Monday, December 20, 2010

Vayehi 5771: Grandparents Remember

This week we have the end of the story of Genesis, which ends with death. First we have the last years of Jacob's life, his blessing to his sons, then his death and burial. This is followed by a rather short section showing Joseph doesn't exact revenge on his brothers, he sees three generations of his children, and then dies, with a promise to be buried in the land of his birth, but that won't happen for quite a while.

One of the joys I take in doing midrash is taking a seemingly innocuous verse and look at it carefully. Some of the throwaway verses can lead in unexpected directions if one know how to look. For example, In this weeks portion we read an interesting verse:

23. And Joseph saw Ephraim's children of the third generation; the children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were born upon Joseph's knees. [Genesis 50]

Two questions come to me about this verse immediately: Why is Machir mentioned? Why specify the Third Generation? Machir is found next in the genealogies of Numbers 26, where the Gereration who will enter the land is enumerated.
29 The sons of Manasseh: of Machir, the family of the Machirites--and Machir begot Gilead; of Gilead, the family of the Gileadites. 30 These are the sons of Gilead: of Iezer, the family of the Iezerites; of Helek, the family of the Helekites; 31 and of Asriel, the family of the Asrielites; and of Shechem, the family of the Shechemites; 32 and of Shemida, the family of the Shemidaites; and of Hepher, the family of the Hepherites. 33 And Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters; and the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah, and Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.[Numbers 26]

A chapter later the Daughters of Zelophehad approach Moses to challenge of Halakah:
1 Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah. [Numbers 27]

There is a verse in Torah which does mention both Egypt and the Third generation.
8 Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother; thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land. 9 The children of the third generation that are born unto them may enter into the assembly of the LORD. [Deuteronomy 23]

The descendants of a marriage and an Israelite does not enter into the congregation until the third generation.We of course have read earlier that Joseph's wife is Egyptian:
45 And Pharaoh called Joseph's name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Poti-phera priest of On. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt...50 And unto Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came, whom Asenath the daughter of Poti-phera priest of On bore unto him. [Genesis 41]

If you believe that The Torah of Sinai was known to the patriarchs, this becomes a problem. Joseph intermarried an Egyptian and thus according to Deuteronomy 23:9, Neither Menasseh nor Machir are part of the congregation.They were officially not Jewish. This dilemma apparently had been thought of by some Tamudic-era Rabbis. The Perkei of Rabbi Eliezer and the Targum Yonatan b. Uzziel have a commentary about Asenath that solves the problem. Asenath was Dinah's and Shechem's daughter, and only adopted by Poti-phera. There is little evidence of this,it is mere midrashic commentary, but it does solve the problem. If Asenath was part of the family by matrilineal decent, her children would be part of the congregation. Of course, there is the other answer, which our verse suggests. Joseph lived long enough to see Gilead born, and see the descendants of his that would be included in the congregation.

One part of this verse provides an interesting entry into the issue of who is a Jew and How Egyptians fall into the schema . The mention of Machir, however provides us with a pointer to the genealogy of Gilead, Menasseh's grandson, one of those born on Joseph's knee. Gilead's descendants will include the Daughters of Zelophehad, who will successfully challenge the rights of inheritance of property to sons only.

I then find a third question about the verse. How were Joseph's great-grandchildren born on his knee? Did he hold their mother while she gave birth? Here I look to one of my favorite Talmud quotes.

R.Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan's name: He who teaches his neighbor's child Torah, Scripture ascribes it to him as if he had begotten him. [Sanhedrin. 19b]
Joseph taught Torah to his descendants. I doubt it was Torah mi Sinai, but the ethics, and wisdom he learned in his life, the connection to God he had even in the darkest pits and dungeons he taught to his children, his grand children and his great grandchildren. He knew his mistakes, and the mistakes of his brothers and father. He didn't want to have them make the same mistakes again. Six generations later, five women descended from Joseph would not be at each other's throats like Joseph and his brothers, but work together to change things. The Daughters of Zelophehad, make a strong case for a change in the rules as there were. They use the system of justice, not trickery or murder or any of the other foul tricks we find in Genesis. They learned the lesson.

Joseph was thirty when he was summoned to Pharaoh [Gen 41:46] Between thirty one and thirty seven he was a father of Ephraim and Menasseh [41:50] and he died at 110 [50:22], leaving somewhere around seventy five years he was a parent. For the majority of those he was a grandparent, and great-grandparent. Parents may be good at providing sustenance for the bodies, but Joseph spent his later years making sure the souls of his descendants were nourished as well.

Why is this verse important? You do not need to believe Joseph knew all of Torah to realize Joseph did teach Torah to his Grandchildren. After Joseph dies, there is none of the games between siblings we find in Genesis until the time of David, and there for very different reasons. I find that critically important to the world around us. Our future is in our future generations. It is not just in having children, but teaching them the lessons we have learned over the years. Otherwise they forget the lessons, experience, and wisdom of the past. Many times parents have a hard time doing this while supplying the clothing shelter and other physical needs of a child. It is a role for others who are not involved in those roles: Grandparents, teachers and other role models. I was reminded that this week in a world we are never to forget that Shoah, I saw a few individuals so horribly forget those lessons, and try to spread that forgetfulness and the consequential hate to others. Yet I saw a few who one would have expected to go along with this bunch of right wing extremists, but instead find their actions detestable -- because they still remember the Holocaust. Next week, we see what happens when one forgets. We meet the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, and he enslaved the Israelites. But as much as the taskmasters tried to subjugate them, the Israelites remembered. As we will see int the the book of exodus, without remembering, they never would have been redeemed, for they never would not have cried out to God.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Mikkeitz 5770: Joseph, Hanukkah and AIDS

Hanukkah, the festival of lights most often falls late in December, and close to the solstice. As part of the eight Days of Hanukkah, the new moon occurs, leaving us with a holiday with little to no Moon and the least amount of Sun. This year it is early, but begins on one of the darkest days in another way. December 1 is World AIDS Day, and I have a hard time separating starving cows from HIV. In this week's portion, Pharaoh starts by having a dream:

1 And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river. 2 And, behold, there came up out of the river seven cows, well-favored and fat-fleshed; and they fed in the reed-grass. 3 And, behold, seven other cows came up after them out of the river, ill favored and lean-fleshed; and stood by the other cows upon the brink of the river. 4 And the ill-favored and lean-fleshed cows did eat up the seven well-favored and fat cows So Pharaoh awoke. 5 And he slept and dreamed a second time: and, behold, seven ears of grain came up upon one stalk, rank and good. 6 And, behold, seven ears, thin and blasted with the east wind, sprung up after them. 7 And the thin ears swallowed up the seven rank and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream. [Genesis 41]

After finding no one to interpret the dream, The chef cup bearer remembers Joseph in prison, and Joseph is called before Pharaoh. After telling Joseph the dream, Joseph delivers both the good news and the bad news:

29 Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. 30 And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land; 31 and the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine which follows; for it shall be very grievous. [Genesis 41]
Joseph’s solution would have many a bible-thumping Tea Partier screaming "Socialism!" Levy heavy taxes on grain production during the time of plenty and store all that grain, then distribute it during the famine. Joseph in seeing the dream realizes something most people do not: this famine will affect everyone. If the grain isn’t stored it is not just the poor who will starve but so will the rich. Indeed, everyone in the region will starve.

Joseph is involved in setting the economic policy of one of the two superpowers of his time. Sitting in Synagogue last Erev Shabbat, listing to one of my friends give an excellent D'var Torah, I began to not think of economics, but public health. I had just read a rather startling report From Human Rights Watch about the American South. their report, Southern Exposure highlighted the overwhelmingly large numbers of AIDS and HIV cases in the American South. The epicenter of HIV infection in the United States is not New York or San Francisco, but Dixie. Inadequate healthcare and education are contributing to a dangerous situation.

Surprised by this, I did some checking in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control website, and found the recently released data for 2008 Notifiable diseases. Combing through that data the magnitude of the problem struck me. Almost Half the Reported AIDS cases were from the three southern regions of the united starts, the area from Maryland on the northeast to Texas on the southwest.

While the Southern Exposure report mentioned the lack of needle sharing programs in southern states as one contributing factor, I wondered if there was another issue besides the drug abuse issue. Indeed the report mentioned the lack of adequate sex education, particularly in the use of disease and pregnancy preventing measures. With more digging I compared it to the numbers for other sexually transmitted diseases. Compared to Syphilis for example, and adjusted for population, similar patterns appear. Comparing rates for Gonorrhea, the South Atlantic region has almost double the case rate as the Pacific or the Mid Atlantic regions.

Key to that is the poor state of sex education in this region according to the report:

The states in the South with the highest rates of HIV, sexually transmitted disease, and teen pregnancy are not ensuring that students receive comprehensive, evidence-based education in sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi do not require sex education at all; of these states, only Alabama requires HIV/AIDS education be taught in the schools. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina do require sex education to be taught in the schools, and North Carolina recently replaced its abstinence-based education policy with the Healthy Youth Act, legislation that requires local schools to teach evidence-based information approved by experts in sexual and reproductive health. However, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and South Carolina all require that where schools teach do sex or HIV/AIDS education, abstinence before marriage shall be "stressed" or "strongly emphasized." … The discussion may include contraceptives but only if such discussion includes a discussion of the risks (failure rates, diseases not protected against). In no case shall there be a demonstration of how condoms or any other contraceptives are applied.[]

As alarmed as I am at this, I also remember an strangely humorous aggadic passage discussing the tension involved in Sex education.

R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab's bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to himself: One would think that Abba's mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn.[Berachot 62a]

Both Rab and Kanaha are right. It is rude to be a voyeur, but Kahana wanted to know how to be holy in the act of sex, only to find it needs a lot of passion and joy. In context with the Gemara passages before this one, it becomes clear, that everything from toilet habits to sex are a matter of Torah, and we are required to learn from our teachers. Rab does not give lessons in the academy about sex, and students have to observe his personal habits to find out. Yet there are some Talmudic passages that do give instructions. There is even a few sex manuals written by Medieval Rabbis such as the Ramban. While their choices and directives were not as liberal as those today, knowing how to make love properly was not only important but a holy act.

Yet the majority culture has this tendency to portray sex as dirty and sinful, and only abstinence is sacred, reflected strongly in government policies in the South. More than a thousand years ago, Jews realized abstinence doesn’t work, yet the majority religion still can’t figure that out. Neither are they willing to protect their flocks from disease – The knowledge of prophylactics is forbidden knowledge, even for adults. In doing so they shield young and old from knowing what choices they have which will spare their lives from life threatening disease. Many religious institutions, heedful of “be fruitful and multiply” doom their believers to a slow painful death. While the CDC numbers do place a large amount of the current cases in the South in poor African Americans, like the famine of Pharaoh and Joseph, this can easily spreads to the privileged people as well. They too are ignorant of precautions, and while they might not be infected with HIV, herpes or gonorrhea might be in their futures.

There is a way to stem the tide of infection, a variant of Joseph’s storehouses. It is a active and strong public health and public education effort. We know it works. Regions that were the epicenter of the HIV infection are now much smaller infection sources than the south. Good education in at-risk communities have slowly reversed the infection rates.

Joseph and Pharaoh were not slouches. They both understood there was times when Government needs to take care of the needs of the public. Economic policy is just one way of course that we can help people. A comprehensive way of healing the sick, and preventing them from becoming sick is also critical. Yet it is sorely lacking.

Torah is the tree of life, and in doing so addresses all aspects of life, even good sex. It does not hide from it, but puts it in a perspective that makes sense. For Rab, sex was a fun joyous thing to do with his wife, as though it was his first time every time -- it was far from dirty or sinful to have sex and enjoy it. But there were responsibilities involved, and Rab and Kahana took those seriously as well, as their halakic rulings show well. The majority culture’s insistence on avoiding sex or making it sinful tragically hides those responsibilities, and bans talking about it in places where the most good can be done: our public schools, the media and clinics.

The dark and cold of December 1 is both world AIDS day and it is the beginning of Hanukkah. The darkness of the day is not just the Darkness of AIDS and the numbers of people it kills or debilitates yearly it is the darkness of public health, who I expect will be far dimmer after the recent elections. It is the darkness of those so stigmatized by a disease they will not get tested or treated. It is the darkness of the GBLT young people who cannot get constructive information about who they are, and thus make some very bad decisions, or have bad decisions made for them. It is the darkness of "sex is bad, don't do it" while still heeding a genetic programming in our bodies we cannot fully control.

I fear the darkness not just for sexually transmitted diseases, but for those that are more easily transmitted by food, water and air. The system to control AIDS is not that much different than those for other diseases and their public control. Education, surveillance, and the ability to mitigate the spread of disease is the same for almost any disease. Like Joseph feared, I believe we are setting ourselves up for the seven lean cows, who will eat the seven healthy ones. This will not just be a one demographic, geographical ethnic or otherwise: No one will be safe from disease.

Yet this is also Hanukkah, the festival of lights and the miracle of the light that did not go out even in the time of darkness. While many will merely think of it as a Jewish Christmas, at its core it is an anti-assimilation holiday, celebrating we are different and want to live differently. It celebrates where a people did not want to follow the majority religion but live their lives according to Torah. It reminds me there is always a light cutting the darkness. It reminds me that we as the inheritors of the Talmud and Torah need to be there helping the sick and preventing illness through good education and good example. We need to support a strong governmental system of education and disease prevention. In that way can we be a light unto the nations in a time of darkness.

Decades after AIDS and HIV entered the scene, we are on December 1 around the world both Pharaoh and an imprisoned Joseph, deciding if a dream and warning signs are enough to act. May we all have the wisdom of that Pharaoh and choose wisely. May we have the discernment of Joseph to act wisely for us and for the future generations.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Vayishlach 5771: Struggling with Yourself.

One of the most memorable scenes in the Book of genesis is Jacob's midnight wrestling match:

25. And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. 26. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Jacob's hip became dislocated as he wrestled with him. 27. And he (the angel) said, "Let me go, for dawn is breaking," but he (Jacob) said, "I will not let you go unless you have blessed me." 28. So he said to him, "What is your name?" and he said, "Jacob." 29. And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have strived with God and with men, and you have prevailed." 30. And Jacob asked and said, "Now tell me your name," and he said, "Why is it that you ask for my name?" And he blessed him there. 31. And Jacob named the place Peniel, for [he said,] "I saw God face to face, and my soul was saved." [Genesis 32]

This passage has many questions which one could ask. Who is this man Jacob struggles with? IS he even a man? Based on 32:31 we can assume that at least Jacob thinks this is a divine messenger, if not God personally. His new name also points to such a conclusion, that he was striving with God. Rashi notes there is a tradition it was Esau's guardian angel. Some commentators will say it is Esau, others one of the archangels, such as Michael or Gabriel.

There is a tradition concerning the angels insistence of leaving before dawn. The purpose of the angels was to sing praises to God. Since he was struggling with Jacob he was going to be late and unable to fulfill his purpose if this wrestling match continued. The rabbis are also clear the praises are those in Isaiah 6:3:

ג וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ.
And one called unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.

What the rabbis cannot agree on is how this is said. Either one set of angels says קדוש, "holy" another set says the next "holy" and a third say "Holy is the Lord of Hosts." But some of the angels might say it every morning, some might say it once and never again. While debating this point, the talmudic Rabbis insist the people of Israel are superior to angels as Jews say all three praises every morning as part of the Morning Amidah.

I believe Jacob was fighting with Jacob and God at the same time. At the core of this fight was Jacob's resistance to go home. Resistance is what keeps us from doing what we want to do and what we have the potential to do. Self doubt, a lack of conviction and confusion lead to resistance, which causes laziness, procrastination, and finding excuses for not moving forward. I'm very familiar with resistance, it tries to prevent me from writing every day of every week. I certainly got me for the last three weeks. Resistance delayed one d'var, and this crunching another one from ever getting written. It's a hard fight, and one I constantly need to do, just as I'm trying to finish this very late once again. I'm sure each of us can think of a situation where we didn't get done what we would have liked to, and somehow irrationally wasted time instead of being constructive.

By this, I don't mean Shabbat rest of course. There is a time and a place for recharging the batteries. But how many time does someone surf the web during the workday instead of getting their tasks for the day done? Such a thing is resistance at work. Its those places we do waste time when we really shouldn't. We could be more efficient, but we don't.

The angel was really Jacob's resistance. He knew he had to get out of Padan Aram, but going back is not easy, particularly on the news his brother, who is out to kill him, is on his way with 400 soldiers. As I once commented his gift of sheep may have been a delaying tatic. Horseback soldiers and sheep don't get along very well- randomly moving animals make it hard to charge in a fast straight line. His positioning of his sons may have had some merit in their ability for battle: Levi and Simon, who later in this portion will commit wholesale murder against the town of Shechem to avnege the rape of their sister is near the front. Jacob is not a warrior, and he knows it. He's never fought, but thought and tricked his way out of every situation he is in. Brute force is not his way.

When showing brute force against your own resistance, you deadlock. You still don't get anything done but waste energy fighting the resistance, yet that resistance has a weakness -- it hates being seen and identified, for then we see how ridiculous it really is and easily defeat it. So too with the angel -- It really doesn't want to be seen, but Jacob does see him face to face, and when he does he realizes he is strong enough to face his brother. Rashi's comment about the angel being Easau's guardian angel comes from a midrash which gives a parable of a king who trains his son not to be afraid of wild animals with a tame lion. Afterwards, feral dogs don't bother the prince. So too with Esau's angel: if he was defeated, so could Easu. Or put another way: if one can defeat our dire expectations of an issue, how much easier when we encounter the real thing?

One of our biggest enemies is ourselves and our negative thinking, the thinking of "I can't." Jacob was victim to this, but spent the night before his encounter with Esau fighting this negative impact. I have found in our modern world there is a lot that tries to tempt human beings into believing they cannot do on their own, they must have some external force do for them. Commercialism tells us that a new television set, car or brand of beverage will be the external force that lets us do what we cannot otherwise do. Some believe this external force is drugs or alcohol, only to fall into a downward spiral of addiction. This is false thinking. God could have done the same as the Red sea and drowned Esau the way he drowned the egyptians. He did not flash-flood the Jabbok river and wash away Esau, but instead got Jacob to do some hard, painful thinking. We need to do the struggle within our selves, not let an external force, including God do it for us.

The phrase "yes we can" is a little tarnished right now, but it is still true. As any grammarian will tell you, "We" requires more than one "I." When I am not believing "Yes I can" then the phrase is really "Yes, they can." We must first believe in ourselves as individuals and then as a collective. Jacob had to believe in himself before he could transmit that ideas to his sons. His sons understood it in their own ways. Ruben and Judah will make mistakes, and try to make up for them. Joseph will too, and as we will read in the next few weeks, Joseph and Judah will only have themselves and God to depend on in some very difficult situations.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Toldot 5771: Why do we believe lies?

This week we have the birth of the two twins, Esau and Jacob. They are very different people, with Esau being a hunter and and Jacob a dweller in tents according to the text. Esau was favored by his father and Jacob by his mother. As the story continues, Esau sells his birthright for a snack, and then when Isaac is ready to give Esau his blessing, Rebecca hatches a plan to have Jacob receive the blessing instead:

11 And Jacob said to Rebekah his mother: 'Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man. 12 My father peradventure will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a mocker; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.' 13 And his mother said unto him: 'Upon me be thy curse, my son; only hearken to my voice, and go fetch me them.'[Genesis 27]

It is a deception, a lie. This is not the only deception in this portion however, though one of the most well known. Isaac pulls the same stunt his dad Abraham did with Abimelech King of the Philistines. Yet this time, there is no divine warning to the king, he catches Rebecca and Isaac in a intimate moment, and Abimelech realizes they are not brother and sister.

Though Rebecca says the curse will be upon her, Jacob ends up never seeing his beloved mother again. Rebecca dies before his return from Padan Aram and his uncle Laban. Jacob is also deceived when he unintentionally marries Leah instead of Rachel, when Laban switched them just before the wedding. Jacob returns the deception by conning Laban out of all his good livestock. Deception seems to be less a curse and more a communicable disease.

What surprises me is how many people fall for deception. In the story of Jacob, even the con men are conned. I'm sitting here wondering my fate and the fate of many of my friends in the world after the 2010 American elections. A lot of what happened I look at as short sightedness, and not looking at the big picture or the ethical character of who people were voting for. Yet a lot was outright lies and deception, from the editing of a video of a government official to make her sound racist to the the surveys day by day telling us how many people think the President is a Muslim. A great propagandist whose strategies it appears many on the right have espoused said it best about such: If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed. That propagandist, Adolf Hitler, spawned the Shoah with his lies. But such deceptive rhetoric is much older than than the early 20th century:

8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. 9 And he said unto his people: 'Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; 10 come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.' 11 Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Raamses. [Exodus 1]

Why did Pharaoh or the Nazis lie to get power over people? Very likely I believe it was easy to do so, because we fall for deception so easily. It's easy to lie because it's easy to trust, to believe it. Over twenty years ago, a social psychologist wondered why he was so gullible to sales people, and has since made it his life's work to figure out why. Robert Cialdini published much of his early work in this area in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuation. Ironically, instead of the defense against such practices which Cialdini intended, it is one of the most highly regarded marketing textbooks ever -- it teaches people how to lie. What he found, told through case studies and a review of the research of others, shows how we are compelled to buy things we never wanted, why a doomsday cult still had faith when the predicted end of the world never came, why Stanley Milgrom's experiments, which showed how you can order a decent human being to murder someone by eletrocution, worked so elegantly, and how Jim Jones convinced a lot of people to commit suicide in Guyana.

He found a lot of things in his research, though some of it may seem obvious: We do tend to trust those we like or those perceived in authority. We are terrified of scarcity. We like doing the same thing over and over agin and the same thing everybody else is doing. Though Ciadini doesn't not make the link himself, humans as communal animals seem to have such things hard wired -- to keep a social group intact we will do these things even when it is contradictory to our own interests.

Rebekah's and Jacob's deception of Isaac is not complete without the belief of Isaac that this really is Esau. Isaac even has evidence that this is Jacob:

18 And he came unto his father, and said: 'My father'; and he said: 'Here am I; who art thou, my son?' 19 And Jacob said unto his father: 'I am Esau thy first-born; I have done according as thou bade me. Arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me.' 20 And Isaac said unto his son: 'How is it that thou hast found it so quickly, my son?' And he said: 'Because the LORD thy God sent me good speed.' 21 And Isaac said unto Jacob: 'Come near, I pray thee, that I may feel thee, my son, whether thou be my very son Esau or not.' 22 And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said: 'The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.' 23 And he discerned him not, because his hands were hairy, as his brother Esau's hands; so he blessed him. 24 And he said: 'Art thou my very son Esau?' And he said: 'I am.' 25 And he said: 'Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son's venison, that my soul may bless thee.[Genesis 27]

Isaac was suspicious from the beginning, that the venison got there too fast, that the voice was Jacob's not Esau's. It seems odd that goat hair could ever fake human hair. Could goat ever taste like venison? Yet Isaac blesses Jacob anyway. But as a narrative, it strikes me as odd that none of the things that Caildini mentions seems to indicate why Issac believed Jacob: the evidence was rather clear this is Jacob faking it, even to a blind man.

Some commentators on this puzzle think Isaac knew and gave Jacob the blessing anyway. My belief is that Isaac wanted to believe it was Esau. I've written else where why I thought Esau was his favorite, but in essence Esau was strong enough to counter his own father, something that Isaac wasn't at the Akedah. He could not resist a hundred year old man with a knife, That was so embarrassing he wanted to be strong -- and reflected that on his strong son. Isaac was angry at himself and wanted to be another person. Even though he was blind he could only see the image of that other person: Esau. Here is the consistency principle of Cialdini: He was so wrapped in that illusion, Isaac believed with the flimsiest of evidence, since that wimp that was Jacob and the wimp that was Isaac as a young man never would have the guts to decieve his father. To believe anyone but this was strong Esau would shatter Isaac's illusion.

Why do so many believe lies? Because there are illusions of might and greatness, and breaking those illusions, be it with a massive growth of immigrants, economic downturns, a defeat in a war, or a attack on native soil brings us to places where we want the illusion of greatness to be true. The news-- not just one station but virtually all news outlets are consistently giving us statistics and innuendo, over and over again getting us to believe the lies. As Cialdini found and Isaac fell for, once we believe the lies, we cannot go back to the truth, it shatters our world view too much.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Haye Sarah 5771: Prayers Answered

This week’s portion, named the Life of Sarah, ironically starts with her death. Abraham does some land deals to find a proper burial place for his late beloved wife. Then he tells his trusty servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac back in the old country. Eliezer, not having a clue what to do, decides the best thing is pray and to ask for a sign from God. Almost immediately the sign comes to pass, he meets Rebekah and eventually brings her back to Isaac, where she is so blown away by him she falls off her camel. Isaac and Rebekah get married, move into Sarah's old digs, and Isaac is comforted from the loss of his mother. Abraham remarries, (some rabbinic sources say he marries Hagar), and has a few more kids. Even with the death of Abraham, whom both Isaac and Ishmael bury jointly, everybody's one happy family until the twins show up next week, and things get really, well, hairy. But the whole portion pivots on one theme: prayers do get answered.

In the eight times that I have annually written about this portion, I invariably come back to the same set of verses. It is a prayer by Abraham's servant to have the god of his master help him find the bride for Isaac. He wants some very specific help.

12. And he said, O Lord God of my master Abraham, I beseech you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13. Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water; 14. And let it come to pass, that the girl to whom I shall say, Let down your water jar, I beg you, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give your camels drink also; let the same be she whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that you have shown kindness to my master.

The Talmud and Midrash find this prayer outright careless if not pagan divination. I have argued in five of those eight times that there is more going on here than meets the eye. It takes a lot of water, hundreds of gallons, to totally satiate ten camels. Yet the text goes on to say that Rebekah appeared immediately and did exactly that -- an act of hospitality equal to Abraham running across a field while recovering from circumcision, then preparing a meal for a bunch of strangers. While one may wonder why this is so, it becomes obvious when one adds a Midrash which I often quote along with the passage above.
A [Roman] matron asked R. Yose: ' In how many days did the Holy One, blessed be He, create His world?’ ‘In six days,’ he answered. ‘Then what has He been doing since then?’ ‘He sits and makes matches,’ he answered, ‘assigning this man to that woman, and this woman to that man.’ ‘If that is difficult,’ she gibed, ‘I too can do the same.’ She went and matched [her slaves], giving this man to that woman, this woman to that man and so on. Some time after, those who were thus united went and beat one another, this woman saying, ' I do not want this man,’ while this man protested, ‘I do not want that woman.’ Straightway she summoned R. Yose b. Halafta and admitted to him: ‘There is no god like your God: it is true, your Torah is indeed beautiful and praiseworthy, and you spoke the truth!’ Said he to her: ‘If it is easy in your eyes, it is as difficult before the Holy One, blessed be He, as the dividing of the Red Sea.’ [Genesis Rabbah 58:4]

A good match is a miracle of a greater order than splitting the Red Sea. My comments on this week's portion have been my prayer, much like Eliezer's, for seven years. In retrospect, I didn't see the things that were happening each step along the way, but my prayer was being answered.

I have been praying for a mate for quite a long time. Each time I prayed, a new door opened, and often in the form of a book falling into my lap. I found Roger Kamentz's book The Jew and the Lotus which led me to Jewish Renewal, which led to learning Hebrew, then Aramaic. Quitting a project for the Renewal Kallah led me to Mordechai Gafni's Soulprints, and in him I found a teacher who brought alive the meaning of aggadic works for the first time. Shortly after, the rabbi of my then congregation retired, and in the tumult of picking a new rabbi, based on what I had learned from Gafni, Shlomo's Drash was born, and with it my prayer took a new form. I checked out matchmakers, and wrote for my first Haye Sarah Shlomo's Drash how little they resemble Ha Kadosh Bruch Hu making matches and how much that ditzy Roman Matron and matchmakers have in common. Then came Gafni's downfall and run from the Israeli authorities. In my despair over losing a teacher, I found Neil Strauss' "The Game", which taught me to be a confident human being. While many learned mere pickup routines from the book, I learned that being genuine and having confidence is incredibly attractive. With that confidence, I dated someone who introduced to Facebook. Early on in my Facebook experience, I friended the most beautiful woman I ever knew in college, though back then her circles and mine barely touched. She apparently didn't do much on Facebook, since I didn't seem to hear back from this woman after I wrote her. By November of that year, I broke up with the woman I had been dating. What I wrote in the Haye Sarah that year, a piece about social media, was where the fracture between us started.

At the very snowy end of that year, I got a happy birthday message from that college crush who hadn't answered me back in August. I wrote a thank you back and asked what she was up to. She wrote back and I wrote back. On New Year's Day I saw she was logged in, and chatted with her in what ended up as a four-hour conversation. Then our conversation became a series of e-mails about Hebrew and Aramaic grammar, all while I was on vacation. The emails led to nightly phone calls. The phone calls became visits half a continent away. The visits led to moving in together. A year after that first thank you on Facebook, I asked her to marry me. Next year, the woman of my college dreams, the love of my life, will be my wife.

When someone asks me if there is such a thing as prayer that gets answered, I think of this woman who I say the Shema with every night before going to sleep. Someone to say the Shema with was my "let me water your camels". That a snowstorm hit on that December day paralyzing her city, leading her to log on to Facebook and then to talk to me, was a miracle of a magnitude like the Red Sea. Yet, I look back on that list of what got me to that moment in my life, and I see there are two things that are true about prayer being answered: what you get is not what you expect, and when it does come, you have to act.

Circumstances both good and bad have happened to me over and over again. Only in hindsight do I see that each put me in the place where I am now. The beginning of our romance was over the grammar of Hebrew and Aramaic. I keep asking myself if I would be getting married to her, had I not gone to Hebrew school when I did. I ask myself had I not had the confidence I gained in my self-help courses, would I still be as invisible to her as I was in college? Had I not gained confidence, would I even have tried to talk to her, or would I have stayed as silent as I was twenty years ago?

When we talk of miracles and answers from God, we expect the splitting of the Red Sea, a burning bush, or the revelation at Sinai. But most miracles are so little and subtle, we often miss them. Often, they are near impossible to see, except in hindsight. Often, we are so self-occupied we miss them. On the occasions that we do see them, it is a time for blessing, of thanking God for the Blessing and the gift bestowed on us.

I've used this portion as a prayer of petition for close to a decade. Now I want to pray in thanksgiving. Blessed are you, God, for answering my prayers. Like your matching of Isaac and Rebecca, the great wonder of two people united in both love and marriage so far away have you bestowed such a miracle on me and my mate.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Vayera 5771: Akedah and the Builders.

This week we have the circumstances surrounding the birth of Isaac, from the time three visitors announce Sarah will become pregnant, through the events of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Issac's birth and weaning ceremony and the Akedah, the binding of Issac.

There is a midrash usually associated with Lecha Lecha which has parallels to the akedah. It is the second half of the well known story of Abram smashing the Idols in his father's store. He tells his father that the idols had a fight and the big one won. His father immediately said that Idols aren't real and can't do that.

Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying,’ he [Abram] retorted. Thereupon he seized him and delivered him to Nimrod. ‘Let us worship the fire!’ he [Nimrod] proposed. ' Let us rather worship water, which extinguishes the fire,’ replied he. ' Then let us worship water! ' ' Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water. ' ' Then let us worship the clouds! ' ' Let us rather worship the winds which disperse the clouds.’ ' Then let us worship the wind!’ ' Let us rather worship human beings, who withstand the wind.’ ‘You are just bandying words,’ he exclaimed; ‘we will worship nought but the fire. Behold, I will cast you into it, and let your God whom you adore come and save you from it.’ Now Haran [Abram's brother] was standing there undecided. If Abram is victorious, [thought he], I will say that I am of Abram's belief, while if Nimrod is victorious I will say that I am on Nimrod's side. When Abram descended into the fiery furnace and was saved, he [Nimrod] asked him, ‘Of whose belief are you?’ ‘Of Abram's,’ he replied. Thereupon he seized and cast him into the fire; his inwards were scorched and he died in his father's presence. Hence it is written, AND HARAN DIED IN THE PRESENCE OF (‘ AL PENE) HIS FATHER TERAH "(Genesis 11:28 ) [Genesis R. XXXVII:13 ]

Several elements are parallel to the akedah, a sacrifice by fire, a father willingly taking his sons to be sacrificed. The akedah was a test we are told, and Nimrod was a test as well. it is the differences which provide a bit of insight. Another parallel is that Midrash tells us that it was in the fire God said to Abraham, "Lech Leha," which begins his journey, while the Akedah begins:

1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did test Abraham, and said unto him: 'Abraham'; and he said: 'Here am I.' 2. And He said: 'Take now your son, your only son, whom thou love, Isaac, and go for yourself [Lech lecha] into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.'[Genesis 22]

Since the time of the Akedah, commentators have tried to figure out what happened and why. The way the Rabbis told the story of the death of Haran, who incidentally is Lot's father, indicates one possibility. God was testing Abraham and Issac. Isaac's test was to test his belief. Was he like his Uncle Haran, who believed in Abraham's god, when it appeared Abraham's god was stronger? Does Issac believe, like his father, in God? Abraham rebelled against the gods of his father, would Isaac rebel against the One God of his father? If Abraham did a good job of teaching and raising Isaac, then Issac would answer those questions correctly.

Abraham had an incredible mind shift to get to monotheism. He needed to transmit that mindshift to his sons Issac and Ishmael in order for monotheism to continue. One an idea is established It hard for any of us to understand why anyone thought the way people did in the past, so its difficult for contemporary people to really understand why this test was so important.

I am a painter. I'm not very good but I'm able to do some half decent portraits in watercolor. For portability reasons, I decide to invest in a an iPad and a few different art apps and learn to paint digitally. One might think that painting on a computer would be similar to painting watercolors. The experience, I have found is very different. It requires me to think differently about how to use color, and how to use the brushes in the programs. even in the same size area, drawing is not easy. I'm using a very different mindset, and one that was very difficult for me to accept. Here's two different paintings and although they are both my paintings, they look entirely different .I have to approach the blank white page so very differently.

I think that was the point of the Akedah. It is so very difficult to change, especially in a world so very different than you see it. Isaac could have assimilated into the culture around him, but he didn't. Abraham and God needed God to be in the new mindset. To learn good techniques there is plenty of good watercolorists around ready to teach me that. Digital painting on a iPad is a different story -- even related techniques for PC's or Macs don't help me. It's such a new product with even newer application to do art, there is little for me to learn from. But the thing is, as I learn, I can pass my ways of making art on an iPad to others, by writing tutorials. Issac had to learn not only what is monotheism, which is even more difficult than understanding some of my paint programs, but then teach the next generation such things.

There is a very special place in the Talmud for those who take on the task of learning and teaching. In one of the more powerful statements, found at the end of several of the tractates of the talmud, we read:
R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the Sages increase peace in the world, as it is said, And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children(Is. 54:13) . Read not ‘thy children’ [banayik], but ‘thy builders’[bonayik]. [K'rithoth 28b]

Students are not just children growing up, but the builders of the next generation. It's important for them to transmit the mindshift to the next generation. This is not just book learning but something deeper. It's an attitude and belief at one's core, in one's heart and soul. Superficial learning or forcing someone, like Nimrod did, will not transmit much of this core change. If the core change happens, then we get the attitude of Abram confronting Nimrod, not the attitude of Haran his brother. Abraham may have been an architect of monotheism but it would take builders like Isaac and Jacob to really turn it into something lasting.

For sixty years or so, I believe we have been in the middle of a modern paradigm shift, a mind shift so mind blowing that it is very difficult for many to completely understand it. LIike Nimrod, again and again those who don't understand try to suppress it. The idea is old, but after the Holocaust and Hiroshima, what it means to so many people has changed radically. One of the most poetic version of it is the instructions given to death penalty witness in the Talmud:

[Adam was created alone] because of the peace of creation that no man shall say to his fellow "my father is greater than your father" and no heretical groups shall say "many rule in heaven." To tell of the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, that man stamps many coins with one seal, and each is like the other, but the King, King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, stamps every man with the seal of the first man and not one of them is like his fellow.
[Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, B Sanhedrin 37a]

The story of creation means we are all family. Adam and Eve is everyone's ancestor. What is more we are all created in the image of the first human, and the image of the first human was in Btzelem Elohim God's image. To destroy Btzelem Elohim is to desecrate God. Yet to profess the greatness of God, we are paradoxically all different and all minted in that divine image. To not celebrate and honor those differences such as gender, race, sexual orientation, and belief system is to deny God's greatness.

There are Nimrods out there still, trying to enforce their beliefs. Btzelem Elohim for them is about one people being so, but not others. They feel more validated in such a belief, and thus superior to everything else. For them, there is a superior and inferior people, not that we are all reflections of the Divine. Like Nimrod, they enforce it with violence to the soul, to the heart and to the body. Somewhere inside of them they are threatened that they will no longer be superior, or that violence is the only way they can be superior. There are also Harans out there, following whoever seems to be the strongest. There are a few Abrahams, giving us the new paradigm. There are the Issacs, and Jacobs, the builders, those who do not enforce a belief, but make it their very day life and their core being.

Most of us are somewhere between Haran and Issac. Unfortunately the only way to tell where our core is under extreme stress, where there is only the core thinking. Abrham put Isaac thought the same intense situation that he went through, a burmt sacrifice, knowing full well what God was doing. Isaac did not have to choose like Haran who was stronger, but believe with all his heart all his soul and all his being that God is One. In that Isaac succeeded, and Abraham succeeded in teaching him to be so.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lech Lecha 5771: Mind Shift

This week begins:

1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee. 2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. [Genesis 12]

The rest of the portion chronicles the wanderings of Abraham up through Abraham's and Ishmael's circumcision. This includes a sojourn into Egypt where Abraham deceives Pharaoh, a lightning raid on the enemies of Sodom and Gomorra when Lot gets into a hostage situation, Ishmael's birth, and a really strange sacrifice.

A few weeks ago, I began attending a group discussion on Jewish theology. We are using a book edited by R. Elliot Cosgrove Jewish Theology in our Time an anthology of rabbis from my and younger generations as the starting point. Across the spectrum of Jewish thought, these authors presented ideas I was familiar with and which describe much of my own theology. Many ideas are not new at all, but showed how influenced the authors of these essays were by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the 18th and early 19th century Hasidic masters. Among the members of the class, there were strong objections to much of the material, and a complaint that these Rabbis' theology wasn't authentically Jewish. Apparently, in much of the group, only Maimonides is Jewish.

The group went on bashing the beliefs of the young rabbis, discrediting their credentials while continuing to compare them to the their ideal image of the intellectual Maimonides. I felt very alone in that room. I agreed with many of those contributing Rabbis in the book, At the same time, I understood where the rest of the class were coming from: a world that was different than the one I grew up in, even if it was in the same country. Rationality made Judaism special in their minds, compared to the far less rational Christians around them. For them, Maimonides is the pinnacle of rationality and intellectualism. But Jeremy Gordon, the Rabbi of New London Synagogue, England Shares my concern about Maimonides when writing his essay in the book:
I am not that interested in dogmatic assertions that allow me to test who is and is not a proper Jewish theologian. None of these theological endeavors seems to help me be better: A better husband,father or rabbi. They don't even seem to help me understand the world with more accuracy or insight (More Theos less Ology, 51)

I believe like many of these rabbis' essays that the logic and rationalism that Maimonides uses fails when talking about theology. It is an import and reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle and not what the tradition uses to work out theological problems. Instead, it is Aggadah, stories and midrash which provides the medium for such discussions. Yet I was seemingly alone in that, and so alone I was afraid to respond in the discussion, short of defending the credentials of the contributing Rabbis to the book.

I sometime fear others will take me for crazy for asking for wisdom and guidance from God, because I very often get an answer from God. God would give the wisdom in signs. I've done that myself so many times I take it for granted but never thought that I was crazy. I talk to God all the time, then look for God's responses in a street signs, songs on the radio and even the occasional fortune cookie. Yet, I'm uncomfortable talking to others in my synagogue about praying and finding wonders, who probably would find it irrational, and believe me crazy. I know that many think I'm crazy that heartfelt prayer for me does not happen in the Big Synagogue. For me, it needs something smaller, warmer and more personal. Yet the older generations in liberal communities seem to have a hard time understanding that. The older generation was interested in rationality, and my spiritual life has so much more richness than mere thinking. I wrote in my notes for the theology class a summary of one article:
We don't find God's wonder's until we shut up and listen. the Shema does not read "Proclaim oh Israel!", But "Hear oh Israel!"
Yet in much of my life I find few who do keep still and quiet long enough to actually hear -- they are too busy talking.

Abram was told by God to Lech Leha, to go for himself, in doing so he became Abraham. Many know the Midrash of Abram Smashing the Idols, but few know the rest of the story. Terah, Abram's Father, took Abram to be executed for this act. After Abram was thrown live into a sacrificial fire pit, [Genesis R. XXXVII:13] it was then that God said "Lech lecha."[ibid, XXXIX:2] Breaking some pottery or a few assets of a merchant wasn't the issue, thinking differently than everyone else was. The thinking of the people of Abram's time was so rigid, Abram's father Terah wanted to see his son die than change his view, and Abram was willing to be sacrificed for his.

There are different generations, and they are influenced by different things. The generations of liberal Jews older than me were influenced by a need for rationalism, a continued fear of anti-semitism, the Shoah, and the joy of the establishment of the state of Israel. The generations younger than me are influenced by different things, those issues which influenced the older generations are now in the past far enough to be not be significant in their lives.

The way I read the situation, the older generations want and seek a prime mover, and are often puzzled by its absence in horrific events while demanding their free will. The younger generation wants a prime lover, the most moved mover, and is often puzzled in how to keep or even start such a relationship. Neither is wrong or even inaccurate, just different based on different life experiences.

In every older generation there will be mavericks. It is often these mavericks who inform the next generation as its teachers. My own education was at the feet of students of Abraham Joshua Heschel.. A majority of the baby boomer generation may remember Heschel for Selma and his views on Vietnam. My generation and younger generations will remember him more for God in Search of Man, which was panned by the Jewish community at its publication. It's clear to me that many of the young rabbis in Cosgrove's book remember Heschel for his theology than his social justice stands, though both are important.

As Midrash and the text tell us, Abraham the patriarch was a maverick. He was aware that a statue, a pocket sized clay figure, a tree or a hill was not a god. There was something more than the wind and the sun, and that something more was God. The older generation of his time, including his own father, could not make that conceptual leap, and so they set out to destroy him.

Abraham left that world to define himself and his family in the mind shift to monotheism. We celebrate his iconoclasm, all while being fallible human beings and clinging to idols of the mind, the assumptions we hold so dear. It may be assumptions of our generation, gender, sexual orientation or social status. We hold them so dear they become idols. When the rabbis of the Talmud would challenge a statement, very often they would phrase their challenge "how is this derived?" Understanding why a rule was written the way it was came before rejecting it on seemingly logical grounds. Once understood, it could be accepted or rejected. But understanding came first, and even in rejection tolerance for a community's view remained. I find so little of that in our world, and that class was only the latest and last example. Most people would rather defend their idols of assumptions, than even listen or understand to the the assumptions of another.

It's hard to make a mind shift. One of the hardest is to remove the assumptions that our assumptions are facts. We need to examine them, to continually challenge ourselves to say "how is this derived?" In some cases, like the Rabbis of the Gemara, we may continue to believe or we may see how we are faulty in our thinking. Like Abram, we may learn to lech lecha, to move on to a different way of thinking, away from the prejudices and faulty assumptions of our kindred and ancestors' house.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Noah 5771:Ravens and Doves

This week we come to the story of the Noah and the flood, Noah getting drunk and stupid after the flood, and the Tower of Babel. But the story that interests me has to do with my tallis. Over the high holidays I got a lot of compliments on my hand-designed silk tallis. A very important part of that tallis is the image of the Dove. We read of doves in the Noah story (Genesis 8:6-12)
From Blogger Pictures

6. And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made; 7. And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth. 8. Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; 9. But the dove found no rest for the sole of its foot, and she returned to him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth; then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her into the ark. 10. And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; 11. And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off; so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. 12. And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which did not return back to him any more.

The question arises what is the difference between the dove and the raven? Popular reading of this story puts the dove as the good guy and the raven as the selfish bad guy. But is that the case? Reading the text carefully it does not say the raven just disappeared, but instead kept looking until its mission was finished - of finding dry land. The dove however returns to the Ark, until the time after it returns with an olive branch.

The story hints the ancients were very aware of many animal behaviors. Ravens, as scavengers are known to keep searching until they find a meal. It is for this reason the Rabbis of the Talmud likened ravens to Torah scholars who spends too many hours in deep study [Eiruvin 22a]. Ravens, however, are for the most part independent creatures not relying on any other bird, even neglecting their young in their pursuits. Ravens on rare occasions group together when there is a group interest. Doves on the other hand are Doves are committed to their mate. Often when perching on a phone line you will see doves in pairs. So committed are doves that even when their mate dies, they will circle the body for hours not letting go to their mate. They also will never look for another mate. It is such strict animal monogamy that Noah used to get some message to the status of the world. While accurate, using the raven takes time to get feedback. Until things are dry, Noah will not know what the status of the world is from the raven. On the other hand the Doves desire to be with her mate is so strong, she cannot stay away for long. When the dove comes back with the olive leaf, only then does the dove change its strategy and prepare the nest for both itself and her mate, who will soon join her.

On my tallis I have a picture of two doves one on each side of the tallis. On the collar, instead of the traditional blessing, I have the words in Hebrew Hinach Yafa Ra-yati, Hinach Yafa, ay-na-yich Yonim which is from the Song of Songs 1:15 as an declaration of the male to the female. In English, this translated to the phrase How beautiful you are how Beautiful! Your eyes are like doves.' It is easy to believe that her eyes are pretty because they have a soft, dove-like quality. In The Song of Songs 1:9 the male lover compares the female to a mare released among all the stallions of Pharaoh's army. While the allusion seems to be a man who is taken back by all the the suitors the female protagonist has, but 1:15 shows she has eyes for no one but the male. Her eyes are like doves as they can only see her mate.

In the rabbinic mind, the Song of Songs is a parable. The male here is God, the female Israel. The rabbis also do not believe that eyes are compared merely on appearance, but on their qualities. (Shir Ha Shirim Rabbah I:66) Within the Song of Songs, Israel, while having many suitors, only has eyes for God. The Rabbis comment:

Just as a dove, from the time that she recognizes her mate, never changes him for another, so Israel once they had learnt to know the Holy One, blessed be He, have never exchanged Him for another. (Shir Hashirim Rabbah I:64)

Similarly it is the Tzitizit of the tallis, which are to remind us not to have eyes for others.

39. And it shall be to you for a fringe (tzitzit), that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, which incline you to go astray; 40. That you may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. (Numbers 15:39-40)

I combined these images, the tzitzit and the Dove together to make my tallis. My tallis is about commitment, both in the worlds above and the worlds below. It is a commitment to God. It is also about commitment to all of our relationships in this world. The one I was thinking at the time I made my tallit was of course finding the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. It so fills me with joy every Shabbat to stand next to my fiance and wear the tallit that I show my commitment to both.

The Raven was committed to finding land, and not coming back till it did. The dove was committed to its mate and would make multiple trips to the ark. The wicked generation of the flood had no commitment.
For all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. (Gen. 6:12) R. Johanan said: This teaches that they caused beasts and animals, animals and beasts, to copulate; and all of these were brought in connection with man, and man with them all.

Others believe the animals, wild and domestic, copulated willingly:
R. ‘Azariah said in R. Judah's name: All acted corruptly in the generation of the Flood: the dog [copulated] with the wolf, the fowl with the peacock; hence it is written, For all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. (Gen. 6:12)[Genesis Rabbah 28:8]

The generation of the flood did not even commit to a species let alone a single mate. Some in our society today think that sexual promiscuity is where one does anything that isn't about making children. Sexual promiscuity is where there is a lack of commitment. A lack of commitment was the big sin that got everything killed. Anyone, Gay, Bi, or Straight who makes a commitment to others is far from promiscuous.

Living in the modern world my talis is a reminder to that commitment, in a simple promise to our life-partner's commitment for a healthy lifetime together, to our commitment to God forever. For me, commitment is a holy thing. Praying next to my bride-to-be every Shabbat, I find joy in my commitments to God, and to the commitment to this woman who is the love of my life.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Breishit 5771: Fruitful and One Flesh?

Breishit 5771: Fruitful and One Flesh?
This week, we start again the story of Torah. This year I start as a member of not one but two synagogues, and infrequently attending a third on some holidays. Why this is so is what I want to write about, because two verses in this week’s parasha are at the heart of this situation.
28 And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.'[Genesis 1]

24 Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh. [Genesis 2]
These verses are part of the two creation stories we find at the beginning of Torah. In the eyes of the rabbis, these two lines say the same thing, though it may not appear it. Rashi, summarizing Sanhedrin 58a, show us how 2:24 is the same as 1:28
one flesh: The fetus is formed by them both, and there [in the child] their flesh becomes one.

For Genesis 1:28, Rashi comments on the possible bad grammar of the sentence. God starts in the plural, but if one vowel is different, "subdue" is in the masculine singular.
It is also meant to teach you that the man, whose way it is to subdue, is commanded to propagate, but not the woman (Yev. 65b).
In short, these two verses define a family as a husband as the head of a household, and he should have a woman to procreate with. The classic line "A marriage is one man and one woman" comes to mind. It seems to establish itself in the story of creation.

Though one half of the genetic material of a father and one half on the genes of a mother come together in a fetus, I have thought, "one flesh" does not mean children. The reason for making woman in Genesis 2 is to correct the first problem of creation: loneliness.
18 And the LORD God said: 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.'[Genesis 2]
The solution given in Genesis is to have a ezer c'negdo, a companion, an opposite. Where this opposite comes from is the separation of the sides of a whole creature. Tzela, is often translated as rib, but is better translated as a side. God spilt the first creature in half to find a companion for it. Woman and man are two opposite halves. When put together, they make a unit which can be more than the sum of its parts. That whole may produce children, but that may not always be the case.

Children are a biological imperative of course. In my experience these verses have substantiated that biological imperative and elevated it to the level of a mitzvah. For many non-observant Jews, I have observed it had long ago become the only mitzvah: be fruitful and multiply. As long as you have Jewish children, you are okay. Kosher? Shabbat? Acts of Charity? Not needed. The assumption is be fruitful, have some Jewish kids and get them to the Bnei Mitzvah Bimah. After that it is up to the kids.

While many might take exception to this, it is this assumption of what is a family which drives much Jewish community structure, often defined as our prayer community, our synagogue. The assumption of "be fruitful and multiply" is to produce children who will need a Jewish education. Thus having kids attending the events that are supposed to shape them into good Jewish adults becomes a driving force in the culture of the synagogue. I spent Simchat Torah at such a synagogue, which beautifully orients the entire service to the kids, and to the parents to support their children. This education continues till the child reaches their bar mitzvah. At the point where the child becomes responsible for themselves, some of those kids will go on too teen activities at their synagogue. Some will even go to Hillel services and activities at their college or university. But what happens to those kids after that?

When it comes to be fruitful and multiply, while the assumption is this is the greatest mitzvah, the reality is very different. In 1990, the National Jewish Population Survey raised some alarms about the rates of intermarriage. Inthe follow-up, NJPS 2001 continued to see such a trend. That was not the only alarming news however. Fertility rates were low, and childbearing years were later than the general population.
At all ages, fertility among Jewish women is lower than fertility for all U.S. women, whether gauged by the percent who are childless or the average number of children ever born...The fertility gap between Jewish and all U.S. women narrows but is not eliminated in later childbearing age groups, indicating that Jewish women delay having children until later years, and then come close to, but do not match, fertility levels of all U.S. women.

It is not until age 35-39 that less than half of Jewish women remain childless, compared to a fifth of all U.S. women. By age 40-44, usually considered the last childbearing age group, the gap narrows but is not completely closed, with just over a quarter of Jewish women remaining childless compared to less than a fifth of all U.S. [NJPS 2000-2001]
Be Fruitful and multiply is something many young Jews do not do early in their lives. Many plan to have children after they feel they can successfully financially support a family. Fertility rates, the NJPS notes directly correlate to graduate school attendance. In some graduate research I performed surveying dating websites, I found the age one finishes graduate school correlates with when one begins to look for a mate to have children with. Yet they are not the only ones who reject these two verses. Those who find ezer c'negdo in a member of the same gender also run into dilemmas. Is one’s other half always of the opposite gender? The GLBT community would disagree. The drive to having children in gay and lesbian couples is not as prominent as mainstream straight couples. One could contend it is this lack of fruitfulness which many straight people find so disturbing about the GLBT’s communitty. There are also those who just decided, for whatever reason, that raising children is not for them. All of these have in one way or another decided it is not raising children that will be the center of their universe.

Yet in the culture of the Synagogue, these childless demographics are not the lifeblood of the synagogue, the traditional family is. Many synagogues might have adapted enough to allow for two-mommy or two-daddy families, but they are parents and children still. The culture, like the synagogue I was at for Simchat Torah, admirably revolves around educating Jewish youth in both Jewish culture and belief. Yet in this pedagogy, the Childless are both left behind and made to feel alien, even the nest-makers who want children. As Synagogue 3000's demographer Steven Cohen and Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman report, all those same kids who went to Hebrew School in the big synagogues stay away from those same synagogues as adults because there is no place for singles and couples without children.

I experienced this myself almost a decade ago at a previous extremely liberal synagogue, one that prided itself on open-mindedness. I realized back then how much work it is to raise a child well, and realized I was not up to the task. As a straight man, I do not know what it is like to come out of the closet, but the day I told my friends I would not have children is one that is probably a lot like coming out. Coming out as gay that day would not have caused as much a furor as when I told them I decided not to have children. Instead of listening to me, they tried to find way I would have children.

While I am no longer at that synagogue, I'm a lot like my gay and lesbian friends as far as the culture of any mainstream synagogue is concerned. While I can admit to who I am to most people, there are some who will react strongly. Indeed I'm taking a big risk in outing myself as Childless by Choice to people who will not be tolerant of my life choices. Yet like my GLBT friends, I will be by definition be a minority in synagogue life. Synagogues are for Parents, Children and Grandparents. I have found over the years, If you are anything else, particularly if you do not ascribe to Be fruitful and multiply you don’t exist, and it’s often best not to show up.

Even when a synagogue calls itself "gay friendly”, I have found the culture still diminishes them as a minority. So too the childless like myself. To emphasize pedagogy is to emphasize having children around. As one who has chosen childlessness, I for one find myself rather comfortable in a community of GLBT Jews in ways I don't in a community of straight Jews. And so I am now a member of both a larger mainstream Synagogue and a smaller, GLBT synagogue. The part of me that doesn’t fit in one, fits in the other.

Although I choose not to have kids, I do still take some responsibilities with children very seriously. The Talmud states:
He who teaches the son of his neighbor Torah, Scripture ascribes it to him as if he had begotten him [Sanh. 19b]
I may not have my own children, but in the children I know it is vital that I am there to show them how good it is to embrace words of Torah. This week it was literally embracing as I danced with the Torah, with little kids around me wide eyed in the delight of Simchat Torah. Many of their parents do not do what I do, waltzing around with that Torah, or sing verses of Torah off the top of my head. Many do not keep kosher to any degree, or refuse to work on Shabbat. That third Synagogue is where the kids are, and so on some Holidays, I am there too. But my job extends beyond the synagogue walls to the rest of life and teaching the little ones about who they are and who they should be as Jews. Jewish education is also outside of the classroom and synagogue. When the little ones ask me why I davven on Shabbat, or say some particular blessing or why I don’t eat cheeseburgers or bacon, I can tell them, and they can learn something along the way.

I may choose not make more Jewish Bodies, but in doing so, I’m also committed to keep Jewish souls joyously Jewish.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Simchat Torah 5771: God Heart's Stories, Again and Again.

There is a wonderful Midrash about Simchat Torah. The last word of Deuteronomy Is Yisrael( ישראל ), and the first word of Genesis is Breshit ( בראשית ). Take the last and first letters in Torah and you get the word Leiv ( לב ), the word for heart. Telling stories are loved so much, when we end the Story of Moses's life, we go back and immediately start with the story of creation once again.

In Jewish writings there is Halakah, which is the law, its interpretations and its interpolations. There is also everything else, known as Aggadah, including stories, interpretations of those stories, known as Midrash, ethical literature, theological musings and even poetry. The Medieval French Commentator Rashi noted an interesting division between Halalkah and Aggadah right from the word Breishit:

In the beginning: Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded... Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.[ Rashi to Gen 1:1 Chabad Online Library]

The first part of the Torah therefore is all Aggadah, primarily meant to describe the world as God's creation, and that God owns it and can give and take things at will. This cannot come across as mere law, story works much better. The origin stories legitimize everything that comes later.

There is a story in the Talmud about Aggadah and Halakah. Two rabbis walk into a town, and head for the town square, one begins to lecture about Halakah and one about Aggadah. Everyone flocks to the Aggadist and no one listens to the Halakist. On their way out of town the Halakist sulks. The Aggadist, trying to cheer his friend up, tells him a parable. "To what could this be compared to? To a merchant of pots and pans and to a merchant of precious jewels. Would not people flock to the pots and pans?"

Stories are useful and approachable. They convey emotion and they can convey a moral or ethical lesson. While Torah contains Halakah, it is important to note that it is primarily Exodus through Deuteronomy which contain Halakah. As the Talmudic rabbis so eloquently describe, prophets are prohibited from making Halakah, unless in a dire emergency. The prophets and writings are all story. Indeed the Reform movement in its inception pretty much rejected the mitzvot of Torah as antiquated practices. Instead it embraced the Aggadah of the prophets. And while the role of Halakah in the Reform movement has changed, it still is not binding as it is in Orthodoxy. Instead it is still driven by the stories Reform Jews know, and that primarily is the same stories of the prophets crying out for social justice. Orthodoxy can get extreme in Halakic orientation, Reform is still Aggadah powered in the spectrum of things.

This is not to say that Orthodoxy does not have Aggadah or Reform does not have Halakah. Both have both, but like the difference between a cinnamon coffee with a dash of milk and a Vanilla Latte, it is just in differing proportions and differing flavors. Neither is right or wrong, each has its merit. Halakah gives structure and strengh. Agggadah ethics and theology. Halakah is what we do, Aggadah is why we do it.

Shavuot is our celebration of Halakah. Simchat Torah is about story, it is about Aggadah. It is the celebration of our ability to read the same story over and over again, and each time pull new insights from it. It is the celebration of how much we love this book. Torah is both precious gems and pots and pans. It's been said God loves stories. Those pots and pans are a big half of our existence. But like many a small child, God likes the same stories to be read over and over again, and delights in ending and then beginning the cycle anew. We all get to be the little child bouncing on their bed, now, excited that we are beginning that book we love so much over again.

It is my wish that this year brings many good stories in your own and many good insights from the story we call Torah.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sukkot 5771: What is the Difference Between Wind and Breath?

Like many Jews around the world, the morning after breaking the fast of Yom Kippur, I helped build a Sukkah. As must of liberal Judaism does, I do not have my own, but have the sukkah of a prayer community I'm involved with. With a September Sukkot, and rather good weather, it seems all the more enticing, to dwell out in this structure for a few days.

Also like many Jews around the world, I spent the first few days after Sukkot talking with other Jews about their Yom Kippur. We would talk about their fast and how they lasted before breaking their fast. We would talk about each rabbi's sermon or D'var Torah and we would talk about how the services were presented. One conversation I had was with someone who had very mixed feelings about video screen PowerPoint presentations during the sermon. I, for one was taken aback at such a blatant use of technology. I'll let a few instruments in services, no problem, but there seem to be a line crossed when a video screen, either connected to a computer or television system is part of the holiest day of Yom Kippur. My reaction led me to think of some interesting Hebrew vocabulary we find during Sukkot.

While most people connect the reading of the Megillah with the reading of Megilat Esther, the reading for Purim, there are actually five such readings from the Ketuvim, the writings of the biblical text, each associated with a holiday on the calendar. The traditional reading during the holiday of Sukkot is Ecclesiastes, in Hebrew Kohelet, supposedly written by king Solomon in his old age. That book starts on a less than optimistic tone, and gets gloomy from there:
א דברי קוהלת בן-דויד, מלך בירושלים. ב הבל הבלים אמר קוהלת, הבל הבלים הכול הבל. ג מה-יתרון, לאדם: בכל-עמלו--שיעמול, תחת השמש.

1 The words of Kohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. 3 What profit has man of all his labor when he labors under the sun? [Kohelet 1]
The key word in this verse is, חבל , Hevel. Here it is translated vanity, but a check of the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon gives us some texture to that word.
From Google books BDB Page 211

We also have verses including hevel and something else of interest, the first of these being:

יד רָאִיתִי, אֶת-כָּל-הַמַּעֲשִׂים, שֶׁנַּעֲשׂוּ, תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ; וְהִנֵּה הַכֹּל הֶבֶל, וּרְעוּת רוּחַ.
14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.[Kohelet 1]
The word for wind here is רוּחַ Ruach. On page 1112 of the Brown Driver Briggs Lexicon reads like this.

From Google Books BDB pg 924

In kohelet 1:14 we have wind in a phrase "striving after wind." The word used as striving in the Biblical text is found only here so understanding it cannot be done by context. However we can look to the Aramaic translation, the Targum, for its meaning of the word. In the Targum chasing after wind is translated ותבירות רוחא , which gives us a new word, תבירות translated in English by the Jastrow Dictionary as:

From Tynedale Archive Jastrow Dictionary pg 1644

Thus the parallelism in kohelet all is vanity and a striving after wind talks about disappointment and futility. Yet in both words, the image of air flow is important, In hevel, it is a breath, in ruach it is a strong wind. We cannot catch the wind, and we cannot sustain breathing out. That is the common image of futility. Yet there is also a large difference between the two. Ruach is a sustainable wind, lasting a long time if not forever, much like our spirit and souls. Ruach can be strong compared to Hevel's feebleness. Hevel is a mere wisp of breath, so fleeting to be meaningless. Indeed it is so common, most of our lives we ignore it completely.
Ruach is our home, Hevel our sukkah. Ruach is our soul, Hevel the petty meaningless thoughts we have everyday. Ruach is genius behind a classic novel, Hevel the latest gossip tweet about some 2nd rate actress. They are a polarity, one where we can see where there is meaning.

Hevel all too often happens on video monitors. It's not the use of electricity on a holiday that disturbs me, as much as the Hevel that makes up its content. Many argue we need such things to keep the younger generation engaged, and many of the older generations as well. But if we use things that have no substance, how can we build substance? PowerPoint and short videos are all hevel. They might engage an emotion, but they rarely engage the mind for long, if at all.

It is therefore ironic, that something so like hevel, a sukkah, is so good at countering hevel. Exposing us to the lie that hevel is substantial, we live in something that is temporary and very leaky. We get days that the wind blows us and our decorations around while threatening the structural integrity of our little home. In a sukkah we are subjected to cold and rain. But we are also blessed by seeing stars and meteors, the beautiful designs the Ruach shapes clouds into sculptures and paintings, the comedy of squirrels. Many of these change, but they are almost always there. Seeing them engages parts of our souls and spirits that may be asleep. We can engage our imagination, our will toward doing good things, here in the sukkah, all of this grows our personal Ruach. We cannot catch Ruach, but we can grow it by observing it.

King Solomon was right to be pessimistic in his old age. Even in his low tech times, he found that much of life was vanity and chasing after wind. Pursuing wealth, collecting wisdom or being a party boy, only leaves one as satisfied as eating one potato chip. Yet I believe, if we do not pursue wind, but sit there and observe it, then somehow in the observing, we energize the spirit and inspiration needed in our lives and in our souls.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Yom Kippur 5771: The First Step, The First Sail

I have not been feeling very spiritual for a few weeks now. I felt rather disconnected in a sense, and the light of God in me seems to have gone out. I have found just when things are so dark, a light is found. Such lights for me are always a book from an unexpected quarter. This time it'a a book by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Recovery -- The Sacred Art, his spiritual take on the 12 steps used in addiction recovery. It is Shapiro's view of the first step that has me thinking a lot:
Step 1 - We admitted we were powerless over our lives - that our lives had become unmanageable

Instead of our addicition as in most twelve step programs, we are to look at our lives as completely unmanageable, and we have no control over them. It is God, or the Higher Power in 12-step terminology, that does.

This seems to be contradictory to the idea of free will. Free will does not mean we are free to do anything and control everything. I would love to be home in twenty minutes from work, but I cannot control the speed of traffic on my way home from work, so it usually takes an hour or two. If I do not understand that I will become frustrated, I might even become stressed out, angry or sick. I felt that frustration this week trying to configure a set of computers and a network. I don't control enough that it works perfectly all the time, nor do I control the demands of others on my time. That is frustrating and anger inducing.

Paging through my Reconstructionst Mahzor I found something I had read many times before but I saw differently:
We have acted wrongly, we have been untrue, and we have gained unlawfully and we have defamed. We have harmed others, we have wrought injustice, we have zealously transgressed, and we have hurt and have told lies. We have improperly advised, and we have covered up the truth, and we have laughed in scorn. We have misused responsibility and have neglected others and have stubbornly rebelled. We have offended, we have perverted justice, and have stirred up enmity, and we have kept ourselves from change. We have reached out to evil, we have treated shamelessly, we have corrupted and have treated others with disdain. Yes, we have thrown ourselves off course, and we have tempted and misled. [Kol haneshama 819]

This was a translation of the Ashamnu, the shorter, alphabetic acrostic one of the two confessional prayers. The Al Heiyt, the longer of the two continues in the same mindset with even greater specificity. Reading both I realized we are really only confessing manifestations of one set of sins:
For the sin before You for believing ourselves to be You
For the sin before You of expecting to be your power
And for the sin before You to judge what you alone judge.

The true sin is believing we are God. When we believe we actually have control of the universe, we not only delude ourselves with this illusion, we sin. We end up doing something harmful to ourselves, to others, or very often both. I think that is what Rami Shapiro was getting at in his book. We do not control the universe -- God does.

Yet, paradoxically we do have free will. We choose what we want to do -- we choose our course. there are times we will choose badly and times we do a good job. We can choose to understand the nature of divine will or not. We can try to counter divine will if we want, but with consequences, very often negative ones to ourselves, our relationships and to our environment. It is at this time of year we try to repair some of those consequences and prepare to not make those mistakes in the coming year.

Many have problems with the term divine will, it is often sounding dictatorial compared to many of our notions of freedom. As a beginning sailor, one who does so many things still completely wrong, I've been thinking differently about this term. I've been using a Hebrew word that many know in the English: ruach ( רוח ). Ruach can be translated many ways, based on a verbal root to breathe. It can mean breath, spirit, soul, and wind. Ruach Hakodesh, might be translated holy wind, holy breath, or holy spirit. I keep thinking as a beginning sailor of Ruach Hakodesh.

We do have choice. We have the choice to how we act in the Ruach Hakodesh. I thought of a parable about boats again to explain what Rabbi Rami was trying to say. This can be compared to a sail boat. I have no control over wind, or water or weather. I may be rained on, or the wind may be strong or weak, or heading in the direction I am not going. I cannot tell the wind to blow at ten knots to the south east. I have no control over it. But I can trim my sails and steer in ways that will let me move. I cannot control anything but I can react accordingly to what is there. Of course to know what is there, I must be aware. I can see the wind on the water, and often can feel it on my face. Knowing that I am not controlling the world around me, I am free to perceive and react accordingly, and free to sail where ever I want, with little effort. So too with the Ruach Hakodesh. I cannot control it or presume to control it, but react in a holy and righteous way to what happens in my life.

Even in a sail boat, steering is a art of subtlety and awareness. Without it, one might capsize or be be thrown overboard. Tacks and jibes move the boom rather quickly from one side of the boat to the other, and one must watch one's head continually. A rudder or sail in the wrong place may tilt the boat precariously, as I v'e learned the hard way once too often. While the movements must be quick, they must also be subtle. I am not out to single handedly save the world, but live a good, just life, and do things that let others do so too. I am not God or a god, nor do I have the power knowledge or wisdom of God, I can only do little things without capsizing my boat.

This is what Yom Kippur is to remind us of. Besides the confessionals, and a few prayers for the high holidays like Netana Tokef, it is just a regular service. It is a service where we try to recognize something about ourselves -- that we cannot control the universe, not even ourselves. One day of hunger and intense, almost non-stop prayer reminds us of how little we control our own bodies. Most have problems with a one-day fast. We are reminded that we cannot even control our hunger for even a few hours. We are also reminded of those who have no food and still have no control of their hunger. Humbling ourselves with how little power we have, and recognizing who really has it.

May you have a good fast and be sealed in the book of fully living.