“You Intended to harm me.”

September 2, 2013
All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...

Giza Pyramids (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember the story of Joseph? He was his father’s favorite child, and annoying to boot, so much so that his brothers considered murdering him. They decided that they did not want his blood on their hands, so they sold him into slavery instead. He began his life in Egypt as a slave, but after many adventures, he rose to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, managing the economy of Egypt during a terrible seven year famine. His brothers came to Egypt during the famine seeking food, and eventually realized that the mighty Vizier of Egypt was their brother Joseph.  He sent for their father Jacob, and the family lived under Joseph’s protection in Egypt until Jacob died.

Then, with Jacob’s death, the brothers feared that Joseph would finally feel free to “get even” with this brothers. He had the power to order them all dead.  Instead:

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 50:19-21

It turned out Joseph wasn’t plotting revenge. He knew what his brothers had intended when they sold him, but he took the longer view: he saw how things actually turned out. And unlike the child he had once been, he didn’t feel the need to lord it over his brothers.

People change. They grow up. They get older. We fantasize that we know “exactly what they are going to say.” And maybe we are right. Or maybe, like Joseph’s brothers, we are expecting rage or reproach when really, all we are going to get is a hug.

Let us open ourselves to the possibility of surprise about the intentions of others, as we continue our work towards the Days of Awe.


Hope is a Jewish Value

September 1, 2013

A hovering Rufous Hummingbird on Saltspring Island

Photo credit: Wikipedia

 
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -
 
 
Two things come to my mind when I hear the word “Hope.” The first is this poem by Emily Dickinson, of which I give the first stanza above. The second is HaTikva, “The Hope,” the national anthem of Israel:
 
 
As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope – the 2,000 year old hope – will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
 
 
Miss Emily did a marvelous job of portraying the ridiculousness of hope: “a thing with feathers.” For over a thousand years, Jews finished each Passover seder with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” and it might as well have been “Next year on the Moon!” And yet our ancestors refused to give up on the idea, the hope, that someday we’d return to the land of Abraham, of King David, and of Rabbi Akiva. At the very end of the 19th century, Zionism became a worldwide movement, and in 1948, the modern State of Israel was born.
 
 
As individuals, we also have hopes, visions of the selves we might be, stronger, better, more whole than we are today. If at this moment, your life feels flimsy, messed-up, and incomplete, don’t despair. Remember Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers.”  Feed that little bird your best efforts, your good resolutions, and a willingness to ask for help and accept it. Change is possible, if we are willing to maintain our hope.
 
 
 
 
 

Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

August 31, 2013

Time Selector

Elul, the month of looking inward, is almost over.  Wednesday night is Erev Rosh HaShanah, the evening of the New Year.

Jewish “days” start at sundown, because in Genesis 1 it says, over and over, “It was evening, and it was morning.”  This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with it.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

There is no doubt about it, we are a stiff necked people, as the God of Israel comments to Moses in Exodus 32:9.  Only a stiff necked people could insist on their own cockeyed timetable for thousands of years of diaspora, tripping over other people’s holidays and calendars and clocks and whatnot.  Ask anyone who asked for Rosh HaShanah off this week:  it’s a nuisance.  Yet we stick out our stiff necks and insist on it year after year after year, annoying our bosses, confusing our neighbors, and making some paranoid types certain that we are Up to Something, an international conspiracy, perhaps.

Why not accomodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Pay attention, because some years, like this year,  Rosh HaShanah is “early.” Mind you, it always comes on the first day of Tishrei, but if you usually live on the Gregorian calendar, this year 1 Tishrei comes on the evening of 4 September, which is unusually early in September. Pay attention, because while in the “regular” world it is 2013, in the Jewish world, it is about to be 5774.

Notice the passage of time.  Notice the cycle of seasons.  Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention.

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:  “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”


#BlogElul – Beginnings are Awkward

August 31, 2013
hebrew letter bet

Hebrew Letter Bet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

B’reisheet – “In the Beginning.” That’s the Hebrew name for the book of Genesis, the first word in the book. “Bet,” the letter at the very beginning, is a squat little letter. It began, we’re told by scholars, as a pictogram of a house.  All I can say is: lousy house. It was more of a sukkah than a house: three walls and an iffy roof.

Beginnings are like that. They are awkward and often half-formed. We dress them up with ceremonies like “Orientation” or “Opening Day” or “Prologue” but at some point, it’s just me and whatever it is I’m beginning to do, and I’m generally not very good at it. Getting good, or at least comfortable, will come (maybe) but beginnings are awkward.

There comes a point, during this month of mending our ways and adjusting our aim, that we have to begin something new. It might be a new behavior, or a new attitude, or a new mitzvah. It will probably not feel “natural” and it may be downright uncomfortable. If I have been accustomed to driving too fast, then driving the speed limit will feel awkward and slow. If I have acquired a habit of lying, or drinking too much alcohol, or gambling, I will probably find those things so difficult to change that I may need to ask for help.

Let’s not let the awkwardness of beginning stop us from growing into the best selves we can be. Like kids learning to ride their bikes, we’ll wobble and laugh nervously and fall over occasionally. That is OK. The important thing is to begin.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.

 


Beginner’s Guide to the Shofar

August 26, 2013
English: A man demonstrates sounding a shofar ...

A man sounds a shofar at a synagogue in Minnesota.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re in the season of the shofar.

If you go to a synagogue with weekday services, you’ll hear it: the primitive sound that comes from a raw-looking piece of animal horn. It’s meant to wake up your soul. When you hear it, just shut your eyes and let yourself feel it. Let the vibrations shake you up.

Jews have listened to that sound since the earliest days; there are records of the shofar sounding in the Torah, as the Hebrews traveled through the desert. We know the shofar was blown in the Temple. The sound echoes down the centuries.

On Thursday, Sept 5, 2013 we’ll hear it again: there’s a whole short service dedicated to it in the Rosh Hashanah Day service.

Here are some basic facts about the shofar:

  • The singular is SHOW-far, the plural is show-fa-ROTE.
  • The commandment for Rosh Hashanah [New Year’s Day] is to hear the sound of the shofar.
  • No, you do not have to blow it yourself.
  • Do not ask to blow someone else’s shofar. It’s as personal as a toothbrush (and full of their spit.)
  • The shofar is usually a horn from a ram or kudu, but never a cow.
  • Most shofarot are plain, with no decoration or separate mouthpiece.
  • A man who blows the shofar is a Ba’al Tekiah (bah-AHL Teh-kee-YAH).
  • A woman who blows it is a Ba’alat Tekiah (bah-ah-LAHT Teh-kee-YAH.)
  • Decorated shofarot are not used for services.

Forgive Me

August 19, 2013
"Sorry" on Survival / Australia Day,...

Photo credit: butupa

“Forgive me.”

It’s hard to say, especially without an “if.”

The best apology is like an egg: simple, bald, fragile.  If I fumble it, I’ll really make a mess.

“Forgive me,” is a start.

The next step is the real kicker.  “For” — for failing to acknowledge you, for failing to remember your name, for failing to think, for failing.  Or for doing: for saying cruel words, for acting out, for lying, for stealing, for betraying.

A good apology takes responsibility. It says, “I did it.” It does not shift blame, it says, “I’m sorry” and “I did it.”

Then sit back. Wait. See what happens.

There may be anger. There may be sorrow. There may be fake forgiveness or self-serving forgiveness, as the Gingeet Rabbi has described in her blog. Or there may be a really good conversation in which you will learn something. This is the thing about a good apology: no matter how predictable you think the other person is, you can’t know for sure what comes after the apology. The better the apology, the more unpredictable the response.

Whatever it is, accept what comes.


Mitzvot Beyond Measure

August 17, 2013
English: Martin Buber in Palestine/Israel עברי...

Martin Buber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mishnah Peah 1:1 – These are the things for which there is no measure: the corner of the field [which is left for the poor], the first-fruits offering, the pilgrimage, acts of lovingkindness, and Torah learning.

One might get the feeling, learning Torah, that Jews are always accounting for things: taking a census (three times in the book of Numbers alone, in Chapters 1, 2, and 26), counting days after Passover (the Omer), and counting years in the desert, tribes, wives, children, generations – you name it. If you press further and read into the Mishnah and Gemara, the rabbis worry a lot about measures, distances, and other numbers.

And yet we begin each day’s prayer with a passage from Mishnah Peah which lists the things we do not count or measure: the portion of the field left for the poor, the first-fruits offering, the pilgrimage, acts of lovingkindness, and Torah learning. According to the Tosefta (additional Mishna-era writings) that means that a Jew is obligated to do these things, but the amounts are up to the individual.  If a person left a tiny area of each corner unharvested, gave a pittance of his first fruits, merely showed up for the pilgrimage feasts, that was enough. It might not be meritorious, but he would be within the letter of the law. Nowhere does the Torah command  acts of lovingkindness: they are implied in other commandments, such as helping the orphan and widow, not standing by when a neighbor is bleeding, loving the stranger, but it is a vague implication, not a clear commandment. Torah learning is commanded (“Keep these words” and “teach them to your children”) but the extent of Torah learning is, again, up to the individual.

What might we learn from this? Perhaps one thing we can learn is that an acknowledgement of human individuality is built into Torah. While much of Torah lis concerned with the good of the community, our ancestors recognized that we are not all alike. Some people are naturally inclined to study; for others even a little study goes a long way. Some individuals can be generous: either they are wealthy and they can afford to give, or they are generous by nature, and inclined to give. Others may face restraints that make it impossible to give much, or to participate much in other mitzvot.

However, these things “without measure” also give us something precious: room to grow. At one stage of life, a person’s ability to give or to participate may be limited by any of a number of factors: their knowledge of the mitzvah, their inclinations, the facts of their life, their income, and so on. Later on, we may grow into mitzvot that we neglected or observed only minimally when we were younger.

It also suggests that while it is tempting to be compare to our neighbors (“How much are the Levys giving to the fund?” or “Most people don’t go to services every Shabbat.“) – this passage is a reminder that other people’s mitzvot do not matter when we are deciding about our own. “How much did the Levys give?” is not the way to determine what we will contribute to the communal good or a good cause. Nor should we be ashamed, if we are doing the best we can with one of these mitzvot.

The month of Elul is about taking stock of our own lives, not about comparisons with others.  Martin Buber wrote about a famous rabbinical tale in which Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”

Let this month of reflection be a month for becoming our best selves, living lives of mitzvot beyond all accounting!

 


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