Torah Blog

 

A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
(Sorry, the comments moderation for this blog is very clunky - if you want to ask me a question, better to use the contact form)

 

Tuesday
Aug242010

Mindful Matzah

Until now I was aware of only two kinds of eating in the Jewish calendar - not eating i.e. on fast days, and eating a lot as part of a mitzvah, on Shabbat/Yom Tov and especially Purim (also on erev Yom Kippur it's a mitzvah to eat).

But now I see that Pesach is a third way - a week of simple food, avoiding all those baked goods we like to eat, a week when the food is different and it draws our attention to how and what we eat. The point is not to imitate our usual fare with Pesach bread rolls and Pesach bizzli but to see what happens when things are different, when we lack the usual variety of consumer products. Mindful eating.

Which is why, much as I dislike the whole kitniyot thing, it actually serves a purpose at least in Israel, as it severely limits what you can buy in the supermarket; which keeps up the spirit of limited diet on Pesach. Food for thought?

Chag sameach.

Tuesday
Aug242010

ויספר משה לחתנו And Moses told his father-in-law

I love to learn Parsha with a chabura (group) of people, where we just read the text carefully and discuss together without preparing in advance. It's great - things pop out at you that you never seem to notice when learning on your own. I highly recommend it.
Here's something I noticed this week in one such group learning session. At the beginning of Parshat Yitro, Yitro comes to visit Moshe because he has heard of all the miraculous things that God has done, specifically the Exodus from Egypt.
But then Shemot chapter 18, verse 8 tells us:

And Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, and all the hardship that had come upon them by the way, and how the Lord saved them.

Yitro's reaction is:

And Jethro rejoiced because of all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, whom he had delivered from the hand of the Egyptians.


It seems superfluous for Moshe
to tell this story over to a person who has already heard it! What can we learn from this?

We could take three possible directions: 

  1. The rumours of the miracles had spread to Midyan. Rumours have a way of spreading, as the Talmud in Sotah colourfully describes it, by gossiping women spinning tales by moonlight, or as the Talmud in Baba Batra says, simply things get around, "For the bird of the heaven shall carry the voice"
    BUT you don't just want to rely on a rumour, it's important to check the veracity of it from someone who was there

     
  2. When you hear a first person account it has an entirely different effect than hearing the generalities. This happens to us all the time - we hear of a disaster and it's just numbers: 250 killed in a plane crash, 50000 killed in an earthquake. Our brain registers, but our hearts remain untouched. But when we hear one individual story, tears come to our eyes. Yitro's reaction is one of rejoicing, but the word used ויחד is odd. The rabbis translated it as goosebumps - a powerful reaction of awe and wonder. To hear it from the horse's mouth so to speak, was almost to relive it. אינו דומה שמיעה לראייה - hearing is not like seeing. We see this also when Moshe is up Mt Sinai and the people are worshipping the Golden Calf below. God says (Shemot 32:7-8)
Go down; for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves;
They have turned aside quickly from the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it...

So he knew about this - who would doubt the word of God? Yet only when Moshe SAW the calf and the dancing did his anger burn and he dropped the tablets. 

3. The third angle we can take on Moshe's retelling is less about Yitro's need to hear and more regarding Moshe's need to tell the story over. When we tell a story over to an outsider, it helps us to understand what we have been through. It helps to organise our thoughts and may be cathartic, as in psychoanalysis. It makes a difference who we are speaking to also - here, Yitro was a powerful religious figure, also a leader, and Moshe could speak to him as a peer and share all of the emotions regarding everything he had just been through - including the hardship. I wonder how long that conversation took - perhaps they sat in a tent all day, eating Manna, smoking a nargilla, in one of those unforgettable ten hour conversations that make life worth living.

Perhaps that is also why Yitro was the one who a few verses later suggested to Moshe that he needed to lighten his burden. He most deeply understood what Moshe had been through and where he was at.
This is an early example of coaching - a deep listening followed by advice to match where the person is!


And it is interesting that all this takes place just before the tremendous revelation at Sinai - an event which in Jewish consciousness takes its place in import alongside the Creation of the World. At the Creation, God speaks ten sayings, but there is really no one to talk to - God is saying them to Him/Herself.
לולא מסתפימא I would say, God is lonely.
Now at Sinai, God gets to "do a tikkun - have a healing experience" so to speak, when S/He can say ten things to 600000 people who are listening attentively. We all need to speak out our truth to another, and this is to be not alone.


Commentary
by Hyam Plutzik

(Once, when I entered the Holy of Holies to burn the incense, I saw the Lord
of all Hosts sitting on a high and exalted throne, and He said to me:
"Ishmael, my son, bless me." —
The Talmud)


He is lonely then within the pale of the palace
The Enthroned Will, whose fingers must ever shore
The pitiful islands against the destroyer of all.

To guard the breath of the violet for its time
And Helen’s face, and the gay moment the sun
Touches the street in the town where children play.


To shape and reshape forever the crumbling substances
Yet see the ruin so quickly, the figurines
Wasting in air, the brush-strokes graying like ash
If only once out of the flow, the river,
To make the lasting, the perfect – O to create
What will endure for all the creator’s time.

Lonely, lonely in the pale of the palace.
Once there were others, rivals, Ammon or Zeus.
Brother or foe, to bring the blood to the face,

Or who fashioned himself a mate out of the ground,
For eternity, his paltry thousand years.
But to shape and reshape forever the dust, the dust.


III
And the desperate tricks, the man or the nation beloved.
The disguises: dream or fire or a cloak by the gate
Of an unknown city, beyond the candlelight's friendship,

Where the guard cries out who goes, and sees no thing
But the darkening sand and a desert bird wheeling
With the cry that a gull makes on an empty coast.

O he is lonely in the pale of the palace¬— The Enthroned
Will, whose fingers must ever shore
The pitiful islands against the destroyer of all.

Tuesday
Aug242010

Holy Laws...?

I find myself at a bit of a loss when faced with mishpatim.
Laws.
I open up the Torah as a work for spiritual guidance and am faced with all these laws, including ones referring to archaic societal structures. How would you feel if you bought a book entitled Get in Touch With Your Soul and opened it up to find half of it was tort law from thirteenth century France? How can we connect to this? And why do we even need these laws when we have up-to-date democratic systems?

The Netivot Shalom - the Slonimer - writes that mishpatim falls in the middle of the giving of the Ten Commandments (see Chapter 24 of Shemot where the Har Sinai narrative appears to continue) for a reason. To teach us that these laws are just as holy as the Ten Commandments. But how? I can't accept that everything a rabbi or a dayan says is God's will (any more than lots of other things said by lots of other people).

This is the challenge for me - where is God in these legalities?

Ultimately the legal and the religious are not separated in Jewish thought. According to Menachem Elon, the Halacha itself does not recognise the concept of special religious laws that are different from other legal norms. In Talmudic discussions, the same theoretical argumentation, terminology and modes of interpretation are applied to both civil law and also the laws of Shabbat, the sacrifices and ritual purity and impurity. The laws of agency apply in the same way to issues of hekdesh and terumah as they do to marriage and divorce.

 

There are some very interesting Jewish legal procedures that bring God into the law as a partner or witness. There is an interesting procedure called “mi shepara”. This is used in a case where someone might change his or her mind after making a verbal contract, something halachically impossible to enforce when there were no witnesses to the verbal commitment. So they called in God as the punisher. The Rambam tells us in Hilchot Mechirah of his Mishneh Torah that if someone has paid for his goods but not yet received them, if either the seller or buyer retract at that point, they have not acted in a Jewish fashion and are obligated to receive the curse of “Mi Sheparah, He who punished”… and how is the curse administered? A curse is pronounced against him in a court of law, saying “He who punished the generation of the flood and the generation of the confusion of tongues at Babel and the people of Sodom and Gemorrah and the Egyptians who were drowned in the sea, may He exact punishment from him who does not stand by his word.”

There are two ways of looking at this. One is the anthropological way, to suggest that the rabbis utilised people’s fear and superstitions in order to provide some kind of deterrent. The other, inside-spiritual point of view, is that God is being called in to help with issues that are beyond the powers of the Bet Din. That a people who genuinely believe in an interventionist God, in a God who wants (whatever it means to say that God wants) for there to be morality in the world, as demonstrated by what He did to the people of the flood, Sodom and Gemorrah etc. will not even stand by when a simple farmer reneges on a verbal contract.

There are verses in Parshat Mishpatim that also overtly bring God into the picture. I'm not going to spoon-feed you - see if you can find them, and look at the Rashi there.

The message is that God is watching with Divine Providence and has arranged everything perfectly. The challenge is - how to apply this kind of thinking to all laws? and to make them speak to us spiritually, not just ethically?

V'idach zil gmor

Tuesday
Aug242010

Of Goats and God

A friend who is a goatherd told me that goats are not like sheep. They are aware there is a shepherd but they do not relate. Only goats that have been brought up around humans have a relationship with them.
The נמשל is interesting. Many people out there believe in a Shepherd but don't relate. Especially if they were not brought up with a living breathing relationship with the Divine. But it's never too late to pray: "Reveal Yourself to me so I may know You in my every breath. I do not want to be a goat."
As it says:

שתצילינו היום ובכל יום מעזי פנים ומעזות פנים
Preserve me every day from those with goat's faces and from a goaty face

(a little Purim humour!)

Tuesday
Aug242010

When our face falls

I've spent quite a bit of time with the story of Cain (I won't call it "Cain and Abel" here, because the brothers undergo different challenges - the challenge of failure is not the same as the challenge of success), and I think it's amazing. This is the first time in the Torah that we get to see a human whirling giddily in the eye of a storm of emotions: Anger, jealousy, frustration and more.

Bereshit 4:6 sets out two of these emotions plainly:

"And the Lord said to Cain: Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?

Why is God asking these questions, when the answer is obvious? Clearly God wants to draw Cain's attention to two emotions inside him - two different emotions, each of which has its own pulse and requires its own processing mechanism.

Leaving aside "Why are you angry?" let's think about "Why has your face fallen?" This sounds a lot like sadness, even depression. When we are depressed our mouths turn downwards, our eyes look down, our very being seems to drag into the ground as if we have arrived on a planet when gravity is ten times our own.

And what happens when we look down? What might we miss? When people speak to us, we will not look them in the eye. We will miss the -face-to-face, soul-to-soul encounter possible every time we converse openly and directly with another. God says, "Cain, look up, talk to me. Let's communicate, don't build walls. Raise your face to me." Just as in the priestly blessing, we are blessed "May the Lord lift His countenance to you and grant you peace," perhaps God too wants our countenances lifted to Him/Her, with openness and welcome.

And what else happens while we look down? Absolutely everything! But we don't see any of it. Amazing opportunities whizz right by our ears and we don't even notice. Life is full of doors opening and abundance coming our way; every moment brings its riches. But we are so busy looking down, nose to the grindstone, that we don't even notice.
Look up, dear human! And grab it while its hot!

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

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