In this week’s Torah portion, God explains that God has called not only Betzalel and Oholiav to execute their craft on all the holy items that need to be built, but that “in the heart of all who are wise-hearted, I put wisdom so that they will make all that I have commanded.” (Shemot 31:6)
Many people have tried to figure out what distinguishes humans from animals: some have postulated it is our “higher emotions,” but it turns out animals have those (and people have recognized that for a long time); some have suggested it is our intellect – but if that is so, then it is intellect of degree, not kind, for animals are able to solve problems in all kinds of ways. Some have suggested it is language – but it turns out that many animals are able to use not only vocabulary, but syntax, and some even have names for one another. Some say it is morals – but clearly anyone who has ever had a dog knows that an animal knows when it has done wrong.
What I have never heard of an animal doing is expressing the drive to create – to create beauty through art, or to have a craft and make the utilitarian things we need beautiful.
The Torah calls certain individuals chochmat-halev “wise-hearted.” But all human beings have a certain measure of this drive. We all yearn for beauty, and many yearn to create things of beauty. What makes some individuals “wise-hearted?” Instead of simply enjoying the beauty, or perhaps relegated their yearnings to small gestures, they turn their lives into their craft, dedicating time to learning the skills it takes to create not just the occasional beautiful object – and then they send it out into the world, to be regarded by others, to be judged, and to be used.
And when we do this, when we choose a skill and hone it, turning it towards creation, we are b’tzelem elohim, acting in God’s image. For what was God’s creation if not a gesture of art? For a human, art is limited. If we are especially skilled, and work hard, and lucky, too, then perhaps our works will live on after us, at least for a time.
For God, creation is both temporary and permanent – in medieval times some in Arab lands there was a Muslim philosophy that the world was created and destroyed and created anew at every moment. And in the God’s-eye sense, that is true: the sunset that we saw tonight will never be seen again, the child grows to adulthood, species come into being and go extinct. And yet, the universe endures. In its beauty, for a time, God has our regard, and when we are wise-hearted, perhaps for a flicker of God’s eye, we have God’s.
Unless we’re talking about jury duty, it’s generally nice to be noticed as unique and special; to be chosen. Except when it’s not. “God, I know we’re the ‘chosen people,’” Tevye said, “But can’t you choose someone else once in a while?” The question of being chosen, what academics call “the election of Israel,” is central on my mind lately. On the one-hand, I believe in the unique call of the Jews as Jews, and yet, I believe in the universality of Jewish wisdom as a gift for all. There is a tension here. If Jewish wisdom is such a gift for mindful and meaningful living, is it not for everyone? But, if the Torah’s wisdom is for everyone, what makes it “Jewish”?
On the selective side are famous passages such as this one from the 12th Century:
God gave Israel two Torahs – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. God gave them the Written Torah which includes 613 Commandments in order to fill them with good deeds and virtues. God gave them the Oral Torah to differentiate them from all other nations. Therefore it was not given in written form so the other nations will not be able to forge it and claim that they are the (also) Israel. - Bamidbar Rabbah, section 14.
And while we are unique, “chosen,” or better and more accurately, we “choose” to live in the values and rituals of Judaism, the enterprise of Judaism cannot succeed in a vacuum. Rabbi Heschel quotes Spanish Inquisition era Rabbi Joseph Yaabez, “If the non-Jews of a certain town are moral, the Jews born there will be so as well.”
The above tension between particularism and universalism is everywhere in Judaism. Every service, three times a day, we conclude with the two-paragraph Aleinu prayer. The first paragraph thanks God for the distinction of being Jewish, “God made our lot unlike that of other people, assigning to us a unique destiny.” The second paragraph puts forth a universalist hope, that our God and the timeless truths of our tradition would someday be embraced by everyone, “Reign over all, soon and for all time… On that day the Lord shall be One and God’s name One.”
Rabbi A.J. Heschel says, “The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations…No religion is an island. We are involved with one another…Today, religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral, and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa.” – No Religion is an Island.
The Jewish stance of the past, even the not so distant past, was rightfully suspicious of deep connections to the outside. It was dangerous to become overly involved with the outside world. Today, that same isolationism which perhaps served us has the real potential of suffocating us. To live in a disconnected way in a world that is deeply connected, deeply transparent, is to deny reality. The times have changed, and we can change with it without a threat to the essential fabric of what it means to be Jewish.
I feel compelled to share the Torah I have come to love with Jews and non-Jews alike. It is my firm belief that the wisdom of Judaism can strengthen the lives of the Jews I live and work with. I also believe that the self-same wisdom is helpful for the non-Jews in my life. I readily share it without expectation that Jews will all keep kosher or keep the lesser known rite of not mixing linen and wool. Nor do I expect that non-Jews with whom I share Torah will magically become Jews. Preposterous. Instead, I expect that they come to understand my Jewish perspective, and see the value therein. Who is my Torah for? Ultimately, it is for me, but I like it so much I can’t help but try to share it.
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Every night, for years, when I put my son to bed, I enjoy the ritual (which I know will probably not last much longer) of lying down next to him and reading, and then, at lights out, I say, “Do you know how much I love you?” and he says ( these days, somewhat groaningly), “Yes….”
“How much do I love you?”
“More than the entire universe.”
But a few weeks ago, after the usual exchange, he asked me, “What if you had to choose between the whole universe and me?”
I have to admit, I didn’t really know what to say. He answered his own question, though: he continued, “you would have to choose the universe, because I can’t exist without the whole universe.”
I was reminded of this exchange recently when a colleague posted a question about how to explain the Akedah to a child. How do explain that we have a story in which God asks a father to sacrifice his child, and the father does so? A child that our story claims is beloved by the father?
It is unsatisfactory (and not true to the text) to say that Abraham actually failed the test. But what we can ask is what my child asked me, “What if you had to choose between the universe and me?” and realize that perhaps there is no answer, because without the universe, there is no saving even a remnant of it, and maybe that’s what the metaphor of the story is.
Imagine the uproar that would happen if a rabbi said that he or she composed a new Torah. The rabbi would face criticism across the board.
Recently one of our Rabbis Without Borders, Rabbi Zach Fredman shared a new “Torah” called The Maqam Project with some rabbis on a listserv. The negative reactions came swiftly. Not knowing that a “maqam” is a is an Arabic musical scale, similar to a jazz mode, which repeats a musical theme while allowing for and encouraging improvisation and has been used for centuries by Syrian Jews as a means of interpreting Torah, the rabbis on the listsev reviled Rabbi Fredman’s supposed “Torah.” Some ungraciously asked who was this guy? Was he even a rabbi?
Imagine their surprise when it turned out that Rabbi Fredman is reviving an ancient Judeo- Arabic tradition of Torah study. What he is doing may be new to us, but is actually quite old. Each weekly Torah potion has a melody that goes with its story line. Rabbi Fredman studied these melodies and then teamed up with another rabbi, James Stone Goodman, to create an interplay of poetry and music which explains the main themes in the weekly Torah portion.
Both the music, which has a distinctive Arabic sound and the spoken word, might sound strange to our Western ears. This is not how my Eastern European ancestors learned Torah. It is different, but it is also traditional Torah. What is old becomes new again.
The Maqam Project is border pushing in the Jewish world. It causes people like me, an American born and raised Ashkenazi Jew, to expand my understanding of what Torah is and how I can access it. I find it both unsettling and beautiful at the same time. I am thankful to have been given a new way to approach Torah.
Take a listen. I would be curious to hear your reactions.
“Do you know of a prayer for a surrogate?” The question came over Facebook Chat a few nights ago, sent by a young woman in my community named Tara. In the coming days, Tara will begin carrying an embryo for a couple who were not able to conceive on their own. For Tara, this has been a deep spiritual journey. She has two children of her own, and felt so blessed by easy and healthy pregnancies. And while cherishing her own beautiful sons, she felt overwhelmed by the deep pain and heartache that infertility causes to so many people. Tara knew she wanted to help.
In the Hebrew Bible, we meet many women who struggle with infertility. There’s Rachel, who watches her sister carry baby after baby, struggling herself to conceive her own beloved sons, Joseph and Benjamin. There’s Hannah, who is so deeply pained by her inability to bare a child, that when she prays with all of her heart, Eli the Cohen believes that her passion and her devotion is a sign of being drunk. Hannah sways back and forth, opening her mouth, and only releasing a voice that is loud enough for she herself to hear. This kavanah, or deep intention, is the model that we use for personal prayer today.
Possibly the most well known story of infertility is found in this week’s Torah portion—Vayera. After struggling for years to conceive, Sarah is told that she and Abraham will have a child in their old age – and she laughs, and thus the child is given the name Yitzhak. Our rabbis teach that her laughter carries with it a feeling of surprise and even doubt. And yet, I prefer to focus on the essential truth that exists within big, unbridled laughter—tremendous, heartfelt, contagious joy. Sarah would finally know the extraordinary joy of being a mother.
Today, I know so many women and men who desperately want to experience that very same joy.
In just a few short days, an embryo will be implanted within Tara’s uterus, formed by a loving mother and father who are unable to create a baby without Tara’s help. And so, for Tara, I have written this blessing:
Makor HaChayim, Source of Life,
Inspire me to become a holy vessel, blessed with the opportunity to carry this precious seed, providing nourishment and warmth within the deep embrace of my womb.
Infuse me with patience. Through each hour of each day, may I have the strength to feel the blessing of the moment, knowing that with each breath that we share, life is closer to being renewed.
Rekindle within me courage, for in holding this seed, I am not merely making a child—I am also creating a mother and a father. I am forming a family. And within that family, a whole universe of possibility dwells.
And at this time, especially, instill within me the power and potential of love, that I may remain tender and devoted to all those who are connected to my heart. As my body changes and grows, so may my capacity to embody love expand and unfold as well.
In the fortunate cases it is the grandparents, often it is the parents, and sometimes even a sibling who stands before the congregation and presents a tallit. Early in the service, the child celebrating becoming bar or bat mitzvah the tradition is literally handed down generation to generation. As the child takes the sacred object from their elders and wraps about their shoulders, the message of the day is clear. Just as I have done, you too shall do too.
Continuity has a power of its own. It is wondrous to see grandsons and sons stand side by side with fathers and grandfathers that are similarly wrapped. But even today rare is the grandmother or even the mother who covers the top of the beautiful outfit with a tallit. Yet, the girls in my community, with only the exception of those who affiliate Orthodox, not only wear a tallit on the day they celebrate becoming bat mitzvah but make it part of their regular religious garb. They are breaking new ground.
The tallit has become a symbol of not only of continuity but also of change.
On the rare occasions when I attended synagogue as a child, my father’s tallit was both a refuge and a source of entertainment. But when it came time to celebrate my coming of age, the mere fact that I would chant Torah (with my father saying the blessing with me—lest the agency be mine entirely) was so radical that we had to travel far from home to find a rabbi willing to allow it. A girl wearing a tallit was literally unthinkable.
At the start of the Jewish feminist movement, women and girls battled and largely won the right to take their place at the Torah. But when it came to adopting the ritual wear that historically goes with the privileges and opportunities of Torah reading, the issues were significantly more complex. In part, I suspect that there was a desire to push forward but not too much. Even as Jewish women asserted their power they did not want to ‘be men,’ as they were often accused of being. In addition to the historic prohibitions on women reading Torah, there are prohibitions against women taking on ‘the dress of men.’ Furthermore, 30 years ago the Reform movement, which played a significant role pioneering change, did not encourage ritual garb regardless of gender.
Today in most communities—even Orthodox ones—the place of women next to the Torah is no longer a question. But change is happening when it comes to tallit.
I bought my first tallit in my early 20s. It was large, woolen and woven like my fathers but had colored stripes instead of the traditional blues and blacks. It was as wildly different as the very fact that I dared wear such a thing. Today, as I shop with my daughter ahead of her being called to the Torah, I am struck by the array of feminine materials, cuts, colors and designs that she has to choose from in addition to the more historic types. No one would confuse a lace pink flowery tallit with the ‘dress of men.’ The modern bat mitzvah can choose a tallit that both expresses who she is as a person as well as her pride in her tradition.
Each time I attend bat mitzvah service in different synagogues of my community, I am struck by the passing on of the tallit. More than with the boys, this moment with the girl and her family encapsulates my hope for the next generation of Jews—regardless of gender. Wrap yourself in our tradition but make it your own and don’t be afraid of making change.
In just a couple weeks, with the help of God and the hospital staff, my family is going to undergo a noticeable change. In about two weeks my wife will deliver our second child. Our 2 1/2 year old son will for the first time not be the only child in the house but will need to contend with a baby brother. As someone who was an only child growing up I am fascinated by what will come next. What are sibling dynamics like? How will our older son adjust to his younger brother? What will our younger son learn from his older brother?
As we read the beginning stories of the Book of Genesis in synagogue, I can’t help but also think about the dynamics of siblings presented in the Torah. It seems like the track record for sibling success in the Bible is not so good. One can ponder Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau or Joseph and his brothers and find plenty of discord and disunity. It would seem reasonable to not turn to the Book of Genesis as a parenting book, especially on the parenting how-to’s of siblings.
Yet, parenting books can be as much about what to do as they can be about what not to do.The one lesson that stands out for me from the episodes we read is the danger of preferential treatment. Whether it is preferring the older sibling because he was your first child or preferring the younger because he will always be the baby, the Torah through these formative stories is sending a clear and resounding message: preferential parenting is wrong. The urge for preference must be resisted.
As we venture down the mysterious path of raising children we pay close attention to not only the lessons of what to do but also the lessons of what not to do and heed the warning of preferential treatment. While reading the stories of Biblical family dysfunction, I, for one, remain grateful for that lesson.
The NSA knows who you called last Tuesday at 8:00pm—should you care?
From an American civil liberties perspective, we have seen and heard a cacophony of reaction ever since news broke last Thursday, June 6, that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been given access to millions of our phone records, emails, and other personal information. Some see this as the unfortunate but necessary reality of living in a post-9/11 world in which the government needs greater access to information to combat terrorist threats. Others see this as a Constitutional violation of our privacy rights. Others, especially younger Americans who grew up with Facebook and Twitter, seem somewhat indifferent to the idea that the government is monitoring their communications. As the New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently put it, “After all, we live in a world where you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.”
The key to this issue, I believe, is whether we can trust our government to use Big Data appropriately and judiciously; whether government can exercise self-restraint given the powerful technological tools at its disposal. Given this context, I think Judaism has a lot to say about how we ought to respond to the NSA story. Specifically, I suggest that both Torah and Jewish history urge us to towards a cautionary and skeptical approach to this type of governmental expansion of power. The historical argument requires little explanation here. Jews have been subject to the whims of governments for millenia. As but one example, much of the medieval history of European Jewry—whether in Spain, Portugal, England, France, or Italy—is simply the history of Jewish communities first being welcomed and then expelled. There were often reasons for optimism during the “Golden Years” of expanding opportunity and tolerance, whether in 13th century Spain or 19th century Germany. But government overreach into Orwellian states of horror were not that far away. And we, as a people, continue to have a moral imperative—both out of self-preservation and out of a desire to be a light among nations—to speak out against contemporary instances of government overreach. (Are we also allowed to kvell about the fact that the reporter who broke the story is a Jew named Glen Greenwald?)
What about Torah? It turns out that the Torah portion this week, Parashat Hukkat, has something to say about governmental overreach in times of crisis. In Numbers 20, mid-way through the portion, the Israelites lack water and complain to Moses and Aaron about their conditions. It is the latest in a litany of grievances offered up by the Israelites since they began their journey from Sinai. While Moses has been patient with them up till now, even interceding with God on their behalf when God grew wrathful with their complaints, this time Moses loses his cool. God tells Moses to take his rod, assemble the community, and order a rock to yield water for them to drink. Instead, Moses takes his rod, yells at the Israelites, and strikes the rock with his rod. Water pours forth and the community drinks, but Moses and his brother Aaron get punished by God for failing to follow the correct procedures. God tells Moses and Aaron that “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12).
How could Moses, who so punctiliously followed God’s commands, screw up such a simple one? I suggest that, in the heat of the moment, Moses chose expediency over virtue. He had a problem, was angry that the people’s grumblings continued to persist, was given access to a technology that would resolve the problem by creating water, and acted on it.
This preference for expediency over virtue is precisely why we should be worried. If the greatest leader our people ever had, Moshe Rabbenu, was susceptible to using his power in a less than ideal way, then how much the more-so should we expect today’s leaders to overreach? “National security” has become one of the only bipartisan issue there is today, with both Democrats and Republicans sanctioning increased aggregation of power and spending of resources in response to every new threat or crisis. It is at times like these that the wisdom of our tradition, both textual and experiential, should compel us, as Jews, to speak out.
As of this writing, the following topics are trending on Twitter:
- Jason Collins
- Pacific Rim
- Nancy Pelosi
- Colbert Busch
(Yeah…I had to look up more than a couple too.)
What determines which topics trend on Twitter?
Trends are determined by an algorithm and are tailored for you based on who you follow and your location. This algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help you discover the hottest emerging topics of discussion on Twitter that matter most to you. ~ Twitter Help Center
In other words, it seems to be an objective way to rank information from subjective sources.
In 2009, Reconstructionist rabbi and web developer, Shai Gluskin, decided to leverage Twitter and its algorithm by using it as a way to bring Torah to as many people as possible on the evening of Shavuot. As he expressed it then (on Twitter):
It has yet to happen. Each year we have tried. And, if the sole goal was to reach the top ten, then each year we have failed. But along the way to the trending goal, some wonderful things happened that cannot be measured by algorithms or scales or charts:
Real Torah was taught. In 140 characters or less. Each year that I have participated, I have discovered wonderful teachers of Torah and sometimes in the most unexpected places. Other perspectives have caused me to reconsider my understanding of certain verses. And engaging in discussions of Torah with people of all streams of Judaism all across the world feels as though I am part of the Living Torah. It is, truly, like being at the foot of the Mountain.
Now, for the fifth consecutive year, we are ready to learn and teach and share once again. As Rabbi Mark Hurvitz, one of the most vocal advocates of this cyber-initiative, reminds us: Some people wonder why we might do this. Did not Hillel say that among our primary tasks is (Avot 1:12) loving mankind (all of humanity), and bringing them (all) close to Torah. אוהב את הברייות ומקרבן לתורה?
This year (2013:5773), our event is scheduled to begin May 14. You can learn more and indicate your interest on our Facebook page and, if you would like to join us on our climb, sign up on our event page.
Teaching Torah isn’t limited to rabbis or scholars or Orthodox Jews or even Jews. There is Torah within each one of us. What if for one amazing day we could focus our conversation not on #SexyThingsGirlsDo or Pacific Rim but on bringing forth sacred truths and sharing them straight to the top of the Mountain?
A couple of years ago, after several years of trying to get all the way through the counting of the Omer, I built an Omer-counter with a foolproof reminder system – my son. It’s based on the Christian advent calendar in that it’s a series of forty-nine boxes (seven rows of seven) which has randomly placed toys inside the boxes. NO more forgetting to count in the evening! Every night, I have an excellent reminder, and so I do not lose my chance to say the blessing when I count, or worse yet, forget altogether and have to quit counting for the year.
It’s a yearly frustration for lots of people who try to keep up with the Omer – it’s easy to screw it up and lose track, and according to the tradition, if you mess up, well, hey tough. You’re out of luck.
That’s why it’s odd that about a month into the Omer (today, in fact) there’s a little known holiday that’s about …second chances. Pesach sheni ( or “second passover”) is a biblically based holiday that happens because, as is related in Numbers chapter 9, when God commands the Israelites, a year after the exodus, to bring the passover offering, there were certain people who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and so, could not prepare the Passover offering on that day.
They approached Moses and Aaron and said, “We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of God in its appointed season among the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7). After these people approached Moses and Aaron, God tells them that from then on, if anyone is ritually impure on passover, or is unable to keep passover for some other reason beyond their control, “he shall keep the passover unto God in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” (Numbers 9:11)
Pesach sheni is a strange holiday. We don’t really observe it – mostly because there isn’t really anything to observe – there’s no requirements, since we no longer bring sacrifices. And yet, it’s sort of a shame. Here we are, in the midst of a period where every day counts, where there are no second chances, where you have to get it exactly right, or you lose your chance (at least until next year), and there’s this holiday that interrupts it for the purpose of giving a second chance for a holiday that occurred a month prior – and not only that, but it’s the only holiday we have the sole purpose of which is to make up for a holiday that someone missed out on.
What is that all about?
Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn is cited by his son-in-law as saying that, “Pesach Sheni teaches us that ‘Nothing is ever lost: it’s never too late!” and then the latter Schneersohn goes on to say, “Our conduct can always be rectified. Even someone who is impure, who was far away and even desired to be so, can still correct himself.” He continues, “Given the significance of Pesach Sheni, one might ask: Why was it instituted a full month after Pesach, in the month of Iyar? Wouldn’t it have been better to atone for our deficiencies at the earliest opportunity, in Nissan?”
“We can answer this question by comparing the spiritual characteristics of Nissan and Iyar. Nissan is the month of revelation, the month during which God revealed His greatness and redeemed the Jewish people despite their inadequacies. Iyar, by contrast, is the month of individual endeavor, a quality that is exemplified by the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer. The theme of Iyar, self-refinement initiated by the individual himself, is in keeping with the nature of Pesach Sheni, the festival in which an individual who was not motivated by Pesach is given an additional opportunity to elevate himself.”
So, two things:
First, the key to pesach sheni is precisely that it does occur a month later, during the Omer. Unlike the first Pesach, which is a national holiday, Pesach sheni is an individual’s holiday. The second thing is the way in which Pesach sheni came about – unlike well, pretty much everything else in the Torah, it isn’t initiated by God, given to Moses and Aaron and then passed on to the people. Instead, Pesach sheni is initiated by the people themselves, by a group of individuals. In fact, I know of really only one other case like this one: the daughters of Tzelophechad (which also appears in the book of Numbers, farther along, in Numbers 27), who challenged a law of inheritance whereby only sons could inherit, even if there weren’t any. They brought their challenge and God told Moses that they were right and amended the law.
I think that that parallel to the daughters of Tzelophechad is the key to why this is the only holiday that is a “make-up” for another holiday. It’s not just that it’s a group of individuals who want a make-up. It’s that these individuals saw a specific wrong that they wanted addressed, and they wanted it addressed for the sake of justice to individuals who have no control over being excluded from the nation. In the case of Tzelophechad’s daughters, the case is their sex; in the case of pesach sheni, it’s because they were doing another mitzvah ( caring for the dead). But the important thing is that these two cases are things which exclude them from the body of the nation in some crucial way. It is because of this that they take their complaint to God, and God answers them, “Of course, you are right.”
IN recent days, when we have seen so much change so quickly both in the Jewish community and out of it in regards to gay marriage and inclusion, this is a message that we should all take to heart. Pesach sheni isn’t merely a second chance for the individuals who were excluded, but is a second chance for the nation to include in its inheritance and in its moment of revelation everyone who throws their lot in with the Jewish people. Because even God can make a mistake, and even God can admit it and rectify it.