Thursday, December 28, 2006

Midrash of the Week

Parshat Vayechi

One of the most outstanding moments in the entire Torah is the moment in this week’s parasha when Joseph articulates his forgiveness to his brothers. It seems so noble and perhaps too lofty. What was the inner thinking that brought Joseph to such a righteous declaration? This Midrash fills in some blanks.
What are the various possibilities about why Joseph was so magnanimous?
Do these reasons enhance our opinion of Joseph or do they make him more human?
How do you understand the end of the Midrash?
Midrash Rabbah - Genesis C:9
Can then a man speak to the heart? It means, however, that he spoke words which comfort the heart.
Ye have been likened to the dust of the earth, he told them, and who can exterminate the dust of the earth?
Ye have been likened to the beasts of thefield, and who can exterminate the beasts of the field?
Ye have been likened to the stars, and who can exterminate the stars?
Ten stars wished to destroy one star, but could not prevail against it: can I then change the natural order of the world that one star should destroy twelve stars? For these twelve stars correspond to the twelve hours of the day and the twelve constellations of the heavens.
R. Simlai said: He assured them: Ye are the body and I am the head, as it says, Let the blessing come upon the head, Joseph (Deut. XXXIII, 16): if the body is removed, of what use is the head?
Moreover, before ye came down hither I was called a slave, but after ye came down hither I was able to prove my [free] birth; this being so, would I actually slay you!
Further, if I slew you people would say, ‘This man cannot be trusted, for if he did not keep faith with his brethren, with whom will he keep faith?’
Further they would say, ‘They were not his brethren but a band of young men whom he saw and called his brethren,’ the proof being that eventually he brought a false accusation against them and slew them.
Again, shall I become my father's opponent, my father begetting and I burying; or shall I become an opponent of God, God blessing while I diminish!
Now does this not furnish an argument: If Joseph could thus comfort the tribal ancestors by speaking soothing words to them, how much the more when the Holy One, blessed be He, comes to comfort Jerusalem!
Thus it says, Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God (Isa. XL, 1).

Parshat Vayigash

Bereshith Rabbah Genesis XCIV:5
R. Joshua b. Levi said: I went round to all the masters of Haggadah in the south asking them to tell me the meaning of this verse, but they did not elucidate it for me, until I stood with Judah b. Pedayah, the nephew of Ben Hakappar, who explained to me: When a teacher and his disciple are walking in the way, you first greet the disciple and then the teacher.
R. Huna said: When R. Joshua b. Levi came to Tiberias he asked R. Johanan and Resh Lakish about it. R. Johanan said: The reason is because a man owes more honor to his father than to his grandfather. Resh Lakish said: He offered sacrifices for the covenant with the tribal ancestors.
Bar Kappara and R. Jose b. Patros discussed this. One of them said, Jacob declared: As my father was eager for his food, so am I eager for my food. The other explained it: As my father made a distinction between his sons, so am I making a distinction among my sons. But then on second thoughts I declared, says Jacob: My father had the care of but one soul whereas I have the care of seventy souls.
R. Judan made two comments, and R. Berekiah made two comments.
R. Judan said: Jacob declared, My father blessed me with five blessings, and the Holy One, blessed be He, correspondingly appeared five times to me and blessed me. R. Judan made another comment: Jacob declared, I thought that He would permit me the actual enjoyment of those blessings. What were those blessings? Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee but I now see that this applies to Joseph.
R. Berekiah made two observations: The Holy One, blessed be He, never unites His name with a living person save with those who are experiencing suffering, and Isaac indeed did experience suffering. The Rabbis said: We look upon him as though his ashes were heaped in a pile on the altar.
Talking Points
This Midrash centers on the question of why would Yaacov offer sacrifices to the God of his Father Yischak and not to the God of his grandfather Avraham as well?
I am very taken with the framework of Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi asking around for an answer to this question. Of course, I continue to be mystified with the notion of the ashes of Isaac – here is another Midrash that makes reference to the phenomenon of "Isaac’s Ashes" – though we know that he was not sacrificed – how do you understand that?
More questions for conversation.
How do the answers compare?
Which one makes the most sense to you?
Why do you think Rashi selects the answer of Rabbi Johanan?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Beauty is Truth

This heightened commercialized season has me thinking. Is it my imagination or are people far vainer and more obsessed with their bodies than they have ever been? In addition to wrinkle prevention creams, exercise crazed programs, extensive menus of elective surgeries, now we have extreme makeover television shows that depict graphic Cinderella tales for all of us to voyeuristically view. True, I could change the channel, but still it is occurrs to me to ask; what is Judaism’s approach to all of this emphasis on physical beauty? Is it time for us to throw away the mirrors or schedule our own makeovers?

Though Judaism is of course a deeply spiritual pursuit, as we glance around we do indeed notice that its adherents are a pretty good looking bunch. One might say that even its staunchest devotees seem to be involved in their outward appearance. I wonder together with you whether or not we Jews have values of austerity, found so often among other religious belief systems or are we given over to the pursuit of the gorgeous? Is beauty a beast or a beloved? If we esteem the spiritual where are these kinds of ideals manifested and do they negate the physical?

We Jews are rarely accused of being an ascetic bunch; Judaism is usually described as a belief system that seeks to locate a balance between the physical and the spiritual. The question then is, are things out of balance with us as they seem to be with our surrounding culture? Are we too guilty of paying a skewed amount of attention to the corporal?

There may not be a simple answer here. Our traditional sources tell a story of the struggle between beauty and vanity, with plenty of texts reflecting a deference for the exquisite and yet a disdain for the vain.
Take the Book of Proverbs whose authorship is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon. Here we find multiple cautions concerning the falseness of physical attractiveness. The most celebrated passage of all, denouncing beauty, is often sung on Friday nights at the Shabbat table. The verse is found in the passage that is often referred to as the song of the Woman of Valor, Eshet Chayil. Here the Jewish super woman is extolled for her many talents and abilities.

She is a single handed economic powerhouse, a virtual merchant ship. She wakes early in the morning, she dresses her family, and she feeds them and the poor. She speaks the voice of kindness and is never lazy, she exudes strength and dignity. Finally, in the penultimate verse of the entire book we find a strong declaration condemning the physical, Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain; but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised. Aha, is this it? Do we Jews condemn the pursuit of attractiveness? Is this the Jewish approach to beauty; the mantra of all maidens? Shall we cast aside all mirrors, make-up and magnificence? Not so fast. Other verses authored by King Solomon also come to mind.

Let’s open the Biblical book, Song of Songs, one of the five megilloth. Here we seem to find a very different story. Take for example this short section from chapter four.

Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thine eyes are as doves behind thy veil; thy hair is as a flock of goats, that trail down from mount Gilead. Thy teeth are like a flock of ewes all shaped alike, which are come up from the washing; whereof all are paired, and none faileth among them. Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy mouth is comely; thy temples are like a pomegranate split open behind thy veil. Thy neck is like the tower of David builded with turrets, whereon there hang a thousand shields, all the armor of the mighty men. Thy two breasts are like two fawns that are twins of a gazelle, which feed among the lilies.

Quite the celebration of splendor! Though many urge us to consider the entire book as a metaphor for the relationship between God and the Jewish people, still our tradition teaches that a text cannot ever "escape" from its literal meaning. Physical beauty is depicted here and therefore one must acknowledge the worth of the physical. We cannot deny this stunning and stirring language. There seems to nothing quite like loveliness; flocks of goats notwithstanding.
Ironically, Song of Songs is also sung on Friday evenings. By the time we get to the challah and the gefilte fish we are a confused group of folks. So which is it; are we a people who scorn the physical or who adore the exquisite?
The following passage from the Talmud in no way tells the complete story on Talmudic beauty, but it is an interesting peek at male beauty.
Rabbi Yochanan said: I am the only one remaining of Jerusalem’s men of outstanding beauty. Let the one who wishes to perceive Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty take a silver goblet as it emerges from the silversmith fill it with the seeds of red pomegranates, encircle its brim with a garland of red roses, and set it between the sun and the shade. Its lustrous glow will be an approximation of Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty. Quite the sensual picture, and about a rabbi! Indeed it was Rabbi Yochanan’s practice to place himself near the exit of the mikvah, the ritual bath, so that women would glance upon his splendor and subsequently give birth to beautiful children. There must be something to this beauty, but what is it? We know that it cannot be an end to itself and we must agree that one of our greatest sages cannot be on a narcissistic ego trip. But rather the beauty of Rabbi Yochanan and the beauty of Song of Songs is the ethereal beauty that transcends the mundane. It is a beauty that reflects the inner through the outer.

This is the beauty of the soul shining through, as the great mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato teaches; the body has a capacity for holiness in as far as it a vessel for the soul. As the body performs mitzvoth and performs acts of righteousness it is lifted up and becomes holy. True beauty is the beauty that reflects a person’s soul, each person created in the image of God.
What then, are we casting aside society’s intensely predominate value of the exterior? Not quite, though perhaps we should. Instead we are reframing it. Beauty reveals the capacity for the body to reflect the pure radiant Godliness that we each hold inside. The key to a true beauty makeover may be less the product of the cosmetic counter and more the product of the soul.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

America at 350

Thinking about the celebrations around the 350th Year Anniversary of Jewish Life in the America, I wonder; why are we celebrating? Being here in the United States is a national tragedy and part of the Divine punishment imposed upon the Jewish people, as we say in the liturgy, "Because of our sins we have been exiled from our land." We are after all in exile, stationed here in a stopover on the way towards the ultimate redemption which we hope will bring an era of peace and the fulfillment of the promise of ingathering of the exiles to Zion. However, in spite of this I do think that we have two significant reasons to recognize this particular milestone in our long history, they are; Grace and Gratitude.
First the grace; the initial exile inflicted upon the Jewish people, was the exile to Babylonia around the year 586 BCE. The tragedy was almost unbearable. Is there Judaism outside of Israel? Those who had been exiled cried out, "How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?" Jewish praxis and the holy land were linked intrinsically in their minds and the startling realization of the disjointing of the two was almost inconceivable. The prophet Jeremiah who witnessed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, counsels the exiled with words from God. At the same time he provides generations of future Jews with compelling words of guidance for living in the Diaspora.

"Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel,
to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon;
Build houses, and live in them, plant gardens, and eat their fruit;
Take wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons,
and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters;
that you may be increased there, and not diminished.
And seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you to,
and pray to the Lord for it; for in its prosperity shall you prosper."

Each time I study this passage I am amazed and deeply moved. Here we Jews are being punished, banished and degraded, yet we are given a twofold directive. First, don’t despair, build yourselves up, do not stagnate. Second, the fate of your host country is your fate. Ironically, the nations to which you have been exiled are not to be objects of ire, but rather they are to be prayed for and supported. I believe it is these words of Jeremiah that served as a modus operandi for our people through our lengthy and extensive sojourns.
Deal with what you have been dealt, with grace. Though we are separated form the holy land do not despair. The fiery chariot of the Prophet Ezekiel symbolizes the powerful idea of the Divine Presence that travels into exile with the people. There can be spirituality outside the land; the Shekhina journeys together with the Jews. Sanctity can surely be found even outside the land of Israel. You can feel it in houses of worship and places of study, though this is no simple pursuit. In his chapter, Shekhina in America, in the wonderful book, Jewish American Poetry, Eric Selinger explores the ideas of spirituality and the struggle and tension of seeking holiness inside a foreign culture. I think we can be proud of our attempt, with grace we have handled the challenge, with grace we have built schools of Torah and with grace we have drawn the Shekhina down, even into America.
The second significant reason for marking this milestone is gratitude. Let us not for a moment forget the sanctuary that the United States has been for our people, from that first moment 350 years ago when a boatload of Jews arrived from Brazil. Many of us have our survival story. The story of how America was the sanctuary for our particular family seeking religious freedom.
Let me share my own story, a story of dramatic contrasts; the difference between February 1919 and December 2004, the difference between the Ukraine and the United States. On January 11, 1919, the following announcement was posted in my grandfather’s shtetl, Felshtin, by the head of the Information Bureau:
"The first warning to the Jewish population. I have learned that the Jewish population is confusing the minds of the peasants. I warn the Jews that the Information Bureau is well instructed. They will all have to pay dearly for this offense, and the peasants themselves will make them pay. You have no one from whom to expect help!"
600 Jews were killed in that pogrom in February including my grandfather’s first wife and two daughters. Brutally wounded, he was left for dead. The carnage unspeakable.
Flash forward eighty five years to the 2004. As I climbed the red carpeted White House stairs this past winter it was the image of my grandfather who appeared in my mind. I heard music and slowly identified the tune that the uniformed band was playing, Sivivon Sov, Sov, Sov, a Chanukah song. I was overwhelmed with emotion, and tears began to flow. I thought to myself, "Why am I walking the stairs to meet the President, perhaps the most powerful person in the world and why did my grandfather lay in a pool of blood? Why am I honored and my grandfather left for dead?" Some questions always remain. I am indebted to this country for embracing both of my grandfathers, grandmothers and my parents. If not for the welcoming shores of New York of the late twenties I would not be here. Gratitude does not preclude our hopes and dreams for a Messianic tomorrow, but rather it is the stuff upon which we build those dreams.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Quite the Festival of Lights

Quite the Festival of Lights, indeed. As the sun set on Friday, we in the Jewish community who had lost power were entering into what some might suggest would be more aptly called a Festival of Darkness. It became a four day long holiday of chilliness; candles being lit not only in windows, as tradition demands, but throughout our eerily darkened homes.

Much has been reported about our area’s dramatic human surrender to nature but I haven’t seen the Jewish-Chanukah angle anywhere. Maybe this is not surprising, what with our city still reeling under the Seatac airport Menorah fiasco.

As we attempted to observe what we like to think of as a minor festival, our holiday food production was stymied and our Sabbath meals almost thwarted. In place of the classic autumnal High Holiday soulful prayer, “who shall live and who shall die” the questions now were more like “who has a gas stove, who cooks with electric?” And then friends’ homes began to open. Everyone was suddenly sleeping and eating everywhere but home, and the warmth of friendship and hospitality replaced the more mundane variety that runs through wires.

But later as we walked home from synagogue Friday evening in the frightening heavy blackness, feeling our way tentatively along the tree limb strewn sidewalks, it didn’t quite feel like the days of miracles, but rather of abandonment and aloneness. Where is the light on this holiday? Cold and dark did not seem to fit with fond cherished memories of Chanukahs past.

There were some on that chilling walk home, brazen enough to point out the irony of trees and lights coming down, while candles in Menorahs burned steadily in the windows of homes that we were passing. Port Authority of Seattle? Perhaps this, the year that Jews were brutally gunned down and one even viciously murdered right in downtown Seattle, perhaps this year was not the best year to ban the placing of the Menorah in the airport. Perhaps, this was the year to acknowledge the Supreme Court decision that the Menorah, not unlike the Christmas Tree, for the purposes of public display, has been determined to be a secular symbol.

After all is said and done we will never know just exactly what went on behind closed doors at those meetings between rabbis and airport officials; but this we do know - that a graceful elegance was absent. Our community would surely have appreciated a nod in our direction. Instead, ugly images and quotes were spread by media. And that very slightly below the surface Mel Gibsonesque anti-Semitism reared its ugly head. Rabbis and Jewish organizations received repulsive hateful e-mails and we were again on alert; not the holiday spirit for anyone.

This is not an easy time of year. There are great expectations for nostalgic celebrations, tensions of tight timelines for holiday preparations; none of us found this storm to be particularly helpful in that regard. It did however teach each of us that light must emerge from inside, warmth comes from friends; that Menorah in the window shining brightly through the storm? It reminds us of a very idealistic struggle for religious freedom and there is nothing more American than that, Happy Chanukah.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Will A Red String Save You?

A friend recently told me that her daughter returned from Israel and not unlike many visitors she brought back gifts. She presented her with a red string, blessed at the Tomb of Rachel. She tied it around her mother’s wrist and told her mom that it would guarantee that no harm will ever befall her. Her daughter told her that the red string protects from the dreaded evil eye and that Madonna and Paris Hilton wear them too!

What to do when an ancient Jewish practice turns trendy? Somehow the sight of my Hassidic friend’s children with red threads tied around their wrists looks awfully different than non-Jewish celebrities sporting these suddenly chic red threads spouting all sorts of misguided new-age Kabbalah.
That you can purchase these red strings over the internet with all sorts of promises intensifies my concern.

Here is what the Kabbalah Center pledges regarding the red string, which is for sale for a sum of $26.00 from the Kabbalah Center.

“The Red String protects us from the influences of the Evil Eye. Evil eye is a very powerful negative force. It refers to the unfriendly stare and unkind glances we sometimes get from people around us. Envious eyes and looks of ill will affect us, stopping us from realizing our full potential in every area of our life.”

Let me unravel some of the issues for you. Firstly the evil eye; many of us grew up with notions of ayin hara , the evil eye. My mother, of blessed memory, confided in me the secret incantation in Yiddish that is an assured antidote to the evil eye. I was not, she cautioned me to use this incantation unless it was absolutely necessary. It was not an incantation to be evoked casually. I was dully impressed. I have never squandered its implementation, you can be sure of that.
The core belief of ayin hara is that people who may be envious of you may cast an “evil eye” upon you and in your height of success or good fortune you could be brought down by their evil vibes. Psychologically, I think this actually has some validity; bad vibes can’t ever be helpful. Additionally ayin hara certainly has weight if you believe it to be true.
As an aside, the opposite of ayain hara also exits; it is the ayin tov, the good eye. One who posses an ayin tov, a good eye, looks with a grand heart at what others have and at their talents with no jealousy, but with rather generosity and delight. Our Matriarch Sarah was said to have had an ayin tov, a good eye. She looked upon all and as we say in Yiddish she “fahrgint” them meaning she felt a generosity of spirit towards all. This is a noble magnanimous attitude each of us should strive to embrace. It is the opposite of schadenfreud, delight when someone feels satisfaction and glee at another person’s failure.
Back to the red thread; so far we have established what the red thread is supposed to counteract. Now we need to figure out how it works. Why red? Why a string? Why tied around the wrist?
The color red has obvious associations with blood, the life force and with danger and perhaps impending perils. In the Bible several episodes come to mind involving red threads. In Genesis we read that the midwife ties a red thread around the wrist the first twin to emerge from Tamar. The baby had quickly drawn back into womb and she wanted to mark the firstborn. What do we learn from this? It tells us something simple and maybe useful. Red thread was around. It was tied on the wrist. It was a mark of some kind.
The next episode that comes to mind is an incident from the Book of Joshua. As the spies enter the land they find safe sanctuary with a Canaanite woman, named Rahab who they promise to spare upon their return to Jericho. They suggest that she hang a red rope outside as a sign. They were lowered down by the very same rope and escape back to the Israelite camp. Upon the return of the Israelites this sign of the red rope will protect. No harm will come to Rahab and her family, though the rest of Jericho will be destroyed. Could this be the beginning of the protection notion of the red thread? Perhaps, but still a stretch.
Some think that perhaps the red thread serves as a reminder of some sort. You look at the thread and your remember Matriarch Rachel. You remember her generosity of spirit as she helps her sister, Leah, marry her own intended groom Jacob. It may lead you to recall her weeping for her people. Perhaps in some way your good thoughts can counteract other people’s evil thoughts. Maybe, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of Jewish legal writing to back any of these theories.
Here’s my bottom line. Those who have a family tradition to wear a red thread as do many Sephardic and Hassidic families, this is their practice and I see nothing compelling to stop them. It is certainly not forbidden by Jewish law though we really do not support most superstitions which have tended to become part of Jewish practice as we became influenced by other cultures.
On the other hand for those outside our faith to adopt this practice I think trivializes Judaism and true Jewish practices, and in some ways reduces Judaism to a ridiculous, silly shtick. We are not that! We are a very deep meaningful religion with very real expectations, disciplines, rituals and mitzvoth whose purpose is to turns us towards God Almighty, to Divine service and to doing good in this world. I do not see where the donning of a red thread comes into all of this nor do I understand Jews who traffic these practices to the outside world.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Recipe of the Week

These are recipes that are Shabbos oriented and very easy!

*Gefilte Fish with Tomato Sauce
This is an easy, warm and perfect comfort food for a cold Friday Night.
Take one or two loaves of Gefilte Fish place in a casserole dish add two large cans of tomato sauce – bag or two of frozen peppers strips and a bag of pearl onions – bake for an hour and a half. Keep warm till you serve.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cellphones, God and CSI

Though I have had my own moments of frustration with the pace of new high tech equipment, I am coming to the realization that they can perhaps tach us all something beyond their typical usages. Since these are products of God-given intellect maybe these inventions can even improve our relationships both with each other and God.
Let’s look for the positive. Embedded in these advances are some big Jewish lessons that may actually speak to our constant spiritual concerns. Here are six examples of lofty notions reflected in up-to-the-minute designs and advances. Two lessons from computers, three from cell phones and one from CSI!
1. Email Addresses: Have you ever failed to receive or to successfully transmit an email to its destination because you left out a dash, period or digit in the address? This has often been the case for me. When giving or taking down someone's address do you meticulously repeat the address, over and over, for fear that without that tiny tiny miniscule dot your message may be prevented from getting to its target? I know I do. This phenomenon graphically illustrates a very critical nuance of Jewish law; one that I have had a hard time explaining over the years.
In sessions about mezuzot, Torah scrolls or teffillin, people have a hard time with the idea that if one small letter of an entire Torah, mezuzah or teffillin parchment is erased, scratched or not accurate it renders the entire ritual object "tref" or not good. I have heard people criticize our tradition, why are we so picky? Do we Jews all suffer from borderline compulsive disorders? Why can’t Jewish law be more pliable, human and understanding about the lack of perfection. Friends, email addresses has arrived to teach us an important lesson - if the scripting is not precise, the mail does not get delivered. Precision is critical and if one letter is off it renders the entire enterprise is worthless and undeliverable.
2. Hard drive: Over and over we are told in the Torah that God is long of memory. Who can imagine a memory thousands of years long? Who can picture storehouses of recollections? Well, now that we are all familiar with the way hard drives operate I think we can all better grasp the idea that not a single action of ours goes unrecorded. Everything we do is set before the Heavenly Tribunal. Once something is performed on a computer, it is there almost for posterity. Though you think you have hit delete, your document is probably still on the hard drive. The tiny movements you make on the Internet are traceable. Your actions are known and your deeds are stored away for reckoning.
3. Cell phone Sim cards: The morning of our grandson's bris was a bit hectic. In the rush of bathing the baby, packing up the car, getting dressed, I dropped my cell phone into a glass of water. Not the best day for this to happen. However, clever son Eli took the "sim card" from my phone and transferred it to another that one that we had around, not being used.
Poof! My phone was resurrected. Now, I realize I may be out on a limb here, but as I watched him doing this sensitive transplant my one thought was a sim card is the very soul of the phone. Just as the body is the vessel of the soul so to this plastic keypad is the container for the sim card. It so hit home to me. The memory, the phone numbers the voice mail was all on that card held so eloquently in that phone. A very real visual for the soul contained in the body.
4. Cell phone reception. You're driving along and suddenly you cannot hear your friend’s voice. In place of clear words you are hearing a garbled sound reminiscent of the subway announcer in New York train system. You have no reception.
You look at the bars that gage the capability of reception and they have dissipated. You are out of range. Messages are being sent but you are not receiving them. Jewish philosophers have struggled over the years with the idea of prophecy. Who receives prophecy? Where does it come from? What is prophecy? Maimonides explains that God is always emanating prophetic truth but few are able to receive them. One must be in a place that has reception, both physically and spiritually. Sometimes you have reception and sometimes you don’t.
5. Charging those Cell phones. Many of us have a new ritual before going to bed; we charge our phones, plug them into a wall at home, at the airport anywhere because without the new charge the phone will not work. Why do we understand this idea for our phones but not for ourselves? Our phone needs life and we accommodate it. Our phone needs to get all charged up and we figure out a way to get it done. We don’t do it for ourselves but we manage do to it for our phones. We humans need to get connected and recharged also. We need to connect to our source of energy in order to operate well. How do you feel after studying Torah? Well if you are studying with the kind of people that I study with, you feel all charged up; reinvigorated after connecting to the source of life force. Why not be as efficient about charging yourself up with spiritual electricity in the form of prayer, mediation and study as you are efficient about your phone’s nightly charge?
6. DNA: As an avid crime scene investigation TV program viewer, I consider myself an amateur DNA specialist. One single cell form the human body tells you the story about the entire body form which that cell was taken. Each cell contains in it the information about the larger body from which it was acquired. What a powerful metaphor for Torah. Here is what I mean. We have 613 mitzvoth, commandments in the Torah. Some more obscure than others but all I believe carry the “DNA” of the entire Torah. Take any single commandment, in our explanation of it, in our unpacking it , it never stands alone. It is part of entire system of Torah and deeply reflects all of the morals and teachings of the entire body of Torah. Select any seemingly esoteric law. Here’s one; you must build a fence around your flat roof. We care about human life, it is our ultimate value. Prevent loss of life. Plan. Let our deepest values be reflected in the construction of your home. Let that value guide you even in the mundane activity of house design; a simple example, but one of many.
Next time you pick up a cell phone think about its soul, think about a computer’s memory, never forget to get recharged and remember if you are in the right place you never know what you might be able to hear through good reception…

Consider this idea -- Chanukah Ushpizin!

Ushpizin is the Aramaic word for guest. The custom of Ushpizn is practiced on each night of Succot. We invite guests in to our Succhah. Traditionally they are Biblical figures. We tell their story, we discuss their life and some of us even craft our menu around them; red lentil soup for Jacob, lamb for Isaac, you get the idea. What if we were to create Chanukah Ushpizin? Let us identify eight people from different moments in Jewish history that each embodies the ideals and heroism of Chanukah. Then we "invite" them into our homes.
After lighting the candles take a few minutes to announce the arrival of the evening’s guest. The guests appear in chronological order highlighting challenging times in our history.
In preparation you might do a little research of your own but if time is limited simply read the short paragraph below. Then encourage your family and friends to discuss the person and their story. In what way does their life inform our celebration of Chanukah?
If you are feeling particularly ritualistic like you might begin by an official declaration, otherwise simply launch a conversation around the evening’s personality.
Here is my list, feel free to create your own. Start with this opening declaration if you like and follow with a list of guests and a few short details about their life.
Welcome venerable guest! Welcome to our celebration of Chanukah. On this Night of Chanukah we celebrate your story of heroism and commitment our people and our beliefs.
First Night
Mattiyahu. How could we not start with this preeminent figure of the Chanukah story? Known in English as Matthias, he is father of the Maccabees. When Greek officers arrive in Modi'in with the intention of forcibly implementing the king's ordinances regarding sacrifices to idols, Mattityahu refuses. Together with his sons and other believers he launches the battle against the Greco-Syrians.
Second Night
Judith is one of our most courageous female heroines. The legend goes that she was coerced by the Greco-Syrians to spend the night with the foreign general before her own wedding. Once alone with the inebriated man she was able to cut off his head, present it to the Maccabbees who proceeded to win the battle against the leaderless army.
Third Night
Yochannan ben Zakkai is the first century sage who faced with the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the virtual obliteration of his community succeeds in extricating a promise from Vespasian the conquering general to preserve and save the Torah scholars of Yavneh thereby guaranteeing the continuity of our people.
Fourth Night
Don Isaac Abravanel who lived in the 15th century in Spain was a great Torah scholar. Though he was a prominent member of the court of Ferdinand and Isabella he opted to be exiled together with the Jewish community in 1492. He heroically led them in the march out of Spain.
Fifth Night
Sara Bat Tovim lived in the 1700’s in the Ukraine which was still reeling from the Chmelnitzki uprisings. There she began to write prayers specifically for women with uniquely female themes. The prayers were in Yiddish and used by women. Her heroism is the heroism of a less dramatic nature, but deeply significant.
Sixth Night
In the 1920’s Sara Schenier living in Krakow Poland began to realize that young Jewish women were receiving no formal Jewish education. She heroically launched the Bais Yaacov movement still alive and well till today. She started with one school and one small group of young women. By the time World War II started there were over 20,000 women studying in her schools, most of her students perished in the Holocaust.
Seventh Night
We invite two young women, Ala Gertner was one, who on October 7, 1944, several hundred prisoners relegated to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled after realizing that they were going to be killed that evening. During the revolt, they were able to blow up one of the gas chambers. The prisoners had used explosives smuggled into the camp by these two young Jewish women who had been assigned to forced labor in a nearby armaments factory. The Jewish women who had smuggled the explosives into the camp were caught and publicly hanged.
Eighth Night
Natan Scharansky looms large in the minds of those of us who were alive during the refusnik period. After spending almost ten years in Soviet prisons for trumped up espionage charges he was released with great celebration. Afterwards, when he was asked about his ordeal andhow he had survived, he spoke about a book of David's Psalms, which his wife had given to him. In particular Psalm chapter 23 which said, "fear noevil" which would later become the title of his autobiography.
I hope this helps bring the Chanukah story alive. It is a story with reverberations throughout history and a tale that begins with the Maccabees but continues through the great people of all generations who display every day courage as well as spectacular acts and who are ready to lay their life on the line in more ways than one, for Judaism and the Jewish people.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Katzav, Rape & the Torah

The very public and lengthy morass surrounding the accusations against President Katsav presents us with an opportunity to explore the subject of rape as it is treated in Jewish sources. The occurrence of rape in society and its handling is attributed among other variables to a culture’s deep beliefs and values regarding women. Some suggest that societies which are prone to rape are ones where women’s public voice is not heard and where women are not part of public decision making. Germane to our discussion it is critical to note that Israel ranks 74th in the world for female representation in parliament with 17 out of 120 possible Knesset seats held by women; that is a low 14.2% of leadership.
Back to the sources, in the Tanach, the twenty four books of the Hebrew Scripture, there are three major incidents that inform our collective Jewish consciousness and sculpt our understandings of rape. It is important to not take for granted that our canon contains these powerful stories. That they are a part of our tradition speaks volumes. The texts invite us to delve into the phenomenon of rape, to draw lessons from the particulars and to be reflective on the horrors described - they challenge us to scrutinize the past and consider our own experiences. The three stories are found in three different books; Genesis, Judges and Samuel II; each are representative of dramatically different rape scenarios still prevalent today.
The first and perhaps most well known is story of Dinah the daughter of Leah and of Jacob who in Genesis 30 sets out to meet the daughters of the land of Shechem, is kidnapped, raped and tortured by a stranger. Afterwards, in a not an untypical ancient kind of way the perpetrator meets with Jacob and offers to marry his victim and establish familial ties. Repulsed with the notion, brothers Simeon and Levi, dupe the offender and his entire town into an agreement to be circumcised before any nuptials can take place. The brothers then fall upon the newly circumcised as they are recovering, a bloody massacre ensues which is later condemned severely by Jacob.
The episode in Samuel II also involves brothers, murder and mayhem with the additional element of incest to compound the dreadfulness. Here it is Amnon son of David who sickeningly plots to take his half sister, Tamar, sister of Absalom, against her will during a modern-like date rape situation. He even purports to be in love with her. She movingly pleads with him to back off, but to no avail. She is heartlessly raped and then discarded by Amnon who after the deed despises her. Absalom, Tamar’s brother conspires shrewdly to execute a murderous vengeance upon his half-brother Amnon. David, though angry about the rape now faces the death of one son and the alienation from the other.
A number of parallels between the two stories emerge. Both narratives involve violent, passionate, action-taking vengeful bothers, reticent fathers and victimized daughters. In one, Dinah is voiceless, in the other Tamar in cunning desperation attempts to extract herself from the attack. Both stories illustrate the brutal reality of men who force, the resulting primal, visceral reaction to the act of rape and the dreadful consequences for women; what happens next to Dinah and to Tamar we are never told.
The third story from the Book of Judges chapter 19 is one of a gang rape perpetrated upon the concubine of a traveling Levite who finds himself in the territory of the Benjaminites with no where to stay the night. The lone hospitable person is an elderly man who provides them with shelter. In the course of the evening as the news spreads that a stranger is in town the natives fall upon the house, demand that the stranger appear and give himself over to them. In a not unlike Sodom scenario the concubine is offered instead, raped through the night and left for dead on the doorstep at daybreak. The Levite lets all of Israel know about the violent, ghastly brutality through an especially horrific gory medium; a punishing war ensues between the other tribes and the Benjaminites; leaving 18,000 Benjamintes dead. This gang rape scene has haunting modern echoes.
Again, rape leads to passions flaring and violence. Should these extreme reactions be attributed to an admirable intolerance towards the rape of women or are we looking at the reactions of males threatened by their loss of power and possession? Which ever the case the reality is we need some tempering of the tempers.
To counterbalance these tales, the Torah provides the balance, restraint and control of law, halacha. Deuteronomy 22 outlines some of legalities of rape. Here we learn that when a woman is raped the rapist is expected to pay damages and to marry his victim. He is never permitted to divorce her. Though this seems like a ridiculous cruel porspect, the economic reality of the Ancient Near East rendered a non-marriageable woman destitute and futureless. Here at least he must take responsibility for his actions. Though, if the victim chooses she may elect to not marry her attacker. The Mishnah later elaborates on the subject of damages and makes clear that "damages" could include compensation for indignity, blemish, injury and pain; a considerable reparation package.
The situations that present in the three tales of rape in the Bible are each situations where there does not seem to be an appropriate legal framework that can kick-in with reason and resolve. The Genesis story, albeit pre-Torah law involves a non-marriageable Canaanite man raping the daughter of Jacob, the rape of Tamar was an act of incest precluding possibilities of marriage and the gang rape of the concubine is an unwieldy unsolvable situation given the legal parameters of Deuteronomy 22. These are not simple circumstances; these rapes do not fit into easy categories, hence violence becomes the problem solving medium. But these stories also serve as dramatic ancient object lessons.
One would hope that a people raised on the mothers milk of Dinah, Tamar and the Concubine of Giveah would be a people who abhor violence and abuse towards women. One would wish that those who are schooled in the Torah of kindness would have ensconced in their very being the unpardonable, reprehensible nature of rape. Unfortunately, our ongoing chronic power abuses indicate immunity to ancient lessons. In lieu of hopes and wishes regarding the past let us watch as justice resolves with reason the situation of President Katsav and let it too join our national stories as an object lesson for the next generation.

Judith the Obscure

Sadly, the female experience has become invisible through the ages sometimes even when their role is remarkably critical. To see a significant and meaningful place for women in the Chanukah celebration, one needs to do a little digging -- but not too much. Let's look at the vast body of rich Jewish legal literature, sometimes it may reveal that which you least expect.
Let us begin by opening the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, authored by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the sixteenth century. In section 970 we find the first law concerning Chanukah. He starts with the simple; Chanukah is for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev. These are days when eulogies and fasting are prohibited, but work is permitted - except for women who have the custom to abstain from doing any form of labor while the candles are burning. Further on, he writes that women are obligated in lighting Chanukah candles and may light on behalf of the entire household.
Two interesting points jump out. First, though the laws of Chanukah go on for pages, it is women's custom that immediately takes center stage. The only labor prohibited on the festival is by women - during the burning of the Chanukah candles. The second significant halachic twist is that in spite of the principal that women are exempt from positive time bound commandments - when it comes to the lighting of the Chanukah candles their obligation is equal to that of men.
Questions; why do women have the custom to refrain from work while the Chanukah candles burn? Why do they seem to have a higher level of commitment or perhaps reverence for the Chanukah lights? And finally, why are they obligated in lighting Chanukah candles?
Now we will zoom back in time to search the pages of the Talmud for Rabbi Karo’s source. Opening to page 23a of Tractate Shabbat we find that “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that women are obligated in the mitzvah of Chanukah lights, for they too were involved in the miracle." They too were involved in the miracle? Rabbi Shlomo Yischaki, Rashi, tenth century scholar, suggests two possible interpretations to the puzzling phrase. First, they too were involved in the miracle - they too were subjugated to the Greeks, but in a terribly tragic way particular to women only. Each Jewish virgin was forced to be with a Greek officer before marrying. Second possibility; it was through a woman that the miracle occurred. This provocative comment is echoed and enlarged upon by Rashi’s grandson Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, Rashbam, he adds, that the Chanukah miracle was done through the hands of Yehudit, Judith.

Ah, Judith the Obscure! To uncover her mystery, we must do some pasting together of Apocrypha, midrash and poetry. The reconstruction of this episode may never be completely satisfying, but what does emerge is a tale of heroism and sacrifice. It is unclear whether it is Judith the widow who goes forth willingly or Judith the bride who is taken by force, but, once alone with the Greek general she feeds him wine and cheese. She waits for the soporific meal to take its effect, cuts off his head, places it in her basket and ever so nonchalantly she returns to the Judean camp. Officers, troops and soldiers of the Greek camp are left in leaderless disarray and a breach enabling the smaller Judean army to triumph. And thus the miracle was truly executed by a woman.

Now what do we see? Is this what we might call a usable past? I think so. The legend together with halachic practice has bequeathed to women a powerful symbol. Yes, we were victims; but we were also heroes. We are part of the miracle. We were oppressed, but we joined together with our brothers to fight back. Yehudit, Judith is enshrined forever in sculpture, art work, librettos, and novels. Her memory is recalled on the Shabbat of Chanukah when traditionally we recite a lengthy twelfth century piyyut, poem, describing the pathos of her wedding and youthful fears of what awaited her.

Let each and every woman light a Chanukah menorah, refrain from work, watch flames and remember. Let us see in those flames both the pain of our ancestors and the courage of their actions - both male and female alike.

Vayeshev: And so the story starts...

It begins with a brutal primal fratricide and ends with a stirring brotherly reconciliation. It starts with a story of silent distant parents and ends with the bestowal of impeccably sculpted patriarchal blessings; a scene awash with dutiful and doting filial homage. When taken in measured weekly doses, the Book of Bereshit provides us with a steady array of compelling and often unsettling family situations. When taken as a whole the book begs the question of progression and sequence. We cannot help but notice the stark contrast between the opening of the book and its conclusion. What moves the story from a place of dysfunction to a place of healing? How are the episodes along the way related to this development?
Not a single word of dialogue between Adam and Eve and their children Cain and Abel is provided by the Torah. Did they exchange words? I am sure that they did. That not one sentence and not one word is recorded speaks volumes. That no conversations are recorded tells us that there was no record-worthy interchange between parent and children. No record-worthy conversation in the Torah between parent and child reflects a deep and striking absence of relationship. Not a few readers note that Adam and Eve have no parental models; created directly from the earth, not birthed from womb, they understandably lack parenting skills. As such, they are far from being perfect parents. In a scene absent of parental supervision, one son's offering is accepted, one is rejected. The hurt is too painful to bear, the burning jealously is inextinguishable and the one son murders the other. The chain of sibling rivalry episodes is launched.
It is in Parshat Vayeshev that the sibling rivalry episodes reach their most complex and detailed level of narrative as the Joseph story unfolds. Preceded by Ishmael's banishment and Esau's disinheritance, the Joseph stories provide us with a full-bodied and intensely cathartic tale of favoritism and jealously, loss and reinstatement. That it is preceded by the Isaac and Ishmael experience and by the Jacob and Esau episode is indispensable and essential to the unraveling of the story's nuances. As this is final instalment in the sibling strife series launched with Cain and Abel, it builds upon those that came before and most satisfyingly concludes with hope. Brothers can make peace. The Joseph parshiyot in their length and depth are a profoundly fulfilling conclusion to a Bereshit launched with a Cain and an Abel.
As Joseph is thrown into the pit, precious coat violently ripped off of him, we pause in frustrated scorn; again a brother is victim to brotherly hatred? The selling of Joseph comes on the heals of a birthright sold under duress and the banishment of a son that does not belong. It is the final instalment that needs to be considered in context.
First the banishment. Ishmael is born from a liaison fraught with self-interest and conflict, bereft of love and commitment. No wonder then that he will become a wild-ass of a man his hand in everything. He does not belong and as he plays with the rightful heir, the chosen son Isaac, a danger is sensed by Sarah; Ishmael must be banished. Isaac grows up in a home from which the ill-fitting son has been cast away. Wonder that when faced as a parent with an ill-fitting son, Yischak chooses the opposite technique. Esau is embraced and held close while Jacob must scheme to receive the blessing he deserves. Isaac's affection for Esau is puzzling and to some even disturbing. Perhaps his hope was to bring close rather than to banish, to embrace rather than to alienate; the loss of a brother ever fresh.
Jacob's inelegant exchange of lentil soup for birthright is followed by the deceptively acquired blessing. For these deeds Jacob is rewarded with years of pain. His beloved Rachel is switched on the wedding night for Leah, she is the eldest daughter destined to marry the eldest brother. Jacob now the eldest by virtue of a purchased birthright and a blessing taken under suspicious pretence is married to the eldest. As was Isaac blinded and unknowing, so too was Jacob fooled. Children are born of wives competing for the love of one man; jealously ensues. We arrive at the saga of Joseph.
Wearing the privileged coat of colours he becomes a talebearer bringing reports on his brothers back to Father. He has dreams of night that reflect daytime thoughts of grandeur. This lording over his brothers lands him stripped of the coat, in a pit waiting to be sold down to Egypt. They have had enough of him. Textual confusion notwithstanding, years later he identifies himself: I am Joseph your brother; you sold me down to Egypt. Trading of humans; father purchases birthright; son is sold into slavery.
Jacob's preferential treatment of Joseph leads to no good; yet times changes Jacob. As he prepares for the end of life, blessings are bestowed upon each of the brothers. No silent parent here. Jacob unlike Adam speaks to each son and with carefully measured words each receives a fitting eternal message.
The book - that began with the arrogant theft of life, grabbed by Cain as he brutally denies Abel his right to live; he knows not that God in His divinity is the sole author of life - concludes with the powerful humble pronouncement of Joseph: do I stand in the place of God? Lessons are learned. Generations teach generations; repair is made. Perhaps Joseph's peace with his brothers begins the healing for the murder of Abel. It all must start somewhere; the end is in sight as Parshat Vayeshev begins and Joseph the Tzadik struts across the stage, we must grimace as the story starts, but comfort yourself we know its end as well.