“Miracles” in the News

May 7, 2013
Big News

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My atheist friends give me a lot to ponder.  One wrote passionately on facebook:

Media: Stop using the word miracle. It has a whole host of implications, and some of the ones from the last 24 hours of the news cycle are horrifying, and deeply offensive. Don’t use it. Just don’t.

I knew immediately what he meant: there’s a story in the news about three young women who were kidnapped ten years ago and finally managed to escape their captors.  I agree with my friend, using “miracle” in this context is a minefield.  We’re talking about three young women who appear to have suffered imprisonment and abuse for a decade – he’s right, the word “miracle” is just gross.

That thought led me to another: is the obsessive reportage of this story a problem when we look at it at through the lens of Torah? My answer to that is a swift, “You betcha.”

The story is all over the news right now, and because it is upsetting, people want to talk about it. The fact that it is upsetting and sensational is the reason it’s all over the news, too -Big News is in the business of selling advertising time, after all: this story is much more mezmerizing than drones or the economic crisis facing most Americans. It will sell more soap flakes, and more diet aids, and after all, that is the bottom line.

Torah demands of us that we ask questions: instead of nattering about miracles or obsessing over salacious details, let’s stop and think, what speech is necessary? And is there any way we can learn something or be helpful?

OK, it was necessary to report the story; we need to do know what the cops do, and what goes on in our community. I’m less clear that I need to know about something like this in Cleveland when I live in California, but OK, I’ll go that far. But do I need breathless prose about miracles and gory details from well-coiffed anchors? I don’t think so. Do those poor women need microphones poked in their faces? Do their families? No and no.

Jewish tradition forbids talking about other people unless it is necessary. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote a wonderful book on the subject, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. MyJewishLearning.com has an article that gives you the short form of his teaching about lashon hara, [evil speech.]  Especially if the words we use could spoil someone’s reputation, or even cause envy, they are not proper speech for a Jew  even if they are true. Jewish law is stricter than American civil law on this subject: the truth of the words is immaterial, if they have any potential to cause injury, we shouldn’t say them.

There are words that ARE necessary, sometimes, even unpleasant words. We are commanded not to be passive when someone is being hurt (Lev. 19:16) so by all means, if you know of a crime or a possible crime, report it.

What speech is truly  necessary, in the case of the news story? Certainly, if you’ve heard the story and it upsets you, find someone with whom to discuss your feelings. The details of those women’s suffering are not our business; they are the business of law enforcement and the courts.  My fears, and my upset are my business. If I find I can’t leave this story alone, then I should talk it out with a rabbi, a therapist, or maybe a trusted friend.

It may be too, that with the story everywhere, it is necessary to talk to children about it. We need to reassure children that (1) this is very unusual and that (2)it is important not to go anywhere with strangers, etc. We also need to tell our children that we will value them no matter what, that they are infinitely precious, and that nothing will change that.

What can we learn? Perhaps we could learn to ask more questions when a situation in our neighborhood seems “a bit off.”  I’m afraid that’s all I can think of, though: this isn’t a news story that will inform my vote, or cause me to write my congressman, or make me a wiser person.

Speculating about it or treating this event as if it is some kind of entertainment is a low form of gossip.  Making theology out of it (miracles! redemption!) verges on blasphemy.  I am not in charge of Corporate News, but I am in charge of my keyboard and my remote. Jewish tradition suggests that if there is something that needs to be said, I should say it; if there is something that needs to be done, I should do it, but that beyond that, it’s seriously time to turn off the news.


Shavuot for Beginners

May 6, 2013
Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s Field (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shavuot (“Weeks”) is just around the corner, and although it is a major Jewish holiday, it’s one of the least known.

HISTORY Shavuot combines two ancient observances: a festival for the first grain harvest of the summer and the chag, or pilgrimage holiday, celebrated in Temple times. All Jews who were able traveled to Jerusalem to observe the sacrifices and bring the first fruits of their harvests, remembering and celebrating the covenant at Sinai.

THIS YEAR Shavuot begins at sundown on May 14.

OBSERVANCE TODAY Today we observe Shavuot in a number of ways:

  • Counting the Omer – Ever since Passover, we’ve been counting UP to Shavuot, building the anticipation for the holiday. Every night observant Jews say a blessing and announce the “count” of the day.
  • Tikkun Leil Shavuot – How better to celebrate the giving of Torah than to sit up all night and study it? Many Jews gather to study the night of Shavuot (this year, May 14).
  • Dairy Foods – It’s traditional to eat dairy meals on Shavuot, since if the law is newly given, there’s not yet time for meat to be kosher.
  • In the Synagogue – We read from the Torah, we recite Hallel (a service of praise) and we have a special Yizkor (mourning) service.  For service times, check synagogue websites or call ahead before the holiday begins.
  • The Book of Ruth is the megillah (scroll) read and studied on Shavuot.

 


Tweet #Torah to the Top With Us!

May 2, 2013

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

For the past couple of years, a group of us have celebrated Shavuot by “Tweeting #Torah to the Top.”  We’re on Twitter (you can find me at @CoffeeShopRabbi) and in the hours before Shavuot, we tweet  divrei Torah [words of Torah] to try to get to the top of the “trending” [most Tweeted] list.  Every year, I’ve had fun, I’ve met some terrific Jews, and enjoyed a symbolic celebration of this least-celebrated festival.

If you are wondering how to do it, see what my esteemed colleague Rabbi Mark Hurwitz has to say:

——————–
HurwitzI have been exploring how to use Twitter and Facebook as tools for Jewish community organizing. We know that these social media were central to the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime in Egypt. How might we use them to raise consciousness among the Jewish people around the world?

Beginning in 2009 Reconstructionist rabbi Shai Gluskin organized an attempt to bring Torah to as many people as possible on the evening of Shavuot, using Twitter. As he expressed it then (on Twitter):

Are you in? A 49th day of omer prep for Shavuot #Torah fest. Goal: get many tweeting Torah and see #Torah trend in top 10 the whole day.

Each year, those who participated enjoyed a great day of learning, sharing, and meeting. Jews (and others) all over the world, from various walks of life and “flavors” of Jewish life, tweeted what they thought were valuable and important thoughts of Torah. Nonetheless, we have never been able to get “#Torah” to “trend”. Is it because, however broadly defined, “#Torah” is simply not of interest to the vast majority of Jewish tweeters?

What can we do to make #Torah go viral? Are there tools that those of us committed to this effort are missing? I open the question up to this forum for discussion and invite you all to join our project.

This year (2013:5773) our event is scheduled to begin May 14. You can learn more and indicate your interest on our Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tweet-Torah-to-the-Top/440987195986359

If you’d like to participate, please indicate so on the event’s Facebook page:
https://www.facebook.com/events/354726977977663/

———–

You don’t have to be a rabbi.

You don’t have to belong to anything (other than have a Twitter account.)

If you’ve never tweeted, well, here’s a chance to try it.

C’mon! We’ll have fun!


What’s “Yasher Koach”?

April 25, 2013

Good_Job

(Photo credit: mistergesl)

You’ve just said a Torah blessing, or given a drash [short speech about Torah] or helped with something around the synagogue. Suddenly people are sticking their hands out to you for a handshake and saying “Ya-sher KO-ach!” with great enthusiasm.  What the heck?

Don’t worry, you haven’t done anything wrong; just the reverse, they’re congratulating you on a job well done. “Yasher koach!” translates, literally, “May your strength be firm!” but it’s an idiom meaning, “Good job!” and it carries with it the hope that this mitzvah will give you the strength to carry on to future mitzvot.   Think of it as a cheer.

It has a lot of variant pronunciations: YA-sher KO-ach, Y’Sh’KOICH, YA-sher-KOYch, and so on. The grammatically correct form when addressing a woman  is “Tashiri kohech” but usually you’ll hear the masculine. I do not correct the grammar when friends say “Yashar koach” to me – it’s a compliment, just accept it!

The polite thing to say in return is “Baruch Tihiye” (Ba-rooch tih-hee-yeh).  That means “blessed you will be,” which might translate colloquially as “Back atcha!”


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.


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