Monday, September 29, 2008

Symbolic Rosh Hashana Foods in English

SQUASH... so that God will squash your enemies!

TARRAGON... so that 'terror' will be 'gone'

CASHEWS... for monetary success ('cash')
[cashews not necessarily compatible with anti-nut customs]

MINT... also relating to money

SUNFLOWER SEEDS... for illumination

JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES... for an end to Exile

POMEGRANATE... so that we will be strong like granite!

SOLE (the fish)... for spirituality

DATES... need no explanation.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


I've discovered what the definition of Fundamentalism is.

It has nothing to do with scriptural innerancy or literalism, idealizing the status quo, or nostalgia for a possibly-imagined past.

The true definition of Fundamentalism is:
“If you're absolutely certain that you're making the proper decision, and what you're doing is the right thing to do — it doesn't matter if you hurt people in the process. You don't even owe them an apology.”

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Arami Oveid Ani:
A Ki-Teitzei’~Ki-Tavo’ DvarTorah

(a dvar Torah for The Third Meal of Shabbat parashat Ki-Teitzei’
right after reading the first alíya of Ki-Tavo’ at minhha)

It's not even ראש השנה yet
and I already feel like פסח.

At מנחה, we just read the first alíya of this coming week's פרשה,
also known as the ביכורים text —
step-by-step instructions
for the Israelite farmer,
how to present their first produce
to the כהנים and to God.

The ביכורים text is one of the centerpieces
of the Passover Seder —
much of the מגיד section of the הגדה
is devoted to an extended דרש,
taking this short summary
of Israelite history
and filling in the details
by connecting the verses here in כי־תבוא in דברים
to the story of the Exodus back in שמות.

And it all begins
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵֿדֿ אָבִֿי.

The מדרשים on which the הגדה is based
understand this to mean
"an Aramean attempted to destroy my father" —
our ancestor יעקב and his entire family
were almost annihilated
by his uncle and father-in-law, לבן,
when he chased after them
in search of his missing idols.

The medieval פשטנים, on the other hand —
those first commentators to concentrate exclusively
on the straightforward contextual meaning of Scripture —
insisted that ארמי אובד אבי cannot be talking about לבן.
The grammar is all wrong.

It actually means, they said,
"my father was a wandering, or literally ‘lost’, Aramean" —
and explained that it refers
to either אברהם
who moved from ארם to כנען,
following God to “the land that I will show you”
or to יעקב
who built his family there, in exile from that land.

This week, though,
I discovered another option.
There's a מדרש in ספרי,
quoted in the midrashic collection תורה תמימה,
that understands ארמי אובד אבי differently:
מלמד שלא ירד יעקב לארם אלא להיאבד
ומעלה על לבן הארמי כאלו איבדו
This teaches us, it says,
that יעקב only went to ארם to get lost,
and therefore לבן is regarded
as if he lost or destroyed him.

Our ancestor יעקב ran away from home.
His mother sent him away to save his life
since his brother wanted to kill him.
He was alone.
He had no camels loaded with treasure
as אברהם's servant had
when he went back to ארם
to find a wife for יצחק,
one generation before.

And לבן took advantage of him.
He tricked him into marrying the wrong woman,
he tried to cheat him out of his salary,
and he changed the terms of their contract multiple times.
It was only God's help
that enabled יעקב to succeed
and to return home to כנען.
And then it was God
who rescued יעקב's descendents from Egypt.

And so the ביכורים text goes on
to talk about Egypt, and the Exodus,
and settling the Land,
and it gives instructions for depositing the first fruits
and worshipping God —
and then it ends with one final instruction:
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ י' אֱ-ֹהֶיךָ, וּלְבֵיתֶךָ
אַתָּה, וְהַלֵּוִי, וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ
And you shall rejoice in all the good
that God gave you and your house —
together with the Levite and the stranger who are among you.

The bringing of the ביכורים must be celebrated
with the weak and vulnerable of Israelite society —
the לויים and the strangers,
who — unlike our prototypical farmer —
lack the security of ancestral territory.

Unlike לבן,
who took advantage of יעקב when he was lost and lacking,
we are obligated to emulate God,
who protected יעקב, and then saved us from Egypt,
and brought us into the Land.
The ritual of the ביכורים teaches us
that we each individually
need to continue the cycle of justice and kindness —
and if I don't, then ארמי אובד אני
I'd be the one who has lost my way.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Bli Neder / Just Do It:
A Ki-Teitzei’ DvarTorah

(a dvar torah for ma‘ariv, Shabbat parashat Ki-Teitzei’)

The month of אלול is quickly passing by.
ראש השנה and יום כפור are coming closer.

And many people
around this time of year
are beginning to think about
for the new year 5769.

We look back at this year,
at all the mistakes we've made,
all the ways we've hurt others
and hurt ourselves;
all the ways that we haven't lived up to our obligations —

and very understandably,
many people
start to make promises.
We make promises to ourselves
to our friends, to our families, to God...

There are 74 מצוות in כי־תצא, this week's פרשה
and one of them is
the obligation to keep your word.

As the תורה says,
כִּי תִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַ-י' אֱ-ֹהֶיךָ, לֹא תְאַחֵר לְשַׁלְּמוֹ
If you make a vow to God,
don't be late in paying up —
כִּי דָרֹשׁ יִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ י' אֱ-ֹהֶיךָ מֵעִמָּךְ, וְהָיָה בְךָ חֵטְא
for God will require it of you,
and you will be guilty of a transgression.

וְכִי תֶחְדַּל לִנְדֹּר, לֹא יִהְיֶה בְךָ חֵטְא
But if you don't make a vow in the first place,
you won't be guilty of anything

מוֹצָא שְׂפָתֶיךָ תִּשְׁמֹר וְעָשִׂיתָ
Observe and perform
that which comes out of your lips.

Now, while this מצוה is primarily concerned
with the prompt fulfillment
of vows made to God,
it can teach us something
about everything that comes out of our mouths —
all the promises, pledges, and guarantees
that we make to others
and to ourselves.

Some people are energized by their vows —
they make a decision
and it's the force of their promise
that holds them to it.

Many of us, on the other hand,
are paralyzed by promises.
Resolutions fail.
Words are broken.
And once we take that first step
across the line we drew for ourselves,
there's no going back;
no way to get back on the track towards improvement.

But words
are powerful things.
Words build worlds.
With 10 declarations, the משנה says,
God created the universe.
And as we say multiple times
in the High Holiday liturgy,
ראש השנה is the birthday of the world.
But according to רבי אליעזר
who is quoted in a few different מדרשים,
the first day of creation was כ"ה אלול —
which makes ראש השנה the Sixth day of Creation
the birthday not of יהי אור, “let there be light” — but of the human race.

At the beginning of the תורה,
when God breathes life into Humanity,
and we become נפש חיה, a living soul,
the traditional Aramaic translation of אונקלוס
renders that phrase
רוּחַ מְמַלְּלָא —
a speaking spirit.

Speech is what makes us human.
The words we say create worlds.
Our vows and resolutions define reality.

And so the תורה tells us —
if you make a vow and break it,
you've committed a transgression.
So it's better not to make it in the first place.

Words are weighty things.
And as we get closer to ראש השנה,
and the pressure to change, to grow, to improve ourselves
gets stronger and stronger,
[...] let me suggest,
in the words of the Nike advertising campaign,
Just Do It.
Resolutions unravel.
Promises break.
Vows fail.
So don't swear to high heaven that you're “never going to do it again”
and don't promise yourself perfection.

Just take a single step in the direction you want to go.
And then take another.
The universe wasn't created in a single day,
and there are 18 days from now until ראש השנה,
and then 10 more until יום כפור,
and then 344 days from יום כפור until next ראש השנה.
If we just take one small step at a time,
with no illusions, and no assumptions,
who knows how far we can reach by then.

Monday, September 08, 2008

They Grow Up So Fast

My father ע"ה once told me that when he was little and a relative of his was in the military during wartime (it may have been WWII, but that's doubtful because he was 3 years old when it ended) they used to wake up in the morning, do négelvasser (hand-washing), and say a prayer for the relative in the military.

I wish I knew what that prayer was.

I only taught high school for two years (up until a year ago, when i went back to school myself), but I now have a former student in the United States Army, and he's shipping off to ‘Irāq sometime in the next two weeks.

Oh. My. God.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

From Among Your Brethren

Notes reconstructing an impromptu devar Torah from Parashat Shoftim.

The Torah stresses that a King of Israel must be "from among your brethren." There are halakhic ramifications of this — the Mishna tells us, and the Gemara expands on the story, that King Agrippas of the Second Commonwealth would cry as he read this passage, because he wasn't אחיך 'enough', being descended from Edomite converts.

The Torah also seems to stress that a Prophet of God must be "from among your brethren." Interestingly enough, however, Rambam goes out of his way in his Letter to Yemen to hammer home the message that prophets don't need to be Jewish. When evaluating a prophet to see whether they are True or False, their identity doesn't matter. All that matters is their message. If their message is one that reinforces Torah, we can move to the next step of asking for miraculous signs. If their message contradicts Torah, on the other hand, they are by definition false — and just as there can be Israelite false prophets, such as Hhananya ben ‘Azur, there can also be Non-Jewish true prophets.

So why, when the Torah seems to say that both need to be "from among your brethren", do we only accept a King who is unimpeachably "one of us", but potentially accept Prophets no matter where they come from?

A king is a political leader. He needs to be able to identify fully with his constituents, and they need to be able to identify fully with him. A prophet, on the other hand, represents God. God is the ultimate Other. God makes the rules. So as long as you can verify — based on message and miracle — that the prophet is True, it doesn't matter whether they're related to you or not, and you can "accept the truth from whoever says it."