Student Teaching in the New Millenium

Posts Tagged ‘Love’

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?

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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.

Community or Country Club?

In Exodus on March 18, 2012 at 9:43 pm

I dine with my friends
We eat, drink, and laugh a lot
Others build castles

Parsha Vayakhel-Pekudei

Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them — gifts for the Lord.

Exodus 35.5

Is a voluntary offering really voluntary, or is it mandatory? Are we community because we want to be, or because we just are? Is lovingkindness a choice, or an obligation?

It also says, thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. (Exodus 35.29)

Shabbat for All?

In Exodus on March 17, 2012 at 7:15 pm

I go to Temple
and my neighbors go to Church
We rest together

Parsha Ki Tissa

Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying: Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you.

Exodus 31.13

The Hebrew can be translated to know I am the LORD who sanctify you.  Mekhilta says that had the Torah simply stopped at keep my sabbaths we might understand Shabbat to be binding upon everyone, but the statement to know means the commandment applies to those that have understanding only, and those that do not are excluded.  Does this mean that the covenant is only open to a select few who have this understanding?  Is understanding genetic, or can it be attained? What must one understand to observe Shabbat?

Is Shabbat open to everyone? If observing Shabbat is the sign of the covenant, is the covenant open to everyone? What does this mean?

Stone Hearted

In Exodus on March 4, 2012 at 11:59 am

You shall make a breastpiece of decision…

Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones…

They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes.

Exodus 28.15,17,21

Parsha Tetzaveh

What does it mean that the breastplate is lined with semi-precious stones named for people?  Does it mean being stone-hearted towards our fellows?  Or does their placement over the heart mean to put others’ hearts before our own?  Does this mean to acquiesce to others’ desires, or to do what we know is best with others’ best interests in mind?  Is this informed by our perceptions, or theirs?  This brings us back to the question:  whose heart comes first?

Saul is unambiguously commanded by God to destroy Amalek and everything that belongs to him (1 Samuel 15.3).  Saul disobeys this command, sparing everything of worth (ibid. 15.9) and taking of the spoils (ibid. 15.15,21).  Why?  Saul admits his mistake, and says he yielded to the desire of the people (15.21) to offer sacrifices to God.  How does this strike you?

There are two possibilities here.  The first, the stated motive to sacrifice was the truth.  The second, the stated motive was a lie, the true motive being greed.  What is the difference between 1 Samuel 15.15 and 15.21?  How does it strike you?

What difference does this make in the big picture?  Samuel’s statement in verse 22:  Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command?  Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice.  Does this refer to the body of Jewish Law (halacha) or the 613 commandments of Maimonides?  Or something else?

What is obedience?  According to the dictionary, obedience is the act or practice of obeying.  In other words, obedience involves doing for others.  In Joshua, chapter 7, Achan takes of the proscribed spoils from Jericho, and God lets Ai defeat the Israelites.  Joshua asks God, what will you do for Your great name? (Joshua 7.9)  Rashi teaches that God’s name is part of our own name, for our name, Yisrael, is comprised of the word sar (prince) and El (God).  This is the derash.  So, does this make God’s name also our name, or our name also God’s name?  Is Joshua calling out God to be obedient to God’s own name?  What does that mean?

This leaves us with two big questions to think on.  What does it mean to be obedient to our given names?  What does it mean to be obedient to our family name Yisrael?

Precious Stones

In Exodus on February 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm

What is more precious?
Gemstones, giving gemstones, or
men giving gemstones?

Parsha Terumah

You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. These are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.

Exodus 25.2-7

These are the gifts that God requests of the people as a free-will offering to build the sanctuary in their midst. All of them would be quite valuable in the barter and trade economy of the time. Why does God request these things?  Why does God request them only from every person whose heart so moves him?

Our haftarah says of the house Solomon built, With regard to this House you are building — if you follow My laws and observe My rules and faithfully keep My commandments, I will fulfill for you the promise that I gave to your father David: I will abide among the children of Israel, and I will never forsake My people Israel. (1 Kings 6.12-13) Solomon’s house was built using forced labor (ibid. 5.27). What does this tell us?

What does it mean that the precious stones are meant for the ephod and breastpiece of the priest? (Exodus 28.4) What does it mean that the stones represent the people of Israel? (ibid. 28.9-12,15-21)

Isaiah says thou art precious in My sight, and honourable, and I have loved thee.  (43.4)  How does this inform our view of the parsha?  Does generosity relate to honor?  How?

Parents and Children

In Exodus on February 3, 2012 at 8:00 am

You sit there in the
corner, red-rimmed eyes, gasping,
shuddering, afraid.

You know, this hurts me
more than you can ever know.
How do I teach you?

I love you, child.
This estrangement, punishment.
You will know one day.

Parsha Beshalach

The Lord, the Warrior — 
Lord is His name!

Exodus 15.3

Our parsha emphasizes God the Warrior who protects who he chooses and smites everyone else.  A masculine image.  Deborah in our haftarah has this to say.

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother,
Behind the lattice she whined:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”
The wisest of her ladies give answer;
She, too, replies to herself:
“They must be dividing the spoil they have found:
A damsel or two for each man,
Spoil of dyed cloths for Sisera,
Spoil of embroidered cloths,
A couple of embroidered cloths
Round every neck as spoil.”

Judges 5.28-30

Why doesn’t our Torah text say this of the Egyptians killed in the Red Sea?  Why do the Israelites sing so joyously at the Egyptian’s deaths?  Or, put another way, why do the Israelites celebrate the death of fellow human beings?  Is God supposed to be a lion, a manly destroyer of his opponents, or a lioness, a feminine defender of her cubs?  Is one mutually exclusive of the other?  Are they supposed to be?

For I the LORD change not (Malachi 3.6).  Can they be?

Do mothers cry when they discipline children?

Claiming You

In Exodus on January 30, 2012 at 8:00 am

I look in darkness
and see others groping on
to what they need most.

They all turn aside
for one reason or other.
I am no better.

After all, I am
still here, looking in darkness,
following them home.

Parsha Beshalach

God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said: ‘Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.’

Exodus 13.17

Why would freed slaves so easily decide to return to the land of their captivity so soon after being freed?  How often have you done something and not done it?  How often has something felt so near yet so far?  How often have you had to learn things the heard way?

Are you ready are you to be you?

As near as it might seem, is the path to you always clear?

Dark path

Dark Path by net_efekt

True Apologies

In Exodus, Midrash on January 26, 2012 at 8:00 am

I start my morning
Someone shows up to ask me
Why’d you do this wrong?

You asked for it that
way, the day before yesterday.
Has something changed?

Nothing. Just see that
it doesn’t happen again.
We’re ok, ok?

Parsha Bo

And Moses said [to Pharoah]: ‘Thou must also give into our hand sacrifices and burnt-offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the LORD our God.

Exodus 10.25

Why does Pharoah need to offer sacrifices? Weren’t the Israelites going to worship for themselves? Why is Moses imposing his own religion on Pharoah?

Pharoah has dealth with the Israelites unjustly and deceitfully since the beginning of Exodus, Ramban points out. Whether done out of fear or hate or lack of understanding, inflicting pain and suffering on others is wrong.

Avot 1.6 says we should “judge all men in the scale of merit” (Soncino) or “judge all men with scales weighted in their favor” (Living Talmud, by Judah Goldin). What does this mean? Should we call it like we see it? Or should we always give others the benefit of the doubt?

When we make mistakes, we are instructed to make amends. Torah is replete with examples. See the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis and parsha Mishpatim (Exodus 21.1 – 24.18). Is it necessary to admit when one is wrong to make amends?  Can we make amends without making sacrifice? Is sacrifice proper without kavannah, intent?

Do necessary reparations increase with greater transgressions? Should this be determined by size and scope, large and small? What happens between friends when a silly insult goes un-repaired for years?

When you betray yourself do you hurt others? When you betray others do you hurt yourself?