Thursday, May 25, 2006

Parshat Bmidbar 5766 - In the Wilderness

Parshat B’midbar 5766 (Numbers 1:1-4:20)
This week we begin the book of Numbers, which in Hebrew is known as B’midbar, translated best as in the wilderness. Both names are appropriate. Both at the beginning and towards the end of the book, there is a lot of census and genealogy data. But in between that data is the story of the journey of the Israelites in the wilderness between Sinai and the east bank of the Jordan River, when they are almost ready to cross into Israel.

A friend of mine, who is giving a D’var Torah this week, was mentioning to me about how difficult trying to come up with a topic for discussion is when all you have is census data. I told him I have a hard time ever getting past the first two verses. I have a hard time getting past that single word B’midbar. Another friend who is doing the Torah reading at that same service also was talking about the difficulty of chanting her Torah portion, and I totally agreed with her that all the Zakef Gadolim in there makes hers a lot more difficult. But using the cantillation marks in their duty as punctuation, the two verses I find so challenging to interpret read like this:

And the Lord spoke to Moses
In the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting
On the first day of the second month, in the second year
After they came out from the land of Egypt, saying,
Raise the heads of all the congregation of the Israelites
By families, by the house of their fathers,
By the number of names,
Every male by their head;

Last weekend, I got to study several times with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner about Hasidic thought and mysticism. At the Sunday session he read a rather interesting quote found at the beginning of his book Invisible Lines of Connection that I really liked. It’s a story about Rabbi Kushner and his wife getting ready to hike on a wilderness trail, and noting all the warnings about bears on the trail. Asking a local ranger about if it the trail was totally safe the reply was, “If it was totally safe, it wouldn’t be a wilderness, would it?”

In Hawaii, I thought similarly while hiking to the active lava flows in Volcano National Park. The signs and warnings for various hazards on the trails, from dehydration to toxic sulfur dioxide emmisions, aerosolized glass inhalation or falling into a lava pit from a cave-in were everywhere. Here the idea of a trail was nothing more than a four-inch high sticky reflector adhered to the Shimmering black cooled, hardened lava flow. It was indeed wilderness, taking me almost fifteen minutes to climb lava flows the 300 yards from the paved road this previously hot lava oozed over only a few years ago to an observation point overlooking where lava fell into the sea, making new land in a huge cloud of toxic steam about a mile away. This was the “Safe trail”. The other trail would have meant climbing over these same lava flows for about another half a mile, and in the noonday sun I decided against it.

The power of the wilderness was very apparent here. It controlled what was going on, not people. No matter what civilization constructed, it was no match for the lava. The land here is always changing. And moving from the safety of an asphalt paved road to climbing over very uneven lava it occurred to me how much that wilderness not only changes the landscape but those who wander in it.

While the book of Numbers talks of accounting in the literal, on a deeper level, this is an introduction to something more, to a book of recounting, of telling stories. As several teachers have pointed out to me such a pun does not exist only in English but in the Hebrew as well, and in a rather large abundance. As R. Allen Secher once pointed to me, the word for wilderness is also the word for mouth, or the present tense verb to speak. And, As R. Mordechai Gafni points out in Soulprints, The word for number is also the word for Story. Add to this an observation: it is hard to tell a story looking down, but one has to look up into the eyes of the listeners to tell an effective story. Conversely, telling one’s story makes us more open to others, raising our heads. In B’midbar, the words for taking a count is raise the head. Put together, we have an interesting idea, that the census is not a mere headcount but a convocation of story, a time where all who were responsible enough to tell a story, which at the time were males over twenty, told their story.

For a lot of the book of Numbers we will have such a story. It is not a chronicle just of what Moses does or heard at Sinai, but a chronicle of many people, all with their own story. We will once again meet Miriam and Aaron, of course. The rest of their lives will be chronicled here. Yet Balaam, Balak, Korach, Joshua, Caleb, Dathan, Abiram and Pinchas will also be integral to the story. B’midbar starts with stories of great failure and hopelessness, but ends with stories of triumph. Joshua may start as the spy no one believes, but ends as the head of an unstoppable army, and next in line for leading the people. And what changes people might be their environment, the wilderness and the stories that are there.

While on the big Island of Hawaii, while either climbing lava flows or driving on the switchback roads, past jungle or prarie, I thought of wilderness. On the island of Oahu, I thought about story, but in a different context. While taking a tour of the island, I was more than a little irritated on the number of times there were references to television shows, particularly the currently filmed one, Lost. I have never seen the show, (I’m studying Biblical Hebrew at the time it’s on) but given the media attention, one would think this was a true story, with every plot twist even more critical to our lives than the current body count in Iraq. But as my experience with the Chicago Tribune demonstrated to me recently, not even true stories are completely true.

Then there is the early media attention to The DaVinci Code movie, and an odd thing about religion-based movies: that they will be taken as truth. Many feared that the “Mel Gibson movie” would be taken as truth and a rash of anti-Semitism would ensue. On the other hand, others feel their name is damaged by the novel The DaVinci Code as they are portrayed as the bad guys, and the proposition that much of the bible is false. Funny thing is, the ones we are most concerned about taking fiction as fact are followers of a teacher who had loved the use of the mashal, the parable. And funnier even still is that the modern majority do see it as mashal or pure entertianment and not fact.

Throughout rabbinic texts, starting with early Mishnah, we find an expression To what is this compared to? To… This is an introduction, in one form or another to a mashal, a story which really didn’t happen but whose purpose is teaching and bringing meaning to a difficult concept by changing the way we look at the essential issue. Here’s an example from Sukkah 29a:

Our Rabbis taught, When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world. This may be illustrated by a parable. To what can this be compared? To a human being who made a banquet for his servants and put up for them a lamp. When he became wroth with them he said to his servant, ‘Take away the lamp from them, and let them sit in the dark’.

In some ways the book we begin this week is the mashal of human development and of the many frailties of the human condition. It’s also how we can overcome those same frailties and become a stronger person and a stronger humanity. It’s about truly being our fullest self so we can fully serve God. The mashal of the wilderness itself tells us much, as does each of the stories of the Israelites as they live with the world in the wilderness.

Another Story that R. Lawrence Kushner last weekend told is instructive. He tell us of a congregation he used to lead were he had invited the youngsters to see the main sanctuary and to see what a Torah scroll looked like. But his time ran out, and he never got to open the Ark. So he told the kids that next time they got together he’d show them what was behind the curtain at the front of the sanctuary. When the kids got back to their class room they excitedly wondered what was behind the curtain, one child said that there was nothing, one said that it must be Jewish books, yet one rather sagely said, “No it must be a mirror.” And indeed in one sense it is a mirror, as is the stories within it. It is for us to now write the story of ourselves, true or false, fact or mashal, from our stories and from the stories told to us by others, to raise our heads in our own story, in our own development in the wilderness which is existence, reflected in the text of Torah.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Shlomos Drash - Behar Behukotai 5766 Sabbaticals and change

Sabbaticals and change.

This Week's portion begins with (Lev 25:2-6)

Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruit; But in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest to the land, a Sabbath for the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap, nor gather the grapes of your vine undressed; for it is a year of rest to the land. And the sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you; for you, and for your servant, and for your maid, and for your hired servant, and for the stranger who sojourns with you,

This begins a description of some fascinating institutions, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Every seven years, there is to be a year of rest for the land, where it will remain fallow. The year after the seventh Sabbatical year there will be another Sabbatical year, the jubilee year, where the land would remain fallow, and there would be a full economic reset.

Bothe the jubilee and sabbatical are not observed anymore. Yet I wonder as to the importance of the Sabbatical in the modern world. There are three different cycles of rest in Torah. Of course, there is Shabbat. Every seven days we are to rest for a day. Then there is the sabbatical, where every seven years we let the land rest for a year. Finally there is the period of seven sabbaticals, the jubilee, where we let the land rest another year. Over and over again, we have the magic number seven. Indeed in caculating the Jubilee, Lev 25:8 Mentions the number seven, the number of rest, four times. Hechel is his wonderful book The Sabbath gives the metaphor of Shabbat as an island in time where we get the chance to witness creation. But, to misquote Thomas Merton, no man is an island, but a whole continent. There are things that happen over a bigger amount of time that require a different perspective. One can see this in one story of the Jewish wonder-worker Honi the circle maker. [Taanit 23a]

One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he continued to sleep for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, Are you the man who planted the tree? The man replied: I am his grandson. Thereupon he exclaimed: It is clear that I slept for seventy years.

Through assimilation of folklore with Germanic culture, where such a story also appears in the works of the brothers Grimm, this story may have found its way to the pen of Washing Irving in his famous short story Rip van Winkle. Yet in this story there is an important lesson: there are things we cannot see in the immediate situation which are clear when we look far more long term. There are things, like the carob tree, which take time to change. We cannot witness the change in the short term of seven days. Change, measured in seven years and fifty years, lets us see the world around us and witness the world around us in ways that seven days does not.

Punctuating this for me this week is my second attempt at chanting Torah. As I explained a few months ago, one of my goals is to learn all of the trop marks and thus to be able to chant Torah and Haftorah. So when a friend asked me to chant this week’s portion, I looked at the first few lines of the portion, saw they weren’t too bad with new trop to learn and said yes -- which I’ll admit was a bit of a mistake. It was a mistake because the next few lines are incredibly full of interesting new trop, meaning I would have to learn a lot more than I thought I was going to. Yet as I learn the Telisha Gedolah, Gershayim, and Yitiv with a few more common Revii and Tevir phrases thrown in, all of which I hadn’t learned before, I noticed something about this portion, and why these marks are so thick in this portion.

The Telisha Gedolah (right leaning lollipop), Gershayim (end double quote), and Revii (diamond) trop marks all have long emphatic and incredibly expressive sounds associated with them. This is the kind of sounds that cantors and opera singers get the big bucks for since they can expressively sing such phrases. Such emphasis often starts the verses in the passage of sabbaticals and jubilees. Such an emphasis I believe is not to merely make the chant sound better. It is making a point, an underline. It stresses the need for the Sabbatical and jubilee, even when we no longer let the land rest. But as a beginner trying to learn all this stuff, I noticed something else as well -- How difficult it is to keep all these long expressive notes separate in my mind. They come too close together and in such abundance and I’m constantly getting confused. It’s been five months since I tried for the first time to read Torah. I think it would have been easier to learn the Telisha Gedolah and the Revii with a few months in between each.
Like Rip van Winkle and Honi, longer passages of time help us to have a different perspective on what is important in life, and like my trop, make learning somewhat easier. Getting intensive to learn these little marks on the page so I can chant properly on Saturday, I realized something about myself - my own intensity in the short term might be affecting my life in the long term. Such intensity of study and work cuts me off from everything, It thus makes me anti-social to an extent and incredibly disorganized as I found out when I lost a final exam I was supposed to correct some errors on. Honi was known to be one of those sages who always lived intensely in the moment, and didn’t understand the long term, in turn alienating his colleagues to the point they wanted to excommunicate him. Tragically, it is in the long term Honi learns a very important and sadly permanent lesson:

He [Honi] returned home. He there enquired, “Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?” The people answered him, “His son is no more, but his grandson is still living.” Thereupon he said to them: “I am Honi the Circle-Drawer,” but no one would believe him. He then repaired to the Beth Hamidrash and there he overheard the scholars say, “The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer, for whenever he came to the Beth Hamidrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had.” Whereupon he called out, “I am he;” but the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honor due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed [for death] and he died. Raba said: Hence the saying, Either companionship or death.

Like Honi, without a continuing relationship, while our legacy may continue or even change from derision to great honor, we are forgotten. While the sabbatical is about the land resting, it is the seventh year and fiftieth year where we spend our entire year relating to everyone, and doing the repairs necessary to the relationships in our lives that we cannot do in a day. In eating produce we didn’t cultivate that year, we realize another relationship even more important: the one with God. Food we eat is made with us or without us. Cultivation may maximize yield, but life continues with us or without us. We do not want to forget God, nor God to forget us and thus should spend that year of Sabbatical connecting not just to each other but to God as well. It is very intentional that the Jubilee begins not on Rosh Hashanah but on Yom Kippur, when we ready to confess and ask for forgiveness. We ask for forgiveness not just for a year, but for a half century of ignoring things we didn’t see in the short term. Like Honi, our relationships have changed radically in the fifty-year period - and its time to seriously ask for forgiveness

I’m going to spend a rather intense few days getting ready for this reading. I can think that my third reading will go much smoother since I will know a lot more than I did before (or at least I hope so). Yet I also got cranky at people more than once this week, and had to cut short many a social event just to study. April through July was supposed to be for me a mini-sabbatical, a time to stop all my classes and try to relate to people more. That I volunteered for this also shows the temptation to go back to getting intense, one I’m sure the farmers of biblical Israel felt as well. But the sabbatical is for us to stop and look around our world and to seriously contemplate how we are to change ourselves to keep our relationships alive and well.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Shlomos Drash - Parshat Emor 5766 Fear of Prayer Revisited

I have a bit of a cold and really don’t have enough brain power to write anything this week between sneezes and cold meds. However I wrote one of my favorite commentaries last year. So I’m re-printing that one. A lot if it has changed for the better since I moved synagogues, and I’ve found Beth Emet an even better home for me. And while there is a lot of good there, nothing has been better for me given what I wrote a year ago than the small prayer group I’ve found at Beth Emet, Kahal. All I can say to all of those at Kahal is thank you, a lot of this has changed because of you.

There are many halakah this week, many of then practices for the Priesthood, more practices for holidays, and a story about a guy who profanes the Lord. In the middle of this

Lev. 23:21-24. And whoever offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord to accomplish his vow, or a freewill offering in oxen or sheep, it shall be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no blemish in it. Blind, or broken, or maimed, or having a growth, or scurvy, or scabbed, you shall not offer these to the Lord, nor make an offering by fire of them upon the altar to the Lord. Either a bull or a lamb that has any thing superfluous or lacking in its parts, that may you offer for a freewill offering; but for a vow it shall not be accepted. You shall not offer to the Lord that which is bruised, or crushed, or broken, or cut; nor shall you make any offering of it in your land.

There is a story in the Talmud [Gittin 55b] about Bar Kamza's cow. Due to a mistake in party invitations, a man called bar Kamza was offended, and the rabbis didn’t stop the offense. To get even, he told the Romans that the party was actually a plot to revolt against the Romans. For the Romans to prove this, he suggested the Romans give gift of a sacrifice for the Temple. If the Romans' sacrifice was accepted, then the people of Jerusalem were loyal to Rome. If they were not, then they were hatching a plot and should be destroyed. Bar Kamza made a small defect in the sacrificial animal that while the Romans wouldn't detect it, the defect made the cow unfit for sacrifice. One stickler for rules rejects the sacrifice and in consequence Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed.

With the destruction of the Temple, sacrifice ended. The rabbis replaced it with the dining room table and prayer. But it is prayer which interests me this week. It is here that I have not just a little difficulty with the Torah, but a big one. With all the personal details that I've written before there is one thing I'm incredibly afraid and embarrassed to admit. However, I have the suspicion I'm not the only one.

I can't pray because I'm afraid of praying.

More accurately, I don't think of myself as praying, or having acceptable prayer towards God. My prayer ascends to heaven the very same way a brick does: not at all. In this weeks portion we are to learn that the offering to God must be perfect, without defects. And here I am unable to read the Hebrew prayer without flubbing every third word. I'll admit it's an improvement. Ten years ago I wouldn't have been able to do that since I couldn't read Hebrew. These words of our liturgy I cannot say perfectly, nor can I always have perfect intention, as my anxiety over my poor Hebrew reading skills overwhelms me. And somehow English doesn't work here; it's too much for me like giving a turtledove instead of an ox for sacrifice. That said I'm really good at faking it, I've been faking praying most of my life, though I feel like a fraud when I do.

I'm mentioning all of this because of a conversation a non-Jewish friend of mine and I had recently. She asked why I didn't go to a Conservative synagogue, since it would probably be a good place for me to meet potential partners. At the time I only had my usual excuses. I'd miss drumming during services, hate having to actually get dressed up for services, have a major league allergy to building funds, etc. I pretty much grew up Conservative, and learned early that services were boring. Thinking more on it, I realized I was never prepared to pray. My early education leading up to my bar mitzvah was inadequate to study Hebrew for prayer. The Conservative congregation of my youth did not care about teaching children Torah and prayer prayer as much as the miracle of the secular state Israel - so I never learned hebrew beyond the letter Chaf. The Orthodox training me for my bar mitzvah thought me treif and thus thought it was a waste of time to get me up to speed. I left Judaism because of my early experience, like many people going East to Taoism and Zen where prayer was the much easier meditation. I'm a Jew today due to the exuberant energy that Renewal brought to the picture. Without that I'd still be a Taoist. As I thought about that conversation I realized that was all true, but just the surface of the truth. My bigger problem is prayer, the liturgy. All of that is cover for what the real -problem is. I cant pray.

What I am calling prayer is the set liturgy of our ancestors. Although it has been modified and added to over the years there are many parts that are at least as old as the Talmud, and much is even older than that. The Shema is, of course, biblical. The Shmoneh Esra, or Amidah as some call it is rabbinic in origin. Psalms were sung from the earliest Temple times. Many people who could not get to Jerusalem had already substituted prayer for sacrifice. They would recite phrases parts of what would become the Amidah, when they could not do sacrifices. Later prayers were medieval Kabbalistic formulas, like L'cha Dodi. This over time and organized by rabbis over centuries became the prayerbook we know today, the one I can’t seem to pray from.

There is this feeling I still get when I go to Conservative and Orthodox Synagogues, that I think is related to our portion this week. If prayer has substituted for sacrifice, our prayer has to be perfect, without blemish. But I am still too much of a beginner at Hebrew to read carefully enough to read without blemish, at least without reading at a snails pace. From my early experiences, I get the impression that other congregants feel that if my prayer isn't perfect then I am not as righteous as they are - I am both an inferior person and inferior Jew. So I avoid public prayer whenever possible. Fastest way to make me disappear is mention the words "Birkat Hamazon" or "Shacarit." I probably stayed within the Renewal and Reform movements because I'm too embarrassed to pray like the Conservative or Orthodox. As I started to contemplate this last weekend, I scared my self so silly, I turned around at the door of services last Erev Shabbat.

I have a funny feeling I'm not the only one who has anxiety about this. If you happen to have a Artscroll Siddur, its interesting to look at the back of the book, where the "rules" of praying are located. The tax code is less complicated. Conservative Rabbi Alan Lew has a very poignant story in his Biography One God Clapping. Doing a joint Buddhist-Jewish service, many of the Buddhists there almost caused a riot when he started to say some prayers in Hebrew. Turns out they were all Jews who had converted to Buddhism, and they were offended by the use of Hebrew prayer, because it made them feel inferior.

During the weekend, feeling really guilty for skipping services, I thought about Bar Kamza's cow. The destruction of the temple came down to a choice of offering imperfection to God, against the mitzvot of Torah and save the Temple, or refuse to offer imperfection and lose the Temple. I can't help but feel we are in that situation today. Do we say an imperfect prayer or do we keep alienating people by having a culture measuring us by "perfect prayer?"

Written on the sanctuary wall at the reform synagogue BJBE in Glenview is an interesting statement: "When you pray, know before whom you stand."[B. Ber 28b] Its intent is clear, remember that in prayer we are standing before the King of Kings. There is to be a certain kind of respect not otherwise given to anything else. But I see two sides of that respect. One is that we do indeed pray with the deep intention and concentration. But there is the other part, like court politics of human kings, is this notion that some members of the court are more favored than others. They wear better clothes, they pray in Hebrew better, they have the best seats, and get all the honors. The others are somehow less.

The perfect, defect-free prayer has alienated me. It has made me feel less of a Jew, and has assured me that bricks and prayer have a lot in common. I would speculate it has even alienated Jews to the point they would rather find something else to do than davven. Jewish meditation at its core is a way to avoid the traditional prayer structure, particularly in Hebrew. Some don’t stop there. It is easier to connect with God in some other religion, with a much easier prayer structure, than davvnen.

And while that might be the way many, including myself see it, there are passages in Talmud which point to something else:

R. Yohanan said in the name of R. Simeon ben Yohai: Why was it instituted that the Amidah be spoken in a whisper? In order not to embarrass transgressors. For, note: Scripture does not provide one place on the altar for a burnt offering and another place for a sin offering.[B. Sot 32b.]
We are not supposed to be embarrassed in our ineptitude. A physical animal is very different than an action. While many defects are permanent in an animal, such as being blind, having a scar or missing limbs, actions are not. Actions can change, In tractate Yoma 29a, Prayer is compared to the antlers of a deer. The older the deer, the more majestic the antlers, so too with prayer: the more some one prays, the better their prayer. In short, Practice makes perfect. If we pray, even imperfectly, we do become better at prayer. We do not need to fear if it is inferior or if we are inferior. Nor do we need to fear the opinions of others concerning our prayers, the only opinion that matters is God, and in that realm we are all equal: Exodus Rabbah 21:5 give another analogy here. Human beings, it notes, will pay attention to rich men and ignore poor men.

But the Holy One, blessed be He, does not act thus. Before Him, all are equal--women, slaves, poor, and rich. You can see this for yourself: to designate prayer, Scripture uses the same word for Moses, master of all prophets, and for a poor man. With regard to Moses, Scripture says, "A prayer of Moses, the man of God" (Ps. 90:1), and of a poor man, it says, "A prayer of the poor man, when he faints, and pours out his complaint before the Lord" (Ps. 102:1). "Prayer" in the first instance and "prayer" in the second, so that you should know that at prayer all are equal before Him who is everywhere. [Exod. R. 21:5.]

Nor do we need to think our prayers are like bricks:

"There shall not be male nor female barren among you" (Deut. 7:14). R. Hanin ben Levi said: This means that your prayer will never prove barren--it will always rise and bear fruit [Deut. R. 3:6]

Jewish Prayer, particularly the recitation of the Amidah and Shema, is a very structured liturgy in a language many of us do not know, let alone understand. We are to do it in a way that is perfect because it is intended to be heard by something that is perfect. We do things in respect like we would to the leader of the universe. But the one to judge if our efforts are perfect or not is not another human being. Those that judge on those grounds, miss the point entirely. We cannot be judged for our righteousness in this world, but only in the world to come. I'm still afraid of praying in a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, because I still feel that inferiority and still am rather intimidated. However, I can change that, because I've recognized that fear, and know how to conquer it. I can, like the deer grow more antlers over time. I can learn and grow through practice. I can begin to think of prayer differently. It is the dialogue between God and me, not the competitive squabble with congregants it has degraded into in many congregations.

There is a Hasidic story about prayer. A young boy who knew no prayers once went to Schul with his father. The father told the boy to remain quiet. Everyone was silent in prayer though the rabbi seemed to be a little concerned about something. The boy wanted to pray but not knowing how tried to remain still. After all of his young patience was exhausted, he took a whistle out of his pocket and let out one loud TWEEEEET!!! This annoyed everyone, but the rabbi beamed. He told the congregation that he saw the prayers were not ascending to heaven because the prayers had been said without passion. When the boy so passionately blew his whistle the prayers finally ascended. Many today take the whistle to be the better prayer than the route prayer of that minyan. That mere intention is enough. That may not be the real point, but instead both passion and the traditional prayer are necessary. Both take time to cultivate, but as long as we offer at least some of each, we move forward to the perfect prayer, the one without blemish.

My little phobia will go away someday. I'm trying to learn the prayers I didn’t learn before, learning each one at a time, and improving my Hebrew while I'm at it. I know some have given up on Hebrew, and just read the English or transliteration. If that is what they can offer with great intention, just like that boy with the whistle they made an effort to do the best they can, and that is holy. All prayer is holy because it is from us with effort, but we also need to remember something I said before. God judges the holiness of what we do, no human can tell us. No society can judge us in holiness. Remember the admonition of the rabbis concerning bar Kamza: "Note from this incident how serious a thing it is to put a man to shame, for God espoused the cause of Bar Kamza and destroyed His House and burnt His Temple." [Gittin 57a]

May we remember that as we all find our perfect prayer soon.

May 2005(5765)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Website update - Prayerbook Hebrew

Just wanted to inform everybody that I have finally updated the prayerbook Hebrew Tutorial up to lesson 5. If you are interetested in self learning Hebrew you might want to try these lessons out. You can access it on my website at

More lessons are coming, and if there are any prayers you'd like to suggest me adding to the lessons, let me know at

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Shlomos Drash Acharei Mot 5766: Shlomo, Azazel and Lashon Hara

This week we’re given more commandments. First we have the procedure for the Yom Kippur sacrifice of atonement, then a chapter on the prohibitions concerning blood. Finally we end Acharei Mot with the incest and other sexual prohibitions as practiced by the inhabitants of the land of Canaan prior to the Arrival of the Israelites. Our second portion Kedoshim notes a large set of commandments covering many different moral and ethical issues, many from previous portions. The Midrash notes the entire Ten Commandments are interspersed within this section. Once again the incest laws are noted, and honoring the elderly, the stranger, and the disabled are noted. This section has in its beginning, middle and end an interesting statement, “You will be holy for I am holy” where the portion's name kedoshim comes from.

Usually, I’m writing about Leviticus 18 and the sexual prohibitions when I get to this portion. Yet this year I have hard time writing about that. I’m interested in something else - the scapegoat, mostly because I feel like one right now, and I need to vent. We read in Leviticus 16:7-10

7. And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the Tent of Meeting. 8. And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for Azazel. 9. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering. 10. But the goat, on which the lot fell to be for Azazel, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go to Azazel into the wilderness.

In my current situation, I find this passage very parallel in meaning to another passage in our second portion:

You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie one to another. (Leviticus 19:11)

Also read on Yom Kippur, The mitzvah of the escaped goat, or scapegoat as it became to be known was that live goat that was left into the wilderness used to atone for sins. Azazel is often not translated but it is interesting to note some of the meanings. One is a mountainous rocky place. Another is to break it into two words, meaning the goat goes away. Or again, the phrase scapegoat.

For the last ten days of April, I was on a mountainous rocky place, which was incredibly awesome. I have never in my life seen rocks younger than me but here I hiked and drove over them frequently on my first days of a well-deserved vacation. I was in Hawaii starting on the Big Island and visiting lava flows which happened to cover the landscape decades after I was born. One was still creating new land - Due to the toxic gases, aerosolized volcanic fiberglass (known to the locals as Pele’s Hair) and possibility of cave-in of the lava crust I only got a mile away from the sight of hot lava spilling into the ocean, creating great plumes of steam. I saw waterfalls, jungles and grasslands. I saw the mongooses, who were introduced to the island as control for another imported pest, rats, only to leave the rats alone and be a major factor in the extinction of most of the native bird species instead. After several days exploring the Big Island, my mom and I flew to Honolulu for a few days of rest from our adventures. It was last Friday that got me as steamed as one of the volcanic vents I saw on Kilauea.

A few weeks earlier a reporter from the Chicago tribune e-mailed me about a story he was doing on Jewish outreach and wanted more information on Shabbosville. So I arranged a phone interview. Yet the conversation was rather different than I had expected. The reporter spent a lot of time on drumming, and my role as a drum circle leader, which I most decidedly am not, as I insisted that I had led only twice -- there were many people far more expert than me. I was asked about the song Shabbosville, and a little about the philosophy behind it. I was also asked about my current synagogue, a larger reform synagogue that has to some extent created internal Havurah to the larger organization -and these havurot have been successful for quite a long time.

Sitting in a Starbuck’s in a Honolulu duty-free Shopping mall with more signs and speech in Japanese than in English, I checked my e-mail - five time zones behind Chicago. And it was there I found that the article that this reporter had written had been published in the Metro section. While I can’t claim to speak for others interviewed, I was shocked how everything that was said in my name got printed in the most misleading way possible. I was repeatedly misquoted. I remembered back to the interview and how much I evaded answering the leading questions the way this reporter wanted me to.

Thinking about the whole content of the article, and how it was written, I noticed I got all the “crazy lines” the statements which were outrageous or discredited others. I got the lines that sounded like I was boasting. And thinking about it while on the plane home and preparing to write this week’s column, I felt like I was the scapegoat, the one who was so stupid looking that he made the main subject of the article legitimate. And it didn’t feel very good.

Today scapegoats are not used at Yom Kippur, but they are a major part of western society. I realize how often to make a 500-word article or 15-second sound bite reporters will use the concept of the scapegoat to make the very complex and interrelated world simple. I doubt it can ever be simple - the infinitely complex is the best witness to God’s creation in my view. Spending ten days in a microcosm of the interrelated nature of things while on vacation, affirmed that how complex things are, and how holy the network of relationships are. Only the Omniscient could ever make total sense of it all.

Yet we limited beings don’t like that kind of holiness. Were the kind of creation who is still stupid enough to have some of us believe that God is merely intelligent, not Omniscient. We love to believe there is always one person to blame for what really is a systemic mess. And thinking like either of those leads us not to solve the problems in the world, but just to make them worse. I saw land being made out of sea only a mile away from where I was standing - And I saw that over time, life forms will break down that desolate rock to create the grasslands of North West Hawaii and luscious jungles of the east coast and the underwater reefs surrounding the island. The cycle of life was not lost on the ancient religion of the Hawaiian Islands, it controlled everything that happened to the people, and that believed it was far bigger than they were. Wandering thought the biomes and ecosystems of Hawaii, I once again realized thing are too complex and too fragile for simple blame and simple solutions. Simply letting loose mongooses doesn’t get rid of rats -- and can do far worse damage.

In thinking of all this I cant help but believe any bit of news, when reported or printed is not truth but Lashon Hara, evil speech, the prohibition of Leviticus 19:11. The whole story cannot be told, yet we never believe that the commentators or reporters are just that people speaking their own personal opinion, but telling us what we should think should be the absolute truth then dictating who we should slander for the blame.

This certainly isn’t my best piece. I’m home now, still angry and still jet lagged. But I want to end this piece with a few short statements about the article and in General as I though about all this:

1. I am not a drum circle leader. I have led two drum circles due to circumstances, one the wishes of a dear friend for her birthday when no one else would start the thing up and one to give adults and children on a retreat a physical energy release after Havdalah.

2. Contrary to the article, Beth Emet has not banned drumming - one of those drumming leading experiences I’ve had was on retreat with Beth Emet. As I explained to the reporter, it would be in poor taste to be drumming on most Friday nights, but there have been times where at the Saturday morning Kahal service or on retreat it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Former cantor Jeff Klepper used to regularly drum at Kahal Saturday services. I’m all too aware some people like drumming and others don’t- I’ve led dialogue on the subject at Kahal. Personally, when it comes to percussion, I’m most often a fan of nothing louder than an egg shaker on Saturday mornings, though I’ll change that according to context.

3. I’ve said this one enough but it is worth repeating. My idea of Shabbosville is not as the mere party and margaritas but in the sensual experience of witnessing creation. The high is not alcohol, just perceiving how beautiful everything is in sight sounds smell touch and taste, and knowing this is God, and God’s works. I paraphrased Abraham Joshua Heschel to this reporter that Shabbat is an Island in Time, an island to pause and witness creation. Even a hardcore rationalist like Maimonides thought similarly, yet that apparently isn’t press worthy. We need to stop and rest in order to witness creation - and there is a joy, a delight an oneg when we do which is very similar to a good vacation.

4. I am a commentator; I do not give the absolute truth, but my part of a bigger dialogue with myself, with everyone else, with Torah, and with God. I can teach what others thought, or at least what I think they taught and I can give my own interpretations of Torah. But that is all. Even if I do ever get a column in print in some publication, I don’t ever want to be in the same class of people as this reporter, God forbid!

5. I don’t trust reporters any more. The system we have for the media, from reporters to editors to publishers and producers to the audience and the advertisers who pay for it all create a system that relishes in Lashon Hara. I learned my lesson; I’m not doing interviews again.

6. While the article seems to imply otherwise, I need to make it clear that I am a fully active member of Beth Emet. Each community has its own character and I fit best at Beth Emet, and hope to be as good a member there as I see in the many talented and brilliant people there.

7. Am I a little crazy to think all this? Do I deserve to be the scapegoat? I don’t know. Maybe we need some joyous unconventional thinking to solve some of the problems out there. That’s all I’m trying to do, though it is not the thing that is celebrated, but ridiculed. Is what I do that wrong?

I guess that’s all I have to say. Sorry for the vent today.