Sunday, June 26, 2011

Size Doesn't Matter (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:1-4:20, Naso / Numbers 4:21-7:89)

The Text

Bemidbar (Num 1:1-4:20)

The fourth book of the Torah is called Numbers in English, and the first parasha indicates why this name is appropriate. The meat of Bemidbar entails the counting of various segments of the male Jewish population as commanded by G-d. First the adult (age 20+) members of all tribes except for Levi are counted (603,550), then the Levites (22,000 over one month old), and finally all first-born males over one month old not including the Levites (22,273). Two things are accomplished in the parasha. First, the members of various tribes are told where to camp in relation to the Tabernacle. Second, G-d announces the honor that will come to the tribe of Levi.
Bring forth the tribe of Levi, and present it to Aaron the priest, so that [its members] shall serve him. They shall safeguard My trust and the trust of the entire community involving the Communion Tent, performing any necessary service in the Tabernacle. They shall guard all the Communion Tent's furniture, along with [everything else] that the Israelites have entrusted for the Tabernacle's service. Give special instructions to Aaron and his descendants. They are his gift from the Israelites… This is because every first-born became Mine on the day I killed all the first-born in Egypt. I then sanctified to Myself every first-born in Israel, man and beast alike, [and] they shall remain Mine. I am G-d. Num 3:9-13
Naso (Num 4:21-7:89)

Naso begins with additional counting of Levites to be associated with the moving of the Tabernacle. G-d then specifies that the tzaraath should be cast out of the community. This is followed by a discussion of several laws which seem oddly positioned in this chapter. First is the compensating due for sins against fellow man. Next is the punishment for women suspected of committing adultery. (They must appear before the priest and drink special water, and if they are guilty their sex organs will explode and belly will rupture.) Finally, there are the rules for nazirite practice by which one attempts greater purification by avoiding wine, not cutting hair and avoiding the dead. In the middle of this chapter G-d explains to Aaron how he must bless the people. This is the Priestly Blessing (or Blessing of the Kohanim) as we know it:
'May God bless you and keep watch over you.
'May God make His presence enlighten you and grant you grace.
'May God direct His providence toward you and grant you peace'. Num 6:24-26
The parasha concludes with a retelling of the gifts brought by each of the Twelve Tribes on the day the Communion Tent was finished and anointed. Each brought:
One silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver sacrificial basin weighing 70 shekels by the sanctuary standard, both filled with wheat meal kneaded with oil for a grain offering; one incense bowl weighing 10 [shekels] filled with incense; one young bull, one ram and one yearling sheep for a burnt offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for the peace sacrifice, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five yearling sheep.
Meaning

After a couple weeks away on various trips I came back to synagogue on Shabbat Naso. It was a lay-led service, which happens occasionally in our community when our Rabbi either ministers to the other part of the congregation centered in Saint-Germain-en-Laye or has a Bar or Bat Mitzvah that calls him away. The service was competently and enthusiastically led by the daughter of one of the members. Then we got to the part of the service — after the Amidah but before the Aleynu —where, on a lay-led Erev Shabbat, it is the custom for someone to give a drash, a brief explanation and commentary on the week’s Torah portion.

As is usually the case, there was some looking around the room. Shabbat attendees are a pretty participative bunch at Kehilat Gesher and it was a good bet that there would be someone present capable of delivering a relevant statement on the week’s parasha. One of the Friday night regulars, a French woman, started to speak. Hesitantly at first, she started to talk about how she had been struck by the very important and well-known blessing in the parasha that she had come across as she had been reading Torah in preparation for Shavuot. She couldn’t remember the name of the blessing though. We all took up our Chumashim and began looking. I found it: it was the Priestly Blessing. She walked up to the “bima” (the flat table at the front of the small room where we have our services, where the Rabbi usually stands), and explained in her own words — in French — how this blessing was an inspiration to her. She felt it gave rise to a feeling of purity and how she felt closer to G-d simply by reading it. The regular congregants, myself included, were genuinely moved by her statement. A translation was offered to our visitors that evening as these, like most all our guests, spoke no French. They too were appreciative. Having crowd-sourced the weekly drash, our baalah t’filah continued on to the weekly announcements.

I really like my synagogue, and this is one of the reasons. On a night in which a service might have been understandably “off the boil,” ours was full of real meaning and participation. This wouldn’t have happened in my synagogue in the US. Though we were somewhat active members back home, Friday night services never really turned me on. In my experience (and I accept the egregiousness of the following generalization) services I have attended in the US tend to be rather stolid affairs. The congregation participates only timidly. The songs, sometimes unfamiliar to me, seem to be sung almost by rote. There is a mechanical following of the tune, and the noise that is made is generally bereft of passion. Yet in our little room — even on nights when the Rabbi is away and we barely clear a minyan — we sing with a joy and a noise of a Reform congregation ten times the size. When the Rabbi is around and we fill our room, the fifty odd people make shabbat. I had forgotten how much I liked this.

As we enter what is likely our last year (at least in this stint of living aboard) in Paris, we’ve started to naturally think about the things we would miss. At the top of my list is my synagogue. From the Rabbi to the congregants, I feel very much at home in this community. The last time I felt this way I was about thirteen years old. And as I heard my fellow congregant, whose name I really don’t know, talk about her experience, I felt G-d’s countenance shining down on me as well.
Birkat Kohanim by Luba Bar Menachem (paper cut)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Values We Display (Acharey Mot till the end / Leviticus 16:1-27:34)

I'm still catching up. It's coming though. I have made myself a promise to be back up to speed this week.


Text

Acharey Mot (Lev 16:1 - 18:30)

This parasha recounts the atonement Aaron must make for his sons and for the Hebrews as a consequence of the Golden Calf. Speaking through Moses, G-d indicates there is much atonement for Aaron to do not just because of his sons but because his family failed of community. G-d tells us we shall carry on this practice of atonement on the tenth day of the seventh month of every year (Yom Kippur).

There are new commandments about sacrifices and sexual behavior that appear in this portion as well that are specifically designed to prevent another "Golden Calf".

God spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to Aaron, his sons, and the [other] Israelites, telling them that the following is literally what God commanded: If any member of the family of Israel sacrifices an ox, sheep or goat, whether in the camp or outside the camp, and does not bring it to the Communion Tent to be offered as a sacrifice to God before His sanctuary, that person is considered a murderer. That person has committed an act of murder, and he shall be cut off [spiritually] from among his people. The Israelites shall thus take the sacrifices that they are offering in the fields, and bring them to God, to the Communion Tent entrance, [where they are given] to the priest. They can then be offered as peace offerings to God... The Israelites will then stop sacrificing to the demons who [continue to] tempt them. This shall be an eternal law for them for all generations. Lev 17:1-7 
Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan, where I will be bringing you. Do not follow [any] of their customs. Follow My laws and be careful to keep My decrees, [for] I am G-d your L-rd. Keep My decrees and laws, since it is only by keeping them that a person can [truly] live. I am G-d. Lev 18:3-5
The parasha closes which reminders about which sexual behaviors are permissible.

Kedoshim 19:1 - 20:27
G-d spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the entire Israelite community and say to them: You must be holy, since I am God your Lord [and] I am holy. Lev 19:1-3
It is difficult to summarize this portion without simply copying and pasting the long list of commandments — both negative and positive — that appear in this parasha. From keeping the Sabbath to dealing honestly in business to sexual proscriptions, G-d lays out a laundry list of Dos and Don'ts for the Jews including penalties (such as, excommunication, stoning and burning) for their violation.

Emor 21:1-24:23

Emor continues G-d's discourse to Moses on His Commandments to relay to the priests and the people. Chapter 21 lays out (and repeats from earlier in Leviticus) rules for the priests in terms of cleanliness, hygiene, dress and behavior. Priestly standards are elevated by virtue of their position as shepherds of the community and their responsibilities to G-d. Chapter 22 summarizes the requirement that sacrificial animals be unblemished. Chapter 23 specifies the dates of observance and general practices for the holy days of Shabbat, Passover, the days of the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Chapter 24 speaks of the ner tamid, the eternal light, in the tabernacle and the memorial bread to be presented to G-d each Shabbat. The parasha concludes with the rules and penalties surrounding blasphemy and a restatement of the principle that any penalty should fit the crime.

BeHar 25:1-26:2

BeHar starts with the reminder that we are still at the foot of Mount Sinai receiving G-d's laws through Moses. This parasha discusses sabbatical years — every seventh year — in which the Israelites are told to leave the land unsown and unharvested so that it may rest. Every fiftieth year — the year after the seventh sabbatical year — is a jubilee year in which a series of remarkable events take place:
Then, on the 10th day of the seventh month, you shall make a proclamation with the ram's horn. This proclamation with the ram's horn is thus to be made on Yom Kippur. You shall sanctify the fiftieth year, declaring emancipation [of slaves] all over the world. This is your jubilee year, when each man shall return to his hereditary property and to his family. The fiftieth year shall [also] be a jubilee to you insofar as you may not sow, harvest crops growing of their own accord, nor gather grapes from unpruned vines during that [year]. The jubilee shall thus be holy to you. You shall eat the crops from the field that [year]. In the jubilee year, every man shall return to his hereditary property. Thus, when you buy or sell [land] to your neighbor, do not cheat one another. You are buying [only] according to the number of years after the jubilee; [therefore], he is selling it to you for the number of years that [the land] will produce crops [until the next jubilee]. Since he is selling it to you for the number of crops, you must increase the price if it will be for many years, and decrease it if there are few. You will then not be cheating one another. You shall fear your God, since it is I who am God your Lord. Keep My decrees and safeguard My laws. If you keep them, you will live in the land securely. Lev 25:9-18
We are also reminded of our obligations to our fellow men.
When your brother becomes impoverished and loses the ability to support himself in the community, you must come to his aid. Help him survive, whether he is a proselyte or a native [Israelite]... Fear your God, and let your brother live alongside you. Do not make him pay advance interest for your money, and do not give him food for which he will have to pay accrued interest. I am God your Lord who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, [and] to be a God for you. Lev 25:35-38
Bechukotay 26:3 - 27:34

The final parasha of Leviticus wraps up with a marvelous statement of the rewards for obeying G-d's commandments. The statement is poetic and graceful:
If you follow My laws and are careful to keep My commandments, I will provide you with rain at the right time, so that the land will bear its crops and the trees of the field will provide fruit. [You will have so much that] your threshing season will last until your grape harvest, and your grape harvest will last until the time you plant. You will have your fill of food, and [you will] live securely in the land. I will grant peace in the land so that you will sleep without fear.  Lev 26:3-6
For the nonbeliever though, or the person who desecrates or disregards G-d's laws, the penalties are just the opposite of the rewards. Famine and fear will follow. Yet for those who seek to return to G-d there will always be a way back.
But when the time finally comes that their stubborn spirit is humbled, I will forgive their sin. I will remember My covenant with Jacob as well as My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham. I will remember the land. [For] the land will have been left behind by them, and will have enjoyed its sabbaths while it lay in desolation without them. The sin [they had committed] by denigrating My laws and growing tired of My decrees, will [also] have been expiated. Thus, even when they are in their enemies' land, I will not grow so disgusted with them nor so tired of them that I would destroy them and break My covenant with them, since I am God their Lord. I will therefore remember the covenant with their original ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations, so as to be a God to them. I am God. Lev 26:41-45

Had this been the final chapter of Leviticus it would have been a terrific ending, but the parasha concludes with a denouement on monetary endowments and the value of people and animals.


Meaning

Leviticus is a Book of Commandments. There's no stories to tell in these chapters, just the codes of individual  holiness and the prescriptions for the priestly cast as well. In reading this Book (probably the first time since I was a teenager) I have been reminded of our laws and come face to face with questions of my own observance.

I suppose I'm not alone in this reflection. In modern times — and really since the destruction of the Second Temple — one could see why Judaism has split into sectarian movements. It would be odd not to have questions about the applicability of these laws given that we live in a world that is fundamentally different to the days of our forebears. Nevertheless if there is an essentialness to the Jewish existence, it is that certain things aren't negotiable. In not so many words, the question I have been asking myself is which ones are? How observant do I need to be?

As I have mentioned previously, I enjoy the synagogue we have joined here in Paris. One my reasons for this is the Rabbi. Though somewhat short in stature he never fails to have presence in a room. I have had enough conversations with him to recognize he's a real mensch and I feel comfortable asking his advice. We met for lunch at a kosher restaurant right off the Étoile.

We talked about our pasts... how he met a French girl in Rabbinical school and fell in love and moved to Paris... how I grew up in a conservative household that broke apart in a divorce. I confessed the sins of my culinary blasphemy. We spent about two hours talking. It was a very pleasant afternoon.

His answer to my question came about 20 minutes into our conversation. He told me that the choices he makes with respect to his own observance relate not just to the person he wants to be but to the values he wants communicate to others. He will eat at the tables of others regardless of their level of kashrut, though he won't eat meat. This is important to him, to live and be social irrespective of people's observance. In his home though they keep kosher.

This is who he is. These are the values he displays. He knows his daughters occasionally make different choices, but he knows they are also teenagers making their own choices. In his behavior he is showing them — he is teaching through example rather than dogma — his way.

I keep using kashrut as synecdoche for general observance, mainly because I know it is an aspect I've needed to work on, but the truth is that Rabbi Tom's words apply to the whole of G-d's Commandments. In responding to my question he turned it back on me. In effect his words offer a simple rejoinder:

Who do you want to be? What do you want to stand for? What values do *you* want to communicate? 

Here is a Rabbi who has decided to define himself not by how far he is from fulfilling of the Commandments, but how his actions communicate his values, values that are ultimately meant to bring people closer to G-d.

For myself then, I have a new set of questions to answer: those that the Rabbi, in his response, implicitly asks me. What are the values I want to communicate? Sounds like the basis of a new year's worth of SMART goals.

Make-Your-Own-Torah at Sunday Funday

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Spiritual Defect, Physical Effect (Tazria / Leviticus 12:1 - 13:57, Metzora / Leviticus 14:1 - 15:33)

Text

This double parasha touches on two seemingly incongruous subjects. First, briefly, we are told that woman are unclean for a certain amount of time after the birth of their children (the spend more time in an “unclean” state after having girls than having boys). This is tumah. Then, we head straight into tzaraat, which is typically translated as leprosy. The parasha details recognizing blemishes on the skin, whether the individual is clean or not and the ensuring purification process for the diseased. What’s interesting about is that this is not a bacterial skin disease as we have come to know it. As Aryeh Kaplan, author of The Living Torah (my favorite Torah resource) notes:
[R]ather it was a physical symptom of a spiritual defect, occurring primarily in individuals on a high spiritual level, whose body functions were subject to their spiritual state (cf. Yad, Tumath Tzaraath 16:10). text from bible.ort.org
The parasha ends with a discussion of genital discharge (seminal or otherwise — eeew) and menstruation, the length of the period of uncleanliness and the mikveh requirements thereafter.

Meaning

My own further reading led me to interesting articles on ritual (im)purity and tzaraat at Wikipedia trying to understand all this.

When it affects human skin, the visible manifestation of tzaraath, a negah, can be recognized as a skin condition with certain characteristics.
If a person has a [white] blotch, discoloration or spot on the skin of his body, and it [is suspected] of being a mark of the leprous curse on his skin, he shall be brought to Aaron, or to one of his descendants, who are the priests. Lev 13:2
There are a number of other criteria the Kohen is going to check for, including color, the presence of white hairs or healthy skin inside the spot, and the spot’s development over time. Based on the Kohen’s evaluation the person will either be declared clean, unclean (which entails removal from the community), or will be placed into quarantine awaiting further evaluation. There are then ways to become clean following priestly diagnosis. It’s detailed thoroughly in the text.

So… I have a spot on my thumb. It’s probably some sort of small wart according to my wife. And the pictures I have seen on the internet lead me to the same conclusion. (By the way, be careful googling images for skin conditions. It’s really gross.)

According to Jonah ibn Janach, a Spanish physician and Hebrew linguist living in Córdoba at the beginning of the 11th century, this could be negah.

Now, we all know that before the invention of microscopes and the development of modern medicine much of the human body’s tendencies and reactions were not well understood. Nevertheless the idea of tzaraath is clear. This isn't about bacteria. This is a spiritual affliction.

I haven’t gone to see a Kohen about this to receive an official diagnosis. But it’s made me think. According to the Talmud, if my little wart is a negah then I have committed one of seven sins:
  1. lashon ha’ra (malicious gossip)
  2. murder
  3. A vain oath
  4. illicit sexual intercourse
  5. pride
  6. theft
  7. miserly behavior
Numbers 2, 4 and 6 are out. While I’ve significantly reduced numbers 1, 3 and 5 in my life, they are still possibilities. If I interpret miserly behavior as a paucity of tzedakah or tikun olam, then I’m dead to rights. I have not demonstrated either of these behaviors systematically.

I continued to investigate the implications of this conclusion, again assuming my little wart was evidence of tzaraath and not just a little wart. Googling of this nature leads generally to the websites of more observant sects of Judaism. In my case I arrived at the Chabad site. I was instantly reminded of how relatively less observant I was than they are.

This question of observance has become a theme in my life. With the imminent birth of my second child to a non-Jewish wife these things are naturally on my mind. Ultimately there are two things for me to figure out. One is what our faith teaches about people like me. How much trouble am I in if I am not strictly adhering to halachah? I expect this will lead me down the road toward understanding the sectarian breaks in Judaism. The other is where I want to be on this scale. What is the level of practice and observance that I would like to have? Both of these are going to require study.

I am in the process of creating a new year of personal SMART goals. Reaching some sort of perspective — even an intermediate one — on these issues would be a good objective.

Images of tzaraath

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A moment on the lips (Vayikra / Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26, Tsav / Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36, Shemini / Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47)

Still catching up, but almost there...


Text

Vayikra

Vayikra concerns itself entirely with proper preparation of the offerings to G-d. It covers all offerings (meat, fowl and grain) for all situations (normal offerings and sin offerings by priests, leaders and commoners) that could arise. The offerings are to be prepared and made in the recently constructed Communion Tent. It is here too we see that basis of why we salt the challah after the motzi.
Moreover, you must salt every meal offering. Do not leave out the salt of your God's covenant from your meal offerings. [Furthermore,] you must [also] offer salt with your animal sacrifices. Lev 2:13
Tsav

Tsav continues on the subject of offerings (there are sin, guilt and peace offerings), talking about how the priests should deal with them and eat them. Tsav begins to address some elements of kashrut (proper slaughtering, which parts of the animal can be eaten). With aliyah #4 G-d assembles the priests at the entrance of the Communion Tent for their installation and the inauguration of the sacrificial altar. Aaron and the priests are immersed in the mikveh and Moses prepares them with the priestly garments. They are to spend seven days at the Communion Tent. Moses prepares the inaugural sacrifices per G-d’s instruction.

Shemini

On the eighth day the priests leave the Communion Tent and continue its inauguration by preparing the offerings of the people. Aaron suffers the loss of two of his sons following this as they do not follow the specific sacrificial instructions. Shemini also speaks in depth to a key element of kashrut, namely which animals, fish, birds and insects can be eaten.
I am G-d, and I brought you out of Egypt to be your G-d. Therefore, since I am holy, you must [also] remain holy. This then is the law concerning mammals, birds, aquatic creatures and lower forms of terrestrial animals. [With this law, you will be able] to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between edible animals and animals which may not be eaten. Lev 11:45-7
Meaning

These first three parshiot of Vayikra continue the story of the Tabernacle from the Book of Exodus and detail its Grand Opening. We then pass into discussions of ritual purity an impurity. First up are the Laws of Kashrut.

Whenever I start to think about kashrut I struggle with the concept of purpose. What was the point of all this? This isn't about cleanliness, nor ethics, nor environmental friendliness. As Rabbi Ruth H Sohn points out:
Traditional and modern commentators have offered various explanations as to why particular fish, poultry, and animals are considered tahor ("ritually pure") and therefore acceptable to eat. But perhaps more important than the meaning of each of the details of the prohibitions is the simple fact that we are given a list of dos and don'ts that govern what we are to consume daily. According to the Torah, G-d asks that we abstain from eating certain foods [...] simply as an expression of our devotion. As with other chukim (laws that the rabbinic sages define as being without rational explanation), these prohibitions are like the requests of a beloved: we may not understand them, but we are, in essence, asked to follow them purely as an expression of our love. 
The answer is "Because I said so." You just do it. No questions.

I have moved up and down the continuum of kashrut during my life. I remember once, when we lived in Houston, I indicated to my parents that it was unacceptable for me to eat steak that was not kosher. I remember being quite upset about this. Years late in college I recall being on an eternal quest for the perfect cheesesteak and rejoicing in the magnificence of an Italian hoagie, a sandwich that is the absolute apex of treyf-ness.

Today, in Paris, I am trying to swing back to the other side of the scale. There isn't a day that goes by where I don't really think about what I eat. Whether it's milk versus meat, the provenance of the meat itself, or the implications of what my son eats, it's always on my mind. On one hand, I think it's exactly what kashrut forces us as Jews to do: to know and understand and make choices, if, for no other reason, than because I am a Jew. On the other, I know that underlying this is concern is no small amount of hypocrisy. I know that I will not — and let's put a fine point on it — I am choosing not to fully follow our dietary laws. I choose not to follow them in the same fashion that I choose not to be a fully observant Jew praying three times a day.

This is ultimately my struggle. This is the middle ground I seek. I would like to believe that there is a certain "minimum acceptable level" of observance which, once achieved, and in conjunction with consistent efforts to improve and be more Jewish, would work for G-d. I'd like to know that journey is sufficient. Hell I'd like to know that I can eat an Italian hoagie or a shrimp without guilt, remorse or damnation.

For me, kashrut is the battleground where observance and secularism duke it out. This is where my faith and my choices meet. I'm deeply perplexed about the slippery-slope nature of it all. I believe in G-d, yet what does it mean if I don't follow a few dietary laws?

Blessing or curse?


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Right Place, Right Time (Vayakhel & Pekudey / Exodus 35:1 - 40:38)

Still catching up. Due to the way the holidays fall these portions are often combined to ensure that the number of portions read matches the number of sabbaths during the year.

Text

Vayakhel

Moses relates the words of G-d from the end of Ki Tisa, reminding the Israelites to observe the Sabbath and to construct the Tabernacle and its accoutrements according to the precise specifications laid out in Terumah and Tetzaveh. The community gets cracking. Linen, precious stones and all manner of gold, silver and copper are brought forward as the Israelites mobilize. Donations are so generous that there is too much and Moses commands them to stop giving. The parasha details all the work and concludes with a lengthy description presumably of Betzalel’s craftsmanship. The description of the construction only mentions Betzalel’s name once and then continues the use of the pronoun “he”. There’s some question as to whether Betzalel did this by himself, or oversaw the work, or whether Moses was involved.

Pekudey

Two tons of gold. Seven and a half tons of silver. Five tons of copper. 603,550 men over twenty years old in the census. Pekudey literally means accounting. The first part of this parasha accounts for the materials collected in the creation of the Tabernacle as well as the creation of the priestly garments. Work ends on 25 Kislev (later the first day of Chanukah). All the pieces are ready, exactly according to specifications. The Tabernacle is erected on the first of Nissan, almost a year after the Exodus.
The cloud covered the Communion Tent, and God's glory filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not come into the Communion Tent, since the cloud had rested on it, and God's glory filled the Tabernacle. [Later], when the cloud would rise up from the Tabernacle, it [would be a signal] for the Israelites to move on, [and this was true] in all their travels. Whenever the cloud did not rise, they would not move on, [waiting] until the day it did. God's cloud would then remain on the Tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night. This was visible to the entire family of Israel, in all their travels. Ex 40:34-38

Meaning

The Book of Sh'mot ends here (I am still about six parashiot behind) with the creation of the Tabernacle and the investiture of the priests, both physical symbols of the importance of G-d and His Commandments in our daily lives. Just over a year prior to this parasha they were slaves in Egypt. Now things seem to be going their way. It's a pretty good end to the year all things considered.

As March draws to a close I am reminded that it's time for me to evaluate my own year as well. A year ago I created personal SMART goals. I chose April as we were coming up on the end of our first year and I was keen on making the second better than the first. I needed to be more disciplined, to focus on the things that were important to me and to ensure that I would actually do them. One year on it's time for a bit of a reckoning.

I see parallels in the the last several chapters of Exodus and some of the key elements of my goals. The last five or so chapters of Exodus carry a common theme: they talk about creating a place and a time suitable for the worshipping of G-d. The key elements of my personal goals sort of do this as well. Actually, my personal goals were about pursuing all aspects of my life suitably, at the right place and the right time, and approaching them with the right attitude. Here were my goals for the year and how I assess myself against them. (These were "SMART" by the way in the sense that they did have measurable components and they were within my reach.)


Live Happily

  • Calm and engaged with Gabby
  • Having quality time with Alex
  • Remaining connected with friends and family
  • Remaining connected with my MUFC friends and with MUST

Most important among these objectives were reclaiming my life with my family. I am pleased and proud to say I've done this. Just a year ago work was dominating my off-hours as much as work hours. I was impatient and unavailable for my family. Part of the discipline I have achieved at work has made this easier, but at the end of the day this is all about making decisions to do less and enjoy more. The downside to this as I have realized is that I have been less connected with my Manchester United friends and specifically have not really been there to help out with MUST as I promised. While I have a plan to achieve this for next year's goals, I have to give myself a black mark here. Overall I'd rate myself at ACHIEVED, with a bit over for being present with my family, and a bit under for MUST.


Achieve at NPD

  • Understand criteria required to achieve officer status
  • Execute against these criteria
  • Continue in France

Here is where my life has fundamentally changed. I've alluded to it elsewhere in this blog but over the past year I have truly elevated my game. I could go on and on about this, but I won't. I'm really pleased with how things have gone. Overall I'd rate myself ACHIEVED, but with the caveat that I need to translate this into a reality next year.


Re-engage with Judaism


Live it

  • Regularly attend synagogue
  • Have a more Jewish home (be observing shabbat once per month and more kosher eating)

Learn it

  • One book per month
  • Read a d’var for each week’s Torah portion

Teach it

  • Teach Alex about G-d
  • Have books about holidays
  • Bring Alex to synagogue

As I have documented, I've fallen a bit behind in my weekly Torah reading and I really want to push to catch up. The "one-book-a-month" goal was overly ambitious. Nevertheless I have been a regular attendee at my synagogue on Friday nights, which I really enjoy, eating kosher, and teaching my son about Judaism. There's still more to do. Making shabbat with candles and a meal is difficult since by the end of the week he usually falls asleep before services are over and nobody's hungry for dinner at 6pm. But with Sunday Funday and the different holidays he is beginning to understand he's a little different from his Christian friends. Overall I'd rate myself ACHIEVED and significantly more at peace.

Overall it's been a good year, with the only real dark mark being the death of Gabby's dad. But that's a part of life, isn't it. 

So roll on springtime, roll on year 3, and roll on la vie remarquable in Paris.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Catching Up II (Terumah / Exodus 25:1 - 27:19, Tetzaveh / Exodus 27:20 - 30:10, Ki Tisa / Exodus 30:11 - 34:35)

I'm still catching up after a few weeks off. I hope to get back on track by next Shabbat.

Terumah

Text

G-d commands Moses to get the people to give in offering the materials to build His Tabernacle and all that goes within it, including the Ark. The construction details are described in painstaking detail. The menorah that is to be fashioned itself receives eight lines of explanation. The materials to be used are rich: gold, copper silver, fine threads and linen.

Meaning

Nothing is left to chance or artistic interpretation in the construction of the place were G-d will dwell, or of the box that will hold the Laws we will receive. Something this important needs to be done right and with precision. I am initially struck by the detail in all of this. Why does G-d really care when there are so many other things to deal with in creation? Maybe it’s because the construction is a physical manifestation of the lasting richness that following G-d’s laws gives us. Living your life according to these Laws shouldn’t be an afterthought, something hastily slapped together. It requires time and care.

Tetsaveh

Text

If Terumah was detailed in its specification of the tabernacle and it's accoutrements, Tetzaveh does the same  for the priests. Aaron and his sons are given the honor of becoming g-ds priests. In this role they will be finely adorned. They will be consecrated in an elaborate and long ceremony involving multiple sacrifices upon the altar.

Meaning

With all the preparation around the place it only makes sense to prepare those in service as G-ds priests and the people at large. The ceremony, the garb... everything around the investiture of the priests signifies the importance of what they are being asked. They must understand its gravity. Their Garments communicate their stature to the people. Again, no detail is overlooked.  There is at least one element of this ceremony for each of the five senses.

Ki Tisa

Text

After preparing the place in Terumah and the priests in Tetsaveh, G-d turns to the people. G-d orders a census and the collection of a small flat tax to bring to fruition the elaborate plans described in the two previous parashot. Then G-d specifies recipes for holy anointing oil and perfumes. He chooses craftsmen — Betzalzel from the tribe of Judah and Oholiav from Dan — to execute the construction. Everything is ready.

But Moses has been up on Sinai with G-d for a long time and the Israelites have lost hope. They ask Aaron to fashion them some G-ds to which they can pray. A golden calf is made from the people's earrings and jewelry. G-d is really pissed. Only Moses' plea stays some serious divine “I’m-wiping-them-out-and-starting-again-wrath.”
'Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You swore to them by Your very essence, and declared that You would make their descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky, giving their descendants the land You promised, so that they would be able to occupy it forever.' Ex 33:13-19
G-d agrees. Moses comes down from Sinai carrying the two tablets of the Ten Commandments written by G-d’s own finger. He shows his anger with the people by hurling the stone tablets to the ground, breaking them. Moses gathers the true followers of G-d to his side and together they slay the three thousand people who had instigated the calf incident.

G-d is still not pleased though and indicates that He will not Himself be accompanying the Israelites on their journey. He’ll be sending an angel instead. Moses and the people are distraught. Moses again begs G-d for favor.
'Now, if You are indeed pleased with me, allow me to know Your ways, so that I will know how to [remain] pleasing to You. [Also], You must confirm that this nation is Your people.'

'My presence will go and lead you,' replied [G-d].

'If Your presence does not accompany [us], do not make us leave this place. Unless You accompany us, how can it be known that I and Your people are pleasing to You? [But if You do,] I and your people will be distinguished from every nation on the face of the earth.'
G-d said to Moses, 'Since you have been pleasing to Me and I know you by name, I will also fulfill this request of yours.'

'Please let me have a vision of Your Glory,' begged [Moses].

[God] replied, 'I will make all My good pass before you, and reveal the Divine Name in your presence.
Moses heads back up to Sinai for forty days and forty nights, where G-d reveals His Presence with the words we repeat during High Holidays:

יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן--אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת. נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים, נֹשֵׂא עָו‍ֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה; וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה--פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים וְעַל-בְּנֵי בָנִים, עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים

G-d renews his covenant to the Israelites showing compassion, even tenderness after Moses' earnest entreaty. He will come before the people to clear their path of their enemies. They shall be led to a land "flowing with milk and honey". Two new tablets are cut by Moses and rewritten by G-d. G-d reminds Moses that the people must obey his Commandments, to observe the Sabbath and the other festivals of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. Upon Moses' descent from Sinai the people are in awe as his face glows from being in the Divine Presence.

Meaning

For me, the scenes between Moses and G-d at the end of this parasha are as thrilling as the akeida. Moses first stands up to G-d. This is a huge change from the Moses we first met, timid and uncertain. This is Moses the Believer, Moses the Representative, Moses the Leader. Moses is authoritative, compelling. He reminds G-d of the Covenant and, almost like a parent scolding a child, suggests that it would be foolish to deliver the people from Pharaoh only to blot them out in the desert. Moses then asks G-d for something remarkable. He asks to be able to know the Divine Presence. 'Show me Your Glory.' In fact, I don't know what's more remarkable: the fact that Moses has the stones to ask this, or that G-d accepts.

The fact that Moses is able to approach G-d in a manner unlike any other person in our History is awesome. I am struck by the nature of the relationship between G-d and Moses revealed in these chapters and by the implications for my own understanding of and relationship with G-d. Yet despite spending a decent amount of time thinking about this I find myself unable to arrive at some sort of generalization or lesson. I remain in awe of Moses' epiphany. Perhaps that's just it. Perhaps the personal nature of this scene makes it intrinsically something I cannot fully appropriate. Or maybe it's the depth of familiarity and the fact that I find it difficult to imagine I would ever come anywhere close to this closeness that Moses has with G-d. Ultimately these thoughts lead me down the path of comparison: me versus Moses. I'll set aside the fact that I am unlikely to be a historical figure on par with Moses. For me, the question is how far do I need to go? If there is a recurring theme for me since I started doing this, it is this question. How observant do I need to be? How far will I need to go to feel satisfied with the Jewishness of my life?


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Catching Up I (Yitro / Exodus 18:1 - 20:23 and Mishpatim / Exodus 21:1 - 24:18)

Following the death of my father-in-law and the six week rupture this created in our lives I've had trouble getting back into the swing of things with my weekly habit. Having experienced this sort of "feeling behind and not knowing where to start" before, I knew I had to take steps to overcome the imminent paralysis that would arise if I didn't jump-start my writing. I quickly realized that if I were to take my usual approach to the weekly portions—namely to read them, summarize them fairly extensively and then provide a lengthy reflection on their meaning to me—I would never catch up and only feel further and further behind. To solve this I'm taking a different tack. I'm going to read through all the portions, but do so in shorter form. Admittedly this isn't an epic feat of reasoning on my part. Nevertheless the fact that I have promptly recognized the problem and devised an effective solution is one hell of an accomplishment given the procrastination spiral that would have once consumed me.

Yitro ( Exodus / 18:1 - 20:23 )

Text

The Israelites are out of Egypt and Moses meets up with his family: wife Tzipporah, the kids Gershom and Eliezar, and father-in-law Jethro. Jethro is awed by G-d’s power and utters the first blessing of thanks to G-d for the Exodus. He sees Moses struggling with the trappings of his role as leader and judge of all things. He wisely counsels Moses to find trustworthy delegates who can share the burden. Moses follows his advice. The Children of Israel are then told that, having witnessed G-d’s power, then “be My special treasure among all nations, even though all the world is Mine.” (Ex 19:5) The Ten Commandments are given by G-d to the Israelites, with only Moses approaching the spot with G-d reveals Himself.

Meaning

The practicality of the Ten Commandments is a tempting topic, but the lesson that truly resonates for me comes from Jethro’s advice. Shouldering too many burdens—either at work or at home—can be debilitating. What I find interesting is that it is easy to identify this problem and to know that its solution lies in finding qualified agents. The harder part though is giving up the burden. We believe that no one can do the job as good as we can, or we feel that the loss of involvement will translate into a loss of command over the problem. Good management solves this, as I am finding out each and every day. The ability to effectively delegate is a hugely rewarding thing. It multiplies your power and effectiveness and frees you to do the things you really want to do.

Mishpatim ( Exodus / 21:1 - 24:18)

Text

G-d continues explaining the laws that the people should follow. They cover everything from crime to servitude to business practices to dealing with one’s fellow man. There are a number that stand out.

  • Full compensation must be paid for the loss of an eye, a tooth, a hand or a foot. (This is the “eye for an eye” line, which the rabbis suggest should be taken figuratively—in terms of compensation—and not literally.) Ex 21:24
  • Do not curse the judges. Do not curse a leader of your people. Ex 22:27
  • Do not follow the majority to do evil. Ex 23:2
  • Do not oppress a foreigner. You know how it feels to be a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Ex 23:9

The parasha ends with Moses ascending Sinai, where he will soon receive the two stone tablets upon which G-d has written the Ten Commandments.

Meaning

The additional commandments that strike me from this chapter are those relating to the politics of our times. Many of the laws laid out in Mishpatim are aspects of our social contract. We are enjoined by G-d to be decent to one another. We are told to respect our leaders and judges who, if they are acting as instructed, should be acting in the best interests of the people. We are proscribed from harming foreigners, for we were once foreigners in Egypt. And perhaps my favorite: we must not follow the mob if its pursuit is to do evil. We must stand up for what is right, denounce what is wrong, and do so even if it is an unpopular opinion. How different the world would be if these commandments were heeded.
Moses Receiving the Ten Commandments by Marc Chagall, 1960-1966