Sivan Tov!

May 29, 2014

Happy Rosh Chodesh Sivan!

If you are thinking “What’s Rosh Chodesh?” <– click the link

Sivan is the ninth month of the Jewish Year, counting from Rosh HaShanah in the fall. It’s pronounced “see – VAHN.” In the Bible, though, where the year is counted from the first of Nisan, it is referred to as “the third month” (Exodus 19:1.)

Sivan begins at sundown on May 29 in 2014.

Its name comes from the Akkadian simanu, meaning “season.”

Sivan is the month of Shavuot, the festival on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (6 Sivan).

What will you do with your month of Sivan?

 


Time and Torah

May 20, 2014

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Among the everlasting puzzles of the Torah are its expressions of time. The Book of Numbers is a case in point: it is explicitly not in chronological order.

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt. (Numbers 1:1)

Then, in chapter 9, we read:

The Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt (Numbers 9:1)

There are other instances where the chronology is not so clearly out of order, but where a careful reader will say, “What? Didn’t that already happen?” Genesis has two completely different Creation stories – was the world created twice?

For this reason, our sages concluded long ago that “there is no earlier or later in the Torah.” (Pesachim 6b). In other words, while we may certainly seek insight from the arrangement of events in the Torah, we should not assume that the only way to arrange them in the order in which they appear.

Genesis chapter 5 is full of ages that drive readers crazy. Adam supposedly lived to be 930 years of age. (Genesis 5:4-5) “Did he really live that long?” students ask, and I always reply, “What do you think?”

It does not make any sense that a human being was able to be alive for 930 years. It is somewhat more believable (but still a stretch) that Moses lived to be 120. I think it is more likely that these extreme ages have symbolic meanings, which may or may not be available to us today. Adam’s age is 130 when he sires Seth, the third son who was born after Cain killed Abel. Then Adam lives 800 more years. I am not aware of particular significance of either 130 or 800 — but what if the text is telling us that Adam felt 130 after one son murdered the other? But then the birth of a third child gave him hope, and he was fortunate to live to see that third child grow up and have children of his own?

If you follow up by reading Genesis 5, you’ll see that the chronology of the story of Noah doesn’t really work, since Noah was supposedly 500 when he sired Shem, Ham, and Japeth, and the Flood was 100 years later….!

But remember, “there is no earlier or later in Torah.” So perhaps it makes more sense to say, Adam lived to a good old age and saw his grandchildren. Noah was no spring chicken when he built the ark. Moses was a grown man when he spoke with the burning bush and an old man when he looked out from Mt. Nebo to see the Promised Land.

While we like to think in chronological patterns, life itself is not that simple. Have you ever met a child who was an “old soul?” Met someone in their 80′s with a young heart? Needed to know how a story ended, before you could take in its beginning? Whether Torah is a blueprint of the world, or a mirror of the world, “it is not in the heavens” (Deut. 30:12) but here in our hands, to interpret today.

Image: Gero, “Time,” Some rights reserved under Creative Commons license.


How To Count the Omer

April 17, 2014
Mizrach Omer Calender

Mizrach Omer Calender, by Moses H. Henry, Cincinnati, 1850.

Counting the Omer is a mitzvah (commandment) through which we count the days from Passover to Shavuot. It’s an ancient custom that takes us from the giddy joy of Passover to the serious business of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. It begins on the 2nd night of Passover and continues for 49 days until the Festival of Shavuot. (To learn more about the holiday and its history, click on the links. I’m sticking to “how to” in this article. To learn why we count the Omer, read Why Count the Omer.)

The procedure is simple. Every evening sometime between sundown and midnight we say a blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al sefirat ha-Omer.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, who sanctifies us with Your commandments and has commanded us to count the Omer.

Then you do the actual count:

Today is the ____ day of the Omer.

After six days, you include the weeks as well:

Today is _____ days, which is _____ week and _____ days of the Omer.

For instance, on the 48th (next to last) day of the Omer, you would say: “Today is the 48th day of the Omer, which is 6 weeks and 6 days of the Omer.”

(If you have learned your Hebrew numbers, this is a GREAT opportunity to practice both your cardinal and ordinal numbers.)

 

The target is to count each day of the Omer in the time between sundown and midnight. Now, like any good game, there are penalties if you miss the target.

1. If I forget to count until after midnight (say, I wake up and realize, “Gosh, I forgot to count the Omer last night!”) I can still COUNT but you cannot say the blessing. On the next night, I go back to saying the blessing and counting as usual.

2. If I completely forget for 24 hours – that is, forgets to count until the next evening – then I am still obligated to count, but I don’t get to bless anymore.

The object is to get all the way through to Shavuot – to count the complete Omer! – without missing an evening count and blessing.

Some readers may find it a little scandalous that I frame this as a game, but I find it a useful way to think about counting the Omer when learning how to do it. There are many beautiful spiritual practices that are based on counting the Omer, but it is hard to do those effectively until you’ve got the basics. Llearning the basic practice works well as a game.

What’s the point? In a word, mindfulness. It took me years to get all the way through the Omer with the practice intact, every day, every blessing said on time. I’m a scattered, not-detail-oriented person, and I grew a lot of self-discipline from my repeated attempts. (I know, that sounds so boring: but seriously it paid off in my ability to focus and deliver on routines: for instance, posting nearly daily to a blog!) Counting is also the gateway to a number of spiritual practices such as meditations on the Sefirot, the different emanations of the Divine in Kabbalistic practice.)

Helps in Counting the Omer: There are some great smartphone apps and computer apps. Search  “omer” in the appropriate places for your operating system and hardware. You can also get “omer calendars” and “omer counters” from Jewish bookstores.

I encourage you to give this mitzvah a try. It’s joys seem very simple (and perhaps minimal, to a newcomer) but it is a gateway to all sorts of cool stuff. If you didn’t begin on the 2nd night of Passover, no worries – while you won’t be doing a complete count this year, you can still “jump on” for the ride and learn!

Image: Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons.

 

 


“Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy

April 13, 2014

Maybe you’ve heard something in the press about “blood moons” this year and next.  They sound scary, don’t they?

A “blood moon” is a vivid description of the full moon during a total lunar eclipse. I saw the one on December 11, 2011, and it was a sight to behold. The moon turned a dark coppery color for a while and gave us all a shot of amazement (or the creeps) and then gradually became its own silvery self again.  I said the blessing for seeing a wonder of nature and then went back to work at my desk.

The moon turns red because while the earth has blocked the light from the sun, the light from all the earth’s sunsets and sunrises still reaches the moon. That light seems blood-colored as it is reflected back to us. (Read this article for more about the science of this astronomical wonder.)

Lunar eclipses come in many varieties, but for our purposes, let’s just say they are “full” (like this one) and “partial.” (For the difference, read the science article.) Total ones are very dramatic; partial eclipses are less so. The next four lunar eclipses visible from North America represent the lunar equivalent of a high poker hand: we are about to see “four of a kind” total eclipses in a row. The fancy name for that is “tetrad.” For astronomers in North America, this is a great stroke of luck, because they can use this time to observe the moon and the sky in ways unavailable at other times.

This tetrad is remarkable in that it also lines up with the Jewish holidays of Passover and Sukkot, for two years running. We’ll have total eclipses on this Passover and the next, and for the next two Sukkots as well. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and rabbinic student David Markus have written a beautiful drash on the phenomenon which they published through Rabbi Barenblat’s blog, The Velveteen Rabbi. It’s a very Jewish take on the phenomenon of the tetrad.

This tetrad is getting attention from Christian writers as well: Pastor John Hagee of Texas has written a book about it. He sees these “signs in the heavens” as “foretold in Scripture” and specifically links them to disasters in Jewish history and, for this particular tetrad, to some sort of major event for the State of Israel.  This brings us to another interesting topic: the difference between Jewish understandings of the Prophets and Christian understandings of them.

For Jews, there was a specific time of the prophets, a historical period from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) to the time of the restoration of the Second Temple in 516 BCE.   Prophets guided the People of Israel and our leaders, and they were understood to be spokespersons for God. (Yes, there were women prophets.) Sometimes they heard God’s voice giving them personal instruction (Genesis 12:1), and sometimes they were messengers to a specific person (2 Samuel 12: 1-25).  The “major prophets” spoke to the entire nation about matters of national concern, including idolatry, foreign entanglements, and the need to keep the spirit as well as the law of the Torah (e.g. Isaiah 1). When they talked about the future, they were talking about the immediate future, or speaking in general terms. They were not looking centuries ahead, they were talking about the specific geopolitical and theological realities of the time. To get a really good understanding of the Jewish prophets, there’s no better book that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets.

Today Jews revere the words of the prophets and read them every Shabbat because their comments and rebukes are timeless: they call us to observe the spirit of the Torah, and to remember that ritual observance alone is not enough to fulfill our lives as Jews.

For Christians, the Jewish prophets have a different meaning. While many Christians read the Jewish prophets for their ethical commentary, they also read them as fore-tellers of the arrival of Jesus as messiah. In the 19th and 20th centuries in some Protestant circles, there’s been an upsurge of interest in using Jewish prophetic and eschatological writings to “foretell” political events in the future, something called Dispensationalism. Dr. Hagee’s book about the “Blood Moons” falls into this category: he is using verses of Scripture and this astronomical event to make predictions about the future. I should also mention that not all Christians are Dispensationalists; they have gotten a lot of press in recent years because (1) they have sought to publicize their message and (2) it makes great copy for people who want to sell “clicks” in the media.

These two different ways of understanding prophecy are mostly incompatible. While Jews and Christians can agree on the ethical teachings of the prophets (don’t abuse the poor etc.), we disagree fundamentally about the role of the prophet, both religiously and historically. That means that we look a bit crazy to each other. Christian attempts to use the writings of 7th century BCE prophets plus astronomical events to “foretell the future” seem pointless and disrespectful to Jews. The Jewish insistence that nothing in Isaiah has anything to do with the 1st century carpenter from Nazareth seems stubborn and blind to Christians.

The truth is, we share some books of scripture, but we read them and use them quite differently. It would be great if we could all agree to treat one another respectfully and sit side by side to watch what is indisputably a show of marvels in the night sky. Whether you call them “blood moons” or “red moons” or “total lunar eclipses,”  they are moments of beauty and majesty.

I wish you a zissen Pesach (Yiddish for “a joyful Passover”)!


Here and Now

March 6, 2014

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Sometimes life shakes us up a bit.

Today I pulled into a parking place in a shopping center near my home. I was going to buy some vegetables for dinner, and pick up a prescription. I paused for a moment to text Linda to make sure that dinner together was on her calendar, too. Then suddenly a beat-up green Toyota careened into the parking lot followed by a crowd of police cars, their lights blinking and sirens roaring. 

I froze in the front seat of my car, unsure what to do, as police leaped out of the cars and pointed their guns at the green car. I felt like I’d dropped out of reality into a TV show. The police yelled so loudly I could hear their voices even with my windows rolled up. I hit the button for the door locks and slid low in my seat, aware that I was awfully close, should anyone begin shooting. Stay in the car, I told myself, don’t attract attention. I hoped that whoever it was in the green car did not have a gun, or would have the sense not to shoot.

The situation resolved very quickly, without gunshots. The man in the car surrendered and was arrested, and the crowd of cops relaxed, putting away their weapons, gathering up things and examining the car. After a few minutes, I realized it was over: I could go run my errands.

I still have no idea what it was all about.

Events blow into our lives sometimes as quickly as that fleet of cars roared into the parking lot. One minute we’re planning dinner, and the next we’re wondering if we’re going to be around for dessert.  Once a year in synagogue we recite a prayer about that (Who will live and who will die?) but in fact we live with that reality every day – we simply don’t look at it. If we looked at it too long or thought about it too much, we’d lose heart. But if we don’t look at it often enough, if we don’t stop and remember that we are mortal creatures, we may waste this precious life we are given.

Eighteen months ago, I wrote about a car accident that got my attention. Today I got another reminder: Wake up! Pay attention! Next week I will turn fifty-nine, and again, a little voice will remind me that I do not know how much time I am given on this earth. This is why we are advised by the sages to run to do mitzvot: we have no guarantees of months and years ahead. All we have is what Kipling called “the unforgiving minute.” All we have is now.

So the question is, what am I going to do with this precious time, this now? What will you do with yours?

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Dalo_Pix2


Why Two Months of Adar?

February 1, 2014
Jewish calendar, showing Adar II between 1927 and 1948

Jewish calendar, showing Adar II between 1927 and 1948

If you have a Jewish calendar, you may have noticed that yesterday and today we celebrated Rosh Chodesh Adar Aleph, the first day of the month of Adar Aleph (Adar One). Next month is Adar Bet (Adar Two).  Why two months of Adar? Last year we had only one.

The Jewish calendar is both a lunar and a solar calendar. That means that it is aligned with both the moon and the sun. Our months are aligned with the moon – every Rosh Chodesh (new month) falls on a New Moon. The average lunar month is equal to 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes. The average solar year is equal to 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 45.51 seconds. If we stayed on a strictly lunar calendar, our holidays would slowly rotate around the seasons, as they do in the Islamic calendar. However, our holidays align to the seasons: Passover to springtime, for instance.

To keep the holidays in their proper seasons, the calendar adjusts periodically. One of the ways it does this is by adding a month of Adar whenever Passover strays too far from springtime. In ancient times, this was done by observations and adjustments announced by the Temple. Since the 4th century, we use a mathematic formula to determine when to add a month of Adar. If you are interested in the math, there are articles online that go into detail, but most Jews simply use a calendar.

But… why Adar? Why not Cheshvan or Av? Adar is the last month of the year (when you use the Biblical calendar, which counts Nisan as the first month.) So we are doubling the month at the end of the year.

However, it’s an interesting choice. Av and Adar have special associations, with Av as the “saddest/unluckiest month of the year” and Adar as the “happiest/luckiest month of the year,” drawing from the sacred days in them. In Av we remember the destruction of the Temple. Who wants to do that twice? But Purim falls during Adar, when we remember our deliverance from the evil plans of Haman. That’s worth remembering twice! (So you might well ask, do we celebrate Purim twice? See tomorrow’s post.)

The calendar is teaching us a subtle message: when we have the opportunity to dwell on something, choose joyful memories. It’s an extension of the commandment to “choose life” [Deuteronomy 30:19.]

I wish you joyful months of Adar in 5774!

Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


The Lovely Lights of Shabbat

November 21, 2013
English: Silver candlesticks used for candle-l...

Silver candlesticks used for candle-lighting on the eve of Shabbat and Jewish holidays (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I went to a friend’s house for Shabbat dinner. She asked all of us to bring our candlesticks and candles with us, and as the sun sank in the sky, we lined them up on the dinner table and lit them! It was a beautiful display.

Every set of candlesticks had a story. Some of the stories were simple: “These were my mother’s,” and some were long and involved. Some came from Israel, some from Walgreens. One set came from eBay. Some were very fancy (the ones from eBay were silver and pre-war Polish) and some simple (one set had been made in religious school by a now-grown child).

I’ve lit Shabbat candles in lots of places. I’ve scrunched up aluminum foil for “candlesticks,” or lit tea lights, and when I was a chaplain in a nursing home, we had electric lights. There’s nothing quite like the glow of a real candle, but even the little electric lights said “Shabbat” to us.

As we look forward to lighting the Chanukah candles, let’s pause to enjoy our Shabbat candles this week. Chanukah is fun, but it only comes once a year. The faithful little flames of Shabbat are there for us week after week, bringing comfort and joy.

May your Shabbat be a time of true rest, before the razzle-dazzle of Chanukah and the preparation of the Thanksgiving feast.


Shabbat Isn’t Just Friday Night

November 8, 2013

Kiddush Lunch

Kiddush Lunch (Photo credit: jordansmall)

From the articles you see for beginners about “Keeping Shabbat,” you might get the idea that Friday night is the whole shooting match.  Not true!

Friday night is “Shabbat dinner,” true, and in many Reform synagogues, Friday night is the most-attended service, but Shabbat goes on until sundown on Saturday, and for me, Saturday can be the best part. Some things I love about Saturday and Shabbat:

  • Yes, the Saturday morning Torah service is long. It’s also beautiful, and we get to take the Torah out and march around with it and handle it and read from it. There are few more powerful ways to connect with our ancient past (more about Torah scrolls in a future post, I promise.)
  • Saturday kiddush lunch is the meal after the Saturday morning service. It might be at synagogue, or it might be at home. It starts with the kiddush (a toast to Shabbat, basically) and involves tasty food eaten in a leisurely fashion, preferably with friends. Yum.
  • Saturday afternoon is full of possibilities. For starters, there is Napping. Napping on Shabbat is glorious and decadent: it perhaps says better than anything that we are not slaves.
  • Saturday “naps” can also be put in quotations. If there is a time during the week when it is the accepted routine for the entire family to nap, that frees parents for affection and lovemaking. 
  • Saturday afternoon can also be a time for hanging out and chatting. Before electronics took over every nanosecond of our lives, when the world was young… you remember. Or not. But that world can come back for a little while on Saturday afternoon.
  • And then – let’s be real here – maybe your world is set up in such a way that Friday evening Shabbat, services or dinner, simply can’t be observed properly. If that is the case, then don’t despair – find some Shabbat on Saturday.

Maybe you have your own ideas for Shabbat afternoons – I invite you to share them in the comments section.  But whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you that Shabbat is only Friday night, because Friday night is only the beginning!


It’s Half-Past Sukkot – Do You Smell Rain?

September 21, 2013
Areas with Mediterranean climate

Areas with Mediterranean climate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israel and the California coast both have a “Mediterranean climate.” We have rain in the winter, and it is dry in the summer.

For California Jews, this means that we experience the seasons as if we lived in Israel.  At the end of Sukkot, we will change a phrase in our daily Amidah prayer from a prayer for dew (the summertime prayer) to a prayer for wind and rain.  And sure enough, a trifle ahead of schedule, there is rain in the forecast for Northern California. Ideally, it would wait a few days, but still — pretty close!

I love the way the calendar reconnects me to the natural world.  The new day comes when the sun sets, not when the clock clicks over a line. I can look at the night sky, and know where I am in the Jewish month. Certainly, I can look everything up on hebcal.com, but the daily observance of Judaism pushes me to open my eyes, take a walk outside, and notice the world.

Some may say, “Ah, this is because the Jewish Calendar has its roots in the agricultural calendar of the Ancient Near East.” That’s true. But as with many things in Judaism, while it may have its roots in something impossibly long ago and far away, the effect of the observance in the here-and-now is fresh and urgent. Torah calls out to us to pay attention: pay attention to the world of which we are a part, pay attention to the people around us, pay attention to our own words and behavior.

Pay attention!


Why 2 Days of Rosh Hashanah?

September 5, 2013
Tapuach bedvash

Tapuach bedvash (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wasn’t one enough?

In the Diaspora (outside of the land of Israel) many Jewish holidays are celebrated for two days. That’s because in ancient times, the Jewish  calendar was originally based on the observation of the moon from the Temple Mount. It took a long time to get the announcement of the New Moon to Diaspora communities, so there was uncertainty about holiday dates.

But Rosh Hashanah is observed for two days even in Israel! The reason for this is that the the moon’s cycle is 29 1/2 days. Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, might have had 30 or 31 days, depending on exactly what the moon was doing that year. So there were two days of Rosh Hashanah, just to be sure to get it right.

Now, you may be wondering why it is that we do this even though we have calendars that know the exact dates years, even centuries, in advance.  The answer is that the custom became established very early, at least before the year 70 of the Common Era and perhaps much earlier. Many Jews are reluctant to alter a custom that is so old, and refer to the two days of Rosh Hashanah as a Yoma Arichta, Aramaic for “one long day.”

However, as with many things in Jewish life, there is another custom, in some Reform communities, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah only on one day, now that we can calculate the New Moon accurately.  They argue that the Torah prescribes one day of Rosh Hashanah, so they celebrate for one day.

By the way, if you need a Jewish calendar, there is a good one at the Hebrew Jewish Calendar website.


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