Sunday, October 23, 2011

Peace At Last

There's been a lot of debate as to whether the so-called prisoner exchange was the right choice.  Both sides have cogent, correct arguments.  How can anyone compare the pain of those who have lost loved ones to terrorism and the pain of those whose children have been captured.  I cannot imagine the pain both sides feel.  

Still, watching Noam Shalit this week, I know in my heart that Prime Minister Netanyahu did the right thing.  The peace in Noam Shalit's face is clear.  After five years of not knowing if Gilad was alive or dead, after five years of imagining the worst, Noam Shalit is at peace with his son in his arms.  One who is able to give that to another person can never pass up the opportunity.  Prime Minister Netanyahu did not just give a life back to Gilad Shalit, but also to his father Noam, his mother Aviva, and his siblings Hadas and Yoel.  Along with them, a new life and hope has been given to all of us around the world.  The Shalit family has become our family.  Gilad everyone's son, and his parents parents to us all.  We have shared just a fraction of their pain.  Those who have lost loved ones to terrorism cannot be healed, but others can.

Welcome home Gilad.  May you and your family and all of Israel share a lifetime of peace together.

Parashat Noah- Walk Humbly With Your God

"Eileh toldot Noach… These are the generations of Noach…”  These are the opening words to parashat Noach.  “Eileh toldot ShemVayamot Terach bHaran.  These are the generations of Shem… and Terach died in Haran”  Thus ends parashat Noach.

There are ten generations from Adam to Noach and ten generations from Noach to Avraham. Parashat Noach lays out the genealogy humankind and the line of Avraham.  Midrash teaches the Torah begins with just two people so that no one could say ‘My father was better than your father.’  Breishit gave us a start with two people, Adam and Chava. Noach starts over with one family.  From that line we will have one more beginning with Avram and Sarai in Lech Lecha.  Parashat Noach creates a universal history for those who will become the Jewish people. 

Also interesting about parashat Noach is the universality of the rest of the parasha. On every continent, almost every culture has a flood story.  So too the Babel myth exists on every continent in multiple cultures.  These are fascinating stories, while not all share similar details beyond the flood or confusion of language the effects and lessons of these acts is universal. 

Judaism sees humans as being ruled by two inclinations, the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov, the evil inclination and the good inclination.  However, evil and good does not really explain the effect.  The yetzer hara is the drive that leads us to want.  It is our desires, our Id.  The rabbis teach that without the yetzer hara no one would learn a trade, build a home, get married, or have children.  The yetzer hatov is our spiritual, ethical, and moral side, but it can prevent us from engaging with the world and recognizing the needs of others. 

Judaism attempts to balance these inclinations for the best of the individual and the community.  When we ignore the yetzer hatov we are overwhelmed by the flood or unable to communicate with others.  But it is not the perfect person either that is our ideal.  Noach is an “ish tzadik tamim, a whole-hearted righteous man.”  It is not that he is perfect, but that “et Ehlokim hithalech Noach, with God Noah walked.”  The prophet Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you?  Only to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  With this balance we too can be ish tzadik tamim, whole-hearted and righteous.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Breishit bara Ehlokim....

Breishit is an interesting parasha.  It reads like a history, but clearly isn’t.  Look at the possibly conflicting creation stories, at Adam & Chava in the Garden of Eden able to live eternally as long as they do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge, at the creation of woman from man’s side, at their being cast out to toil the earth, the first murder and responsibility, a statement on revenge, and the introduction of Noah.  Ten generations rush past in one parasha, but even more meaning.

But if Breishit isn’t a history, what is it?  Breishit is a theology. 

To examine the theology of Breishit, just this first parasha could take an entire semester university course, and the parasha is so full we might still only scratch the surface.  The first word alone can fill a paper.  Breishit, b-reishit.  It is usually translated as “In the beginning…” although that should be BAreishit.  It is often also translated with the words that follow, “Breishit bara Ehlokim…”  “When God began to create…” A better translation might be “On beginning….” “B”- on; “reishit”- beginning.

In verse 2, “V’ha’aretz heita tohu vavohu vhosech al p’nei t’hom vruach Ehlokim mrachephet al p’nei hamayim.”  “And the earth was tohu vavohu and darkness on the face of the water, and Ehlokim hovered upon the surface of the water.”  Tohu vavohu is usually translated as null and void or as chaos.  How can something be null and chaos at the same time?  The Torah does not preach creation ex nihilo.  God does not create out of nothing.  The earth is there.  It is tohu vavohu, but it does exist.  Water is present, and God hovers over it.

Verse 27, “Vayivra Ehlokim et ha’adam b’tzalmo btzelem Ehlokim bara o’to zachar v’nekeivah bara o’tam.”  “And God created HaAdam in His image; in the image of Ehlokim He created it; male and female He created them.  On the sixth day God creates a being.  It is singular- o’to- it, and plural- o’tam- them, at the same time.  Centuries later Plato would see this as a creation of a hermaphroditic being split into two in the second chapter of the Book of Breishit.  This being is blessed like no other.  Beyond the blessing of pru urvu, be fruitful and multiply, God tells HaAdam to care for the world, its animals and plants.  “V’hinei tov m’od, and it was very good.”

But there is so much more to say about HaAdam.  Chapter two tells us that when God created the earth nothing grew; there was no Adam to work the ground.  Unlike the animals HaAdam is filled with nishmat hayyim, living breath straight from the breath of God.  Vayomer Ehlokim lo tov heyot HaAdam lvado; And God said, ‘it’s not good for HaAdam to be alone.” (Chapter 2, verse 18)  Unlike the animals, HaAdam is unique, alone, but this is not the final form.  In verse 5, we were told that nothing yet grew because there was no Adam to work the ground.  In just these few verses we learn that the being of HaAdam was always meant to be transformative.  We were always meant to work the earth, but also to care for it.

It is a heady message at the start of the new year.  Fall is a time for planning and for planting.  It is a time when the earth lies pregnant with all the possibilities of the spring and summer.  This has already been a transformative year.  Where it continues is up to each of us.

A Grateful Nation

(Oddly, as I typed that I had a strange image of bears dancing across a map of Israel.)

I feel asleep at the kitchen table last night.  No, I was not so exhausted from the Hagim that I collapsed onto my dinner plate.  Instead, it was after 1:00 AM, and I was listening to Gilgalei Tzhal for news that Gilad Shalit had come home.  When I woke with my head on the table I decided it was time to pick myself up and get to my bed.

Sean, ever the early riser, woke up before me, but his motion woke me.  My first thoughts and my first words- "Is he home?"  These were my second words also.

"Is he home?"  There's no need to ask who "he" is.  We all know.  We've been waiting five years for him to come home.  Thoughts of the last prisoner exchange could not help but swim in my head.  Coffins being carried instead of men walking.  Signs of cruelty and torture.

I worry for Gilad Shalit.  He was taken as just a boy, 20 years old.  He returns a national symbol.  The world has changed tremendously.  Things move faster.  He returns to a different Israel and a different world.  Gilad, with his parents, Aviva and Noam, and his brother, Yoel are part of all our families.  As Sean & I listened to news coverage from Israel no last names were mentioned.  They are our family.  We are intimate, on a first name basis.  Gilad is son, brother, friend to all of us.  We feel for his family, and cry with them.  We have written letters and visited the tent when possible.

I cried this morning as Sean told me he was at Kerem Shalom I found myself crying.  I cried for the joy that he was on his way back to his family.  I cried for the last five years of pessimism, anger, hatred, and pity.  And I cried for the loss of the life Gilad should have had, the fun, the friends, and the goofiness of those early twenties.  They were sacrificed for a grateful nation.

God bless you Gilad, you and your family.  I wish you luck, love, and most of all peace.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Just Turn Around- Yom Kippur

Part of the morning reading for Yom Kippur is taken from Ahrei Mot, describing the ritual of Yom Kippur.  As part of Aaron’s preparation, he must first do teshuvah for himself.  The haftarah reading, from Isaiah, speaks of the path to teshuvah.  It comforts us saying that if we only turn to God and the mitzvot that God will be there to accept us.  We merely need to turn around.

Still, just the telling that God will be there if we only turn to him is not a recipe for success.  Even knowing how to do something, we may still have trouble accomplishing it. 

Yom Kippur afternoon we read the book of Jonah.  Jonah is a story that illustrates teshuvah.  It teaches that the path to teshuvah is not direct.  Jonah runs, arriving in Tarshish, and boards a ship, reminiscent of Adam and Eve hiding from God in Eden.  Quickly realizing that it is impossible to hide from God, Jonah has the sailors throw him overboard.  He is willing to sacrifice himself for their safety.  God is connected to Jonah through this act of teshuvah, but Jonah is still not ready to make the full turn.  Jonah still needs to hit rock bottom, to be taken to the depths of despair, illustrated by Jonah’s existence in the belly of a great fish.  When Jesse was a child, he used to refer to the bottom of the sea as the deep, dark depths.  The deep, dark depths is a great analogy for Jonah’s place in the belly of the whale.  From here he turns to God, ready to follow through.  The fish spits him back on dry land, and Jonah continues on his journey to Nineveh.  He follows God’s command, announcing his prophecy, and heads off to watch the results.  But teshuvah is not a straight path.  Jonah falls back into despair, putting his own comfort ahead of the welfare of all of Nineveh in his heart, dipping back to despair and heading out again.

Jonah is a lesson not to lose face.  Teshuvah is not a straight path.  We do not wake one day to move from darkness to light, never to see the darkness again.  It’s a reminder that to be human is to live in a cycle.  There are times when we feel like we are in those depths, existing in the belly of the fish.  When we are prepared to call out, help will answer.  We may lose our way, but we are never so far that we cannot return. 

“Lo hayu yamim tovim l’Yisrael khamisha asar b’Av u’hYom HaKipporim.”  “There were never such joyous days for Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur” (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6)  All we need to do is remember to turn back around.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Va'anachnu Koreim

There's an old joke that goes like this-

Seudah Shlishit, Aleinu, and the mamzer all go to God with complaints.  Seudah Shlishit goes first.  "God, I'm just as important as any other Shabbat meal, yet no one really cares about me.  They're all looking to the end of Shabbat, and their plans for the week."  Aleinu follows.  "God, I have the same problem.  I am an important prayer, yet no one cares.  They're all taking off their tallitot and thinking about kiddush."  The Mamzer finishes.  "God, what about me?  It wasn't even my sin.  I did nothing wrong.  Why should I be punished?"  God thinks for a moment and replies.  "Seudah Shlishit, don't worry.  You may not be a big meal, but the most poignant songs will be sung during your time.  The Jews will actually lament the ending of Shabbat.  Aleinu, you will be placed in the High Holiday repetition, and will have a tune that strikes the heart of the Jew.  And to the mamzer God says, 'You, you will be the president of the synagogue.'"

It's an unfair joke, and I have had the pleasure and honor of knowing many good people who gave of themselves fully to be the synagogue president, but it does make a point about Aleinu.  At the Yamim Noraim, the Days of AWE, Aleinu takes it's original place in the heart of the musaf repetition.  It's tune is m'sinai, meaning it either came for Sinai with the Torah, or is so old that it seems as if it has been carried in the Jewish heart that long.  It is a deserved reputation, but Aleinu here means so much more.

Va'anachnu koreim umishtachavim umodim, but we bow, and worship, and thank...

During the year we bend our knees and bow at these words.  On the Yamim Noraim the hazzan (and others, including me) falls to his/her knees then bows his/her head to the floor.  It is a humbling experience.  Aleinu, it is upon us, lshabeach l'Adon hakol, to praise the Lord of everything.  Here we stand three days a year and act that out before the supreme God.  It is more than words, more than tunes we sing.  On these three days we worship with our full bodies, humbling ourselves before God.

Humbling, only through falling koreim have I begun to understand this word.  Standing in a room with hundreds of others, caring not for how I look, but falling to the ground before God- Va'anachnu koreim umishtachavim, but we bow, and worship... it is an experience I cannot describe but with this one word- humbling, umodim, and thank- and I thank God for the experience of it.

A Sweet Year

At least five years ago I was driving home along the NYS Thruway.  I stopped at a rest stop where a local vendor was selling jams, chutneys, and honey.  I was struck by the dark color of the buckwheat honey he had, and bought a jar.  I thought it'd be interesting to have a different honey for Rosh Hashanah.  As the Hag approached we found some local honey here too.  We put it, the buckwheat honey, and some Billy Bee in separate bowls, and a new tradition was born- The Gorman Rosh Hashanah Honey Tasting.

It turns out that honeys are very different. Each year the assortment grows.  Honeys have very distinct colors and flavors.  We try for a range of color, and compare each year.  Everyone chooses his/her favorite.  By the way buckwheat honey smells and tastes like hay.  The kids asked why we always have it if no one really likes it.  I think it's cool- dark and musky.  Sean likes the strangeness it brings to the honey palette.  He told the kids that someday they'll also have the bottle of buckwheat honey to use from year to year, and when their kids ask they will say, "Because my mother always had one."  Minhag avoteihem b'yadeihem (their parents' custom is in their hands).

This year we had nine different honeys:
1. Israeli sisyphus (aka Middle Eastern acacia) blossom
2. Israeli citrus blossom
3. Israeli wildflower
4. Buckwheat (a must every year)
5. Indian wildflower (with a deep caramel flavor)
6. Canadian summer blossom
7. Canadian wildflower
8. Blueberry
9. Manuka (Australian)

I'd planned the three Israeli, blueberry, and buckwheat, but Jesse insisted we use all the types we had in the house.  The first twenty minutes of the meal are all about the honey.  We've had other Canadian honeys from multiple farmers' markets.  We've had Greek.  We've had Australian acacia (different than the Israeli).  Each has its own distinct taste and color, noticible only when lined up.  Some years we've put them all in clear glass to see the range.  This year each had it's own distinct bowl, with a list to keep them straight.

With such an auspicious beginning, how can the year be anything but sweet?!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Out of the Mouths of Babes- It's what we make of it

Erev Rosh Hashannah t'fillot at the Pride were early, too early for us to get everything we needed to do done.  So, with over an hour to the Hag, Sean, his parents, and our two younger children headed off to shul, leaving Jesse and me to finish in a blissfully quiet house.  

First we both got to speak with my brother, to whom I do not speak often enough.  It's great to be the fly on the wall while my children speak with him.  This day they were talking about the trumpet, which Russell played in school, and Jesse is just beginning.  After they finished their conversation Jesse set the table.  He did a lovely job- china (complete with bread plate for the honey), crystal, utensils, and cloth napkins.  Jesse just laid the napkins on each plate in a pile.  When I began to fold them he stopped me.  "No Eema.  They're supposed to be like that.  It's whatever people make of it, just like the new year."  Wow.  Out of the mouths of babes.

Ha'azeinu- What would you say? How would you change?

Rabbi J. Hertz, in the Hertz Chumash, begins his commentary with the observation that Moshe begins and ends his ministry with a song of the greatness of God.  Unfortunately, his observation ends there.   Rabbi Hertz fails to elaborate on the comparison.  The differences between the songs should not, however, be overlooked.

On the shores of Yam Suf, usually translated as the Red Sea, Moshe’s song is one of military victory.  It is a song sung by all the people together.  Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael…”  “Thus sang Moshe and the children of Israel…” Together we sang for the glorious military victory God had just won over the Egyptians.  “Ashirah LA-donai ki gaoh ga’ah; sus v’rokhvo ramah vayam.” Together we sang, “I will sing to A-donai for he is surely exalted; horse and rider He has thrown into the sea.”  This is even the verse repeated by Miriam as she leads the people in song and the women in a victory dance. On the shores of the sea, leading a downtrodden people, the message is clear- A-donai ish milchamah, A-donai is a man of war.” 

Here now, in Ha’azinu, on the banks of the Jordan River, as the people ready themselves for a military campaign, it is only Moshe that sings.  Furthermore, his song is not about the Ish Milchamah, the Man of War, but about faithfulness.  This song is not a song of victory.  It is not a song of might for the enemies we are about to encounter.  Instead, Moshe sings to the heaven and earth itself.  Much like at Sinai, the land and the elements are witness to what is to be.  On the eve of this great military campaign, Moshe reminds the people that God is faithful and so shall we be.  “Hatzur tamim poalo, ki kol d’rakhav mishpat; Eil ehmunah v’ein avel, tzadik v’yashar Hu.”  “The Rock is perfect in His work, for all His ways are law; a God of faithfulness without blemish, righteous and just is He.”  We have not been an easy flock, and are warned that any corruption will be ours. 

No longer the leader beginning a journey with the Song of the Sea, Ha’azinu is Moshe’s ethical will to the people Israel.  How many of us know, as Moshe did, that the words we say may be our last. Imagine what we might say if we knew they were our last words.  The song ends with Moshe entreating the people, “All the words I testify to you today, that you may charge your children to guard to do all the words of this Torah….  For it is your life.”

“And God spoke to Moshe during that same day saying, “Go up this mountain of Avarim, Mount Nevo… and die on this mountain that you go up and be gathered unto your people…For you shall see the land across, but you will not come to the land which I gave to the children of Israel.”

Gmar hatimah tovah.  May we all be bound up in the Book of Life.  Together we pray for a shanah tovah umetukah, a good and sweet year.