Thursday, January 8, 2015

Let's Hear It for The Girls - Reflections on Parashat Shemot 5775

If Bereishit/Genesis, the first book of the Torah, is the story of the Patriarchs, then we must say that Shemot/Exodus is, by and large, the story of Jewish women.

In the very first narrative of the book, we find the Pharaoh bribing the Jewish midwives to accidentally (on purpose) kill the newborn Jewish boys, and let the newborn Jewish girls live. These brave Jewish women defy the Pharaoh, and save the Jewish babies alive.

It is a woman who puts her baby - the future redeemer of Israel - in a waterproof basket to float down the Nile; and it is a young girl who risks her life to keep an eye on that basket from the bulrushes.

Who fishes the baby out of the water and gives him a chance at life? A woman.

Who saves Moses' life by performing an emergency circumcision of their son? A woman.

We are taught that the more the Egyptians tortured and enslaved the Jews, more they increased and multiplied. How so? Because of the self-sacrifice of the Jewish women, who dolled themselves up and shlepped out to fields to consort with their broken, exhausted husbands, reduced as they were to sleeping in the killing fields.

It was the Jewish women who, confident of a great salvation, stood ready at the Reed Sea with musical instruments in hand, while their men were bickering among themselves, bellyaching about surrender.

It was the Jewish women who refused to participate in the death folly of the Golden Calf. It was Jewish women who rejected the report of the cowardly spies, and later on, it was Jewish women who marched right up to Moses and his Council of Sages and made an eloquent plea for the preservation of their family's inheritance in the Land of Israel.

Moses, the Ten Plagues, the Parting of the Red Sea - these are almost side shows compared to the accomplishments of these incredible Jewish women. At every turn of Jewish history, women save the day.

So we must ask: why isn't Shemot called "Jewish Women"? And don't you find it curious that the names of these great women aren't revealed until much later? (PS: The names of the midwives, Shifra and Puah, are a feint, mere noms de guerre.)

Answer: because modesty is the defining characteristic of Jewish Femininity. Jewish women have always eschewed the spotlight, preferring to make their influence felt behind the scenes.

Consider the relationship between  power and influence. Untamed power is raw, capricious, dangerous - like lightning. However, power, if refined, directed, controlled, can be a tremendous force for good - like electricity. 

It is but a small leap to conclude that influence is ultimately more powerful than power itself. Who is more powerful: the king or the kingmaker?

The Author of Life has engineered us such that, in the main, men possess power, and women have influence - meaning the vision, the moral clarity and the ability to direct that power for the Higher Good. 

Jewish history has demonstrated over and over again that when Jewish men ignore the guidance of their wives, they get themselves into serious hot water. "And Gcd said to Abraham: pay heed to whatever your wife Sarah tells you." She had clarity of vision where his perspective was clouded. And Jewish wives have never let us down since.

Like the Yin and the Yang, when men and women work symbiotically, great things can be accomplished in the world, because women's strengths complement men's weaknesses and vice versa. We neither of us can do it on our own.

Judaism is all about balance, about finding the middle path, about holding the center. Tragically, there are strong centrifugal forces pulling Judaism towards the extremes. 

On the right, we are witnessing the islamization of Judaism, with the voice, and indeed, the presence of women, banished from public life. Kol Isha K'Ervah has been rigidly construed to mean that women have no role in Jewish life outside the home: witness the segregated buses, the segregated wedding feasts, the segregated kiddushes, the suffocating neo-Puritanical dress codes of which our grandparents never knew. 

On the left, we have seen the christianization of Judaism, wherein Judaism resembles Unitarianism, only with Jewish stars instead of a crosses; a mitzvah-less, Gcd-less, feel good Judaism replete with synagogues arranged like churches, women clergy, women cantors, and women serving as lay leaders. Mazal tov! Jewish feminists have proven what we have known anyway for four millenia: that women and men are equally capable. But in arrogating men's power to themselves, they have abdicated their critical role to influence, to guide, to teach, to nurture. And Judaism is immeasurably poorer for it.

Both approaches are fatal. We must look to the Yocheveds, the Miriams, the Zipporahs and the Batyas for guidance. No doubt the greatest accomplishments of Jewish women have yet to be made. And no doubt that they will most assuredly be made by holding the Jewish center; by working together with their husbands, supporting one another, guiding one another, helping one another, to perfect the world for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Daddy's Dyin', Whose Got the Will? - Reflections 0n Parashat VaYechi 5775

(To see an earlier blog post on this parasha, please click here.)

Genesis 49: The entire family gathered around the death bed, straining to hear the last wheezy whisperings of the Old Man. "Gather around and pay heed, my children, as I shall tell of what will be in the end." They crushed in closer, eager to hear the secrets of a history yet to be written.

And then...nothing. No mystical healing secrets. No Nostradamus-like quatrains, no delphic riddles. Bubkis. Instead, Father Jacob gets his Aretha Franklin on and proceeds to tell his sons all about themselves. He draws character portraits of each of his twelve sons, and pretty much nails it, right between the eyeballs. Some of those characterizations are quite unflattering, insulting even. For example:

Reuben: my big disappointment.
Shimon & Levi: their stock-in-trade is violence.

I guess we have to cut 147 year-olds a lot of slack; they've earned the right to call it as they see it.

And then, as icing on the cake, the Torah sums up the event by saying, "thus did Jacob bless his sons, each according to his blessing did he bless them." What kind of blessing is a withering critique your own kids?

There is a dispute among the commentators on this very point. One opinion says that after he finished critiquing them, he did, in fact, bless them. But the other opinion says that the smackdown itself was some sort of "blessing." How can an insult be a blessing?

There are insults and there are insults. We grew up in a household with a very angry stepfather, where nothing was right, nothing was good enough. Any achievement was criticized because it could have been better; every accomplishment was marred by some flaw, and he could be relied upon to find the flaw in every good thing. He was such an expert in misery that he could find trouble where none existed. He was never happy unless he made everyone around him as miserable, bitter and frustrated as he was.

But unlike our stepdad, a critique can also be a kind of blessing. If the intent of the critic is to provide insight, to help improve, instruct and inform the object criticized, then that critique is constructive, not destructive. 

Rare is the person that can objectively evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses. We all tend to focus on our strengths and gloss over our weaknesses. It's just human nature. The way in which we see ourselves is often not at all the way others see us. To put it another way, everybody thinks their own BO smells okay. (Thank you George Carlin.)

We need an objective eye, someone we can trust who has our best interest at heart, yes, to highlight our strengths, but also show us the areas in our life where we need work, maybe a lot of work. A trusted friend. A parent. A grandparent. A spouse. A rabbi/life coach.

Jacob was, in fact, revealing the secrets of the future to his children. He was saying, "Look: if you want to succeed on your path, Reuben, here are the challenges you must overcome. Shimon & Levi, if you want to make it to the fourth quarter of History, you guys are going to have to get a handle on your anger and tendencies to violence." And so on.

The blessing Jacob conferred on his children was providing them the tools they would need to fix themselves and their progeny, in order that the Jewish People should survive.

We are all works in progress. No one is perfect, no one is infallible, no one is sinless. The key point is to surround ourselves, not with sycophants, but with people in whose counsel we trust, to spur us on, to challenge us, to expect the best from us; who continually help raise the bar in our spiritual, mental and intellectual growth.

A few verses later, when Jacob dies, he doesn't actually die. Unlike Abraham and Isaac, where the Torah says, "he expired and died, and was gathered up unto his ancestors," by Jacob the verse says, "and he expired - and was gathered up unto his ancestors."

Jacob's (Israel's) sons took his counsel to heart; they rectified the character flaws that were impeding their spiritual development. The proof is that they were able to survive the 210 years of Egyptian slavery and oppression. 

And so Israel lived on through his children, through their deeds. And he continues to live on through us today, the Children of Israel, because we are faithful to the Jewish world view and value system. 

Israel lives, Am Yisrael Chai.

May we be humble enough to accept genuine constructive criticism; to break out of our comfort zones, and to achieve greatness - for ourselves, for our communities, for the entire House of Israel, and by extension, for the entire world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Better Angels of Our Nature - Reflections on Parashat VaYishlach 5775

Angels are to Jacob what fast food joints are to I-95. Whenever the Torah paints a portrait of Jacob, angels are photobombing in the background. It's like he can't get away from those things.

He leaves home and has a vision of angels going up and down a ladder that stretches to heaven. Later, he follows his path and encounters angels of Gcd, and then calls the place Machanaim, the double encampment of angels. 

He sends angels to appease his hot-headed brother Esav. Then he wrestles with an angel, Esav's angel/advocate, who, according some opinions, was none other than Sama-el, the Angel of Death himself.

And at the end of his life, he blesses his grandsons Menashe & Ephraim by invoking the protections of the angel that had rescued him at every crisis in his incredibly crisis-ridden life.

So what's the deal with the angels, and why do they figure so prominently in Jacob's life? 

The answer depends on one's understanding of what angels are and what their function is in the unseen world which exists beyond our senses.

The Jewish view on angels is derived from the Hebrew word malach, which means both emissary and angel. Basically, angels are Gcd's messengers. Each one is created for a specific task, and ceases to exist when that task is completed. Some angels have ongoing missions and thus exist for eons; other exist for a fleeting moment. The Rambam, based on a careful examination of angelic verses throughout the Torah, organized the types of angels into a ten-level hierarchy. They are, to use a cytology analogy, the messenger RNA in the great cytoplasm of the universe.

There is, though, another view of angels in the Torah. "Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: A person who fulfills one mitzvah (commandment) acquires for himself a single defending angel. A person who commits one transgression acquires a single accusing angel." (Avot 4:13)

What a beautiful idea! Normally, we think of angels flitting hither and thither in Gcd's created universe rushing about to do His will. But when we mortals do Gcd's will by performing His mitzvot, we ourselves create an angel; an advocate that will accompany us through life and stand up for us on that inevitable day when we must give a full accounting for our deeds: the good, the bad and the ugly. 

We have the power to create angels. Our good deeds become angels that surround us, protect us, nurture us. 

Prior to his encounter with Esav, Jacob prays to Gcd: "I am 'smallified' by all the kindness and truth with which you have dealt me..." (Genesis 32:11) The simple sense of 'smallified' (Heb.: katonti) in the verse is 'humbled', but Rashi suggests otherwise: Jacob was afraid that, measured against all of the abundant kindnesses that Gcd had showered on Jacob, his good deeds would seem paltry by comparison, and Gcd might decide to give him over to the hand of the enemy. 

Here we see expression given to the idea that our good deeds are our advocates. Jacob is surrounded by his angels, his good deeds, that he had accumulated throughout his life. In his humility, he was worried that he had not accomplished enough good; but in the end, he had nothing to fear.

We are but the sum of our deeds, our mitzvot. Gcd doesn't care how much money we pile up, what kind of car we drive, what timepiece dangles from our wrists. Ultimately, our actions will speak more eloquently for us than any image consultant, epitaph or autobiography.

The newspapers are littered with stories of people, once thought to be great, once looked up to and admired as leaders, being dragged away in handcuffs, indicted by their actions. I won't repeat the litany of names or the various lesser self-aggrandizing rasputins and faith-healers who, wrapped in tallitot (prayer shawls) and righteous attitudes, rape, defame, assault and embezzle. Some have already been exposed; it's just a matter of time for the others.

Let us all join together to flood the world with angels. Take the mitzvot seriously! Unplug your devices on Shabbat. Give a homeless person an Andrew Jackson. Call your mother. Put on tefillin. Pick a mitzvah - any mitzvah - and create an angel.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Put It There - Reflections on Parashat Chayei Sarah 5775

Holding up a Rorschach blotch, the psychiatrist asks, "What do you see here?" 

""That's a couple having sex," replies the patient.

Switching cards, the psychiatrist asks again: "And in this one?"

"That's another couple having sex," replies the patient.

"OK, last one," says the psychiatrist.

"Sorry doc, but that's more people having sex."

The doctor puts down the cards and says, "Sir, you have an obsession with sex."

"Me!" the outraged patient blurts. "You're the one with the dirty pictures!"

****

We live in a pornographic society, where innocence is lampooned and everything is sexualized, from toothpaste to four-year-old girls. So it should come as no surprise that certain rakish biblical pseudo-exegetes have suggested that Father Abraham was gay, based on a purposeful misreading of a verse in this week's parasha.
"And Abraham was getting on in years, and Gcd had blessed him in every way. And so Abraham said to his senior servant, the one to whom he entrusted all his affairs: Place your hand under my thigh, and swear by the One True Gcd of heaven and earth, that you will not take a wife for my son (i.e., Isaac) from the Canaanite girls among whom we dwell." (Gen. 24:1-3)
Abraham asks his servant, Eliezer, to touch the scar of his circumcision, the physical symbol of his covenant with Gcd, in taking this very important oath. The purpose of this act is to impress upon Eliezer the seriousness of the promise he is making.

This act of oath-taking would not have been surprising in antiquity. The English word "testify" comes from the same Latin root as "testicle"; it was customary in ancient Rome to have the oath-taker hold the testes of his master. This was an act of servility and submission; by touching the place of his virility, the servant was acknowledging that the master had the power to enforce the oath. 

The Ibn Ezra, who lived in the 12th century, records that this was the legal form of taking an oath in India in his time. And in Mr. Sammler's Planet, Saul Bellow describes a related incident in which a mugger exposes himself to Sammler, an expression of brute power and cowering submission.

There is no sexual component to this act, any more than getting a hernia exam or a prostate exam or a gynecological exam. Yet these same geniuses also argue that Abraham was a sexual predator, exploiting his wife Sarah's sexuality for his own gain. This is nothing less than the malicious and deliberate character assassination of one of Judaism's most cherished role models.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is that the thinkers of these deep thoughts are a certain group of nominally orthodox rabbis, whose open agenda is to lay the foundation for the mainstreaming of homosexuality in Orthodox Judaism. 

In a certain sense, this is understandable: the gay lifestyle is very trendy these days, and weak people always go with the flow. It seems that there is hardly an American family that isn't touched by it. There is also a lot of social and legal pressure to not only destigmatize homosexuality, but to affirm that it is morally equivalent, if not superior to, heterosexuality (after all, heteros have children, who contribute to overpopulation, overflowing landfills and global warming. Ewww.)

And there is clearly a lot of money up for grabs in capitulating to the mob - let's not deny it.

The problem (for them) is that the Torah prohibits the homosexual act in the strongest possible terms, and with the harshest possible penalties. (It is critical to note that the Torah does not recognize homosexuality or gayness as a lifestyle or a genetic predisposition. It recognizes only the act. And like every other act, the moral agent must make a choice - to act or not to act; to fulfill the mitzvah or to violate it. The choice rests squarely upon the conscience of the individual.)

Their solution is to undermine the authority of the Torah prohibition. Not completely at first, but just to weaken it a little. Camels are not allowed inside the tent, but it wouldn't hurt to allow the poor camel to stick his itty bitty nose under one corner of the tent? 

Before long, you will most assuredly be sleeping with a camel. 

Now, in and of itself, this is nothing new; gentiles and free-thinking Jews have been deconstructing the Torah with gay abandon (pardon the pun) for 200 years or so, since Herr Professor Wellhausen expounded his rippingly brilliant Theory. What is troublesome is that nominally orthodox rabbis are now adopting these positions (again, no pun intended).

The sine qua non of Orthodoxy is the belief in the Divine Authorship of the Five Books of Moses. This belief defines the gaping philosophical chasm between the Orthodox and the Movements of Jewish Dissent - the Conservative and the Reform (and their various lesser splinters and offshoots). For an orthodox rabbi to espouse such views is like a lawyer who rejects the basic principle of the rule of law, or a doctor who doesn't believe in cell theory. They may still have their sheepskins, the doctor may even wear a white lab coat and stethoscope, but can you  - would you -  dare entrust your health to that guy?

Here are some of the unvarnished facts about homosexuality:
  • Homosexuals more likely to suffer from depression: "A new study in the United Kingdom has revealed that homosexuals are about 50% more likely to suffer from depression and engage in substance abuse than the rest of the population, reports Health24.com . . . the risk of suicide jumped over 200% if an individual had engaged in a homosexual lifestyle . . . the lifespan of a homosexual is on average 24 years shorter than that of a heterosexual . . . While the Health 24 article suggested that homosexuals may be pushed to substance abuse and suicide because of anti-homosexual cultural and family pressures, empirical tests have shown that there is no difference in homosexual health risk depending on the level of tolerance in a particular environmentHomosexuals in the United States and Denmark - the latter of which is acknowledged to be highly tolerant of homosexuality - both die on average in their early 50's, or in their 40's if AIDS is the cause of death. The average age for all residents in either country ranges from the mid-to-upper-70s."(onenewsnow.com/Culture/Default.aspx?id=255614)
  • Breast Cancer higher among Lesbians: "Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed among women and is the leading cause of cancer death among women in the United States, following cancers of the skin and lung. Recent research has identified risk factors for breast cancer that may differentially affect lesbian and bisexual women, including nulliparity and higher rates of alcohol consumption and overweight, that may place this population at greater risk than heterosexual women of developing breast cancer." (Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, glma.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=feature.showFeature&FeatureID=319&E:\ColdFusion9\verity\Data\dummy.txt)
  • "In their study of the sexual profiles of 2,583 older homosexuals published in Journal of Sex Research, Paul Van de Ven et al. found that "the modal range for number of sexual partners ever [of homosexuals] was 101–500." In addition, 10.2 percent to 15.7 percent had between 501 and 1000 partners. A further 10.2 percent to 15.7 percent reported having had more than 1000 lifetime sexual partners. Paul Van de Ven et al., "A Comparative Demographic and Sexual Profile of Older Homosexually Active Men," Journal of Sex Research 34 (1997): 354."
  • 2% of U.S. population is gay yet it accounts for 61% of HIV infection:  "Men who have sex with men remain the group most heavily affected by new HIV infections. While CDC estimates that MSM represent only 2 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for the majority (61 percent; 29,300) of all new HIV infections in 2009. Young MSM (ages 13 to 29) were most severely affected, representing more than one quarter of all new HIV infections nationally (27 percent; 12,900 in 2009)."  (Center for Disease Control, cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/HIVIncidencePressRelease.html)
  • "Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) represent approximately 2% of the US population, yet are the population most severely affected by HIV and are the only risk group in which new HIV infections have been increasing steadily since the early 1990s . . . ” (Center for Disease Control,  http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/msm/index.htm)
  • Gay men lifespan shorter than non gay men: "The life expectancy for gay and bisexual men is 8 to 20 years less than for men in general. Robert S. Hogg et al., "Modeling the Impact of HIV Disease on Mortality in Gay and Bisexual Men," International Journal of Epidemiology 26 (1997): 657." (Exodus Global Alliance, exodusglobalalliance.org/ishomosexualityhealthyp60.php)
  • "In 2007, MSM [Men Sex with Men] were 44 to 86 times as likely to be diagnosed with HIV compared with other men, and 40 to 77 times as likely as women." (Center for Disease Control, http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/topics/msm/index.htm)
  • Domestic Violence higher among homosexuals: "'the incidence of domestic violence among gay men is nearly double that in the heterosexual population.'(Gwat Yong Lie and Sabrina Gentlewarrier, "Intimate Violence in Lesbian Relationships: Discussion of Survey Findings and Practice Implications," Journal of Social Service Research 15 (1991): 41–59." (exodusglobalalliance.org/ishomosexualityhealthyp60.php)
  • Sex of women with women at greater health risk than women with men: "For women, a history of sex with women may be a marker for increased risk of adverse sexual, reproductive, and general health outcomes compared with women who reported sex exclusively with men." (American Journal of Public Health,  ajph.aphapublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/97/6/1126

These stats, heartbreaking as they are,  speak only to the immediate health of the individual, and do not even begin to touch on the long-term social and ethical precedents that widespread homosexuality establishes.

Here's the thing: the Author of Life gives us this Owner's Manual, called the Torah, in which He describes the proper care and maintenance of this crazy and complicated thing called LIFE.

Do you think maybe the Torah anticipated these negative consequences when it enacted the prohibition? "If you will diligently hearken to the voice of Hashem, you Gcd, to do what is right in His eyes, to listen and observe all fo His laws; all of the diseases that I placed upon Egypt I will not put upon you, for I am the Gcd that heals you." (Ex: 15:27)

Does no one see that by conducting one's interpersonal affairs within the guidelines of halachah (Jewish Law), one can have a deeply fulfilling and rewarding intimate life with a ZERO PERCENT chance of contracting STDs, and the concomitant reduced risk of the associated uro/gynecological cancers? 

All of that misplaced compassion defining homosexuals as a discriminated class should be more properly directed at encouraging people to make better, less destructive, choices about their sex lives.

One last point: Judaism has never been a populist movement. It has been our historical role to stand against the prevailing social morays, not to give religious sanction to them. Judaism was the original counter-culture.

Abraham was a pain in the tush to Nimrod and the Sumerian pagans; we Jews were a headache to the Greeks, and to the Romans after them. Today, radical feminism and militant gay advocacy are enjoying their 15 minutes of fame; tomorrow it will be something new and more provocative. To be sure, in every generation there have been Jewish hellenizers, appeasers, reformers, modernizers. But in every generation they fall away, largely forgotten by Jewish history. 

A feel-good Judaism defined by what is popular or trendy or lucrative is not Judaism, it's mob rule. History has taught us again and again that only the Torah and its adherents endure. "Etz chaim hee lamachazikim bah," the Torah is a Tree of Life to those who choose to cling to it.

Today as always, guided by Torah, Jews stand alone as the conscience of the world. The Jewish universalist vision of an ethical, compassionate monotheism has much to contribute to the ongoing social dialogue and to the ethical refinement of humankind. And if, by teaching an authentic, unadulterated Torah message, rabbis must speak in opposition to the newest cultural verities, must even risk sitting in jail, then so be it; there is ample historical precedent for that as well. 

"Trust in Gcd; take heart and have courage; and above all, trust in Gcd."

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Avraham Rocks! - Reflections on Parashat Lech Lecha 5775

(To view other posts on this parasha, click HERE.)

In this week's Torah portion (Lech Lecha, Genesis Ch. 12 - 18), we are introduced to Avraham and his wife Sarah. But who is this guy Avraham? What lottery did he win to get to chit-chat with Gcd and merit all the Divine blessings we read about in these chapters?

The Torah itself seems to simply assume he's exceptional. The narrative begins with almost no preface, picking up the thread of his life when he's 75 years old. In fact, way back in Genesis Chapter 2:4, the Midrash states that, based on an unusual Hebrew construction there, that Gcd created the world in order that there should have existed an Avraham; in other words, the entire universe was created for Avraham's sake. That's pretty fat talk. So again: What is so extraordinary about this guy?

The standard answer that is given, and the reason he is credited with being the progenitor of the Jewish People, is that he was the first person to utilize his intellectual faculties to noodle through to the idea of the First Cause. 

...and that's great as far as it goes. But could that be the extent of it? 

Lots of people find Gcd. The newspaper is full of people who, after a dissolute life of booze and drugs and burning through enough toxic relationships, finally wise up and "find Gcd." (I am especially entertained by the ones who discover their spirituality just after they're being led away in handcuffs for some perfidious deed or other.)

Avraham rocks, and the key to understanding his greatness and remarkable contribution to humanity lies in a nuanced reading of the Torah text, as well as some assistance from a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (The Wisdom of the Ancients). "There were ten generations between Noah and Abraham; each one angered Gcd more than the previous one, until along came Abraham and got the reward for them all." (5:3)

The Mishnah is telling us that the key to understanding Abraham is rethinking the generation of Noah, the Great Flood, and the generations that followed.

The world that greeted Noah when the Ark settled on Mount Ararat was very different world than the one he left. Not just physically, but spiritually, psychically. This was because humanity had diffracted into the three distinct faculties that make us human.

Noah had three sons, Shem, Cham and Yafet, whose descendants were to repopulate the world after the flood. They are broadly understood to represent the Asiatic, African and Caucasian branches of the human family, respectively. But these three branches of humanity also represent the three primary human faculties that dwell within each of us.

Shem means 'name' in Hebrew; the Shem branch of the family valued intangibles: the honor of a good name, ideas, ethics, intellect. They emphasized the intellectual/spiritual side of our nature at the expense of physical and emotional human needs.

Cham means 'hot,' and in that branch of the family emotions and passions dominated.

Yafet means 'beauty,' and this branch of the family focused on the physical: aesthetics, corporeality, pleasure.

For ten generations humanity fought a pitched battle against itself, head versus heart versus soul.  One or the other always prevailed, stifled the others, ran to extremes; and so humanity consistently made choices which aggravated Gcd.

It was Abraham who learned to rein in and and harmonize his faculties. Not only that, he harnessed them in the noble pursuit of fixing the world. He utilized them in the service of Gcd and of others, rather than in the venal pursuit of petty self-gratification. He was intellectual/spiritual without being withdrawn; emotional but lacking pathos; physical yet without narcissism. He was the world's first Renaissance Man, a Man for All Seasons.

We see many proofs to this idea throughout the parasha. We see physical bravery, courage and strength in his successful guerilla war against the mighty Four Kings. He demonstrates intellectual prowess in successful diplomacy with the local Amorites. 

He is a spiritual/ethical role model in refusing to profit from the captured riches of Sodom, and the Covenant between the Parts. 

And passion? Witness his unshakable bond to Sarah, despite decades of barrenness. He would have been within his rights to have taken another wife or divorced her, but his dedication to Sarah never wavered. It's clear from the verses that he deeply respected her and her opinions and it is just as clear that they loved each other intensely, understanding that their destinies were intertwined. 

And lastly, the verse states, "...you have walked before Me and have been perfect." (17:1) The Hebrew word 'tamim/perfect' denotes wholesomeness, completeness, balance, simplicity.

It took ten generations of human development to create an Abraham, who succeeded where the earlier ones failed. He and he alone was able to put the human Humpty Dumpty back together again. And so the Midrash states that Gcd said (so to speak), "that's the kind of guy I created the world for!"

What was the key to Abraham's success? His path began by his using his intellectual faculties to noodle through to the idea of the First Cause. 

As the first Patriarch and Matriarch of the Jewish People, Abraham and Sarah blazed a trail for us. But each one of us has the potential to be an Abraham or a Sarah in our own day, to heed the Voice of Gcd; to employ our unique gifts and talents in the service of Gcd and the service of others, and so doing, leave the world a little better place than the way we found it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Up on the Roof - Reflections on Sukkot 5775

Mizrachi Family Sukkah 5775
Sukkot fast approaches, and it is anticipated with giddy glee around here. For the uninitiated, Sukkot (meaning huts; singular sukkah = hut) is the most joyous festival on the Jewish calendar. For seven days in mid-autumn, we leave our comfortable, climate-controlled, carpeted homes, and domicile ourselves in a rickety hut with a "roof" that the stars peek through. Crazy, huh? Crazy brilliant.

Woven into Sukkot is an extremely rich tapestry of symbolism. The sukkah represents the divine cloud that enshrouded the Jewish People in the desert for 40 years; it represents the Holy Temple itself; it reminds us that our notions of security are ephemeral, that real security comes only with our complete reliance on the A-lmighty; it makes us look skyward, constantly on watch for rain, and rain/water play an integral role in the meaning of Sukkot.

Our Bubbe and Zayde loved Sukkot, positively reveled in it. (Of course they called it "Sookis" in the European pronunciation.) They had this goofy octagonal aluminum gazebo with a domed roof on the patio in the back yard. Come Succot time, Zayde would pry the roof panels off and heave the pine boughs on. Bam - instant sukkah. Then came the decorations: stringing popcorn and cranberries, pictures made by the kids in school, and the strings of little colored twinkle lights (they're Sukkah lights, don't even start...)

We grew up in the Pine Barrens of central New Jersey, where pine was abundant, so we used pine for the roof of the sukkah (the sukkah roof material is called "schach", and has to be done right to make the sukkah kosher). For our family, Sukkot just wasn't Sukkot without the fragrant aroma of the pine; without both noodles - and needles - in the soup. To this day, when I walk by a Christmas tree lot, to me at least, it's the smell of Sukkot.

Bubbe and her lieutenants were bustling back and forth from the kitchen in the house, ferrying all the delicacies of the holiday meal: the gefilte fish, steaming chicken soup, stuffed cabbages, Shake-n-Bake chicken (Zayde loved that stuff), compote. Tea. Cakes. Drinks. It just never ended. Somehow, 15 or more of us squeezed in around the picnic table shoehorned into that little sukkah. 

I think most people today go with purpose-built bamboo mats for schach. They're convenient enough, and they roll up for storage and reuse. But to me (apologies) they're a little...sterile.

For us, it's just gotta be pine schach. So every year, we go to the trouble to source fresh pine - cut it, haul it, heave it up there, and then dispose of it after the holiday passes. It's sticky work, makes a mess of the truck, and is an overall hassle. But it just wouldn't be Sukkot without it.

Why do I bother? Why not hit the "Easy Button" and cave like everyone else with the bamboo schach?

For me, at least, there's three reasons. First, it reminds me of the Lakewood I grew up in, a Lakewood that doesn't exist anymore; the Lakewood before Lakewood became LAKEWOOD, the holy bastion of chareidut.

Second, I stand in quiet opposition to the juggernaut of rigid external conformity, to the "chumra-zation" which has swept over the Torah observant world. I remember great rabbis, tremendous talmidei chachamim, who, back in the day, didn't wear the current de rigueur "uniform" - shloompy black suit, crumpled black hat, tzitzit worn out, long beard. I remember when people focused more on their pnimiut - their personal character traits, and far less on the external manifestations of frumkeit (observance).

Don't get me wrong: if your family tradition is chareidi, good on you. But that's not the only way to live a Torah life. I know of people today who escape to smaller Jewish towns like Allentown for a Shabbat or two, just to get away from the suffocating, oppressive environment of Brooklyn and Lakewood, where any deviation in behavior can brand a person an outcast, an outsider. 

Sorry. I refuse to compete in the frum Olympics, where everyone, it seems, is trying to prove to the world how religious they are, to out-frum the next guy with new and ever more clever chumras (legal stringencies). 

I don't need to demonstrate my religious credentials to anyone. I wear a (knitted) kippah srugah, not a black velvet yarmulke. And I put blue jeans on when I change the oil on the truck. (And shhh...don't tell anyone but I don't even own a black hat.) And I go with pine schach, because it's "hiddur mitzvah" - it beautifies our experience of the sukkah, and is a poke in the eye of bamboo conformity.

The last reason is because that's how Bubbe & Zayde did it. The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, guides us unfailingly in the conduct of our everyday life. But overlaid on the Shulchan Aruch is a mesorah, a tradition, that we receive from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

I didn't have to look it up in the book how to make a kiddush on Friday night; I had a Zayde to teach me. I didn't have to look up how to daven (pray); I had a Zayde to teach me. It was Zayde who taught me to bring flowers home to my wife on Friday. We learned what we lived. And among the myriad other things, Zayde taught me how to build a sukkah. With pine it was, and so with pine it shall remain.

There is a tradition that each night of Sukkot, a mystical guest visits the Sukkah. Father Abraham the first night, Isaac the second night, then Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David. But we have two other unseen guests. When I sit at the table, looking up at the pine and around at the magical glow the twinkling lights cast around the sukkah, I know, to the core of my being, that Bubbe & Zayde visit our sukkah, and get as much joy from it as we do.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Basket Weaving 101 - Reflections on Parashat Ki Tavo 5774

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, opens with a description of the ritual of the bikurim, the offering of the first fruits of the season to the priests. 

Briefly, here's how it goes down: the first, best clusters of grapes, the choicest olives, the fattest sheaves of wheat and barley, the plumpest pomegranates, dates and figs - all these are collected, thrown into a basket and taken to Jerusalem. Before the Temple priests, the citizen-farmer makes a grandiloquent declaration that broadly consists of two parts: (1) an awareness of the portent of the moment; that all of Jewish history reaches its apotheosis today in these, the fruits (literally) of our collective labor; and (2) that he, Old MacDonaldberg, has been scrupulous all year in observing Gcd's Law, especially as it relates to caring for the Levite, the needy, the disadvantaged in society. He then withdraws to the embrace and blessings of his family and the others whom his table supports.

But...what's with the basket? Did you catch the basket? We know that the Torah doesn't waste words, so why does it explicitly mention the basket? Why not bring the bikurim in any old box, crate, or wagon?

'Cause I'm thinkin'...it's really all about the basket.

First, the verbiage: the word for basket, טנא/'teneh' stands out as a fairly uncommon word in the Torah. Why use an obscure word in place of more common alternatives? (Things that make you go 'hmmm.')

Next, the Ba'al HaTurim points out that 'teneh' has a gematria** of 60. The modern Hebrew letter corresponding to 60 is 'samech', which is round, like the mouth of a basket. What's even cooler is that the ancient Hebrew samech sort of looks like a woven basket:
So let's weave a basket.

We begin with the node at the core of our metaphorical basket - that would be you. You are, naturally and properly, at the center of your own world. 

Projecting vertically from this core node is an axis that represents your relationship with Gcd above.

The first, innermost ring of weaving is your closest, most intimate earthly relationship  - your marriage. The next weave represents the relationship with your children. The next, your relationship with extended family. Then friends, co-workers, community, nation, world; something like this:



Unlike a real basket, in the metaphorical basket of relationships that constitutes our lives, the woven rings are in motion - constantly spinning around us, renewing themselves, expanding here, contracting there. All the relationships are in dynamic equilibrium in relation to the core; when one relationship spins out of control, it affects each of the other relationships as well.

And we can see graphically that the most fundamental relationship in our lives is between ourselves and Gcd. It is the central axis upon which all of our relationships revolve. If we're right with Gcd, all our other relationships can be healthy; but if our connection with Gcd is in trouble, no other healthy relationship is possible for long.

With this schema in mind, let's re-examine the  bikurim and the basket which contains them. 

The bringing of the bikurim is an act of gratitude to Gcd; small gifts to acknowledge the great gifts He has bestowed upon us. The Land of Israel. Our family's stake in the Land as an ancestral heritage. Our families, our health, our prosperity. All the goodness that is manifest in our lives.

No relationship can endure unless it is built upon the bedrock of thankfulness.The surest way to destroy any relationship is to focus on what's missing, what it lacks. 

For us Jews, thankfulness forms the center of our worldview. With every little act that we do, we make a brachah, whisper a prayer, say a thank you, amounting to hundreds of times a day. Thankfulness is embedded in our very name, Yehudi, Jew. It is a mindset in which we are in an almost constant dialogue of 'thank yous' with the A-lmighty. 

Thus, the first fruits must be delivered in the basket that represents our lives, constituted of the complex weave of relationships that define us. If you reread Deuteronomy 26 carefully, those relationships are all mentioned: self, spouse, family, community, nation. And, we declare, those relationships have been tended to and nurtured, no less than the bikurim offering itself.

Perhaps now we can understand why the bikurim must be brought in the basket. It's the fruit that protects the basket, not the other way around. 

Shabbat Shalom.

** Gematria is a Greek loan word from the same root that gives us the English word 'geometry'; basically, every Hebrew letter has a unique numerical value, and numerologists like the Ba'al HaTurim produce some amazing insights by comparing the number values of different words and phrases. But be forewarned: there are gematrias that will blow your mind, and others that are as weak as water.