Monday, September 23, 2013

Reading Yona as God's Storyteller

Every Yom Kippur I get the honor of reading the book of Jonah at Mincha.  I love to do it.  It helps carry me through the fast, and it is a wonderful story. But the best part are the taamim.  The taamim are the notes which tell us how to sing a text.  In Yonah, as in all texts, they offer clues to the story.  They tell us how emphatically to read a word.  They are the directors notes in public reading.  I have favorite points-

  • When Jonah runs from God towards Tarshish the note on Tarshisha (towards Tarshish) drops.  I can almost feel the futility of his fleeing.
  • The sailors on the ship question Jonah, the tension regarding this stranger can be felt in the notes, and grows into fear and awe as they realize the storm is God sent.  Then we hear their plea to God not to incur a blood guilt as Jonah is lowered into the water to save them.
  • I see the image of the king of Nineveh rising from his throne to sit in the dust in order to save his city
  • I feel for Jonah, although my sympathy is limited, in his frustration and depression over his plight as a prophet whose prophecy will not come true, 
  • but can also sense the irony in the lesson God tries to teach him with the gourd.
Every year I try to tell the story, not just in beautiful voice, but with emotion and feeling, to convey the rise and fall of the story to a community that, by and large, does not understand the Hebrew.  I am God's storyteller, and the weight of the responsibility is felt upon my shoulders. For those who cannot understand, I hope the notes speak to their hearts, that the music raises them up for the trial of Neilah that is still to come.  For those who can understand the Hebrew, I hope the drama of the story comes through to inspire them as it does for me.  

The singing of Sefer Yonah is a practice in humility, in responsibility.  I hope I can live up to its words.

Children and Faith

All three of my children fasted this year.  Two are now of age, and Keren is within a year.  At 16, Jesse just accepts that this is part of Jewish life, and deals with it.  By lunch Gavi & Keren were complaining. Keren started a food chant.  It seems goofiness helps. Gavi was my whiner (an unusual position for him).  By Mincha the two of them were squeezing me between them, tired, hungry, and cranky, it was not fun.  Finally Keren settled into a book, maybe not the point of the day, but it kept her from complaining.  Gavi was inconsolable.  I told him that the fast was between him and God.  I was not going to stop him from eating, but neither would I give him permission.  Interestingly, he did not eat.

B'nei mitzvah is the beginning of a hard time in your life.  Parents still tell you what to do, except when they don't.  They must give permission for things, except when they won't.  Had I given permission, Gavi would have definitely eaten, but left between him and God, he had to really think about hid actions. He's not the most accepting child.  He is stubborn.  He wants explanations for everything, including the explanations.  However, Gavi also has a purity of faith that is special and will serve him well and carry him through life as it did through Yom Kippur.

It's My Turn #22, by Nora T. Cat

My wonderful people have devised an entertainment all for me. They have placed Gandalf's food in a small blue ball, which he must roll around to get the food out of small holes in the ball. It takes him hours of walking, during which I get to watch from my high dining perch where my food bowl is never empty. It proves that I am the #1 kitty. The people always give me food. All I do is meow, and it is there. I don't even have to meow. Usually it is simply there.

Gandalf doesn't even realize this is actually all about me. He just feels sorry for himself for the necessity of pushing the abomination. It is true. It is demeaning for a cat to have to sink so low as to push a ball with his nose to eat. If he would exercise and watch what he ate, he'd be as svelte as I. But instead he is large, and must realize that this alone makes him a bit of a laugh.

Oh well, more entertainment for me.

Kitty Blog 21, by Gandalf The Grey

It has been almost a month since I have had to work for my food. This is ridiculous. I feel foolish.  I have tried to hide the ball under furniture, behind plants, and downstairs. I was hoping my people wouldn't find it and would revert to the bowl, but to no avail. The people keep finding it. I've run out of ideas. I am a strong and dignified cat. I cannot keep pushing this ball around with my nose. I'd rather swim.

To make matters worse, since I am brilliant, and have figured out how to open the timed food bowl, my people are no longer using it. Now all my food is given in two courses in the damn ball.

Oh God, why must they torture me in this way?!

Breishit- Balancing Theology and Science

Breishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. V’ha’aretz haitah tohu vavohu v’hoshekh al p’nei t’hom v’ruah Elohim m’rahefet al p’nei hamayim
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was on the face of the emptiness, and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water (Breishit 1:1-2, page 2)
Most books begin on page 1. They may have introductions, prefaces, indices, and tables of contents, all usually marked with roman numerals, but the story begins on page 1. Jewish books, especially theological books, begin on page 2. We were not present at the beginning. God is One, there is no other. This numbering system is the first theological statement in a Humash. The verses above begin the second.
Torah is a fascinating text in concept. It reads like a morality tale. It reads like a history. It even reads like the science of evolution. It is all and none of these. Torah is first, foremost and only a theology. It is a written explanation of what Jews believe and, at least some of the time, why. Torah is also all of these. It is the story of our people with a public history. It teaches us creation. It teaches midot, values. We can learn a lot from Torah on how to approach literature, history, science and ethics. Nevertheless, when we move Torah beyond theology, we lose sight of its purpose. Breishit is a perfect example of this. Breishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. How do we translate this? Just the first word is a minefield. Breishit – B’reishit – In the beginning – At the start – In beginning, all these are correct, and none are. So difficult is it to choose that many translations will simply state, “B’reishit, God created…” Thus they demonstrate the uncertain meaning of the Hebrew while not losing the full meaning. For Hebrew speaker the word is enough. For the non-Hebrew speaker, the full meaning cannot be conveyed, but by leaving the transliterated word, the mystery is maintained.
A couple of weeks ago Jesse and I had a fascinating conversation about parashat Breishit. A friend of his had tried to examine the first creation story in Breishit literally. How could God create light then the sun and moon? How are heaven and earth created before heavenly bodies? Jesse and I discussed the purpose of the words. Are they there to give us a science lesson? Clearly no. But can we see science in them? Yes.
Breishit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz. V’ha’aretz haitah tohu vavohu v’hoshekh al p’nei t’hom v’ruah Elohim m’rahefet al p’nei hamayim. I prefer to examine the meaning of each word. For me this is the creation of space. Hashamayim is space. Ha’aretz refers to the building blocks of matter. Can ha’aretz only refer to our earth? Is it only planet Earth or is it the land and the soil? Whatever ha’aretz is, it is unformed and chaotic. It is only in the Divine light that we are calm and can open to learning. We cannot know the original meaning, but we can find the meanings that speak to us. Midrash teaches us sheveim panim laTorah; there are 70 faces to the Torah. Albert Einstein once said, Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind. It’s up to each of us to find the balance and he face that can speak to us.

Really Hearing for a New Year

This was written for Yom Kippur. Its sentiments still hold true.
Amar Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, lo hayu yamim tovim l’Yisrael kakhamisha asar b’Av uvaYom HaKippurim, she’ba’hen banot Yerushalayim yotz’ot bichlei lavan si’ulin, she’lo l’vayeish et mi she’ain lo…. U’vanot Yerushalayim yotz’ot v’cholot ba’k’ramim. U’meh hayu omrot, “Bachor, sa-na einekha urei mah atah voreir lach….
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, There were never better days for Israel than the 15th of Av and on Yom Kippur, since on [these days] the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments, so not to shame anyone who didn’t have…. And the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.  And what would they say? Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself…. (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8)
I like to imagine what the Yamim Noraim must have been like in ancient times. In our time they are solemn, prayer filled days. We see faces we see regularly and those we see not so regularly. (We’re very happy to see you all!) Our machzorim are filled with the accumulated piyyutim of thousands of generations. Sitting for three hours, it is difficult for each of us to imagine a day filled with dancing and joy. But there it is, preserved in the Mishnah, a day on which young women would dance in the streets and young men would come to court them.
However, when we delve into the real meaning of the day it makes sense. These are days of hope and dreams for the future. We examine our past year, and plan for the coming one. “Lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself.” This is the song the girls would sing. It is a theme echoed in the Rosh Hashanah readings. Hagar lifts her eyes to see the spring that saves her and Yismael. Avraham lifts his eyes to see the sacrificial lamb. Though examining ourselves, we must also remember on these days to look around and see. Socrates said, “Ho de anexetastos bios ou biĆ“tos; For a human being, the unexamined life is not worth living.” Only when we look up, out and beyond ourselves, can we truly live.
Rabbi Jack Riemer expressed this idea in a favourite poem, which we would read it each year in my childhood synagogue.

Judaism begins with the commandment:
Hear O Israel! But what does it really mean to hear?
The person who attends a concert with his mind on business, hears-but does not really hear.
The person who walks amid the songs of birds, and thinks only of what he will have for dinner, hears-  but does not really hear.
The man who listens to the words of his friend, or his wife, or his child, and does not catch the note of urgency: “Notice me, help me, care about me,” hears-but does not really hear.
The man who listens to the news and thinks only of how it will affect business, hears-but does not really hear.
The person who stifles the sound of his conscience and tells himself he has done enough already, hears-but does not really hear.
The person who hears the Hazzan pray and does not feel the call to join him, hears-but does not really hear.

The person who listens to the Rabbi’s sermon, and thinks that someone else is being addressed, hears-but does not really hear.
On this High Holiday, O Lord, sharpen our ability to hear.
May we hear music of the world, and the infants cry and the lover’s sigh...
May we hear the call for help of the lonely soul, and the sound of the breaking heart.
May we hear the words of our friends, and also their unspoken pleas and dreams.
May we hear within ourselves the yearnings that are struggling for expression.
May we hear You, O God. For only if we hear You do we have the right to hope that You will hear us.
Hear the prayers we offer to You this day, O God, and may we hear them too.

God is close at hand. We need only to reach out with our senses and make our choices wisely to create a life worth living for ourselves and for others.