Wednesday, October 08, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Rosh Hashannah 5769: The Meaning of Life is a Life of Meaning

The Meaning of Life is a Life of Meaning

Rosh Hashannah 5769

Matt Rutta

Delivered before Congregation Beth Meier on Rosh Hashannah

“Hold fast to the spirit of youth – let years to come do what they may!” Emblazoned on the mantle of the fireplace in hallowed John Jay Hall, this is the toast of the Philolexian Society, my literary society when I was an undergraduate at Columbia. It translates into Hebrew as “L’chayim!” “To life!” is a very loaded statement, as we well know from Fiddler on the Roof, “If our good fortune never comes here’s to whatever comes”, “life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us, drink l’chayim to life!”

Nothing captures the complexity of life like this past week’s Torah portion: The Rabbis mandated that Nitzavim always be read the Shabbat before Rosh Hashannah. Though one of the shortest parshiot in the Torah it repeats numerous times the importance of life: God places before us life and death, blessing and curse, good and evil. Choose life!

The ultimate philosophical question is, “what is the meaning of life?” “Why are we here?” Ma Anu? Meh Chayeynu? We ask this at the very beginning of Psukei D’zimra and it will be a central piece of the Yom Kippur liturgy. I believe that the answer lies in the second chapter of Genesis. “And the Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to till it and tend it”, today being traditionally the 5,769th anniversary of this event. Be God’s gardeners and shepherds to make the world a better place. Though at first glance this may seem a good idea for the meaning of life, it is only the start: I believe it is the very next verse. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die”. The choices of Nitzavim are here: The trees of Life, Good, Evil, and the threat of Death for partaking in any of them.

Now pay close attention because there will be a test on this: Adam and Eve had a major decision to make: Whether to eat or to not eat from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil:

If they don’t eat they will live forever in paradise and walk with God. They will never hunger with a guarantee of food and provisions forever, never get sick, never die. They will also never learn anything, never experience feelings or emotions. Ignorance is bliss. If they ate, on the other hand, they would be exiled from paradise, banished from the obvious Presence of the Lord. Their biological clock would begin to tick as they experience mortality, sickness, painful childbirth, barrenness. They will engage in backbreaking toil to attain bread (a successful harvest, food and rain are not even a guarantee). But they would feel emotions. Pain and sorrow, yes, but also love, happiness, and satisfaction.

True to my word there is indeed a test on this, in the form of an informal poll. With a show of hands, how many of you, if in the position of Adam or Eve would NOT eat from the Tree of Knowledge? How many of you would indeed eat from the tree?

If you tell a child they can have any food in the kitchen except for the cookies. “Don’t eat the cookies,” you scold. What is the first thing he is going to go for? The cookie! That is human psychology whether you are a child or an adult with or without the ability to reason. Eating from the tree was a natural choice.

As opposed to my Christian colleagues who call this the downfall of man and Original Sin, I actually find this to be one of the most positive events in History. I am firmly convinced that God actually intended us to eat from the Tree. The catalyst of human history is one honey-tongued serpent. If God is Omnipotent and Omniscient, then He must have placed the snake in that tree. God intended us to have a free will to make the decisions whether to follow or shirk His laws and ethics and not be his drooling Garden drones. There are consequences to our actions but we have the freedom to make these decisions.

We were removed from the garden which is eternally guarded by fiery cherubs lest we eat from the tree of life and live forever. So why choose life in these four options?

By eating from the tree we have already chosen Good, Evil, and Death (as the tree has given us both knowledge and mortality). There is only one more option we have not yet tried: Life. Now God finally gives us access to something which we have been denied since our expulsion from the Garden of Eden by locked gate, fiery cherub and ever-turning sword: The Tree of Life. We choose life by holding fast to the Torah, and the wooden Torah rollers are called Etzei Chayim. which we grab onto when taking an aliyah or lifting the Torah.

Torah is ultimate knowledge, it is everlasting life. It links us to our past. Most of our liturgical additions for the High Holidays focus on life: “Zochreynu L’chayim, Melech chafetz bachayim, v’choteveinu b’sefer hachayim lemancha Elohim Chayim”, “Remember us for life, O King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life – for your sake O Living God.” Throughout the liturgy of these Ten Days of Repentance our liturgy is rife with pleas to be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Even in death there is life. If, God-forbid, someone dies we don’t focus on their death but talk about their life and when we come together to recite Kaddish there is not a single mention of death, only life, because shiva, mourning, comfort, these are all for the living.

Torah is the Family Tree of Life. It records the names and deeds of our ancestors, men and women of piety who, through our study, live forever. How will the world remember us when we are gone?

When burying their dead, the Ancient Greeks would place an obolus coin under the tongues of the deceased so they could pay the fare to Charon to ferry them across the River Acheron on their journey to Hades. Jews however are not buried with trinkets nor vested in designer suits but in a disqualified tallis and simple white shrouds, a feeling which the white robe I wear today is meant to evoke. We Jews believe that we cannot take anything with us. Our legacy is rather through our deeds. Whether good or evil this is how we will be remembered.

We were created B’tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God. But how can we take this literally if one of the basic tenets of our faith is that God is non-corporeal? The medieval commentator Nachmanides says that we were made of two Neshamot, like all other animals we are formed of the dust of the earth, thus like all other animals we are mortal, need to eat, sleep, reproduce, but also have a free will. And we are also like the celestial beings made in the Image of God we are made with an immortal soul with the ability to reason and understand and that thirsts not for water but for God. An amalgamation of the two, we can be at once dust and ashes and heavenly. Unlike angels we have a free will.

And yet, It is not in Heaven. One of the most famous stories in the Talmud, and the unofficial theme of the Conservative Movement Bava Metzia 59b quotes Nitzavim. Rabbi Eliezer, convinced that he is right on his arguments, causes supernatural occurrences at his command, the movement of a tree, the reversing of a flow of a river upstream, the collapse of the walls of the house of study, yet all are rebuffed by Rabbi Joshua and the rest of the sages as meaningless. When a Heavenly voice cries out “Rabbi Eliezer is right! He’s always right”. Rabbi Joshua responds, “It is not in heaven’, for since the Torah was removed from the realm of God when given at Sinai, we no longer pay heed to heavenly voices. It is up to us to make our own decisions whether to continue the divine work of Creation or to destroy.

Our great philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides records that the Jews that left Egypt recited a blessing over the manna: “Hamotzi Lechem Min HaShamayim”, “Praised are You Lord our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the sky”. This blessing makes sense, in the desert God cared for us and gave us ready to eat manna. This parallels the blessing we say over bread: “Hamotzi Lechem Min Haaretz”, “Praised are You Lord our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the ground”. Have you ever pulled ready-to-eat bread out from the ground? No! The process is extensive getting bread from the ground to your table. We plant seeds in the ground, which with the help of sun and rain eventually cause wheat to sprout. Humans still cannot digest the wheat at this point. It needs to be gleaned and harvested, threshed, milled, mixed with water and other ingredients, kneaded, baked, all before it can be eaten. So why do we thank God for pulling bread from the ground? We do God’s work when we make bread just as we do God’s work when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help out someone in need, cry out against injustice. This is what it means to be made in the image of God. When Adam and Eve followed the advice of the snake and made that history-altering decision to eat from the tree, God said “now the man has become like one of us”. No longer do we eat the manna falling from the sky, but have become God’s partners in creation. So the meaning of life, my friends, is not merely to till and to tend, but to live. God wants us to eat from the tree.

May years to come bring what they may, but may this year be a year of health, love, life and peace. Shanah Tovah.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Bechukotai/Lag BaOmer (Curses!)

Once I write this Dvar Torah I will be caught up. This week we read the infamous curses of the final parasha of Levitucus, known as the Tochecha, the rebuke. With filial cannibalism, and skies of lead, the curses are pretty bad. Once we exhaust our chances and continue on wayward paths, God condemns us to punishment that increases in severity sevenfold four times, 74, ending up a total of 2,401 times more terrible than the initial punishment. Pretty crappy. But God will not allow us to be utterly destroyed.

A Lag BaOmer story. Shimon bar Yochai, known as the father of Jewish mysticism, has been condemned by the Romans for teaching Torah. He goes out and hides in a cave with his son for twelve years, sustained by a miraculous stream and carob tree and study the entire time. They finally emerge after the twelfth year. Rashbi finds people working a field. He is furious that people are fulfilling laborious pursuits and not studying Torah. He is so spiritually charged with rage that anything that he gazes upon is consumed in a fiery blaze (see my blogspot profile). A heavenly voice yells, "you emerged to destroy the world I created? Go back to your cave!" And so they returned to the cave for another year. They emerged to find a man carrying two omers (bundles) of grain. Upon their asking, he told them that they were in honor of the upcoming Shabbat, the mitzvahs of Shamor (negative commandments of Shabbat) and Zachor (positive commandments of shabbat).

Not only is this one source why we have two challahs on Shabbat and a good source for bonfires on Lag BaOmer, the holiday we are celebrating today, but it also could be applied to this week's Torah Portion. When they emerge from the cage they notice the neglect of Torah and through their strict interpretation of justice they destroy. God does not allow the world to work that way. Reward and Punishment was a real issue when God destroyed His world in The Flood and following it decided that a world judged strictly on justice could not exist. Instead mercy must abound. Innately, people are good. Not everyone can study Torah 24/7/365(353-385)/12 like Rashbi and son. The famous prayer of Rabbi Nechunya upon leaving the Beit Midrash is inherently flawed:

"I am thankful to You, the Lord my God, that You have placed my lot among those who dwell in the beit midrash and not with those who hang around street corners. They arise early, and I arise early. I arise early for words of Torah, and they arise early for idle matters. I toil, and they toil. I toil and receive reward, and they toil and do not receive reward. I run, and they run. I run to the life of the world to come, and they run to the pit of destruction."

This is R' Shimon bar Yochai's justice. This is not God's Justice. God will not utterly abandon us, no matter what we do. This is His promise. So we celebrate the cessation of the plague which destroyed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students. We mourn but after the storm there is a rainbow (as was the incredibly strange case yesterday afternoon with an incredibly rare May rain and thunderstorm in Los Angeles). "Return us, God, to You and we will be returned, renew our days as days of old".

Shabbat Shalom and Lag BaOmer Sameach!
Chazak Chazak v'NitChazek!

DVAR TORAH S3: Behar (Shemita during Shemita)

Every seventh year we are to have a remission of debts, freedom for slaves, and a chance to give rest to our land. Thus is the law in the land of Israel. This parasha is especially appropriate this year because it happens to be the seventh year in the Sabbatical Cycle, and is therefore the Shemitta year. One is not supposed to work the land nor sell their produce. This is literally a year of Shabbat, a year off from the back-breaking labor of being a farmer. One should only provide for their own family from the produce of the field. All other years we have certain mitzvot of the field for the poor, that we must leave the edges of the field for the poor as well as the gleanings that have been left after one pass for them. But this year it is basically a free-for-all. Everything is hefker, legally ownerless. I could go into anyone's field and according to Jewish law I can take anything I want. I don't know if this is the policy of the state of Israel and I don't know if a shoter, a police officer, would arrest me for trespassing or for stealing. I do know that some of my professors at Pardes mentioned that they keep signs in front of their fruit trees this year that say that anyone who wants can pick fruit from their trees.

There have been a few interesting legal fictions created for the Shemitta Year. Last year I lamented the lack of Wikipedia article on Prozbul. Now there is indeed an article. In fact, I wrote it. I have already written on prozbul, which allows debts to be collected and not cancelled. Another legal fiction applies to the state of Israel and is similar to selling Chometz on a massively grand scale. The entire State of Israel was sold to a Druze guy in the Golan. In this way the land can still be worked by Jews because it is not legally owned by us. Hooray for loopholes. The problem is what if Muslim extremists find this guy, whose identity and location are not disclosed? I imagine it being like on Family Guy when Peter Griffin borrows the "Free Tibet" sign from a protester and then calls China, offering Tibet in exchange for all the tea in China. There probably are also loopholes making this non-transferable.

However, this now makes my school, the American Jewish University, with its main campus, Brandeis-Bardin Institute, and Camp Ramah in California the largest Jewish landowner in the world for the year. Neat.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 23, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Emor (Who is a Jew?)

Time to play a little bit of catch up, as I have been quiet for a few weeks due to finals. Two weeks ago (sigh) we read Emor. This parasha is full of laws that apply to the purity of the Kohen and the series of Jewish holidays, including the mitzvah of counting the Omer, a period which we are always in when this parasha is read.

The narrative at the end is interesting. A man who is halachically Jewish (his mom is an Israelite from the smallest tribe of Dan) but his father is Egyptian gets into an argument with someone. It is interesting that they refer to one man as "an Israelite man" and the other one as "the son of the Israelite woman".

We define someone as Jewish by their mother, but this is due to gentile soldiers raping our women and causing them to conceive. Would these kids be non-Jewish? Mamzerim (Halachic bastards)? The Rabbis decided that Judaism must go by Maternal Descent so that no matter what happens, the child will be considered Jewish because of the woman. Whereas there are times you may have unanswered questions about paternity, it less likely you would have questions about maternity.

However, in the time of the Torah it seems that it is through the father. This man of Dan is part of the Israelite community but is also an Egyptian due to his father, not a whole Israelite. There are certain people whom Israelite women are forbidden to marry, such as Moabite and Ammonites. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, etc, marry non-Jews and yet their kids are Jewish. We don't hear of any sort of conversion until Ruth. The position of Karaites is still that of strictly Paternal Descent(see Wikipedia)

And yet the rabbinic Tradition is presented in Mishnah Kedushin 3:12, that is one of confusion and various traditions.

There are reasons for both sides, but I argue that we should maintain the status quo of Maternal Descent. It would create a great rift amongst the Jews throughout the spectrum. Reform and Reconstructionists accept Paternal Descent. Orthodox and Conservagtive only accept Maternal Descent. The change from current Conservative policy would change thousands of years of a general halachic definition of Who's A Jew and would create a further distance between ourselves and the Orthodox. Unfortunately, people are still raped and some people otherwise don't know who is the father of their child and there still can be confusion. I therefore support Maternal Descent to be maintained as the status quo.

For further information please see here ,here, and here.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Kedoshim/Yom Haatzmaut (Holy Horticulture in our Homeland (with Honi))

Parashat Kedoshim - Holy Horticulture in our Homeland (with Honi)
Matt Rutta – Delivered before AJU Hillel 5/2/08
This week we read parashat Kedoshim, also known as the Holiness Code. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy!” There are over 50 mitzvot in this Parasha. Many of them have been over-analyzed and cliché: don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, love your neighbor as yourself, don’t steal, observe my laws, Harry Potter is liable to the death penalty... It goes on like this. The other mitzvot in this parasha include prohibitions of idolatry, agricultural laws, and sexual taboos. So I will discuss the subject I think you are the most interested in: agricultural laws!
A good number of the agricultural laws in this parasha apply in the land of Israel. When one can harvest, what one can harvest, the time one must wait after planting a tree before one can eat from the tree, and a promise that God is bringing us to a land flowing with milk and honey.
A story about Honi the Circlemaker who is probably best described as a mystical shaman from 2000 years ago. Besides the famous story of how he brought rain to the drought in Jerusalem, there is another story in which he has a real problem with understanding Psalm 126, which we will read tonight as Shir HaMaalot, the introduction to Birkat Hamazon: “A song of ascents, when God will return the exiled of Zion, we will be like dreamers.” The Talmud records a tale that he finds an old man preparing to plant a carob tree. He tells the man that he is foolish to plant a tree that takes 70 years to bear edible fruit, well past his lifespan. The old man acknowledges his mortality and says that he’s doing it so his future generations will have carobs to enjoy, just like his ancestors had planted for him. After Honi stopped berating the man he sat down to eat and fell asleep. Rocks concealed him and he slept for 70 years. He awoke because he saw the same old man and thought he had just taken a small nap, but then saw a gigantic tree overflowing with carobs, he asked the man if he had planted the tree and the man said that it was his grandfather who planted it 70 years ago, well before he was born, and Honi realizes he’s been asleep and dreaming for 70 years. I think the lesson Honi realized then that though the life of one person may be fleeting, the acts that we do can long outlive us. The old man had lived his lifespan, appreciating the contributions of his ancestors. Then the newly planted tree as well as Honi himself remained dormant for 70 years, which incidentally is the same amount of time that our ancestors were exiled in Babylon after the First Temple was destroyed and then we woke up from our exile. Our people were again removed for 2000 years, the song of ascents we may recite for this exile would be that we were in a nightmare. But finally we returned to the land of Israel and in 1948 we once again began to enjoy the fruit of the land.
The Haftarah this week, the ninth chapter of Amos, ends “Behold the days are coming, declares the Lord, when the plowman will meet the reaper, and the treader of grapes, him who holds the bag of seed, when the mountains shall drip wine and all the hills shall wave with grain. I will restore my people Israel. They shall rebuild ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine; they shall till gardens and eat their fruits. And I will plant them upon their soil, nevermore to be uprooted from the soil I have given them – said the Lord your God.”
We have been restored and have begun to rebuild, with bountiful and varied produce, the new vineyards are some of the finest in the world, and we have caused the desert to bloom. It has been sixty years since statehood, there are still ten years left until we can enjoy carobs that were planted since the rebirth of the State of Israel, reishit tzmichat geulateynu, the first sprouting of our Redemption, a land which our grandparents fought for so that we could live free in a land of our own. We must continue to fight for it, and plant in it, not just trees, but the seeds of peace. And much like a strong-rooted carob tree, we will never again allow ourselves to be uprooted from the land. For if we will it, it is no dream. Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Pesach (Our holiday has an egg too, sans rabbit)

I wanted to include some words I offered at the second seder about the egg.

The egg is an underexplained part of the seder plate. We popularly know it as a symbol of spring, which is the season (and in the bible, month, Aviv) of Passover, and of rebirth. It's round shape (actually an oval, which is elliptical) which indicates the cycle of the year and of life. It is the first thing we eat during the meal as it relates to Tisha B'Av which ALWAYS falls in the calendar on the same day of the week as the first day of Passover. The holidays relate as the days of redemption and of exile and both holidays are the two most auspicious in the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people (such as strong traditions indicating the Messiah being born on Tisha B'Av and Nisan being the month of both the past and future Redemption).

But it also is a symbol of the Jewish people, according to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who, at his tisch at VBS a few months ago (and also written by Isaac Klein in "The Guide...", and I will add to both of them) spoke about the egg as the symbol of the Jewish people. Most foods soften as you cook them, but the egg hardens the longer it cooks. We Jews have been subjected to fire for millennia, from the time of Pharaoh to today and yet instead of weakening we have been forged through fire. We are known as an am kshei oref, the stiffnecked people. This has been detrimental when our stiffneckèdness caused us to wander the desert for 40 years. But it has also kept us Jewish. No matter what the world threw at us, we kept the course. All of these ancient civilizations who tried to destroy us are gone and we are still here. "For in every generation people try to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessèd be He, saves us from their hands."

Gut Shabbos un Gut Yontif,

Saturday, April 19, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Acharei Mot/HaGadol (Pesach and Yom Kippur? What a Great Shabbat!)

Interesting Torah Portion for Shabbat HaGadol, the week where the Rabbi traditionally explains the complex preparation for Passover. (Though this year as it leads immediately into the first seder and chometz is already cleaned and nullified, it is merely symbolic)

But this week's actual Torah Portion in the cycle is Acharei Mot, the reading which serves as the reading for both the morning and controversial afternoon reading for Yom Kippur, which explains the complex preparations and service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. It mirrors the tradition that after the Destruction of the Second Temple, the home became the Temple, the kitchen the Holy of Holies due to the familial discourse, the kitchen table the altar, with the head of household standing in as the High Priest.

The psychological, spiritual, and physical preparation of the Kohen Gadol very much parallels our own preparations the week before Pesach. The success of preparation is critical. Incidentially both the sabbath prior to Yom Kippur (Shabbat Shuvah) and the sabbath prior to Pesach (Shabbat HaGadol) used to be the only two at which a rabbi would speak. If only...

A gut shabbos un a gut yontif!

DVAR TORAH S3: Metzora (Find a bad name)

Quickly on last week's Torah Portion, I have in the past I have mentioned that the word Metzora, a person affected with a impurifying skin disease of Tzuras, is possibly a contraction of Motzi Shem Ra, someone who "seeks a bad name". We are studying (or were studying at that point) something called ona'at dvarim, harming people with words. It is considered worse than killing someone or committing adultery, as examples. Rabbi Schulweis, for both Tazria and Metzora discussed this particular piece in the Talmud. To be continued when I write the contents of my Chevruta Journal where I discuss this...

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, April 14, 2008


As I have been kashering my apartment for Passover, the building has been hitting high heats, combined with the fact that it is is the 90s outside and I am burning the stovetops after using industrial oven cleaner, so I have all of the windows open as well as the front door and the air conditioner running full blast.

About a half hour ago I saw a bee flying around my dining room table. As someone who doesn't react well to bee-stings, I decided I can't just have him flying around my apartment, but I also didn't want to hurt him (unlike mosquitos whose sole existences is to suck my blood and spread disease which I will dispatch without regret, and sometimes on Shabbat; for though it is forbidden to kill on Shabbat, because mosquitos may carry a host of deadly diseases, including West Nileand therefore Pikuach Nefesh kicks in), but the bee doesn't actually want to hurt me. So I turned off the lights, ended up crashing my leg into the coffee table which I had turned around in order to clean and so my leg started bleeding.

Anyway, I tried to direct the bee outside, spraying some scented air fresheners as bees rely heavily on their sense of smell (or so is my understanding). But instead he went into my window screen. I shut the window trying to figure out what to do with him. I got a long umbrella and tried to remove my window screen or use it to direct him to the two gaping holes that were in the window screen before I moved in. He was just running around frantically. I tried to dustbuster him and then planned on reversing it when I got outside, but he ran away from it. I accidentially crushed him with the umbrella tip after about 15 minutes, he was mortally injured at this point, so I put him out of his misery, feeling horrible about it, though needing to uphold the mitzvah against Tzar Baaleh Chayim, that you shouldn't subject animals to pain.

This is part of a trend of ways I have been feeling about living creatures as of late. I have been seriously considering vegetarianism recently. Some, such as my downstairs neighbor, may scoff at my suggestion (though he has recently dropped a ranking in the food chain, himself). I was somewhat affected by the class we did on Shechita as well as seeing a rooster sacrificed for Kapparot with my cousins before Yom Kippur.

I, in fact, have been having feelings regarding the wastefulness of our culture, how we waste food, electricity, water, fill the landfills, it's totally ridiculous. I am totally guilty of all of these things. As someone who, due to my job, goes to bar mitzvah and wedding parties beyond number I notice the sheer wastefulness of people, beyond money.

I think the way we slaughter animals is the most humane way to do it. After seeing "No Country for Old Men" I think the captive bolt pistol is just barbaric. At least in Kashrut we need to show respect for the animals (or ideally we should)

I don't know what I'm going to do regarding this. I do enjoy eating meat and don't see myself as a vegetarian. But I'm thinking of cutting back. I don't know. Time will tell. Besides, this is a poor time of the year to give up meat. What can a vegetarian eat during pesach because soy, beans, rice, seeds, and corn are all forbidden. I can't just eat flax seed for an entire week (for some reason flax is okay...)

Anyway, that's just another rant. Delayed Dvar Torah on Metzora soon... possibly...

Friday, April 04, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Tazria/Shabbat HaChodesh (Next, on a very special month...)

One of my fellow First Year Rabbinical Students asked me to quickly tell her what the Torah portion was about earlier this week. I smiled at here and said, "bodily excretions!". Luckily for us, this happens to be the fourth of the four special Sabbaths (there are really five, but we don't talk about that one) leading up to the Festival of Passover.

We learned in our parshanut (rabbinic analysis of the Bible) class that some say that the Torah should have began with the mitzvah recorded in Exodus 12, that "this month is to be the first of months for you". The month we know by the Babylonian name Nisan and was known in Biblical times as Aviv is supposed to be the one with which we start the year.

The Exodus is the central event in all of Jewish history. More than Creation, more than Abraham's realization of God or his Covenant with God, Isaac's binding on the altar, Jacob's fight with the angel and subsequent name change, the Building or the Destruction of two Temples, the Exodus from slavery into freedom. Passover is the first holiday given to the Israelites; it actually is celebrated by them as they prepare to leave Egypt and it commemorates this night that was a dawn of a new era annually.

As we recite the psalm of the day at the conclusion of morning services daily, for Monday we say "today is the second day of the Sabbath". Shabbat is recalled daily. So too, we are to actually count our months from the month of Nisan. In my opinion it makes more sense to begin a year in spring, with rebirth. However Rosh Hashannah begins on the exact opposite side of the year with the autumn. Mishnah Rosh Hashannah 1:1 records actually FOUR New Years in Judaism (all referred to as Rosh Hashannah), two of which are the 1st of Nisan (two days from now) and the 1st of Tishrei (that which we refer to as the holiday of Rosh Hashannah). The month of Tishrei is referred to as "the Seventh Month" in the Torah because Nisan is supreme.

Nisan is possibly the most important month in the calendar. One might say that Tisrei with its many holidays which include Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur as well as the holiday which the Talmud refers to as "The Holiday", Sukkot, is the ultimate month. However, Nisan is the month in which we were redeemed in the past and according to legend is the month in which we will be ultimately Redeemed again through the Messiah. The month is so joyous that we don't recite the penitentiary service of Tachanun throughout the month. Fasts and eulogies are forbidden for the duration of the month, something which cannot be said about Tishrei.

So Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh Tov, and indeed Shanah Tovah, on this Biblical New Year.

Monday, March 31, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Shemini/Parah (The smell of burning death)

Speaking of things wholly burnt up, my laptop burnt up via the fan. Hopefully they can fix it. I actually bought a new one from Dell but now it looks like they will fix the old one. Sparky lives another day (A name which I have just dubbed it just now, due to its fire-like tendencies)

So this past week we read Shemini where Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's eldest sons were killed by God for offering an alien fire. Also Kashrut laws a'plenty, but since I will be dealing with Kashrut ad nauseam in the coming days I will not focus on the main parasha (which I have already done in depth last year)

We also read as Maftir the mitzvah of the Red Heifer, the Parah Adumah, the prepared ashes of this cow will purify those who have the ultimate impurity, Tumat HaMet, coming in contact with a dead body. This, I believe, is the one ritual impurity that cannot be remedied by immersion in a mikvah bath and/or waiting in seclusion (something which will come up in the coming weeks in terms of the Metzora). It is near impossible to have the animal required for the mitzvah of Parah Aduma. I believe it has to be a perfectly red female (ie: no white hairs), be three years old without a single imperfection nor seeing a day of work in its life. The animal basically must be raised in order to fulfill this mitzvah. As I think about it, it is somewhat similar to trying to identify the messiah. There are so many requirements that eliminate so many possibilities. It is expensive to raise a cow, especially one that can never do work nor injure itself or be unhealthy. According to statistics I received in my halacha class last semester, it probably won't be an American cow -- very few cows in America are entirely healthy because of the way they are treated and what they are fed. The cows in Argentina however are considerably more likely to be glatt (ie: their lungs are completely healthy and therefore the rest of them is probably healthy. It is assumed that everyone in this day in age has Tumat Hamet. Whether you've been to a funeral or have been in a cemetary or a building with a dead body, or even been in an airplane that flies above a cemetery (because Tumat Hamet is the one impurity where the sky's the limit -- literally, there is no limit to how much death ascends to the heavens creating impurities. Nobody, Israelite or Kohen is considered free from this impurity and therefore nobody is able to ascend to the actual area of the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple (though many will go to the outskirts of the Temple Mount, but only after going to the mikvah, not wearing leather shoes and abstaining from sexual relations between the mikvah and the ascent. The reason we read this maftir now is because the Pascal Lamb involves the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and an ascent to the Temple, which requires ritual purity.

I love the haftarah that corresponds to this maftir. "I will sprinkle upon you pure waters/waters of purity and will purify you of all your impurities and from all your idols I will purify you. And I will give to you a new heart and new soul I will give within you and will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a fleshy heart. (and so forth from Ezekiel 36). Good stuff.

Shavuah Tov and may Hashem grant a Refuah Shleyma to Elan Shlomo ben Smadar.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A new twist on agunot: chain the husband!

I posted this a few moments ago to the Ziegler listserv but I realize that not everyone I know that this would interest are students in ZSRS. See wikipedia for a definition of Agunah.

An Israeli Rabbinic Court issued an interesting ruling, upheld by the Rabbinical Supreme Court on appeal, that could set a precedent for recalcitrant husbands in cases of agunot. They found this guy hiding out in a Yeshiva who has chained his estranged wife for years and now they're imprisoning him. If he doesn't give her a get soon, they will put him in solitary confinement.

Although I fully support what badatz is doing -- these monsters who refuse to divorce their wives deserve all the punishment in this world and the next, but is a get given under extreme duress considered valid?,7340,L-3523781,00.html


Rabbinical court send divorce recalcitrant to solitary confinement

Supreme Rabbinical Court sets precedent, orders a man refusing to grant his wife divorce, pay alimony, be held in manner reserved for extremely dangerous convicts – in complete isolation
Yoram Yarkoni

A religious rarity: A rabbinical court ordered a man refusing to grant his estrange wife a divorce be sentenced to solitary confinement, Yedioth Ahronoth reported Wednesday.

The ruling was rendered as part of a bitter divorce battle: The wife asked to divorce her husband of 10 years, he refused and she ended up issuing a restraining order banning him from their house.

The rabbinical court then ordered the husband to grant his wife the divorce and pay her alimony – but he refused to acknowledge the ruling.

Later on, and following several arrest warrants issued against him for failing to pay alimony, he dropped out of sight.

After a several-years search the man was discovered hiding in a Jerusalem yeshiva. The rabbinical court sentenced him to one year in prison – unless he grants the divorce. He preferred to go to jail.

Faced with the man's ongoing refusal to grant his wife a divorce, the Supreme Rabbinical Court was called into play, ruling that at the end of the man's 12 months incarceration – and should he still refuse to grant the divorce – he will be sentenced to four additional years in prison.

A religious first

The Supreme Rabbinical Court then set a religious precedent, ruling that those additional four years be served in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement in a penalty usually reserved for the criminals deemed extremely dangerous, or those who may be in mortal danger if they came in contact with the general prisoner population.

Prisoners sentenced to solitary confinement are held in complete isolation and are denied any contact with the outside world: They are not allowed to receive visitors, send or receive letters or have any personal possessions.

The court further ruled that in order for the man to understand what he might be facing – and providing he failed to grant his wife a divorce by mid April – he will have to spend a week in isolation.

"A man refusing to grant his wife a divorce cannot be an observant Jew," stated the court.

The man demanded his immediate release as a pre-condition to him making and decision on the divorce. The court denied his requests, further ruling he serve his sentence in a general population ward, not the religious one.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Tzav/Purim (So long, and thanks for all the fish)

Okay, this is late, relatively short and I have an admission, not much about purim, but I have a whole bunch of Purim Divrei Torah archived up that you can read if you search the blog.

In this past week's Torah Portion I noticed something interesting in Leviticus 7:26. According to the old JPS translation: "And ye shall eat no manner of blood, whether it be of fowl or of beast, in any of your dwellings." I happened to have my Torat Chayim with me during services this week and had the sudden revelation that this may be another reason we consider birds fleishig. The blood of the bird is treated just like that of mammals: completely forbidden! As I had hoped, Rashi commented on this verse and said that it specifically excludes fish and kosher insects. As I feared commentary on the commentary said that the reason is that fish and insects have no blood (you win this one, Max. see Kritot 21a). I know this to not be the fact, however, and fish and insects do indeed have blood. I don't think that changes anything. On the totem pole of life, in my opinion Torah places fish below plant-life. It says in Parashat Noach that "you may eat of the beast of the ground, the birds of the sky, the goodness of the earth (ie: flora) and the fish of the sea". I think this is a pecking order.

There is a bit of Purim here, as fish, Dagim (Pisces in Greek) is the Mazal of the Month(s) of Adar and has come to symbolize the holiday of Purim. I finally located the book in which I learned the astrological signs relating to the Hebrew calendar, "Jewish Days" by Francine Klagsbrun:

[Pisces] is an appropriate sign for a month known for fun and frivolty, because as the rabbis said, in joyous ways Israel can be compared to a fish. How so? Just as the evil eye has no power over a fish in water, the evil eye has no power over the people of Israel. Moreover, although fish live in water, when a drop falls from above they catch it thirstily as if they had never tasted water before. So it is with the people of Israel. Although they grow up immersed in the waters of the Torah, when they hear a new Torah lesson they drink it in as if they had never heard the Torah expounded. (93)

Plus fish are inherently funny. Speaking of Kashrut, stay tuned for next week, Shmini which is full of Kashrut...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Vayikra/Zachor (Remembering Moses)

This Dvar Torah is dedicated to the memory of Moshe Rabbeinu, of whom we are observing today, the 7th of II Adar 5768 his 3280th yahrzeit (d. 7 Adar 2488 AM). He would also be celebrating a milestone birthday, today Moses turns the big 3400 (b. 7 Adar 2368). Happy birthday to my original namesake! Oh look, he's blushing, he's so humble.

Moses was exceedingly humble; whether motivated by fear or humility, he repeatedly rebuffs God's order from the midst of the Burning Bush to deliver God's people from slavery in Egypt. He also gave up everything when, as a prince of Egypt, he slew an Egyptian taskmaster who was punishing an Israelite slave. Moses didn't think an Egyptian taskmaster was more important than a lowly Israelite slave, and though he'd grown up in the palace indoctrinated that Egyptians were supreme and that the life of an Israelite was worth less than bricks or horses, he realized that even from his high station as adopted son of the pharaoh he could not ignore injustice. Though his anger and anguish caused him to smash the Tablets of Law upon gazing upon the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf, he fasts for months upon additional ascents to heaven and prays on behalf of God's chosen nation, and when God tells Moses He will destroy Israel and create a new nation with Moses as its progenitor, Moses begs for his own life to be taken if God refuses to forgive (for this God says, "salachti kidvarecha", "I have forgiven according to your word", one of the rare occasions in which God's edict has been swayed. Moses allowed his name to be excluded from the Passover Haggadah, allowing God full credit for the Exodus.

In this week's Torah Portion Moses begins the transference of priestly duties to his big brother Aaron, and Moses is happy for him and allows Aaron to have an everlasting dynasty while Moses' fell into disuse after a wayward grandson named Jonathan ben Gershon ben Mnashe, a priest of idolatry(the Nun here is the only letter I know of which is elevated in the Bible, indicating that the letter was added later to not associate Moshe with an idolater). The very first word of this week's torah portion and the very first word of the third book of the bible (and its namesake) is Vayikra, this time with a smaller letter aleph. Again a sign of the humility of Moses, that wanted to downplay that God called out to Moses. A treatment of this verse can be found at my last year's Dvar Torah for this week's Torah portion.

Now I want to examine Zachor. Because we will be celebrating Purim this coming week, we read a special Maftir, which we call Shabbat Zachor. There is a very hard-to-understand mitzvah within: that we must remember and not forget to wipe out the remembrance of Amalek. The Rabbis of the talmud think this is not meant to be taken literally. We take the wiping out symbolically, that we stamp out the name of his most well-known descendant, Haman (yemach shemo uzichro). The three words that I appended to the name of the evil villain of the Purim story means "may his name and memory be wiped out". But we are also supposed to remember! We should recall the sage words of poet-philosopher George Santayana who wrote a little over a century ago, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". We cannot forget the Holocaust and we cannot forget the perpetrators nor can we forget the lessons lest, God forbid, we forget and allow it to happen again. How can we who were attacked by Egypt and Amalek from Haman, Hitler and Hamas, allow genocide to go on under our watch. Wiping out the memory means we can't allow the tyrants and evildoers to proliferate wickedness without attempting to stop them.

Remember and forget at the same time. Memory is a very strange thing. When our ancestors left Egypt they consistently complained that they missed the vegetables and meat they got for free in Egypt. This is memory but not reality. They kind of forgot that they didn't get this food for free but that they had to work as slaves for sub-par food. This is why we must daily remember we were slaves in the land of Egypt, lest we forget.

Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Pekudei/Chazak/Shabbat Rosh Chodesh/Shekalim (bittersweet completion)

This Dvar Torah is dedicated to the memory of the seminarians murdered yesterday in the terrorist attack in the Holy City yesterday. May their memories be for a blessing and may the Omnipresent comfort their families and us among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

We have upon us a very interesting Shabbat. Outside of the holiday of Simchat Torah, there are three occasions I can think of when we would need to read from three Torahs: when Rosh Chodesh Tevet, Adar (II in leap years, as this one), or Nisan fall on Shabbat. On these Shabbats, in addition to the regular Torah reading, for which we read the sixth and seventh aliyot together as the sixth, we read a passage from Pinchas for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh from the second Torah, and from a third we also need to read the special reading for that day of Hanukkah, the reading for Shabbat Shekalim, and the reading for Shabbat HaChodesh respectively as the Maftir. While this is an exciting time on the rare occasion when it happens, the Torah cycle happens to have us at one of the four weeks of the year when we conclude one of the books of the Torah (the conclusion of the fifth book, Deuteronomy is always on Simchat Torah anyway), so after the sixth aliyah we will happily recite "Chazak! Chazak! V'Nitchazek!", "strength, strength, and we shall be strengthened!"

This aforementioned phrase is recited as we complete a book of the Torah, in great joy. This year it also coincides on the day when we are commanded in the Talmud to increase our joy. As Adar is entered, joy is increased (as we sing endlessly Mishenichnas Adar Marbin B'Simcha) (Babylonian Talmud Ta'anit 29a).

There is something else completed here. In a parasha devoid of Mitzvot (according to Rambam which in turn is according to Wikipedia) Moses completes the Mishkan. There are many feelings that one may simultaneously go through when they complete something on which they've been working hard and for a long time. There is a sense of accomplishment and pride at having been able to overtake a task so daunting, and yet some wistfulness edging on sadness on not having it anymore to work on. Not that I'm an expert, and l'havdil, but some women following pregnancies will be so happy to have a new baby and yet go through something called post-partum depression. Again l'havdil, but if I'm working on a long paper (and I have many on which I should be working right now...) I may punish my self to continue working on it and refining it. I wrote a poem last week for an underground night (which can be found here on the Philolexian Socity Phlog). I continued writing and refining the ten syllable-per-line poem until I was at 18 quatrains (72 lines). A couple of minutes before the event I added two more quatrains for good measure, resulting in 20 quatrains, 80 lines, a total of 800 syllables. I would have added more to the ending, but decided against it. I kept trying to perfect it. Polishing silver and scrubbing metal too much will ruin it, as I learned the hard way with a kiddish cup and one of meat pans respectively. And yet the Mishkan was perfect. It didn't have hte limitations of the human devices, but rather was a perfect structure with its instructions sent by God to divinely-inspired humans (sort of like the Torah *cough* JEPD, *cough*). Betzalel and Oholiab themselves didn't need Moses' instructions because they were also transmitted perfectly directly from God to them and Moses was able to, in a single sweep, put the entire building together.

That being said, it is nothing but a building without people. As I quoted a few weeks ago (Trumah), v'asu li mikdash v'shachanti btocham, make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them. "Them" being the people Israel. In the next few weeks in the book of Leviticus we will discuss their role in the Tabernacle. In the house of gold, silver, and, um, dolphin skins dyed red we don't truly have perfection until we have the people Israel involved. Stay tuned.

I will leave you the closing prayer I gave to my Talmud class yesterday. Mishenichnas Adar Marbin b'Simcha. May we no longer have reason for sorrow but only have occasion for joy and happiness. Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Vayakel (Cholenty Godness)

I am going to deliver this to the AJU Hillel this Shabbat, so please understand the esoteric nature of some of my statements... For your mouth-watering pleasure, I also present various pictures of cholent I found on the internet and a "before" picture of the first one I ever made.

This week's Torah portion is Vayakel, the penultimate Parasha in the book of Exodus. It is usually joined with the final parasha, Pekudei, but because it is a leap year (in the Hebrew calendar) we separate

Today I want to talk about cholent. If you've never had cholent, you're missing much. If you've had cholent, you probably also have high cholesterol and heartburn. You might think of cholent as the Jewish chili, they even sound alike! Cholent is tasty, cholent is meaty, cholent is a religious imperative.

Wait, what?

Cholent older than the Kol Nidre prayer. It has roots in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi cultures (the latter's version is called Chamin, which means hot) and it has a fascinating history. Cholent was originally developed to prove you were a true blue Jew. This easy, tasty, and deadly dish made by throwing barley, beans, potatoes, beef, potatoes, beer, kishke and whatever else you happen to have lying around, like rice, hard boiled eggs or even Coca Cola into a crock pot and originated as a litmus test to your allegiance with Chazal, the sages who composed the Oral Law and that you believe in the Talmud. You put the mix into a pot in the oven or into crockpot before Shabbat, cooking it on low heat and by Shabbat lunch you have at the same time the greatest and worst food ever

At the very beginning of this week's parasha we have a law that prohibits burning a fire in the house on Shabbat. As Rabbinic Jews this is a prohibition against KINDLING a fire. In fact, one of the seven Rabbinic Mitzvot* (that are in addition to the 613 Torah mitzvot) is to light Shabbat Candles. It was created as a Is a shibbolet, a matter to prove one is not a Karaite, a sect who believe that lights are forbidden on Shabbat and will sit in the dark. It has the full status of a mitzvah to light at least candles to usher in the Sabbath, symbolizing shamor and zachor, observe, and remember, encompassing the many negative and positive commandments that go into observance of Shabbat.

We don't just require illumination, but food. On Shabbat one is commanded to feast! Unless the holiest day of Yom Kippur coincides with it, fasting is absolutely forbidden. We need to eat good food, hot food. But we can't cook on shabbat! We can reheat, however, a mark of a distinction between mainstream and Karaite Jews. We don't have the wars with Karaites anymore, but we still have these tasty leftovers in the form of Cholent. It may have lost its ulterior reasons but has become identified as the part of the ultimate shabbat meal, along with warm loaves of challah, gefilte fish, steaming bowls of chicken soup, and meat. I've had a number of good vegetarian cholents too, because it's not the meat, it's the heat! If you take a look in the B'kol Echad little blue song book we use, you will see about half of the Shabbat songs are about food. Lobby for Cholent in the Berg for Shabbat Lunch to prove you're not a Karaite. Eat cholent and you will fulfill the original mitzvah of Shabbat, because after you have this thick beef stew you will be taking what we refer to as the afternoon cholent nap, the only real way to observe the Day of Rest.

Shabbat Shalom!

*The seven Rabbinic Mitzvot corrrespond to the Mnemonic נע בשמח"ה
- נטילת ידים Netilat Yadayim - Washing hands before eating, waking up, after using the restroom, etc...
ערוב - Eruv - Shabbat Boundaries, whether physical walls or food-relate
ברכות - Brachot - Saying blessings for various occasions (besides Birkat HaMazon which is in the Torah)
שבת-Shabbat - Lighting Shabbat Candles (the mitzvah is not literally "Shabbat" which is both negative and negative mitzvot in the Torah already)
מגילה - Megillah - Reading the Scroll of Esther on Purim
חנוכה - Chanukkah - Lighting Chanukkah Candles
הלל - Hallel - Saying certain psalms on certain festive occasions

Friday, February 22, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Ki Tisa (11 secret herbs and spices)

I love this week's parasha as there is so much to discuss. In Ki Tisa we have the Half-Shekel Tax "to atone for your souls" (a hint to the IRS to make April 15th more interesting for us...), the Veshamru which has made its way into our Shabbat liturgy, that we should keep the sabbath as a sign of the covenant between Israel and God, the giving of the stone tablets and their subsequent shattering at the Sin of the Golden Calf, Moses' ascent to heaven and actually seeing God more vividly than anyone who has ever lived and learning the Thirteen Attributes and recieving atonement for the sin of the people. It's looking pretty good when for the past couple of weeks we have been dealing with esoteric architectural blueprints. We still get a little bit of it here with cinnamon, galbanum, frankincense and myrrh and the other spices that go into the Ketoret, but still exciting stuff as we get the names of our architect Betzalel son of Uri son of Hur (Cliff Note: Hur is about to get murdered in the mob...) of Judah and his assistant Oholiab son of Achisamach of Dan. W00t, fun.

At this point I realize I forgot to finish and post before Shabbat. Oops.

As we've realized, there is a lot going on here, enough to fill a couple of years of sermons (unlike Terumah and Tetzaveh, those are a little harder. It won't get easier after this week either). Perhaps it is the myriad of topics which makes Ki Tisa so difficult on which to commentate; which should I pick? I'll hold off on the Half-Shekel for two weeks until we reread this account on the special Shabbat Shekalim which precedes, or in this case falls on Rosh Chodesh Adar (II, this year) as Pekudei has less to talk about.

Alright, with all of the fun stuff here, I will challenge myself to talk about the boring portion of this... portion: the spices. We have a long list of spices which will be included in the Ketoret HaSamim, that which will be offered on the Gold Altar in the Kodesh. We get a bouquet of interesting spices that include one called galbanum (which incidentally is not even recognized in FireFox's dictionary. Galbanum is putrid smelling and sulfuric. There is something which is done at the end of Shabbat Musaf in many Orthodox communities that we do not usually do within Conservative Judaism, that being the recitation of Mishnaic and Talmudic passages relating to the Ketoret. In it we recite all of the spices and ingredients that go into the ketoret and that omitting any of them would cause liability of death. Even foul-smelling galbanum must be included. I think this symbolizes people. You might be sweet as cinnamon, sugar and spice and everything nice (see: girls), but you could also be odious and unpleasant as symbolized by galbanum. All are part of our community, people we like, people we don't necessarily like, kind people, sweet people, agreeable people, argumentative and stand-offish people, removed people, jerks. We have Four Sons on Passover and Four Species on Sukkot that also represent people, and all elements in all of our examples, as much as we may not like it, are indispensable parts of the whole. We are all in this together. There may be detractors, but we are all still part of the community, and casting anyone out, as much as they may get on your nerves, is a grave matter indeed.

Friday, February 15, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Tetzaveh (Priest in the Pocket)

I just realized something. As I have mentioned in the past, this weeks parasha, Tetzaveh is the only Parasha outside of the book of Genesis to not once mention the name of Moses. God may be speaking to Moses, but we don't know from the pshat, from the plain text (except for the fact that "Aaron your brother" is mentioned and the anonymous recipient is mentioned in the masculine). All we have is the strange oddity where it constantly states "ve'ata", "and you". God instructs to the second person to make various vessels and vestments for the priests.

It immediately raises red flags that Moses, who for all intents and purposes is the main character of the Bible, is not mentioned by name here. I think, based on no extant parshanut, that God is talking to us. We can speak to the priest and exercise some control. A caste system has never really been a solid thing in Judaism. Sure, a Kohen and Levi have various entitlements in certain communities, but they also have responsibilities and burdens to bear. They must bless and serve the people Israel and for that we give them these entitlements. Synagogues that don't do Duchanen, the priestly blessing usually don't give the Priest and Levite the first two aliyot. In the ancient Land of Israel, priests were not allotted land and lived off donations from the people Israel. Kohanim today find it difficult to be rabbis or doctors (eliminating two forms of nachas for Jewish mothers) as priests cannot be anywhere near dead bodies, something incompatible with the position of doctors who save lives (and lose some) at hospitals and rabbis who offer deathbed support and officiate at funerals. It was not in fact easy to be a priest.

According to Mishnah Yoma, which I studied last semester, In the Second Temple, the Kohen who was "lucky" enough to be elected High Priest tended to die within the year after they served if they were not pure of heart. When the office became corrupted under Hasmonean and Roman administration, and the office was bought, High Priests died left and right. They cannot be in it for themselves but are servants of Israel and God. They are empowered by the Beit Din of the Sanhedrin and their position can be revoked, by monarch or by God (usually from the latter involves death or sudden disqualification). Next week and three weeks from now (as Maftir Shekalim) we will read the beginning of Ki Tisa where the annual half-shekel tax is announced. Though minimal so that even the poorest can easily afford it (the Half Shekel in Israel is roughly 11.5 US Cents), the priest has to remember who is signing their checks: the People of Israel. Therefore the Priest is answerable to them.

Rabbis too are not the ultimate authority. Any layperson can do anything a rabbi can. Sure, the rabbi is further educated in Jewish law and a rabbi is empowered and recognized by the state to perform legally-binding status-changing ceremonies such as weddings and divorces but really anyone with the know-how can do it. Everyone matters. YOU tell the Kohen what to do!

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, February 10, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Trumah (A Whole and Holy Heart)

Delivered before VBS Library Minyan 2/9/08. Embargoed until Motzei Shabbos. I ad libbed a lot but this is basically what I said... This is a handy tool if you agree I spoke too fast and part of the reason we were done 15 minutes before the Main Sanctuary got out...

To be delivered before VBS Library Minyan 2/9/08

SUMMARY: Welcome to Trumah, it is here we interrupt the narrative and begin the excessive laws and instructions to the Israelites in the desert which will be the major focus of the next book and a half of the Torah. It is in this portion where God begins to command Moses with the specific blueprint for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle which will act as a movable sanctuary during their sojourn in the desert. We begin with the first ever synagogue appeal, where God Himself commands those of a giving nature “whose hearts so moved them” to donate gold, silver, copper, and various fabrics made from valuable threads and mythical beasts (one midrash in the Talmud defines the tachash skins as from a multi-colored unicorn. Our own Etz Chaim giant red chumashim translate tachash as Dolphin Skin. Where they got giant sea creatures in the middle of the Sinai desert I wonder to this day, something I find to be about as plausible as multicolored unicorns). We shall later learn that the fundraiser was too successful, something that never happens during synagogue appeals. Moses receives specific instructions on how to make the Tabernacle, Ark of the Covenant, Shewbread Table, Menorah, and how to design the curtains. Admittedly, it’s not the most exciting and it is, in fact, the first Torah portion in our cycle completely devoid of narrative, but as we will soon learn there are indeed diamonds in the rough.

DVAR: First of all, when I was asked to give a Dvar Torah on this week’s Torah Portion I immediately knew I was in trouble. Any of the Torah Portions since, say, May, would have been relatively easy to commentate. But from this point through the next couple of months, besides a Golden Calf or grizzly zapping story, we will be dealing with laws. Many many many laws. Many of these laws will be regarding Sacrifices or building edifices or fighting sin-induced skin diseases which have not been part of our culture for 2,000 years. So it is a real struggle to find something engaging within the specific instructions on how to build the Mishkan.

But among the tedious architectural instructions given in this parasha is something absolutely revolutionary that will change the course of the Jewish people.

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם (Exodus 25:8), they shall make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.

Unfortunately, even the dearth of Midrashim I looked up for this verse are mum on the inherent floodgate this should open. But as my teacher Rabbi Brad Artson said at his lecture here on Wednesday night, “it is a mark of greatness to not recycle something dead rabbis have said, stringing together quotes, but instead offering previously unrevealed wisdom”. This Dvar Torah is an attempt at such revelation. I have never heard anyone comment on this verse, so this is a trial in uncharted territory.

Past attempts to centralize God have failed. In the Tower of Babel, the inhabitants of Babylon attempted to go up to the abode of God in the heavens. But now God desires a meeting point between Him and the Israelites, a structure through which the Children of Israel will have a very real and constant knowledge of God’s omnipresence and providence. He commands us to create a home on Earth, commanding us to build him a dwelling among the Israelites.

Ramban, Nachmanides, says on this verse that the place will serve as the house of a king and that God will dwell in the “Bayit” and “Kisei HaKavod” , “in the house and on the Throne of Glory that they will build for Him there. These parallel the same locations to God’s palace and Throne of Glory in Heaven, richly described in midrashic literature. But now we bring God down to Earth. We read a few minutes ago: רוממו ה' א-לקנו והשתחוו להדום רגליו, קדוש הוּא. Praise the Lord our God and prostrate to His footstool, for it is holy.” The footstool is the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies, the meeting point where Heaven and Earth kiss. When the Ark of the Covenant is led into battle, the Israelites rout their enemies as God and His Celestial Host of myriads of angelic warriors join and obliterate our adversaries. We just said this very thing as we took out the Torah

ויהי בנסוע הארון ויאמר משה: קומה ה' ויפוצו אויבך וינוסו משנאך מפניך, arise God and cause your enemies to scatter and those that hate you to flee from before you.

These relics are a way of summoning God, a trend which will continue next week with the instructions to Aaron regarding the creation of the Priestly Garments. All these devices will be used to divine God or perform other supernatural tasks.

This week’s Haftarah from the Book of Kings similarly gives the blueprint of another Mikdash, Solomon’s Temple, the first Beit HaMikdash. It uses the same language as the Torah portion did.

וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא אֶעֱזֹב אֶת־עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

“And I will dwell among the children of Israel and I will not abandon My nation Israel.” The Ark of the Covenant, previously mobile, will now have a permanent home in the Holy of Holies, God’s eternal dwelling place. Something notable in this haftarah is that is in the aside quote “in the 480th year after the Israelites left the land of Egypt”. I don’t think I have seen other references to the date of the Exodus from Egypt in other books besides the Torah. We are commanded to daily recall the Exodus and set our calendars from this date, and yet this is one of the few examples which actually follows this guideline. I feel that it is tying the two events together, the building of the movable Tabernacle of the Desert, and the Holy Temple in the permanent capital of Jerusalem, that 480 years passed between the constructions in the two events.

What happened to the Tabernacle? Some commentators go so far as to claim that identical cubit measurements placed the entire Tabernacle into the Holy of Holies in the First Temple, that it be a continuation of that place which Moses entreated God and in which Aaron and his sons ministered in the home of God. This is the continuation of a literal emanation of God on Earth.

But we, as Maimonidean Jews cannot allow ourselves to anthropomorphize God, that God needs a physical place to dwell Ironically when King David asks to build the First Temple God rhetorically responds to the negative, “should you build Me a House in which to dwell?” I think it is vital to look at this metaphorically. There is a song that is traditionally sung at Seudah Shlishit, the third meal which is eaten late Saturday afternoon as the Sabbath wanes, a placid song known as Bilvavi, the melody slow, powerful, and emotional, I will now sing it one time through so you can get a feel for the emotion pulsating through these words:

בלבבי משכן אבנה להדר כבודו

ובמשקן מזבח אשים לקרני הודו

ולנר תמיד אקח לי את אש העקדה

ולקרבן אקריב לו את נפשי היחידה

“In my heart I will build a Tabernacle to beautify Your Glory, and in this Tabernacle I will place an altar for the rays of Your Splendor, and for the Ner Tamid, [the Eternal Light], I will take the fire of the Akeidah, [where Isaac was bound on the altar], and for the sacrifice I will offer to Him my unique soul.”

This is a powerful statement but certainly not literal. God wants to be a part of our lives but we need to let him enter. When we are standing at the Sea of Reeds, Charlton Heston famously yells, “The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us. Behold his mighty hand.” The actual quote from Exodus 14 is “Have no fear! Stand back and witness the salvation of God which he makes for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The Lord will battle for you and you will stand back!” Then the water parts and the Israelites enter, right? No! In the Torah, God responds by saying “why do you cry out to me? Tell the Children of Israel to go forward!” It takes a brave Jew named Nachshon ben Aminadav to walk into the turbulent waters up to his nose for the sea to split. Okay, so there’s a little Midrash here. God wants us to want him.

In the beginning of the Jewish people we needed a Mishkan or a Beit HaMikdash in which to offer of our substance to God, to bring ourselves close to Him. The word for sacrifice is Korban which also means drawing close. But how will the slaughtering of an animal and burning it on an altar bring you closer to God? The prophet Hosea suggests “instead of bulls, the offering of our lips” should suffice. We need to appear before God with לבב שלם, a whole heart, many of us also approach with a broken heart, which may be even more powerful. The offering of our lips will not suffice without our heart being in it. The psalmist wrote a phrase which we use to conclude our most important prayer, יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון ליבי לפניך ה' צורי וגואלי, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

We have found a way over the past two millennia to survive without any sort of sacrificial service, that which will be the focus of most of the rest of the Torah and much of the rest of the Bible. Yet 2,000 years later, here we are as Jews, and no Korbanot. 480 years separatated the building of the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple. We too can count from this red-letter day. According to my math utilizing the traditional year of the Exodus 2448 Anno Mundi (corresponding to 1312 BCE), we are 3,320 years removed from God’s instructions to Moses and 2,840 from Solomon’s glorious construction project, and today we continue the tradition, in a slightly less literal way. We have moved into the synagogues and shtiblach and come together to pray. ועשו לי מקדש. Mikdash doesn’t need to be a place, it means holiness! Make for me holiness, commands God! Though we pray for it, we don’t need a Beit HaMikdash to feel the Presence of God. Though it might not be the best thing for a Rabbincal student to say, especially at a minyan, even the synagogue is not the be-all-end-all. Yes, it is ideal to be among a quorum of Jews, which the Talmud states brings down the shechinah. But God dwells within each any every one of us, and God implores us to make room for Him in there, to avoid impurity and allow holiness to abide within. God knocks at the door of our souls and we need to let Him in. As the aphorism goes, your body is a Temple. But a temple to whom? And do you allow your heart and soul to act as the High Priest? Let God in! וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם There I will dwell, within the sanctuary of your heart.

Meta: Trumah Terumah T'rumah Teruma Truma

Friday, February 01, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Mishpatim (Three out of the five words in that sentence were "death")

This parasha is full of fun things about which to write Divrei Torah (unlike next week's, Trumah, for which I have to write a really long one to deliver at the Library Minyan...)

I have many options about which to write, so instead of writing about one thing, I will comment briefly about several. In this parasha are both laws that are of ethical imperative and fierce justice, sometimes blended into one. It starts out describing the treatment of a Hebrew slave, that a lifetime of servitude is by no means part of an ideal society (the slave is expected to accept his freedom after six years). The rabbinic tradition is rife with commenting that the slave should be treated better than the master. If there is only one bed in the household, the slave should get the bed and the master can sleep on straw in the barn. The slave should get the best of the food, and the master has many responsibilities to the slave. Jewish slaves are exempted from many time-bound mitzvot so that they can perform their duties. If you injure your slave he is automatically free to go; that is not the way one treats their brother.

This parasha brings up crimes for which capital punishment would result, such as murder and kidnaping, as well as complete disdain for filial responsibilites, committing bestiality, idolatry, or sorcery (sorry Harry Potter, you are not exempt).

Miscarriage and abortion are addressed: If two men are fighting and one strikes a pregnant woman: if the unborn fetus is killed in this act, the striker owes her and her husband money, but if she dies too, he is put to death.

It is in this case where Hamurrabi's infamous Code of Law is pronounced: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, et al. This is where rabbinic interpretation of the law needs to come in. Eye for eye's value, etc. You must pay the cost of that injury which you inflicted, trauma, shame, potential lost. This is the first case of Workman's Comp.

Alright, I promised the ox that gores, the shor shenagach last year. This is a case that varies based on intention and negligence. If it is a first time offense, the ox shall be put to death. However, if the owner repeatedly allows a violent ox to misbehave and doesn't properly restrain or control it, if it gores and kills someone you are to stone both the ox and the owner. You are responsible for your animals.

The parasha deals with stealing and rape (it is not pro-either)...

It then retakes the merciful ethics. God is the defender of widows and orphans and if you mistreat them, God will turn on you and then makes a cute metaphor "Your own wives will become widows and your sons orphans". Yeah, you dead.

Also, you can't take the garment as collateral from a poor person who only owns one garment overnight or God will kick your ass.

That being said, you should not show favoritism in judgment, neither to the poor due to pity or the wealthy due to their importance, but be unbiased in judicial matters.

Lashon hara = bad.

The parasha deals with recovering lost objects, which is the focus of the Talmud in Bava Metzia we are currently studying in my Gemara class. The gemara goes into much detail exactly what must be done. Because I am merely scratching the surface of much of the parasha I won't go into details. Also, be nice to animals.

Don't oppress the stranger (you're going to see this one a few dozen times), Shmitta, Shabbat, the festivals, kid in its mother';s milk (which we all know means "no milk and meat") ,a eschatological and supernatural series of promises for what is going to happen once you properly enter the land (I will remove sickness, no more miscarriage, no hunger)

Finally after this long string of chukim, the people say Naaseh V'Nishma, we will do and [then] we will hear (that's the last time the Jews would ever say that before finding out the details, Rabbi Artson said yesterday in a lecture at VBS)

Some strange stuff about sapphire (the alliteration was unintentional), and Moses goes up to Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights.

Tune in next week (though I probably will not post it before Shabbat)

Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

DVAR TORAH S3: Yitro (Lawlessness & Disorder)

Now that I enter my third year of Divrei Torah I begin to run out of ideas about which to write. Let's see how well I do...

In this week's Torah portion, as mentioned in years past, there are two major events. The first is when Jethro comes with his daughter and grandchildren, the wife and sons of Moses respectively. Along with the mishpacha he also brings a new system of law. Moses has been acting as sole judge, adjudicating for the people all day. He introduces a new system in which there will be other judges in a hierarchical system that is a prototype of the court system we have in the United States and in my home state of California.

The question remains: on what laws was Moses basing his judgments? There must have been some sort of inherent moral law within that you didn't do certain things to your fellow man, however with the advent of the Judical System, it is now possible to create the laws themselves. Therefore it is immediately after this which God sits the people under Sinai and Reveals the famous Ten Commandments (and some say all 613 mitzvot) which will be the basis for the law systems in Judaism and many other religions and governments.

Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

DVAR TORAH S2: Beshalach/Shabbat Shira/Tu Bishvat (Wonder-ous Bread)

Baruch Ata Hashem Elokeinu Melech HaOlam HaMotzi Lechem Min HaShamayim.
"Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the sky."

Thus is recited the prayer upon the manna, the sustenance from heaven which will nourish us for forty years in the desert. In this week's Torah portion we are finally rid of Pharaoh forever. We cross the Sea of Reeds and the first thing we realize is that there is no water. Thus begins 40 years of kvetching in the desert. After being slaves for so many centuries we are unable to care for ourselves so we depend on God. It will be only at the divine providence of God that we will have fresh water in the wilderness, that food will come from heaven and be ready on the ground for us to glean, and that we will be able to defeat our enemies, even Amalek who will attack us from behind in Rephidim at the conclusion of this Parasha.

In my rabbinical school essays I said that God is much like a parent. He provides for us in stages. After Egypt we are a nascent fledgling people and so God pushes aside the obstacles and while He "trains" us for 40 years he also provides for our food and drink and participates in our daily lives. Even though God is incredibly active in our lives at this point, we are going to cry like babies when anything goes wrong "wah, we miss the cholents of Egypt!" (the usual translation is flesh-pots but I think it means cholent...). Once we cross the Jordan River in 40 years, the manna will cease to fall. Yet the blessing remains similar to the equivalent: "Hamotzi Lechem Min HaAretz" "Who brings bread out from the earth". This time we are now part of the process. God sends seed, rain, and sun, but we cannot eat the grain as it comes out from the earth, we must harvest, mill, grind, knead, and bake before it is edible to humans. We were babies as we came out of Egypt with the sustenance from the heavens, but now we make our own bread with the help of God, Partners in God's Creation.

And I think the latter is superior.

In addition, we celebrate this bounty with the holiday of Tu Bishvat which comes this monday where we will enjoy the fruits of Israel, especially appropriate this Sabbatical Shemita year where the produce of Israel is free-for-all. Rich and poor can all legally appreciate the cornucopia of the culinary delights of the land.

Shabbat Shira Shalom and Chag Sameach. I was going to talk about birds, but I forgot. Maybe next year.

On that note, once again we cross the sea, and with Beshalach, I finish my second year of Divrei Torah. Whether or not I continue is dependent upon workload, have any ideas, etc... Thank you for all who read my Divrei Torah and I hope to continue soon.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

DVAR TORAH S2: Bo (Midnight at the Oasis, put lamb’s blood on your door)

Because I am not a member of the Writer's Guild (though I fully support them!), I present another dvar torah, this time for this week's Torah Portion (as I still have a little more flight time, though as I write this intro I am already at home preparing for shabbos...)

Here comes the source for the Passover story… again…

So God is about to nip this Egypt thing in the bud once and for all. He’s played with his food for nine plagues now and he’s going to strike with awesomeness yet again. However this one will be so awful and awesome that it is the last straw for Pharaoh (until he comes after them on the way to the Sea of Reeds, anyway) and so they need to have their escape route planned. But they are not escaping as thieves into the dead of night. They will remain in Egypt until the next morning and will leave with pomp, circumstance, and fanfare, and the Egyptians will willingly lavish them with riches which they so deserve for working as slaves for so many centuries. God needs to give the Israelites (Does it work like the constructs of meteors? Israeloids? Israels?) a game plan. As I mentioned on last week’s torah portion a couple of minutes ago (sigh… still on the plane…), God has been getting glory upon Egypt and her gods. Now it is Israel’s turn to shame the gods of Egypt and their human oppressors. They will tie up the lambs (or goats), sacred to the Egyptians and proceed to bring them in to their dwellings and they will proceed to slaughter them, smear their blood on the doors of their homes and eat the sacred beasts for a festive dinner, all on the night when the Angel of Death (or God as God Himself will claim) visits death upon the firstborn Egyptians. Not only this, but on any house on which there is the blood of the deified beast of Egypt, the Destroyer will pass over and not harm the inhabitants.

We know that in the Seventh Plague that climaxed last week’s torah portion, fiery hail, that anyone who feared God, regardless of religion or ethnicity, should put their livestock and themselves indoors during the duration and they would not be harmed. We learn that there are a number of Egyptians that comply and are saved from the deadly combination of the four elements working in tandem, earth, fire, wind, water (and heart… poor Mati, his Captain Planet power was worthless…). And here there were also Egyptians that believed in God, particularly after many challenged Pharaoh to concede to the God of Israel as having already defeated them and that “Egypt is lost”. Were they given the opportunity or the advanced knowledge of how to avert the plague? If they did would they kill one of their gods to save their own lives? Would it have worked?

And so while there was death all around them, the Jews were to sing. In the future they would spill wine like tears to diminish their joy at what had to happen to the Egyptians, but at this point in time when Israel was still enslaved and whipped and murdered by them this was justified payback. Yesterday we were slaves in Egypt, but freedom will come with dawn.

Beginning to land, gotta go… Shabbat Shalom.

Dvar Torah S2: Va’era (My God can beat up your god!)

Well, a week late but I’ve been out of town. So I am currently flying back to Los Angeles from a week in New York City by way of Atlanta. I’ve been a little busy…

Let’s kill two parshiyot with one Dvar Torah, or the land of Egypt with Ten Plagues. Really both Vaera and Bo are part of a series as I mentioned last year (If memory serves me correctly as I don’t have the internet on the plane).

There is an interesting tradition that would fly in the face of what we tend to conceive of Judaism: that early Judaism is not a bastion of Monotheism but rather is Henotheistic, ie., there are multiple gods, but only One, the single God of Israel reigns supreme. This theory is supported many times in the plaintext in the Torah with examples too many to enumerate. In two weeks (two weeks from Bo, anyway) we read that which is usually rendered as “thou shalt have no other gods before me”, though it doesn’t say that there are no other gods. However the bottom line is that my God can beat up all the other gods, and to quote the psalmist “all the gods of the nations are nothingness but Hashem created the Heavens”. Thus there is a midrash that God was both fighting both earthly pharaoh and his celestial doppelganger, Ra, as well as all which is deified in Egypt: the Nile, cattle, goats, the superior and holier first born. The Necromancers were not denied their ability to use their dark flashy magic, but only to build up to a greater crescendo in the grand finale. God will make Pharaoh and Egypt know, without a doubt, who the real Power is. Pharaoh himself will admit that God is the righteous One and that he and his people are wrongdoers and begs Moses to entreat God to remove the pestilence which He had inflicted. His necromancers who were granted the ability to replicate snakes, blood, and frogs (or as a scarier rendering suggests for tzfardeah: crocodiles), were forced to admit that they could not compete with the God of Israel (or the finger of God/gods, however you interpret it). God says that through these plagues, God’s Name will be famous throughout the world. God’s revenge on Egypt for what they have done to His People will be like nothing that has ever occurred before, terrible and glorious, that his people are distinct and unique and that he is Unique and greater than all other gods and they remain powerless against Him. But there still remain ironclad laws that govern earthly as well as celestial warfare, and Egypt’s sar, guardian angel, will fall and fall hard and then Egypt too will fall and God will lead his chosen people with their heads held high to redemption and freedom.

Shabbat Shalom.