A Post During Shabbat?

Shabbat table

Sometimes I debate leaving messages here to post over Shabbat. I worry that I’m sending the wrong message about Shabbat, that I’m encouraging people to use the computer or to work on the holy day.

However, this blog isn’t for the talmid chacham (the person very wise in the life of Torah.) I like to have something scheduled to post for the person who is alone and lonely over Shabbat, and for the newcomer to Judaism who isn’t organized for Shabbat quite yet. Maybe Shabbat has been working on your heart to bring you to look for Jewish content during this time, or maybe you know it is Shabbat and you’re interested and don’t know what to do.

And of course, some of you will find it after Shabbat is over, and that’s fine too.

Feel free to browse around. I’ve got some messages marked “Especially for Beginners” (see drop-down menu to the right on your screen) and those may be particularly helpful. Just make yourself at home.

I hope that you have a blessed Shabbat, whatever that means for you right now, wherever you are in your own personal Jewish journey. You’re welcome here.

Shabbat Shalom!

Books for Elul & the High Holy Days

books

Wondering how to prepare for the High Holy Days? One way many Jews prepare is with a good book. Here are some  books I have used for this purpose:

And now, dear readers, what have I left out? Is there a book you’ve used for High Holy Day preparation that you particularly recommend? Please share it with us in the comments!

Pay Attention, Israel!

sign language

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One!

When I served Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, I worked to learn how to say my prayers in ASL, American Sign Language. As is always the case with translation, there were some tricky bits about making the words of the prayers truly available to the congregation.  The first word of the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism, is usually translated “hear.” The problem is that to say that word to a group of Deaf people would lose the very essence of the prayer, because it immediately excluded them.

This dilemma is handled in various ways in various Deaf Jewish communities, but at TBS, they use the sign for “understand” to translate “Shema.” It is a gesture that begins with a closed fist at the forehead, palm toward the face. Then the index finger pops up, thus:

(I am saying “understand” here because that is what the sign means in standard ASL.)

It can be very disturbing when a prayer is translated differently, or when we sing it to a new tune. I originally found this translation of the Shema to be very troubling, because I was accustomed to “Hear.” I still think that had it been my decision, I’d have gone with “Pay attention!” However, the unfamiliar translation made me start thinking: what best communicates the spirit of the Shema?

Now, when I say the Shema, I listen to it in Hebrew, in English, and yes, in ASL. Every new translation possibility has enriched my understanding of the raw Hebrew. Every possibility of meaning collapses back into

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!

What does “Shema” mean to you?

Why We Love “Once-a-Year” Jews

rabbiadar:

This conversation is so wonderful, I can’t wait to share it via my own blog.

Originally posted on downtowndvar:

In this blog dialogue, Rabbis Elyse Goldstein of City Shul and Ed Elkin of the First Narayever Congregation, friends and colleagues in downtown Toronto, converse on matters of contemporary Jewish import. We publish everytime the spirit moves us, or when you send us a hot-button question. Readers are welcome to submit suggestions for future topics in the comments below.

Elyse Goldstein holding Torah mantle

Hi Ed,

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. I imagine how it feels to shul regulars: a fashion-show of strangers, preening, talking, walking in and out, coming late, leaving early. It’s a bad theatre scene— with people exiting before or even during the final act. It’s a concert gone wrong— with fans singing their hearts out while the others don’t know the songs, weren’t there when the band first formed, and don’t understand the lyrics. 

And I also imagine how it feels to those who come only for those days: they’ve…

View original 1,720 more words

Why Ants & Mosquitoes?

ants

Sometimes real life intrudes on blogging. Yesterday I spent too much of my day fighting an ant invasion. Since I have dogs, I needed to avoid poisons, which meant that whatever I did was going to be a bit more labor intensive than liberal use of a can of Raid.

We have called a truce, I think. I was too much trouble and they are looking elsewhere. (I hope.)

In the midst of all this tsuris, I had an appointment with my trainer to work out. She asked me, “Why do Jews think God made ants and mosquitoes?” I’ve been thinking on that one ever since.

My first thought was a resounding “I don’t know.” A lot about God is mysterious, as I wrote last week.  Only fundamentalists think that religion should answer every question. For most Jews, religion raises more questions than it does answers, and that’s how we think it should be. Torah spurs us to ask the big questions and to struggle with possibilities.

But it occurred to me that in this case, we have a little more information. In the book 1491: New Revelation of the Americas Before Columbus, science writer Charles C. Mann points out that many species we take for granted as “local” today actually are exotics, foreign imports, that traveled to far parts of the globe after Europeans began traveling and trading.  The mosquito is one such critter. Originally most species were confined to Southeast Asia, but soon after 1492, they spread over the globe. In other words, in the now-distant past, many species we experience as pests may have lived in a much better balance with nature in the past than they do now.

So perhaps “Why did God make the mosquito?” is not the right question. Maybe the better question is, “What are we going to do about the fact that mosquitoes are a vector for disease in our world today?” And perhaps, since the ubiquity of ‘skeeters is an unintended consequence of mercantilism and colonialism, we should learn to ask more questions before we embark on ambitious projects, and keep an eye out for the fallout of our experiments.

When it comes to ants, I know that they have many useful and admirable qualities. I just don’t want them in my house. For now, I am trying to convince the Ant Mob to stay outdoors by deploying diatomaceous earth in their trails leading into my home. It’s my way of saying, “Go away!”

Here’s hoping they take the hint!

Murky Sunset

SFBaySunset 8/15

Last night’s sunset was downright creepy. The Sabbath departed amidst the smoke of several huge fires upstate. The horizon was obliterated by the filth in the air; the murk appeared to swallow the burning orange ball of the sun.

The land is dry from four years of drought. Unwise management in the past has left us with a huge fuel load in many of our wild lands, and in some places there are stands of exotic (non-native) plants that add to the danger because they are rich in super-flammable oils. Now firefighters are risking their lives to try to protect people, animals, and property from the ravages of the fires – and fire season in California has months yet to go.

The facts of the drought here in California are sobering: right now, we have made our water supply almost completely dependent on the Sierra snow pack, which has not been replenished in four winters. The coming El Niño weather system may or may not bring the snow our system requires. Paleoclimate research by Dr. Lynn Ingram at UC Berkeley suggests that we are entering a period of prolonged drought: the “unusual weather” was the weather of the last 100 years, not this new and much drier weather. Ever since the snowpack water has gone, farmers in the Central Valley have been drawing on groundwater, a very limited resource that is also going dry. Many people in the Valley no longer have running water at home. Some species, like the Coho salmon, are now nearing extinction. And it is fair to say that this summer the state is burning up. Right this moment, 21 huge fires are burning across the state, only a few contained by firefighters (meaning that firefighters have managed to keep them from spreading, but they are still burning.)

What are we to do?

At least twice every day from the end of Sukkot to Passover, an observant Jew prays the words, “Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem.” [who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.] It is a daily prayer for rain, composed originally in the Land of Israel, which has a climate much like ours in California. Rain falls mostly in the wintertime, and it is scarce enough to be a constant concern. So it became our practice to pray for rain in its season.

In the dry season, we pray for dew (“morid hatal”) which reminds us that the tiniest drop of moisture is precious. When we cannot expect rain, we must still pray for dew, so that life can continue. The very text of our prayer causes us to remain mindful of water, regardless of current circumstance.

According to the experts, a lack of mindfulness about water is a big part of our problem right now. We have consumed recklessly, assuming that the snow will come to the Sierras so that we can plant whatever and wherever we want. We can use water – a limited resource – in whatever way amuses us, and we act as if we can afford to waste it.

Some Jews also recite the verses from Deuteronomy that make up the “second paragraph” of the Shema in their daily prayers:

So if you listen carefully to my mitzvot which I am giving you today, to love the Eternal your God and serve him with all your heart and all your being; then I will give your land its rain at the right seasons, including the early fall rains and the late spring rains; so that you can gather in your wheat, new wine and olive oil; and I will give your fields grass for your livestock; with the result that you will eat and be satisfied.’  But be careful not to let yourselves be seduced, so that you turn aside, serving other gods and worshipping them. If you do, the anger of the Eternal will blaze up against you. He will shut up the sky, so that there will be no rain. The ground will not yield its produce, and you will quickly pass away from the good land the Eternal is giving you. Therefore, you are to store up these words of mine in your heart and in all your being; tie them on your hand as a sign; put them on your forehead; teach them carefully to your children, saying them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up; and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates — so that you and your children will live long on the land the Eternal swore to your ancestors that he would give them for as long as there is sky above the earth. – Deuteronomy 11:13-21

Some may scoff and say, “Oh, rabbi, do you really think that drought is a punishment from God?” I believe that it is, given my understanding of “God.” When we disregard the laws of nature, when we act as if  we can consume resources at will, without concern for anything or anyone else, when we worship the idols of the market and technology, we court disaster.

What can we do? Prayer and study are a beginning. Let us listen to the words of our prayers as we say them, and remember that we are merely stewards of creation, not the owners of it. While some make a pshat (surface) reading of Genesis 1 and say, “Ahh, we can do whatever we want!” the rabbis have long cautioned us that this is an improper reading. In Kohelet Rabbah 7:13, we learn that:

God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

The words of Torah in our prayers teach us  that we are the stewards of creation. We have more important things to do than merely to consume goods and services. We must care for creation, and for one another, whether we do that by fighting fires or by conserving limited resources. We can do it in our homes and in the voting booth. We can do it with our choices about consumption and tzedakah.

It is not too late to change our ways.

Love in the Time of Elul

Elul

We are now in the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year. Elul is spelled thus in Hebrew:

אלול

Aleph – Lamed – Vav – Lamed

There is a tradition dating from ancient times that Elul is an acronym for a passage from Song of Songs:

I am my beloved and my beloved is mine. – Song of Songs 6:3

But that raises the question: what on earth can a piece of erotic poetry teach us about this time of year?

Song of Songs is a long love poem, and it is usually associated with springtime. However, at this time of year opposite the springtime, we read it as an analogy: it is also an expression of the longing of Israel and God for one another.

I can hear the screech of brakes through my modem. Some of you, my readers, are thinking, “Oh! I cannot stand it when she does that God-talk!” So let’s talk about that.

There’s a lot of God-talk during this season and the upcoming High Holy Days. If you are the sort of rational person who finds that off-putting, it’s a tough time of year to be Jewish. So here’s an idea: try hearing “God” and all those metaphors for God as “Mystery.”

As chaotic and mean as this world often is, occasionally goodness breaks through the fog of chaos and meanness. That goodness is a Mystery to us: we experience it in the love of a little dog, the kindness of a stranger, the patter of unexpected rain in a drought.

We sometimes also experience Mystery in moments of terror and grief: a natural disaster, a tragic loss, an experience of fathomless pain.

The common element between these two is that human hearts cry out “WHY?” at them, and it seems as if the question has no rational answer. That’s the moment when we can step out of the rational world and into something my old theology professor Langdon Gilkey used to call “the theological circle.” That which we call “God” is the answer to the “WHY?” poured from the human heart.

So try substituting “Mystery” for “God” and see if it helps.

OK – let’s get back to that acronym and the love poem! This is the time of year when we explore the mysteries of existence, the questions and the secrets in our hearts. The sages connected the letters of Elul with the Song of Songs because this is the time of year that we search out our connections to the Mystery that is God, and they believed that the Mystery of God was searching for us, too. Like lovers, we and the Mystery at the heart of the universe are searching for one another, hoping for a reunion that will heal our hearts.

I wish you a good journey through this month of Elul!