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.


Chanting my way into Torah

February 21, 2013
Torah

Torah (Photo credit: quinet)

I’m preparing to chant Torah this coming Shabbat.  It is not the easiest thing for me, but it’s good for me, because if I don’t use this skill, I’ll lose it. The process of preparing the portion to chant takes me into a deep analysis of the text, a dream-place where the text transforms before me.

Yes, there are some texts that bore me, at least before I’ve studied them. This one is a case in point: Exodus 30, the directions for the small golden altar for burning incense.  The Torah goes into excruciating detail about its dimensions and construction. When I first read it, I sighed. Not only do I need to chant it, I need to preach on it, and I had the feeling it was going to be a job to get a good drash out of a small piece of furniture.

So I began: first translating the passage for myself. It’s very straightforward, almost a cookbook. Nothing catches my eye. Then I begin to chant from the tikkun, the book that has all the marks to designate vowels, punctuation, and melody (the Torah scroll itself has none of those.)  I go one short phrase at a time, singing it over and over until I’ve got it. Periodically I stop to figure out how to fit phrases together.  Still boring: details, details.  Details, details, details.  Yawn.

Then I begin to notice how the melody comments upon the text: emphasize this word, that phrase.  Make a sort of soprano hiccup (geresh!) on one little preposition.  Gradually the text warms up, or I warm up to it. The little incense table begins to take shape, and glow.

Sometimes Torah is transparent. More often is it opaque.  All I know is that if I will spend time on it, invest my heart in it, open my soul to it, every time it will come to life before my eyes.

 


6 Tips for Beginning to Study Torah

December 28, 2012

If you are a beginner at Torah study, here are six tips that will help you. The most important one is #1 – if you can find an ongoing group to study with, that’s the best of all.

  1. STUDY WITH OTHERS.  Reading Torah by yourself is good, of course, but Jews typically study with partners or groups.  We do this for a number of reasons, but most of it boils down to the obvious: two heads are better than one, and ten heads offer lots of resources for looking into a text.
  2. READ ALOUD. Read a verse, or a section aloud, then discuss. Hearing the text is different than reading it, and will spur different ideas. Even if you have read the text a hundred times before, read it aloud.
  3. NO SINGLE RIGHT ANSWERS. When Jews study, we are not looking for the “right answer.” Usually there are many right answers.
  4. STAY SELF-AWARE. Notice the difference between what is IN the text and what you BRING to the text.  For example, our reading of several stories in Genesis may be colored by our own experiences as eldest or younger children. It’s not bad to have those reactions, but it’s good to be conscious about them.
  5. LISTEN AND SPEAK.  Hillel said, “The shy person will not learn” – if we don’t ask questions and speak up, we don’t learn much.  However, the converse is also true: the person who is always talking will not learn much either. Listen to what your study partners have to say, and think it over. Don’t just react.
  6. BE REGULAR IN STUDY. Don’t drop into a group occasionally: become a regular. Learning with others is good, but when we meet regularly to study we develop relationships with our partners and with the text that will deepen our access to Torah.

Happy Learning!


Why Learn Torah?

November 29, 2012
Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem

Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I learn Torah because I think it offers a framework for living my life.

If I am busy observing 613 mitzvot [commandments] there is not much time or energy left for getting into mischief.

If I am busy blessing the food that I eat, the mitzvot I perform, and the ordinary pleasures of life there’s very little time left for being unhappy.

If I fill my days with chesed [lovingkindness] there will be no room for kveching.

If I fill my mouth with blessings there will be no room in it for lashon hara.

I learn Torah because it offers me a framework in which I can explore my options and make choices to live a better life. When I have a tough decision, I look to the tradition for the many discussions on that subject: what did the early rabbis have to say about it? What did Maimonides teach? What have more recent scholars had to say to people in my situation? What do my rabbis think? And then I use my brain, and I decide for myself.

But without the study, without the Torah, I have to make it up all on my own. There are things I won’t think of until it is too late. There are things I might never have considered. But when I have the Torah at my back, I know that while I may still make a mistake, I will know how I got there, and the tradition will still be with me to show me how to take responsibility and repair any damage.

With mitzvot [commandments] to shape my life, and the Torah to inform my choices, I believe I have a chance at making a real difference in the world.

I learn Torah because people much wiser than I found wisdom there.


Simchat Torah for Beginners

October 4, 2012

Simhat Torah Flag

A few basic facts about the holiday:

WHAT IS SIMCHAT TORAH? Simchat Torah – “Joy of the Torah” – is the festival marking the day that we finish reading the Torah scroll and begin reading again from the beginning.

WHEN DO WE CELEBRATE SIMCHAT TORAH? This holiday falls immediately after Sukkot in the fall.

HOW DO WE CELEBRATE? Celebrations begin during the evening service.  We take out the Torah scrolls and parade them around the synagogue in seven hakafot [Torah processions.] We sing about the Torah, and may dance with the Torah scrolls. Children carry special “Simchat Torah flags” (see the example above) and may also receive candy. After the dancing, Torah readers read from the end of the scroll, and then from the beginning of the scroll.

WHERE DO WE CELEBRATE? Simchat Torah is celebrated mostly at the synagogue.

WHAT’S THE POINT? The Torah is the most precious possession of the Jewish People. We’ve had it for thousands of years. Many Jews spend their lives studying it, reading it, arguing about it, and struggling with it. When we come to the end of the scroll, we celebrate the fact that once again, we have read the whole scroll, and even more, once again we are beginning again. Our love affair with the Book never ends.


The Difficulty of God-talk

September 24, 2012

We’re about to embark on the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur, when we spend 24 hours with the fact of our human fallibility, with our failed efforts at reform, with all the mess of being human.  We do this in the context of a lot of God-language: God as Ruler, God as Judge, God as Parent (and those are just the gender-neutral options!)

For those for whom God-language is difficult or a barrier to good spiritual work, I’m offering a post I originally published last summer on the Women’s Rabbinic Network blog. How you fit this into your Yom Kippur reflections is up to you. Just remember that metaphors are only that – metaphors. The quest itself, the quest for holiness — that’s real.

Godzilla

Atheism is in fashion these days. About a quarter of my Intro to Judaism students worry that I will find out that they do not believe in God.  Another quarter are deeply suspicious of something they call “organized religion” because it is “the source of all the trouble in the world.” They are all serious, thoughtful people, and something has brought them to my class despite their misgivings: a need to explore Jewish roots, an important relationship, or a profound feeling of connection to Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.

And yet there is this god thing: I have begun to think of it as The Godzilla Problem.

A young friend of mine recently commented on Facebook that her phone now autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.” I sat and looked at that post, and it dawned on me that THAT was a perfect distillation of the problem: the god that my students refer to so distastefully is a monster god who blasts and condemns and punishes very much like the Japanese monster with whom it shares three letters. Like Godzilla, he is scary but not real.

I don’t worship that god. There are people who do worship it. They believe that there is a Big Person who will blast and punish evildoers. They talk with relish about that god’s opinions and predict his actions at some future time. They act in the name of that god and do terrible things to other people “for their own good.” Those people espouse many different religions; they cherry-pick the Torah and other scriptures for proof-texts. Unfortunately they are noisy people and for many, they have become the voice of religion.

The God I worship, whose title I will capitalize, is more enigmatic: this God shines through every experience that leaves me with my jaw hanging open. I witness God in the smell of a newborn baby, in the power of an earthquake, in our questions at at the side of an open grave. I witness God in acts of selflessness and acts of courage. Abraham Joshua Heschel described this notion of God much better than I ever shall when he wrote about “radical amazement.”

Torah is the process of Jews trying to wrap their minds around the Wonder: it is a dance between the amazed People and the Object of their amazement. I believe that the best way our ancestors could come up with to relate to Wonder was to personify God, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore holiness. They made a covenant with God, with commandments to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the amazingness of the universe. At the same time, our tradition warns against falling in love with mere images.

Heartbreaking evil has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. I believe firmly that such acts are acts of idolatry: that so-called “god” is indeed  “Godzilla.”

As a rabbi, as a teacher, my challenge is to wedge past the monster and lead my students through the door to amazement and questions. In our amazement with this world, with the questions of love and death, we may indeed approach the truth of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One.


Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners

July 8, 2012
Bat mitzvah in the United States.

Bat mitzvah in the United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

You or your child have been invited to attend a bar (or bat) mitzvah. The only problem is, you’ve never been to one. The closest you’ve come was a bit of one on TV, perhaps Freddie Crane’s bar mitzvah, where his dad blessed him in Klingon. Now what?

Despite the fact that the service is often given a humorous treatment in movies and on TV, the bar or bat mitzvah is a major event in the life of a Jewish family. The young person works for years to prepare for it, and the family saves and plans for just as long. A bar mitzvah (for a boy) or bat mitzvah (for a girl) falls sometime around the 13th birthday, and it marks the beginning of ritual adulthood.  That is, once a Jew has reached that age, they are responsible for themselves in keeping the commandments and participating in Jewish life.

There are a few things to know about attending a bar or bat mitzvah.  Here are some basic tips:

1. RESPOND PROMPTLY. As with a wedding, these are complicated affairs and numbers matter. Respond to the invitation as soon as possible. Do not ask to bring extra people.

2. DRESS MODESTLY. Dress will depend on the synagogue, but do not depend on your 13 year old for the dress code. The service will be fairly formal: a bar mitzvah boy will wear a suit and tie. Dress for girls should be tidy, clean, and modest: outfits cut “up to here” or “down to there” are inappropriate.  A party dress with bare shoulders can be supplemented with a shawl for the service.

3. PRESENTS. Gift-giving is traditional at a bar or bat mitzvah. One may give money to the bat mitzvah, or make a charitable donation (tzedakah) in her name. Bar mitzvah money often is put towards college or study in Israel. That said, if you cannot afford a present, it is not required.

4. THE SERVICE. Arrive on time for the service. The bat mitzvah may lead the service, and she will read from the Torah Scroll in Hebrew. She’s been studying for years for this moment. Just follow the rest of the congregation in sitting and standing. If you have never been to a Jewish service before, you may find another article on this site “New to Jewish Prayer?” useful. It’s OK to look around you, or to look through the prayer book. However, fiddling with a cell phone (much less talking or texting on one!) is not appropriate. Electronics should be turned off and put away, if they are carried at all. (In a Conservative or Orthodox synagogue, the use of such devices is forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath. Using one will immediately inform everyone that you are an outsider and a bad-mannered one, at that.)  For more about the service, check out More Etiquette for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Guests.

5. THE PARTY. The party afterwards may be very simple or very elaborate. For dress and other specifics, check your invitation. Again, do not bring uninvited guests!  Usually there will be speeches at the party, and it is polite to listen. There will also be dancing, which is optional but lots of fun. Even if you aren’t much of a dancer, circle dancing for the horah is fun. There will be food.

6. GREETINGS. If the service falls on Saturday (or in some congregations, on Friday night) you may be greeted at the door with “Shabbat shalom!”  This literally means, “Sabbath of Peace!” and it is the traditional greeting for the day. You can reply “Shabbat shalom!” or simply “Shalom!”  If you wish to congratulate the parents or the young person, you can say “Mazal tov!” 

7. ENJOY! This is a moment of great joy for a Jewish family, a milestone in a young Jew’s life. It will involve good music, a beautiful service, good food, dancing, and new friends. Open yourself to the experience, and enjoy.


It’s a Mitzvah: Save a Life!

July 4, 2012
Blood donation drive

Blood donation drive (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa.”  – “Do not stand by while your neighbor bleeds.”  Leviticus 19:16

If someone is in dire danger, this commandment in the Torah insists that we must act. The ancient rabbis took this commandment so seriously that they teach us that even if it means breaking the Sabbath, even if it means breaking almost any other law, we must not stand by while someone is in danger of death.  (The exceptions? We may not engage in murder, incest, or idolatry, even to save a life.)

 Right now, in the United States, we are in the midst of a critical blood shortage. Last week, the American Red Cross reported that the nation’s blood banks were down by 50,000 pints.  That is not a typo: FIFTY THOUSAND PINTS of blood — blood upon which people’s lives depend! — are simply not there.  Each of those pints could make the difference between life and death for someone injured in the storms in the East, for a firefighter injured in Colorado, or for a mother with a complicated childbirth. Cancer patients sometimes need many pints of blood and blood products to continue fighting the disease.

Today I stopped by my local Red Cross Blood Donation center, and when the nurse looked at my record, she said, “Oh! Your blood type is negative! We really need those!” I asked her about the shortage and she shook her head: “Yes, it’s really, really bad.  Now let’s get your blood pressure.”

Now I have a bandaid in the crook of my left elbow, and a sticker on my shirt. I don’t know where my pint of A negative will go, but I’m told it may save as many as three lives.

Some people can’t donate: my partner, a cancer survivor, is barred from ever performing this mitzvah ever again. A person with a fresh tattoo or piercing may not donate until 12 months have passed. A person who may have been exposed to any of several diseases may not donate. People who have taken certain drugs cannot. If you wonder if you are eligible, or you have other questions, you can find the answers on the Red Cross Blood Donation website.  That site can also direct you to the nearest place to donate, and in many areas, you can make your appointment online.

Rabbi Simon Glustrom writes in an article on pikuach nefesh, preservation of life:

The preservation of human life takes precedence over all the other commandments in Judaism. The Talmud emphasizes this principle by citing the verse from Leviticus [18:5]: “You shall therefore keep my statutes…which if a man do, he shall live by them.” The rabbis add: “That he shall live by them, and not that he shall die by them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses speaks to Israel with a message from the Divine, and near the end he says:

I call heaven and earth to witness you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants.

For those of us able to donate blood, we have a the opportunity to choose life in a very literal way. The choice before us is indeed a choice between life and death, blessing and curse.

Choose life and blessing, that you and others may live.

Afterwards, cookies.

 


Just Shabbat

June 3, 2012

Dawn

Have you ever had a perfect day?

I think I came as close as I ever have this past Shabbat.  Linda and I went to the children’s service at Temple Sinai on Friday night, sat with friends and met some people who may be new friends. Went home tired, and slept the sleep of the worn out.  Rose Saturday morning, had breakfast, went back to shul for services: a bar mitzvah of a young man I didn’t know, with an aliyah honoring the 30th wedding anniversary of our close friends, Dawn and Mark.  Afterwards, lunch with more friends, and a long slow June afternoon at home. Heaven!

A bar mitzvah, you say? Of a young man you didn’t know?  Yes: for those of you who avoid bnei mitzvah services, a point to ponder: sometimes the 13 year olds approach a Torah portion in new and exciting ways, precisely because they haven’t been reading the same words over and over for 50 years.   And yes, sometimes they don’t.  But Torah is always good, and my mind is free to pursue the portion wherever it is led.

But more than anything, it was the slow time of the whole 24 hour period, the songs at night, the long service in the morning when my brain was set loose to freewheel through prayer and inspiration, the affection of friends, the sense of there being “enough” in this moment, that made the day for me.

This is Shabbat.  This is my treasure as a Jew.


Ready to Receive the Torah?

May 24, 2012

A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Heb...

“Today is forty-seven days, which is six weeks and five days of the Omer.”

Almost there!  Shavuot will be here in just a few days – am I ready?  What does it mean, to be ready to receive the Torah?

Memory: my first Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, when I finally felt a part of the Torah Study group at my synagogue.  I think it had something to do with studying so late and so long around the table that we all got giggly.  At any rate, I finally relaxed and felt like “one of the gang,” which was good, since momentous things were to follow.  Soon after, it was time for me to go to the beit din and the mikveh to complete my conversion to Judaism.  And then, on the same day many years later, I got on the plane to go to Jerusalem to begin rabbinical school.  Lots of memories, indeed!

The question remains: what does it mean to be ready to receive the Torah?  That magical night when I felt I truly belonged to the group, that was part of it.  The Torah is given to Am Yisrael, not to any individual on his or her own.

A little later, when the beit din questioned me, they were looking to see: was I there for the right reasons? Was I truly free to make this decision?  Was I holding back some piece of my old life?  And all of that, too, is part of being ready to receive the Torah.  Sinai wasn’t possible until Passover was done: only a free People could make a covenant with the Divine.  They didn’t quiz me on the fine points, because after all at the original deal, at Sinai, the People said, “Na’aseh v’nishmah” [We will do and we will hear]. Both the Jews and this individual Jew had to make the leap without knowing every detail:  this covenant requires risk.  It takes heart. One must have heart to be ready to receive the Torah.

Then, the mikveh:  I had heard about warm and lovely mikveh experiences, but mine was more like, well, a dash of cold water.  A whole mikveh full of cold water, actually, because they’d forgotten to turn on the heat.  I took a deep breath, and walked down into what felt like the Arctic Ocean until all but my head was submerged in the water.  I called to my mikveh attendant, our cantor, and when she came in, she saw me cringing  and said, “Are you OK?” “I’m freezing!” I said.  “Let’s get this over with!”  So we said the blessings in between dunks, she made sure it was all kosher, and I came flying back out of that icewater as soon as modesty permitted.

And that, too, was appropriate, even if it wasn’t the usual way.  We motored through those blessings, but nothing was skipped.  Sometimes, in Jewish prayer, you just do what you have to do.   I dressed hurriedly and went out to the mazal tovs of family and friends with my hair still wet.  Na’aseh v’nishma: we will do and we will hear.  And sometimes we will “do” in a hurry.  The sages tell us to run to do a mitzvah: and so sometimes run we must!

And then, in a later June, but still in that same week of Shelach L’cha, my friend Fred drove me to the airport with three enormous bags for my flight to Jerusalem.  I had no inkling of what lay ahead.  Na’aseh v’nishma:  Doing before understanding.  Had I any idea how hard the next six years would be, I’d never have gotten on that plane, and I’m so glad now that I was ignorant, because being a rabbi has filled my heart and my life beyond all my dreams.   I suspect that had the Hebrews at Sinai been shown all that lay ahead, they’d have said, “No thanks:”  no thanks to the years of wilderness, no thanks to the lawless age of the Judges, no thanks to Babylon, no thanks to Rome, no thanks to the Inquisition, no thanks to the Nazis.  But they didn’t know.  I am so glad we didn’t know.

And now we are about to stand at Sinai yet again.  And yet again we will say, “Na’aseh v’nishma,”  And now, unlike the first time, when we trembled at the fire and the thunder, we know to tremble at the wild abandon of this promise: We will do it, whatever it is!  We will understand it later.

And then we will be ready to receive the Torah.


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