Friday, August 27, 2010

Shofar Callin': The Rosh Hashanah song

Not something I did, but a nice little video to prepare for Rosh Hashana from the people over at G-dcast

Ki Tavo 5770: Wanderer or Destroyer?

This week we have a curious verse in the ritual of Bikkurim, the offering of the first fruits: When the first fruits of a crop are gathered they are brought in a basket to the priest and offer them while saying the following:
5 And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.[Deuteronomy 26]

While the bikkurim does not happen since the destruction on the Temple, the phrase a wandering Aramean was my father does as part of the Passover seder:
Every time I read a wandering Aramean was my father I've wondered who this Aramean is. I at first assumed it was Abraham, who traveled through the Aramean world, though that does not makes snase to the next phrase. While Abraham did go go down to Egypt. He did not become a great mighty and populous nation there. On the other hand Jacob did. So this wandering Aramean might be Jacob.

Interestingly, the Rabbis of the Talmud and early Rabbinic Judaism also had a problem with this phrase. The common language of the time was Aramaic, not Hebrew. Much of the common people did not even know Hebrew, so Aramaic translations,targumim in Aramaic, of the Hebrew text began to show up in the Jewish world. While intending to give an accurate translation of the Hebrew, like any translation it does takes some interpretation of the text, and often can be used to understand the literal biblical text. The most literal of these, Targum Onkelos, is often found as a commentary in traditional Hebrew bibles for the Torah, makes some interesting additions:
Laban the Aramean sought to destroy our father.

The two other major Targumim to Torah , Yonatan ben Uzziel and Neofiti 1 also have similar emendations, though they add specifically that our father is Jacob, and that God saved Jacob from Laban's plans to destroy him from their first meeting onward.

Midrash Rabbah also reflects this interpretation:
R. Berekiah said in R. Levi's name: It is written, The blessing of the destroyer (obed) came upon me (Job XXIX, 13). ’ The blessing of the destroyer (obed)’ alludes to Laban the Syrian, as it says An Aramean sought to destroy (obed) my father (Deut. XXVI, 5). ‘ [Genesis Rabbah LX:13]
This interpretation is possible due to the double meaning of the Hebrew root ABD ( אֹבֵד). The root can mean to wander, or its more common meaning is to destroy. Since the word isn't clear, the Rabbis take the word Aramean to mean the man from Padan-Aram, Laban.

While once again pointing out Laban's duplicity is a legitimate interpretation, what does it really have to do with the Bikkurim? What does offering the first fruits of your yield have to do with somebody trying to kill an ancestor? In context with the rest of the text, there is reason to use the word wandering instead of destroy.
6 And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.7 And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. 9 And He has brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O LORD, hast given me.' And thou shalt set it down before the LORD thy God, and worship before the LORD thy God.
For most of the people's time, they were wanderers. Abraham moved around, as did Isaac and Jacob. The generations between Jacob and Moses were foreigners in a land their entire stay. Only after crossing the Jordan and setting up farming in the Land are they a permanent people.

The Mishnah for Pesachim tells us we start with "a wandering Aramean was our father" to indicate shame. The gemara commenting on this give two meaning for Shame:
What is ‘WITH SHAME’? Rab said: ‘Aforetime our fathers were idolaters’; while Samuel said: ‘We were slaves.’ [Pesachim 116a]
In sense both Rab and Samuel are right. Both are shameful. Yet the text continues with an odd story:
R. Nahman asked his slave Daru: ‘When a master liberates his slave and gives him gold and silver, what should he say to him?’ ‘He should thank and praise him,’ replied he. ‘You have excused us from saying "Why [is this night] different?"’ observed he. [Pesachim 116a]
The slave, still being a slave, only thought of his freedom and riches he could have. The freed, prosperous person needs to think of more, of how he used to live, of how his life was before the bounty he has now. To do so is to keep it in context. Are we as person not completely settled? Are we a person who might have others seeking to destroy us? Things used to be bad. We can ask "Why is is this night different?" only when there has been change and we are aware of it.
I think back over the years. Thinking back only three years ago, I was a very different person, a very lonely one. In the years that have followed, my life has changed radically, a year later I was dating, though still lonely. A year later I was and adjusting to Sweetie living with me. Next year at this time, Baruch Hashem, I will be her husband. There is a lot of joy in my life right now, more than there has ever been. Both Sweetie and I have worked hard on building a great relationship, but I must always remember it was God who got us together in the first place, and guides us every step of the way. The formula said at Bikkurim that was adapted for Passover is there to remind of where we were, and who got us here in the first place.

That is the point of the formula. Things were bad. Appreciating that things were bad, and who got us out of those bad spaces, we can properly thank God for the bounties in our lives. We can also appreciate those who are still under the threat of destruction, and those who still do not have the power to control their own lives.

As Elul winds down and we get ready for the Days of Awe, one can appreciate that, and begin to wonder how in the next year we can change that so others have the bounty we have.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Elul 5770: Fundamentalism vs Sailing

Elul 5770: Fundamentalism Versus Sailing
After my hiatus of the the last few weeks, This week i'm not going to give a portion of the week, but do a little catch up instead. There is a theme in much of Deuteronomy I have been thinking about during my recent vacation and activities this summer. Several passage in the text suggest something which bothers me In parshat Re'eh we read the following:

1. What ever I command you, take care to do it; you shall not add to it, nor diminish from it. All this word which I command you, that you shall observe to do; you shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it. [Deut 13:1]

It is not only in this passage we hear such words. Throughout Deuteronomy there is such statements, obeying the commandments explicitly. Another example from this week's portion is the following:

12 And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to go in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul;

From parshat V'ethanan we have this passage:
29. You shall take care to do it therefore as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 30. You shall go in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess. [Deuteronomy 5]

What strikes me about these passages is their tendency to support fundamentalism. Here are passages which takes the literal meaning literally. In the last few weeks, a lot of things have me thinking about fundamentalism, not only in the the world in general, but in Judaism specifically. I've been studying Torah lately in a way I did not realize at the time. I was learning to sail, and in doing so learning the answer to the question of fundamentalism.

Strangely, it starts with something that most fundamentalists take very literally, but miss something critical. If asked what was the first thing created, one most likely would say "light." But that very possibly would be wrong.

1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.2. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And a wind from God moved upon the face of the waters.[Genesis 1]

Some translations will translate Ruach Elohim, the "wind of God" as the equally valid "spirit of God." Unless wind and water is unthinkably external to God, wind and water were some of the first things in creation. Sweetie and I were joking recently that God was a sailor, and on that water sailed on those holy winds. But it was too dark to sail,

3. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. 4. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.

While the metaphor of a God of desert people being a sailor may be a stretch, I think it is a critical lesson, since any journey is best described not by the Straight Path, but by the Sailor's Tack. It is very rare for a sailor in a boat to move on a straight line, because the wind is never in the straight line you want to go, and one is dependent on the wind to move.

Most of the time one wants to move against the wind, and that, rather intuitively seems very difficult. Indeed, directly into the wind a sailboat completely stops. Yet, what is not so intuitive is that if you are slightly off being against the wind to being in a cross wind, a boat actually moves well. Often traveling against the wind will get you to your destination. Yet in order to get to a point upwind you will have to tack, move back and forth against the wind. You do not stay on the path, but move starboard and port, right and left, against the wind repeatedly.

The fundamentalist can go whatever straight direction the wind takes them, but that is all. To go against the wind never occurs to them. It's a bit scary to think about to them. They are always afraid of getting into Irons, being directly against the wind and unable to move by directly going against the word of God and the wind, or spirit of God. While they might make advances, more often than not they retreat from the destination. There is little freedom to go where they want, or even where God really wants us to go.

I truly believe that God wants us to tack, to move slightly to the starboard, then to port, over and over again. To go against the wind is to head towards the source of the wind. While it is a lot of work to go through repeated tacks, it does makes a boat move fast. Not to mention it's a lot of fun. I believe the Rabbis of the Talmud understood this. There are gaps in the text, places where the rules are not clear. To follow literally the biblical text is bound to cause problems. The Rabbis came up with constructs which made variations on these themes in order to understand them. To understand "Do not boil a Kid in its mothers Milk" has the Rabbis asking a lot of questions. The literal is simple. yet to get to a complete exposition which requires separate dishes for milk and meat or milk and poultry, and possibly even another set for fish presents a lot of questions and tacking around the literal meaning of the negative mitzvah. Here is a set of questions that the rabbis did ask, mostly found in the Talmudic tractate Hullin:

• Is it only a young goat? Could it be an adult goat in its mother's milk?
• Is it only a goat or any of the small cattle like Sheep? Could it be bigger mammals like Cows?
• All but a few of the permitted meats like venison(12:22, 14:5), are also the meats used in temple sacrifice. We are told that we are to prepare venison like beef or lamb. Is any read meat the follows the preparation process not to be boiled with milk?
• Since poultry doesn't produce milk, can it be boiled in milk? Since poultry is prepared almost identical to beef, can it be boiled in milk?
• Is it just boiled in milk? Can it be eaten with milk?
• Can it be eaten with milk products?
Can small amounts on a dish be considered enough to mix milk and meat?
Can the udder of the cow be eaten?

These questions give answers that set precedents and halachah about mixing meat and dairy. Why the rabbis answers those questions they way they did is another discussion, but they did stray to port and starboard from the literal interpretation. On many of the death penalty cases, their response to the questions of a running a court case with a death penalty made it near impossible to invoke the death penalty, though Torah invokes it frequently.

I am not yet a good sailor. I need a lot of practice. Yet I understand the idea of sailing and can handle the tiller and main sheet okay, and sometimes as a team with Sweetie. I find all too often it's best to tack, and in many ways it's fun to tack. Such is true of Torah as well. Some have tacked on the sea of Torah over centuries. Some we do now so routinely,we do not even question. Yet, there are a lot of things we do need to question and answer differently than we did centuries or even decades ago. Fundamentalism, even when based on someone else's tacking, ends up refusing to tack. It can only go in one direction, failing to make the destination if the winds change. It is clear to me that the winds do change, and to get to the destination, the source of that wind, requires a lot of work and not just going to the left or the the right, but going ahead by going back and forth, moving port and starboard.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Eikeiv 5770: God's Mouth

This week we read the lines "Man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the lord decrees." (Dt. 8:3) In context, this is Moses telling the lesson of eating manna in the wilderness. But the Hebrew can be translated "man does not live on bread alone, because on anything the mouth of God finds, man will live." This second interpretation is just at true. As Leviticus and Deuteronomy tells us, the animals designated for eating are the sacrificial animals.While God really does not have a mouth, we have the idea that what is sacred to God should be sacred to us, particularly in what we eat.
Also in this parasha is the phrase, repeated three times "you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied.” connected by images of abundance (Deuteronomy 8:10, 8:12, 11:13). Two of these times there is a warning: Don’t stray away from God and worship false Idols. What does images of abundance have to do with eating and Idolatry. What is Idolatry anyway?
In one sense, to be an Idolater is to place the complete joining of self to divinity. For the idolater, the divine is what we say it is, limited by our own ignorance and selfish desires. In such selfish tunnel vision it reject what is outside of self, our relationship to everything else. The idol itself is not a god, but a self projection onto a finite object. But the lack, indeed rejection, of relationship with anything but their idol-god-self will lead the Idolater do things which others find abhorrent: abuse, rape, incest, hate crimes, even murder, all because there is no recognition of other people- there only a god and self.
This “other” may be a person, but it may be to an entire system. One such system is the environment which sustains us. When we treat our world ethically, we have an abundance of what finds God's mouth. But to treat this abundance only in terms as self-reference, in terms of Idolatry, abuses the privilege of abundance. Such a warning is found in this weeks portion:
13. And it shall come to pass, if you shall give heed diligently to my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, 14. That I will give you the rain of your land in its due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, and your wine, and your oil. 15. And I will send grass in your fields for your cattle, that you may eat and be full.16. Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and you turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; 17. And then the Lord’s anger be kindled against you, and he closed the skies, that there should be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest you perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord gives you. 18. Therefore shall you lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes. 19. And you shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. 20. And you shall write them upon the door posts of your house, and upon your gates. 21. That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth.[Deuteronomy 11]

In traditional siddurim, this is the 2nd paragraph of the Shema, which is also found in every mezuzah and tefillin, objects which try to remind us of this in all our actions. Some movements seeing too much quid pro quo theology in this statement have omitted it. I do not take this as a statement of do good and get good, do bad and get bad. It is telling us of the consequences of forgetting where our food comes from, and too much to heed .
Our third passage with you will eat and satisfied, gives us the reminder to avoid abuse. 8:10 reads “you will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless”. It is from this third passage that we get the Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals. To bless God for the food in our bellies, is to say thank you. When we say thank you, we commit an act of ethics, that we acknowledge others. We acknowledge that God, the environment, and the people who helped make the food from farm to fork, are just as important as ourselves when it comes to eating and sustaining our lives. And to acknowledge the other beside ourselves is the whole point of ethics.
Mouths are both where we speak and where we eat. When we put something into our mouths, then we need to bring something out, a blessing of thanks. When we say thank you, we acknowledge what is outside of ourselves. Reciting Birkat Hamazon, is just as important a meal for both God and humanity as the bread we eat.

V'ethanan 5770: Inviting to the Party

This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort. It is the Shabbat immediately following Tisha B'Av. The Haftarah is meant as comfort from the events that happened on that day. The Torah portion has two major parts, both of which are known to many. The first is the events of the recitation of the Ten commandments, including a repetition which is curiously not identical to the one in Exodus 20. the second part is the the Shema.

The days after Tisha B'Av mark the beginning of the season of repentance. about a month and a half from now is the pinnacle in the High Holidays. Shabbat Nachamu seems to mark the beginning of this season by reminding us of the most basic concepts. One concept is also why the second temple was destroyed. The Talmud tells the story:

The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamza and an enemy Bar Kamza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamza. The man went and brought Bar Kamza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out. Said the other: Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. He said, I won't. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the other. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still said, No, and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against then, to the Government.[Gittin 55b-56ab]

Bar Kamza in revenge tells the Romans to give a sacrifice in the temple, but makes a very tiny defect in the cow they offer. Some of the rabbis want to go on with the sacrifice, some stringent, fundamentalist others refuse to do so. When the cow is not sacrificed, the Romans consider this an act of sedition, and destroy Jerusalem.

While Bar Kamza's actions are not beyond reproach, the later Talmudic rabbis are clear of who was in the wrong in this incident:

It has been taught: Note from this incident how serious a thing it is to put a man to shame, for God espoused the cause of Bar Kamza and destroyed His House and burnt His Temple.[Gittin 57a]

The second temple fell because someone was thrown out of a party, and no one stood to champion bar Kamza. We read in this week's portion, as part of the Ten commandments:
18. Nor shall you desire your neighbor’s wife, nor shall you covet your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or any thing that is your neighbor’s.[Deuteronomy 5]
When it comes to parties, it often hurts to not be invited, or in Bar Kamza's case, to be an unintentional party crasher and thrown out. When we do not have something of our own is when we most often will covet what another has. there is this idea of "inside" and "outside." And being "inside" can be coveting as much as wanting that large screen TV your neighbor has, if not more so. Yet we also read this week:
5. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be in your heart; 7. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9. And you shall write them upon the posts of your house, and on your gates. [Deuteronomy 6]
We are told we love God in three ways, with "heart" better translated as our conscious mind and emotions, our "soul" which is our spiritual connection to God, and with our might, our physical action. All our minds, souls and strength need to be directed toward god everywhere, all the time. When we read, And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes, this is not just about wearing tefillin, but we must take it metaphorically as well. In the Shema service we also read,
39. And it shall be to you for a fringe, 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;[NUmbers 15?]
So too with tefillin -- they are there to remind us, even when we are not wearing them to use our eyes to see mitzvot, and our hands to do mitzvot. It's not wearing them that is as important as remembering to see and do these words. Mezuzot may also provide a similar meaning that when we come inside and when we got out to remember what we are supposed to do.

In Genesis, that we are told we are created in the Image of God. And the rabbis were clear: Since the first man was in the image of God, then we all are. The rabbis take another of the ten commandments very seriously: You shall not kill.In Sanhderin 37a, they present the idea that killing one man is like killing a whole universe, both in the potential of the children that person might have and because they too are a unique image of God, It does not take a great leap to realize that in order to Love God with all our heart, soul and might, it requires us to have every face to face encounter as though it is an encounter with God.

Why Bar Kamza and the host of the party might have been enemies, they also could have reconciled at the party, and left as friends. The host could have been more gracious of course. And the sages at the party never intervene. They might have seen the holiness within each other, and done something about it. Yet, the host of the party throws out Bar Kamza. Bar Kmaza in revenge plays off rabbis more interested in the rules than in people. As a result, the temple is destroyed.

I remember how devastated I feel when I wasn't invited to a party. One of the most devastating was one where all my friends were there, including an ex-girlfriend. Since she was there, I wasn't invited or welcome, even though I lived next store to where the party was. I remember that as a very sad night, hearing the party through the thin walls of the apartment. I think of many times I have felt like that night and how bad it was. While some were afraid of how my ex and I would react to each other in the same room, it meant I was excluded. I felt second class, much like I expect Bar Kamza felt. But the party may not just be a party, but something more. The struggle among some for gay marriage rights is an example of bar Kamza once again. Some are invited to the party, some not. Some at the party might believe inviting Bar Kamza cheapens the party, or make it worse. Some, who find the party boring or falling apart might enjoy the refreshing changes of new guests. Th rhetoric of gay marriage is similar. Some say it will diminish the institution of marriage, others that the institution is already in shambles, and this might strengthen the ideas of commitment and love of two people. Of course some just want to get married to the person they love.

The are many of these cases where people are not invited to the party, and I think it's more important for one think up their own conclusions to this than for me to tell you what to do. So some questions to consider, to invite you to my party of wondering about all this:

  • When have you not been invited to the party?
  • When have you not invited someone to the party?
  • How many people in the story of bar Kmaza were not thinking of facing God in their everyday encounters?
  • Is there everyday encounters with God?
  • How do we fix what we have broken in terms of not inviting to the party, both when we are not invited and when we do not invite?