Midrash

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

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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Automatic Enlightenment

2011.04.14
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SET YOUR THOUGHT ON THIS: “I am not this thought.”

Full disclosure: I awoke from a thundering dream last night which seemed to involve everyone I ever met and everywhere I’ve ever been, but set mostly between the Renaissance Pleasure Faire and some sort of concert promotion in a house I was unsuccessfully vacating. (“Thank God,” I said when the alarm went off.) Anyway, I went back to sleep for a few minutes and awoke, thinking “I am not this thought.” It seemed profound, somehow, and important to share, so I packaged it up in a blog post at about 5 a.m. Imagine my surprise when Google disclosed 242,000 instances of the phrase, “I am not this thought.”

I guess it is important.

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“And To Our Jewish Friends, ‘Shalom!’”

2011.04.01
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1. THE FOLKS AT WHOLE FOODS’ Sonoma branch were trying to do the right thing. Last week, I noted that their refrigerated Passover display contained some sixers of He’Brew Beer (unaffiliated with but heartily endorsed by Metaphorager.Net). Fermented grain being Passoverly inappropriate, and wanting to save the store some face, I mentioned this to one of the managers (“This isn’t offensive, just incongruous to knowledgeable shoppers.”). As of yesterday, the beer is now gone — but the other freestanding display now features cocktail rye breads and two boxes of hamantaschen.

(I love hamantaschen, which are poppyseed-filled Purim cookies. I love them even more on Purim, which holiday occurred two weeks ago. But I really love the human impulse to make the customer comfortable, even if we don’t know what her comfort level is.)

2. If you’re in the Sonoma area tomorrow, join us for “painless Torah study” (no experience necessary) from 10 am to noonish. Our portion is Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59; Haftorah: II Kings 4:42-5:19). Call 707.933.9430 for directions.)

3. I am way pleased to announce that PunkTorah.Org has published one of my divrei Torah at http://punktorah.org/dvar-torah/ (the one titled “D’var Tazria & Itchy Skin Diseases”). PunkTorah is what you get when young people play in the vast Jewish landscape with today’s tools, yesterday’s texts and eternal enthusiasm. (They have an online minyan, or prayer meet, three times a day!) Nachum-Bob says “check ‘em out.”

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Mission

2011.03.25
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THE WORLD IS FULL OF angry people. Today’s task: Do not become one of them.

(And yes, it’s easier said than done. So?)

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Invitation to a Study

2011.03.18
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FRANCE STREET TORAH STUDY
SATURDAY, 3/19/11, 10 am-noonish
Torah Portion: Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-23
Neal & Ann’s House
(707.933.9430 for directions)

“Tzav” means “command.” It’s the same root as “mitzvah” which, though sometimes translated as “connection” or “good deed,” carries the contextual connotation of “sacred obligation.” (These aren’t necessarily exclusive meanings.)

Of course, “obligation” implies “breach.” Most of Judaism’s breaches are classed as mistakes — error — mark-missing. But mistakes are not necessarily a bad thing, according to Reb Patrick from the “jungerfrummen” website PunkTorah (http://punktorah.org/):

“…Let us take a moment and consider where where we may have missed the mark. What have we done, not in the past year, not in the past month, not even in the past week, but today! Where have we missed the mark today? Were we angry with a loved one? Did we curse at another driver on the road? Did we ignore the needs of those suffering around us? Did we act in frustration or deceit?

“Think about these things and realize that in our mistakes is the power to repair. Through these mistakes lie the power to not only repair what we have broken, but to help repair others as well.

“Hashem has given us a gift, not of being able to miss the mark, but of being able to realize where we have missed, step back up to the line, and aim again. And in this time, I pray we all hit the bullseye.”

(Read more: Parshah Tzav)

From his mouth to G?d’s ears.

Shabbat shalom,

Neal.

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Why Is Purim Like Yom Kippur?

2011.03.16
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“Yom Kippur brings the joy of teshuvah; Purim the teshuvah of joy.”

(TO UNDERSTAND THIS, YOU NEED to know that this was my response to Rabbi David Wolpe‘s Facebook post this morning. “Every Jewish holiday has its partner,” he said, and asked what ties together Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Purim, which begins Saturday night and celebrates a thwarted plot to kill the Jews of Persia.

(R’ Wolpe’s favorite equivalence is from R’ Jack Riemer: “On Purim we put masks on; on YK we take them off.” Purim, in other words, is about the teshuvah (repentance, or transcendence) of illusion. But Jews have been pondering this relationship for centuries. Purim is a very boisterous holiday where people dress up in outlandish costumes and drink until the lines blur between friend and enemy. Yom Kippur is a solemn accounting of mistakes and deliberate errors.

(My favorite Chasidic view of all this is that Yom Kippur (which some interpret “Day Like Purim”), as a day of teshuvah through forgiveness, is even happier than Purim: “How not, when all our sins are forgiven?” So my answer: that as intense teshuvah brings joy, intense joy brings teshuvah.

(But you knew that, right? Happy Purim/Chag Purim Sameach!)

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Aristotle’s Pernicious Hand

2011.03.15
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PEOPLE OF EARTH, HEAR ME: There are more than two ways out of this moment.

(Say it with me: “There are more than two ways out of this moment.”)

Some would have you believe that you can only go this way or that way. In fact, you may also go more ways than you can think. “You’re not going this way” doesn’t imply or mandate “you’re going that way.” As if that way were the only other way to go! Aside from this way, of course.

Of course, the mystics would remind us that there is only “this way” — or perhaps that there’s no “way” at all. But by their own admission the mystics know nothing, so who are they to say?

Remember this little banterwacket the next time someone says, “There’s only this way or that way.” It’s not a choice between safe/unsafe, religion/science, Republican/Democrat. THERE IS ALWAYS ANOTHER WAY and it’s usually better, if less easy, than what seems obvious. But it’s worth the struggle. Don’t allow Aristotle another posthumous victory.

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When Tefilin Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Lay Tefilin

2011.03.14
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Fig. 1.


March 14, 2011 (JTA) — An Alaska Airlines flight crew issued a security alert after three Mexican Orthodox Jews began praying with tefillin.

The flight attendants, who were concerned by the prayers being said aloud in Hebrew and the unfamiliar boxes with leather straps hanging from them, locked down the cockpit and radioed a security alert ahead to Los Angeles International Airport. (See: http://www.jta.org/news/article/2011/03/14/3086391/alaska-airlines-detains-passengers-over-tefillin.)

(This sort of thing Nearly Happened To Me, in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport in early 2002: the onlookers were a couple of antsy early-morning passengers watching me “wrap up” in a terminal alcove. “It’s a Jewish prayer thing,” I said, and left it at that. They were mollified, I met my obligations, and the world survived another day.)

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Pithyism #010

2011.03.12
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IF I HEAR ONE MORE too-earnest discourse on the “Sacred Feminine,” I’m going to pull out my Sacred Masculine.

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Unplug: Can You Do It?

2011.03.02
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LAST NIGHT I DREAMED I was drunk, belligerent and enjoying myself — not a good combination, nor one which I experience (or wish to experience) in real life. The subject of my tirade seems to have been the apologetic and paralyzing self-consciousness of the modern Jewish stereotype, and while I don’t remember exactly what I said I was truly “all het up” about it. (Which I occasionally am in real life, and maybe why it felt so good to express it.)

But that sense of muddy frustration evaporated when I discovered http://www.sabbathmanifesto.org/ and their call for a National Day of Unplugging from sundown March 4 to sundown March 5. Wondering what to do with your time? Ten suggestions are right here (from “Avoid technology” and “Get outside” to “Find silence” and “Give back”), but participants are also encouraged to create their own.

The basic idea is this: No one can run 24/7 without burning out, even someone as necessary and busy as you. So take a regular day off. See what’s within arm’s reach, and maybe rediscover who you are and what you’re doing here — or at the very least, take a well-earned nap. (Remember naps?)

(And if you found this via Facebook during one of many five-minute “just checking” sessions, you might just want to unplug right now.)

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