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.


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