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

 

 

Nothing New: The Threat of Rape in Ruth

Image: Laborers work in a field. Public domain, pixabay.com.

Earlier this week I posted a study on Ruth 2:21-23.  I used a rather old-fashioned translation available on the Sefaria.org site because it was sufficient for my purpose at the time:

And Ruth the Moabitess said: ‘Indeed, he said to me: You will keep fast by my young men, until they have ended all my harvest.’ And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law: ‘It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his maidens, and that thou be not met in any other field. So she kept fast by the maidens of Boaz to glean unto the end of barley harvest and of wheat harvest; and she dwelt with her mother-in-law. – Ruth 2: 21 – 23 (JPS translation, 1917)

But now I’d like to look at a different angle on the passage using a more nuanced translation:

Ruth the Moabite said, “He even told me, ‘Stay close by my workers until all my harvest is finished.” And Naomi answered her daughter-in-law Ruth, “It is best, daughter, that you go out with his girls, and not be annoyed in some other field.” So she stayed close to the maidservants of Boaz, and gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished. Then she stayed at home with her mother-in-law.” – Ruth2:21-23 (JPS translation, 1985)

The 1985 JPS translation seems quite a bit different, although it is a translation from exactly the same Hebrew text. The difference important to me here is the translation of יִפְגְּעוּ, which 1917 translates “be met” and 1985 translates “be annoyed.” (If you wish to see the Hebrew, you can do so here.) Other possibilities for translating that verb include “be hurt,” “be bothered,” or “be disturbed.”

Naomi is explicit that she worries that Ruth may be “hurt, bothered, disturbed, or annoyed.” Plainly, Naomi is afraid that if the male workers see Ruth as vulnerable, she might be raped. Her advice is to stay with the other women, seeking protection in numbers and perhaps in the protection of their respectability.

Today when I was studying the passage with some other women rabbis, we read the passage together. Then they were surprised when I continued with the study from my previous post. The were surprised because there has been a particularly horrible story in the news here in the Bay Area about a rape trial, and they thought that I was going to teach a lesson in connection with that.

And certainly there is such a lesson here, although it is a sad and frustrating lesson. We have here evidence that even in the 5th century BCE women felt the need to warn other women about the possibility of rape. Ruth was exactly the sort of woman who is still the most vulnerable today: poor, without influence, and a member of a minority group who was despised because of stereotypes that painted minority women as hypersexual and available. Naomi feared that a man might see Ruth as someone who could be used and discarded without serious consequence.

We know that such warnings are of limited help, that “doing everything right” is sometimes no protection at all. The dramatic tension in the Book of Ruth derives from the vulnerability of the two poverty-stricken women and their uncertain fate.

Ultimately the Book of Ruth teaches that every human being has a right to respect. Ruth the Moabite, vulnerable in the field because of her minority status, was the same Ruth who was worthy of being the great-grandmother of King David.

This is one of the larger points the book makes: Ruth, the ultimate outsider is always also the ultimate insider, a woman fated to be the ancestor of King David. David, the ultimate insider, chosen by God, is also the great-grandson of a poor foreign woman.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun. – Eccesiastes 1:9

I pray for a day when no woman has to worry about rape. I pray for the day when Ecclesiastes will be wrong.

 

How Do We Raise Up a Leader?

Image: Large shoe, person trying to fill it. Drawing by Frits Ahlefeldt, via pixabay.com.

Recently a colleague quoted a 3rd century text in the course of a discussion:

“A friend can be acquired only with great difficulty.” It is from a 3rd century collection of midrash on Deuteronomy, Sifre Devarim.  I’d heard of it but never studied it. I was curious about the context – what kind of friend? what sort of difficulty? How could I resist?

Normally when I want to look up a rabbinic text, I go to my bookshelf. I don’t own a copy of Sifre Devarim, so I went online. I found a translation of the text, even though I could not find a copy of the Hebrew text. (That will have to wait until I visit the HUC library later this summer.) Still, here is a translation of the line in context by Dr. Marty Jaffee of the University of Washington. Note that the word chaver may be translated both “friend” and “study partner:”

Then HASHEM said to Moses:

Take for yourself Joshua b. Nun, a man with spirit” (Nu.27:18)—

take for yourself a virile type, like yourself!

Take for yourself” (Nu.27:18)—

this phrase actually implies an act of seizure,

for a study partner can be acquired only with great difficulty.

On this basis they taught:

A person should acquire for himself a study partner—

to declaim Scripture with him,

to repeat oral traditions with him,

to eat and drink with him,

and to whom he can reveal his secrets.

And, so He says:

“Two are better than one” (Ecc.4:9), and

“A three-ply rope will not soon be severed” (Ecc.4:12).

– from Sifre Devarim, Pisqa’ 305:1. Translation by Marty Jaffee.

So the rabbis of Sifre Devarim were asking themselves, “How did Moses train Joshua to be his successor?” Joshua needed to learn from Moses – how was that going to happen? The rabbis considered their own experiences with learning relationships. They may have been thinking about the critical problem of developing new leadership, and were looking to the life of Joshua to see how he grew into being the worthy successor to Moses.

Learning partnerships were very important to the rabbis. The word chaver that is usually translated “friend” in Modern Hebrew also meant “study partner” in Rabbinic Hebrew. We see in the texts that those were some of the most important relationships in their lives. There’s a story in the Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 23a, about Honi the Circle Maker. Honi fell asleep for seventy years, and when he woke up, he discovered that his son was dead and so were all his old study partners. He died of grief. The story in Ta’anit ends thus:

Rava said, “That is what people mean when they say, ‘Either companionship or death.'”

A line in Dr. Jaffee’s translation immediately reminded me of another text, possibly the most famous text on the subject:

Yehoshua ben Perachia says, “Make for yourself a mentor, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious.  – Pirkei Avot 1:6

This text makes a distinction between mentors and friends, the same distinction we see in the Sifre Devarim text.

  • “Make for yourself a mentor [rav.]”  The verb here is l’aseh, to make or to do.We usually think of the mentor “making” the learner into something, but here the focus is on the learner. A person is a mentor or teacher because we choose to see that person in that way. If we are unwilling to learn from someone, it’s very hard for them to do much with us.
  • “Acquire for yourself a friend [chaver.]” This verb is liknot, to acquire. A man also acquires a bride as in Mishnah Kiddushin 1: “A woman is acquired in three ways and acquires herself in two ways.” While some modern readers focus on acquisition in the modern sense and think, “It’s like buying a cow!” as one of my teachers (I wish I could remember which one) pointed out, in this acquisition, the cow has to give her consent. Truly intimate relationships require mutual consent, be they marital or intellectual.
  • Take for yourself Joshua ben Nun.” (Numbers 27:18, quoted in Sifre Devarim, Pisqa’ 305, above) The verb is lakakh, to take or seize.

Joshua needed mentoring, if he was to succeed Moses as leader. However, one cannot force another person to accept instruction from a mentor. One can learn from a mentor only by choosing to follow their lead. Therefore Moses needed to acquire Joshua as a chaver, a friend, so that they could learn together what God needed to convey.

The rabbis recognize, though, it is difficult to make a new friend. You don’t just march up and say, “We’re going to be friends” any more than you might walk up to another person and say “I’m going to marry you.” (You can try, but the other person may decide you are creepy and just run away!)

Moses certainly could have marched up to Joshua ben Nun and said, “Lookit, fellow, God says I am supposed to take you and make you into the next leader of Israel.” However, Joshua might easily have said, “No thanks,” especially after seeing how that role had worked out for Moses. The 3rd century rabbis saw that there was more to the Numbers 27 text than Moses walking up and saying “Tag, you’re It.”

While the message is rather subtle, I suspect that they were trying to figure out how to nurture good leaders without scaring them off or winding up with blowhards who wanted leadership for bad reasons.

Have you ever been mentored by someone? Have you ever been a mentor? Does this text seem to you to have something to say about mentoring for leadership – if so, what?

 

News & The Book of Ruth

News: I got a new desktop computer and spent the last 24 hours setting it up so it would be ready for class Sunday afternoon. I missed posting my usual Friday message with online links, but I will get back into that routine this week, for sure.

The new computer is very exciting – faster, nicer camera, speakers, audio, etc. I just have to get used to it.

The Book of Ruth is a one-meeting class I’m offering both live and online this coming Thursday, May 19 from 7:30 – 9pm Pacific Time. My focus will be the following question: What insights does Ruth have to offer us today about Jewish community, conversion, and interfaith marriages?

Sorry, the class has been cancelled for lack of enrollment.

Shavua tov!

 

What is the Haftarah?

Image: Ezekiel’s Vision of a Chariot, in St. John the Baptist Church in Kratovo, Macedonia, 1836. Artist unknown, public domain.

“Haftorah?” asked a puzzled student, “So where is the other half?”

Haftarah (pronounced haf-tuh-RAH, or haf-TOH-rah) is a word that puzzles many people who hear it. It is not “half-Torah” as the Ashkenazi pronunciation seems to hint. Haftarah is a reading from the books of the prophets, the Nevi’im.

Nevi’im (neh-vee-EEM), the second part of the Jewish Bible, includes:

Former Prophets (sometimes called “Histories”):

  • Joshua
  • Judges
  • Samuel I & II
  • Kings I & II

Major Prophets (“major” for length, not for pre-eminence)

  • Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel

The 12 Minor Prophets (“minor” for length, not importance)

  • Hosea
  • Joel
  • Amos
  • Obadiah
  • Jonah
  • Micah
  • Nahum
  • Habakkuk
  • Zephaniah
  • Haggai
  • Zebediah
  • Malachi

Unlike the Torah readings, which include, over the course of the year, every word from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the Haftarah readings are only from selected portions of the prophetic books. The readings always have some link to the Torah reading, although sometimes it takes study to perceive the link.

We do not know for sure when or why the Haftarah readings became part of the Shabbat Torah service. For some interesting speculation on that subject, read What is the Haftarah and Why Do We Read It? by Rabbi Peretz Rodman.

Haftarah is usually read or chanted in Hebrew from a book or printed page, not from a scroll.

The Haftarah reading have its own set of blessings, before and after, like the Torah reading. It is chanted to a distinctive trope [melody] used only for Haftarah. For an example of Haftarah trope, watch this video of (now Rabbi) Michael Harvey chanting the Haftarah to Parashat Noach:

 

How is a Sefer Torah like a Space Shuttle?

 

Image: The new Torah scroll dedicated Temple Sinai of Oakland, CA on January 29, 2016. Photo by Susan Krauss, who retains all rights.

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime event: my congregation dedicated a new Torah scroll. The congregation commissioned the scroll a while back because our existing Torahs were worn with constant use.  The lightest and most manageable one was frayed and aging fast.

A Sefer Torah is like a Space Shuttle: it is full of remarkable technology, simultaneously strong and fragile. Used properly it can last for a long time, but rough handling will age it sharply and an accident can destroy it in a moment.

A proper Sefer Torah is made of the skins of kosher animals. It takes at least a year to make a scroll, since most soferim  copy at most one column (amud) of writing a day. There are 247 amudim. If you assume 1 amud per day, plus no writing on Shabbat or chagim [holy days], the total varies according to the Jewish year but will come close to a year.

(For more details about the making of a Torah scroll, plus other interesting information about the work of a sofer, check out YK’s Sofer Blog.)

After our Torah scroll was scribed by Sofer Moshe Weiss of B’nei B’rak in Israel, it was carried to the U.S. and eventually to California. Sofer Neil Yerman traveled from New York to help us assemble the Torah, attaching it to the etzim [rollers] using thread made of sinew from a kosher animal. A local artist, Sheri Tharp, designed and made a yad [pointer] for the new Torah from oak in a design that suggests both the oaks of Oakland and the Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life. The tip of our pointer is carved from tagua nut, also known as “vegetable ivory.”

IMG_4841
Photo by Linda Burnett.

On the night before the dedication, some of us gathered to help Sofer Yurman attach the etzim to the scrolls. This photo was taken as I helped to attach the etz [roller] to the the Bereshit [Genesis] end. The gid [tendon thread] is tied onto a big sewing needle, rather like a carpet needle. Sticking that needle through the klaf [parchment] is a bit of a shock.

There’s a very homely quality to this technology. There we were, threading needles with tendon-fiber, poking the needle through the scroll as if it were a quilt at a bee. Of the four rabbis in attendance, not one of us had ever seen this done, much less participated in doing it. It was awe-inspiring, thinking that this work would benefit the congregation at Temple Sinai for perhaps a century and a half, or even two centuries into the future.

A Sefer Torah is better than a Space Shuttle in that with care, it is usable for 150 years or even more. It can take you – and your entire community! – to places beyond your wildest dreams.

RollingTorah
Senior Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin looks on as Ritual Committee member Fred Isaac assists Sofer Yerman. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar

 

GeekingOutTorah
Ritual Committee member Fred Isaac and I look over one of the older sifrei Torah. The sofer estimated that this scroll is at least 150 years old and may be older. Since the record of its acquisition has not survived, all we can do is guess. Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.