Sunday, December 09, 2012

Shlomo's Drash: Through The Darkness

IMG_2798As part of Hanukkah the first two parts of the story of Joseph come before and during the holiday. In the first, we are introduced to Joseph and the two times he is flung into darkness.
24 And they took him, and threw him into a pit; and the pit was empty, there was no water in it[Genesis 37]

20 (K) And Joseph’s master took him, and put him in the prison, a place where the king’s prisoners were confined; and he was there in the prison.[Genesis 39]
In the next week, during Hanukkah, light dawns for Joseph:
40 You shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than you.[Genesis 39]
Hanukkah is the darkest of the dark, it uses the symbol of light to dispel the dark. all the winter solstice holidays do in some way do the same. While Christmas is always close to the solstice, Hanukkah moves to the lunar calendar. The middle of the holiday is Rosh Hodesh, a new month signified by a new moon. Hanukkah always includes the longest night with no visible moon of the year, hence it is the darkest of the dark, but in the days after, also the beginning of seeing light, just as Joseph had.
I've written before about the darkness of the time, most notably in my fable The Tzaddik of Klaas. This year was especially dark, and I felt the despair that Joseph must have felt while lighting the first candle last night.

Oddly, it was the following that made me realize something.
UIView *myView = [[UIVew alloc] initWithFrame: CGRect(0,0,self.view.frame.size.width,self.view.frame.size.height] ; myView.background = [UIColor redColor]; [self addView: myView];
Now unless you too are a iPhone developer, you probably have absolutely no idea what I just wrote. I didn't two months ago. It is code to turn your iPhone screen red. Back in September, I started a project, a microscope camera app for work. The idea was for the app to be a companion to a product my company is making for the microscope. I developed the app, but with limited knowledge of how to program an iPhone, I used the easiest way to get at the camera. The problem is, it meant I had to write code for every button myself. That snippet of code is similar, though not the same as a lot of the code Iv'e written since then. Unlike many developers who are able to use the storyboard, a drag and drop way of building the user interface in a mere day, I was stuck coding it out for a month.
The code was grueling work. It was eleven hour days almost five times a week. I got to work in darkness and went home in darkness too many times to count. The work was exhausting and unsettling. Towards the end, I was in despair.
The app is done and in the submission process. I started to work on my next one and decided to use a few things I've never used before. Researching these new things, I was amazed how easily I understood them. Many of them used the same code I used for the red iPhone above. It was a clear as a sunlit day -- I understood them perfectly.
That shocked me, but it also was a feeling of enlightenment. I thought of Joseph and this time of year as I looked out to the street with all the people rushing about getting ready for the holidays. Joseph we are told started out as a real brat. Rabbinic tales in the Midrash make him out to be even worse than the braggart the biblical text does. Yet he changes so that Pharaoh would trust him with his kingdom. Maybe it was the darkness of the pit and the prison than changed him. Like I learned programming code, Joseph had to get through the despair to become cheerful enough to be of help to Potiphar and Joseph's jailer. That got him to be viceroy of Egypt.
The solstice holidays have always been at their root about getting though that dark despair of the season. The early church fathers and the Rabbis of the Talmud had a similar problem: people would celebrate the pagan holidays of Kalenda/Saturnalia and of the resurrection of Mithras, because getting through the dark is a deep human need. There is a story in the Talmud [Avodah Zarah 8a] that Adam just after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden was the first to be afraid in this darkness, what to him was the end of the world. When things got lighter and he celebrated. Both the rabbis and church fathers had to find a way to frame the solstice in their own terms. The church took the resurrection of a sun god Mithras and changed into the birth of the Son of God, who would be resurrected. The rabbis took the anniversary of the rededication of the Temple by the first religious zealots in history who invited Romans into Israel and illegally sat on the throne of Israel,(the Rabbis hated the Maccabees for those reasons) into a holiday of a miracle of light at the time of greatest darkness in the temple. After the solstice or the re-emergence of the new moon, we know we will live through the cycle one again, and into a successful year, like Joseph and my programming knowledge, into the light of success.
May your season, whatever you celebrate, be filled with light.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Noah 5773: The Tower of Babel and the App Store

There is more to the world than the United States. That should be obvious, but events this week floored me into realizing it. What floors me more is that the very liberal, open-minded person that I thought I was could ever make that mistake.
This week’s Torah portion has two known stories, and that second one dovetails into my current thoughts so well: God becomes dissatisfied with all flesh on the earth, and thus plans to destroy them, saving one family, that of Noah, and a handful of animals. In the wake of the destruction that follows, God promises not to try that stunt again, using a rainbow for a contract. Noah, with a bad case of Post-Traumatic Stress, gets drunk and stupid. After the unpleasantness of this incident, a few more generations are born. With only a rainbow as a contract, these later generations don't completely trust God. They decide to make a tower to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. 6 And the LORD said: 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they purpose to do. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city.[Gen 11]
Something about these verses interests me. God plans to confound their language, and instead scatters them. The text never say, that the people working on the tower first had their language changed and then were scattered. Genesis 11:9 seems to fill in that missing piece:
9 Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
I’m not sure they weren’t simultaneous acts. I’d go as far to say God confounded language by scattering people. We are limited by our perceptions, and even more by our physical senses. These limitations create a situation where we tend to think locally. What is outside our local sphere of perception is ignored, the lesson I learned this week.
Among the other things I do, I’m a budding app developer. A friend of mine who is a public health educator had an idea for a counter for smartphone which would count the number of time one would wash their hands. I decide to explore the idea, and for the various festivities around the globe associated with Global Hand washing Day on October 15th, I’d give away the app as an educational item. I wrote the Handwashing Counter in about a month, and got it into the Apple App Store on October 11th. Unfortunately, as of this writing I haven’t heard from my friend, so I assume she never promoted the app.
The marketing guru Seth Godin calls writing apps a sucker’s bet. The world is full of apps already. For you to be found in the top ten is not likely. If you aren’t in the top ten, you won’t make all that money you thought you would. I’m not making any money at this to be sure -- I’ve sold about 130 of my paid apps in the 8 months they have been in the App Store. I did not expect a lot from the hand washing app given my main promotional never happened. A week after introduction, there have been over 130 downloads of Handwash Counter, the most I have ever had for that period of time. There are now more downloads in a week than all the paid apps I have ever sold. But what got me was this: it was downloaded in 34 countries, yet only a quarter were in the U.S.
It was a shock to me, one that has got me thinking. The market is not the United States, it’s everyone else too. I had been thinking about one place, I was thinking local, when what I should have been doing is thinking global. God’s trick of making me distant from others got me. I did an analytics check on this blog and the numbers are extremely different. Two thirds of my shlomosnewdrash hits are US based. This blog is a lot of English. The average entry is about 1200 words. The Handwashing Counter app has very little in comparison. With a few localization changes, the app works anywhere. I’m planning to improve that. I’m going to add more graphics to the app in its next version, because I can see the less words, the better.
God split us up at Babel the story goes. Being too far away to talk or communicate meant variation came into the picture. In time that variation became different languages. But what happens when that barrier of distance starts to break down? A tweet I send right now is visible anywhere on the planet in a few seconds. We still have language barriers of course. The 18% of downloads by China and Russia require those users to know a Latin alphabet just to use the app. Yet 75% of my downloads was from outside the US. The Internet connects lot of people. With cell phones being the most common way in even developing countries to communicate, smartphones with web browsers are slowly becoming common in the most unlikely places. We are getting closer to all having a link to everyone else, if only we had a common language again.
Thirty years ago, Steve Jobs took some ideas from Xerox, whose executives thought it was not a profitable avenue for their company, and built an icon-based computer. The Macintosh led to the icons found in every program and app we use today. The idea that ancient languages had, of using pictograms as visual language, returned. In doing so it became so much closer to a universal language again. Those icons, buttons and sliders that make up my apps are still easy ways for people to understand things. It is a simple language. That I can transmit that anywhere is quite miraculous.
There is a bit of programming I do, actually mandated by Apple, known as delegates. Two parts of a program don’t talk to each other. In order to get them to talk, I have one program part, known as a class, have a requirement of what it thinks is communication, and the other class to do that part. If I want the communication both ways both classes need to have requirements and both need to make part of their code that requirement.
Babel was the time when we stopped communicating and started talking. We forget we need to be part of each other and know what that part was. We stopped having delegates to each other. The program, the building of a great tower, collapsed. God could have spread us half an inch apart from one another, but if we lose our ability to connect, we lose our ability to communicate. Even with the same vocabulary and grammar we can be talking different languages. This week I have hope we can connect. A little app showed me there is hope we can all communicate.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Is Religion A Good Thing?

Is religion a good thing? For the last few years, it has been a question that seems to loom over many of us. There definitely are sides. There are atheists and religious fundamentalist positions vying for their one Truth, and there are many of us stuck in the middle. In the last few years, fundamentalism has risen its ugly head, not just to dictate to their congregation but force their view as the law of the land.

 This is not the first time. Such corruption is as old as the Bible. One story is of course the story of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel and the Prophet Elijah. In their quest for an institutional religion, the king and queen massacre prophets, and Elijah has a price on his head. On the run, he heads south and ends up in a cave on Mount Sinai. Like Moses before him, Elijah gets to be in the presence of HaShem on the mountain:
And He said: 'Go forth, and stand upon the mount before HaShem.' And, behold, HaShem passed by, a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before HaShem; but HaShem was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but HaShem was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but HaShem was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' [I Kings 19]
Many many years ago a guy named Isaiah, inspired by God was angry about a corrupt priesthood. Isaiah cries out in the name of God:
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith HaShem; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations-- I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith HaShem; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
The sacred ritual had become mere rules, devoid of their meaning, static and unmovable. While there were times they listened under Jeremiah, the priesthood and the kings remained corrupt. The priesthood died at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar's army, but in the exile that followed, God was with the people. Jesus and his disciples was angry about a corrupt priesthood (actually political appointments from Rome). While they counted Cohanim among their numbers, The Rabbis of the Talmud also bristled at the travesty that the Temple had become. The Talmud [Gittin 56a-b] makes some rather remarkable statements in the story of bar Kamza and the destruction of the Temple. First, ignoring hospitality even to one’s enemies, leaving them embarrassed, destroyed the temple: The second was fundamentalism destroyed the temple.
Rabbi Yohanan said, “The discretion of Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas destroyed our House, burned ourTemple, and exiled us from our Land.”
The fundamentalist rejects diversity by believing only the static perception of someone else is the whole and entire truth. By this view one can not believe or even tolerate anything outside their truth, nor does their truth change and evolve. They do not acknowledge that there may be other truths for other people. The truth is not just the truth for them but must be the law of the land. It must be enforced by Earthquakes, fire and wind. To the fundamentalist, the Infinite One which each of us humans can only understand in limited terms can only be described in one way, not as many as the number of people on the Earth or stars in the sky.
The story in Gittin continues with Rabbi Yohanan b. Zakkai faking his own death to be carried out of Jerusalem, meeting with the Roman general Vespasian and essentially trading the old religion of Jerusalem for an academy at Yavneh and rabbinic Judaism, changing everything to hear the still small voice away from the corrupt institution. In the loss of everything, The Still Small Voice accompanied Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism wherever they ended up after the destruction of the Temple and Priesthood.
HaMakom is the omnipresent. The Divine is in all things, and it takes those who honor and respect that fact to keep and grow the holiness in the world. I am and know of many people who I will refer to as Benei Shechinah, literally children of the Divine Presence, people who believe in a greater power that can manifest itself in the world around us. We believe in God, but may not believe what God is exactly the same way, nor do we completely agree on how to serve God, or even if service is what we are supposed to be doing. What we can agree on is that the Divine calls to each of us in different ways. Those of us who agree enough alike to the questions “What is God” or “What does God want of us?” may form a community, both small and big, to grow together in their answers to those questions, or in finding new questions about those answers.
The Benei Shechinah are increasingly uncomfortable and questioning of what their greater communities, their religions, are doing in the name of God. Religions more often seem to take fundamentalist positions, or just acting corruptly and going against some the most important agreed on answers to the questions of service to God: caring for other human beings. Religion has become as Isaiah rails, and Jesus famously quotes:
Thus says HaShem of hosts, the G-d of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Don’t trust in lying words, saying: 'The temple of HaShem, the temple of HaShem, the temple of HaShem, are these.' But if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if you thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor; If you oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt; Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Here, you trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye have not known, Then come and stand before Me in this house, whereupon My name is called, and say: 'We are delivered', that ye may do all these abominations? Is this house, whereupon My name is called, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Hey, I, even I, have seen it, says HaShem.[Isaiah 7]
Organizations, interested mostly in their own survival, both in socially and financially have never been good at this. They get bogged down in rules, cannot hear the still small voice in the Thunder and Fire and Earthquakes of their rules and enforcement. They consistently give false witness, worshipping the false Idols, the Baal of Money, and marketing false prophets for profit.
I look to the biblical prophets, and the history of religion in the times after the prophets. Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah all look to the institutions of the land, the kings and priesthood and condemn them for corruption and for not doing what is the most important things: care for other people, especially those people who are strangers widows and orphans, those who cannot care for themselves without help. Yet time after time, the greater institution fails in this. Survival of the fittest is not holy, Atlas shrugging is the act of a pagan god, though institutions fall into the trap repeatedly. The prophetic books end with the destruction of the Temple, and exile to another land. Yet God goes with the people. Many of the thinkers of the first Century Israel were just as fed up with the corruption of the Second Temple practices, for very much the same reasons. The Temple became a profit center for the rich and powerful, not a prophet center. In Christianity, Jesus and his disciples had lots of problems with this system. So too in Jewish thought did the Rabbinic Mןnd. While the Tannaim of Talmud did preserve a lot of tradition of Temple Practices, they had no problem letting it crumble and be replaced by Rabbinic Judaism -- which has survived longer than Temple Judaism ever did.
Rabbinic Judaism, where prayer and study replaces sacrifice, has its origins in Biblical times. The centralization of all sacrifices in the Temple and destroying the high places, the Bamot, had an unintended effect. People couldn't afford the the time or money to come to Jerusalem frequently -- so they started studying and praying instead. The institution was replaced by the community. By the time of the destruction of the Temple, this was a common practice, coming together in small prayer communities instead of the mass institution and spectacle of the Temple sacrifice. Our smaller prayer communities, the synagogue, church or prayer circle, emerged from these original communities.
Some grew into larger organizations. There are advantages to larger organizations. There can be a consistency of message over many smaller communities. There can also be a bigger force of message and action when many people band together. Yet there is an even bigger chance of depersonalizing the Benei Shechinah’s diverse, personal witnessing of the Holy One. There is an even bigger, and fallacious idea that the survival of the organization, of the religion, is paramount to the the survival of the small communities and the individuals within them. Biblical precedent is clear here: the first and second Temples were destroyed, and with them the priesthood and sacrifice system. Judaism survived both, and in the ashes of the Second Temple, Christianity arose as well. The Shechinah will abandon the religion and it capricious rules made by humans, but The Shechinah does not abandon any of her children.
We are once again in a time where we see so many counter examples of “love thy neighbor.” People often treating the widow, orphan and stranger with cruelty instead of kindness in the name of religion and the Baal of economic necessity. There are many who are obsessed with what they would call Sodomy, that brutal force is necessary to suppress it, instead of believing what both Isaiah 7 and Genesis Rabbah make clear: the sin of Sodom was to treat the stranger, and indeed everyone, with evil intentions, not homosexuality. Sodomites were rapists, and would rape anyone, any way on sight, not care to the needs of the stranger or the weak. It is not the sin of those referred to in one small verse in Leviticus 18:22. The sin of Sodom, found dozens of times in the Bible, is the core sin of many fundamentalists today. Their religion stands on oppressing the weak. Their religions stands on oppressing women and denying the status of human being to GLBT people within and outside their community.
Yet, this is the voice of some institutions and religions -- there are others who have different views. Even more so the still small voice in the small communities of God, the Kehillat HaShem, who may even associate with a institution, work towards the goals of seeing the Divine in all things and all people, then act on that with a respect and goodness. It is not the big organization that will bring about the will of God and Tikkun Olam. It is the small community, as it was in days of old.
The Talmud [Sanhedrin 38 a] Gives the greatness of God being compared to to a king who mints his own coins:
Our Rabbis taught: [The creation of the first man alone] was to show forth the greatness of the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. For if a man mints many coins from one mould, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned all men in the mold of the first man, and not one resembles the other
On each coin is an image of the king and all are the same. But God mints coins in his own image, and yet no two are the same. We are God’s currency each witnessing and completing Creation differently. We are all unique and holy, but when we get together as a group holiness increases. As the Perkei Avot [3:3]tells us that for three to eat and talk of Torah, The Holy One Joins them at their table. Community is important and does makes us stronger, and creates a synthesis -- a presence of God -- that one person alone cannot manage.
Religion is a dressing of organization over our servitude to God. There is no word for religion in ancient Hebrew, -- it is an alien term to scripture, never mentioned. Religion is neither bad or good -- but its institutions, in their desire for self-preservation may lose their way, and often end up corrupt and evil. As thought they are prophets, It is up to individuals and the smaller communities who might be under the umbrella of a religion to stand up and make there voice and action known, for like the Temples before it, the institution will fall, but the Divine Presence will accompany her children wherever they journey.
As Elijah found out on Mount Sinai, the thunder and fire of religious institutions is not where God resides, but in the still small voice within the practitioner. To listen to the still small voice is not enough, we need to get together with others. Let us share our still small voices in community and heed them in doing gemilut hasidim, good works, in our selves, in our community, for the poor, the oppressed, and for our world.
It takes the individual to truly believe, not the organization. It is good to have a community who share experiences and ways of experiencing and bringing Ribbono Shel Olam more into the world in their own ways, like helping the widow orphan and stranger in their midst. Like Elijah, we may have the whole world, government, and priesthood after our head. But we do not listen to their thunder, fire and wind, because God is not there. We together listen instead to The Still Small Voice, for there is where הקדוש ברוך הוא The Holy One Blessed be sHe, really is.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Sukkot 5773: Is the Simple Life Complex?

Since I was about five years old, I've been involved in building a sukkah. My family did not have our own in our own yard, but we did put together every year a sukkah in the parking lot of our synagogue. Every year my dad led the congregational  effort, and came up with a new design each time. In Rochester, New York Sukkot was not just when the leaves fell but  the sun would hide behind clouds until sometime in late spring. Often there were a few snowflakes in the air, though it was never an accumulation. Building that sukkah every year is one of my fondest childhood memories.

That memory surfaces every year as I now build sukkahs along with my congregation. there is a holiness about making a sukkah that I don't find in many rituals, it is also one which I do the most in joy, no matter what the ever unpredictable Autumn weather brings.

Only five days prior to Sukkot we read about a sukkah in the Yom Kippur Mincha Haftarah. Jonah makes one to see what happens to Nineveh. The roof leaks light and heat of the sun burns him. Only the gourd gives him comfort, which promptly dies the next day.  IN other biblical stories, At the town of Sukkot Jacob builds a house for himself and builds sukkot for his cattle, naming the town.

We also have the סכת שלמך the shelter of peace from the liturgy.  In English we might call this a booth or a hut.  Hebrew’s verbal counterpart to Sukkah(סכה) is Sachach(סכך) a word meant to overshadow, screen or cover. Our sukkot screen or shadow us. The Talmud of  Sukkot begins the tractate by stating that if there is more sun than shade coming though the sukkah’s roof, it is not a valid Sukkah. Yet it is not a complete covering and must be made of plant material.

 While I was sitting in the sun on Brannake Beach on the Island of Kauai, a local family put up a portable tent in about fifteen minutes. I had some interesting conversations with them, but I was rather interested in their point of view as locals about being out in the sun and being on the beach. The point of the tent was to keep the blazing sun out while able to see everything in this beautiful place. It may not have been a sukkah, but it was doing the same thing -- keeping the sun out, but let them see the sea turtles swimming by, the crashing wakes against the rocks, the surfers riding a wave towards the shore.

The sukkah has a simple purpose. It’s supposed to be a simple booth. But when we put together the sukkah this year at my congregation, it took hours, not the fifteen minutes of the well-engineered popup tent. The complexity of the task is in fact amazing. It may be a simple hut but takes a good chunk of Talmud to describe its building.

My life is complex. Lately, I’ve begun to simplify things. I’m thinking about life in an idealized sukkah, the simple shelter, kind of way. I started to think about simple around the time of another Harvest festival, Shavuot, when I was told to pack up my office for the remodel of the offices at work. I realized I had a lot of stuff to pack. My office was crowded with stuff. For most of the summer, I was in a temporary location, either in another part of the building or in my own office, sharing it with others who offices were being remodeled.
There was a lot of stuff I shoved into boxes. As I unpacked however, something extraordinary happened. I started to not put things back, but throw them away or donate them.  I realized in my office and in my home how much stuff I had accumulated.

Some people are good at accumulating things -- they have problems throwing them away. I’m not not talking about hoarders here, just people who have a hard time getting rid of something. They reason the stuff might  be of use later. I’m one of those. In what I do there times that is a very good strategy.  But many times it is not.

Complexity in my life often come from collecting things and not letting go of it. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that is true of. Some of my things, as I mentioned in my Yizkor Drash, are hooks to memory, and cannot  be thrown out because I want to remember my mom through some of her stuff. There is my artworks and sculptures, there to remind me that I can accomplish things. And there is my book collection, a reference library on several topics I’m involved in: Programming, Web design, Jewish studies, Educational Psychology, Business, Science, and Regulatory Affairs.  That’s just the stuff I have reason to have in my office. There is also stuff I’m not quite sure why it is there.  I just ignore it like it is invisible. That would be the problem stuff.

This week, I stand in a sukkah. Everything is so simple. There is a table and I eat. I shake a lulav and etrog. So much like the way I’d like my office to be -- simple. In my dreams, I sit down in my office and I work on one thing until it is done. How nice it wold be but that is far from the truth. Looking out of that tent on the beach in Kauai, and looking out of the sukkah, I realize life isn’t simple. Outside the shade of  simplicity that is the sukkah is a complex life -- it can’t be avoided. Like the sun coming trough the windows of my office,  I will have infinite  interruptions and complexities in my day and I will get nowhere in any of the simple tasks of my day.

But complexity can be mitigated. The high holidays, besides ridding of what most would call sin,  also gives us time to remove the needless complexities of our lives. The evaluation of our sins is the sealed judgement of Yom Kippur. The evaluation of the complexities is Sukkot, in living in the simplest kind of structure. Similiarly, I can throw out the needless junk in my office. All of it leads to a new beginning, the beginning of the Torah cycle and of the story of Creation.

We come out of Sukkot ready to create a new world for ourselves, one we hope is better, and in some sense simpler than the last one.

May your new world be a good one.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Post Yom Kippur 5773: Return Again

I believe in Signs from God. That I just got one certainly colors my view. That it was the same sign as I got seventeen years ago just rattles me. While I’ve written about this before, there is a bit of my old history that you need to understand what happened this Yom Kippur.

Just after my Bar Mitzvah, after great Haftara reading, I was asked to do the afternoon Torah reading for Yom Kippur. In more traditional liturgy, this is Leviticus 18, the odd inclusion in the service which lists prohibited sexual conduct and other prohibitions like turning your child into a burnt sacrifice. In retrospect, it was not very smart of our rabbi to give me a NC-17 rated reading like that. It soured me, not for any one line*, but the entirety of the piece. It shattered my Hebrew school image of Judaism, and in the emptiness left I went elsewhere of a spirituality that worked for me. For many years, into my adulthood, I was involved in Taoism and Zen, not Judaism.

Everything changed on a summer study abroad program to Rome for graduate school when I had a dream. In the dream, a Hasidic rabbi and I were alone in a room freshly plastered, yet without doors. The Rabbi told me to fresco on the walls some passages in Hebrew, though he did not tell me what. Though I did not know how to read Hebrew at the time, I began to write perfectly, and even knew what I was writing: the Shema. As I got through the fresco of the third wall, somewhere in the middle of Haya Im Shmoah, the room begun to spin, and the letters spun upwards towards Heaven like a upside-down tornado.

I had never had a dream like it. It began a search for a place I would belong as a Jew. A year later, almost in the same place as the first, I had a second dream which told me a lot of where I would go. That place turned out to be a Jewish Renewal Congregation on Chicago’s South Side, Makom Shalom.

After my return, I wondered where the dream came from. Was it all original material? It took me a few years but I had an idea of its source. In the Yom Kippur liturgy is the stories of the ten Talmudic martyrs. One of these was the story of Hanina b. Teradyon:

His death was terrible. Wrapped in the scroll, he was placed on a pyre of green brush; fire was set to it, and wet wool was placed on his chest to prolong the agonies of death....His heartbroken disciples then asked: "Master, what seest thou?" He answered: "I see the parchment burning while the letters of the Law soar upward."(Avodah Zarah 17b et seq.).

By the time I learned that fact I was entrenched in the masters of Jewish studies program at Spertus, and could read that passage not only in english, but the original Aramaic. Shlomo’s Drash was born in the period, and for quite a while I was writing regualrly.

While I was faltering for a while before my mom’s death, as I wrote last time, her death killed Shlomo’s Drash, and in my anger towards God for taking her away, just about killed my motivation for anything Jewish. Then came this Yom Kippur, when God made absolutely sure I got the point. It started on Rosh Hashanah when a friend of mine was looking for people to do readings for the part of the Yom Kippur service she was leading.Without ever looking at the reading I agreed.

I looked at it Yom Kippur morning as I was getting dressed for services, and burst out crying. It was a poetic interpretation of the martyrdom of Rabbi Hanina b. Teradyon.

...He who will see this desecrated Torah avenged will make good, somehow, my dying I see the parchment burn but the Letters are soaring to their source You may burn a Torah But Torah will not be consumed You may kill Jews but the Jews will survive and serve witness to the Genesis-- patterns of creation and the Isaiah -- prophecies of hope. [ Danny Siegel pg 902 Kol Ha Neshama Mahzor]

When I got to services, I asked the friend who assigned the reading, if I had told her the story of the dream in Rome. She had no idea what I was talking about. Not to leave that to coincidence, while I wandering about, waiting for the doors to the sanctuary to open, there was a new display in this synagogue we were renting for services. It was a Holocaust torah, one of many the Nazis collected and stored when busy destroying everything else Jewish. It has been damaged to the point it could not be repaired, and so was on loan as a display piece. On the display was the words of Hanina b. Teradyon.

Maybe some will take this a coincidence. Maybe some will say it was my subconscious. playing tricks on me. I’m still of the belief that it was all too strange to be any of that but a sign from God. Like it did the last time, I was to return. As I got my seat and put on my talit for services to begin, I thought of the song that was popular at my renewal synagogue way back when:

Return again Return again Return to the land of your soul.
Of course that was when services started with the choir singing, yes, Return again.

The song makes sense. The word teshuvah means not only repentance, but return. Nothing like a blatant message from God. So, unlike Jonah’s vain attempt at fleeing, I’m back, returning once again.

Don’t think I have much choice, unless I want more signs.

*Though Lev 18:22 would dog me for my entire adult life, cause some of the most serious swings in my life-path, and in ways I never would have imagined. But that's another story and another Drash all together.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Shlomo’s Drash Yizkor 5773

I went to visit mom in the cemetery Sunday. After driving there, my wife and I sat with her at her bronze grave marker for about a hour talking to her and then talking about her. Most of our talk centered around about how unfair it was for her to die, how unjust God is for taking her away from us. We talked about many other things as well. About an hour later, the cool but sunny day became cloudy and colder, and we decided to leave.Before I left I knew I would have some writing to do again.

Here I am in the days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, with Yom Kippur looming ahead. Like last year, I dread it because of Yizkor. For those unfamiliar with the traditions and the liturgy of Yom Kippur, a holiday whose whole point is getting in our last shot at repentance before our fate is sealed for another year. Yizkor is the memorial service, a time in the middle of all this to remember loved ones who have died. The juxtaposition of these two has bothered me for the last year and a half. On one hand we have the Netana Tokef declaring our doom and how it is decided by God. Leonard Cohen’s adaptation, Who by Fire gives some of the spirit of the Netana Tokef and a lot of Yom Kippur, a solemn, hard core fast holiday. While we are trying to keep ourselves alive for another year, we are remembering and honoring the dead.

 I remember Yom Kippur of my youth, when Yizkor was a welcome break in the service. There is a tradition to not tempt fate by those whose loved ones are still alive. They leave the sanctuary so not to hear or say words about the dead. Like most young families, our family would leave for the time of the Yizkor part of the liturgy. As we grew older first my dad, then my mom stayed to remember their parents. Last year, and now this year I stay for my mom.

Both the English and the Hebrew of Yizkor has a core word: memory. We remember someone we lost. While I said it was a welcome break, over a decade ago I began to stay for Yizkor, not for my parents but for those who had no one to say yizkor for them. I wonder now if I did tempt God to take away my mom because of that. Yet I think what I did was a righteous act. How horrible would it be to not be remembered but to be completely erased. Whether they died in the Holocaust or were abandoned somehow by their families, the dead needed to be remembered. They could not be completely erased, So I stayed.

 It’s different now of course, there is someone who I am remembering.

 In 5772, I watched her memory erased. In places and spaces where she spent a lot of time, she was erased. Visual cues to her existence were in these places. The space contained her spirit, memories of her were sparked by these objects around these spaces. As they were erased and replaced, I find those places that were once warm, cold and ugly. There are others besides me who bear the pain of her loss. It is not for me to decide how they bear it, or if by erasing her space and spirit it is so much easier to deal with the pain, not seeing reminders of her make it easier not to miss her as much. It might be an easy way to stop the pain, though far from a cheap solution, for erasers also lose something when they erase.

 It has me thinking of memory, how we have it and how we use it. I’m glad I took so many pictures on the trips I took with my mom. The ones of her are reminders to me and I can be transported back to times where we adventured together in Israel and Jordan, the Galapagos Islands, Alaska, and Africa. They are so precious they are stored not in one place but several, so I never lose them and no one can take them from me.Kiker Rock at Dawn, Galapagos Islands.

Memory can be hard because we remember what we have lost. For two reasons I have not been writing this blog for the last year. One is I’ve been mad at God for taking her from us. It’s been a matter of spite and a lack of spirit to write. There is a second reason: my biggest fan, the one who wrote me almost every week to say she’s proud of me and that she learned something new in what I wrote is gone. Remembering that and seeing the e-mail or comment absent from her is a horrible feeling. I too temporarily erased a memory that was too painful to bear — erasing memory is also my sin, and a very selfish one at that.

Yet it is one that I can change, I will have to listen to the silence, the lack of a comment or e-mail from my mom. That will always hurt. I will miss one of the two people who tell me regularly they are proud of me. I still will hear from my wife the thoughts on what I wrote, either over dinner or in a comment somewhere. That is a big comfort and a bigger blessing.

During these Days of Awe a few things happened that I realized writing is a part of me — it is part of the work I have to do. It is part of developing who I am and it is something that inspires others, as it did my mom. There are other comments on my blog besides my mom, and I have to remember that too.

 Elsewhere we are told to blot out the Memory of Amalek, it is indeed a mtizvah. During Yom Kippur to blot out the memory of a loved one seems to be a sin. If so, the placement of Yizkor is not counter to the point of Yom Kippur — it is the point. To erase memory is a sin, and it hurts the eraser as much as the erased. We inherit who we are from our parents and loved ones, not just genetically but emotionally and spiritually. If our parents hurt us, we can take that and rise above it. If our parents taught us good like my mom, who was compassion and caring personified, we need to take that inheritance and spread it through the world.

 I never heard my mom’s will — for whatever reason I was excluded from the reading, never told when it was. I have my inheritance anyway. The rabbis said that prophecy and wisdom can be transmitted like a candle. It lights another light, but does not diminish the first – so unlike an eraser. So too with the good in a soul, and that is what I got as an inheritance. It is a huge burden, one I’m not sure I’m capable of holding up, for to be my mother’s son is to risk being erased myself. But I will try. Because I will remember.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Passover 5772: Why I am Still a Slave

Tonight begins Passover, this year overlapping Shabbat. The last week has given me time to think, and the pain in my bones muscles and stomach have helped me ponder something I really hadn’t thought much about before: I still am not free.

The story of the Seder is about our escape from Egypt, in Hebrew מצרים mitzrayim, meaning the narrow place. In geography, the habitable parts of Egypt are narrow. Egypt is dependent on the river Nile. Too far beyond its banks, and there is nothing. Even on a satellite map today it is so very visible how linked the Nile is to Egypt. It may have many more square miles of land but a small narrow green  strip is where life is. The rest is desert. Without the water of the Nile there is no life.

All of Egypt is in slavery to that river, even to this day. They really cannot wander, or even conceive of it. There is only the narrow place. One can travel north and south on the Nile, but to travel east or west in inconceivable to most.

Yet a band of wandering Arameans did come from the east into Egypt. So did the Ishmaelites that sold one of those wandering Arameans, Joseph, into slavery, only for him rise to the heights of power, based on a dream and planning for the inconceivable time the life giving river would remain dry for a while. His family easily moved in and then began to overpopulate the place, leading to fear of these new eastern people. Racism, slavery and infanticide were to follow against these strangers in the land of Egypt. Not until the time of Moses did this change.

Pharaoh had dealings with all these people from the East, probably even the civilizations of the Tigris Euphrates valleys as well. But I wonder if a hardened heart of pharaoh was something besides stubbornness. It was impossible for him on one level to break his assumption one can travel east or west. Even Pharaoh’s gods didn’t travel in those directions – rarely is a temple found far from the Nile Valley. Pharaoh had evidence that there was east-west travel, but it just seemed impossible. For slaves to travel there was therefore impossible. The plagues not only were showing the wonders of God, but also trying to get Pharaoh to break out of his mindset, that people could live out there. The first few plagues intentionally attack this notion: the life giving Nile becomes Death.

I have preconceived notions where I only think along my own metaphorical Nile. Sometime they surprise me and anger me that it is still there. I find myself still a slave. At some time those notions may have been good for me, protected me, gave me what I needed to survive. Yet I wonder what they are doing now. I cannot move forward, and get to my place of freedom, away from the narrow spaces, and I hurt others being chained to them. I get angry and cry when I find myself so chained to them that I cannot move.

Many of them are chains to my continued growth, my own slavery to an internal Pharaoh. Mine keeps me from success in relationships and in success professionally. As I was reminded in of all places at my favorite morning coffee stop this morning in a friendly conversation between a barista and a customer, there are other chains to the Narrow Places that are far more dangerous. I hear in others lately, like that barista and customer, how easily racist, misogynist, and hate filled statements flow off the tongue. Such people are still enslaved to notions that will keep them slaves forever. Narrow places for them are good in their eyes: the wide-open wilderness is too scary to contemplate away from the comfort of the narrow place.

I have a tradition to read a country song written by Garth Brooks and Stephanie Davis. Sung at the President Obama’s Inauguration celebrations, We Shall be Free envisions a time when we break away from all the narrow places. I so hope for such a day, but the narrow places seem to head us toward the plague of darkness instead of the light of freedom.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Vayakhel- Pekudei 5772: Is Craft a Holy Thing?

This week’s double portion we have the building of the Mishkan, starting with Moses telling the people the last instruction told to him on Sinai: to be sure to observe the Sabbath. Then, like God first instruction, Moses asks for donations to the building of the Mishkan. Then he give directions for the components starting with the tent and working his way to the Ark, even though God started with the Ark. After Moses’ appeal the donations are overflowing from both men and women, and the men and women who are “wise of heart” began the work of constructing from these raw materials. Betzalel leads the project, and he and his crews get all the components made. Two years into their journey, Moses puts together the components for the first time, with the results that the cloud was over the tent and the glory of God filled the tent.
I haven’t been writing lately. I was otherwise occupied. Last year  I wrote I still had my teenage  dream to be a software artist. I put Shlomo's Drash in Haitus trying to figure out how to do exactly that. I wrote in that B’midbar drash about change. I’ve learned that change requires building, but I still wonder where this building comes from.
For several weeks, we have had the plans to the Mishkan. These two parshiot are the action. There is a lot of difference between thought and action, as much of Exodus shows us. Moses gets the Mishkan’s specifications solely and the people end up building a golden calf. In contrast, Betzalel coordinates and builds the Mishkan and everyone either wants to donate or help build. I have really spent decades planning and doing nothing. Maybe that was not idol worship, but it certainly was idle worship. So I decided to actually do something. On the suggestion of a classmate of mine, I put some software together, an app for the iPhone and got it into the App Store.
Like the Mishkan, the app, Rashi Decoder, is to help people get closer to God. Unlike the Mishkan, it is a marvel of high tech consumer electronics, written on the most sophisticated platform existing: iOS5. But it started with planning, and then building the individual parts, and finally putting together and testing. If the Mishkan was put together right, God would dwell there. If my app worked it would do as advertised.
The app is actually rather simple in purpose: a calculator-like program to convert Rashi script to block Hebrew. It started with a complaint from a fellow student of mine that he was having problems reading commentaries given the odd 16th century Italian script that commentaries are often written in. Like Betzal’s craftsmen and women I built this program, component by component. Unlike Betzalel, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing – I learned as I wrote each component. I didn’t think there was a voice from God helping. All the references books and videos often didn’t help much. I had to play with the code to get it to work. I had to make four different sets of buttons until I found one I liked the look of.
I’m one person, not an army of craftsmen and crafts women. I had two groups I needed to please, not God. My app needed to pass the Apple vetting process to make it into the App Store. Once posted in the App Store, it has to please and delight customers, so more people will buy it. It is the only app of its kind in the app store, not to mention the code the colors and fonts and the programing style is unique to me. This app getting sold is a very creative act. It seems like the building of the Mishkan was more a manufactured process – an exact specification like the specs for the circuit boards in my iPhone, than the artistic, creative flourishes of my programming and app interface.
The wise of heart as mentioned at the beginning of the portion might mean those who are creative and skilled at their craft. But no two craftsmen are alike. My programming is not like any other artist or app developer. How could all those separate elements come together so flawlessly that Moses pops the tent together? How can my creative work be as much of a wonder as that?
Rashi points out something about Betzalel, the man responsible for getting every specification of the Mishkan exactly right. Exodus 38:22 states that Betzalel did everything that God commanded Moses. Rashi notes that the text does not say that Betzalel was commanded by Moses but what was commanded of Moses. While God in Terumah gives one order to put the Mishkan’s components together when talking to Moses, Moses transposes them at the beginning of Vayakhel. Betzalel put them together in the order God said, not what Moses said.
To have Hochmat Ha Lev, wisdom of the heart, means that you are aware that your personally creative act is also an act of God. Even if you have strict specifications, if you give yourself over to that creative act, it will be a work of God. The Temple had three versions. Betzalel’s and Moses’ Mishkan version 1.0 in Exodus is very different than King Solomon’s and Hiram’s version 2.0 in I Kings or Ezekiel’s vision of version 3.0 in the time to come. The three Temples still all fit the requirements – all are holy.
There is parable in Mishnah Sanhedrin about a king who mints a coin with his face on it. Every coin has his face on it. The wonder is that the king of all kings mints a coin in the image of the first man, who is in the image of God. Those coins have a different image every time, but it is still an image of the God. Sanhedrin is trying to point out that we are all are in the image of God. I think this just does not apply to humans being made in God’s image, but all of our work when done with wisdom of the heart, when done congruent to the source of all, will be holy. Our own style may be there, but it will shine through as divine influence.
That holiness is in my apps. It is also in my paintings and in this D’var Torah blog. I cannot ignore it and be wise of heart. So once again, I’m back to write these weekly.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rashi Decoder for iPad and iPhone

 Have problems reading Rashi script? Rashi decoder is a calculator style app to change Rashi style fonts into block Hebrew for those who know Hebrew but not the flowing fine print of the commentators. Rashi Script is a 16th century Hebrew typeface. Like its Latin equivalent italic, the typeface was used to print small font sizes in removable lead type without chipping the type. Based on rounded Sephardic handwriting, it also gave a different look to commentaries and glosses placed around Tanach and Talmud on a printed page. The 11th century commentator Rashi was the first and most popular of the Hebrew Biblical commentators. Rashi's and the other commentator's work stands out on a page of Tanach or Talmud due to this unique looking font. Modern scholars, in tribute to the volume of Rashi’s commentary material in the glosses have named this font for him. Since this script does look different than block Hebrew, Rashi script decoder is a utility to quickly transcribe a word or short phrase into block Hebrew. Type in a word or short phrase and its block Hebrew writing shows in the display.