Friday, May 29, 2020

Renewing and Reinterpreting Torah

People often think that the Torah provides an exact guide for leading a Jewish life. This is simply not the case. They say as well, “Herein one finds the 613 mitzvot—commandments.” Again, although these mitzvot are derived from the five books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, they are not arranged there in numerical fashion. Long ago the rabbis said there were 613 commandments, but it was not clear how they derived this number. It was not until the medieval period that commentators started enumerating this list.

And here is another surprise. Each of these commentators’ lists are organized in different manners. The details are not exactly the same. It’s not that there is debate over whether or not Shabbat observance is a mitzvah, it is instead how many commandments are contained therein or what number it occupies the list. Does one begin the list with the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply” or instead with the first positive commandment: “Believe in God?” We are dependent on a body of interpretation, and generations of interpreters, in order to give us the detailed instructions, and laws, that we call Judaism.

The Torah does not describe Jewish observance and belief. It is instead the groundwork upon which we build, and continue to construct, our tradition. We are not fundamentalists. We do not point to the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible, for that matter, and say, “This is exactly how we should do things.” Otherwise, to cite one obvious example, we would be sacrificing animals rather than reciting the Shema and Amidah.

What makes us Jews more than anything else is Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. We pore over the Torah’s words in order to glimpse what God wants of us. We gain mere glimmers. These truths are refracted through millennia of interpretations. The glasses through which we look are those of preceding generations of interpreters. We continue to interpret in our own day. We look through these glasses not at them.

On this holiday of Shavuot, we renew our commitment to Torah. It’s not so much the book but the study of Torah that makes us Jews and continues to give us Judaism. And that more than anything else is what we celebrate on this holiday. If we are not sitting around the table—even if this year, it is a virtual table—and debating the Torah’s verses and words we are not renewing our Jewish faith.

Rabbi Yehoshua, a great sage, once said: “There cannot be a beit midrash (study hall) without a hiddush (novel idea).” (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 3a).

Our holy task is to study and forever come up with new and innovative ideas. These only emerge when we go over the Torah’s words—together.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Counting Each and Every Person

We begin studying the fourth book of the Torah this week. We open to the first chapter of Numbers and read: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral homes…”. Later the Torah reports the census’ tally. 603,550 Israelites.

That is an extraordinary number. The tradition recognizes the magnitude of seeing so many Jews in one place and so prescribes a blessing for those who might be privileged to witness the sight of 600,000 or more Jews. We say, “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, knower of secrets (chacham harazeem).”

It is a curious blessing. Why not say words that acknowledge the magnitude of the sight or the vastness of the number? Instead the tradition appears to point us away from the crowd, the mass of people, and instead towards the individual. The Talmud concurs. “Why do we say this particular blessing? It is because God sees a whole nation whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other and God knows what is in each of their hearts.”

It is as if to say, “Look away from the crowd. Think instead about what resides in each and every individual heart.”

According to another tradition there are the same number of 603,500 letters in a Torah scroll. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, an eighteenth-century Hasidic master, comments: “Just as the absence of one letter renders a Torah unfit for use, so too the loss of even one Jew prevents the Jewish people from fulfilling its mission.”

Each and every one of us matters. Every individual counts.

Just as the Torah’s individual letters are beautifully calligraphed and the pieces of parchment stitched together, so too we are bound to one another.

We may be unique individuals, with different thoughts and aspirations, but we need each other. Whatever secrets we might hold in our hearts, we are bound to one another.

There should be no secret in that truth.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Study Is Its Own Reward

The rabbis argued that Torah study is its own reward. They famously said that Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is equal to such lofty commandments as honoring one’s parents, engaging in deeds of lovingkindness, arriving early for study, extending hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, dancing with wedding couples, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer and making peace between neighbors. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a)

Why would study be of equal merit to the difficult task of visiting the sick or the uplifting duty of dancing with wedding couples? Some have suggested that it is because study leads to action. I remain skeptical that this is always the case. Study can offer its own promise. Study can provide a measure of comfort. To be honest, during these past few months, I have discovered new meaning in this practice.

Part of the meaning is uncovered in the fact that we have now succeeded in making Torah study a regular habit. Every Tuesday at 1 pm we gather to study and discuss the weekly Torah portion. Some join us every week. Others join us on occasion. Never before have we been able to sustain this regular practice. And while I am certainly not grateful that it took our present worrisome circumstances to provide this opportunity, I am thankful that this has once again become part of my weekly routine.

There is comfort in this rhythm. There is solace in reading aloud the verses of our holy writ. It’s not that we uncover answers to our many questions. In fact, more often than not we discover even more questions. Oftentimes they remain unresolved. And yet there is comfort to be gained in the practice. There is elucidation to be found in our discussions.

It is only when sitting across from others, even on Zoom, that we find new meanings in these ancient words. And so, this week I discovered something that had remained hidden. The portion begins, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce…” (Leviticus 26:3). The Hebrew, however, does not state “follow” but instead “walk.”

One has to get up and walk. To follow suggests that God is leading us forward. To walk implies the choice is more in our hands. It is up to us to get up and go. It is our decision what we do or do not do. The Torah continues. If we walk after God’s laws, then we will receive many blessings. The rains will fall in their proper seasons and our crops will be plentiful. We will be protected from enemies and will only know peace. The list continues. If we observe the commandments, then only good will befall us.

Questions remain. There are plenty of people who do plenty of good who do not receive these promised rewards. Many, if not all of us, can cite a multitude of examples that would illustrate the injustices we see and the incompatibility of the Torah’s promise with everyday realities. The exactness of this chapter’s formula is not what we observe in the real world.

The concluding promise offers that God will be by our side as long as we observe these commandments. “I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.” (Leviticus 26:11) Once again the translation is more of an interpretation than exacting rendition. The Hebrew again uses the word “walk.” It should not read “I will be ever present in your midst” but instead “I will walk among you.”

Thus, the notion of walking serves as bookends. It is as if to say, “If we walk then God walks.” And I believe this translation might soften the apparent harshness of the Torah’s if-then formula.

Questions of course remain. Injustices abound. I take comfort in my study and the occasional discoveries it offers. If we walk, then God walks. Perhaps all I need to do, all I have to do, is just get up and walk.

And then perhaps God might walk. Or at the very least it might appear that God walks—among us.

Study is indeed its own reward.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

New Meanings in Old Stories

Lag B’Omer is a mysterious holiday. It occurs this coming Tuesday. Its meaning, and origins, are curious. Its name is clear enough. It is the thirty-third day of the Omer. The Omer is the period in which we count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot. The Torah relates: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks.” (Leviticus 23)

The rabbis make clear what the Torah leaves obscure. We count the days from Passover to Shavuot. We connect these two ancient agricultural festivals when our ancestors moved from Passover’s harvest of barley to Shavuot’s of wheat. We bind the freedom celebrated on Passover with the Torah given on Shavuot. Freedom must be bound to commitment.

Long ago, our people worried about the impending harvest and asked, “Would the wheat crop be bountiful?” This led to the Omer gaining semi-mourning status in which wedding celebrations, for example, are forbidden. These restrictions are lifted on Lag B’Omer.

The rabbis again elaborate. (Those rabbis can really tell some stories.) In the days of Rabbi Akiva a plague decimated his followers, killing thousands of the famed rabbi’s students. But then, on Lag B’Omer, the plague mysteriously ebbed. The sick recovered and regained their strength. People left their homes. They congregated once again in large groups. (That would be my rabbinic tale. I pray. May it be so! May it come to pass in our own day!) And thus, Lag B’Omer became a day of celebration in which these prohibitions are lifted.

The rabbis continue spinning their tales. Lag B’Omer, they teach, is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a contemporary of Akiva, who was spared the plague and even the destruction that the Romans meted out after the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion. It is possible that the plague was a rabbinic euphemism for this rebellion and the destruction that followed.

According to tradition, Shimon bar Yohai, is the author of the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism. On Lag B’Omer people flock to his grave. They exclaim that he is a light that continues to illuminate our paths. They dance around giant bonfires. They cut children’s hair for the first time because this too is forbidden during the Omer.

But Rabbi Shimon was a strange, and mercurial, figure. Because he defied the Romans, teaching Torah, even after they mercilessly defeated the Jews, he was sentenced to death. He, and his son, managed to escape and hide in a cave. And there they hid, sustained by a miraculous carob tree and well, for twelve years. They continued their study of Torah while in hiding. Sustained only by water and carobs, he and his son studied day and night.

When Shimon and his son Elazar finally emerged from the cave, he became enraged that people were going about their business and not devoting themselves to studying Torah. How could they be doing mundane things like plowing and sowing? The Talmud reports: “Every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned.” God then chastised them, “Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave.” And so, they returned to the cave for another year. This time Rabbi Shimon emerged a changed man. “Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal.” (Babylonia Talmud, Shabbat 33b)

“What a bizarre story!” I exclaim every year when I reread it around this holiday of Lag B’Omer. And yet this year it is taking on new meaning. Our tradition’s stories and texts appear different in the shadow of Covid-19. That is of course one of the wonders of tradition. If we hold on to its tales long enough, they speak to us in new, and different, ways. Perhaps they lead us out of our current despair. And so, while I do not very much like carobs, my home has become my cave. And your home has become your cave. There we are banished to its comforts. I am trapped within its walls, and although more often than not feasting on home cooked meals, Shimon’s fears, and even at times his scorn, of the outside world have become my own.

Perhaps that person, standing next to me in the vegetable aisle, is a danger to me.

Perhaps I could inadvertently, and unknowingly, infect someone.

The Talmud warns. The retreat to the inner world offers a tempting allure. It can make us hate what lies outside our doors. I remind myself. I did not choose to retreat. I do so for the sake of others. This cave is likewise imposed.

And I must too stay long enough to bring healing.

For now, I hold on to the stories. I hold on to the legends. I pour over their words. The ancient tradition offers new meaning and unexpected sustenance.

The light will one day emerge.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Celebrating Israel

I begin with a confession. In addition to watching all of the seasons of Money Heist, I binged on season three of Fauda, the Israeli drama that depicts the battles of a counter-terrorism unit. It is a gripping series. The season concludes on a depressing note. The cycle of violence does not end. One terrorist is killed, and his plans are thwarted only to have another take his place. Spoiler alert. An informant, and unknowing collaborator, becomes so enraged at the trickery and betrayal, that he becomes a terrorist leader and murderer.

Although the show is wildly popular, in Israel and throughout the world, and even in Arab countries, I worry about its depressing conclusion. I refuse to accept this idea that we cannot escape the cycle of kill or be killed. I do not wish to believe that we are forever trapped in what the poet Yehuda Amichai once called the Had Gadya machine.
An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the "Had Gadya" machine.
The show’s creators, Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, former counter-terrorist operatives, suggest that Fauda offers a sympathetic portrayal of Israelis and Palestinians. They have heard from Arab viewers that the show helped them to understand the pain of Israelis. And they have reported that Jewish viewers offer that the series has helped them to sympathize Palestinian suffering. There is a measure of truth to this claim. And yet I cannot escape the feeling with which the show’s conclusion left me.

We are trapped.

And so, I turned to what I often do on such occasions when such feelings overwhelm me. To the books of poetry, most especially Hebrew poetry, that line my shelves. I opened a book by a newly discovered poet. Rivka Miriam, writes:
I remained alone
and sat on a bench
speaking to God about the people I met
who suddenly left me alone.
I told him about the flowers I loved to smell,
about the wide fields.
I remained alone under the sky
and didn’t know if there was sky anymore.
I sat in the middle on a bench
And spoke to God about the sky
that I’m no longer sure is still there, or where,
whether it envelopes me
or perhaps I’m wrapped around it.
We tend to view Israel through its conflicts. We remember where we were when first heard of Israel’s victories on June 10th of 1967 or the stinging attacks of Yom Kippur 1973 or the cheers in the summer of 1976 after the rescue at Entebbe. We relish in the Jewish state’s chutzpah in the face of history. We take comfort in how Israel has overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

We measure one another’s commitment through the prism of these conflicts. We judge one another’s devotion to Israel by where one stands on the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. We look at each other with judgment. We hurl accusations at friends. Love of Israel is defined in ideological and political terms.

On this Yom Haatzmaut I turn instead to the poetry of Israel’s successes. I wish to look beyond its military achievements. The Hebrew language is reborn. Hebrew poems are composed. Hebrew books are published. Isn’t that achievement enough—at least on this one day?

The Jewish spirit is rekindled. Is this a measure of our security?

At the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC I listened intently to Naama Moshinsky who helped create the International School of Peace, a joint venture of Israeli youth movements, both Jewish and Arab, built to make a difference helping refugees in Greece. I can still hear her words, “My home in Israel is only four hours’ drive from Damascus. But the first time I met a Syrian was in the island of Lesbos. The island holds more than 8,000 children without a country to call home.”

Here was an Israeli who felt secure enough in her home that she ventured far from the safety of its borders to help others feel at home. And I realized that for all the talk about security, and all the dramas fashioned for TV, Israel is first and foremost about fashioning that sense of home in our hearts. The Declaration of Independence states that the spiritual, and existential, problem facing the Jewish people was its “homelessness.” Zionism means the creation of such a home.

Having a home means that we can care not only for ourselves but for others.

Too often we think that the meaning of home is found in shoring up its boundaries. It is about delineating fences and borders. Perhaps the true meaning of having a home is the security it fashions in our hearts.

To write poems. And to reach out to those in need.

On this Yom Haatzmaut this is what I choose to celebrate.