Friday, December 26, 2008

Mikketz 5769: The first stranger in a strange land

This week, we take up Joseph’s story two years after he tells the baker and steward what their dreams meant. Now Pharaoh has a dream, and cannot find anyone to tell him what it means. The steward, remembers his promise the Joseph, and tells Pharaoh about Joseph. Joseph interprets the dream as foretelling seven years of plenty and seven years of famine. He also recommends to Pharaoh to begin a national storage program to be ready for the famine. Pharaoh agrees, and turns the program, and virtually everything but his throne over to Joseph. Joseph is wildly successful in his new position and in saving Egypt. He created a surplus so big, Egypt can even feed other peoples at a profit. It is not long into the famine that Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy grain, so he decides to jerk their chain a little, not just once but twice. Joseph frames Benjamin for theft, and the brothers now are in a terrible position: they may have to go back to their father once again to tell him that his favorite son is not coming home.
In Exodus, Moses will name his son Gershom because he was a stranger in the land of Midian. But he was not the first stranger in a strange land. How did Joseph end up thriving as a stranger in a strange land? There are several interesting passages:
Genesis 41:14 Then Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they brought him hastily out of the dungeon; and he shaved himself, and changed his garment, and came in to Pharaoh.
At first, even before he meets with Pharaoh, he stops to clean up and look presentable before a king. Note the people who were to bring him were rushing him along. It was Joseph who thought of this, out of respect for a king.
Genesis 41:40-45 And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in cloaks of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. Then he made him to ride in his second chariot; and they cried before him, “Bow the knee”… Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphnath-Paaneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On

After meeting with Pharaoh, he likes what he hears from Joseph, and appoints him as prime Minster, several things happen. At the orders of Pharaoh, Joseph dresses the part of the national identity, drives the vehicles, and marries a local girl Asnat- ironically the daughter of his former boss and the older woman who tried to seduce him.
41:51. Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh; For God, said he, has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.

Sometimes during the years of plenty, Joseph has two sons. The first he calls Menasseh, because he begins to forget who he used to be, as he is so busy in his office.
42: 7. And Joseph saw his brothers, and he knew them, but made himself strange to them, and spoke roughly to them; and he said to them, From where do you come? They said, From the land of Canaan to buy food.
42:23. And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spoke to them by an interpreter.
By the time his brothers show up, he is a different person, and they do not recognize him. The Rabbis believe this is because Joseph now has a beard, but it might be other things as well, such as his dress and his language - and the entire attitude of someone who is assimilated.
42:32. And they served him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, who ate with him, by themselves; because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.
Even how he eats follows the custom of the Egyptians. Eating with his brothers would seem abhorrent to the Egyptians. But the Egyptians still will not eat with him. As far as he assimilates this also shows he never can completely assimilate.
As we read these texts there are the subtle hints of assimilation into the majority culture, and very little that tells us that Joseph is being as virtuous as he was in slavery or prison. One of the ironies of our own times is best told by Joseph’s story. In a world of oppression and servitude, Judaism as a people and religion survived uninterrupted for close to two thousand years. In a world of freedom and success like America, both the culture and religion assimilate into the majority.
Jews have undoubtedly been successful in America, with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. The National Jewish population survey in 2001 had as one of its conclusions “Relative to the total U.S. population, Jews are more highly educated, have more prestigious jobs and earn higher household incomes.” Some statistics, for example the while only 8% of the general population have an income over $100,000 a year 22% of the Jewish population earns over $100,000. 25% of Jews have a graduate degree, while only 6% of the general population do. There are many other such numbers, all pointing to one thing: Jews did “make it” in America. On the other hand, only 28% light Shabbat candles at home, and 27% go to synagogue once a month or more. While success is there, the cost seem to be observance.
Joseph knew he forgot all of this when he named his first son. But there's something about family. For most of the rabbis, Asnat goes into the category of converts like Ruth, Rahab and Tzippora. There is bit of commentary I once heard from my Teacher Byron Sherwin. Ephraim and Menasseh Dressed like Egyptians. When they were introduced to their grandfather Jacob, he did not think them his descendants. Joseph’s response is “They are my sons, whom God has given me in this place” but its more literally is “They are my sons, whom God has given me with this.” Most have assumed “place” belongs here. “This” is referring to something else: their circumcisions. In having children, Joseph is reminded of his lineage and his contribution towards the future, and almost immediately he does something about it, having his son circumcised.
When I was recently at a tot Shabbat I was rather delighted when the rabbi asked the kids if they wanted to read Torah with him, and they all ran up to the bimah like they were going out to the playground. In the Al Hayt confessional during Yom Kippur, we confess we’re sorry we ran to do evil. How joyous it is to watch little children running to read Torah!
Joseph names Menasseh as his own lament of assimilation, and dedicates himself from that point on to his immediate family in Egypt, and to his bigger family back in Canaan, testing them to see if they are now righteous. It is family that makes him a Jew, and he who makes his family Jews. Joseph is known in rabbinic texts as Joseph the Tzaddik. He may have been the first Diaspora Jew, and the first Baal Teshuvah, the first to assimilate and return, stronger for being both the Man of Egypt and the Son of Israel. It is our concerns for family which most drive the need for Jewish continuity. Like I saw at that reform synagogue, many of those kids attend day school there, who at three or four knew their candle lighting and Torah blessings already. Jewish education is on the increase with many young adults making Jewish studies of some kind part of their learning. And as NJPS correlates, those who do any kind of study are more likely to keep connection and observances of the Jewish community.
A we light the menorahs with the little ones in our lives, it is good to think of every light and every blessing as one more step in Jewish continuity.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Repost: Why We Eat Chinese Food for Christmas

This is repost of the piece I did last year at this time. I'm a bit exhausted from too many long night driving home in either the blizzard of snow or the blizzard which is retail customer service during the holidays. So This will be this week's post unless I do get trapped at home tomorrow morning by the foot of snow that has been threatened and have time to both sleep and write my piece on Joseph for this week. With the exception of my biblical commentary on the 100th anniversary of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, this is the most Googled piece I've even written. So enjoy.

My thoughts on one of the beloved Jewish American traditions related to this time of year, Chinese food on Christmas Eve, started actually at work. As a restaurant consultant, I once did a site meeting a few days after Christmas at an upscale Chinese restaurant, one of several restaurants in a chain of restaurants with a variety of cuisines. The chef had just been transferred from an Italian restaurant in a predominantly Protestant western surburb a few months earlier, and so this was his first Christmas Eve in downtown Chicago.

“So were you open Christmas Eve?” I asked him.

He looked at me. “Yes, we were the only restaurant in the chain open which I thought odd, until I was shocked at how busy we were” he replied.

Smirking, I asked “A lot of takeout business I suspect, and I bet they were all named Cohen, Levy or Schwartz”

He looked at me like I was a magician. “How did you know that?”

So I explained to him the great Jewish American tradition of Chinese and a Movie on Christmas Eve.

While jokes about Chinese food mandated in the Talmud abound, this curious tradition however does have its roots in the Talmud. In the tractate that describes how a Jew is supposed to live in a idolatrous world Avodah Zarah, there is a Mishnah that deals with the issue of Saturnalia and Kalenda, the Hellenistic winter solstice festivals, forbidding business transactions with idolaters on those days. But in explaining these two festivals, the rabbis provide us with a fascinating passage about the origins of these two festivals:

Our Rabbis taught: When primitive Adam saw the day getting gradually shorter, he said, ‘Woe is me, perhaps because I have sinned, the world around me is being darkened and returning to its state of chaos and confusion; this then is the kind of death to which I have been sentenced from Heaven!’ So he began keeping an eight days’ fast. But as he observed the winter equinox and noted the day getting increasingly longer, he said, ‘This is the world's course’, and he set forth to keep an eight days’ festivity. In the following year he appointed both as festivals. Now, he fixed them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appointed them for the sake of idolatry. [Avodah Zarah 8a]

The rabbis claim the holidays not just for themselves but all humanity, dating back to the time of Adam. And there may be something to this. Primitive man may have seen the days growing shorter and thought the end of the word was coming, and then rejoiced when the daylight began to increase. Besides Kalenda, there was another Roman related festival at this time of year, the birth of Mithras, a sun god prevalent in both the Middle East and the Roman military. Mithras was born (or resurrected depending on your point of view) three days after the solstice, on the 25th of December. The sun was literally born on the 25th, which was a time for some serious partying and feasting, and possibly a few human sacrifices. Most scholars point out that the “tax rolls” of the New Testament that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Jerusalem for had to be one of the harvest festivals, of which are spring and fall festivals. For the early Christians, however, all this festive activity around them made it difficult to get converts or keep converts from celebrating the idolatrous holidays. So they made a simple change: It was not the birth of the sun god Mithras, but the birth of the Son of God -- Jesus.

The Church fathers were not the first to pull this stunt. Several hundred years earlier, someone else did too. Judah Maccabee re-dedicated the temple on the same day of its desecration two years earlier: the 25th of Kislev (I Maccabees 4:52-54). From the texts in I and II Maccabees, it’s likely that the desecration of the Temple which started the revolt may very well have been a Saturnalia or Kalenda festival. The Maccabees celebrated for eight days, claiming that since they were so busy fighting they could not observe Sukkot, and this was a replacement for Sukkot. Coincidentally, Kalenda and Saturnalia were eight days long, and this might have been a ruse to once again get people to celebrate within their religion at a time when the world was very busy partying.

Yet the book of Maccabees is not included in the biblical text, and Hanukkah is an extra-biblical holiday. The Maccabees, later called the Hasmonean dynasty, were extremely violent fundamentalist rulers. What’s worse, they asked for help in their activities from Rome, who would eventually destroy the temple. Neither of these facts enamored them to the Rabbis of the Talmud, who had very little problem banning the books of Maccabees from the Biblical canon. But Judah Maccabee’s assessment that there needed to be a religious cover for the solstice holidays was right on the mark. The rabbis just couldn’t have the military victory be the reason for the holiday. So they told this story:

What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.[Shabbat 21b]
The military victory was replaced with a miracle, using the rest of the story to maintain the tradition. Like the Church fathers, The Rabbis maintained the tradition by keeping the dates and changing the story slightly. Yet the 25th of Kislev provided a problem in this observance. Jewish calendars are of course lunar. The date of Hanukkah tends to wander when compared to the solar calendar. Hanukkah might be celebrated before Christmas, and sometimes even after.

Yet halfway around the world, Chinese civilization influenced the calendar of most of the Asian nations around them. Using both a lunar and solar calendar the post-solstice festival occurs not days after the winter solstice but two new moons after the winter solstice. Chinese New Year usually occurs in late January or early February. The December holidays to most traditional Chinese was meaningless.

All this came together with the immigrant populations of the United States. Because their calendars used lunar dates, The Chinese and the Jewish immigrants had nothing to do on a day where everyone else, who was Christian, had closed their shops. The Chinese had found selling food was a profitable business, and Jews like to eat, particularly a food which was relatively easy to maintain the dietary requirements of kashrut. Thus a tradition was started.

In short, one could say the tradition of eating Chinese on Christmas was started by a bunch of American lunatics.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Parshat Vayishlach 5769: Breaking the Cycle

This week Jacob gets ready for this inevitable meeting with Esau, and then has an interesting divine wrestling experience. When Jacob finally meets his brother, he finds out that he and Esau actually can be civil to each other. Dinah is raped and then her rapist asks for her hand in marriage. To avenge the rape, Dinah's brothers Simeon and Levi slaughter all the males of the rapist’s town as they recover from circumcision. Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, then Ruben sleeps with his stepmother, Bilhah. Isaac dies, and is buried by both his sons.
At the beginning of the portion, Jacob finds out that Esau is sending four hundred soldiers to meet them. He understandably gets very upset, splits his camps into two to allow at least half to escape an onslaught, and he begins to pray.
10. And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, Return to your country, and to your family, and I will deal well with you; 11. I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which you have shown to your servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I have become two bands. 12. Save me, I beseech you, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he will come and strike me, and the mother with the children. 13. But you said, I will surely do you good, and make your seed as the sand of the sea, which can not be counted for multitude.[Genesis 32]
Preparing for a Torah reading I’m doing this week at my minyan, I’ve been thinking about this piece, and can’t help but feel something I haven’t before. The cantillation marks don’t do the emotion justice. Jacob is both terrified and angry. Being played the fool by Laban over Rachel and Leah is one thing; being played the fool by God is another entirely. When I read the text, I can’t help but cry. It can be compared to the child who finds a parent has apparently broken a promise. Each time I read this or talk about this, I wonder, why am I crying?
This isn’t the first time God appears to break a promise of course. The first was the Akedah. God promises Abraham that his descendants will be a numerous as the dust on the earth, and that this covenant will be through Isaac. Yet
1. And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, Abraham; and he said, Behold, here I am. 2. And he said, Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell you.[Genesis 22]
Abraham does not complain, Isaac only questions what will be used for the sacrifice. As many have noted, Isaac and Abraham never talk after the Akedah. I have often wondered about Isaac’s preference for Esau. Parents, I have found, often try to live vicariously through their children, to do the things they could not do. Isaac sees in Esau the strong, violent guy that would have broken his bonds and saved himself at the Akedah without divine intervention. Somewhere deep in Isaac, there is a part of him that wanted to be man enough to stop his father. Esau represents that in him.
There is another story this week.
1. And Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she bore to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. 2. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her. [Genesis 34]
While her brothers commit subterfuge and genocide because of this, of Jacob’s reaction we are told at first:
5. And Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter; and his sons were with his cattle in the field; and Jacob held his peace until they came. [Genesis 34]

And later,
30. And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, You have brought trouble on me to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and I being few in number, they shall gather together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house. 31. And they said, Should he deal with our sister as with a harlot? [Genesis 34]

In neither of these conversations are Dinah’s feelings or trauma ever mentioned. Her value as property and good relations of the other peoples of the land seem to be the only issues.

I wonder about the four generations, the Abraham - Isaac - Jacob - Dinah connection. I’ve wondered a lot about Dinah in the past. As a survivor of partner abuse, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring how does the Torah deal with the issue of victimhood, of being violated? I’ve always looked to the story of Dinah in this week’s portion for guidance, but Iv’e never found it. A Halakhah of the survivor does not exist there. It is not a single story, but a generational story. The true survivor was Isaac, as Elie Wiesel has put it, Isaac was the survivor of the first Shoah. Abraham committed the iniquity, and Isaac bore the burden, unable to recover from it. He looked to his sons though dim eyes, eyes that only saw that tragic event which changed his life. Isaac’s granddaughter saw the same in her rape, yet her attacker, not only apologized but tried to remedy the situation, only to be murdered by her brothers.
Abuse and violation are transmissible through generations. The ex-girlfriend who abused me in college was an abuse survivor herself. The abuse became so part of her life she didn’t even know she was doing it, only to transmit it to others. That the story repeats is the terror for anyone who has had this in their family. Alone waiting for Esau’s troops, Jacob has this terror now. His fear is not about the revenge his brother swore, but that the promise that has once come close to be taken away from Abraham will happen for real this time. He fears he too is going to be swept up into this cycle of violence, as a different kind of sacrifice to the Lord.
But it doesn’t happen; his meeting with Esau is not an attack, but a meeting of brothers who then go off on their own ways. What changed is what happened after that prayer.
25. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. [Genesis 34]
Whether it was God, an angel, Esau, or a battle in his own soul, the wrestling changed everything. He released a large part of the past iniquity in that wrestling tournament in the darkness. He emerged transformed, blessed with a new name of Israel. All the anger and fear that Jacob felt came out in the wrestling match. He was able to use all his skills and knowledge to make the meeting with Esau go off peaceably.
Fear and anger distort our view of the world. It causes us to say things that we do not mean, either about our selves or about others. It distorts our decisions into destructiveness to everyone. One rape, as horrible as it is, does not substantiate the slaughter and pillage of an entire town. The animal flight or fight response that is our fear and anger is more ancient than human existence. It is with human existence that this win-lose scenario changes to the possibility of conscious cooperation: a win-win. Everybody can win and consensus can be reached. Yet win-win almost always happens when anger and fear are under control instead of controlling us.
Three years ago, I wrote about a very interesting pattern. The way Jacob arranged people, and the gifts he gave to Esau had strategic value. While definitely the measure of wealth in that part of the world, the close to six hundred various animals he gave Esau also would slow down an army to a crawl. Esau would have to fight in a living quicksand a two front battle which could easily surround him. All the advantages of trained soldiers over a bunch of farmers were taken away – both Jacob and Esau know it. I concluded Jacob was smart enough to create deterrents. That does not come out of panic, or rabid anger, it comes out of self control and know how. It was that know how that got him from a wanderer with only a staff to a successful man. But it also comes from God’s blessing.
Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince you have power with God and with men, and have prevailed. [Genesis 32]
Being Benei Yisrael, we are the inheritors of that Blessing. When we are angry or afraid, we, Like Jacob, struggle with God. We can vent our fears and our anger in the direction of the Holy One in our own holy struggles in the darkness. By the time the light comes, we are transformed into one who does not act out of our fear or anger, but our reason and force of will.
There is no halakah of the survivor in Dinah. It is found in her father Jacob. We don’t get over it. Post traumatic stress syndrome is forever. What’s worse it can be transmitted through the generations if we are not careful. But we can control it, and turn it from a curse into a blessing. We can stop the transmission if we are conscious of it. In our releasing the pain and anger in safe directions, towards our struggle with God, we change into something more, and we find success we never know we had.
We can even end the cycle transmitting the iniquity from in our relationships as well, by a conscious effort to do so. Yet there will always be triggers, parts of the trauma we didn’t even know was there. Such triggers will affect our behavior. It may be a small thing that sets off a cascade of emotions. A small fight over the trivial becomes a big one with no one knowing why. Yet there are also behaviors which are more pervasive. While the trauma of the Akedah may be controlled in this portion, in the story of Joseph, we will see that there is still some behavior which still needs addressing.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Parshat Vayetzei 5769: The Lord Was In This Face and I, I Did Not Know.

This week we begin Jacob’s journey to Padan Aram and his adventures there. After a divine encounter with a ladder, he meets his beautiful cousin Rachel, and instantly falls for her. After a bit of deception on his father in law Laban’s part, he ends up not with one, but two wives. With a good grasp of genetics, Jacob grows rich and eventually sneaks away from him. His now rather large family of two concubines, two wives, soon-to-be thirteen children and lots of livestock goes with him. But as he starts home, he realizes something: he will have to eventually confront Esau once again.
After his divine dream of the Ladder, and God’s assurances about his journey,
16. Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I, I did not know. 17. And he was afraid, and said, How awesome is this place! This is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. [Genesis 28]

According to the Rabbis, this event happened on the Temple Mount. Jacob was given a taste of where Jerusalem would eventually stand. That spot did become the gate of Heaven not just for Jews, but other faiths as well. Is that the only gate to heaven however? Can we understand there is another, far more portable gate?
I tend to look for that gate in one of my favorite teachings. I learned this from R. Arthur Waskow many years ago while I was on retreat in upstate New York. He was leading the morning minyan, praying in a circular tent known as a yurt. He gave us a rather fascinating teaching about a very interesting parable:
To proclaim the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He: For if a man strikes many coins from one mold, they all resemble one another, but the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. [Sanhedrin 37a]

Of course in Genesis we read.
27. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them. [Genesis 1]

Therefore every face is the image of God, yet all are different. Reb Arthur had us stand in a circle and do the Barchu while looking into the faces of the other people in the circle. We blessed the Lord while looking into the Lord’s face – each others. It was non-traditional certainly, but it was a powerful experience I don’t think I’ll forget.
I don’t think Reb Arthur is the first to notice this. Two thousand years ago lived two rather famous rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. Their rivalry was legendary, only to be shadowed by the rivalry of their students. The classic story of Hillel and Shammai’s differences concerns the prankster who asked first Shammai then Hillel to teach them all of Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai wacked him with a ruler, and Hillel taught him the Golden Rule. Given that context, it is surprising to find this saying in the Perkei Avot:
Shammai used to say: Make your [study of the] Torah [a matter of] established [regularity]; speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a pleasant countenance.[Avot 1:14]

Shammai receives everyone with literally a beautiful shining face, which I often loosely translate as a smile. Note Shammai says all men, not just your fellow. All humans have a divine shine to them, including you. Where is this shine found the most? To understand that, let us look at a case where the shine is seen the least in this week’s portion. One of the sadder characters in this week’s text is of course Leah, who is continually trying to attract Jacob’s attention. Reuben Simeon and Levi are named with the idea that Leah will be loved once she bears children. [Genesis 29:32-34] Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to help. What made Leah loved so little? One answer is that Rachel was just so attractive, her sister couldn’t compete. The other is the one the text gives:
16. And Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17. Leah had weak eyes; but Rachel was beautiful and well favored. [Genesis 29]

What exactly is meant by weak eyes is not clear. Rabbinic thought [B.B. 123a, Gen R. 70:16] believes she cried so much believing she would have to marry Esau, her eyelashes fell out. In a more literal exegesis, Leah’s eyes may have not been weak in vision, but in the range of expression. Much of our inner emotions are expressed by the eyes. As a painter, it is why I find eyes so hard to paint; the smallest change in shape gives a different expression. The window to the soul, as the expression goes, is the eyes. When Leah’s eyes didn’t work properly, it was difficult to look at her or pay attention to her.
I thought of this a lot last weekend when I tried a little exercise. In the summer of 2006, I began a self improvement program to turn the shy man I was into a more dynamic, social person. I even took an on-line course, with plenty of exercises to break my old patterns. Some were very unpleasant due to my fear of walking up to a stranger. That resistance translated into taking a lot longer to complete the course, with results far short of the expected outcome. In my frustration, I added one exercise to the curriculum. In the online discussions, I suggested it to people with even bigger shyness issues than me: Say hello to a certain number of people. I started with ten, then twenty five. By the end of the summer I could easily smile, look someone in the eye, say “hello” or “good morning” a hundred times a day.
Since then I haven’t really done that exercise. Recently, I’ve noted in myself a return to much of the isolation of my past. I thought re-doing this exercise would be a good idea. So I set the goal of greeting a hundred people over the weekend, primarily strangers. Depending if I count everyone in my synagogue, I either missed my goal by a handful, or exceeded it. It was once again hard to catch someone’s eye and say “Hello.” But something weird happened too, which didn’t happen last time. On a few occasions, I’d just say hello and a conversation would break out, whether I wanted it or not. In some restaurants, all of a sudden I got preferential treatment. All of the servers were congregating around me like I was some kind of movie star. Thinking about this later, I’ve realized what happened.
Since 2006, this has gone from exercise to habit, and I, I did not know. This exercise, which ended up as rather interesting social experiment, has yielded some very unexpected results. I greet people all the time and open myself up to be receptive to them. Some, I’ll admit are scared and suspicious of me and won’t look me in the eye. But most find a cheerful, open person who greets them in a friendly way and doesn’t mind listening to whatever they want to say. A lot of these people are counter help or customer service people or restaurant servers. Because I do it so often and naturally, people react openly to me.
I saw the opposite yesterday, in the throes of a bad head cold. Both with the lack of energy to keep up a good attitude and my eyes watering, I was not at my best. So with the weak eyes of a rhinovirus or just a busy day, both times it took a long time for the server to come over and take my order. I noticed two things in those interactions at lunch and dinner. One was internal to me. When my existence was not acknowledged, I got angry and started treating the server as an object with a specific function. The same thing happened at dinner. I realized what I was doing and decided I’d try a little flirting. Strangely enough the service improved from that point on.
We read about the divine connection of heaven and earth in Jacobs’s dream, with Angels going up and down the ladder. We each have a divine face, each face a rung on that ladder between heaven and earth. When we acknowledge a face, we acknowledge God, and that person can also acknowledge it in us. This builds up from a small interaction to the attraction of keeping this relationship going. The conversation ascends like the angels heading up the ladder of Jacob’s dream. There can be something special, maybe even holy, in this conversation about the mundane. On the other hand, this connection breaks down and people spiral downward into alienation when we don’t acknowledge them and they don’t acknowledge us. As social creatures we want to connect to others, and have others connect to us. Through fear of the unknown, we often don’t and isolate ourselves. Being so isolated, we no longer pay attention since there is seemingly nothing to pay attention to.
All it needs to start the process is for one person to come up, look into the other’s eye, smile and say “hello!” Both Hillel and Shammai understood this. Both said hello to the stranger. Shammai, when confronted with a silly question, lost his openness. The connection that Hillel made inspired more connection and study. If one is open to connection, one gets connection and one builds connections which reach toward heaven like Jacob’s ladder.
God is not just on the Temple Mount. The gate of heaven is in Target and Wal-Mart too. Not in the merchandise lining the shelves, but in the faces of those around us. Sadly we don’t often think or see that. In the most obscene examples, people are injured or die because of it. In a rush-rush stress of December, indeed all year round, remember to say a friendly “hello” to that counter help and your fellow shoppers. What was once a stressful mundane task may just become a beautiful holy one.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Parshat Toledot 5769: Twin Thinking

I originally wanted to title this portion What is Jewish Thinking, but a death close to home changed my mind. A 53 year old coworker of mine, our electronics expert, went home Thursday night, Tired, he lay down for a nap. He never woke up and was found two days later when another of our employees, his sister, finally checked on him. His death has been a bit of a shock for me in many ways. First of all he was only ten years older than me, and the thought of my own mortality is very much on my mind right now. While my grand parents had the chance to say good bye to us in one way or another, we knew the end was coming and someone was watching them to the very end. Gary died suddenly, and no one was there for him when he did. To die so alone seems so horrible, to live a life where no one notices you are dead for days. That too has been on my mind as I find myself alone, realizing if I died like that, no one would know for days, for no one would check on me.
Last weeks portion Haye Sarah starts and ends with the deaths of Sarah and Abraham respectively. Toledot is about birth, Life, and living. Due to prior business commitments I could not get out of, I missed both the funeral and shiva calls, which also upset me greatly. This week I make my Shiva call here in my words, I dedicate this to Gary and the life he lived. If there was one thing I could most say about Gary, it’s that he thought very differently than everyone else, and it is different thinking that I wanted to talk about this week.
This week Isaac and Rebecca are childless. After some praying, Rebecca gets pregnant with twins, who won’t sit still in her womb.
22. And the children struggled together inside her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the Lord. 23. (K) And the Lord said to her, Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.[Genesis 25]

After the Birth of Esau and Jacob, the two are as different as can be, each preferred by opposite parents. Once the kids are older, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. The family then moves into Philistine territory for a while. They are eventually kicked out for Isaac trying the “sister” tactic of his father, though he gets caught when he can’t keep his hands off the lovely Rebecca. There is some trouble at the wells, and then Esau marries a few gals who stress out his parents. Finally, Isaac asks Esau to get him some venison, prepare him a meal, and then Esau will get the blessing. Rebecca helps Jacob trick his father into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau, which enrages Esau to the point he’s swearing to kill Jacob. Rebecca then makes a timely suggestion to Isaac that it is time to find a wife for Jacob among her family, so Jacob sets out toward Padan-Aram.

There is much to make of Esau and Jacob’s relationship as brothers. A rabbi friend of mine happened to mention an interesting piece in Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s blog
I have no feelings pro or con regarding Anne Rice’s books, but there was something she said in the interview that I found profoundly saddening. I can’t quote her verbatim, but if I heard her correctly she said that she came to a place in her intellectual life where she realized that she will never have the answers to her questions, but that as long as she believed God had the answers she could stop asking the questions.

I can’t imagine a life without questions. A life of answers is dull. A life without questions is dead. The irony of the world’s second most famous author of vampire stories succumbing to questionless and hence lifeless theology was lost on Ms. Rice and her interviewer. But not on me.

Life is all about asking questions. Answers are secondary. They are temporary. But only as long as we continue to ask questions.[]

Judaism is a religion not of answers but of questions. We ask a lot of questions. The word in Hebrew for commentary midrash comes from the root to seek or question. Doing a very quick, rough check there are approximately, 32,000 times in the Babylonian Talmud the words What, why or how are used. God names are approximately 7,000. We are not the people of the book, but the people of the question.
In my Shlomo’s Drash from four years ago for Toledot, I made an interesting use of Esau and Jacob:
We are all Rebecca. Jacob, who will be Israel, is our yetzer ha tov, Esau our yetzer ha-ra. Esau is a force within all of us, and like Rebecca, we feel the pain of that force. Like the passive Isaac we may find it attractive because Esau is so visibly active and outwardly strong, hunting and bringing home the venison. But like the wily Rebecca, we see that the true good is in the one who sits in quiet study.

In that piece I related the rabbinic tradition of Jacob and Esau representing two nations. Jacob, whose name will change to Israel, represents the Jewish people. Esau on the other hand will found the nation of Edom. While the Edom in the biblical text is areas to the east of Israel, the Talmud has different ideas:
The hands are the hands of Esau [Gen 27:22] this is the Government of Rome which has destroyed our House and burnt our Temple and driven us out of our land.[Gittin 7b]

Rome eventually was replaced in later generations with Christianity as the Esau symbol. In our own minds these two, Edom and Israel struggle. Jacob is our Jewish thinking, Esau our western Christian and Roman influenced thinking. Ann Rice and Rami Shapiro once again reflect that. Thing is they both have a point, both ways of struggling with existence. One starts with certainty about everything, one starts with the spice of uncertainty. Their actions are based on those assumptions.
27. And the boys grew; and Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.[Genesis 25]

Esau, being Rome, handles things like Romans. He’s a man of his weapons, of strength, and of force. He’s also a man of certainty. Questions are not his thing. He makes a decision and then does it. Note Esau’s impulsiveness trading his birthright for stew. The world of Edom is black or white, you are either hunter or prey. Esau’s grandson Amalek would be known in the bible for his people’s attention to hurting the weak. Of course one of the most notorious Amalekite of all is the genocidal Haman. Although it is not written anywhere in the text, there is a hint in “breaking the yolk” of Isaac’s fondness for him. Esau is physically strong enough to resist others. The text tells us that Isaac favored Esau for his venison. Isaac may favor Esau because if Isaac had been Esau at the Akedah, things would have gone differently. Esau believes in winning and losing, and can be a sore loser and complainer. Esau reacts to the world. He lets the world happen to him. When the world does not go his way, he can react with violence.

Jacob lives in tents. Note that the biblical text says tents and not one tent. The rabbis claim it meant he studied at two different schools, but I would go farther, based on the blessing in Deuteronomy. Isaac uses the phrase a field that the Lord has blessed.[genesis ] Deuteronomy, the only other place where a field is blessed, reads Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field [Deut. 28:3]. He moved around, and knew how to move around from place to place. He knew the city and the field and had the pragmatism of both.
In next week’s portion, although he left with nothing, we read none of the problems of surviving in the wilderness that accompanied Hagar. Indeed he finds a rock and makes himself a comfy bed. When informed of Rebecca’s plan, he rattles out a series of questions, yet in the midst of the deception and possibly found out by Isaac due to his voice, he still gets the blessing.
While Esau may be a hunter, its likely Jacob was a farmer and shepherd, and probably knew the genetics trick he pulls on Laban back in Cannan. While his brother doesn’t stop complaining, what you never hear from Jacob is blame, he just moves on and tries something else. On the other hand he has no problem bargaining with God either, even after God guarantees his safety. Jacob may not be strong physically, but he certainly was streetwise. He was proactive, not thinking in winning or losing, but in how he can improve and how he can get around the stumbling blocks of his life.
While the Esau in me would say there is only one right way to think, The Jacob in me strongly believes there are infinite. Jacob and Esau the twins struggling in the womb of the mind, providing us with many views of different thinking. Esau is in many ways Anne Rice’s perfect faith. If that perfect faith is feeding the poor there is no one who could object. If it is perfect faith to murder innocent people in a hotel, that is very disturbing. Jacob Is Rami Shapiro’s need to question. It works to bring ethics and creativity in to a situation, but it also can cause one to fall into analysis paralysis and do nothing at all. There are many ways to think, none completely bad or completely good. It requires that qualitative side of Jacob to understand this, for the quantitative Esau cannot get there. There are times that even the polarity falls short of explaining some people’s thinking.
My co worker Gary was a genius of a sort. None of what I just said describes him. As our electronics expert, he worked with me on occasion while I was trying to fix some of the computer systems in our office. He had circuit boards running around in his head. By that I mean you mention something that you want to do and he’d picture the whole board almost instantly. That is not to say he got the entire thing working right, and once he had that board in his head he’d work on making a physical one that worked to specs to the exclusion of everything else he was supposed to do. I learned early on not ask to borrow his soldering iron because he’d end up obsessing about fixing one wire or finding one plug. He’d often come by my office looking to borrow my infra red thermometer. On more than one occasion instead of checking volts or amps or ohms on equipment to diagnose it, he’d use my infra red thermometer to check the temperature of the circuit boards and connected equipment. Against any logic I could use, by looking at the temperatures he’d know what was wrong. He had his challenges in life, things that has destroyed many a human being, but he prevailed against them. Sometimes our ways of thinking clashed and it was hard to communicate, but somehow we got projects done.
I have my own way of thinking, very influenced by the Talmudic sages. In the face of the great tragedies of the destruction of the temple and the Bar Kokbah rebellion, they did not think they lost, but went about thinking differently. That way of thinking continues to this day. Note I used their thinking in this piece. It is not logical to take two verses of Torah and make a conclusion from it in Western logic. But in their minds such things were part of the fabric of the text and allowed them to come up with such ides as twenty three people need to judge a capital case. [M. Sanh 1:5]

There are many ways to think. Some add to the world, some destroy it, which makes this difficult to end this piece. As I’ve been writing this, there of course has been another example of Esau thinking at his worst. My condolences to all the families of the victims of the Mumbai terror attacks.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Haye Sarah 5769: What is Real?

I read an article last week about a divorce. This by itself should not be big news, but the circumstances of this divorce and even where I heard it from was a bit disturbing. I thought of this week’s portion and how in the story of a marriage we find some answers about that divorce.

This week’s portion named the Life of Sarah ironically starts with her death. Abraham does some land deals to find a proper burial place for his late beloved wife, and then tells his trusty servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac back in the old country. Eliezer, seemingly not having a clue what to do decides the best thing to do is pray and to ask for a sign from God.
13. Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water; 14. And let it come to pass, that the girl to whom I shall say, Let down your water jar, I beg you, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give your camels drink also; let the same be she whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that you have shown kindness to my master.[Genesis 24]

Almost immediately the sign comes to pass, as Rebecca comes to fetch water.
17. And the servant ran to meet her, and said, Let me, I beg you, drink a little water from your water jar.18. And she said, Drink, my lord; and she hurried, and let down her water jar upon her hand, and gave him drink.19. And when she had finished giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking. 20. And she hurried, and emptied her water jar into the trough, and ran back to the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels.[Genesis 24]

After repeating this entire story, he eventually brings her back to Isaac where she is so blown away by him she falls off her camel. Isaac and Rebecca get married, move into Sarah's old digs, and Isaac is comforted from the loss of his mother. Abraham remarries, (some rabbinic sources say he marries Hagar), and has a few more kids. Even with the death of Abraham, which Isaac and Ishmael bury jointly, everybody acts like one happy family until the twins show up next week.

A friend of mine wrote a quick note stating she was disturbed with an article about an UK couple that had divorced over the husband cheating on the wife in the internet game Second Life, though never meeting his mistress face to face. Second Life is a game where you make up a character and live and explore a virtual world. These two had actually met on-line in the game, had a small real wedding then had a large wedding in the game itself. When she caught her husband cheating on her not in real life but in the confines of the game, she hired a detective in the game to find out if he had been cheating more, eventually finding he had a relationship with an American woman. He claimed he would not have needed to entertain himself this way if his wife wasn’t so involved with another similar though more violent game, the World of Warcraft. After the divorce, it was reported in the press that the two are getting remarried, he to his on-line mistress, and she to a guy she met on World of Warcraft. I wrote to my friend:
Living one's whole life in SL is disturbing. What's really disturbing is, given all that, she's dating a guy from WoW.
This started a group discussion my friend hadn’t planned on getting into. I got philosophical rather quickly:

I think the issue is misrepresentation. The question is: at what point does the potential to misrepresent make it imaginary?

At what point does the lie, regardless of the media make something unreal?

I was getting self reflective too, wondering if I was real. This conversation, just like Second Life and Warcraft happened online in the social media system known as Twitter. Twitter however is far different than those games in several respects. Primarily it is not a rich 3-d environment meant to be played on the best computer systems available. Instead it is a communication tool allowing very limited communication to accommodate anyone’s computer or cell phone. The limitations are so great that your comments, known as tweets, can be only 140 characters long. Pictures and other media need to be referenced to other systems. There are none on the system, except for a small postage stamp sized picture for an avatar. Avatars are essentially representations of the person talking. Second Life has avatars too, but the object of the game is to dress up and act the part of your avatar in glorious 3-d graphics and animation.
While I do have a photo of myself for an avatar, both of the people I was conversing with didn’t, but illustrations instead. One of them is an author I admire, though he is reluctant to publicly identify himself given the nature of his writing. To have a false name and picture protects himself and his family from any backlash against his work. Yet even photos can lie. An avatar can be a photo of someone else besides the person communicating as I quickly remembered when I got mail from some internet dating site. E-dating sites are notorious for people lying about their age or putting a picture of someone else. I’ve been on a few dates when the picture doesn’t match the person I get to meet. A friend of mine even went on a date with what he thought was an attractive woman, only to find a morbidly obese woman waiting for him. She had gotten her best friend to pose for her picture on the profile. Some articles on the Second Life divorce case showed picture of the avatars of the couple, and also their actual pictures. The lie showed well here, the avatars were very different than the real people.
Back in Genesis 24 by the well outside Nahor, Eliezer is in the same dilemma. While many of the rabbis of the Midrash believe he said something careless in his little prayer, I’m not so sure. As we will definitively learn in later dealings with Rebecca’s brother Laban, these are not the most truthful people. Deception is a way of life. As we will learn in next week’s portion, not even Rebecca is completely immune. What's a trusted servant to do?
10. And the servant took ten of his master’s camels, and departed; for all the good things of his master were in his posession; and he arose, and went to Mesopotamia, to the city of Nahor. [Genesis 24]
Why did he take that many camels? It would seem literally that he took a lot of goods with him. Was that ten camel’s worth? In Genesis 13:2 we know that Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. Much of Abraham’s wealth from both Pharaoh and from Abimelech was in the form of cattle and sheep. While he did have gold and silver, the bigger wealth of cattle and sheep could not be transported on camels. If that is true, what were the good things that took on the camels? There are two answers: one would be the camels themselves as invaluable transport. Yet the second is more intriguing: that all the good things for Abraham was the ability to comfort Isaac. To take all the good things means to take this mission very seriously.
Eliezer thus may not have taken this frivolously as the Rabbis claim, but took this very seriously. He took ten camels intentionally for a test. Each camel drinks up to 30 gallons, so ten of them can drink up to a total of 300 gallons. For someone to give a passing stranger say 20 ounces of water is not a big deal. Yet, for someone to volunteer to pour out 300 gallons of water is no easy feat. It requires not just an action but a commitment to continued action until the task is done.
I asked my Twitter friends an important question. What is real enough on the internet to be trusted enough to be considered reality? I can expand this to any media really, including life. While they didn’t answer me, my answer comes from Perkei Avot. Rabbi Akiba once said:
The world is judged with goodness, and everything is in accordance with the preponderance of [man's] deed[s]. [Avot 3:15]
While Akiba was discussing how God relates to us, it is true of interpersonal relationships as well. We have choices, and how we are judged by other individuals is by our deeds. While his methods and motivation may be debatable, the Midrash is clear in what Eliezer’s mission really was. The only thing that would comfort Isaac is someone to replace his mother – Isaac’s wife was to be the next Matriarch, with the commitment and the force of will that Sarah had during her life. To make sure that was the right person for this important task some beauty contest and interview with prospective brides would not do. Whoever was able to water the camels was the real thing because they acted like the real thing. It was Rebecca that passed such a test.
While I have no problem with people entertaining themselves for a few hours in a game, I do have a problem with people taking the game as real, and living their lives in this imaginary world, being someone they are not. Rebecca gave a drink to a passing stranger who asked and gave water to camels until they had their fill. Eliezer, Rebecca, and ten camels benefitted from her actions. The world of the game does not produce anything that betters anyone else except the profits of the companies running or selling merchandise in the game. While some might use Twitter in the same way as a game, many of my author, artist and even Rabbi friends use it to promote what they created. Sometimes they ask for support from the community for what they are working on. I often listen to those more experienced voices as I learn from them their tricks of the trade, and contribute some of my own at times. We may communicate via electronic communication, but we go back to the real world to do our crafts.

In the end what makes us real is we make or do something in this world which affects others. The first life is not a game like Second Life; it is about changing our world for the better, not just for ourselves, but for others. It may be a work of art, some social action, or even a smile for someone who is having a bad day. Unlike the relationships on-line, love in the real world may even make a baby or two. Next week, we’ll look at two babies and how they represent two different models of perceiving the world.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Vayera 5769: Sarah laughed, I laughed, We Succeeded

I have a disability, yet almost no one knows it. It is a limitation in my life. In this week’s portion we read about Sarah’s limitations. This week we read:
12. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am grown old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? [Genesis 18]

This is not the first time we have heard this. Abraham as well said so
17. Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born to him who is a hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear? [Genesis 17]

Ancient rabbinic thought does not comment on the one thing that I been thinking about in these passages, probably because it was so obvious. Sarah and Abraham both laughed because she thought that a son at this point was impossible. Of course, God can do anything, so it shouldn't be so impossible, hence God’s impatience concerning Sarah
13. And the Lord said to Abraham, Why did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old? 14. Is any thing too hard for the Lord? At the time appointed I will return to you, at this season, and Sarah shall have a son. 15. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, No; you did laugh.[Genesis 18]

On a very personal level I understand Sarah laughing. Not only was there the issue of conceiving, but of carrying and giving birth to a child. Physical limitations seem to be insurmountable. Sarah, more than Abraham, has to be intimately involved with the creative process. In my own creative work, I’m also familiar with physical limitations. I’ve discussed my color blindness before, but I never have gone into the other limitation in my life.
The first signs of a problem came in early grade school. My handwriting was terrible, and I was doing terribly in Physical Education. Besides picking the wrong colors, when using coloring books I could never color within the lines. I would often, when trying to write my homework completely zone out, what the teacher wrote on my report card as “daydreaming.” Due to a series of fortunate circumstances, My parents were able to get me tested for what was going on. It turns out my brain is working faster than my motor nerves. These two working at conflicting speeds mean I cannot control my body as easily as most people do. This might not seem to be that big of a deal but think about all the things that need coordination of those two systems. The reason I did so rotten in virtually any sport wasn’t a matter of strength, but coordination. Trying to catch a ball or swing a bat becomes a nightmare when there is even a fraction of a second delay between what you see and your arm moving. I failed Drivers Education the first time I took it because trying to get my arms and feet to control the vehicle was near impossible. By the second time I drove sufficiently well to get my license. But the worst of all was putting a pencil in my hand.
Nothing is so subtle and precise in its movements than handwriting. I had to concentrate intensely to write a single letter. It took a while, and my brain meanwhile flooded those same muscles with thirty more ideas or letters that needed to be put down. In that clog of ideas my hand would go on strike and shut down, hence the day dreaming. One teacher ever figured this out, and she did something that I’m indebted to her forever. She put me on a typewriter, and let me type my lessons. The ideas flowed much easier, though even here I had an incurable problem with typographic errors. Unfortunately in the years that followed I didn’t have a typewriter and I suffered in my classes from having to write my homework. As much as Blue books were bad for most students, for me they were a total terror. Even in graduate school, things were problematic with writing. Trying to take my handwritten comprehensive examinations for my first Master’s Degree, I almost failed because my writing was so bad as to be unreadable. I would start writing one sentence and then pick up with the end of the next sentence, skipping dozens of words in between in my incomprehensible scrawl. Fortunately my advisor knew about my problem, and was merciful in his grading. He knew if you put me in front of a key board, the words just start streaming out in incredible prose – my only problem was that pencil and pen.
Word processing has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. Without it I would have had nothing of what I have today. I seriously doubt I would have graduated High School. Yet now I have two graduate degrees.
One thing that I always wanted to do was art. I wanted to draw and paint. But between my color blindness and my lack of motor control that was a laughable dream, as laughable as two senior citizens having children. Yet it was a dream I really wanted.
Shortly after I finished my Masters in education and that comprehensive exam, I did something very scary for me. I took a drawing class. Like that typewriter in first grade, it was a moment of enlightenment when John, our teacher stuck two Chinese takeout cartons and a Styrofoam cup in the middle of the room, and told us to blind contour draw what we saw in front of us. Blind contour, for those not familiar with art is a way of drawing where you never look at what you are drawing; your eyes are instead always looking at the subject you are drawing. But there was one other instruction I was given, and that was the breakthrough in my art. I was told not to draw by movements of my fingers but to use my whole arm. That suggestion changed everything, and within three weeks I was drawing the cups and take out cartons, along with watering can and milk pails as recognizable objects. Removing the hundreds or motions of my fingers for the few muscles of my arm meant I gained far more control of my body than I ever had with a writing instrument in it.
After graduating college I got a job that had me on the road six days a week. Although I was still very rough in my driving, in the nine months I worked that job, I put on 80,000 miles on that car. By the time I left that job for another, no one could ever tell I ever had trouble driving. In the twelve years since I started drawing and painting, I have filled dozens of notebooks, almost every day of the last twelve years I’ve painted or drawn. And something amazing happened. I could draw and paint. My ability today is the result of a few teachers who set me in the right direction and a ton of practice. I’ve learned to use my hands and the rest of my body properly despite my disability. Repetition has been a huge part of that.
Had someone handed me one of my acrylics or watercolors and told me I painted that, I would have laughed as much as Abraham and Sarah. It seemed inconceivable I could do anything like that. Yet staring at the work which covers the walls of my apartment I’m reminded of how much one can accomplish.
Miracles happen, but they happen when both God and humanity take them seriously. We may laugh at the prospect of something incredible happening, be it a child in one’s old age or painting a beautiful woman at a beach bar. I thought of all this recently when I was given a few new physical challenges by a friend of mine, and once again my hands feel like they are made of lead, and I find my self fighting not to shut down. It’s made me realize what is necessary to get me to function like a normal human being, something unwritten into the text of the story of Abraham and Sarah. In stories of infertility we usually have no gap between God promising and God fulfilling. Yet here there’s a three-month gap. It took a year for Sarah to have a baby, while if she had gotten pregnant immediately it would wold have been sooner. We have no idea how long she was kept captive from Abraham by Abimelech in the second “she is my sister” episode. Yet it would seem a lot less than three months. Since it is clear also that it is Abraham’s son, there is only one conclusion about those three months. Any time they were together, they copulated. Abraham and Sarah did the human physical acts that made the miracle true. God supplied the rest.
The laughingly impossible is possible if only we try and try again. I rode tens of thousands of miles in my first car, and have become a good driver because of it. I have painted thousands of paintings, each one better than the last. When I learned how to throw pottery on the potters wheel, my ceramics teacher told me how to make a good pot: you make a lot of pots. I realized how powerful that advice to me twenty-two years ago was when last year when for the first time in fifteen years I sat down at a potter’s wheel and threw a perfect pot to my total surprise. Muscle memory is different than conscious memory, it never forgets.
But there is the other part we cannot forget. God will do miracles and blessings, if only we look for them. I had no control of which teacher I got in different parts on my life, but those who were particularly memorable were blessings from God. I would not have succeeded without them. That is the stuff we need to thank God for.
My disabilities are mostly inconveniences. I’m not blind or paralyzed, as others are who are presented challenges I can not even imagine. Yet I believe anyone who has a limitation can expand themselves into places that they or others might laugh about, if only they put the hard effort of practice in. When they do that, God will provide for them blessings. We all have limitations that make a dream laughable. Though I can strum a few chords, with my fingers I very much doubt I will ever be able to play Flight Of The Bumblebee on my guitar. My fingers just can’t move that fast.
Or can they? If I had the desire, put in the practice, and looked for the miracles that would help me get there, even that may be possible. If you really had the desire, the discipline to do something thousands of times, and the willingness to let God give you a few gifts along the way, what could you accomplish?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Parshat Lech Lecha 5769: Two Songs, Two people

This week we read Lech Lecha, with its famous words
“And the Lord had said to Abram, Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
Abram, along with wife Sarai, Lot, and the “souls that they made” leave for a place unknown. Along the way, they stop in Canaan, until a famine forces them to Egypt where Abraham half-lies about Sarah to save his own life, only to benefit in a huge financial apology by the Pharaoh of Egypt. Then he returns to Canaan somewhere around Hebron, only to end up leading a military alliance with Sodom and Gomorrah to save Lot from a hostage situation. Abram then refuses to take any war booty, but Lot decides to live in Sodom. Abraham then does a rather strange sacrifice, getting a promise and a prophecy about the Exodus from Egypt. He half-lies again about Sara, this time to the Philistine king Abimelech. Then he has a son Ishmael by Sarai’s handmaid Hagar. God tells his to change his name to Abraham, his wife’s to Sarah. Finally God literally “cuts a contract” for Abraham, Ishmael and all of Abraham’s male descendants: circumcision.

I tried several times this week to write something. I had a lot of ideas but could not get any of them work. I thought about Abram and how he views the issues of the king and his religion. I looked at Milchizedek, and the King of Sodom trying to figure out why Abram accepted one tribute and rejected another. I had lots of good sources, but it just wouldn’t come together. Thus I went back and decided to update an old Shlomos Drash, this one from 2004, because like the Torah reading themselves sometimes we need to re-vist issues we’ve looked at before.

When reading a Torah scroll, at the beginning of this chapter there is an interesting letter pattern: LCh LCh. The same word seems to repeat, though vocalized it is read Lech Lecha. Literally, Lech is the command to walk or go in the masculine, and Lecha is to you or for you. When read, this becomes go to yourself or go for yourself, but really it is just a very emphatic go. In Tanach, this phrase occurs only twice in the text. Once here and once in relation to the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:2). In the case of the Akedah, it is not exactly the same. In that case there is a Vav in front of Lech, the word looking like a cane an old man is carrying with a boy running after him.

Debbie Friedman, in her song Lech Lecha, alternates verses with the feminine version of the same phrase: L’chi Lach. L’chi Lach also occurs only twice: in the Song of Songs [2:10-13] where it begins and ends a poem where the male lover adjures the female to come out and play:

My beloved answered [and spoke] to me:
Arise, for yourself my love my beautiful one,
Go for yourself
For, here, the winter passed over
The rain passed on
Blossoms appear on the land
The time of song (bird) arrives
The voice of the turtledove is heard on our land
The fig tree makes spicy the early fig
The blossom of the grapevines gives fragrance
Arise for yourself, my love my beautiful one,
Go for yourself

The Song of Songs is read in the spring, while Parshiot Lech Lecha and Vayera are read in the fall. The feminine and masculine versions of the same command are read in opposite seasons. In the season of increasing darkness or bright colors becoming gray we have the male. In the season of increasing brightness, or gray becoming bright colors again, we have the female.

A long time ago, I was involved with a distance relationship, spending hours on the phone with this woman. Instead of a romantic time at our first face to face meeting of a distance, I broke up with her, knowing full well that the breakup was completely my fault. Walking around with that guilt and pain I walked into Friday services that week, not to be consoled, but to be ordered around like a slave, not a human being with feelings. Instead of sympathy, I got scolding. I decided that night to Lech Lecha to another Synagogue, preferably as quietly as possible. However for one or two individuals, for the next two months, they delighted in kicking me while I was down. One of these people expressed their opinion that I left because I hated women. Although completely untrue, for a guy still getting over a breakup, nothing hurt more. But it confirmed my feelings: it was time to go, and like Abraham and Haran, I was never to return there. As of this writing I’m definitely in a different place, a different chapter to say the least, one of far more hope than that time.

Back then, sitting with my coffee on an appropriately gray and gloomy day, I read that passage from the Song of Songs, illustrated with several rather bright, beautiful paintings I did even more years ago. I remembered something. Lech Lecha, although directed to a single person, was not just one person, but two- Abraham and Sarah. Abraham took Sarah with him, and as the Midrash explains she is an important part of the journey. The Midrash explains that the “souls they made” meant converts, and Sarah converted the women just as Abraham converted the men. This was a partnership of equal but not quite the same as the two words Lech and Lecha look alike on the torah scroll but are not quite the same in sound or meaning. One cannot be without the other. Together each makes the other better.

In the Song of Songs Lechi Lach is a calling out from the male lover to the female to be in the world of the male lover. It is followed by this (2:14)
My dove is in concealment of the cliff
In steep hiding places.
Show me your appearance
Let me listen to your voice
For your voice is sweet and your appearance is beautiful.
The male makes this second call to come out, this one not to the call of nature, but to the beauty of her appearance and voice. Here the male uses the term my dove to address the female. Doves are one of the most strongly monogamous birds. Many dove species do everything together with their mate, unlike other bird species, denoting their monogamous connection. They will only take one mate, then live alone when that mate dies. I learned how much so while once walking to get my morning coffee in Providence Rhode Island. A mourning dove had flown into a window of a store and smashed its skull. Its mate could do nothing but walk around it cooing, not paying the slightest attention to me. It could not leave its mate, even at its death.

Through everything in Abraham’s and Sara’s trip, much of which could easily derail a relationship, Abraham and Sarah stay together. Sara is that dove. Abraham says to Sara “you are beautiful in appearance” [Genesis 12:11] Her voice is sweet in its wisdom, as the text and God remind us “in all that Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice” [Genesis 21:12]

In the Song of Songs, L’chi Lach is not enough to get to that relationship. It will require the entire Song of Songs for them to be completely together. Like it did when I first looked at this topic back in 2004, I’ve been thinking about that lately. What my journey, indeed all of our journeys is about, is to get to the relationship at the end of the Song of Songs, both with a wonderful partner and with God. Like the story of Abraham and Sarah or the Song of Songs, it will require many trials, a few losses, a few gains to get to my land. I’ve moved along from where I was many years ago, yet Like Abraham who will do more journeying. I’ve made mistakes, like he did with Pharaoh and Abimelech, well intentioned or not. In time, we learn to love. We learn to receive love and we learn to give love.

I think in the fall, many have depressing thoughts as the world begins to turn dark and cold. But the time of light and warmth will come. Maybe it will take a very long time, but it will happen. Even though as things get dark in the fall, spring will follow. In this time of the male of the fall, the female of spring will be there too; we just have to be patient.

Rashi Script handout available

Just a quickie before I get out the Shlomo's Drash for the week. Many texts use Rashi script as a way to cite biblical quotations, though many people don't know how to read these. I have written a handout about Rashi script, Hebrew numbering and a reference guide to the names of the books of the Tanach in Rashi script. It is available for download at

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Parshat Noah 5769: Prophet, Wimp, or Artist?

This week we come to the story of Noah and the flood. God becomes dissatisfied with all flesh on the earth, and thus plans to destroy them. But he does save one family, that of Noah, who was the most righteous of his generation. Noah is commanded to build an ark that will house male and female of every species and a few extra of the clean species. The floods come; all land life is wiped out except that preserved on the Ark. After the Flood subsides, God promises not to do that again, sealing the covenant with a rainbow. Noah, unable to deal with the new world, gets drunk and stupid. After the unpleasantness of this incident, a few more generations are born. With only a rainbow as a contract, these later generations don't completely trust God. They decide to make a tower at Babel to prevent a flood from happening again. God intervenes, and soon no one can communicate with one another. These peoples are scattered across the world, becoming the various nations of the world. Following the genealogy of Noah's son Shem, we end the portion introduced to some interesting characters: Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot.

The first line of this week’s portion reads:
9. These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a righteous man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.
Many commentaries discuss the phrase in his generations. How righteous was Noah really? Some argue that he was, in comparison to everyone of his generation more righteous, but in comparison to those of later generations like Abraham or Moses, not really that righteous. Others argue the opposite. To be righteous in such a quagmire requires an inner strength later generations of righteous people did not need. Noah walked with God, as his great grandfather Enoch had. No one else walked with God directly in the biblical text, though often the Israelites are admonished to walk with the commandments.

Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Prophets starts with a question I’ve been mulling over for the past week: What manner of man is the prophet? In this week’s portion, was Noah some kind of prophet as he was walking with God?
There is some evidence there was some form of prophetic activity going on. The Midrash states
For a whole one hundred and twenty years Noah planted cedars and cut them down. On being asked, ‘Why are you doing this? ‘He replied: ‘The Lord of the universe has informed me that He will bring a Flood in the world.’ [Gen R. XXX: 7]
The hundred and twenty years comes from the following verse:
3. And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for he also is flesh; yet his days shall be a hundred and twenty years. [Genesis 6]
The verses plain meaning is that a human life span will never exceed 120 years. Yet in Genesis 9:29 we know that Noah lived nine hundred and fifty years. Noah’s son Shem’s descendants after the flood listed in Genesis 11 often exceed 120, contradicting the statement above. However, given the context, the rabbis concluded that this was God setting a time limit of 120 years before he wiped everything off the planet.

This however sets up a bit of a problem. We also read:
6. And Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters was upon the earth. [Genesis 6]
Which implies that Noah was 480 years old when he started growing trees. But we read two verses that aren't far apart from one another.
32. And Noah was five hundred years old; and Noah fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth. [Genesis 5]

9. These are the generations of Noah; Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.10. And Noah fathered three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
By repeating the phrase Noah fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth in each verse, rabbinic thinking links the verses together. We therefore can infer that whatever follows in Genesis 6 happens in the five hundredth year of Noah’s life.
11. The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.12. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.13. And God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. [Genesis 6]
This rabbinic tradition therefore concludes Noah was told about the flood and to make the ark when he was 500, not 480. Another Midrash explains it this way:
This alludes to the five hundred years to which he had attained when he gave birth to progeny; as it says, And Noah was five hundred years old; and Noah begot, etc. The reason why he postponed carrying out the duty of procreation was because of the iniquity of his generation which he constantly beheld. This continued until the Holy One, blessed be He revealed to him the matter of the ark. Then it was that he took a wife and gave birth to children. [Num R. XIV: 12]
While it is not necessary to reconcile two commentaries, it does present an interesting perspective of the biblical story. One says Noah began working on preparations for the ark 120 years before the Flood, another 100 years before. What happened in that 20 year gap?
As we already mentioned, Noah walked with God, one of only two people to do so. Of the other, Noah’s great grandfather Enoch, we read
21. And Enoch lived sixty five years, and fathered Methuselah; 22. And Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methuselah three hundred years, and fathered sons and daughters; [Genesis 5]
We are given an important piece of information: Enoch only walked with God after his son’s birth. In the case of Noah, we learn Noah walked with God, then immediately after we have a repetition of
Noah fathered Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
We can conclude from this association Noah too did not walk with God until the birth of his sons. While Numbers Rabbah above believes that Noah first heard about building the Ark and then had a family, I believe it was the reverse. Noah did not hear God’s specifications for the ark until he had a family. This isn’t the only precedent for this. In the case of Moses we read he had his son Gershon [Exodus 2:22] and then The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; [Exodus 3:2]

Walking with God may be some form of prophecy. In its form, it requires a family. It is of course not the only conditions for prophecy. Jeremiah started when he was still in his pre-teens, and ordered by God not to have a wife or children [Jer. 16:1]. Yet, unlike late prophets like Jeremiah, we hear nothing of Noah demanding repentance of the people. Unlike Moses and Jeremiah, we hear nothing of him trying to avoid the role God has for him. All Noah does is build the ark, collect the animals and board. Unlike Moses or Abraham, who when told God was going to wipe out a civilization made forceful objections, Noah does not object. This lack of argument is the usual reason most do not consider Noah a prophet. There is an debate going as far back as rabbinic times, that Noah was too much of a wimp to be a prophet. He obeyed God completely, missing the Jewish iconoclasm in his makeup that marks many of the prophets, particularly Moses and Abraham.

Prior to the verbal prophecy found in abundance in the books of the prophets, Noah might have been a different kind of prophet – a visual one. There are other cases of such. The Plagues in Egypt or the yolk Jeremiah wore [Jer. 27:2] are examples. Visual prophecy never has objections in the biblical text. Like Noah, Moses never lifts a finger of objection to God wiping out the first born. Instead he starts disseminating orders [Ex. 12:21] Jeremiah simply straps on that wooden yolk.

If Noah got the specifications for the ark when he was 500, but the flood did not come till he was 600, there is another possibility for his actions. The ark was the visual prophecy. It begged the question ‘Why are you doing this?’ and then Noah could try to get anyone who asked to repent. God left the 120 years as a time where people could repent. Indeed the rabbis say God gave every chance for repentance possible. According to one midrash as the year of Methuselah’s death equals the same year as the flood, Noah’s Grandfather Methuselah died the same day as the rains began. But God did not flood the world completely for seven more days in order for people to mourn Methuselah. Had they done so they would have been redeemed, [Sanh. 108b] instead they scorned Noah [Eccl R. IX: 17] and so died.

I think Noah was some form of prophet, though not of the same caliber as the Jeremiah, Moses, or Abraham. There was a sequence to his prophesy. God decided 120 years before the flood to wipe out life on earth. Noah, who was righteous in his own way, knew something was different and wrong in the 480th year of his life. His righteousness let him pay attention to signs from God, like Moses was curious about the burning bush. Yet he was unable to truly walk with God until he had a family, which took twenty years. In all likelihood it was very hard to find a righteous woman worthy of the endeavor and of raising righteous children in such a society. Once he did walk with God He got the plans for the ark. Since he had an inkling of what was going on, as a farmer, he had spent the last twenty years growing cedars, and so had wood to begin the project of building the ark almost immediately. The construction brought many curious questions, and when asked he told people of what was to come due to their evil, though they would only scorn him. This went on for a hundred years. When the deadline came, God filled the world slowly with flood waters just to give everyone one last chance in those last seven days, but again they did not repent, while Noah and his family and his cargo of plants and animals survived in the sealed up ark.

Noah was a visual prophet, the only prophet to be completely such. Others would combine words and images. One of the important lessons of the story of Noah is that pure visual prophecy doesn’t work. The work of an artist or a visual demonstration might enhance the verbal rebuke of the prophet, but tends to be ignored. The slow prophecy of a hundred years also presents problems as well. Taking a hundred years to build the ark, and making a statement in its building, lent itself to people forgetting or ignoring the prophecy. All too often today from financial to environmental crises such events still occur. As a visual artist, I look at the statements I make in my own art work, and realize how meaningless they really are. Statements, whether intentionally placed there or unintentionally from the themes of my work, will be misinterpreted or ignored. The effect of a statement in a work of art is like the effect one bucket has on an ocean. It might make a splash, but will disappear quickly.

Noah’s work of art was functional of course, a piece of performance art which allowed the survival of species. Noah’s art made him think differently, much like the Jewish thinking which led me to the story I told in this piece. Such a story is impossible in Greek logic, and is only possible with the thinking of the Rabbis, of biblical thinking. Many times we need to change our thinking to find answers. Next week, we’ll look at the point when thinking really changed.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bereishit 5769: Who Invented Shabbos Sex?

While there are many mitzvot, none causes so many titters as the mitzvah of having sex on Friday night. While the actual mitzvah is found in Exodus, much of the basis of the mitzvah comes from this week’s portion. There is the passage about Shabbat
1. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. 3. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because that in it He had rested from all his work which God created and made. [Genesis 2]
Not long before this brings a verse that most might suppose is the reason:
28. And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.[Genesis 1]
While reproduction is related, the verse of interest to us is really this one.
16. To the woman he said, I will greatly multiply the pain of your child bearing; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you. [Genesis 3]
The Talmudic rabbis link this last verse, often called the Curse of Eve to one in Exodus. In this case, the Torah is discussing the responsibilities of a master to a female slave.
10. If he takes for himself another wife; her food, her garment, and her onah, shall he not diminish.[Exodus 21]
Based on the phrase another wife, the Talmudic rabbis conclude these are the same things for any wife or female slave, with the penalty of divorce for not supplying a wife these three things. While food and clothing are simple to understand, even the rabbis have problems translating the word Onah. The majority opinion however is that it means conjugal duties based on the curse of Eve [Ketubot 47b] as onah refers to the suffering in desire for a woman to her husband. Indeed, she cannot bear having time away with her husband, so other rabbis think onah refers to the interval of time apart from her husband. In the Mishnah for Ketubot, there is even a timetable of how long a man can be away from his wife:
Students may go away to study the Torah, without the permission [of their wives for a period of] thirty days; laborers [only for] one week. The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: for men of independence, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for ass-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months. These are the rulings of R. Eliezer [M. Ketubot 5:1]
The rabbis even explain that it is critical to have conjugal relations naked, and the penalty for not doing so.
R. Joseph learnt: Her flesh implies close bodily contact, viz, that he must not treat her in the manner of the Persians who perform their conjugal duties in their clothes. This provides support for [a ruling of] R. Huna who laid down that a husband who said, ‘I will not [perform conjugal duties] unless she wears her clothes and I mine’, must divorce her and give her also her ketubah. [Ketubot 48a]
However, this is not as liberal as it may seem. While the couple must be naked, they also cannot see each other either. Several places in the Talmud require the act to be done in the dark, even on a sunny day. The issue is about physical sensation of the woman. The medieval commentator Rashi makes this abundantly clear in several comments to the Talmudic discussion. Commenting on the advice of R. Hisda to his daughters to act modestly with their husbands, Rashi believes this means how to extend foreplay:
When your husband caresses you to arouse your desire for intercourse and holds the breasts with one hand and “that place” with the other give the breasts [at first] to increase his passion and do not give him the place of intercourse too soon until his passion increases and he is in pain with desire [Rashi to Shabbat 140b]
While Rashi did have daughters, some believe this comment by Rashi was more advice obliquely directed at his male students to know what to do. Rashi also got into a debate with other scholars, including his own grandson Rabbenu Tam over the use of birth control. Not in doubt was cases where a woman’s personal health was in danger from a pregnancy. In these, contraception was allowed. [B. Yavamot 12b & 100b, Ketubot 39a, Niddah 45a, N’darim 35b] However there was still a debate about spilling male seed using contraceptive devices, and that was what Rabbenu Tam and Rashi debated, whether the use of the contraceptive sponge was pre or post-coitial. What is significant about this was the be fruitful and multiply of Genesis 1 gets superseded by her conjugal relations in Exodus 21 by all parties.
But of all the things Rashi mentions regarding sex, it is the timing of onah which most interests us. What is missing so far from our exploration however is the schedule that the rabbis put on themselves. After giving stories about incredible scholars like R. Akiba who went twenty four years without spending time with his wife, they come to the conclusion that not only was it once a week but specifically every Friday night [Ketubot 62b]. Study was considered work, but the moment study stopped, the conjugal duties must be attended to. In his commentary, Rashi adds a sweet tone to this, calling the “Sabbath a night of enjoyment, relaxation and physical pleasure” [Rashi to Ketubot 62b] Elsewhere Rashi advocates that not only scholars, but laypeople also should engage in this practice on Friday night. [Rashi to Niddah 17a]
It was Rashi who connected everything together, and brought the mitzvah of onah to Erev Shabbat for everyone. Later scholars, particularly Kabbalists, would take the concept back to a spiritual meaning, making the coitial act a symbolic act. A parallel thread which eventually would become part of the tradition was the belief found in both the Talmud and medieval writings that if a woman attains sexual satisfaction first and then her husband, any resultant pregnancy would be a boy. This was later amended to a belief advocated in the Sefer Hasidim and by the Ramban in his Iggeret Kodesh that if done in the proper time and place, namely Shabbat, this not only produces a son, but a Torah scholar. Be fruitful and multiply did find its way into sex on Shabbat.
Sex is multifaceted, and the first chapters of Bereishit reflect this. Functionally it is about being fruitful and multiplying. Yet it also is about a sacred time between two people. The function of reproduction was created before eating the fruit, the longings of desire and relationship only after. It is also about man and woman becoming one flesh and completing the other. It is about the creation of gender, which is necessary for complementary completion. The text of Genesis and the ancient commentaries all looked at gender roles rather discretely, as though only women have that curse of Eve of deep desire for their mate, and men do not. Today, we are more aware of the blurred gender roles when it comes to sex. Both men and women feel desire for their mate. Individuals may show it differently, but it is there. In our world, it is difficult to fulfill during the week. Many people substitute more destructive habits for satisfaction of an intimate partner. The rabbis, in declaring for themselves that Shabbat was the time for sexual satisfaction of a wife was declaring something greater. Shabbat becomes the time of relationship when we stop the rest of our busyness and relate to those we love physically, emotionally and spiritually. When people ask me about Valentines Day, I often respond that those who observe Shabbat celebrate once a week, not once a year.
With that in mind, may you have a wonderful Shabbat.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sukkot 5769: Death, Sukkahs and Christmas

What is it about Sukkot that gets me nostalgic? What I feel in some way for Sukkot, is a lot like some people feel about Christmas. Hanukkah has its merits as a solstice holiday but Hanukkah still pales in comparison to decorating the house and the Christmas tree and having Christmas parties. Yet, for those that observe the mitzvah, Sukkot succeeds in doing what marketers only tell people about Christmas.
The mitzvah of having a sukkah is mentioned twice in Torah:
40. And you shall take on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. 41. And you shall keep it a feast to the Lord seven days in the year. It shall be a statute forever in your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. 42. You shall dwell in booths seven days; all who are Israelites born shall dwell in booths; 43. That your generations may know that I made the people of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. [Lev 23]

13. You shall observe the Feast of Booths seven days, after you have gathered in your grain and your wine; 14. And you shall rejoice in your feast, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates. 15. Seven days shall you keep a solemn feast to the Lord your God in the place which the Lord shall choose; because the Lord your God shall bless you in all your produce, and in all the works of your hands, therefore you shall surely rejoice. [Deut 16]
In both of these passages, it is clear this is a festival for rejoicing. It is also clear we are to live in the booths. Leviticus tells us to make sure to do this every year in every generation. Like Passover, it is reminder of the Exodus from Egypt. While Leviticus tells us it is for Israelites, Deuteronomy makes clear this is isn’t personal holiday, but one that is inclusive of the entire congregation, servants and the underprivileged as well as family. Zechariah includes others as well. In messianic times, everyone on the planet will celebrate in the Sukkah. [Zech 14:16] Yet even Israel did not follow this mitzvah for much of its early history. In Nehemiah we read the fourth passage about Sukkot, the first one after returning from exile:
16. So the people went out, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the open space of the Water Gate, and in the open space of the Gate of Ephraim. 17. And all the congregation of those who had returned from captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua, son of Nun, to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was a very great rejoicing. [Neh. 8]
The people rejoiced because it was Sukkot, but also they rejoiced in restoring a tradition from the time of Joshua. The beginning of the second temple period saw the revival of the Sukkah, even though Torah mandates observance from generation to generation. This provides us with a startling implication: After Joshua, there was never a sukkah when the Mishkan and the first temple stood in Israel.
In those first sukkahs of the second temple period, the Aaron Hodesh, the Holy Ark was not in the holy of holies as it was in the first temple or the Mishkan. The object where the presence of God was found hovering was no longer part of the temple. The best facilitator of the divine-human relationship was gone. So it is an odd, even ironic proposition to state that the fine craftsmanship of gold and acacia wood that was the Ark is to be replaced with a rickety, leaky shack that is a sukkah. From the destruction of the temple, the Aaron Hodesh was taken away and replaced with the sukkah.
Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book The Sabbath describes architecture of time in Judaism instead of space. Sukkot for example is a commemoration of a time when we lived in booths in the wilderness. The Sabbath is a commemoration of the completion of creation, one completely dependent on a time period of seven days and independent of space. Other religions in contrast have architecture of space. The place where something happened is more important than the time it happened. Encompassing Space and Time is relationship. There is foremost our relationship to God. Shabbat is a commemoration of our relationship to Creation and its creator. To rest on Shabbat we take the time to pause and look at creation. But often we observe Shabbat in a synagogue or in our houses, blocked off from much of the original creation by walls, doors, heating and air conditioning. Yet on Sukkot we take that step further, we spend time in creation in a hut so rickety we might as well have nothing. Its decorations are often not man-made but grown. It is to have, for seven days a year a certain experience, one Kohelet writes:
4. For to him who is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5. For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know nothing, nor do they have a reward any more; for the memory of them is forgotten. [Ecclesiastes 9]
To join to all life is to observe and experience all life. In this time of year we might feel the warmth of the sun on a dry day or the stinging cold wind and rain. It is to see the beautiful full moon on some years, and nothing but clouds on others. Every meal in the sukkah, everything changes. As Kohelet describes, the world is in constant flux, always changing and thus it is vanity to do anything. At the end of Sukkot we will begin Genesis again, and its repeated phrase “and it was evening and it was morning” If a year was compared to a day, then we are in the evening of the year. This is the time before the death of sleep we call winter as geese fly overhead, escaping to warmer climates. To be outside and experience this reminds us of Death and joins us to the living.
As much as the Days of Awe are often masses of people grouped together involved in a very personal event of getting written into the book of life, Sukkot flips this around. The sukkah itself is small but an incredibly social place. Only a few can fit there. In my family we never had our own sukkah. Today I have no where to put one of my own. My dad on many occasions built the synagogue ones, and the experience of building in a back parking lot some rickety construction of chicken wire and pipe, often under the gray overcast skies and snow flurries of Rochester NY, still make my hands chill but my heart warm. From some of my earliest memories to the present I have often been the visitor in another’s sukkah. As the mitzvah requires, it is a week of rejoicing, because one is not only in relationship with Nature, but with people. Sukkahs tend to be as unique as their owners the decorations of the sukkah as personal as the ornaments on a Christmas tree. For most who build sukkahs, what they put in their sukkah is just as important to them as those who decorate Christmas trees. Jumping from sukkah to sukkah tell us a lot about people and our relationships with them, both those who own that sukkah and those who are just visiting.
Sukkot is a holiday of relationship. Kohelet tells us of desiring many things, but all are vain and empty. They are like chasing after the wind. All we can do is enjoy the relationships we have in our lives, however momentary. To make them permanent is chasing after wind. But it is important to appreciate them while they are here. I disagree with Kohelet. There is something new under the sun – the memories of our relationships and our interactions with others. However small, they spread out like the ripples of a fallen leaf on a pond. Yes, some memories will disappear with our deaths, but others will remain, spread throughout the consciousness of those we leave behind.
Like a secular Christmas, Sukkot is about visiting and eating with friends and decorating some ritual object. The sukkah itself, however has a deeper spiritual meaning, a conduit for divine connection, through the experiencing of the world as it goes through it yearly death throes heading into winter. It finds divine connection in our relationship to other people we eat with during Sukkot in our booths with roofs so open we can appreciate the moon and stars. We read the book of Kohelet, which explains how temporary and fleeting our existence is, a lot like a sukkah. To celebrate Sukkot, maybe it is Kohelet who best describes how to celebrate.

Go your way, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works. [Ecclesiastes 9:7]