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]

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Yom Kippur 5769: The Art of the Albuquerque Turn

“I knew I should have made that left turn at Albuquerque!”- Bugs Bunny

Bugs Bunny may be an odd choice to teach us about t’shuvah, but that classic quote does much to teach about repentance. Then again, so does Rodin’s sketches and Debussy’s music. Before artists as diverse as Friz Freleng, Rodin and Debussy teach us a lesson in t’shuvah for the Day of Atonement, Let’s look at the word for t’shuvah.
We read in the Netana Tokef prayer that on Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Yom Kippur is our last chance before that seal is placed on the decree for the year. The prayer concludes with the statement that repentance, prayer and charity cross out the bad decree. So of the three, what is repentance, t’shuvah? In Hebrew, the root word is Sh-V-B, meaning in Biblical Hebrew to turn particularly to turn back or return. Yet the Hebrew does not really tell us where we are turning. Only by context can we tell and thus it could mean either towards God or away from God. It is in the Rabbinic Hebrew more than the Biblical that Shuv means to repent or return to God.
Our lives are like traveling on a road with many exits, entrances and crossroads. It is up to us to figure what is the way to get to our destination and what isn’t. Bugs Bunny’s comment used in many of his short animations presents a good way of thinking about what we are doing on Yom Kippur and T’shuvah for the rest of the year. Bugs in most of these scenes pops up expecting to be somewhere really good and fun like Las Vegas, yet ends up in a situation that is trouble. Invariably, Bugs pulls out a map and then realizes he should have taken that left at Albuquerque. Bugs Bunny being a cartoon character and one who can outsmart almost any opponent can work his way through the situation. For most of us real humans, that is not so easy. Many try with far less successful or funny results than a cartoon rabbit. Instead of being in the conflict that ensues, however funny, Bugs failure is that he does not do t’shuvah, the simpler answer to the problem. The simpler answer is to turn around, go back to Albuquerque, then make that left turn. That the gag line shows up so often tells us he never does.
Every day in lots of small ways and sometimes in big ways we hit a crossroads. We can turn right or left, we can keep going. Sometimes we follow the right path sometimes the wrong one. Often at the crossroads we already know we’re on the wrong path when we make the turn, only to be confirmed later with a bad outcome. Yet the thought of turning around or even changing direction bothers us. Sometimes there is no turning around. In those times we could stop, look at our maps or ask for directions, then find a new path towards our destination. Often we have this commitment to not turning back, which the Talmud describes
R. Assi stated, The Evil Inclination is at first like the thread of a spider, but ultimately becomes like cart ropes,[Sukkah 52a]

While it may be easy at first to break away, the commitment itself to the sin make it difficult. Notice the thinking here. Like Bugs, we try to pull away hoping to break the thread of spider or the cart rope. The thing with rope of any type is it is only good if you pull with it. Push towards the rope’s end makes it meaningless. We can get caught up, but often the solution is t’shuvah, coming back the way we came.
But how do we know when we are in the wrong place, or what we should turn? How do we often miss the turns in our lives? As Bugs keeps making the same mistake, Bugs is no answer here. Artists and musicians do give us answers. A major problem with a lot of people’s ability to draw is, strangely enough, idolatry. Much of the biblical text is about the sin of idolatry, and often that sin leads to all other sins. Yet what really is Idolatry? It is objectification, turning what we see into an object that we venerate. In art, this is a big problem because we venerate the object so much we draw a symbol for the subject of our artwork, not what is really in front of us. When asked to draw a house we invariably draw a pentagon for example. When we draw an eye we draw two curved lines and one or two round ones inside. These are symbols, not something that looks like the house I live in or and accurate representation of my eye. We learn this very young that things are objects. Teachers reward young children for drawing a pentagon as a symbol of a house, not what the house looks like. Like some abstract painting full of symbol, we can read symbols, but there are no recognizable features we see with our own eyes, which is why the caption of MOM, DAD My DOG SPoT always accompanies such drawings. The result according to most art educators is that when people try for more realistic drawing they can’t because they’re stuck in drawing the symbols, the idols before their eyes
The solution to more realistic drawing is one many artists have used over the years. While the sculptures of Rodin are what most people remember him for, he also did a lot of drawings. A friend of mine recently became enamored with those drawings, and in a bit of inspiration I tried my hand at the style Rodin used. Rodin in these sketches was not getting complicated with details but drew the contour and negative space around the figure. Instead of drawing the model, he drew the space around the model. It is one of the earliest exercises in any drawing class, and the idea is to get the budding artist to stop drawing symbols by not looking at the symbols at all – just the place where the air meets something solid. While the picture is also not realistic, the result is a change in how we look at the world. A table is not a rectangular slab with legs but a series of shapes showing where the space is. Similarly, Claude Debussy famously said that great music comes from the space between the notes, a phrase often repeated by many musicians after him. For the artist, it is space around the objects, not the objects in it that tell us more about our world.
We often look at the object and not the space around the object – We objectify things. While this does have advantages, it also makes us not see the picture clearly, because we deal with the object not what is really in front of us. When we do this with people, we believe that behaviors will be according to what that object should do, not who the living person really is.
Often such drawing is an important exercise in contrast. There is a Hasidic story that tells of the Maggid of Kotznitz not giving a rich man a blessing because he eats so modestly. The Maggid explains to his puzzled students that if a rich man eats like a poor man he will have no sympathy for the poor. As long as the rich man eats only bread he might think that the poor can live on stones [Gates of Repentance p.234]. We have to see that a person is in need of help in order to help. Similarly, we often do not understand personal boundaries. Instead of recognizing personal boundaries, we exploit and hurt people, sometimes not even meaning to. That too brings on sin, and we make the wrong turn. To find those boundaries, look at the places where there is space in our relationship with this other person. Crossing that space without permission might lead to a boundary violation. If one understands that space the relationship strengthens.
Looking through the list of confessions in the liturgy, I notice how many of these sins are about making people into objects, mere symbols of their true selves. Not just boundaries happen in space, but all relationships. We relate to people in space, not in form. By knowing space we have the map, the one we can read not to make that wrong turn in Albuquerque. If we see the space of the relationship change, then we can know we need to do some backtracking or diverting to get back on course with that relationship. Yom Kippur is a point where we can look around and check all of those relationships; we can look at that map and decide where we want to go from here. Then we do t’shuvah, we turn from our present course toward better relationship. Unlike Bugs Bunny, when we get to Albuquerque, we know to turn left.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Parshat Vayelech /Shabbat Shuvah 5769: Tashlich, Seagulls and a Mid-Holiday Rant

There is one thing about paying customers, you never want to piss them off. It’s what makes the job of the prophet so annoying – you’re not making money at this gig and no one listens to you. As we’ll read next week at the end on Yom Kippur, only Jonah had some clue of the bind he was put in, and wanted out of such a game so fast, he flees in the third verse of the book. Prophecy or anything where you have to rebuke people is never popular. For that reason a lot of people, like Jonah, avoid it. I really should avoid it too, but I’m going to indulge for two reasons. First anyone reading this is probably not the people I’m talking about. Secondly, part of T’shuvah as I talked about last week is getting a few things off one’s chest.
If anything set me off it was standing on a cold pier on a cloudy day feeding the seagulls. If you live on a very large open body of water, you probably realize that the Tashlich ritual is not about casting away your sins into the water so fish can eat them, as much as feeding the seagulls. Much like the classic scenes in Finding Nemo, those birds as white as angels break that illusion in their stupid single mindedness. I can just hear them saying:
Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine.

I usually do Tashlich alone, the morning of the second day of Rosh Hashanah before I set out for services. This year I was asked by my rabbi to lead. For whatever reason, nobody came. So when I thought I was doing something for the community, I ended up just taking a very long walk to the lake and performing tashlich by myself the seagulls, and a very startled duck. With the bread that was representing my sins, I did not just throw the sins away, but some negative thinking as well. Maybe throwing away such thinking is more appropriate than the mere sins which we ask forgiveness for on Yom Kippur. Tashlich is more about changing the pattern of thinking so we do not sin again. We take something we could eat ourselves, infuse it with the darkness within our selves and throw it away. But will our sin come back? We read in this week’s portion with Moses and Joshua standing before the pillar of cloud:
16. And the Lord said to Moses, Behold, you shall sleep with your fathers; and this people will rise, and play the harlot after the gods of the strangers of the land, where they go to be among them, and will forsake me, and break my covenant which I have made with them. 17. Then my anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall befall them; so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us? 18. And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evils which they shall have done, in that they are turned to other gods.[Deut 31]

God then tells Joshua:
23. And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said, Be strong and of a good courage; for you shall bring the people of Israel into the land which I swore to them; and I will be with you.[Deut 31]

Joshua’s going to need that encouragement; he’s going to do his job only for it to fail. He probably feels a lot like Jonah, knowing how futile his job is. Even someone as optimistic and full of faith on God as Joshua, an optimism that got him and Caleb alone into the land in the first place, has got to feel the pessimism.
There is an environment in a synagogue that I find different during much of the High Holidays. I found a lot of people feel the same way about the High Holidays. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Admonishment of Conservative rabbis in 1953 rang through my mind the first day of services.
We have developed the habit of praying by proxy. Many congregants seem to have adopted the principle of vicarious prayer. The rabbi or the cantor does the praying for the congregation. In particular, it is the organ that does the singing for the whole community. Too often the organ has become the prayer leader. Indeed, when the organ begins to thunder, who can compete with its songs? Men and women are not allowed to raise their voices, unless the rabbi issues the signal. They have come to regard the rabbi as a master of ceremonies. Is not their mood, in part, a reflection of our own uncertainties? Prayer has become an empty gesture, a figure of speech. [MGSA, 101-2]

On the days where we stand in judgment, we pray the most soulless prayer of all because we don’t pray from our hearts. Avinu Malkeinu and Netana Tokef are performances and recitations not personal gut-wrenching spiritual pleas for our soul. I believe the rabbis cantors, organ players and choir all are in their own way praying their prayer, but lost in their incredible performance and personal prayer is the congregational prayer. Lost even more because the majority of the congregation doesn’t want to pray. They show up because it’s the one thing they do all year. That is all they do all year, yet they expect the same performance year after year. Any change comes with criticism. At my synagogue one of the most emotional moments in the service does not even exist in the liturgy, but is an additional reading from Ezekiel, one that has had a lot of criticism. Yet it is these same people whose dollars keep the synagogue alive. In one sense this empty spiritual day called Rosh Hashanah I in the prayer book is there to let me pray spiritually the rest of the year.
I do not believe like Heschel, that kavvanah, spiritual intention, is near extinction the rest of the year, only on these few days. Even the second day of Rosh Hashanah is such a different experience. Here is a much smaller congregation of people who really want to pray. Even when someone forgets to turn off the air conditioning on a 50°F day, it’s still warmer in the glow of being spiritual. I feel part of the prayer community instead of an audience.
Yet what I do fear is something Heschel did not imagine in 1953. The traditions as they are now might keep those who had gone to services every year once or twice a year for decades coming for those same old traditions and tunes. It is those same people I fear about as the numbers of walkers, wheelchairs and oxygen tanks found in the synagogue increase. Even that source of income for synagogue operations is running out as the Angel of Death does his task. In looking at the lack of spiritual meaning in the Rosh Hashanah service, I wonder if we are replacing the loss. If there is no spiritual value in this, the supposedly greatest moment of the Jewish year, why would the young people come to synagogue the rest of the year? The answer of course is most of the younger don’t return on their own for there is nothing there for them – at least not on that one day they show up. By the time they have families, it's too late.
Like Joshua’s mood getting his new position as leader and telling him he’ll do a good job but things are going to fail anyway, I contemplated this while walking back from the lake on that cloudy cold day. I threw my pessimism into the lake for the seagulls to chew on. Like Joshua, when he was in a minority of two to virtually everyone else, he kept his cool because he knew it was not him but God that would help get the job done. Standing near the banks of the Jordan, Joshua must have felt like this: both pessimistic but optimistically faithful.
Yom Kippur, from Kol Nidre to Havdalah will be only slightly different. There are personal practices that allow us to personally bring meaning. Fasting is of course the most obvious. Fasting is not as much about punishing ourselves, as having the discipline the Kavvanah, the intention not to eat. Yom Kippur I will fast. If I can make myself do something that is required by my body, how much more so can I make myself stop doing things destructive to my body and soul? Yet for tashlich, why did I not have anyone fill the tummies of seagulls and fish? Everyone wanted to fill their own bellies instead. The disciplines that come with spirituality are seen as an inconvenience, not a way of discipline and connection. Yet the prayers will be just as empty, only filling with meaning sometime when my belly is at its most empty.
The most meaningful service for me these Days of Awe will be the one this Shabbat – Shabbat Shuvah. This is probably one of the least attended Shabbat services of the year, since everyone is “serviced out.” It is the Shabbat where we think about our lives and where we are going. We pray an additional liturgy that we do not any other day of the year. For the first time ever, it will be out of a new siddur built on a foundation of Kavvanah. All of this in the deeply personal, intimate environment of the prayer community I have week in and week out. I wish all those young people would skip Rosh Hashanah and come to Shabbat Shuvah instead. For this, they might stay and thrive in the prayer community.
Sadly all I hear instead is those seagulls, young and old, of every movement saying
Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine. Mine.