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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Pesach and Easter - I can't believe we still have to be having this disscussion

 It has occurred to me that we have a new parallel with the Xtian world and Easter in that Pesach has become not unlike the rabbits and chicks of their season.

 Pet stores and livestock dealers (in many states,) have been mandated to remove these animals from sale around Easter as the irresponsibility of some have led to an increase in animal suffering, and death over the novelty of handing their children these animals on Easter.

 So, it would seem, our seder has joined the ranks of the Easter Bunny and Chick in the need for protected status...

 Our tradition is not for your childish novelty, and has less to do with your Jesus than the Easter Rabbit or Chicks.

 Would you like something Jewish that I'm happy to lend you for this festive season?
 Renew meaning in your own tradition instead of colonising others.
  Now name this new Xtian event something, like maybe Easter, and maybe find some unique things like dyed eggs, and bread, and jellybeans to add some element of ritual, and go study. That's how we do it. There's no way you managed to pile up enough words to call it a "New" Testament without there being something discussion worthy in there!  

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Exodus or Genesis?

Thinking about the word plague.

 My mind goes to Exodus, but is the word plague even there? English borrowed it from Latin by way of French and it comes from the word to hit or strike.

 I've also seen murrain used in definitions. This too is latin, mori: to murder.

Maybe a dumb exercise but I like to see how our words got to now. It reminded me of yotzer or in that we didn't want to thank G!d for making the bad along with the good. The rabbis changed it to creating light, making all.

Plague gets used in lots of context, children descend like a plague upon cake, teenage boys and pizza perhaps? Right now the universe is striking us. We are in a dread as though a serial killer walks among us. We suddenly feel the connection with the past that ritual reminded us we have. Not just the warmth of continuity, but the chill of uncertainty.

We are G!d wrestling again.

We are back in the tent, at night, caught between our fear and our hope.
We will fight, and it will undoubtedly leave us with a limp again. This is not Exodus, this is Genesis. Esau is ahead, the river is behind, and dawn is still a ways off, though I believe with full faith it is coming.

Monday, March 23, 2020

מבדל -Creating Light & Darkness, Making Peace, Creating All
As I conclude with weekday tefilla this morning, I like to read the days of creation in order, rather than the psalm of the day as most siddurim contain. I stood alone with my thoughts, and I was reminded that the creation mythos is a tale of division.

We read that everything was. Then we read an order of divisions that result in even humanities being divided out of one of the sub divisions of everything.

In our uniqueness we can forget that we are a sub process, or even a sub process of a sub process. The ability to perceive and exist in a this and that universe is, we are shown, a legacy of the divine, passed down to most fractional of sub atomic particles.

As I sit at my computer capturing my thoughts my spouse is at hers working as well. She is home rather than the office as we are in a place, like the rest of the world today, where we need to distance ourselves from the others we work with. This seems a very difficult thing for us to do as a specie, we like the togetherness of our world. We are drawn towards the concept, and find isolation repugnant.

I think the Neo Hassidic part of my mind would suggest that this is the stuff of the universe in us. Calling out across the division line to be whole again. It is more than G!d cleaving man and woman from the same being, dividing a nefesh. It is the very clay of our beings, porous and unfired, seeking to find the smallest bit of slip to join on another bit of the world that was, and feel hole again.

I don't believe that the tohu v'vohu, the chaos of bereshit is the yeitzer ha ra. The cosmic background radiation, the white noise and hash you hear and see when you have a TV on an antenna, but off a broadcasting station, is not the shadow of the evil inclination. When we say- bless G!d, master of the universe, for creating light and darkness, making peace, creating all, we acknowledge this. The liturgical change from Isaiah's original words making peace, creating evil were the words of a man who was celebrating the function, not the integers. We are blessing the line that makes the fraction, not the numbers above and below it, but recognising that they are a package deal. And so I think changing Isaiah's words was in order to celebrate all the divisions of world we inhabit, and was blessed with, for without them it would be unimaginable, it would be ein sof.

Today we must practice isolation, and social distancing for the sake of the human condition. We must take a moment to remember that the danger of the Corona Virus Pandemic is real and we can play a part in limiting the destructiveness of this plague by our actions. We must oppose forces as old as the clay of our bones, at least until this danger has passed.

For a moment we must remember the good that came from a time of mavdil, and trust in the process that will get us back to a whole human experience. For a moment we can reflect on what we want that future wholeness to look like. Pollution levels are falling as people telecommute and factories aren't overproducing. People are starting to recognise their neighbours and we have this chance at seeing each other in mutual trust rather than fear. We are asking ourselves, are certain things such as health care important enough to consider as a right not a privileged?

At the end of the creation myth came the garden of Eden. It was supposedly perfection for us, and yet we could not manage there says the myth. This time when the dividing stops and we come together again we'll have the experience to make it better. I don't need Eden, but I'm sure we can do better.      

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

You should live to see interesting times.... 

I had a professor in my Community College days who would tell us all this each time his class ended, every single time.

He was an odd man, his credentials were too good for a community college, none the less I think of him more often than I do many of my other instructors from that period in my life. 

Well Professor, it's been nothing but for the last twenty years... and I didn't think this was supposed to be a challenge. 

These day's I'm rather busy around the shul making sure that we can keep community linked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Organising and vetting communications tools. Working on public statements. Trying to make sure the systems and the processes hold in the absence of hands.

Like so many religious institutions, mine is home to a group that finds itself past the midway mark on the bell curve of life. In fact I should plot ages some day to see how far from the city's mean age our shul's mean age is...but not today. 

Today like many of you I'm still making sure we have Zoom, and people have webcams and microphones and that regular emails happen and that our Facebook page keeps moving. That databases are as useful as we can make them. That we're managing to build volunteer rolls and pair off people who can help with people in need. 

Like many of you, I'm sending regular texts, and emails and calling family and friends  just to say hi. 

None of this is what we wanted, but I had  teachers along the way that helped plant in me a consciousness of the times I was in. 

I don't have anything much more to write on the blog today, it's more of just a way to check in and say hi today. And if it's a little start and stop of late, well, I hope that we all get back to a routine that gives us more of a sense of normal, even in interesting times. 


Thursday, March 5, 2020

A Drash on the masechet Berachos and the Daf Yomi daily page of Talmud

Well, when I was asked if I'd give a drosh on our learning of late I initially said, for real? You know it's such a mix of absurd and profound moments in Talmud, and I've been putting in a lot of extra hours of late, and I'm tired and blah blah blibbity bloo. 

 Then I saw a YouTube Video by John Green, he and his brother Hank are a pretty big deal on YouTube known as the Vlog Brothers but they are also both authors, and you might recognise John from his work, Finding Alaska or The Fault in Our Stars. I like to watch him, as he and I share a similar background and are the same age so I often find we are thinking about things in parallel though neither of us knows that! 

  John Green was recently speaking about a comment left on a video about art and it struck the mystic side in me reading Talmud. A commenter said:

 The project was an exercise in consciously experiencing human dignity in others and ourselves. It's a way of looking at the world and especially at what humans do and experience that does not shrink from mentioning problems and challenges.
 If you look up Berachos on line you will find it described as thus,

 The tractate discusses the rules of prayers, particularly the Shema and the Amidah, and blessings for various circumstances.
 I would say this is true, to a point. What Berachos discusses are the applications of prayer, the Shema, the Shmoneh Esrei and many many many others.

 What we receive when we study this tractate, or any Talmud I've read, is a window into human experience. Men, typically, displayed in the format of an argument, though rarely a real time one, attempting to cross vast chunks of the Jewish experience across time and space, and trying to get to the thing G!d really would like of us.
 Difficulties over minutia, name calling over the order one recited a prayer in, (before they were written in books!) What counts, what doesn't and always understanding that the world isn't made up of sages.

 I tended to read early in the morning, I think our Rabbi more often in the evening. We had a no spoilers policy between us, but would text back and forth as we read and thought and commented. I think what we saw in Talmud was life applied, and when overlaid on our contemporary Jewish experience this unlocked for me the words shared by John Green, an exercise in consciously experiencing human dignity.

  When we study we start to share the experiences and arguments of the past and because of the format apply them to what we ourselves know in our own time. How do we do this prayer, when do we do it, why this way? 

  The goal, as Heschel said, was to live a life in radical amazement, and I agree, though often I'm satisfied with merely living a life awake to the possibility of radical amazement. I think our Rabbi and I were able to take some of the Hasidic idea of consciousness in everyday life and overlay our daily Talmud study.

  What have I learned from Tractate Berachos? Talmud is not an answer, it's a way of looking, and of thinking, and of doing Judaism, that refuses to be pinned down in words alone.

  It is both a lens and a mirror for consciously experiencing human dignity. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Terumah and Love 
A member of our congregation passed away this week, and I wondered what is his Torah?

It was his time, he had a long and full existence, and this in itself makes it more difficult as we knew his voice as one of the sounds of the shul. That light that hums, the door that creaks, the registers warming and their little ticking. When a person is so constant in their place that they become a part of it and suddenly are not there it leaves a gap in reality. It's subtle, but grows and grows. Like the hum of the lights, or the creak of a door, or the registers ticking with heat. Once you hear them you can't unhear them, and they distract for a while, but then they became the fabric of the place. Now without it you are left stretching to hear where they might be and wondering if the sound will come back.

The parsha is Terumah and speaks of the tabernacle, the portable temple of the wilderness. Rav Kook asked why does Torah speak of this thing that was temporary? What's the point of all the detail around its layout and construction if it wasn't to be used again? Being a mystical thinker he went looking for other correlations in the minutia of the text. He arrived at the dimensions being of import and the size and scale of parts of the mishkan being a place to work back from. He noted that the bits the Levis carried around were never handled directly but always transported by wooden poles. There were things too sacred to touch, places our minds could exist but our bodies could not. He asked how were things such as the Ark born on wooden poles? Well, carried at the shoulder by the men. This he noted meant that 2/3 of the Ark, for example, hung below the shoulder, while only 1/3 rode above.

I think Rav Kook meant that part of us can exist in Azilus, in the realm of emanation, and even then only during the doing. In the case of the Levis this would be in the act of portage, if one were to speak literally, but that is only a superficial example to remind us the hidden things in Torah.

The funeral will be Friday, before Shabbos. Something that will come up for sure was his romantic nature. His wife died many years before, yet to the end she was on his mind. He was the sort of man who kept speaking to her every day, greeting her each morning, telling her he loved her each night, as though she was there in the room. And he wasn't always a regular shul-goer I'm told, but somewhere in his life that changed. He was the sort of man who stood and davened loudly, even if he was the only one in the room, (sometimes making him the only man in the room!)

I'm left to think he understood Terumah the way Kook understood it. That if you could find that way in, even if only a third of a way in you could reach the place of emanation. Maybe you could actually hear the lost sounds again, fill your reality back in a little, even if only a third of it in the doing. Perhaps that's where his love was replying to him, we'll never know. What is revealed for you is for you alone they say. But maybe Terumah is showing us that moments are available to us, if we recognise and listen to what we are hearing as we go about our lives.      

Thursday, February 13, 2020

What are we doing here? 

We have had a good conversation start at the shul regarding the continuity of our community and the education of the children. 

It started off with a request to consider mandated attendance for our Hebrew school. But it quickly transitioned into a why that led to Bar and Bat Mitzvot candidates and the question, are they prepared, are they ready for this, are we sending them prepared to undertake the course of study and that big moment?

This is a moment when a young person takes on responsibility for their relationship with the divine. In Judaism at 13 years of age for boys, and 12 years of age for girls (without getting into more nuanced and more specific particulars,) they are considered of age to manage this relationship themselves. Before that age your parents (father traditionally,) bears the burden for a child's conduct with regard to G!d, and halakah, and the observance of the mitzvot. 

Here in the United States it's become an elaborate coming of age party and there seems to be less focus on the religious significance and more social significance. 

So I ask, It this a right, a privilege, or a status to be Bar Mitzvah?  How do our community's parents think of this? 

In 2012, concern about the high post-bar/bat mitzvah drop out rate led the Union for Reform Judaism to launch the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution, an effort to shift Reform congregations away from "the long-held assumption that religious school is about preparing kids for their bar/bat mitzvah" and focus instead on teaching them how to become committed and involved members of the Jewish community. -Reform Judaism Magazine, Winter 2012
 What came up in discussion was a lack of commitment to a Jewish life at home for these children, and the idea that enforcing schooling might make a difference without that home life was questioned. 

I love bicycles. I would sit on the top tube of my fathers red Ross 10 speed from as early as I can remember and we'd ride around the neighborhood. It was the 1980's there were no helmet laws, and helicopter parents hadn't been invented yet. My brother, younger than me, would ride in a child seat on the rack on the rear of the bike. My dad saw the bicycle not as a toy, though plenty of fun, but as an invaluable tool for mobility. As soon as we were big enough my brother and I transitioned to our own bikes. Accidents were had of course, but we all kept riding together. Yesterday my dad turned 72 and he still rides the Ross every spring, summer and fall. He has other, newer bicycles, but they aren't the red 10 speed. I own three bicycles, and because of GPS I can tell you there are 8000 miles on them combined. I have a winter bicycle with studded tires, and a summer bicycle I baby when the weather looks bad. They carry me for work and for pleasure and in some cases made getting to work the most pleasurable part of the day. My father didn't make my brother and us into cyclists by buying us bikes and showing us how to ride them. We became cyclists because he rode with us, every chance he could. He made us cyclists by showing us what they could be, not just what they were. He showed us how to love riding, not just how to ride. 

I didn't have this thing our community calls Bar Mitzvah as a 13 year old, there were no elaborate parties. The first time I was called to the Torah and accepted the call I was an adult in the eyes of American law. Do I possess a GED versus a diploma? No, it doesn't work that way. I had taken a stand against local white supremacy and we were reading the portion of Amalek. Our Rabbi thought it was a time to honour my stance and speaking out against hatred. Was my Sunday schooling important in my sense of who I was and building a base for my culture absolutely. Was it a demonstration of my commitment to the Jewish People? Not as much as when I went on the TV and in the papers as I sat on a park bench festooned with a red swastika and said this must not stand unchallenged. Sunday school taught me what was expected, my family showed me how to live the values, my rabbi recognized my status, and I stood and blessed G!d and read the scroll before my people.