Who’s Afraid of the Big Blood Moon?

Image: Giuseppe Petricca took this image of a “supermoon” total lunar eclipse on Sept. 27, 2015, from Pisa, Italy.

Periodically the news has stories about “blood moons.” According to Space.com:

A “blood moon” happens when Earth’s moon is in full eclipse. While it has no special astronomical significance, the view in the sky is striking as the usually whiteish moon becomes red or ruddy-brown.

This are normal, predictable natural events, but you would not know that from much of the news coverage they get. The longest total eclipse of the 21st century will take place on July 27 and will be visible from South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. For more about the science of this remarkable event, read “Blood Moon 2018: Longest Total Lunar Eclipse of Century” on Space.com.

Some Christian preachers are making much of the fact that this particular “blood moon” (aka eclipse) will be visible from Jerusalem. They believe that this moon is a harbinger of the end of the world. They cite verses in the prophet Joel, chapter 2, and in the Christian scriptures of Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2 and Revelations, chapter 6.

So what’s in that passage of Joel?

Before them earth trembles, heaven shakes, sun and moon are darkened, And stars withdraw their brightness.

And the LORD roars aloud at the head of His army; for vast indeed is His host, numberless are those that do His bidding. For great is the day of the LORD, Most terrible—who can endure it? 

“Yet even now”—says the LORD— “Turn back to Me with all your hearts, and with fasting, weeping, and lamenting.” 

Rend your hearts, rather than your garments, and turn back to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment.  – Joel 2:10-13.

This passage is typical of the Hebrew prophets: it is a call to repentance. Scholars disagree about the time when it was written. It has few details to identify a particular date. What is clear about it is the call to a return to just ways: “Rend your hearts, rather than your garments, and turn back to the LORD your God.”

What we can take from the “blood moon” is a sense of wonder at the mysteries of creation. We get lost in our smartphones, in our computer screens, and we forget to see the miracles all around us.

Then, having taken notice of the natural world, perhaps we will be moved to take better care of it, lest in our foolishness and waste we so alter creation that we destroy it.

Advertisements

Jewish Help for Infertility

Image: The logo of Hasidah, a Jewish organization for support of individuals and couples suffering with infertility. It is a stork carrying a bundle, and the word “Hasidah.”

There’s a trope that repeats again and again in the Jewish Bible: a woman suffers from infertility. Such a women is identified in Hebrew as an akarah, a “childless woman.”

Five women are identified as akarot (plural): Sarah (Genesis 11:30,) Rivka (Genesis 25:21,) Rachel (Genesis 29:31,) Samson’s nameless mother (Judges 13:2,) and Hannah ((1 Samuel 2:5)  The prophet Isaiah even characterizes Zion as a metaphorical akarah (Isaiah 54:1).

The stories follow a pattern: a woman grieves because she has difficulty conceiving, someone offers prayer, and God grants the woman a child. The moral of the story seems simple: God, who is central to fertility, listens to prayer.

For many modern couples, the simplicity of the stories and their solution may feel glib or even like a mockery. About 10 percent of women in the United States ages 15-44 (6.1 million) have difficulty conceiving or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While the technology of infertility treatment has made great progress, it is available only at great personal and financial cost. In addition to the physical and financial challenge of infertility, it often raises spiritual and emotional challenges as well.

Hasidah (www.hasidah.org) is a Jewish organization which supports and assists Jewish couples who experience infertility. It does so by connecting people undergoing the grueling process of infertility treatment with resources for spiritual, emotional and financial support. Hasidah also trains Jewish professionals in the pastoral support of infertile couples.

If you or someone you know is suffering from infertility, contact Hasidah. Also, if you wish to support infertility awareness programs, rabbinic training seminars, counseling and spiritual care,  as well as financial assistance for fertility treatment, you can donate to Hasidah – it is an excellent choice for your tzedakah funds.

(Full disclosure: I am a Rabbinic Partner of Hasidah.)

 

What are Tefillin?

Image: Woman reading Torah while wearing tefillin. (1/22/13, by Michal Patelle, some rights reserved.

וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ

And you shall bind [these words] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes. — Deuteronomy 6:8

What are tefillin?: Our ancestors decided that the way to observe this commandment was to take it literally: write down these words, bind them to our arms, and put them to be totafot (usually translated “frontlets” although no one knows how to translate that either) between our eyes. The words (Exodus 13:1-16, Deut. 6:4-9, and Deut. 11:13:21) are written on tiny parchment scrolls by a sofer, a scribe. Then the sofer rolls them up and puts them into small leather boxes. One box is affixed to the head with leather straps that go around the head. The other box is bound to the inside of the non-dominant arm, and the straps are wound 7 times around that arm, finishing in a special knot on the hand.

Who can wear tefillin?: An adult Jew can wear tefillin. They are not for non-Jews and not for children too young to understand what they are. In some circles, women are not allowed to wear tefillin.

When to wear tefillin?: Observant Jews wear them for morning prayers on weekdays.

What are tefillin made of?: They are made of leather from a kosher animal. As a result of the source and the craftsmanship involved in making them, new tefillin tend to be rather expensive.

Why wear tefillin?: For many Jews, the answer is simply that we are commanded to wear them. Going a bit deeper, though, it is a way of expressing our willingness to bind our hearts and minds to God.  In my own experience, it is a very comforting sensation and helps me focus on my prayers.

Phrases to know: Putting on tefillin is “laying tefillin” or “wrapping tefillin.” The other word you will hear for tefillin, “phylacteries,” is a Greek word meaning “amulets.”

For more about tefillin, and a demonstration of how to put them on, here is a YouTube video on the subject. However it is best, if you are interested in learning how to do it, to ask someone who knows how for help.

 

Why Was the Temple Destroyed?

Image: Banquet scene from the first century CE. At such a dinner party the host might have had his fateful disagreement with Bar Kamtza. (Photo by Ian Scott, some rights reserved.)

A famous story about the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE:

A wealthy resident of Jerusalem gave a party. He told his servant to deliver an invitation to Kamtza. The servant mistakenly delivered the invitation to Bar Kamtza, whom the master disliked.

The master saw Bar Kamtza at the feast. He went up to Bar Kamtza and said, “You are not my friend! Scram!” Bar Kamtza said, “Look, I’m already here. I’ll pay you for what I eat and drink, but don’t embarrass me by throwing me out.”

The master said, “No. Get out!” Bar Kamtza replied, “I will pay for half the feast, if you will just allow me to stay.” The host seized Bar Kamtza by the hand and dragged him out the door.

Bar Kamtza was humiliated and angry. He had seen several of the Sages at the feast, and none of them defended him or expressed any sympathy. He vowed revenge upon them. He decided to tell the Roman authorities that they were plotting a revolt.

He went to the ruler and said, “The Sages are getting ready to revolt against you, sir.” The ruler was cautious and hoped to smooth things over. He sent Bar Kamtza back to the Sages with a three-year-old calf for a sacrifice. Bar Kamtza took the calf aside and gave it a blemish, a tiny wound, so that it would be unfit for sacrifice.

The Sages debated whether to go ahead and sacrifice the calf, to get along with the Romans. However, Rabbi Zachariah said, if you do that, everyone will think it is OK to bring blemished animals for sacrifice! Then the Sages said, we should execute Bar Kamtza then, so that he will not go and slander us to Caesar! But Rabbi Zachariah said, if you do that, everyone will think that blemishing animals is a capital crime! So they did nothing, and Bar Kamtza reported to the Romans that the Sages rejected their gift to insult them.

The Romans believed the slander of Bar Kamtza, and the Romans sent armies to surround Jerusalem. The story concludes:

Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The humility of Rabbi Zachariah ben Avkolas destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land! – Gittin 56a

Thus the internal squabbling among the Jews – sinat chinam, baseless hatred – was what actually caused the destruction of the Temple.

  • Identify all the various people who were indulging in pointless strife, that is, arguments that were not for the sake of heaven.
  • Rabbi Yochanan blames Rabbi Zachariah. Why?
  • Bar Kamtza wants revenge on the Sages. What had they done to him? Was it bad enough to merit reporting them to the Romans as rebels?
  • What do you think of the original disagreement between the host and Bar Kamtza? Should the host have allowed him to stay? Was Bar Kamtza wrong to try to bargain with him?
  • All this started with a mistake by a servant. At what point could someone have kept it from turning into a disaster?

Yoma 9b also makes a comment on the story, although it does not retell it:

Why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was wanton hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three severe transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed. – Yoma 9b.

What lessons, if any, do you think we moderns could learn from this story?

As Usual, Silence = Death

Image: One person helps another to the top of a hill, in silhouette. (Pixabay)

This past week a friend pointed me to “Pick a Hill Worth Dying On, America.” I found it moving and motivating and I thought I’d pass it on, with a few additional thoughts. John Plavlovitz is one of my favorite Christian bloggers and he writes with an energy and urgency that I admire.

He begins, “If your eyes are clear and open right now you can see it: this is a pivot point for us, America.” 

In November 2016 I was very upset about the election, but my mantra was, “Our democracy survived Watergate and it will survive this, too.” I have vivid memories of those days in the 1970’s and while it was a worrisome time, the system functioned the way it was supposed to.

In the months since the election – and really, before that – things have happened in which it’s clear the system is no longer working. The first big sign of it was Senator Mitch McConnell’s refusal to allow a confirmation vote on President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. At the time, that was simply unbelievable: I kept thinking, “but they can’t do that!” The GOP could, and they did.

Since then, the hits have just kept coming. The first thing President Trump did was sign an executive order for the Muslim ban.  After the recent Supreme Court decision, a modified form of the ban is in place. For those of us who feel strongly about not targeting people on the basis of religion, it’s a failure of the system.

About 5,000 American citizens died from the hurricane in Puerto Rico, but our government only admits to 64. Babies were torn from their mothers’ arms at our borders. Our government apparently didn’t even bother to keep records of who was where – some of those children may never locate their parents again. My tax dollars at work. And then there’s corruption, and the evil tax bill, and on and on…

Worst of all, facts are now a free-for-all. Fox News says one thing, the other news sources say something opposite, the White House sniffs, “Fake News” and we stumble along in the dark. I feel like I’m living in Orwell’s London of 1984.

NONE OF THIS IS NORMAL. The United States has always had a problem with racism, but for most of my lifetime, we had the good grace to be ashamed of it. The United States has a nasty history of mistreating immigrants and exterminating Indians, but in the last 50 years, we were not in the habit of celebrating those behaviors.

Now we have Nazis running for office, and hatred on display everywhere. Indictments have been brought against 12 Russian spies who interfered in our last election, but the coming midterms are still vulnerable to such attacks.

I agree with the Rev. Plavlovitz: It’s time to pick the spot where we will dig in. There are plenty of topics, and we don’t have to totally agree on anything, just stick together long enough that this country does not become a place of shame for centuries to come.

  • I can work on voter registration.
  • I can hound friends and neighbors to vote.
  • I can write op eds.
  • I can write letters to the editor.
  • I can correct fallacies on social media with links to solid sources.
  • I can call and call and call my elected officials.
  • I can encourage the elected officials who already get it.
  • I can give money to campaigns.
  • I can be a good ally, supporting those with whom I have some issues in common.
  • I can refrain from demanding ideological purity from my allies.
  • I can be civil to all comers, but firm with people who have no intent to be civil.

And whenever I feel tired, whenever I want to just lie down and hope for the best, I will remember these verses from the Scroll of Esther:

Mordecai had this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.

On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” – Esther 4:13-14

During the AIDS crisis, one of the slogans of the movement to deal with the epidemic was “Silence = Death.” Then it meant that if we don’t communicate, we’ll die. If we don’t speak up for others, they’ll die. I’m beginning to feel like that slogan needs a revival, because we truly cannot afford to sit in silence.

Silence = Death. Let’s not go there.

Meet Nittai of Arbel

Image: The ancient synagogue of Arbel. (Photo by Bukvoed, via wikimedia.)

Nittai of Arbel says: “Keep your distance from bad neighbors, do not ally yourself with the wicked and do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – Pirkei Avot 1:7

We do not know much about Nittai of Arbel, but we have his words, and we can decipher them by thinking about his times. In the second century BCE, the Second Temple was still standing, and the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) were on the throne. You’d think it would have been a great time for the Jews, but it was a time of treachery and bad behavior.

Nittai was a country boy who rose to be av beit din (vice president) of the Sanhedrin, working and teaching alongside the Nasi (president) Joshua ben Perachya. The two of them are remembered together among the Zugot, pairs of very early rabbinic teachers.

“Keep your distance from bad neighbors” and “do not ally yourself with the wicked” sound like bitter experience speaking.  They might be a reference to Nittai’s experience with John Hyrcanus. The ruler, a nephew of Judah Maccabee, had such a taste for Greek culture that the Pharisees (the early rabbis) questioned whether he had sufficient Jewish values to function as high priest. He was enraged at the criticism and Joshua ben Perachya had to flee for his life to Egypt.

Nittai would have been left alone to lead the early rabbis, who were in deep disfavor for questioning John Hyrcanus.

“Do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – It must have been frustrating to see a bad ruler on the throne, and to feel that neither God nor humanity were doing anything to stop him. John Hyrcanus did a number of things that eventually caused grave trouble: he forced the entire nation of Idumeans to convert to Judaism, and he invited an alliance with Rome, which had a tendency to swallow its allies. He was popular in his time, but much of what he did led to disaster.

“Do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – If hope dies, then all is truly lost. The ancient rabbi, Nittai of Arbel, is telling us that we must continue to seek what is good, and to do what is right. We cannot control history, but we can be faithful to the values of Torah.

Adul Sam-on, Stateless Hero

Image: Adul Sam-on in the cave, photo adapted from the Hindi First Post.

 

I woke this morning to the news that the 12 boys and their coach who were trapped in a cave in Thailand have been rescued alive, and are now in the hospital. That was wonderful news, and people all over the world are relieved.

Several outlets reported that a key element in the rescue was the contribution of Adul Sam-on, a member of the team. Adul was described by the New York Times as “the stateless descendant of a Wa ethnic tribal branch.” He was the only English speaker in the group, and he handled the communication with the British divers who originally found the boys on July 2:

Proficient in English, Thai, Burmese, Mandarin and Wa, Adul politely communicated to the British divers his squad’s greatest needs: food and clarity on just how long they had stayed alive. -NYT, 7/10/18

Adul Sam-on’s impressive language skills were hard earned. He had been born in Myanmar, but he did not have Burmese citizenship. His ethnic group, the Wa, have a troubled history relative to the Myanmar government. They live in the “Golden Triangle” area of Southeast Asia, and are associated with drug production and trafficking. His parents were able to smuggle him to a church in Thailand where he has lived since he was small, attending the Ban Wiangphan School in Chiang Rai province. They clearly wanted something other than drugs and gangs for their son.

Now let’s look at Adul Sam-on through a different lens, the lens he would face at the US border. He has the following pro’s and con’s:

Pro: Young, healthy, intelligent, multi-lingual, good at sports. Now has shown his translation skills in a highly stressful setting, performing with aplomb. He is the pride of his school, beloved of his teachers.

Con: Stateless person. No passport. Refugee. His tribe is known to be involved in the drug trade. Sounds like there was trouble in his old neighborhood, too.

I think it’s safe to say that were he to turn up at the US border, he’d wind up in the custody of ICE, labeled a “lawbreaker,” with extra worries about possible drug connections. Even though he has a lot to offer any nation who takes him, we wouldn’t want him. We’ve made it very clear that we don’t want refugees.

What’s wrong with this picture? And what’s wrong with us, that we are fearful of the Adul Sam-on’s of the world? Immigrants are responsible for less crime than native-born US citizens. Immigrants can add a lot to a society, bringing things like language skills and their drive to succeed.

How many of the young adults in ICE custody or under threat of deportation are potential leaders, potential teachers, potential communicators? How many of them could shine under pressure like that young man? We’ll never know.

The Torah commands not once, not twice, but 36 TIMES that we are to “love the stranger.” It reminds us that the Jewish people were once strangers in Egypt. And for the last 2000 years we have more often been strangers than we have been truly at home, because we were stateless and unwanted.

The current immigration policy of the US Government is racist, bigoted, cowardly, and selfish. We don’t deserve a Adul Sam-on; I’m glad he has a bright future somewhere else.