Friday, October 31, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Lech Lecha - The Covenant Between the Pieces

This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1 – 17:27) begins the story of Abram, whose name God changes to Abraham in verse 17:5 of this portion. Abraham is regarded as the first to recognize the one God, and to reject the worship of idols which was the practice of all those around him.
From the beginning, God has promised Abram that his name would be made great and that his descendants would outnumber the stars.  Yet, Abram remains childless and wondering when the promise will be fulfilled. 

In chapter 15, God comes to Abram and tells him to sacrifice a ram, a kid, a bull and a bird and cut all the animals except the bird in half and lay the pieces opposite one another.  Abram then falls into a deep and unnatural sleep, in which a powerful dark dread comes upon him.  In a vision, God tells him that his descendants will be enslaved and afflicted for four hundred years, but that God would then exact judgment upon those who enslaved them, and bring them out in prosperity to return to their land.

This odd and eerie prophecy is, of course, carried out as the children of Israel do become slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. Apparently, Abraham never saw fit to pass this vision of his on to his children and grandchildren, as there is no indication that anyone but he knew in advance what would come to pass.  Perhaps during our own lives, we too receive mystical messages, difficult to interpret, which come true in ways that we cannot know or decipher.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Continually Creating – Torah Thoughts on Bereshit

This week, we begin again the cycle of reading the Torah from its beginning, Parshah Bereshit (Gen. 1:1-6:8).  From its first words, the Torah engenders discussion and debate.  “Bereshit Bara Elohim et-hashamayim v’et haaretz” What does that mean?  It depends on who is translating it.  
The most common English translation is “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth”.  However, the great medieval commentator Rashi disagrees.  Had that been the intent, he argues, the text would read, “B’rishona bara…”  The word “bereshit” is a construct, and it should be read, “In the beginning of God’s creation of heaven and earth”.  What is the difference?

Rashi points out that the text is not trying to point out a sequence to what was created in these first days, but rather that creation is ongoing, and these things happened at the outset.  Otherwise, one might think that the work of creation that God did ended forever at sunset on the sixth day; that God did not just pause to rest on Shabbat, but never resumed.

A prayer that we recite every morning, Yotzer, states that “in Your goodness your renew continually, every day, the creation”.  Every time a baby is born, every time a person experiences healing from illness, every time a toxic environment is made clean, life burgeons and creation continues.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Happiness Is Worth The Mess

Here's my most recent article in the Huffington Post:

My father was a tidy man. He kept his tools in order. Bridles for the horses hung neatly from the proper pegs. He oiled his saddle regularly. Yes, Daddy was a cowboy. During his lifetime, cattle ranching in the Arizona desert wasn't easy. The droughts were long. The rains came rarely. He was no stranger to harsh scarcity. He also was no stranger to boundless joy.
I learned a lot from my father: How to sense the coming rain hours before its arrival. How to cool a branding iron in the sand. How to treat all people with equal respect whether they were convicted felons on parole or United States Senators on the campaign trail. I also learned from him that exuberance can sometimes get messy and that the mess is really okay as long as you eventually clean it up.
It was a particularly hot summer day when Daddy announced that he and I were going to the foot of Yarnell Hill to buy a lug of peaches. Apparently we were going to surprise my mother by bringing peaches home for her to can. I would later learn that a lug of peaches adds up to quite a few pieces of fruit weighing a lot. We would later that day arrive home with more than a lug or two. My father sometimes had trouble putting on the brakes literally and metaphorically.
I don't care for peaches. The taste is heavenly but not worth dealing with the skin's fuzz which leaves me feeling itchy and crawly and altogether regretting that I ever considered eating the peach. Thus I was not thrilled by the news of our outing. Nevertheless he and I climbed into the old Jeep Willys to drive miles on a dirt road swallowing dust to arrive at a paved road to finally wind up on another dirt road, which eventually led us to the grove of peach trees at the foot of Yarnell Hill. A primary challenge to this journey was the fact that the Jeep had no brakes which gave concrete affirmation to my father's previously mentioned challenge with brakes. He was expert, though, at downshifting to brake the Jeep and our arrival at the orchard was without incident.
I hadn't realized that we had to pick the peaches ourselves and thus had nothing to protect my hands from the dreaded fuzz. My father's exuberance over the peach project did little to improve my mood. I felt miserable. My skin seemed alive with the itchy awful fuzz. I hated every peach I picked. Daddy, on the other hand, smiled and laughed and sang with pure delight. When he declared that one lug wasn't nearly enough my heart sank. Nevertheless, I dragged my bucket behind me and we trudged deeper and deeper into the grove until finally, with what seemed to me an obscene amount of peaches, he declared the job done.
We lugged our lugs to the front of the grove where Daddy carefully counted out the correct change. I suspected that the price of the peaches ate up most of the week's budget for food but Daddy didn't seem to care. He just wanted to take the peaches home to his wife - to my mother.
Once back at the Jeep we safely settled the peaches in back of us and climbed into the roofless, brakeless, worn out Army surplus Willys to get situated between the sprung springs ready for the ride home.
For a moment Daddy seemed lost in thought.
Then he jumped out of the Jeep and, laughing, said, "She won't miss just one peach."
In the moments that followed I saw joy as I had never seen it before and have never seen it since. My father took a peach in his hand, studied it for just a moment and then bit in. Juice ran down his chin and onto his shirt. Juice ran onto his hands, under the cuffs of his shirtsleeves, and down his arms. He gloried in the taste of the peach and did not pause until only the pit remained. Finally he placed the pit back in the box with the other peaches as though he needed proof that the peach had existed.
There was no water available for him to wash. He said he'd deal with that later. For him, the joy was worth the mess. He took his handkerchief from his pocket and tidied up as best he could and then, still smiling, got back in the Jeep.
By the time we got back home his hands and face were caked from the dust that had stuck to his peach juice sticky skin. Still happy beyond description, he carried the peaches into the house. My mother was thrilled with the peaches, with her husband's contagious joy and, also, by the fact that her surly daughter seemed almost happy.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Torah Thoughts on the Shabbat in Sukkot

There is an interesting vagary in the Jewish calendar.  This Shabbat is the intermediate Shabbat of the holiday of Sukkot.  Next Shabbat will be the day after Simchat Torah, on which we will begin reading the Torah again from its first portion, Bereshit.  We have not yet read the last portion of the Torah, V’zot HaBracha.  Wouldn’t this be the obvious time to read this portion which recounts Moses’ final blessing to the Israelite people, and his death in God’s presence on Mount Nebo?

But that is not what we read.  Instead, we will read a portion chosen for the Shabbat in Sukkot (also read on the Shabbat in Passover).  It recounts the story of Moses when he received the second set of commandments and when God placed him in the cleft of the rock and Moses beheld God’s glory as it passed him (Exodus 33:12-34:26).  We will not read V’zot HaBracha until Simchat Torah, when we will immediately start again at Genesis, at the beginning of the world.

The usual reason given for this arrangement is that we never let any time lapse between ending and beginning our reading and study of Torah.  But I think there is another reason as well.  Even now, millennia later, many Jews still feel that Moses’ death in the wilderness, never to set foot in the Promised Land, is the great unfairness of the Torah.  To have a Torah portion end this way, in the midst of a festival season, with a whole week to go before starting again from the beginning, would be hard to take, and counter to the spirit of joy that should pervade Sukkot. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Torah Thoughts on the Yom Kippur Readings

                The traditional Torah reading of the morning service on Yom Kippur is Leviticus 16, a description of the Yom Kippur procedure in the Tabernacle in the wilderness.  The high priest atoned, first for himself, then for his family, and then for all the people.  He symbolically placed the sins of the people on the head of a goat, and sent the goat—the scapegoat, bearing the sins, out into the wilderness.  After much preparation, he entered the holy of holies, where God’s presence dwelt, to ask forgiveness on behalf of the people.  The people watched the entrance in suspense and terror.  If he had done even one thing wrong in his preparation, they believed, God would strike all of them dead in an instant.  You can imagine, then, the relief and redemption they felt when the high priest emerged from the holy of holies, calling, “Titharu”—you have been cleansed.  It must have been a moment of high religious drama and it is of historical importance to us.  

                The Reform movement chose a different Torah portion for this holy day.  Reform congregations read all or part of Deuteronomy 29 and 39, from portion Nitzavim.  In the middle of that reading come these words, ““For this commandment, which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote.  It is not in heaven, that you should say; “Who will go up for us to heaven and bring it down to us that we may do it…No, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”

                Had the Israelites remained a priestly cult, worshiping in the Temple, sacrificing animals for God’s favor and using the priest as the intermediary between God and the people, we would no doubt be a footnote to history, another ancient culture which once existed and is no more.  It was the rabbinic tradition, the one that declared, “it is not in heaven” that has brought Judaism to the modern day with its wealth of laws and ethics, celebrations of the cycle of the year and the cycle of life and commitment to social justice and to the richness of its own history and the history of the human race.

                The statement “it is not in heaven” means that the Torah was given us to interpret, to turn over and over again to discover its true meaning for our own time, so that it can bring its relevance to all times and to all peoples.  It means that we are to grow as we interpret in the spirit of the search for truth.  It means that we are given the choice between good and evil, and although God is trying to tilt the scales to help us choose good, the ultimate choice is up to each of us.