A Short Drash on Shabbat Bereshit: Exonerating Eve



"C'mon Adam, you know you want it. Take a bite!"

No biblical story has had a more significant effect on the real lives of women than the creation of woman (isha) in Genesis 2. We all know the story.

On the 6th day, God created Ha'Adam, the first human. God placed ha'Adam in the garden and then thought to himself, "Huh. It's not good for Ha'Adam to be alone. Let's get him a helpmate*!" I don't know what God was thinking at this point, but He created and paraded all the wild animals of the earth and sky before the man to name and, if he felt the urge, choose one as a helpmate.

He's this guy:

"You don't like the horse? No problem. I got a beauty of a water buffalo right over here that is perfect for you. Zero miles. Just created it myself...."

The man met and gave names to all the animals and birds, he didn't find any suitable to be his helpmate, his ezer k'negdo (עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ) -- his helpful counterpart, his co-warrior. You have to wonder if God knew what he was doing here, parading all of these unsuitable matches before Adam, so that the pinnacle of this event, this roll call, is disappointment. And then, to save the day, God created an ezer k'negdo just for him, from part of him. Flesh of his flesh. Bones of his bones.

Asked to recount from memory the process of this creation story, most people will say that God put Adam in a deep sleep, took out one of his ribs, closed the wound and made the woman from that rib. 

I've always preferred the translation that means "sides" instead of "rib". It's a perfectly legit translation, and I think it supports a more feminist reading of the text.

A woman made from a rib is a second-best effort made from a spare part, a part so unimportant that the man can easily live without it. He can say to the woman:
You were made from me.
You have no part in me. 
I will always have part of me in you.
Now imagine that first creation, that earth creature, a hermaphroditic, intersex, non-gendered creature, Ha'Adam, being cleaved in two, right down the middle. God has to "seal up the man's wound" by creating half a person, who, when whole, will become the ish, the man. 

God has to do the same amount of rebuilding and creating to fashion the woman, isha. Ish and Isha came equally from the first earth being, Ha'Adam. They are set above the animals on the earth and below God in the heavens, so they get each other in the middle. 



A step back. Before Ha'Adam was split into two, before ish and isha were created, God gave a warning. "Go ahead," he said. "Eat anything you want. It's all for you." 

"Except for that tree. 
Don't eat from that tree, or you're gonna die."

Right after saying this to Ha'Adam he knocks him out cold, cuts him in half, turns half of him into a man and the other half into a woman. They wake up "become one flesh," and go tromping off to live in the garden.

If you ask me, it would have been great for God to reiterate at this point his earlier warnings about the trees and the eating and the dying.

But no. Instead, he left the freshly-created Man and Woman to land out in the garden with "the most cunning" animal, the serpent. This is not the way to "set your kids up for success," God.

The serpent slithers up to Eve and asks her, "So, you can't eat any of the tree in the garden. Did God really say that?"
Eve corrects the serpent: "Oh, we can eat everything, except that one in the middle there. We can't eat it or even touch it or we will die"
"Is that so?" says the serpent. "You won't die. That's a God scare tactic. In fact, if you do eat it, you're eyes will be open and you'll be like gods. You'll know everything."

Oh, Eve.

One misunderstanding of what God said may have just cost you everything.

God did not say you could not touch the tree, He said you couldn't eat from it.

When Eve reached for the tree, one part of what she thought God said was proven wrong.

Imagine her revelation: "I can touch the tree, and I'm not dead! Maybe the serpent is right. Maybe we won't die, but we will know all things."

She's being rather logical, but her syllogism inputs are off:
God said eating or touching the tree = death
I touched the tree and didn't die
Therefore, I can eat of the tree and not die.
Chomp!

"Then she gave some to the man who was with her and he ate."

This is the big "Temptation of Adam" we have used to construct powerful social assumptions about men and women and who's at fault when a man does not control his own behavior.

Look at this painting again.


 Look at Adam, struggling to resist the forbidden fruit that Eve is offering him. He looks taught and tortured by his indecision. And she, pushing the apple forward, that pleading look on her face. He didn't want to eat it, but she... she tempted him and he could not resist, so he ate! And so the sin has fallen on Eve. 

My children and I have talked about why different versions of the story matter. What do women live with in 2017 that has been supported and perpetuated because of the belief that Eve was a temptress and Adam was hapless.

When God questions Eve, she said "The serpent tricked me!"
And the serpent was punished.
And Eve was punished: with hard labor and tough pregnancies. "And your desire shall be for your man and he will rule over you."
And you, Adam, your punishment is because you listened to her and ate. Good luck toiling that field.
Now, get out.

My child: "Why didn't Adam just not eat the apple? He knew what the consequences were."
My child: "Did they eat from the tree on purpose, to know more, to get out of the garden?"
My child: "Why was she punished for being tricked?"

All great questions that I'm not sure I have answers for. 

But I do have some.

As you study these books, my children, be aware of how these stories have made their way off the page and into our culture and society. Take a look at the headlines, the man sitting in the Oval office and ask:

Why are women blamed when men can't control their impulses?
Why is it important for a woman not to be a 'temptation' to a man.
Are men so easily tempted, distracted, and led off the path?

We discussed mechitza -- an idea based on the fact that women can be so distracting to a man that even just a peek, or being able to hear kol isha -- the voice of a woman -- can distract him from his prayers.

We talked about how people will say "she deserved it," when a woman wears a sexy outfit and a man "cannot" control his reaction.

We talked about all the ways the story of Adam and Eve has been used to sell a dangerous and distorted view of how men and woman can and should live together.

Eve was created as the ezer k'negdo and, after one transgression, demoted to someone Adam will "rule over".

In the end, my child and I concluded that you can't change the words of the Torah, but you can most certainly change how you read it, and better than that, everyone can look closer at how they act on it.

Eve was the victim of a trick.
Adam was a victim of his own inability to refuse to take something he wanted.

Eve deserves an exoneration.
Adam deserves a lesson in self-control.

And my students and my children will continue lessons in Torah with their feminist teacher guiding them. We will reclaim and rescue this Torah for them so that when they accept the responsibility of carrying it, they know where the real weight comes from.

Channah's Haftarah, 5778

Dear Sarah, Mother of Isaac, Wife of Abraham,

Chana here. It’s our day again – Rosh Hashanah, Take 1. The rabbis must have had something special in mind when they added two of the most famous barren women in the Torah to have their stories told on one of the highest traffic days in the synagogue. 

Did you ever think they’d be telling our stories, Sarah? My son? Yes. But me?

We lived 800 years apart, you and I, and I was around 3,000 years before any of the people in this room were born. But our stories are all here, together, now. (Your family’s story continues tomorrow, but you may not want to read ahead. At the very least, if Isaac asks to go on a hike to Mount Moriah with his Dad, say no.

Time cannot keep us apart, Sarah. And if we believe the rabbis, time in Torah isn’t quite as linear as it seems. People assume that time is a straight progression from one thing to the next, one moment to another. But Jewish time, as we know, is a bit more fluid than that. Time folds over itself like a ribbon candy, braids itself like a challah.

We are all here in conversation together. We barren women. We women of hope. You. Rivkah. Rachel. Me. Michal. And Samson’s Mother (Z’llppunith – such a name. No wonder we all just know her as “Samson’s Mom”.) But she had a name, and she had a story.

We are women of hope.

I am not a prayerful woman, Sarah. My approach was always a little more “Are you there, God? It’s Me, Chanah” than pious devotion. And unlike you, I don’t get angels as regular visitors to my home.

We come to Shiloh, to the temple, this ridiculous family of mine. My husband, Elkanah, always offers the right sacrifices, enough for that wretched second wife of his, Peninah, and all of their children. I get one portion. Apayim, in Hebrew. "A portion fit to be accepted with a friendly face." Three millennia ago and women were still being told, "You should smile more."

Peninah increases her worth with every child she has. Mine withers as each season passes. And all the while Elkanah is telling me I am his favorite. Do you know what he says to me, Sarah?

“Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?”

Well, yes. And… no.

And Peninah… year after year she taunts me, reminding me of what I can never forget. Her name means Pearl. Ha. It must have taken years of bitter grinding and sand to make that one into a pearl.

I can usually save face, but this year…this year my heart was overflowing with anger, bitterness, and anguish. I was distraught, Sarah. I could not sleep. I could not eat. I could not stop crying. And all the while Elkanah asking me why? Why? Why? My heart broke--it broke into more pieces than I knew it had.

So I left them at the feast and came to the temple alone.

I can admit this to you, Sarah – I did not have faith, but I had hope, a desperate hope that drew from me an unimaginable promise. I made a deal, a bargain. If God would remember me, notice me, and give me a son, I would dedicate the boy’s life to the service of the Lord. I would have promised anything in that moment. Anything to make the pain stop.

There will come a time, Sarah, when prayers are written down, and people will follow along to someone else’s words. I doubt I could have read anything in that moment. No, that prayer was ripped from me like a terrible sickness. I threw myself onto the Temple steps and let my despair rush out of me. Fall on your knees.

Oh Sarah, you should have seen the priest Eli as he approached me. He thought I was drunk! Can you imagine?

“How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?”

I told him, “I am not drunk! I have been pouring out my heart, my anguish, my distress.”

He didn’t apologize, but he gave me a little blessing as he gently escorted me out.

At that moment I had no way of knowing if my prayer had been heard, but it had been said. God didn’t answer right away. I had no surety, Sarah, but… maybe even if the gates of prayer are shut, the gates of tears are not.

Elkanah’s ritualistic sacrifice had given me no comfort.
The festive meal no joy.

But the moment of desperation, pleading to be remembered, to be noticed…getting all that ugliness out was cleansing. Exhausting and cleansing empty.

I got up off that floor and dried the tears.
And I went home with Elkanah, Peninah, and her children.

By the time the next yearly pilgrimage came around I was a mother of a son, Samuel (Shmuley to me), whose name means: I asked God for him (and I was heard.) 

As soon as I saw him, though, I was sure I’d made a terrible mistake by dedicating him to Temple service. How could I have made such a vow? How would I keep it?

Every year when we returned to the Tabernacle, Elkanah would ask, “Are you bringing the boy this year?” and every year I’d put him off.
He’s not old enough.
He’s not ready.


The truth was, I was not ready. But I did it. I kept my vow, Sarah. I brought him to the temple.

We all do it, don’t we? We mothers. We fathers. At some point we all give up our children. Oh, it’s not always as dramatic as dropping them off for a lifetime of temple service…sometimes it’s the first day of preschool, the bus stop for summer camp, an airport gate, or their college dorm room. 

We all have to do it. We open the circle of our embrace and let them walk out into the world. And we stand there, arms wide, waiting for them to step back in.

You did let Isaac go on his trip up the mountain with Abraham. It may have slain your heart, but you waved good-bye, and you watched them go.

They all go. They all find other women to love; they leave our houses and make places of their own. We give them to the universe and we hope, and maybe pray, that the universe treats them kindly.

Parenthood can make anyone turn to prayer:

Lord, help me get through this day!

Lord, keep her safe…

Anah el na… Anah el na…Please, God, heal him.

So many of the stories we tell from this bimah end in the middle. (Most good stories do.) 

You died offstage, Sarah. 

After my prayer of Thanksgiving, “My heart exults in the Lord!” I’m never heard from again. 

If my first prayer was the anguish of my heart, the second prayer was a record of my joy, my thanks, my triumph!

It’s not how I’d wanted to be quoted, honestly, and if I could go back and change it, I would. There’s a little too much bragging. It’s self-serving, all “I gloat over my enemies… the barren woman bears seven; the mother of many is forlorn…” That barb for Peninah was unnecessary. I know you understand the sentiment, Sarah.

It’s so easy to say yes to that ugly impulse inside us, to want to win. To want someone else to lose. I understand Peninah much better now. I’m betting you “get” Hagar as well.

When we felt unnoticed, we were cruel.

When we were blessed, we forgot to be kind.

It was a miserable journey home after leaving Samuel at the temple for the first time. My arms ached with the weight of his absence, feeling his phantom body in my embrace, as someone who has lost a limb feels what’s gone.

We returned to Shiloh every year, and each year I had more children to shlep along, 3 boys and 2 girls. And every year…. Every Year… I’d bring Samuel a new set of robes, guessing how much he’d have grown over the year.

Before I knew it he was taller than me. He’d tease me, but I secretly enjoyed looking up to my son, the leader, the prophet. I hope he does not judge me too harshly for my vow, my promise made for him without his permission. It was my plan, but it’s his life.

He went on to become a big deal, a real macher. 

He was the last of the judges and appointed the first of the kings. 

He was gifted with prophecy, but he was always my baby, my little Shmuley. 

My first born. 

My gift from the universe and back to it… the prayer of my heart.



I Own a Nazi Flag


My Nazi flag is sizeable, probably 4-feet by 6-feet. The red background, the white circle, and the black swastika haven’t faded in the 72 years since my grandfather captured it during his service with General Patton’s Third Army and brought it home to Dorchester, MA in 1945. ( Whereupon my grandmother promptly hung it up to air out from the front porch. In Dorchester. In 1945. Oy!)

It’s not the standard Nazi flag in one way, however – the white circle is filled with the names and hometowns of the men in his unit. I’ve always wondered if each man in the unit got his own personalized fabric trophy to bring home, marked with the names of his Band of Brothers.

The Nazis were certainly not shy about manufacturing flags. Every US soldier could have brought one home and there would still be thousands left to burn and destroy. Hundreds to keep in museums as exhibits of megalomaniacal power gone horribly awry.

I am also the owner of a large banner for a Nazi organization for women and an SA* officer’s dagger, which has “Alles fur Deutschland” engraved into the blade. The one in the photo below isn’t mine, it’s for sale on the internet. For a few hundred dollars, you can get your own.


These items live in a plastic shopping bag that has moved from under my bed to the back of the closet and, more recently, back to my father’s house. They are trophies, and artifacts, and have familial and historical importance, but they are also symbols of the deep hatred of Jews. They are not replicas, bought from an online store for some angry white man to carry on the streets of Charlottesville.

My Nazi flag was made for and used by the Nazis. Under the women’s banner, women met in safety, knowing their beliefs, religions, and bodies were not under attack. That banner meant, for them, safety. I tell myself that the dagger was only used for ceremonial purposes, but we tell ourselves a lot of things to keep our minds from the dark places – the places where the dagger could have been used to hurt someone like me.

Neo-Nazism isn’t really all that “Neo”

Being raised Jewish in America during the 1970s and 1980s meant absorbing a keen awareness of the power and presence of anti-Semitism. It was a topic at Pesach seders, Shabbat tables, and Sunday School. This sign, seen at a post-Charlottesville protest, resonated deeply with me.


If you’re a Jew my age you either had family killed in the camps, survive the camps, or miraculously flee to America before the final solution was put into effect. I remember the old people in our synagogue who had faded yet legible numbers tattooed on their arms. They would catch children like me staring at them and turn away, or roll down their sleeve. And if you did not have someone in your family or synagogue with a tattoo, you had a war veteran. My grandfather never spoke to me about his time in the war, but I knew what he had done and what he had seen the Third Army liberated a concentration camp. He saw Jews.

“People don’t think it can happen here, Susan,” I was told more than once, “But no one thought it could happen there either.”  

The Nazis weren’t obliterated from the earth, we learned. We blew up their statues and monuments, put many on trial, and executed the worst of the worst. But many went back to their normal lives in Europe when the war ended. Many fled to other countries, including America. In fact, there was a Nazi party in America until the USA got involved in the war in 1941. After the war, they took down their colors, but they didn’t change their minds.

Skokie

I was 7 years old when the National Socialist Party of America (Nazis) won their case in the Supreme Court: the Nazi flag was protected free speech and the group had the right to march in Skokie, IL.** The Jewish community pulled together, found support from non-Jews, and ultimately the march took place in Chicago, not Skokie, with considerable counter-protest. They made movies (Skokie with Danny Kaye and Never Forget with Leonard Nimoy) that we watched as a family with discussions during every commercial break and for weeks afterward.

Neo-Nazi marches in the 70s led to the right-wing anti-Semitic hate groups and militias of the 90s, which helped give birth to the white-supremacist anti-Muslim mania of the 2000s. Progressives were so happy to see Barack Obama in the White House that we ignored the bubbling undercurrent of racism in the birther movement and the hatred of the President and his black skin. The country had made a turn it could never go back from, we thought. The racists could never be in power again, we thought.

Know your history. Know your enemy.

Jewish kids in America receive a pretty thorough history lesson about WWII and the Holocaust. I thought everyone grew up with the same knowledge of the Nazis, the same lessons learned:

The way they took power in Germany, not by force, but by force of will.
The power of rhetoric and scapegoats.
The complicity of so many average German citizens.
The horrors of the camps, the terrible mental and physical scars of the survivors.
The signs that were missed.
The opportunities for people in power to act early on that were squandered.

I was so very wrong. It’s hard enough to learn from history when you’ve studied the history. When you’ve never heard the history, it’s impossible to progress from it. The gasping, chest-clutching surprise on social media in reaction post-Charlottesville has revealed how truly blind so many have been to the continuing racism and anti-Semitism in this country.


Do they see now? The white supremacists in the photo below were “protecting” a statue of Robert E Lee, but they were chanting “Jews will not replace us!”


To everyone who has posted the famous Martin Neimoller poem to their Facebook feed or changed their profile photo on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, or hashtagged Never Again, do you see? 

Now that you’ve seen, what will you do?


* The SA was the Sturmabteilung, literally Storm Detachment, Hitler's stormtroopers. Read about them here: they were horrible people.
** For the record, I supported the Nazi's right to free speech and, even now, do not believe that banning the symbol is a way to ban the hate. The ACLU defended the Nazis all the way to the Supreme court, as they should have done.

On This Day: Go West Young Jew Style

I love how Facebook lets you see your "On This Day" memories. It's (mostly) good to look back and remember where you were in this season over the years. I wish blogs did the same, but looking back for bloggers is a manual chore.

Five years ago I wrote this drash/good-bye speech for the graduation Shabbat at my synagogue.
One year ago Ellie chanted and studied from the same portion (Behar) and I was her tutor.
This year I helped another family shepherd their son through Behar for his bar mitzvah.

Three points in time. Same portion. Same Torah. Much different (perhaps) me.
GoldaLeah (2017)



Original Post (June 2011)

When my office was right over there, in what is now the kitchen. I used to have a sign hanging on my wall. On it was a quote from Rabbi Mecham Mendel, about whom I know next to nothing. And I mean that – nothing is over there, and over here is what I know. But I know he spoke Truth. The quote was, simply,

“If you truly wish your children to study Torah,
study it yourself in their presence.”

That sign got lost in the move, and I never did bother to make another one, and now the time for that has passed, but that saying was always in the back of my mind – it was my guiding principle as principal.

Rabbi Mecham Mendel was a sneaky one, of course. Any parents who takes upon his or herself the study of Torah because they want their children to also study gets a double benefit – they get to study Torah, and they raise someone to study it with.

In this way, I have learned so much more than I could have ever imagined teaching in the walls of these buildings, this school, this shul.
Crop rotation patern from Behar. https://www.etsy.com/shop/DrashDesigns

Every time some pesky high school kid asked me a question that required grabbing the Chumash for an answer, I was blessed.

Every time a young child imitates a madrichim’s movements during shira, or follows them in a dance, learning is happening…twice.

Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Rabbi Mecham Mendel tells us: Be the Jew you want to see in the world. As Jewish parents and educators, this is important … much more so than the stories we tell, or even the Torah we read. You never know what a child will take from those.

A quick story:
One year, a fourth grader, Isaac, was asked by his mother what he had learned in Sunday School.
"Well mom," says Isaac, "our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his combat engineers build a pontoon bridge and everyone walked across safely. Then, he used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters for reinforcements. They sent Seal Team Six to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved."
"Really Isaac," says his mother, "is that really what your teacher taught you?"
"Not really mom," replies Isaac, "but if I told it the way the teacher did, you'd never believe me."

The Judaism you tell your child may be dismissed; the Judaism you live will get into them, down in the kishkes, and that stuff never leaves.


Speaking of leaving, then. This week's Torah portion, Behar, is not one that will inspire much disbelief. There are no talking snakes or donkeys; no magical splitting of the sea, just what seems like mundane advice for a future agrarian society, what I like to call the TRFF (turf) -- Torah Rules for Fair Farming.

God tells Moses, while they're having a chat on Mount Sinai that every seven years the land gets a year off, a shmitah year. No tilling, no planting, no sewing, no hoeing. It is, literally, "released" from its burden.

We are guarantors of a sacred trust -- this land, this earth -- and we must find a way to balance productivity, reset, and release.

After seven series of seven years, in the 50th year, the Jubilee year, not only does the land lie fallow, but ownership returns to the original owner. Indentured servants and slaves are freed, and everyone returns to their homes, their families.

And we rest.

And the land rests.

And we enjoy the work of our labors that we have stored up for six years...and we breathe

kol ha neshaman tehalel yah ... halleluyah ....

Punctuating the productivity of life with long pauses lends perspective and encourages us to express gratitude for our bounty, and what can be produced without our work, but with our gratitude

kol ha neshama tehalel yah ... halleluyah

And so this time in my life is a punctuation mark as well. At this point, I'm not sure if it's a comma, a period, a question mark, an exclamation point or one of those little smiley face emoticons.

I imagine many of the other graduates in the room feel the same way. It is the end, and the beginning. The path to many hellos and perhaps a few too many good-byes. Accomplishments writ on paper and your hearts, and blank pages to come before you. Change happens.

But I'm not too worried about feeling like I have a good grasp of the ways and workings of life just yet, although some of you here perhaps should be.

Between Pesach and Shavuot, in the afternoons, we are to study Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. If any of you have seen Yentl, this is the book she and her father are studying. Who is rich? He who is happy with lot, etc.

Near the end of the book the rabbis get presumptuous and lay out the milestones of a life, by age.

At 5, a child is ready for scripture.
at 10, mishnah
at 13, an observer of the commandments
at 15, gemara
at 18, chupa
at 20, pursue a livelihood
at 30, full strength
at 40, understanding
at 50, offers counsel
at 60, attains seniority
at 70, tips old age
at 80, strength
at 90, stooped over
at 100, as if dead...

So, I am a full 7 months away from full understanding.* But to quote the great tzadik of our time, Oprah Winfrey, there is one thing I know for sure.

Delve into Torah
and delve into it again
for everything is in it
look deeply into it
grow old with it
and share all of this, as I have shared it, with your children.

Shabbat Shalom.

*I was 39 when I wrote this. Understanding didn't magically come at 40, but at 45 I do feel half-way between understanding and offering counsel. 



A Schaibly does a Dr. Seuss Shavuot

Every Jew down in Jewville liked God a whole lot
But the Pharaoh building the pyramids, oh no he did not!
The Pharaoh hated the Jews! He accused them of treason!
Now, please don’t ask why.
No one quite knows the reason.

It could be that his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think the most likely reason of all,
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

Whatever the reason, His heart or his shoes,
He sat on his throne, just hating the Jews,
Staring down from his palace with a sour Pharaoh frown,
At the warm lighted windows below in their town.

For he knew every Jew down in Jewville below,
Was hoping he’d give them permission to go.
“They’ve smeared their doors with lambs’ blood” he said with a sneer,
“They say Moses’ last plague is getting quite near!”

Tomorrow, he knew, all the Jew girls and boys,
Would wake bright and early. They’d rush from those goys!
They would feast on Jew-bread, and Jew-bitter herbs
Which was something that got on his last Pharoahy nerve!
And then they’d do something He liked least of all!
Every Jew down in Jewville, the tall and the small,
Would stand close together, their voices raised and ringing,
They’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Jews would start singing!
They’d sing! And they’d sing! And they’d SING some more!
They were singing as they walked right out his front door.

Now it’s 90 days later and the Jews are free
They ran for their lives as Moses split the reed sea
In Rephidim they stopped and gathered their thoughts
Now at the base of Mount Sinai they’re feeling distraught. 
Waiting for Moses, who’s up talking with God
And hearing the rules that will seem very odd
To the Jews from Jewiville who started in Egypt
They were starting to wonder if maybe they’d be gipped

Moses came down the mount and spoke the words of the lord
“If you obey me and follow my rules, I shall treasure you most
And you’ll never be bored.

A holy nation you shall be, with free will and free choice,
Now say yes to my proposal, though what it is I've not said
Or I’ll drop this holy mountain straight down on your head”

"We’ll do it! We’ll do it!" the people agreed
and waited to hear details of their new-fangled creed.
Would they still worship Rah and Osiris, Anubis and more?
Or were those things they’d have to learn to abhor?
The festival of Opet was centered in Thebes,
If they continued to celebrate would God think them dweebs?

Moses told all the Jews to be prepared
God would come down the mountain and become their laird
Wash your clothes!
Wait three days!
Don’t touch your spouse!
And don’t you even think about starting to grouse. 

When the Jews looked up at the dawn in the morn
They saw thunder, heard lightning, bar-ba-bloots from a horn.
The mountain was smokin', God descended in fire
The people did tremble - this was looking quite dire!

The people were freaked out by the voices and blasts
The mountain was smoke and the people were aghast
How long would it last?
How long would it last?
They giant steps back and stood from afar
"Hey Moses!" they said, "You go up, get the word.
We don’t want to be charred by the things that we’ve heard."

When Moses came down from the mountain that day
He climbed up on a rock and had something to say,
"Your attention, please! All of you, I demand it!
I bring to you this list of commandments!
The Lord passed these to me, and now I to you,
So gather around, you big tribe of Jews!

"First, there's just one God for all of creation,
Not one for your house and one for vacation
Not one for the lowlands and one for the side hills.
And speaking of which, don't make any idols.

"And regarding Him, in His name please don't curse.
If you go against this, things will get so much worse!
Instead, just relax and keepeth the Sabbath
I think that you'll find it's a pretty great habit.

"Be kind to your parents, for it's you that they raised
And try not to kill folks - it's pretty depraved.
Don't schtup anyone you shouldn't be schtupping!
And away with your neighbor's things don't go trooping.

"Do your best not to lie, and be a false witness.
Stop coveting things, it's a pretty bad sickness."

And with that Moses finished, and put down his tablet,
Sighed a sigh of relief that the rules were established.
The crowd stood there stunned, every one was so quiet
Processing these rules and their upcoming compliance.
Then they smiled, they cheered. How hard could this be?
There are only ten rules, not thirty and three.

It was then that Moses delivered the news
Six-hundred and three more rules were awaiting these Jews

From the back of the crowd, a throat cleared with a hork.
"Yeah, that's great," sneered a voice. "But what about pork?"

(Hat tip to reddit for their Seuss Bible thread
It inspired as I required, when the rhymes were just dead.)

A Reflection on Newtown: Two Bens

I watch a lot of documentaries on Netflix while I work on other things. This is what the screen of my laptop usually looks like:


Those 15 tabs open on the left include research for summer camps for the kids, Twitter, Facebook, a text messaging app, research on Leviticus 13:13 prompted by an intriguing question from a friend, and my calendar, Soon there will be more tabs as I do research for this blog post.

On the right is Netflix, where I'm currently watching Newtown, the PBS documentary about the school shooting in December 2012. The film is an intimate portrait of how parents, educators, first responders, and the rest of the town, survivors all, has endured.

Parents of several of the murdered first graders are interviewed, including David Wheeler, father of six-year-old Benjamin Wheeler, whom they called Ben. From David's description, Ben Wheeler was a lot like our Ben at that age. He had sticker charts for all kinds of behaviors, including sitting through an entire dinner, keeping his body calm at school, listening to the teacher, etc. Five stickers in a row led to a reward or some positive reinforcement.
Screenshot of Ben Wheeler's sticker chart, from Newtown.

Both of our Bens had some difficulties getting those sticker spots filled. David describes his Ben as being "so full of energy that his feet didn't seem to touch the ground," and recalls a picture of Ben jumping, caught in mid-air, which a friend titled "Flying Boy." In the videos of him, Ben Wheeler is exuberant and effusive, words and energy coming so quickly he is a blur in front of the lens. We have many such videos.

At one point, David is searingly honest about parenting his Ben. "Ben was a challenge," he says. "The dinner table was so hard, because he was just all over the place... Nothing ever moved fast enough for him."

My heart broke when I realized this will always be their Ben. David Wheeler will never get to realize, appreciate, relish, suffer, and witness the transformations between boy and young man. What a great gift he has lost: the perspective of looking back on a first-grade Ben and thinking, "Boy, he was a handful back then! Remember what dinner was like?" while enjoying a delightful dinner with a ninth-grade Ben. To be a witness to growth and change and maturity.

As I am sitting here writing this, my Ben is practicing bass guitar downstairs. He's working on a difficult Red Hot Chili Peppers song, and he is just nailing parts of it. His grades are good, his homework gets done, he's in a band and has a group of friends. He has a generous spirit and a compassionate heart. His room is a disaster, he spends entirely too much time playing video games, and he can be as much of a knucklehead as any other 15-year-old, but in a few years, we won't care about those things. Right now we have moments like these:

My Ben jamming with his dad.

The Wheelers had two children, and like most parents, they marked their children's heights on a wall, a door frame in their case. Their Ben's final height was marked in November of 2012, one month before he was killed. Above that mark is just empty wall space for a couple of feet, until the place where is older brother scrawled, "Would be here."

We mark our Ben's height every year on his birthday, in September. There's over a foot of growth between the mark for 9/3/12 (three months before Newtown) and 9/3/16, on his 15th birthday. He's now taller than I am. I look up to him.

Of course, at some point, our Ben's tick marks will stop, too.
When he reaches his full adult height.
When physical growth stops.
When nature determines it.
Please, let it be when nature determines it.

Until that happens, I'll be keeping another Ben, his parents, and a blank space on a wall in Newtown in my mind as we watch our son grow and make his marks.


(Visit www.sandyhookpromise.org and www.benslighthouse.org to see how the Wheelers are carrying their Ben's legacy forward.)

















A Yom haShoah Experiment

An Invitation:

Background: Today is the the Jewish observance of Yom HaShoah (יום השואה). Literally, the day of the catastrophe. It is an official holiday in Israel to commemorate and remember the 6 million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.
Equipment Needed: A clock, timer, or stopwatch app on your phone. (Many timers don't go as high as we need. You can download special apps to countdown to a special date if necessary -- just search your app store for "Countdown".)
Procedure: Set your timer to count down 69 days (or 1,666 hours). Set it up so there is a notification or visual reminder on your home screen that the timer is going.

I've also added a countdown timer to the home page of this blog, so we can all keep time together.)
Experiment Termination: When the timer goes off on July 2, 6 million seconds will have passed, one for each of the Jews who was murdered.
Data Collection: Optional. Record thoughts and feelings when you remember why the timer is going.
Anticipated Result: Unknown/Individualized
Ready? Set?
Remember.


Parsha Tzav: Just Do It (Because You Have Been Commanded)


Motivation is a big issue in modern life. Most of us lack it at least some of the time, and the internet is teeming with things to get you motivated. There are millions of pictures with imagery of powerful animals, people standing victoriously on mountain tops and using a pair of scissors to turn "I can't" into "I can". 

If those don't work for you there are apps for your phone that gamify your goals. Create an avatar, compete against your friends, and "level up" as you earn points, badges and rewards. Any habit will do, from adding protein powder to your smoothie to reading to your child at night. Nothing is too trivial or important. 



God Doesn't Ask; He Commands

This week's Torah portion is Tzav, which literally means "command." God speaks to Moses and says:

צַו אֶת-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר
Command Aaron and his sons, saying:

God doesn't say:
"Give Aaron and his sons these instructions about sacrifices in the tabernacle." 
Or:
"Offer Aaron this responsibility." 

And definitely not:
"Run these instructions by Aaron, get his feedback for revisions, and then let's start negotiating the process for keeping the holy fire tended."

These are commands, and commands are to be carried out by the commanded. To be frank, I'm a little jealous of Aaron and his sons. They don't need any motivation to carry out their responsibilities. They have been commanded, and because of their covenant with God, they obey. 

Choices are demanding, and modern Jews have saddled themselves with hundreds of decisions that our ancestors, even our recent ones, never considered. From the mundane (is it ok to eat a pork chop?) to the sacred (is it ok to work on Shabbat?). 

My great-grandmother never had to be motivated to keep a kosher kitchen or clean cabinets and change dishes for Passover. It's what you did, and it was a mitzvah, a commandment, to do so. (Can you tell that I'm putting off cleaning for Passover by writing this blog? Shh.)

Recent generations have taken great pride in throwing off religious systems that command certain behaviors and lifestyles. We are all "Jew by choice," we are told, with the added luxury of getting to choose how we express our Judaism. We are free to sift among the "commandments" and follow some, disobey others, and disregard many of them completely. I am most certainly one of those Jews, and as an educator, I love when teens find something in Torah they can really grasp onto and use in their modern, non-observant lives. I wonder, though, if I am doing them a disservice, teaching them to bend the Torah to their lives instead of changing their lives for Torah.

My Orthodox/observant friends generally don't struggle with following the commandments. I once asked such a friend if he ever snuck a bite of a cheeseburger, just to see what he was missing. "No," he said, "keeping kosher is my field of new, untrod snow, and I don't want to ruin it by trampling on it. I want to keep it perfect." He doesn't have to wrestle with the desire to eat treif (non-kosher) food, because he doesn't have the desire. 

"I have no choice"
Steve Jobs famously wore the same outfit every day, eliminating the "What to wear?" decision from his life.
Modern Americans are all about choice, and it can be overwhelming. Go into a grocery store sometime and just try and count the varieties of tea available for purchase. I don't know about you, but when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s there was just "tea." Hot or iced, perhaps, but still just "tea." 

And so we stand there in the tea aisle, or the coffee shop, or the store with 50 styles and fits of pants, overwhelmed by the choices. I've often thought, "Someone just tell me what to buy," which is really a plea to be commanded, to have the choice removed.

As Frankfurt-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm writes:

"In the process of becoming freed from authority, we are often left with feelings of hopelessness... that will not abate until we use our 'freedom to' and develop some form of replacement of the old order." 
Removing the choice about whether or not to do something is, paradoxically, liberating. Most of us don't lie in bed in the morning wavering about whether or not to go to our jobs, or go to school. We may not do so happily, but we've taken on an obligation, so we go. In contrast, we've all put off tasks that are optional, even if they are also important. (Going to the gym, walking the dog, cleaning the bathroom, taking vitamins, balancing the checkbook, etc.) To do those things, we need the magical ingredient: motivation.

In the Torah, Aaron was commanded to keep the fire burning:


ה  וְהָאֵשׁ עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ תּוּקַד-בּוֹ לֹא תִכְבֶּה, וּבִעֵר עָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן עֵצִים בַּבֹּקֶר בַּבֹּקֶר; וְעָרַךְ עָלֶיהָ הָעֹלָה, וְהִקְטִיר עָלֶיהָ חֶלְבֵי הַשְּׁלָמִים.5 And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning thereby, it shall not go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it every morning; and he shall lay the burnt-offering in order upon it, and shall make smoke thereon the fat of the peace-offerings.
ו  אֵשׁ, תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ--לֹא תִכְבֶּה.  {ס}6 Fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually; it shall not go out. 
Aaron receiving the weight of his priestly vestments.
God didn't really care if Aaron felt like adding wood to the fire each day and making the offerings. The fire staying lit wasn't based on Aaron's morning motivation to do so. He had agreed at the base of Mt Sinai that all God commanded, he would do. 

No motivational posters, apps, or Fitbit required -- Aaron tended the fire and performed the sacrifices.

Who Commands Us?
Modern Jews often find themselves in a quandary when it comes to following the rules of Judaism. The Torah and God are, in Fromm's terms, the "old order" which we have shaken off in an effort to feel and be more free. Fromm goes on to suggest that those who don't use this "freedom from" properly will look for replacements for the old order and often turn to authoritarianism, destructiveness, and conformity. (Fromm argues that this is how Nazi culture took hold in the 1930s. The old order dissolved and people were disoriented by their own freedom, so they accepted Nazi authority.)

That's damn scary, and it's not what I'm suggesting here. Many believe there is no higher authority to answer to, no one to do the commanding. You'll get no argument from me; believing in the truth of the Torah and accepting its divine origins would certainly make it easier for me to follow the rules. I'm not willing to make that jump, and I doubt most of my Jewish contemporaries are either.

Go Ahead, Be Obligated. 


We command ourselves, sure, but what if we play a little mind game with ourselves? What if we take on a mitzvah, just one, as if we are commanded to? Whether or not our motivation waxes and wanes, we have been commanded to perform the mitzvah, we have agreed to obey, and so we do.

There are a lot of mitzvot to choose from: (Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, 365 are negative/don't do commandments, and 248 are positive.) For this exercise, let's take on a simple, positive commandment of Jewish prayer.** Here are some easy daily practices:
  1. Say the Shema twice daily — Deut 6:7 (Link to Shema)
  2. Pray every day — Exodus 23:25 (Use the Amidah or another Jewish prayer. Link to Reform Version)
  3. Bless the Almighty after eating — Deuteronomy 8:10 (Link to short version of the Birkat Hamazon)
  4. To learn Torah — Deut 6:7 (Link to list of the weekly parsha here. Each parsha is divided into 7 different readings, so you can do one each day.)

Accept the obligation to recite one of these daily, as if you were commanded. 
Do it the same way every day -- whichever form of the Amidah or the Birkat Hamazon you choose, use it every day. 
Try it for a week.
Share with me (or someone else) your experience.

I'm taking on #2, reciting the Amidah each day. What do you choose?



*Mitzvah in Hebrew comes from the same root as tzav, and although many people now think of a mitzvah as a "good deed," "commandment" is a more accurate translation. There are 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, not 613 "good deeds".]
** I chose prayer specifically because these prayers are uniquely Jewish. There are other commandments to choose from. Here's a list: all: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/613_commandments#Maimonides.27_list