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My God, The Soul That You Have Given Me is a Pure One

January 28, 2013 Leave a comment

“My God, the soul that you have given me is a pure one.”

That line appears in the daily morning service, as if — as Debbie Friedman used to teach — reminding us that each day we start anew, untainted by whatever we may have done the day before.

Debbie used to add that if our religious schools could teach the students that they start each day with a pure soul, we’d be ahead of the game even if we taught nothing else. I tend to agree.

Even the most forgiving among us are often relentlessly unforgiving of ourselves.I have frequently asked teenage students if they think that they have a pure soul, and the most common answer saddens me: “I used to,” they say.

Yes, even by high school, sometimes earlier, the students think they have done something so awful that they have irrevocably destroyed who they used to be.

Certainly part of the problem is the entirely un-Jewish approach that equates sex with impurity. (I remember teaching a high-school class about the Kabbalistic poem “Lecha Dodi” some years ago, and pointing out that the word we usually translate as “my beloved” is, in fact, “my lover.” A surprised student asked, “so the prayer is dirty?” “It’s sexual,” I told her, “not dirty.”)

But I think the problem goes deeper.

I think that even the most forgiving among us are often relentlessly unforgiving of ourselves. We let other people have a bad day and don’t give ourselves the same permission. We accept lapses in judgment by others but not ourselves. We forget about callous remarks aimed our way while we let our own misspoken words haunt us.

We want to take back what we have done or said, and when we cannot, we feel we have sullied our soul.

Some mistakes are so monumental that we read about them in the newspaper and hear about them in courts of law. But most of us let far more mundane errors haunt us: an ill-advised comment, a road not taken, or a choice poorly chosen.

I think there’s a certain nobility to trying to live a blameless life, but an equally certain futility. We want to ask, “can I be perfect?” But the better question seems to be, “how do I react when I screw up?” Our morning prayer addresses that second question.

The prayer’s answer is that no matter what, we are still the very embodiment of holy purity. There is nothing we can do, say, or believe that can destroy the inner beauty of the human soul.

I want to be clear. I don’t know what a soul is, and I’m not sure I believe in a God that can give me a pure one. But I don’t think we should let the lofty language of the liturgy hide an important message for our daily life.

I write this in the first few days of 2013, when many people are engaging with New Year’s Resolutions: I won’t do… I will do… I’ll never again… I promise not to… And so forth.

But I think most of us have unfinished business from last year, last month, and even yesterday.

Maybe an appropriate resolution for moving forward is to start each day by reminding ourselves that the soul you have given me, my God, is a pure one.

[Reprinted from the Vassar Temple February, 2013 bulletin.]

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Categories: Judaism, spirituality

How the Secular Date of Dec. 5 Made Its Way into the Jewish Calendar

December 4, 2012 1 comment

Ancient Hebrew CalendarDecember 5 may be the most arcane date of importance in the Jewish calendar. It’s when we start saying the winter prayer for rain.

Right off the bat, a question presents itself: Why do we use a secular date to delineate this Jewish custom, when all of the others are based on the Jewish calendar? And secondly, what’s the magic behind December 5? The answers take us on a fascinating journey through Jewish text, nature, astronomy, history, infrastructure, and politics.

There are in fact two times we add a mention of rain to our service. The first, more familiar now, is the short insertion in the Amida prayer about God’s power: mashiv ha-ru’ach umorid ha-gashem. God makes the wind blow and the rain fall. The second is an addition to the prayer petitioning God for bountiful produce: ten tal umatar livracha. Grant us the blessing of dew and rain.

The 1800-year-old Mishnah — the initial compilation of Jewish law and practice — discusses both of these in the chapter called Ta’anit (“fasting”), starting with the first one.

There was general agreement that the insertion should commence during the rainy season, roughly Sukkot. The Mishnah records a disagreement about the details. Rabbi Eliezer considered the first day of Sukkot a good time to start praying for rain, but Rabbi Yehoshua countered that no one wants rain on Sukkot, so it would be better to wait until the end of the holiday.

But Sukkot is a pilgrimage holiday, when it was common to ascend to Jerusalem by foot. If we start praying for rain right after Sukkot, it might rain on those who are walking home.

So regarding the second insertion, Rabbi Gamaliel says that we should wait until 15 days after Sukkot to start praying for rain, that half-month being a reasonable amount of time to walk back to the farthest extent of the Land of Israel.

The Talmud — the great codification of Jewish law and practice that contains the Mishnah and meandering commentary on it — expands on the Mishnah and explains that in Babylonia they didn’t start saying the prayer for rain until 60 days into the rainy season of fall.

Jewish geography is exceedingly simple. There are essentially only three places: Jerusalem, the rest of Israel, and the rest of the world. Therefore, we in New York live in the same place (“the rest of the world”) as the Babylonians, so we follow their custom. We start saying the prayer for rain 60 days after the equinox.

The equinox is either September 22 or September 23.

But the careful reader may notice that 60 days after September 22 or 23 is November 21 or 22, not December 5. So we keep digging.

Shmuel, in the Talmud section known as Eruvin, calculates the four seasons as each lasting 91 days and 7.5 hours, and assigns September 23 as the start of fall. Because his became the official Jewish secular calendar, the Jewish equinox is always September 23. But we still wonder why we don’t start praying for rain on November 22.

Shmuel’s year of four seasons lasted 364 days and 30 hours, or 365.25 days. The solar year, though, is actually 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter. Because of this discrepancy, the Jewish equinox has slowly moved forward compared to the solar equinox, at the rate of approximately one day every 128 years.

The Catholic Church (by coincidence) also used Shmuel’s calendar, but unlike in Judaism, most of the Christian holidays are based on the solar date. By 1582, the official and solar calendars were 10 days out of sync, one result of which was that the springtime holiday of Easter was marching forward into summer.

So Pope Gregory fixed the calendar by doing two things. He dropped 10 days in October (the day after October 4 was October 15 that year), and, moving forward, he dropped 3 leap years every 400 years: years that are divisible by 100 would no longer be leap years unless they were also divisible by 400. (That’s why 2000 was a leap year even though 1900 wasn’t, and 2100 won’t be.)

In America and elsewhere in the world we use the Gregorian calendar.

The Jews, though, didn’t give a damn about Pope Gregory. So in 1582, the Jewish equinox moved ahead 10 days to October 3, the Gregorian equivalent of the Shmuelian September 23. Since then, 1700, 1800, and 1900 have been Shmuelian leap years but not Gregorian leap years. So now the Shmuelian equinox is the Gregorian October 6.

Sixty days after October 6 is December 5. And there you have it.

But don’t get too used to that date. In the year 2100 (a Shmuelian leap year) the day moves ahead to December 6.

[Reprinted from the Vassar Temple December 2012 bulletin.]

Sanctity Doesn’t Have to be Solemn

September 29, 2012 Leave a comment

This is our “holiday season”: Rosh Hashanah (at least one day, two for many), then Yom Kippur (never more than one day), Sukkot (about a week), and finally Simchat Torah and Shmini Atzeret.

"Then the question arises of  whether a Sukkah can be built on top of a camel."

“Then the question arises of whether a Sukkah can be built on top of a camel.”

It’s these last two that cause confusion.

Simchat Torah, literally, “The Joy of Torah,” is either the 8th day of the seven-day holiday of Sukkot (if you keep only one day of Rosh Hashanah) or the 9th day of the eight-day holiday of Sukkot (if you keep two).

Shmini Atzeret, literally, “the eighth, a convocation,” is always the 8th day of Sukkot, whether or not Sukkot has eight days or only seven. (It also gives us the chance to use the word “convocation,” which doesn’t otherwise pop up too frequently.)

The most important lesson is to try to enjoy whatever we do.  We don't have to be somber to take something seriously, and sanctity doesn't have to be solemn.Generally the first and last days of a holiday are “yontiv,” days on which, more or less like Shabbat, we rest from work. So the first and last days of the seven-day holiday of Passover are both yontiv, or, if you keep eight days, the first two days and the last two days. Similarly, the first day of the seven-day holiday of Sukkot — or the first two days of the eight-day holiday of Sukkot — are yontiv, along with the last day or so.

This background is important for understanding a discussion in the Talmud, that ancient compendium of Jewish law that examines and directs Jewish practice. For example it’s the Talmud that tells us when and how to light Hanukkah candles (put them in the menorah from right to left, light them left to right), how often to pray (thrice daily, unless you don’t feel like it), when one bird is similar enough to a kosher bird that it, too, counts as kosher (if they naturally interbreed or if their eggs are indistinguishable), which activities detract from rest on Shabbat and yontiv (travel, for instance), and, of course much more.

So it should come as no surprise that the Talmud gives us regulations regarding the Sukkah: It must have four, three, or two and half walls; must offer a view of the stars; must have more shade than sun; must be at least ten hand-breadths high, but less than about 10 yards; and so on.

Then the question arises (on page 23a of the section called “Sukkot,” if you want to follow along at home) of whether a Sukkah can be built on top of a camel. And the answer is, no, because the Sukkah is meant for the entire seven- or eight-day period of Sukkot, but sitting on a camel counts as travel, which, as we just saw, detracts from yontiv. So a Sukkah on a camel would be useless for at least two of the seven days of Sukkot (or four of the eight).

The next question is whether an elephant can be used for one of the walls of the Sukkah. And, again, the answer is no, because it might run away, invalidating the Sukkah. What about a dead elephant? Sure! As long as the elephant is as least ten hand-breadths in height, we’re good to go. Smaller animals, of course, might be ten hand-breadths in height only when standing but not when lying down. These, according to the Talmud, should therefore be suspended by ropes from above. (Please don’t try this at home.)

Now, Rabbis Meir, Yehudah, and Zeira, along with the other participants of this Talmudic debate, knew full well that hanging an animal just so it couldn’t lie down was a violation of the prohibition against cruelty to animals, and other obvious considerations prevent beasts of burden from doing double duty as structural supports.

So what are we to make of all of this? To me, the most important lesson is to try to enjoy whatever we do. We don’t have to be somber to take something seriously, and sanctity doesn’t have to be solemn. Torah is joyous.

And we have a holiday just to remind us. Happy Simchat Torah.

Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

Content, Connection, and Compassion: Three Steps to a Productive Religious School

January 5, 2012 1 comment

At a National Jewish Book Award ceremony not so long ago, an award recipient took the stage, smiled broadly, and told the audience that “it’s nice to get a prize.” Then she added, “the last time I got a prize was in Religious School…” — for what? — “…for being quiet.”

Yes, she was awarded a prize for simply being quiet, the bar in her school sadly having been set so low that by doing nothing she was already outperforming her peers. (Rabbi Larry Milder expresses a similar sentiment in his song about his experience teaching Religious School: There’s a Riot Going On in Classroom Number Nine.) Equally unfortunately, most of the audience at the award ceremony chuckled in solidarity, probably remembering their own not-so-different experiences in Religious School. Some of them may even have thought, “so you’re the goodie-goodie who got us all in trouble when we were pasting our yarmulkes to the wall.”

How did this happen, and what can we do about it?

Many Religious Schools seem like case studies in institutional bipolar disorder: children must attend but nothing should be required of them; or everything should be required of them and there should be no consequences for not fulfilling the requirements; or the consequences should be so severe that everyone hates being there; or loving Religious School is so important that the school is turned into a playground where nothing is taught; and so forth.

Hidden in this list of institutionality-disorder symptoms are three of the elements that I believe are crucial to a productive Religious School: content, connection, and compassion.

I think we have an absolute obligation not to waste the time of the students who show up to Religious School. After all, they aren’t allowed to leave. If I go to a lecture and I’m bored, I can walk out. But we don’t give children at Religious School (or public school, for that matter) this prerogative, so I think we have to make sure that their time in class is well spent by giving them challenging and engaging content.

Having fun also seems like a good idea. And some people believe that the best way to have fun is to turn learning time into game time. But I disagree, because, fortunately, children naturally love learning. So I think that by providing a stimulating environment we will also create a place where children enjoy themselves. Schools that dumb down their curriculum to make the place more enticing have it backwards.

Having fun also contributes to my second element of Religious School: connection. If the only point of the school were to convey information, we could distribute textbooks, offer a yearly exam, and do away with the weekly gatherings. But Judaism is not merely a collection of facts to be learned. It is also a sense of connection — to our history, to each other, to the Jewish people, to Israel, and to the synagogue.

Thirdly, I think our school has to offer compassion to people — children and parents — whose lives are increasingly lacking that vital component. Too many parts of our lives are uncompromising and rigid, forcing us to adapt to them rather than letting us be ourselves. Our school can offer an island of relief against this troubling trend.

Taken in isolation, any of these three aspects — content, connection, and compassion — can lead us astray. If we focus only on content, our Religious School will lose its soul. Connection by itself won’t work, because we have to offer something to be connected to. And compassion alone threatens to make the school irrelevant to people who are already thriving.

But in combination, I think these three goals can help provide the foundation of a school worthy of the collective energy we all invest in it.

[Reposted from the Vassar Temple Blog, in turn reprinted from my article in the Vassar Temple January, 2012 bulletin.]

The Subtext of Our Lives: Unetaneh Tokef and the High Holidays

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

“Who shall die by fire, and who by water?”

For many people, that question — part of the haunting Unetaneh Tokef prayer — is reason enough to boycott the Days of Awe. After all, the text of that famous medieval poem offers a simple, clear answer to why people suffer: it’s their own fault. They were given a perfectly fair trial (conveniently featuring God as prosecutor, defense attorney, witness, and judge), and every last chance to return to the right path, but they stubbornly refused God’s lifeline. So they died.

But the subtext of Unetaneh Tokef tells a different story, referencing the Book of Job more than any other. For example, the “still small voice” of the Unetaneh Tokef text mirrors Job 4:16. The text of the next line of Unetaneh Tokef deals with angels, as does Job 4:18. Literally reading between the lines, we find Job 4:17: “Can humans be acquitted by God?”

The text and subtext vehemently disagree, so what looks like an answer — people die because God makes them — is really a question: What’s going on here?

The High Holidays in general are like that, and so too are our lives. We have a text. But we need the subtext to understand it. And the simple, clear answers are usually wrong.


[Adapted from my essay “How was Your Flight” in Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef, pub. 2010 by Jewish Lights Publishing, ed. Rabbi Larry Hoffman.]

Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

Bible Translation, the Ten Commandments, and the Next Generation

September 27, 2011 1 comment

I’m pleased to announce that my TEDx presentation on Bible translation, the Ten Commandments, and the next generation is on-line on TED.com and YouTube, as well as on my Exploring the Bible Videos site. Enjoy!

Categories: Bible, Judaism, other

What does the “pur” in Purim really mean?

March 18, 2011 4 comments

Pur in PurimSoon we will bake hamentaschen, dress up in costume, and read the Book of Esther (“The Megillah”) to celebrate the joyous holiday of Purim. According to verse 9:26 of that very book, we get the name “Purim” from the pur that was cast: “Therefore, they called these days `Purim’ after `pur.'” But while purim is the Hebrew plural of pur, pur itself is not a Hebrew word. For this reason, twice before in Esther, when pur is mentioned, we are told, “…pur, that is, the goral.” So a pur is a goral, but what is a goral?

In all likelihood, goral originally referred to a bunch of small pebbles or similar objects used to make decisions by chance: they would be cast down on the ground or put in a vessel of some sort, from which one would be drawn at random. (A similar practice, in which stones were placed in a helmet, is clearly documented from Homeric Greece. The Greek verb for casting these objects was ballo, from which we get our English word “ballot.”)

For example, in Leviticus 16, Aaron takes “two goats,” “a goral for God” and a “goral for Azazel.” Then the goat that God’s goral lands on is God’s goat, and the goat that Azazel’s goral lands on is Azazel’s goat; this latter goat is sent “to Azazel” in atonement. (Based on an ancient misunderstanding of the Hebrew “to Azazel,” a 1530 translation reads “to scape” instead of “to Azazel,” giving us the English phrase “scapegoat.”)
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