Spell, Psalm and Solace

It was a glorious wedding! We’ve known the bride since the days when we would race her parents to be the second-to-last to pick up our kids from daycare.
On Sunday evening, there was lots of dancing, lots of hugging, crying, singing, eating and drinking. I was honored with leading Birkat Hamazon / Grace After Meals. Reflecting the joy of the occasion, we sang the introductory Shir Hama’alot / Psalm 126 to a rousing wedding melody.
A wedding Birkat Hamazon begins like all others: the leader announces “LET’S BLESS!” Those in attendance respond, blessing God’s Name. Leader repeats that blessing.
Then comes a unique formula, a poem by Dunash Halevi ben Lavrat (10th century, Spain):
Banish all grief, remove all wrath;even the mute shall sing with glee!Guide us on the righteous path; grant blessing from Aharon’s progeny.*
This translation (mine) echoes the rhyming Hebrew text. The rhythm of the Hebrew is akin to “double double toil and trouble….” However, this incantation is for unbridled joy in honor of the wedding couple, and bountiful blessing for them. Even absent mention of bride, groom or wedding, it is appropriate — it’s joyful! (*Aaron the High Priest / the priestly blessing)
Next morning, the bride’s family held services, Torah and all, in the hotel. Again, I was privileged to lead.
Psalm 30 is recited in every weekday, Shabbat and festival morning service. It is “a psalm of David, a song for the dedication of the Temple” that covers a gamut of actions and feelings, including exaltation, fear, gratitude, relief, happiness.
Since I prefer (and now I’m expected) to be at services from the start, I’ve prayed that psalm many times. On Monday morning, the penultimate verse resonated more personally and meaningfully than ever for me and, I hope, for the bride’s family:
You turned my lament to a dance all my own;You removed my sackcloth and robed me in joy.
Sunday night through Monday was the bride’s father’s first yahrzeit.
In memory of Charles Finder, יהי זכרו ברוך

Why Talmud?

Last time, I wrote about the what of Daf Yomi, the 7.5 year cycle of daily exposure to our epic work of rabbinic exploration, the Talmud. Just over a week into it, I realize that I left out something vital: the why of Talmud, as in “why not Tanach Hebrew Bible” or another text?


Why read Talmud? Learning it thoroughly can be a life’s work in which it would be rare to truly learn two sides of a leaf of free-flowing, often arcane, heavy-on-the-(shorthand)-Aramaic and Hebrew that records discussion among sages who lived over a span of several centuries and thousands of miles.


Ellie and I have been spending about 30 minutes a day reading (mostly in English) through each day’s allotment. Between minyan and breakfast, during a meal at home, in the dentist’s waiting room, we try to follow the ebb and flow of halacha (religious law) and aggada (parables, maxims, anecdotes) as it pours off the pages in systematic order and in stream-of-consciousness association. The text can be perplexing, amusing, enlightening, immediate, outdated, fabulous…even all that on a single page!


There are “aha!” moments. One recent revelation touched on an issue I’ve grumbled (privately) about for many years: why is Birkat Hamazon / Grace After Meals so long and encyclopedic? We express gratitude for sustenance (Torah says to do that), but why include Jerusalem, the exodus, the messiah, King David, return to the land of Israel, and more?
Within Tuesday’s Talmud ration was a discussion of blessings to be recited before learning sacred texts. First up (from a scholar in Babylon) is the “standard” pre-study blessing (“…commanding us to engage in matters of Torah”).


Next, a later sage in Israel is cited as adding a longer prayer that ends with “Blessed are You, God, Who teaches Torah to God’s people Israel.” Then, a contemporaneous rabbi in Babylonia adds the formula we know from our Torah reading blessings, ending with “Blessed are You, God, Giver of the Torah / notein hatora.”


Finally, considering that each of the three Torah blessings has merit, the anonymous editor closes the discussion with “Therefore, let us recite them all”! We no longer need to wonder how Birkat Hamazon got so long: “Oh, that’s good, too. Let’s add it!” (We rarely, if ever, remove something older to make space for the newer.)


At heart, Talmud reflects the eternal quest of the Jew: how do we correctly fulfill the commandments / mitzvot in Torah when details are sparse? The Talmud is the magnum opus of perhaps our greatest formative period as Rabbinic Jews: Following the destruction of the ancient Temples and the dissolution of the priestly system, centuries of sages tried to figure out, often in excruciating detail, how to carry out Torah dictates.


This quest is ongoing; some contemporary Jewish denominations claim to know the (only) right way while others pursue more adaptive ways of continuing the discussion and decision-making begun so long ago. Experiencing our early religious evolution through the eyes of Talmudic sages is revelatory and rewarding.
That’s why Talmud.

Daily Dose

Imagine you get this prescription: One daf q.d. for seven-and-a-half years. You might ask: What is it? Why should I take it? Is it covered? When should I take it? Any contraindications with my current meds?


    A daf a day is known as “Daf Yomi,” and it refers to a two-sided ”daf” of Talmud. (“Yomi” is daily, from “yom” which means day.) A “daf” is a leaf; an “amud” is a side of the leaf, or page. Talmud page numbering is by daf and amud; 23a = daf or page 23, amud alef or side a.


    An article in the NY Times describes one of the major celebrations of Daf Yomi devotees marking the end of a seven-and-a-half year cycle of daily learning. 


    The Talmud is an impressively rich piece of literature, filled with hypothetical (sometimes to the absurd) legal discussions, folklore, spirituality, physiology, ritual process and much more — a trove of rabbinic imagination. Much of it is arcane, some of it is impenetrable (for many of us), some of it is astonishingly relevant to today and some is entertaining.


    Even a cursory glance at 15-30 minutes a day, as many will do by reading (rather than studying) a daf a day, can be illuminating, frustrating, astounding. I recommend this piece by a Reform rabbi who is finishing the cycle on Shabbat.
    Two avenues — in English! — to pursue are My Jewish Learning and Reshet Ramah. There are many others; just enter “daf yomi” in a search engine.
    To be fair, an article in Haaretz suggests that Daf Yomi is “Talmud Lite” a

nd that such a casual approach does a disservice to this august work of religious art and to the would-be learner. (It might be easier to judge if you give it a try.)


    In answer to the questions above: It’s a challenge unique to our people; take it because you’re curious and because it’s a major goal to accomplish. It’s not covered, but there’s no cost for most “plans.” Take it any time of day, preferably at the same time each day (routine!). It will not interfere with anything else you’re putting in your body or brain, though it might stimulate various feelings about our sages of old.


    Daf Yomi has generally been “prescribed” for ultra-Orthodox men over the past almost 100 years. Recently, men and women across the spectrum of observance have taken some ownership. Se in our congregation who have participated in Daf Yomi or who intend to try it this new cycle.


    I didn’t take the Polar Bear plunge, but I am trying this one. Join me!

Endings

Most of us never hear the end of the Torah: the last two chapters of Devarim / Deuteronomy are read only on Simchat Torah morning. I’ve been in shul every Simchat Torah morning for as long as I can remember. Yet I was surprised this year by the three endings of Devarim. Yes, three endings. (Amazing what you find when you pay attention!)

Devarim winds down with Moshe / Moses conferring a “blessing” upon the tribes of Israel, an enigmatic blessing that ranges from statements of character to declarations of the future to chastisement.

Then, the book ends. 

1: (34:5-8a) Moshe / Moses, Israel’s greatest leader, dies and is buried by God on Har Nevo / Mt. Nebo. The entire people Israel mourn for 30 days. 

2: (34:8b-9) Yehoshua / Joshua assumes the mantle of leadership, and all Israel follow God’s laws. 

3: (34:10-12) Moshe is lionized as unique among the prophets of Israel for speaking with God face to face and effecting God’s might and wonders in defeating Egypt, as witnessed by all Israel.

The haftara for Simchat Torah is the first chapter of Yehoshua, the next book of our Tanach / Hebrew Bible. The book of Yehoshua describes the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land.

The transition from the first ending of Devarim to Yehoshua is smooth enough: Moshe dies, Israel mourns, Yehoshua takes them across the Yarden / Jordan River and the journey continues. 

Why, then, another ending that reiterates Yehoshua’s bona fides as leader and adds that all Israel followed the rules? Perhaps to emphasize that Yehoshua be unchallenged; an orderly succession was vital to the enterprise of the Israelite people.

And final ending?

The coda about God’s power and miracles cements Moshe’s place in Israelite history. It also releases Torah from the confines of history (later readers know about destruction and exile) and makes it timeless myth, sacred saga. The final ending also says, “If you’re impressed by the wonders and miracles our God did for us against the Egyptians, listen to this: Bereisheet / way before the exodus, God created the world!” 

Thus, we begin again.

Ekev 5779

Enough

“I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.” President Donald Trump on Tuesday. On Wednesday: “I think if you vote for a Democrat, you are very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people.”

In response, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader: “To my fellow American Jews…: When [President Trump] uses a trope that’s been used against the Jewish people for centuries with dire consequences, he is encouraging — wittingly or unwittingly — anti-Semites throughout the country and world. Enough.”

What’s next in the “disloyalty” column for Jews? Jews who listen to classical music of European origin rather than, say, Nashville country? Who pray three times a day without invoking Jesus? Who contribute to United Nations hunger alleviation programs?

Has the president just made your vote a loyalty test, or are we all now honorary voting citizens of Israel? (That idea was floated some years back by a right-wing Israeli politician.) 

Does affinity to and support for a foreign country now make one suspect? Will buying a Japanese-branded car (even if made in Alabama) tar someone as disloyal? Are we Jews — or any other “membership” group — expected to self-police, and either rehabilitate those who are “disloyal” or excommunicate them?

It seems that political choices are becoming ever more binary: Love it or leave it; with us or against us; all or nothing. There is right or wrong with no awareness, nuance, moderation or discussion.

To me, loyalty is found in the voting booth. Loyalty is found in supporting civil rights. Loyalty is found in promoting fairness in all aspects of society. Loyalty is to a government and the people’s welfare it is charged with promoting. Loyalty is discussing issues and seeking solutions through compromise for the greater good. 

Loyalty is found in the Jews who currently make up about 1% of the American military. Loyalty is found in defending — in whatever ways one chooses — the right, the privilege, of Americans to vote and to worship as they please without the fear of being marked as disloyal.

We have been made to wear yellow stars. Enough.

Directory of Senators

Directory of Representatives

va’etchanan 5779

Tu b’Av

Destruction, lamentation and exile — the major (in minor mode) motifs of Tish’a b’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av. Both of the ancient Holy Temples were destroyed on that day, and many other calamities in Jewish history are pegged to 9 Av.

But come the full moon in the middle of the Jewish calendar month and there’s another kind of commemoration: Tu b’Av, the 15th of Av!

Here’s a bit about 15 Av from the Talmud (c. 500 CE):

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: “There were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur.” The [anonymous editor] asks: “Granted, Yom Kippur is a day of joy because of pardon and forgiveness, and…it is the day on which the [second] pair of tablets were given [to Moses]. However, what’s with the fifteenth of Av?” (B Taanit 30b)

Then the sages go to town, attaching to 15 Av everything from Biblical-era permission to marry someone of a different tribe to a miracle related to those killed in the 132 CE Bar Kochba rebellion; from the seasonal changing angle and duration of sunlight to love.

Love? Love! The Mishna (edited c. 200 CE) explains:

[As on Yom Kippur afternoon, on 15 Av] the [unmarried] daughters of Jerusalem would go out in [borrowed] white clothes…so as not to embarrass one who did not have her own white garments.…[The women] would dance in the vineyards [where young men looking for a mate would congregate.]  And what would the women say? “Young man, please lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself for a wife. Do not set your eyes toward beauty, but set your eyes toward a good family…]

Or, “pick me!”

The origin of 15 Av is obscure, but its timing is genius. We’ve just spent three weeks descending into Tish’a b’Av — a day of mourning and lamentation — through deprivation, penitential texts, biblical readings and fasting. And less than a week later, on the full moon (with all its portents), we seek to build the future of our people. 

In modern Israel, 15 Av has become something of a Day of Romance, likened to Valentine’s Day. Isn’t it sweet that a focus on romance, love and marriage is a bridge from the agony of exile to the promise of a new year just six weeks later?

15 Av begins tonight and ends at Shabbat. Need I say more?

B’haalotecha 5779

Second Chances

The Jewish Day of Second Chances is a Torah-mandated opportunity. If you were unable to observe the Pesach sacrifice at the original time, say because you were traveling or were ritually impure, you are expected to participate in the ritual one month later. That day is known as Pesach Sheini/Second Passover; it generally falls in mid-spring. (There is no provision for the person who is traveling or is ritually impure again on the second date….)

Why are we talking about a Pesach-related opportunity now, at the summer solstice? This week’s Torah reading (b’haalotecha) tells the tale: some men who were impure from contact with a corpse wish to fulfill the Pesach obligation but are not permitted to do so. They pose the problem to Moshe and Aharon. Moshe takes it to the Chief Justice, Who rules that they get a second chance one month later. The ritual must be carried out as it would be on the original date.

This is a religious gift that today is not connected to a ritual, which means we get to determine how to observe the day. It isn’t a recap of High Holy Days, with the idea that we must atone for person-to-person sins before seeking atonement for person-to-deity transgressions. What a great opportunity for us to grasp Torah and make it ours!

How do we take ownership of second chances? Is it a time for the equivalent of secular new year’s resolutions? Or a day to look forward with resolve; after all, spring is in full bloom and is there a better season for optimism? 

It’s really up to us. Though we really don’t need to wait until a specific day next year to give ourselves permission to take second chances. We should allow ourselves that opportunity whenever we need it, as long as we don’t try to repeat exactly what led us to the point of needing to take a second chance. If we don’t learn from our mistakes….

The comedian Sam Levenson wrote: “You have to learn from the mistakes of others. There isn’t enough time to make them all yourself.”

Bereishit 5779

What a Story!

Simchat Torah morning, after hakafot (a couple of which were done with our preschoolers carrying toy Torahs and flags, clutching lollipops) and Torah reading, the scrolls returned to the ark…

“Thank you to the Shirat Hayam Literary Association for inviting me to review the book we just finished reading. It’s quite a classic tome, this history, legal treatise, moral guide, and mélange of prose and poetry all rolled into one epic literary masterpiece. Small wonder that it’s taken us a whole year to read our way through it.

“This is a good thing, in my opinion, since a slow and thorough reading allows us to savor the pleasures and challenges of our book. The primary protagonists — God, Moses, the people Israel — develop over time, and we certainly wouldn’t want to deprive them of the space needed to grow, to mature.

“As it has been quite a while since we started reading this work, let me begin by reminding us of some major plot points. Rather than trying to sum up the various parts in neat little packages that would effectively drain the epic of much of its power, I will ask your indulgence to go chapter by chapter. (It may be close to noon, but it’s yom tov, so who’s in a hurry?!)

“First, as I’m sure you recall, God creates the universe. Step by step, day by day, the Holy One of Creation speaks into being the cosmos, the earth, flora and fauna, and humans. Just like that, and in only 31 sentences!

“Before I continue with chapter 2, I want to thank Philip Hollander for reminding us that this great work already has a sequel, as just a short while ago he read to us the first chapter of that work, the Book of Joshua. Now, back to the tales of creation.…”

At this point, the reviewer was, um, encouraged to abandon the podium and return to his seat as it seems that some members of the book club were indeed ready to move on to lunch. Perhaps he will be invited back next year to continue his review…

Shabbat shalom ! שבת שלום 

Mishpatim 5778

Seething

In this week’s Torah reading, God says to the Israelites: “No boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk.”

Simple enough, no? Yet look where that seemingly simple statement has led us: (at least) two sets of dishes for daily use, two sets of china (for some), two (or three) sets for Pesach, cutlery to go with each set, pots and pans and utensils to suit, etc., plus waiting periods between eating meat and milk…What a system! 

And it all came from this one phrase that appears twice in the book of Exodus / Shemot and once in Deuteronomy / D’varim. How did those five words get to be an Encyclopedia of the Kosher Kitchen? As I understand it, through people (rabbis, sages) trying to figure out how to fulfill the commandments in Torah. 

The meaning and context of those five words? Perhaps they refer to not offering as a sacrifice an animal still nursing, or to a pagan ritual that needed to be quashed. The reason for that Torah injunction has been long irrelevant; our forebears created from that slimmest of toothpicks a formidable edifice that is a defining characteristic of Judaism: kashrut.

It’s not about physical health. As Rabbi Paul Drazen puts it (in “The Observant Life”), “Kashrut is…an attempt to turn the act of eating…into a holy opportunity to acknowledge God as the Source and Sustainer of all life.” Furthermore, he writes, “Keeping kosher is an active, vital way to identify as a Jew.”

As Jews, we are expected to follow the laws in Torah. As Jews, how we understand those laws can be an open issue: who gets to define the correct way to fulfill God’s commandments? Is practice based on interpretation immutable? What should happen when technology or newer understandings enable us to question or seek change to transmitted tradition?

Thus we have a variety of Judaisms (per Prof. Aaron Tepper). Within categories of Jews (e.g., Reform, Haredi), there can be differences of practice. Some Hasidic sects will not warrant (much less consume) perfectly kosher meat slaughtered under the auspices of a different sect. Some more liberal Jews will eat cold salads in a non-kosher restaurant, others will happily consume hot foods that are not on list of the forbidden animal, still others keep Pesach to the letter but eat anything anywhere the rest of the year. Go figure!

We have a wide range of responses to the dictates of Torah. When we act in the image of our people’s name, “b’nei yisrael / descendants of those who wrestle with God,” I believe that it is nigh unto impossible to determine just who is living “Torah true” Judaism.