Friday, May 30, 2008

Parshat B’midbar 5768: Story as Transformer

I want to talk about story.

This week, we begin the book of Numbers, B’midbar in Hebrew. It starts on a very boring note: census data. Parshat B’midbar is seemingly not the most exiting stuff in the world. The book B'midbar will contain many stories. Indeed most of the book is story.

B’midbar was on my mind about three minutes after takeoff from the Airport in Eliat headed for Ben Gurion Airport. The sandy desert under us was creating strong thermals which translated into very strong turbulence. We diverted west to go around that turbulence, then headed back east over the Israeli and Jordanian evaporation ponds that are killing the Dead sea, then turned west once again to fly back over the Jordan, over Jericho to places that will be important in later history: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Whether inadvertently or not, the plane followed a serpentine route out my window that wasn’t far off from the route we read of in the Book of Numbers that starts this week. What will take weeks for us to read in the synagogue and forty years to accomplish in B’midbar took thirty five minutes.

Some of that route I traveled on the ground only days before, on my way to Petra. According to the locals, somewhere around Petra is mount Hor where Aaron died. Not far away is the town of Wadi Mousa, in Arabic the Valley of Moses. This according to local legend is the Place, where the princes dig their own wells for the people or even possibly where Moses struck the rock. While most biblical scholars have problems with this legend, Indeed Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Empire based on its plentiful natural springs, which made it an Oasis in an otherwise inhospitable wilderness. Jordanian Route 53 which we took to Petra might be a close approximation to the original route around the Edomites territory (Numbers 21). In a comfy, air conditioned bus I saw much of the route into the land of Israel.

I’m very glad I wasn’t walking this. B’midbar means in the wilderness, and this is a very inhospitable place. At places it is the desert of swirling sand dunes, but more often there is are small tufts of grass-like plants spaced far apart between large peaks and rock outcroppings all blasted by wind and sand into strange, melted patterns. Bedouins still live in Southern Jordan and often one will see in this monochromatic landscape a thin black line of a Bedouin tent.
To take this way into the land would have been a character builder. And I think it did build a lot of character into the story of B’midbar. While the English and Latin names reflect the census at this week’s and the beginning of next week’s portion, the Hebrew is far more descriptive with the words in the wilderness.

Judaism breaks down the types of writing in the Torah and later works into two types: Halakah and Aggadah. Halakah is law. Aggadah is everything else, but for a medium for this everything is usually story. One such Aggadic passage in the Talmud

R. Abbahu and R. Hiyya b. Abba once came to a place; R. Abbahu expounded Aggada8 and R. Hiyya b. Abba expounded legal lore. All the people left R. Hiyya b. Abba and went to hear R. Abbahu, so that the former was upset. [R. Abbahu] said to him: ‘I will give you a parable. To what is the matter like? To two men, one of whom was selling precious stones and the other various kinds of small ware. To whom will the people hurry? Is it not to the seller of various kinds of small ware?’[Sotah 40a]

Story telling is attractive useful and not very expensive, and thus its appeal. The story that will happen in B’midbar is attractive, with many twists and turns to the plot. But is is extremely useful to understand how to use all that halakah. There is a general theme of transforming form one kind of people to another. The Israelites left Egypt with a slave mentality, one that was a continual part of their world view. Their continual complaining about things is primarily about how things are not done for them. A slave make no decisions on his own, not even what to eat or when. In some ways this is a blessing. No slave ever has to wonder where their next meal comes from. They were completely dependent on their masters for everything.

By the end of Numbers the people are far different. Able to dig their own wells without divine intervention, they are an impressive military force, capable of defeating national armies. Instead of the timid people of the beginning of Numbers, they are to be feared. The life in the wilderness forged these people over 40 years into something powerful.

This is the primarily Aggadic book of Torah, where we learn that very important lesson. God is not going to make a miracle for everything we want. God may not even answer every prayer directly. Often miracles happen because we do the right thing to make them happen. Right mind and right action is just as important as divine intervention. One can rely on magic wells, or one can pick up a shovel and start digging around a suspicious number of trees grouped together. At the end of the day, the guy with the shovel is far less likely to be thirsty.

There are many transformation stories, many of them having a journey from one place to another as their theme. In modernity, there is Tolkien’s works for one example. Ancient stories like those of Odysseus or Aneas have similar themes. The person who starts the journey is not the same who finishes. Often, they are a better person at the end than when they began. While Moses is a main character, in many ways the Israelites themselves introduced by the thousands in this portion are the protagonists. This is a story of transforming these people:it is thier journey, not Moses’. As we learn in the prophetic literature, it wasn’t a completely successful nor permanent transformation, its something that requires constant attention.

Transformations are something I think a lot about as I’m in this transition period of my life. The enthusiastic grad student I was, so saturated with information led to a vast creative output in term s of this column. Six months after I finished my classes I’m feeling as dry as that wilderness the Israelites crossed. If not for two hours every Wednesday evening I’d have nothing at all inspiring me. For the last tow months I’ve written some of the least inspired columsn ever, if I wrote at all. I’ve seriously thought of dropping this column and even dropping my kosher rules and Shabbat prohibitions. My jewishness seems to have evaporated. Spending two weeks in the land hasn’t helped. Not even standing before the Kotel seems to have helped.

Maybe the wall did help. Last week, I mentioned half of what was in that piece of paper I put in the wall, and what that experience at the wall might mean for that second half. I think much of what I prayed was not about God granting me something as much as my learning the skills and courage to do it myself. Like I said last week, it's all staring me in the face. Prayer and connection to God provides something bigger than miracles – it provides a power to realize what you want and do something about it. Things become internally driven, by one’s Nefesh not externally driven like a taskmaster. We see this so clearly in Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who saw so clearly. If the people really wanted to up into the land, it was simply a matter of doing it and believing God was there to help.
I don’t know how things will go from here. I’m going to find way to inspire myself, one way or the other. As B’midbar might be saying, inspiration comes from the inside not the outside. As we go through the journey from Sinai to Mount Nebo, let’s find out together.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Behukotai 5768: A Tale of Two Jews.

Last week, Looking south from the beach into the gulf of Akaba, with the first peaks of the Sinai Peninsula to my right and Jordan and Saudi Arabia to my left, I tried to write. Yet sitting on the balcony of my room of the Dan Hotel Eilat and then the lounge chairs overlooking the pool, enjoying a few days of relaxation after my more hurried Israel adventure, I couldn’t write.

I couldn’t write about my experience of Masada, which I had planned to post to my blog about Israel, ShlomosIsrael. I couldn’t get out my Drash on Behar, because I just didn’t like what I was writing. It just couldn’t come together into something.

I’ve had a case of writer’s block and I didn’t understand why. I’m not completely sure it’s over yet.

Last week, I came back to the States a few hours before Shabbat, and immediately fell into my Shabbat practices, even renewing one of my more nutty traditions: wearing Hawaiian Shirts on Shabbos.

Experiencing my regular Shabbat after Israel showed me how much I had changed. I had known of some changes, some of those were what I wanted to write about in my experiences at Masada and the Golan Heights, but those thoughts haven’t completely gelled yet into something I feel comfortable writing.

What I did notice this weekend was other differences. This trip has been a series of odd coincidences, such that I can only believe that Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu scripted them. Purely by accidents of scheduling, our tour bus entered Jerusalem for that segment of the tour on Erev Yom Hazikaron, Israeli Memorial day. We spent that next day at Yad B’shem, the Holocaust Memorial, and the last tour bus to enter the area before Israeli security cordoned the area for Memorial Day events at nearby Mount Herzl. Due to those same security measures instead of seeing the big monuments on Mt. Herzl, we walked among the graves watching thousands saying Kaddish, or laying flowers on the graves of their lost loved ones. The next day, Independence Day, we spent in the Old city. A poignant moment was while we were just entering the area of the Kotel, the Israeli version of the Blue Angels flew stunts nearby.

At the wall I put a small piece of paper with a prayer and a request. Part of that request was to have my eyes opened to the qualities of really attractive women. As I touched the wall, I closed my eyes. I began to cry. A still small voice recited to me

My dove in concealment of the cliff,
in steep hiding places
Show me your appearance,
Let me hear your Voice
For your voice is sweet
and your appearance beautiful [Song of Songs 2:14]

As I opened my eyes and looked up through my tear drenched eyes, I cried some more. Looking up I saw something I had not before. A white dove had made her home high up in a crack in the wall, the cleft of this rock. What surprised me was she was not the only one. All along the wall there were nests of turtle doves, pigeons and even two ravens. I had never noticed till now. The beginning of the answer to my prayer was there in front of me. As I spent time in the streets of Tel Aviv, Eilat, and Jerusalem I suddenly noticed how beautiful the women were in Israel. Prior to this in Tel Aviv I had noticed how many were thin and shapely, but now I realized what really made them beautiful was a look in their eyes and faces, one I rarely see here in the States.

Back in the States last Shabbat, in another one of those coincidences, we had a pair of Rabbis who run a congregation outside of Jerusalem as the visiting Scholars. There were several questions in our usual Shabbat study period where people often voice their opinions to the question brought out by this weeks reading. One question this rabbi asked went unanswered directly, but I felt like it was answered indirectly. He asked whether Israel spoke a different language than those in the Diaspora. Those who answered his questions about the Sabbatical year showed that most of those who answered thought Israelis were just like Americans living in a land as abundant and secure. Interestingly, many there, some of whom were Israelis, and some who have visited Israel on many occasions remained silent, not correcting many of the false assumptions there.

Indeed this week’s portion is the first to say that those in the land are different than those in it. It is this week’s portion that first threatens, or maybe prophesizes that there will be a Diaspora.

31. And I will lay your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries to desolation, and I will not smell the savor of your sweet odors. 32. And I will bring the land into desolation; and your enemies who dwell in it shall be astonished at it. 33. And I will scatter you among the nations, and will draw out a sword after you; and your land shall be desolate, and your cities laid waste.[Leviticus 26:31-33]

The text continues with a remembrance of the covenant for those outside of the land:

44. And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, nor will I loathe them, to destroy them utterly, and to break my covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God. 45. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God; I am the Lord.[Leviticus 26:44-45]

Since Jeremiah’s time, during the first wave of exiles, there had been not a tale of one set of Jews but two. There has been the Diaspora and the Land. What is true spiritually and socially today has been true for millennia. We have used different names for the two. In the Babylonian Talmud we hear the term “In the west” for Israel and in Israel we hear the term “in Babylon” for the Disapora. Even the greatest of Sages were known to makes this distinction:

When they told R. Johanan that there were old men in Babylon, he showed astonishment and said: Why, it is written: That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, upon the land; but not outside the land [of Israel]! [Ber 8a]

While most are not familiar with it, there are not one but two Talmuds, the Balvi and Yerushalmi. The Balvi, or Bablyonian Talmud, is the perspective of the Diaspora, the Yerushalmi, of those in the Land. The outlook of the Diaspora is different than the one in the Israel. It shows on people’s faces, particularly young people. As I was looking more at them, I noticed it most in the multitudes of young attractive women.

Thinking about it this weekend I wondered what makes the language of the Land what I’ll call Lashon haartez different than the language of the Diaspora, Lashon HaGalut. I don’t think it’s just an American thing: Given 60th Independence Day celebrations, I saw enough Jews from Spain and Latin America to know it’s not just something about America. It’s something else.

A key to that something else was something that did disturb and startle me the first few times I saw it. Young people in their late teens and early twenties were carrying rather large firearms slung around their back or over their shoulder like it was a backpack or purse. These kids in civilian clothes are off-duty IDF soldiers. Israel out of necessity has a compulsory military service for virtually all its citizens, starting at Age 18. While American kids can spend their next few years after High school in college, for most Israelis, before college is military service, or a mixture of college and military service. Part of that service is that your firearm is completely your responsibility. Hence a lot of kids watch their guns with as much care as moms and dads watch their children, taking them everywhere.

Yet in a Chicago California Pizza Kitchen the other day, kids not much older or younger we so different. Watching one rather interesting table it was not guns that every gal had, but iPods, sitting at a table with each other yakking yet each listening to their own music at the same time. While Both Israelis and Americans love their cell phones, watching a cabdriver in Israel carry on four conversations on different phones at the some time was not just amusing but instructive. Watching a group of people at a outdoor coffee kiosk on Ben Gurion Street in Tel Aviv one guy sitting at a table with several of looked liked his friends was on the phone with someone. While not understanding Hebrew, I could tell the guy holding the phone and whoever it was on the other end were all part of that group conversation. This is so different from the cell phone users I see everywhere in the United States. To use your cell phone means no one else in the world matters – an invisible phone booth goes up.

There is one thing about this place called Israel; there is a sense of purpose found in a sense of community. Be it very early education in the communal setting of a Kibbutz, or the compulsory community of military service, Israelis know everyone is part of a bigger purpose. Such things provide a sense of confidence and even optimism even in the worst of conditions. Women with a sense of purpose, showing such self confidence like this become incredibly attractive in a way I find so rarely here in the States, where individualism so isolates us and leaves so often thinking only of ourselves, and intentionally shutting out others. The country that venerates “We the People” more often than not is about “I the person.” It shows on people faces and the invisible walls around them as I walked around downtown Chicago last weekend. To be honest both men and women young and old all too often have this up.

Many people wonder if the fruit in the Garden of Eden was a setup. Given the of this weeks portion, I wonder if the Diaspora was as well. God had to have known we would fail. Why God did create a situation where there was a Diaspora, why were we not commanded all to enter the land at the time of Ezra? Thinking back on my trip and on my return to my regular life, I think the answer is that we need each other. Judaism is never complete unless people are speaking both Lashon Haaretz and Lashon Galut. Both together synthesize into something more. What that more is will takes months for me to understand.

I’m still trying to figure out my trip. Some people had told me ahead of time how I would feel when I got back. Some would simply say “you’re going to enjoy it” others “you might go as a tourist, but come back a pilgrim” Neither were quite my experience. The best advice I was given was not to expect anything because whatever I expected would turn out different than that.

That was my Experience, even when I expected it. What I did come back with was a bit of the eye opening I wanted standing in tears at the Kotel, I know more who the dove in the cleft rock is.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Parshat Kedoshim 5768: The vacation.

This week we continue with a series of various Halacha, including a repeat of the sexual prohibitions from last week, the prohibition of mixing milk and meat, and even the golden rule.

Leviticus 19 starts:

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2. Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy. 3. You shall revere every man his mother, and his father, and keep my Sabbaths; I am the Lord your God.

In the first year of Shlomo’s Drash I wrote my Kedoshim Drash on this verse. After a disastrous vacation in Colorado, I wondered something: why tie honoring parents and Shabbat together in the verse above?

I’m on vacation again. There are ironies between this vacation and that one. What I did during that vacation six years ago was watch a series of videotapes, which actually led to this vacation. Those tapes formed my background knowledge about where I am right now. The ten tape series was the first distance learning course I took for my degree in Jewish Studies: the religion of Biblical Israel. This trip to Israel is a bit of a graduation celebration, that I finished my degree.

That Colorado vacation was horrible due to all the time I ended up sitting in my time-share. I faced a horrible monster there in my room: the Void. I'd heard about the void. The void is the emptiness inside ourselves, the parts of us that are not fulfilled. It is so horrible to be in the presence of our personal void, we do a lot of a-void-dances. I never understood how much I avoid the Void, until I sat there in that timeshare alone with it. I realized six years ago much of what I do, my intense amount of being busy, of filling my apartment with stuff or trying to fill my stomach with food is exactly that. If I fill space with other things there would be no room for the Void. In Colorado, doing nothing but video tapes in a mostly abandoned skiing town, I was alone with this void, and it was horrible. I felt how much emptiness is in my life, how lonely I am and how little that matters I really have. This continued until Friday night when I lit candles. I decided the candles and the fireplace would be my only light source. As I sang Shalom Aleichem to myself I felt better than I had in a long time. I felt relaxed and calm.

I mention my rather bad vacation with the Mediterranean Sea outside my hotel window for a reason. How is the doing nothing that brought the void to create such a horrible vacation different than the doing nothing of Shabbat? One reason this is late is experiencing my first Shabbat in Israel, this one in and around a Tel Aviv beachside hotel. And in one link between parents and Shabbat, I’m not traveling alone this time, my mom is with me.

In Genesis we are told that God rested on the seventh day of creation. God rested so that we would rest. As we read in the verses from Kedoshim, If God is holy by resting, then we are holy by resting. We spend our lives doing busy work, even if it good intentioned and meant to help others. At some point however, we have to stop, or it affects our health. The results might be might be a heart attack, gastritis or pneumonia. Many take various over the counter or prescription drugs to treat symptoms of a deeper illness: we don’t let our bodies rest. But we can do something beside pharmaceuticals to help ourselves prevent stress-related illnesses from damaging us. That is Shabbat. The best help is simply stopping. Shabbat literally means STOP. Not to stop kills you before your time- a slow but inevitable suicide.

I thought while returning from Colorado what honor can parents be given more than their child actually living and thriving? This is the meaning of fusing the honoring of one parent with Shabbat in the same verse. They were the ones to give us the bodies we have, and to nurture that body until it was able to do things on its own. For us to kill our body is the most ungrateful thing we can do.

How much more so that the Holy One Blessed be He is our parent not only of us but of the world around us. To rest on Shabbat is to honor the parent of all of creation. I spent this Shabbat in the rather secular city of Tel Aviv, walking along the seaside promenade, down Ben Gurion Street and eating at a wonderful beachside restaurant which is so common here. Watching all the people come and go at the beach either sitting in the sun, walking their dogs, conversing with each other in a outdoor café, folk dancing, playing paddle ball, or beach volleyball, flying a Kite or people watching like I was. All of it is good and in its own way resting and witnessing creation.

I realized today, halfway around the world, what I have been missing in my own observance. Its not just prohibitions, as I will see much more clearly next Shabbat in Jerusalem. It’s also witnessing what goes on around you. To not acknowledge such is to not honor the Parent of all. I failed this in Colorado, the void was never there – the void was mere self absorption. Here in arguably the most secular part of my trip to Israel I’ve learned this lesson well.