September 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
I think that I may have told you this: when my son was very young, he could not eat soy. It was an inability to digest soy protein, similar to an allergy, more serious than an intolerance. And, as I discovered, soy is in everything.
He could not eat fast food, chain restaurant food, frozen prepared foods like pizza or pot pies, ice cream products, most snack crackers, most cereals, most breads — and so on. We learned quickly which places prepared their own food and which ones had it trucked in pre-prepared.
It was a royal pain, and as a working single mom and a full-time graduate student, I did not really have the time or money to stop and make every single one of his meals by hand. That was the curse.
But, like any parent, I did what was needed to be done. I simply had to. I had known how to make a few dishes prior to that point, of course, but like most folks I leaned on the prepared foods as well. In response to this changed circumstance, I learned how to cook.
That’s when I learned how to cook Indian food, in fact: realizing that vegetarian meals might be cheaper, I went to the local Indian grocery in Cincinnati and asked the clerk for a recommendation for a cookbook. He called his auntie to come and help me and she selected a copy of ‘Indian Vegetarian Cooking’ for me – “it’s what we give all new brides,” she said. I’ve made just about every dish in that cookbook.
For four years straight I made everything from scratch, in large batches, and froze individual portions in little plastic containers. Everything he ate was made by me. Everything. Because he would be violently ill if it wasn’t.
And that was a blessing, actually. In those same years, it would have been very easy — and quite reasonable — to pick up a serious fast food habit. The dollar menu is cheap and easy and it makes kids happy. But it would have been profoundly distructive to my own health.
Sometimes a curse is a blessing.
But it is very difficult, of course, to see how the curses in this week’s portion could ever be transformed into a blessing. They speak of famine and want, of starvation and degradation. And all this for ignoring God’s commands.
It seems wildly vindictive: how could such activities be punishments if God is just? There are times when we go astray, but why should God be so harsh in punishment?
So let me try and explain what’s really going on here.
According to the text, “Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God: Heed the Lord your God and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.”
That is to say, Moses is about to explain the terms for the covenant with God. You are about to join in a covenant, he says, let me explain what that will mean.
So, to turn back to the text:
“Thereupon Moses charged the people, saying: After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphthali.”
In other words, this particular reading of blessings and curses is not a theological statement of what God will do to you if you don’t behave. Rather, this passage is explaining a ritual action, one taken in order to join in a covenant with God.
So what does that mean, exactly?
Our relationship to God is structured as a covenant, which is a very particular type of agreement. In the Ancient Near East, the great powers would enter into agreements with weaker nations. The powerful one would pledge to protect the weaker nation, and in return the weaker one would pledge fidelity to the powerful one.
Thus, the ritual that is enacted here parallels those enacted among nations in the Ancient Near East. In both cases, witnesses are needed: in the case of God and the people Israel, the witnesses are heaven and earth. And, in both cases, a list of blessings and curses are read out loud before the assembly: blessings if the covenant is kept, and curses if it is broken. Here we have a record of the blessings and curses being read aloud, as is appropriate for a covenant ceremony.
As a final step, a ritual action is taken in which something is split into two parts to symbolize the ‘cutting’ of an agreement. Usually it’s an animal. Here, though, the people are split into two parts, so that one half is on Mount Gerizim and one half is on Mount Ebal.
For the record, I suspect that this particular ritual is actually a projection backwards: it’s written after the first exile, as an explanation for what has happened to the Israelite people. There are two reasons why I make this suggestion: first, this ritual is heavy on the spoken word and light on the blood sacrifice, which would suggest a later date for its provenance. Second, the nation did split into two, the northern and southern kingdoms, with half of the people in one and half of the people in the other. So this passage might be a projection backwards, to make the case that the exile was part of God’s plan.
Now you might ask: why do they think in these terms? Why would these images of conquest and subsequent covenant appear here?
Some of it has to do with the ancient belief that there were a multitude of gods that were each assigned to protect a particular territory. That’s the context for the narrative of Jacob’s ladder: Jacob dreams of angels going up the ladder – these are the angels responsible for the territory he is in now – and angels coming down the ladder – these are the angels responsible for the territory he is about to enter. The dream is the realization that God transcends borders. The story teaches: if you must believe in local protective spirits, these might be conceptualized as angels guarding you in a particular territory. But God transcends all.
And that was a revolutionary concept. The common assumption in that time and place was that when one nation would conquer another, the newly-conquered peoples would take on the worship of the conquering peoples’ God.
The covenant ceremony, therefore, is a form of resistance: just as we might sign a treaty with the powerful nation that conquered us, it is also possible to sign a treaty with the power that is our ultimate ruler. And that power, Our God, demands our fidelity. Losing on the battlefield, therefore, does not mean that the other peoples’ gods have won as well. We remain loyal to our God.
In other words: the blessings and curses here are not a tit-for-tat litany of what happens to you if you sin. They are, instead, a statement of defiance: even if we become a conquered people, even if we experience exile, we will remain faithful to our God and our culture. We don’t just believe in God when good things happen to us; we have faith when things are difficult and all appears to be lost.
And that’s a more mature faith: it is moving past an idea that God is like Santa Claus and moving toward an understanding of the world that is much more nuanced and appreciative of all that does go well in our lives. And in that sense, it’s an important lesson for us as we move toward the holidays.
So I will pronounce a blessing upon you: May you be inscribed in the book of life.
August 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
In one of his closing speeches toward the end of Deuteronomy, Moses presents us with a choice: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…” Set before us, of course, is a choice between doing good and doing evil, between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing.
When it is put that way, it seems so easy, really: do the right thing or the wrong thing. It is a choice that you make. And it appears to be really quite clear which way is the right way.
Some things are in fact that clear: when you are standing in line at the cash register, it is indeed wrong to take one of the items on the counter and put it in your pocket without paying for it.
You may have had the sudden awareness when standing there – at a moment when the cashier’s back is turned – that you could do something like that. Maybe it startled you, or frightened you: why am I thinking of such things?
But you should know that this awareness that it is possible to do something wrong is actually your moral insight at work. It means, in fact, that you are making an active moral choice.
In the course of your moral development, you will encounter these decision-points and have to choose. And eventually, through the force of repetition, these decision-points become second nature.
The shoplifting scenario I just mentioned – the awareness that you could take something without paying for it – is one that adults don’t usually have much trouble resisting.
It’s primarily a teenage dilemma, at an age when impulses are strong and the control of those impulses is still quite weak. As a teenager, your brain chemistry is primed to take risks but your thinking skills are not fully developed. You are not fully able to understand the implications of those risks. That’s when the candy at the cash register is a temptation.
That fact is precisely why we have juvenile courts, and that fact is precisely why it’s possible to have your record wiped clean once you’re an adult.
For adults, moral dilemmas regarding stealing are more likely to appear when other pressures are involved– such as when one is experiencing a serious shortfall of cash alongside a pressing need to pay bills. As an adult, you should have the ability to resist the temptation, having learned impulse control as a teenager.
So let’s talk about Judaism for a moment.
What is Judaism’s basic understanding of human nature? Judaism teaches that we are born with competing impulses – the impulse to do wrong, called yetzer ha-ra, and the impulse to do good, called yetzer ha-tov. These two impulses pull us in opposite directions. The image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other is really a Jewish image: the idea that we have these competing views, urging us to make a choice.
Note that this is profoundly different than the Christian view, which is the dominant view in American society: Christianity argues that we all are sinful on account of the Original Sin. Because Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree, they became sinful and mortal. In this view, sinfulness will always win, because that is our basic nature, which is why a savior is needed. That’s why Christians refer to their testament – their gospel – as the ‘good news.’ For them, Jesus’ sacrifice offers the good news that sin can ultimately be overcome.
So, to get back to Judaism: Our view is that we have a dual nature. Sin does not always win. In fact, it shouldn’t always win. You are presented with a choice between doing good and doing wrong. And you are expected to choose to do good.
In some areas of your life, that choice is easy. Once you’ve mastered your impulses and grown into adulthood, you don’t need to be congratulated for ignoring the temptations of the candy on the gas station cashier’s countertop: of course you pay for what you take.
But there are other places, other points in your life, where that choice is much harder.
Every one of us has a decision-point where it is necessary to make an active choice: to lie or tell the truth. To gossip or to refrain from gossiping. To fudge the numbers or to give full disclosure. To give in to temptation or to remain chaste. All of these things have the potential to be a decision-point.
One of those decision-points, for example, might relate to issues of race and class: how do you approach someone who is different than you – someone who comes from a different background? Do you choose to learn about the other, to find out what makes that person tick, so that you might find common ground? Or do you retreat into stereotypes?
Do you assume you know a person’s motivations? Or do you ask to hear a person’s story?
I will give you a hint: if you ever find yourself saying ‘but they’re just like that’ you are engaging in a generalization – a stereotype – and haven’t yet done the work of finding out what really is motivating this group’s behavior.
Ask yourself: how do I know that’s true? Have I actually ever met someone who’s like that? And did we ever have an extended conversation to learn why that might be true?
We are fed a steady diet of stereotypes in our movies and television shows. If you don’t actually know a black man personally, for example, it’s easy to start believing the stereotypes, whether you intend to or not, whether you think of yourself as racist or not.
And if you were to rely on those stereotypes, you might decide that an unarmed teenager is a dangerous black man who needs to be subdued. Yet you would be wrong, very wrong, for shooting to kill a child. A man-sized child is still a child. It is your fear that makes him into something larger than he is.
So what is Judaism’s solution to this ongoing dilemma? What does Judaism have to offer us?
As I mentioned earlier, Judaism’s position on human nature is that we are torn between conflicting impulses. We are easily misled by these impulses, so that it is entirely possible to do wrong while convinced of the rightness of our behavior.
Not convinced? Try this little thought-experiment for a moment: think of something you did in the past that brings you a sense of shame.
At the time that you did it, were you convinced that it was the right thing to do? Did you have all kinds of reasons why you ‘had to’ do it or ‘were forced’ to take that action?
Judaism’s answer to this difficulty is found in the edifice of the commandments. We have this elaborate list of do’s and don’ts as a way to give us a way to structure our lives. In the midst of the chaos of competing impulses, the commandments provide an external grid by which we might measure our response.
But there’s a catch: it is entirely possible (in the words of the ancient rabbis) to be ‘a scoundrel within the bounds of the law.’
You can’t just give over all of your moral authority to the law and assume that its literal fulfillment will save you from any wrongdoing. That’s really a variation on the traditional Christian viewpoint: something wholly good that is external to you will save you from your own evil desires. We don’t believe that.
The Jewish view is that you must save yourself. And, in fact, only you can save yourself. And furthermore, you have to do so by working painstakingly through the moral code that you have inherited, deciding point-by-point how to act. It can be excruciatingly difficult.
But that’s the whole of Judaism, as encapsulated in Hillel’s dictum: ‘what is hateful to you do not do to another. That is all of Judaism. Now go and study.’
August 1, 2014 § 2 Comments
Next Tuesday is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when both Temples – the first and the second – fell. The First Temple fell in 586 BCE, destroyed by the Babylonians. According to the tradition, the Second Temple fell on the very same date – the ninth of Av – nearly 600 years later, in the year 70 of our secular calendar, this time at the hand of the Romans.
Up until the destruction of the Temple, the primary approach to worship in the Ancient Near East had been animal sacrifice: you bring an animal to the priest, who slaughters the animal in a ritual fashion, burns part of it, and then splits it between you two. The priest gets a portion as his fee, and you have the rest.
And the purpose of this sacrificial system, at least in its ancient form, was to maintain the order of the cosmos.
The Temple, behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies, was the point where heaven and earth meet. The priests were charged with keeping this system going, and preventing the profane elements of living from reaching the holy.
So when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, they destroyed more than a mere building – they destroyed the entire structure of Israelite worship.
And the Romans were fairly thorough in their destruction: they set it on fire, desecrated its precincts, and forbade any further use of the Temple.
If you go to the area of the southern wall excavations in Jerusalem, in fact, you will walk along the Roman street, and encounter the pile of rubble left behind from their efforts that day. In nearly 2000 years no one has cleaned it up. At this point, it is no longer possible to clean it up: those stones are our history, a moment frozen in time.
In the wake of that destruction, however, the ancient rabbis had to rebuild. They had to create a structure for worship that was not dependent upon sacrifices. They had to create a religious self-understanding that was not dependent upon being settled in the land. They had to create a pattern of observance that was not dependent upon what had been destroyed.
Now, the rabbis asked themselves, how do we continue, now that the central cult is gone?
These ancient rabbis, convening in Yavneh, on the banks of the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) started the process of rebuilding.
They sat together and reasoned amongst themselves: God’s love for us is manifest in the commandments, right? So if we are commanded, and it is no longer possible to fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, then there must be a metaphorical way to do it. If the Temple is not standing, then we shall dress our scrolls as the High Priest. We will transform our kitchen table into the Temple altar. We will offer the words of our mouth in place of sacrificial offerings. And so on.
All of this was done in the context of the existing structure of law, faithful to its spirit yet also radically different in its execution.
Piece by piece, ritual by ritual, each new thing was mapped out, conceptually linked to the ancient practices yet also fundamentally transformed.
And this process of transformation was so successful, and so complete, that it is hard to think of Judaism as being any other way.
So much so, in fact, that later generations were prompted to ask: Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? That is to say, if God knew that it would one day change to another form of worship, why ask for sacrifices in the beginning? Why not identify the proper form of worship and require that of the Israelites?
Consider, for example, the answer that Maimonides gives.
For Maimonides, the highest form of worship was the contemplation of God, but the level of discipline needed to accomplish it remains well outside of the capabilities of the masses.
God therefore allowed the sacrificial cult to flourish, as it provided a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp.
Moreover, it helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God.
As he argues: If God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.’” The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompts God to provide an alternative.
In Maimonides’ view, these older forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’ part, for they were an accommodation to the weaknesses of human beings.
Immediately following the fall of the Second Temple, however, when the sacrificial cult was no longer operative, prayer-forms were left to the individual to create on an ad hoc basis, without a formal structure.
Thus, he argues, these new prayer-forms were created by the Men of the Great Assembly, sages who were guided by a true apprehension of reality. They created a structure that might be used by worshippers to perfect themselves, so that over the course of many years they might learn the highest form of contemplation.
Maimonides retains a certain nostalgia for the ancient prayer-forms, but one also senses from his text that these newer innovations are in many ways better than what had gone before, in that they are less visceral and more intellectual.
Looking at it from the perspective of the ancient rabbis, these changes to the ritual and theology of Judaism took an enormous leap of faith: where did they find the courage to make such changes?
Looking at it from the perspective of the later rabbis, however, these changes were not changes at all: they were simply what Judaism must be. It is hard to conceive of Judaism as looking any different than it does now.
Thus the interesting thing in all of this, of course, is how different it really has become: the worship of the heart is a far cry from the physicality of cutting animals to dash their blood on the altar and burn their entrails.
I would argue, therefore, that the strength of Judaism lies in our ability and willingness to adapt. We bewail the awful events in our past – these events have shaped us, and are part of our identity – but they do not define us.
We are able to create and build anew. We continuously construct a Jewish self-understanding that is both wildly different than what came before yet also very much its fullest expression. And in this ongoing process we are ever renewed.
June 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
In this week’s portion, a band of men led by Korach challenge Moses’ leadership of the Israelites.
“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’”
Based on this introduction, we’re not sure what the core problem is. Moses has been the number one guy for some time now, working with his siblings to manage the crowd. He was the one who faced Pharaoh, and he was the one who brought the tablets down from Mount Sinai. He also was the one who prevailed when Aaron was involved in the incident with the Golden Calf. So to ask, at this point, why he raises himself above the Lord’s congregation seems a bit misplaced. Why is Korach raising this objection now? The text does not say.
“When Moses heard this, he fell on his face. Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen. Do this: You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the Lord. Then the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!’”
Why did Moses fall on his face? Usually, in the Biblical context, that phrase refers to a posture of worship. So he must have turned to God at that moment for support. But this action does not seem to have brought him a sense of calm. To the contrary, he continues:
“‘Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the Lord’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? Truly, it is against the Lord that you and all your company have banded together. For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?’”
Aha. Now we have a sense of Korach’s motive: he is seeking power. The objection raised here is not that Moses is doing a bad job or that Aaron is incompetent: rather, Korach and his band want to be the ones who do it instead.
“Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab; but they said, ‘We will not come! Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards, should you gouge out those men’s eyes? We will not come!’“
Their response sounds petulant. What, exactly, is their grievance here? That Moses led them out of slavery? That it is hard to live in the wilderness? It seems that their emotions have carried them away and they are simply enjoying being angry.
The text tells us that in response “Moses was much aggrieved.” His emotion is easy to understand in this context. He has spent year after year leading this group without any breaks, and this rebellion is all the thanks he gets. “And he said to the Lord, ‘Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.’”
I find that last comment fascinating. He tells God the score: ‘I have done no wrong here, so please don’t cooperate with them.’ As if God was not aware, as if he had to be concerned about God’s support.
This detail provides us with an interesting insight into leadership. We all know that it can be very difficult to take on that role – it carries with it the wellbeing and welfare of the whole group. We are aware that Moses has a whole web of considerations to take into account with every decision he makes. And Aaron is acting on behalf of the entire community when he serves as High Priest.
So when a high-ranking group second-guesses his motivations it destabilizes him for a moment. He is wounded by their remarks.
And we’ve all seen disputes like this one: Moses retaliates in anger, brings the issue to a showdown and the bitter ending involves a whole lot of people disappearing from the congregation.
In that regard, I think that this week’s portion serves as a warning rather than a model.
What should have happened here? How could this dispute been better managed? If this particular conflict was chosen as a case study by the Harvard Business Review, what steps would they suggest for closing the gap in perception between Moses’ understanding of his role and Korach’s?
I can tell you what I’ve learned, based on my own experience. Before I went to rabbinical school I was the Senior Manager of Marketing Communications for a division of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of California. And, in a congregational setting, I have seen a Korach-type rebellion unfold. This is what I have learned.
First, let’s start with the obvious: Korach is, of course, acting badly here.
When people act out, they do so because they are hurting. A person in a good place emotionally can bring up a difficult issue in conversation and talk through the various points rationally. Refusing to come to the table is evidence of emotional pain.
In other words: the rebellion is not about Moses or Aaron. They are probably doing a fine job at the heart of it. Their competence is not the issue.
The issue, rather, is a more complicated one relating to feelings of place and need. By that I mean: Korach is feeling invisible. He needs to have a place in the community, a way of answering the question, ‘and what is your role?’ He needs to be needed: to have a clear part in the overall process. Maybe he is aging and his kids don’t need him so much anymore. Or maybe he is young and has not yet found his place in the world. We don’t have enough of a biography to know for certain, but be we do know that Korach is feeling too small in his world.
On the other side of this dispute, we also know that Moses is not always great at delegating. We saw that in the first few months of leadership when he was given a lesson from his father-in-law Yitro. At that point in the narrative, Moses was listening to every single dispute brought before him by the Israelites. And Yitro explained to him patiently that he simply could not continue in this manner and suggested that he create a tiered court-system for hearing cases.
It would also appear, based on this narrative, that Moses is easily wounded: instead of taking the criticism in stride he forces a showdown. But a shoot-out always leaves someone dead – whether literally, as in the case of Korach who gets swallowed by the earth, or figuratively, as when a family or group of families leaves the congregation. It is infinitely better to negotiate and to listen.
What should Moses have done in this case?
He would have done well to create a tiered approach to the sacrificial service, along the lines of the court system his father-in-law suggested. He could have put Korach and his compatriots in charge of a type of sacrificial offering, so that they would also have a place in the hierarchy. Moses might not think that this arrangement is necessary, but he also has a tendency to over-estimate how much he can do himself.
In other words, had Moses displayed the best kind of leadership, he would have realized that it wasn’t all about him. It wasn’t, in fact, about him at all. The issue at hand was Korach’s place in the world. Had Moses taken himself out of the equation this event would have had a much happier ending.
It’s no his greatest moment, to be sure. But Moses is usually a better leader than that – so what is going with him? Why is he reactive rather than proactive in managing this dispute?
It is likely that Moses is feeling worn out at this point, and is suffering burnout. A good leader needs rest – which is precisely why he and Aaron should have been delegating tasks to Korach in the first place. So Korach had a legitimate concern; had Korach been a better leader himself, he would have been able to approach Moses long before the breaking-point. A well-run organization helps train future leaders so that they learn how to raise these concerns in a timely and appropriate fashion.
As this situation demonstrates, we don’t always act in our best interest, and we don’t always respond in the best way. Leaders get tired, followers get resentful, and everyone gets tired of wandering in the wilderness.
What works best, then? What can we do to make sure we stay on our good behavior, even when we’re hot, tired, and thirsty?
Rest. Take a Shabbat nap, go on vacation, get some time away.
And if a long break is not on the agenda, then at least take a small break: count to ten before responding. Count to 100 if you still don’t think you can respond without bitterness. Moses’ response of ‘falling on his face’ to pray for a moment was a good one – but he should have stalled even longer, until he could respond with equanimity.
But above all else: we should learn from this example the vital necessity of being kind. Most of our disputes are not important enough to have the earth swallow up our opponent. Have empathy for the other side, and focus on the issue rather than the person.
 JPS Tanakh, the book of Numbers, chapter 16.
June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
I bought my tallit, this large one that I wear all the time, during my first year in rabbinical school. A group of us students made a special trip to the old city of Jaffa to visit the Gabrielli family’s storefront along the stone streets.
The tallit showroom is in the basement of their shop, featuring shelves and shelves of tallitot. The six of us students camped out there one afternoon, trying on every conceivable color and size. Red tallitot with black stripes; blue tallitot with grey stripes; white tallitot with rainbow stripes; Cotton, wool, and silk varieties; all kinds of handwoven tallitot were stacked on the shelves around us.
And it was wonderful to have my fellow-students help pick it out: they argued persuasively for the supersized black-and-white tallit that I am wearing today. I diligently tried on a whole stack of tallitot in smaller sizes – they were much less expensive, after all – but my crowd was absolutely convinced that I was best served by the full sweep of the largest size.
Had I been left to my own devices, I would have bought a more demure white-on-white silk tallit in the smallest size. But the consensus was that mine needed to be a graphic black and white, and larger than life, big enough to serve as a chuppah when I remarried. I am grateful to my friends for knowing that about me.
I have worn this tallit at all major life-cycle events since that time. I was ordained in it and got married under it. I wore it at the Western Wall for the Women of the Wall 25th Anniversary. It has become a part of my identity as a rabbi. Not that it is irreplaceable – for no object ever truly is – but it would certainly feel that way.
My kippah, however, is actually much older than my tallit: that’s why they don’t precisely match. I bought it at a URJ biennial convention before I ever applied to school, just after my conversion. I’ve worn the same one for twenty years now. Though it’s very pretty, it doesn’t have the same significance to me. For one thing, the kippah – the head covering that Jews wear – is not something from the Biblical era. It’s a custom rather than a mitzvah – it’s not a commandment – which is why we don’t say a blessing when we put it on our heads.
The tallit, on the other hand, is something entirely our own. The purpose of the tallit is to serve as the vehicle for the tzitzit, the knotted fringes on the four corners. That’s why there is such variety in the tallit design: it’s the placeholder. The fringes are what’s actually commanded.
In fact, the commandment to wear tzitzit comes from our Torah portion today:
“The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.”
Why are the tzitzit usually white if the passage says they must have blue in them? Apparently, the blue dye came from a sea snail that has since gone extinct. I have seen tzitzit in multiple shades of blue, done in the hope that one of the shades would be the right one. But the general ruling is that without the proper dye they should be left white.
The knot pattern itself is distinctive: the most common pattern found in the US is an Ashkenazi style of a double knot, seven spirals, a double knot, eight spirals, a double knot, eleven spirals, a double knot, thirteen spirals, and finally a double knot. There is a Separdic variation in which the spirals loop in on themselves to create a swirling spine down the length of the tassel. Though there are reasons for why that pattern, they all appear to be explanations after the fact. Why that pattern? It just is.
If you go to the Israel Museum, to the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept, you will see an exhibit downstairs of the other items they found alongside the scrolls. One of those items is a tallit, made of white wool with black stripes, with white knotted fringes. It looks remarkably like the traditional tallitot for sale on Ben Yehuda Street today, but for the 2000 years of wear and tear.
In other words, wearing tzitzit is not simply one of the commandments: it is also a practice uniquely our own, one that stretches all the way back to the Biblical period.
It is likely that the tallit gadol – the grand tallit like what I’m wearing now – was originally worn as an outer cloak; eventually it became a prayer garment, worn in the morning during the shacharit prayer service, at the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, and when leading services. We also wear one here when doing an aliyah, which are the blessings before and after the Torah reading.
But the tallit gadol is not the only kind. Traditionally, there is also an undergarment that is worn every day, all day, as the first layer of clothing. It is called a tallit katan (small tallit) and it is usually a kind of tank top or bib that you pull on over your head. You may have seen the tzitzit from one of these: some men tuck the tzitzit in, so that they are not visible; others like to pull them out, so that they dangle from the edges of their shirt. That’s usually how they outfit the character Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Both options are supported by the tradition.
Traditionally, of course, this mitzvah of wearing the tallit katan was reserved for men. The verse has been interpreted to mean that only men are specifically required to wear it. So, if you were shopping for a tallit katan you were necessarily shopping in the men’s section. For traditional women, it is inappropriate to wear men’s clothing – that’s why traditional women always wear skirts or dresses – so it is a genuine barrier to the performance of the commandment if the only ones available are sold in men’s sizes in the men’s section.
When I first saw the notice on the internet regarding a new company Netzitzot [see https://www.netzitzot.com/about-us.html] that sells the tallit kaftan for women I decided to buy one in support of this new company. I wanted to help make it possible for women to fulfill this commandment, but I did not have a clear sense of what I was planning to do with it myself. Bring it to my Introduction to Judaism class, perhaps, for show and tell? Wear it on occasion, perhaps?
The morning after its arrival, I put it on to see how it felt. And I found that there was a certain sense of rightness to it, a sense that a missing piece had been fulfilled. I had wanted to fulfill this commandment but it was not open to me. And now it was.
So I started wearing it as often as possible while also taking steps to keep it freshly laundered. It did not take me long to decide I was going to need a full set.
Thus I have taken on the daily mitzvah of wearing of tzitzit. Why should that be something so satisfying to me? Why should a tank top with fringes make a difference, you ask?
The odd thing about ritual: it is always a bit arbitrary in its structure. Why fringes? There is no clear rational answer as to why this and not that.
But it also has a certain logic to it: you wear something on your body as part of your person to remind you, in those moments of transition and vulnerability, of the grander structure.
And that is indeed what it means to be a Jew: to see godliness in the smallest detail, and to do so in the context of a tradition that extends well into the past, and to do so with the intention of continuing well into the future.
 Numbers 15:37-40, from the JPS translation
June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
For the sin of gossiping against Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called onto the carpet, and God tells them in no uncertain terms that Moses is special: God speaks to Moses face-to-face. No one else can claim that honor. And then God’s presence departs from them in anger.
As the cloud leaves, Miriam is suddenly covered with white scales.
When Aaron sees her, he immediately assumes that the illness is a punishment for her sin. The timing of the affliction would suggest as such, given that it happened in quick succession. And he says to Moses, “Please my lord, do not hold a grudge against us for acting foolishly and sinning. Let her not be like a stillborn child…” In other words, Aaron’s narrative – the story he tells himself – is that she is now ill because they sinned. In his view, God punishes us through illness and death.
Aaron’s explanation is the one usually adopted by commentators: Miriam was punished for her sin.
The problem with this explanation, however, is that it makes the unreasonable assumption that illness and death occur as a result of God’s anger with us over having done something wrong.
But notice that Moses does not validate this explanation. He does not concern himself with questions as to why she is ill: he simply says, “O God, please heal her.”
And more importantly: God never says that her illness is a punishment.
Look at what God says in response: “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been embarrassed for seven days?” I believe that the phrase ‘spit in her face’ is intended to call up the image of a father so angry that he is yelling at her, so close to her that he is spitting in her face. Imagine that her earthly father was so angry as to yell at her in this manner, and imagine that she agreed with him. Wouldn’t she be mortified at her behavior? How much more so, then, if it was God who is angry?
In other words, God tells Moses that Miriam is profoundly embarrassed. In this context, in fact, her scaled skin appears to be a physical expression of her emotional state, a stress reaction to having been reproached by God for her bad behavior. In other words: it is not a punishment for her sin, but a symptom of her distress at having been so wrong.
And so, in response, God explains to Moses that she needs time to heal herself. She needs to sit outside of the camp and watch the world go by for about a week until she has recovered from the shock and anguish.
I think, in fact, that it is important that she is outside of the camp for the span of a week. This process of repair does not involve days of introspective brooding inside her tent. It is better that she be out in the fresh air, where she can watch the clouds scuttle by and listen to the sound of leaves. To heal from her affliction, she needs to pay attention to the movement of ants and become familiar with the play of sunlight on blades of grass. We all need a break sometimes to let it all wash over us, to just be still.
What we see here, in fact, is several different responses to the stress of having been wrong before the Lord.
Aaron does not say anything about his own guilt; he focuses on others. His altruism might also be a dodge of his own responsibility.
Miriam, on the other hand, directs her emotions inward, so that they become physical manifestations of her distress.
Moses, of course, was not one of the guilty parties, but his response is interesting nonetheless. He focuses on the task at hand: to heal her.
And God’s response to his plea is to draw attention to Miriam’s emotional state. God’s response, in effect, is to say, ‘I can’t heal her, as this is a manifestation of her own distress. Only Miriam can heal herself, and they only way to do that is for her to spend some time experiencing the painful emotion directly. And the best way to do that is to spend some time in nature, away from the camp and all its motion and noise.’
Anyone who has ever been to AA or Al-Anon or who has had to watch an addict struggle with that affliction understands the wisdom of God’s response: only Miriam can heal herself.
What we also see here is a certain wisdom as to what kinds of actions are healing for us. God’s suggestion to Moses has several gems for us to use: the first one is the awareness that there is no need to move on just yet, for it is possible to sit still for a while. There are things that need doing, but it is likely that most of the things that need doing can be put off for a few days, particularly if you should need to spend some time to recuperate.
In fact, God seems to be very concerned with our need to rest: are we not commanded to rest every single week, on Shabbat?
Another pearl of wisdom: the observation that spending time in nature is healing. Just knowing that you are a part of a larger chain of being, an endless symphony of movement around you, is comforting. And this observation is one is backed by scientific research: a study of brain waves found that just walking among the trees calms us. It is good for her to go out camping for a while.
And there is another gem: we should note that our physical distress might have emotional roots. Our mind-body connection is profound; some afflictions require that the emotional scars are healed before the physical ones recede.
The story we tell ourselves in the wake of an illness will define how well we respond to that illness. There are tales that lead to blind alleys and tales that lead to healing. Listen to God’s response, rather than Aaron’s: instead of viewing illness as God’s punishment, we should give ourselves time to heal.
May 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I go to visit congregants who are ill or recovering, I usually give a blessing when I leave, in the form of a prayer for healing. The first part is the usual mi sheberach formula in Hebrew (‘May the One who blessed…’) and the second part is a list of the things we are hoping will happen. A blessing is more than the expression of a good wish for someone: it has an element of the transcendent in it
This week I had the good fortune to hear a scholar with an international reputation speak about issues related to this week’s Torah portion. Dr. Ruth Calderon is a Member of the Israel Knesset who was invited by the Jewish National Fund to speak about her book, A Bride for One Night.
The book is quite wonderful, and does not lack for content directly relevant to our portion this week. Since our portion this week features the priestly blessing, however, I thought that I would share with you a selection from her work regarding the High Priest and a blessing.
In her work, Dr. Calderon draws from the Talmudic text, using a compact and enigmatic story from the Talmud as the basis of her extended retelling. In this case, she is relating the story of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, who had at one time, prior to the destruction of the Temple, served as the High Priest. In the story, Rabbi Yishmael tells of an encounter with God during Yom Kippur, when God was made manifest to him as another human being. Come and hear; this is his story.
“Yishmael senses a presence. Someone is watching him. He stands in place enveloped in the smell of the incense, his eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness. Someone is sitting there. Is there someone else in the sanctum? Did he make a wrong turn? His heart flutters as if caught in a trap. He does not feel like the high priest, on whom all of Israel’s hopes are bent; he does not even feel like an ordinary priest nor even like a regular human being.
“From behind the pillar of smoke, he sees light.
“‘Achatriel Yah Adonai Tzvaot,’ his lips murmur.
“Across from him is a high and lofty throne. Should he prostrate himself before it? He dares to raise his eyes and is greeted by a stormy visage.
“‘Yishmael, my son, bless me.’ He is being addressed by name, as a man addresses his fellow. ‘ Yishmael’ – pronounced just as his mother would say it. ‘My son.’ This is a face-to-face encounter, filled with grace, like a meeting between a father and son. But bless me? What could that mean?
“Yishmael does not understand what the One seated on the throne wants for him. The sound of his voice and the words that he speaks do not accord with his expectations. For a moment he fears that a foreign god has penetrated the inner sanctum and has sat upon the throne. But then the seated presence calls him by name. In that moment Yishmael divests himself of his role as high priest and becomes only himself. He listens. He tries to overcome his fear and his preconceived notions. He wishes to be fully attentive, freed from his anxieties.
“Suddenly he understands. Yishmael is showered in blessing, and he is ready to bestow blessing on others. The words come to him with love: ‘May it be Your will.’ The words follow one another without any effort on his part, like a person praying for the well-being of a friend. ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, and that Your mercy overcome Your stern attributes.’ He enjoys this newfound generosity of spirit. He is happy that he wants to bestow goodness. He glances at the seated presence with a hint of embarrassment.
“He continues: ‘And may You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy. And for their sake, may You go beyond the boundary of judgment.’ The seated presence nods graciously. Yishmael’s doubts are assuaged. He knows what to do next. He comes to the ark and places the fire pans between the two cloths. He stacks the incense on the coals, enters an outer chamber and offers a prayer, keeping it short. He does not want to worry the people outside, who will be concerned about the fate of the priest in that holiest of chambers and the holiest time of the year.
“Truly how splendid was the appearance of the High Priest when he exited the Holy of Holies in peace, without any harm.”
An interesting aspect of this story is the shift from a ritual activity – the slaughter of animals – to the spoken word. According to this text, spoken blessings occurred even at the time of the Temple. And, as the story indicates, they were indeed welcomed by God. This could be a backward projection or a historical record; we do not know.
Nonetheless, the priestly blessing, a blessing that appears in the Torah, has long been a part of the liturgy of the synagogue, the institution that replaced the Temple cult. After the destruction of the Temple, the priests no longer sacrifice animals; they become, instead, the bearers of God’s blessings for the congregation.
In Reform congregations, the priestly blessing is often invoked in a sacred moment before the ark in the context of life cycle events. But it appears in a different form in more traditional contexts. Listen, for example, to the recollection of civil rights lawyer Rachel Farbiarz of its recitation in the sephardic synagogue of her youth: “At a specified time in the service,” she writes, “the community’s kohanim discreetly excused themselves to perform their preparatory ablutions. The faint sound of the priests’ shuffling was followed by a call-to-attention–Koh-Haahh-Neeeeeem!–summoning them to their posts before the ark. The men of the congregation gathered their children and their children’s children under the prayer shawls they had drawn over their heads.”
“The kohanim faced them, cloaked too in their billowing shawls. Their arms outstretched, their fingers extended and conjoined in the cultic v-shape.”
The ‘v-shape’ she mentions is one that any fan of Star Trek will recognize: Leonard Nemoy, also Jewish, adapted this hand-sign for use in a Vulcan blessing, ‘live long and prosper.’ What looks like a v-shape, however, is actually a different letter entirely. The ‘v’ is created with the pointer finger and middle finger on one side and the ring finger and pinky finger on the other. However, if you include the thumb, the fingers form the three arms of the Hebrew letter shin, the letter that appears on all mezzuzot, those little boxes we hang on doorposts. The letter references one of the names of God. Like the mezzuzot, the priests become the vessels for conveying God’s omnipresent blessing.
Ms. Farbiarz continues: “the priests swayed and chanted the blessing–distending its syllables, trilling its notes. Only after the kohanim had finished the blessing did the face-off of masquerading ghosts end: Modestly, the priests turned their backs to the congregation and took down their shawls, unveiling themselves before the ark.”
Note a key difference between this blessing and the one relayed by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha: this one is not done face-to-face, in a direct encounter. As she explains: “I actually was not supposed to have witnessed any of this. All of us, kohanim and congregation alike, were to have had our eyes closed or averted downward, to shield ourselves–it is traditionally said–from the awesome power that emanated from between the kohanim’s fingers.” One is expected to look away and not gaze upon this source of holiness.
Ms. Farbiarz has an interesting explanation for the reason why the blessing is chanted in this manner: “I have always suspected,” she writes, “that we protected ourselves not only from the Divine, but also from something very human: the tendency to turn an act of blessing into an act that invests one group with power at the expense of the other. The tented shawls, the downcast gazes, shield the community from the inevitable psychological contortions that easily transform a blessing into an act that underscores the hierarchy between blesser and blessed.”
Thus, in her view, this practice democratizes the distribution of blessing: “The kohanim cannot see those upon whom they confer God’s blessing and the congregation cannot identify the priests who have done so. Rather than simply given or received, the blessing is instead resident within a community of both givers and receivers.” There is no intermediary here.
Taken together, these two stories point to the fundamental paradox of blessing: in one sense the giving of a blessing is very much an interpersonal event, a face-to-face encounter with the other.
Yet, at the same time, giving a blessing is a profoundly transcendent act, otherworldly in its content, metaphysical in its transmission, for it references the Holy One of blessing.
May you experience shabbat peace.
 Ruth Calderon, “Yishmael, My Son, Bless Me,” A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales translated by Ilana Kurshan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013), pp. 141-2.
 Rachel Farbiarz, “Birkat Kohanim: Blessing of the Priests or of the Community?” in http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/naso_ajws3.shtml