Author Archives: Maya Bernstein

About Maya Bernstein

Maya Bernstein is an Associate at UpStart Bay Area which supports innovation in Jewish life. She is a regular contributor to multiple on-line and in-print publications.

Innovating to Preserve Tradition

Lisa Lepson, the Executive Director of the Joshua Venture group, writes in her piece “Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow:”

The Judaism that is evolving before our eyes isn’t really new or innovative. In fact, the whole concept of evolution is at the core of Judaism. What our social entrepreneurs are doing is making tradition relevant to us once more, fusing them with contemporary values and bestowing upon them new life. They are leading a vibrant “re-generation” of our cultural and spiritual heritage.

The holiday of Shavuot, a pillar in the Pilgrimage Festival series that also includes Passover and Sukkot, illustrates the Jewish dance between innovation and tradition, and embodies the concept of “making tradition relevant to us once more.”

The holiday has multiple names, revealing its multiple identities. Shavuot, which means “weeks,” refers to the fact that the holiday takes place seven weeks after the beginning of Passover (Deuteronomy 16:9 – 12); the Torah tells us to count from the time of the barley, or Omer, harvest, until the time of the wheat harvest, which we celebrate on Shavuot. The holiday is also called Chag HaBikkurim (Numbers 28:26), the Festival of the First Fruits. This time of year marked the ripening of Israel’s first fruits, and the Mishnah in Tractate Bikkurim describes how people from all over Israel marched to Jerusalem with their fruits in beautiful baskets to give to the priest in the Temple. Shavuot is also known as Chag HaKatzir, the Festival of the Harvest (Exodus 23: 16), since Shavuot marks the summer harvest in Israel.

Interestingly, none of these names reflects what we actually celebrate on Shavuot today. Yes, we continue to count the days from Passover to Shavuot, and refer to it as Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer, but most Jews have no idea when the barley or wheat harvest is in the land of Israel, and what, if anything, it has to do with Shavuot. What, instead, do we celebrate? Here’s where Shavuot, cloaked in an entirely new name, emerges with its new identity: Chag Matan Torateinu – the Festival of the Giving of our Torah.

VeNahafoch Hu: The Force of Creative Destruction

Purim is a celebration of reversals. The Book of Esther, which is traditionally read twice on the holiday, states in Chapter 9 verse 1:

Now in the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have rule over them; whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them.

This notion, of things being turned on their heads, called “venahafoch hu†in Hebrew, is at the core of this lively, raucous little holiday. The very purpose of our celebrating is intertwined with this overturning “from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a holiday†(Esther 9:22). As Rabbi Irving Greenberg  puts it in his essay “Confronting Jewish Destiny: Purim,†in his book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays:

Part of the dizzying paradox of Purim is the extraordinary and capricious reversals it reflects. Vashti is deposed as queen for showing modesty. Esther wins favor for the queenship because of her modesty…Mordecai, in one day, is raised from gallows candidate to prime minister. The very name of the holiday – Purim (meaning lottery) – suggests the absurdity and vulnerability of historical events when a turn of the wheel, a night’s insomnia, a moment of jealousy on the part of a drunken king, spells the difference between degradation and exaltation, between genocide and survival.

On Purim, we wear costumes, get drunk, and let go of the daily inhibitions – the cloak of order – that characterizes our lives, in order to acknowledge that our lives can change on a dime, and that a situation that looks devastating and grim can in fact become uplifting and celebratory.

But what is lurking beneath this notion of “venahafoch hu?†And what does it have to teach us, as a Jewish community, about our relationship to innovation and change, and those who turn, and sometimes overturn, the strictures of our community?

Jonah & Yom Kippur

When is Yom Kippur 2015? Click here to find out!

The Jewish sages have given four predominant answers to the question of why we read Jonah on Yom Kippur. The first is that the book reminds us of God’s infinite mercy. S.Y. Agnon, in his work Days of Awe, quotes the Psikta D’Rav Kahana, which says: “Israel said to God, ‘Master of the Universe, if we repent, will you accept it?’ God responded, ‘Would I accept the repentance of the people of Ninveh, and not yours?'” We read Jonah to be reminded that if God could forgive Ninveh, of course God can forgive us.
jonah and yom kippur
The second Rabbinic response is related to Yom Kippur’s most profound theme–that of Teshuva, repentance. The second Mishnah in Ta’anit, which recounts how the Jewish people should observe fast days, quotes the deeds of the people of Ninveh. They are a paradigm of repentance, a model for us as we struggle through the day.

Third, the Book of Jonah also serves as a reminder that the entire world, and all of its natural forces, are in God’s hand. The wind, the kikayon plant, the sea, and the great fish are all vehicles of God in this story. These all serve to reinforce Psalm 24, which we read on Kol Nidrei night, and which states that “The earth is God’s.”

Finally, according to the Mishnah in Brachot 6a, Mincha time is believed to be especially poignant for having prayers answered: “One should always take special care about the afternoon prayer. For even Elijah was favorably heard only while offering his afternoon prayer.” As we read of Jonah being answered from the belly of the fish, we are reminded that we too can be saved, even as the day begins to wane.

Book of Contradictions

But there is something more at play in this little book, which, though only 47 verses long, mentions the word “big” 14 times. It is a book of contradictions, which ends in an unanswered question. In her work “The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes, “The book of Jonah invites interpretation from the first verse to the last; but its elusive meanings are never fully netted. There is no conclusive answer to its questions.”

Why Stay Up All Night Studying Torah?

Tonight, Jews across the world will pull an all-nighter. Some will sit in synagogue all night long; others will “shul-crawl,†going from one synagogue to another; others will sit in their homes, nibbling on cheese-cake and trying not to fall asleep on their couches; others  will camp out on Mt. Tamalpais, re-living the ancient Israelites’ experience of receiving the Torah; while others still are undecided about how and where – but are excited to greet the dawn.

Why is it customary to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot by staying up all night, engaging in, of all things, the learning of Torah? After all, aside from all of the current data on the benefits of sleep, don’t we remember Hector’s wise statement, in Book VII of Homer’s Iliad, that “it is a good thing to give way to the night-time?â€

Here are three reasons for you to mull over tonight, between 2 and 3am – hopefully with a good pint of ice-cream at your side.

I.  Studying Torah at night is a Jewish value. It is not unique to Shavuot. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah Chapter 3:13, writes:

“Even though it is a mitzvah to learn both during the day and at night, one gains the majority of wisdom at night; therefore, anyone who wants to merit the Crown of Torah should be careful each night, and should not lose even one to sleep, food and drink, conversation, and the like – rather, one should engage in the study of Torah and words of wisdom.”

There is something special about studying Torah at night. Yehuda Arye Leib Alter, in his work Sefat Emet, writes that the Jewish people are like fish, who, though they are always surrounded by water, constantly need water to be nourished. “The water is nothing but Torah,†the Talmud in Baba Kama 82a says, and, through its nightly study, we attempt quench that which cannot be quenched. On Shavuot night, then, the night on which we commemorate receiving the Torah, we stay up all night, modeling that which we will do on many nights to come.