Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page

Human Beings, or Beings Human (5772 Noach)

In Genesis on October 31, 2011 at 1:23 pm

 Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; he walked with God.  -Genesis 6:9

Commentators disagree about Noah’s credit with God.  Rashi points out that some interpret blameless in his age to his benefit, that had Noah had better role models like Abraham he might have been righteous in any age, and others interpret blameless in his age to his peril, that Noah was a shining star by comparison to his compatriots but unqualified to be an Abraham.  We read that Noah is complicit with God in destroying the world and all its inhabitants.  Where is the zeal for safeguarding the righteous?  Where is the question, “God, is this a righteous act”?  Where is the conversation with God?  Where is Noah’s personality?  Where is Noah?

Is the difference between Noah and Abraham the difference between human beings and beings human?  Human beings were created on the sixth day, we read in B’reishith.  When did human beings start being human?  In the beginning, Adam and Eve ate from a forbidden tree and Adam blamed Eve for it.  Then, Cain killed Abel and said “what, am I my brother’s keeper?”  Then, people gathered together and built a tower for their own benefit until they learned to disagree.  Finally, Noah kept his peace when God said “I’m going to kill them.” These are human beings; are these beings human?


Because it’s Shabbat (5772 Noach)

In Genesis on October 28, 2011 at 10:00 am

Day like no other
Every week of the year
For us, together

We hear a lot of things about Shabbat.  “Shabbat is good.”  “Remember the Sabbath.”  “You should come to Temple on Shabbat.”  These are all fair statements, but how long has it been since you asked yourself “What is Shabbat, and what does it mean for me?”

Shabbos is the crown of creation, and the first Jewish holiday, as we read in parsha B’reishith.  It is also the best.  The first question to ask is “G-d took off from work today.  What could I possibly be doing that’s more important than G-d’s work?”  Put another way, “what could I possibly be doing that’s more important than resting?”

I question why most “secular” Jews attend the so-called “High Holidays” more than Shabbat.  The High Holidays are a lot of “work” by our standards.  You take the days off from work, but you still have to dress up for work, and then spend the whole day at Temple listening to long services that hold little or no meaning for you.  Can you derive any joy from these isolated experiences of Judaism when you don’t address the larger whole?  What roles do reward and punishment play for you in Jewish religiosity if you don’t appreciate their value and meaning?  More importantly, why take a day off work to obsess over more work?  Is this as repulsive as it sounds?  Does this make any sense?

Shabbos, meanwhile, is meant to be effortless.  And this is how it’s supposed to be, for “you shall do no work on this day.”  How is it effortless?  Shabbat is three things:  prayer, thanksgiving, and celebration.  Let’s quickly investigate these three things.

Prayer, in layman’s terms, is “that thing you do at services.”  But let’s ask ourselves, what is prayer?  Is prayer a set of formulaic statements?  Is prayer an ad lib statement?  Can prayer be danced and sung?  Can prayer be seeing, or reading, or studying?  Can prayer be fun?

Thanksgiving, also in layman’s terms, is “thank you.”  In America, its also a holiday where we celebrate our gifts and blessings by eating lots of turkey.  Let’s ask, do you know what thanksgiving is?  What does it mean to be thankful?

Celebration is the easiest for us to understand.  Let’s party!  Let’s have friends over and open a bottle of wine.  Are all celebrations jovial occasions?  Can you celebrate after a car accident, in the hospital, or at a funeral?  Can you celebrate running a marathon at 5 am or sleeping in?

What makes Shabbos so wonderful is you provide all three ingredients for the price of one:  the proper kavannah, intent, to enjoy Shabbat.  With the proper intent, which can be as simple as, “because it’s Shabbat, I’m free to do this,” your rest on the day becomes free as well.

If you enjoy prayer, as Tevye in Fiddle on the Roof says, “if I were rich I’d have the time that I lack to sit in the synagogue and pray…and I’d read the holy books with the learned men seven hours every day.”  Shabbat affords us time to pray.  You can go to synagogue or sit at home with Torah.  Not all riches are measured in dimes.  Study enriches us too.  Is that something to be thankful for?  Is that something to celebrate?

If you enjoy thanksgiving, Shabbat gives you plenty of time to engage in acts of loving kindness.  Volunteer at a hospital or soup kitchen.  Give to charity.  Call a loved one, or make peace with a rival.  What better way to give thanks than to share what you have with those who have not?  Is action a form of prayer?  Is sharing a form of celebration?

If you enjoy celebrating, and who doesn’t, Shabbat gives you plenty of time to celebrate.  The key is time to celebrate.  Do something special for yourself, “because its Shabbos.”  Sleep in.  Read a novel.  Take your dog on a nice long stroll.  Or, if want some festivity, throw a party!  Invite friends over to usher in the holiday.  Eat.  Drink.  Sing.  Dance.  Why?  Because its Shabbos.  Shabbat is a gift first.  Make it a point to enjoy each moment.  Is enjoyment prayer?  Is enjoyment thanksgiving?

How can one truly “rest” if one doesn’t enjoy what one is doing?

You may say “I can party any day of the week.  What makes a party on Shabbos so special?”  Kavannah is the answer, the catalyst.  And the proper kavannah here is “because its Shabbat.”

Because, its Shabbat.


Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5
Genesis 6:9 – 11:32

What was it like for Noah and his family on the ark?  How must they have felt with nothing to do but care for the animals?  Was the work ever finished?  Did they ever pray, give thanks, and celebrate being on the ark?  Did they have Shabbos?

Why Berakoth? Why Evening Shema? (5772 Berakoth)

In Talmud on October 27, 2011 at 9:44 pm

Why prefix the Seder Zera’im with Berakoth? Why isn’t there a Seder Berakoth?

Why begin Berakoth with the evening Shema? Why not discuss blessings and worship related to the cultivation of the land?

Why begin Berakoth with the evening Shema? Why not discuss Shemoneh Esrei, or Kaddish, or Aleinu? Why not Maariv?

Don’t Ask NOW! (5772 Noach -repost)

In Genesis on October 27, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Don’t Ask NOW!.

A fascinating post by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg at Foundation Stone.  He posits that we should ask Halacha for its opinion on an act before taking the act, rather than questioning in retrospect, and ties this to Noah’s behavior in this week’s Parsha and the deal for Gilad’s release.

What is your opinion of Halacha?  Is it relevant today?  How do you address the decisions that lie before you?  What are your standards for success and failure?  Do these equate to emotions like happy and unhappy, or a positive or negative state of affairs?

Family Feud (5772 B’reishith)

In Genesis on October 27, 2011 at 2:30 pm


Two people give birth
thousands of voices scream out
Me, brother.  For Me!

Isaiah 42:5-43:10

Genesis 1:1-6:8

The greatness of the Holy One blessed be He is thus demonstrated.  For whereas when man prints many coins from the one die, each one is a replica of the other, the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He stamped every man with the die of Adam and yet no one exactly resembles his fellow.

Sanhedrin 37a

Man was created alone in the world to prevent inter-family feud.  Now if in spite of the fact that he was created alone, strife has developed between them, all the more so if two would have been created!

Sanhedrin 88b (citing Tosefta)

The first passage establishes that our individuality is sacred. The second passage states our sameness, that we share one mother and father. We are all family. So, are we uniquely the same, or the samely unique? How do we reconcile these ideas? How do we reconcile them with legitimate grievances? How do we reconcile this with the feuding factions in our world today? How do they?

How do we reconcile this with anger and hatred?

How do selfishness and greed fit into this? Are these things to be healed? Is there a difference between greed and ambition? What is the difference between coveting for oneself, and coveting for mankind?

Don’t drink the water (5772 B’reishith)

In Genesis on October 23, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Dry as unformed and void
Wet as water
What came first?  What came after?

Isaiah 42:5 – 43:10
Genesis 1:1 – 6:8

When God began to create heaven and earth, the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water…
Genesis 1:1-2

Water Droplet

Water Droplet, by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos, under GFDL

How do we get from unformed and void to surface of the deep and water? How can these concepts coexist with on another?

What is the beginning? Is the beginning the presence of everything and nothing? Or something else? Is the beginning the beginning?

What is water? Concretely, two hydrogens and an oxygen. What is hydrogen and oxygen? Atoms. Abstractly, water is that wet stuff we splash around in. Can we define water in terms other than itself, or is water and axiom?

We are made up of mostly water, and water is the basis for life. Can the basis of a thing be considered the same as the thing itself. Is life for water a valid substitution? If we accept it as such, what are the implications of the statement, a wind from God sweeping over the life?

Was mankind sculpted from the water? Or were we made from nothing? Did we ascend or descend from the water?

How can we as a civilization reconcile our treatment of the environment with this sentiment?

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, Venus and Adonis

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, Venus and Adonis, ca. 1800

Artists depict Adam and Eve as a Venus and Adonis. What if Adam and Eve were ugly?

Walking in Circles (Simchat Torah 5772)

In General on October 20, 2011 at 9:52 am

Calligraphy by Kanjuro Shibata XX, Enso, ca. 2000

Go on the eastern road
Come on the western road
Where are you going?

Joshua 1:1-17
Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12
Genesis 1:1-2:1

Why do we read the end and the beginning of the Torah, on Simchat Torah? Why not just the oft-skipped final parsha?

Why do we follow the High Holidays with two cyclical holidays, and not just one?

Do we truly begin the Torah every year with a clean slate?


Why do we try to spin warmth and beauty from a text that is at times so cold and stark?

Joshua is told by the Reubenites, Gadites, and half of Manasseh that we will obey you just as we obeyed Moses (Joshua 1:17). Promise, or prophecy?

Where do consciences go? What do you do when you can’t find one?

War for Peace? (Sukkot 5772)

In General on October 18, 2011 at 9:55 pm

We are comforted
yet arm for war.
What Return? What Redemption?

Zechariah 14:1-21

Why does the first Sukkot prophet, Zechariah, tell us about war, when Sukkot celebrates the harvest? Does harvest represent peace and fellowship? Or does it represent hard won prosperity?

What do you celebrate when you eat on Sukkot? Do you sit in the Sukkah, or in your home? Are you thankful for the food, or wanting more? Do you make peace, or war?

How do we Sacrifice? (5772 Yom Kippur)

In Leviticus on October 7, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Remove obstructions
From all paths, make easy
The hard way and heart way.

Isaiah 57:14-58:14
Jonah 1:1-4:11
Leviticus 16:1-34
Numbers 29:7-11

Remove all obstacles from the road of My people!  For thus said He who high aloft forever dwells, proclaims Isaiah (57:14-15).  Why does Jonah follow Isaiah on Yom Kippur, when he runs in the opposite direction? Do his legs carry him, or does he go where the wind blows?

Why does Leviticus focus on redeeming the altar from the people, and not redeeming the people from their sins? This is the lot of the goat of sin offering, who is released into the wilderness. Or is it? Do our sins go with the goat, or does the goat go with our sins? Is the goat the ass in the wilderness, or are we?

Is this the human condition, following our hearts’ desires, running away from our hearts’ way?

Torah says to purify the altar. What is the altar? Is it on the bimah or among the people? Is it in the church or temple, or out in the world?

Aaron is instructed to sprinkle blood on the altar to purify it. Torah teaches that blood is life. Did the Israelites’ altar take on this holy aspect? Then, is life the altar?

If the altar is life, how do we purify life? Aaron is told to kill cows. What does this mean for us? What do we have to sacrifice? We can’t kill living cows in our homes for a variety of sanitary and practical reasons. What about golden ones?

Aaron sacrifices life on the altar of life. Torah describes providing the sacrifice, performing the sacrifice, and finally doing the sacrifice. The cows are owned by members of the congregation, not captured or stolen for the purpose. So what does the repetition mean?

Does the repetition tell us to contemplate our sacrifices before we blindly perform them?

Are materialism and ownership idolatries?

Is the modern sacrifice to put aside our idols and live life to the fullest? Is living the sacrifice?

A peaceful fast.

Giving Ear (5771 Ha’azinu)

In Deuteronomy on October 4, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Give ear, oh heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!  (Devarim 32:1)

But who are the heavens?
And who are the earth?

Hosea 14:2-10
Micah 7:18-20
Joel 2:15-27
Deuteronomy 32:1-52

Parsha Ha’azinu tells us that we forsook God, that Jeshurun grew fat and kicked (Devarim 32:15).  Are we a nation of cows and sheep?

Does the parsha say “if only you would do the Law, good things will happen?”  Is the Torah a manual to prosperity?  Is the universe alive, or merely a mechanism that takes input and returns like output?  Is it a mechanism for Life, or a mechanism of Life, and what is the difference?  What is the difference between offering a cow and saying words?

Why does God switch from hiding his countenance to helping his people against their enemies, in response to the enemies’ doubts rather than the peoples’ merit?  Is God faithful or fickle?  Is the peoples’ hardship purification or meaningless?  Who is this God who starts in Love and ends in Vengeance?  What is God’s nature?

Do the prophets testify to a Vengeful God or clarify a Loving God?

Who is asked to give ear here?