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Saturday, June 15, 2019

Nazarites

Image result for grape 

 So this week we're reading Naso, and it's a lot. I mean, who doesn't like to read about the offerings of the princes of the tribes, and that is important but in conversation this week the Nazarite came up. Also a part of this portion, the vows of the Nazarite are unique. The idea that you'd abstain from any product of the grape and not cut our hair, for a fixed length of time as a service to G!d.

 It was brought up that Judaism has very very few ascetics, very few people who cut them selves off from community, or within reason the living of life. Generally speaking Judaism does not celebrate a monastic tradition in the way that other faiths venerate. It was stated that Torah always gives us a way to enjoy a facet of life and a total withdraw was not ideal.

 So, why? Why do this? It was brought up that some people need isolation to focus on their path to understanding and relationship to the divine. Perhaps when we plateau in our path to G!d we need something of a break through moment that can push us through the wall.

  Most rockets launched work in stages, with one engine and fuel tank pushing for a while and then dropping off and another engine starting to take on the new load as the weight changes and the atmosphere thins. The space shuttle had its own engines, but it needed two huge booster rockets to make orbit!

  After a sleep on the topic some other things came to mind.  

  We have a communal Friday night shabbos dinner. I made couscous with dolma and I did this thoughtlessly to our parsha. The couscous had grape seed oil in it and the dolma well, they are stuffed grape leaves. We had wine for kiddish and along with the rest of the eats the yiddishkeit was outstanding!

 Everything I brought had grape product in it I thought. So I thought on it and my first thought as it was morning, and I was still in bed, perhaps it was like tefillin. On yom tovim and the intermediate days we don't wrap, on Shabbat we don't wrap. The day is the sign, we do not need the tefillin as sh'ma would ask of us. Wine is a central element to the Jewish recognition of festivals and worship. Perhaps as the Nazarite abstains from the grape and cutting the hair they are entering a period of being the sign? And like a glass of wine, or its effect on a person, it's thankfully for better and for worse, temporary.

 I kept drifting back in Torah as I lay in bed and Noah came to mind. What if the Nazarite rite is not about going forwards?

 Noah is sometimes called the first vintner. Why would Torah give us instructions about removing the products of the grape? Wine production requires an amount of civilization and I don't mean speaking french and knowing which fork to use first at the dinner table, but the societies in which we live. Torah and the story of Jewish people are one of wanders eventually settling. Genesis is full of tales that are possibly metaphors for the struggles between herdsmen and farmers. Yes, Rogers and Hammerstein even wrote a song about it in Oklahoma. If wine and the product of the grape represent a time in Torah, a point in which our relationship with G!d not just each other was different, perhaps the Nazarite is also seeking to return to that time and that relationship? A time before Noah, when the world was less civilized and G!d spoke to us differently than after the flood.

  All things change but the One. Even the great storm on planet Jupiter, the terrific red swirling dust storm that generations of humans have seen across the vastness of space will someday end. I think the temporal nature of the commitment was the most important part of the Nazarite's vow. And while it seems strange that Torah includes this as an option for a Jew to undertake, perhaps it is also just reminding us of time and our commitments.

 That we need to understand that things, for better and for worse, are temporary.

 That making the most of our time is as valuable as setting it aside to any higher purpose.

 That perhaps a level of observance that leads us to a higher place is in recognizing the time we have.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Bemidbar

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The Selective Service System is an independent agency of the United States government that maintains information on those potentially subject to military conscription (i.e. the draft). All male-at birth U.S. citizens and male immigrant non-citizens, who are between the ages of 18 and 25 are required by law to have registered within 30 days of their 18th birthdays, and must notify Selective Service within ten days of any changes to any of the information they provided on their registration cards, such as a change of address. In practice, the selective service system has minimal practical effect today since the U.S. military operates on a volunteer basis. Nevertheless, it is seen as a contingency mechanism for the possibility that conscription someday becomes necessary again. -Wikipedia
It's what came to mind as the chapter and new book opened. I can remember standing at the post office in my village when I turned eighteen, and filling out the selective service card. It was the law, and we were told that if we did not we might be ineligible for federal student loans. In the end not only did I need the student loans, but I also signed up for Air Force ROTC, but perhaps that's for another tale.

In the opening of the Book of Numbers (Bemidbar) we get a head count and a reminder of each tribe and its tribal responsibility, and place in the camp. I pondered the tribes and where we all fit into the scheme as I read it. I know and grew up with a family who were from the Kohanim. At my present shul I know Cohen's and Levi's and so see them receive their tribal honors.

I travel, and always check in and seek out the Jewish world wherever I go. As such I'm often enough asked if I'm a Cohen or a Levi, as the honor of first aliyah is still universal. But for most of us the notion that we belong to a particular tribe of the twelve has been lost to history. We are all Judah, we are all Jews right now, and that's enough.

Today I was home, and it was our annual meeting at the shul. Our president, who is wonderful, injected something into her address that was fresh direction from past presidents. She chose words from our community siddur. We are a merged congregation, and one of the steps we took was actually producing a unique siddur that fit our needs. Part cure for the residual enmity, but also a concrete statement of who we were now, and a great recognition of our commitment to our faith and will to be contemporary, practicing Jews in the new century.

Each of us enters this sanctuary with a different need....May we, in our common need and striving, gain strength from one another, as we share our joys, lighten each other's burdens, and pray for the welfare of our community.
May the door of this synagogue be wide enough to receive all who hunger for love, all who are lonely for friendship. May it welcome all who have cares to unburden, thanks to express, hopes to nurture. May the door of this synagogue be narrow enough to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity. May its threshold be no stumbling block to young or straying feet. May it be too high to admit complacency, selfishness and harshness. May this synagogue be, for all who enter, the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.
These words we borrowed for our siddur from various places in the Jewish liturgical world have always meant a lot but become more meaningful as we pass each year. She proclaimed her desire that our shul be the sort of place that anyone seeking to live a Jewish life might find a home and that folks of a more, or a less traditional outlook or style of worship would all be welcome to come and live that Jewish life together. That we would continue to embody the idea of a family with all its various components.

As another chair spoke for his committee (which was carried over from one of the parent synagogues) he slipped and said our joint name, and joked that perhaps this was the sign that it was over, that the graft had taken, and that we were finally new growth on the roots of our past.

I thought of the tribes, and my traveling and how well we are doing this thing called Judaism. I see Jewish life in various stages. Small congregations holding on. Congregations that could look past ideologies to larger goals and grow together. Congregations that dwindled and only left buildings and cemeteries behind in the wake of time.

Soon in our weekly reading we'll get to the offerings of the tribes in Numbers. And while there is some debate about how this should happen, it seems G!d wanted each tribe to be recognized individually. Princes of the tribes all come in order yet they all bring the same offering. A display of the equality before the lord. But then they bring six wagons and twelve oxen. Two princes a wagon and one oxen each?

Reading a Lubavitcher perspective on these words of Torah I found our shul president's message again.
One approach is to focus on our “interdependence”: to appreciate that since we share a common goal—namely, to build for G‑d “a dwelling in the physical world”—and since we each have a crucial role to play in the achievement of this goal, our various “tribes” and types complement and fulfill one another to create a single people. In other words, our differences themselves are what unite us. Since the entity “Israel” and what it stands for would be incomplete were any one “tribe” missing from the equation, no Jew is fully Jewish without his relationship with every other type of Jew.
We came together today, not just to be counted, but to be counted on by each other. A community that is rich in its gift of individual commitment to the living laboratory of Jewish life the world sees as only a building on the west side of town, but for us is so much more.

Check in with your Jewish community and say hi, be counted.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Pets and Time


Not so Torah today, I was thinking about cats.

I have one in my house again and I was thinking about how we measure time in a relative way. This is the second cat in my house. I didn't grow up with cats. My folks were dog people, and I was a keeper of birds and fish.

Then I was thinking about how we use a make up factor to age our pets relative to us. The idea of dog years, although I'd assume cat years are a thing too. One of my oldest friends is in fact a parrot.

It occurred to me that that it might be a illusion that we're are perpetrating on ourselves. This computed age, so to gain a relative grounding with another species.

Maybe our pet years are not to give us a bearing on their relatively shorter lives, but to cushion ourselves against the shortness of our own.

Let's say you only get to have one living cat at a time, how many cats will you tend to in your life. How many cat years do we have? Five, maybe six assuming average cat lifespans of fifteen years?

Perhaps this is why we rarely have one at a time, or fail in overlapping their lives in ours.

It could have been a look out the window, or perhaps it was the yowling little voice calling from downstairs as I got dressed this morning. I don't know why time was on my mind this morning. Perhaps it's the week ending and Shabbat thoughts coming. This weekend is our 17th anniversary, and I still have a hard time believing that is possible. 

The universe is large, and against all seeming odds here we are. It's from that place of smallness that many fall into despair, but the opposite is also an outcome and a joyousness at our opportunity to do everything is also present.

Be full of joy.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Sefira Beards and Face Lifts

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So, as it's Lag B'Omer I've been standing at the sink and doing some pruning. 

It occurred to me that it was very much like a facelift of sorts as the mound of hair piled up on the floor.  

I thought about how we live in a time of identity politics and this was a sort of change of what I looked like to others. No longer the crazy beard full of wild white streaks and hair hiding the edge of the kippa on my head. 

I thought about Jewish identity and how keeping this custom is a form of that identity. As much so as wearing a kippa, or what type I prefer (which changes based on hair length more than any other consideration) which people invest with tremendous significance, sometimes more so I think than just wearing one.

I had been reading about a school for transgendered kids in Chile, and I thought wow, they went to the lengths of providing a space for these kids to be themselves and be able to concentrate on their studies without worry over the rest of the worlds opinions.  I had thought about that as regards our kids in general. We struggle to balance providing an environment where they can explore who they are and grow into who they'll be with cultural norms and health and safety all the time. Ideally the individual has the freedom to figure themselves out without fear, and this is something we can rarely accomplish for everyone every time.  

I wondered in regards to Judaism and what I experience where I'm living. Were my fellows given the luxury to explore what sort of Judaism they had in them? Outside of shul, we're very much a minority and thus subject to the dominate cultures opinions but inside our shul I wonder how many had the change to be the sort of Jews they felt they were and develop that into adulthood? I'm not anti-minhag, there is tremendous value in common cultural norms and especially for a minority. But now that I don't look the part of the meshuga black hat so much, what changes? Certainly not my neohasidic opinions or connections through observance and practice that some deem uncomfortably close to orthodox practice.

We've come a long way, our shul is very accepting and no one has ever said boo about a big beard or fedora. I've had push back over having snatching up a minyan during a fundraiser event and delaying the party, but a minority opinion. I daven with men and women, and folks that have non binary identities, folks that are in kippot and without, folks in both pants and skirts, folks in tallitot, long, short, red, blue, black, white, rainbow, tie-dye. 

As we finish the count, I'm seeing my younger self in the mirror and happy I am part of an inclusive community and I hope that you are as well. 

Take that younger self and explore Judaism again, the Judaism you might not have had the chance to when you were there the first time. Reshape that Jewish identity and let it find itself.     

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

World Bee Day


As it was world bee day yesterday, I thought I'd reshare this old post from years ago. 
Humanity has been too long riding a wave of its own magnificence. Long enough in fact to forget simple lessons, like the birds and the bees.  

Monday, May 20, 2019

Mitzvot Tzrichot Kavvana

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I was in the shul Sunday to help record some music but stumbled into our oldest Hebrew school kids learning some davening skills and getting familiar with some things like tefillin and tallis and the order of service. 

It was a little choppy, but they were getting a chance to get used to how a morning service runs and more importantly time to stop it and say why. At one point I mentioned Hebrew and how the siddur I had in hand also had English in it, which I use on my own more often, but stressed that while we live in an English world it was important to get used to Hebrew. 

The ability to travel anywhere in the world and find yourself in a place of relative comfort walking into any Jewish religious service can not be fully expressed, only experienced. Knowing that you don't just have an extended family in your own community but all across the world is a comfort in uncomfortable times. 

The night before I was talking with our board president.  She was lamenting her kids detachment from any synagogue life. They ranged from the early 20's to the early 30's and so I said, well, they might reach a point where they want it. I asked about their schooling and they had Bar/Bat Mitzvot although it was a fight at times and there was some question about the event really happening! One went on to finish Hebrew school, the other wanted nothing to do with it after 13. 

Our President went through conversion, she elected to become a member of the tribe when she was married and commit to a Jewish family. Intermarriage is quite common, conversion sometimes, sometimes not, but she said one of her children gave her a hard time during this process saying, "Your not really Jewish...you converted." It's just as childish when adults say this as well. 

I was standing with floundering children before the arc all born Jewish without a clue as to how to do Jewish.

We are all made Jewish, by our intentions and our actions, we all have to choose Jewish, moment to moment every day. 

Everyone is Jewish by choice, everyone. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

LagB'Omer is Coming Fast!


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So, how is the Omer going for you? I managed to bomb this year's count spectacularly only a few days into it. My excuse is irrelevant, I missed a day, and so am not entitled to make the blessing before each count any longer, though I count along with my community all the same. 

And so...? You're thinking.... 

Well, it's strange but it's a loss, a loss of something joyful that I was able to proclaim and do. I typically keep the Omer count, (the period between Pesach and Shavout of 50 days,) and bless and count my way along. It's no great achievement at my age to count to fifty, but it is a wonderful recognition that I'm able to make the time to do so. Or to put it another way, that I have the privilege to do so. 

Our lives in America are full of luxury and mine is no exception. If I want a cup of tea or coffee I can make it. I don't have to consider that the leaf or bean has traveled across the globe to be in my kitchen. If I want to study a topic I can search the internet, at my house, on my own computers, in my own library. I am a rich man in this respect, and yet I can not buy back my right to bless before I count. Like spring flowers, the moment is brief and intense and transient, and over again until next year. 

Our world has gotten poor for many things, and in particular a regards for our wealth and what it really can buy for us. I read a report in the news that plastic garbage bags and candy wrappers were found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest natural feature on the planet. This is only the third time humans have seen the ocean floor of the Mariana and along with a myriad of wondrous life, they found our wreckage. What did that bag cost to pick up from the bottom of the sea when remembering to not lose it when it was on land seemed too expensive at the time? 

Counting the Omer is crossing a desert of time, but Lag B'Omer is coming up. As I write this it is the 13th of May, 2019 an so on the 23rd we will reach an oasis in what is usually described as a time of sadness.  Tales have it that Rabbi Akiva's students were hit by a plague, and 24,000 of them died in it, but on Lag B'Omer the plague stopped. The tale says that it was because they didn't respect each other that the plague came upon them.

Will we endure a plague of our own making for our loss of respect for each other and the earth? 

It's hard to be on all the time, and I'm certainly not one who can be forever in the moment. But when we reach the 33 day of the Omer and we're taking rest from the sadness, I'd suggest that we plan to do better.

Eternal vigilance belongs to God.  ויי לא  ינום, ולא יישן 
We're only human and have room to grow.


Organize a teaching moment, plan something for Shavout when we stay up all night learning. Make it about the earth and what steps we can take to be more cognizant of what our loss of respect is doing. Speak to disposable culture, talk on workers rights and fair wages, argue over animal husbandry and factory farming. Visit other shuls and temple and synagogues and meet other Jews and come together. Small things lead to big things, good and bad. Plan some small steps in the positive. 

Maybe I'll see you at the barbers next Thursday? I'd love to hear what you have in mind.

And next year, we'll be blessing as we count together.