The Chain of Tradition

The Aleppo Codex is a medieval manuscript of t...
The Aleppo Codex, a manuscript of the Tanakh.. The Masoretic scholars wrote it in the early 10th century, probably in Tiberias, Israel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pirkei Avot 1.1:  Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.  They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah. 

The transmission of Torah is like a bucket brigade:  starting with God on Sinai, the Torah has been handed down, hand to hand, from that day to this.  We call this the sharsheret shel masoret, the chain of tradition.

I learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA.  She learned from Cantor Nathan Lam at Stephen S. WIse Temple in Los Angeles.  I don’t know who Cantor Lam learned from, but I know that the style of chanting we do is a variant of a style that goes all the way back to Eastern Europe.

Once, in the British Library in London, I saw a 9th century text of the Tanakh with the te’amim (cantillation marks – the musical notations) in it, and I was able to stand at the case where it was displayed and chant the text softly to myself.  That codex was ancient — more than a thousand years old! — but I could read it just fine.  That was the first time I really felt the weight of that chain of tradition.  I could imagine the masorete who wrote that book teaching his student… and then the student teaching his student… down through the centuries until Cantor Lam taught Cantor Keys and Cantor Keys taught me.

The same is true of every d’var Torah — every word of Torah — that I know.  Someone taught it to me.  God willing, I will teach it to others.

A hundred years from now, I do not expect that many people, if any, will remember me.  But I take great comfort and pride in the knowledge that the students of my students will still be learning Torah and teaching it to their children and their students.  I may be just a link in the chain — but what a chain!

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#BlogExodus: In the Midst of Chaos

NO CHAOS
NO CHAOS (Photo credit: alles-schlumpf)

Plagues.

I’ve heard many interesting drashot on the plagues, but to me the unifying factor of all plagues is that they are chaotic.  In the Creation narrative, the world is tohu vavohu, “formless and void,” some translations say, but fundamentally, chaos.  God hovers over it all, and speaks, and by speaking, separates dark from light, one thing from another, until the world is organized and peaceful.

Now, in Exodus 8 and 9, here come the plagues:  water turns to blood, frogs swarm out of the Nile, then die and stink.  The dust that is everywhere turns to lice, tormenting man and beast, followed by flies, which bite and swarm and carry filth everywhere.  Then disease:  first the cattle begin to die of anthrax and hoof-and-mouth disease, and their meat and milk are no longer good, then human beings are struck with boils that erupt everywhere on their skin.  The sky goes crazy, raining hailstones that cut the crops to shreds, and locusts gobble up everything that’s left.  Then the sun and moon fail, and the chaos seems complete:  all is dark, itchy, sticky, dis-eased, and there is nothing decent to eat or drink. And then the human promise of a future is erased:  firstborn children die.  Tohu vavohu:  Creation is unmade and all is chaos.

I read those passages in Exodus 8 and 9, and I think of all the suffering people and animals. Pharaoh and the Hebrew God have their confrontation, and I am angry at both of them.  They are like politicians talking about eggs and omelettes.  “You have to break a few eggs, etc.”  — NO.  I understand that I am supposed to root for God, and cheer, and I just can’t bring myself to do it.

In a bad year, on a bad news day, we can feel the chaos all around.  Two days ago a crazy man shot and killed seven people at a little college in the city of Oakland.  I’ve been involved in a conversation on my local Patch.com site (San Leandro) about the fact that little San Leandro seems to be in the midst of a plague of violent crime that has become so commonplace it doesn’t even make the news.  People are angry.  We feel helpless.  We feel like Egyptians.

What are we to do?  I keep thinking of the line from the Mishnah:  In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.  (Pirkei Avot 2:6)  In the midst of the mess, whoever made it, we have only our humanity, our ability to connect to other suffering beings.

So let’s reach out.  Let’s talk.  Let’s touch.  Let’s quit fantasizing about how great the world would be without plagues and instead, reach across the mess to one another.  I don’t know how else we can navigate, in a time of plague.  We have the example of God in Creation:  the power of words.

Somewhere in there, we seek holiness.

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This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.


Waiting For A Miracle?

Image: A footprint on a sandy shore. Image by (Piper60/Pixabay)

Imagine the scene: the armies of Pharaoh thunder toward the Hebrews, who are cornered at water’s edge.  The people begin to scream and cry, asking their leader, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt, that you had to bring us out here to die?”  Moses, their leader, replies, “Stand still, calm down, God will fight for you.”  Then — in the movie version, not the Torah version — God commands Moses to stretch out his rod over the sea, and a miracle happens.  The bad guys die, the good guys live, and everyone parties.

What? you say.  That is in the Torah, I’m sure of it!  That may be the way we generally tell the story, but it leaves out a line.   Here’s what it says in Exodus 14: 13 – 16.

And Moses said unto the people: ‘Fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Eternal, which He will work for you to-day; for although you have seen the Egyptians to-day, you shall see them again no more for ever.  The Eternal will fight for you, so hold your peace.’ 

 And the Eternal said unto Moses: ‘Why cry to Me? Speak to the children of Israel, and let them get moving!  And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground. 

Somehow, in all the drama, one very important line often gets lost.  Moses was looking for a miracle.  He told the people to look for a miracle.  He said, “Don’t be afraid, stand still, wait for God to save you.”  And God’s response to Moses was direct:  “Why speak to me?  Talk to them!  Tell them to get moving!”

Vayisa’oo – get moving! – is a key word in this week’s very famous Torah portion, Beshallach.  Don’t wait for miracles.  Talk to each other.  Encourage each other.  Don’t be passive.  GET MOVING!

Forward movement precedes miracles, even in the greatest miracle story of all time.

So in those edge-of-the-sea moments, when it is tempting to hope for a miracle, or even more tempting to despair, the trick is to look for the way to move forward.  Even in the panicked crowd, can I move my foot forward just a bit?  Can I encourage someone else to move forward too?

Fear and paralysis are the great enemies of survival.  Fear and paralysis would have left the children of Israel at the wrong edge of the sea, trampled and slaughtered.

Vayisa’oo — get moving.  Write to your elected representative.

Vayisa’oo — Volunteer to help someone in need.

Vayisa’oo — Vote, whenever you have the chance.

Vayisa’oo — Keep moving to the next job interview.

Vayisa’oo — Keep moving on the project, whatever it is.

Vayisa’oo — Encourage others, rather than discourage them.

Vayisa’oo — and we’ll all dance, on the other side.

Parashat Nitzavim: Not Beyond Reach

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 12 It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” 14 No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.  (Deut. 29: 11-14)

“There is so much to learn!” Every conversion candidate I’ve ever worked with has said that, at one point or another.  They don’t call it “The Sea of Talmud” for nothing. Jewish learning is vast and it can be overwhelming, with languages and laws and endless intricacies to master.

This particular passage from this week’s Torah portion comes near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, after a wide-ranging catalogue of things to do and to remember.  After all the 613 commandments, then God says, “Surely, this Instruction … is not to baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.”  Just as I reach the point of overwhelm, reading the book, it says, “Surely you can do it.”

When I became a Jew, Rabbi Steve Chester handed me a large Torah scroll in front of the  congregation.  I was delighted to hold it in my arms, despite the fact that it was very, very heavy.  He asked me, “Got it?” and I nodded.  I recited the Shema with the congregation.  Then he began to talk to the congregation about conversion.  Periodically he’d stop and ask me, “Is it too heavy?” and I would shake my head:  no, not too heavy.  Meanwhile I clutched the scroll and my arms  began to  quiver.  My back began to complain.  I shifted the scroll slightly.  “Are you OK?” he said, and I nodded.  He went on teaching.

Finally I reached my limit.  “Are you OK?” he said, and I gasped, “It’s very heavy.”  He took it from my trembling arms, and said, “Yes, it’s very heavy.  No one can hold it alone.”  And then he got to the real lesson, that it takes a Jewish community to “hold the Torah” properly.  It simply isn’t something a person can do alone, because the Torah is indeed very heavy.

When I feel overwhelmed by Jewish living, whether it is the cleaning before Passover, or the teshuvah before Rosh HaShanah, I try to remember that lesson.  I do not have to carry the Torah alone.  Surely, with the arms of a minyan, with the minds and hearts of my Jewish community, it is not beyond my reach.

L’shanah Tovah!