Texts for Father’s Day

Here in the U.S., today is Father’s Day. Some texts from the Bible:

Honor your father and your mother – Exodus 20:12

Hear, my son, the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teaching of your mother; For they shall be a chaplet of grace upon your head, and chains about your neck. – Proverbs 1:8-9

He who fears Adonai has a secure fortress, and for his children it will be a refuge. – Proverbs 14:26

As a father has compassion on his children, so Adonai has compassion on those who fear him. – Psalm 103:13

And from the Talmud:

Our Rabbis taught: A father has the following obligations towards his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him, if he is a firstborn, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a craft or a trade. And there are some who say that he must also teach him how to swim.– Kiddushin 29a

Our Rabbis taught: What is reverence and what is honor? Reverence means that the child must neither stand nor sit in the parent’s place, may not contradict a parent’s words, nor do anything that harms a parent’s interests. Honor means that a child must give a parent food, drink, and clothing, and provide transport. – Kiddushin 31b

The folk saying goes: What the child says out in the street comes either from his father or his mother. – Sukkah 56b

Do you have a favorite text about fathering or parenthood?

Don’t Give Up – Even on Korach!

This week we read about Korach and his followers in Numbers 16-18, one of the grimmest stories in the Torah. Korach, a Levite, challenges the leadership of Moses. Moses refers the dispute to God. God blasts Korach and his followers, causing some to be consumed by fire and some to be swallowed by a huge opening in the earth. Frankly, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3 offers us a list of those “who have no portion in the world to come:” the Flood generation. the Babel generation, the men of Sodom, and the Spies who rejected the land of Israel. Then it offers us an additional list about which the sages disagreed: according to Rabbi Akiva, the generation of the Wilderness, the congregation of Korach, and the Ten Tribes also have no place in the world to come. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. For each of those, he cites a text suggesting that redemption is possible. For the people of Korach, he cites a line from the prayer of Hannah: “The LORD kills, and makes alive; He brings down to the grave, and brings up.” (1 Samuel 2:6)

The Torah text seems unequivocal in its condemnation of Korach: all is lost, the men offering incense are burnt up like Nadav and Abihu, and God commands Moses to order Eleazar remove the fire pans and have them made into plating for the altar, as a warning.

But our sages were not content to give up on the followers of Korach. From the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis persist in a hope that they will yet be found, like “a lost object that is still being sought,” in the words of R. Yehudah ben Betera (Sanhedrin 109b.) Shall we not follow their example, then, and refuse to give up on our fellow Jews, even when we think they are utterly wrong about something?

A version of this drash appeared earlier this year in the CCAR Newsletter.

Shelach-Lecha: Another Year Older

Mikveh, Oakland, CA

I’m celebrating an anniversary this week.

There are various ways of keeping track of things in Jewish time. One can celebrate the exact date of something in the Jewish calendar (say, 11 Sivan, 5774) or the Gregorian calendar (June 8, 2014.) My way of keeping track of this anniversary is to celebrate when a particular Torah portion comes up in the calendar: this week’s portion, Shelach-Lecha, the story of the scouts (Numbers 31:1 – 15:41.)

Shelach-Lecha was the Torah portion the week I became a Jew. I think of this week (whenever it falls, depending on the year) as my Jewish birthday, and it’s a big deal to me, in a quiet sort of way. I don’t give a party, but I do attend services and spend some time reflecting on my life as a Jew.

The story in the portion is pivotal for the Israelites in the wilderness. God tells Moses to send scouts into the Promised Land, as they are camped just outside it. God even tells Moses which men to send. Twelve scouts go into the land. Ten of them report that it is totally scary, the people are giants, and we’ll all die there. Two scouts, Joshua and Caleb, come back and say, hey, it’s fine. The people are so frightened by the account of the ten, however, that they panic. God is disgusted by their reaction, and says that clearly these people are not ready for the Promised Land – the next generation will get to go, but not them. And that’s how the 40 years in the desert happened.

What I took from the story at the time of my conversion was simple: “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” There were things about Judaism and the Jewish community at Temple Sinai that I loved. But I knew that there was lots I didn’t know; I was more ignorant than many of the children. I’d taken an “Intro” class, I’d studied for a year, but I found Hebrew very difficult and some of the social stuff very challenging. For instance, I wasn’t a “huggy” person – I never touched strangers – and at that synagogue, people were constantly hugging and kissing (and for the record, they still do.) I wanted to fit in, but I still had a lot of fears.

Years later, I know that it was reasonable to have some fears. But I am so very glad that I took the risk of “entering the Land.”

The story in the Torah is full of people taking risks. Some were very well-calculated risks, but others were true leaps of faith. At Sinai, as they are offered the Torah, the people say, “We will do and we will hear.”  In other words, they agreed to the Torah before they knew what was in it. Becoming a Jew is something like that: you learn what you can, you hang with the community and see what it’s like, and then the day comes when it’s time to commit.

There has been some discussion of late in the Jewish press, wondering if the process of conversion is too long and too involved. “Should we be more welcoming?” some wonder, meaning by that, “Should conversion be an easier, shorter process?”

My take on it is that a year is the least it can take in most circumstances. Becoming a Jew is a shift of identity, and it has many aspects. Candidates for conversion often encounter surprises. Some discover that the parents they thought would be horrified, weren’t. Others discover that their relatives are antisemites. Some discover that it really hurts not to have Christmas, and others are surprised when they hardly miss it. Some find that the more they go to synagogue, the happier they are – and others find that they don’t enjoy being part of the community. Some think about Israel for the first time, and have to get used to the idea that as a Jew, they will be connected to it whether they like it or not.

It takes time to have these experiences. It takes time and support to process them. And some of those experiences may be deal-breakers. It’s easy to focus on the intellectual tasks: learning prayers and vocabulary. However, the emotional work of this transition is very serious business. It involves letting go of some aspects of the self, and adopting new aspects of identity. I am still the person who showed up at the rabbi’s office, all those years ago – I still have memories of Catholic school, and my Catholic school handwriting. I had to let go of some things: my habit of crossing myself whenever I heard a siren, for instance. It was a reflex left over from years before, but it took time to fade away. It took time and effort to figure out how I might respond as a Jew to a sign that someone was in trouble.

After a year of study, that process was well underway, but I can’t imagine being “ready” any sooner.

The ten scouts were scared. They weren’t ready. I suspect that even though Joshua and Caleb are celebrated as “good” scouts, they weren’t really ready either. They talked as if going into the Land was no big deal.

It takes time to change, and change is an uncomfortable process. The midbar, the wilderness, is a frustrating place. It’s big and formless and full of scary things. But sometimes it is only by passing through the wilderness that we can become our truest selves.

The Nazirite Puzzle

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, describes procedures for exiting a mysterious state: the vow of the Nazirite. (It is sometimes spelled Nazarite.)

First of all, if you are thinking, well, Nazirite and Nazareth sound similar, sorry to disappoint. They are not related.

In Numbers 6, we read about the Nazirite vow. A person taking the vow promises to abstain from certain pleasures for a named period of time. They vow not to drink wine, grapes, grape products, and any fermented drink, including vinegar. They vow not to cut their hair, and they vow not to come in contact with, or even come near a dead body, even a close relative. The only reason given in Numbers 6 for taking these vows is “to set themselves apart for the Eternal.” The Nazirite vow is a Jewish practice so far out of use that it is largely a puzzle to us.

This week’s Haftarah (prophetic reading) gives us one of the two examples of a Nazirite in Tanakh, Samson. You can read his story in the book of Judges, chapters 13 – 16. The other Nazirite in Tanakh was the prophet Samuel. In both of those cases, the Nazirite himself didn’t make the vow; it was made on his behalf before his birth by his mother. Nor did either man seek release from the vow; Samson was clearly not happy with the vow, but he seems unaware of any exit from it. The fact that the two “case studies” we have seem divergent from the description of it in Torah contributes to the puzzles around the vow.

Today it is still theoretically possible to make such a vow, but there are some difficulties. The main issue is that since the Nazirite requires a Temple rite to reunite with the people and conclude the vow, any Nazirite vow taken today is permanent.  The other issue is the seriousness of taking vows. A vow, or neder, is a very serious matter in Jewish tradition. There is a large body of Jewish law concerning vows. However, the short version is very simple: Jewish tradition discourages us from making vows.

It is now extremely rare in modern Jewish practice for anyone to make a vow, because it is understood to be a binding step. You may hear someone make a statement about something he or she will do in the future, but they will hedge that statement with “blee neder” – “without a vow” – so that should something fall through, they do not incur the penalties of breaking a vow.

How hard do you think it would be to keep the Nazirite vow? Can you imagine reasons anyone might take it today?

The Corners of My Field

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 23:22 (Parashat Emor)

It looks so simple, on the surface: when you gather the harvest, leave some for the poor. Why, then, do we need an entire tractate of the Talmud to talk about it, and why does Maimonides devote an entire volume of the Mishneh Torah to it?

The commandment may be simple, but human nature is not. The minute people heard “leave the corners, leave the gleanings” the questions began: how much of the corners? On every field of any size? And what exactly are gleanings? What if a worker drops an entire basket of produce? What if you don’t have a field, but a silver smithy? What if the harvest is really bad that year? What about… on and on.

There are also questions about the recipients: who gets the gleanings? Who are the poor? Who is the stranger? Why do they deserve free stuff?

Actually, that last question is a ringer. The rabbis addressed the question of fraud but they don’t question that a poor person deserves food to eat. Indeed, Maimonides says that while we can question a beggar’s request for money, if a person asks for food, if they say they are hungry, the observant Jew has to give, or at the very least, speak kindly when they say a regretful “no.”

I live in a part of the country where I am asked for money on the street on a regular basis. I have a son who trained as a social worker who feels very strongly that one should not give street people money. I have a colleague who has made a very cogent argument for giving money to people who ask for it on the street. And I hear Maimonides’ words scolding me when I pass someone and say, “No, I’m sorry, not today.”

I resolve my dilemma by giving as much cash as I can to my local food bank. Canned goods are nice, but the truth is they can do a lot more with cash. They can buy what people actually need as opposed to our fantasies of what they need. They can buy at steep discounts, too. My “harvest” doesn’t involve corners of fields or gleanings, it is in my checkbook, and so I give what I can.

There are a growing number of poor families and individuals in the United States. The recovery from the Great Recession has left many behind.  We live in a cruel economy at the moment, and funds for food stamps have been cut again and again. It is up to us to dig deep and give to organizations that feed hungry people. Our tradition demands no less.

A Little Twitter Trick

Busy day ahead! I am meeting other members of the Social Action Committee from my congregation to sort donations at the Alameda County Community Food Bank. I think we’ll do a little bit of good and have a nice time. Then meeting my son for lunch, then getting ready for Shabbat. I suspect this was my one chance at a blog post, so here I am.

I have learned a new trick – if you use Twitter, try searching for the name of the weekly Torah portion, which you can get at the Hebcal Jewish Calendar site. Go there, and look at the top of the page for the link to the weekly portion. (That link will take you to a directory of various ways to access the portion.) Now go back to Twitter, and search on the name of the portion, with or without a hashtag.  Voilá: Links to many current posts about the portion!

This works better the closer we get to Friday.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rx for the Human Spirit

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria/Metzora deals with genital discharges and skin diseases, very unpleasant things. Worse yet, people have taken this portion to some very unpleasant conclusions, framing human illness as a punishment from God.

Ick.

What if, despite the lovely descriptions of skin eruptions, this portion isn’t about a physical illness at all? Let’s take a short passage:

18 When an inflammation appears on the skin of one’s body and it heals, 19 and a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red develops where the inflammation was, he shall present himself to the priest. – Leviticus 13: 18-19

What if we reread this, but instead of someone having something on their skin, it’s a moral failing: racism, sexism, enviousness, unkindness? Perhaps some family member has pointed out our unkind behaviors, or a friend has mentioned that a dearly-held opinion is actually quite racist. Our first impulse on realizing these things is to deny it or hide it, because we’ve been told it is shameful. (We have also been taught to feel shame about skin diseases and genital discharges, come to think of it.)

What if, instead of hiding or denying, we went to a counselor, our rabbi or a therapist, and said, “My wife says I am unkind,”  “I am envious when I see friends get honors,” or “I would hate it if my son dated a black woman.” The good counselor would take a close look at the evidence and the context. They’d explore it with us. And perhaps things are not what they seem (“he is clean”) or perhaps there are changes that need to happen. Then they could help us toward the changes until we are “clean.”

This is not an easy fix. It requires honesty, humility, and bravery. It is not fun saying to a counselor, “I have unkind/envious/racist thoughts.”  We hear over and over that nice people don’t have those thoughts. We may have them and then squish them down quickly, because we are ashamed. On some level, we know it isn’t OK.

But as with the mysterious disease in the Torah portion, these things affect others in our community. Some of them are communicable (children learn racism and sexism from someone) and some are just plain contagious (I am unkind to Joe, and Joe kicks the dog.) Some can’t heal on their own; we may need help to change.

Here in the 21st century, there are many diseases we can cure, and many more that we can manage; even AIDS and some cancers are now somewhat manageable. However, besides physical illnesses there are other plagues with which we have made much less progress. Perhaps the prescription in Tazria/Metzora is really for them, the plagues of the human spirit.