Friday, June 19, 2009

Shelach Lecha 5769: My next thirty years.

This week we have the well known portion of the spies, who instead of bringing back a good report of the land bring back one full of fear. When the people believe them, and want to go back to Egypt, God punishes them by the 40 years wandering in the desert. For me however, Shelach Lecha has another meaning: it is my Bar mitzvah portion. This year it has been 30 years since I read that portion.
There are lots of memories of that day. Mine was far from the ostentatious parties or elaborate synagogues of many young people. Indeed I didn’t even have a Bar mitzvah speech. I was far too shy to do so. But I remember studying. I remember the events leading up to this day, some of them not pleasant ones. But the day itself and the weekend was wonderful. It was the first and only time I would have all of my grandparents at my home, instead of visiting them. I will always remember my grandfather’s davvening during services, in that gravely Ashkenazi pronunciation. Our synagogue, was a converted garage, we has a plain building and sat on metal folding chairs. I got up there and sang my maftir and haftarah. I remember little of the party afterwards, but remember the family get-together the next day where my youngest cousin tried to sell the leftovers of the previous day’s party to everyone.
It was not long afterwards that I began to turn away from Judaism. I had prepared for My Bar mitzvah in an Orthodox Hebrew School, though only going on Tuesdays and Thursdays. My unobservant ways were looked down by the other students, with encouragement of the teachers. I was a second class citizen in this environment. It was one of the last straws to make me look for somewhere that seemed more connected to God than to one’s pride of doing mitzvot. Like many Jews I went towards Buddhism and Taoism.
So it was an irony that I finally wrote that bar mitzvah speech twenty years after my bar mitzvah. To celebrate my 20th anniversary of my bar mitzvah I did not just read a memorized maftir again, but this time translated it on the fly. The shy boy in the powder blue suit had been replaced with a far more exuberant character. I gave a D’var that day that talked about the blessings in my life, my Promised Land. I wrote on that day of sending a spy not into the Promised Land of space but into time. He would travel from June 1979 to June 1999, and report back on my life in the future. There would be many of my blessings of course, including my return to Judaism, my living in Downtown Chicago, and my master’s degree in Education. But there is Amalek there too. Like the Spies whotold the Israelites of the people of the land seemed unconquerable, my spy into the future would have to tell of some of the darker parts of my life. I understood the spies and their fear back then, the thirteen year old me would have been terrified if he knew what he would have to endure. I’m still terrified remembering it.
That 20-year late Bar Mitzvah speech was a beginning for me. It lit something under me to write. Three years later, I started Shlomo’s Drash, and close to every week I crank another one of these out. In the last ten years I’ve gone from barely knowing Hebrew to translating both Hebrew and Aramaic. I’ve gotten my Master’s Degree in Jewish studies. I’ve had some downturns, such as the loss of my Grandparents, but nothing that was traumatic. I’m a scholar, an artist and can pick my way around a guitar. Life is good.
Of all the biblical characters, Joshua has stood out for me. While there are other instances of Joshua showing up in Torah, it is here where the story is more his and not Moses’. Here he is a spy. In the haftarah, 38 years later, he is the leader sending out spies. For the last ten years, the midrash on Joshua has fascinated me. There is one, which tells that Joshua’s confidence in taking the Promised Land is discounted because he is single and has no family. Nowhere in Torah does it say Joshua married. It is left to the rabbis to come up with that story. So it was only when I was able to read Aramaic that I found out that not only did Joshua marry and have a few daughters who would be the mother of the late prophets like Jeremiah, but he also married the sexiest, most powerful woman in the Region: Rahab of Jericho.
But Joshua’s beginnings present some interesting challenges for Midrash as well. We read in this week’s portion:
8. From the tribe of Ephraim, Oshea the son of Nun.[Numbers 13]
And a few verses later we find
16. These are the names of the men which Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Oshea the son of Nun Joshua. [Numbers 13]

It would seem that this is when Moses changed Joshua’s name. However, there are several time when we find that not to be the case, including not long after the Israelites cross the Red Sea.
8. Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.
9. And Moses said to Joshua, Choose for us men, and go out, fight with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand. [Exodus 17]

Later in Exodus, we wil read:
11. And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. And he turned again into the camp; but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not from the Tent.[Exodus 33]

Joshua was named Joshua before the episode of the spies. Rabbinic lore tells that the letter yud in Sarai, which was lost when God changed her name to Sarah, was given to Joshua. Yet the chronology does not exist here either.
The Zohar, however, believes Joshua’s renaming did happen at the time of the spies
AND MOSES CALLED HOSHEA THE SON OF NUN JOSHUA: As much as to say: May God save thee from them!’ R. Abba said: ‘As he was being sent for the purpose of entering the land, it was requisite that he should be perfect, to wit, through the Shekinah, for up to that time he had been called “a lad”, and therefore Moses joined the Shekinah with him. And though we find the name Joshua before this in the text (e.g. Ex. XVII, 9; XXXIII, 11), it is there used in anticipation.’[ Bemidbar, III, 158b]

The yud is also a letter of God’s name and thus the addition made Joshua a more holy person, to counteract the evil report of the ten spies. Yud also is the letter ten, again reflecting on those ten spies. Yud is the letter that makes the fire Aish of immaturity, into a man ish.
The Zohar believes that he was called a lad in previous portions, and this was to prepare him to be an adult. The word for lad is also the word for servant. This name change also changed the character of Joshua. In the previous cases he was a servant, and did Moses’ bidding. From this point on, he is his own man, the one who will cross the Jordan into the land.
It may be a stretch, But Joshua changed from a person of obedience to a person of responsibility in this reading. While we cannot tell Joshua’s age, Moses may very well have been at the very first bar mitzvah – that of Joshua’s.
It is a wonderful thought to share this day with Joshua. Thirty years later from my own Bar Mitzvah so much has changed, and the sweetest has occurred. Like Joshua when he crossed the Jordan to Jericho, He found his perfect match. I too have found mine. Sweetie has none of the past nor the dubious profession of Rahab, but in the tradition of wise strong women, she stands along Rahab, Asnat, and Ruth.
With her with me, I’d love to see what the next thirty years will look like.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Parshat Behaalotecha 5769: Mom’s Retirement

This week, a lot goes on in Torah. Yet there is one obscure passage brought up during a Torah discussion that was rather timely,
23. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 24. This is it what concerns the Levites: from twenty five years old and upward they shall go in to wait upon the service of the Tent of Meeting; 25. And from the age of fifty years they shall cease waiting upon its service, and shall serve no more; 26. But shall minister with their brothers in the Tent of Meeting, to guard the charge, and shall do no service. Thus shall you do to the Levites concerning their charge. [Numbers 8]
Much of the discussion surrounded the mandatory retirement age of fifty. Much of the conversation surrounded the idea of a mandatory retirement. But much of the conversation made an assumption, based on the idea of a western view of retirement. The western view is that when one retires one stops working completely and lives a life of leisure. This however is not reflected in this text,. Levites will stop in doing the tasks of worship but will continue to guard the charge. But what do we mean by guard? Are they not able to do service but are able to stand sentry duty?
The verbal root SH-M-R used here had many meanings, including to guard, to keep, and to observe. I don’t believe sentry duty is what is meant here. The Aramaic translations, known as Targums, have the word l’mitar. The root here, N-T-R has meanings closely related to Sh-M-R. MaTaR also means to drip or to rain. The N-T-R root also has one more meaning: to preserve. Looking at the rain outside dripping down some trees, I was reminded of the beginning of the Perkei Avot:
Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the great assembly. The latter used to say three things: be patient in [the administration of] justice, rear many disciples and make a fence round the Torah. [Avot 1:1]

A tree collects rain and drips it down to the saplings below, allowing them to grow. So too does Moses drip the Oral Law down to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders. The fence around Torah is that same oral law, transmitted and evaluated by each generation. In every aspect of life there are things that are not written down. Someone often orally transmits them to the next generation. When that does not happen, the subtle knowledge of hope to do something is lost.
Later in the Perkei Avot we read a famous schedule of the stages of life.
He used to say: five years [is the age] for [the study of] scripture, ten-for [the study of] Mishnah, thirteen-for [becoming subject to] commandments, fifteen-for [the study of] Talmud, eighteen- for the [bridal] canopy, twenty — for pursuing, thirty-for [full] strength, forty — for understanding, fifty- for [ability to give] counsel…[Avot 5:21]

One can quibble with the time table of course, though this is one of the two places in Mishnah where the age of a bar mitzvah is mentioned. The rabbis here too, linking our verse to the life of everyone, claim that it is at fifty one is able to counsel others. Retirement is not ending one’s work life; it is entering a new stage. A verse from Psalms reads:
34. Give me understanding, and I shall keep your Torah; I shall guard it with my whole heart. [ps119]

Up through forty everything we do contributes to our understanding of Torah and life. It is at fifty, the retirement age we become a sage. It is then we use our knowledge to preserve the tradition through the three saying of the Great Assembly: judging the law, teaching it to as many we can, and guarding the fences of that tradition.
While the actual age is not important, there is a point in our lives we change from a worker to a sage. The Torah forbid priests who were fifty and older from making sacrifices, but they were there to make sure all the active priests did it right. It was that D’var Torah I gave the day after that Torah discussion, at my Mom’s retirement party. After many years of work, she’s decided to stop doing the 40-hour daily grind. To celebrate that event we had a party of family and close friends. Up until the party I had nothing to say, but on the way to the party I thought about the retirement of the Levite, and gave this short D’var Torah. But then I noted something else. Shlomo’s Drash could not have existed without her. The resources and knowledge in this weekly column came from her efforts. I had the desire and put in a lot of work to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, Tanach, Mishnah and Targum, but finding the ways to fund that education was all her.
She’s beginning a new part of her life now. It is not just sitting around enjoying a leisurely life. It is a lot of taking time to steer grandkids in the ethical and spiritual directions she herself has mastered. Parents are often too busy or too often thought the disciplinarian. Grandma and Grandpa are different, and can do things parents can’t. She’s the one who now tells the stories of the family, to drip them down to the next generation. She’s going to be there to give advice on the many things she is such an expert at to me and the rest of our family.
In my forties, I’m still struggling to gain understanding, I’m far from the stage she is now. She and I will share travel together and I will cherish every moment of her wisdom and understanding during those trips. There’s so much left for me to learn.
So I dedicate this Drash to My mom. Thanks Mom for everything and for everything yet to come.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Naso 5769: Alien thoughts

One of the odd things about the scheduling strangeness in the triennial cycle I wrote of last week is a first for Shlomo’s Drash. For the next couple of weeks, the Torah Reading at my synagogue occurs before I write the Drash for that portion. Thus there are Torah discussion days before I sit down to the keyboard, and so others have given me a lot of ideas. Yet where I take it is of course my own invention.
Last week the discussion was based on a rather small passage in Torah:
1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying 2. Command the people of Israel, that they take out of the camp every leper, and every one who has a bodily discharge, and whoever is defiled by the dead 3. Both male and female shall you take out, outside the camp shall you take them; that they defile not their camps, in the midst of which I dwell. 4. And the people of Israel did so, and took them out outside the camp; as the Lord spoke to Moses, so did the people of Israel.

In my public health role, I understand the literal text. Set up a quarantine of those temporarily affected by something that makes them impure. Those with the skin disease Tzaarat, those who have a sexually transmitted disease, and those who have been handling corpses do run a high risk of transmission of disease to others. All of these are spelled out in detail in the book of Leviticus between Chapter 12 to 15.
The question most people in the discussion were answering was: what kind of God would shun from his presence those in most need of help of some kind? But to ask that question begs another I have mentioned before: what kind of God promises 600,000 men of military age that they will live in a land of milk and honey then proceeds to take the entire book of Numbers killing off all of them, including their leader Moses, so that only two of their number enter? Something else must be going on here.
God did not promise an individual, but a people. In that sense, God kept his promise. It is a collective, B'nei Yisrael, that God promised, not a set of individuals. One can represent that collective not just as a group of people but a psyche as well. The book of numbers is a story which gives us a roadmap of personal transformation from a slave state to a free one. If that is the case, what does this passage have to do with personal transformation?
We need to look at the context of Naso. The story here is the setting up of the first God encounter after Sinai. The people make the Mishkan operational with a series of laws, actions, commitments and sacrifices. At the end of this series of offerings, we read:
89. And when Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with him, then he heard the voice of one speaking to him from the covering that was upon the ark of Testimony, from between the two cherubim; and he spoke to him.

Moses would hear God’s voice from above the ark, between the two figures known as. This is the Goal therefore of Naso, to set up the divine encounter. We have no more sacrifices since the destruction of the temple. Instead we have prayer. Prayer opens that connection between man and God. As Abraham Joshua Heschel noted many people do not understand prayer, thinking it’s only about asking God for things. It’s more than that; it’s making a personal connection between us and the divine. “Prayer does not save us”, Heschel said, “but makes us worthy of saving.” There are two parts to that connection, like in any conversation. There is a set of rituals and texts to read to accomplish this, the keva. It is the Kavvanah, the intention and effort put into prayer which is the metaphorical reason for the taking all these taamei, or unclean people out of the camp.
For many prayers such as the Amidah, a deep sense of concentration is needed. The Talmud wants intense concentration, so much so that
Even if a king greets him [while praying] he should not answer him: even if a snake is wound round his heel he should not break off. [Ber 30b]

When one meditates or prays there are those odd thought which don’t belong there. It might be “my leg itches” or “what’s for lunch.” Often one finds the mind wandering. A snake is a small distraction compared to those inner, alien thoughts. Trying to make them go away makes the situation worse.
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism believed that the alien thoughts contained at their core a holy element, a divine spark. During prayer any alien thought we have is not to be shunned, but healed and cleaned of the crud that made it fall from heaven in the first place. The Baal Shem Tov speaks of healing the thought, not shunning it. Oddly enough to shun it only makes it stronger, and more of a distraction. The taamei in the congregation are the alien thoughts to the whole of Israel. Their afflictions will be of the self, not of the group.
I remember a few years ago, my mom was concerned about how often her thoughts wandered in prayer. At the time I explained to her alien thoughts. I pointed out noticing she was wandering in her thoughts was a step in the right direction. Many people are so routed in their alien thoughts the genuine thoughts are lost. Even sadder is they are not even aware of it. There is a Hasidic story about the Seer of Lublin who had a man ask him how to get rid of alien thoughts. The man then enumerated his alien thoughts one by one in a large list. The Seer replied, “Well they are not so alien, they seem quite at home there.” Until we identify the alien thoughts as alien we cannot go to the next step of healing them.
I’m not immune to alien thoughts; I have then all the time. Either in prayer or meditation they are often all I get. Sometimes I’m not even sure what is divine connection and what isn’t. There was this time at a Jewish retreat that we did a meditative exercise. Everyone discussing their experience afterwards said things like “I saw the unity of the universe” I was too embarrassed to share. While everyone else was getting profound messeages and experiences. I got Loony Tunes. Bugs Bunny was hitting Elmer Fudd with a wooden mallet as an answer to Elmer’s question to know the secret to all knowledge. I’ve wondered about that vision. Was it an alien thought or was it an actual connection like we were supposed to have in the exercise? How do we tell the difference? The Baal Tem Tov of course gave me the best answer. There is always a kernel of holiness to all these thoughts. Your job is the quickly see that kernel and then the thought will become holy.
I have tried to apply this to prayer, and I’ll admit I need a lot practice to elevate an alien thought. Yet in every attempt I do get better at it. Things that crossed my mind a year ago now transform into butterflies of light and float away as soon as they enter my mind. Yet thoughts still cross my mind, and interrupt my prayers like lead balloons. It takes a lot of practice, something I’ve yet to accomplish. Indeed I think everyone has this problem whether they admit it or not. Many have it when they talk to humans, too busy thinking about other thing to list to the person they are conversing with. Of course this is rude. How much more so to God?