Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Posts Tagged ‘Leadership’

Pesach and God’s Face

In Exodus on March 31, 2013 at 12:32 am

We discussed Moses’ request to see God’s face in Torah study this morning. It was a very interesting discussion. People struggled with the idea of an abstract God whose “back” could be seen, but whose “face” could not be. If the sight of God is so awesome that it could destroy a man, what difference does it make whether you see God’s back or God’s face? What does it mean to look on God, as Moses did? What does this encounter tell us about ourselves, and our relationships with each other?

Is God’s face a dangerous secret?

What about Pesach, whose portion this is? Why discuss these issues on Pesach? One of the reasons we wear tefillin to daven is so that the name of God can be upon us (paraphrase from Shulchan Aruch). This is accomplished literally; the different ways of tying tefillin usually spell “Shaddai,” on of God’s names, on our body. So is that which bears the name, also the face? Is God’s face…..people?

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.

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

Chukat Ox-Bow

In Numbers on June 29, 2012 at 6:40 am

I’m reading The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.  Its one of the books that cemented Clark’s reputation as a westerner, though he was actually a Mainer who spent a fair amount of his life on the east coast.  Its a study in mob justice at a very granular level, exploring the diverse personalities of the members of a would-be (but arguably not quite) posse on the hunt for rustlers who shot a ranch hand dead.  The book was also made into a superb movie with Henry Fonda.

For me, this experience has been a study in the difference between “reading” and “watching.”  The movie is fantastic.  Have seen it, and will see it again.  Its a discussion piece in its own right.  The book, though, is simply incredible, because Clark does a fantastic job letting you into his mind, and letting you into the mind of his characters.  More importantly, he leaves it up to the reader to come at the text from his or her own point of view, letting the reader’s individual background shape the experience in the mob, asking the questions “who do you identify with?” and “who don’t you understand?”

Here’s a phrase that caught me:

Pete had had a wife once, but not since he’d lived here, and he’d been alone so long he’d got to thinking differently from the rest of us. It’s queer how clearly I remember the way Pete just sat there and let us go. To see him just sit and go on with his own thoughts, made me understand for the first time what we were really going to do, so my breath and blood came quicker by the minute. (p.96)

By now you may be wondering, what the hell am I talking about? Consider the following from our text:

In the open, anyone who touches a person who was killed or who died naturally, or human bone, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.

-Numbers 19.16

The red calf is considered one of the strangest of commandments in the Torah. It confounds all attempts at understanding. The sages attempted to explain it, but it is ultimately what we call a “chook” (with a soft “ch” on top of the tongue), or a law with no clear reason for being. The only two things we know for sure are, first, it simply is and, second, it has something to do with cleansing the uncleanness of death.

The mandate is to burn the remains of a perfect red calf, mix those remains with water, and sprinkle those unclean by a corpse with this solution to make them clean again.

How does spraying yourself with water mixed with burnt cow remains (poop included!) make you clean? The text very clearly says that the water of lustration (i.e. water + burnt red calf remains) will make the unclean clean, and make the clean unclean. How can something make clean the unclean, and make the unclean clean? Is the water of lustration the biblical mathematical negation? Do two negatives make a positive, and a positive and negative make a negative?

I wonder if the case of The Ox-Bow Incident has anything to do with this, in light of the fact that the first condition for “in the open” is contact with “a person who was killed.” Now, the likelihood of coming into contact with a dead person in the open has existed in varying degrees throughout history based on who and where you are (e.g. does a civilian librarian have any more or less chance than a soldier?). I think “the person who as killed” refers to the fact that the killer as well, whatever the intent, is unclean and responsible for “cleansing” as well.

Would this serve as a way to identify killers? Would this be a sort of “brown letter”? Perhaps, but they would mix with everyone else outside the camp who were unclean. Perhaps the ritual is meant to lend some structure to natural considerations in the matter of life and death?

When a loved one dies, is your first response to “go out with the peeps” or take time to yourself? The status of being “unclean” is extended to anyone who was in the same tent as a corpse, so the cleansing period need not be solitary. Groups are therefore given consideration. That being said, is it a natural inclination to “take some distance” after such an event? Are seeking refuge by oneself or seeking refuge with family two different forms of taking some distance? Perhaps being put outside the camp (not to be confused with not taken care off!) is a way to provide people with this distance.

How would the ritual itself play into this? I think it would help the people involved track their time and, perhaps, to sanctify the time in mourning. The time limit would help people realize, in a concrete way, that they need time, but also that there is an expectation to rejoin society. Those who don’t rejoin society cut themselves off (“But the man that shall be unclean…shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly”).

Still, this fails to explain the bizarre nature of the ritual itself and doesn’t answer the questions put before. How does sprinkling yourself with something that makes you unclean, make you clean? How does touching something that makes you clean, make you unclean? Do two negatives make a positive, and a positive and negative make a negative?

I would like to propose the idea that, in addition to lending structure, the ritual is meant to lend gravity to the matter of life and death. It is meant to prevent cases such as that of Jephthah, who rashly offers to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to God, only to see his daughter run out to greet him. I think it is also meant to make would-be avengers think twice about their plans, about their inclination to go against the mores of their communities to satisfy their own bloodlust, and the potential consequences.

The characters of the Ox-Bow Incident find three men who they think are the rustlers and promptly lynch them, only to find shortly afterwards that the men they’d found were complete innocents. If only they’d stopped and thought!

Would the knowledge of certain consequences of their actions, being sprinkled with water mixed with burnt cow remains, have deterred them from their intent and spared innocent life? Would seeing the pile of burnt cow remains outside the camp have helped them realize what they were really going to do? Would it have helped them think a little differently?

In this case, could the negative have kept the positive positive?

Chukkat Selah

In Numbers on June 28, 2012 at 11:48 am

SeAlah Bible #1

“Human beings are meaning seeking creatures.
Language is mysterious.
When a word is spoken, the ethereal is made flesh.
Language has an inherent inadequacy. There is always something left unsaid…”

Karen Armstrong

Can we not say that the entire Torah is a Tower of Babel?

Think about the parallels between the two.  In the beginning, there was darkness.  Then God said, and we had darkness and light.  Then God said again, and we had water above and water beneath.  Then God said again, and we had lands in their midst.

In the story of the Tower of Babel, all people gathered together with the common purpose of building a stairway to Heaven.  The story goes that God came down and confounded their speech, and they broke up and went their separate ways.  This is the birth of nations.

Does seeking meaning begin “in the beginning?” After? Before?

Today, millions of years later, has the internet become a modern Tower of Babel?  Computers help us bridge the language gap, and the world is become a plane, where the distance between me and Timbuktu a pane of glass.

Yet for all this, are we any closer to tikkun?  Or are we farther apart than ever?

Was it language that was confounded? Or the meaning behind language?

Is the red calf less a lesson in ritual purification and more a lesson in being confused?  What do people do when they’re confused?

What can confusion do for us?

selah

The Consumption Question

In General on June 19, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I open the newspaper
And am forced to ask myself
What should I read today?
And more importantly
What should I believe today?

After the rebel ringleaders are “consumed” in earth and fire, God commands that their fire pans be hammered into a covering for the altar as a warning to the rebels.  Does this strike you as reward or punishment?  The people who wanted to be closer to God in authority, as they perceived Moses and Aaron, are dead.  Then they – or perhaps, more accurately, something of themselves – are brought closer to God as they wished. 

Is the warning to the rebels simply don’t rebel? Or is the statement being made a bit more subtler than that?

Consider the circumstances: the people involved in these rebellions were committed to their interests. They were willing to take risks in the name of those interests, like offering incense out of context despite the clear warning to the contrary in the case of Nadab and Abihu. These people didn’t scruple to hide themselves, being in plain sight throughout their narrative. These people did not hesitate to stand up and identify themselves as “one of us.”

Our history is rife with rebellion. Abraham rebelling against Terah. Israel rebelling against Egypt. The Maccabean Revolt and the uprisings against Rome. In all of these cases, the question is one of freedom.

So what is the question here?

Moses’ words to Korah are telling: do you seek the priesthood too? You are fighting against God. Who is Aaron that you should rail against him?

Dathan and Abiram’s are moreso: Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?

Did these people have legitimate grievances or were they consumed by lust for power? If the later, were they so consumed that they would say one thing while meaning something else, as the text implies?

What would these people have done if they’d gotten what they wanted?

Yet, if the warning was solely against being consumed, I think the text would have stopped with the rebels bring consumed, and a different warning used (e.g. heads on pikes). This raises the question: can the state of being consumed be a positive thing? Is this the message of the fire pans covering the altar which, by design, consumes sacrifices?

Who does the consuming here: God or Man?

A paradox of leadership

In Numbers on June 19, 2012 at 1:18 pm

What do leading leaders do?
Live to lead?  Lead to live?
Is there a difference?

Samuel teaches us that the Israelites committed “wicked thing,” asking for a king to be set over them.  Korah pursued leadership and was consumed.

Samuel recollects the Passover, the liberation from slavery, in contrast with the inauguration of the monarchy.  Is this telling?

So, are we not to pursue being led any more than we should pursue leading?  What does it mean to “pursue” leadership, from either direction?

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.

A Bad Sacrifice

In Exodus on March 21, 2012 at 5:57 pm

A man and his partner ran a business,
and they hired a clerk to prepare papers
for them.
The clerk was happy.

One day,
the partner came to the clerk at the end of the day
and said, “I need you to prepare some papers for a meeting
I have in the morning.”  The clerk obliged
and stayed hours past his usual time to fulfill the request,
and make sure the partner had everything
he needed,
before going home to his family.

The next day,
the partner arrived to his meeting
and found he left the papers at home.
He went to the man and said, “that clerk of yours, he’s lazy!
He’s never here on time, and now
I don’t have what I need
for my meeting this morning!”
The man had the clerk beaten
when the clerk arrived
at the usual time.

Parsha Vayikra

How does this parable compare with the parsha text, found here?

Identify the sacrifices in the passage. Are any of them choice or without blemish?