Posts Tagged 'iPeshat'

Feeling Faint on Tisha B’Av

As we sat last night to read Eicha again it is impossible to get that pathetic voice out of my head. When I stop to think about it, Eicha has all of the neuroses of Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld with all of the self-deprecation and without any of the humor. If Woody Allen is right, that comedy is tragedy plus time, when it comes to Tisha B’Av thousands of years still seems too soon. Instead of assuming that all of these tragedies befell our people due to our  being in the wrong geopolitical place at the wrong time, we attribute it to some divine scheme of reward and punishment. The voice of Eicha ensures that we do not let it go or it blame it away.

A number of years ago I found myself listening to Faint by Linkin Park. In the spirit of the day I encourage you to listen to the lyrics of the song. I think it adds an interesting  twist to that voice of Eicha and a modern spin on Tisha B’Av. As absurd as it sounds ( pun intended), this song has helped me reframe many years of theological struggling.

Eicha starts out, “How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!” ( Eicha 1:1) We too are supposed to feel a little bit of loneliness a little bit of disregard. We have the right to have a handful of complaints. But, can we help the fact that everyone can see these scars? Tisha B’Av is a day when our divine punishments are in full view.

We have grown to be  comfortable being ourselves with all of our scars, but ultimately what we really want is God’s attention. Tisha B’Av at its core is our dealing with Hester Panim, the temporary Eclipse of God. There are times when God is inexplicably absent from history. As we read: “I will surely hide My face on that day”( Deuteronomy 31:18)

Here is where I find the words and the anger of Linkin Park so liberating. As they sing:

So I let go, watching you, turn your back like you always do
Face away and pretend that I’m not
But I’ll be here ’cause you’re all that I got
I can’t feel the way I did before. Don’t turn your back on me. I won’t be ignored. Time won’t heal this damage anymore. Don’t turn your back on me. I won’t be ignored

Amidst all the screaming, I find it redeeming to find a new voice. Yes, we are hurt, but we are not pathetic. We cannot control the experience of pain, but we can transform the experience of suffering. We are not just taking it. We can demand that we will not be ignored.



Breaching the Tablets

It is so rare that Adina and I get a chance to sit down and watch a movie together. Recently we had the pleasure of watching  The Invention of Lying. While it did not have a compelling ending ( Adina fell asleep), the premise was brilliant. Imagine a world in which no one knows how to lie. Every just says what is on their mind and has limited filters. That all changes with the invention of lying.

At a critical moment in the movie the protagonist who invents lying is dealing with his mother’s pending death. Instead of just allowing her to believe that death will be a meaningless void, he tells her a lie. There is an afterlife which is filled with joy. This conversation is overheard and everyone wants to know about this  afterlife. At some points he decides to use his powers for good and lay out other information he has received from the ” Man in the Sky”. After staying up writing all night he rights down his top ten list of things that he thinks would make people better and would justify this “Man in the Sky” who told him about the after life. About to stand in front of the throng of people he takes two pizza boxes to hold up his top ten list.

I think it was a brilliant reframing of the revelation of the Ten Commandments as the revelation of  a much needed lie. Done for good purposes but not necessarily yielding the best results.

Today is the 17th of Tammuz. The day commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem during the destruction of the Second Temple. It has been forty days since Shavuot.  Moses ascended Mount Sinai and remained up there those forty days. Israel built the Golden Calf on the afternoon of the sixteenth of Tammuz when it seemed that Moses was not coming down when promised. Moses descended the next day (forty days by his count), saw that the Israelites were violating many of the laws he had received, and smashed the tablets. Poetically it also commemorates the the destruction of the Tablets of the Ten Commandments.

For many moderns it is hard to understand the ancient myth of revelation as something that actually happened. It is interesting to think of it as a lie. Modernity itself represents a breach in the wall of faith. Today is a day of fasting and prayer. It is important that we look at these lies in our life. Do we spend our time defending, rebuilding, or ignoring that wall? Can we ever return to life before the breach? How might we ever return to a time before that breach? In many ways I believe that these three weeks from now until Tisha B’Av are about a process of helping as achieve  a Second Naivete. At the end of Eicha we will read, “Turn us unto You, O Lord, and we shall be turned; renew our days as of old”  ( Lamentations 5:21) Just maybe we can return Gan Eden.

Maybe it is a lie, but maybe it creates a profound truth. As I write this I am at a summer camp. There is nothing real about camp. It is a completely artificial environment in which we experience some of the most profound, real, and authentic experiences in the world. Camp is really Gan Eden. There is a profound breach in that wall when get older and cannot go back or when we experience a tragedy in that community. All together we can strive to renew our days as of old.

For more on the idea of the Second Naivete and Camp



Memory is a powerful thing; it is central to our identity. However, it is interesting that our memory often has only a limited connection with the actual history of an event. This is brought to light through the words of Kodachrome, by Simon and Garfunkel. The lyrics read,

If you took all the girls I knew when I was single
Brought ’em all together for one night
I know they’d never match my sweet imagination
Everything looks better in black and white

The way in which we frame a memory colors it. In this song, memory removed all the pigment of blemishes.

It is interesting to reflect on the nature of color and memory in light of Terumah, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read about the Tabernacle in its entire splendor. It was gold, turquoise, purple, scarlet, and more. Every year we read about the building of the tabernacle. We are forced to recall its beauty while none of us has ever seen it. In the Mishnah when discussing the construction of the Temple, there are a number of disagreements. This is striking in as much as there was an actual Temple. The Temple was not just in color and 3D, it was real.  Why would there be a disagreement about a physical reality? Like everything else Jewish, the question is better than the answer. One answer must be in the importance of memory over history.

The question for us is how do we balance a reverence for the past and present, relevance of facts and feelings, and sense of mission for the future? In this new world in which history is being “documented” like never before (as evident by the proliferation of blogs like this one), we need to approach memory with an open heart and open eyes. How we will be remembered will not be aided by any rose-colored glasses.

Stranger in a Strange Land

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion we read:

And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  And six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner you shall deal with thy vineyard, and with thy olive yard. (Exodus 23:9-11)

What is the connection between being nice to the stranger and keeping the laws of shmittah, letting the fields go fallow on the seventh year?

On the surface, it seems that every seven years we create a welfare state, which provides for the less fortunate. However, on a deeper level we see that the laws of shmittah maintain a feeling of never owning the land. Cycling through this seven-year process, helps us stay in touch with the experience of our own being strangers. Surely, it is wonderful to feel at home. But, in the words of Rabbi Levi Lauer, “Comfort is not a Jewish value.” The experience of alienation once every seven years is supposed to inculcate us with the need to look out for the dispossessed for the following six years. We can never let our experience of comfort overshadow our compassion for the stranger.

It has been 30- years since U2 released “Stranger in a Strange Land” on their album October. The song starts off:

Stranger, stranger in a strange land
He looked at me like I was the one who should run
We asked him to smile for a photograph
Waited a while to see if we could make him laugh

Often we see others as if they are strangers, when in reality it is us ourselves who are the strangers. It seems at its core we have been singing this song for centuries. 

– And I wish you were here

Serious Man

As we come to the close of the 10 days of Repentance and are gearing up for Yom Kippor it seems appropriate to share a reflection on the movie a Serious Man. When the film came out it was  lauded as the modern, or at least the 1950’s version, of the story of Job in the Bible. The comparison is obvious both Job and Larry Gopnik, the main character of the movie, seem to be punished despite not doing anything wrong. It clearly tests our notion of divine justice.

What is compelling about the film? For me it is the scene pictured above. Mr. Gopnik goes to his roof to fix the TV reception and ends up ogling his neighbor sunbathing. Mr. Gopnik does not cheat on his wife with this woman, in fact it is his wife who is cheating on him. It just seems to underscore the pathetic nature of his life. This image of him on the roof asks us to compare him to David for a moment. It was David who got into trouble when he went out onto his roof and saw Uriel’s wife Batsheva. David had an adulterous affair with Batsheva and is still remembered throughout history as the paradigmatic king and the for-bearer to the Messiah.  David is able to recover from doing sin because the sin itself becomes the platform for growth. Mr. Gopnik does nothing wrong, but he also seems to do nothing.

My grandfather used to say, “If you are afraid of making mistakes, stay in bed, then you have only made one mistake.” The shofar on Rosh HaShana was the wake up call to get us out of bed. Yom Kippur is our platform to repair ourselves and our relationships. We need to reconcile the fact that to act in the world means to make mistakes. We need to strive for excellence and repair those mistakes. We need to take our actions seriously, not ourselves. Gmar Chatima Tova

Egel Arufa Now

A the end of Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the Egel Arufa, the heifer.  There we read:

1If, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, 2your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. 3The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; 4and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. 5The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of the Lord, and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. 6Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. 7And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of bloodguilt. 9Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 21: 1- 9)

It is untenable in the Torah for a murder happen without fault. The ritual of the Egel Arufa, the heifer, is an effort to reconcile  society’s responsibility for that murder. It has profound implications in modern society in which we are at once more interconnected than ever online and more isolated than ever in our cubicles.

I would like to enjoin you to consider Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece Apocalypse Now as a modern perush, commentary on this Torah. The film opens, introducing Captain Benjamin L. Willard (played by Martin Sheen); a deeply troubled, seasoned special operations veteran. Willard is sent on mission deep into Cambodian jungle to find Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), a member of the US Army Special Forces feared to have gone rogue.

After his long journey up the river, away from society, and into the heart of darkness Willard arrives to terminate the Kurtz’s command “with extreme prejudice.”  The climax of the movie is when Willard enters Kurtz’s chamber  with the machete in hand. This entire sequence is set to “The End” by The Doors and juxtaposed with a local ceremonial slaughtering of a water buffalo.

Lying bloody and dying on the ground, Kurtz whispers “The horror… the horror…” before expiring.

Where as in the Torah the sacrifice of the heifer seems to restore justice, Coppola asks us to see the death  of the stranger far from society (Kurtz) at the same time as the society is “fixing it” through the bloody sacrifice of the water buffalo.  In the wake of Vietnam Coppola was asking us to build a society in which we really take responsibility for everyone. It is hard not to hear Kurtz’s comments come as a critique of the society that send Willard to hill him. The horror… the horror.

Today, in light of what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and the many senseless deaths that are all around us today, we have to ask ourselves what will clean our hands of these deaths? Who is responsible? How will we restore justice?  What is the Egel Arufa Now?

Bitter Sweet Goodbye

At synagogue this past Shabbat I saw a father of a child that goes to my Yadid’s school.  He said, ” I see that Yadid is having a good time at school”.  I asked him what he meant. It turns out that his children get on the bus after Yadid.  This father has been having trouble getting his kids on the bus, but every morning he sees that Yadid is sitting there happy as can be on his way to school. I had not thought about it that much but Yadid, who just started kindergarten this year, never hesitated to get on the bus. While I was initially proud of Yadid being so independent, I then became a little sad that Yadid was so quick to get on that bus and leave me behind.

I have been reflecting on this as we come up to the end of this interminable litany of holidays. With the advent of Elul we have been saying L’David. There in Psalm 27 we read:

 4 One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the graciousness of the Lord, and to visit early in God’s temple.
5 For God conceals me in God’s pavilion in the day of evil; God hides me in the covert of God’s tent; God lifts me up upon a rock.

It seems that now, during Succot, we have finally arrived. We are spending our time in “the house of the Lord”. In this festival we used to visit “in God’s temple”; but even without the Temple, we get to spend Succot concealed in ” God’s pavilion”. And then just like that,  along will come Simchat Torah and we will be gone. Just like my son getting on the bus without looking back, we will abandon the Succah and stop saying L’David.

Coming to the end of a period of our trying to get close to God it would be fitting to declare our sadness in having to leave that space. It makes sense that we turn from Pslam 27 to Lev Tahor, (Psalm 51). There we read:

12 Create for me a pure heart, O God; and renew a righteous spirit within me.
13 Please do not cast me away from You; and do not take from me Your holy spirit.

We do not want to spend the rest of the year in exile from God. We want to spend all of our time in God’s presence. It is hard to maintain that intense connection all year long. We want to move on to being productive, just as Yadid is excited to go to school. Our only hope is that after the holiday season we have been changed. That we have returned to the purity of spirit of a 5- year-old heading off to school. Adina and I hope that Yadid will learn about the world with an open mind, will learn from people with an open heart, and will always act as a Mentsch.

As Adina has taught me, sometimes words can only get so far and then music needs to take over. So before the moment passes I wanted to share with you a version of Lev Tahor by Pharoah’s Daughter that I have been singing all of Succot.

I feel as if they really capture the sentiment of the song. I hope that this song will give you pause to appreciate the present of presence we have on Succot.  We are not being  sent away (תַּשְׁלִיכֵנִי), we are leaving as messengers (שְׁלִיכים) carrying out our duty. It is bitter sweet to say goodbye, but with a pure spirit we turn our attention to the work ahead.

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