Tuesday, May 11, 2021
Monday, May 10, 2021
I was captivated by the line in our parsha this week.
וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִ֣ים בָּכֶ֔ם וְהֵבֵ֤אתִי מֹ֙רֶךְ֙ בִּלְבָבָ֔ם בְּאַרְצֹ֖ת אֹיְבֵיהֶ֑ם וְרָדַ֣ף אֹתָ֗ם ק֚וֹל עָלֶ֣ה נִדָּ֔ף וְנָס֧וּ מְנֻֽסַת־חֶ֛רֶב וְנָפְל֖וּ וְאֵ֥ין רֹדֵֽף׃
As for those of you who survive, I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues. Lev 26.36
I was left rationally saying, this is part of the poetics of the Babylon exile. However, I was forced by the editorial board that compiled Torah to think of the year of rest for the land, the shmita. The Torah has several examples of a formulaic, do x and get y, don't do x and get anti y, but it's not always so straight forward. In blessings and cursing there never seems to be mathematically equal weights in play. It's often on the positive side a continuation of the ideal mundane. On the negative side a cataclysm of disaster and/or embarrassment. How often do you read Deuteronomy 11.21 with the same sense of trembling awe as any of the curses?
לְמַ֨עַן יִרְבּ֤וּ יְמֵיכֶם֙ וִימֵ֣י בְנֵיכֶ֔ם עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע יְהוָ֛ה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶ֖ם לָתֵ֣ת לָהֶ֑ם כִּימֵ֥י הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (ס)
to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.
Perhaps it's something in the human ability to rationalize that can not feel this power equally. And for that I wonder at the curse of the driven leaf. Keeping animals for years has lent some perspective on their behavior and to understanding something of the tension between instinct and rational though. It is perhaps anecdotal observation at best, but many of the animals in my life have been observed in this struggle. There are parts of their psyche that are quite like ours, there are parts that are programmed, instinct we would say, that they lack the rational control to overcome.
To be made to bolt at a mere sound is to cede or have taken from us some of our human ration and give it over to our instinct. Is G!d reducing our humanity a bit for not following the commandments, or perhaps are we being told we've reduced our humanity a bit for not resting the land, and that we will need to exist more like the animals, like nature, until we can learn to respect it to a point where we again deserve the role we were "created" for?
In Richard Adams Watership Down, a tale of rabbits, there is a cosmology. When the lord of the rabbits could not keep his people from ravaging the earth, their divinity stepped in. Everything was changed to a system of separations and the hunter and hunted dynamic was introduced to the world as a control, but not without the inborn gifts needed to continue to survive and live in a balance that reason alone could not maintain.
If the creation narrative of Gan Eden is to be taken as guidance, lording over the world in stewardship seems a more appropriate read than in tyranny. Perhaps it's the timidness of the rabbit we need to appreciate for a while before we can again find the awesome in the mundane nature of simply enduring in the land...as long as there is a heaven over the Earth.
Friday, April 30, 2021
Balance and our human domination of the world comes to mind this Lag b'Omer. The fantastic tale of Rabbi Yochai and his son in the cave where they were cut off from the natural order saw them return to the world destructively. Hiding from Roman persecution, a literal death sentence, they entombed themselves in a cave for years. Experiencing a sort of earthly death in isolation they became so refined in their Torah learning they could no longer comprehend balancing the needs of life and learning when they returned land of the living.
How often do we mistake overdoing a thing as noble? How often do we hold up the one who never takes time for themselves as ideal? How often have we ourselves given over to the demands of an employer to our detriment? How much can our species live out of balance against the natural world asserting that the supernatural realm of humanity's making is best?
There are a lot of ways to take meaning from the Hebrew בעל חיים bal chaim besides just as "animals," but the word life is clearly there. Whether house pet, or back yard birds I hope we can learn to find the balance that keeps our human isolation from destruction by forging an actual relationship with that life. Yochai lived in an extra-normal space so long that it became the norm to the detriment of the world. Perhaps if he had been entombed with more than his son, a carob tree, a spring and loads of time he'd have realized there's Torah in the day to day as well. The time spiders spend building web is not a waste, nor the cat meticulously licking its fur less important, or the farmer farming.
Build a relationship with life, don't treat it merely as a pet.
Tuesday, March 30, 2021
This morning in Rabbi Weintraub's mishna study group we were looking at blessings over food stuffs. It seemed logical, and a happy coincidence that as it's Pesach we've been just doing quite a bit of this! Blessing over fruit of trees, of the fruits of the earth, of the vine, the vegetables, bread, all these blessings were the topic of discussion today.
Some interesting ideas spun out such as why do we omit certain psalms for chagim, Pesach in particular? Was it because of the analogue to sacrifices made with bread in the days of the temple? Another side line was, why do we have to make blessings at all, why is this obligatory?
With a lot of discussion about the need to slow down, and appreciate that we are taking something from the world, an idea I also espoused, another thought came to mind. Why indeed, although juvenile, looking at Bereshit 3.17-19 I was left asking why should I bless the product of my efforts, and indeed punishment?
וּלְאָדָ֣ם אָמַ֗ר כִּֽי־שָׁמַעְתָּ֮ לְק֣וֹל אִשְׁתֶּךָ֒ וַתֹּ֙אכַל֙ מִן־הָעֵ֔ץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר צִוִּיתִ֙יךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֹ֥א תֹאכַ֖ל מִמֶּ֑נּוּ אֲרוּרָ֤ה הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּֽעֲבוּרֶ֔ךָ בְּעִצָּבוֹן֙ תֹּֽאכֲלֶ֔נָּה כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ׃
To Adam He said, “Because you did as your wife said and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ Cursed be the ground because of you; By toil shall you eat of it All the days of your life:בְּזֵעַ֤ת אַפֶּ֙יךָ֙ תֹּ֣אכַל לֶ֔חֶם עַ֤ד שֽׁוּבְךָ֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה כִּ֥י מִמֶּ֖נָּה לֻקָּ֑חְתָּ כִּֽי־עָפָ֣ר אַ֔תָּה וְאֶל־עָפָ֖ר תָּשֽׁוּב׃
וְק֥וֹץ וְדַרְדַּ֖ר תַּצְמִ֣יחַֽ לָ֑ךְ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ אֶת־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶֽה׃
Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field;
By the sweat of your brow Shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground— For from it you were taken. For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.”
The Torah reading that preceded study in minyan was from Devarim, covering 6.20-24 including the redeeming of the first born, it somehow also felt connected.
כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֛ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם׃
When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the LORD our God has enjoined upon you?”
וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ לְבִנְךָ֔ עֲבָדִ֛ים הָיִ֥ינוּ לְפַרְעֹ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵ֧נוּ יְהוָ֛ה מִמִּצְרַ֖יִם בְּיָ֥ד חֲזָקָֽה׃
you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the LORD freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.
וַיִּתֵּ֣ן יְהוָ֡ה אוֹתֹ֣ת וּ֠מֹפְתִים גְּדֹלִ֨ים וְרָעִ֧ים ׀ בְּמִצְרַ֛יִם בְּפַרְעֹ֥ה וּבְכָל־בֵּית֖וֹ לְעֵינֵֽינוּ׃
The LORD wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household;וַיְצַוֵּ֣נוּ יְהוָ֗ה לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כָּל־הַחֻקִּ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה לְיִרְאָ֖ה אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ לְט֥וֹב לָ֙נוּ֙ כָּל־הַיָּמִ֔ים לְחַיֹּתֵ֖נוּ כְּהַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
וְאוֹתָ֖נוּ הוֹצִ֣יא מִשָּׁ֑ם לְמַ֙עַן֙ הָבִ֣יא אֹתָ֔נוּ לָ֤תֶת לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֵֽינוּ׃
and us He freed from there, that He might take us and give us the land that He had promised on oath to our fathers.
Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the LORD our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case.
Are these things related? It seems there is some aspect of time that hides a repair in relationships with the divine in the text. Coincidence was something as a surveyor I strove for, not something I wished upon. Returning to the study began with the idea of everything belonging to G!d.
לְדָוִ֗ד מִ֫זְמ֥וֹר לַֽ֭יהוָה הָאָ֣רֶץ וּמְלוֹאָ֑הּ תֵּ֝בֵ֗ל וְיֹ֣שְׁבֵי בָֽהּ׃
Of David. A psalm. The earth is the LORD’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.
This is at the root of the query. We have the ability as humans to take, and if anything the long record industrialized society shows, we can take with little regard. This lack of acknowledgment leads to systems of slavery.
Rabbi David Seidenberg argues that the landscape of Cannan shaped the Jewish people by building cultural norms, and practice, even a religious outlook post exodus, with regard to maintaining life on a land that was the opposite of forgiving. Presupposing that the famine that brought about the enslavement in Egypt could have been avoided had an existing paradigm for sustainability been present.
The trouble is that humans learn what we like, and set about maximizing our ability to get it, even inside a planned cultural norm set to safeguard us against overreach. We might take a fruit we were told not to touch, after seeing that it was indeed pleasant and good to eat. We might take the chance, disobeying instructions to leave that specific fruit tree alone. There was a time when consequences were less understood, but that time passed very quickly, in fact it was in the beginning. Our great saga, and the human story have been full of more, and less calculated decisions. And in an interesting twist from the Torah portion, it's not just G!d we'll have to answer to for these choices. Some day, your children, (son) will want to know what this is all about, why we are doing things the way we are doing them.
Is this something of a chance G!d never had in the garden. Would the opportunity to ask why have changed things? In the movie The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner, there's a point when the old Pharaoh is being pressured about who will inherit the kingdom. He says, I owe it to my fathers, not my sons to make the right choice in this matter. In Gan Eden there was no past, no one to owe.
I think we bless out of the awareness of foundation, and freedom. In blessing we acknowledge what came before, and our decision to maintain a future outlook. As we enter the 21st century did we redeem what was born before, or are we still taking without regard? When our children ask, why everyone in the photos are wearing masks, or why the seas are no longer full of fish, or why there are so many wildfires Will we say, we knew better, but we thought we were smarter, or stronger, or tougher than that? When we make blessing on food are we recognizing our freedom of choice and what impact thoughtless choices have on our place in the world?
Sunday, March 21, 2021
It's been a hard year, and we're drawing down on Pesach and still in a global pandemic. Vaccines have been developed to fight COVID, but as I write this it's estimated that around 2.7 million people have died in the last year for this pathogen, and our collective search for the exit from the 21st centuries global narrow place continues. Preceding Passover each year some first born Jews engage in a ritual fast to remember the first born of Egypt, and the terrible cost of freedom. As a first born child this is something I do each year, and try to find new meaning in each spring season.
This year the fast of the first born presents some procedural issues to consider as well. It's an odd year in that many events are falling on or near Shabbat, and so how do we smoosh them together or keep them adequately separate? With this fast it's advanced a day to keep from landing on Shabbat. Because of this the fast of the first born now coincides with my 2nd dose of COVID vaccine! A fast is always to be superseded by health concerns, but there is one more option to consider. I'm a member of a community that arranges a siyyum leading up to the fast. It's an occasion to mark the end of study of a book of Talmud, typically, and so this celebration can supersede this fast as well, (it's an odd sort of loophole I know.)
Congratulations if you're keeping up with the mental gymnastics. So why, monument this minor and particularly selective (it's only for the 1st born children) fast? Studies suggest that there is indeed something particular in birth order, not that Torah is mysterious about this opinion, that shapes us and that 1st born are more likely to be leaders, among other qualities.
Starting Leviticus parsha Vayikra gives us an oppertunity to think on leadership Rabbinic Fellow at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, Grace Gleason, spoke on the vayikra vs vayikar question this past Shabbat.
She noted that Torah is full of what we'd call codified typographical anomaly (though hand written) and there are a number of oddly formed letters, spellings, and marks that for lack of stage directions, only serve as flags to garner our attention. The first word of Leviticus has one of these flags in the form of a small aleph. A classical interpretation is that it's to cause us to notice a leadership style, one of humility as embodied by Moses in the hand-off of roles before the people to Aaron and an active priesthood. Gleason noted that if you remove the little aleph you're left with vayikar, and the word changes from And he summoned, to And he encountered, as if to imply mere chance that Moses was the one to lead the people out of Egypt and into the wilderness.
Do the first born among us need this reminder? Is this a place that Torah is telling us, as the start of months occurs, when we mark Pesach, we need to remember what it means to be of the first born, despite the randomness of birth order and all the other flotsam and jetsam of life lived?
This year I see in the build up to Pesach a Yamim Noraim katan of sorts. Eight days from the little flag till the fast of the first born, eight days to get ones self in order for the tasks at hand in the coming year. Eight days to remember that it was by chance that you fell in with this lot, eight days to remember that some things are out of your hands, even with the benefits of birth order, training, elevation and status. Eight days to come to terms again with the fact that tomorrow will cost some thing from today, and we have a chance to elevate that expense, to pay forward, and to do our best.