Passing the Torah

May 13, 2013
Rabbi Steve Chester passes the Torah to me (again) at ordination (5/18/08)

Rabbi Steve Chester passes the Torah to me (again) at ordination (5/18/08)

When I watch the passing of the Torah at a bar or bat mitzvah,

I wonder: Who passes the Torah to me?

My father was Irish Catholic,
and my mother a Catholic who was once a Presbyterian.
My name is Ruth bat Avraham v’Sarah
But Abraham and Sarah died a long time ago.
I have no family stories about Passover.
Like Ruth, I’m here only because I wanted to be.
Who passes the Torah to me?

When I approached a rabbi about conversion
He gently suggested we study together
And passed the Torah to me.

When my first Hebrew teacher patiently
guided me right to left through the aleph-bet
She passed the Torah to me.

When I shivered in the water of the mikveh
and the cantor led me through the blessings
She passed the Torah to me.

When I talked for an hour with the Beit Din
When the Torah study class showed me how Jews study Bible
When the Talmud group welcomed me for discussions and stories
When an Israeli acquaintance corrected my Hebrew
When my study partner clapped a kippah on my head
They passed the Torah to me.

When a little girl showed me how to tear the challah
When a woman offered me my first taste of a Hillel sandwich
When the guy at the bakery said, “Shabbat Shalom!”
When a committee chair said to me, “Here, you can do this.”
When friends shared recipes and stories and customs
They passed the Torah to me.

If it takes a village to raise a child
It takes a congregation to raise a convert:

We pass the Torah from hand to hand
and make sure all the Jews who want can hold it:
can write it on their hearts,
speak of it in their homes,
teach it to their children,
bind it on their hands,
hold it before their eyes,
and write it – in golden letters! –
on the doorposts of their gates.

– Rabbi Ruth Adar


“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.

 


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