Make a Fixed Time for Study

עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Archive for September, 2009

Ha’azinu – How do we listen to each other?

Posted by rabbiart on September 25, 2009

This year on Shabbat Shuvah we read one of the most dramatic and literary parshiot in the Torah – Ha’azinu. Living in the age of spin as we do, the text of the parshah, especially its opening call, is especially relevant and compelling.

Moshe, nearing the end of his life, has been embroiled in the politics of wandering for forty years.  Although the Torah only describes the beginning and end of this journey, we can be sure that the behavior demonstrated by the stories we have is continuous throughout the journey.  Our ancestors had nothing on the political complainers of the current time.  Everything was questioned, everything was argued. Leaders were under constant challenge from those with their own agendas.

What comes first?  Speaking or listening? We cannot speak if no one will listen. Even the greatest teacher and prophet, the only one ever to speak with HaShem face-to-face, needs a listening ear and an open heart. Otherwise, the falling rain and the gentle showers might as well be falling on to parched ground that cannot hold it.

Read the text carefully, especially the opening verse.  Moshe asks for the heavens to listen, and then he will speak.  He calls on the earth to hear, and then his speech will be more than just mere lips flapping.

Is there a lesson in this beautiful poem and appropriately short parshah? Do the heavens and skies listen? Aren’t they nothing more than inanimate objects? Well… yes, maybe and maybe not.  What we can learn is that when heaven and earth “listen”, they aren’t busy preparing a response that will underscore their own point of view.  In that sense, they are better listeners than human beings.

What we could learn from this parshah is the value of really listening, of putting aside our own agendas and debate points.  Of the five senses, listening/hearing is the most passive, but also the most active.  To see you must look. To taste you must eat. To smell you must inhale. To touch you must…touch.  To hear you need do nothing, but to listen you must really do a lot.  Above all, you must turn off your arguing mind and open your listening heart.

As one of our text says, “open our hearts, so that we might get wisdom.”

This Shabbat Shuvah (repenting, returning, changing) – in the interim of the new year and the day of at-one-ment, let us learn to be like shamayim and aretz and listen to each other with perfect attention.

Shabbat Shalom

Hatimah Tovah

Posted in Torah Commentary | 1 Comment »

Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur

Posted by rabbiart on September 18, 2009

It begins with a story. Everything begins with a story. Parents long for a child, but are unable to conceive. The father in particular needs a son to take delivery on promises made to him earlier by G-d. A still-hoping-to-become-mother makes a selfless act – as mothers will always do.   She appoints her handmaiden Hagar as a surrogate. A child is conceived. Yet even before the son is born, selflessness has spawned contempt and jealousy. Hagar’s pregnancy makes her triumphant, and she looks down on Sarai. Sarai responds by blaming her husband, who takes – perhaps – the easy way out, cedes control of the handmaiden back to her.


It appears from the text that Sarai does everything she can to make Hagar’s life miserable. To the point where Hagar flees and is found in the wilderness by a running stream. A new set of promises is made. Hagar’s son shall be her own and produce a multitude of descendants. Why? HaShem has listened and heard Hagar’s affliction. She must only return and submit to her mistress.

This seems to go well for a time. The physical symbol of the covenant is cut into all the men of the extended family, including the son, Ishmael. In fact, as this chapter of our story ends, the Torah speaks of him as -referring to Abraham – Ishma’el his son. In the background is simply the reiterated promise that Sarah will have her own son.

Amidst laughter and rejoicing the new son is born. He is called Yitzhak – whose name can mean many things; laughing, or playing, or rejoicing. When he has grown sufficiently, he goes out into the field to play with his brother. The text is deliberately ambiguous – we do not know what they were doing; only the reaction it causes. Sarah demands that Ishmael and Hagar be kicked out of the family. G-d agrees, and Abraham goes along.

The story that began with love, sacrifice and selflessness has turned to love lost, estrangement and banishment. A story of a family torn apart, each fulfilling its own destiny.

Yitzhak is followed by Yakov who produces twelve sons from four women; two wives and two handmaidens. There are good times and bad, and eventually worse. They have their own Great Recession, and preceded by Yosef, take refuge in Mitzrayim.

In this story things are going very well, but then…

וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ-חָדָשׁ, עַל-מִצְרָיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע, אֶת-יוֹסֵף

There arose a new king – over Mitzrayim – who knew not Joseph.

In the background, a jealous fearful king develops an attitude toward the not-yet-known-as-the-Jewish-people Israelites. There are too many of them to live here, they are a danger, but if there is a chance during war, they might leave.

Soon mothers – the midwives – are commanded to kill but instead safely deliverf new-born Israelite sons. Asked to explain themselves, they claim that Hebrew women deliver babies to fast; before the midwives can come to help them. The midwives, and the people, prosper.

But soon the story takes a turn for the worse.  We descend into servitude, but we are rescued and set free. And we are commanded to tell the story of our escape, and to fulfill the purpose of our freedom.

We take our own walk in the wilderness. Moshe climbs a mountain.    We find out where we are going, and why we are going there.  In the words of Devarim

…כִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה: אֶרֶץ, נַחֲלֵי מָיִם–עֲיָנֹת וּתְהֹמֹת, יֹצְאִים בַּבִּקְעָה וּבָהָר
וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ

HaShem your g-d brings you into a good land, a land of flowing water, of springs and fountains in the valleys and the hills (a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranites, a land of olive-trees and honey, a land wherein you will eat bread with no shortage, you won’t lank anything at all, with iron in the ground and brass in the hills. And you shall eat, and be satisfied and bless Adonai Elohecha for the good land which he gives you.

And to bless HaShem we have, among other practices, the celebration of Shabbat, an echo of creation and apiece of the very design of the world.

This is turning into a good story! We set up a nation, we struggle with building a just and righteous society. Kings and priest and prophets all try to set the course for the Israelite nation. We have our ups and downs. Battles with hostile forces. We are invaded, conquered and sent into exile. But in almost no time we are set free to return to what we now call aretz yisra’el.

Not everyone goes back, but everyone adopts the story “Next year in Jerusalem”. Even before we are completely defeated and exiles, we already have a story of returning.

The Great Defeat comes at the hands of Rome who view the Jewish nation as this strange people unlike any other. Worshiping an invisible g-d and giving over one day in seven to an unseen master. This is what our story looks like to people living outside of it, people living in a story mostly about power, triumph and mastery to a human ruler.

Yokhanan ben Zakkai creates a new story, turning Temple Sacrifice into study and tefilah. Biblical Judaism turns into Rabbinic Judaism. Roman occupation is only a “small” problem in ben Zakkai’s story.

Bar Kochba – last of the revolutionaries – wants a different story. In his story, a small insignificant people throws off the greatest military power in the world. But the story turns out to not have a Hollywood ending.We, the Jewish people, are sent wandering into the wilderness, not near Be’ar Sheva, but over almost the entire planet; all of G-d’s creation. We sometimes prosper, but too often suffer, at the hands of a King who knows not Joseph.

The theme repeats itself for almost two thousand years, so often it seems that is has itself become the complete story. In a serious vein, the situation becomes labeled “The Jewish problem”. On a lighter note, is has become an oft-repeated and well-known holiday time joke. What’s the theme of the holiday? “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”In 1875 a German journalist – Wilhem Marr – publishes a pamphlet and forms a society whose purpose is to combat the alleged threat to Germany posed by the Jews and their influence. The society is called “The League of antisemites.” Let’s not spend any time on their story, because we know it all to well and we know how they proposed to deal with “The Jewish Problem.”


At more or less the same time, Jews are deciding to change the story on our own. The heck with waiting for the Mashiach to bring us out of exile, let’s just get up and go – to Palestine. One such group pretty much adopts that as its name – Bet Ya’akov L’Chu V’Nelchu – the BILU movement. It means “House of Jacob, let’s get up and go”. Their solution, articulated by the early Zionists? That the Jewish problem would be best solved by creating a jewish country, a normal state like all others.

How is a normal state defined? One well-known saying, ascribed to David Ben Gurion among others, is that there would be a Jewish country that was normal when a Jewish cop chased a Jewish criminal down a Jewish street.

Well… that ship sailed a long time ago. There is street crime, and there are Jewish cops, in Israel.  But that didn’t make Israel a normal country, judging by how Israel is looked at and treated around the world and most especially in certain world forums that don’t need to be named.

So like economists in the past year looking for signs of “green shoots” in the economy, I went on a search for signs of Israel being “normal” and treated in a normal way on the world stage.  Where Israeli public figures could go around and not be subject to protests, agitation and being singled out for “special treatment’.

Living in the Bay Area we are accustomed to a high level of criticism directed at Israel, to the point where in a community not too many miles away the current Prime Minister of Israel could not even give a speech because of the threat of conflict.  So I went looking for “non-controversial” Israeli figures.

I eliminated politicians and religious figures right off the bat.  The the SF Jewish Film Festival and the protests around the Toronto film festival celebrating Tel Aviv made me rule out the fine arts.  Academics in the UK have been in the forefront of discriminating against Israelis, so I had to rule that out. Even an organization like Oxfam – on all its webpages describing its good works – has one page that is not like all the other pages, so I had to let them go.

The search for normality was not going too well.  Remembering Rabbi Bloom’s comment about watching MTV to stay in touch I decided to consult my favorite secular magazine – Sports Illustrated – and being a red-blooded male (praise HaShem and rabbinical authorities for having a healthy attitude toward sex) in particular the Swimsuit Issue.  And who should be on the cover – last February – but none other than arguably the most well-known Israeli in the world, supermodel Bar Rafaeli (sorry guys, no links to pictures here :-)) .  And when the NBA draft came around in June and the Sacramento Kings drafted Omri Caspi in the first round, I looked into him as well.

Sports Illustrated (thank you Chris Mar) reported that in the three years that Israeli models have appeared in the swimsuit issue they have not received so much as one protest letter.  The Sacramento Kings Director of Basketball Operations told me that they drafted Caspi and didn’t give a second thought to his being Israeli. They don’t expect to require extra security, and they don’t expect protests for having an Israeli on their roster.  (Good thing they don’t play in an arena in Berkeley!)

Finally!  Two Israeli figures safe from protests.  Well, only one, because Bar Rafaeli has been protested by Israelis (remember – two Jews, five opinions…minimum) for dodging military service.  So that left one… Omri Caspi… as an example of a citizen of the one Jewish country in the world, who could answer my search for “normality” among the Jewish people.

(Added after Yom Kippur – we were watching the TV show “NCIS” when it occurred to me that this show has an ongoing plot line involving not just an Israeli but a Mossad lisason agent as an ongoing character. but I’m not going to attempt to ascertain if they have received protests from the usual suspects because it is clear that “normality” is not something the Jewish people or the Jewish country should aspire to or ever will be.)

The only problem left was… what’s so great about being normal?  Is being normal what Moshe led us out of Mitzrayim for?  Is being normal why we have the Torah? Do Jeremiah and Isaiah issue ringing prophetic calls for Israel “to be normal”?

And… does anyone really think the Jewish people or Israel will be treated like any other people; like any other country?  I don’t think so.

“Normality” is not the story of the Jewish people; I don’t think it ever will be.

We are special. Dare we say it, we are “chosen”.  We are a light unto the nations.

So if not normality how about hope?  Hope for living in the world that is the blueprint of the Torah, and in the Torah that is a blueprint for the world.  Or in the words of the Alenu prayer (in translation of course). “On that day the Lord shall be one and His Name One”.  (even to secularists and atheists).

I found hope on a bicycle ride in the Negev, at a place in the Negev desert, at a place where Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Israelis (a new term, see the September/October edition of Moment magazine, Palestinians and Jordanians all study together and form lasting friendships without giving up their own stories.

I’m going back for another Israel bike ride in October 2010. I hope some of you will join me.  You know who you are, but maybe I don’t know who you are, so contact me and help me form an East Bay or even a California team.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a healthy, peaceful and holy year.

Hatimah Tova

Posted in Torah Commentary | 1 Comment »

The Siddur and Health Care

Posted by rabbiart on September 5, 2009

I was sitting in shul this morning thinking about  the Torah and healthcare.   Thinking about the Torah portion’s repeated admonitions to be mindful and take care of the most power-less classes in society, I was lamenting that there was not a verse that spoke directly about taking care of the sick.  The siddur addresses this mandate in a number of places.At our shul we daven from what is now the “old” Siddur Sim Shalom. Like many siddurim it includes the traditional mishna and gemorah passages to be read in the very early part of birchot hashachar. In our version of the passage found in Talmud Brachot 127a, we read about the deeds that yield immediate fruit and continue to yield fruit in time to come – הקרן קימת לעולם.  Sure enough, right in between attending the house of study and helping the needy bride is visiting the sick. (Here’s a great article about this mitzvah, including that there is a dispute – of course 🙂 – whether it is one of the official 613 mitzvot.)

I suppose one could argue that the existence of a mitzvah of bikur holim even if officially one of the 613 mitzvot, doesn’t mean that rabbinic Judaism, or the Torah for that matter, mandates a particular healthcare system, or any kind of “right to healthcare.”  The mitzvah is based – as Rabbi Tranin’s article points out – on HaShem’s visit to Avraham Avinu on the third day after his (Avraham’s) circumcision.  The other Torah source for this mitzvah is Vayikra 19:18’s commandment – v’ahavta l’re-echa kamocha – you shall love your fellow human person as you love yourself.

Therefore we visit the sick because HaShem visited the sick, and because we would want to be visited when we are sick.So what about healthcare for all? (BTW – Does this mean that its advocates want to turn the U.S. into a socialist country.  State ownership of all means of production, state ownership of all capital?  It’s a great boogeyman, for people who check under their beds and in their closets each night looking for same.) In the second paragraph of the amidah, daily, festival and shabbat, we read that HaShem heals the sick – rofei holim – along with lifting up the fallen, clothing the naked, and freeing the bound.  What does the tradition say?  We should strive to be like – in a human way – HaShem.  As HaShem heals the sick, we should heal the sick.

Again, how can one take the Siddur seriously, take וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ seriously, and have an attitude of “you don’t have health care?” too bad for you?  In a country where so, so many people take pride in saying that it they are “religious”, or where people take pride in claiming the Unites States is a “christian country”, then how can these same people turn a blind eye to all the failures of our health care system?  Yes, it is from 2000, and the World Health Organization has stopped doing these rankings, but in 2000 the richest, most well-off country in the world ranked all of 37th, two spots ahead of Cuba.

Posted in Social Justice, Torah Commentary | 1 Comment »

The Torah, Healthcare and Socialism

Posted by rabbiart on September 4, 2009

Its a mystery to me how anyone can take the Torah seriously and defend the health care system in the U.S. of A.  I am not in the camp of people who believe that my religion is the only true, correct religion, or that my interpretation of the Jewish tradition is the only correct interpretation. I don’t think the word “correct” is even useful in this context.

But the Torah, the prophets and rabbinic tradition have an orientation toward society and a point of view on what society should be about; striving toward greater and greater social justice.  Jews do not “give” charity, Jews “pay” our justice obligation.  There is no place in the tradition that countenances a society that organizes itself around blind obedience to the profit motive; we are to organize ourselves around the (sorry) prophet motive!

This week’s parshah particularly brings to our hearts and minds that our purpose – and our worth – is measure by how we treat the powerless in our midst; in the Torah’s formulation the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  The degree of anger, hostility and downright demonization of people who are working well within the established boundaries of the U.S. poltical system to bring about societal measures that they favor – it is truly frightening.  Likening the duly elected President of the United States to arguably the worst, most evil human to ever walk the face of the earth ought to be beyond the pale.

Taken seriously, the Torah is a “liberal”, “progressive” even downright “socialist” document.  Every 50 years land is redistributed in order to restore the balance among all members of society.  The siddur calls daily for special attention to the needs of the poor.  Produce and grains fall off your combine?  You’re not allowed to go back and pick them up.  Plowing a rectangular field?  You’re not allowed to go deep into the corners; the very way you plow your field must leave gleanings for the poor and the hungry.  Got community?  Then you must have a communal food pantry!  Davening the amidah? Then you must open yourself to change – yes – that you can believe in.  You (We) are commanded to clothe the naked, lift of the fallen, feed the hungry.

אָרוּר, מַטֶּה מִשְׁפַּט גֵּר-יָתוֹם–וְאַלְמָנָה; וְאָמַר כָּל-הָעָם, אָמֵן

Cursed be he that perverts justice for the stranger, the orphan and the widow.

When people are sick, they must be taken care of.

Would that we build a society in which everyone would gladly answer “Amen”.

Then we could truly say “Shabbat Shalom”.

Posted in Social Justice, Torah Commentary | Leave a Comment »

כִּי-תָבוֹא – We have a Place

Posted by rabbiart on September 3, 2009

After the amazing catalog of Mitzvot from Ki Tetze, the Torah comes down to earth with only six mitzvot in this week’s parshah. The are:

  • 606: the recital over the first-fruits
  • 607: the avowal over tithes
  • 608: not to eat of the second tithe while in the status of aninut
  • 609: not to eat the second tithe when ritually unclean
  • 610: not to spend the “exchange money” of second tithe on anything but food and drink
  • 611: to emulate the good and right ways of HaShem
  • The parshah opens by commanding us to perform an action and to tell a story. The act is an act of gratitude, the story is a recounting of history. We take the first fruits to come out of the ground, convey them to the place (hamakom where we find HaShem dwelling, give our basket of fruits to the kohen, and make a declaration about the place from which we came.

    וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב

    Remember that one of the many names by which we refer to HaShem is with the name HaMakom. Perhaps it is unintended by the Torah, perhaps not, but we are told to find the place within the place. As the English of the verse has it, we take our fruits in their basket to the place where HaShem causes HaShem’s name to dwell. On the pshat level, this simply means the place where the priests conduct ritual; the temple. At a deeper level, we are to find the Place within the Place. We are to seek the HaShem where HaShem dwells.

    How do we find our way to the Place?  How do we find our way back Home?  By knowing and remembering our history.  So we declare our history in the place that is in front of the Place that is within the Place.

    What happens in this Place?  HaShem hears us when we cry out loud, and gives us signs, and does wonders for us, and brings us out of a bad place into a better place so that we can encounter the one true Place.

    Just as we begin with action and declaration, we end with declaration about action.  Our tithes (yes, it is first a Jewish term before being borrowed by other faith practices) are kodesh, also a reason and source for rejoicing – and receiving blessing from HaShem.  But only if we share!

    Three verses in a row we mention the ger, the stranger in our midst. We rejoice in the good that is given not only to us but to the stranger. We give our tithes to the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow. We give our kodesh to the stranger, the orphan and the widow.  And then, in a beautifully poetic verse (in the Hebrew at least)    הַשְׁקִיפָה מִמְּעוֹן קָדְשְׁךָ מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבָרֵךְ אֶת-עַמְּךָ אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל  HaShem looks down from HaShems Place of Holiness, from the heavens, and bestows blessings upon us.

    Finally – in this opening chapter of the Parshah – we become an am kadosh – a holy people in relation to HaShem; a people who have found our place, just as HaShem has promised.

    Shabbat Shalom u’Mvorach

    Posted in Torah Commentary | Leave a Comment »