Midrash

Hebrew for “delving,” specifically of a religious text. In this context, the text is also life.

Message From Beyond

2006.07.14
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Not all mitzvot turn into ghost stories — but when doing holy work, it’s always a good idea to expect the unexpected.

My wife Ann and I are members of the Sonoma County Chevre Kadisha. “Chevre Kadisha” literally means “holy brotherhood;” it’s a centuries-old Jewish institution committed to preparing the dead for burial. Doing this is considered to be the most selfless of all mitzvot, partly because there’s no way the beneficiary can pay you back.

In 2002, Ann and I joined a crowd of about 50 at Cotati’s Congregation Ner Shalom where, over the course of an afternoon and under the tutelage of Rabbi Elisheva (Sachs) Salamo, we learned — as one participant put it — to “gift-wrap people for sending them back to God.” We practiced on each other the intricacies of “taharat meit” (washing and enshrouding the “meit,” or body), and learned to act as “shomrim” — guards who stay with the meit between tahara and burial. We heard some amazing stories from people who had done both of these mitzvot, and when the contact sheet came around at the end of the session Ann and I eagerly added our names and phone numbers.

Since then, Ann and I have acted as shomrim twice, sitting in shifts of two to three hours, sometimes late at night, and never yet for anyone we knew well. But the third time, I went alone — and that’s when it happened.

I arrived at Santa Rosa Memorial Park’s chapel slightly ahead of time on a warm afternoon. Other chevre members were still performing tahara, behind the closed door of the adjacent preparation room, for a female member of the county’s Jewish community. I entered the chapel, sat down in the front pew, then stood up when three women — one reading from a Bible — rolled the plain pine casket into its temporary resting place for the next day’s funeral. We exchanged quiet nods before they left me alone with the meit and a copy of Rabbi Samson Hirsch’s commentary on Psalms.

And the tapping began.

I looked up from my book. Had I really heard three quick, sharp raps from the vicinity of the casket? No. Couldn’t be. I grunted, and re-engaged with Rabbi Hirsch.

Tap-tap-tap.

A horrible thought struck me, but I trusted that the tahara crew had bade this woman good-bye in the most scrupulously decisive manner. Still …

Tap-tap-tap.

I got up, quietly laying the Psalms on the pew. I walked over to the casket. I bent down.

“Hello?” I asked.

No answer.

“If you can hear me, please rap.”

Only the sound of air conditioning, and my pounding heart. I stood poised, alert, scarcely daring to breathe.

From the bottom of the floor-to-ceiling frosted window behind me — three quick raps.

I smiled, sheepishly, thinking of tree branches, then frowned. The day was windless, and no shrubbery grew near the window. But at least I had localized the source of the rapping, which intermittently continued during the next two hours. If this was God trying to get me to add some kavanna — intention — to the mitzvah, it certainly worked. Tradition teaches that only mitzvot performed with kavanna really count, and I was doing exactly that — guarding my charge either from untimely internment or from unexplained intrusion.

At last, the next shomer arrived, flustered and apologetic and out of breath for not having found the chapel sooner. I reassured her that everything was okay, left the chapel, and unsuccessfully scanned the exterior for noisemakers before driving away.

I don’t know why I didn’t mention the rapping.

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Midrash Ko(r)ach

2006.06.30
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Torah Study Saturday, July 1
10:00 a.m. – noon
Neal’s and Ann’s house
Portion: Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)

“To a man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” – Anon of Ibid.

This week’s portion, Korach, seems fitting for the Shabbat before Independence Day: One bold man, fed up with Moses’ continual refusal to bow to the Will of the People, stands up for Truth, Justice, and the Paleoisraelite Way. “Who made you king?” he says. “The people, ALL of them, are holy.” Gd disagrees, and Korach is swallowed into the earth.

In the modern context provided by historical scholarship, Korach’s rebellion seems to echo of the ancient struggle to unify and centralize Israelite worship at one specific location: i.e., Jerusalem. A cautionary tale backed by Ultimate Authority was needed to ensure that the people toe the line drawn by Judaism’s primitive, intolerant-of-dissent early religious codifiers. Thus Korach. End of story.

Right? Well … no, at least not entirely. Because if it is – if the story is as simple as that, with only one literalist and unimaginative interpretation – then we might as well chuck the Torah and watch TV, which (superficially) seems a lot more relevant to our hectic modern lives.

One of the most difficult things to understand about Torah (both Written and Oral) is that it largely developed outside the Aristotelian tradition which shaped Western civilization and subsequently, our own education. To Aristotle, the universe was a binary matrix of yes-no, up-down, hot- cold, with no middle ground. That’s a fine approach for computers and mathematics, but it tends to blind us to more subtle and equally valid/consistent intellectual systems – such as the one we inherited from our ancestors.

Thus we assume the Torah is a history text, and wonder why it includes laws. We assume it’s a law code, and wonder why it includes myths (in the Jungian sense). We assume it’s mythic, and wonder why so much of it accords with known history.

The Torah is all of these and none of these, at the same time. Like Judaism, which defies the simplistic categories of “religion,” “ethnicity,” “faith” or “creed,” there is always more to Torah than meets the eye – as long as the eye is open, and not blinded by preconceptions.

Rabbi Larry Kushner, Temple Emanu-El’s scholar-in-residence, says we can build our Jewish study on two assumptions: Either we’re smarter than the text, or the text is smarter than us. If we assume the first, there’s no reason to study; if we assume the latter, who knows what we might learn – especially if we do it together?

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Comfort of Nothing

2006.06.23
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Addressed to a mailing list of old and dear friends, during one of the perennial and genial “Nature of God, or Someone Like Him/Her/It” discussions, and whether Immanence vs. Transcendence helps one sleep better at night:

Back when I first learned the noble trade of printing, I noticed that matchbook covers looked different to me: I coould /see/ tightness of registration (e.g., printing a red border around a blue square), or if the press had had too much ink or water in the ink/water mix; soon the entire printed universe looked different too. Similarly, I’ve recently become interested in geology (in a purely amateur, that is to say love-inspired, sense): and thus the hills look different to me now; I can /see/ the slow subduction of the Pacific Plate in the ripples of the surrounding hills, and am beginning to /see/ the two-million-year process which started with the
Sonoma Volcanics and, in my brief lifetime, has become a rich winemaking paradise (and, I can /see/ nomadic hominids coalescing into cities whose long and varied line of cultural gestation led some of them to settle here to grow that wine, and others to create the words and technology by which I can type these thoughts and send them to you).

And in all that, there’s only one of me, and of you, and of everyone we know, and those we don’t. The cosmic and infinite seamlessly married to the finite and human: complexly connected, simultaneously ephemeral and eternal, trivial and important. “You may see where I have been, but no man may see My face — and live.” For me, that perspective/experience — the vasty void pinpricked by kindness and curiosity, which are the signs by which “ye shall Know” — is more comforting than the boxed-in Gd painted by human prejudice and predilection.

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Circlogics

2006.06.21
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Circles, by definition, have no ends — each is a continuous line which, as the philosopher Charles Fort tells us, “one measures … beginning anywhere.”

However, like life’s other complexities, not all circles conform to strict definition.

Consider: Earth’s orbit is (mostly) circular, yet because our planet’s rotation is tilted relative to its orbit, the perspective of us surface-dwellers reveals two distinct “ends:” At one, the daily cycle favors light; at the other, darkness. Both make for fine beginnings, even if today’s — which we Northern Hemispherites call “summer solstice” — may be too hot for anything other than thinking.

May the One Who keeps it all in motion favor our undertakings whenever we begin — and so on through their other end.

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Torah of Vigilance

2006.06.01
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“Pay attention! and be prepared
To do it right
The Super Thing — the thing
That makes you bigger than life.”
— Devo, The Super Thing

Friends,

Tonight marks the beginning of Shavuot, the ancient harvest festival which post-Temple Jewish tradition identifies with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Legend tells us that the nation slept late on that momentous day; to make up for our ancestor’s heavy-liddedness, we stay up all night studying Torah. (Or, as is usual in my case, fall asleep around 11:30 p.m. nestled in a pile of books.)

Judaism has been described as “the world’s oldest permanent floating book club;” in that regard, Shavuot emphasizes the centraility and importance of the nearly 80,000-word document we’ve been discussing for (at least) the past 2,500 years. But whether we believe the Torah’s account of its origins to be literal or figurative, there is in this holiday (as in most things Jewish) a couple of meta-lessons:

1. No matter how well we think we know something, there’s always more to learn.

2. The holiness we ascribe to a thing is in direct proportion to the degree we actively engage with it.

This applies not only to Torah, but to birds, trees, cars, computers — and more importantly, to our fellow humans. We’re all we’ve got, after all; and in a world which increasingly seeks to divide us between “red” and “blue,” “us” and “them,” perhaps Shavuot’s meta-lesson — in the words of Reb Mothersbaugh, “Pay attention!” — is as timely and new as the Torah itself.

Chag sameach!

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Na(t)ive Torah

2006.05.18
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Considering that this is how many of us returnees (including myself) came to study Torah in this unannounced-but-nonetheless Golden Age of Judaism, Plotz’ wide-eyed innocence struck a deep chord with me. Perhaps this is one reason why the Torah remains a “living document” after 3000+ years…

Blogging the Bible: What happens when an ignoramus reads the Good Book?
—————————————————
By David Plotz
Posted Tuesday, May 16, 2006, at 7:00 AM ET

[…] I love Judaism; I love (most of) the lessons it has taught me about how to live in the world; and yet I realized I am fundamentally ignorant about its foundation, its essential document. So, what will happen if I approach my Bible empty, unmediated by teachers or rabbis or parents? What will delight and horrify me? How will the Bible relate to the religion I practice, and the lessons I thought I learned in synagogue and Hebrew School?…

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Omer’s Where The Art Is

2006.04.18
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“Meanwhile, we dig.”
— Big X (Richard Attenborough), The Great Escape

Pesach is over, the last of the matza crumbs have been vacuumed up, and our stomachs have finally returned to normal (or soon will).

Now what?

When we were kids, we thought (well, I thought) that freedom was a “done deal.” Freedom was the be-all and end-all of existence. If I could only be 18, thought I, I would be free to do whatever I wanted: bounce on the bed, eat cookies for dinner, shout fire in a crowded theater.

Of course, the realities of post-adolescent life soon disabused me of those notions. Bouncing on the bed meant I had to buy a new one when it broke. Eating cookies for dinner made me sicker than the smiling faces on the box had led me to believe. And shouting fire in a crowded theater, even metaphorically, meant hurting innocent people.

Hence, a lesson: Freedom implies responsibility. The ability to act implies — rather, demands — that we act with an eye toward consequences.

By the Jewish calendar, we’re now in the Omer period, the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. The first festival celebrates the going-out from Egypt, from the narrow confines and blind thralldom which keeps us from living to our full measure. The second celebrates the Sinai Event and the acceptance that endless and unforseeable permutations arise from even the simplest of our actions: whether thought, or speech, or deed.

The Omer period teaches us that freedom and responsibility are not binary exclusives, but endpoints on the scale by which we weigh our lives. May we all find — or help each other acquire — the perfect balance for every challenge.

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Thanksgiving v. Thanks Giving

2005.11.23
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During the course of an online discussion of Jewish practice in the United States, someone asked the resident rabbi if it was “kosher” for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving. His terse but memorable reply: “Sure — but we do that every day.”

His point, of course, was that gratitude is not only an essential part of the Jewish daily liturgy, but also of our lives. However, like most ideals, many of us find ourselves honoring gratitude more in the breach than in the moment; we face so many irritations (exacerbated by email, cellphones, Blackberries, traffic, infotainment, talking-heads, talking points and static cling) that the end of any given day often finds us more grumbly than grateful.

But the ability to look past all that is crucial — to put aside inconvenience and indifference, to appreciate the countless miracles (astronomical, geological, meteorological, biological and technological) which have seamlessly and inexorably combined to bring us to this moment. So as we gather tomorrow for the feast modeled by its founders on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot*, in addition to giving thanks for the One who taught us about turkey (and the skill with which to cook it), let’s also give thanks for our ability to give thanks.

And if one day of gratitude leads to another, and another … we’ll have that much more to be thankful for at this time next year.

Be well.

* No, really — for example, see about midway down this page (just under the first blessing).

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Feel The Fear

2005.10.19
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When Ann and I joined the small synagogue in our Northern California town back in 1998, it was with the understanding that we would get involved.

Neither of us had been, when we were younger. But especially since 2000, when I started teaching the b’nei mitzvah class and occasionally leading services, that involvement has (as anyone involved in congregational life can tell you) brought both heartwarmth and headaches. It’s nice to be part of a big happy squabbling extended family, but also sad sometimes to see and be part of the behind-the-scenes politics — especially if you’re something of a mildly bipolar idealist.

(Bit of background: our congregation — since its 1995 inception an informal, do-it-yourself kind of place — last year engaged a rabbi who liked to teach that “compassion” was not a Jewish value. Things got very bad for a while, but he quit earlier this year, and now things are better. We’re a community of smart and good-hearted people who like to learn and hang out together — and that brings its own blessing.)

Anyway, yesterday was the annual congregational sukkah-decorating party. As usual, it was mostly the schoolkids and their parents; but attendance was larger than I remember it being, and there was a nice intimate vibe that hasn’t been there before (or at least not as obvious). Everybody got to take the lulav — even some of the adults who had never before done so — and ate snacks and hung the world’s longest paper chain.

It was great, but for me also scary. I’m fairly enthusiastic about Judaism and enjoy leading services and teaching, but yesterday was One Of Those Days; sometimes my self-doubt divides me from the world, and I was looking forward to someone else leading the blessings.

That didn’t happen, though, because the someone else in question — a big enthusiastic guy who’s on his own Jewish rediscovery path, and a frequent attendee at our apartment every Shabbat morning for Torah study — handed me the lulav and etrog and said “Teach us.”

So I opened my mouth, and out popped the teaching that the Four Species — lulav (palm), hadass (myrtle), aravot (willow) and etrog (citron) — respectively stand for Jews who have much Torah learning but few accomplishments in mitzvot, many mitzvot but little Torah, neither mitzvot nor Torah, and both Torah and mitzvot. “And when we bring them together like this, it shows that we all need each other,” I concluded.

It’s not something I had thought to say — in fact, when my friend handed me the lulav I couldn’t think of anything at all but my own fear — but the warm-hearted crowd huddled under the chilly October sky welcomed it with a smile.

One of my favorite teachers, Rebbe Nachman, says “The world is a narrow bridge — the essence is not to fear.” Sometimes, though, the fear reminds you that the bridge is wide enough to cross.

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Home Away

2005.10.17
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For me, there are five distinct stages involved in the building of our backyard sukkah:

Denial: “Is it Sukkot again already?”
Rage: “Where did I put the $#@! zip-screws?”
Bargaining: “Please don’t make me go to the hardware store again…”
Sadness: “I don’t think this is going to last the week…”
Acceptance: “It’s beautiful!”

Me & our summer cottage
I am a humble Jew (as a blogged statement, this may be self-contradictory), so our backyard sukkah is likewise humble:

  • One 4×6-foot Persian rug
  • Eight cinder blocks
  • Four 2×2-inch posts, six feet in length, with two small L-brackets on one side (six inches from on end and 18 inches from the other)
  • Three 6-1/2′ 1×2″ slats
  • Four 4-1/2′ 1×2″ slats
  • One 7′ aluminum javelin
  • One 12×24′ camo (“mossy bark”) tarpaulin
  • Two dozen 6′ slats (1x.25″)
  • One maroon king-sized bedsheet, pole-stitched on one long side
  • Power drill, zipscrews, cable ties

First, I stretch out the rug (making sure it’s under only bare sky) and stack pairs of cinderblocks in each corner. Then I zipscrew two of the 6-1/2′ slats to two of the 2×2″ posts atop the L-brackets, inserting the latter into the cinder blocks (for the back wall frame); the remaining 6-1/2′ slat joins the other two posts, which go into the remaining cinderblock pairs (for the front wall/door frame). Two 4-1/2′ slats are then zipscrewed into place for each sidewall frames. I carefully slide the bedsheet onto the javelin, cable-tying the latter to the front-wall slat; the sheet’s bottom-right corner is then cable-tied to the frame.

Next, I unroll the tarp (which lives under our bed the rest of the year) and fold it sandwich-wise over the frames, securing the tarp’s grommets to each other along the bottom and sides) with cable-ties. Two dozen slats criss-cross the top, supporting whatever garden greenery I can scrounge (usually ivy, but this year some sort of weird ferny plant which sprouted over the summer). Two patio chairs go inside along with a TV-table (for meals and studying), et voila!

And this was how I spent yesterday afternoon. In many ways, Sukkot is my favorite holiday — I like its emphasis on life’s fragility; that it gets me outside to pray; the way the stars look through the sukkah roof; and the way the sukkah looks with my wife inside it. There is nothing quite like building your own sukkah — just like there’s no one else like the one who builds it.

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Shema Echad, Shnei Regalim

2002.05.14
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Couple of random recent things:

1.) An amazing and unexpected side effect of daily prayer (which, last night in the shower, I have decided to call “Jewish text-guided meditation”) is the feeling of expansion and contraction. This occurred to me… a week ago? when I was davening in the morning. The morning before, I felt that my prayer-session contracted me into a single still point from which I could then go forth into the world. The next morning, I felt it again — with the added fillip of feeling that I was at the point between the waves, so to speak. I’m not sure I’m explaining this well, since it’s more of a visual impression than anything else. But it gives me something *ELSE* to shoot for.

2.) During a Shabbos walk-discussion with my wife (one of our great Shabbos joys), I was able to put into words soemthing that had been bugging me for a while about treading the rabbinical path — the balance between humility and self-aggrandizement. In other words, the paradox between seeking the center of attention in order to remove yourself from it. “I like being the center of attention,” I told Ann, “but I don’t like liking it.” She looked at me with her wise and playful eyes and said “There’s your problem and solution right there.” (She’s the one who really should be getting s’micha.)

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Yids With Lids

2002.04.25
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A recent poster to soc.culture.jewish.moderated was soliciting opinions from full-time kippa wearers for a paper she’s writing. I contacted her, and submitted the following responses to her questions:

: Why do you wear a kippa?
I began wearing a kippa full-time about two years ago — it’s 98% part of my ever-deepening religious observance, and 2% politics. I started to become a “progressive ba’al teshuva” while working as a newspaper reporter, and took to wearing a kippa all during Shabbat. It felt too weird to take it off, so I wrestled with my commitment to Jewish tradition as well as to not spooking or distracting my sources. Then, in March 2000, a Jewish Petaluma businessman’s truck
was graffiti’d and set afire. Not being a big believer in community
invisibility, I donned a kippa and have been wearing it ever since.

: What does your kippa look like? How did you choose it?
I actually have about a dozen. Some are too small, which I discovered only after wearing them as “garments” instead of occasionally at services. I might wear eight or nine of them on a regular basis.

I favor the kippa sruga — crocheted or knit — to the velvet or suede
varieties. I have a plain black one I wear while “on the job,” since I have dark brown hair and the black kippa isn’t very noticeable. But the others are of various colors and patterns. I’m vain enough to want to coordinate them with what I’m wearing, even though most of them don’t match my somewhat limited wardrobe. I do have two blue ones which I alternate for Shabbat, and a red-white-and-blue one which I reserve for Election Day and the Fourth of July.

As for choosing them, it was whatever was available at the local Jewish bookstore/Sisterhood giftshop/online Judaica store when I stopped/clicked through.

: What meaning does it have for you? What message, if any, do you think it communicates to others?
For me, it is a constant reminder that there is Something bigger than I am, as well as an ethical standard of behavior to which I should adhere at all times. Not being others, I couldn’t tell you their reaction. However, I have been aproached by more Jews than I can remember who are glad to see a “landsman” when they least expect it! I have also explained the laws of kashrut to an Egyptian man one morning at my local coffee shop, and discussed the differences between Hebrew and Aramaic readings of Genesis with the Samaritan manager of a nearby 7-Eleven. I have yet to encounter any animosity, G-d forbid, although I have had encounters with philo-Judaic types who want to tell me how awful the matzav is and how they stand with Israel because Jesus said to. I smile and thank them.

: What impression do you form of a stranger wearing a kippa? Does it matter what the kippa looks like?
My first reaction is usually, “Hey! Me too!” I’m not hip enough to the
subtleties and nuances of kippot to be able to do more than that, although I’ve noticed that most neo-mystical vegetarian types go for the really big, loosely crocheted kippot.

: Do you feel any (special?) connection to a stranger wearing a kippa? Would your answer be different in Jerusalem vs. Podunk, USA?
I think I do, at least in a first-impression, superficial way. As I’ve not
yet been to Jerusalem but live in Podunk about an hour north of San
Francisco, I’ll have to plead insufficient data. I bet it would be, though.

: How do you feel about non-religious Jews who don kipot on certain occasions (e.g., in synagogue, at a brit or a seder)? Is it respectful? Hypocritical?
Something else?

Personally, I think it’s kind of sweet. It’s hard for me to imagine it being hypocritical or disrespectful.

: What are your (kippa-related) opinions that I haven’t asked about?
I guess the only thing that comes to mind is that I am much, MUCH more careful with what I say or do when I’m out in public. It’s very interesting to wear one’s identity on one’s head — to know that someone’s first impression of me potentially isn’t “affable, brown-haired guy” so much as “JEW.” It has also made me more aware of the ways in which I am apt to (mis)judge others based on personal appearance. Much like life, wearing a full-time kippa is a continual learning experience!

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