Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Shavu'ot I: From Matzah to Bread

So it turns out Shavu’ot is not just the holiday of dairy food, but also the holiday of bread. Bread? Yes, bread. We count 49 days from the holiday of matzah, Passover, to the holiday of bread, Shavu’ot.

On Passover we are forbidden from eating bread or anything else that has risen in some way, but on Shavu’ot, the Torah tells us that the principle offering brought to the Temple is to be the shtay halehem, two loaves of bread, brought in gratitude for the grain harvest.

This movement from matzah to bread cuts at the heart of the spiritual difference between these two holidays. On Pesach, we eat matzah to show that we, like the Israelites when they fled from Egypt, are ready to pick up and run at a moment’s notice. We show that we have a kind of zrizut, alacrity, when it comes to God’s commands. We will not sit and wait for our bread to rise in our comfortable homes, but move quickly when it is time to move.

Shavu’ot teaches a different spiritual message. Yes, in a time of crisis like the time of slavery in Egypt, it is appropriate to run. But one should not always be on the move in relation to God. Part of what is required is the establishment of homes and institutions, the setting up of a daily life dedicated to God. That is precisely what the giving of the Torah aimed to do, to give us a way to put into daily practice our worship of God. The Ten Commandments are not rules to flee by, but rules to live by. They are rules by which to set up a society, a society revolving around belief in God, respect for one’s parents, Sabbath observance, and certain basic rules of human decency. So too the rest of the Torah. The point is not a one-time crisis relationship, but the setting up of everyday lives which live and breathe God’s words within society.

Perhaps that explains the mountain (Sinai) as well. A mountain is physically the opposite of running away; it is stable and permanent, difficult to move. By contrast, the most prominent images of the exodus’ physical spaces are first, the doorposts upon which the Israelites splattered the Passover lamb’s blood, and second, the corridor of water made by the two walls of the Red Sea. These are transitional images, images of movement which form a stark contrast to the sense of stability and institutionalization implied by Mount Sinai.

The name of the holiday, Shavu’ot, meaning “weeks” (referring to the 7 weeks between Passover and Shavu’ot) expresses a similar sense of longevity. This is a holiday which is not so much about the day of the holiday itself as it is about “weeks,” a whole period of time, indeed, an entire way of life. The giving of the Torah is not really a one-time event, like the exodus from Egypt, but a continual event which happens every day we study the Torah and observe its rules. The Torah, like bread, is a daily staple, not an exceptional treat.

This notion of the dailiness of Torah may also explain why we do not have any special actions to perform on this holiday, like the matzah-eating of Passover or the sukkah-dwelling of Sukkot. On Shavu’ot what we celebrate, the Torah, has no symbol and needs no symbol because it is so all-pervasive in our daily lives.

Shavu’ot: The Holiday of the Evil Impulse?
Finally, I want to offer a related but slightly different reading of the difference between Passover’s matzah and Shavu’ot’s bread. The rabbis associate the rising agent in bread dough (se’or shebe’isah) with the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. On Passover we make a special one-time effort to be exceptionally righteous and pious, to completely sublimate our evil inclinations. But such an effort cannot be sustained permanently. Nor should it be. For, as the rabbis also point out, without the evil inclination, the world would not continue to exist; all creative and procreative activities depend on the evil inclination for their impetus. “Were it not for the evil impulse, a man would not build a house, take a wife, or beget children (Genesis Rabbah 9.7).”

On Shavu’ot, what we celebrate is not the negation and sublimation of the evil impulse, but its harnessing for the sake of good. We take the haughtiness of the human spirit’s evil impulse and use it as a leavening agent to make our daily dough rise, to create bread, the staff of life. The Torah does not preach asceticism except as a one-time exceptional enterprise as part of the Passover celebration. Shavu’ot is about the daily life of Torah, a sustainable life that includes and indeed thrives on the evil impulse, but harnesses its creative juices to the good work of Torah in the world.

Shavu'ot II: The True Holiday of Freedom?

It is not only the holiday of Passover which celebrates freedom, but also the holiday of Shavu’ot. Shavu’ot celebrates the giving of the Torah, and according to the following famous mishnah, it is the Torah which provides true freedom in life.

Mishnah Avot 6.2:

The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised [harut] upon the tablets (Ex 32:16). Do not read harut [“incised”], but rather heirut [“freedom”], for no one is as free as the person who occupies himself with the study of Torah.

What does this famous saying mean? How does the Torah make you free? Here is one thought on the issue. Please offer your own ideas by clicking on “comments” below.

People are by their nature slaves. If we do not take upon ourselves the yoke of God’s Torah and become “slaves” to God, then we will inevitably enslave ourselves to some other person or force, to someone with more power than ourselves, to work or money, to the pursuit of physical pleasure or health, or even, sometimes, to our children. The Torah lifts us above these enslavements by teaching that we actually belong to God, so that no person or thing can own us, even ourselves. The Torah frees us by setting limits on all these other human forces and obligations, by reminding us that we also carry inside ourselves a piece of God, and that ultimately, we are only answerable to Him.

Last week, I taught a class at Congregation Beth Abraham Jacob (Albany, NY) about the Sefat Emet’s notion of making ourselves hefker, ownerless, like a desert. A member of the audience commented that perhaps the purpose of making ourselves ownerless is to give ourselves permission to study Torah. If not for the command from God to study Torah, we would not take the time to do so, because of the many demands on our time – our spouses, our children, our jobs, our community, and so on. The Torah helps us assert that we are not owned by any of these, but ownerless in this world, and therefore free to worship the One who does own us, and can elevate us above these worldly concerns.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Parashat Bemidbar I: How Can People Be Counted?

This week we begin reading a new book of the Torah, the book of Numbers, so-called because it begins with numbers, with a detailed census of the people. Now the counting of people is generally considered a dangerous affair by the Torah. In Exodus the direct counting of people is shunned in favor of the use of a half-shekel coin representative for each individual (Ex 30:11-16). This method of counting is said to avoid “ a plague,” and indeed, later in history, in the time of David, a plague did come about as a result of a census (see 2 Samuel 24). Today, because of these concerns about counting, there is a tradition of not counting people directly, but through the use of a special verse exactly 10 words long, or by saying “not-1, not-2.”

Why is counting people considered so dangerous? To count people as part of a group endangers their divinely given uniqueness, implies that they are only cogs in a wheel, animals to be branded, coins to be accumulated. The Nazis’ degrading use of numbers on their victims’ arms comes to mind. The Torah is insistent that each person is unique and irreplaceable, for each person carries within her a piece of the divine. As the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) says: “When a human being makes a number of coins out of one stamp, they are all alike; but the King of all Kings, the Holy One blessed be He stamped every person with the stamp of Adam, and not one is like any other.”

The Numbers census is allowable partly because it seems to have avoided this pitfall. Num 1:2 and 1:18 say the counting happened “listing the names,” and “head by head.” Nachmanides (on 1:45) interprets this phrase to mean that God insisted that they be counted “with honor and greatness for each and every one,” having every single person be brought out by name, rather than simply asking the head of each household for a tally.

But it’s not just that the Numbers census avoided this danger of erasing the individual. It’s also that the census was performed for an appropriate purpose. There is a danger to counting. But there is also a danger to not counting, the danger that the individual remains alone, simply an individual. That is not the Torah’s goal. Part of the purpose of the census in Numbers was to physically arrange the camp, to give each tribe its place within the larger group, these to the north, these to the south, etc. . . They were to camp ish al diglo, each person with his flag, each at his special station, playing his unique role as part of a whole.

Parashat Bemidbar II: Rashi and Love

Numbers 1:1: “The Lord spoke . . in the wilderness of Sinai . . . on the first day of the second month . . . [Take a census . . .].
Rashi's comment:
Mitokh hibatan lefanav, moneh otam kol sha’ah.
“It is because of His love for them that He counts them all the time. When they left Egypt, He counted them. And when they died during the sin of the Golden Calf, He counted them in order to find out the number of those remaining. When He came to rest His Presence among them, He counted them. On the first of Nisan, the Tabernacle was built, and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.”

Some thoughts about this Rashi:
1. On repetition and love: Rashi establishes that this is the third time in the course of a little over a year that God has counted the people, and suggests that the reason for these repeated countings is hibah, love or dearness. Elsewhere, Rashi makes a similar connection, suggesting that the reason that God repeats certain individuals’ names when He calls them, e.g. “Abraham! Abraham!” and “Jacob! Jacob!” is also a sign of hibah. Repetition, according to Rashi, is an expression of love. Love expresses itself not through one-time dramatic shows of affection, but through constancy, through repeated acts of caring. See note 6 below for more on this idea.

2. Always starting with love: Rashi begins his commentary to the book of Numbers with this comment on God’s special hibah for Israel, and he also begins his commentaries to the books of Exodus and Leviticus with a comment about God’s love. He seems to want to orient the reader to think about these books through this lens of divine love.

3. The present tense: Note that Rashi uses the present tense in his first statement: “He counts them all the time,” instead of “He counted them all the time.” He does this despite the fact that later in the comment, Rashi is forced into the past tense when speaking of the various actual historical countings. The present tense reaches out and includes the reader, making her feel that God’s loving counting took place not just in biblical times, but continues to this day.

4. Through thick and thin: Note that when Rashi enumerates the three countings, he gives a sense of the up and down nature of the relationship between God and the people – leaving Egypt, sinning, and now the intimacy of the Tabernacle. What emerges is a sense of a relationship which is constant and secure; God counts us when we are weak and when we are strong, when we are distant and sinful, as well as when we are intimate.

5. What is bothering Rashi in the verse? This is a classic question to ask of Rashi, as he is such a close reader of the biblical text. Here he is clearly answering the question of the need for another census so soon. But note that his comment is focused specifically on the timing issue. He makes his remark in relation to the first verse, concerning the timing of the census, rather than in relation to the second verse, where the actual command is given to count. Perhaps he was partly motivated by the Torah’s need to tell us specifically that the count happened on the first of the second month of the second year. Rashi explains that this dating gives us the information we need to understand God’s tremendous love, as it puts this census in very close temporal proximity to the other two countings. The verse’s dating also seems to indicate to Rashi that there is some connection between the building of the Tabernacle and this count; as he says, on the first of Nisan, the Tabernacle was built and on the first of Iyar was the census.

6. Repetition and Love II: Just a note about the pervasiveness of this connection in Judaism. It is present not just in God’s love for us, but also in our love for God. Praying three times a day is an expression of this notion. Indeed, the first paragraph of the Shma makes this connection explicit. One should love God with all one’s heart and soul and might. And how does one express this love? By speaking of His words all the time, when one awakes and when one goes to sleep, walking and sitting, at home and abroad. Here again, love and repetition go hand in hand. There is a kind of all-pervasiveness to these articulations of love which make the relationship feel constant and secure.

Parashat Bemidbar III: Make Yourself Like a Desert and . . .?

The book of Numbers, called in Hebrew Bamidbar, “In the desert,” takes place during the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert between the time they left Egypt and the time they entered the land of Israel. What is the significance of the desert? Why did this growing up period need to take place specifically in the desert? Here are a few interesting comments:

1. Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah (1.7) says that the Torah was given with three things – fire, water and the desert. All three of these are free for everyone in order to teach that the Torah is free and accessible to any who wish to partake of it.

2. Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah (1.7) also says that in order to learn Torah effectively, one should make oneself like a desert -- completely hefker, like an abandoned piece of property which is no longer owned by anyone. What does this mean? See below for the hasidic Sefat Emet’s reading of this midrash.

3. The desert was a place in which the Israelites experienced a sense of complete dependence on God, as their every need, from food to water to shelter from the sun could only be provided through God’s miraculous intervention. The Sefat Emet emphasizes this notion of dependence in his reading of the midrash above. He says that being hefker, ownerless, means that one should submit oneself completely and utterly to God, and admit one’s complete dependence on God for every action. This is an extreme view, but there is something appealing about it, something appealing about at least imagining relinquishing complete control and negating oneself, making oneself just part of the ownerless desert. It is a notion which serves as a nice antidote to modern Western notions about how much control we have over our destiny, and what active parts we should take in shaping it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Parashat Behar I: In Praise of Rest

A recent article in the New Yorker reported on the use of stimulant drugs like Aderall for the “off-label” use of “neuro-enhancement.” People take these drugs so they can increase productive wakeful time and accomplish more tasks at a high level of brain function without the need of sleep.

The Torah has a different attitude toward non-productive time. As we see in the first of this week’s two parshiyyot, Behar, even the land must have its rest, every seventh year, the year of shmitah, as well as every 50th year, the year of yovel. The idea is similar to that of the weekly Sabbath day. For six years or days, we are commanded to be active and productive in the world, but on the seventh year or day, we are commanded to cease.

These Sabbaths remind us that it is God who created the world, not us; we are mere sojourners here, living on borrowed land and borrowed time. The lesson is of our own smallness and insignificance. The Torah says people will worry: “But what will we eat if we don’t work the land?” (See Lev 25:20). We have similar worries: “If we stop doing what we’re doing, even for a short time, everything will fall apart. The kids won’t grow up right. The business will collapse.” The truth is, and this comes with some relief, we’re not as essential as we think we are. The earth turns without us, the ground produces fruit (albeit not as efficiently) without our tilling, and even our kids will grow up fine without our constant supervision.

These Sabbaths point to our smallness, but they also point to our greatness. And here is the surprise. The Torah teaches that our greatness as humans lies not solely, perhaps not even primarily, in what we create and produce in this world, but rather in our sacred moments of non-productivity. It is the seventh day, the day God rested, which He proclaimed holy. Both the shmitah and the Sabbath day are called Shabbat Lashem, “A Sabbath for God.” It is in part through non-productivity, through just being, that we come closest to God, closest to that spark inside of us which is of God, and therefore eternal. Perhaps this is why the rabbis say Shabbat gives us a little taste of eternity; it is mey’eyn olam haba.

The race to increase productivity with drugs or other means is a race against time, against the limits of our mortal lives. The Torah’s Sabbaths suggest an alternative response to mortality, an attempt to connect to the Eternal One through sacred moments of rest from our creative endeavors.

An Additional Thought on this Subject by the Sefat Emet:

With reference to the yovel year, the Torah says, “Each of you shall return to his holding” (Lev 25:13). The Sefat Emet, a 20th century Hasidic master, reads these words as referring not to each Jew’s return to his original land holding, but to his return to his divine origins. On Shabbat, we have the opportunity to return to our original source. By not working for our food, on both the Sabbath day and the Sabbath year, we live like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before their sin. After all, working for food only came about as a result of sin, so that in a way what we are doing when we rest from work on these Sabbaths is returning to that original state of close connection to and dependence on God.

Parashat Behar II: Words that Hurt

“Do not wrong [lo tonu] one another” (Lev 25:17). This is the second of two commandments not to wrong one another. The first appears just a few verses earlier, in verse 14. The rabbis (see Rashi who cites the midrash Sifra) understand the first prohibition to refer to ona’at mamon, “wronging one another with respect to monetary matters,” and the second to refer to ona’at devarim, “wronging one another with words.” The Talmud says that wronging another through the use of words is a more serious offense than wronging with money, because monetary wrongs can be more easily rectified (Baba Metzia 58b).

Some examples of ona’at devarim are: embarrassing someone, giving someone advice that is more suited to the advisor than the advisee (Rashi), reminding a convert or a ba’al teshuva, a newly religious Jew, of his past, telling someone who is suffering that his suffering is a result of his own sins, showing interest in buying something in a store when one has no intention of actually making the purchase (Baba Metzia 58b), and anything else that may hurt the feelings of another. Nehama Leibowitz suggests that the motive behind many of these hurtful words is the sense of superiority gained by making another feel small.

Nehama Leibowitz also points out that this word tonu, “wrong,” is normally used in the Torah to refer to the treatment of someone who is weak or downtrodden, such as the ger, the “stranger” (see Ex 22:20 and Lev 19:23) or the widow and orphan (Ezek 22:7) or the poor (Ezek 22:29). In our context, however, the verb is used to refer to the way one treats one’s fellow. Perhaps the idea here is that one should not treat one’s fellow in this superior way, turning him into one of the poor and downtrodden normally referred to with this verb.

The cruelty involved in some of these statements is often subtle. Only the speaker really knows if his intention was to hurt. Rashi suggests that the reason this prohibition is followed by the words, “And you shall fear your God,” is precisely because of this subtlety. As he says, “The One who knows thoughts, He knows [the truth about one’s intentions].” He says that all commandments in the Torah which are connected to one’s private thoughts include this term, “And you shall fear your God.” Part of what makes this approach so interesting is the focus on the speaker rather than hearer. One would think that the test of whether the statement was hurtful is how the hearer feels about it; Rashi tells us that no, the test is how the speaker feels. The point is to stop yourself from speaking in a way that you yourself consider hurtful.

This issue plays out particularly often and hurtfully among children. I hear my kids saying to each other things like: “I had ice cream in school today. Did you?” in the full knowledge that the other child did not and would feel badly about it. Or, to a friend who has just said how excited she was to have gone to a certain amusement park: “That park? Oh, I’ve been there five times already.”

I’m not sure how one helps one’s children learn not to speak in these hurtful ways. Perhaps by getting them to admit that their intentions were to raise themselves up at the expense of another? There is a great children’s book on the subject of such hurtful words, The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes. One of the best things about the book is that it is told from the point of view of the children who are doing the teasing (and onlooking), showing how they come to feel remorse and understand the gravity and impact of their actions.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Parashat Emor: Counting Our Blessings

That woman in the supermarket who told me, “Enjoy your kids now; it goes by so quickly,” was certainly right. It does go by quickly. But what are we to do about it? How can we hold on to the moment, to appreciate its fleeting, precious character as it flies by?

Maybe that is the purpose of sefirat ha-omer—the counting of the 49 days between the holidays of Pesach and Shavu’ot. We are in the midst of this counting right now (about half way through), and the commandment to do such an official count also happens to be in this week’s parashah, Emor (Lev 23:15).

The counting is done each night with a blessing followed by an official pronouncement of the count, for example: “Today is the 26th day of the Omer, which is 3 weeks and 5 days.” (It’s around now that the math gets too complicated for me).

Why count these days? The Torah connects the counting to the grain harvest. We count from the beginning of the barley harvest, celebrated on Passover, to the beginning of the wheat harvest, celebrated on Shavu’ot. The sixteenth century Italian biblical commentator Sforno suggets that the purspose of this counting is to remind people daily to be thankful to God for the harvest, to remind them that the bountiful blessings they are receiving from the land all ultimately derive from God.

Counting is a way of stopping, in the very midst of the bounty of springtime, to note our good fortune and be mindful and appreciative of it. Counting implies that each thing is to be valued and appreciated on its own. That is what it means to count our blessings, to note each one and give true thanks, in the knowledge that it could have been otherwise. It means to be conscious in a daily way of the preciousness of that day of life, that day of food, and that day of our children’s lives.

It’s true. It does go by quickly, our children’s childhood, and life in general. Counting the Omer teaches us that the proper response to such life blessings, to the good fortune of food and children and life, is to be present and aware of the blessing which is each passing moment, and to give thanks to the Source of blessing.

As Psalm 90 says, “Teach us to count our days rightly.”