8th Night: More Things in Heaven and Earth

Image: Sunrise. Photo by Arek Socha / Pixabay.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio

My grandmother had a knack for turning up at hospitals whenever a family member went to the emergency room. She couldn’t really explain it; she’d just get a feeling that she needed to go someplace, and she’d go, and as soon as she walked into the ER waiting room, she’d see the person and know why she was there. I don’t know how she did it, but I know of three different occasions on which it happened.

My wife’s parents both died on Dec 25. Bill died of pancreatic cancer. When Eva Mae died, many years later, she was deep into Alzheimer’s and no longer knew anyone who visited her. However, she died on exactly the same day on the calendar that Bill did.

June Carter Cash died on May 15. Her beloved, Johnny Cash, followed her on September 12. In life they could not bear to be separated for long, so no one was surprised when he passed so soon after her.

Skeptics will tell you that my grandmother was a nut. (In truth, I don’t know how many times she went to ER’s on a false hunch.) They will tell you that Eva Mae’s death on Bill’s yahrzeit was a coincidence. And they will tell you that Johnny Cash was very old and sick even before June passed.

But I firmly believe that we human beings are connected to one another in ways that we do not fully understand. I see this message throughout Torah. In fact, it is a central message of Torah: everything we do has consequences for other human beings, much of which comes about precisely because we are so connected to one another. Some of those consequences are easy to see (Joseph annoys his brothers, so they strike back at him in anger in Parashat Vayeshev) and some are more subtle (Joseph’s brothers want him to suffer, and he does, but in Egypt he can rise to power and live to save their lives and uncounted others in the famine in Parashat Miketz. The bond between Aaron and Moses is strong, despite lives that are different in almost every way, and they share a destiny in the foundation of the Jewish nation.

A lot of people are worried about the political changes about to take place in the United States, and the political currents at work in much of the world. I won’t lie: I’m worried too. It seems that many kinds of hate are on the rise, and that our human connections are threatened by selfish and sinister motives.

We learned a lot in the 20th century about what hatred and fear can do to human beings. The French Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, suffered much in the worst of it, and he made it his life’s work to analyze what happened. His philosophy describes the encounter of the Self and the Other, the mystery of the Other, and the way in which the existence of the Other interrupts our individual Self-ishness. The Other disturbs our comfortable Self, demanding response, demanding response. It makes a call to us: a call for love.

I believe that our human nature drives us to connection with other human beings. It has dangers (remember Joseph!) but it carries immense promise. There are those who are driven by fear to objectify other people; they respond to the strangeness of others with brutality. The antidote to that fear is to respond to stranger-ness with love.  That is why our Torah teaches:

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong. The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Adonai your God. – Leviticus 19:33-34

I invite you to join me in celebrating this New Year of 2017, this last night of Chanukah, with a commitment to love above all else. Without love we risk descending into the fear and alienation that goes nowhere good. But with love, with a commitment to the mitzvah of loving those who are different from ourselves, everything is possible.

Beginner’s Guide to the Shofar

English: A man demonstrates sounding a shofar ...
A man sounds a shofar at a synagogue in Minnesota.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re in the season of the shofar.

If you go to a synagogue with weekday services, you’ll hear it: the primitive sound that comes from a raw-looking piece of animal horn. It’s meant to wake up your soul. When you hear it, just shut your eyes and let yourself feel it. Let the vibrations shake you up.

Jews have listened to that sound since the earliest days; there are records of the shofar sounding in the Torah, as the Hebrews traveled through the desert. We know the shofar was blown in the Temple. The sound echoes down the centuries.

On Thursday, Sept 5, 2013 we’ll hear it again: there’s a whole short service dedicated to it in the Rosh Hashanah Day service.

Here are some basic facts about the shofar:

  • The singular is SHOW-far, the plural is show-fa-ROTE.
  • The commandment for Rosh Hashanah [New Year’s Day] is to hear the sound of the shofar.
  • No, you do not have to blow it yourself.
  • Do not ask to blow someone else’s shofar. It’s as personal as a toothbrush (and full of their spit.)
  • The shofar is usually a horn from a ram or kudu, but never a cow.
  • Most shofarot are plain, with no decoration or separate mouthpiece.
  • A man who blows the shofar is a Ba’al Tekiah (bah-AHL Teh-kee-YAH).
  • A woman who blows it is a Ba’alat Tekiah (bah-ah-LAHT Teh-kee-YAH.)
  • Decorated shofarot are not used for services.