Message From Beyond

NOT ALL MITZVOT TURN INTO ghost stories — but when doing holy work, it’s always a good idea to expect the unexpected.

Ann and I are members of the Sonoma County Chevre Kadisha, which literally means “holy fellowship;” 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 (commandments), partly because there’s no way the beneficiary can pay you back.

In 2002, we 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.”

Midrash Ko(r)ach

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?

Comfort of Nothing

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 could /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.


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.

Torah of Vigilance

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


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!

Na(t)ive Torah

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?…

Omer’s Where The Art Is

“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.