Midrash

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

5Thoughts: How To Lead Services

2011.07.14
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0. THE FOLLOWING MAY BE PARTICULAR to Jewish worship services, which are the only sort I’ve led (not counting five weddings and various improvised blessings/moment-summonings). But I’ve tried to adapt the advice for anyone whose worship tradition includes structure and text, and who finds oneself in the liturgical spotlight. Hope it helps; I learned it all the hard way.

1. Know your material. This may sound fairly obvious, but I mean it in a deeper sense: The service-as-conducted is a living breathing entity whose skeleton is the service-as-written. Know the latter like you know your own breathing. At least know how and why it’s structured — what each piece hopes to achieve, and how it leads to the next — and, most importantly, what page everything’s on. (PostIts are a big help here, as is having your own siddur (prayerbook) to notate.) Likewise, see in advance to the functioning of candles, wine, microphones, guitar strings, etc.; there’s nothing like a last-minute surprise on a solemn occasion (ah, but see thought #4). (And if you’re feeling terribly insecure, keep in mind that for group readings you really only need to emphasize the first five words. It takes that long for people to catch on and start drowning you out.)
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Torah Study: Spelling It Out In Balak And White

2011.07.09
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(I’m leading services today, but here’s the dvar Torah I’m delivering this morning (and posted yesterday).)

THERE’S AN OLD SAYING: “IF you don’t look closely at every detail, you miss most of the jokes.” Although there are few obvious jokes in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, an admitted burlesque about a Jew-hating king and his bumbling wizard, we are missing one of the more interesting details.

In a classic Torah service, we divide the portion into seven pieces, or aliyot, each one framed by blessings. This gives us a different relationship to the text than if we just read the story straight through. Among other things, it gives us time to reflect; for the words to reach their mark; for repetitions and patterns to show us something new.
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OUR WEEKLY TORAH STUDY SHIFTS this week, as I am honored and privileged to lead Shabbat services tomorrow morning (Sat., 7/9/11) at Sonoma’s Congregation Shir Shalom. We will begin by looking at one of the Book of Numbers’ most action-packed portions: the tale of Bilaam the Evil Wizard. (Just typing “Evil Wizard” is a...

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Torah Study: Chukat and the Passing of the Cohort

2011.07.01
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WHEN JERRY GARCIA AND GENE Roddenberry died, I shed actual tears. Although I didn’t know either of them personally, they had both played important roles in my life — Jerry taught me to dance, Gene taught me to dream — and because of their role in the culture at large, their deaths were like the shutting of a communal door.

There’s a similar circumstance in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, which notes — among other incidents — the deaths of Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron, themselves beloved by their community. Think what it must have been like for the Israelites: smacked out of Egypt by the back of God’s miracle-hand, given a new constitution beneath a thundering mountain, then doomed by ingratitude to wander the desert for 40 years. Moses, Aaron and Miriam were all the leadership they knew: Moses the mysterious, whose face glows when he talks to God; Aaron, who loved peace so much he’d even tell fibs to achieve it; Miriam, the wise woman whose portable well enabled life in the desert.
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I Am a Religious Man Unthreatened By Science, Secularity And Reason

2011.06.09
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(IN FACT, THE WHOLE “REASON” I “am” “religious” in the first place is only due to a direct perception that the Universe is, in some essential and indescribable sense, alive and conscious. I can’t help seeing that, feeling a part of it, and celebrating.)

(Also, as much as I love science, I’m more fascinated by rituals and customs, folkways, manners, stories, legends, myths, folklore. I see religion as structured spirituality, and its practice one of many attentive arts of living. And I like the perspective of participating in something bigger, older and more continuous than I am. I guess that’s one reason why some people play music or build stuff or deeply study anything.)
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Reb Nachum to SF: Keep Your Laws Off My People’s Body

2011.06.06
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THERE’S A PLACE — CHELM IS its name — where all the inhabitants are so open-minded that they tolerate any behavior whatsoever from anyone they deem open-minded as themselves. It’s a nice place to visit, but I hope never to have to live there.

From the post title, you can guess where I stand on San Francisco’s proposed anti-circumcision measure, which would criminalize the act if performed on anyone under 18 and disallow religious exemptions. But considering that Matthew Hess, the fellow behind it, is the same fellow behind the eye-washingly anti-Semitic “Monster Mohel” comic book, I feel I know as much about his motivations — and defenders — as I need to.
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Hasidic Zen Riddle

2011.06.05
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Q: WHAT’S BEYOND GOD?
A: More God.

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Torah Study: Naso, Nazir, and the Quest For What’s Had

2011.06.03
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Neal & Ann’s Torah Study
Saturday, June 4, 2011, 10 am-noonish (RSVP)
Torah Portion: Naso (Deuteronomy 4:21-7:89)
Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25

WHAT DO A SPA, MEDITATION, prayer, music and this week’s Torah portion have in common?

One answer: They all describe ways of getting closer to God.

Among other topics (e.g., gifts, jealousy and leadership) our portion tells us about the “nazir:” a man or woman who wants to dedicate themselves more intensely to God. There are many reasons to feel distant from God, hence many reasons for wanting to draw near, but the nazir’s outward response is uniform: no haircuts, wine, or grape juice or grapes (even raisins!) for the duration of the nazirship. That duration ends when the nazir brings a sacrifice to the Temple — but since there’s currently no Temple, nazirship is an unobtainable ideal.

Parenthetically, of course, each one of us is already as close to God as we can possibly be. The trick of mystics and other self-actualizers is simply to notice it.

May your Shabbat be filled with unexpected and pleasant connections!

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Torah Study: Judaeo Habilis

2011.05.20
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Neal& Ann’s Torah Study
Saturday, May 21, 2011 10 am-noonish (RSVP)
Torah Portion: Bechukotai (Deuteronomy 26:3-27:34[end])
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

LET’S BE HONEST: THIS WEEK’S Torah portion is not a favorite of many, containing as it does a long string of violent curses brought down on the hearts and homes of those who reject Torah.

It’s grim stuff, even for the rabbis who ordained that this part be read quickly and quietly. And it makes us uncomfortable on several levels: the specificity, the cruelty, the seemingly primitive tit-for-tat which embodies, for many of us, the worst aspects of religion. It’s tempting to ignore, delete, or gloss over this bit of text and read only the “good parts” (whatever that may be to each of us). Read more »

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Torah Study: Emor The Merrier

2011.05.06
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Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23); Ezekiel 44:15-31
Saturday, May 7, 2011 – 10 am to noonish
Neal & Ann’s Home (Call 933.9430 for directions)

“It ain’t the matzah, it’s the motion.”

This phrase has been on my mind lately, now that we’ve passed from Passover into the Omer period leading up to Shavuot (marking the Sinai Event). We count off the days and nights in between, perhaps in part to remind ourselves that that freedom is a journey, not a destination; a process, not an ending.

This week’s Torah portion reflects that in a small way. We’re given all the major festivals — Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot — of which all but Rosh Hashana receive the names by which we still call them. Isn’t that odd? The “Jewish New Year,” one of the two occasions when modern Jews of all stripes feel compelled to attend synagogue services, is noted as “the first day of the seventh month … of blowing the shofar.” Its main importance seems to be a noisy, soul-waking prelude to Yom Kippur services.

Speaking of services, we also see some of the details of the Old Time Religion: e.g., how the ancient priests mourned their dead, how to keep the Menorah burning, and the mysterious meal Torah calls the “lechem panim — variously translated as “show bread” or “bread of surfaces.”

This food is enigmatic even to the commentators. Some say it’s a remembrance of the manna; others see it as a symbol of prosperity balancing the Menorah (which sits opposite it inside the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, and symbolizes Torah wisdom). Pirke Avot, the book of rabbinic proverbs, says: “No bread, no Torah; no Torah, no bread,” tells us. History doesn’t record whether that saying was inspired by the showbread, but both he and the Torah seem to agree. Perhaps it also means that there can be no soul without a body; no content without form; no Torah without someone to study it.

And speaking of Pirke Avot and the road from Peasach to Shavuot: It’s customary to study a chapter of Pirke Avot on the intervening Shabbat afternoons, so time permitting we’ll dip into this well of rabbinic and prerabbinic wisdom and see what surfaces.

Shabbat shalom,

Neal.

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Study Torah, Become Holy (A Little)

2011.04.29
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France Street Torah Study
Saturday, April 30, 2011 – 10 am to noonish
Torah Portion: Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27)
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15 (Ashkenazim); Ezekiel 20:2-20 (Sephardim)
Neal & Ann’s Living Room (email scoop at sonic dot net for directions)

Torah is many things to many people, or even many things to the same person depending upon which part he or she is studying. It’s simultaneously a history, law code, spiritual guide, extended mythology, moral platform, conceptual trampoline. This week, our topic du Torah is “holiness” — or to literally translate our portion’s title, “Holinesses.”

Simply put, our text concerns practical rules for spiritual living. We see little things, like rising in the presence of the aged and/or learned; medium things, like not stealing or lying; and big things, like “Love your neighbor as yourself” — the most repeated commandment in the Torah, perhaps because it’s so counterintuitive.

Richard Elliott Friedman, in his “Commentary on the Torah,” says this: “… If one had to choose only one chapter out of the Torah to make known, it might well be this one.” He further notes that in this case, the medium may also be the message: “The strange mixing of so many different kinds of commandments may convey that every commandment is important. Even if we are naturally inclined to regard some commandments as more important than others, and some commandments as most important of all, this tapestry presses us to see what is important and valuable in every commandment, even commandments that one may question.”

(Writing this out just now, I found myself typing “commendment” for “commandment.” It’s possible that I’m typing with a Yiddish accent, but don’t the mitzvot — those customary and spontaneous acts which connect our world with the Divine through a series of micro-redemptions — commend us to God, at least in theory?)

Questioning commandments, or anything, is an important part of Judaism. But to question, you must first know. ;-) Come and learn a little this Shabbat in a safe place for questions. (We can’t guarantee the answers, though!) If time permits, in addition to Kedoshim we will also study the second chapter of the rabbinical wisdom text, Pirke Avot. This thousand-year-old collection of pithy sayings, containing such gems as Hillel’s “If not now, when?” is traditionally studied chapter-by-chapter on the Shabbats between Pesach and Shavuot (this year, June 7-8). If not us, who?

Be well, and Shabbat shalom,

Neal

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Knubel Borscht: Adapting Memory

2011.04.20
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TUCKED INTO MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER’S BIBLE is a yellowed sheet of paper containing the flavor of living tradition.

In short, it’s my mom’s recipe for knubel borscht (pronounced “k’nubble”): beef simmered in beet soup and garlic. That’s it: three ingredients, plus heat and time. Perhaps in part due to its simplicity, or that I’ve been eating it for most of my childhood Pesachs, knubel borscht is satisfying on a soul level. It fills the house with a scent at once sweet and savory, fruity and meaty, and which may in fact prove to be the smell of Gan Eden should the requisite air-sampling technology be designed and utilized.

The recipe originally comes from “the old country” (in our case, my Polish g’g'father or his Romanian wife); the original calls for a large pot, 5 quarts of borscht, 7-1/2 pounds of bone-in chuck roast with a packet of soup bones, and a large head of peeled garlic. Add everything together, simmer three hours or more, skimming off the foam; serve on plate and in bowl.

For our Seder Monday night, I created a lower-portion variant which is just as pleasing in all the essentials and doesn’t really suffer for the lack of soup bones. Four ingredients counting the pan:

9″ Pyrex baking pan
1 pound brisket
Quart of borscht
Head of garlic

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Peel and chop garlic. Put brisket in pan fat side up (trim excess fat first). Sprinkle garlic on top, pour over borscht, seal with aluminum foil. Three hours later, you’ll need a knife to cut through the aroma and open the oven. Put the meat on a plate, the soup in a bowl, and revel in the small blessings by which G?d or the quantum membranes thereof sustain and nurture the world.

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