What’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot?

June 3, 2014
A New Jew receives the Torah

A New Jew receives the Torah

Tikkun Leil Shavuot is one of the ways to celebrate the festival of Shavuot. It is an all-nighter Torah study session on Erev Shavuot.

In Exodus 19, God tells Moses to tell the people to prepare themselves for something that will happen on the third day. They are to wash their clothes and purify themselves, and to abstain from sex. The third day, God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses atop Mt. Sinai with terrifying lightning and thunder.

There is a midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:57) that the Israelites went to bed early on the second night, in order to be well rested for the giving of the Torah. They were so tired (from all the bathing?) that they overslept and Moses was nearly late going up the mountain to receive the commandments. Tikkun Leil Shavuot  “repair of the night of Shavuot” is a way of expressing our hunger for Torah, that unlike our ancestors, not only will we not oversleep, we will stay up all night, studying Torah in order to be ready to receive it.

The first Tikkun Leil Shavuot took place in Salonika, in the Ottoman Empire (now in Greece) in the 16th Century. It was hosted by Rabbi Yosef Caro (author of the Shulkhan Arukh and a great Sephardic mystic.)  Today, in many Jewish communities, Jews gather to stay up late or even all night, to study together.

It may sound like a crazy thing to do, but I have some wonderful memories from Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which I’ve written about in another post, Why I Love Shavuot.

Whatever you do this Shavuot, I hope that you do something to celebrate this least-famous Jewish holiday. If your community has a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, go for a while (not everyone stays all night.) If you don’t have one available, invite a friend over to read from the Torah and ponder it together. If you don’t have a friend, get out a commentary or look at some of the great learning resources online. Or if nothing else, have some cheesecake!

Soon I’ll post more about online resources. Shavuot sameach – Happy Shavuot!


Which Passage Speaks to You?

June 1, 2014

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Over on Wrestling With G-d, shocheradam asked for suggestions for blog post topics. On a whim, I asked him which passage of Torah is speaking to him lately, and he wrote a fascinating take on a passage from Numbers.

This leads me to ask readers: what about you? Is there a passage of Torah talking to you at the moment? Or perhaps one that speaks to you over the long term, a passage to which you feel kinship?

When I was getting ready to go to rabbinical school, my friend Barbara asked me if there was a passage to which I felt a special connection. At the time, selling all my goods and getting ready to move across the world to go to school, I felt drawn to Genesis 12:1:

And the Eternal said to Abram, “Take yourself from your land, and from the land of your birth, and from your father’s house, and [go] to the land which I will show you.”

So Abram loaded up the family and his herds, and hit the road without knowing exactly what was ahead.

I felt a lot of kinship to Abram, as I sold my furniture and broke up 25 years of housekeeping, reducing my belongings to four giant duffle bags before I moved to Israel. Unlike Abram, I didn’t take my family along: my children were adults, one in college and the other already in the work world. It was scary, but this passage made me feel less alone.

Six years later, when my class was getting ready for ordination, again it was time to list a passage of Torah that spoke to me. This time it was the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad, from Numbers 27: 1-11. They were five educated women who pointed out to Moses that a part of the Torah law, as given, was grossly unfair. Their father died without a son, and the daughters were to be left without a share in their tribe’s land as a result. Moses wasn’t sure what to do, so he took it to the Tent of Meeting and asked God what to do. God said they were quite right, and altered the law of inheritance. The story spins out further in Numbers 36 and Joshua 17, but the daughters’ challenge to the law was successful.

I felt a connection to this story because I had just spent six years studying to become a rabbi. I knew that not everyone in the Jewish world would be willing to see me as a rabbi, but I took comfort in this passage. The daughters of Zelophehad were role models for me, examining the law and even challenging it. They challenged me to continue studying and building my rabbinical skills to meet their high standard, an argument that could stand up before God.  Since then, I’ve also come to admire them for their willingness to speak up for themselves; the more I study them, the more I want to be like them.

So, readers, is there a passage that speaks to you? A character in Torah or Tanach (the Jewish Bible) or in rabbinical literature with whom you strongly identify? If there is, I invite you to tell us about it in the comments, or to do so in some other venue (your blog? on facebook?) and leave us a link here.

I look forward to seeing Torah through your eyes.

Photo: “Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue Torah” by Steve Garfield. Some Rights Reserved.


Hearing Voices in the Bible

May 30, 2014

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Vanity of vanities, all is vanity… Ecclesiastes 1:2

Tonight I had the pleasure of attending a class led by Rabbi Steve Chester at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley. He explored the resonances between the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and Tony Kushner‘s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

There is no direct connection between the two: Kushner’s play is not “about” Ecclesiastes. But the lecture set me to thinking about the many and varied voices in the Tanach (Jewish Bible).

There are very few pretty stories in the Bible, if you think about it.  Ruth is a sweet story, I admit. But most of the rest of our Bible stories involve carnage or trickery or dysfunctional families. Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister several times, with the result that she wound up in other men’s harems. Isaac, the gentlest of the patriarchs, was deceived by his son Jacob. Jacob cheerfully manipulates and steals from his brother. It goes on and on; the Book of Judges is one long nightmare.

Some people ask, quite reasonably, why all this stuff is there in a supposedly holy book. Ecclesiastes, in particular, is written in a bitter and cynical voice. What possible edification can anyone get from that?

The answer to that will depend on your orientation to scripture. I am a modern Reform rabbi, and I approach these books both as the product of divine inspiration as well as as the product of human hands. The books are holy because they have been recognized as holy for thousands of years, and because the faithful have continued to find something they need in them.

The genius of these books is that they are not a collection of nice easy stories in which everyone gets what they deserve. They are, instead, a collection of voices and experiences from the full range of the human experience. Some voices in Scripture insist that God is fair and wise and indeed, everyone gets their just desserts (that voice is named Deuteronomy.) Some voices in Scripture remind us that life is not fair, and even go so far as to question whether God is fair (Job.) Some voices are angry at God (parts of Lamentations) and some are young and not much concerned with God, reveling instead in physicality (Song of Songs). Kohelet, the voice in Ecclesiastes, is old and cynical. He’s seen it all, and it all disappoints.

When I am sitting with someone who is having a hard time, I do not usually have words to offer that are going to make everything “all better.” Face it, sometimes there is nothing on earth that will truly console those in deep suffering: the man who has lost his child to a senseless crime, the woman who has lost the love of her life, the person who has seen their life’s work go for nothing. What I can offer that person is evidence that they are not alone in their suffering. I don’t know “exactly how they feel” but there are voices in the Tanach that come pretty close. Those voices can help put words to feelings, and rebuild the connections between a suffering person and the rest of the world.

I think one can make a good case that Hannah was suffering from depression in the book of 1 Samuel , and that King Saul suffered from bipolar disorder. Ruth was a poor foreign woman in an unfriendly land. Jeremiah was persecuted by the authorities despite the fact that he was a messenger from God. David’s children were a terrible disappointment, except for Solomon, whose children were also a terrible disappointment. Families are mostly dysfunctional.

The people and the voices in the Bible are not goody-two-shoes. They make awful mistakes, they do dreadful things, and terrible things happen to them. And that is the point: they are us.

At the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob dies, and Joseph’s brothers fear that he is finally going to take revenge on them for selling him into slavery many years before:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:15-21

That’s the message: we human beings are fallible and frail. We make tragic mistakes, we are selfish, we are vengeful, we are vulnerable to bad luck. However, we can also be agents of good in the world. We can make small differences. We can forgive and cherish and do good deeds. And sometimes things do work out well. Most of all, we are not alone in our experience. As Kohelet says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

That is not always a bad thing.

Image by Sonny Abesamis, some rights reserved.


What is Midrash?

May 9, 2014
Midrash!

Midrash!

I went to see the film Noah. Seen it? What did you think?

For my comments about the film, check out its entry on the Jewish Film blog. The bottom line: I thought it was great midrash.

Midrash is often spoken of as literature that fills in the gaps in the Biblical story. For instance, what does the Bible tell us about Abraham’s childhood, or for that matter, what does it tell us about why God picked Abram for the covenant?

If you said, “nothing,” that was the right answer.

If you said, “What about the story about his father Terah’s workshop?” then you are referring to a midrash from the 5th century collection Genesis Rabbah.

If you are an eager beaver and want to find books of midrash, you can do so but you may find that they are somewhat daunting. The colorful stories are embedded in sermons, ethical debates, and legal discussions. Classic rabbinical midrash took very specific literary forms which are foreign to modern readers. For a little taste of this sort of midrash, you can find Genesis Rabbah (also called Bereshit Rabbah) online.

Midrash is also a modern process. A film can include midrashic elements (see Noah and The Prince of Egypt.) Novels like The Red Tent can be built completely of midrash.

You can also do midrash on your own. In fact, you probably already do. Have you read a passage from the Torah and thought to yourself, “But what about….?” or “Why did he…..?” If you began to speculate about possibilities that are not actually IN the text, you were engaging in midrash.

Here’s an interesting exercise: try to read a Biblical text and NOT add anything to the text. If you start filling in details, stop. If you start wondering about something, stop. Just deal with the words on the page. It’s tougher than you might think.

Midrash is a very human impulse. We want to understand the text, and when what’s there seems awfully skimpy, it’s natural to speculate. It’s just important to keep track of what is really IN the text and what isn’t.


What’s the Point of Ritual?

February 25, 2014

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I teach Introduction to Judaism classes for adults who want a basic education in Judaism.

One of the temptations in planning such a class is to focus primarily on the “how to” aspects: how to keep Shabbat and holidays, how to hang a mezuzah, how to have a proper Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah, how to keep up in the service. Certainly it is important for people to feel comfortable and competent in doing those things, but if that’s all I teach, I’ve not done enough.

Before we perform a mitzvah, usually there’s a blessing, one that starts out:

Blessed are You, [The name of God] our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot…

And then we specify the mitzvah we are about to do. Often the words of the formula fly by as we focus on the mitzvah we are about to do, but there’s something important in there: the point, in fact. The point of mitzvot, the point of reading the scroll of Esther or sitting at the seder table or studying Torah is to sanctify us and to remind us of our role in this world. 

Some mitzvot are incomprehensible (Why avoid mixing linen and wool? Why wave the lulav?) but even the most mysterious of commandments encourage me to be aware of the world, to pay attention. They push me to stop and see, to wake up and notice. Combine them with Jewish study (another mitzvah!) and they direct that wakened awareness to the pursuit of Jewish virtues: towards lovingkindness, hospitality, humility, compassion, and justice.

If all I do is a bunch of quaint rituals, I’ve missed the point. The prophet Isaiah tells us that sacrifices and ritual are not enough by themselves to sanctify us in the first chapter of Isaiah:

“Why are all those sacrifices offered to me?” asks God. “I’m fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals! I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats! Yes, you come to appear in my presence; but who asked you to do this, to trample through my courtyards? Stop bringing worthless grain offerings! They are like disgusting incense to me! Rosh-Hodesh, Shabbat, calling convocations — I can’t stand evil together with your assemblies! (Isaiah 1:11-14)

Isaiah then reminds us that true holiness lies not in picturesque ritual, but in hands and heads that alleviate suffering, act justly and spread goodness in the world:

Get your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing evil, learn to do good! Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend orphans, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

We are entering the spring season of ceremony: Purim, then Passover, then Shavuot. We are approaching an annual opportunity for transformation. If we enter this time with an open heart and mind, then we can indeed be “sanctified by mitzvot” and become the hands of goodness in this world, seeking justice, defending the defenseless, finding hope for the destitute.

Whether we are beginners, in our first “Intro” class, or old hands at the Jewish holidays, let’s open our hearts and our minds to the meaning of these festivals, and transform: first ourselves, and then the world.

Image: LicenseAttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by rbarenblat


Upcoming Classes in Lafayette, CA

December 27, 2013
Classes meet in this building.

Classes meet in this building.

For Bay Area readers of this blog:

My Sunday morning classes at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA will begin on January 5.

Jewish History: Exploring Judaism begins a five week look at Jewish Texts and History. Yes, five weeks, five hours for thousands of years of history, also known as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through Jewish History. If you have wondered what the rabbi means by mishnah or how that’s different from midrash, this is a great short survey class.  Class starts at 9am sharp and runs to 10am. We have coffee, and if you want to bring your breakfast along, no one will mind. Members of the class include people in the adult b’nei mitzvah program at Temple Isaiah, folks considering conversion, and some friends-of-Jews who are interested in learning more about Judaism – a great class!  Join us!

Text Study: The same morning, January 5 at 10:15am we’ll begin a Jewish Ethics class which will take a look at Ethics of the Fathers, a first-century document of homespun advice from the sages. This is perhaps the most accessible book in rabbinic literature, and we’re going to read parts of it together. The class will have a read-and-discuss format, exactly the opposite of the Wild Ride in the previous class. Hebrew proficiency is not required.

Both classes meet in the Contra Costa Jewish Day School building, at the top of the Temple Isaiah parking lot. The building is completely accessible.

To register for these classes, and to see the other offerings in Isaiah’s great Sunday morning lineup, go to this page on the temple website.

 


Teaching and Learning and Joy, oh my!

September 29, 2013

I’m happy. I launched two classes this morning at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. I think it’s going to be a very good year.

Even with classes I teach again and again (this is my third round with “Exploring Judaism”) the people in the class make the experience different. Jews don’t do a lot of solo learning; we learn in groups and in pairs, noisily. When I see a room full of people (19 of them!) and I think about all the Torah I’m going to learn, I get happy. Beginners are fantastic, because they ask questions I’m too routinized to ask for myself.  Beginners are a precious resource.

“Money & the Mensch: Jewish Ethics and Personal Finance” is especially exciting. We’re not sure whether it will happen as an official class yet, since we have low numbers, but they’re excited and I’m excited and I’m going to give them the class reader anyway next week. This was the topic of my rabbinic thesis, and I’m practically itching to teach it, because it is a wonderful, practical subject with some great stories in it.  We’re going to learn about the terrible Men of Sodom and Maimonides’ Torah Scholar and Munbaz II of Adiabene and some other interesting tales.  We’ll use those stories to figure out the questions we need to ask about money: how to give charity wisely and well, how to make choices about investing and consumption, how to decide when a boycott is a good idea.  We’ll have a blast.

I love to teach. It’s what I do.


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