Seasons of Shabbat

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Shabbat experiences are part of our lives, and they change over the course of a lifetime. The Shabbat we remember (or don’t) from our childhoods is not the Shabbat we will have as new parents. Single adults will have a different Shabbat, as will empty nesters.

There is no “perfect” Shabbat. Stop looking for it. Instead, experience the Shabbat that comes. Sometimes it will seem peaceful and holy, and sometimes the sink will stop up or the baby will wail half the night. Sometimes we are surrounded by people, sometimes we are alone.

Shabbat simply is. She comes with the sunset and will leave 24 hours later. In between it is up to us to make of her what we can, what we will.

Shabbat shalom.

Psalm For a Very Dark Night

"another sleepless night" by elias quezada, some rights reserved

Today was an awful news day, with terrible events that left families in mourning.

Jewish tradition has given us the book of Psalms, ancient prayers that address every imaginable human emotion.

Sometimes people are put off by the God-language, which may not align with their beliefs about God. However, if we focus on the Psalms as expressions of human experience, they can offer the comfort that we are never truly alone with our feelings. Whatever I feel, many others have had that hurt or that joy before me.

Here is Psalm 77.  The speaker is in agony and sleepless, and he describes it in terms that are still quite fresh.  He used to feel secure, but now he does not. On a day like today this Psalm speaks to me:

To the leader: according to Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
    ¹ I cry aloud to God,
    aloud to God, that God may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Eternal;
    in the night my hand is stretched out without rest;
    my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
    I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah!

You keep my eyelids from closing;
    I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
    and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
    I meditate and search my spirit:
“Will the Eternal spurn forever,
    and never again be favorable?
Has God’s steadfast love ceased forever?
    Are God’s promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
    Has God in anger shut down compassion?” Selah!
10 And I say, “It is my grief
    that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

11 I will call to mind the deeds of the Eternal;
    I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work,
    and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
    What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
    you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
    the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah!

16 When the waters saw you, O God,
    when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
    the very deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
    the skies thundered;
    your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
    your lightnings lit up the world;
    the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea,
    your path, through the mighty waters;
    yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock
    by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Is there a psalm or a prayer that speaks to you during very difficult times? Why that particular one?

Bal Tashkeit: Do Not Destroy

auhi-800
Looks fancy to me.

Today my cell phone company taught me how to do a mitzvah. Who knew that they could help with mitzvot?

My old phone had many bad habits that were getting worse. I asked the customer service rep if I could repair it. I could, Mike said, but that would take two weeks. Can you give up your phone for 14 days? I can’t.

I fussed at Mike that I hate buying a new cell phone every two years. It’s wasteful of my money, it’s wasteful of rare minerals, it’s wasteful of the labor to make the phone, and so on. I’m sure poor Mike has heard it all before. Then the miracle happened: Mike informed me that there is another way.

Step 1: Buy a used reconditioned phone. Someone sold it back to the company, probably to buy something newer and fancier, and the company fixed it up and slapped a nice warranty on it.

Step 2: After I transfer all my contacts and dog photos to the new phone, I can sell the old phone back to the company, presumably to be fixed up and sold again or to be parts for other fixed-up phones.

Now I have a smartphone that meets my needs and cost much less. Better yet, it did not use additional scarce materials from worrisome sources. Best of all, I can continue this cycle. If the phone were simply old, not crotchety, I could donate it to a nonprofit and they could use it. Either way, it’s a mitzvah.

The name of the mitzvah is Bal Tashcheit: do not destroy. We derive this mitzvah from a curious source, the rules for war in Deuteronomy:

When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? –Deuteronomy 20:19

Our sages determined that the sin in cutting down those trees is waste. They expanded their understanding of those verses to include household waste and today it is a source for talking about the sin of environmental waste. We are stewards of the earth, not owners of it. We must not destroy resources just because it suits us to do so or is convenient.

And as for Mike, I thanked him. I don’t know where he is, but I hope he sleeps well tonight, having helped a rabbi do a little mitzvah.

Ask the Rabbi: Hostess gifts at Passover?

Ask the RabbiA reader asks: What can I bring as a gift to a Passover seder?

First and foremost, unless you are certain of your hosts’ Passover practices, don’t bring any food that is loose or homemade. While there are basic rules for Passover that apply in most households, no two families are exactly the same. Food marked “Kosher for Passover” in an sealed, unopened package is probably all right but for myself, I tend to avoid all food gifts at this time of year unless I have special knowledge of tastes and Jewish observance in that home.

Some good non-food items to bring:

  1. An interesting Haggadah is a nice gift. Some have beautiful illustrations, some have texts or commentary by famous rabbis, and some are just unusual.
  2. Small housewares are welcome this time of year: dish clothes, napkins, placemats, salt-and-pepper shakers, etc. Many families pack away their “regular” wares in favor of “Passover” things and so something new is particularly welcome at this time.
  3. Flowers are always lovely.
  4. If there are children in the house, bringing a Passover book, puzzle or toy for children is a very nice thing to do.
  5. Books or games are a fine idea.

If nothing on this list appeals to you, perhaps it has given you other ideas. Readers, can you suggest gifts you have given at Passover time that have been particularly welcome?

Mazal Tov!: Some Thoughts on Growing Pains

Zodiac mosaic in a 6th century synagogue in Beit-Alpha, Israel.  (Image: maksim)

“Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow! Grow!'”

Lovely, no? This quotation, attributed to “The Talmud” appears in various places online. The only trouble with it is that it was translated so sweetly that it has lost its meaning. The moral of that  story: be careful about alleged quotations on the Internet, especially if translation is involved.

“The Talmud” is huge. The closest I’ve been able to come to locating this alleged quotation is something from rabbinic literature, but not in the Talmud. It’s from a collection of midrash called Bereshit Rabbah:

“Ben Sira said: God caused herbs to spring forth from the earth: with them the physician heals the wound and the apothecary compounds his preparations. R. Shimon said: There is not a single herb but has a mazal [constellation] in the heavens which strikes it and says, “Grow!” – Bereshit Rabbah 10.6 (my translation)

Translation is an art, and sometimes the most literal translation is not the most accurate in transmitting the meaning of a passage. However, sugar-coated translations can do more harm than good when they virtually reverse the meaning of a passage. The literal translation suggests that even plants have a destiny [a horoscope, at a time when rational people put faith in such things,] Rabbi Shimon adds that living up to destiny is not always a pleasant process: this mazal* “strikes” (and yes, that’s the verb, from the same root that gives us “flogging” for punishment) the plant and says to it, “Grow!”

Certainly it is more pleasant to think of angels whispering to blades of grass than it is to think of the stars whipping medicinal herbs into shape. Unpleasant or not, this midrash has something important to teach about growth: it often hurts. Leaving Egypt was a painful process: Pharaoh increased the workload, then God started bringing the plagues, most of which affected Israelites as well as Egyptians, then the scary night of escape, then the scary passage to and through the Reed Sea. Then everything else. If there was a pleasant, quiet “spiritual” moment in all that process, the Torah doesn’t record it.

We call them “growing pains” for a reason: growth hurts. That is why it behooves us, out of the mitzvah of kindness to suffering creatures, to treat those who are learning with kindness. No angels are bending over them whispering. No, whatever Torah they are called to do in the world is calling to them, striking them, saying, “Grow! Darnit, grow!”

And when we feel own growing pains, we must remember that like the medicinal herbs in this midrash, we are called to something important, in our case, lives of Torah. Growing in Torah is sometimes a painful process. Feeling the pain is not necessarily a sign that we’re on the wrong road: sometimes it is a sign that we’re actually feeling the growth.

That’s why we need teachers and advisers, why it is often said that “Every Jew needs a rabbi.” We must talk with our guides, reflect with them, when we feel growing pains. They may just be a sign that we’re well on our way to that “mazal,” the destiny which is ours to fulfill.

*Mazal did not mean “luck” in the time of Bereshit Rabbah. It meant “constellation” or “arrangement of stars” and “mazal tov” meant something along the lines of “the stars were in your favor!” It has survived as an idiom of congratulation in both Hebrew and Yiddish, even though we no longer believe that our fates can be predicted or manipulated with astrology. 

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#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions.

Welcome to Nisan!

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A few blooms announce the arrival of spring.
It’s Nisan! It’s Spring!

This is a few hours early – Nisan doesn’t officially begin until sundown. But yes, Adar is almost gone and Nisan is upon us.

Nisan was counted as the first month of the year in the Biblical calendar, in which it is called “Aviv.” That is one reason that 1st Nisan is one of the four New Years in the Jewish calendar.  Nisan is the Babylonian name for the month, which we brought back from Babylon when Cyrus the Great authorized the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple and the Babylonian Exile ended. (Ezra 1:1-2)

Nisan has important holidays and observances:

  • 14 NisanFast of the Firstborn – falls on 12 Nisan when the 14th falls on Sabbath
  • 15-21 NisanPassover – also 22 Nisan in the Diaspora, except for Reform Jews.
  • 27 NisanYom HaShoah – falls on 26 Nisan or 28 Nisan when the 27th falls on Friday or Sunday respectively, interfering with Shabbat.

So now that it’s Nisan, time is very short to prepare for Passover! Some articles that may help:

Passover Preparation for Beginners (Good if you are feeling overwhelmed or confused)

Preparing for Passover: Six Ways to Prepare (Expands the possibilities a bit)

7  Facts about Passover (for very beginners)

Preparing for Exodus: Books  Books about Passover

Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success

Seven Ways to Be a Great Passover Seder Guest

What I’m Reading Now

bookI’m down with back problems at the moment, on orders not to sit too much. My posts will be limited until things improve. In the meantime, here’s what I’m reading lately on my e-reader:

Just finished The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor by Joel M. Hoffman. This is a wonderful book by an author who genuinely knows his subject. There is so much garbage available about “bible codes” and “secret books” and such nonsense, Dr. Hoffman’s scholarship and readability are a fresh breath. If you crave “Bible secrets,” check him out. He has real secrets to tell.

I’m just starting Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. I originally learned of it from a current Intro student, who recommended it highly. I did some quick online research on Dr. Snyder (distinguished scholar at Yale, widely respected for his scholarship, check!) and the reviews of the book (most agree it’s top notch scholarship) and I bought my copy. I’ll let you know what I think.

Also on my reading table (I like to keep a lot of things going at once, always have):

Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea by Reuven Firestone. Full disclosure: Rabbi Dr. Firestone is one of my favorite and most-admired teachers at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, the Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam there and President Elect of the International Qur’anic Studies Association. I took every class he offered while I was at HUC/LA, and when he publishes a book, I read it. If you’d like to get to know him a bit, I recommend this article from the Forward.

Body Respect: What Conventional Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand about Weight, by Linda Bacon, PhD, and Lucy Aphramor, PhD, RD. Linda Bacon’s previous book,  Health at Every Size, was a game-changer for me as a fat woman. I’m looking forward to reading this new book.

You’ll recognize these books, which I have in hardback on my study table at the moment. I listed them in a previous post about Passover reading:

Arnow, David and others, My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts & Modern Commentaries, (2 vols) These volumes, like those from the popular series My People’s Prayer Book open up the haggadah in multiple ways for learners.

Tabory, Joseph and Stern, David: The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah. This is a heavy-duty scholarly commentary on the haggadah, not for beginners or the faint of heart, but very satisfying for some.

OK, my time is up. I apologize for any typos and will come back and fix them when I have “sitting time.”