Rain and the Government

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“May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, as showers that water the earth!” – Psalm 72:6

Psalm 72 is a Psalm attributed to Solomon. It begins, “Give the king Thy judgments, O God, and Thy righteousness unto the king’s son” and it continues with a list of things one hopes from a new government. I found it today when a brief sprinkle of rain sent me to the concordance looking for Bible verses having to do with rain.

Concordances are fun. We use them to find out how many times and where a particular word appears in the Bible. This is of greater utility if it is a Hebrew concordance, of course, since an English concordance only tells us about the English words that appear in a particular English translation. Still, the results can take us into parts of the text we failed to notice before.

In this verse “he” refers to the young prince, the future ruler of the kingdom. Yesterday we received the news that PM Netanyahu has been able to form a government for Israel. (Israel is a parliamentary democracy; for more about how it works, check out this article in the Virtual Jewish Library.)

Truth be told, were I Israeli I probably wouldn’t have voted for any of the people in the new government, but I wish them wisdom, virtue, and good common sense. May their government “come down like rain” upon the pressing issues facing the State of Israel, bringing vitality to the land and all its inhabitants.

Sh’mini: Back to Basics

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Several years ago I heard Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin give a wonderful sermon on Parashat Sh’mini. She pointed out that the first part of the portion has to do with the tragedy of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. Immediately after their ordination as kohanim [priests] they experiment with making a burnt offering. Instead of working properly, the offering goes horribly wrong and the two of them are burnt up in an explosion of fire from the mishkan, the portable dwelling of God.

Then, she noted, the text swiftly shifts topic. Instead of continuing with the esoteric topic of sacrifices, Chapter 11 of Leviticus switches abruptly to the topic of Jewish dietary laws: “These are the living things which you may eat…” I had always been bothered by this sudden shift, but Rabbi Mates-Muchin explained it: God understood that the Israelites were not in the right place spiritually for the intricacies of the sacrificial cult. What they needed were the basics: “here is the food you are supposed to eat.” That sermon comes to my mind whenever I explain to an Introduction to Judaism student that I don’t cover kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in the “Intro” class.

There is something in us human beings that makes us think that “more advanced” equals “best.” Some of it is ego: we want to be black belts, not yellow belts. And we think that if we can do some of the “more advanced” exercises that makes us better than if we were only doing “beginner” things. So we want to jump ahead to advanced Judaism: we don’t want to know about dietary laws, we want to learn about kabbalah or gematriaBut beginning Hebrew? – that’s so boring!

The trouble, of course, is that when we jump ahead to the things we are sure will be more interesting, we miss the beauty of the basics, and we will be studying whatever it is without the tools we need. Learning Hebrew is a basic skill for study in Torah and rabbinic literature. The stories in Torah and Tanakh are the building blocks of Jewish ethical and legal thought. But even in English, on the simple peshat level –the level of surface meaning – they are a rich treasury of wisdom.

A life of Torah is a journey. Every step of the way can be a thing of beauty, a precious jewel, from “Aleph, Bet, Gimel” to the most complex lesson in the Talmud. May we each learn some new bit of Torah every day, and value it for the treasure it is!

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.

Bridging the Gap

Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL
Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL

Today my country is observing a solemn day, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama. I remember that day. I remember it from the point of view of a white child who was nowhere near Selma, who was told that the communists were having a march down there in Alabama.

I grew up in a conservative white Catholic family in Tennessee. I mostly held conservative political views until I spent my early 20’s in a company town and realized there were an awful lot of questions I’d never thought to ask.  Coming out as a lesbian in my 30’s raised more questions and gave me a taste, a small taste, of being Other in America.

Lately I’ve been working a private study project on Twitter. I’ve had a sneaking suspicion for a long time that I wasn’t as knowledgeable about race as I’d like to be, but I was not clear what to do about it. I felt stuck until I realized that on Twitter, I could just listen and learn from people who actually know something. People mostly welcome a “follow” as long as you don’t tweet stupid things to or about them.

I agreed with myself that I was going to be quiet and listen. When something interested me, I would back up and read for context and do some research. If I were truly, truly lost I could ask a question, but I wouldn’t argue and I wouldn’t defend. Mostly I just listened and followed links.

Holy cow, I have learned a lot from listening to conversations and following links! It helped that my little project coincided with the advent of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.

I thought my heart and my mind were open, but I was kidding myself. If, reading this, you are assuring yourself that you’re pretty knowledgable, I challenge you to follow some smart people and listen for a while. Follow their links. Follow the articles they write, their blog posts. Find some thought-leaders in their fields, and see where they lead your thoughts. You will know you have found the right ones to follow when it gets uncomfortable.

If you insist on a short cut, there’s an essay I can suggest. I found it challenging to read with an open mind, but well worth the effort. How to Steal Things, Exploit People, and Avoid All Responsibility by Ta-Nahisi Coates is an eye-opener, especially if you’ve wondered to yourself how a well-meaning 21st century white person can be held responsible for the legacy of slavery in the US. Put the shields down for a few minutes and read it – easier said than done. If that’s too raw for you, too much information and anger for you, I recommend the writing of Michael Twitty on his blog Afroculinaria. He is a gentle healer of a man, but what he has to teach is no less powerful.

If, as a rabbi, I were to say, “I know all I need to know about Torah,” I would be a fool. If, as a citizen of the USA, I were to say that I know all I need to know about an issue as big as race, I would be no less a fool. We learn by listening, by reading, and by asking an occasional question. If we only talk to people who agree with us, then what we think today is all we’ll ever know.

I am writing this because I think I’ve found a way for a good-hearted person to learn without being a pain-in-the-neck, demanding that on top of everything else people of color should educate me. Twitter is great; it comes in tiny bites. It links to articles available on the Internet. It lets me listen quietly and digest.

Anyway, I thought perhaps there might be a reader interested in my study project, who might have a project of their own for which Twitter is a great medium to learn without being a pest.

Maybe for you it’s some other category. How many LGBTQ people do you know? How many Muslims? How many people with mental illnesses? How many with disabilities? Just remember, when you find some good folks to follow, don’t defend, don’t explain. Listen and learn. Follow the links. Take it in.

Rabbi Nachman said, “All the world is a narrow bridge.”  The next line is usually translated “the important thing is not to be afraid” which is not quite right. What the Hebrew really says is, “The important thing is not to panic.” I think that the marchers of 50 years ago would say that the important thing is not to give up, even if panic was all you could do the first time out. Let us not give up, not now, not ever, not on ourselves – and never on one another.

My “handle” on Twitter is @CoffeeShopRabbi.

Esther, Upended

The Triumph of Mordecai by Pieter Lastman, 1624.
The Triumph of Mordecai by Pieter Lastman, 1624.

I recently read an article by Ayalon Eliach in Ha’aretz that offers a new and unique understanding of the Book of Esther.

Hang around the Jewish world long enough, and you will eventually meet someone who tells you that there’s a “commandment” in the Gemara to drink yourself silly on Purim, specifically to drink until you don’t know the difference between Mordechai and Haman, two characters in the Esther story.

Said Rava: A man is obliged to intoxicate himself on Purim, till he cannot distinguish between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” – Megillah 7b

The context doesn’t help: no reason is given that one should drink until one cannot tell the “good guy” from the “bad guy” in the story. Given all the pronouncements against drunkenness elsewhere in the Talmud and indeed in the Torah, it is extremely odd.

Eliach went looking for the reason Rava might have said such a thing. He looked into other statements by Rava, and learned that this one sage took a very dim view of Mordechai, reading the Esther story in a completely different way than is usual. In Rava’s reading, Mordechai does anything and everything for access to power, prostituting his niece in order to have a secret advantage at court. Mordechai’s lust for power came from arrogance, not piety, in this reading: he wouldn’t bow to Haman because he wasn’t going to bow to anyone. And by that act of arrogance, he endangers the entire community, bringing a pogrom down upon the heads of the Jews of Persia. According to Rava, Mordechai cloaks his ambition and arrogance in piety. Then Eliach draws his conclusion: perhaps the real message of Esther is to watch out for the Mordechais of this world, who claim to be pious but for whom piety is just a means to their real goal, power.

In summary, what Eliach found was that for Rava there was no difference between Mordechai and Haman. Both of them are bad guys: Haman for all the usual reasons, but Mordechai because he gambled with the safety of the Jewish people and with his niece.

There’s more in the original article (if you are intrigued, read it!) but I bring it up here for two reasons:

  1. It’s the most inventive reading of Esther I’ve seen in a while, and
  2. It illustrates beautifully that there is no single “correct” reading of the Bible.

One of the joys of study as a Jew is that we value an innovative interpretation such as Mr. Eliach has made. He makes a good rabbinical argument, looking at an anomaly in the tradition and then bird-dogging it through the texts to uncover a new understanding. That new understanding doesn’t necessarily supercede the old one, it just adds to it. The fact that in this case it produces a moral of the tale 180° from the more familiar moral just makes it more interesting. It’s also quite appropriate to Purim, the holiday when everything is hafuch (upside-down.)

The Torah and the Tanakh are given to us, to the Jewish People. We wrestle with them, and in every generation, some among us find new and wonderful ideas in there. We use both traditional tools and modern tools: Eliach makes his radical reading of Esther with the most traditional tools imaginable, the words of a 4th century rabbi. Another reader may dig at the text with a modern tool like structural criticism and find something wonderful, perhaps with a more traditional feel to it – Jewish text study is not without its ironies!

The point is, these texts are ours: Our to learn, ours to cherish, ours to poke and prod for new insight. Enjoy!

 

 

No Stupid Questions!

One of the routine challenges I face as an educator is that people are afraid to look stupid. They don’t ask questions, or if they manage to get the courage together to ask questions, they apologize for asking. I don’t think anyone should be afraid to ask an honest question, ever, as long as they are doing it to become informed. The fact is that the best questions, the questions that must be asked, are the questions that come out of ignorance. 

Asking a pure question, an explain-this-to-me question, is in Jewish tradition the foundation of study. Look at our sacred texts: the Talmud is full of questions: “Why is this?” “What is that?” The great commentator Rashi anticipates our questions and answers them generously. A good question requires humility and courage, because it admits ignorance.

Asking a pure question, an I-don’t-know-please-fill-me-in question is also the foundation of education. Asking questions is how we learn.

image from the msnbc.com website
image from the msnbc.com website

I’ve been thinking about questions ever since seeing a piece on the The Rachel Maddow Show on Feb. 23. Ms. Maddow, whom I usually admire, is setting up a story about another matter entirely. She plays video of Idaho State Rep Vito Barbieri asking a question about human anatomy. I can’t get a link to the video to work, but here’s the quote from the msnbc.com website:

An Idaho lawmaker received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.
The question Monday from Republican state Rep. Vito Barbieri came as the House State Affairs Committee heard nearly three hours of testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine.
Dr. Julie Madsen was testifying in opposition to the bill when Barbieri asked the question. Madsen replied that would be impossible because swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina.

Yep, I get it. The man doesn’t know basic female anatomy and he’s a state legislator, about to vote on a bill that affects women’s agency over their own bodies. That’s not good. What troubles me is that the man asked a question and then Ms. Maddow and now a large number of my fellow liberal Americans laugh at him for it. Social media were immediately awash with people making fun of him; #VitoBarbieri became a popular hashtag on Twitter.

I wish more conservative lawmakers had the humility to ask questions of scientists and listen to their answers. We’ve got people making laws who don’t know basic anatomy: that’s terrifying. The immediate fix is for them to ask questions and learn. Come the next election, I hope the voters will do a better job of electing someone qualified. But to shame the man, to make him and his wife and his mother the butt of jokes is dead wrong.

I am not going to repeat any of it, but if you search Twitter for #VitoBarbieri you’ll see it. If I were on the receiving end of that, it would be a long time before I asked another curious question when someone might catch me doing it.

Rep Barbieri’s question seems to have come from genuine curiosity. That is profoundly different than the sort of pompous, ignorant pronouncement that often comes from politicians about scientific matters. Too often our lawmakers make up their minds on the basis of what they think will get them elected next time and then spout ignorant statements about women’s anatomy. They don’t ask – they just presume and vote. Rep. Barbieri asked.

Rep. Barbieri and I disagree about most things, as far as I can tell. But I applaud him for the curiosity and humility to ask a question. I am sorry and sad that people are laughing at him, because asking questions is a noble thing to do.

 

For more about Jewish tradition and shaming: Thou Shalt Not Embarrass.

Meet Rabbi Tarfon

Rabbi Tarfon's Grave (credit: www.pnay.co.il)
Rabbi Tarfon’s Grave (credit: http://www.pnay.co.il)

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. …You do not have to finish the task, but you are not free to give up. If you have studied much Torah much reward will be given you, for your employer is faithful, and he will pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come.  – Avot 2.20-21

Rabbi Tarfon is one of my favorites among the ancient sages. He was a rabbi of the generation between the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the defeat of the Bar Kochba Revolt (135 CE), a time of great upheaval for the Jewish People. Both of his parents were from priestly families, and he himself served in the Temple as a young man. More than one story about him mentions that his family was rich and that he enjoyed the “perks” that came from being a kohen.

However, Tarfon seems to have been a modest, empathetic man who had genuine concern for the poor. Whenever he received pidyon haben, ritual ransom money paid the priests to “redeem” first born sons, he returned it to the new parents. When he saw a bridal procession of very poor people, he asked his mother and sister to take their perfumes and cosmetics and offer them to the bride. He was creative: during a time of famine, he negotiated betrothals with 300 women so that he could legally share his tithes of priestly food with them!

Tarfon often disputed with Akiva, and he usually lost the argument.

One time they were sitting with other rabbis in an upper room in Lod, and they were asked: “Which is greater, study or action?” Tarfon answered, saying: “Action is greater.” Akiva answered, saying: “Study is greater.” All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action.” –Kiddushin 40b

However, he was good spirited about such things, valuing learning over ego.

Another time, Rabbi Akiva, who was poor, asked him for money, saying he had a good investment for Tarfon. Tarfon gave him the money. Later on, he found out that Akiva had given it all away to needy people. Akiva quoted Psalms, reminding him that such gifts are an “everlasting possession.” Tarfon hugged and kissed Akiva, saying, “My teacher and leader! My teacher in wisdom and my leader in conduct.”

On another occasion, when he lost an argument with Akiva, he said, “Happy may be Abraham our father, having such a son as Akiba; Tarfon saw and forgot, but Akiba understood of his own accord. Whosoever parts with you, Akiba, parts with life itself!”

The Talmud tells us that he was very loving to his wife and his children, and fond of his mother. One source tells us that he was murdered by the Romans for teaching Torah.

His most famous quotation is the one at the top of this page. He understood that it can be very stressful to live a life of Torah, that the expectations are high. At the same time, we can take comfort in knowing that effort and persistence are good in and of themselves.

I like to imagine Rabbi Tarfon teaching a student who is perhaps not as quick as the others. “Don’t worry, I see that you are making the effort!” he might say. Rabbi Tarfon understood what it was not to be the smartest guy in the room. He understood that a person’s worth lay in their character – as did his.