Three Texts for Changing the World

Image:  “I Can Change the World, Every Child Counts” painted on a schoolhouse in South Africa. (henkpijper/pixabay.)

Do you want to change the world? Here are some texts for help and encouragement. One is ancient, one medieval, one modern.

Anxiety in one’s heart saddens it, but a good word gladdens it. – Proverbs 12:25

It is tempting to criticize. However, when we scold and scold without a word of encouragement, no one has the heart to keep on going. Therefore it is important to to put as much energy into encouragement as it is into criticism. Reward good behavior, always. Encourage any move in the right direction.

Proper generosity involves not only money and goods, but also power . . . Generosity with power entails using [the power] bestowed [on us] by God to help those in need.  – Rabbi Abraham Maimuni in The Guide to Serving God.

It is not enough to give to good causes. It is also important to share power. Sometimes that means listening instead of talking, encouraging instead of criticising, serving instead of insisting always on leading.

We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible. – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

It is easy to point at others and say, “That person is doing a bad thing!” We must also look within and say, “What am I doing that contributes to the bad situation? How can I contribute to real change?” Some are guilty, yes, but all of us are responsible to make things better.

 

 

Advertisements

Hidden Treasures in the Torah – Preparing a Text for Services

Image: Numbers 27:1- 5 in one of the sifrei Torah at Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Rabbi Adar.

I read Torah at Temple Sinai this morning. While I was preparing the portion, I was reminded again just how happy I am that I learned how to read Hebrew. I learned late in life, and I still struggle with it, but it is absolutely worth the trouble. Here’s why:

Last week’s Torah portion was Pinchas. (The sun has set, it’s a new week. This morning was last week in Jewish terms.) Pinchas contains the first part of the story of the Daughters of Tzelophehad, a story I’ve written about in O Daughters, My Mothers! 

I’ve studied these verses many times, but with Torah there is always more to learn. This time, preparing to read from the Torah scroll (see the photo above) the study carried me deep into the grammar of the text. (I know, sounds boring, but trust me here.)

The scroll is a close copy of the scroll from which Ezra read in Nehemiah 8. The scroll does not have nekudot – the little marks invented by the Masoretes centuries later to tell us about vowels, pronunciation, and punctuation. For those marks, I have to go to a tikkun or to a copy of the verses in Torah as in Sefaria.org.

If I’m going to read the text correctly, I have to learn which vowels to put in which places – that means I have to understand every single word of that text. (Granted, it is possible simply to memorize the sound of the words, which is what I did as a beginner, but as I age I find that it is better just to do it the hard way and actually learn each word because memory can fail me.)

These particular verses (beginning at Numbers 27:1) are tricky because the Torah is telling us a story about women. That’s fairly unusual, and the verb forms for women are less familiar because we don’t use them as much in Biblical Hebrew. It’s a nice grammatical workout.

Sure enough, the first word is וַתִּקְרַ֜בְנָה – vah-tee-KRAV-nah. It means “And they (f) drew close.” Then it hit me: this is a special word! The root of the word is kuf-resh-bet, which is the root having to do with sacrifices.The translations say something like “they came forward” but it there is much more meaning in that word. Yes, it means “come close” but it is a special sort of drawing close. The text could have had other verbs, but the fact that it uses this particular verb signals us that something special and holy is coming, something that will bring the Israelites closer to God.  I have circled the word in red at the top of the image below – on the image, not on the sefer Torah!

Num27.1-11.Marked

Another example of something really special in this portion is in the other word I have circled, a tiny little word of two letters. Here is the text and translation from Sefaria.org:

כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃

“The plea of Tzelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.” – Numbers 27:7

It’s the standard JPS translation, but it waters down the meaning of the text. The little circled word, pronounced “Ken” means “Yes.” Here’s my alternate translation of the line:

“Yes! The daughters of Tzelophehad said it!* You must give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen. Transfer their father’s share to them.”

*In this case, “dov-roht” is a feminine participle from the root dalet-bet-resh. There’s no good way to get it into English without turning it back into a verb.

The whole point of the story is that God says “Yes!” when five women who are suffering from an injustice approach with a well-reasoned case. Had I been working merely from a translation the readings would be much more dignified but the passion in that “Yes!” would be missing. God rewards the women for standing up for themselves, and approves of their competence in doing so.

Feminist commentators have had much to say about this story, justly so, but in that “Yes!” I read broader meaning. When disenfranchised people bring a well-reasoned case before the legal authority, this story sets the precedent for hearing them out and finding a way to make things more fair.

In this story, God doesn’t quibble, or get defensive, or suggest that if they all got husbands it would be OK. God just says “Yes.” God then corrects the injustice by changing the rules of inheritance.

I finished my preparation of this story feeling inspired.

And yes, this is why I love studying Torah in Hebrew.

If you are older, if you are “bad at languages,” if you have perceptual quirks (aka learning disabilities) don’t let it stop you. I’m all those things, and I’m so glad I learned.

How is Torah like Fire?

Image: A bonfire at night. (pixabay)

A teaching metaphor from the Talmud:

Rabba bar bar Ḥana said: Why are matters of Torah compared to fire, as it is stated: “Is not My word like fire, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29)? To tell you: Just as fire does not ignite in a lone stick of wood but in a pile of kindling, so too, matters of Torah are not retained and understood properly by a lone scholar who studies by himself, but by a group of Sages. — Ta’anit 7a

Depression and Jewish Tradition

Image: A somber landscape with rocks, trees, and ponds. (FrankWinkler/Pixabay)

Although there is a beneficial aspect to sadness it prevents people from becoming overly joyous over the pleasures of this world. Nevertheless one should not pursue the state of sadness, since it is a physical disease. When a person is despondent, he is not able to serve his Creator properly. – Yonah ben Avraham Girondi (1200-1263)

Jews have known for centuries that depression is an illness, not a moral flaw. In the 13th century, this great Jewish ethical teacher was unequivocal: “it is a physical disease.” He understood that it interferes with one’s most basic functioning. (I am talking about clinical depression, as I suspect the rabbi was, more than a mere “bad day.”)

One of the things that often happens when a person is depressed is that they fall behind on tasks. It is difficult to focus, and they miss deadlines. Then, having fallen behind, shame enters the picture: “Not only am I depressed, I am a rotten person.” Thus the pain of depression snowballs into an avalanche of the spirit.

It is miserable to grow depressed over one’s depression.

The first thing to know is that science has proven Rabbi Yonah right: Depression is a physical disease. When we are depressed, connections are not being made properly in our nervous system. This is no more a moral failure than any other illness.

When I have struggled with depression, I have not been able to “snap out of it” or pray my way out of it. What does help is understanding that my brain does this sometimes, and it is not the end of the world. What helps is taking my meds, talking to a therapist, and knowing that this, too, will pass.

If you are reading this because you are currently suffering, or because someone you love is currently suffering from depression, know that the situation is not hopeless. Know, too, that you are not alone. This is an illness that has plagued humanity since ancient times. Fortunately help is available! Reach out, or ask someone to reach out on your behalf. You are not bad, you are suffering, and you deserve care.

What is a Prophet?

Image: A portion of the Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls (via Wikimedia)

Jews and Christians understand the word “prophet” differently.

This can cause misunderstanding. We’ll be going along talking and thinking we’re communicating, and then it will turn out that we use the same English word for two completely different meanings. It’s as if I were walking along talking to a UK citizen about something “in my boot.” I am referring to something in my shoe. The British listener believes I’m referring to the cabinet at the back of my car! We are both right, but we aren’t communicating.

Jews understand prophets to be spokespersons for God. (Yes, there were women prophets.) Sometimes they heard God’s voice giving them personal instruction (Genesis 12:1), and sometimes they were messengers to a specific person (2 Samuel 12: 1-25).  The prophets spoke to our entire nation about matters of national concern, including idolatry, foreign entanglements, and the need to keep the spirit as well as the law of the Torah (e.g. Isaiah 1). When they talked about the future, they were talking about the immediate future, or speaking in general terms. They were not looking centuries ahead, they were talking about the specific geopolitical and theological realities of the time. To get a really good understanding of the Jewish prophets, there’s no better book that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets.

The prophets were limited to a particular time in our history. Jewish prophets occupied an historical period from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) to the time of the restoration of the Second Temple in 516 BCE.   Prophets guided the People of Israel and our leaders. Not long after we returned to the Land of Israel from Babylon, though, the time of the Prophets was over. Our last prophet was Malachi, who is believed to have lived during the time of Ezra.

Today Jews revere the words of the prophets and read them every Shabbat because their comments and rebukes are timeless. They call us to observe the spirit of the Torah, and to remember that ritual observance alone is not enough to fulfill the commandments.

For Christians, the same figures have a different role. While many Christians read the Jewish prophets for their ethical commentary, they also read them as fortellers of the arrival of Jesus as messiah. Christians speak of events in the New Testament “fulfilling the words of the prophets.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries in some Protestant circles, there’s been an upsurge of interest in using Jewish prophetic and eschatological writings to “foretell” political events in the future, something called Dispensationalism. Not all Christians are Dispensationalists. The Dispensationalists have gotten a lot of press in recent years because (1) they have sought to publicize their messages and (2) it makes great copy for people who want to sell “clicks” in the media.

The two different ways of understanding prophecy are mostly incompatible. While Jews and Christians can agree on the ethical teachings of the prophets (don’t abuse the poor, etc.), we disagree fundamentally about the role of the prophet, both religiously and historically. Christian attempts to use the writings of 7th century BCE prophets plus astronomical events to “foretell the future” seem pointless and disrespectful from a Jewish point of view. The Jewish insistence that nothing in Isaiah has anything to do with the 1st century carpenter from Nazareth seems stubborn and blind to Christians.

The truth is, we share some books of scripture, but we read them and use them quite differently.  Knowing about those differences can improve our communication and foster mutual respect – and that is a worthwhile goal.

Resources for Torah Study

Image: A study with books and computer. (Pexels/Pixabay)

I strongly recommend to my students that they find a Torah Study group and attend, at least for a while. It’s a great way to get to know a synagogue or other Jewish institution. It’s also one of the quintessential Jewish activities: there is no better way to learn how to think as Jews think. Torah is not just about the Bible; Torah is a worldview.

Here are some resources I highly recommend for beginners:

Sefaria.org – This online library of Jewish texts is a miracle of technology. “Sefaria” is a play on sefer, Hebrew for “book.” Seforim (suh-FOR-eem) are Jewish holy books. Sefaria.org offers a growing selection of Jewish holy texts for study along with other resources. It has a full Tanakh, with English translation, as well as all the major works of rabbinic literature and more. Some books are only partly translated, but don’t despair – scholars are working on them all the time! Click on the horizontal lines in the upper left hand corner of the screen to reach the Table of Contents. Give yourself time to click and explore. If you prefer to learn in more directed ways, scroll to the bottom of the screen and under “About,” click “Help,” which will take you to a series of videos illustrating ways to use the site.

Mechon-Mamre.org is an older, less complicated website offering resources for Torah study and other Jewish texts. I particularly like the Hebrew font they use; it’s very simple and clear.

Maps of Biblical Israel – One unique thing about Torah study is that our sacred text is rooted in the geography of Israel. This website was assembled by Christians (as you can see from all the mentions of “Old Testament” but the maps are very handy.

hebcal.com – For “Parashat haShavua” (weekly Torah readings) this website is a wonderful tool. This is the Swiss Army knife of Jewish calendars: you can click on the weekly portion and get the readings, with links to commentary and sermons online. It will also do date conversion (want to know what day in the Jewish calendar was your birthday?) It’s wonderful.

And finally, a wonderful book:

What’s In It For Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives by Stephen Lewis Fuchs – This little book (less than 100 pages) is a series of short essays in which Rabbi Fuchs offers insights for modern readers on the ancient stories in Torah. While they are written primarily for beginners, they bring depth as well as simplicity to the project of learning Torah as an adult.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and look forward to requiring it for my Intro students during the Winter “Israel & Texts” sessions of the course. Rabbi Fuchs makes a case for a living, vibrant Torah that helps us to understand our lives today.

 

“And Yitro heard” – Midrash

Image: Postage Stamp, Israel, 1060: The Tomb of Yitro, WikimediaIsraeli postage stamp catalog, Catalog Number: 219

Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt. – Exodus 18:1

This is one of my favorite Torah portions, because there is midrash on it that I love.  One set of midrash begins with two little words (in Hebrew):

וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ

And Yitro heard

The rabbis explode into speculation: What did Yitro hear? How did he hear it?  The verse appears to tell us, but on inspection it is impossibly vague. We want details!

The Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, a collection of midrash, offers us some of the rabbis’ thoughts about this in what I can only describe as a rather excited-sounding jumble:

Rabbi Yehoshua thought he heard about how Israel won the battle with Amalek!

Maybe he heard the thunder at the giving of the Torah!

Maybe he heard about it, because the kings of the world went to Bilaam and said, Is this like the Flood? Is the God of Israel going to kill us all?

Rabbi Eliezer said Yitro heard the splitting of the [Red] Sea, which was heard from one end of the world to the other (!)  – Even a harlot in Jericho heard it!

The above is my paraphrase of the passage from the Mekhilta, 18:1:1. I love the interplay of rabbinic voices, the speculation on the possibilities, scouring out the possibilities from the the Torah, the book of Joshua, and even the Psalms.

The point is, Yitro was described in chapter 2 of Exodus as a “priest of Midian.” (Exodus 2:16) He was a desert chieftain. While we moderns may think of him as a minor player in the story of Exodus, the rabbis saw him differently. To the rabbis, this verse in Exodus is the moment when the rest of the world comes to admire Israel. This verse in Exodus is recognition.

Keep in mind that the rabbis of 3rd century Roman Palestine, from which this collection dates, were living in a time and place in which Jews were despised. The Temple was gone, and they were beginning to realize that it would be a long time before it would be rebuilt. Jerusalem was gone, replaced by a Roman city dedicated to Zeus. Many of their compatriots were gone, either slain in the revolts or hauled away as slaves.

For them, Yitro, the “Priest of Midian,” is a grand figure, a representative of the outside world. Yitro has heard of the exploits of Israel, of her battles, of her miracles, and he has come to see for himself! The rabbis of the 3rd century CE reassure themselves that Israel has been the wonder of the world, and it will be the wonder of the world again someday.

It is human to fear that lost glories are lost forever, or to fear that we only imagined the good things in the past. What I love about the rabbis in this situation is that they take three little words – And Yitro heard! – and from them they spin a net of reassurance for themselves: Israel is beloved of God. Israel was, and is, and will be great.

I am grateful to Rabbi Lewis M. Barth for introducing me to the Mekhilta and its joys. Any mistakes here are mine and mine alone.