Joshua and His Trees

July 10, 2014

With Jim, at Joshua Tree National Park

I love this photo. It was taken in one of my favorite places, and it’s me and my kid. (OK, so he’s a 30 year old man now, he’s still my kid.)

The place is Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California. The weird looking plants around us are Joshua Trees, yucca brevifolia. They are native to the southwestern deserts, especially the Mohave Desert.

Joshua trees live in a harsh environment to a very great age; some have lived almost a thousand years. In the springtime, if the winter has been wet enough and there has been a freeze, the tree blooms. Its flowers are heavy clusters of blossoms the size and appearance of quail’s eggs, and they have a pungent stink.

The trees are known as Joshua Trees because when Mormon travelers saw them in the 19th century, they thought the trees looked like Joshua, lifting his hands to the sky in prayer. Now I have looked and looked in Torah, and in the book of Joshua, and I have never been able to find an account of Joshua lifting his hands in prayer. Moses does so, most famously in Exodus 17, when Joshua is leading the battle against Amalek, and things go well only as long as Moses’ hands are lifted up. But never could I find the story to which the Mormons referred. (Readers, if you find it, please let me know in the comments!)

But when I look at the trees themselves, I can easily imagine naming them for Joshua. They thrive in the wilderness. They are prickly, and stinky, and yet still they command my attention, pulling at all my senses. I imagine Joshua was such a man, different from Moses, perhaps more charismatic. Moses led the people out of Egypt, fussing and challenging him all the way. Joshua led them into the Promised Land, and they did not challenge him.

Joshua was born in Egypt. He was true to the covenant to his dying day. He led his people into battles and lived to a great old age, as do his namesake trees.


Names and Deeds

December 19, 2013
Moses in the Bulrushes

Miriam & Moses (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the little ironies that pepper the text of the Torah.This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, begins with the line:

“These are the names of the sons of Israel…” (Exodus 1:1)

and sure enough, it’s a list of men’s names. There is not one woman’s name in the list. For the first fourteen verses of the portion, it’s just boys, boys, boys. One might get the impression that Judaism really has no place for women from reading this stuff.

But here’s the irony: the rest of this portion is full of the daring actions of women, actions without which there would have been no Judaism!

In Chapter 1, we get the story of Shifrah and Puah, two midwives who refused to murder Hebrew babies.  In doing so, they defied the most powerful man in the world to his face. Pharaoh understood that they weren’t cooperating, even if he could not catch them at it, and he moved on to another plan. But the fact remains: children survived because they looked the King of the World in the eye and defied him.

In Chapter 2, we get the story of the mother of Moses, a Levite woman who hid her son from the king’s minions for three months. Again, a woman defies Pharaoh! And when she can hide him no longer, she puts him in a basket and puts the little bundle in the Nile – a desperate act indeed, considering that the river was full of crocodiles – but her daughter, Miriam, follows along on the bank, watching over the baby to see what happens. Midrash tells us that Miriam had the gift of prophecy, that she knew her little brother would grow up to be someone remarkable. But think for a moment about a girl, who sees her mother lose her nerve, putting the baby into the arms of God, as it were, but who follows along. There were crocs on the bank, too – yet little Miriam still watches over her brother.

In Chapter 4, Moses has grown up, and left Egypt, and his young wife, Zipporah, sees that he has a mysterious encounter with God that nearly kills him. She decides that it has something to do with Moses’ failure to circumcise their son, so she takes a knife and performs the circumcision herself. It is a very mysterious story, but one thing is definite: Zipporah’s name may mean “little bird” but she is no shrinking violet.

So yes, Exodus may begin with the names of  men, but it is the deeds of  women that set this great saga in motion.

 


Making the Seder Count

March 22, 2013
US Navy 030417-N-8273J-010 Crewmembers read fr...

US Navy 030417-N-8273J-010 Crewmembers read from the Passover Hagaddah (prayer book) during the Passover Seder dinner in the wardroom aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We gather once a year around the seder table to eat matzah, to tell the Exodus story, and to fulfill the commandments. At some tables, it’s just that: a traditional trip down memory lane. But if we are going to take the words of the sages seriously, to rise from the table feeling as if we ourselves have been delivered from Egypt, if we want to make this experience count for something, we might want to think outside the limits of the bare minimum.

One thing we can do is to ask the “wicked child’s” question over and over again as we read through the Haggadah: What does this have to do with US? The sages criticize that child because of the way he asks the  question: he separates himself from the community. But what if we were to ask the same question in a different spirit, to say, “Where do we fit into this story?” Then more questions will open up:

  • When have I been a slave?
  • Am I now a slave to someone or something?
  • Have I enslaved someone?
  • Do I benefit from slave labor?
  • What is slavery? Does it still exist?
  • What is real freedom?
  • What are the plagues in my life?
  • Who is not welcome to come and eat at my table? Why?
  • Who is hungry within 5 miles of my house? 10 miles?

and the biggie:

• When I rise from the table, what am I personally going to do about my answers to any of those questions?

What questions are you going to ask around your seder table?  How will you make your seder count?


Lechem Oni / Matzah

March 16, 2013

Matzah

 

Matzah is the paradox
at the heart of Passover.

At the center of our Passover feast,
this poor bread, lechem oni, scatters crumbs everywhere.

We place it among mounds of food:
poverty in the midst of plenty.
Now who among us has seen that?

Surely God called us out of Egypt
For something better.


Retelling: When a Story Grows Stale

March 13, 2013
Boy reading from the Torah according to Sephar...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.” – Ben Bag Bag, Pirkei Avot

Have you ever had a story go stale? Someone starts reading a familiar story from Torah, and your mind goes numb? We read the Torah every year, pole to pole, and when we finish, we start over again. Some stories we read multiple times, like the Akedah [binding of Isaac, Genesis 22] and the story of the Hebrews leaving Egypt, which we get not only in Exodus, but also in the Haggadah. Year after year we read these stories again and again – how to keep them fresh? Here are some techniques that work for me:

1. CHANGE FOCUS. When we read a story, we usually identify with one character in it. Figure out with whom you identify in this story — then choose someone or something else for your focus. The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai did this to brilliant effect when he refocused on the ram in the Akedah, in The Real Hero of the Isaac Story. Ask yourself, whom am I overlooking? Then look at the story through his/her/its eyes.

2. READ A COMMENTARY. There are many different understandings of every story. Are you still stuck on the one you learned in school as a kid? Try searching the Virtual Jewish Library for insights on the story by searching the characters’ names, or check out a commentary in your synagogue library.

3. FOLLOW THE STORY ON  A MAP.  Use online resources (again, Virtual Jewish Library is great for this) to research place names in your story.  Some locations in the Bible are unknown, but we have a pretty good idea where many things happened. Even the unknowns are interesting: what does it mean that we are not sure where the actual Mt. Sinai is? The day I figured out what it really meant that Naomi and Ruth walked from Moab to Bethlehem the story transformed for me. Two lonely women walked 46 miles through the Judean desert with no protection from wild animals or predatory humans – wow. It says something about both women that they survived the trip.

4. READ WITH A PARTNER. It is truly amazing how differently two people can read the same story, especially from Torah. Read it with someone else and listen to what they think  of it.  I always thought of Joseph as a hero, and was really shocked to discover that some readers think he was a horrible kid and deserved what his brothers did to him.

5. PLAY DEVIL’S ADVOCATE. This is a variation on the first tip. If there is a villain in the story (think Haman in the Esther story) try to read the story with sympathy for him. What was the Exodus story like from Pharaoh’s point of view?

6. ASK: HOW HAVE I CHANGED? One thing is for sure:  while the letters on the Torah haven’t changed over the years, we human beings change over the course of our lives.  The story about Jacob scheming to get his father’s blessing reads differently to a child than it does to a parent.

All of these approaches have rejuvenated stories for me. Reading Torah is a little like squeezing fruit: if you only squeeze it one way, you aren’t going to get all the juice. Try turning it a bit, as Ben Bag Bag suggests, to get a new flavor from an old story.


Seder Tips: Alone for Passover?

March 4, 2013
A Seder table setting

A Seder table setting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WordPress, the outfit that makes it possible for me to post this blog, also provides me with data about the Google searches that lead people here. Today one caught my eye and urges me to write: “how to have a seder alone.”

Jews generally celebrate everything in community. There are even some things we can’t do properly without a certain number of persons present:  say the Kaddish prayer, chant from the Torah, or get married, to name just a few. While there is no rule against reading through the Haggadah alone, “Seder” suggests a group of people around a table, telling the Exodus story together. It was designed by the ancient rabbis as an opportunity to learn and share with other Jews. Yet sometimes circumstances are such that it just isn’t possible to gather with friends for a seder. Here are some thoughts for dealing with Passover solo.

1. IT’S OK TO ASK.  In Western culture, it is generally considered impolite to “invite myself over” to someone’s house, especially for a meal. Passover meals are one of the exceptions to this rule. If you are going to be in a city but don’t know any of the Jews there, call a local Jewish institution (synagogue, the Federation) and tell them that you are alone for Passover and need somewhere to go for seder. Often they can provide a lead to a household where they look forward to keeping the mitzvah of a new person at the table. It’s a mitzvah for them, and a community for you, and you’ll almost certainly make some Jewish friends.  Good all around!  It is also ok, if you are a single in a Jewish community, to let others know that you don’t have a seder invitation. If you are a guest at someone’s seder table, be sure to read Seven Ways to be a Great Seder Guest.

2. COMMUNITY SEDERS. Many Jewish communities offer a second night seder at synagogues or a hotel for which guests sign up and pay a fee. My own community, Temple Sinai of Oakland, is offering such a seder this year (if you are going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can sign up via this link.) Again, call local Jewish institutions and ask! This can be a more comfortable option if you feel shy about going to a seder at someone’s home.

3. TECHNOLOGY. If there is a group in another place with whom you have had the seder in the past, but you’ve relocated, what about Skype? Talk to your friends about setting up a computer near the table, so you can schmooze with the Jews, too.  If Skype is too much tech for you, consider a phone connection via a speakerphone on the distant table. No, it is not traditional or even halakhic, but it will provide an important connection on the holiday. Last year a number of Jews, including rabbis, found ways to use technology to enhance the seder, according to this Wall Street Journal article.

4. INVITE NON-JEWISH FRIENDS. OK, so you are in the middle of nowhere, no Jews around, and Skyping with old friends is not an option. What about getting some matzah, getting out the Haggadah, and inviting some Gentile friends over to share the story of the Exodus?

5. SEDER SOLO. If none of the above will work for you, the real necessities for your seder are some matzah, some wine or grape juice, and a copy of the Haggadah. If you have no Haggadah, a Bible will do.  Read the story. Eat unleavened bread. And then begin to make plans for next year, either in Jerusalem, or with some friends.


Taking the Queer Road

May 6, 2012

Two memoirs are out just recently from people I admire: Jeanne Córdova’s When We were Outlaws and Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger. I’ve had a chance to read Córdova’s book, but my e-copy of Bornstein’s book is still on its way through cyberspace to me. Both are stories about dangerous journeys, and it occurred to me that they are totally appropriate reading for Omer-time, since we are in that period of travel from Passover to Shavuot, from freedom to Torah. Just as Am Yisrael had to deal with Amalekites and their own demons, these two women have been through their own wildernesses, external and internal.

When We were Outlaws is about a short period in the 1970’s when lesbians began to see themselves as Lesbian Nation, but the Establishment, especially J.Edgar Hoover, saw them as another bunch of Commies, enemies of the state.    (I say “them” because I didn’t come out until ’87.) Those were scary, heady times, when the radical Left in America was feeling its oats about the exit from Vietnam, but painfully aware of what had happened to the Black Panthers.  Córdova was a leader in the lesbian community in Southern California during that time, and she talks about not only the external battles but the internal ones as well.  She was (and is) both a lover and a fighter, and breathtakingly honest about it, to boot.

A Queer and Pleasant Danger is about another sort of journey. I met Kate Bornstein after she had stopped being Al and had become Kate, but before I became a Jew named  Ruth.  She was the first person to explain gender in a way that made sense to me.  The binary division of the world into “us” and “them” had always seemed like a gross oversimplification of something much more interesting, but I never had words for it. Kate embodies it: she occupies her own township on the landscape of gender, and has spent much of the last twenty years as a kind and outrageous tour guide and den mother, writing and performing her art to communicate the truth of that landscape to the rest of us. I look forward to reading her memoir, as I have enjoyed her other books; I know I will learn something not only about her, but about myself, before I put it down.

I admire these two writers because they have followed the truth where it took them, and they have the guts to talk honestly about the sometimes messy adventures and mistakes along the way.  It’s one of the qualities I love about Jewish holy books, that they include some of the unholiest episodes imaginable, letting us know that all of life can become  holy.  It’s only when we are willing to really tell the truth that we can learn something worthwhile.  It’s only when we can embrace the mess of being human, that we can allow ourselves to be embraced by God.


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