Posts Tagged 'Revelation'

Taking Torah This Day

In the fourth aliyah of Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read how Moses and the elders charged the people to set up large stones on Mount Ebal, coat them with plaster, and to inscribe on them all the words of the Torah as soon as they cross the Jordan River. There they are to build an altar to God made of stones on which no iron tool had struck, and they were to offer on it offerings to God and rejoice. At the end of the aliyah we read:

And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly. And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke to all Israel, saying: ‘Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day you have become people to the Lord your God. You shall therefore listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do God’s commandments and God’s statutes, which I command you this day.’ ( Deuteronomy 27: 8-10)

On this Rabbi Yehudah asked what is meant by  “this day” ( Berachot 63b).  Was it on that day that the Torah was given to Israel; was that day not at the end of the 40 years of the wandering in the Wilderness? Rabbi Yehudah explained that the words “this day” served to teach that every day the Torah is as beloved to those who study it as on the day when God gave it at Sinai. But why at this moment are we reminded of the revelation at Sinai?

When my brother was in medical school he shared with me how they were teaching him to become a doctor. He said, ” To learn a procedure we would see one, do one, and teach one.” Different people will learn at different stages. For some people if they see something they will learn it right away. For  others they need to practice it to master it. And everyone will have mastered the procedure if they are able to teach someone else how to do the procedure. It has stayed with me throughout the years that this is probably true in the case of all learning.

It was one thing for the nation to see revelation at Sinai. Making these stone pillars was enacting a commandment of the Torah. On another level making these pillars was a national expression of our teaching the Torah to the world. While we might have been given the Torah at Sinai, it was only when we entered into the land and built these pillars that we took the Torah. Rabbi Yehudah was right. Every day the Torah is as beloved to those who study it as on the day when the nation of Israel took the Torah of Israel  in the land.

A Cinderella Story

The familiar plot of the story of Cinderella revolves around a girl deprived of her rightful station in the family by her horrible stepmother and stepsisters. Forced into a life of domestic servitude, she is given the cruel nickname “Cinderella” as she is forced to tend the cinder from the fireplace. She accepts the help of her fairy godmother who transforms Cinderella so that she can attend the royal ball and attract the attention of the handsome prince. But, the spell will only work until the first stroke of midnight. While at the party Cinderella loses track of the time and must flee the castle before she blows her cover. In her haste, she loses one of her glass slippers, which the prince finds. He declares that he will only marry the girl whose petite foot fits into the slipper. Cinderella’s stepsisters conspire to win the princes’s hand for one of themselves, but in the end, Cinderella arrives and proves her identity by fitting into the slipper.

It seems that the story of Cinderella is the story of Passover. We were lowly slaves in Egypt and then out of nowhere Moses comes in as the fairy godmother to invite us to the big ball  ( insert 3 day holiday here). Pharaoh and his court play the role of the stepmother and stepsisters afflicting the Israelites with back-breaking work.  We were not prepared for this moment and at the first strike of midnight we had to run off (insert Matzah here). It is interesting how we commemorate this anxiety every year by mandating that we finish eating the Afikoman by midnight.

At this point in the yearly narrative, we have had our first encounter but still longing to rejoin God who is playing the role of the prince. While Cinderella was counting down to be discovered by the prince, the Jewish people are counting “up” to Shavuot. We are reminded that we are but slaves and we are on the march to complete freedom. It is understandable that we might get lost in the excitement of being asked to elope with God, but we are not yet secure that we will be discovered and ever escape our slavery. We are waiting for God to return to see if the slipper fits (slip on Torah here). Ah, you got to love stories with happy endings.

 

Closer to Revelation

This week we start reading Veyikra, the book of Leviticus. It is choked full of rules regarding sacrifices. You could understand why it seemed strange to learn the Midrash when it said:

Rav Assi said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure studied the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.)

I understand why people might think that the story of Genesis is too nuanced to be a young child’s initiation to learning. But, just because we are not starting off with the Garden of Eden does not mean that we should start off with all of the blood and gore and guts of Leviticus.

The word “korban” (sacrifice) derives from the word that means “that which is brought close.” Bringing a korban was not just the process of giving something up to the Tabernacle or Temple, but the process of becoming closer.  Maybe this is what we need to be teaching out children.

Education is not about the blood of the sacrifices or for that matter any of the data. It is about relationships and making those connections. Education is not just about knowledge; it is about wisdom.

As the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said, “it is learning in reverse order, a learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life but the other way around: from life…back to the Torah.” Revelation is not limited to something that might or might not have happened long ago at Sinai, but it is something that is happening in the learning experience itself today.   So too korbanot, this drawing near, is not limited to the sacrifices, but needs to be about making connections. Now more than ever relevance is a prerequisite to revelation.

- This blog post is written in honor of the wedding of Daniel Infeld and Rachel Ross

Blessing the New Year

It seems funny ending Genesis ( as we do this week) so close to a time when so many people on this planet celebrating a New Year. We just got started and we are ending.  Or is it just starting the next chapter? It seems that for many 2011 was less than a stellar year. So I am sure many of us are looking forward to  a brand new start. As we will read next week, that is the subject of the portion of Shmot.

In parshat VaYechi, this week’s Torah portion, we see Yaakov giving blessings to his children. It is hard to see this outside of the context of the other blessings in the Bible. Most notably the blessing Yaakov himself got (stole) from his father Yitzhak. But this is different. In most of the cases it is the charge of parent to a child in their youth as to their destiny and life path. As compared to a blessing to someone in their adolescence who is looking for guidance and direction in this week’s portion we see grown men getting blessings. It seems to be an eternal truth, we all yearn and seek parental affirmation regardless of our age, station, or accomplishment.

Just as Genesis comes to a close and we see the family come together for their blessings, I had the pleasure of spending the New Year together with my family. It is an amazing time to see the cousins play. It seems timeless to share the pleasures of good food and fun activities with family. It is also a time to reflect on how we have progressed as parents, partners, and also children. I have been so concerned with how am becoming a better parent ( as evident by this blog itself) that I am rarely consciously reflecting on how I am as a child. I spend so much energy thinking about the blessings I want to give my children, I do not spend enough time reflecting on the blessings I have already been given by my parents, let alone the ones I still hope to get.

As I am now hyper-conscious of being a parent it has become apparent that the gift of a blessing is not in the receiving, but in the giving.  It is a great gift to see the hidden potential in someone else and label it. That is what it means to bless something. Blessing is a mini- revelation. Giving a blessing in many ways is the prize of ascending to Sinai. We are all Israel in that we are struggling with who we are becoming, what a blessing to have it revealed, let alone to reveal it?

 

Dependable Memory

In the Mishnah Tamid ( 7:4) we learn that the Messianic Era will be a time which is  sheKulu Shabbat- completely Shabbat. What does that mean? First we need to understand some basic ideas about Shabbat and the Messiah. So, Shabbat with all of the rules and regulations actually boils down to just two commandments, LeShmor V LeZchor- to guard and to remember. Most of what we know  is all of the things we cannot do on Shabbat. That would fall under the commandment “to guard” Shabbat. We remember the Shabbat most clearly with the Kiddush. The Shulchan Aruch (OH272) brings down an interesting idea. If we do not have enough money for Challah and wine we should actually make Kiddush over Challah.  But we will come back to this.

Now back to the idea of the Messiah. We often say that one should ignore the idea of the Messiah ben David, but we ignore the idea of the Messiah ben Yosef. Living most of history as a dispossessed people we overlook the physical redemption of the Messiah descended from Yosef in favor of the metaphysical/ spiritual redemption that is supposed to come from a descendent of David. This idea of a physical redeemer in Yosef is very clearly discussed in the past few Torah portions. It all comes to a head in Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, when the hidden redeemer reveals his true identity to save his brothers.

Regardless of our station in life, on Shabbat we are transformed into kings presiding over our weekly feast. To anyone who keeps Shabbat in our lives, it is hard to imagine a world without Shabbat.  But if we tried to imagine a world without the comfort of family and community we do not need to look further then when Yosef himself was in prison. There he was in the pit without Shabbat, but he was with the head baker and the head butler of the Pharaoh. He interprets their dreams and asks to be remembered. Then we read:

And the butler did not remember Yosef and he forgot him. ( Genesis 41:23)

Yosef asks to be remembered and he is forgotten.  Many commentators suggest that this doubling of language suggests that the butler forgot him in the short-term and the long-term. It is easy to imagine why the butler might forget Yosef. Many of us assume that needing the help of others makes us weaker in some way. So in the short and long-term it was easier for the butler to think he was chosen or special then remembering that he was dependent on Yosef for anything.

What is the significance of this story of Yosef in the prison in the context of our Mishna in Tamid? Yosef was in the pit without Shabbat. Pharoah is the king and he is clearly not. There, Yosef was with the head of Challah and the Head of Kiddush. The head of Challah was going to be killed and the head of Kiddush was asked to remember the redeemer and forgets him. Every Shabbat we try to fix this by remembering Yosef when we make Kiddush. And if we do not have money for both we remember the Challah over the Kiddush.

In the Talmud,  Rav Yochanan said in the name of the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi:

If Israel were to keep two Shabbatot according to the laws, they would be redeemed immediately ( Shabbat 118b)

Surely if we remember what the butler forgot we could redeem the world. (Maybe for both the Messiah of Yosef and David) We all get help from people all the time. But, we let our egos get the best of us. If we took the time to reveal their good deeds it would help reveal the capacity of these hidden humble heroes to redeem the world. And, we would also reveal our own vulnerability. This itself might be the core of the Messianic Era. This will not be a time of independence or dependence, but radical interdependence.  Shabbat itself could be a taste of this. Take a moment this Shabbat to share how you were helped this week. This memory might itself bring us closer to that era.

- L’Kavod Ben Sales ( who taught me to love Shabbat in new ways) and his wife Rachel

Standing This Day

At the beginning of this week’s double portion, Nitzavim- VeYelech, we read:

9 You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, 10 your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water… 13 Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath;   14 but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day.  (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

If it happened at all, revelation happened thousands of years ago at Sinai. What does it mean that this day there was revelation with the people who were not even there? Rashi cites the Midrash Tanchuma to explain that this is the source for the tradition that all Jews, from all generations, stood at Sinai. We were all there to embrace the special relationship with each other and the holy Other at that moment of Revelation.

We at the Foundation for Jewish Camp are ideologically pluralistic. We celebrate that we all experienced that moment differently but still enjoy the notion that we were all there. This memory itself fosters Jewish unity and empowers individuals to increased Jewish knowledge on their own terms. The diversity of camps we work with speaks to the diversity of needs of the families in our community. While each camp thinks it is completely unique, when they meet a camp person from another camp they realize how much they actually have in common. From the camp director to first time camper, from the maintenance staff to the veteran counselor, every summer we are blessed to reconvene these holy Jewish communities at camp. Even if geographically they are all over North America and ideologically they are all doing their part in building the larger Jewish community. But why limit it to just those days of summer?

It seems fitting on this Shabbat, in which we recall being together at Sinai, we think about the Global Day of Jewish Learning. Last year the Global Day of Jewish Learning was conceived to mark the completion of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s monumental translation on the Talmud. The inaugural event was a huge success reaching every corner of the Jewish world with 600 events in 400 communities in 48 countries. If you are interested in reconnecting to this moment when we were all together at Sinai think about getting your camp community together during the off season to hold or join a Global Day of Jewish Learning event on November 13th. Check out their website and be in touch with us if we can help.

- As seen on Foundation for Jewish Camp Blog

 

Preparing for Revelation

It has been too long since I have had a chance to write. It seems that there is no time to get everything done. I especially feel this way today. As I am quickly preparing for Shavuot I am also lamenting that I was not able to be at my son’s Siddur ceremony today at school. I realize that for me this year these two events are connected. My son’s  receiving his first prayer-book is parallel to our collective receiving the Torah.

As we prepare for revelation I look at my children and I look at myself. As a parent, I am often torn between cherishing the few moments with my children at their current stage of life, while simultaneously being consumed by my curiosity to know the people they will become. I see parts of my wife and myself in each of them which teaches me about myself. I also marvel  at the parts that are truly unique to the people they are becoming.

Traditionally we stay up Erev Shavuot for the Tikkun to fix having fallen a sleep at Sinai. For me this year I feel like I need to go to sleep early.  I realize that to be the parent that I aspire to be I need more sleep. I am sure that I will not be present and I will not help reveal the best in my children if I stay up all night. I realize that there is a Torah from Sinai and another Torah that is to be revealed through parenting. I can only hope to  present and not sleep through the revelations manifest in their growing up.

Erase Me

A few of weeks ago Yishama, our 4-year-old, declared to Adina, out of no where, that God drew the world in pencil. When she asked him why, he responded, ” So God can erase it if He needs to.” I have asked Yishama a couple of times since what he meant by that. He just smiles as me as if it is obvious. I am not sure what he meant, but maybe this week’s Torah portion will help.

We read of the people sinning with the Golden Calf while Moses was getting the Ten Commandments. Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai and deals with the sinners.  And then we  read,

31 And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. 32 Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray of You, out of Your book which You have written.’ 33 And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Whosoever has sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book. Exodus 32: 31-33

If God does not keep God’s promise to the Israelites, Moses asks to be erased. While Avraham confronted God at his destruction of Sodom, Moses pulls off the ultimate Keyser Söze. As imperfect as they are, Moses puts himself on the line and casts his lot with the people of Israel.

In the Bible it seems that history is an iterative process.  First in the two creation stories God keeps on trying and trying again. This continues when God decides to start again and brings a flood. God promises that God will not do that again, but then recreates the world with a famine (profound anti- Flood) in the story of Joseph. And now again God threatens to erase these people and start again with Moses. In this moment Moses ends the pattern of erasing. Moses makes God commit to this version, this people, and this world. In this episode we truly become the People of the Book. With Moses, the book is published and cannot be erased. Moses teaches us, on an existential level, why text matters so much.

Our son Yadid is in first grade this year. This means that he started having homework this year. It is great. He is learning to read in Hebrew and English, repairing for spelling tests and all that. Adina and I have been very careful to have him do his homework in pencil. He often is making mistakes and is erasing his work in order to get it right.

We undo ourselves when we think we are infallible and do not need to write in pencil. We also fail when we think we can get by without having to commit. There is a time for pen and a time for pencil. I think Yishama was teaching us that God is infallible because God planned on making mistakes. I think what we learn from Moses is that at some point we need to commit ourselves even if it is not perfect. All too often progress is lost in the pursuit of perfection.

A Gooder Dream

In the Torah reading a couple of weeks ago we learned of the two dream of Joseph’s youth. One was a dream of the sheaves of wheat bowing to one. The other was of the stars and the moon bowing to one star. It was clearly experienced by all as the run away ego of spoiled child. How could they the elder brothers bow to this pisher?

Dreams continue to play a central role in Joseph’s life. By interpreting the dreams of the butcher and wine steward correctly he eventually gets the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams. Interpreting these correctly leads to saving the known world from 7 years of famine. It was at this time that Joseph reunites with his brothers who have come to Egypt looking for food. They clearly have no idea that the stand in front of their brother Joseph. It seems that we are forced to sit through a long drama of Joseph wanting to live out his two dreams and have them all bow to him.

In Shmot, this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to Moses. When is born and before he is named we learn “Ki Tov hu- because he was good” (Exodus 2:2) On this Rashi comments that the goodness referred to when he was born the entire house becoming filled with light. Rashi was referencing  Sotah12a which assumes that Moses Hebrew name was something like Tuv or Tuvia. There the Talmud plays with the reference of Moses being tov- good – with the idea expressed in creation “And God saw the light that was tov- good” (Genesis 1:4).  Moses potential was depicted as  unlimited so he was depicted as a primordial supernova, our rising star.

It seems that Moses and Joseph are very similar. Both saved their people from physical peril.  Joseph from the famine and Moses from slavery. But unlike Joseph, Moses went on to give the people the Torah at Sinai and bring them to ( if not into) the Land of Israel. It is clear that Joseph and his brothers did act out the dream of the wheat, they came to him to get food and be saved from the famine. But is it not possible that Joseph misinterpreted his second dream? This second dream might have been referring to all of the tribes bowing to Moses, the light of both a physical and metaphysical redemption.

The New Testament depicts Jesus saying “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4:4) It seems that  Rabbi Eliezer the son of Azariah is in conversation with this idea when he said, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour” (Avot 3:21).  Neither just the physical or just the spiritual redemption are sufficient, both are critical and necessary. While Joseph provided the flour ( dream of the wheat), Moses provided the flour( matzoh) and the Torah ( revelation). And in this sense Moses was truly tov- good. Or maybe we are all just still struggling to live out the dream of living with the physical and spiritual redemption in the Land. That is a wonderful dream. As my four-year-old son Yishama says, “Wouldn’t that be gooder?”

Revealing Food and Clothes

On the heels of last week’s Torah portion in which Jacob steals the birthright and the blessing from his brother Esav, this week’s Torah portion begins with Jacob running away from Esav. Just before Jacob leaves the land of Canaan he makes a vow to God, saying:

If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear,  so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God (Genesis 28:20-21)

His vow seems to be theologically charged with the possibility that God’s existence is contingent on God providing for Jacob. Some of the words in the vow seem to be superfluous. Of course food is to be eaten and clothing is to be worn, why does Jacob ask for “bread to eat, and clothing to wear”? It was Jacob himself who used food to get the birthright from Esav and food and clothing to deceive his father and get the blessing. How can Jacob ever look at food and clothing the same way again?

Even though it seems that the deception changed Jacob as a person, it never made him suspect that people would try to deceive him the same way in the future. Sure enough in this week’s Torah portion Jacob gets hoodwinked into marrying a cloaked Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. He then gets deceived by his sons who bring their father Joseph’s clothes with blood on them to support their claim that their brother Joseph was killed. Finally, Jacob will send his sons down to Egypt to get food and there they will all get deceived by Joseph. Ironically, despite Jacob’s claim that food and clothing should be used for their normal use, his life is marked by their use for deception.

If we look at the vow that Jacob makes, in this light, we see that the words are not superfluous and he really wanted God to let him forget the sins of his youth. Surely Jacob’s teshuvah, return, is a lifetime in the making. As we read in Hallel, “The rock that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). We can try to run from our past, but one way or another it will catch up with us. Just as in Jacob’s vow, the true revelation of God is contingent upon the true revelation of self.


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