Friday, March 30, 2007

Passover 5767: Illustrating the Five Children

As a special treat before Passover, I have composed a piece on Illustration of the Four children of the Passover Seder, and a fifth child which some contemporary sources including Irving Greenberg and the Lubabvitcher Rebbe (z"l) came up with. I compiled a family Haggadah a few years ago and this was one of my original contributions.

You can read several articles about my work in the Haggadah on my holidays page.

HAG Sameach!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tzav 5767: Commandment and Revelation

Leviticus 6:1-8:36

This week covers more procedures for the sacrifice in the Mishkan, and then the record of those first sacrifices. Like many of these chapters about the sacrificial procedure, it is seemingly irrelevant to things today. It was seemingly irrelevant to the world of even the Rabbis who didn’t have a temple either. Yet in places where we find things objectionable or irrelevant, like sacrifices, it is time to look closer at the text for deeper meaning. Our portion begins:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the Torah of the burnt offering; It is the burnt offering, because of the burning upon the altar all night to the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be burning in it.[Lev. 6:1-2]

After God stops speaking:

And Moses did as the Lord commanded him; and the assembly was gathered together to the door of the Tent of Meeting. Then Moses said to the congregation: This is the thing which the Lord commanded to be done. [8:4-5]

The word which gives our portion its name tzav, to command, is interesting. The word is spelled Tzadi-Vav (TzV [צו]), and is the command form of a verb root spelled Tzadi-Vav-Heh (TzVH [צוה ]). We most know of this word from a derivative of the present tense intensive or causative of the verb, usually thought of as the noun mitzvah.

TzVH by itself might mean command, but as the Hasidic Master Levi Yitzchak of Bertichev notes the word really means to bind, and thus one who performs a mitzvah properly, binds themselves to God. The word also means in the intensive case to appoint. We are not commanded as much as appointed to perform the mitzvot. This would be like a CEO of a company appointing one of his executives to run a certain division of the company. It is the responsibility of the executive to run the division, and the performance of the division would reflect him. But it also reflects the whole company and the CEO’s status, in terms of the trust put in the executive by the CEO and his loyalty to the CEO. So too with mitzvot. We do the mitzvot appointed to us by God. On one level they provide a personal level of performance, yet on another they reflect our loyalty to the CEO of CEO’s, Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu and the trust put in us to perform the assignment given us.

But the question that bothers many is where that appointment came from. How legitimate is it? Is the source a valid one? Indeed in modernity this can a be an interesting question. Assassins, terrorists, governments and even religions use the similar words to Moses in Leviticus 8:2, “God commands for us to…” for many violent and horrible things. Some think we should do away with God because he is so violent to such actions. Immanuel Kant took this to the ultimate conclusion, stating that a religion that took everything as divinely revealed law, was at best amoral and thus the Jews needed to be “euthanized”, a passage of Kant’s which translated into the social and political policy of Nazi Germany. Yet this assumes that there is validity to the claim to violence, the claim that the law is to be executed as it was reported.

Jews believe the Mitzvot comes from God through divine revelation to Moses at Sinai. Moses’ ability to receive divine revelation is believed to be a valid one. Maimonides even made it one of his thirteen principles of faith. Yet, what the extent and the method of that event of revelation gave laws to Moses is of course a matter of debate among streams within Judaism. And while some of the modern streams look at the question of doing lesser amounts of divine law, the rabbis of the Talmud looked to more. As the Perkei Avot 1:1 notes, there was not just the written tradition of The Torah, but also an oral tradition handed down through the generations:

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the great assembly. [Avot 1:1]

This is a set of laws not on the books that were orally transmitted. Many of them fall into the class of Halakah, the way we observe the mitzvot. Yet in both the oral tradition, eventually redacted into the Talmud, and the biblical tradition, there is more than just commandments, refuting Kant. There is also story and commentary on story known as Aggadah. As many commentaries, have noted, if Judaism was a religion of just law, then the book of Genesis and the first eleven chapters of Exodus are redundant and shouldn’t be there. Yet no one suggests throwing out the book of Genesis from the Bible. Aggadah has another purpose, the theology and ethics behind the law. It is Aggadah which tells us about divine revelation in general and how to look into its validity.

Moses of course was not the only prophet, there were many more after him. Tractate Megillah actually tries to count them at one point after the sages put the number at forty eight prophets and seven prophetesses.

Were there no more prophets than these [forty-eight]? — Is it not written, How there was a man from Ramathaim-Zophim, (I Sam 1:1) [which we interpret], one of two hundred prophets [zophim] who prophesied to Israel? — There were actually very many, as it has been taught, ‘Many prophets arose for Israel, double the number of who came out of Egypt’. Only the prophecy which contained a lesson for future generations was written down, and that which did not contain such a lesson was not written. [B. Megillah 14a]

The Gemara does a little word play on the place-name Ramathaim-Zophim. Through a bit of word-play, Ramathaim makes the word mataim, two hundred, and Zophim is another word for prophet. So the Talmud re-translates this to mean one man from two hundred prophets. Thus there is a biblical verse that maintains there are more than 48 prophets, but instead two hundred. Then the Gemara goes further stating there were 1.2 million prophets. Yet those prophets were not written down because they did not prophesy lessons which would help future generations.

Obviously that is a lot of divine revelation! Yet we still don’t know what is true and what is not. Heschel notes in God in Search of Man the Rabbis do have one interesting litmus test found in Sanhedrin 89a: If you get identical prophecies in the exact same words from multiple prophets, it’s a false prophecy. It’s like two witnesses having the exact same words for testimony in a legal case; such words are evidently rehearsed and learned from other human beings. Yet in contrast the prophet says things in his own words and his own expressions and their own personality.

The prophetess Hulda for example got into trouble with the rabbis for her manners when prophesizing. The rabbis berate:

R. Nahman said: Haughtiness does not befit women. There were two haughty women, and their names are hateful, one being called a hornet [Deborah] and the other a weasel. [Hulda] Of the hornet it is written, And she sent and called Barak, instead of going to him. Of the weasel it is written, Say to the man, (II Kings 22:15) instead of ‘say to the king’. [Megillah 14b]

Hulda while prophesizing about the validity of the suddenly found book of Deuteronomy in the middle of a payroll audit calls the king of Judah a mere man, which obviously is not in good respect. Had she been repeating verbatim what God had said, this would not have been an issue, and the Midrash would have gone off on why God was being so belittling to a great a pious king like Josiah. But it was her arrogance filtering the words of divine revelation. Sanhedrin 89a gives anther example of Obadiah and Jeremiah having the same prophecy but stating it rather differently. As Heschel points out “the word of God” is not an actual set of words but some less restrictive form of communication than auditory words, compared to a coal of fire by the psalmist – and that too is still not completely comprehensible or usable to the lips of man. We can only filter it through our own experience and personality.

When the rabbis speak of millions of prophets I do not believe that means an actual number, but a belief that we all have the potential to be in the God encounter of divine revelation. We all receive Torah, and it is interesting to note a few places where the tradition backs this point of view. The Maharal of Prague noted the blessings for the Torah are not natan ha-Torah “who gave the Torah” in the past tense, but instead the present tense notein ha-Torah “who gives the Torah” as it is perpetually revealed. The Apter Rebbe, the ancestor of Abraham Joshua Heschel taught:

Everyone is told to consider himself to be standing at Mount Sinai, to receive the Torah. For to human beings, there are past and future events, but not for God; day in and day out God Gives the Torah, and day in and day out one may receive the Torah.

Yet how do we receive the Torah every day? The rabbis made an interesting statement: Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to the wise. [Baba Batra 12a] While this can be seen as giving themselves legitimacy, it can also be seen in another light. It is no longer the sacrifices you give that creates the God encounter, such as the ones of Elijah at Mt. Carmel, Gideon at his father’s high place, or the parents of Samson had and beheld divine beings or wonders. Instead, it is study that brings us into the divine encounter. I particularly like this version of study from the Perkei Avot:

R. Gamaliel the son of R. Judah the Patriarch said: Excellent is the study of the Torah together with a worldly occupation, for the energy [taken up] by both of them keeps sin out of one's mind; and [as for] all [study of the] Torah where there is no worldly occupation, the upshot [is that] it comes to nothing and brings sin in its train; [Avot 2:2]

But along with study of the written is study of the oral tradition as well, as

Yose b. Yo'ezer used to say: Let your house be a house of meeting for the sages and make yourself to be covered by the dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst. [Avot 1:4]

There are three kinds of study we must partake: the Study of the written law, the study of the oral law, also known as the tradition, and finally the everyday world where we put that learning to practice. All are important and all, in combination, provide us with a sense of divine revelation – not some deep Charlton Heston voice, but in a deeper understanding done in community. Sometimes it confirms what we already knew, sometimes this process reveals novel applications of the Mitzvot we do.

The word which starts our portion, Tzav, is a verb, and even the noun we use to describe the divine orders we refer to as Mitzvot is derived from present tense verb. Commandments, or as I like to think of them appointments, like running a division of a company, are not static, they are dynamic actions, things requiring our continued actions over time, requiring care and adjustments and constantly getting guidance as to how to do them properly. We get that in study, particularly in groups with other learned people where we can synthesize ideas from different perspectives. Hebrew in general is about the verb, not the noun.

Halakah comes from the root to go. Jews, therefore, keep on going. Life really is a highway.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Parshat Vayikra 5767: Sacrifice, Prayer and Return

Leviticus 1:1-5:26

This week we begin Vayikra, otherwise known as Leviticus, which starts with the procedures for different types of sacrifices. We learn how we are to essentially deplete barnyards 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.

I’m still coming down from the experience of last week, where I spent an incredibly intense but fulfilling week immersed in Jewish theology in general, and the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel in particular. Between that intense week of school and this parasha’s mitzvot concerning sacrifices I’ve had a lot to think about recently. We do not do all of the mitzvot, because many of them, like the Temple sacrifices have become impossible to do. Yet, after the destruction of the second temple, we have the Rabbis coming up with alternatives to the sacrifices. One substitution we will all do in a few weeks during Passover will be at our Seders:

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]

Today, eating at our dining room table is the place we make those sin offerings we made once in the temple. As I usually explain Kashrut to people, it’s not primarily about health —Maimonides made that up. It’s about the sacred: when we eat at our dining room table we need to make it as holy as the Temple, and make our dining room food as pure as the temple sacrifices. We can by extension of this idea live a life as though our whole house is the temple and thus live a Holy life.

Yet there is another substitution for sacrifice as well:

R. Joshua b. Levi says: The Prayers [i.e. Amidah] were instituted to replace the daily sacrifices. [B. Brachot 26b]

Much of what was once our sacred moments in the Temple are now prayer. By the time of the redaction of the Mishnah, we read:

Simeon the Tzaddik was one of the last of the men of the Great Assembly. He used to say: the world is based upon three things: the Torah, Divine service, and the practice of kindliness [M. Avot 1:2]

While it has lost some of its original meaning in modernity, for the rabbis these three things, the study of Torah, prayer, and the ethical performance of the mitzvot were critical to Jewish existence. Using the metaphor of a stool with three legs, many, including Heschel would point out that a stool with two legs does not stand very well, and one leg is even more precarious. Yet today, we often try to balance ourselves on a one legged stool. Indeed, I was one of those people who fell off that stool.

How did we get to this place? One answer comes out of Heschel’s work. Heschel differentiates between two kinds of thinking: Greek and Jewish. He believes they are ultimately incompatible, and when combined damaging to both traditions. To put this in terms of story I thought about two different images, one Greek one Jewish. On the Greek side we have the story of Apollo and Daphne. The Greek god Apollo once fell in love with Daphne, a river nymph. She did not like Apollo, so one day he sees her and chases her, and she runs away from the god in fear. As Apollo pursues and catches up she cries for help to her father, a river god, who turns her into a linden tree. Apollo from then on tears off branches from the linden tree and puts them in his hair as a decoration, to be near his love.

On the other hand there is Heschel’s theology from God in Search of Man in a story form. After Adam and Eve eat the fruit and hide from God in the Garden of Eden, God looks for them asking ayecha “where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) searching the Garden for Adam. God has been asking that question ever since. For Heschel we don’t need God as much as God needs us to say a rather existential Hineni “I am here.”

What I find intriguing about these stories is that in the Greek story Daphne would rather be turned into a tree than love Apollo. That is the Greek thinking, the logic of A or Not A. It’s the thinking of putting people into impersonal categories of similar things, of exploitation and depersonalization much like Apollo rips limbs off Daphne for hair decoration. In this thinking there are only two alternatives: Either one is alive as the love slave of a god or one becomes a tree. In Biblical thinking however, one may be trying to hide from God. God does search for us, and has quite a lot of patience in that search. Yet, everything changes when our behavior changes, when we say “I am here” as did Abraham or Moses. As we enter a deeper relationship with God, the embarrassment that made us hide or turn away disappears by being with God. Like all relationships it is personal and mutual. We are treated as individuals in our particular circumstances, and not categories. The biblical story could be viewed as a repeated attempt for God to find us to have that relationship, and the numerous times we run way.

In terms of modernity that there are many Jews who see the Judaism that has been predicated on Greek thinking. Rather than getting close to an exploitative, rigid God many end up with the ultimate Greek thinking of wanting to be a tree, in other words leaving the religion. Demographics back this up, with numbers as high as half to two thirds of the American Jewish population wanting to be “trees”, becoming secular or converting to other religions, rather than holding up those three pillars. We are still running away, yet this time in a perilously more permanent fashion of the Spiritual Holocaust that Heschel fears. Yet if all we do is begin to turn and say “here I am,” we find God loves us and we love God.

I was once a “tree.” A decade ago, I knew neither Torah nor Prayer nor Mitzvot very well. What I did know was a few rules and not any intention, any Kavvanah. The Jewish educational system failed me, and probably failed many of my entire generation. My experience at least, in both Conservative and Orthodox schools did not lead me to be a good Jew. Because of that, I left Judaism for the religions of the East, primarily the mysticism of Zen and Taoism. Yet I came back into the tradition. I somehow began to turn, to begin the process of saying “Here I am”.

There is a term for what I am in Hebrew: Baal T’shuvah. That could translate to a master of repentance, or someone who repents. We think often, as we did in this weeks’ portion, of repentance in terms of transgressing a mitzvah and needing forgiveness. But the word repentance in Hebrew has a deeper meaning. Its root is the word to turn around, to reverse direction. Teshuva means to return. When God is searching for you and you are fleeing, to turn around means you return, making it easier for God to find you and begin a relationship with God. And thus the most common meaning of Baal T'shuvah is someone who turns back and reclaims Judaism as their religion.

There is no one Jewish Theology, and as such we must struggle to find our own. So for one of my classes, I’m answering the question of what is Shlomo’s theology. In two words I’ve called it Aggadat T'shuvah, which intentionally can be translated a variety of ways. In a world like ours, it’s a theology of return, a story and commentary of that process as well. Fundamental to that, is the question of how to keep all three legs of the stool of the world standing: none can be missing.

Yet the leg of Avodah, service to God through prayer, is a struggle. What do we pray and how do we pray? Given changes in my Friday night traditions, it’s something I’m revisiting personally. Moving from communal prayer to private prayer on Erev Shabbat has meant I’ve needed to figure out what my liturgy will be. Every week I look at my shelf of suddurim from Orthodoxy, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal, and wonder which one to pick up, what I pray and what I don’t. I also wonder how I am to pray. Do I sing to myself or just read the words silently? Do I say these things in joy or do I rapidly read them through, making sure my reading is accurate? Do I just make things up or use a traditional prayer? The choices are overwhelming.

I have yet to come to all the answers, but I believe any theology of return must be based on a solid foundation of tradition. We may struggle with the tradition and end up rejecting or modifying it, but only by using the tools that built that foundation of tradition, not whim or mere emotional attachment. Even when we reject a tradition, we do not forget it, for it may be useful in the future. That has been the story of Judaism for millennia. For prayer, I made that foundation on the older traditions and actually pray from an Orthodox prayer book. My reasoning is quite simple: It’s more complete. I have many problems with the Orthodox liturgy, such as the Brachot ha Shachar, I quite often will skip stuff or as in those morning blessings, modify what is there. But unlike other prayer books, it is all there, and thus I can find the prayers. A solid foundation comes from all the tradition, not a version where much is deleted, only to be forgotten.

Three thousand years ago things were much easier. One bunch of guys, the Cohanim, did the work, all an Israelite had to do was hand over the goat or cow or pigeon. By the time of prophets like Jeremiah, there was the prophetic complaint against Israel mechanically making sin offerings then going back to sinning, never changing their behavior. That lack of intention left us without a Temple but with prayer replacing sacrifice. Even with the destruction of the Temple, the intention in prayer, coupled with the regularity of prayer, helps Jews survive spiritually. Prayer, like sacrifice, brings the transcendent God to dwell among us as God dwelt in the Mishkan of old.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Parshat Vayakhel - Pekeudei 5767:Forty minus One

Exodus 35:1 -40:38

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 Betzalel 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. This is also a very busy week for me as I have grad school seminars, immersing myself into the life of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Jewish theology, and so once again I’m recycling a Shlomo’s Drash from last year. In my thoughts last week on Shabbat, I thought would be appropriate to continue that exploration on Shabbat.

In this week’s portion Moses speaks of 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, plowing, 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 for a small percentage of Jews, it is difficult to follow these rules as closely as the rabbis. My own considerations that my synagogue is about ten miles from my own home puts 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.

While I don’t like to compare, my observance for Shabbat is still far more than most Jews do. As Heschel once noted, we tend to think of Shabbat in terms of all or nothing thinking. Even our euphemism for an observant person, Shomer Shabbos, literally Shabbat observant, 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 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 the 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. 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 agree they have a holiness in don’t normally experience. Yet, like many people, for me to follow all the rules all the time just doesn’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. But what is my observance and how do I keep to it? It was in the spirit of answering those questions 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. Do not use electronic devices-no Internet, iPods, or TV. Don’t buy anything but food or medicine. Eat a REALLY good meal – and enjoy every bite. Love. When no one else is around love yourself. Don’t forget to hug! Dessert and sweets were created for Shabbos!!! Walk. Be sensual. 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. Then pray. 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. Since I’m sitting in grad school classes as you read this, I don’t think I’m the only one to have to get homework. If you are doing nothing or 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. What also makes it real is publicly letting people know that is your list, so posting is also a good idea. While my list has changed, mostly with additions, it has been close to a constant for close to a decade. When I really follow 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. 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. As I said, one way to help you attain those thing on your list is to post them. As a matter of privacy, I will not include e-mail’s on those postings just peoples first names or pseudonyms. The ones from last year are there as well if you want to see what I and others did.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Parshat Ki Tissa 5767: One Particular Harbor

Exodus 30:11-34:35

I have a real fixation.

For a very busy portion, I can’t seem to stop writing on one topic, but then again I’m not alone. 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 eyes of the Egyptians if he kills everyone. The people repent, Moses goes back up to get another set of ten tablets, since he broke 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 particular mitzvah 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.

As many know, Exodus 31:15-17 has made its way into the Shabbat liturgy as a song sung in Hebrew V’shamru. There are many melodies for this, yet I once did something rather strange and put this passage to the melody for Jimmy Buffet’s famous drinking song Margaritaville, changing it into a new song Shabbosville. But that’s not the only Jimmy Buffet song that resonates with me about Shabbat and describes this place called Shabbosville:

I know I don't get there often enough
But God knows I surely try
It's a magic kind of medicine
That no doctor could prescribe

…there's this one particular harbor
So far but yet so near
Where I see the days as they fade away
And finally disappear

Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Sabbath describes the seventh day as an island in time (Heschel, 15). Other religions have their monument in space, the shrine of this, the cathedral of that. The cathedral of other religions celebrates space, with vaulting ceilings and decorative architectural elements. But Jews have a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time, using an architecture of time (Heschel, 8) For six days we spend our lives in a secular world of space. But on the seventh we change our view to a world of time, a world where the senses appreciate every moment. Our cathedral is Shabbat as a time. (ibid.) As Heschel describes:

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.

The first time I read The Sabbath, I was struck by Heschel’s image of an island in time. In my mind, the Sabbath is not a cathedral as much as a lazy quiet harbor on a tropical island with some really good fish restaurants and beautiful red sunsets. It’s a place where I kick back and do nothing that has to do with work or anything else. Often I sit watching the sunsets, or the harbor, sipping coffee and painting portraits of all the beautiful women who walk by. Since I visited it last year, when I see Shabbosville in my mind it looks a lot like Kona, Hawaii.

Of course Kona is about a ten (with a stopover in Honolulu fourteen) hour flight from where I’m writing this in Chicago. There is snow falling out of the seamless grey skies for the umpteenth time this winter. This place, Shabbosville, is only in my mind, but it is there though my practice. I stop working and try to relax. It is my tradition to go out to eat and have a wonderful meal on Friday night, painting those beautiful women not as they walk by on the boardwalk or beach but from photographs. I light candles at the first opportunity on Friday. Rather early on Saturday morning I sit with a cup of coffee and reflect on the week. Saturday afternoon is the traditional Shabbos schluff, doing recreational reading or a little more artwork. I keep the TV, Computer, and iPod off, and listen and see sounds that are already there. I may not be as observant as some, yet I carve out Shabbat as a special time as a time to va-yinafash, to re-soul myself.

There is one other aspect of Shabbat observance as well of course, and that is going to services. About ten years ago, I began to attend Erev Shabbat services regularly, and being in a prayer community was a wonderful experience, one I extended into my dietary practices, my Shabbat observance, and to my study of Torah in earnest. Given the situations they were in, the congregation only had two Fridays a month. Eventually due to some things I tried we ended up with three Fridays a month. For quite a long time, I even took the Shabbosville metaphor one more step: instead of the traditional Lurianic Kabbalah advocacy of white for Shabbat, I wore brightly colored Hawaiian Shirts to services. But that was all I did in one month, and it was wonderful. I would eventually switch to another congregation and there too due to their less than permanent situation I would go to services only a few Fridays a month.

This all changed a year and a half ago in my latest prayer community. It was a larger well-established Reform synagogue, though known for its tendency towards innovation since its inception. Here were both Friday and Saturday services, and in keeping with the halakah, I began to attend both every week. It too has been a wonderful and holy experience, one where I celebrated not just one but two aspects of Shabbat in worship in two very different minyans, and followed mitzvot even more than before, particularly a more regular reading of Torah. Yet as I wrote back in Yitro this year, I have been overwhelmed. Many weeks even when attending services, and doing all that stuff that was to get me to Shabbosville, I never made it there: I got lost somewhere at the security line at terminal H-K of O’Hare Airport and my plane left without me.

All this came to mind shortly after I wrote Parshat Yitro when I learned of an initiative to make Erev Shabbat more family friendly starting in March. One critical change was the synagogue changed services from 8:00 to 6:30. At first, I was angry that in order to attend services it would now be impossible to have that good dinner. The bayside fish restaurant on the tropical Island had to be replaced by the strip mall McDonald's in order to make 6:30 services. Alternately, I could go to dinner later, and wait and hour or so to get into a good restaurant. Yet as I thought about this I realized something that I hadn’t thought about, something that made me rather uncomfortable. Maybe it is not the dinner that needs to come out of my Erev Shabbat observance but the Service itself. As I thought about this I realized how much stress there is to trying to get to services at a synagogue so far from both my apartment and my work every week. I realized that over that last month or so, I found it very difficult to even keep my eyes open at Friday services. What I realized is that the practices of the halakah and mitzvot had overruled the mitzvah of stopping and resting. I had ended up not observing Shabbat properly because I did too much on Shabbat – I was not in Shabbosville, nor did I even feel it holy.

So starting last week, I stopped going to Friday services, and emphasized my morning Shabbat minyan more in my practice as my communal practice. I changed my Fridays to enjoy that fish dinner. While I do drive in the mornings, like many unable to get to services I pray at home now, from a Friday night liturgy I created a few years ago. Last Shabbat, despite a snowstorm, that was rather fun, and I felt better than I had in a while.

Yet I feel guilty about not being at services every time I can. To be honest I struggle with this change of practice, yet realize from a physical standpoint, it is necessary: running around to any synagogue would result in the same stress. But there is that idea, one even strongly underlined in Heschel’s own works, that it is the deeds itself that is important not how comfortable they make me feel. I still feel I should be doing more.

Yet there is a key word, even found in the word Shabbat itself. It is the word stop. Shabbat is the place in Time where we practice no-doing, we refrain from doing. The rabbis actually made a list of thirty nine prohibitions to make this clear. Even the positive mitzvot of Shabbat really should be done with an intention and energy that I seem not to have lately. So I continue to struggle, knowing I should go more often, yet also knowing to observe Shabbat fully, To be in Shabbosville I need to relax a little. I am like the man so busy getting all his work done over e-mail and cell phone on vacation, he forgets the vacation. All too often I don’t feel holy on Shabbat from all the running around.

Like many of these personal reflections I post here, I feel many of us are like this, too busy to just stop and rest and enjoy one day a week. We need that Island in Time; we need that change in mental Latitude to have a change in Attitude. It is not just for our physical well being but for that deep connection to God through observance of the mitzvot.

As the chorus for Shabbosville I put this well.

Resting away again in Shabbosville
Taking off the last day of the week
Some people claim that I’m just lazy today
But I know, its Torah I keep.

We may all not think of Shabbat as a tropical vacation. There are many metaphors that one can use. But the important thing that needs to be done is the resting.

So may you all find a wonderful holy rest on Shabbat.

Note: Last year I started a web page dedicated to Shabbosville. It’s still up, complete with the song, though I’ll admit I haven’t had much time to maintain and expand it. However, one part of that project which I still want to do for anyone interested is post people’s visions of Shabbat and their observance. If you are interested, e-mail me at

Note #2: Since I got it out so late I’m leaving the Esther e-book offer up for one more week. Go to for more information.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Hag Sameach: The Whole Megilah E- book

Hello Folks!

I had an Idea last night of something that can help both you and me

For several years I have been working on an illustrated translation of the Book of Esther, complete with Commentary from Talmud, Midrash and the two Targumim of Esther. I also included some of my own commentary interspersed through the commentary, sort of channeling Rashi. I also included some of my own watercolors of the women who make up the story of Esther.

This Esther translation was used at the Beth Emet: the Free Synagogue Retreat just before last Purim as one of our primary texts, with a lot of positive comments. It's funny sexy, and gives a view of the story as the R-rated book of Sex, Booze and Heads a'rollin the Talmudic Rabbis thought it was .

So for you blogging types, I'm going to make an offer to you. Send me an e-mail with your name and e-address. and I will send you a link to the site where you can download the E-book.

I'm building my list and wondering how many people read the blog or go to my website, so I'm gathering statistics, and when I start Publishing e-books next fall, I'll notify you directly. This information will only be used for that purpose. I'm not selling it to spammers or anyone else - its for my eyes only.

You can send your requests to and send a post with your name and the address you want the link sent to.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Tetzaveh 5767:Clothes Make The Man…But Not The Woman?

Exodus 27:20-30:10 (post Shabbat – Purim Esther 1:1-10:3)

This week we continue with plans for the Mishkan, including the oil for the lamps, the garments of the high priest, and the incense. There are also instructions on how to give a sacrifice on the altar. Just after Shabbat this week is the holiday of Purim where we read the book of Esther.

We will read in the Torah:

31 You shall make the robe of the ephod of pure blue. 32 The opening for the head shall be in the middle of it; the opening shall have a binding of woven work round about — it shall be like the opening of a coat of mail — so that it does not tear. 33 On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around: 34 a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe. 35 Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out — that he may not die.[Exodus 28:31-35]

And for Purim we will read:

13Then the young women came to the king. All that she would ask for would be given to her to come with her from the house of the women to the house of the king. 14In the evening, she came, and in the morning, she returned to the second house of the women to the authority of Shaashgaz, eunuch of the king guardian of the concubines. She would not again come to the king, unless the king desired her she would be called by name 15When Esther’s turn arrived, the daughter of Abihayl uncle of Mordechai who took her as his daughter, to go to the king she did not ask for a thing unless Hagai the eunuch of the king, guardian of the women said so. Now Esther was carrying grace in the eyes of all who saw her. 16Esther was taken to the king Xerxes to the house of his realm in the tenth month. This is the month of Tevet, in the seventh year of his reign. 17The king loved Esther more than all the (other) women, and she carried grace and kindness before him more than the other virgins and he set the crown of the kingdom on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti [Esther 2:13-17]

These two passages intrigue me. In this weeks Torah passage, we read that the High Priest had all these elaborate articles of clothing. Mishnah Yoma tells us there were eight things the high priest wore, compared to the four of a regular priest. It seems ostentation is to be praised there, yet Esther appears to be a minimalist. While other women took lots of stuff when they met the king, Ester took only what was needed or recommended. As I once wrote in an Esther commentary, Esther won the contest in the Little Black Dress, not the ostentation of a pound of makeup and a ton of jewelry. Minimalism in what women wear appears to be more effective, and maximum clothing for the Priest appears to be more effective, Clothes make the man, but not the woman. Is this true?

The role of the clothing may have something to do with why Aaron and Esther had different clothing requirements. In regard to the High Priest’s garments, Aaron and his descendants are given an explicit reason why these clothing items are so important So that he may not die.[Exodus 28:35] This clothing was not just ceremonial, it provided a protective function to the wearer.

Midrash Rabbah comments on Esther’s appearance before her first visit to the king:

R. Judah said: She was like a statue which a thousand persons look upon and all equally admire. R. Nehemiah said: They put Median women on one side of her and Persian women on the other, and she was more beautiful than all of them. The Rabbis, however, explain and Esther found favor in the sight of all them that looked upon her to mean, in the sight of heavenly beings and in the sight of earthly beings, as we read, So shall you find grace and good favor in the sight of God and man [Prov. III, 4]

The rabbis describe Esther’s appearance in terms of a quote from Proverbs. Yet, when such a quote shows up it is always important to understand where it is in context. The rabbis had the Biblical text memorized so a quote was just the tip of the iceberg of what they meant. In context we read:

1. My son, forget not my Torah;
But let your heart keep my commandments;
2. For length of days, and long life,
And peace, shall they add to you.
3. Let not grace and truth forsake you;
Bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart;
4. So shall you find favor and good understanding in the sight of God and Man.
5. Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
And lean not on your own understanding.
6. In all your ways acknowledge him,
And he shall direct your paths.[Proverbs 3:1-6]

When Esther later returns to the king unbidden, Esther 5:1 tells us she dressed. So, like the paparazzi at the Oscars, the obvious question is what did she wear? There are many answers to this question, but the Talmud (Megilah 14b) states she was she was clothed in the Holy Spirit, and does not specify more. I have thought in the flip-flop world of the book of Esther this was one of those reversals which pervade the text. While Vashti refused to come naked before the king when ordered, Esther came dressed only in the Holy Spirit unbidden. But thinking about the above quote from Proverbs, I think there is more to that story. Esther’s biggest accessory, also mentioned directly in Esther Rabbah XI: 1 is a smile, or more literally a shining face.

Such shining faces are mentioned elsewhere a few times, particularly in Psalms. In Psalm 104 it is mentioned in terms of people. In several cases including three times in Psalm 80, shining faces are an anthropomorphism of God. Of course, there is Numbers 6:25 May the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you. In all of these it’s about attitude, it’s about smiling. In the Cohanic blessing, the smile is associated with being gracious, and we learn in Esther, that everyone who saw her saw a gracious woman. Because her attitude was so smiling and gracious, she was beautiful no matter what she wore. Thus the rabbis saw that the only important part of her wardrobe was the Holy Spirit – It enchanted everyone.

Where do we get such a holy spirit? Proverbs tells us when we give ourselves to Torah, when we choose to do the mitzvot. In doing the mitzvot and studying the texts we make ourselves holy and powerfully charismatic. We convey grace and truth as though it is a garment. Truth and Graciousness are metaphorically comparable to the ephod and breastplate of the high priest worn around our necks and over our hearts.

The high priest was the only one who would be in close proximity to the Holy Ark, and thus the only one who would be in a more literal presence of the Divine Presence. Such a job was hazardous as we are told that to gaze on God would be certain death. Aaron’s sons learn the fatal lesson that is even true for a small change of procedure. Clothes do not just make the man, but keep him alive from the Divine smiling face. All of the items of clothing protect from that raw power. Ironically, the man who is protected from that power, blesses the people to have that power directed towards them. Yet, in the world without a Temple, Esther reminds us that power is available to us as well, not just a blessing from the Kohen Gadol, but from following the mitzvot with a smile.

Which brings a new meaning to service with a smile.