Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Nittel Nacht

That "Carol of the Bells" song?

Spookiest 'holiday music' ever.

And they say Jewish music is melancholy...

Monday, December 24, 2007

Jacob Our Father Did Not Die

Bereishit/Genesis 49:33
And then Ya‘aqov finished commanding his children,
and then he pulled his feet onto the bed;
and then he expired, and then he was gathered to his peoples.

The word I translated here "and then he expired" — following the 1917 JPS at Mechon Mamre — seems to be used for the process of dying, primarily that which leads up to the final moment. By our Ancestors Avraham and Yitzhhaq, as well as by Uncle Yishma‘eil, two words are used in sequence: ויגוע וימת. He *expired, and then he died.

The second, more common word for death — מות — is not found by our Ancestor Ya‘aqov. This lead Ribbí Yohhanan, as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud masekhet Ta‘anit 5b, to hyperbolically claim that Jacob our Father did not die. After all, sure it says ויגוע... but the Torah never says about Ya‘aqov וימת!

After being challenged by the realia of the verses — after all, even though it never says that he "died", it does say (later on) that he was mourned, embalmed and buried — Ribbí Yohhanan backs up his audacious claim with another פסוק, this time Yirmeyahu/Jeremiah 30:10, that equates the individual Jacob/Israel with the nation of his descendants. As long as they live, so does he.

Which brings me to my point.

Let's take a closer look at the embalming.

Who does the embalming? רופאים, healers. I can see how healers, doctors, physicians, would be involved in a biological procedure, but why call them 'healers'? Why not 'embalmers'?

At the end of פרק מ"ט, quoted at the top of this post, who dies? Ya‘aqov. And at the beginning of the next chapter, who is embalmed? Yisra’eil. Why the change in name here, in the middle of the story?

Jacob died, but Israel — his children and their descendants, the nascent nation — remained alive. And when the healers embalmed Jacob's body, they were preserving Israel, tempering the people, taking the body of an individual and making of it the body of a nation. The embalming of Ya‘aqov prefigured the slavery and oppression that would overtake his descendants not that long afterwards in that very land — the struggle that would forge them into a people that would one day be freed to accept the Torah.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

What's Your Name?

I just spent a nice Shabbos in the Spring Valley (incl. Monsey etc.) area, including going to my family's old shul, the Young Israel of Spring Valley. It hit me in the middle of Musaf that I hadn't set foot in the shul for more than twenty years. Wow.

The other thing I noticed during my sojourn in Greater Jewish Monsey Spring Valley is that Hhareidi Orthodox Jews have no problem conceiving of 'Steg' as a name. My gracious hosts would introduce me as Steg, and the Hhareidi people I met wouldn't even blink. Which is a big change from the usual, when Modern Orthodox Jews, or other non-Hhareidi people, always ask "whatwhatwhat?" and then I have to explain that Steg is my nickname, and my actual name is «BEEPnotforpublication». And then there are all the questions about how I got it, does it mean anything, does it have to do with dinosaurs, blah blah blahdee blahdee blah.

Any theories why Hhareidim are less fazed by unusual names than others are? Could it be because 'Steg' sounds Yiddish? Any other theories?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dilemmas in Dressing for Davenning 2

Wearing a jacket and tie (and sometimes a hat, too) to shul during the week is no longer culturally-appropriate for me in my present life context.

Which I guess makes my 'experiment' in cultural norms and 'flipping out' a success.

In case you were wondering. Which you weren't. ;-)

I am, however, wearing my father ע"ה's tallis (the blue-striped one, as opposed to the black-striped one he was buried in). Since I was davening very frequently in Yekkish shuls, and have been davening "fore the ‘amud" in various places even more frequently than that.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A Rant About Love And Hatred

I stayed by my "grandrav" for Shabbos, which was really good. We talked a lot about all kinds of topics having to do with Torah and the Jewish community — geographically, philosophically, religiously, socially, as well as unfortunately some politics too. I also saw another learnèd friend of mine over there too, which was cool.

Anyway, some of these discussions got me thinking.

I know many people who want to go out and change the world. Some of them are still just dreaming. Some of them are laying plans. And others, H' yishmereim veyatzlihheim, are already out there, taking charge and changing the world for the better.

I have one particular wound in the Jewish communal body that I want to sew up. One particular tumor that I, personally, need to see excised. There are way too many people out there who think that being Jewish is about being superior to the rest of the world. About us being important and everyone else being shit. About six billion living breathing human beings, created in the image of God, having the sole purpose of servicing us, being used and abused?

That's not what being mamlekhet kohanim vegoy qadosh — a kingdom of priests and a holy nation — is about. Zarim, non-kohanim, aren't there to be utilized and abused by priests. Everyone knows that. Maybe in some theocratic feudal society, where the religious functionaries are in charge, and everybody else is a serf... but not in Yisra’eil! Kohanim are there to serve the zarim; priests — and rabbis, teachers, leaders, anyone with a communal job — are there to serve the people, not the other way around!

As my brother condensed into a convenient-sized soundbyte,
אהבת ישראל
cannot be based on
שנאת הבריות

You cannot create Jewish pride, attachment to Judaism, or concern for other Jews, by teaching hatred or contempt for the rest of the human race.

You cannot save your community by mutilating your soul.

Being Jewish is not about being 'special' or 'better' than everyone else. It's not about being good while everyone else is evil. It's not about having some kind of right, or dream, of using other people like tools. If you think you're that kind of 'special', you're not special at all. You're just another two-bit egotist, like all the rest.

Being Jewish is about having a contract with God. It's about inspiring the world. It's about being moral, caring, and productive. It's about being a mensch.

If you think that being Jewish means that only you matter, and that the rest of God's children are there to be used by you, you're not just using other human beings — you're using God, using Haqódesh Barukh Hu’ for your own self-aggrandizement and self-inflation. We have two terms for that. One is מעילה. The other is חילול השם. The first can be atoned for. The second cannot.

It says in the Babylonian Talmud masekhet Yevamot 79a that this nation has three identifying characteristics — those who are merciful, those who have a sense of shame, and those who do acts of kindness. What the heck ever happened to that?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Torah and Hhokhma

There is Tora min Hashamayim, ‘Instruction from Heaven’.

We call this Torah.

And there is Tora min Ha’aretz, ‘Instruction from Earth’.

We call this Hhokhma ("Wisdom").

Torah is given in Revelation;
it needs to be delved into, to understand its Godly secrets.

Hhokhma is built on Logic, Emotion and Experience;
it needs to be constructed, to develop its human truths.

When we say that Instruction from Heaven is holy and that Instruction from Earth is not, we're only talking about degrees. We were created in the image of God. Our world was built by God, piece by piece, eon by eon. When we examine our world, we are examining God's creation. When we examine ourselves, we are examining shadows cast by God's flame.

Torah comes down from Heaven to Earth.

Hhokhma rises from Earth to Heaven.

If you've only got one, you've only got half the picture.