Hack On, Hack Off

Image: A Broken Lock. Photo by Rohit Sharma, via pixabay.

Back when the world was young and I was a college student, the slang that young men used for angry was “hacked off.” Girls didn’t use it, but I remember guys saying, “I’m so hacked off about….” whatever it was annoying them. The phrase always comes back to me when someone says, “I’ve been hacked.” Now I’m the hackee.

‘Way back in 2012, someone who didn’t like my comments on You Don’t Mess with the Zohan deciphered my password and used it to mess up one of my blogs.  I wrote about it in You Don’t Mess With the Laughter.

Well, it happened again. This time someone didn’t like a post about the term “Old Testament.” They logged onto my account and got rid of that post.

I’ve repaired the damage, reposted the article, and gotten password generation software, so that I can have strong passwords without having to remember them. If you readers care about your data, I encourage you to do the same.

But I am still worried about the person who felt so strongly about that post that they went to all the trouble of prying open my account to get rid of it. That person was hurting, I assume, or they wouldn’t have done that.

To anyone unhappy with a post on this blog:

Please leave me a question in the comments, or tell me that I have offended you. Leave something like this and I promise you will receive a civil answer from me. It may not be the answer you want but it will take into account your feelings.

Rabbi Adar, your post The Jewish Bible ≠ The Old Testament was offensive to me. It was disrespectful of Christianity in the following ways: (1) (2) and (3). Please reconsider your offensive words.

Keep in mind that if you write something with name-calling I will delete that; company policy. So this will not be allowed to stay on the board:

Rabbi Adar, you idiot, you commie pinko lesbo socialist…. blah blah blah….

Write that, and I will delete your message. However, you can rest assured that if anyone calls you an idiot, or any of those other names, or a fascist, or a toadcushion, I will delete their message with equal speed and enthusiasm.

Sigh.

 

 

Tales from the Fast

Image: The word pictured is Eicha,the name of the Book of Lamentations. Artwork by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

Perhaps you fasted. Perhaps you chose not to fast.

But if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that the annual observance of Tisha B’Av ran from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday, August 13-14, 2016. (We couldn’t fast the day before, because it was Shabbat.)

How was the day for you? What did you do or not do? I’m writing this before the fast and uploading it automatically, so I cannot yet tell you how it went for me but I can tell you my plan. I will leave a comment after sunset at my home to let you know how it went for me.

My plan: I cannot fast from food this year, due to some health problems. Therefore I will eat and drink what is needed for health. I will fast from social media.

I will listen to the Scroll of Lamentations via a recording, because I can’t go to shul (again, a health issue.)

I will study the scroll tonight.

And now the light is fading, and social media is part of my fast, so I must go.

Tzom kal! That means, I wish you an easy fast. I also wish you insight and reflection – I hope that you will share some of those in the comments!

A 21st Century Tisha B’Av

Image: A homeless woman huddles on a street corner with her belongings. Photo by fantareis, via pixabay.com.

Judah has gone into exile
In misery and harsh servitude.
When she settled among the nations,
She found no rest.
All her pursuers overtook her
In the narrow places. – Lamentations 1:3

In late summer of 586 BCE, we became a nation of refugees. This verse from the Scroll of Lamentations makes that perfectly clear, and it carries within it a connection to other verses in Torah.

“In the narrow places” is most translators’ rendering of “beyn hamitzarim” (בֵּ֥ין הַמְּצָרִֽים.)* That is a literal translation, but there is another possibility with slightly different voweling. “Mitzrayim” is the Hebrew name for Egypt.

So let’s try that:

All her pursuers overtook her in Egypt.

What was Egypt? Egypt was slavery. It was a prison. It was exile.

In other words, the narrator of the scroll is saying, “I get it. We messed up. And now we are going back to the beginning, to remember where we came from.”

What is it that we must remember, here and now in the 21st century? Where is this verse pointing us? I suggest we remember another verse that references Mitzrayim:

כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 19:34

In the 21st century, we worry about strangers.

The world is awash in refugees as never before. There are Syrian refugees, fleeing the destruction of their cities as our ancestors fled Jerusalem. There are other refugees, fleeing vengeful gangs in Mexico, fleeing murderous homophobia in Uganda.

You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Under the freeways, in the alleys of our cities, in our parks, the homeless huddle in makeshift camps. Some live in their cars, hanging on to the last vestiges of dignity. Parents hold their children close, and wonder how to feed them.

Young people look at the rising rents and wonder how long they can avoid the furtive camps. How will they ever afford to live? How will they ever have families? They stagger out of college burdened with debt, and they will spend their entire adult lives struggling to pay it. They move to new and unfamiliar cities, less expensive, far from family. That is a different kind of Egypt.

The writer of Lamentations calls to us to remember Egypt. We have been here before, he says.

We are back because we have forgotten the lesson: what it is like to be a wanderer on the earth.

This year the message is urgent: remember, we were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim. This year, on Tisha B’Av, we must remember what it was like to be a refugee, and then we must get over our fears.

It is time to reach out in recognition and mercy.

 

*Thank you to Akiba, who caught an error in my reading and let me know via the comments. Now corrected.

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Devarim

This week’s Torah portion is the first one in the Book of Deuteronomy, Devarim. That is also the Hebrew name of the book of Deuteronomy, meaning “words” or “things.” In this particular case, it is best translated “words.” The first verse in the parashah is:

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Aravah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. – Deuteronomy 1:1

The People of Israel are camped by the side of the Jordan River, very near the end of their journey. Moses, now aged and infirm, is speaking to this generation, the children of those who left Egypt. He will review their story with them, retelling it, adding and omitting a few things from the earlier version. By the end of the book of Deuteronomy, he will be dead and they will be ready to cross into the Land.

Here are some divrei Torah available online about this parashah:

Listening to the Holy Space Between by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Go Up Already! by Rabbi Don Levy

Religious Reform: Even Moses Did It by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

So Much from One Word by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

To 120: Growing Old, Staying Young by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

On Meaningful Repetition by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Moshe by Rabbi Ari Kahn

 

 

 

A Wish for Tisha B’Av

Image: The open ark at Congregation Emanu El, Houston, TX.

Tisha B’Av 2776 (2016) begins at sundown on Saturday, August 13.

I’ve been thinking about what to say about Tisha B’Av this year. Then I read a d’var Torah on Lamentations that stopped me in my tracks, and I can’t think of anything else.

The Times of Israel published an article by Rabbi Joshua Rabin, Institutions Are Not Holy, and I recommend you read it, if not now, then definitely before Saturday evening. It’s an excellent example of topnotch Torah teaching. He showed me something that I’d never noticed before, although I’ve read the Book of Lamentations many times. He takes the item he points out some very interesting places – as I said, read it! – but when I read it, my mind went somewhere else entirely. That’s what really great Torah learning can do.

The insight that derailed me was this: Lamentations begins with a great wail of “HOW?” Indeed that is the Hebrew name of the book: Eicha (AY-khah – AY in this case rhymes with “bay.”) The scenes at the beginning are the scenes of Jerusalem and her Temple in ruins, a scene of unremitting pain and misery.

Rabbi Rabin points out that we expect the book to end with a hopeful vision of the city and the Temple restored. That’s usually the pattern with Hebrew laments: we start in a bad place, and finish with a vision of the future that holds hope. Since the problem at the beginning of the book seems to be a destroyed city and a Temple in ruins, one would think that the hopeful vision would be of the city and Temple rebuilding. But that’s not how it ends:

Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old

For truly, You have rejected us, Bitterly raged against us. Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old! – Lamentations 5:21-22

The hopeful vision of Lamentations, the antidote to all the misery, is NOT a shiny new Temple. Rather, it is the restoration of the relationship between us and God.

That’s the insight that sent me reeling. Actually it sent me to the book to see if it really said that, I was so startled. And sure enough, that’s what it says.

Now here’s where I leave Rabbi Rabin’s excellent derash and head off into my own thoughts. Those final words of Lamentations may sound familiar to you. That’s because they are enshrined in the Torah service:

הֲשִׁיבֵ֨נוּ יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אֵלֶ֙יךָ֙ וְֽנָשׁ֔וּבָה חַדֵּ֥שׁ יָמֵ֖ינוּ כְּקֶֽדֶם׃

Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!

We sing these words as we are closing the ark of the Torah, when the Torah service is ending. There they are an expression of our grief at putting the Torah Scroll away, at the distance between ourselves and the words in the scroll. We are looking forward to future readings, and future study, and perhaps also to study in the world-to-come. We are looking forward to the closeness to the Holy One that we feel when we are studying words of Torah.

The reason people seek out religious experience is that there is a deep loneliness in human experience. We long for a connection with something or someone more lasting than ourselves, because we are mortal beings. Sooner or later in every life there is a moment when we wonder, “What on earth is the point of all this?” and if we can find an answer that satisfies us, that becomes our answer to the meaning of life.

Religion isn’t about being right. It isn’t about beating up on other people, or feeling superior to them. It is an attempt to find an answer to that longing; it is a vehicle for the ongoing search for meaning and truth.

When the Babylonians flattened the Temple and carried away most of the people into servitude, the remaining survivors wandered around the broken city asking themselves, “HOW?”

  • How do we make sense of this?
  • What was the point?
  • What now, that our lives are literally in ruins and all is lost?

These are the same questions we ask when things seem to have fallen apart in our own lives. It is no accident that people tend to join temple after a major life event: a new baby or a death in the family.

Babies are disruptive. It is not uncommon for a new parent to whisper in the dark, “What now, that my life is in ruins?”

Death is terrifying. One moment a person is there, the next they are gone. How do we make sense of this? And worse, what was the point of this life, any life?

These are the questions that invade our lives like the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem. This is the point of Tisha B’Av: to spend a day with our hearts pressed against the problems of disaster and mortality, of love and loss. And the answer lies there at the end of the scroll of Lamentations: the answer is in our longing for relationship: relationship with God, relationship with community, relationship with other human beings.

I wish you an insightful Tisha B’Av.

 

5 Books? Much More? What is Torah?

Image: A group of Jews studying Torah together (Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved)

What does the word “Torah” really mean?

Jews use the word in multiple ways, and it can be very confusing to those who haven’t spent a lot of time inside the community. Let’s unpack those multiple meanings:

FIVE BOOKS – The first five books of the Bible are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are what is written in the Torah Scroll that you see in the synagogue. We have gone to great lengths to preserve the written words exactly as they have come down to us. The words are Hebrew. Some of them are hard to translate. More of them are hard to understand. Some of them are extremely upsetting. But we preserve them all.

ORAL TORAH – The “Oral Torah” is a body of literature that has come down to us from ancient times. The idea is that Moses didn’t write everything down; some laws and interpretations of the law were handed down from Moses, to Joshua, and on down to us:

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Torah. – Pirkei Avot 1:1

Originally it was not written down – hence the name “Oral Torah” – but periodically our community faced a crisis in which the leaders feared the knowledge might be lost, and that wisdom was recorded. Oral Torah includes the Talmud and other writings.

A WAY OF LIFE – Beyond any written sources, many communities and families hand down understandings of how Torah is to be lived. While scholarly members of those communities usually can tie those understandings back to written sources, the majority of Jews simply live the traditions as they were taught them. We see this in the way a particular community understands the practice of keeping kosher: this many hours between meat and milk, this way of preparing the kitchen for Passover, these heckshers (rabbinical certifications) are acceptable and those are not. Another community will disagree: no, more hours between meat and milk, etc. A third community or household might say, no, the point of kashrut is to move us towards vegetarianism or veganism! In all cases, the speakers will regard what has been handed down to them, or what they have adopted after study as Torah.

So if someone explains something to you by saying, “It’s Torah!” it is perfectly OK for you to say to them, “Tell me more.” Maybe they will point you to a verse in the book of Exodus. Maybe they will cite a passage from Talmud. Maybe they will say, “That’s what my rabbi / my grandmother taught me.” All are legitimate.

However, “legitimate” does not mean that it is written in stone. Talking to other Jews about Torah is one way to learn. Studying with a rabbi (or many rabbis) is another way to learn. Reading the texts for yourself, or better yet, studying them with other Jews, is an excellent way to learn. Experimenting with your own practice is another way to learn.

Ultimately, living a life of Torah means engaging with it, both Written and Oral Torah, and including the handed-down traditions that have no text. Engaging with it may mean saying, “Yes, I will commit to that!” or it may mean, “Goodness, no, that conflicts with everything else I know about Torah!” It may even mean saying, “I will commit to that for now, and continue to learn.”

Torah is a path towards holiness, not just a list of laws. In the book of Exodus in the story about receiving Torah on Mt. Sinai, there is a wonderful verse:

 וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית, וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.

And he took the book of the covenant, and he read so that the people could hear, and they said, “All that the Eternal has said, we will do and we will hear.” – Exodus 24:7

“We will do and we will hear.” – This, after hearing a reading of Torah! This was the beginning of a process of Torah: hearing and doing and hearing and doing and so forth and so on, through all time.

Torah doesn’t stop. It isn’t a frozen thing. It is a way of life and a process of engagement with holiness. As Hillel said:

This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it. – Shabbat 31a

 

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Matot-Masei

In a “leap” year such as we are having, it isn’t often we get a combined portion, but we have one this week with the combined portions of Matot and Masei. And good news – finally, all our calendars are realigned; all Jews everywhere are on the same page (of Torah, if not everything else.)

Today (Friday) is also Rosh Chodesh Av. The month of Av is the saddest month of the Jewish year, containing as it does the observance of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av. Follow the link to learn more about that important fast day.

Notice, too, that we are also in the Three Weeks of communal mourning before Tisha B’Av. The haftarot on these Shabbats are haftarot that abjure us to take notice of our behavior in this world. This week Jeremiah 2:4 – 28 and 3:4 rebukes us for faithless behavior.

Our online darshanim this week have lots to say:

Redeeming the Instructions to Displace and Destroy by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

The Ascent of Women, the Ascent of All of Us by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Trump, the Trail of Tears, and Parshat Ma’asei by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The Complexity of Human Rights by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Parashat Matot-Ma’asei by Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Stops Along the Way by Rabbi Eve Posen

Are We There Yet? by Rabbi Steven Kushner