Thursday, December 31, 2009

Vayechi 5770: Groundhogs and Brothers.

In this week’s portion, the last of Genesis, We enter the scene 17 years later. Jacob is dying, and performs some tasks he has not yet done. First he has Joseph promise to bury him in the cave of Machpelah back in Canaan. Jacob also blesses Joseph's sons as though they are his own. Finally, he gathers all of his sons together, says a little something about them and dies. The brothers, who are still agitated, try to make sure Joseph won’t get even with them, but Joseph re assures them. The Parshat ends with the death of Joseph after he sees three generations of his family.

One of my favorite movies is Groundhog Day with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. The story is of a cranky, spoiled weatherman sent to cover the festivities in Pauxtawney PA on Groundhog Day. However, he keeps waking up on the same Feb 2, remembering everything from the previous day. No matter what he does, he keeps reliving the day over until he gets it right, and wins the heart of the Andie McDowell character.

I can’t help thinking of Groundhog Day when I think of Genesis. The whole book has a theme which everyone keeps getting wrong, which strings together almost every story. It is not till the very last chapters that Jacob and sons finally get it right. With that, the book concludes.

In every major story in Genesis there is always a story of the preferred son, which always leads to a disaster from other sons. To review:

  • [Genesis 4:1-8] Abel's sacrifice was accepted and Cain’s wasn't. Cain killed his younger brother.
  • [Gen. 21] Isaac is accepted to continue the covenant and Ishmael isn’t. Ishmael makes sport of his little bother, and gets himself and his mom banished.
  • [Gen. 25:27-34, Gen. 27] Jacob cons the blessing and birthright out of his brother and father. Esau vows to murder him, but Jacob flees to his uncle Laban in Padan-Aram.
  • [Gen. 37]Joseph is the spoiled favorite of his father to the detriment of his other sons. Joseph gets sold into slavery. But after almost losing several sons in this last exchange, Jacob changes. He no longer follows the pattern.

As we have seen in both the Abraham and Isaac stories, Abraham and Isaac prefer their older child, Ishmael and Esau, to their younger. But by the end of each story it is the younger child that receives the blessing. But in our potion Jacob intentionally blesses the younger before the older [Gen. 48:13-19]. He places his hand on the wrong grandkids for the blessing, and Joseph, disturbed by this interjects that he is doing it wrong. But Jacob says, I imagine with an understanding smile, "I know, my son I know"[Gen. 48:19]

When all of his sons are finally together, he does not pick out one specific son to say is better than the rest. Instead, he gives a comment about each one, not accord to their status or birthright, but to their temperament and merit. Some like Judah, who redeemed himself after initial errors of judgment in how he dealt with Tamar and Joseph, are praised as a lions' cub [Gen 49:8-12]. Some like Rueben who made serious lapses in judgment and temper, are blessed for past performance, but are cursed for the future.

All of this leads to one particular concept- Jacob treated his sons as people who made choices, instead of treating them according to things not in their control, like their birth order or mother.

The Talmud says of Jacob [Taanit 5a] that "Jacob didn’t die," that he lived on in his seed, which are his children. But the Ishbitzer Rebbe says that seed is a little different. That in his last seventeen years, when all of his children more or less got along, he had a taste of heaven in this world, and thus was spared the transition between this world and the next, that transition being death. That taste of heaven is reflected in this address to his sons. They are no longer honored by birthright but by merit, and thus sense of equality which brings harmony occurs.

Why does the text not end then with the death of Jacob, but with the death of Joseph? There is still one unresolved issue. Did Joseph reveal himself to his brothers did not yet forgive them? The brothers did not admit their wrongs to Joseph, they simply said that their brother was killed by an animal, [Gen. 44:20,44:28,42:13] which both Joseph and his brothers knew to be false. This lie continues until Jacob’s death when the brothers fretted about their fate. Then they apologized, but by that time Joseph had indeed forgiven. They live together as peacefully as brothers can until Joseph’s death, when the story ends. This is different than the relationship of Jacob and Esau or Isaac and Ishmael. They do get together only bury their respective father after death, and one meeting between Jacob and Esau. Once again we have closure of a pattern- brothers live together peacefully.

In the last chapter, after the death of their father, the brothers, though indirectly, finally apologize to Joseph, and this time Joseph speaks "to their heart” and accepts fully the apology. Rashi believes that Joseph said them additionally "how can one candle extinguish ten candles?" All were different and unique sources of spiritual illumination, and all were needed to increase the light. There is not one special candle: every candle counts.

Joseph was 39 when his brothers first approached him in Egypt and 56 when his father died. Joseph dies at age 110, enough to see three generations of his sons. In that last 54 years he lived peacefully, enjoying family life, and playing with the grandkids. The strain of the families of the past resolved. With that ending, our first book of the Torah ends.

To summarize all of the above, I can only think of one song:

Hine ma tov u'ma-naim shevet achim gam yachad.

How good it is for brothers to live together!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Vayishlach 5770: Dinah's Rape and the Missing Halakah

I lied a few weeks ago. I had mentioned that I was not going to write about myself nor write over 1000 words, yet this week requires me to break both of those. We read many stories this week, starting with Jacob wrestling with an angel, and then the meeting with Esau, and a genealogy of Esau. Yet, in the middle is a story which had both fascinated and plagued me for all eight years I've been writing
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]

My story isn't Dinah's but it is close. I was sexually assaulted by five of my fellow seventh graders when I was 13 as some kind of prank. Thirty years later, I'm still trying to make sense of what happened. As I've written before, it was only a kiss, but being pinned down against your will and being kissed on the cheek is not your normal kiss. As I've learned since then, trauma is trauma, violation is violation. It is not just the physical act as much as the emotional and mental component. Some thing, anything done against one's will is wrong, is rape.

In talking to many who either have had my experience and even a few in law enforcement who have had to deal with the victims, I've learned something. the reaction of Jacob to the rape of her daughter is rather common.

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]

He does nothing, he is described as holding his peace. He did not even show he was upset by this. After Simeon and Levi do take things into their own hands and slaughter all the males of the rapist's town, including the rapist Jacob still cant talk about Dinah:

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 thePerizzites ; and I being few in number, they shall gather together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house.[Genesis 34]

Recently, I've had a chance to think about this again. I began to think about Jacob's silence, remembering a rather disturbing discussion a few years ago where I heard many people appalled at a former policeman's comment that getting a testimony from a parent or relative of a rape victim is near impossible. All too often they do as Jacob did and say it was noting, or don't even acknowledge that the victim actually did anything. If they do it is often in the same way as the rapist himself will rationalize the act: Dinah asked for it. Even theMidrash says she asked for it.
R. Berekiah said in R. Levi's name: This may be compared to one who was holding a pound of meat in his hand, and as soon as he exposed it a bird swooped down and snatched it away. Similarly, AND DINAH THE DAUGHTER OF LEAH WENT OUT, and forthwith, ANDSHECHEM THE SON OF HAMOR SAW HER.[Genesis Rabbah LXXX:6]
In some cases, family believe she asked for it so much she is likened to a prostitute. Indeed one Midrash even says "Like mother like daughter". Leah sold the mandrakes in order to have sex with Jacob, and thus her daughter acted like a harlot. [Gen Rabbah LXXX:1] But Her brothers Simeon and Levi's response, while violent and arguably barbaric, was in refutation of this. They respond to their father "Should he deal with our sister as with a harlot?" rejecting that she was. She was family and needed protection ans much as any other family member. Their slaughter ofShechem brought their father's ire against them at the end if Jacob's life, referring to them as "instruments of cruelty" [Gen 49:5] when they did not buythier father's position in protecting a sibling.
There is too many silent voices in the narrative. There is the voice of Dinah, who never speaks. There is a rabbinic interpretation that she married Job, and thus in her own bitterness she told Job to curse God and get it over with. [Job 2:9] There is also the relatively silent voice of Jacob, who only complains about international relations and not his daughter. For many years I've wondered something else. There is an abundance of words by the rabbis, yet besides the financial support issues of a rape victim, the victim is ignored. Talmud attributes a rape as the same thing as minor civil damages in the courts, needing only a court of three. [Sanhedrin 2a] Where is there a guide to heal? The text is strangely silent.
Why it was silent has bothered me. From my own experience I think I know part of the answer. I've been healing for thirty years now, along the way making some very bad steps and mistakes in the healing. In college I dated someone who was raped by a family member. Apparently she kept taking out her pain out on her lovers and abusing them to get even. Yet when I finally realized what she was doing, and broke off the relationship, I found out something else. I was suddenly and totally alone. No one believed me that she abused people, or more specifically me. I was the one in the wrong in my friends opinion, and I was squeezed out of their lives. The last semester of college is one of the most distasteful time in my life. Without my friends of four years, I felt totally alone, and blaming myself for this disaster.
There a silence I've only noted in the past few hours, though it has been there for weeks -- my own. With Sweetie in my life, I'm having a healthier, happier life than I have ever known. Writing today, I realized something about myself. I want to protect her from this part of me, from the damaged part of me. I've never told Sweetie this, because somewhere deep inside I didn't want her to think it's something she did wrong. Instead I instinctively hide inside of me my terror, and panic. I'm sure I'm not the only one who hides their pain from a trusted loved one in silence.
Over and over again there is this nagging silence. There is of course another silence. Most of the current research estimates one six boys will be sexually assaulted in some way before their 18th birthday. Yet until very recently, this was the biggest silence of all, so much so this may be an underestimate. Women can be thought of victims, but men are not allowed in any form to be a victim, particularly around sexuality. To do so is a sense of weakness that family friends and one's individual identity cannot handle, The weak excuses thrown at Dinah, do not work with men the same way they work with women. In men to be sexually assaulted by a woman is almost a fantasy initiation. To be sexually assaulted by a man is to question the survivor's sexual orientation. To bring any of this to the surface is so counter to what society expects of a man, gay or straight there is a horrible silence.
Even the rabbis are caught by this silence, and my 8-year search for Dinah's Halakah, the Halakah of the survivor is a fruitless search. They too did not want to admit such things, and bought the old lines, as shown by Midrash that rapists, and families of rape and abuse victims have used for thousands of years to silence the issue. They go further and intellectualize it, and make it more about commodities than healing the soul. The silence is understandable from them, though not forgivable.
I have found a large component of the Halakah of the survivor by the way. Knowing that the Rabbis were incapable of doing something about it, I moved from the classical sources to my own experience. I've felt the bitterness of the wife of Job, whether she was Dinah or not. She, became so bitter because she could not express what she needed to. There is only one way out of this, and it is mind bogglingly hard to do: find some people you can trust, people who can empathize, and tell them. This is not easy as trust is one of the most shattered things of all in such cases. Walking that path to healing is the only one that works: the silence must be broken, the grief must spill out. It is a difficult path. There will be many who will fail in such trust, many friendships destroyed, as I know too personally. Every time I write about this, I have that fear myself, How many people will now shun me for not being strong enough to subdue four boys who each outweighed me, and one girl's peck on my cheek. How many, in not knowing what to say to me about my experience, in their own discomfort will never talk to me again? How many will say something crass and demeaning? I cannot know, but I have learned it is not good to be silent, it is not good for man to be alone.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Vayetze 5770: What is are Dudaim?

In this week’s portion Jacob is on his way to Uncle Laban's and on his first night out has a dream telling him everything will be all right. He reaches Laban's lands, falls in love with his cousin Rachel, but is tricked into marrying his cousin Leah first. While not desired by Jacob, Leah apparently is far more fertile than her sister Rachel. So the two sisters begin a furious battle with themselves and their concubines trying to chunk out the kids leading to twelve boys and one girl. Rachel is barren though much of this, and halfway through this battle we have an interesting incident involving Leah oldest son Ruben.
14. And Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest, and found duda-im in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, Give me, I beg you, of your son’s duda-im. 15. And she said to her, Is it a small matter that you have taken my husband? and would you take away my son’s duda-im also? And Rachel said, Therefore he shall lie with you to night for your son’s duda-im. 16. And Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said, You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’sduda-im. And he lay with her that night.[Genesis 30]
Leah apparently gets pregnant from this and Issachar is born, followed by Zebulon and finally Dinah. Rachel remains barren until she give birth to Joseph, At the core of this story is the Duda-im, mentioned only one other place in the text
The duda-im give forth fragrance, and at our gates are all kinds of choice fruits, new and old, which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.[Song of Songs 7:14]
The imagery of 7:11-14 is of two lovers running away to a storage shed full of harvested fruits, which the duda-im give forth fragrance. By rabbinic times there was a debate as to what the duda-im were. Sanhedrin 99b has duda-im as mandrakes, violets, or mandrake flowers, which also are purplish in color. The targums all agree it is a mandrake. Taking apart the word duda-im, we have a root of “DVD” which mean beloved or loving. The –im ending indicates a masculine plural. While the Greeks translated it into “love apples” it may be better described as “Male lovings,” referring to the way the roots of the mandrake split into different parts. Many have noted this tendency and the roots tendency to split into what looks like arms and legs, giving the impression of a human being or small child. Legends that go back at least to Josephus tell of the scream of the Mandrake when harvested which could kill a man if he was too close and that mandrakes were harvested by tying them to a dog and having the dog pull them, though this kills the dog.

However the Josephus legend, further spread by the Harry Potter books, may be partially true, though not of sound but of smell. As the Song of Songs indicates the mandrake gives off a smell, The word in Aramic Yavruchin also has the word for smell as its root. Genesis 30, many legends and herbal medicine all describe the mandrake as an aphrodisiac, and there is some evidence to that. However, freshly pulled root might just give off enough aromatic chemicals to kill someone or seriously injure them in an overdose.
What those chemicals are not only give evidence of an aphrodisiac, but a very dark one. In the mandrake root, there are high, and sometimes lethal amounts of Atropine,Hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, all part of the family of Anticholinergics. While in small dosages these are well known pharmaceuticals for a variety of illnesses and conditions, including gastrointestinal illness and seasickness. In larger quantities they can cause an increased heart rate, dementia and hallucinations. It is this overdose that might be the reason mandrakes are aphrodisiacs, but a very dark one. So dark, Arabs called them the Devils apples. Scopolamine in particular has had a rather dark reputation as both a truth serum and as a date rape drug. Finding Mandrakes in someone’s cupboard in the middle ages was enough to get them burned as a a witch. The pulling of a fresh root might have made for some legendary hallucinations and more than a few deaths when inhaled.
While it is clear that they might be one of the darker aphrodisiacs, since there is no fertility component to the mandrake, what did Rachel want them so desperately for? Was it for her own consumption or someone else’s? I’m still not sure. The rabbinic take on the story is that Leah got the kids out of the deal, and Rachel the mandrake. Rachel however remained barren, and as Rachel says herself when Joseph is born “God has taken away my reproach”[Gen 30:23] It was God that did all this, and none of her badgering or cures could change things. The context of the story was fertility, Jacob’s fertility was obviously not in doubt, but hers was. A psychotropic drug for Jacob to love Rachel doesn’t make sense either, he loved Rachel far more than Leah. Several medieval commentaries out of Spain note that Rueben intended them for his Mother's use to increase her fertility. Maybe Rachel was not only planning to use then herself but prevent Leah form using them, A plan which obviously backfired.

Knowing how a mandrake works and its possibility of being a date rape drug at its darkest use left me with speculation, imagination and not any good answers. Was Rachel, known for her impulsiveness and lack of good behavior also a drug addict, addicted to the scopolamine ? Was she going to use the mandrakes on someone to do something? Was this witchcraft -- mind control of someone to do something? Was Reuben's mistake that lost him the birthright really his doing or a mandrake potion? Was Leah going to try to win the love of her husband through a love potion and gain a unfair advantage over here sister? Or was it the simple explanation that while mandrakes do not increase fertility, she believed they did.
I leave it to you to think about.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Toledot 5769: Who are Judith and Basemath?

This week we have the story of the birth of Esau and Jacob, Jacob’s bargaining Esau out of his birthright for a pot of stew, A short trip to Philistine territory to escape a famine and then Jacob and Rebekah trick Isaac out of the blessing, leading to Jacob leaving for his Uncle Laban more out of a fear for his life than to find a wife. By this point Esau has two wives, and Rebekah uses her disgust with these two wives to have Isaac look for a wife far away among her family in Paddan-Aram.
34. And Esau was forty years old when he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite; 35. And they made life bitter for Isaac and for Rebekah.[Gen 26]
Who are these two women, and why were they such a problem? The answer actually makes for even more confusion.When we read the genealogy of Esau
2. Esau took his wives of the daughters of Canaan; Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Aholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite; 3. And Bashemath Ishmael’s daughter, sister of Nebaioth. [Gen 36]
In Genesis 28:9 Ismael’s Daughter here is Mahalath, not Basemath. Basemath is now Elon’s daughter. Judith is totally replaced by Aholibamah, who apparently have two fathers, one the son of the other (Gen 38:24-25) The problem is most of the major commentaries don’t give us any idea why this situation happens or why there are five women’s names all married to Esau, even though he had only three wives. One could take the documentary hypothesis and call it a case of bad editing of course, but that give us no insights. It take Rashi to make some sense out of it. Basemath and Adah are the same person according to Rashi. Aholibama and Judith are also the same. Similarly Basemath and Mahalath are also the same person.
Why all these names though? Even in modern society, we all have multiple names. I am my pseudonym and Hebrew name Shlomo, my secular name Steve, and even my Social security number. Each is different, but each is a label placed on me. Yet in biblical texts names are more significant. Issac’s name comes from the root to laugh, indicating the laughter of his mother Sarah when told she was going to have a son, and when he was actually born. Similarly these names according to rabbinic traditions may hold word meanings within them. The word for spices, often used in incense, is basamim. Basemah is a singular feminine ending on the root BSM, meaning Basemath was doing something with spices, probably offering them to idols in Rashi’s view. Rashi also had something to say about the name Bahalath, which associates with the word to pardon. Esau was pardoned from his previous transgression of marrying Caanites, which was prohibited by his grandfather Abraham, by marrying within the family again, in this case his cousin from Uncle Ishmael. Why her name changes to Basemath later is Esau's other wives corrupted her.
Judith, otherwise known as Aholibama is a little more complicated. Aholibama could easily mean my tent is an altar. the Targum Neofiti I suggest that the word for bitter in 26:35 is really licentious -- she was active in idolatrous sexual practices. Rashi comments on both father and son being her father pointing to another idolatrous sexual practice -- incest. To hide this out of bounds sexual nature Esau tried changing her name, though that did not stop Isaac and Rebekah from a lot of stress.
I was trying to find something to redeem Judith and Basemath in the Biblical text, and explain them differently. Unfortunately their names give us some insight into why they were such trouble for Issac and Rebecca. For some who want more logical than literary explanation this might sound weak. Yet, in interpreting Aggadah, such tools are often useful. Whether all these contradictions in names were because of bad editing or were intentionally there to makes us ask the questions, we can gain insight and increase the richness of the stories.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hayei Sara 5770: Was That a Stupid Sign, or What?

This week we follow the story from the death and burial of Sarah, Isaac's marriage to Rebecca through the death of Abraham.

In the middle of this week's portion{Gen 24} is the story of Isaac getting a bride. When Abraham was old, Isaac is still feeling down about his mother's death. Abraham therefore sends his head of servants to find Isaac a wife. Abraham makes this unnamed servant, who most think was the Eliezer from his commando raid to save Lot, take an oath not to find one of the local girls. Instead he is go back to the old country, find some woman related to Abraham, and bring her back. When Eliezer gets to the old country, he's totally clueless about how to proceed. So he prays for a sign. The maiden who offers to give him water as well as his 10 camels will be Isaacs bride. A soon as he finishes a "good looking maiden, a virgin, no man had known her" [Gen 24:16] named Rebecca does in fact offer to give water to his camels. He gives her some trinkets and asks her name. Dumbfounded, he finds she is a relative of Abraham. She offers lodging for both him and the camels. Rebecca then runs and tells her family all about this stranger. After some storytelling and bargaining over timetables,he convinces her relatives for Rebecca to leave with him as soon as possible. They start out , and when she sees Isaac for the first time, she swoons so much she falls off her camel. They meet, immediately marry, head over to Sarah's tent and live happily ever after, or at least until the twins are born.

Talmud and Midrash notes the request to water camels as one of the five dumbest oaths ever given in Tanach. Yet, unlike any of the the other four, this frivolous line is often repeated in the text of the story. "Drink and I will also water your camels" is repeated four times: three times by Eliezer, and once by Rebecca, who adds "Until they (the camels) finish drinking." Repetition in the text is usually a way of reinforcing.

Camels drink a lot of water, and usually all at once. A camel can drink up to 30 gallons at a time, meaning Rebecca could have drawn 300 gallons of water, if she kept her promise that they have their fill. This is not a frivolous task- it is a task of deep hospitality.

The Midrash tells us the tents were closed after Sarah's death. It was from an open tent that Abraham was able to see the three angels from last week's parsha. Abraham's hospitality was dependent on Sarah's. Note Abraham ordered Sarah to bake cakes. In that hospitality was holiness, and no where is more the place for hospitality than the kitchen- the place of food. I always notice how people, no matter what the event, congregate in the kitchen or around the grill on the patio. In a strange sense, the original temple service was nothing but a big barbecue. Often it is in cooking food that we connect with each other. When there is joy in the kitchen there is holiness in the house.

Abraham's home and hospitality wasn't the same without Sarah. Eliezer knew this and thought that the greatest thing that the next generation could have was the return of hospitality. A woman who would go the extra distance when a stranger approached was the best for Isaac.

Rebecca understood the power of the kitchen. Later in Genesis, there are stories about cooking. She would eventually teach her favorite son Jacob how to cook. He would eventually use his culinary wizardry to get his brother to give him the birthright for a bowl of stew. She would use her own culinary wizardry to help Jacob get the blessing as well. Rebecca knew how to cook, but to go the extra distance she didn't just feed the people, she gave water and offered food to the camels.

At the end of our story Rebecca is taken to Sarah's tent. The Midrash[Breshit rabba 60:16] notes when Sarah was alive, the dough was always blessed, and a cloud resided over the tent. When she died both disappeared, only to return after Rebecca took up residence. To most this cloud was the cloud of the divine presence the Shechina. I think a little differently than this. I've seen that cloud, or more often smelled it. Between Chicago's wind and local environmental laws limiting the amount of particulate matter from ovens, often its hard to see these days. To me its the smell of my true home: the kitchen. Its the smell of good cooking. Good cooking wafts through the air and says "Come on in! Come and get it!" I believe the cloud which is the Shechina can be found is in the cloud of smoke from an oven or stove. When the ovens are alive, the house is holy, for there is the chance for hospitality. Both men and women when they fire up the grills, ovens, ranges, and mixers, only to share that which they make are doing some of the holiest work of all- feeding family, friends and strangers.

Eliezer did not make a frivolous statement at all. It was incredibly pointed. The woman who would feed and give drink to anyone, reguardless of species or the effort involved, that would be the one for Isaac. In our modern lives, what would be the thing we most want our potential mate, or current mate to say to us. What one thing, what "let me water your camels" statement wraps up the values we search for in that person? Eliezer was clear in what he was looking for and with God's help, being so clear he found it immediately. Maybe if we are as clear, with God's help, we will find what we are looking for as well.

Vayera 5770: Is the Akedah Significant Today?

This has been a nightmare to write. It's so difficult to write I could not even get it done in time for last Shabbat. At issue is once again the Akedah, the binding of Issac to be sacrificed,. Abraham's final test by God.

Many might say this is an obsolete story. Many say it lies so contrary to the tradition to want to remove it. Many of course find the actions of both God and Abraham reprehensible to kill a small boy. A lot more have tried to make sense of the story, and midrash abounds on what happened and what was really going on. There is no one answer. The story reflects the times and personality of anyone who approaches it. Maybe that is why such a story makes into the Rosh Hashanah literature: to hold up a mirror to ourselves, an honest assessment of who we are and what choices we would have made on the mountain. Not just as Abraham but as Issac and God as well.

This year I've seen the Akeda in very clearly, and very simply. Abraham is given a choice: Give up your son or give up becoming a people that number like the stars. Give up something you always wanted and worked hard for, you have two: choose one. The reflective mirror of the Akedah has been my plight for a few weeks. While I will not get into many details of my story, it is clear in my mind the Isaac of my story is the son I have lived with for eight years, ands struggled with for eight years. That son of course is not flesh and bone, but is loved by me as much as if he was: this weekly commentary, Shlomo's Drash. I've tried before to give it up, at times others have wanted me to stop. But I never have, because Shlomo's Drash is part of me and is loved by me so much. For so long it had been my deep connection to a way of Jewish thinking I find so rare today in any movement: delving deep into the books of Talmud and Midrash, and seeing the writings of the close to thousand year period of the rabbinic period come to life. It has been an outpouring of my soul as well, an exploration and confession of someone struggling to be a modern Jew.

Yet, on the other hand there is much in the world of flesh and blood I need to support. To support it requires time, time which needs to come from somewhere. In far too many ways, the effort is the realization of dreams and prayers of mine for a very long time. Being there to support and be involved in that effort is difficult. Like a famine on the land, becomes more difficult each passing day, as my own strength begins to fail while those around me are already faltering. In economic bad times, I am sure I am not the only one with this dilemma. For many of us we simply hesitate longer and longer, not making the decision of what to do, hoping that the Angel will come out of a cloud and tell us what to do, or provide us with that ram as an alternative. We are desperately waiting, and yet, there is no answer.

I think that's the question many look at. Many may not know it, I've just realized it myself. the Akedah puts two things we highly value and puts them to us to choose one. Like Abraham picking up the knife, the test does not have any intervention until we act. This choice has paralyzed me for weeks, making it near impossible to write or relate to. But this week, a week after this was supposed to go out, I wonder something else about the text: why did Abraham not see the ram himself? Why did the angel have to open his eyes for him?

I have two answers, one psychological, and one just a little psychotic, but sage wisdom nevertheless. The first is that Abraham was so intent on the choice, that he only saw the two options. And in his case the dream of a people outweighed the love for his son, even if it was a heart wrenching decision. On the other hand, it's because he never studied with the Rabbis. Rabbinic thinking would have found shades of meaning in the dilemma, and also alternatives that many would consider "outside the box." While in their own writing in Midrash they only give interpretation of the narrative, I believe if a Talmudic sage like Raba were stuck in the same situation, they would have seen the ram in the thicket and every other alternative that was at their disposal. The study of rabbinic literature trains the mind to see the other possibilities, to see the ram even when God did not open their eyes, but know that God put it there for them to find.

The closest I have found to my own dilemma is a bit of a compromise: Shlomo's Drash has a 1,000 word limit on it. Unlike this piece, which is my own ramblings, I will also go back to a fundamental precept I did a while ago: explore the Talmud and Midrash and Targums more than I have -- the personal stuff is getting ejected, it gets in the way of writing. I cannot stay still waiting for God to give me the answer, I will choose neither choice, and make up my own based on the ancient writings. In the modern Akedas we find ourselves in, maybe that is the true way to pass the test.

Lecha lecha 5770: We have liftoff.

Note to readers: Yes I know this is very late, but there's been a lot of stress on my time to work on Shlomo's Drash. This and Vayera will be late of course, and hopefully I'll pick up with Haye Sara by Thursday.

This week we read:
1. 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;
2. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing;
3. And I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you; and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.[Genesis 12]

It has been said so many times it almost sounds trite. What an incredible thing is was for Abram to leave virtually everything behind and go somewhere completely foreign, unknown and dangerous. Lately I've had a lot to think about in that realm, the latest only minutes before I started to write this. I watched the Ares I- X launch from Kennedy Space Center via the Internet. It is far from clear if the Ares I and V rockets and their respective manned spacecraft will ever be developed. Many believe it a big waste of money that could be better spent here on Earth. When discussing the return on investment what can be developed in space often takes center stage in arguments, which is often lacking. Is it enough to invest in such a program? Should we go to the moon again, the ultimate goal of building these rockets?
4. So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken to him; and Lot went with him; and Abram was seventy five years old when he departed from Haran.
5. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the souls that they had made in Haran; and they went forth to go to the land of Canaan; and to the land of Canaan they came.[Genesis 9]
Yet what Abraham is doing is not for profit, it's more for prophet. There are many Midrashim about Abraham leaving his home, the one most known is the one about him smashing the Idols. While many think of a precocious teen, reading the the entire passage in GenesisRabbah gives a different view -- he may have been already in his seventies. Yet another Midrash is more significance, commenting on the odd phrase " the souls that they made in Haran," since no one but God can make a soul.
It refers, however, to the proselytes [which they had made]. Then let it say, ' That they had converted ‘; why THAT THEY HAD MADE? That is to teach you that he who brings a Gentile near [to God] is as though he created him. Now let it say, ' That he had made ‘; why THAT THEY HAD MADE? Said R.Hunia: Abraham converted the men and Sarah the women.3

The souls made were men and women who were inspired by Abram and Sari's vision of monotheism.Midrash can only infer such things, it is not written in the biblical text. We can only guess the thoughts of Abram at that time. I can only guess what many people thought of the Apollo moon missions, based on my own experience. I was four years old when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but by any measure, it completely blew me away, evidenced by the large number of space toys in my room, including my G.I. Joe astronaut, the play rocket ship and my spacesuit helmet. It made a little kid dream Kids older than me could dream too, and I suspect some of them transformed our world, founding such companies as Microsoft and Apple, inventing technology Apollo 11 mission control could not conceive of. . I have no measures, but I have the feeling that the moonshots inspired many young boys and girls to study science and technology, to be one of those people up there in space. Inspiration is far underrated, since where inspiration takes us is immeasurable.

Before Space entered our imaginations, it was the Sea. While the profit margin and prestige to get to the Far East was high, the adventure of getting there was a large part of the battle. Explorers likeDiaz and De Gama made incredible trips to find routes there. There was danger, there was the unknown. THe ability to have the courage to do something that might end in your death if you failed often accompanied such journey.DeGama's expedition did find the route to India past Cape point and around the continent of Africa. Two weeks ago, I visited the lighthouse at cape point, in an air conditioned Toyota minivan after a 12-hour business class plane ride in a Boeing 747 from London. It was nothing like the risk early explorers took. there is very little on the planet which has not been discovered and explored to the point of being safe for tourism.Apollo 1, and the two shuttle disasters underline the danger in exploring space. It is dangerous and that makes it inspiring in ways other things do not.

Abram and Sarai inspired people to think their way according to the Midrash, as they inspire us today. Three faiths trace themselves to this man and his family walking across a dangerous, inhospitable desert to somewhere he has never seen. Space exploration, and the voyages of sea explorers did the same thing once. Sadly, we have lost our sense of awe, our sense of inspiration of entering the unknown. Hebrew uses the same word for fear and awe. We all too often fear and cower from the unknown, instead of feel awe and charge forward. I don't know if we as a people get the WOW! we get watching the Ares launch as the awe watching Apollo 11 head to the moon. Abram andSarai's story is often made literal and trite, the merits lost in the modern criticism for what he did wrong to his family.

I think of wonder and inspiration these days as I'm in such unknown territory myself. Sweetie, who did leave her home her friends and her family to be with me is probably experiencing it to an even greater extent. We both are in in the unknown, the scariest yet most common "lechlecha " -- the one of relationships. The danger of breaking up is always there, as we see in the world around us. Relationships may be the ultimate unknown territory. Abram certainly had his problems, but he did undertake the venture of going to a place God would show him. He was inspiring to anyone trying to do something new, unknown and dangerous.

How many of us do that on a regular basis? How many of us are inspirational to others in our courage to do the unknown and possibly dangerous thing?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Noah 5770:Thoughts on the Game Reserves.

Noah 5770: Random Thoughts on the Game Reserves.

This week we have the story of Noah. Most are familiar with the story of the man who builds a very large boat, fills it with animals and his family at the orders of God, and thus survives a world encompassing flood, saving most species in the process. God tells Noah.

1. And the Lord said to Noah, Come you and all your house into the ark; for you have I seen righteous before me in this generation.
2. Of every clean beast you shall take to you seven pairs, the male and his female; and of beasts that are not clean one pair, the male and his female.
3. Of birds also of the air by seven pairs, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth.
4. For in another seven days I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth.[Genesis 9]

Madikwe Game reserve in northwestern South Africa was one of the interesting places I've spent my two weeks of Safari. Like the other places I spent time in Africa, Sabi sands and Timbavarti, It reminded me a lot of Noah's ark, and the preservation of the species that God told Noah to do. Being there and experiencing this place I also had to think that poor Noah had his hands full, even with God bringing miracles.

The thing about animals I learned at Madikwe in particular was that things are not simple. Often humans get this idea that animals that do not eat meat are somehow more peaceful than the carnivores.Leopard and Lion, Hyena and Wild Dog are thought to be violent compared to the herbivores like hippopotamus, zebra, cape buffalo and elephant. I learned that is far from the truth. Indeed the number one animal to cause human death in all of Africa is the hippopotamus. I knew this going there. What I did not know was the aggressive nature of other animals, often for the right to mate, the right to be part of a group or for territory. At Maidkwe, while photographing a stately Kudu, nibbling on some grass I heard a noise not far away, unlike anything I had ever heard. Across the road, two zebra were fighting, kicking and biting each other, and far from jest. THe loser of this fight was no longer back or white, but was covered with red.

One night while being escorted back by the security detail to my room in the Sabi Sands reserve, I learned another important lesson. In other parts of the world, such security might be about humans attacking humans, here we were told it was about the animals attacking humans. While not believing that, one night after dinner, several of us were escorted back to our room. Suddenly, the guard stopped and ordered all of us to the doorway of one room, while he called for help. In the total darkness, his flashlight had found a bull elephant on property, munching away. With our ranger and another security guard they did chase away the elephant. Had the elephant been angered the Ranger would have had a charging elephant bearing down on him. Although we got to our rooms safely, there was the evidence of the elephant the next day. Every tree had been uprooted, stripped of its bark and leaves and the the broken wood left all over the camp. The elephant had come back in the night, and eaten his way through camp leaving his trashed trees behind. Elephants can attack people and other animals, but they can do immense violence to ecosystems by leaving nothing but waste behind.

We read of Noah's generation:

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 9]

What is meant by violence is debated by the Rabbis. Yet in the bush, I learned that all flesh whether is eats other flesh or plants or both are prone to violence, to each other, violence to other species and violence even to their ecosystem. Nothing has changed. Being in South Africa, I had reminders of the violence that humans can do in memorials to a past not as enlightened as its present. In Zambia, all I had to do was look across the Zambezi river to Zimbabwe on the other side to be reminded again. In the reserves, watching a leopard spring at its prey, wild dogs dismember and devour a impala, cape buffalo butting horns, a herd of elephants attacking the buffalo for a waterhole, and the hippos then charging those bathing elephants all points to violence in any species has not disappeared.

Noah, it was said righteous in his generation [Gen 9:9] The debate since rabbinic times has been if he was completely righteous, or righteous compared to those around him. Either way, Noah did something different than those around him. At the end of Last week's portion we are told of Noah's generation

5. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
All Noah needed to do to be more righteous than his generation is to stop for one second and say to himself: "I'm not going to be evil right now" or "I'm not going to be violent right now." The animals are violent, as often we are violent not because we choose to be but because it is a biological part of who we are. What we choose is not to be violent or to transform something violent into something less violent, then maybe something less violent than that. In our distant past we were not that different than those Zebras, fighting and shedding each other's blood to determine who is superior among ourselves. In the not too distant past one sign of that dominance of one person over another was not which humans you killed, but which animals you killed. Even a hundred years ago, To go on safari, kill and stuff the "big five" game animals was a sign of status. Yet today, guns are not allowed in these game reserves, except for the protective equipment used by rangers. Today it is cameras that have replaced guns. In my several thousand exposures, I did bag the big five, as does many a visitor to these game reserves. In some sense, the photos of leopards and lion that will eventually end up on my wall will give me a bit of respect and status similar to actually killing the animals. My telephoto zoom lens, is far from violence.

We are told in midrash that things were different in the Ark. For some reason normal animal behavior did not exist. Upon exiting the ark, such things. change to normal. In one story,. the second the lions leave the ark they attack Noah. [Genesis R. 30:6] For some reason animal behavior changed on the ark. While it is said there were provisions for the animals and Noah's family, it mentions provisions for herbivores, not the carnivores, who must have either gone hungry or eaten plants on the ark. Midrash mentions there was no copulation on the ark, though I cannot find somewhere that mentions the animals stopped their mating and domination contests, though they must have. Many of these animals have multiple female and single males mating groups. Some have matriarchs instead of patriarchs. All this would have changed, but as the story of the lion attack, once they are free of the ark ,they revert to their normal behaviors.

I found my time in the wild wonderful, My love of wildlife photography got its fill for a while. But as I thought I Heathrow Airport, seeing the newspapers in the lounge I'm also saddened. Noah consciously made a decision not to be evil all the time, beyond that we have no idea how righteous he was. Be he did make that conscious choice. IT seems so rare these days to make that same choice in the world. THe same animal drive for sexual partners, territory, and status and dominance still abound in Human society, Like south African elephants, we lay waste to the world around us, Like the wholesale slaughter of elephants in Zimbabwe, genocide happens in many places around the world. we make pacts and treaties, but they are little more than arks: when their boundaries are crossed the violence shows up again. What my camera is to the gun does not seem to have many equivalents elsewhere. Noah's story in many ways is futile, as everything goes back to violence not long after the ark is emptied.

In reading Noah this year, I truly don't know what to think, or to hope.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Drash Breshit 5770: Why This is Late.

I had entirely planned to get another Shlomo's Drash done while on vacation last week, but things conspired against me. Well actually one thing did. The one thing took me totally by surprise, and I then began to wonder about that something in the African bush where I was on photo safari.

It started with a surprise that shouldn’t have been. The surprise came in the one piece of high tech to be prevalent even in the thickest jungle: the internet. At our safari lodge, I received a short message from Sweetie who was back home saying simply SHABBAT SHALOM. It was in that instant I realized I had totally forgotten Shabbat.

Interestingly, Genesis 1 ends with the creation of first animals and then men and women on day six. Then we read in Chapter 2

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.

The Sabbath was the last thing made in creation. I’ve wondered why for quite a long time. My experience in the bush of South Africa had me thinking differently about that. Even with staying in luxury accommodations in the game loges throughout South Africa, this was a drop of civilization in a very large ocean of wilderness. Elephants, snakes, baboons, impalas and even leopards can walk into the lodge property any time they want – there are no fences here to stop them. Verner monkeys make the roofs their home just to steal food from guests, and occasionally the chef of the dining room. On these game reserves, we humans are in their world.

The world of the African Bush parallels the world the one ancient man made their home. For hunter gatherers it was tough but everything was there to survive. Rabbi Meir in the second century of the Common Era thought the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was wheat. He may have got a point there. When Humanity tasted wheat, he needed an entirely different world to use this plant. No more picking fruit out of a tree or tracking down a kill. The food was placed in the same place every year and cut out of the ground, stored, then ground sifted, mixed with water or oil and then placed near a fire to be baked or fried. Cultivating the ground, Adam’s curse for eating of the fruit, makes sense if it was wheat. Adam was to toil on the earth to make from the fruit something resembling a food product. A seventh day of rest punctuated six days of that hard labor.

In the Bush there is night and day, the rainy season and the dry season. There is no other sense of time. And even as a visitor for a few days, I lost my own sense of time here, and forgot about when Shabbat started. The hunter gatherer did not need Shabbat; their existence was a form of the Garden of Eden since they were already there. Like the prides of Lions I saw, they hunted a little and rested a lot, so different than Agriculture.

Last Shabbat I realized that God created Shabbat last for a good reason. Only those who live in a world of work need a Shabbat. While the text does not say it, I believe after my trip to Africa that Shabbat was the relief from the work of a man or woman who had tasted from the fruit of Knowledge. Time is measured differently by agriculture and thus civilization than by the wild. Time conspired against me and hid itself from me.

I did not observe Shabbat last week fully, yet I learned to appreciate where Shabbat fits into our lives and into our sense of time more fully than any other Shabbat. Shabbat is an Island in time like Heschel believes, but only when we care to measure time.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sukkot Simhat Torah 5770: thoughts on the banks of the Zambezi

If you wondered why there has been a gap in Shlomo’s Drashes, the reason is where I am sitting now. I’m sitting on a patio on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zambia. To my left, there is cloud of mist, the mist from Victoria Falls. The hills in the distance are another country, Zimbabwe. I’m traveling thorough southern Africa with my mom, to see things we’ve never seen before.
Before I left for Africa, I studied had one bit of Mishnah which has been on my mind.
Mishnah. All the seven days [of Sukkot] a man must make the sukkah his permanent abode and his house his temporary abode. If rain fell, when may one be permitted to leave it? When the porridge would become spoiled. They propounded a parable. To what can this be compared? To a slave who comes to fill the cup for his master, and he poured a pitcher over his face. [Sukkah 28b]

The parable gives a rather startling image. We as servants of God give an offering of staying in the sukkah, yet God come along and gets us soaked with rain. Not seemingly the most gracious master. Anyone who had ever lived in a sukkah is familiar with the concept, even if one only eats in their sukkah. Rain, cold, wind and even snow can make being in a sukkah not a fun experience. Then there are bugs and critters as well. I think a lot about bugs as I take my anti malarial pills, knowing something very tiny could end up rather lethal. The only thing more deadly than Malaria in Zambia is HIV. It’s spring here and there may not have been enough rain for breeding yet, but I am cautious nevertheless. One can look at the sukkah as all the things we are exposed to.
Yet this week I did get an experience which changed my thoughts about that sukkah and it had a lot to do with an elephant.
We are staying at a luxury hotel, and as a gift, our travel agent arranged for us to have the private dining area for dinner the first night we were here. It was an outdoor table right on the banks of the Zambezi. The structure around us was made of cast iron framework, with iron slats radiating out of a center point for a roof, yet leaving much of the sky visible. As the stars came out the only light were several citronella torches and the candle on our table. Besides that there was nothing but darkness. Looking up I could see the stars through the roof, and thought of a sukkah. I haven’t seen that many stars in a while. A tiny but rapidly moving dot was most likely the International Space Station. But besides that one manmade object there was nothing else in the sky but stars. A few bats flew by, one of them kicking over the candle accidently. But there was also a sound from the brush behind us. We heard tree branches breaking. It got closer and closer. Our waiter told us that it was an elephant. Around dessert time the elephant walked by the pseudo-sukkah on his way to a patch of grass by the river bank. I could only see his shape reflected in the shimmering waters of the river – it was otherwise completely dark. But my camera caught him on long exposure. He hung around for our dessert, and then headed back in to the brush.
The wonder of an elephant wandering by forced me to think differently about sukkahs. We can think of a sukkah as a way to look at creation in a different way than we usually do with walls around us. We experience it and things we never otherwise do – which is the whole point of my trip – to see animals in the wild I would not otherwise see. Of course I can see animals in zoos or televisions, but it obviously is not the same. It would seem in the aftermath of the birthday of the world, we are to experience it. Even if the Master throws a pitcher in our face, we were in front of the master. It reminds me of another parable about Hanina ben Dosa, a poor shulb of a rabbi, who also happens to be able to pray for people to get well, once he was studying with the great Rabbi Johanan b. Zakkai, the leader of the Rabbinic courts.
The son of R. Johanan ben Zakkai fell ill. He said to him: Hanina my son, pray for him that he may live. He put his head between his knees and prayed for him and he lived. Said R. Johanan ben Zakkai: If Ben Zakkai had stuck his head between his knees for the whole day, no notice would have been taken of him. Said his wife to him: Is Hanina greater than you are? He replied to her: No; but he is like a servant before the king, and I am like a nobleman before a king. [Berachoth 34b]

The thing about servants is they get access that even nobles do not, and thus can ask favors even nobles do not. Servants see things that noblemen never will. The time of Sukkot is our chance to observe with that kind of access the natural world before us. It may be an Elephant, or a coyote, a monkey or a squirrel. It may be the clouds above us or a beautiful sunset. It may be rain or falling leaves, or in the hemisphere I’m currently in, blooming flowers. We watch the cycles around us.
When thinking of cycles, I remembered another river. Over a decade ago, sitting in Rome on the banks of the Tiber, a teacher of mine described two rivers as representative of two societies. The Nile with its floods and droughts represents a cyclical world view of the Egyptians. The Tiber, on the other hand stays regular but flows forward linearly, describing the thought of the Romans. The clash of worlds between Cleopatra’s and Octavius Caesar’s was bound to set the course of western civilization towards linear progressive thinking was my teacher’s theory – and it was all bound up in the rivers that flowed by their windows.
The Zambezi is both, particularly here close to the falls. It is a powerfully flowing river, but it has its wet seasons and dry seasons. All the rocks I see now in the dry season would be under water in the peak of the wet season. The mist from the falls would obscure everything, even from a kilometer away. Yet the falls adds another element not true of the Nile or Tiber. A magnificent set of falls, an event that might seem like the end of the river, but is really a radical change. Time is best described as a paradox, both linear and cyclical. Every cycle we are somewhere new. Yet at the same time, we are back where we started. There might even be some radical changes. Some might think of these as the end of something, some might believe them the beginning of something.
Heshel in his work the Sabbath describes Jewish time as cyclical time. There are cycles of the year, and as Heschel spends much of the book describing, cycles of the week. The festivals are more marks in the cycles than anything else. Yet no mark is quite as significant to me as a beginning and an end as Simchat Torah, which not only ends Sukkot, but is the reading of both the end and then the beginning of Torah.
The tradition of dancing in circles with the Torah on Simchat Torah reminds me of those cycles. Yet in that tradition we also see one of the most radical changes. We move from the beginning of a scroll to the end. In congregations with multiple Torahs this can be seamless. One can read from one Torah from the end of Deuteronomy, and in another the beginning of Genesis. Yet, like one on my first congregations as an adult, the congregation had only one Torah, and that would require a radical change of rolling the whole Torah mid-service. One tradition I have seen as an alternative, especially in the liberal Jewish movements is the unrolling of the entire Torah in a circle held aloft by the careful hands of congregants, sometimes gloved sometimes not. Once unrolled it is rolled back up so that genesis is ready to read. To see and hold all of Torah around you is quite a powerful experience.
It has been my personal tradition not to hold the Torah scroll aloft, but to tell people what they are holding. I’m usually one of the few people in my congregation who can read and translate torah text cold. It was other reason I started taking Hebrew in the first place. Every year I can pick out a read more parts of Torah. And tell more about the story or Mitzvot they hold. It has been a joy to do so for many years now.
On the banks of the Zambezi, I will not be doing that. This year by the time Simchat Torah comes to this far side of the world, both in latitude and longitude, I will be arriving at my hotel for Johannesburg. This year is different, in that way. But it is different in many ways, the blessing of Sweetie in my life the greatest of them, who will be holding that Torah up for me this year. That blessing alone would make Victoria Falls a little stream in comparison.
There is always the continuity of the heart – literally. The sages pointed out that the last letter of the Torah and the first letter spell the word leiv, or heart. With our heart – both our emotions and our minds, we complete and begin a cycle anew, with new adventures.
Some want to talk of Jewish time like a spiral, both linear and cyclical. Yet that requires a longer length of time every cycle, but the holidays always appear at the same time. For me it is like this river I am leaving today, always moving forward over the falls, with rapids at places and still deep waters at others. IT can be rocky and small or deep and wide depending on the season. So too with our lives and with the holidays of the seasons, the lesson I think of Simhat Torah.
With the joint joy of Shabbat and the Cycling of the Torah, may you all have a wonderful holiday.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Drash Yom Kippur: Cookies for Yom Kippur

At high holiday services this year, Rabbi Peter Knobel of Beth Emet started his d'var with a cute story. There was this boy named Yossel, who was about to start Hebrew school. He knew little about Hebrew or religion, but he went anyway to a big yeshiva. When he got there he stopped by the cafeteria to get something to eat. There he found a bowl of apples. Over the apples was a sign "take one apple only- God is watching" Yossel also found a plate of chocolate chip cookies down the counter from the apples. This had no sign. A little while later a faculty member came by the cafeteria. As he came by the cookies, he noticed a handwritten sign"take as many cookies as you like, God is watching the apples, signed Yossel"

Rabbi Knobel then jokingly asked the congregation to make theological sense about that story this week. Like putting a white macadamia chunk cookie in front of me, I couldn't resist.

Abraham Joshua Heschel thought we are often caught in polarities. Cookies and apples, although treats, are opposite sides of the snacking spectrum. One is high in nutrition, one is not. We can eat several cookies in one short sitting, apples we rarely do, for example. Heschel noted the polarity of Halakah, the law and Aggadah the story. It is a polarity that is found often in Judiaism, with schools of thought coming out more on one side than the other. This dynamic is very old, as described in the Talmud:
R. Abbahu and R. Hiyya b. Abba once came to a place; R. Abbahu expounded Aggada 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]
Stories are like pots and pans: The stuff we use on a everyday basis, and are part of our lives. Often the intricacies of Halakah are powerful, but have little meaning to the average person.In the book In Prasie of the Baal Shem, we have the parallel story to Sotah 40a that the Baal Shem Tov made one of his first converts to Hasidism out of a opponent, R. Yaccov Yosef of Polonye, by telling him stories. They can be very powerful things indeed. Yet, the polarity of Halakah and Aggadah is not either/or, but a blend of the two. To not charge interest in a loan to a family member is both ethical and a law in Torah for example. What is also true is where there is light there is always darkness. If there is a polarity of Aggadah and Halakah, there is also a polarity of sin as well. There are the sins against the Mitzvot of Torah and its corresponding Halalka. There are also sins in our personal and collective stories often being moral lapses.

Yom Kippur is not a holiday of halakic sins, it is aggadic in nature. In theYom Kippur confessional prayer Ashamnu, there is no mention of eating cheeseburgers, nor gathering twigs on Shabbat. Yet different types of Lashon Hara, evil speech, abound. We confess in Ashamnu that we convinced others to do bad things, we spoke slander, etc. Implicit in this confession, this behavior has become a normalized behavior for us. The Talmud writes:
IF ONE SAYS: I SHALL SIN, AND REPENT, SIN AND REPENT. Why is it necessary to state I SHALL SIN AND I SHALL REPENT twice? — That is in accord with what R.Huna said in the name of Rab; for R. Huna said in the name of Rab: Once a man has committed a transgression once or twice, it becomes permitted to him. ‘Permitted ‘? How could that come into your mind — Rather, it appears to him like something permitted.[Yoma 87a]
R. Huna in the name of Rab identifies an important problem. Sin becomes meaningless by being normative behavior. It is a lot like when Yossel eats his fourth chocolate chip cookie, the one where he loses track of how many he really ate. Ashamnu and the Vidui confessional prayers breaks of this pattern, by admitting to ourselves and the congregation we are guilty of this. Significantly, it has the nu suffix on each of the confessions. The first person plural -- "we" involves all of us. We have corrupted not only our own story but the story of each other, our community and the story of the world. Social and moral evil is not just normalized for us individually, but as a community.

Eating a cookie is not a bad thing. It can bring a lot of joy to someone, and many times is the reward for a small child to eat all of their veggies. Eating a lot of cookies may cause health problems, though. Hoarding or not sharing cookies is rather anti social. There is the possibility of bad behavior. When we eat all the cookies on a plate we may not even notice we are doing something bad to ourselves, or something selfish to others. We have to admit to a cookie problem before we stop snarfing cookies.

Cookies themselves are not sin, though many might think so. They have potential for both good and evil, it is what we do with cookies that is important. Such is true withAggadah, both as our personal story, our collective story, or our commitment to an ethical life. The cuteness of the story Rabbi Knobel told is that Yossel is of course wrong, God is watching the cookies. Yet Yossel is right that it is Aggadah that God gives us more freedom in deciding what is right than the Halakah, and thus make the most mistakes. Thus Yom Kippur gives us the chance to change our ways about the Aggadah in our life.

The irony of comparing one of the biggest fast days to chocolate chip cookies is not lost on me. May your fast be an easy, and fulfilling one, and may you be inscribed in the book of fully living-- with super chunks of joy.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rosh Hashana 5770: The Grasshopper and the Ant

Once again it is Rosh Hashana and I am once again conflicted by a the Netana Tokef prayer.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed
How many pass on, How many shall come to be
Who will live and who will die
Who shall see ripe age and who shall not
Who by fire and who by water
Who by sword and who by beast…
…But repentance prayer and charity temper the stern decree. [Gates of repentance 313]

Netana Tokef itself is based on a earlier Talmudic work, which sets the theme for the entire holiday cycle:
R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Johanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of life. The thoroughly wicked are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of death. The doom of the intermediate is suspended from New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death.[Rosh Hashanah 16b:]
We are all, of course of the intermediate category. So every year, even Jews who are not religious fill synagogues which remain rather empty the rest of the year to observeRosh Hashnah and Yom Kippur. For many, it is more about some form of family obligation than actual observance. For some it is all a build up to the Yiskor , the memorial service to remember those close to us who have died. Yet for whatever reason they all come. Every year we go thorough a liturgy different than the rest of the year. Every year, we sing songs in high dramatic tones different than a usual Shabbat service. In almost every congregation, no matter how informal the rest of the year, everyone dresses formally for this time of year.

This all has bothered me for a very long time. I'm not sure which event would be considered the most significant. Was it the Yiskor service turned JUF fundraiser in 1972? Was it every donation envelope passed out during the congregation president's speech? Was it is the 1979 service when I was twelve years old, and the president of the congregation tried to personally kick me out ofKol Nidre services so they had chairs for paying adults? Was is the clothes competitions of who looks best in their fine wear and is therefore the holiest? Maybe it was seeing my teachers who kept telling me in Hebrew school to show up to Shabbat services only there on the high holidays. It was all the hypocrisy that irritated me from a very young age, much of it directed, rightly or wrongly at the high holidays and the high holiday congregation.

Oddly enough, my response was more radical than those I was criticizing. A quarter century ago, I decided to leave Judaism for eastern mysticism. My freshman year of college was the first of many years I did not go the High Holiday services, and was glad to miss all the hypocrisy. Yet I somehow started to come back. Many of my illusions of high holiday services were shown false in the services my parents eventually ended up at, Northwestern University Hillel. I made it a tradition then to read from Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim over the high holidays. Slowly, until the time of my Dream of the Shema in 1995, I was getting ready to return, and not even realizing it.Rosh Hashana did start the process of my own T'shuva.

Yet it has left problems I still cannot resolve.The Natana Tokef's Who shall live and Who shall die is still too harsh for me, and I've tried to find more sensible metaphors. What I came up with is a different view: It is not our bodies we are talking about, but our souls. One can have a perfectly healthy body and be dead inside or one can have a physically damaged body and still have a full life. While physical heath is important to facilitate full living, it is not required. What is required is a good attitude and perspective to live a full life. So I don't believe in a Book of Life as much as a Book of Fully Living. It is not making a seal on our fate in a book, but unsealing and turning to a new set of blank pages to write our next chapter, one that will, God willing, make a great read.

What is fully living? the difference between those who show up for service once a year and every Shabbat gave me hints about it. One hint come from the book of Proverbs, one of the earliest places the ant provides us with a parable of how we are to live our lives.

4. Give no sleep to your eyes, nor slumber to your eyelids. 5. Save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, and like a bird from the hand of thefowler . 6. Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise; 7. Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, 8. Provides her bread in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest. 9. How long will you sleep, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? 10. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep, 11. So shall poverty come upon you like a vagabond, and want like an armed man.[Proverbs 6]
Proverbs talks of one who sleeps instead of working hard to gather and store. Aesop took the story further with the ant and the grasshopper fable. The grasshopper plays all summer never doing any work. The ant on the other hand does the exact opposite, spending the whole summer gathering and storing for the winter to come. When winter comes, the Ant is ready and survives, the grasshopper freezes to death, though, in some later versions without a rebuke first. This imagery does work in many aspects. The grasshopper is living for the moment joyously, yet often fails when adversity come along, In some versions of the ant and the grasshopper, the ant believes intzedakah , and gives to the grasshopper what is necessary. Yet there is a false premise in Proverbs 6:7. The ant is not free, but a mindless drone of a queen. The ant can not appreciate the song of the cricket, he only know to search and gather food. Sadly the ant does not even know this so programmed to this task. To be stepped on is nothing, for the ant is nothing. Unlike trying to catch a gazelle bird or grasshopper, the ant is easy prey. The ant does not even recognize he is in danger while ironically preparing for danger. .

Over the summer, when both insects are prevalent, I've thought a lot about grasshoppers and ants. There are in the world those that work, plan and prepare for the future. There are also those that spontaneously enjoy the word with out a worry. In our prayer lives the grasshopper and the ant are very much the congregants who pray once a year and those who pray every day or every Shabbat . The high Holidays are like the approaching winter, and the Grasshopper gets desperate for a new lease on life. The ant is prepared, the grasshopper not.Yet, it seems both survive. Thinking in polarities about grasshoppers and ants leaves us with a different view than mere opposites. It it a balance of both views which is important. To pray and read Torah all the time is not sufficient. Neither is joyously playing and enjoying the word around us. To live fully live we must enjoy creation in order to witness it and be part of it. At the same time we need to prepare and build for the future, through study, contemplation and prayer. If we do one, but not the other, our book of fully living will not be full of life, but as dull as death.

It is with a balance between two extremes we find fully living. One cannot exist without the other. It is like the student and the fiddler. AS much as the Student of Torah studies all day or a shopkeeper works all day and finds the fiddler lacking for playing his fiddle all day, a wedding is not complete nor joyous without the fiddler bringing joy to the wedding couple. The fiddlers income is from those who spend their days working and studying.

As we all begin 5770, May you be both the grasshopper and enjoy the beauty of Life, and the Ant and be prepared for adversity. In doing so may you have a full chapter in the Book of Fully Living.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Drash Nitzavim Vayeilech 5769:Wood and Stone, Heart and Mouth

I'm writing this in the Starbuck's in Rosemont IL. That might not seem very important but in a sense it portrays everything I want to express.
9. You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, 10. Your little ones, your wives, and your stranger who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; 11. That you should enter into covenant with the Lord your God, and into his oath, which the Lord your God makes with you this day;[Deuteronomy 29]
The definition of the word which is the name of this portion is a curious word. Here translated as stand it is not the regular word for stand. Aramaic translations in the Targums, are not clear what it should mean. TargumOnkelos translates this word as Stand, in it's plain sense, but also to ascertain or bargain, Jonathan be Uzziel uses the Aramaic word to make ready, to prepare or to anticipate. Midrash believes Nitzavim means endure. Noting that this verse occurs after the long list of curses from last week's portion, using Onkelos' translation, Rabbis note how remarkable that the people are still standing.
R. Berekiah said: He strengthened me to withstand all [afflictions]. You find that after the ninety-eight reproofs in Deuteronomy, what is written? You are standing this day all of you (XXIX, 9), which we render [according to Onkelos], ‘Ye endure this day all of you,’ i.e. you are strong men to withstand all these [reproofs].[ Eicha Rabbah III:1]
Those who were there could endure all that was thrown at them. That interpretation however may not include this verse in its focus:
13. And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath; 14. But with him who stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him who is not here with us this day;[Deuteronomy 29]
Most do not take this to mean those who have wandered off and did not hear Moses' speech, but to future generations. Yet some in the near future of the biblical text present me with a few questions. The role of hewer of wood and drawer of water is an interesting mention. Not long after the crossing of the Jordan and the destruction of Jericho, Joshua makes a pact with some Hivites, the Gibeonites, that he will spare their lives if they remain the drawers of water and the hewers of wood, the lowest class of people.
23. Now therefore you are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being servants, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.[Joshua 9]
Thus the hewers of wood and drawers of water are the lowest class and virtual equivalent to a permanent slave class. We also have the stranger mentioned in the verse from Nitzavim. These three point to a rather interesting category: People who were not among those who experienced the Exodus from Egypt. Four of those mentioned, captains, elders, officers, and all the men of Israel, account for the adult male population of Israel. Women and children account for another category. What this brings us to is an apparent class system. First class is men, and as a sub category each type of official. We have women and children who lived in the wilderness as second class. Then we have those who are not originally part of the Congregation or may be marginally part as a lower, almost slave class. There is plenty of support for such a system in the biblical text, but in a very interesting way. Over and over we read of the stranger, widow and orphan, and what to do with them. The categories of people who are neither first class nor under the protection of a first class person are significant to Torah , as the later prophets will often go on about. At the same time, these categories legitimized that there is another status than a male member of the congregation. Indeed, two weeks ago we read:
19. When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
20. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.
21. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.[Deuteronomy 26]
and last week to make it completely clear:
19. Cursed be he who perverts the judgment of the stranger, orphan, and widow. And all the people shall say, Amen.[Deuteronomy 27]
Yet, in Nitzavim, it is also abundantly clear. These classes may have been set up by men, but as far as God is concerned, they are all included in the covenant. The responsibility of all us lies in all of us, the responsibility is classless. We stand and endure together or not at all.

In our current world I find it so sad that such a lesson has been warped so badly. People have become in polar opposition to each other, and not just in politics, but in a class structure too. Yet the classes here are not just income or political based, but the the side of the counter one is on. They are those of the customer and the worker. I always remember a woman I was hosting for a conference in my home town and went out for coffee with me. She was one of the strongest social activists I've ever met, yet when we were at the coffee counter she treated the guy behind the counter like a lowly slave, barking out orders and telling him how incompetent he is. This is a behavior all of us too often do. But the mirror is also true, I've dealt with workers in many jobs who treat their customers as antagonists and not customers.
This why I'm in the classic hangout for writing a good chunk of this, the Rosemont, IL Starbuck's. I'm sure there are other stores like it, and I'm also sure this is the real secret to paying for expensive coffee. Everyone there knows my name my favorite drink, snack and my story, just as much as I know every Barista and their story. This is not customer and server, or chieftain and water carrier, but instead two human beings who just happen to be making a friendly transaction.Given its closeness to O'Hare International Airport and the Rosemont convention center, this small place has a lot of people walking through. Both the strangers and the police officers get their lattes and breakfast sandwiches here. Yet everyone is treated like a person, and even the customers lookout for each other.
I try for that spirit every day. Sweetie was noticing what happens when we were seated at a restaurant the other day. The entire waitstaff came out to greet me. This is actually very common, and I'm sure others notice it too when ever I walk into a restaurant. In any restaurant, when one sits down at a table, the server often says "hello my name is X, and I'll be your server today." Sometimes they only have a name badge and just ask for your drink orders. In either case, I immediately reply "Hi, I'mShlomo , and I'll be your customer for this evening" while holding out my hand to shake theirs. If this is the first time I've done this to a person, they often looked shocked, and have a hard time processing my friendly offering. I'm no longer just a nameless customer, I've given them my name and my hand -- I'm a human being. What's more, I've acknowledged them as a human being. Over the course of the meal I will talk with them, and often doodle and paint at the table. Sometimes my artwork is left with the tip when I leave the table. This is such a different experience than what most service staff get to deal with on a everyday basis. They are the water carrier and hewer of wood to most people, a mere alien slave who is there to do the customer's whim. The customer, no matter how rude or condescending, is of course always right. Many restaurant staff members probably forget my name, but most staff know about "the painter." I recently had a server come up to Sweetie and me and exclaim with relief "thank God I get to serve you today!" She had had a really bad string of customers, and friendly faces was just what she needed.
Interestingly, the Torah this week goes on to say we should, once again, avoid idolatry. Thinking about the rules, blessing and curses that make up much of what we had read in the last few weeks in Deuteronomy, I think their idols, wood and stone, silver and gold are not just some statues acting as gods, but treating human beings as though they are made only of wood and stone instead of flesh and blood. It's an ancient lesson, one that that is not in Heaven, but truly is a matter very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it[Deuteronomy 30:14] Just treat other human beings like human beings. One of my favorite Hasidic Stories, though I cannot remember the source, is about an Abbot of a monastery who is in such distress he asks the Rebbe of his town for advice. The monastery is falling apart and the monks are constantly yelling at each other. The Abbot is deeply afraid that they will have to close the monastery if these things continue. The Rebbe looks at the Abbot and tells him that he has heard from up above that the Messiah happens to be one of the monks, but he has no idea which one. Treat the Messiah well, the Rebbe declares, and all will be well. The monks when told this each suspect the other is the Messiah and start treating each other with the reverence due of the Messiah. The monastery begins to change, everyone is friendly to each other, the grounds are cleaned up and the Monastery thrives.
The point is clear: We all have some of God in each of us. We all stand before God, but often we forget and think we stand before stone and wood instead. Acknowledging another human being as a human being changes everything. It is far from easy sometimes, but it often is true.
As the last Drash of 5769, may I wish for 5770 that we all learn in our hearts to remove the idols in front of our eyes and see the human being, so we find the Divine in the words they speak.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Ki Tavo 5769: Keenly Listening, Amen

In this week's portion Ki Tavo, we have a series of things to do after entering the land of Israel. After writing the Torah on a stone tablet, there is a set of curses for those who do wrong, and a set of blessings for the nation, and another set of curses for the nation. We start with the commandment of the first fruits.

Yet something else has been chewing at me lately.

Last week I talked about my being sub standard. In comments I received last week, most didn't happen to see that in that piece. Yet a few things this week reflect why I find that true. One was last week's Torah study. As is common, the person leading the D'var Torah was more interested in giving an opinion than actually engaging the text, her agenda was pushing her personal agenda on others. I though about myself and realized that I too have an agenda, but a far different one. We have not just the Torah as the text of our tradition. As such we should not just engage with Torah and skip the Prophets, writings, Talmud,Midrash or even later Hasidic folklore.

Among many congregants there is of course an accessibility issue. Many of these texts are in Hebrew, and translations rare. Even when a translation is handy,Rabbininc thinking is not understandable to most people. This week for example, we find the following verse in the Torah:
1. And it shall come to pass, if you shall give heed diligently to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command you this day, that the Lord your God will set you on high above all nations of the earth;[Deuteronomy 28:1]
Devarim Rabbah VII:1, the major commentary for this verse starts in a rather oblique place, making one wonder what this has to do with the verse:
1. Halachah: Is it permissible for one who acts as Reader to say ' Amen ' after [the benediction of] the priests? Our Sages have taught thus: One who acts as Reader should not answer ' Amen ' after [the benediction of] the priests for fear of becoming confused; and our Rabbis have taught us: If, however, he is able to answer ‘Amen’ without becoming confused, he should answer. For there is nothing greater before God than the ‘Amen’ which Israel answers.
Apparently if one is reciting the prayer publicly, they are not to say Amen because they might lose their place in the prayers. Prior to the printing press there were no siddurim . Prayers were memorized and thus the prayer leader could lose their place. Yet if they could keep their place, then they are to say Amen. What does saying Amen have to do with diligently fulfilling the commandments? Here it is not clear. Yet the discussion continues with another Rabbi describing what Amen is supposed to do:
R. Judah b. Sima said: Amen contains three kinds of solemn declarations, oath, consent, and confirmation
He then goes on to give an example of each use in the biblical text.

Whence oath? For it is said, Then the priest shall cause the woman to swear... and the woman shall say: Amen, Amen (Num. V, 21 f).6 Whence consent? For it is said, And all the people shall say: Amen (Deut. XXVII, 26).7 Whence confirmation? For it is said, And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada answered the king, and said: Amen; so say the Lord (I Kings I, 36).
Another thing the Rabbis had memorized was the Biblical text. So very often they will recite only part of the verse. For those of us who have not memorized such texts, looking up the context of the passage may be helpful. For example the consent Amen is from this week's portion,
26. Cursed be he who does not maintain all the words of this Torah to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen.[Deut 27]
On the other hand the Torah requires a few lines to make sense out of the example of an oath. Here, we have the bitter waters rite of a suspected adulteress, who takes an oath
21. Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say to the woman, The Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away, and your belly swell; 22. And this water that causes the curse shall go into your bowels, to make your belly swell, and your thigh to fall away; And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.
The oath here is answered by the accused woman with an Amen. Of course the woman says Amen, Amen, and we are left to wonder if one is for a curse and one for an oath, as both are mentioned in the passage. The third case is an even longer passage, with the captain of King David's guard confirming to David that he and his companions will make sure Solomon will be made king after David.
We thus have learned that Juda b. Sima belives that amen contained three attributes of commitment which make God like it so much. And yet, none of this says anything about our verse. TheMidrash then makes another interpretation of why Amen is so loved by God.
Another comment: R. Judan said: Whosoever answers ‘Amen’ in this world will be privileged to answer ‘Amen’ in the time to come.

This is a interesting and profound Statement to say the least. Saying Amen means you will be able to say it in the afterlife. Of course implicit in this means you will have somewhere that you could say Amen in the afterlife. Where is that in the the time to come? And what proof is there that such a statement is true? Another alternate interpretation refines this

Another comment: R. Joshua b. Levi said: Whosoever enters synagogues and houses of study in this world will be privileged to enter synagogues and houses of study in the time to come. Whence this? For it is said, Happy are they that dwell in Thy house, they will for ever praise Thee.Selah (Ps. LXXXIV, 5).
When one prays, one says Amen. One prays in a synagogue or in a house of study, so this must be where we say Amen. Synagogues and Houses of study according to R. Joshua b. Levi are God's house, so Psalm 84:5's statement that praise will be forever for those who dwell in God's house includes the afterlife, since it couldn't otherwise be forever. But another version of the same comment goes one step farther. In synagogues and houses of study, we learn Torah, So R.Judan, who made the original comment about saying Amen in this world and the word to come, takes it one step farther:
Another comment: R. Judan said: Whosoever listens to the voice of the Torah in this world will be privileged to listen to the voice of which it is written, The voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, etc. (Jer. XVI, 9). Moses said to Israel: ' Since whosoever listens to the words of the Torah is so exalted in both worlds, be diligent to listen to the words of the Torah.’ Where [can this be inferred]? From what is written in the context, AND IT SHALL COME TO PASS,IF THOU SHALT HEARKEN DILIGENTLY1 UNTO THE VOICE OF THE LORD THY GOD (XXVIII, 1).[Midrash Rabbah - Deuteronomy VII:1]
R. Judan takes a verse from Jeremiah, and attributes "the voice" to the voice of God,
9. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will cause to cease from this place before your eyes, and in your days, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride.
In this world the voice of God is written in the Torah. In the word to come we will learn from God directly. Here he teaches that Moses understood this and that is why Moses said the verse themidrash is supposed to be commenting on. R. Judan bases this conclusion due to a grammatical trick on the phrase Hearken diligently which in Hebrew is Shamoah tishmah. Both words have a root of Shema, listen. Shamoah is actually a infintive which in Hebrew intensifies the verb Tishmah to mean diligently hear instead of just hear. But without vocalization, Shamoah can be rendered as Shomei-ah, a .present tense verb, and tishmah is already a future tense. So R. Judan believes the verse hints that if we hear God's voice in the present we will hear God's joyous voice, like the voices at a wedding, in the future time to come.
Hopefully you followed this logic. It is not the stuff we usually use in the western world. It's basis is different by believing a book has a lot of questions begging to be asked instead of questions begging to be answered. As I've said before while Christianity and Judaism are known as the people of the book by Muslims, in reality Jews are the people of the question. The word for interpretation isn't the verb for an answer but Darash, the word for a question. Midrash is named not for the answer but the question, which is why this is Shlomo's Drash. It's my questions that are important. The frame work in the Midrash was not to give you answers but to ask a lot of questions, and pull at you to ask other questions. The editors of Midrash Rabbah could have started with the verse and worked backwards to Amen, but instead stated an obscure rule about saying Amen and worked their way though questions to the verse just to get you, to ask questions. The midrash did not use quantative data to back up its conclutions but a toolbox of litereary constructs which require digging throughout the biblical text, not just Torah. This is not the way most of us think, and thus it's hard for someone to take such a text and work with it, even in English translation.
Yet If you shall diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God points to our need to do so. The voice of God is in the text, even in a text written by Moses as tradition believes, or later scribes as some scholars believe. It's in the prophets and writings that make up the wholeTanaich , even if written by someone else besides God. If we dig we find things, treasures we did not know before that God hid there for us. Like the sea what we see at the surface is next to nothing, when we dive blow it do we see the rich beauty of the coral reef. So too is Torah, not he five books of Moses but all of the literature of our ancestors who made those deep dive to see the special, beautiful treasures hidden below. All too often it saddens me to see how few today make that journey. My agenda is simple: like an underwater photographer, I want to show that beauty underneath.
I hope you will join me. Amen.