What is Rachamim?

Image: Infant in mother’s arms (samuel Lee / Pixabay)

Jews hear the word rachamim (RAH-khah-meem) at the worst moments of their lives, when they are mourning the death of a loved one. It is in the first line of the prayer for the dead:

…אֵל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים

El, maleh rachamim…

El Male Rachamim, Prayer for the Dead

According to Alcalay, a good Hebrew-English dictionary, rachamim can mean “pity, compassion, love… mercy.” I usually prefer “compassion” as an English translation, because it seems to me to come closest to the spirit of the word. Why would I say that?

The word for uterus or womb, רחם (REH-khem) has the same root consonants. “Compassion” in English is derived from two Latin words “com” (with) and “pati” (suffer.) It seems to me that one metaphor for the kind of closeness required for “suffering with” is the closeness of a mother and the child in her body. If you starve one, the other starves.

So when we say the prayer El Male Rachamim, we begin with the statement that God is full of compassion for us. In Exodus 39, God describes God’s nature to Moses thus, and we repeat the words back to God in the High Holy Day liturgies, when we are praying for forgiveness of our sins:

יְהוָ֣ה ׀ יְהוָ֔ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת ׀ זנֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃

“Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and pardons.”

– High Holy Day Liturgy

The very first attribute of God listed is rachum, compassionate.

We are commanded to be holy, like God at the very beginning of Leviticus 19:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־כָּל־עֲדַ֧ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאָמַרְתָּ֥ אֲלֵהֶ֖ם קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ כִּ֣י קָד֔וֹשׁ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the LORD your God, am holy.

Leviticus 19:1-2

The only way I know how to “be holy” is to imitate the attributes of God, to embody them in the world. It doesn’t matter what my theology is: whether God is a person or a concept. Torah teaches me to “be holy” because God is holy, so I will use the attributes we have been given for God as a model for myself.

The first item on the list is rachum, compassionate. When have I been compassionate? When have I experienced compassion? When have you? Those moments were holy: God was there.

So when I hear the prayer El Male Rachamim I remind myself that I must comfort this mourner, I must be the compassion of God, so that this will be a holy place.

Oft Quoted, Oft Misunderstood

Image: Ruth and Naomi, painting, Walker Art Gallery. Artist: Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1833-1898.

Oft quoted, oft misunderstood: I’m talking about Leviticus 18:22. It’s one of the passages recited so often that just about anyone will recognize it, even if the Bible isn’t a book they read:

וְאֶ֨ת־זָכָ֔ר לֹ֥א תִשְׁכַּ֖ב מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֑ה תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה הִֽוא׃

Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is a to’evah.

Leviticus 18:22

This line is often translated into English in ways that make it “obvious” that this is about male homosexuality. The Hebrew, however, isn’t nearly so clear. If you are curious about that, see Leviticus 18:22 in Queer Bible Hermeneutics, from the Perkins School of Theology of Southern Methodist University.

Language that suggests love relationships between same-sex individuals appears in the Tanakh. The best example is David and Jonathan, who were passionate about each other. (1 Samuel 18) The passionate vow that Ruth makes to Naomi (Ruth 1:16-17) sounds like a modern marriage vow. Granted, both David and Ruth went on to marry people of the opposite sex, but they did not express love for them.

So if this passage isn’t about homosexuality in the modern sense, what am I to learn from it, since it must mean something?

V’et zakhar lo tishkav – And (to) a male (you) do not lie-down

mish’k’vei isha – from/like the lyings-down of the wife

to’evah hu. – It is a bad-thing.

Zakhar designates something as male, whether it is a human, an animal, or a bit of grammar. Its opposite is nikevah (“female” or “feminine.”) It’s a binary: everything is one or the other. Zakhar overrides nikevah in grammar when both are present. If I put one male horse (sus) in a paddock with 15 mares (susot) the plural changes to male (susim.)

Ishah designates a woman, or more often, a wife. This, too, has power implications, but in this case it is the absence of power. This is a person who is acquired by others who have more power. The first verse of Kiddushin, the tractate of the Talmud devoted to marriage, states:

האשה נקנית בשלוש דרכים

A wife is acquired in three ways…

BT Kiddushin 2a

I’m willing to read tishkav and mis’k’vei as having a sexual meaning, given the context of the surrounding verses. The first is a negative command: don’t be sexual this way. The second is a description of the forbidden sort of sex: having sex as one would with a lower-powered individual.

I think this is a verse about power, and especially about power differentials. I read it as saying that it is forbidden to have an intimate relationship in which one person holds the power, and the other is subordinate. To put it more positively, sexual intimacy is permitted only between equals. Coming as it does on the heels of a set of verses about incest, it makes sense that this is a passage about relationship and power.

One could make the argument that in the ancient world, and in much of the present-day world, most sex takes place between partners of unequal standing. However, that isn’t how it’s supposed to be: here in Parashat Acharei Mot, Leviticus holds up many ideals for us to pursue, whether or not we manage to reach them.

We strive for a world in which strangers are welcomed, and the vulnerable are protected. We strive for a world in which there is no incest and no abuse of animals. In the following chapter, we will be commanded to pursue justice, respect elders, share with the poor, deal kindly with the disabled, and to eschew revenge. We strive for those ideals, too, even though after millennia we still fall short.

We’re still working to live up to those. I read verse 22 to say that we are supposed to be trying to live up to the ideal of consensual sexual intimacy, whoever we’re having it with.

What do you think? How do you deal with Leviticus 18:22?

#BlogElul – Commit!

Image: Pages of a contract are held together with a lock and key. The artist titled it “Binding Contract.” (stevepb/pixabay

Strange word, “Commit.” According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary, it means “to carry into action deliberately,” and also “to obligate, or bind.”

Hebrew separates those two meanings into two different words:

Levatze’a means “to perform, to carry out, to execute.”

L’kha’yev means “to compel, to bind, to oblige.”

L’kha’yev is the verb the rabbis use to talk about the positive commandments, the “Thou shalts.” For example, a Jew is obligated – committed! – to be honest in business.

In English, the combination of the two meanings in the one word offers us a pun:

When I commit a sin, to what or to whom am I committing myself?

What is Teshuvah?

Image:  An archer takes aim with a bow and arrow. (skeeze/pixabay)

Teshuvah means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah:”

  1. We notice what we’ve done wrong,
  2. We acknowledge that it is wrong,
  3. We take responsibility for it,
  4. We apologize and make amends, and then
  5. We make a plan for not doing it again.

SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that I aimed at something and I missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person I am for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when I am next in that situation.

Very Important:  The point of the teshuvah is not to beat ourselves up, it’s to make ourselves better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  According to Maimonides, until I am in that situation again and behave differently, I cannot be certain that my teshuvah is complete.

In Judaism, the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind. It does not matter how lousy I feel about what I did, it matters that I address what I have done with the people I’ve hurt and do what I can to make sure there are no repeats.

Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  Sometimes it means getting into treatment, or joining a 12 step group. A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat myself up, it’s to make the world better by making my behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. When I feel embarrassed at what I have done, that’s part of the process. Making teshuvah will help with the shame.

Each day of our lives is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.

What is Cheshbon Hanefesh?

Image: An accounting ledger filled out in blue ink.  (cpastrick/pixabay)

Cheshbon hanefesh is usually translated, “the accounting of the soul.” We do cheshbon nefesh every year during the month of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, because without taking inventory, how can we know what we need to change?

Hebrew is an interesting language in that it has both a “holy” life and a “secular” life. I put thise words in scare quotes because I think those are often artificial categories – in fact, for a Jew, the interaction of the holy and the ordinary is often the place where Torah comes to life.

Cheshbon has many meanings, but the one you will most often hear on the street in Israel today is “the bill.” I ask for a cheshbon when I am done with my meal. It lists what my party has ordered, the cost of each item, and a total.

Nefesh is another word with sacred and secular meanings. (The ha in front of nefesh means “the.”) In the prayer book, nefesh is usually translated as “soul,” although in the Bible it is often more correctly translated “life” as in:

וַיִּבְרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־הַתַּנִּינִ֖ם הַגְּדֹלִ֑ים וְאֵ֣ת כָּל־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּ֣ה ׀ הָֽרֹמֶ֡שֶׂת אֲשֶׁר֩ שָׁרְצ֨וּ הַמַּ֜יִם לְמִֽינֵהֶ֗ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־ע֤וֹף כָּנָף֙ לְמִינֵ֔הוּ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב׃

God created the great sea monsters, and all the living creatures of every kind that creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms, and all the winged birds of every kind. And God saw that this was good. – Genesis 1:21

This version translates v’et kol-nefesh hakhayah as “all the living creatures.” It is not usually understood to imply that the swarming things of the deep have souls like human souls, rather, it indicates that they are alive – many of them, for just a brief time.

So perhaps when we talk about the month of Elul as a time for heshbon nefesh, we can expand a bit from the perhaps precious notion of “an accounting of soul” – and ask, “What does my life add up to right now?”

  • In what ways have I made the world better? In what ways have I made it worse?
  • How do I affect the lives of others? Are their lives easier or harder because of my behavior?

The questions themselves take us out of the realm of self. We ask not “who or what has been good for me?” but “for whom or what have I been good?”

Cheshbon hanefesh is not for beating ourselves up. Jewish tradition ascribes to each human being an infinite, unmeasurable worth. There is no such thing as a “worthless” human being in Judaism. This is not about our worth as individuals; it is about the worth of our behavior as individuals. What are we doing with our lives?

Cheshbon hanefesh is the essential prelude to meaningful change. If we approach the process humbly and sincerely, it can provide us with a map for more worthy living.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is There a Greeting for Tisha B’Av?

Image: Stones of the Western Wall, or Kotel in Jerusalem. (ddouk/pixabay)

It’s a trick question: on Tisha B’Av, Jews observing the day refrain from greeting one another. If someone who does not know the custom greets them, they will either simply incline their heads or answer the greeting very softly, so as not to give offense or hurt feelings. As with Yom Kippur, it is a solemn day and therefore it is inappropriate to say “Happy Tisha B’Av.”

However, there are some Hebrew words it will help to know if you attend services or interact with other Jews that day:

Tisha B’Av (tee-SHAH b’AHV) or (TISH-ah Bahv) – The Ninth of Av, on which we remember the destruction of the Temple and other disasters in Jewish history.

Av (AHV) – The eleventh month of the Jewish year.

Eicha (AY-khah) – A Hebrew word meaning “How?” it is also the name of the Book of Lamentations in the Bible.

Megillat Eicha (meh-gee-LAHT AY-khah) – the Scroll of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha B’Av.

Megillah – a scroll, especially one of the “Five Scrolls” read on certain days of the Jewish Year.

Tzom (TZOHM) – a fast. The fast for Tisha B’Av is from sunset to sunset. Those who keep the fast refrain from eating, drinking, sexual activity, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and studying Torah. It is similar to the fast for Yom Kippur. Just as on that day, children and people who are sick or pregnant should not fast.

Beit Hamikdash  (BAYT ha-mik-DAHSH) – The Holy Temple. The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The second was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans.

The Kotel  (KOH-tel) – The Western Wall, a retaining wall that is all that remains of the Second Temple. Jews do not refer to it as the “wailing wall,” but as the Western Wall or the Kotel.

 

What is Shalom?

Image: The word “Shalom” in Hebrew letters, in blue. Public domain.

Shalom.” It is often the first word a Hebrew student learns to read. It is the Hebrew word the most non-Jews are likely to know. If you ask for a definition, most people will tell you “Peace, Hello, or Goodbye,” and they won’t be wrong.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Shalom is a positive value, far more than just the absence of war. It signifies wholeness. One can be not-at-war and still be miserable. However, a miserable person by definition lacks shalom.

Like most words in Semitic languages it is based on a root of three consonants: shin, lamed, mem.  From that root we get many words: shalam, complete; nishlam, finished; l’shalem, to pay a bill; meshulam, repay; shlaymut, wholeness. What they have in common is a sense of integrity, of nothing missing or awry.

When I greet you with “Shalom!” I am wishing you wholeness of body and spirit. When I use a related greeting, “Mah shlomkhah?” the literal translation is “How is your peace?”

Shalom is not an abstract. It depends on real conditions in the world. A hungry person, a fearful person, or a hurt person cannot have shalom. Shalom includes bodily needs as well as spiritual ones. When we deny the needs of others, we deny them shalom.

Shalom also requires participation. We deny ourselves shalom when we bear a grudge. We deny ourselves shalom when we mistreat our bodies so that they get sick. We deny ourselves shalom when we tell ourselves we need something we cannot have, or when we refuse things we actually need. We deny ourselves shalom when we sin and choose not to make teshuvah.

At the close of the Kaddish, we pray for peace:

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleynu, v’al kol Yisrael, Veyimru: Amayn.

May the Maker of peace on high, make peace upon us, and upon all Israel. And we say: Amen.

When we say these words, it is both a prayer and a commitment to action. We are saying, “Please, God, give us shalom!” while at the same time saying, “I am ready to do what it takes to make shalom!”

Are we?

 

Online Classes Starting Soon!

Image: A laptop sits on a desk at home beside a notebook.

Lehrhaus Judaica is a non-denominational center for Jewish learning, and in recent years, we’ve grown our online offerings.  This winter we’re offering a variety of classes online. Click on the class name to go to the catalog, where you can see a video about the class, get a fuller description, dates and times, tuition figures, and links for registration.

I’m happy to answer questions about the classes; feel free to leave them in the comments section. However, most of the answers you want will be in the catalog, to which I’ve supplied links.

Israel & Texts: A class for those who want to learn more about Jewish texts in the context of Jewish history and the land of Israel.  I’ve written at length about the class here. No Hebrew required.

Beginning Prayer Book / Biblical Hebrew: An introduction to Hebrew basics, taught by Dr. Jehon Grist, whom I can recommend heartily because I learned from him, myself.

Intermediate Prayer Book / Biblical Hebrew: This course will take you from “beginner” status into actually reading Biblical texts. Also taught by Dr. Grist.

Advanced Biblical Hebrew 3: The Book of Esther: Join a group of advanced Hebrew students working on translation of the Book of Esther. Quoting from Dr. Grist’s description of the class: “We will translate and analyze selected passages from this amazing story, visiting both the ancient Persian Empire and additional versions of the text to discover how Esther’s tale developed and what its meaning is for us today.”

Traditions of Judaism: An 8-week spring course on the various expressions of Judaism: Movements, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, American Judaism, etc. I’m the teacher for this one.

Israel at 70: An Ancient and Modern Adventure: This is the recommended pre-tour course for the Lehrhaus/Tiyul Jewish Journeys trip to Israel with an optional extension to Petra, but is also open to those who want to learn more about our original homeland. Dr. Grist, an accomplished archaeologist with deep roots in the land will lead this course.

The Book of Esther(Tuesday evenings) Dr. Jehon Grist and I are studying Esther together. He comes at it as an academic, a translator, and as an archaeologist. I come at it from a rabbinic perspective. Then each of us teaches a course on the book! This link is to my version of the class, available both at Temple Sinai in Oakland or online.

The Book of Esther – (Wednesday evenings) The same as above, but with Dr. Jehon Grist teaching. Our project is to look at the scroll of Esther with new eyes and perhaps get some new insights before Purim. We’ll have one meeting post-Purim to share how our study has influenced our experience of the holiday. Dr. Grist will teach the class at Congregation Bnai Israel in Berkeley, CA, as well as online.

The Jews of Italy: A Journey of 2,000 Years – A web-based course on the history of Judaism in Italy, taught by Dr. Jehon Grist. Whether you’re planning a trip to Italy or simply interested in exploring the topic digitally, we’ll help you discover the people, places and key events that make this one of the most compelling stories of the Jews in Europe.

Traditions of Continuity and Diversity: The Rise of Rabbinic Judaism and Classical Christianity –  Judaism and Christianity have a long and sometimes uncomfortable relationship. The goal in this class is to provide a firm historical basis to begin anew a more fruitful discussion and true dialogue based on mutual respect and appreciation. This course will presume no previous historical knowledge of this era and will use audio-visual, textual, and lecture and discussion formats to carry us through the material. Jews, Christians, and anyone else interested in the topic are encouraged to attend. The class will be taught by the Rev. Bruce R. Bramlett. He is an Episcopal priest and theological scholar. He has spent his academic career exploring and understanding the long, complex , and often tragic history of the Jewish-Christian encounter throughout the west.

 

What is “Mazal Tov”?

Image: The stem of a wine glass, with a label saying “Mazal tov!” (Iwona Kellie via Wikimedia, some rights reserved.)

If you are a consumer of American pop culture, you are likely familiar with the Jewish saying, Mazal tov! (מזל טוב, MAH-zel tahf or mah-ZAL tohv.) Everyone yells it at the end of the Jewish weddings in the movies, right?

Colloquially, mazal tov! means “congratulations!”  We say it when someone has a happy moment. We might say it to a new parent, a graduate, or the parent of a bat mitzvah girl. In all those cases, the speaker is rejoicing with the fortunate person, and the proper reply is “Thank you!”

Literally, mazal tov means “Good fortune!” or even more literally, “Good stars!” Mazelot are the constellations of stars, and for many centuries, they were thought to determine one’s luck in life, even among Jews. Even though science has debunked astrology and modern Jews do not put stock in it, the practice survives in the expression.

On a deeper level, mazal tov recognizes that the good things that happen to us are only partially dependent on our own accomplishments. Luck is a factor in all human experience; bad things happen to good people, and good things sometimes happen to bad people. The fact of fortune or misfortune does not tell us about the moral status of that individual.

This stands in contrast to some other theologies, including one expressed in the Book of Deuteronomy, which asserts boldly that sinners will have bad luck and that the faithful will have good luck. (See Deuteronomy 28 for examples.) While this is an alluring idea (“people get what they deserve,”) as a theory it does not stand up to real life experience. Most Jewish thinkers have moved on to a more nuanced view, in which we recognize that our life experiences are a mixture of our own efforts and chance, and that the role of God in such matters is mysterious.

So if mazal tov means “good fortune,” what should one say to wish another person luck? That phrase is בהצלחה, b’hatzlecha (buh-HATZ-luh-KHAH.) We use it in the same situations in which an English speaker would say, “Good luck.” Literally, it means “in (or to) your success.”

Also, remember that mazal tov is only appropriate for a matter that is resolved. We do not say mazal tov to news of a pregnancy, because there are still many things that can go wrong. Rather, we say b’sha’ah tovah (buh sha-AH to-vah) “at a good time.” In this case, we do not want to make any assumptions about the luck of the parents or child, since traditionally such assumptions are seen as tempting fate!

 

 

Learning Hebrew: Reading the Joseph Story

Image: Part of the story of Joseph in the Torah Scroll.

Whenever we reach Parashat Vayeshev, this week’s portion, I can taste tuna fish. That may seem like a weird association, but this portion is linked in my heart to the lunchtime study group in which I learned to read Biblical Hebrew.

Like most adult learners in the US, my Hebrew studies started with the Aleph-Bet and “Prayer Book Hebrew,” the prayers in the synagogue service. There’s a giant step from knowing what the prayers say to reading the Torah, and Rabbi Steven Chester chose the Joseph story to carry us across that chasm in 1997.

Each week we had a short passage to translate. We were supposed to translate the whole thing, but each of us was responsible for “our” verse, meaning that each of us knew ahead of time exactly what we, personally, would translate aloud. We were a group of middle-aged learners, bobbing our heads to find the sweet spot in our progressive lenses in order to see the text.

Rabbi Chester was patient and kind, never shaming anyone. That was good, because I had no natural gift for it, and my translations were awful. I would go to class thinking “this CAN’T be right,” and sure enough, it wasn’t. Rabbi used our mistakes to review grammar or to show us (again)  how to break down a word to find it in the dictionary.

Our glacial pace through the text meant that we studied it deeply, noticing the choices about grammar and the repetition of certain words in the text. It was my first taste of learning a text on that level: word by word, even letter by letter. I was enchanted.

Sometimes Rabbi Chester enriched our study by showing us a midrash on a particular scrap of the text. This was also his sneaky way of introducing us to the glories of midrashic texts and rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, since he always gave us those texts in both the original and translation. We’d read the translation, but the original words would wink at me, promising more: more meaning, more depth, more nuance.

That class marked the beginning of my love for text study. It met Wednesday at lunchtime for years, and now as a teacher myself I marvel at his chutzpah and patience in leading us into that tangle of grammar and vocabulary. It was an unusual and bold way to teach Biblical Hebrew. It was also a brilliant choice, because the powerful current of the narrative kept us going. Who could quit, halfway through that story?

By the time we came to the end of Genesis 50, my translations were less ridiculous, and I felt confident enough to tackle other parts of Torah on my own. I learned the most important lesson for Hebrew study: stick with it long enough, and it will begin to sink in.

Foolish, feckless Joseph grew up to be a tzaddik, and I had begun to grow towards becoming a rabbi. And every year, when we read this narrative again, it stirs old memories of sitting around a table, munching our lunches and puzzling out the mysteries verse by verse.

Thank you, Rabbi Chester.