Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Chanukah: Beyond Sufficiency

Our Rabbis taught: It is incumbent to place the Hannukah lamp by the door of one's house on the outside; if one dwells in an upper chamber, he places it at the window nearest the street. But in times of danger it is sufficient to place it on the table. (BT Shabbat 21a)

I first encountered this image two years ago, and it moved me to tears. Mine is an analytical mind, and the urge to comment is strong, but I think this picture speaks for itself.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Thoughts On Parshat VaYetze 5769

29:32-34 - The first three sons of Leah all have names that are derived from her feelings of anguish over Jacob's dislike of her. None fare well in Jacob's blessing either.

30:3-36 - Rachel gives Bilhah to Jacob with pretty much the same language that Sarah uses with Hagar: "ותלד, על ברכי, ואבנה גם-אנכי"Gen 30:3b vs. "ותאמר שרי אל-אברם, הנה-נא עצרני יהוה מלדת--בא-נא אל-שפחתי, אולי אבנה ממנה" Gen 16:2 But whereas Hagar named Yishmael, Rachel properly lays claim to her handmaid's offspring, naming them herself. It is also noteworthy that Rachel says "ותלד על ברכי" whereas Sarah does not. This too is a way of making it clear who the kid belongs to.

David H. Aaron notes that

"In antiquity, it was not uncommon for a woman from a family of means to be married with a concubine who would potentially serve as a surrogate in the event she proved infertile." (TMT Vayetze 5769)

This was the case with both Bilhah and Zilpah, and presumably they would have known it. It may not have been the case with Hagar who, it seems to me, may have been acquired during Abraham's stay in Egypt.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thoughts On Parshat Toldot 5769

25:30-26:1 Chapter divisions mislead us. It is parsha and aliyah division that show us the Jewish understanding of how the text ought to be divided. This struck me upon hearing the second Aliyah read, and the phrase "ויהי רעב בארץ" coming on the heel of Esau's selling his birthright for food. If the episode takes place in the context of a famine, then Esau's exhaustion is understandable - no rain, no browse; no browse, no deer. The hunter cannot hunt when there is no prey. Thus Esau turns to Jacob, but produce too is at a premium, and Jacob will not relinquish it for less than the birthright. If we follow the principle that what happens to the Patriarchs foreshadows what happens to their descendants, then we see a foreshadowing of the Egyptians surrendering their freeholds to become sharecroppers to Pharaoh in exchange for grain from Joseph's granaries in this interchange between Jacob and Esau.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Noach and Moses: Human beings in places where there are no human beings.

D'var Torah delivered at Temple Israel Congregational Service, 1 Nov 2008.

"These are the generations of Noach: Noach was a righteous man, blameless in his generation."(Gen. 6:9a)

So begins our Parsha, and there Midrash we are fond of which hangs on the phrase "in his generation." "O Ho!" we say, "it doesn't take much to surpass the virtue of the Generation of the flood." We are content to suppose that Noah did not smell like a rose, but was merely the least offensive item in a barrel of fish-guts. But there is more to the verse than this:

et ha'elohim hithalech noach.

"Noach was in the habit of walking with God."(Gen. 6:9b)

This tells us much, and all to Noach's credit. hithalech, is the verb halach, walk, in the hitpa'el form. This form is used for reflexive, repetitive or habitual actions, so from it we learn that Noach was in the habit of walking in the ways of the divine spark within himself. The generations up to the flood were by and large without commandments, so the person who can walk with God is one who has shown a remarkble initiative for doing the right thing without being told.

This is perhaps why R. Nehemiah defends Noach against the idea that he was merely the best of a bad crop, saying: "If he was righteous even in his generation, how much more so [had he lived] in the age of Moses."(BR 30:9) His point is that it is more difficult to be righteous when surrounded by lawlessness than when surrounded by people who have some basic laws.

He is not the first person of whom this is said, however, of Enoch it is written "vayithalech Chanoch et ha'elohim v'eyneino ki lakach oto elohim" - "And Enoch was in the habit of walking with God, and he was no more because God took him." That Enoch gets this special treatment in what is otherwise a typical genealogy passage is of special noteworthiness because he is Noah's great grandfather. When Enoch exhibited this "walking with God" thing it might have been that God thought it was a one-off, but with Noah, it begins to seem like a family trait. Thus, after Adonai decides to destroy all creation, "Noah finds grace in in the eyes of Adonai"(Gen. 6:8).

So, although we are not quite clear on the nature of Noah's virtue, it was sufficient to persuade God that there was something worth preserving, such that he commanded Noah to build the ark and to save his family, and breeding pairs of all the animals. Thus God can now unleash harsh judgement on the world, but does not have to start from scratch, but rather can repopulate the earth from the ark (tevah). Thus R. Shim'on notes in the Zohar:

"The blessed Holy One wanted to engender from him generations for the world, from out of the ark. Further, judgment could not overpower him because he was hidden away in the ark, concealed from sight. . . ."(Matt I:395-6)

Thus, the ark, which is associated with Shechinah in this passage of the Zohar, is used to protect Noah from the harsh judgement that is destroying the world. It is preserving a remnant of creation for redemption. The word used for the ark here, tevah, is used in only one other story in the Bible - it is a tevah into which young Moses is placed when he is set upon the Nile. As was the case with Noah, destruction was walking the earth, albeit at Pharaoh's behest, and Moses merited preservation. We find discussion of this protection attributed to R. Judah in the Zohar:

[Rabbi Judah said] "What does this mean: She took a papyrus basket for him? She covered him with Her signs, so that he would be protected from those fish who swim the waters of the great sea.(Matt, IV:55)

Bearing in mind that "She" in this passage refers also to Shechinah, we can observe that Noah and Moses both merit divine protection, and both receive it through the same aspect of the divine, through Shechinah. We have already discussed how Noah merited this - being th only righteous person in his generation played a key role there, but we should also note Moses' merits, the auspicious beginnings of what would be the most significant career in Torah. Ibn Ezra notes two early deeds that show Moses to be particularly righteous in his generation:

. . . Moses killed an Egyptian because the latter committed an act of violence and . . . saved the daughters of Midian from the shepherds because the [shepherds] were trying to water their flocks with the water the women had drawn (Ibn Ezra, 39).

What Noah and Moses have in common is that finding themselves in situations where the people around them are acting in ways unbecoming even to animals, they both pay attention to that divine spark within and behave in ways that live up to human potential. The importance of this is central to our philosophy as Jews, for it is written in Pirke Avot: "In a place where there are no no men, try to be a man" (Avot 2:5).

This then is our charge and our challenge: to treat each other and our neighbors with the compassion and humaneness due them as fellow creatures created in the image of God, to strive to be human and humane, even if no one else is, because only by preserving that divine spark of humanity within the tevot of our souls can we fulfill that aspiration.

Works Cited

Blackman, Philip. Ethics of the Fathers. New York: Judaica Press, 1980.

Ibn Ezra, Abraham et.al. Ibn Ezra's Commentary on the Pentateuch: Genesis. New York: Menorah Pub, 1988.

Matt, Daniel. The Zohar 1: Pritzker Edition, Volume One. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Matt, Daniel. The Zohar 4: Pritzker Edition, Volume Four. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Simon, Maurice. Midrash Rabbah. London: Soncino Press, 1983.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A thought that occurred to me as I was building the Succah

There is a joke that goes:

Q: Why did God command Sukkot?

A: So that Jewish men would learn to use tools.

There may be something in that - that we should never forget how to build portable dwellings or a tabernacle. We note, after all, that Sukkot is a remembrance of being brought forth from Egypt. The holiday is commanded so that God had us dwell in booths when we left Egypt. Its not a bad skill for a Jew to have - the ability to create a dwelling with ready to hand materials, to make homes for ourselves even as we depart from whatever Egypt we happen to find ourselves in. The Sukkah is an instrument of our deliverance, and I never understood properly God's instructions to Moses concerning the building of the tabernacle until I had built a Sukkah.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

To repair a bit of the world

I've been meaning to post this for months, but have only now found the time.

On Sunday, June 29th, my wife and I traveled with Nechama to Waverly Iowa to do some flood relief work. Deploying with Nechama is something we've been meaning to do for a few years, but scheduling conflicts or fears about our bodies' ability to deal with the allergens or the rigors kept us from it. But earlier this week, fresh from parshat שלח לך, an opportunity that fit our schedule crossed the wife's desk. She asked what I thought, and, not wishing to seem like a grasshopper in my own eyes, I said "let's do it."

We needed to gather shoes, gloves, an sundry other stuff, and we did so. We were nervous about our stamina and allergies, but I decided that dying while trying to make some people's lives a bit better would be better than keeling over at my desk. So we got up at 5:30 on a Sunday morning and rendezvoused at the Sabes JCC with the Neshama van which took us down to Waverly. The van stopped at a Dunn Brothers in Owattana, MN so we could all get coffee and breakfast.

As we continued down we passed through some wind farms. The windmills were tall with beautiful, slender, blades that spun slowly in the breeze. They fascinated us, like some graceful three-armed creature dancing in the the wind. One could imagine meditating whilst staring at them in deep contemplation - as one might meditate with a flame.

The work that awaited was the result of the cedar river flooding its banks. Much of the downtown had been under water, but stores were back in operation when we arrived. Waverly seemed like a creature awakening, life spreading to the various parts of its body. We were to be part of that awakening, removing flood damaged parts of the houses so that the homeowners could restore them. We visited three homes during the course of the day. From one, we removed the kitchen, from another we took up flooring, and in the third, we stripped what had been a finished basement down to the studs.

It was this last house that told the story of what had happened there. As we hung string lights to work by, water came rushing out of the ceiling. As we separated the sheetrock from the studs, we found the water trapped in the insulation. The mud from the river remained in the walls. We then carted the debris to he curb.

It is difficult, when doing flood cleanup work not to think of Noah. God's selection of noah, the building of the ark, the animals-these things always take center stage. Noah planted a vineyard, we read, and we know where that led, but what a monumental task Noah and his family were faced with! Rebuilding their homes, starting over from scratch. How easy to be taken over by despair.

And yet despair is not what we found when we arrived. We found hospitality, homeowners sharing coolers stocked with bottled water. People who wanted to work by our sides to repair their worlds.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Thoughts on Parashat Ki Tetze and Megillat Ruth

In many ways it seems like megillat Ruth is a response to Ki Tetse. The parsha deals with gleanings, levirate marriage, treatment of the widow and the ger, any whether or not a Moabite can join kehillat yisrael. In Ruth a Moabite woman marries an Israelite woman, takes on the Israelite religion, and, through levirate marriage, becomes the progenitor of Israel's favorite king. A strict enforcement of the rules in this parsha would render that chain of events impossible. Beth Kissileff, in her address to the Saint Paul Melton graduation of 5768 noted that Ruth is an example of dynamic legal tension within Tanakh itself. I myself would like sometime to count the generations from Joshua to Ruth. If they are ten or more, that poses an interesting possibility - namely that the "even unto the tenth generation" that we so often take to mean "never" may in fact mean what it says. If so, then a limit is set on this exclusion. That leaves us with the question of what to do with verse 23:4, where it says "ad olam." So why then, does Ruth merit to join the kehilla? - for the care she has taken of Naomi - she thus separates herself from the Moabite sin of refusing to sell food and water to the Israelites. This teaches us to assess people on their individual merit rather than their tribal affiliation.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

D'var Shoftim 5768

D'var Shoftim 5768

Its a familiar scene: a sea of young faces, eager to greet the future, ending one phase of life to start the next. We've all lived it, and witnessed it - that moment when the Rabbi, or the high school principal, or the college president imparts those final words of wisdom, knowing that this is the last opportunity he or she will have to inluence this particular group of young people for the good. Or maybe it's you - as your children that you've guided into adulthood leave their neighborhood, birthplace, and parental home for lands they have not seen - imparting those final words that you hope will urge them to live by the values you instilled in them so painstakingly over the years. This is the setting of D'varim, as Moshe addresses the nation that he has led out of Egypt for the last time in the hopes that they will continue to walk in the ways of Adonai.

But its more than that even, for with this final instruction to the children of Israel, Moshe is also handing the reigns of governance over to the nascent Israelite nation. And in order to do so, those aspects of governance that had been dependent on him and his special relationship with the holy blessed One need to be transformed into something that can be sustained by human beings who do not have Moshe's special form of prophecy. Moshe's role as the one who, in consultation with Adonai, resolves the most difficult cases is the aspect of governance that our present parsha, Shoftim, deals with.

In parashat Yitro, we saw the early development of the judicial system: Moshe judges every case. Yitro, Moshe's father in law, takes one look at this and says:

The thing that you are doing is not good. You will exhaust both yourself and this people that is with you, for the thing is too heavy for you; you cannot do it by yourself (Exodus 18:17-18).

And so, at Yitro's urging and with God's assent, Moshe establishes a tiered judicial system wherein he decides only the most difficult of cases. This is an instance of tzimtzum on the part of Moshe - he reduces his engagement in order to give the children of Israel room to gain the skills necessary to function as an independent nation.

Tzimtzum is a very important aspect of parenting allowing the child to develop skills necessary to survive indepedently. Wendy Mogel notes inh her book Blessing of a Skinned Knee that

In the Jewish mystical principle of tsimtsum we can find a lovely spiritual model for slowly relinquishing control over our children. Tsimtsum means "contraction of divine energy." Originally everything was God. God filled up the entire universe. But in order for one thing to exist, something else has to withdraw. So in order to make a place for the world, God had to withdraw a bit.

At first God stayed close by us, his new and vulnerable creations, to provide help as needed. When we were trapped by the Egyptians, God provided plagues; when we needed to escape quickly, God parted the Red Sea; when we were hungry in the desert, there was the miracle of manna from heaven; when we were thirsty, God provided water from a rock. God was a day by day, sometimes minute by minute, miracle maker. Later as we matured and were able to manage on our own, God withdrew further and made fewer miracles. Left to our own devices, we humans took a lot of false steps. But we learned from our mistakes and became a resilient people, strong enough to endure for more than three thousand years. (Mogel, 92)

While Mogel emphasizes God's role as parent, it is clear that God and Moshe together comprise a parenting team. We see this most clearly in the matter of the golden calf, where God complains to Moshe saying "your people, that you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted ruinously"(Exodus 32:7) to which Moshe counters "Adonai, why does your anger wax hot against your people, that you have brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?"(32:11) In this bickering between God and Moshe we see the paradigmatic parental response in which each parent says to the other "look what your child has done." Thus we see that not just God, but Moshe too is acting as a parent to the children of Israel.

But tzimtzum without instruction is nothing more than abandonment, and so, before Moshe can depart from the world, he must instruct the children of Israel how to carry on without him, he must relinquish that last bit of power he had reserved to himself - the role of deciding the most difficult cases - and impart the principle that guides its application: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, "Righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue." We customarily see this rendered as "justice" but I render it "righteousness" because rigteousness is what we achieve when we temper justice with mercy - one of the fundamental principles of this parsha.

The curious thing is that it is the pursuit of righteousness that is commanded. The message is that whether it is attainable or not, it must remain the goal. The question of how righteousness is best pursued is the subject of this parsha. Moshe had the advantage of prophecy unlike no other as is written: "and there did not arise again a prophet in Israel like Moshe, that knew Adonai face to face," but as we move beyond the availability of this kind of prophecy, the pursuit of righteousness relies, ultimately on human integrity.

How does our parsha ensure the kind of human integrity necessary to ensure the pursuit of righteousness? It begins by warning the judge not to recognize faces or accept bribes(16:19), it then goes on to say, concerning information about acts of idolatry or blasphemy that "When it is told to you, you shall listen, and you shall inquire well . . ." and finally a capital sentence cannot be meted out without the testimony of two or three witnesses whose own hands must be the first to execute the sentence. This puts the witnesses in the position of standing by their words. And if concerning crimes against God, which should receive the swiftest retribution, we have this level of due process, how much the more so do crimes between people demand it.

The difficult case, which perplexes the local judge and would have been referred to Moshe under Yitro's system is now to be referred to "the levitical priests, and unto the judge that shall be in those days"(Dvarim 17:9). This is the most radical change to the system: contemporary priests and Judges, applying the precepts outlined earlier replace Moshe acting with Adonai's counsel. This turns the judicial system into something that can last through the generations, rather than being bound to one person. It transitions the Israelites from what may well have been a cult of personality to a rule of law. And it designs into those laws safeguards against vigilanteism or vendetta. It assures that the Israelites have the tools they need to build a just society when they enter the Land.

And as it is with the Israelites, so it is when children leave home, when students leave school, when employees take on new roles – the challenge is to withdraw and let them test the precepts they have learned. At times they will follow them perfectly and all will be well, at other times they will follow them perfectly and all won't be well, at times they will revise them, and improve them, at times they will devise them and even come to harm. The trick is to remember, even in this last case, that people learn from their mistakes, and become resilient only through doing so.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Reflections on the Third Temple

I was raised in a conservative household and spent some time in an orthodox youth group. My earliest years, we lived in a suburb that had very few Jews, all of my classmates were Christian. Our teacher in Kindergarten had us write letters to Santa Claus. Mine, if I could ever get the "S" right would tell Santa to stay away from our house because we were Jewish. I learned quickly though, that Santa was a ruse, a game Christian parents played with their children.

At Passover, I had a sneaking suspicion the we Jews were playing a similar game - it was called "opening the door for Elijah the Prophet." This suspicion was confirmed for me when I saw my father quaffing Elijah's cup after the Seder. It wasn't a moment of great disillusionment or anything - I just acknowledged that Elijah is our Santa Claus and that is that.

Once on a retreat with my Orthodox youth group, we were studying the commandment of the Red-Heifer. Now, by this point in my life I was already a little rationalist, I already believed that whether we knew it or not there were reasons behind commandments, and as we discussed the notion of the חוק, the just because commandment, I sat there thinking "nah, we just haven't figured it out yet."

So now I think I have it figured out: There is a war being waged today between heaven and earth. On Earth, there are zealots attempting to breed a red heifer that meets the halachic standard for being without blemish. And in heaven, there is God who needs only to strike two or three hair follicles on said heifer to keep those zealots from trying to take the temple mount. And God has consistently done so.

And therein, lies the reason for the commandment of the Red Heifer. God meant, when he commanded that it be "without blemish" that you couldn't use a three-legged, or one-eyed red heifer. But He also knew that humans would set a standard so high under rabbinic Judaism, that the inability to produce one would prevent our rebuilding the temple.

I think this is the reason because I do not believe that the destruction of either temple was a punishment for sin, necessarily, but rather an attempt to wean the set of humans that He had chosen for particular interest, from animal sacrifice altogether, that animal sacrifice was not something God particularly wanted from us, but that He had to allow early in our history, because if He did not provide a tactile mode of interaction for us, we would come up with things like the Golden Calf.

So the development of Rabbinic Judaism was a step toward God's original desires for the Jewish People, and that, were we to reinstitute animal sacrifice God would greet the prospect with the same distress as a mother, having just celebrated her son becoming Bar-Mitzvah, would experience watching that son return to the use of the pacifier.

The destruction of the temple is something that we should commemorate because so many Jews lost their lives, but, painful as it was, it forced us to grow into a more spiritually focussed people, which I suspect is one of the goals of Torah anyway.

And as prayers for Elijah the Prophet, and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem insinuate themselves back into Reform liturgy I think we owe it to ourselves to ask how we can hope to remain a progressive movement if we undertake to pray for regression.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Naso: Problems of Gender and Number

I'm going to be leining at my shul this weekend, - third Aliyah of Naso. And of course, when I'm preparing a reading, I am face to face with it for weeks, and end up paying really close attention to grammar. Sometimes I get divrei Torah that way, other times I get stuff like this - stuff that bugs me but probably would not interest a general audience.

Numbers 5:5-7
ה וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. ו דַּבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אִישׁ אוֹ-אִשָּׁה כִּי יַעֲשׂוּ מִכָּל-חַטֹּאת הָאָדָם, לִמְעֹל מַעַל בַּיהוָה; וְאָשְׁמָה, הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא. ז וְהִתְוַדּוּ, אֶת-חַטָּאתָם אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ, וְהֵשִׁיב אֶת-אֲשָׁמוֹ בְּרֹאשׁוֹ, וַחֲמִישִׁתוֹ יֹסֵף עָלָיו; וְנָתַן, לַאֲשֶׁר אָשַׁם לוֹ

Adonai spoke to Moses saying: "Speak to the Children of Israel - a man or a woman, if they commit any human sins breaking faith with Adonai, and that person does damage; they shall confess their sin that they did and the damage he shall return in full with a fifth added on top of it, he shall give [it] to the one whom he damaged.

There is interesting stuff going on with gender and number here. The commandment here, regarding restitution, is regarded at "a man or a woman." This results in a subject that is singular but of ambiguous gender, being either male or female. Since the Torah so rarely specifies gender at this level, the linguistic difficulties this creates are rarely dealt with in the biblical text. It is interesting to see the kind of struggle this ambiguous antecedent imposes on the text that follows.

The approach taken here is similar to approaches taken recently in English to cope with gender which have made grammarians like E.B. White and William Safire cringe. Sentences like "if somebody wants to walk their dog in the city, they have to take a pooper-scooper" became the norm as English speakers became more inclined to use gender inclusive language. The same sentence penned in the 1950's would have read "if somebody wants to walk his dog in the city, he has to take a pooper scooper." Our scribe here does indeed resort to using plural cojugations and declensions (יעשו, והתבדו, חטאתם, עשו) before return to the more common biblical usage after the segol clause of Num 5:7a.

So what does this all mean? I think it would be retrojection to imagine that our scribe was troubled by matters of gender equity in the way that we might be, but there does seem to be a genuine struggle here to sort out what best to do with an ambiguous singular referent. I don't really know what to make of it, but it may be interesting to return to.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Haiku for the Sabbath

יום שישי נגמר
נדלקו נרות שבת
מה יפה היום

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Rubashkin's Raid and the Reform Jew

First, if you have no idea what I'm talking about, you can get up to speed by reading the details of the raid at the the Heksher Tzedek blog.

I've kept an eye on Rubashkin's ever since reading Postville. The latest is just another event in a long string of issues that have included kashrut violations (caught on tape by PETA) and food safety violations.

But I'm Reform, and I don't seek a Heksher on my meat. As long as it comes from a healthy animal, killed under controlled circumstances for human consumption in a manner that ensures rapid brain death, I'm fine. So why should I care about what happens in Postville? They're not part of my food stream, so what's my dog in this fight?

It's simple - what is happening there is a chillul haShem, a desecration of the divine name. When Jews are seen to be exploiting workers for profit, or breaking rules of the land, it often has implications for all of us, it can feed stereotypes that lead to problems. Moreover, despite the fact that I do not require a heksher on my meat there are other Reform Jews who do - after all, Reform theology, taken at its word, admits of a very wide scope of praxis. Finally, for the sake of klal Yisrael, the Jewish community as a whole, it is incumbent on me to do what I can to ensure that the Jew who does keep heksher-kosher has the freedom to do so. The chillul haShem in Postville has the capacity to endanger this freedom by creating the impression that kosher slaughter is linked with cruelty or corrupt business practices.

These are the stakes that a Reform Jew, regardless of whether or not he seeks a heksher, has in this issue.

To those ends I support Rabbi Allen's efforts with respect to making heksher tzedek into a reality.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Yom HaShoah

Many years ago the father of a friend gave me a gift. I don't know that he ever trusted his son with it, but he trusted me.

He was a survivor. His wife too. Don't know the details, but the PTSD was something his wife never let go of. One day, I delivered him food, because he was in need and he gave me the gift of this story. I only remember its climax, its crux, and I figure there is no day better than today to record it.

He was on a train headed for a camp. It was summer's peak and they were packed in. Stopped. Without water they would die. They drew lots. It fell upon my friend's father to escape the train and bring back water. People gave them what valuables they had so that he could pay.

He left the train, acquired the water, and returned with it. It seemed odd to me that he would return to the train, but people were depending on him, and the Hungarian countryside would not necessarily be a hospitable place for a lone Jew.

People were grateful and the train moved on. Death was postponed, but it only ever is anyway. They were alive then, and that was what mattered.

He survived. Sired a son. Told me this story, and I'm sharing it because that's what was wanted.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


First Night:

Friend S. Hosted. Wife M. Led. 16 People.

It's official: we've outgrown The Concise Family Seder. The term "Concision" was coined for the property of which this haggadah contained excessive amounts. The youngest, W., complained that the brief birkat hamazon was too brief, which was very heartening. Our institutions are doing well by our youth, creating a generation that is more engaged than the parents. The maggid was considered too brief, and a factual error was observed in this haggadah's assertion that Abraham met Sarah in Canaan. It served us well for 5 years, but it's time to move on. The layered Kugel I made was a hit. It comprised a layer of yam kugel, a layer of spinach kugel, and another layer of yam kugel.

Second Night:

I hosted. I led. 8 People.

Friend J. lent us a bunch of the Baskin Haggaddah. Slightly different crowd from first night, so lots of different energy in the room. I was leading this one, and we had enough in the way of students of Hebrew and native Israelis at the table to be able to look at some of the differences between the Hebrew and the English, which was fun. Then R., the 14 year old who had not been around on Monday, raised all kinds of thorny issues around chosenness, and how can we reconcile the plagues and drowning of the Egyptians with the merciful God we Liberal Jews like to believe in. So midrash was shared, various personal theories explored, a discussion of the balance between mercy and justice and she was, of course, assured that this is one of the questions that never stops being asked. The Baskin Haggadah served us well, except for missing the handwashing. Food was my low-effort lamb-packets. There was lamb from the meaty, broiled shankbone in our Hillel sandwiches, because Reform Judaism does not long for a return to temple service. B. and A. brought a marvelous Potato thingy, L. some steamed veg, J. supplied Matza ball soup and I supplied some vegetarian borscht.

Lamb Packets, per serving:

2 Lamb Loin chops (a nice lean cut)
6 Stalks of asparagus
1/2 tsp of Astringent (Lemon juice most years, but this year it was Balsamic Vinegar)
a few aromatic sprigs (I usually use lavender, but I could see rosemary working well.

Stack it all on foil, seal it, and put it in a 250 degree oven about an hour before the Seder starts, and then don't spare it another thought until you're ready to eat. The beauty of this food prep method is that it will wait for you.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Korban Pesach

Dovbear recently re-posted to his blog his ideal Passover menu. It's not a menu I would use myself, because it seems to me to be uninspired. But sifting through the comments (his readers range from left wing Reform to right wing Chareidi) I noticed a few things. Some commentors feel that red meat should not be eaten at the Seder. Others say red meat is fine so long as you don't grill or roast it. And then there are people I know who won't eat lamb on pesach at all.

The reason behind all this has to do with the notion that since the destruction of the temple, it is impossible to bring the Korban Pesach and therefore one should not eat it. Rabbi Yehoshua Weber of Clanton Park Synagogue, based on Shulchan Aruch OC 476 writes:

Today, given that we have no bais ha’mikdash, and consequentially no Pesach offering, we refrain from eating roast meat or fowl at the seder lest someone think that we are eating some sort of mock Pesach offering. (Weber, 12)

So when all is said and done, it is this nostalgia for the temple that has inspired this reticence. That it is in the Shulchan Arukh may even give it the force of halakhah. But the Reform Jew must determine for himself whether this halakhah is worthy of following. Paragraph 5 of the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 states that we do not expect a return to "a sacrificial system under the sons of Aaron." While much of that paragraph has been reversed by subsequent platforms, this statement remains unabrogated. Such a return is incompatible with the notion of a progressive Judaism. That being said, the remembrance of the sacrifices, and most especially of the Korban Pesach has moved from the Beit Hamikdash to the mikdash m'at of the home, therefore I will be serving lamb at my seder. I won't be roasting it though, but this is only because I find that lamb slow cooked in packets means that dinner will not burn if the Maggid should go long (as it should be allowed to.)

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

When you lie down and when you rise up

This is just a nodule of a thought really, not quite a post. But it is interesting to me that the command to recite the Shema "when you lie down and when you rise up" is presumed to refer to evening and morning recitations.

How odd it must be, for a night watchman or a third-shifter to help out with a morning minion and recite "who removes sleep from the eyes, slumber from the eyelids" before going to bed, or to recite Hashkiveinu at the start of his day.

The Shema itself, does not contain language linking it to the time of day it is recited, but the attendant blessings are.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Dvar Tzav

Dvar, Parshat Tzav, 5768. Rich Furman

Permanence in Diaspora

No one knows a synagogue building better than a child on the verge of becoming bar or bat mitzvah. They explore the corridors, every nook and cranny. They know where to hide, where all the best bathrooms are, and sooner or later they inevitably discover that the Ner Tamid, which they have been told all their short lives means "Eternal Light," isn’t. This moment came for me as I was poking around a small alcove in the Rego Park Jewish Center, when I found a circuit breaker labeled very clearly "Ner Tamid." For some of this congregation's children I suppose that moment came when, a few years ago, there was a power outage, and the Ner Tamid went out but the Menorot over the exits remained on. It struck me at the time as poor stagecraft that the Ner Tamid was not on the emergency power system, but even in this, there are lessons to be learned.

One of the questions that always stayed with me since my own discovery is why the Ner Tamid, alone, had such a clearly labeled circuit breaker. Was it left like that so that we would discover it, wrestle with that discovery, and come to our own conclusions before we stood upon the Bimah as adults for the first time? Was this discovery a rite of passage, a stern reminder that human institutions, such as synagogues, were human institutions, and not divine? That whatever myths we had developed as children to rationalize a light that glowed eternally, despite the fact that we knew that bulbs burn out could not be carried into adulthood?

There are two commandments in the first reading of Parshat Tzav whose juxtaposition strikes me as being equivalent, somehow, to that moment of cognitive dissonance. The first is that a fire be kept burning constantly upon the altar - this is the source for the Ner Tamid. The second is that the meal-offering be consumed as matzot. The reason that these two commandments, side by side, trouble me is that the first speaks to permanence and rootedness but the second speaks to transience.

The first time we encounter Matzah is in Genesis. The angels arrive at Sodom, where they are greeted by Lot, who invites them for dinner. He serves them Matzah. The rabbis disparage Lot's hospitality, after all Abraham had spared no expense. What kind of awful host is Lot that he just fed them Matzah? But the angels are there to lead Lot and his family out of a city that God is about to destroy. Matzah is what we eat when we don't have leisure to knead, and proof and shape and proof again and bake. It is a bread baked by someone who knows he may have to flee at any moment. It makes sense that this is what Lot would have on hand given that he could be run out of town at any moment. He is in fact redeemed from from the towns immanent destruction. Lot's family's exodus for Sodom foreshadows the Israelite exodus from Egypt, where matzah once again figures as a symbol of hasty departure.

And so we find ourselves, in the first Aliyah of Parshat Tzav, in the Mishkan, itself a temporary structure, being told never to let the fire burning on the altar go out, but not being told how to preserve it when the encampment moves, and move it must, because despite the Midrash telling us that leaven cannot mix with the meal offering because of the meal offering's holiness, the symbolism of the priests eating matzah remains an indicator of our transience.

The problem of how they preserved that flame puzzled me, and I reflected on it, sought opinions on it and researched it. In my own reflections, I imagined an ember being carried, perhaps - in the manner of Prometheus - in a fennel stalk. One of my teachers at Melton, Rob Portnoe, imagined a torch being kindled and carried, and the flame carried that way. And my research turned up a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud which suggests that they covered the flame with a large pot when they traveled. (JT Yoma 4:6)

All of these ideas share one thing in common: that it is upon us to carry the flame wherever we travel, be it in the land of Israel or outside it, whether we are settled in a place or moving between places. It would be poetic, perhaps, to say that that light is our tradition and we must keep it burning in our hearts. But Judaism knows that abstractions like that are not sufficient to maintain continuity. It takes the reification of that idea, whether as a flame on the altar or a lamp over the the the ark or the lights we kindle on Shabbat and Festivals to make it real.

And as we move from place to place we carry two things with us, the matzah, that teaches us that we need to be alert for the moment that God says its time to move on, and the flame, which teaches us that wherever we set up camp God is with us. But just as the flame needed care and tending to remain burning, just as the bulb in the Ner Tamid above us now needs to be changed from time to time, so a relationship with God is something that requires tending and attention.