Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Posts Tagged ‘Art’

Discuss: Moses Received Torah From Sinai (Avot 1.1)

In Talmud on July 2, 2012 at 7:34 am

MOSES RECEIVED TORAH FROM SINAI AND HANDED IT ON TO JOSHUA, AND JOSHUA TO THE ELDERS, AND THE ELDERS TO THE PROPHETS, AND THE PROPHETS HANDED IT ON TO THE MEN OF THE GREAT ASSEMBLY.

THEY SAID THREE THINGS:

BE DELIBERATE IN JUDGEMENT,
RAISE MANY DISCIPLES,
AND MAKE A HEDGE ABOUT THE TORAH.

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Discuss: Aggadah and Parable No. 1

In Talmud on July 1, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Those who look for Scripture’s inherent meaning say:

If you wish to know Him
by whose word the world came into being,
study Aggadah;
you will thereby come to know the Holy One, blessed be He,
and hold fast to His ways.

Sefer Ha-Aggadah, The Meaning of Aggadah and the Parable, #1

Desert Flower

In Numbers on May 27, 2012 at 11:31 am

red flower, israel.

Israel is the flower that flowers in the wilderness.
His pennants, his petals. His G-d, his bud.
What lies at the center of His children?
Sexuality? Creativity?

Israel is the flower that blossoms in the nighttime.
His sons sleep soundly. His G-d rests with them.
When does the the real Meeting begin?
A wind over the face of the deep?

Israel is the flower that goes on the breeze.
Where’er God goes, they go. Where’er they go, God goes.
Is it all holy ground?
Is it where we go, or where we are going?

Destroy strange bodies?

Acceptable Idolatry

In Midrash on April 8, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Little cats dancing

charismatic cat dances

atop cold food god

Passover Nissan 15 5772

In Exodus on April 7, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Handmade shmura matzo used at the Passover Sed...

Hardboiled eggs
Green Salad in balsamic vinaigrette
Matzo Ball Soup
Potato kugel
Honey-glazed carrots
Sauteed asparagus
Brisket three ways!: traditional, sephardic, and smoked
Matzo-encrusted tilapia

Oreo-cookie truffles
Chocolate covered matzo: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, peanut butter swirl, and nutella varieties
Macaroons: dark chocolate, and coconut varities

All homemade!

So, I’m a little behind the 8-ball this week, so to speak, with Passover preparations.  But, the studying hasn’t stopped, this week being a study on the dependability of beloved family and friends.  Without my wife, father-in-law, my brother, and our best friend, our seder couldn’t have been the fun and exciting night it was.

Thanks also to our (34!) wonderful, wonderful guests, and their children who truly made the evening special.

That’s what I’m going to talk about. When the time came to collect the afikomen for the dessert, the children held it for ransom with special enthusiasm. The afikomen, which means dessert, is actually a piece of matzoh reserved for after the festive meal (shulchan oreich). In the Passover Seder, matzoh is the bread of affliction (lachma anya) and the bread of freedom, a reminder of what life as a slave is like, and a commemoration of the exodus (liberation) from Egypt.

It is important to understand that the Passover Seder is written for children. It is traditional for children to read (and sing!) the Four Questions, which describe how the Passover night is different from all other nights. The evening is also replete with symbols (like matzoh) and stories designed to inspire questions, an object lesson in continuation from generation to generation. Finally, it is traditional for the children to steal the afikomen, the dessert of lachma anya, and hold it for ransom for something sweet.

How wonderful is it that we are taught to teach our children to hold oppression ransom? How wonderful is it when children learn to do so with unbounded enthusiasm?

This is what made the evening so special for me.

D’var Torah given at Shacharis, Nissan 8 5772 – Tzav Parsha

In Exodus on March 31, 2012 at 1:02 pm

And now for something completely different.

The Book of Joshua, the first of the prophetic writings following the Torah, is the story of the Israelites’ initial conquest of Canaan.  Its a very violent book, being ostensibly a list of wars and genocides, enumerating in surgical detail the nations the Israelites conquered and the people they killed.  Its sterile tone makes the book seem callous at times, lending Joshua and the Israelites an cavalier and piratical attitude towards the land and the lives of the peoples in it.  Certain Rabbinic literature mentions “Joshua the Pirate.”  Sincerely playful, yes, but sincere first.

Let’s look at Joshua another way, a way we aren’t aware of, a way that has been lost in the West that modern man needs to study desperately.  It was introduced to me in an essay by Andre Neher, a gift to me from a beloved friend.   A Rabbinic derivation, invented by people who were as shocked by the text as we should be, this interpretation contends that Joshua sued for peace, not war, with the Canaanites.  Joshua’s story in a nutshell:  Moses is dead, Joshua is commanded by God to take the Israelites and conquer Canaan.  Joshua and the Israelites dwell on the shores of the Jordan for three days before crossing over and encamping on Jericho’s border, where Joshua has the people circumcised.  Joshua then sends spies into Jericho, before following God’s command to ride around the city for a week before the city walls fall.  The rest of the conquest takes place quickly.

Now for the questions.  How can the Torah assume a tone of peace and justify dispossessing people of their lives and land?  Why did Joshua hesitate on the banks of the Jordan for three days?  Why does Joshua wait to have the Israelites circumcised in hostile territory?  Why send scouts to Jericho, and parade around the city for a week?  Does this deviate from the previously straightforward command go into the land and possess it?  Why take all of this extra time when victory was divinely assured?  Was Joshua girding his people for war?  Or was Joshua giving the people every possible chance to build trust, have a dialogue, and find understanding, after precedents set by Moses and Abraham?

Does the Aleinu, attributed to Joshua in legend, read like a warrior’s ode to a fallen foe, or a peacemaker’s lament, caught between personal ideals and the real flesh and blood implications of divine expectations?  It is our duty to praise God and ascribe greatness to Him who has made our destiny different from theirs.

Does this have anything to do with our parsha?  We’ve just finished reading about the ritual of the sacrificial offerings, a portion we look at and say……why does God need a barbecue?

Let’s consider the matter seriously.  What were the Israelites trying to achieve here?  Every motion of the ceremony is described in such theatric detail that one can ask if the sacrifice itself is truly the point.  Could the idea be less about killing animals, and more about drawing the community together into a common religious language and identity?  Or is the whole thing an elaborate show?  Perhaps a little of both.  Judah Halevi notes that everyone in those days worshipped images, and Maimonides points out that sacrifice was the religious language of the time.  In other words, people believed with their eyes, and needed something to see and participate in.  (Have things really changed so much?)  Archeological evidence shows that Egypt worshipped a pantheon of images, and if the Israelites were as fickle as the episode of the Golden Calf suggests, did they worship a multitude of images too, each with their own rites and expectations?  Before monotheism could be substantively addressed with the community, did the individual tastes of the religiously cosmopolitan Israelites-in-Egypt need to be reconciled?  This idea is woven into the haggadah itself, which says Blessed are you, Adonai, who has gathered us from all people.  All of us, with our own unique customs, ideas, needs, hopes, desires, and prejudices come together at the Pesach table.  If the sacrificial rites drew the Israelites together, did the sacrifices themselves make their differences go up in smoke?

Two Temples were built.  Two Temples were destroyed.  Both perpetuated a decadent and out-of-touch theocracy, engaged in political intrigue, and promoted irrational self-interest.  Both were dedicated to God and idols, and both fueled family feuds and bloodshed.  Cattle sales boomed.  Does this sound like a house of prayer for all people, the sanctuary of a reconciled, harmonious community?  Or just another little house?

So barbecue wasn’t the answer, and guilt offerings weren’t our strong suit.  What else is there?  Does this make our tradition incomplete, as others wish we’d believe?  Or, as Nachmanides suggests, do the sacrifices have their own inner meaning?  Like the wise child on Passover, we ask ourselves “what does this all mean?”

Malachi, our haftarah prophet on this Shabbat Hagadol, begins by saying then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old.  But first I will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me:  Who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert the cause of the widow, orphan, and stranger.  He then talks about everything else we’ve done wrong.  This is comedy.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert teach us that comedy is prophetic.

Jeremiah is more succinct, saying for when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices.  Walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you … For I (the Lord) act with love (chesed), law (mishpat), and righteousness (tzi’dakah) in the world; I delight in these.

God herself is the most succinct of all in 1 Kings, saying to Solomon of his temple, about this house you’re building, (can you think of a man who’d say that?) before referring Solomon back to the Law, which includes the command in Leviticus, you will bear no grudge against your kinsman, love your neighbor as yourself.  Why is this expression of love found at the heart of Torah, at the heart of the book about sacrifice?

So what will be our Passover offering?  Here are some final thoughts.

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, a Spanish Rabbi and 15th century commentator, taught that the Tabernacle, the sanctuary for the tables of the covenant, is an expression of the world.  God made the world in the beginning, with a willing heart, and saw that it was good.  We are to make the world now, with a willing heart, and see that it is good, for ourselves and everyone else in it.

Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a Polish Philosopher in the 16th and 17th centuries, wrote that the tablets given to Moses by God were blank in the middle, waiting for our help filling them in.  Let’s make the story a good one.

The Fathers of Rabbi Nathan, compiled sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries, offers a midrash.  This is Judah Goldin’s translation.  Once as Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was coming forth from Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua followed after him and beheld the Temple in ruins.  “Woe unto us,” Rabbi Joshua cried, “that this, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste!”  “My son,” Rabban Johanan said to him, “be not grieved; we have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it?  It is acts of lovingkindness, as it is said, ‘For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

It seems to me, if we’d really lost something important, we should grieve.  But we are instructed not to.

We are taught to search out and burn our chametz before Passover, and for a week we learn to do without bread.  If the goal is to sanctify time by ordering our inner worlds as we order our outer worlds, can this be a spiritual Spring Cleaning too?  Can you identify something about yourself, something dear to you, something that gets in the way of lovingkindness, that you could give up for a week?  I challenge us all to do this.  We may find, together, that we can sue for peace, like Joshua did, and make our differences go up in smoke.

Perhaps we’ll find that our precious, silly ideas preventing us from loving each other are the most holy sacrifices of all?

Is this why we must never let the fire go out?

This is my “I Have A Dream” speech.

Gut Shabbes.

Always Be People

In Exodus on February 29, 2012 at 8:43 am

I get up at dawn
and look to the new daylight
with trepidation.

What am I to do?
Where am I to go?
Why do I not look inward?

What is strange worship?

Parsha Tetzaveh

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.

Exodus 27.20-21

Does our parsha teach us simply to keep a lamp burning in synagogue all the time? Or is the Torah trying to say something else here? Is the onus of this statement on the Israelites, the priesthood, or both?

Look at Saul in our special Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor (1 Samuel 15.2-34). How does he let the fire go out?

Does the punishment fit the crime?

In Exodus on February 14, 2012 at 8:20 am

Walking down the street
looking left and right
one leg leads the other one.

Parsha Mishpatim

He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death.

Exodus 21.17

Why does our parsha ascribe harsh penalties for offenses such as this?

Democracy from Without

In Exodus, Midrash on February 10, 2012 at 7:39 am

I observe the world

and ponder it silently

as people pass by.


They make oblations

And words of thanksgiving.

I am cold and hungry.


Parsha Yitro

And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood about Moses from the morning unto the evening. And when Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said: ‘What is this thing that thou doest to the people?’

Exodus 18.13-14

Moses and the Israelites have left Egypt, survived war with Amalek, and begin the business of peoplehood. Yitro is there. Is Yitro of the people, or with them? It is not clear if Yitro is a monotheist. He talks about other gods plotting against God in verse 11. Is it made clear that Yitro has accepted something to do with God. What do you suppose that is?

Yitro was a priest of Midian. He was Moses father-in-law, but an outsider. He worshipped idols, and likely engaged in despicable rites (child sacrifice?) before he made his statement in 18.11. Now we see him lecturing Moses on democracy. How’s that for a complete 360? How can this be?

Look at this from Yitro’s perspective. Where he came from: gods asked, people did. It didn’t matter what the gods asked for. They could ask for compassion, or for your wife or your first-born to be burned alive. People served gods, even when those gods where fellow humans, like Pharoah. So, with this in mind, how do you think Yitro felt when he saw the people, Moses among them, behaving this way?

Is Yitro a prophet? Does it mean anything that he is a ger?

What does this parsha say about our society?

Midianite Fire

In Exodus, Midrash on February 6, 2012 at 12:12 am

I have Christian friends
who celebrate Passover
with me, and I’m glad.

They sit on cushions,
read the wine, drink the stories,
and journey with me.

We both recollect
all the good things, and give thanks.
Who am I to judge?

Parsha Yitro

Yitro, priest of Midian…
Exodus 18.1

And Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, took a burnt-offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God.
Exodus 18.12

Jethro and Moses, as in Exodus 18, watercolor ...

Jethro and Moses, by James Jacques Tissot

What is Yitro, a priest of Midian, doing with a bunch of Israelites? Why does he offer sacrifices to God? Why does God allow Yitro, priest of Midian, to make the offering in the first place, when Nadab and Abihu, pedigreed Israelites themselves, are later killed in the process of making their own?

The text says this about Nadab and Abihu.

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
Leviticus 10.1

An obvious interpretation would seem to be, “The laws in Leviticus were given after Exodus, and therefore Yitro couldn’t be faulted for making his own offering. Besides, he converted.” See Rashi on Exodus 18.1. The second supposition is contradicted by our passage in Leviticus. Yitro’s religious and genetic status is irrelevant. If it weren’t, Yitro of Midian would have been destroyed, and Nadab and Abihu of Israel would have survived. Things didn’t happen this way. And did Yitro convert in Rashi’s (or our) sense of the word? because Yitro says, Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods; yea, for that they dealt proudly against them. (Exodus 18.11)

What about the first supposition? “The laws in Leviticus were given after Exodus, and therefore Yitro couldn’t be faulted for making his own offering.” This is the easy way out. How can you assert this, and at the same time assert that Onan, who spilled his seed rather than father children on his levirate wife (Genesis 38.8-10) met with his just desserts when levirate marriage wasn’t mandated as law until Deuteronomy 25.5-6? How can you assert this, and at the same time assert that Cain, who murdered Abel (Genesis 4.8) got his just desserts when the murder wasn’t explicitly prohibited until the Ten Utterances in Exodus 20.1-17?

In the case of Onan, Onan is told by Judah to do his dead brother’s duty by Tamar, and raise children in his brother’s place. This makes it clear that some social standard dictated this behavior before it was ever set in the Torah. Note that Onan did not just spill it [seed] on the ground, but he knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest he should give seed to his brother. (Genesis 38.9) In spite of Judah’s initial command, Onan’s behavior is not prohibited by Godly decree at this point. Why then is Onan punished in verse 10?

In the case of Cain, God offers Cain comfort (If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up?) and counsel (and unto thee is its [sin’s] desire, but thou mayest rule over it.) (ibid. 4.7). What does Cain do? And Cain spoke unto Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him (ibid. 4.8). Cain is made a wanderer and fugitive (ibid. 4.12). In spite of God’s advice, as big a deal as that may be, God made no prohibition. Cain was given an open choice. Why then is Cain punished for his actions?

In the case of Nadab and Abihu, the text clearly states He had not commanded them. Why then did they do what they did? There is no preamble to this story. Aaron had just completed the rituals described in Leviticus 9. All of Israel was gathered to watch the ceremony. What were Nadab and Abihu doing? What makes fire strange (zara): the fire (aish), or the what’s done with it (vayikrivu lifnei ” aish zara – asher lo tziavooh otam)? Note in our text that the fire wasn’t strange until after they’d put fire therein and laid incense thereon and offered it. Were they honoring God, or themselves? Incense offering was mandated by God in Exodus 30: to Aaron.

So the first supposition is contradicted. None of these events are subject to an explicit prohibition at their time but all of the characters suffer consequences for their actions.

These events also have this in common: strange intent. Onan decided to deny his brother a share in the world to come. Cain planned to lure his brother into a field and kill him. Nadab and Abihu prepared their coup d’état as a fait accompli in advance. And if you’re not satisfied on this point: if Nadab and Abihu weren’t given this ritual to perform, why did they have their censers there in the first place?

What did Yitro do? He praises God, makes thanksgiving for the well-being of his children, and shares a meal with his extended family. Our families should all be so ideal.

What does this teach?  Laws define finitely.   Intentions define infinitely.

Does any one person or thing hold the monopoly on good and bad ideas? Who or what judges a thing to be “good”: You, Me, God, Life? Are all laws of morality determined subjectively, or are some axiomatic? Is it one thing to willfully live life, and another to willfully manipulate religion?