You Don’t Mess with the Laughter

!מענטש טראַכט, גאָט לאַכט

That is, Menscht tracht, Gott lacht:  “Man plans, God laughs.”  It’s the Yiddish version of Murphy’s Law.  It’s been on my mind this weekend.

My plan to “blog the Omer” took a left turn on Thursday evening, when I posted a commentary on You Don’t Mess with the Zohan to my Jewish Film blog.  I said I thought it was racist garbage, and I suggested other films that do a better job of mining the humor in Arab-Jewish tensions.

Someone had a rather strong reaction to my take on the film.  Instead of leaving a comment, he or she chose to hack my account and mess up a bunch of the links on the blog, so that all links from 2009 films led to the Zohan entry.  What I can’t figure is whether they liked or hated the comment, since if they hated it, why lead everyone to it?  And if they liked it, why not just comment?

On the other hand, someone is reading the film commentaries!  I’m delighted.  If someone out in Internet-land is a little less comfortable about movies that take cheap racist shots, I am doing my job.

Whatever the details, all my blogging time has gone to fixing those darn links, and dreaming up a password that will be harder to crack.  I have continued to count the omer, but am only today back to blogging.

I am absolutely certain that God is laughing.

P.S. to the Link Switcher, if you are reading this:  Leave me a comment, either here or better yet, on the Jewish Film blog, and tell me what you were trying to tell me with the links.  Loved it? Hated it? Let’s argue!  It’s more fun and less work, I promise.

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Nothing is Wasted

After hour depository (dropbox) of the old Exc...
After hour depository of the old Exchange National Bank building, in downtown Tampa, Florida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I prepare for a class that simply doesn’t happen.  I had one of those this week:  I was to teach a three-week class on Food and Jewish Ethics, and the timing simply wasn’t right.  There were not enough people signed up, and the management at Lehrhaus Judaica and I regretfully pulled the plug.

It’s a pity, because I was really excited about it.  I was going to spend the first class meeting talking a bit about how Jews do ethics.  Then we were going to brainstorm what ethical issues come up when one contemplates the dinner table, and choose two to four topics to hash out over the remaining classes.  The specifics would be driven by their interests.  But 10 am on Wednesdays was not a good time, despite some interest, so we’ll have to find another time slot and give it a go perhaps in the fall, perhaps in the evening.

So, was the preparation a waste?  Not at all.  For one thing, those lovingly prepared lesson plans are waiting in my Dropbox folder for another opportunity.  All I will need to do is refresh my memory, see if any new ideas have sprouted in the back of my mind since I prepared them, and I’m off to the races.  So that’s all good.

But there’s a deeper reason why it wasn’t a waste:  time spent studying Torah is never wasted.  I approach my own table now with renewed awareness.  When I pick up a piece of nice matzah, I am drawn to read the back of the box:  where did it come from?  Who made it?  When I look at the vegetables in the fridge, I am much more aware of a host of  issues.  The chapters I read on hunger led  to check on the status supplies at my local food bank (not good), leading me to dig a little deeper for tzedakah.

As Mishnah Peah 1.1 says, “Talmud Torah keneged kulam” — “the study of Torah leads to them all” [the things that are valuable both in this world and in the world to come.]

And those are my thoughts at the beginning of Day 5 of the Omer.

Misogyny? Or Something Else?

Yosi ben Yochanan of Jerusalem said: Let your house be wide open and let the poor be members of thy household; and do not talk much with women. This was said about one’s own wife; how much more so about the wife of one’s neighbor. Therefore the sages have said: He who talks too much with women brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Torah and will in the end inherit Gehenna. — Pirkei Avot 1.5

This verse from Mishnah begins with sentiments that are challenging but easy to affirm:  let your house be wide open!  Let the poor be members of your household!  Then it serves up what looks to be the worst sort of misogyny.

When I see something troubling in a text, the first thing I do is back up and look at the Hebrew.  What EXACTLY does it say?  Here’s a very literal translation:

Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household.  But do not engage in excessive conversation with the woman.  In speaking to his wife, so much the more so his friend’s wife.  Therefore the sages say, excessive conversation with the woman causes evil to himself and neglect of Torah and he will eventually inherit Gehinnom.

At first reading, that’s not much better.

Short of shrieking and throwing the verse away, I see only one possible way out with this text. That’s the phrase תרבה שיחה, which I translated as “excessive conversation.” We might also read it as “too long a conversation.”

Excessive how?  Too long for what? Let’s look at context. The verse begins with two statements about the household:  “let your house be wide open” and “let the poor be members of your household.” In the patriarchal society of the sages, the household was women’s domain, specifically, the wife’s domain.

Given this context, is it not possible that this is a warning to the men to back off and not interfere in the domain of their wives? That also makes sense of the phrase, “so much more so his friend’s wife”: Don’t tell your wife how to run her house, and definitely don’t tell your friend’s wife how to do so!

There is also a detail in the text that most translations gloss over that supports this interpretation. The phrase “the woman,” repeated twice in this verse, includes the definite article:  it is not “all women” but a particular woman about whom Yosi ben Yochanan is speaking. HaIshah, the woman, can also be translated “the wife.”

So let me try for a paraphrase:

Yosi ben Yochanan, a man of Jerusalem, says: let your house be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. But do not micro-manage your spouse about it, much less the spouses of your colleagues. Nothing good will come of it; it will lead to neglect of Torah and a bad end.

I believe this text may be read not as a misogynist rant, but as a reminder to the men that they are not the bosses, or the experts, of everything.  They should not meddle in the domain of their wives, and meddling in how other people’s homes are run is even worse.

What can this teach us today? Stay humble.  Remember that everyone has his or her area of expertise. The large principles are good — don’t neglect those first two items! — but I should respect the expertise of others, no matter how much Torah I think I know.

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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!

Why Count the Omer? Five Reasons (and counting!)

Omer table, depicting the number of days in th...
Omer table, depicting the number of days in the omer (top) and its equivalence in number of weeks (middle) and days (bottom)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why count the Omer?

In my effort to get myself to do it properly and on time, I have asked this question and looked for answers.  Here are some ideas about why we count the Omer.

(1).  GOD SAID TO:  “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”  In other words, God said to make sacrifices to mark these days.  We don’t have the Temple anymore, so instead we count after dinner each night.

(2) IT CONNECTS PASSOVER TO SHAVUOT:  Passover is a big holiday of celebration.  We celebrate freedom, which is mostly a happy thing (no more slavery, yay!) By preserving the count of the Omer, even without the Temple, the rabbis are reminding us that the Passover is not truly complete until we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot.  Freedom without responsibility is incomplete and unreal.  By counting, we remind ourselves that the process is not yet finished.

(3) SELF IMPROVEMENT:  In preparation to receive the Torah, we work to become better Jews.  The Kabbalists point out that the Omer is counted for seven weeks of seven days, and they match them with the seven sefirot through which God interacts with the world.  Each of the seven days within those weeks are matched with the sefirot, also, and those various permutations of Godliness provide an opportunity for study and self improvement.  Another tradition is to read and study Pirkei Avot [the first chapter of the Mishnah, which consists mostly of advice on proper behavior and attitude] during this season.

(4) AN EXPRESSION OF ANTICIPATION: When we are excited about something, we count the days to that event.  It is also true that when we behave a particular way, we cultivate the emotions and the thoughts that go with that behavior.  When we count the Omer, we cultivate excitement about Torah in our lives.

(5) MINDFULNESS:  This one is my own, as far as I know.  I know that the reason I never make it through the omer is that I get distracted.  49 days is a long time to do anything, especially something as small and easy to forget as an additional blessing after eating.  This year I want to improve my attention span for Torah.  I want to be mindful of Jewish time, and in the process, perhaps make better use of my time.

If you count the Omer, why do you do it?  Do you know any additional reasons for counting?

Counting the Omer

A Polish abacus (liczydło)

I have a confession to make:  I have never made it all the way through counting the Omer at the proper time, Passover to Shavuot.  This year I’m going to do it (she says, feeling a little like Charlie Brown facing Lucy and the football one more time).

The #BlogExodus project gave me an idea, though:  I’m going to blog the Omer.   Today I’m announcing my intent to do this thing.  Last night I counted Day One of the Omer, but since it was the second day of Passover, I figured I’d wait to blog it until the yomtov [holy day] was over.  With the next post, I’ll begin looking at Pirkei Avot, a rabbinic text that we traditionally study this time of year.  Occasionally I may have something else on my mind but the point is, this year I will (1) say the blessing (2) count the day of the omer and (3) post something to this blog.  If I have to choose, (1) and (2) will take precedence.  I’m hoping that the commitment to do something public in connection with it will generate sufficient Jewish guilt or shame to get me there.

You see, rabbis struggle with observance too.  For years I have struggled privately, but this year I am going to struggle in public, with an eye to improving my observance and maybe also to let others who struggle have some company. I try my best to observe the mitzvot, and sometimes I succeed.  Other times I fall short.  Then I try again.

Last night I counted at the community seder at Temple Sinai.  Tonight I counted here at my home.

May this year the the year I finally manage to stay mindful enough to do it!

#BlogExodus: The Jewish Future

Passover Seder 013

I will see the Jewish future tonight,

around a seder table:

children, young people, and adults

with mikveh water still behind the ears,

telling the story to the fogies, the regulars.

They will be shy at first

because there are Professionals at the table

but if we play it right

they will seize the story from our hands.

They will cast it, laughing,

beyond our reach, and we will pretend

that we don’t know what Judaism is coming to.

Secretly we will gloat

because the stories will not stop here.

—–

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.  My sincere thanks to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer,  the imabima,  for instigating and publicizing this effort.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate these blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus
.