Posted on October 3rd, 2011 No comments
Today I got a request from a listserve to which I subscribe, asking that I forgive them for any wrong they may have done in the last year.
Clearly in this era of social media it was only a matter of time before repentance and forgiveness went online. But while the format of the request was somewhat surprising and sent me off to reflect on the nature of virtual community, it was the broad nature of the request that really caused me to think more generally about the nature of apologies and mehkilah. I neither know the manager of the listserv personally nor do I feel aggrieved by this individual, so in this case it is easy to be big hearted and forgiving. But most of the work we do during this season is more complex than that.
Our tradition has much to say and this is a case where I think it best to let the sources speak for themselves. As many of us prepare to teach over Yom Kippur and all of us are hopefully taking some time to take stock individually, it is my hope that these will serve as either a resource or a reminder of some of what our tradition says.
G’mar Hatimah Tovah,
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. (Micah 7:18)
One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend. (Proverbs 17:9)
“One who has sinned against another must say to him or her, ‘I’ve acted wrongly against you’.” (Talmud; Yoma 45c)
“If you’ve done another a small wrong, let it be great in your eyes…” (Talmud; Avot d’Rabbi Natan; ch. 41)
“If another has done you a great wrong, let it be small in your eyes.” (Talmud; Avot d’Rabbi Natan; ch. 41)
“If one has received an injury, then, even if the wrongdoer has not asked for forgiveness, the receiver of the injury must nevertheless ask God to show the wrongdoer compassion, even as Avraham prayed to God for Avimelech, and Job for his friends. Rabbi Gamliel said, ‘Let this be a sign to you, that whenever you are compassionate, the Compassionate One will have compassion on you.” (Mishnah; Baba Kamma 9:29-30).
A bad tempered person gains nothing but the ill effects of anger; a good tempered person is fed with the fruit of the deeds. (Kiddushin, 40b – 41)
“All who overlook what’s owed to them, Heaven overlooks their sins in return.” (Talmud; Rosh HaShanah 17a)
Forgive your neighbors [their] transgressions, and then when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. (Ben Sira 28:2)
No sin is so light that it may be overlooked. No sin is so heavy that it may not be repented of. –Moses Ibn Ezra
“Love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai” (Leviticus 19:18). There is a Chasidic interpretation of the last words of this verse: “I am Adonai.” – “You think that I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbor you will find Me; not in his love for you but in your love for him.” He who loves brings God and the world together. The meaning of this teaching is: You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed and to be realized by you. For the sake of this, your beginning, God created the world. –Martin Buber
Posted on March 14th, 2011 No comments
by Ruth Abusch-Magder
The story of Purim tells of a people, about to be annihilated but rescued from the brink by the wiles of a beautiful Jewish woman. Most popular tellings leave it at that. But this back story only sets the stage for the final celebration. The feast of Purim, as we are told in the unvarnished biblical version, commemorates the victory in battle of the Jews over armed forces set into motion to kill the Jews. At the end of the story, not only is the villain hanged for his crimes, but his ten sons not obviously guilty are hanged too. Recalling this military victory, Jews do what armies have always done at the conclusion of battle, gather together, gorge on food and drink, trash talk the enemy and glorify their own actions.
Repulsive? I certainly hope so.
It seems to me that part of the strength of Purim lies in its attempts to confront violence. The Italian rabbi and later Professor of Hebrew Bible, Moshe David Cassuto, identified the theme of physical survival as the central theme of the Purim holiday. In crafting the story of Hanukkah, the rabbis of old pasted over the story of the violent Maccabean Revolt against the Greeks with the story of the occupation and retaking of the spiritual home of God in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In Cassuto’s eyes, the rabbinic version of Hanukkah tells the story of spiritual survival. But with Purim there is no white wash, the biblical telling is unvarnished and gritty, frightening and unsavory. And whereas the rituals of Hanukkah are glad to gloss over the killings and conflicts that were part of the historical Maccabean revolt, the rituals of Purim demand that we engage with both the challenges and joys of survival.
One of the four ritual obligations at Purim is to read Megillat Ester, the scroll of Ester. We are obligated to listen to the whole story, start to finish. Despite what one might think from sitting in a contemporary synagogue with noisemakers, we are obligated to hear every word of the story. We cannot gloss over the challenging parts. We need to pay attention to the frivolity of the King, his excess of food and drink, and it’s consequences for those in his immediate family and those over whom he reigns. The Jewish people are both the victim and the beneficiaries of the King’s tendency to indulge. His lack of involvement allows for his advisor Haman to pursue a personal vendetta against the Jews. But his fondness for food and drink (and beautiful ladies) draws him to Ester’s feast where he is persuaded to save the Jews. We learn by watching Haman, how single-minded evil and anger can lead to your own undoing. Listening closely, we come to understand that physical survival is fraught with challenges. For Hadas, who becomes Ester, surviving means giving up her name and her community, going into hiding and being sexually compromised. And while Mordechai is able to escape with little physical harm, he has to give up his ability to protect his ward. While he does survive, he has to rely on the largess and protection of others to do so.
According to many biblical scholars, the story is a farce. It cannot be reconciled with historical facts and even as a literary telling it has elements of the ridiculous. It would be easy to distance ourselves from this story, to minimize its meaning. Yet our customs demand that we engage with text actively. After reading this story for a second time, the customs of Purim dictate that we ourselves engage in excessive eating and drinking. Having read of the folly of the King, aware of the dangers that can ensue from such gluttony we emulate his behavior. If Ahashverosh was a fool, we dare not think ourselves much better. We too are capable, even eager, of entering into self absorbed indulgence.
And whereas on Shabbat or Passover the drinking is directly tied to ritual acts, every cup with a blessing of its own, the instructions on Purim are to drink until one cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman. The rabbis quibble over how much this really means but the metaphoric measure is instructive, no matter the real amount. Immoderate drinking blurs the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong that emerges from a straight forward reading of the scroll of Ester.
Ultimately, we ourselves are not so far from the folly, or the evil, or the violence. From a physiological point of view, we may see in the Purim story, the multiple aspects of our own personalities. We each have the capacity to be wise like Mordechai, to conceal elements of our true selves like Ester, and to be fools like Achashverosh. Even the darkest elements of Haman lurk inside. We have the potential to be destructive to ourselves and those closest to us. And there are times that each of us must come to realize that the line between our inner Haman and our inner Mordechai is not as clear as we might hope it to be.
For two thousand years, the Jewish people as a people were always at the mercy of the host communities in which they found themselves situated. Often they were not permitted to take up arms even in self defense. The holiday of Purim allowed Jews to imagine for a day that they were empowered, able to control their own physical destiny. Yet even as Jews engaged in imaginative play with the ideas of physical power and violence, the story of Purim reminded them of the potential dangers of being powerful. As we enter into celebration of victory we are reminded that the hero is not all that distinct from the villain.
It is not surprising then that Purim is a carnival holiday. Confronting the seamier side of ourselves, whether individually or as a collective, is never easy. The masquerade, the satire, the silliness, all allow us to get closer to that which is difficult to look in the face. Just as Halloween allows us to confront our fears about that which lurks in the darkness of the fall nights and comforts us with a lighthearted pranks so that we may both experience and survive fear, Purim too allows us safe entrance into the darkness of our own and national psyche.
The fun and the frivolity are not meant to be unfettered. In addition to the obligation to listen to the story of Ester and have a large meal, we are also exhorted to give gifts of food and make donations to the poor. In the midst of our self indulgence and internal focus, we are commanded to open our pantries and share of our own riches both with our friends and with those in need.
The conception of Purim as a children’s holiday overlooks the deeper challenges concealed in the story. Children see black and white, good and evil. Given healthy homes and basic necessities, children imagine fairytale endings where everyone gets along. Emotional and moral development opens us to see a more complex landscape, where happiness is an ongoing construction living side by side with difficult choices and disappointment. Even adults, can be uncomfortable with embracing this textured understanding of reality. The Purim story and customs are a lighter context and means to remember that power and folly often go hand in hand, and the lines between those who are wise and those who are evil, those who win and those who lose are often blurry indeed. Nonetheless, the customs of mishloach manot and gifts to the poor remind us that while physical survival might demand self sacrifice and even a willingness to turn to violence being single minded is never enough. Ultimately, whether we celebrate Haman or Mordechai we must reach into our own stores to share with and care for others. Living in a world where power often goes hand in had with destruction, I am left wishing that Purim might come more than once a year.
Posted on December 3rd, 2010 3 comments
For a while I have been thinking about doing a post on the best Jewish Apps for your handheld devices. As it happens, our conservative colleague Rabbi Jason Miller beat me to creating a list and did such a great job that this week I break from protocol and post his piece -with permission of course. I hope that these Apps bring a little light, or at least a little convenience and productivity to your lives. -Ruth
The Best Jewish Apps Of 2010
From tehillim to kosher restaurants, from kaparot to recipes, our tech guru picks the top 33 applications.
Rabbi Jason Miller
Special To The Jewish Week
As more Jewish people acquire the latest in handheld technology – think iPhones, iPads, Android-powered smartphones, BlackBerrys and tablet PCs — there will be more Jewish-themed applications available for download.
Some of these apps will be utilities for checking the Hebrew date or learning about the weekly Torah portion. Other apps will be novelties like making shofar sounds for Rosh HaShanah and grogger sounds on Purim. With many Jewish developers around the world, you can be certain there will be no dearth of Jewish apps in the coming year.
What follows is a roundup (in no particular order) of the top Jewish-themed apps from the past year. This is far from an exhaustive list as there are hundreds of other Jewish apps available, including Jewish and Israeli newspaper versions, apps that let you donate to particular charities, a Gematria (Jewish numerology) calculator, and a guide for keeping kosher at Disney World. Check outwww.jewishiphonecommunity.org for a comprehensive listing of Jewish apps as they are released.
POCKET iSIDDUR – Free: This free iPod and iPhone version of the prayerbook comes with every version imaginable, from Sephardic to Ashkenazic. The new version has adjustable font size. iPad version also available. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.
SIDDUR – $9.99: RustyBrick’s version of the siddur for Apple’s mobile devices is expensive, but impressive. Comes with real-time zmanim (prayer times) for each day based on your location. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.
iPARASHAH – $4.99: Created by JACA Software Solutions, this app gives you the weekly Torah portions in the palm of your hand. Search for any parsha by name or date with this app. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.
TANACH FOR ALL – $3.99: Get the whole Jewish Bible on your iPhone, iPod or iPad. Developed by Yaniv Kalsky, the latest version includes Parshat Hashavuah and an onscreen Hebrew keyboard. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.
MILA-4-PHONE – Free: Learn basic Hebrew on your iPod thanks to Birthright Israel NEXT, which just released this free Hebrew word flashcard app. Developed by Rusty Brick, this free app makes building up a Hebrew vocabulary quick and easy. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.
TEFILAT HADERECH FOR ALL – $0.99: Another app by Yaniv Kalsky. This provides the English and Hebrew version of the traveler’s prayer for travel by air, sea, and long car trips. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.
iBLESSING – $0.99: Not sure which blessing goes with which food? This app will remind you which blessing to say. If you’re Hebrew reading isn’t very good, just listen to the app say the blessing in Hebrew or English. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.
iZKOR – $0.99: This app provides the text for the mourning rituals in Judaism that are said in all prayer services as well as at funerals and memorial services. Just input the name of the deceased and it will generate the memorial prayer for the individual.All of the following are available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.
KOSHER – $4.99: Find the nearest kosher restaurant from the exhaustive Shamash.org database with over 2,000 trusted restaurants to choose from.
TEHILLIM – $1.99: The entire book of Psalms with linear translation.
iTALMUD – $24.99: CrownRoad developed this expensive English translation of the Talmud complete with thousands of footnotes, references and insights. You certainly get what you pay for.
PIRKEI AVOT – Free: The teachings of Pirkei Avot, the ethics of the sages, available in Hebrew and translated into English, Spanish and Portuguese.
KITZUR SHULCHAN ARUKH – $14.99: The entire Jewish legal code laid out in a beautiful format. Developed by RustyBrick, this app allows for quick keyword searches for specific laws and bookmarks to save texts for later.
HEBREW/ENGLISH TRANSLATOR – Free: RustyBrick’s dictionary is easy to use and accurate. For a free Hebrew-English dictionary, you can’t do better. Great onscreen keyboard and copy/paste functionality.
HEBREW CALENDAR – $4.99: Functions just like iCal, but with the luach (Jewish calendar) including all Jewish holidays, z’manim (special times for prayer including sunrise and sunset), event-setting feature, and easy switching between Hebrew and Gregorian calendars. Easy to read fonts on all screens.
KOSHER COOKBOOK – $2.99: Choose meat, dairy, or parve meals and this app guides you to the perfect recipe. Also develops the shopping list for each recipe and allows you to email the shopping list to others.
Available from jewishsoftware.com:
JASTROW DICTIONARY – $14.99: The complete Talmud dictionary with over 120,000 entries and bi-directional Hebrew-English and Aramaic-English references.Available from jewishsoftware.com
Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store:
iMENORAH – $2.99: Developed by Matthew Parrot, this virtual menorah lets you light candles with the touch of the screen and then watch them burn down on each night of the holiday. Perfect for small children and dorm rooms where lighting candles is not allowed.
@THE KOTEL – $1.99: This app lets you put a kvittel (note) in the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem. Developed by Yoram Berkowicz, this app allows for note writing in several languages.
SHABBAT CANDLES – $0.99: Light Shabbat candles virtually every Friday night from anywhere. Great app for the business traveler who might not be able to actually light the Sabbath candles.
LULAV WIZARD – $0.99: Download this app to virtually shake the lulav and etrog in a realistic 3D motion with the blessings appearing on the screen.
PARVEOMETER – Free: Press the meat or dairy button after your meal and this app will count down for you. You can set it to your own custom for the dairy countdown after a meat meal so you won’t miss a minute of being able to eat your ice-cream.
KAPAROT – Free: The folks at PETA would be thrilled to see the custom of waving a chicken above ones head solely done virtually before Yom Kippur, but this app only provides the blessings for the ritual. It should be noted that a sack of money can be used in lieu of the animal.
GROGGER – $0.99: If you forget to bring your noisemaker to synagogue on Purim, don’t worry and just download this app. Developed by Stuart Rubin, this app makes enough grogger sound effects to impress the whole congregation and drown out the name of the wicked Haman.
iPRAY JEWISH FOR ANDROID – Free: Siddur developed by Envision Mobile for the Android. Available from www.androidzoom.com
HEBREW SONGS – $0.99: While this app doesn’t actually play famous Hebrew songs, it is great for learning the lyrics, and figuring out the source for various songs and which holiday they’re associated with. Available from www.appstorehq.com.
DAF YOMI – Free: Learn Talmud on the go with this daily page of the Oral Law for the Android. Available from www.apppstorehq.com
JEWISH RECIPES – $0.99: Developed by Brighthouse Labs, this recipe app contains the most extensive list of Jewish-themed recipes in existence. Available fromwww.appbrain.com/app/com.brighthouselabsjewishrecipe
JBLESSINGS – $0.99: The Android version to determine which blessings to say before and after various types of food. Available fromwww.appstorehq.com.
HEBREW CALENDAR WIDGET – Free: Full Hebrew calendar including Jewish holidays and z’manim for the Android homepage. Available athttp://sites.google.com/site/androidhcal/
PRAYER DIRECTION – Free: Find the right direction for your prayer. Jews in North America traditionally face east in prayer. Available from www.appstorehq.com
ANDDAAVEN – Free: AndDaaven strives to be a siddur application that is easy to use, and leverages the full capabilities of the Android platform.http://code.google.com/p/anddaaven/
LUACH HEBREW CALENDAR FOR ANDROID – $1.99: Most complete Jewish calendar program for the Android powered smartphones. Available at www.androidzoom.com.
Posted on July 28th, 2010 3 comments
Recently, stories about integrity pride have made headline quite frequently. This week Professor Alyssa Gray, Associate Professor of Codes and Responsa Literature on the New York campus of HUC-JIR puts into the context of rabbinic thinking on these two challenging human impulses. She reminds us that in thinking about these how to manage our sense of pride there are no simple answers.
We like to think that our world operates in this day and age on principles more elevated than “might makes right.” Think again. Plenty of people believe and act on the idea that might does make right. Taking “might” to mean something other than physical or military strength—power derived from great wealth, or even athletic skill and celebrity—we see that public figures ranging from Tiger Woods to some Goldman Sachs executives (not to mention Bernard Madoff and co.) acted arrogantly on the implicit belief that their power entitled them to do and have whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, at whatever cost. Given some of what we’ve seen, the Rambam’s advice (Hilkhot Deot 2:3) that we behave with extreme self-deprecation so as to avoid arrogant pride looks sound. But it’s more complicated (as Rambam surely knew too): the same sense of self that can deteriorate into a toxic brew of arrogance and overreaching can be, in a person of better character, a vital component of the healthy sense of self of an accomplished individual.
Reflections on pride, arrogance, and overreaching fill our Judaic and Western traditions, sometimes with confusing results. Who doesn’t (just a tiny bit) admire John Milton’s proud Satan in Paradise Lost (“What though the field be lost? All is not lost; the unconquerable will. . . .” Book I)? And that’s just one small quote. The Tanakh is less subtle in its assessment of the arrogance of power, as well as the arrogant’s inevitable (to the Tanakh) fall. That fall may be spectacular (think of Pharaoh and his armies at the Reed Sea), and at other times drawn-out and tragic (David’s sin with Bathsheba changed the narrative arc of his reign from one success after another to a reign in which he never again enjoyed a moment’s peace until his death). Kohelet’s pessimism notwithstanding, the overreaching arrogant don’t fare well in the Tanakh.
Yet pride, arrogance, and their deleterious impact on one’s integrity aren’t only for the Tiger Woods(es) of this (and the Biblical) world. Let’s consider the consequences of lashing out in response to wounded personal pride, a wound we all suffer at one time or another. In the rabbinic narrative of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the chain of events culminating in the destruction is kicked off by the (not then famous) Bar Kamza’s false report to the Roman Emperor that the Jews were rebelling, which he made in order to get even with the rabbis for his public humiliation, which they witnessed but did not stop (BT Git. 56a). This is a cautionary tale in which Bar Kamza’s justifiably hurt pride led him to an ill-considered act with unforeseen consequences. In another cautionary tale, R. Eleazar b. R. Shimon, puffed up with pride because of all the Torah he had learned, thoughtlessly insulted a man by calling him “ugly” (BT Tan. 20a-b). Although he immediately regretted what came out of his mouth and begged forgiveness, the injured man stubbornly refused until R. Eleazar’s townspeople (=his “congregation”) intervened. R. Eleazar’s justifiable pride in his accomplishments turned him “ugly” while the man’s justifiable hurt turned him truly “ugly” when he unjustifiably refused to forgive. Careful response to wounded pride is also of halakhic concern. Rambam teaches (Hilkhot Matanot Aniyyim 10:19) that one who refuses to take tzedakah even though he or she literally cannot live without it is a shedder of blood, liable for his or her own death. While Rambam sees the reluctance to accept help from others as admirable even if it means that one lives right at the edge, that pride becomes sin when it becomes an obstacle to continuing to live.
Between the extremes of Rambam’s exhortation to self-deprecation and the arrogance of pride and power lies a healthy sense of self that includes an awareness of one’s abilities/status/good points, etc., and a true humility that keeps one from seeing those things as justifications for taking advantage of other people or for seeing oneself as superior to them. For (Talmudic) example: While a strong sense of self-confidence is vital to leadership, the rabbis saw humility as equally indispensable, inveighing against leaders who behave tyrannically toward their communities (e.g., BT Rosh Hashanah 17a), and teaching through stories of failed rabbinic leadership that the failure may have been due to a want of humility (e.g., Rabban Gamliel on BT Ber. 27b-28a). While taking pride in knowledge is found wherever there are teachers and students, humility is equally vital to doing that sacred work; to borrow a phrase from another context—if you don’t know something, “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know’” (Kallah Rabbati 4:22) and, if you’re a teacher, recognize the truth that often one really does learn most from one’s students (BT Tan. 7a). (If you’re a student, recognize that you can learn from the teacher too! That’s on BT Tan. 7a as well.) There is no better advice for all of us—wealthy, powerful, and not so much—than the well-known words of the Hasidic R. Simcha Bunim of Pshiskhe: In one pocket carry the words “The world was created for me” and in the other “I am but dust and ashes.”
Posted on March 7th, 2010 No comments
This week we are joined by Rabbi Dr. Michael Marmur, Vice-President for Academic Affairs for HUC-JIR. He sends us his thoughts on absence from our Jerusalem campus.
In Eduardo di Filippo‘s 1948 play Grand Magic, a production of which is now running here in Jerusalem, a magician picks out a smart married woman from the audience. Her husband looks on incredulously. He invites her to step into a mysterious-looking Egyptian-style sarcophagus, and after the usual pyrotechnics, hey presto! She has disappeared.
Pretty regular stuff so far. Things are complicated by the decision of the woman in question to choose that precise moment to run off with her lover. The magician is left with the enraged husband demanding the return of his wife, and has to think of a way of wriggling out of a difficult situation.
The magician gives the husband a miniature box. He tells him that his wife has not left – she is in the box. If the husband believes wholeheartedly that he has done nothing which would have caused his wife to leave, he should open the box and she will reappear. If, on the other hand, he has even an inkling of a suspicion that his own behavior might have caused his wife to run off, when he opens the box he will lose any chance he ever had of seeing her again.
The rest of the play is ingenious and highly recommended, but we can leave it for another blog. For my purposes, what is relevant is how the plot deals with the dilemma of absence. How do we cope with the lack of presence?
For many of you reading these words, they may have personal or pastoral resonance. Learning to deal with the pain, guilt and longing which often accompanies the loss of someone close is an age-old challenge which never loses its sting, or its relevance.
But our tradition offers other dimensions to loss and absence. The festival of Purim is, among other things, a reflection on these themes. The fact that God is not mentioned explicitly in the Megillah has given rise to all manner of acrobatic attempts to find hints of the Divine in the text. But we might do better acknowledging this lack rather than denying it.
Pesach is also famous for an absence. God is certainly present in the traditional account of our Exodus and redemption, but Moses is not to be found in the Haggadah. Here again, our tradition forces us to reflect on the story without the main protagonist. And when we sing Dayyenu around the Seder table, we ask: what would our history have been like without this or that part of the story?
As nature abhors a vacuum, Jews often tend to abhor emptiness or lack. Or silence, for that matter. We don’t tend to be minimalists. Liberal Jews are sometimes accused of rejecting the trappings and accoutrements of tradition. Whatever you feel about this, I want to suggest that we have equally complicated feelings about loss and absence. We often try to deny and reject it. We often feel tempted to fill in every silence, explain every allusion, make literal every metaphor. But at the heart of our tradition there is a motif of loss and lack and silence and disappearance.
I believe that awareness of profound presence can emerge from absence. If we stop trying to deny it or cure it or explain it away, we might be able to learn and grow from it.
The 145th Psalm is part of the daily liturgy. Following an acrostic form, it has a verse for every letter of the alphabet. Except for one. At the heart of the psalm the letter Nun is missing. All kinds of explanations have been offered, and some early versions of the psalm where the Nun verse does appear have come to light. But one way to appreciate the text is in its received form: at its very heart, something is missing. It’s that understanding which makes the humor of Purim possible and the redemption of Pesach possible.
Posted on January 25th, 2010 1 comment
What is the difference between trees and vegetation more broadly that they have separate and distinct new years on the Jewish calendar?
In the first mishna of masekhet Rosh Hashana, we are told that new year of vegetation falls on the same date as that from which we count years, the shmita and the yovel –the 1st of Tishrei. The new year of the trees, which is under debate in this mishna, eventually settled its date as the 15th of Shvat. This calendar is primarily administrative, based on the ebb and flow of the political-agrarian systems of ancient Jewish life in the land of Israel. So perhaps the distinction between trees and other plants was based in growing cycles. After all, anyone who has been in Israel during Shvat has been witness to the beauty of the blooming shkediyot, the almond trees which are the first deciduous tree to return to life after the darkness of winter.
As the next mishna moves our discussion of the calendar from worldly to heavenly concerns, Tu B’shvat looses its place of importance.
בארבעה פרקים העולם נידון:
בפסח, על התבואה.
בעצרת, על פירות האילן.
בראש השנה, כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון, שנאמר
“היוצר יחד, ליבם; המבין, אל כל מעשיהם” (תהילים לג,טו).
ובחג, נידונים על המים.
Animals, people and even water are all subject to divine judgment. Trees, however, disappear. Only their fruit remains to pass before God. Again, what are we to make of this distinction? Moreover, in Midrash Bereshit Rabba 13:2, we learn that trees have a special relationship to people. The trees “converse with mortals; all trees—created, as trees were, to provide fellowship for mortals.”
Most plants do not die at the end of one season but instead wait quietly until either they are replanted for the next cycle or they reemerge from hibernation. This ability to start again completely reflects the vision of human judgment and rebirth associated with Rosh Hashana. It seems only natural then to associate plants with the 1st of Tishei.
Trees by contrast, grow year to year. Each year adds another layer of protection and growth. Dry difficult years leave their mark in the form of thin rings of growth while years of rain and sun leave their mark in the form of larger more robust rings. Year to year, the fruit of a given tree can flourish or fall short but the core of the tree remains and continues to grow.
Spiritual rebirth, like that of plants, is possible and even desirable. It is wonderful to believe that we can be replanted each year and regain our full potential. But it is also important to honor who we are and where we have been on our personal journeys. Like trees our experiences build one on the other, adding layers of meaning and strength. The difficult times add to our core just as the good times do.
If trees are to be our companions, then their place in the year can provide us a model of loving kindness and continued growth. As Jews, there is a time to be harsh and introspective, to focus on our need for change. But on Tu B’shvat we can celebrate our growth, the rings that we have added to our lives in the last year. We can do so with love, with prayer, and praise –even in lean times. There is a time to judge the fruits of our labors, but we need to remember that the trees themselves have no day of judgment. People, like trees, have a holy core, one that does not die out year to year but rather builds on itself in an organic fashion.
Our tradition distinguishes between plants and trees. Their different natural cycles and offer us different models for self understanding and growth. Just as we are encouraged to feel the burden of our actions and celebrate the power of rebirth, we must also embrace the core of who we are and rejoice without judgment.
Posted on December 7th, 2009 No comments
This week we again have the pleasure of having Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD. share insights into Torah. Her insights open our eyes and hearts to a new take on familiar story. Her vision offers much to those who are content to rest on assumptions about family patterns. She reminds us that one of the strengths of the biblical narrative is its ability to challenge us to reconsider difficult situations.
Judith Z. Abrams
One of the glories of Torah is that it speaks in so many different languages all at once. This includes the story of Joseph. The story of Joseph and his brothers is usually framed, in fact is presented in the Torah text, as a tale of brotherly hostility, however greatly regretted later. But there is another possible interpretation that lies beneath the surface of the story. It’s just one of many possible interpretations, and one that may be uncomfortable to contemplate but which, I think, has textual evidence to support it.
We begin with the striped coat, the kutonet passim. There is only one other person in Tanach who has such a garment: Tamar. We learn that she has such a garment after she is raped by her half-brother Amnon (II Samuel 13:10-19). After this rape, she tears her robe and puts ashes on her head. There (II Samuel 13:18), we learn that only royal virgin daughters wear such garments. Tamar, apparently, feels that she is no longer entitled to wear these robes. It is against this background that we must look into Joseph, his coat, and what became of him and it.
By the time that Jacob gives Joseph his striped coat, his mother, Rachel, has been dead for many years: she died on the way back from Padan Aram, giving birth to Benjamin. Joseph’s story begins (Genesis 37:1) when he is seventeen years old. There, we learn that Israel loved Joseph more than all his other children and gives him a coat; a coat that we later learn should only be worn by royal virgins. The only other person who has such a coat is sexually abused by a relative. Therefore, we could imagine that Joseph is sexually abused by a relative…by that relative who gave him the coat…by his father. When we see Joseph’s story from this starting point, the rest of his story begins to make much more sense.
From this perspective, what the brothers do is heroic, not evil. They see the abuse. One child is singled out, as we see happen in such present-day situations. The brothers decide to help Joseph get away from his abuser by sending him to Egypt (Genesis 37:18-33). The brothers liberate him from his striped garment, the symbol of his shame and abuse, and return it to their father, as if to say, “We know what you did to Joseph and we have stepped in to stop it. We won’t let you abuse any of us again so you can keep this coat.” Jacob is distraught in the extreme, tearing his own clothes and covering his head with ashes (Genesis 37:34-35).
This is odd. When Rachel dies, he buries her by the road, sets up a few stones to mark the spot and then continues on his journey (Genesis 35:17-21). He is not described as mourning her and we are never even informed of the deaths of Leah and the two handmaidens. But Joseph, Jacob mourns dramatically. Is it because he lost his replacement for Rachel or because of his own sense of guilt and shame or, perhaps, both?
Whatever the case, Joseph’s subsequent life is marked by the signs of earlier sexual abuse. He falls prey to Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:6-8). Childhood victims of sexual abuse tend to be abused later in life, as well. Joseph displays this tendency. Joseph also has a tendency toward self-aggrandizement, which, in this interpretation, could be a coping mechanism to help him deal with the abuse he has suffered.
Once Joseph is completely secure in his position in Egypt, utterly defended by wealth and position, he does not send word to his family to bring them to Egypt. He does not feel safe. In fact, he betrays his sense that his father is still a threatening presence in his life in the moment that he reveals himself to his brothers. He asks, “Is my father still alive? (Genesis 45:3)” Given the theory we are exploring, the import behind the question becomes clear: he is asking if he is released from his bondage of fear and shame. He is asking if his father is dead so he can finally feel safe. He sends his brothers back home with enough wealth that they need not come back to Egypt for quite some time, if ever.
Even when he finally sees Jacob again, Joseph still does not feel safe. He presents himself with a retinue and with all the trappings of his office (Genesis 46:29). The wording of the meeting is ambiguous. It could be read as Joseph falling on Jacob in tears. Or it could be the other way around. It is easy to imagine that Joseph would inwardly cringe at any contact with his tormenter; no matter how contrite and powerless he might appear. Any survivor of childhood abuse knows that it is only with the death of the abuser that one feels finally, utterly safe from him or her.
Even then, Joseph is careful to keep his father at arm’s length. He has Jacob settle, not with him, but in Goshen (Genesis 47:4). He sees Jacob only at the very end of Jacob’s life (Genesis 48:10-22). Doesn’t this seem odd? Joseph was second only to Pharaoh in power. He could have seen Jacob at any time. But Joseph avoids him assiduously.
What does this reading of Joseph’s story bring us? I offer this interpretation of Joseph’s story not to shame Jacob but to elevate the brothers and to understand what could be motivating Joseph’s actions. In addition, this interpretation can help those who experience sexual abuse or who are recovering from it. I also believe that the tie with Tamar’s story is too deliberate to be ignored. Does it cast our patriarch in a bad light? Yes, but that’s hardly new. Jacob is a profoundly flawed individual who doesn’t seem to respect boundaries at any time in his life. It is not difficult to imagine that he might not respect Joseph’s boundaries, as well. I hope this possible interpretation of Joseph’s story offers comfort to those who may be dealing with family abuse.
Posted on November 4th, 2009 1 comment
This week Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD. takes a new look at a familiar text. A Talmudic scholar, Dr. Abrams is the founder of Maqom a program for spiritual searching and serious Talmud study. She teaches Torah in a variety of settings and is currently delving into the Yerushalmi. We are glad that she will be sharing her wisdom with our community.
One of the things I love about studying Talmud is that it’s like a kaleidoscope: take a look, shake it up, turn it around, take another look and you see a whole new picture.
We all know that there are 4 things that benefit you here and in the world to come:
1. honoring father and mother
2. doing deeds of kindness
3. bringing peace between people and
4. the study of Torah is equal to them all. (Mishnah Peah 1:1)
The Yerushalmi, in its gemara to this mishnah, shakes the kaleidoscope and show us the other side of this teaching, i.e., the four things that hurt you here and in the world to come:
3. inappropriate sexual relations
4. lashon hara is equal to them all. (Yerushalmi Peah 1:1, 8a1 in the Artscroll Elucidation)
Each of the four good things is paired with its photo-negative. The links are easy to see: Honoring ones parents includes honoring one’s divine parent, i.e., God. So idolatry is the anti-honoring parent deed. Deeds of kindness show we treasure life. Murder, of course, is the farthest from that that we can get. Peace between people depends on appropriate boundaries and inappropriate sexuality dismisses such boundaries as meaningfless. What I especially love is that gossip turns out to be the photo-negative of Torah study. It’s words that can do so much good or so much harm.
But here’s the real catch-22: according to the Bavli (Baba Batra 164b-165a), everyone gossips to some extent every single day. Unless you’re going to stay in a cave somewhere and never speak again, your going to at least do the “dust of lashon hara” everyday. Since you couldn’t live anywhere near a complete Jewish life in such isolation, there’s only one thing to do: add more Torah words to your life. In that context, Torah study isn’t just a good thing…it’s the one thing that tips the balance back into your favor, shoring up the imbalance that inevitably follows gossip.
So Torah study isn’t just good for you lishmah…it compensates for lashon hara.
- Practical: if you had to teach this concept to kids, how would you do it? If lashon hara are the feathers, would Torah be the vacuum or the leaf blower?
- Spiritual: How could you get yourself/your children/your community to think about this balance as they go through their day. I know some people use rubber bracelets to remind themselves of different causes. What are some other ways we could really put this into practice?
Posted on October 26th, 2009 No comments
On October 15th at the second conference of Alliance for Continuing Rabbinic Education conference in New York, there was lively and thoughtful discussion about how Jewish community can move forward the field of Continuing Rabbinic Education (CRE). What has emerged for me strongly through my involvement in ACRE and was solidified at this year’s conference is that much of the need for CRE stems from the rapidly changing world of the rabbinate. It is not so much that the rabbi has abandoned the traditional roles and obligations of that position but that those historic modes are shifting and being added to and expanded on an ongoing basis.
The morning program for the conference was a perfect example of this expansion. Our opening Torah study session included not only the traditional Torah text but also quiet moments in which we were encouraged by presenter Shai Gluskin to Twitter thoughts about the text. Our second session included presentations by Tobin Belzer and Elie Kaunfer who spoke about the current trends for Jews in their 20s and 30s. Both Belzer and Kaunfer spoke about innovations but also stressed the continuities. While no one questions the importance of the traditional functions rabbis play in synagogue life, they much also adapt to a world in which there are independent minyanim, small interest groups of Jews, and young people who want to be engaged in innovative programming. There are more ways than every to reach Jews and Jews are demanding greater diversity of attention and connection.
Study is at the core of excellence and agility. Content knowledge can feed the thirst of our community to know more and connect better. Skills and reflective practice will make us better able to respond to and lead change.
The question of how best to encourage study is highly political and will demand deep soul searching on the part of the existing organizations and interest groups. The what needs to be learned cannot be easily defined, not only because the work of rabbis is changing but also because the knowledge that rabbis have varies so greatly. The only point of consensus is that rabbinical school should only be seen as a beginning.
For a calendar of ongoing study options for rabbis offered by ACRE constituent groups please see the ACRE data base.
Posted on October 6th, 2009 No comments
There is a sort of giddy excitement heading into Simchat Torah and not just because the holiday heralds the end of the chagim. With the unbounded enthusiasm of a toddler, we celebrate the conclusion of the Torah reading cycle one moment, only to turn the next moment and shout “AGAIN!”
The biblical books of the Torah are the most familiar Jewish texts, yet the process of reading and rereading the chamisha chumshai torah means that we are continually returning and reexamining these words. And so it is only fitting that this week I call your attention to an exceptionalopportunity to take another look at Torah. Professor Christine Hayes, Professor of Classical Judaica, at Yale University, presents Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). The course was filmed in its entirety when Hayes taught it a few years ago. Last year, the New York Times identified the class as one of five on line courses that it recommends highly.
An introductory course to the Tanakh will of course cover ground that is familiar to many of us. Nonetheless, Hayes’ take is worth a more than a look. She is an exceptional teacher and comes to the material with an intelligent, thoughtful eye. It is the perfect way to start our favorite book, AGAIN!