Thursday, February 22, 2007

Parshat Terumah 5767: A Divine Measure

Exodus 25:1-27:19

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 then teach the laws to them. Moses thus begins the Forty-day period of receiving the Torah. God starts with the design plan of the Mishkan, the portable temple that will be the center of Israelite practices until the time of Solomon. 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.

Trying to write a Drash about the construction of the Mishkan, something that will never be built again is difficult at best. It is the more permanent Temple that will be built in the time of the Messiah, as described in Ezekiel. After reading the portion, I sat there with a totally blank mind and completely clueless about what to do. But as the saying goes, When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. So it was off to Ikea to buy a new hamper. Of course, for anyone who has ever walked into that hosewares and furniture store, no one walks out with just one thing. In my case I ended up not buying the hamper but a car full of furniture.

There are three words about most Ikea purchases: Some assembly required. After putting together the first half of the drawers irrevocably backwards, I finally sat down and read the directions. And I began to wonder something about the Mishkan. We read in the text:

1. And you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet; with cherubim of skilful work shall you make them. 2. The length of one curtain shall be twenty eight cubits, and the breadth of one curtain four cubits; and every one of the curtains shall have one measure. [Ex. 26:1-2]

Some thirty time in this week;’s portion we have the word cubit, Amah in Hebrew. While putting together my furniture with all its screws and parts, I was amazed it all fit together, it all measured correctly and the parts came together, even the ones I did wrong. Of course the parts were in metric and I had to use the included tools, not my own. And that is particularly in those passages above that got me thinking – while going between metric and American systems are a headache, using cubits are a nightmare.

Most sources define cubit as the length between the top of one’s middle finger and the elbow. The problem is that no one’s forearm or hand is exactly the same, so the length of a cubit changes from person to person. This is far from a standard measure, yet it was used first by the Egyptians in their massive building projects with success, and here too by the Israelites. The rabbis had lots of uses and problems with it, since it is one of the standard units of length measurement not only in the bible but in the Talmud as well. There were, however subunits of a cubit to make things more interesting, known as a handbreadth, in Hebrew Tepach. Between the cubit and the handbreadth there are 1189 times such measurements are used in the Talmud. There was a lot of measuring indeed, all of it derived from the dimensions of the Temple or Mishkan.

Sometimes however the conversion from handbreadth to cubit was not easy. Take the arguments in the Gemara over three passages of Mishnah, the first about the dimensions of a sukkah:

A sukkah which is more than twenty cubits high is not valid, R. Judah, however, declares it valid. One which is not ten hand breadths high, or which has not three walls, or which has more sun than shade, is not valid. [Sukkah 1:1]

The second is the height of a cross beam to determine if a courtyard or enclosed alley is considered public or private, in order to determine if one can carry an item on Shabbat in that space:

[A cross-beam spanning] the entrance at a height of more than twenty cubits should be lowered. [Eiruvin 1:1]

The third relates to the required distances between crops to prevent the mixing of seeds known as kil’ayim. One example from that Mishnah is:

If one's field is sown with grain, and he wishes to plant within it a row of gourds, the latter is to be provided with a service-border of six handbreadths, and if it overgrows [into the border] he must pull up that which is within it. [Kilayim 3:7]

The question is how does one define these units? Abaye starts a heated argument:

Abaye stated in the name of R. Nahman: The cubit [applicable to the measurements] of a sukkah and that applicable to an ‘entrance’ is one of five [handbreadths]. The cubit [applicable to the laws] of kil'ayim is one of six [handbreadths]. [Eiruvin 3a]

There is a difference of a hand breadth between cubit measures which again is not a standard unit. There is no good way of measuring here, and thus if we really use body parts, this would be a mess, a lot like that first cabinet that I put together where no drawers fit into it. Trying to regulate these Talmudic rulings and say what is a permissible field or construction would become impossible. Yet we have a rather interesting, almost Zen answer from a rather interesting source, Shammai.

On another occasion it happened that a certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder's cubit which was in his hand. [Shabbat 31a]

As most know the story ends with Hillel’s famous quote: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” While the story is part of a much longer passage, written by the students of Hillel, extolling Hillel’s Patience and Shammai’s impatience I think the use of a builders cubit, a standard measuring device that keep s all builders with the same measure, point to something.

As we’ve seen, if we let everyone use their own forearm and hand for a measuring device things are chaotic. On the other hand, if we set a standard measurement which everyone uses, then everyone can give measurements and mean the same thing. Shammai whacked the heathen with the standard measurement intentionally as the lesson. What is the lesson to be taught on one foot? Torah is the standard to measure behavior; the rest is commentary; now run off and study. Hillel, on the other hand gave a relative answer, based on subjective measurement. While seemingly morally correct, Taking Hillel’s argument to an extreme, an anorexic or ascetic person, who hates food, would not give a meal to a starving stranger, widow or orphan, yet we are told in Torah repeatedly not to oppress the stranger widow or orphan.

The use of the cubit biblically shows up most often in construction plans. There are a few times for Noah’s ark, and Goliath was said to be six cubits, but the vast majority are the measures of the Temple and Mishkan here in Exodus, in I Kings, and Ezekiel. All of these are an amazing interlocking series of constructions, which could only do well if their measurements were standardized. Current scholarly opinion usually sets the cubit at 18 inches, and the rabbis, despite the arguments, did come to the opinion that six handbreadths made up a cubit, so three inches made a handbreadth. Using eighteen inches we get each side curtain to be 42 by 6 feet, and as the text continue: and every one of the curtains shall have one measure. They are to follow the standard.

Coming off the ethics and social laws of Last week’s portion Mishpatim, the detailed construction plans for the Mishkan are more than just a building plan. They are a lesson in standardization in having one measure not multiple ones. The Mishkan could not be built otherwise. So too with Torah – it is one measure, one standard. The Torah is not principles where everyone makes up their own opinion. It is the rules, the ruler if your will, to measure against. But just like I can use an cubit to measure spaces in agriculture, determine if I can carry a watering can across a courtyard on Saturday because of the height of the entrance to my garden, or know I’m fulfilling the mitzvot of living in a valid Sukkah for seven days, how I use that measurement can vary. And sometimes standards isnt completely absoulte, given accuracy, and calibration of my standrds. Thus to six handbreadths, Raba added a fudge factor for accuracy, to stop the arguing over five or six, though this just started another one [Eiruvin 3b].

Hillel and Shammai were both right and both gave sage advice to the heathen, whether he believed either of them or not. The standardization is necessary to have some common measure to work from, yet the principles help when there is change, and one need to apply the rules differently. Fundamentalism often enforces not one rule but one application of rules, standardizing so much so change, variation and growth is not acceptable. It is the case of having a hammer and thus thinking everything is a nail. The Temple would not have been constructed if we believe the Torah is absolute and cloth and not stone and wood was to be the only construction material of any holy space for the Ark, as we read this week. But that change did happen in Solomon’s time of unification and peace. God didn’t explicitly tell Solomon the building materials, Solomon told others what to build.

As I’m building some thing much simpler, like an office chair I’ll remember standards and instructions. When I find one less screw in the box, I’ll find another way to do the same thing. In our religious and moral lives, may we do the same.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mishpatim 5767: Reading the Mishnah

Exodus 21:1-24:18

For the first time in the Torah cycle, there is very little narrative, found only at the end of the parsha. This week is a continuation of the same day God gave the Ten Commandments on Sinai, with God giving directly to Moses a rapid-fire nonstop set of mitzvot, mostly covering civil and criminal law. It includes other things, such as a more elaborate explanation of the Ten Commandments including Shabbat, honoring parents, not murdering, not being a false witness, and not stealing. There also the famous line about witches, and the schedule for the three pilgrimage festivals. Towards the end of this portion, Moses writes down this week portion, and then ascends Sinai for the forty days and nights to receive the rest of the Torah and the tablets.

This week’s section can be daunting to write about. Like a banquet there are so many choices. On the other hand, being all law and no story, it presents the issue of not being conducive for literary commentary. As I’ve done a few times in the last few months I want to talk about traditional perspectives on the text. This week’s potion, due to its law basis, provides us the opportunity to look at commentary on law, and the great corpus of law books that are know as the Oral Law. Before we look at the Oral Law, and one of its earliest parts, we first must pick a passage of Written Law, a passage of Torah. This week we read:

4. If you meet your enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. 5. If you see the ass of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving it with him, you shall help him to lift it up. [Exodus 23:4-5]

The rules here seem simple enough. Lost property is to be returned and if an animal is in distress help it out. But to the rabbinic mind nothing is ever simple and in two such simple statements there are a lot of questions. And such questions are answered by the Oral Law.

The Oral Law by tradition was the parts that Moses learned orally from God and never wrote down. He transmitted them to Joshua, and so on through the generations. About a century or so after the destruction of the Temple those laws were written down by Rabbi Judah “the prince”, so they would not be forgotten. If you are one for a more practical approach describing the Oral Law, what we know of as the Talmud, it would be the ancient rulings and teachings of a learned class of teacher/judge/lawyers which we call Rabbis. They were students of a few select teachers of the first century, which spread into a larger movement after the destruction of the Temple.

But when we think of Talmud, we rarely break it into its two components. The Talmud is comprised of the older part known as the Mishnah and a part developed afterwards based on the Mishnah known as the Gemara. Structurally, the Gemara fills in gaps left by the Mishnah. Sometimes it provides different rulings and circumstances than the older work and adds more than a few stories about the Rabbis and the Biblical text. While there are two versions of the Gemara, one written in Israel and one in the Diaspora, the one best known is the Balvi or Babylonian Talmud. This work comprises legal works and stories from the minds of the Diaspora communities of what is today modern Iraq up until the time of the rise of Islam in the region.

And while everyone finds the “good stuff” for commentary in Gemara, it is very instructive to look at Mishnah on its own as a source for commentary. Quite terse in ite languange, it is composed of the earliest layer of Rabbininc thought. Mishnah provides an incredible learning opportunity even without the more verbose Gemara it is encumbered with on a folio of Talmud. As a corpus of legal rulings, it is not organized by Torah verses but by legal subjects breaking them down first into six major categories known as Orders. The major topics here are: (1)agricultural procedures, (2)holidays, (3)Gender relations issues, (4)civil and criminal law, (5)sacrificial rites and food practices relating to the Temple, and (6)laws of purity and impurity. In each of these orders there were tractates, which were sub categories of the major topic. For example, Order N’zikin dealing with civil and criminal law has one tractate known as Baba Metzia which has to do property and civil law, and starts on the issue of lost property. Our two verses from Torah actually inspired an entire book of law.

Mishnah starts it’s commentary by asking a question. Sometimes it will state the question, sometimes it will just give the answer and assume the reader understood the question. For example, Chapter 2 of Baba Metzia asks a rather simple question, and then gives a rather interesting answer:

What is lost property? If one finds an ass or a cow feeding by the road, that is not considered a lost property; [but if he finds] an ass with its trappings overturned, or a cow running among the vineyards, they are considered lost.[Baba Metzia 2:9]

Circumstances will determine if the animal is lost or not. In the case where a farmer places his cow to graze on the side of the road, that is not lost and one is not obligated to return it. One can assume that is the situation if one finds a cow in such a place. If a cow is wandering some where that a farmer would not put the animal, like a vineyard, this would be considered lost, and the finder is obligated to return it. The Mishnah continues:

If he returned it and it ran away, returned it and it ran away, even four or five times, he is still bound to restore it, for it is written, you will surely restore them.[Baba Metzia 2:9]

Here we have no question, so we have to understand the question the Mishnah is asking: How many times do I have to return the animal if it keeps getting itself lost? The answer is as many times as necessary. This Mishnah, unlike the one above, which assumes you know your Torah and can quote Exodus 23:4 off the top of your head quotes a specific phrase from that verse, you will surely restore them, indicating that the emphatic case here means you will always do it, even for a repetitive situation. Such a quote is important, since everything in Mishnah is based on biblical law, it must have a proof text in the Torah for it to be valid.

Further in chapter II we read:

If he finds it [an animal] in a stable, he has no responsibility toward it [to return it]; in the street, he is obliged [to return it]. But if it is in a cemetery, he must not defile himself for it.[Baba Metzia 2:10]

Much of this appears to be a repetition of the first case, with one exception, which indicates the question: We understand our obligations if the animal is somewhere its not supposed to be or if its somewhere it’s supposed to be, but what if a lost cow is somewhere the finder is not supposed to be? Touching the dead or being somewhere where there is contact with the dead such as a cemetery causes defilement, particularly for a priest. Should a priest defile himself to returning lost property? The answer here is no, defilement has a higher priority than returning the animal. So another question which could come to mind is: How high a priority does defilement have in this case? The Mishnah Continues:

If his father orders him to defile himself, or says to him, ‘do not return [it].’ he must not obey him. [Baba Metzia 2:10]

From last week’s portion Yitro, we remember from the Ten Commandments:

12. Honor your father and your mother; that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you. [Exodus 20:12]

Yet here we are told not to obey our parent. Defilement and the returning property, both mitzvot from the Torah, have a higher priority even than honoring a parent wishes!

Talmud will follow threads once a ruling has been made. Following the issue of honoring parents, burdens, and lost property, the last section of Chapter II takes honoring parents to its ultimate conclusion:

If [a man's] own lost article and his father's lost article [need attention], his own takes precedence. His own and his teacher's — his own takes precedence; his father’s and his teacher's — his teacher's takes precedence, because his father brought him into this world, whereas his teacher, who instructed him in wisdom, brings him to the future world. But if his father is a sage, his father's takes precedence. If his father and his teacher were [each] carrying a burden, he must [first] assist his teacher to lay it down, and then assist his father. If his father and his teacher are in captivity, he must [first] redeem his teacher and then his father. But if his father is a sage, he must [first] redeem his father and then his teacher. [Baba Metzia 2:11]

A primary question the Mishnah asks here is: If I have a choice between my parent and my teacher, who do I honor more by helping first? Parents have a lesser priority than teachers, unless they are a teacher. Same thing if your teacher and father are kidnapped, or the burdens of their donkeys are too much, you have to help your teacher first. While very often we are not given reasons for why a ruling was made, here we are given a reason for that priority:

…because his father brought him into this world, whereas his teacher, who instructed him in wisdom, brings him to the future world.

While some might believe this has more in establishing the legitimacy of the rabbis, the implications of that statement are far more reaching once you begin to think about it. Is the body or the soul more important? Both are important according to the rabbis, but while virtually anyone can birth a baby into this world, it takes a very special and rare individual to birth a soul into the World to Come, to make the student a good ethical person, a good Jew. Such people are very valuable, and need to be honored even more than parents, for one teacher will birth far more than any parent could imagine doing. Note that if a parent is a sage, a teacher of teachers, the merits of their teaching others overrule the merits of one’s own teacher.

Thinking about my own teachers and how much they have taught and challenged me over the last decades I can see the wisdom of such a statement. My parents, of course taught me much of my ethical viewpoint, but much of my Jewish education came from my teachers. As those on the blog read a few weeks ago, I was rather stunned when one of those teachers wrote me back about collaboration. But it got me thinking, since he was not teaching religion, but harmonica, yet inspired much of my personal theology. Many times the teachers in our lives show up in places we do not expect, and we learn deep wisdom from them.

Such is true of Mishnah as well. We have the wisdom of teachers dead for almost two millennia, yet they can teach and instruct us. A very early Christian polemic claimed Rabbinic Judaism, namely the Mishnah, was too legal and pragmatic to be spiritual. I feel that misses the forest for the trees. Like a good teacher, as Mishnah challenges you over and over again on some minor point of when is a cow considered lost, we learn something else as well. Hidden in there are gems, questions answers and challenges that move forward our spiritual growth. Without the later garb of the Gemara or the medieval commentaries of Rashi or his grandsons the Tosafists, Mishnah can stand its own as a sacred text. It becomes as inscrutable as a Zen Koan of the mundane stuff of life, yet finds the holy in everything, even a lost cow.

Thus I encourage the study of Mishnah. You may or may not agree with the opinions expressed but in their way of expressing it, you will learn to more clearly see the holy in the everyday.

With that, however hard it is to just stop, may you have a wonderful restful Shabbos

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Parshat Yitro 5767: #4 revisited….again.

Exodus 18:1-20:23 -17:16

This week, moving towards Sinai, Moses’ father in law Yitro catches up with the Israelites bringing Moses’ sons and wife with him. Yitro explains the concepts of delegation and bureaucracy, and then the people get ready for the Ten Commandments, which take up the last part of this portion.

Every time at this time of the year I seem to write the same Drash, and pick out the same commandment to talk about. This year is no different, so much so I just updates last years and didn’t even write a new commentary.We read in the text concerning Moses personally hearing every case of the people as a judge:

17. And Moses’ father-in-law said to him, the thing that you do is not good. 18. You will certainly wear away, both you, and this people who are with you; for this thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it yourself alone.

I understand the problem all too personally. I did once follow Yitro’s advice, and delegated much of what I do professionally to others. But, in lean times I made hard but necessary budget cuts and that meant much of this help was cut too. This brought me back to Moses’ dilemma of doing everything by myself. Many of us feel the same way, overworked and exhausted as the things continue to pile up upon us. Recently, when I commented to someone that I was exhausted from a hard wrok week, they comment to me that I didn’t know the meaning of hard work. I thought it was a funny comment because it was so tur though not in the way it was inteneded. If I knoew what hrad wrok is, I would also know when to stop, when it was dangerous to me to keep going, and I don’t. I just keep helping people, saying “yes” to things I cannot afford the time to do in a never ending cycle of piling more things into my life.

I, course have no one to blame but myself, much of what I got myself into outside of work is voluntary.Writing this Drash, grad school, and synagogue stuff from website to Divrei Torah is all voluntary, but it takes time and energy, energy that no number of venti coffees with extra shots in coffee shops can provide, time which can only be found with less sleep. It leads to mistakes I cannot afford, exhaustion and poor health. It does something else too: it means I do not enjoy the world around me. I do things but don’t actually appreciate doing them.Thinking about that this morning I realized that as much as people complain about the bitter taste of this coffee in front of me, I never noticed because I only drink it, I never really taste it. I’m alive but not really appreciating living.

As Yitro points out, it is not only ourselves who are affected, but those we interact with, who also bear the burden of our exhaustion, in the irritability and loss of efficiency. I notice that inefficiency even as I wrote this, barely able to cement one thought to another. Yet while Yitro's solution of delegation is one that God will endorse wholeheartedly in the Book of Numbers, there is another solution that God comes up with, probably one of the most revolutionary concepts in all civilization, and make it one of the first of the Ten Commandments.

8. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; 10. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates; 11. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy.

As the Jewish philosopher and apologist Philo of Alexandria explained to incredulous Romans, Shabbat is a day of rest in order to make the other days more efficient. Yet I find that efficiency hard to come by. For me, and I know for others, Shabbat and Saturday is no longer a day of rest but the day that we get no new responsibilities or interruptions, so we end up working to catch up with everything we didn’t do during the week.Of course that wasn’t the idea of the commandment, yet in a world strongly pushing us to perform, it’s very seductive to use the day of rest as a catch up day.

Interestingly, since I’ve included Saturday morning services to my observance a year and a half ago, I find myself even more stressed out and with bigger piles of incomplete stuff. For many years I used the early morning hours of Shabbat to do Hebrew translation, but now don’t have that time slot, and I’m having a very hard time squeezing it into my schedule. Many times, the translations and study I engage in are now real work and are no longer recreation, adding to my stress.

I’ve written in the past of what I envision Shabbat as - some Jewish version of a Jimmy Buffet song, I’m resting away in Shabbosville. Its one particular harbor on a Tropical Island in time where I sit back, relax and enjoy the sights, tastes, sounds and smells of this world, to enjoy time with friends and family, and to enjoy a one-day vacation from everything else. Of course for each person that might have a different view of what that vacation looks like, but the idea is the same: to stop what we do for the other six days of week, and like God did, refresh our soul-life. I agree with the view Abraham Joshua Heshchel wrote in The Sabbath (pg.8):

Unlike the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath is not dedicated exclusively to spiritual goals. It is a day of the soul as well as the body; comfort and pleasure are an integral part of the Sabbath observance...To observe is to celebrate the creation of the world and to create the seventh day all over again the majesty of holiness in time "a day of rest a day of freedom" a day which is like "a lord and king of all other days" a lord and king in the commonwealth of time.

But rest and freedom seems elusive. The temptations are too great to work, as the piles, both literally and figuratively get higher around us. Yet, it may be like Philo says, that the Sabbath is the day of refreshing, and if we get a good day of refreshing then the other six work so much better. Given the highness I find in all my muscles, and the eyelids that feel like lead, I’m sure stressing for seven days is the reason, and Shabbat is the solution. Of course things can get out of hand if I get work done seven days a week: there is the real possibility of true heath problems. Transgression of Shabbat does carry the death penalty, but it is a Caret penalty, one meted out by God. I have always belied that caret means we run the risk of heart attack and other stress related illnesses to a greater degree if we don’t observe the Sabbath. If we don’t stop and rest, we die an early death.

Last year when I wrote this, I said that I was seriously looking towards making a few changes in my life, to more observe Shabbat than I have. I had decided that Grad school graduation is probably delayed by a year or so, but now I feel like getting that burden away is far more important. With that burden still on my back my social life has continued to suffer, so I’m barreling through some of my last classes in a desperate attempt to find by the end of the year. I keep telling myself to rest, yet it doesn’t seem to help, something always get in the way.

Shabbat, This commandment from The Torah, uttered on Sinai, is so important, but in this world it seems so hard to do, sitting here, a year later and realizing how much I have failed. Hillel once said that our body is the receptacle our nefesh, the soul given to us by God, and the holy part of us. We must treat our bodies as well as the custodians of Roman temples treat the idols inside, says Hillel, even more so: our bodies really are the gifts from God.

This is a struggle, a difficult one, and one that I continue to do. Maybe next year I’ll have something better to say.

With that, however hard it is to just stop, may you have a wonderful restful Shabbos.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Parshat Beshalch 5767: Yammin’ in the name of Yah

Exodus 13:17 -17:16

The Shabbat where this portion is read is known Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of The Song. Pharaoh, in the wake of the last plague, lets the people go, and they travel via the Yam Suf. Stopping at the shore, they find out that Pharaoh has had a change of mind, and has his chariots in close pursuit. But a miracle occurs and the sea splits, allowing the people to walk on dry land through the sea. When they reach the other shore the sea closes up on the approaching Egyptians, swallowing them up in the sea. Moses and the people rejoice by singing a song. So important was this song, parts are recited in the liturgy every day after the Shema, Mi chamocha

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? (Ex 15:11)

After the Song, we are told

20. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing.[Ex. 15:20]

Miriam, of course isn’t the only one who gets a whole bunch of people drumming and dancing. Besides being warrior and king, King David was, of course a really good musician. Much of the book of psalms is supposedly written by David. Another piece, which ends the psalms section of the Morning Prayer, is a favorite of mine about music: Psalm 150. In a moment of total idleness once, I thought about Psalm 150. One day I wondered what would be the modern equivalent of those instruments. Using some clues found in the Hebrew root and some imagination, I updated the list with equivalent instruments. For example neivel is also the word for pot, so it was a stringed instrument with a sounding pot on the end. Today that covers a whole class of instruments, but the most common would be the guitar. This is what I came up with after substituting a whole bunch of instruments:

Praise the Lord!
Praise him in his Holy spaces
Praise him in the firmament of his strength
Praise him in his strength
Praise him as his abundant greatness
Praise him with a blast from the trumpet
Praise him with guitar and piano
Praise him with drum and dance
Praise him with Bass guitar and flute
Praise him with loud cymbals
Praise him with steel drum
Every soul-life Praise the lord Praise the Lord!

I had a bit of amusement when I realized I had described every Jazz, Rock, and Reggae band. All would have felt at hone in that collection of instruments. All would have played up a storm. And that incredible sacred noise, whatever they played would have been saying Halleuyah.

I remembered about my translation of Psalm 150 recently when I happened to be opening my mailbox at home. There inside was the Old Town School of Folk Music Winter semester catalog, and it brought back some very old memories.

For those not familiar with OTSFM, It has been a Chicago institution since the late 1950’s. Today it has two campuses: the old Building on W. Armitage, and the newer one on N. Lincoln Avenue. But there was a time when they couldn’t pay enough teachers to give a full class to differening skill levels. So, the story is told, Frank Hamilton, the schools’ founder put all the skill levels in the same room and everyone played together. Called “second half” It is still an integral part of the school to this day, and one of those things that I’ve missed lately. There is nothing like a hundred guitars, bass, banjos, mandolins and harmonicas playing music all at the same time. Even before my return to Judaism, I think the greatest religious experiences were at Second Half. Even when I knew only two guitar chords, it was an incredible experience.

I think that was what both David and Miriam understood all that time ago. Divine praise and divine connection come from jamming together. Every instrument counts, every skill level counts. We should all aspire to play better, but we can play at any level. Thus I can say was one of the holiest experiences at a retreat I went to recently where three of us, two guitars and my ukulele sat in a common room of the OSRUI Lodge and just played music. Two hours just flew away in the blink of an eye as we went through the chords on stuff from Van Morrison to the George Harrison. It was very cool.

I loved it. I think of how many time in our lives we just sit back and listen to the soloist, the expert, the talented passively part of the experience. Yet often, in keeping with a professional image, in exuding the authority such a person they seem so aloof so separate from us. I feel this separation most strongly in worship around the High Holidays when everything gets that impersonal feel. It does not matter if it was jazz or traditional music, or a choir, I ironically feel the least devekut during the High Holidays, because there seem to be performers and audience, not a room full of collaborators. I feel the opposite, much greater holiness most Shabbat mornings too, where everything is so close and personal, where everything is so collaborative, right down to the sometimes heated discussions of the D’var Torah. Its infectious and it keep with me even when I am home alone. I almost feel like we need a sticker for those Shabbat Siddirim “Non-professionals involved – please try at home” There’s just something wonderfully Hamishe about collaboration.

I’ve noted before the Talmudic Rabbis seem to agree with me about this:

If three have eaten at one table, and have spoken thereat words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the All-present, blessed be He, as it is said, “this is the table before the Lord”. …when there are ten sitting together and occupying themselves with Torah, the Shechinah abides among them, as it is said: “God stands in the congregation of God.”[Avot 3]

The more people the more perspectives, each one a unique view of God. As we all come together, we can piece then together like pieces of a puzzle and find a bigger picture inside of the Divine. Even in a room full of people who can’t sing, when singing together they sound good. That is the miracle of collaboration.

Reading the Song of the Sea this week, I realize I’m not a big fan of the lyrics. But I do play several different tunes for the melody on many different instruments. I learned that sometimes the melody the Ningun, particularly in collaboration can be a powerful thing. A music teacher of mine, Jack Gabriel, once told me a story about the Baal Shem Tov, who believed that a song is like a key to the gates of heaven, but some times you need an axe – and that is a ningun. Add to that several stories similar to this one in Hasidic lore: Once a man went to the Seer of Lublin and was told him to go home right away, the Seer rejected seeing him. Dejected, on his way home, he ran into a bunch of Hasids singing and shouting “L’Hayim! L’Hayim!” at the top of their lungs on their way to see the Seer. The Hasids swept the man into their group, and despite his sadness joined in singing and shouting “L’Hayim!” Before he knew it he was back in front of the Seer’s house. But this time the Seer was waiting at the door, smiling. He told the man, “I saw the Angel of Death standing behind you, and knew you had only hours to live. I sent you home so you could say good bye to your family before you died. But these Hasids in their singing chased the Angel of Death away…” Many times we are told in Hasidic legend that the power of Hasidim collaborating is far greater than even the Tzaddik.

There is a phenomenon among many religions, including Judaism of “privatizing” religion, on making religion solely in the home and a private matter. For many, they want to do what they want, not what the community wants, and thus keep away from community. I will admit there are many times when community feels wrong and makes us feel inadequate. Although I tried when I was younger to play violin and flute, I never succeeded because when I played in a group I felt intimidated. In these elementary school settings, it always felt like it was competition to be the best – and given some physical disabilities in my hand, I was always the worst. Yet from the first day I went to Old Town, things were so very different. This was always Jamming, and I learned Harmonica, then guitar, and even a little bit of drumming there. The lesson of Jamming is one we can translate into our spiritual lives. Because if we have differences, the differences collaboratively make the whole stronger. There are those who believe only their opinion counts, that everyone should be like them. But that is like playing a metronome. I’ve known metronome people and even metronome congregations. We have a Minyan for a reason: it make it possible to have the power of collaboration, but only if we embrace that everyone is different, that everyone has a unique divine spark in them and it is conformity which is the klippot, the “crud” that keeps the divine spark from rising to heaven.

I though of an interesting play on the words for the red sea, Yam Suf. Yam the word for sea could be transliterated as Jam. Suf is spelled the same as Sof, the Hebrew word for end. We at the banks are given a choice. We can Jam, or we can end, and only through the sea, through Jam, can we get to the place of no-end, Ayn Sof namely Sinai. So like Miriam, the women and the entire congregation on the free side of the sea, let us Jam together! All souls praise YaH, HalleluYah!