Sunday, October 02, 2011

Rosh Hashana 5772: A Mourner at Rosh Hashana

I stood in the darkened anteroom corner of this synagogue my congregation rented looking out into the night while the choir rehearses. There were things I should not be doing tonight, on Erev Rosh Hashanah before services. One I’m sure is I shouldn't be writing, tapping out a Shlomo’s Drash blog post on my iPhone, but writing is my heartfelt prayer, and God knows I haven't prayed a lot with kavvanah in these last few months. Granted I’ve been going to services, and I said the prayers, but I didn't pray the way I prayed, praying fervently and with intension. The way I prayed what most would consider prayers when my mom was illl. When I said Kaddish for her the first time at her grave, I stopped praying -- tying to say the kaddish even moths after her death is so hollow. Flowing prose onto screen and paper seems to be the most fervent prayer I've managed.

Since February, my mom had beendead -- suddenly, without real reason. Now my family celebrates The High Holidays so differently. There is no family dinner that mom took two days off of work to cook, using the same pots she has for years. Due to differing timing of services, Sweetie and I cannot even eat at a family meal like I have for so many years. Timing doesn't work out --
For my family, there is a chain restaurant to replace the family meal at home. For us, dinner with friends.

The liturgy has a kind of centerpiece of this season. The Netana Tokef reminds us this is the season where we are judged on Rosh Hashanah and inscribed in the book. On Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who is to live this year, and who is to die. With my
Moms death, this brings up many questions, including the big one: Why did she die now? Why was such a compassionate, good woman inscribed and sealed in the Book of Death? What did she do to deserve that? There are people in this word who are hate filled and spread their hate to all who listen, why should they live and my mom, one of the most giving, caring people I have ever known, have to die?

I have no answers, I can only explore. I, along with many others have never liked the Netana Tokef theology. I have in other of these commentaries changed the Book of Life to the Book of Fully Living. It is not just enough to live, but to make the most of your circumstances to live fully -- to make your world and the world around you a better, happier more complete place. To learn and grow,to engage with God, to perform deeds of kindness -- that is fully living. As the liturgy reminds us every morning, as quoted from the Perkei Avot, the word stands on those three things: on Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut hasidim.

Pondering that, it is time for services, and I walk into the evening service. I hurt, and by the end of the service I hurt so much, I am numb. It makes no sense, I cannot pray at all. Halfway through the Amidah, a page before Modim Ananchnu Lach, I just sit down. It just becomes too difficult -- I feel nothing, I feel no connection. Later, I say the words of the Mourners Kaddish like a zombie -- there is nothing of my soul in me -- it too seems dead. Prayer has left me, and I fell no connection, I feel there is no one to serve. God and I are no longer talking to each other. Sweetie drives me home and I collapse into bed.

The next morning, the numbness is gone but the hurt remains. While dressing that morning, I think about how wonderful it would have been for Sweetie to spend more time with my mom, to go shopping and with her, for them to go to their favorite restaurant and share their favorite pizza.
When I get to the synagogue , and services start, I still cannot pray. I cannot even look at the words in the prayerbook -- although it is bulky, I usually can hold it with no problem. Today, I cannot even hold it. I go through much of the prayers by memory. My mind wanders to the trees outside, behind the window framing the Ark and the Torahs within it. I remember similar windows a long time go, and in my mind I am forty years in the past, in Rochester New York, standing between my mom and my dad, fidgeting at Rosh Hashanah services on my metal bridge chair. The synagogue I remember was rather dark, with a very large 3 steeple-like roof meant to be a tent held up by poles behind the Aaron Chodesh. The steeple behind the Ark was a diamond of glass, and bees or hornets would always be flying into it. I spent many a service looking up into that window out into the grey featureless sky beyond. My mom would point to an English paragraph in the Machzor with a look that told me I should read it. Following my mom’s instructions, I always did.

We stand up for Barchu, and I’m brought back to the present -- though there is a connection to my memory. In Rochester, that conservative prayer book never spoke to me, the english translation was a religion that I did not understand or accept -- the words about Ribbono Shel Olam, HaMelech are so empty and meaningless. There is no connection to something greater for me. In the present, everything I do is so half-hearted, so seemingly meaningless. Eventually we get to the Netana Tokef and we sing in Hebrew the concluding lines “but charity, prayer and repentance cancel the stern decree” as it would be translated in that conservative prayerbook. For the first time today I feel something. I want to scream across the room “BULLSHIT!!!!!!!”. I don’t, though. Instead I cry, tears streaming down my face. Then I hear the rabbi repeat the English for what we just sang in Hebrew., yet with a change: The English uses “comforts us” instead of cancels. Once again we are in the silent Amidah, and once again I cannot pray, I sit down without completing it, bewildered at what I am feeling. Like my mom told me to do decades ago, I look down at the text and begin to read a Reconstructionist response to Netana Tokef, and by extension, to much of the theme of Rosh Hashana. I’ve heard it in other forms before. There is stuff we are able to control, but there is a lot that we are powerless about. To acknowledge that we are powerless and admit that we need to trust God for those things is what ths is about. We do not choose the day of our death -- God does. Nothing we do changes that. But we can make the world a better place in the meantime, and know that it is so for our efforts.

That for me still isn't enough comfort. A kind deed, a small act of Gemilut Hasidim strengthens me enough to get home. I drive a fellow congregant to the train so he doesn't have to stand in the rain waiting for a bus. A thought occurs to me, one I don't like and have a hard time accepting.

What if one person lives life so fully, that it shadows others from doing so? Was my mom so good to all of us, that we could not grow into being as good as she was? Was her death removing her from the picture so we could truly live? Even with all the challenges that are before me personally, all the places I have to rise to the occasion, I have a he'd time believing this. I have not succeeded in many of them, and the future does not look bright for my success. I still don't know what to believe.

I have no answers, Rosh Hashanah leaves me with none. All I am left with is the dread of Yom Kippur, when Yizkor raises it's ugly head for the first time. Will I connect with God sometime in this holiday? I don’t know, but I fear the gates are closed to me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Ki Tavo 5771: The Evil of Tea?

This week we read the ceremony of the first fruits and instruction for the ceremony at Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim of the Blessings and Curses. As part of the first fruit ceremony we read:
12 When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithe of thine increase in the third year, which is the year of tithing, and hast given it unto the Levite, to the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be satisfied, 13 then thou shalt say before the LORD thy God: 'I have put away the hallowed things out of my house, and also have given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all Thy commandment which Thou hast commanded me; I have not transgressed any of Thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them. [Deuteronomy 26]

We also read in the curses:
18 Cursed be he that makes the blind to go astray in the way. And all the people shall say: Amen. {S} 19 Cursed be he that perverts the justice due to the stranger, fatherless, and widow. And all the people shall say: Amen.[Deuteronomy 28]

We keep seeing the same phrase: the stranger, fatherless and widow. In each case we are to deal with justice to them -- feed them. This phrase and the obligation to take care of those less fortunate than us show up not just here but in 19 places I could find explicitly:

Ex 22:21-25
Deut 10:18, 14:29, 16:11, 24:17, 24:19-21, 26:12-3, 27:19,
Is 9:16, 10:2,
Jer. 5:28, 7:6, 22:3,
Ezek 22:7, 7:10,
Mal 3:5,
Ps 10:18, 82:3, 94:6,

All say the same thing, and all state that God will take care of the stranger, fatherless and the widow in a very angry way -- with revenge:
22 The LORD will smite thee with consumption, and with fever, and with inflammation, and with fiery heat, and with drought, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish. 23 And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. 24 The LORD will make the rain of thy land powder and dust; from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed. [Deuteronomy. 26]

Most modern liberal folk have a hard time with this angry quid pro quo punishment stuff. I admittedly do too. The news for the last few weeks has me wondering. I have heard Politicians and fundamentalist religious leaders blame earthquakes, hurricanes and other catastrophes on passing gay marriage and not cutting the budget for public program that help so many. Yet earthquake and flood aren’t the curse we read about.

It is drought and famine accompanied by fiery heat.

I didn't think much about this until I watched a storm track of Tropical storm Lee, which seemed to go out of its way to avoid Texas and Oklahoma, and deny relief for the drought those beleaguered states are facing. A state with as many problems as Texas makes me wonder. It is a state, though by far not the only one, who oppresses the fatherless, the single mom, and the stranger in their midst. Many in that state, on religious grounds want to ban abortions and would never allow Gay marriages in their state. For this, they call themselves “righteous.” Their leaders believe in life for the fetus, yet Texas is the worst state in the nation for prenatal care. There is only two places in the entire Tanach mentioning a prohibition of homosexuality, and to my knowledge only one in Tanach which hints at abortion being bad. Indeed the Talmud interprets the laws for abortion much differently than this lot of “righteous” people, believing the life of the mother to be far more valuable than the life of the fetus.
If God says something twice, say "a man should not lay down with a male as he does with a woman"[Lev 18:22] it may be important, even though that says nothing about signing a contract of lifetime commitment under God. If you believe that two time is important, if God says something nineteen times, wouldn’t be a good idea to listen? The latter prophets and the book of Kings are statements that oppressing the needy is not a new thing. They also attest to God’s anger in doing so, for oppressing the poor is oppressing the image of God.
I still have a very hard time believing in a quid pro quo God, even on a macro level. Yet I watch the evil around us, and the evil that wants to lead us, and I wonder if such wonders as a massive drought are a sign or retribution from God. While I might hear something about climate change, I don't hear people stating that the catastrophes that plague us this year are because we oppress the poor. Yet I wonder.
The curses are set up to turn those who oppress into the oppressed. It is to turn a whole land, both the innocent and the guilty to a horrible fate. I really don’t know if this is God’s doing. Whatever the cause there are now more poor people in the world, and each needs help. I know what our role is -- and that is to help the stranger, widow and orphan.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

D'varim 5771: Pt.2 Resistance and the Yetzer Hara

In this week’s portion, Moses gives the people a review of the book Numbers. In this Cliff's Notes version he recounts their leaving Sinai, and the story of the spies. He goes into describe their adventure once getting there and the opposition encountered the Amorite kings of Sihon and Og and their armies, who the Israelites completely rout - men women and little ones all die. Moses then recounts the settling of the land by some of the tribes on the east side of the Jordan, ending with encouragement for their new leader Joshua.

What I read today was bloody -- a practically scorched earth policy. It seems so horrible -- a Genocide on a small scale. Is that what is going on? What is going on here?

Like Moses giving his history this week, I need to look at some personal history. On June 24 1979, I read Shlach Lecha, the original story of the spies that Moses summarizes this week, for my bar mitzvah portion. Oddly I was a lot like the Israelites -- I feared a lot. By the time I got to college I still did. In my sophomore and junior years of college I met and was in the very outer social circles of one of the most beautiful women I have ever met. Between her always dating someone else and with my fear, I was intimidated of even talking to her. My senior year she left for a year abroad in France, and I of course graduated. I never expected to see her again.

In May 2008, I put a pintelach in the Kotel asking to find my mate. In August 2008 I signed up for Facebook. On December 28 2008, I got a happy birthday message from that woman from college-- Sweetie. This time Fear did not grip me. Even going on vacation was not going to stop me, and I kept up communication. We met in late January 2009, flew back and forth between Seattle and Chicago from then until August 2009, and when we moved in together. In December, on my birthday I proposed to her. Next week, two years from moving in together, we will be married.

Looking back on the last quarter century of my life, I would answer that: Sihon v’Og zeh yetzer ha ra. Sihon and Og are the Yetzer ha ra, the evil inclination.

We often think of the evil inclination terms of some little voice on our shoulder telling us to do evil things. For example in terms of lust, as found in the Story of Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Meir, who even as sages were unable to control sexual urges when Ha Satan tries to tempt them with really beautiful women sitting in trees. We also find another case of greed leading to injustice in the Haftarah this week in a rather strong rebuke from the prophet to the government, one which sounds all too contemporary:
Your princes are rebellious, and companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes, and follows after rewards; they judge not the orphans neither does the cause of the widow reach them. [Isaiah 1:23]

It is easy to succumb to such voices, as we have seen many times in public figures. Yet the yetzer hara is more than just doing evil to others. There is a phrase repeated several times (1:21, 1:29, 3:2) in this portion lo yira -- do not fear. Yet it is clear that in the wilderness hearing the report of the spies the people did fear. They even went into battle fearing their adversary and ended up with their butts handed to them. Sun Tzu’s art of war makes an important point:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Why does Moses start his farewell speech with this much edited and very personal take on the book of numbers? Why does he spend so much time rebuking everyone, only to conclude this portion with two incredibly big victories that happened only weeks earlier in Torah time?

I believe Moses was telling the story of the wilderness to make a point: know the enemy and know yourself. . The people, we have heard many times before are "stiff-necked." but what does that mean? I believe it means they gave into their own yetzer hara too easily. Moses was starting his speech with a very important point: there is a yetzer hara, an internal enemy. Give in to it and you can live in fear and failure. Alternatively, don’t be afraid knowing God is with you, and beat fear and resistance in the ground, and find yourself at your fullest potential -- the way God wants it.

There were many things standing in the way of bringing us here to this auf ruf -- the 1800 miles between here and Seattle, coming from very different backgrounds, and not least of all, two stubborn-headed independent individuals under the same roof. Each could have derailed us with a word from our Yetzer Ha ra. The fact that they didn’t is a miracle, and I get to marry the woman of my dreams.

We must know the internal enemy, often it is the most dangerous and destructive. IN anything that brings out our fullest potential and God given talent such is true. Knowing the enemy is the first part of strategy. As Steven Pressfield wrote in The War of Art:
To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius

Sihon and Og is that enemy for the people. The people cannot get to the Promised Land without going through them -- and Sihon and Og both want nothing but to stop them. Any remnant left will go back and stop them. I don't want to think of this on terms of political terms, for that too is a form of resistance to what I am going to ask. I want to think of this in terms of our inner selves, our potential for tikkun olam, for changing the world for good, put into each of us. I beat my fears of dating and am getting married next week. I have many fears of success to yet to beat. How can we all find the Sihon and Og in us so we can all get to our promised lands?


  • Are Sihon and Og metaphorically the Yetzer hara of resistance?

  • What is the nature of the Yetzer hara?

  • How do we overcome it?

  • Is it ever completely overcome?

  • What is the role of lo yira and God in overcoming resistance?

Parshat D'varim 5771: Tisha B’Av and Marriage.

This is my Auf Ruf D'var Torah at Emanuel Congregation and Congregation Or Chadash Erev Shabbat August 5 2011

Marriage...Marriage is what brings us here together today.

If there is any movie that my whole family likes it's The Princess Bride, where that quote comes from. At its core was a story of true love between a princess and a pirate. True love brings us together today too.

This week in Torah we begin Deuteronomy, where we find Moses beginning his farewell speech, since he will not cross the Jordan with the people into the Promised Land. Moses starts by reviewing the book of Numbers from the time of leaving Sinai, through the episode of the spies to the defeat of Kings Sihon and Og along with their Kingdoms.

This is also the Shabbat before The 9th of Av, Tisha B'Av in Hebrew, part of the cycle where we commemorate the destruction of the temple. This portion and its associated Haftarah are read always on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av.
For me personally this is full circle. Thirty two years ago, I read Shelach Lecha, the portion of the spies as my Bar Mitzvah portion. I was the first in my family’s generation to be called to the Torah. Here I am the last to be married. Like the Israelites I read about in that portion, I was terrified, so terrified I did not even give a D'var Torah. D’varim this week reviews that episode of the ten out of twelve spies giving bad reports about the land.

There is a Midrash [taanit 29a, numbers rabbah xvi:20] that tells the evening the spies gave their report was the 9th of Av. During the night of the 9th, we read in this week's portion
27 You murmured in your tents, and said: 'Because the LORD hated us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us.[Deut. 2]

God, in anger for this needless whining, apparently decreed: "They cry over nothing! I’ll give them something to cry about!" So the 9th of Av is the worst day in the Jewish Calendar. Both Temples were destroyed on the Ninth of Av, and the Spanish expulsion of the Jews started on the 9th of Av. The number of events related to the 9th of Av are innumerable.

Usually the Hebrew calendars and secular calendars do not match in dates. In a curious coincidence this year, August and Av match in their dates. The 9th of Av is on August 9th, and the 6th of Av is august 6th. August 6th and 9th 1945 is if course a date known to most of us: The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now since the Hebrew calendar did not match the secular one in 1945, there is another connection to the Manhattan project: The test firing of the first Atomic bomb at Trinty site on the 6th of Av 5705, or in the secular calendar July 16,1945.

When planning our wedding, we found out about this, and some other issues about the 6th and 9th of Av. While I knew about Treblinka's ovens and gas chambers getting fired up for the first time on the 9th of Av, I did not know about the 6th of Av 5702, July 23, 1942. The Gila River relocation camp, the fifth of the Japanese Internment Camps was opened on a barren patch of stolen Native American territory. 13,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated from their homes in California to Arizona to what FDR himself called a concentration camp.

While it has no connection to the month of Av, as a computer scientist, one of my heroes is of course Alan Turing, a man I had pause to think about a lot lately. One of the most brilliant men of the 20th century, he arguably did more to advance computer science than anyone else. He also was responsible for a lot of what was necessary to break German codes, and helped the Allies to defeat the Nazis. Yet less than a decade after the war he was arrested and convicted by the British government he so heroically assisted in wartime of the crime of merely being gay. In June of 1954, he took his own life with a poisoned apple. Turing’s story was really my first exposure to what the GLBT community has dealt with throughout history. I’m too aware today, there are still those who hurt and oppress those who are part of the GLBT community.

I think about all these horrible things and cry. It's hard to think about all of that and not cry. To know how much racism and hate continues, that it appears to become more and more institutionalized once again like it did in the 30's and 40's makes me cry. That was, according to the Midrash God’s idea, but it should not just make Jews cry. It should make everyone with a heart and soul cry. Indeed that might be the real motivation behind the 9th of Av: to prove you really do have a heart and soul, you have to cry. Until you cry you cannot truly repent as we approach the season of repentance. Not like I haven’t been crying this year. Without all this historical tragedy, Sunny and I have been crying for the last seven months since the loss of my mom in a totally senseless illness and death. I’ve been crying a lot in the last two weeks. I miss her so much as Sunny and I do what planning and preparation we need to do for next weeks wedding -- much of it she would have done with us or done herself. Grief I buried seven months ago is at the surface now.

Yet, It gets better, and you know why?

Marriage. Marriage is what brings us together today. True Love brings us together today. Because that's the good part of any story, of any fairy tale. This is the second Auf Ruf in two weeks. Ours is nothing special compared to the one last week right here. There are now civil unions here in Illinois. There is the marriage for anyone who chooses to in New York. Last week’s celebration here is one I hope we as a community repeat many Shabbats with many people. Unfortunately we only have half the battle fought, I do look forward to the day when I can say anyone in these congregations can be Married.

Through all that crying I see Treblinka and Auschwitz, Camp Grenada and Gila River, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the latest bullying incident and the insane homophobic statements of politicians and pundits. All go back to what Moses was doing with this week’s cliff notes version of the book of Numbers. To make a short statement objectifies us; it places us in a box. It’s easy to kill or hate something in a box when all you see is the box. For all you know there really isn't anything in the box - it is a mere idea, and you really aren’t hurting anything significant.

The world and the media tells us that we are to fit into a box. Marry someone of the opposite gender, have 2.5 kids and a house in the suburbs, some cars and a widescreen TV. Have a job and be loyal to your company. Have friends that also are in the box. If people do not fit in the box, make them uncomfortable or hurt them until they do.

Funny thing is, such a box a lie -- worse, it is a superficial crust. None of us really fit into that box. Many of us here cringe about even going near that box. Yet we often find ourselves in boxes. Everyone is put into boxes, willingly or unwillingly, and sometimes we find the boxes named not very complimentary names. These generalizations celebrate walls and boundaries. In doing so, generalities give birth to divisions between people. Taxonomies might be good for classifying insects, but what of people?

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in Who is Man?
Generalization, by means of which theories evolve, fails in trying to understand man. For in dealing with a particular man, I do not come upon a generality, but upon individuality, a person. It is precisely the exclusive application of generalities to human situations that accounts for many of our failures... my existence as an event is an original, not a copy. No two human beings are alike. A major mode of being human is uniqueness. (Heschel, 37)

We are told in Mishnah Sanhedrin we are all unique and all in Gods image. We are all unique, and we can communicate that uniqueness, our bit of holiness by telling stories, by including others in the narratives of our lives. It is harder to be heartless to someone you know their story, and that you tell yours. That is what Moses is doing in D’varim -- telling his story from his perspective.

We all have stories. I know a story of Shlomo and a princess. Shlomo met the most beautiful princess he ever saw but he had been cursed by an evil witch to be quaking in fear around princesses. He wished he could be close to the princess but she had other suitors, and she rarely noticed him. So the princess went away to a far off land and he thought he would never see her again. Shlomo spent many years learning to break the curse, and in time, he did. One cold wintery day he gets a message from the princess. He responds, and then she responds back. He learns she is in another faraway land, a land of seas and cloud and rain -- and really good coffee. They travel to each other several times until they decide to be together. And in one very hot, wet summer, they get married. I don’t yet know if they live happily ever after, but I for one am excited to find out with my princess, my true love.

Marriage, marriage is what brings us together today. May He who blessed our ancestors bless us with marriage and true love that will bring us together for many more Shabbats like this one and last week’s, with many more people and their stories, with civil unions now and weddings for whoever wants one soon.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shelach 5771: Sink or Swim

Last week I was at the bat mitzvah of our our Rabbi's daughter. In her D'var Torah, the Bat Mitzvah asked a very good question relating to last weeks portion "Who tells you when you are ready?" The answers to that question apply not only to last week's portion, but to this week's which is my Bar Mitzvah portion from so many years ago.

This week Moses at God's command sends twelve spies, one from each tribe into the land to find out what it is like. Ten of the spies report back with good tiding, then deliver the bad news that the inhabitants appear unconquerable. On the other hand Caleb of the tribe of Judah and Joshua of Ephraim disagree and believe that if the people have confidence and they believe that God can help them in their quest, they cannot be defeated. This causes a riot, and Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb are threatened with being stoned to death. God intervenes and after first wanting to kill everybody, decides to just let every adult who left Egypt die out through forty years of wandering in the desert. At this, some of the people, grumble and complain. Some who were at first cowards enter the land to conquer it, only to be completely defeated. We then have some sacrificial rules, and the short story of a man executed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, followed by the commandment to wear fringes on the corners of our garments.

But the question the Bat Mitzvah asked was sadly not answered by many. Many who tried did not even hear the question correctly. Many thought she said "When do you think you are ready?" But that was not the question, though they implicitly answered the actual question with "I am." and went off to tell when they thought they were ready for something. I have a different answer. I believe who tell us when we are ready is two fold: it is God and our own actions when placed in that situation by God. It has nothing to do with our personal opinion about being ready.

The people when told the bad report by the ten spies, say something interesting about being ready:

And they said one to another, Let us choose a chief, and let us return to Egypt.[Numbers 14]

Last week they described Egypt as:

We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic;[Numbers 11]

Next week we read:
12 And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; which said, We will not come up; 13 Is it a small thing that you have brought us out of a land that flows with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you also make yourself a prince over us?[Numbers 16]

All of this points to Egypt as somewhere comfortable, somewhere safe. It was, of course nothing like that in reality. These were the same people a few years earlier crying out to God to save them from captivity, from the people who wholesale murdered their children. They fell into a comfort zone of the knowable versus the unknown. We never feel we are ready for the unknown. It takes faith like Joshua's and objectivity like Caleb's to even look at it fairly, and that is only two out of ten voices. There are the ten voices of Doubt uncertainty and fear that keep us still. The story of the spies was a test, and a test the people failed. God said "you are ready" and the people said they were far from ready. So God waited till they were ready. It is in the Haftarah we read how ready they were forty years later:

And they said to Joshua, Truly the Lord has delivered to our hands all the land; for all the inhabitants of the country faint because of us. [Joshua 2]

What really changed was belief. The people forty years earlier did not believe the same as those forty years later. They took the long journey and had to erode the comfort zone. I've done this. The bar Mitzvah boy from three decades ago was too scared of public speaking to give a D'var. Time has changed me, and I speak in front of hundreds easily today.

It is not alwys a good idea to charge into things though. If you go do something not totally believing you are ready, or that God is with you, you might get handed your corpse in a hand basket. The people do try to go up in to the land after God tells him they will not, and they fail miserably. It requires both our own confidence and God to go up into the land, to succeed in anything.

I said nothing about this question, and we left just after Kaddish and Aleinu. Neither Sweetie or I felt much like celebrating at the oneg afterwards. Four and a half months into mourning my mom, neither of us felt like partying. Seeing the Rabbi and her daughter and a reminder of a good mother daughter relationship didn't help much. But on the way home in the car, I had a thought: I am facing dozens of crises right now, mostly due to my mom's death. She would have taken care of many of these issues, from filing my tax return to paying for our honeymoon to keeping the family business on a the same path it has been for many years to being the best friend and counsel of both myself and Sweetie, her death changed everything. There is a lot of things my whole family needs to do, and are now challenged to realize they are ready for them.

God said to the people implicitly by sending the spies out: "You are ready." The spies then needed to come back and give all the strategic data to take the land, instead they cower underfoot from the same people terrified of them only forty years later. What they did was rely on themselves and their fears to say "we are not ready." They went and cried and whined so much, Midrash tells us that God uttered a rather infamous line "your'e crying for nothing! I'll give you some to cry about!" the day they cried was the 9th of Av and we have bee crying ever since.

We have a choice, like I have a choice now. We can spend our lives in paralysis saying "we are not ready" living in a illusion of a comfort zone, or take up the challenge and do what is necessary. "We are ready" we need to tell ourselves, "otherwise God would not put us here." I worry a lot about our future without my mom as a support. Yet, I see one way this changes things. We now need to be ready or we can fail and fall into a chaotic wilderness. God set this up, and while I'm still not very happy about being in this situation, there is only two things I can do. One is know that God is with me in the next few difficult months and years. And the second is go ahead and succeed, go ahed and get to my personal Promised Land.

Behaalotecha 5771: Healing and Petitionary Prayer

Last weekend we had a discussion about Petitionary prayer in my Shabbat morning minyan. I said nothing in the discussion, though I had a lot to say. I was too busy trying not to cry. Here's why.

This week we read at the end of the potion, about Miriam and Aaron slandering Moses. Miriam takes the brunt of the punishment from God.
10 And when the cloud was removed from over the Tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous. 11 And Aaron said unto Moses: 'Oh my lord, lay not, I pray thee, sin upon us, for that we have done foolishly, and for that we have sinned. 12 Let her not, I pray, be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he comes out of his mother's womb.' 13 And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying: 'Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee.'[Numbers 12 ]

Moses' prayer, in Hebrew אל, נא רפא נא לה El na rafa na la is simple and to the point, "please God, please heal her" is all it says. I first learned it as an alternative Mi Shebeirach, the healing prayer at the first synagogue I attended in my return to Judaism. I've said it many times, many of those times last January.

Starting when I got a phone call that my mom was taken by ambulance to the local hospital I kept saying it, over and over again. I said it out loud when I could, I said it silently when I couldn't, on the road, at home, in the hospital when I was awake or lying in bed at night. I said El na rafa na lawhen we found out she needed emergency surgery for a rare condition that should have killed her already. I said it during her recovery, and when she slipped into a coma. I said אל, נא רפא נא לה when she came out of that coma, and when she slipped back into another. I said it until a few hours before her death when we were told it was hopeless, and my sister, Sweetie and I began our vigil to be with her at her last breath.

[caption id="attachment_311" align="alignright" width="225" caption="El Na rafa na la"]El Na rafa na la[/caption]

With my mom's passing our lives have been turned upside down. Our family is shattered by this loss and still trying to put the pieces back together. Grief does different things to different people, and all too often grief blinds us to another's grief. I once described grief early in our mourning as drops on a pond with ripples spreading out to others. When there is one drop in the pond there is little problem in understanding the concentric circular waves. But many drops in the pond produces confusing, conflicting waves.

El na rafa na la is a petitionary prayer. We ask for health and healing. I heard many things about petitionary prayer in our discussion. Much was condemning the frivolous petitionary prayer common in children praying for something for themselves, like anew doll or getting on the baseball team. It's selfish, most say, and not a good prayer. Yet I remember placing a small scrap of paper from my sketchbook into the Western wall and praying as hard as I could that would find my mate. I cried that day as Israeli jets flew over Jerusalem celebrating 60 years of independence. My mom shot a picture of me with tears still in my eyes from her side of the mechitza. A few months later, a freak snowstorm shut down the town Sweetie lived in at the time, and so she did something she rarely does -- go online. We started to chat, and that lead to everything else, including our upcoming wedding. Somehow that prayer in that little piece of paper is hard to ignore. It's hard to ignore that my mom did start to get better after all that prayer. She could have died that first night, but was with us for three more weeks, enough to let us say goodbye to her.

Interestingly this prayer ends with the word la meaning her. It is not writtenli meaning to me . The Cohanic blessing is in the second person. That prayer, expresses all the good things God may do to you, not me. IN that case maybe petitionary prayer does not work when it is selfish, when it is about me. Petitionary prayer does not work when I gain, only if someone else does. So one thought that keeps going around in my mind. I wanted my mom at my wedding. I wanted to see her joy at the day of my joy, one that has taken too long to come. Did all my prayer amount for nothing because my healing prayer had a selfish end? Since I wanted her to be joyous on that day, was it selfish? I don't know and the questions still dig at me.

I have many questions about what happened and the part prayer played. Prayer seemed to work then didn't. Should I have ever given up praying? Would she still be alive and another miracle would have occurred had I kept praying and not given up like everyone else? What if, as is likely that meant a very limited life for her? If prayer was just keeping her alive but in extreme pain, did I did the right thing by giving up? I did hear a voice while I was prying in those final hours say " stop. Let Go." I keep wondering about that voice and if I should have heeded it.

I also wonder the power of communal versus personal petitionary prayer. when she came out of the first coma and begin to have some function to her body, she had yeshivas praying for her, the second time, I'm not so sure who was. One synagogue I attend called me to find out my mom's status, ostensibly to take her off the mi sheiberiach list the day we found out the bad news she was likely to die. Does volume count in petitionary prayer. Does it count in healing prayer?

I keep thinking about how much I prayed those three weeks. I keep thinking how in the end it didn't matter, she didn't get better but died instead, and I'm left living in a shattered world. I prayed so hard and wasn't heard. She won’t be at the wedding, she won’t be there to support me, my bride-to-be, my sister or my father not just at the wedding but every day.

Does petitionary prayer work? Who I have become in large part because of my mom says in a still small voice "yes." My grief continues to shout "NO!" in the end I still do not know. I just know I hurt so much because she is no longer here.

Naso 5771: Sotah, Fear and Dancing

This week we have several interesting pats of the portion, but Sotah is the most curious of all. I keep trying to understand it, and end up still perplexed. In this last attempt, I studied this portion in my Hebrew class and came to another conclusion no one was very happy with, Liberal or Conservative: State mandated abortion.
...then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is a meal-offering of jealousy, a meal-offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. 16 And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD. 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water. 18 And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and let the hair of the woman's head go loose, and put the meal-offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal-offering of jealousy; and the priest shall have in his hand the water of bitterness that causeth the curse. 19 And the priest shall cause her to swear, and shall say unto the woman: 'If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness, being under thy husband, be thou free from this water of bitterness that causeth the curse; 20 but if thou hast gone aside, being under thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee besides thy husband-- 21 then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman--the LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to fall away, and thy belly to swell; 22 and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, and make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to fall away'; and the woman shall say: 'Amen, Amen.' 23

I came to this startling and disturbing conclusion after we talked about what "belly to swell and thigh to fall away" meant. With several other citations we learned of in class, it seems it meant a miscarriage. I then noted some about the dust on the tabernacle floor -- it was likely that the dust contained ash from the sacrifices, but also a rather large amount of myrrh, which was used in the anointing oil for the vessels in the Mishkan and later temple, as read in Exodus 30. Exodus 30 was also very clear this stuff is toxic. In herbal medicine, myrrh has been known to induce labor -- no matter what stage of pregnancy a woman is in. Herbalists avoid myrrh around pregnant women for this reason. That Ahashveyrosh in chapter 2 of the book of Esther requires myrrh treatments for six months for all maidens before meeting him points to more than cleaning the skin but the insides as well. Acashveyrosh was guaranteeing any child born to one of the "contestants" was really his.

I mentioned all this in class, and my idea of a state induced miscarriage and got it from all sides. Abortion is of course a touchy subject but what I was saying equally offended everyone. That a biblical passage was a commandment for preists to give a potion that would terminate a pregnancy in order to adjudicate a domestice dispute smashes both the pro-life and pro-choice positions rather squarely. The only one who did not object was my Orthodox professor, who from a biblical scholarship point of view could not find a fault in my argument.

And while there is a whole Talmudic tractate on Sotah, I think there is one critical element to Sotah, this bitter waters rite, that is missing. There is no record it was ever used in the biblical text. Someone leading a D'var Torah I attended recently asked the question did ancient peoples who could have written the Biblical text, also know modern psychology. I would say today no, they did not, for they had no use for understanding the mechanism of behavior. But they were certainly interested in results, and results that modern psychology might be able to derive, ancient man could easily see and use in their lives.

One of these is the concept of the ordeal and fear associated with it. Ordeals are painful or dangerous situations, sometimes used to judge a person. In some of those cases, as in Sotah, it is to gauge a woman's guilt or innocence for infidelity. Yet rites of passage into adulthood have often had ordeals as part of their ritual. To go through the ordeal as part of a rite of passage is to show one's bravery or perseverance. To fail is to show one is still a fearful child.

Yet not everyone has the courage, or some might say the stupidity to go through an ordeal. Some just looking at the ordeal freak out. I had that experience this weekend, and failed miserably. Of course my ordeal was something rather laughingly benign, indeed most would look at me funny -- Dancing.

Everyone has performance fears. Probably one of the most common is speaking in public. Some fear being in crowds. Sometimes reason can counter a phobia, but a lot of time it is not enough. I do not have any problems getting in front of a crowd, I'm happy speaking or lecturing in front of 10 or 10,0000. Some people would be a total panic. But I can understand them, since I believe my fear of dancing is very related to public speaking. Both are about being embarrassed in public. My brain and my nerves have a really bad habit of not communicating well. It takes a huge amount of practice for me to do even the simplest of coordinated things. I could not catch a ball until I was in college for example. This has irritated more than one kid when I was growing up. I was so incompetent in sports all I got on the playing field was either kids laughing at me or kids yelling at me. If anything more than attendance was considered for Physical Education classes when I was growing up, I would undoubtedly fail. I even failed driver's education. I was terrified to get behind the wheel of a car for the longest time.

Oddly though, I got a job out of college which required a massive amount of travel. 83,000 miles on the odometer in one year got me out of my driving phobia. As busy as I-80 is, it is still a rather lonely road, with no one but the one or two cars around you and state troopers watching what you are doing. That's different from a crowded dance floor. Trip and everyone sees you. Dance badly and everyone knows.

What's worse,as I found out in those P.E. Classes I failed so miserably, is that dances are not just partners dances but things like square dancing, which requires a lot of rather complex moves leading to disaster. I don't just mess myself up, but everyone else as well. That kind of embarrassment is more than I can take. I thought of that this weekend watching a northwestern kind of square dancing known as contra dancing. These people were good, but watching them scared me witless. It was not me dancing, but just watching brought on the panic.

I can of course do what I did with driving. Get behind the wheel and do more intensive performance in a year than most people get in ten years of driving. If I do it gets into my "muscle memory" and it is no longer a problem. But just seeing people dancing brings on the fear, and that makes me realize why Sotah probably was never used. It was too fearful an ordeal -- not just for the woman but her jealous husband. If she was willing to go throughout with this, it might be his child he was killing. there is a lot of setup, a lot of what the Inquisition called "showing the instruments," bringing fear of the ordeal to do the same thing as the ordeal itself. If anyone even tried this, by mid ritual it probably stopped, for either husband or wife lost their nerve and confessed or recanted, depending on the situation.

I think for most we would not go through ordeals unless they are forced on us. The ordeal of mourning is one we have no choice. The ordeals we have a choice in we are, for the most part, cowards and will avoid. I believe there was a fiction of a bitter waters rite, once that scared everyone enough to calm dawn and deal with domestic disputes in a lot more rational and civil way.

But that said it is a good thing to conquer your fears. Excuse me while I practice this waltz.

B’midbar 5771: Change and changing.

This week we begin the book of B’midbar, known in English as the book of Numbers. While the more accurate name for the book is in the wilderness as the Hebrew indicates, the English is a reference to the census which starts the book.
1. And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out from the land of Egypt, saying, 2. Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls; 3. From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go forth to war in Israel; you and Aaron shall count them by their armies. [Numbers 1]

It is not the only time we have a census in this book. There is also one towards the end of the journey, immediately after the Baal-Peor incident is closed, and the people are ready to enter the land of Israel. They are bookends to the journey between.
45. So were all those who were counted of the people of Israel, by the house of their fathers, from twenty years old and upward, all who were able to go forth to war in Israel; 46. All those who were counted were six hundred three thousand and five hundred and fifty. [Numbers 1]
51. These were the counted of the people of Israel, six hundred thousand and a thousand seven hundred and thirty. [Numbers 26]

There is debate by biblical scholars what Elef, usually translated as thousand, means. There is a school of thought that it is actually some smaller unit of a company or detachment and the true number is less. Either way, there are 603,550 at the beginning of the trip and 601,730 at the end. The numbers themselves don’t matter as much as that they change. This journey is not a static one.
The people too change. The timid slave mentality of being provided for and believing they are weaker than anyone around changes into an effective, unstoppable juggernaut. The people on the east side of the Jordan are trembling in terror, as the spies bring back their report from Rahab of Jericho in the book of Joshua.
B’midbar is about change, and how the people change. It can be taken as a whole as an allegory of change, from a stupid idolatrous people to a people strong and worthy of worship of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu. For one to worship Hashem, one really need to be empowered enough to believe they can. It requires a mindset like the Daughters of Zelophehad where even the rules as set down get questioned, not in rebellion like Korach, but synthesis, something no one completely submissive can do.
I think of this as I begin a new journey myself, Since the death of my mother, I’ve been in a wilderness too, wandering in this desert of emotion, where the water of life, joy, seems so rare. I’m two and a half months from my wedding as well. I’ve also lost my biggest client, and officially begin to take my professional life in a new direction.
It’s all scary, but the last two give me hope. I’m marrying the most wonderful woman in the world. I’ve know how beautiful she is for close to twenty-some years, when we first met in college. Her beauty is overshadowed by the person within though, and I am so blessed she will be my wife.
My professional life is yet to be set but the direction is clear. Almost thirty years ago, I ran across an ad for a new company called Electronic Arts. I remember the first time I saw their ad proclaiming CAN A COMPUTER MAKE YOU CRY?
The ad had a bunch of people who could be either rock stars or avant garde artists dressed in black. They were programmers. The copy was equally intriguing:
These are wondrous machines we have created, and in them can be seen a bit of their makers. It is as if we had invested them with the image of our minds. And through them, we are learning more and more about ourselves. We learn, for instance, that we are more entertained by involvement of our imaginations than by passive viewing and listening. We learn that we are better taught by experience than by memorization. And we learn that the traditional distinctions-- the ones that are made between art and entertainment and education-- don't always apply.

It went on like that, and it inspired me to get into software development and even write my first published program. I wanted to be one of those guys. They called themselves "software artists" instead of programmers. I got my BA in computer science because of that ad. I have the suspicion a lot of us did.
I found the real world, just as Electronic Arts found out, doesn’t share that vision. They sold out to a corporate mentality, and I found life behind the keyboard not what I thought it would be. So I ended up going into technical support, and from there to training and masters in Education. From there I went into foodservice sanitation training and took a hobby of biblical Hebrew translation into a master’s degree in Jewish studies. I took up drawing and painting. All the time I have been seemingly moving away from programming.
It takes a very unique person to blur the lines between art, education and entertainment. It takes a unique person to write anything that inspires the active imagination. I’ve been wandering for decades in another wilderness gaining those skills.
The closeness of the population data from the beginning of the journey to the end, only 1820 people, three tenths of a percent change in population, suggests something too. The stability of the population might also tell us how stable we really are. This may be about change, but paradoxically there really is little gain or loss in that change. It is all there in potential, we just have to release it. The guy Sweetie barely noticed in college is the same one she’s marrying in summer, though they might not seem the same. The journey I’ve been on did empower me.
AS the Israelites will find out in the coming portions of Torah the journey is not pleasant, but in the end, as I will definitely feel under the Huppa this summer, it is worth the effort.

Bhukotai 5771 a Nice Apocalypse

This was supposed to get out two days ago. Saturday we read if we are good, we'll get the good stuff. If we are bad, well things are going to go very bad. In a strange coincidence, this Saturday May 21st some people believe is also supposed to be the apocalypse. I have some opinions about all this.

This simplistic idea of quid pro quo has a lot of problems. It is not clear from the text exactly what brings on this

3 If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them; 4 then I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. 5 And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time; and ye shall eat your bread until ye have enough, and dwell in your land safely. lev 26

The great and good things continue, but there is a catch:

14 But if ye will not hearken unto Me, and will not do all these commandments; 15 and if ye shall reject My statutes, and if your soul abhor Mine ordinances, so that ye will not do all My commandments, but break My covenant; 16 I also will do this unto you: I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish; and ye shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it.

It gets worse: disease famine, and exile are all in the cards depending if people repent or not. BUt even in exile there is the chance of return.

There lots of questions about such a simplistic system. Do good, get good. Do bad get bad. As I wrote a few weeks ago, a death to a close relative is one of those things that frames this as nonsense. When bad things happen to good people, none of this is helpful or meaningful. I wanted nothing more in my life than my mom at my wedding, and only a few months from the date of the wedding, that was snatched from me. When such a thing happens, it's hard to believe in such a simple system.

In contrast, the claims of some fundamentalists that the end of the world is May 21 have me thinking. the whole idea of a violent end time is odd to me. I'm not the only one -- the Rabbis in Tractate Sanhedrin couldn't come to any conclusions about the end times either. There is not a lot that makes sense about it. What I find particularly interesting is the idea that there is some kind of justice at the end of the world -- those who are good get good, those who are bad get bad. Of course those proclaiming the end are the "good ones."

Of course the current crop are also the same people who put a government in place that wants to make absolutely sure the widows and orphans of the world are totally and completely ignored in their needs. This is against the words of the same prophets they figure out their prophecies of a May 21 end of days. National economic health is more important than the poor. Isaiah and Jeremiah probably would not agree with that, and this weeks portion in it's literal context would seem to say treating the poor well leads to economic health, not the converse.

As a reader of comedic science fiction, I have liked what two authors have said about the destruction of the universe. Douglas Adams wrote that if we ever made sense of the universe, it would be immediately destroyed and replaced with a more inexplicable one. This may have already happened. Terry Prattchett in his parody of the apocalypse The thief of time follows the idea that every second the universe is destroyed and remade. Interestingly in the same novel, the keys that saves the universe from a an ultimate doom is a milkman with a curious past, one of the Horsemen of the apocalypse's granddaughter, and a lot of chocolate truffles.

A year ago I could have written more definitively, but the tragedy of this year in my life makes me far more cynical. A god who would not let my mother live is a god sadistic enough to go through with such thing as an end of days. Yet, even as a write that, I cannot believe that is Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu. Much of the Bible makes no sense if it is.

There is a Hasidic tale which I cherish about the coming of the messiah. It concerns an abbot of a monastery who was at the end of his rope. His monks were always fighting, the place was a mess, and the grounds unkept. Not knowing what else to do he went and talked to the Baal Shem Tov, in a desperate hope he might be able to give him some insight from Heaven. The Baal Shem Tov considered for a moment, then said: "I have it on good authority that one of your monks is the Messiah, though I do not know which one." THe Abbot went back with this information, and told the monks. Strangely things changed. the garden was kept, the halls was cleaned and no one fought. The abbot found that when everyone thought the messiah might be dwelling among them they treated each other with respect. I believe the BESHT knew it was not one, but all the monks were the messiah. When we all treat each other with that level of respect, when we see everything as an aspect of God and not an aspect of our own arrogance things change.

Given the end of the rebuke in this weeks chapter it is not clear if all the mizvot need be violated. God seems to concentrate on the sabbaticals and jubilees.

33 And you will I scatter among the nations, and I will draw out the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. 34 Then shall the land be paid her sabbaths, as long as it lieth desolate, and ye are in your enemies' land; even then shall the land rest, and repay her sabbaths. 35 As long as it lieth desolate it shall have rest; even the rest which it had not in your sabbaths, when ye dwelt upon it.[leviticus 26]

verse 43 repeats this. It is not only respect for people, but a healthy respect for the environment as well. We are taken off the land so the land heals from our abuse. This was only for over plowing. What of bleeding it dry of its resources and then taking all those substances and emitting them into the atmosphere? The Earth is the Lord's the psalmist exclaims, do we have the right to exploit what is the Lords?

The rabbis debate with no definitive answer if the messiah will come at the end of days when the world is thoroughly wicked or thoroughly good. I for one, believe it is when we are all good, for the messiah as a person will be redundant -- we all will be one with God of our own free will. We are far from that day as we cannot even decide what is "good." this week's rebuke was aimed at the whole nation, and even more so all humanity. Yet somehow, I still believe that there will be a time when we finally understand that lesson.

Behar 5771: Sabbaticals and Art

This week we read about the sabbatical system,
2 But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the LORD; you shall neither sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. 5 That which grows of itself of your harvest you shall not reap, and the grapes of your undressed vine you shall not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land.[Leviticus 25]

Before the nightmare of January and my mother's death I left off this column essentially in a mid-life crisis. I've been asking myself a question: What am I going to do with myself? The death of my mom puts this even more into perspective, as I now fear for my current job is not as permanent as I once thought it was.

It is interesting that the Sabbatical is a rest for the land, but not a rest for a lot of other things. It does not say to rest one's plow for example, though that would seem to be an obvious extension. One cannot plow the field but one can get the plow to work better in a year. The ox that runs the plow isn't mentioned either, but might well gain from a little rest to make more oxen.

The tools of creating the harvest for seven years are renewed and maintained in this process. Drainage ditches, fences, and other infrastructure projects are far from forbidden. The sabbatical or shmita year requires trust in God in the way we will feed our selves, but also gives us the opportunity to get done all that stuff we need to improve and have another good six years.

In modernity we are not all land farmers. Indeed, what the shmita year does not seem to think about is craftsmen, fishermen and shepherds even in its own day. These get no sabbatical year. Even farmers have found a way around the sabbatical year, and "sell" their land to non-Jews for the year. There is that poetic idea of stopping for a year, and improving our farm that seems to get lost in such cases.

But I like that idea of a human sabbatical, one I wish I really could do: Get my "farm" ready for the next six years. Take a full year off to intensely improve myself and get myself the skills I need for whatever my current or next career requires. Like many, I've tried to work on the infrastructure of my life while still doing my regular work. I got two Master's degrees because of that, but it was an exhausting process. I'm doing it again, thought the fate of my program is in doubt, and I need to decide if I will be the last to graduate in my program, or change paths. On top of all that I have been taking non-credit classes non-stop.

I am a little discouraged that neither the masters in education or the masters in Jewish studies bore financial fruit. I am not paid to be either an educator or a Jewish scholar. I am not paid to be an artist either, or at least yet. My current career path however is pointing in that direction. I remember after taking four years of Hebrew deciding to start doing it for credit, and I ended up with a master's degree. After years of non-credit courses in art, I'm wondering if this will be the pattern again. Deciding if I want to be want to be an artist, animator or video game designer is still up in the air, but it is the direction I am headed. But this time, I am running up against the problem that courses are during the work day. How nice it would be to think of nothing but school for a whole year, and really re-design myself to be the best re-designed person I can be. It would be nice to have a sabbatical where I did nothing but learn for a year. But of course our economy is not set up that way.

It may not take one sabbatical to re-design a whole farm: it may take many. I'm scared my current career track in art and graphic design, wont work like the last two attempts. But then, it may be that I needed all three to do something spectacular. Sabbaticals require faith that there will be fruit and grain for the year, we leave it up to God to do the farming. I have to leave it up to God to see what happens, and If I am destined to become an professional artist.

Emor 5771: On Being Angry at God on Mother's day

I'm Back, and with a new look. Actually a new blog as well.

I moved from Blogger to WordPress for a bunch of reasons,(and if you are readin this on Blogger now posting on both platforms) most of all to consolidate the stuff I have on my website with the Blog - and thus handle maintenance with everything better, easier and with some other nice features.

A friend of mine encouraged me to write again, and I have just completed a witting project which topped out at 30,000 words. Thing is, I enjoyed that experienced of writing, so when my friend made that suggestion, it tipped the scales and here I am again.

This weeks portion Emor, is kind of appropriate to be a re-introduction to Shlomo's drash.
And the LORD said unto Moses: Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron, and say unto them: There shall none defile himself for the dead among his people; 2 except for his kin, that is near unto him, for his mother, and for his father, and for his son, and for his daughter, and for his brother; 3 and for his sister a virgin, that is near unto him, that hath had no husband, for her may he defile himself.[Leviticus 21]

It was an irony that over a decade ago, first day I walked into a synagogue to go to services after my long self-imposed exile from Judaism was the same day the Rabbi's mother died. As someone new to the congregation, I did not know how to respond,and what would be considered respectful. I did go again to that synagogue, and became a quite active member there for a time. But I never gave a thought to how a religious leader, or for that matter any individual handles a death of immediate family.

Now my mom is dead for four months and I understand that passage bit more. Interestingly the Torah reads in Hebrew for the end of Verse 21:1 לנפש לא-ייטמא בעמיו., and doesn't mention death. Two more literal translations are don't defile yourself with your people or for flesh/soul don't defile with your people. Targum Onkelos has על מית לא יסתאב בעמיה which does include the word dead. Verse 21:2 contextually makes it clear we are talking about death.

In particular, the priest as we read elsewhere is not to be in the presence of anywhere where there is death or the dead. But the exception was made that a priest could see the body of their deceased immediate relative. I understand now how upsetting and world-changing such an event could be. To be forbidden from mourning and burying one's relatives is a horrible thing. To do so in a person who handles dangerous things, or with great responsibility, needs to have some way of setting things right and mourning. Seeing one's loved one last time, saying goodbye is very important. Indeed Aaron's family has already gone through this, with the death of Aaron's sons.

I remember my Grandmother's death, where I was not allowed to mourn. I wanted to be part of the minyan for my grandfather, but I choose not to wear tefillin when I pray in the mornings, which I did every morning back then. While My grandfather is not Orthodox, we prayed in an Orthodox minyan who insisted in me wearing tefillin. My refusal meant I was not part of a minyan -- actually the tenth person. It hurt me as much as my grandmothers death that Jews thought I was not Jewish. That they took my atheist brother-in law strapped the tefillin on him and counted him as the tenth hurt more - tefillin were the indications of being Jewish, not kavvanah, nor keeping even more kosher than most of these people (I was vegetarian at the time) nor my own daily Davven, nor my Torah study. The dirty looks as we davvened that morning never left my memory. It hurt so much that I stopped davvening every mornings, and tefillin became not just something I didn't wear for my own reasons, but a hated object to me.

I realize everybody has their traditions. Talmud goes out of its way to remind everyone of that repeatedly. It is a mitzvah to bind a sign on your hand and put something between your eyes. If this mitzvah alone, strapping some leather on, makes one Jewish in that congregation, then that is what makes someone Jewish. I just keep away from their services, and find someone who respects who I am. I believe this is one of those situation where it is not those in attendance but their rabbi (who wasn't there at the time), the one who leads and teaches them that is guilty of anything. I'll let this be decided between Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu and this Rabbi. Yet this same rabbi I'll admit taught me an interesting tradition i did not know until mt grandmother's death. There is tradition from the time of death to the time of the funeral, a mourner is exempt from mitzvot, since he or she has no good sense of judgement. We all had bad judgement and stubbornness back then, both congregants and me.

As upset as I was about being labeled not Jewish while my grandfather, mother and aunt were sitting shiva, I was also upset about something else as well. My grandmother would never see me married. I am, in some sense the failure of the family. I was the one who didn't get married and have kids like I was supposed to on the time table i was supposed to. That was even more upsetting -- failing her expectations, though I know very well back then and now I had not found someone who would make a good marriage back then.

We no longer have a Temple, and so the idea of taamei, ritual defilement, is very different today. The mitzvah of permitting a priest to defile himself for his mother father, children and siblings, is different too. Those who are close mourn differently than those who are more distant.

WhenAaron's sons Nadab and Abihu died, Aaron stayed silent. When discussing this a few weeks ago, I made an observation I wouldn't have made even a year ago. Aaron stayed silent for the same reason Job remained silent: so he wouldn't curse God. Job was even urged by his wife to go ahead and curse, but he refused. I happen to be angry at God, and I'm not keeping quiet. In the case of Aaron at least, he knew the name of God. As we read at the end of the protion blespheming with that does get you killed. I don't know that name, so my anger is different.

I want to scream at God still for taking my mom. I know everyone eventually dies, but just to give her a few more months, one more year. When she was sick and in a coma, I prayed not to extend her life indefinitely, but to get just one more year -- for her to be there for my wedding, to see with her own eyes the joy of Sweetie and I as husband and wife under the Huppa. My last real conversation with her was a detail about our wedding plans. Twenty minutes later she fell ill, and was in a hospital till she took her last breath three weeks later.

We had plenty of miracles to be sure. She survived the condition that put her in the hospital in the first place and the historically extensive surgery which was a success. SHe came out of a coma once. But the miracle of her being happy at Sweetie's and my wedding, standing or sitting next to us wasn't to happen.

So I've spent the last few months not just feeling like I failed, but God sadistically snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. After all that prayer, particularly the heartfelt prayer I did at the Wall in Jerusalem, God did bring me the love of my life. Yet All that prayer seems to be wasted for the three weeks I did nothing but pray fr my mo to survive this ordeal. All I have wanted for years is all of my family at my wedding. Selfishly I wanted what every one of my family's generation got, yet I'm the one not to get it.

I've been so angry at God for the death of my mom, for taking away a rock of stability in my world. It's been hard to think lately, and I could not even write this blog for months. It's been hard to go a pray, even though I am obligated to say the Kaddish, which I do when I go. It seems God failed me this year,and I'm so angry with no way to show it. Singing praises seems so hollow and empty.

I finally did yell at God -- with bacon cheeseburger. For the first time in over a decade I ate beef and pork with cheese. While I might not keep glatt kosher, I do not eat milk with red meat. But in a sign of protest, a way of yelling at God I broke one of the mitzvot, what I have described in the past as love notes to God, I keep so dearly. To make the point I did not just order it and eat it, I said a hamotzi over it. I kept every other rule, even a few I don't normally. but then I went and ate it the sandwich, which actually, being from a fast food restaurant, was tasteless. That was my protest.

Oddly, when I got back to my office I found out I have the largest tax bill I have ever had from the IRS. I'm still not sure what that means.

Defile is quite an odd word for the text the week, but I understand it. If one believes in God and struggles to figure out what is God's actions and what are our own, if one struggles with the nature of prayer and the sacred, it is very hard to reconcile why people die when they do, particularly when it is someone very close to you. I do not believe the text means the defilement that a priest gets from being around or touching the dead but the defilement that leads to crazy thinking, of breaking rules that were sacrosanct only a little while ago. Some we are too distraught to care we break, some we break intentionally to vent our anger at God. The Torah tells us here that's it's okay, it human to be that way when a partner, a mother or a father, a daughter or a son dies. We hopefully will heal and go back to our normal activities. But until we do, we are given leeway.

My mom loved my writing this blog. So it is only fitting that I start it again on Mother's day, since I cannot get her anything else.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Baruch Dayan HaEmet, My Mom.

I haven't written in a while, and since some might wonder what happened who are not familiar with me face to face, I thought I'd write something today.

Two days after I posted my Last Column, My mom was admitted to the Emergency room, for what was thought to be a heart attack. It turned out to be a lot more -- a neurological emergency. She was rushed to a better hospital, and came thought the surgery pretty well. But then in the hospital, she had something like a stroke and she fell into a coma. After a few days she did awake.

After what we thought was the beginning of a recovery, she fell back into a coma again. This time she would not come out of it. Two weeks ago, I saw her draw her last breath, and depart this world at age sixty-seven.

My mom was the best mom I could have had. She was a traveling companion as well as a mom. She was not the "cool mom" but something more. She was the mom everybody wants to bei their mom. Generous caring and loving. She would listen to you no matter who you were.

She loved to read and not only dreamed the adventures she read but did them, in style. Together we went to Africa, Hawaii, Alaska, Israel, Jordan. We walked across the equator together, then crossed it again a few weeks later in a boat headed between the Galapagos Islands. With my sister she visited Egypt and turkey. With my dad, most of Europe, east and west.

My sense of art is from her. She was not an artist, but a wonderful crafts person. She loved building and furnishing Dollhouses. The one she has worked on for years was a museum, each room different but spectacular. There was needle point, and collecting antique Wedgwood pieces.

She also in her later years had her spiritual side, and was the one who so support my own spiritual journey which led to this blog. She was the one who commented more than anyone else, often in private e-mail to me as she began and continued her own spiritual journey.

I'm gonna miss her. I loved her so much.

I'm understandably broken up and have no interest in writing. It may yet be some time before I write again. I thought you show know.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Shemot/Vaiera/Bo 5771: Moses, Akiba and the Midlife Crisis

Last week was my birthday. It doesn't completely explain why I haven't gotten into writing Shlomo's Drash for a while, but it needs to be said. I turned 45 last week. I've been thinking about someone who turned 80, and the last three parshiot, the beginning of Exodus.

7. And Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh. [Exodus 7]

There is a Midrash which tells us that Moses died on his birthday, the Seventh of Adar [b. Megilah 13b] Torah is not much about the first two thirds of Moses' life, it is about the last third. Midrash has been written by everyone from the Sages to Cecil B. DeMille filling in that timeframe of eighty years, the text tells us of his birth, that he was raised by a daughter of Pharaoh, and of killing the Egyptian. The story tells us he fled and lived in Midian as a shepherd and family man, until he came across the burning bush. But that is all it says to account for eighty years of life.

Who was the younger Moses? There are legends that he became king of Ethiopia for a while, and that his engagement to Tzipporah was a series of trials and test by her father. The most enduring legend has to do with his age of a hundred and twenty at his death. [Deuteronomy 34:7] We know the last forty years were spent from the time he faced Pharaoh through the Exodus from Egypt, the time in the wilderness, to his death overlooking the banks of the Jordan River. The rabbis split Moses' earlier eighty years into two pieces: for forty years he was in Egypt, and for forty years he wandered as an exile, settling in Midian at some point.

The legend of Moses' life is intertwined with three of the greatest rabbinic sages who reportedly lived to 120: Hillel, Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai and Rabbi Akiba. These sages’s story also breaks into three parts, which Aggadah also breaks evenly into three parts.

The years of six pairs were equal: Rebekah and Kohath, Levi and Amram, Joseph and Joshua, Samuel and Solomon, Moses and Hillel the Elder, R. Johanan b. Zakkai and R. Akiba. Moses spent forty years in Pharaoh's palace, forty years in Midian, and served Israel forty years. Hillel the Elder came up from Babylon at the age of forty, served [i.e. studied under] the Sages forty years, and served Israel forty years. R. Johanan b. Zakkai engaged in commerce forty years, studied Torah forty years, and served Israel forty years. R. Akiba was an ignoramus forty years, studied forty years, and served Israel forty years.[Genesis Rabbah C:10]

Sometime After forty, our bodies change. Our reproductive abilities start to wane, though our desire to use them may not. Our biological function is complete, yet we have our social function. The social function acts very differently than the needs of merely passing genes. But how do we do this? What is our role if not biological?

Midlife and midlife crisis in my mind are synonymous they are the answer to that question. Usually when we think of a midlife crisis we think of someone far too old trying to reclaim a youth they no longer can have. It’s stereotypically the sports car and fling with a younger member of the opposite gender. But I think a more general and far more constructive way of describing mid-life is the time when we re-define our role as a human being. Granted part of that might be wanting to go backwards, but it’s a lot more about going forwards, dropping a lot of the baggage we no longer need and moving forward into the future, where we propagate memes instead of genes.

Monday morning I put on a sweater that didn't fit. Partially it was the several pounds I've put on my frame since I bought the sweater many years ago, but that was minor. If clothes make the man, then this sweater didn't fit me because it no longer made the man that is me. Rummaging through my closet for another sweater, I ended up cleaning the sweater shelf out -- many of the sweaters didn't fit. I didn't even have to put them on to know that.

For the past month, I have been thinking about my future and figuring out where I'm going to be when I'm eighty. Am I going to be like Moses? Am I going to be like Abraham? Thinking about both of those I have to remember the question the Hasidic rabbi Zusya was so scared of on his death bed. When he reached the afterlife, he was not afraid of being asked "Why were you not Moses or Abraham?” Instead he was terrified of being asked "Why were you not Zusya?"

Right now, I feel if I would be asked that question, I would have no answer because I am not me. I realize there is no answer, only living one's life so that fearful question is never asked. In the last few years so much has changed in my life. I have a job so nebulous it literally sulks on the corner of the organization chart. Like Zuzya's question, another question I fear is the question "what do you do.?" because I really have no idea. I think I am trying to create products for a profession I have so little knowledge of. I often feel like a blind painter being instructed by the sighted how to paint a copy of the Sistine ceiling. Late in my life I have found the love of my life, and I'm still trying to figure out how to have a relationship with such a strong, brilliant, beautiful woman. But I have never been this far in a relationship before, and I am often stumbling my way through. Like Moses off in a desert by himself, I feel very lost with no idea of direction.

Moses at the beginning of midlife dressed like an Egyptian and acted like an Egyptian, so much so we read that Ruel's daughters refer to him as an Egyptian[Exodus 2:19]. Yet we read this week of a Moses with a strong identity to Beni Yisroel, enough to coordinate a mass exodus from Egypt, and enough to convince the people to perform the ritual we will call today the Passover Seder. It was in midlife I believe he learned what he need to move from his youth to the leader he was in old age. So too with Rabbi Akiba, who never left the academy from forty until sixty four according to the Sages. When he left, he was a sage himself.

Moses learned in midlife by being a shepherd. Akiba who started life as a shepherd, learned by being a student, and then a teacher. Both became phenomenal leaders, as did Hillel and Johanan ben Zakkai. Midlife is the time to realize you are not young anymore, and it's time to have a very different identity for the rest of your life. It's time to find it, and find who you will be in that time left on the planet.

I look at life and think there may be two ways to live a life the one of Solomon and the one of Moses. The rabbis mention that the three books of the Tanach written by Solomon are written in three stages of life: The Song of Songs is the joyful optimism and sensuality of Youth, Proverbs the widsom of the middle years, and Kohelet the bitterness and futility of old age. As wise as Solomon was, Solomon supposedly died at fifty two, with his last words bitter and futile ones, though he was not very old. In my mind, this is a path of Kohelet as a life burnt out, who did everything for gain, and not for something greater than gain. Yet Akiba and Moses seem so different than this, and aspire to a different path. There is the passion of youth, the change of middle age, and the leadership, the Sageing, of a very ripe old age of 120.

Even though we have no choice as to the day of our death, we still have a choice: the road of Solomon or of Akiba and Moses. I have had the privilege of meeting a few sages in my life. There are those who I wish I had met as well, but there are some I wish I had met, like my fiancé's mentor before his passing away last year. I have met those who live, if that is any kind of living, their last years bitter. I would rather be a sage with a full life than bitter and angry at the world. I do not know where the next thirty five years will take me. Will I make it to What the Perkei Avot calls “the age of strength?” I’ve made a few decisions that point me in some directions I hope will send me down the road of Moses and not the road of Solomon. Somewhere along the line I hope I learn enough about myself and do enough not to have to answer the question "Why were you not Shlomo?"