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So What, Exactly, is Tu Bishvat?

January 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Haifa-Sunset2The evening of January 24th marks the start of Tu Bishvat this year. The name means the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, and it refers to the so-called “new year of the trees.”

Why do trees need a new year?

For an answer we turn to the Talmud — that great compilation of Jewish laws and lore from the middle of the first millennium CE. The section called “Rosh Hashana” (“New Year”) starts with the intriguing claim that “there are four new-year days.” And it turns out they fall in the months of Nissan, Elul, Tishri, and Shevat.

The new year with which we are now most familiar — Rosh Hashana — falls in Tishri, which, as it happens, is the seventh month of the year. Certainly the year ought to begin with the first month, so we know we have some digging to do.

The first month is Nissan. Passover falls on the 15th day of this month, and the first day is what the Talmud calls the new year for kings and festivals.

Elul is the sixth month, usually overlapping August and September in our calendar. The first of Elul is the new year for the cattle-tithe.

After Elul comes Tishri, the first day of which is New Year’s Day. As we just just saw, this puts the Jewish new year in the middle of the Jewish year.

And then we get to Shevat, the 11th of the 12 months in the Jewish year. The Talmud advises that some people thought that the 1st day of Shevat was the new year for trees, but the prevailing opinion relegated that status to the 15th day of the month.

Fine. So we have, working our way through the year, the new year for kings (in the 1st month, a couple of weeks before Passover), the new year for cattle-tithes (in the 6th month), New Year’s Day (on the first day of the 7th month), and then the new year for trees in the 11th month.

The Talmud explains why kings need their own new year, starting with a cryptic answer: “on account of documents.” It turns out that documents such as mortgages were dated according to the year of a king’s reign — as in, “during the second year of the reign of King So-and-So.” The question is when that second year commences. Is it on the anniversary of his ascension to the throne? No. It’s on the new year for kings. So along with each first day of Nissan there begins a new year for reckoning time according to the reign of kings.

What about the cattle-tithe new year? It used to be that people would pay yearly taxes of a sort based on how many animals they had. To implement this system, an arbitrary cut-off date for counting the animals was required. For instance, you might have 15 heads of cattle on one date, and 20 an another. At what point would you pay for the additional animals? The answer is that the 1st of Elul was the cut-off date. You paid taxes each year on however many animals you owned on Elul 1. (The IRS uses the same principle in calculating income tax. Tax on money earned up to December 31 of one year is due by April 15 of the next year.)

Similar reasoning applies to the new year for trees. Taxes were paid on fruit trees. A tree whose fruit was fully formed before Tu Bishvat of a given year was taxed in its entirety during that year; if the fruit formed thereafter, it was taxed in the next year.

Of course, we no longer reckon our years by kings and no longer pay tithes on the animals or on the fruit trees that we own. (And in any event, my animals number zero each year.) So why should we care?

Beyond the interesting if now-irrelevant details, and the spotlight on our history, we find meaningful customs that have come to accompany the different new years. On Tu Bishvat, for instance, we now pause to honor trees and nature in general.

In addition, we learn that our lives have more than one yearly cycle. Natural patterns commence around Passover, with the onset of spring, just as things like school calendars begin in the fall, and our official American calendar resets in the middle in winter. And thanks to a long sequence of interpretation, January 24 marks yet another fresh start.

Happy new year.

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Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

Backstage at Fiddler on the Roof — And My People

December 11, 2015 1 comment
Backstage at Fiddler on the Roof.  (Yes, that's me with Bartlett Sher, the man who arranged the wonderful visit from my ancestors.)

Backstage at Fiddler on the Roof. (Yes, that’s me with Bartlett Sher, the man who arranged the wonderful visit from my ancestors.)

Thinly disguised, my ancestors and tradition visited me earlier this week. There they were on the Broadway stage of Fiddler on the Roof — hiding in the shadows, animating the props, and permeating the set — barely masked by actors, lights, costumes, dancing, and song.

I love musical theater, and of course I’ve seen Fiddler before. Many times.

But for me Fiddler on the Roof is different than other shows, because this one is about me, about my people, and about my journey. Like most of my recent ancestors, my grandfather — the only grandparent I really knew — came from the kind of Eastern European shtetl in which Fiddler is set.

To be sure, my grandfather’s life was both more mundane and more extraordinary than anything in Fiddler. He didn’t marry off a daughter to a man in Siberia, he didn’t dance with cossacks in taverns, and he didn’t (I don’t think) have a mysterious fiddler variously serving as companion and nemesis.

Equally, my grandfather didn’t leave his village as part of a collective exodus. He left alone. Then most of his family perished.

But my grandfather did light shabbos candles. He treasured his heritage. He lived his life as a stranger in a foreign land. And he grappled with the balance between tradition and modernity. For that matter, so do I.

When the on-stage characters welcomed shabbos with candles, wine, bread, and blessings, I saw more than just generations past. I saw a snapshot from my childhood and a mirror of my life today. When Yenta announced that she was moving to the Holy Land, I heard more than a mere desire for new scenery. And when Tevye (played masterfully by Danny Burstein) quarreled with God, I felt his pain.

Interestingly, as much as the plot in Fiddler is about tradition, the musical itself is replete with its own traditions. So any new production both depicts and exemplifies the difficult task of balancing what was with what can be, of preserving the past while still addressing the present. This new rendition struck me as masterful in this regard, so I felt particularly privileged to head backstage and meet some of the people who created it: the director and a handful of the actors.

Then the stage manager told us how drab and mundane the area backstage is. There’s nothing exciting about it — at least, not to judge by appearances — in contrast to the on-stage magic that brings the past vividly to life. Yet if the stage depicts the timeless reality of my people, it’s the quotidian reality of the present backstage that makes it possible. Which is real, and which the real fiction? Past and present, extraordinary and commonplace, grandiose and picayune — life is apparently woven from a disparate and mutating mixture of threads.

Fiddler ends on a precarious note of uncertainty as the inhabitants of the fictitious Anatevka leave their village. Does their journey lead to a brighter future? Or have they left behind what they value most? They don’t know. In the storybook of my own life, I know that both are true, because I know what the characters do not: the glory of America, the unprecedented tragedy of the holocaust, the miracle of Modern Israel, the rumblings of renewed fear in Europe, the promise of the future, the lessons from our past.

My personal chapter in that storybook has yet to conclude, of course, and I obviously wasn’t around before it began. So it was a treat to look back a few chapters and revisit my place in an ever-unfolding adventure that, I am still convinced, is graced by light and joy and happiness and honor and God.

Categories: Judaism, religion, spirituality

Let’s Get a Few Things Straight about Hanukkah

December 8, 2015 1 comment

As with so many things, the problem started with Alexander the Great, and, in particular, with what he didn’t do.

Just over 2,300 years ago, Alexander III “The Great” of Macedonia was a young man of 32 who had conquered the known world in just a decade — a feat marked to this day by the names of cities like Alexandria, Egypt, and, 2,000 miles further east, Kandahar, Afghanistan. Alexander’s first wife was seven month’s pregnant, and — in both a literal and figurative marriage of east and west — he had just taken the daughter of the defeated Persian ruler Darius III as a second wife. How could Alexander have known that he wouldn’t live long enough to be a father?

Demonstrating understandable but ill-fated short-sightedness, Alexander had therefore not created a plan of succession, so his death brought huge instability, with various generals and other power brokers vying for control.

Four points define the geography of the ancient world: Greece in the west; Persia (Iran) in the east; Egypt in the south; and Syria, where the journey north from Egypt intersects the east-west trail from Greece to Persia. So power centers were established in those four places. (It is not coincidence that, more than 2,000 years later, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Greece still dominate the news.)

Jerusalem had the misfortune of lying just off the path from Syria to Egypt, so every time the new Syrian dynasty and the new Egyptian dynasty fought, Jerusalem was part of the battleground. For a while Egypt had the upper hand, and Jerusalem was part of Egypt. Then around 200 BCE, the Syrian ruler Antiochus III “The Great” won Jerusalem and turned it into a Syrian province.

That wouldn’t have been so bad but for the fact that Antiochus III had a son, Antiochus IV. The details are complex — and involve familiar figures like Hannibal — but the upshot is that Antiochus IV was taken into Roman captivity, only to be freed later for another Syrian ruler’s son.

While Antiochus III’s nickname was “The Great,” Antiochus IV was dubbed “The Insane.” And this was not good news at all.

Antiochus IV tried to quash Jewish practice in Jerusalem.

This is the Antiochus against whom the famous Maccabees took up arms.

The Maccabees — led in large part by Judah Maccabee — prevailed. This is the victory we celebrate at Hanukkah.

Because Antiochus IV was from Syria, some people say that the Maccabees fought the Syrians. And because Antiochus IV was part of the Greek dynasty that took over Syria after Alexander the Great’s death, other people say that the Maccabees fought the Greeks. This is why different versions of the Hanukkah story variously refer either to the Syrians or to the Greeks.

So Hanukkah originally commemorated the violent overthrow of violent and unstable Syrian Greek rulers.

Unfortunately, the Maccabees, while able fighters, were less capable rulers. For instance, Simon — one of the five Maccabee brothers — served as high priest of Jerusalem. Then one of his sons, John Hyrcanus I, took over. The reason that Hyrcanus was next, rather than one of Simon’s other two sons, is that Simon’s son-in-law had murdered them, along with Simon himself. And astonishingly, those events were peaceful compared to what would follow.

Later — perhaps because of the dubious optics of a holiday that commemorated overthrowing the government — Hanukkah was recast in terms of the familiar light and darkness, oil and miracles.

But I think those four elements were actually there from the outset. We see from the full story what we already knew: Life is complex and messy. We have periods of light and periods of darkness. The path to the light is often a mundane one that’s based far less in lofty theology and far more in our day-to-day existence.

Oh yes. And, if we look carefully, we find that life is marked by miracles.

Happy Hanukkah.

Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

On Camp Eisner, Seeing the Future, and Combating Bullying

July 19, 2015 2 comments

A trip to Eisner offers a glimpse into a glorious future framed by the perspective of our past. What else can you call it when hundreds of children, teens, and young adults from around the world gather in unpretentious worship to sing ancient words as given new voice with modern melodies?

PullQuoteI arrived for Shabbat morning services, held indoors, this time, in deference to the threatening weather. The predominantly musical morning was punctuated by short interpretations of Torah, each one presented by a group of three campers, and each one addressing the topic of promises.

A theme emerged: the promise not to bully. I happen to know that a sign in the dining room proclaims Eisner a bully-free zone. I didn’t know that campers, as part of a pledge they sign when they arrive, promise not to bully.

It seems that the plague of bullying is a modern one. There’s no ancient Jewish discussion of it. There isn’t even a Hebrew word for “bullying.”

But our sages were well aware of the power of words. Gossip, even based in truth, is likened to a capital offense in Judaism. You’re not allowed to speak ill of people behind their backs.

Equally, our tradition forbids unwarranted hostility, proclaims the absolute value of human dignity, and decries enslavement of any sort. Bullying aggressively boxes people into an ignoble cage of powerlessness. The Rabbis — who insisted that even if no one else is behaving well, you must strive to — would have been revolted. So like new melodies for timeless words, Eisner’s campaign against bullying is a new passion born of timeless values.

Visitors often want to bring home the beauty they find at Eisner. The campers at Eisner have suggested a first step: take an Eisner-like anti-bullying pledge.

The Way of the Land: The Value of Doing Good

May 29, 2015 Leave a comment

There are at least two reasons to do something in Judaism.

The first is because we must. We must welcome the stranger, celebrate the holidays, work for a better world, study Torah, even teach our children to swim, according to the Talmud. Each of these requirements is called a mitzvah (plural, mitzvot), though common usage equates that Hebrew word instead with “good deed.”

The legalistic nature of Judaism gives many of these do’s and do-not’s technical names, and then elaborates their nuances. For instance, speaking ill of someone else — gossip — gets the name lashon hara, and we’re not allowed to do it, whether it’s true or not, and no matter how much fun it might be. But what if you feel you need to warn a friend about something? What if you’re just so frustrated that you need to talk things out? What about earning a living as a political humorist who mocks public figures? Details like these are fleshed out in discussions, commentaries, discussions on commentaries, and (yes) commentaries on the discussions. This is what we mean by “Torah” in the broadest sense.

These mitzvot are parallel to modern laws, which likewise dictate appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

By contrast, the second reason to do something in Judaism is because we can. This category goes by the Hebrew name derech eretz, literally “the way of the land.” And it refers to treating one another with the sorts of decency and propriety that can’t be legislated but are nonetheless desirable.

There’s no Jewish law against whistling mirthfully at a funeral, an addition to the Talmud explains, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. And there’s no Jewish law that requires us to tip a waiter, but that doesn’t mean we should skimp on tips, even though, of course, we’ll get our meal even without purposely paying an extra fifteen or twenty percent for it.

Unlike the American secular approach, though, Jewish derech eretz is on a par with Jewish law. “Derech eretz preceded the Torah,” according to tradition, which is to say, the path to the mitzvot of the Torah is paved with the practice of derech eretz. In America, “there’s no law against it” or “there’s no law making me” are often sound excuses. Not so in Judaism.

Curiously, this same term — “the way of the land” — also means “the way things work,” for better or for worse, as it were. In our hometowns, we are judged by our reputation. But — the Talmud warns — on the road we are judged merely by our clothing. Attire is rarely a reliable indicator of anything substantial, but that’s the way it works. Get used to it. It’s not going to change. Derech eretz.

Reading between the lines, we find a message in the way a single term refers variously to courtesy as well as reality. There’s an unspoken hope that the two concepts merge, that generosity, compassion, and civility become so ingrained in our society that we can’t even imagine things being any other way — a time when going the proverbial extra mile is so common that it’s no longer noteworthy.

Particularly at this season of Shavuot, as we acknowledge anew our acceptance of Torah, let us remember not to be satisfied merely doing the good things that we must. Let us also do the good things that we can.




[Originally published in the Vassar Temple Bulletin, June, 2015.]

Categories: Judaism, spirituality

Hanukkah, Miracles, Light, and Darkness (Or: “In Search of the Perfect Gift”)

December 12, 2014 1 comment

December is practically defined by Hanukkah.

Though technically a “minor” holiday, Hanukkah in America is huge. Kids look forward to getting gifts. Parents plan out the eight nights. Friends and relatives schedule visits. Everyone anticipates the glow of the Hanukkah candles.

Yet December is also marked by darkness — physical darkness, to be sure, and also a kind of mental darkness.

The days are short. The nights are long. In the morning we leave the house in darkness and in darkness we return at night. For many people, that darkness spills over into the realm of the emotional, actually making them less happy. “Seasonal affective disorder,” it’s called, the condition’s acronym (SAD) reflecting the way darkness makes people feel.

As with most things, SAD is a spectrum. Some people creep toward deep depression in the darkness of winter. Others just feel a bit down from time to time. But rare are the people who don’t notice the darkness.

So we have Hanukkah on one hand and winter on the other. The holiday of light and the season of darkness.

Alas, the bridge between the two in America is usually gifts. Things. Presents. Look at the packaging of almost any child’s game, and you’ll see the number one selling point: a photo of a deliriously happy family, bathed in several thousand watts of light that showcase an immaculately clean house in which children of various ages gleefully interact with their two smiling parents.

And there you have it. The only thing standing between you and that family is the right gift. The perfect gift, marketers like to call it. Find it, and your life, too, will morph into the one you see in the photo. The ideal gift doesn’t just banish the darkness. It fixes your life.

So most people spend December in search of that miracle cure. Good gifts abound, but are they good enough? Experience dictates that the perfect gift of advertising fame is elusive. Last year’s gifts didn’t do the trick, after all. So this year’s presents have to be even better.

It doesn’t work, of course.

There is no gift that will transform a life, no matter how much we might wish otherwise.

So I’d like to suggest another bridge, another way of mixing the season of darkness with the holiday of light: actual miracles.

Now, most people don’t believe in them. But then again, we know for sure that there’s no such thing as darkness. Darkness is just the absence of light — which is where we get the old joke about the photographer who opened the darkroom door and let all the darkness leak out. If darkness, which we know doesn’t exist, can have such power over our lives, perhaps miracles can, too.

Hanukkah, in fact, insists on it. The whole point of lighting the Hanukkah lights is to “advertise the miracle” of Hanukkah. This is why tradition prefers that the candles be placed in a window, where passers-by will pass by, see them, and be reminded of miracles.

Perhaps one reason most people reject miracles is that — as with the gifts — they expect too much. A parted sea, perhaps, or an unconsumed burning bush. Or at least a bit of oil that lasts longer than it should.

But I think miracles are more subtle.

So this Hanukkah season, give up on the perfect gift. And instead be on the lookout for a miracle coming your way.

[Originally published in the Vassar Temple bulletin, December 2014.]

Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor Goes On Sale Today

September 2, 2014 1 comment

Ever wonder what happened to Adam and Eve after they left the Garden of Eden? There’s an answer, but it was cut from the Bible.

Curious about how Abraham discovered monotheism? That was cut too.

So was the once-popular Book of Enoch, written before the Book of Daniel and quoted in the New Testament.

Though they fell to the Bible’s cutting room floor, we still have the ancient texts that answer these and similar questions, filling in blanks in our current version of the Bible.

In addition, these fascinating writings from antiquity offer surprisingly modern insight into the nature of our lives as they explore good and evil.

These are the topics of my latest book, The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor: The Holy Scriptures Missing From Your Bible, which goes on sale today.

I hope you enjoy it.

Categories: Bible, religion, spirituality