altar, and ending with the Mishkan itself. In my professional life as a health inspector, this is part of the plan review process, the process before construction begins of laying out the blueprint and finding out if any changes are necessary. Of course in something designed by God, the architect of the universe, there is nothing to find wrong. But one of the important parts of a plan review is the review of the materials used and the sources for those materials. And it is here that I found an interesting note, in the second verse of our portion

Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring me an offering; from every man that gives it willingly with his heart you shall take my offering. (Ex. 25:2)

The Hebrew for gives it willingly of his heart is yidvenu libo. The word for heart is simple as it is said in such liturgy as the Shema. Yet the word for willingly, when I first looked at it made me think of another word, the Yiddish davvenen, the word we use for prayer, or more accurately a specific methodology for prayer. I saw the DVN in the Hebrew and thought it was the triliteral root, which might have a link to the Yiddish. I got all excited about writing a Drash about this connection and going on an on about how to davvenen. But it was not to be.

Those who know Hebrew grammar you might have caught my mistakes in thinking that. For those who don’t and for sleepy heads like me, it was Rashi who reminded me, and probably a lot of other people who made this mistake of the true grammar of this word. In Hebrew, there is a tendency for many words to be based on three-letter roots. BRCh, for example is the root for the word to bless. By adding letters and vowels to this root, one can make up various verbs and nouns such as Baruch which is to bless in the present tense and brachah, a noun which means blessing. You can also add letters at the end to indicate possession or object pronouns like his or him. The difference between libo, his heart in our verse and levavecha, your heart is an example of suffixes on lev. Yet some words have problems with pronunciation with this system, and these include roots that that begin with the letter N. These words drop off the offending letter. Rashi reminded everyone in his commentary that this was such a word that started with a N. The root is really NDV, and added to the end of the word is the pronoun NU, it. There goes my poetic beginning of a Drash.

But since Rashi had to make a comment about grammar, it might mean there was more than a little confusion here, and there might still be some link between davvenen and yidvenu. However, it’s pretty clear, even on authority on YIVO, the organization dedicated to the study of Yiddish culture and language; no one has a definite clue on the etymology of davvenen. If you search the internet there are whole mailing lists doing nothing but arguing over the etymology of the word. No luck there.

But the general idea of the NDV root, to freely give of ones own will, still struck me as interesting. After Moses comes down from Sinai, and deals with the golden calf mess, he then begins to teach the people, starting with the directions for building the Mishkan, and repeats much of this he was told by God in Exodus 25 to the people in Exodus 35. Here too, he uses some version of the phrase Nadvat ha lev willing heart. Also he uses another phrase, Hochmat ha lev meaning wise heart. Exodus 25 differentiates between the willing, who supply resources, and the wise, who provide skills and labor. Our portion, at the beginning of the ascent of Sinai mentions resources. It is not till the end of the forty days, in Exodus 31 that Moses is told there will be people of wisdom of heart, led by Betzalel, to put the whole thing together. And interestingly right after that is the commandment for Shabbat, and the imposition of the death penalty for its desecration. In Exodus 35, Moses starts his first major lesson to the people with Shabbat and the prohibition of lighting a fire, and then mentions the donations of the Wise of Heart and the Willing of Heart.

It is from the Specific case of lighting a fire following the general case in Exodus 35 that the Rabbis of the Mishnah identified the 39 Shabbat prohibitions, essentially taking the argument that any thing that was required work to build the Mishkan was prohibited work. This is also paralleled, in the case of Exodus 31, where God assigns workers then starts the longest explanation of Shabbat in the Torah, including its punishment. The wise of heart, the skilled worker, is not allowed to apply their skill on Shabbat.

But what of the willing of heart? One word that comes from our root is the word NDVH for the freewill offering. And while the Halakah of the freewill offering is a difficult halakah to get through, I think it is two verses in Psalms which provides one answer:

119:108. Accept, I beseech you, the freewill offerings of my mouth,
O Lord, and teach me your ordinances.

54:8. I will sacrifice a free will offering to you;
I will praise your name, O Lord; for it is good.

In Hebrew poetry there is something called synonymous parallelism. This means that the first part of the verse means the same as the second. IN these verses, we can then interpret praising the name of God, and learning Torah, to be the freewill offering. The original freewill offering was a sacrificed animal in the Temple. Without a Temple, we can no longer do that. But we can speak and sing and teach without the Temple. We can pray, we can davvenen.

While I can’t etymologically link davvenen and yidbenu, I can functionally believe they are the same. Prayer and study is our freewill offering. But it is not a route effort, but one with something special, a deep willingness to pray and study. Yet as I wrote this, the difference between hochmat ha-lev and nadvat ha-lev has been an issue I have been grappling with. I am very much the type not to just freely give of my self and my skills but do it so enthusiastically the effort totally wipes me out. As I recently quipped, I am the type of guy who jumps in with all three feet, not caring that I only have two until it is too late.

As I wrote two weeks ago, I’m wiped out, and I also know it’s my own fault. There are so many things I got myself into that I completely sympathize with a recent cartoon about life balance. You have time in your life for three things say the cartoon, and work and holidays are two -- pick one more. After reading this, I quipped to someone the one I haven’t picked is sleep, that the spiritual and communal things I get myself into - my freewill offerings of my skills - are more important than sleep. I really didn’t need to complete a project I’ve been working on for five years this week, but given the use of that project at an upcoming retreat I did anyway.

In not mentioning hochmat ha lev in this week’s portion, and waiting for forty days on Sinai to describe Betzalel and the other craftspeople of the Mishkan, God is sending a very important message. Freewill offerings of our skills cannot be constantly intense, like prayer or study should be. Like every other type of work we do need to take Shabbat off or die trying to Do It All. Prayer on the other hand we should do every day and it should be our intention to learn and to praise the Name.

Without raw materials and plans, a craftsman is worthless. Our portion this week is about raw material and plans, not actual construction. Our raw material is praising the Name, our plans are Torah. But until we have sufficient enough of both, construction of our own spirituality cannot begin. One cannot lay any foundation of a building without cement and a set of dimensions. And when we do, like the golden calf we will read about shortly, the result is a disaster. While there is no Temple any more, and we do not give sacrifices, the objects of the Temple may give us plans to ourselves and to the Temple we should be. These plans in Terumah start in the most inner chamber, and build out from there. So too we should plan and build ourselves, from our own “arks” to the curtains on the outside.