Shabbat Shalom! – Bechukotai

It’s hard to believe: we’re at the beginning of June, and the end of the book of Leviticus.

When we hear the end of a book of Torah chanted in synagogue, the reader chants the last verse and then follows it: “Hazak, hazak, v’nitkhazek!” [Be strong, be strong, let us be strengthened!]

Jewish tradition calls attention to the many tensions and balances in human life.

We are individuals (“Be strong!”)

and we are members of a community (“Let us be strengthened!”)

We are responsible for ourselves (“Be strong!”)

and responsible for each other (“Let us be strengthened!”)

We are people of action (“Be strong!”)

and people who are continual, lifelong learners (“Let us be strengthened!”)

Tonight we shall begin another book of Torah (“Be strong!”)

but today we enjoy the fact that we have again read Leviticus. (“Let us be strengthened!”)

 

Divrei Torah on Parashat Bechukotai:

A Shabbat for the Earth – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

B’chukotai with Rabbi Ellie – Rabbi Eleanor Steinman (VIDEO)

Rebukes Remind Us That We Must Work Together – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

We Live in God’s Neighborhood – Rabbi Mark Borovitz (VIDEO)

On Civilization, Culture & True Wisdom – Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Torah, Consequences, and the Akiba Clause – Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

A Sense of Direction – Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

 

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?

 

Irano-Jewish Hebrew Illumination (Shanameh)

Now for something completely different… Jewish art from Persia!

Reblogged this from Jewish Philosophy Place, a blog I follow and enjoy.

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Not your Ashkenazi book illumination, these Iranian Jewish book illuminations are identified as mid- to late 17th century. Full of violence, they transpose the Jewish narrative takes shape as if drawn from the Shanameh (Book of Kings)  the classic and foundational Persian epic poem. I found these in Marc Epstein’s Skies of Parchment/Seas of Ink — Pinchas impaling Zur and Cosbi, Joshua conquering Jericho and crossing the Jordan, angels uprooting a tree in Ahashverosh’s garden, and the killing of his sons and collaborators. The  pictures illuminate the Musa Nama (Book of Moses), the Imrani Fath Nama (Book of the Conquest), and the Ardashir Nama (Book of Ahashverus). The narrative scenes take place out in the desert, out in nature. I’ll return to this point later, but for an outsider, the only visual (i.e. non-narrative) element that distinguishes these illuminations as “Jewish” is the Hebrew calligraphy.

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Torah Schedule Mysteries Revealed!

Some of you have noticed that there is disagreement at the moment about which is the proper Torah reading for the week right now. The calendar from the Jewish funeral home says one thing, the weekly email from a Reform synagogue says another! Let me try and unravel this for you.

The Torah is divided into 54 parshiot [weekly readings.] The Mamre Institute website has an excellent table listing all the regular weekly Torah readings, along with their haftarah readings and the special holiday Torah readings. (Their website is also my go-to Hebrew Bible online. The translation is a bit archaic in some ways, but you can set it up so that both the Hebrew and English are visible at the same time.)

 

Every year, we read the Torah once through, beginning and ending on Simchat Torah. On leap years, like this year, we adjust the calendar by adding an additional month of Adar – four more weeks! In those years, every Torah portion gets a Shabbat all to itself.

On “regular” years, when there is only one month of Adar, some of the portions are doubled onto a single Shabbat. In those years, you get combined portions, like Veyakhel-Pekudei, Tazria-Metzora, or Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

Add to that that sometimes a holiday falls on Shabbat, crowding the Torah portion onto another week. Again, when that happens, we normally double things up with another portion.

All of this is generally transparent to most Jews, because we just look at the calendar and it tells us what to do. “Read Parashat Behar this week!” or “Read the Torah portion for Shabbat during Passover this week!”

Yes, that’s complicated. But that’s not all. Jews have historically followed a practice in which chagim (holidays mandating no work) are observed for one day inside the Land of Israel and for two days outside the Land of Israel, in the Diaspora. The reason for this was communication technology: when holidays were set by moon observations from the Temple Mount, and word of them was communicated by signal fires, Diaspora communities had to estimate the day of the holiday and then adjust when they finally received the word. To safeguard against mistakes, they took to observing all the chagim for TWO days (for instance, the first and last days of Passover are a single day inside Israel, but are doubled in the Diaspora.)  Holidays that aren’t work-is-forbidden days (Chanukah, the middle days of Sukkot, etc.) were never doubled.

Many Reform congregations in the United States follow the Israeli calendar, because Hillel II came up with a calendar in the 4th century that made worries about communication obsolete. Reform Jews observe one day of each chag, just as Israeli Jews do. Rather, I should say some Reform Jews do – some Reform synagogues observe only one day of chagim but follow the Diaspora calendar of Torah readings.

This year (5776) (aka 2015-2016) we have a leap year, so no combined parashiot. However, in the Diaspora calendar, the second day of the end of Passover fell on Shabbat, so that had a Passover reading instead of Acharei Mot, which Israeli and some Reform Jews were reading. The two schedules will not come back together until the Diaspora calendar doubles a Torah portion on August 6, Matot-Masei. Then the discrepancy will end.

I wish I could have made this simpler for you. The real rule, as with so many other things, is to follow the minhag [custom] of your community. If your rabbi is following a particular schedule of Torah readings, that’s the right one for your synagogue.

In my weekly listings, I’m following the Diaspora schedule of readings, even though I’m a Reform rabbi who doesn’t celebrate double chagim. Or, if you prefer, because I decided to do it that way!

SIMPLE SUMMARY: The schedule for reading Torah portions is the subject of disagreement at the moment. Consult your rabbi for what to read this week. Whatever’s going on, it will resolve itself after August 6, 2016. Welcome to Judaism!

 

Shabbat Shalom! – Behar

Parashat Behar* is the next-to-last reading in the Book of Leviticus. It deals with the law of the Sabbatical Year (shmittah) and the Jubilee Year (yuval) among other topics. It’s one of the portions that on first blush makes for rather dry reading, but when you start digging into it, complexities emerge and things get very interesting.

Some of the divrei Torah from online darshanim this week:

Land, Labor, Liberty by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

To Treat With Respect is the Essence of Holiness by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Seasons in the Sun by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Trekking to Holiness by Hanna Perlberger

Real Estate – Do Market Forces Rule? by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Conditional Covenant by Rabbi Ron Kronish

Turning to the Land by Rabbi Seth Goldstein

*This year there are differences of opinion about the calendar this year (5776.) If your congregation is following a different schedule, know that we’ll all be back together again before too long. 

 

What is Shavuot?

Image: A new Jew makes a commitment to a life of Torah. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Shavuot [shav-00-OHT or sh-VOO-us] is coming. Even thought it is a major Jewish holiday, only the more observant Jews will even be aware of it.

That’s a shame. It’s a beautiful holiday – and in real ways, it is the completion of the journey we began at the Passover seder. The trouble is that unlike Passover, it didn’t see as successful a transition to the new realities Jews faced after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

HISTORY Shavuot combines two ancient observances: a festival for the first grain harvest of the summer and the chag, or pilgrimage holiday, celebrated in Temple times. All Jews who were able traveled to Jerusalem to observe the sacrifices and bring the first fruits of their harvests, remembering and celebrating our acceptance of the covenant at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. The drama and pageantry of the holiday made Shavuot a major event in the Jewish year.

Perhaps the most famous record of Shavout is that in the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 2. While that chapter refers to an experience of the disciples that later came to be remembered by Christians as Pentecost, one verse tells us a lot about Jerusalem during Shavuot:

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. – Acts of the Apostles 2:5

Jews from all over the known world gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot! This tells us that:

  • Jews lived all over the world by the year we now remember as 33 CE and
  • Shavuot was so important, and such a pleasure, that they would travel from Italy, and Spain, and Babylon to attend the festival.

In the Bible, the festival has three names:

  • Chag Shavuot [Festival of Weeks] (Exodus 34:22) because it comes precisely 7 weeks (49 days) after Passover
  • Chag K’tzir [Festival of Reaping] (Exodus 23:16) because it aligns with the barley harvest in Israel
  • Yom HaBikkurim [Day of the First Fruits] (Numbers 28:26) because this was the festival at which farmers would bring the first fruits from their fields to offer in the Temple.

THIS YEAR Shavuot begins at sundown on June 11 in 2016.

OBSERVANCE TODAY Today we observe Shavuot in a number of ways:

  • Counting the Omer – Ever since Passover, we’ve been counting UP to Shavuot, building the anticipation for the holiday. Every night observant Jews say a blessing and announce the “count” of the day. We complete the count on the night before Shavuot.
  • Tikkun Leil Shavuot – How better to celebrate the giving of Torah than to sit up all night and study it? Many Jews gather to study the night of Shavuot.
  • Dairy Foods – It’s traditional to eat dairy meals on Shavuot, since if the law is newly given, there’s not yet time for meat to be kosher.
  • In the Synagogue – We read from the Torah, we recite Hallel (a service of praise) and we have a special Yizkor (mourning) service.  For service times, check synagogue websites or call ahead before the holiday begins.
  • The Book of Ruth is the megillah (scroll) read and studied on Shavuot.
  • Many conversions to Judaism are scheduled for the time around Shavuot, because of the connection with receiving the Torah and the Book of Ruth.

Jewish Plans: What’s Next?

Image: Fred Isaac, my first study partner, and I look over a Torah scroll. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Tonight I had my last meeting for the year with my Wednesday night Intro class. Every class has its own personality, and I always hate to see them go.

Besides talking about Jewish American food customs (a fun topic, which is why I use it for the last night of class) we talked a bit about “What next?”

Some of them are moving on to conversion programs, or weddings, or some other preset project under the wing of a rabbi or congregation. I want to be sure that the others get the support they need to take whatever is the next step for them. Next steps could take many forms, including:

  • Another formal class (Hebrew perhaps? Maybe via an online class?)
  • A commitment to attend services weekly for several months to learn the service?
  • Develop and commit to a no-matter-what Shabbat routine?
  • Join a Torah Study group?
  • Chevruta study [study with a partner] on a course of reading or maybe films?
  • A Jewish book club?
  • Learn how to blow the shofar?
  • A bagel making class or other Jewish cooking program?
  • Search for and join a synagogue?

And you, dear reader: do you have any Jewish plans for the summer? Feel free to share them in the comments where they can inspire others, and where I can cheer for you!