Monday, March 31, 2008

Jeremiah: Man of the People

(based on a shiur i gave at the timestamp of this post)

Yirmeyahu/Jeremiah 26

It was the beginning of the reign of Yehoyaqim, king of Yehuda, and God told Yirmeyahu to stand in the courtyard of the Temple — right in the middle of the public plaza of the Beit Hamiqdash — and rebuke the people for their sins and crimes.

The prophet's message is simple — if they repent, God will not punish them; but if they continue to ignore the warnings that God has sent them over and over again, by many prophetic messengers, they will lose God's place in their midst. This place, says Yirmeyahu, will be like Shilo. Destroyed. Abandoned. Forgotten.

And so he stands in the middle of the plaza, surrounded by the throngs of worshippers and visitors, and curses the place where he stands. This structure is worthless if it does not reflect God's will and God's desire for good will among humanity. Sacrifices mean nothing when given with bloody hands. The same message that has been proclaimed over and over again by prophets. But Yirmeyahu has entered into the heart of the corrupt religious establishment, and challenges them on their home turf. Yirmeyahu is an outsider, a kohein from the town of ‘Anatot in Binyamin; a country boy coming in to the big city.

And how do they respond to his message of rebuke and warning of punishment?

The kohanim and the nevi’im — the priests and the prophets — and “all the people” grabbed him, and declared their intention of putting him to death. This upstart priest, this upstart prophet — coming in to the House of God and threatening it with destruction?! He must be a false prophet. He must be a renegade priest. Yirmeyahu is challenging the religious-institutional and religious-moral authorities of the nation. He must deserve death.

Luckily, the political authorities intervene. Sarey Yehuda — the officers of the country — come up from the palace, and sit in the gate (the place of judgment) and assert their authority for law and order. No more mob rule. You think this man deserves death? Prove it.

And so the priests and the prophets declare to the officers and all the common people gathered in the courtyard — you heard what he said! There is no other proof necessary!

Waitasec. Weren't “all the people” — the common folk, the masses — on the side of the religious authorities? Why are they now standing in judgment, as supposedly impartial decisors, like the royal officers of the court?

And then Yirmeyahu makes his case. He repeats his message — improve your ways, and God will improve your fate. And then he throws a little good old Israelite preemptive guilt trip their way: “I'm in your hands, and you can do to me whatever you want,” he says — “but if you kill me you're just spilling more innocent blood and sealing your fate.”

And it works. The sarim and the multitude reject the accusation brought by the priests and the prophets. Yirmeyahu is a true prophet. He does not deserve to be killed.

The voice of the common people just flipped completely. Did Yirmeyahu address them in particular, give them power equal to the royal officers in their gate, in order to get them to think for themselves and take control of their rapidly deteriorating lives and society? Or is this just mob mentality switching sides, following whoever sounds the most convincing at the time?

Whatever their motivations were, a new faction appears, either from among the masses — the mental decision-making of the people embodied in representatives — or possibly from among the government officials.

Some of the Elders of the Landanashim miziqney ha’aretz — stand up, and give conflicting precendents.

It may be that the first elder to speak is trying to back up the ruling of the sarim by giving a real-life case: the story of Mikha Hamorashti, who prophesied in the days of the great and righteous King Hhizqiyahu. He declared in the name of God, Yhvh of the Battalions, that Tziyon will be plowed as a field, and Yerushalayim will become piles of rubble, and the Temple Mount will be a forested hilltop if the priests and the prophets continue to do evil, accepting bribes and trusting that God would back them up no matter what. I find interesting a point that a teacher of mine in high school pointed out — these elders quote this prophecy from memory, almost exactly, over 100 years after it was given! Might say something about the impact and knowledge of prophetic discourses in Ancient Israel.

Anyway, back in the time of Hhizqiyahu and the Prophet Mikha, his prophecy did not get him killed. Instead, the king and the people repented of their evil and in return, God didn't bring the threatened punishment upon them.

On the other hand, there was another prophetic precedent — Uriyahu ben Shema‘yahu of Qiryat Ye‘arim, who King Yehoyaqim (who is still in power!) sent soldiers after all the way to Egypt in order to bring him back and execute him for giving prophecies similar to Yirmeyahu's divine threat.

Nevertheless, the story ends, Ahhiqam ben Shafan was on Yirmeyahu's side, so that he was not given over to the people to be killed.

Ahhiqam ben Shafan was one of the sarim, the government officials who set up court in the gateway to maintain order. He was the son of the Scribe Shafan ben Atzalyahu ben Meshulam, who was one of the important figures in the religious reforms of Yoshiyahu, bringing the people back to God. And Ahhiqam himself went to the Prophet Hhulda along with other officials to get the Found Book of God validated!

And it's only his power or standing that protects Yirmeyahu from getting killed by the mob? It certainly looks like it. Our hope in the people, it seems, was misplaced. They didn't support Yirmeyahu because he put the responsibility of deciding his fate in their hands — they were simply swept along with whoever sounded more convincing; whoever spoke last. When Yirmeyahu spoke, they backed him; when the precedent of Uriyahu was brought up, they went with that. The people were weak. Their leaders had made them complacent. No wonder they assumed that everything would be fine anyway... they had forgotten how to take responsibility for themselves.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In Case You Missed It

On Sunday Night, leil 3 Adar-B, 5768 (March 9th, 2008), my hhevruta and I made a siyyum on masekhet Sanhedrin for my father's "second First" Yawrtzait (it's a leap year).

(picture courtesy of drew kaplan)
((and yes, all the people who are not me have been blurred out))

We then moved on to start some Hhulin.

People seemed to like it, so I'm adding here what I said. You may recognize some of it from various things I've written here over the past year.

We started the siyyum by singing
Nigun Le’Aví, also known as Lama Tomar Ya‘aqov, the song for my father.

The Prophet Yesha‘yahu 40:27-31

“How could Jacob say, and Israel state
‘my path is hidden of God;
from my God my account passes away’?
Don't you know? Haven't you heard?
God is the lord and creator of all eternities of time and space —
never tiring, never becoming exhausted,
and whose understanding is beyond analysis.
[God] gives strength to the tired
and multiplies power for those who lack might.
Youths may tire and become exhausted,
and young men may surely fail —
but those who have hope in God will renew their strength,
rising and soaring on mighty birds' wings;
they will run without exhaustion, walk without tiring.”

About two years ago,
I wrote out these words
from the prophet ישעיהו
on an index card,
and carried it with me
to the funeral of the mother
of two of my students.

For some reason
it seemed a whole lot more comforting
when I wasn't the one who needed to sprout wings in freefall.

The tune
entered my head after my father entered the hospital,
about a week before his death.

That's why it's ניגון לאבי, the song for my father.

But before we move on to the main business
of commemorating my father and celebrating this learning,
I would like to speak personally for a few minutes and thank people.

First of all,
i'd like to thank everyone who's here today,
and everyone who was supposed to be here but couldn't make it.

And i'd like to thank everyone who,
in one way or another,
helped me to get through this very difficult year.

שבעה ended
and then שלושים ended
and then i finished saying קדיש after 11 months
and then the 12-month mourning period ended one month ago;
it was my father's first-first yawrtzait
and i was no longer an אבל
and i lost the normative structure that defined my life.
But there's still a hole in my universe;
feelings come and feelings go
regardless of halakhic status
and as we know from geology, monster movies, and ספר יונה,
what disappears below the surface
will very likely one day re-emerge.

And so i'd like to thank all the people who've come with me this far.

There were the people who taught me
that human beings in pain
have an inalienable right
to express that pain
and to be comforted.

There were those who brought food to the שבעה,
and then again, a few months later,
when my mother was in the hospital before סוכות.

Those who taught me נוסח for leading davening,
and the people in many different communities
who gave me opportunities to use it.

There were all the people who forgot
at one time or another
that there were certain activities
that, as an אבל, i couldn't participate in,
and invited me to parties and concerts —
and thereby reminded me when I was lonely
that I have friends who care.
not to mention my friends who got married & struggled hard to find a way to share their שמחה with me even though i couldn't attend.
And there were those few particularly perceptive people
who knew when something was wrong
even if no one else noticed.

But there are two individuals who I would like to thank especially
and recognize them
before moving on to the סיום.

Both of these individuals are people
who I barely knew a year ago,
when this all began —
who maybe I had encountered
here or there
once or twice or a few times
over the first year and a half
since I returned from Israel to New York.

And from being just people
who I maybe recognized when I saw them around,
over the past year
these two individuals became
two of the most important figures in my life,
without whom I wouldn't be up here
introducing this סיום
in more ways than one.

One of them
I've very possibly thanked too much already;
and the other one
I definitely haven't thanked nearly enough.

So I thought I would publicly acknowledge them both now
to thank them
and even out the balance,
even though the math makes no sense.

The first
is my rabbi and my friend
רִבִּי וידידי
[name withheld for internet purposes]
in whose shul, in case you didn't know,
we are having this סיום.
He probably had no idea
quite what he was getting himself into
when he agreed to be my halakhic consultant
and פוסק on אבילות matters —
but nonetheless succeeded
in knowledgeably and compassionately
answering what at times was an almost literally constant stream
of questions, shaalas and inquiries
about the laws, customs, and philosophies of mourning.
And that was just a small part of it.

The rest of it —
the emotional and spiritual support,
and everything else —
there is no way I know
to weave words that would adequately express my gratitude.

The second
is my friend and חברותא
[name also withheld for internet purposes].
Although this סיום is in memory of my father,
I hope it's clear to everyone
that the achievement of this learning
is as much [his] as it is mine,
if not more.
He persevered through all the accidents
and all the delays —
all the times i was unexpectedly stuck in Brooklyn
or he had to pop out to Teaneck; (for instance, to get engaged!)
all the times one of us slept late on Sunday morning
or on שבת afternoon;
the months when we lost every Shabbos
because I couldn't stay in Washington Heights —
and he kept it all ordered and scheduled,
making sure that we would reach the end on time.
[He] is a living embodiment of the philosophy of תורה עם דרך ארץ,
and whether we were actually learning
or, to be honest, goofing off at any particular moment,
consistently demonstrated that you can apply any knowledge
and any cultural experience
to the study of תורה,
and vice versa.
And not just דרך ארץ in that sense —
also in the colloquial sense of being a mensch.
He also jumpstarted
my very rusty גמרא skillz
just in time for me to start rabbinical school,
so there are a number of other people here
who should probably be thanking him also.

The way this is going to work now
is that I'm going to speak about my father,
and then [my hhevrusa] is going to speak about מסכת סנהדרין,
the tractate of Talmud that we learned,
and then we are going to finish the learning,
making the סיום itself.

My father knew everything
and what he didn't know
he wanted to

he got this from his mother
who was a teacher

my father noticed everything
and what he didn't notice
he knew he should have

he got this from his father
who was a detective

my father could fix everything
and what he couldn't fix
he knew someone who could

but i don't know where he got that from

i do not know everything
and frankly
there are certain subjects
that i have no interest
in knowing anything about
no matter how much he pushed me to explore them

i do not notice everything
i'm actually pretty oblivious
to most details of what's around me
it's amazing they actually let me drive
especially since i drive like my father
who also grew up in boropark
and he used to drive cabs

and i can't fix much
i used to know how computers worked
my father taught me that
until i went away to college and forgot it all
unlike him i have no idea
what goes on inside a car
or through telephone wires

this is what we call
yeridat hadorot
the diminution of generations

but my father took me out on the tidal flats of plum beach
during the winter
and up perkins drive on bear mountain
during the summer and the fall
and took me to build relationships
with friends and relatives
whether they were religious or observant
or not
or not
and him and my mother moved
from spring valley to west hempstead
and from west hempstead to brooklyn
so that me and my brother
could get a good jewish education

and my father taught me
to love God's world
and to love people
and to love

and i love him.

That was the eulogy I read at the funeral.
And like all such things,
it was true
my father was a human being
and human beings are complex.

My father was a human being
and if you've ever discussed with me
what passes for philosophy in my head
you may know that being human
is both the least bare minimum expected from anyone
and the greatest praise that anyone can earn.

My father was proud
and stoic.
He never wanted to admit when he was in pain
or ask for help.

During the last years of his life
I would ask him how he's doing,
and he would say
"I'm holding on"
and i used to get mad
and ask him
what kind of an answer is that?
I only understood what he meant
after he died.
people asked me how i'm doing,
and i had to invent linguistic strategems
to side-step the question
because i couldn't answer it truthfully
and i couldn't lie.

Yes, my parents
moved the family so that my brother and i
could go to good Jewish schools,
but Jewish learning wasn't high on my father's list of priorities
after 8th grade.
The reason i picked מסכת סנהדרין to make this סיום on
was because this edition of Sanhedrin
with my father's old notes in it
was the only volume of Talmud we ever had around the house.

A common origin-story for kaddish
says that רבי עקיבא met a ghost
and the ghost asked him to teach his son
to lead prayers in his merit
in order to save the ghost
from punishment in גיהנם in the afterlife.

חז"ל said that the maximum length of time
that someone can spend passing through גיהנם
on their way to reunion with God
is 12 months,
and the common custom of saying קדיש for only 11 months
is explained as a preventative measure
for the deceased's reputation —
we're all human
no one is perfect
but saying קדיש for a full year
would imply
that the person you're saying קדיש for
actually needed to spend that much time
the maximum sentence
in the cosmic self-clean cycle
in order to be purified.

So, mourners say קדיש.
I said kaddish for my father.
But there's no mention of death in Kaddish,
and no mention of the dead.

It's all about God.

God is Greater Than All Songs.
God is Greater Than All Praise.
God is Greater Than All Words.

So why do mourners say Kaddish?

God is Greater Than All Consolations.

Kaddish is an act of faith.
Kaddish is a declaration of hope.

that Even when life sucks, God is Great.
and Even when life ends, God is Greater.

When life sucks,
עִמּוֹ אָנֹכִֿי בְֿצָרָה
God is with us in our pain.

And so i said קדיש for 11 months
for my father
as if to expiate my own pain
and reduce his time
at the cosmic laundromat
for the purification of souls.

But my father never needed it.
We're all human
we all make mistakes
I got into arguments with my father
and at least one of us, if not both of us
had to have been wrong.

I'm still waiting to find out
what it was he did in the military
that was so secret
and so classified
that he couldn't even tell us
less than 24 hours
before he died.

But it's now been (not just 11, not just 12, but) 13 months, and i know
that my father never passed through גיהנם.
Some people die
because their souls are weighed down with muck.
Some people die
so that the scars on their souls will be scoured and healed.
Some people die
and their soul is as clear as the day they were born.

And my father?
They pumped my father's soul through machines
to clean it before he died.

It worked the first time.

When he finally went in to the hospital
thinking he had a hernia
in addition to being too tired to eat
or barely get out of bed,
they found out that he had a huge mass
of tumor in his abdomen;
and the doctor estimated
that it would be what got him
sometime after 2 weeks
and before 2 months.

And they also found that his heart
which had been slowly weakening
for the past 15 years or so,
was too weak to pump his blood
adequately through his kidneys.
And his kidneys were starting to shut down.

We know from multiple places in the תורה
that הדם הוא הנפש —
your blood is your soul.

My father's heart weakened further.
He became more and more tired.
The doctors took him out of his hospital room for dialysis,
and brought him back exhausted.

They pumped my father's soul through machines
to clean it before he died.

The second time they took him out for dialysis
his heart was too weak to cooperate
with the machines.
And he was more tired
than he had ever been before.

That night,
ג' אדר, ה'תשס"ז
my father,
ארי'ליב בן אברהם שמעי
went to sleep in his hospital bed
and woke up in שמים.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

What's So Evil About Evolution?

This Shabbos I finally realized why many religious Jews object to the theory of Evolution. It has nothing to do with the text of the Torah, or with Talmudic pronouncements. It's not about counting years, or the Scientific Method.

Survival of the Fittest is a tautology.

Evolution is not a pre-planned system, where the fittest survive because they knew what they were getting in to. Those who survive and reproduce are "fit" because they were able to survive and reproduce.

Those who aren't "fit" enough get weeded out.

They don't survive.

If you're not fast enough, strong enough, smart enough — you end up dead, and your unique assortment of genes and characteristics don't get passed on to the next generation.

Evolution sneaks up from behind, and picks on the slow, the weak, and the less intelligent. It takes those who can't fight back. It weeds out the back of the herd.

Sound like anyone else we know?