Friday, October 27, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Noach (Busserfest!)

I think I am going to keep the Tree of Knowledge Poll (see last week'’s post) open for a little while longer

The divrei torah in the foreseeable future will probably be shorter, unless I go on a rant or a tangent (which is likely).

In honor of Parashat Noach and the first anniversary of the first-ever coed busserfest I present: Evils of Vegetarianism

HereÂ’s my theory, sort of in jest. When humanity was created they were told they could eat only fruits and vegetables. The animals were only there for them to care for. People quickly became evil. Finally God decided to destroy them. After hanging out with smelly animals on an enclosed ark for an entire year, the first thing God told Noah and sons is that they can eat meat. Lack of meat is a cause of pent up evil. Only by eating meat can humanity get rid of their primal evil (or should I say primeval? No. No, I shouldn'’t).

DonÂ’t think Judaism is unique with its story of the destruction of humanity through a deluge. Most ancient cultures have their own flood stories, most famously the Epic of Gilgamesh told by the ancient Mesopotamians. I wonder if Iraqis still name their children Inkidu... or Utnapishtin… Well, I donÂ’t know of any Jews that name their kids Maher-Shalal-Chash-Baz (Isaiah'’s son, "“Swift booty, speedy prey"”). Um, anyway, I suggest you check out the other flood legends

Noah was righteous for his generation, but then again every other person in his generation was so wicked and depraved that God decided to destroy the world. He wouldnÂ’t hold a candle to Abraham or anyone else. Noah blindly followed God'’s commands without an argument. Noah, although the progenitor of all of humanity (due to the fact that he and his family were the only ones left) could not have been the first Jew. Abraham and Jacob (and to some extent Isaac) showed that they were able to argue with God. I will probably discuss this in two weeks time when I write the Dvar Torah on Parashat Vayera I will be delivering at my synagogue. Israel is not about submission. We have realized throughout history that we need to argue with injustice and not allow tyranny to bring us down. Abraham and Jacob struggle with God and end up with victories, Abraham'’s is verbal, JacobÂ’s is physical. But Noah does not challenge God's injustice. Instead he lives with it. After the rainbow promise and the Seven Noahide Laws are enacted, Noah discovers wine and suddenly becomes exceedingly drunk. This is righteous in his generation? Maybe the reason Jews hate pork so much, Noah'’s son Ham does something to Noah, anything from looking at him in his inebriation to taking too large a gratuity from a circumcision (gratuity: syn: tip. He Bobbitized his father, Okay?! (I'm not including a hyperlink for this one, if you don't understand, you're gonna have to look this one yourself)).

The Tower of Babel is interesting because it is an attempt by humanity to be closer to God. We as Jews try to emulate God all the time, such as in medicine (you shall be healers because I the Lord, your Healer) and in holiness ("“You shall be holy because I the Lord am Holy"”). Why then did God come down on the people of Babylon? My feeling is that they were seeking a physical God. Are the heavens directly above us or do they transcend the world as we know it? Since we discovered flight (and perhaps hot-air balloons count here) we have gone through the clouds. We don'’t run down winged angels playing harps; the plane gets a little wet and there'’s the inconvenience of turbulence. God was pissed at the people for thinking that He was like them, that they would be able to comprehend Him. The reason I use the pronouns He and Him are for lack of a better term. I too cannot comprehend God. Through the eating from the Tree of Knowledge last week (read last week, occurred many millennia ago) we gained the ability to know certain things without actually knowing them, such as the existence of a Creator. This is why we can "believe with perfect faith" certain things. We are able to rely on empirical evidence and blind faith. Nimrod and the residents of Babylon needed to know for sure. This is why they could not continue on their crusade of truth.

Friday, October 20, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Bereishit/Shabbat Machar Chodesh

I have before mentioned certain scribal oddities that assist in finding specific places in the Torah. I would say that this Torah Portion, Bereishit (also known as Genesis) is one of the easier ones to find. This is on account of the large ב that begins it. Oh yeah, and it also happens to be the very first thing in the Torah. I think this qualifies it as the easiest thing to find in a Torah scroll. Finally, a south paw like me can easily do hagbah on the Torah.

Why does the Torah begin here? According to many of our sages it should have began with the mitzvah (told to us during the preparations for the Exodus) to mark Nisan as the first of months, a formative event in Jewish history. Instead, we start with THE formative event in universal history (in more ways than one): the Creation of the World and the Inception of Time.

We start in the beginning; the very beginning.
If you were Adam or Eve and you had the choice of whether or not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil), what would you do? Before you decide, consider the possible ramifications of both.

EATING FROM IT: Death, illness, painful childbirth, labor, knowledge accumulation, uncertainty, insecurity

NOT EATING: Paradise, Immortality, innocence, obliviousness, God providing everything, security, repetitiveness

I realize that people rarely if ever post comments, but I ask for a response on this one to vote for whether or not you would vote. A simple online poll. If you would also be willing, tell me why you voted for your choice in the comments section of this blog entry.

If you were Adam or Eve and had the choice to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, would you eat from it?
Yes (Eat)
No (Don't eat)

Okay, it also happens to be Machar Chodesh, my Bar Mitzvah Haftarah (which occurs when Rosh Chodesh falls on a Sunday (except for a few certain months)). It speaks of the greatest friendship of all time, Jonathan and David. Jonathan, Crown Prince of Israel, and David, the shepherd who was already anointed to succeed King Saul (who was told he’d lose the throne in Chapter 15) were still best friends (even though they logically should have been competing for the succession) and were willing to die for one another. What do you think about this?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Grammy, 15 years later

Today, the 27th day of the month of Tishri marks the 15th Yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of my grandmother, Evelyn Rutta ז"ל. I was fortunate to have eight years of my life with her and therefore have more than just videotapes to remember her by; I have a pretty lucid memory. I don’t know so much about her past, and do not recall whether she was born in Poland or here, but she was always an enigma. She was a tough lady, but she was was the coolest grandmother. I can remember early in my life when she rode a motorcycle (followed later by an ugly turquoise Chevy, If memory serves me). She also was a great cook. She not only baked, as my Zayde did, but she was an excellent cook. I got to spend a lot of time with her, according to my memory anyway, as my parents dropped me off at her apartment quite often. I knew all her neighbors and a captioned picture frame which contains my photograph in it says it all in two words “Grammy’s Nachas”.

Her vice was that she was a smoker (like my Zayde z”l and my Aunt Susan z”l). Even at that young age I was critical of her smoking. After what I assume was her first stroke in either 1989 or 1990, I told her that she needed to stop smoking, which she finally did. (I even drew a No Smoking sign which she displayed prominently on her wall.) However, smoking caused her death at an early age, just like it did to my Zayde and my Aunt. My lessons learned from this are that although you can have thrilling fun in your life (ie: the motorcycle), I decided then and there that I would never smoke. I never have and, God help me, I never will.

How appropriate that when she died at 2 AM on October 5, 1991, a Shabbat Morning, the Torah portion was Bereishit, the first of the Torah? Her name was Chaye Bat Chayim (spelled חיי בת חיים according to the plaque at my synagogue.), “Life, daughter of Life”. My brother, Josh, whose Hebrew name happens to be חיים (Chayim, “Life”), named after my Grammy’s father, had this as his Bar Mitzvah portion 7 years later. One of the prominent characters of this very first Torah portion is Chava (חוה) (Eve), which also is a feminine form of “Life” as she was “the mother of all life”. Though her mortality was struck in this parasha, she is recorded in the annals of time and history. My Grammy, whether through her numerous recipes still used by people on all sides of my family, or through her quitting smoking cold-turkey after having been addicted to cigarettes her entire life (and therefore, by extension, giving the lesson that if you put your mind to something, you can accomplish anything), or through her Yiddishkeit and the love of Judaism she passed on to me and to all around her, her legacy will endure forever.

אנא תהי נפשה צרורה בצרור החיים, את זקנתי מורתי חיי בת חיים, שהלכה לעולמה, בגן עדן תהי מנוחתה, ונאמר אמן

Monday, October 16, 2006

Dances With Torahs

Note: I pre-dated this article (though I submit it on Wednesday, October 18th) because it was conceived during the holiday and was begun a few hours following the conclusion of the holiday. I just haven’t found the time to complete the relatively (for me) short entry.

At the conclusion of Simchat Torah we come to the great climax of a very long time of counting that I would say began at Rosh Chodesh Adar (from that point we look up to Purim, where we begin studying for Passover, which we count to Shavuot, which leads to the 17th of Tammuz (Revelation to Golden Calf), which, in the Three Weeks leads to Tisha B’Av. Seven Weeks of Comfort lead to Rosh Hashannah, Ten Days of Repentance to Yom Kippur, the first thing that we do at its conclusion is begin to build the Sukkah for Sukkot, which is followed immediately to Shemini Atzeret AND/OR Simchat Torah. In fact, the entire Torah reading for that year is a Torah cycle which begins, ends, and begins again on Simchat Torah)
Anyone like the graphic I created with MSPaint? Anyone actually read these ALT tags anymore? Not since HampsterDance (sic)...
During Simchat Torah I went to both VBS and to the Encino Chabad. It was not nearly as fun as New York, of course, but it still felt like Simchat Torah Lite. It was clearer, more than any other day, that I miss New York and all my friends there. There is nothing like all-night Shul-Hopping and the wild accompanying parties.

An interesting thing I noticed. In New York we did hakafot with the Torahs in the center, us dancing around the Torah. At Chabad they had the Torahs within the counterclockwise procession and at the center was the alcohol, a gigantic bottle of whiskey (with a mechanism for pouring) and a gigantic bottle of vodka (with a pump). I wonder if there is anything in this.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

DVAR TORAH: V'Zot Habracha (God Kills Mosesdore!)

SPOILER ALERT: Unless you want to hear about an old centigenarian bearded man dying, his soul taken from him unsuccessfully by hated servant and then finally by the man himself. I am of course talking about the death of Moses (for now...)

I figure, it’s the only Torah portion that doesn’t have its own Shabbat (except sometimes in Israel, and even then it’s completely distracted by other circumstances) and therefore nobody gives it the time of day for Torah study. The JTS Torah Commentaries have 15 Divrei torah for some of these Torah portions. For the beautiful parasha of V’Zot Habracha, there are none. Apparently everyone is too drunk to care about the final parasha in the Torah. Maybe because it, like Harry Potter, contains the death of a character who has been so vital to the storyline as well as the most powerful, heroic, and legendary of any who have ever lived. But this is not a story about Dumbledore, this is about Moses. I desire maccaroni pictures! No carrot cake for the impurity!Moses gives a blessing to each (except Simeon, I think, I don’t have it in front of me) tribe (and can you call all of them blessings?) before he dies. I don’t want to talk about the blessing. I want to talk about the midrash surrounding the Death of Moses. It is some of the most entertaining three stooges-style action I have ever read, this being Moe (Moses), Curly (Samael, because I imagine the Angel of Death as bald for the purposes of this) and Larry (God’s REAL Name… I’m kidding) (This from “The Legends of the Jews” by Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, a fuller account of this can be found at Sacred-Texts) (it's quite a read, but I think its worth it)

When God perceived that Moses was prepared to die, He said to the angel Gabriel, "Go, fetch Me Moses' soul." But he replied, "How should I presume to approach and take the soul of him that outweighs sixty myriads of mortals!" God then commissioned the angel Michael to fetch Moses' soul, but he amid tears refused on the same grounds as Gabriel. God then said to the angel Zagzagel, "Fetch Me Moses' soul!" He replied, "Lord of the world! I was his teacher and he my disciple, how then should I take his soul!" Then Samael appeared before God and said: "Lord of the world! Is Moses, Israel's teacher, indeed greater than Adam whom thou didst create in Thine image and Thy likeness? Is Moses greater, perchance, than Thy friend Abraham, who to glorify Thy name cast himself into the fiery furnace? Is Moses greater, perchance, than Isaac, who permitted himself to be bound upon the altar as a sacrifice to Thee? Or is he greater than Thy firstborn Jacob, or than his twelve sons, Thy saplings? Not one of them escaped me, give me therefore permission to fetch Moses' soul." God replied: "Not one of all these equals him. How, too, wouldst thou take his soul? From his face? How couldst thou approach his face that had looked upon My Face! From his hands? Those hands received the Torah, how then shouldst thou be able to approach them! From his feet? His feet touched My clouds, how then shouldst thou be able to approach them! Nay, thou canst not approach him at all." But Samael said, "However it be, I pray Thee, permit me to fetch his soul! " God said, "Thou had My consent."
Samael now went forth from God in great glee, took his sword, girded himself with cruelty, wrapped himself in wrath, and in a great rage betook himself to Moses. When Samael perceived Moses, he was occupied in writing the Ineffable Name. Dart of fire shot from his mouth, the radiance of his face and of his eyes shone like the sun, so that he seemed like an angel of the hosts of the Lord, and Samael in fear and trembling thought, "It was true when the other angels declared that they could not seize Moses' soul!"
Moses who had known that Samael would come, even before his arrival, now lifted his eyes and looked upon Samael, whereupon Samael's eyes grew dim before the radiance of Moses' countenance. He fell upon his face, and was seized with the woes of a woman giving birth, so that in his terror he could not open his mouth. Moses therefore addressed him, saying: "Samael, Samael! 'There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked!' Why dost thou stand before me? Get thee hence at once, or I shall cut off thy head." In fear and trembling Samael replied: "Why art thou angry with me, my master, give me thy soul, for thy time to depart from the world is at hand." Moses: "Who sent thee to me?" Samael: "He that created the world and the souls." Moses: "I will not give thee my soul." Samael: "All souls since the creation of the world were delivered into my hands." Moses: "I am greater than all others that came into the world, I have had a greater communion with the spirit of God than thee and thou together." Samael: "Wherein lies thy preeminence?" Moses: "Dost thou not know that I am the son of Amram, that came circumcised out of my mother's womb, that at the age of three days not only walked, but even talked with my parents, that took no milk from my mother until she received her pay from Pharaoh's daughter? When I was three months old, my wisdom was so great that I made prophecies and said, 'I shall hereafter from God's right hand receive the Torah.' At the age of six months I entered Pharaoh's palace and took off the crown from his head. When I was eighty years old, I brought the ten plagues upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians, slew their guardian angel, and led the sixty myriads of Israel out of Egypt. I then clove the sea into twelve parts, led Israel through the midst of them, and drowned the Egyptians in the same, and it was not thou that took their souls, but I. It was I, too, that turned the bitter water into sweet, that mounted into heaven, and there spoke face to face with God! I hewed out two tables of stone, upon which God at my request wrote the Torah. One hundred and twenty days and as many nights did I dwell in heaven, where I dwelled under the Throne of Glory; like an angel during all this time I ate no bread and drank no water. I conquered the inhabitants of heaven, made known there secrets to mankind, received the Torah from God's right hand, and at His command wrote six hundred and thirteen commandments, which I then taught to Israel. I furthermore waged war against the heroes of Sihon and Og, that had been created before the flood and were so tall that the waters of the flood did not even reach their ankles. In battle with them I bade sun and moon to stand still, and with my staff slew the two heroes. Where, perchance, is there in the world a mortal who could do all this? How darest thou, wicked one, presume to wish to seize my pure soul that was given me in holiness and purity by the Lord of holiness and purity? Thou hast no power to sit where I sit, or to stand where I stand. Get thee hence, I will not give thee my soul."
Samael now in terror returned to God and reported Moses' words to Him. God's wrath against Samael was now kindled, and He said to him: "Go, fetch Me Moses soul, for if thou dost not do so, I shall discharge thee from thine office of taking men's souls, and shall invest another with it." Samael implored God, saying: "O Lord of the world, whose deed are terrible, bid me go to Gehenna and there turn uppermost to undermost, and undermost to uppermost, and I shall at once do so without a moment's hesitation, but I cannot appear before Moses." God: "Why not, pray?" Samael: "I cannot do it because he is like the princes in thy great chariot. Lightning-flashes and fiery darts issue from his mouth when he speaks with me, just as it is with the Seraphim when they laud, praise and glorify Thee. I pray Thee, therefore, send me not to him, for I cannot appear before him." But God in wrath said to Samael: "Go, fetch Me Moses' soul," and while he set about to execute God's command, the Lord furthermore said: "Wicked one! Out of the fire of Hell was thou created, and to the fire of Hell shalt thou eventually return. First in great joy didst thou set out to kill Moses, but when thou didst perceive his grandeur and his greatness, thou didst say, 'I cannot undertake anything against him.' It is clear and manifest before Me that thou wilt now return from him a second time in shame and humiliation."
Samael now drew his sword out of its sheath and in a towering fury betook himself to Moses, saying, "Either I shall kill him or he shall kill me." When Moses perceived him he arose in anger, and with his staff in his hand, upon which was engraved the Ineffable Name, set about to drive Samael away. Samael fled in fear, but Moses pursued him, and when he reached him, he struck him with his staff, blinded him with the radiance of his face, and then let him run on, covered with shame and confusion. He was not far from killing him, but a voice resounded from heaven and said, "Let him live, Moses, for the world is in need of him," so Moses had to content himself with Samael's chastisement.
In the meanwhile Moses' time was at an end. A voice from heaven resounded, saying: "Why, Moses, dost thou strive in vain? Thy last second is at hand." Moses instantly stood up for prayer, and said: "Lord of the world! Be mindful of the day on which Thou didst reveal Thyself to me in the bush of thorns, and be mindful also of the day when I ascended into heaven and during forty days partook of neither food nor drink. Thou, Gracious and Merciful, deliver me not into the hand of Samael." God replied: "I have heard thy prayer. I Myself shall attend to thee and bury thee." Moses now sanctified himself as do the Seraphim that surround the Divine Majesty, whereupon God from the highest heavens revealed Himself to receive Moses' soul. When Moses beheld the Holy One, blessed he His Name, he fell upon his face and said: "Lord of the world! In love didst Thou create the world, and in love Thou guidest it. Treat me also with love, and deliver me not into the hands of the Angel of Death." A heavenly voice sounded and said: "Moses, be not afraid. 'Thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.'"
With God descended from heaven three angels, Michael, Gabriel, and Zagzagel. Gabriel arranged Moses' couch, Michael spread upon it a purple garment, and Zagzagel laid down a woolen pillow. God stationed Himself over Moses' head, Michael to his right, Gabriel to his left, and Zagzagel at his feet, whereupon God addressed Moses: "Cross thy feet," and Moses did so. He then said, "Fold thy hands and lay them upon thy breast," and Moses did so. Then God said, "Close thine eyes," and Moses did so. Then God spake to Moses' soul: "My daughter, one hundred and twenty years had I decreed that thou shouldst dwell in this righteous man's body, but hesitate not now to leave it, for thy time is run." The soul replied: "I know that Thou art the God of spirits and of souls, and that in Thy hand are the souls of the living and of the dead. Thou didst create me and put me into the body of this righteous man. Is there anywhere in the world a body so pure and holy as this it? Never a fly rested upon it, never did leprosy show itself upon it. Therefore do I love it, and do not wish to leave it." God replied: "Hesitate not, my daughter! Thine end hath come. I Myself shall take thee to the highest heavens and let thee dwell under the Throne of My Glory, like the Seraphim, Ofannim, Cherubim, and other angels." But the soul replied: "Lord of the world! I desire to remain with this righteous man; for whereas the two angels Azza and Azazel when they descended from heaven to earth, corrupted their way of life and loved the daughters of the earth, so that in punishment Thou didst suspend them between heaven and earth, the son of Amram, a creature of flesh and blood, from the day upon which Thou didst reveal Thyself from the bush of thorns, has lived apart from his wife. Let me therefore remain where I am." When Moses saw that his soul refused to leave him, he said to her: "Is this because the Angel of Death wished to show his power over thee?" The soul replied: "Nay, God doth not wish to deliver me into the hands of death." Moses: "Wilt thou, perchance, weep when the others will weep at my departure?" The soul: "The Lord 'hath delivered mine eyes from tears.'" Moses: "Wilt thou, perchance, go into Hell when I am dead?" The soul: "I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living." When Moses heard these words, he permitted his soul to leave him, saying to her: "Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee." God thereupon took Moses' soul by kissing him upon the mouth.
Moses activity did not, however, cease with his death, for in heaven he is one of the servants of the Lord. God buried Moses' body in a spot that remained unknown even to Moses himself. Only this is know concerning it, that a subterranean passage connects it with the graves of the Patriarchs. Although Moses' body lies dead in its grave, it is still as fresh as when he was alive.

I don’t want to delve into it, it discusses it pretty fully, but could you imagine the visual of Moses beating the Angel of Death with his walking stick to within an inch of his life? Go Moshe!

The death of Moses is actually quite strange in the Torah. After Moses died, the Torah continues to talk about him. Is Moses delivering his own eulogy? Pre- or Post-Mortem? You decide.

Shabbat Shalom and Gut Yontif!

Matt son of Honi the Circlemaker (משה בן חוני המעגל)?

Many of my prayers to-date remain unanswered, but there is one that God and I are simpatico. I was sitting in the Jacuzzi (whose heat, I realized – too late – had been recently turned off). Whatever, it is a relatively cool day, probably in the mid 70s so the spa, slightly warmer at around 78F would be relatively warmer, especially if I turned on the jets. As I wait for the jets to heat the Jacuzzi, I start to hum the plaintive chant that is “Geshem”, the melody that introduces the hopefully-rainy season, recited once a year (tomorrow) on Shemini Atzeret. Naturally the focus on my mind is interesting Jewish liturgical pieces and because of its proximity, I start humming it. I’m sort of superstitious that I shouldn’t recite the word “Geshem” before Shemini Atzeret when I am “practicing” for the very reason that follows. As soon as I begin to chant, the cloudless sky sends forth rain. This is just for a hum. I A couple of years ago while I was actually doing the Geshem prayer at Koach, and it starts to pour outside. The dramatic effect of thunder and lightning as I’m singing the “Yi-i-i-i-i-i-i-it-ga-da-al” is amazing. The only thing that would have made it cooler would have been a quartet with a violin, a fiddle, a viola, and a bass. Perhaps a clarinet too. How about an entire orchestra, minus the drums (God has that covered with the thunderclaps). Another example is when I was leading four years ago in February on the Shabbat of Presidents’ Day Weekend. Though this was not Shmini Atzeret, we do say “Mashiv Haruach U’Morid HaGashem” as part of every Amidah during the Winter (Winter being one of the two seasons in the Mediterranean climate). Suddenly the great blizzard started which snowballed (ha!) into one of the biggest in NYC history (surpassed by the one I missed this past year). I may be a descendant of Honi the Circlemaker. Now maybe God can answer some of my other prayers...

Friday, October 13, 2006

The great ho, Shana?

Which hand was I supposed to hold these in again?
No, I'm not talking about a ho named Shana, no matter how great you may think she is. Idiot. It's the Great Hoshana, It's Hoshana Rabbah!

Now that we've cleared that up, these next three days have the strangest rituals Judaism has to offer. I have always imagined a Gentile stepping in to one of the services we celebrate this week. This past week they would have seen us shaking and walking in procession with long sticks and fruits and yelling things like "Save us! Three hours! Save us!". In addition to multiplying that by seven today, we also beat the crap out of defenseless twigs while one of us wears a white robe and switches melodies on us. Are we Jewish or Druish? Is this some sort of Friday the Thirteenth ritual, perhaps a way of conquering friggatriskaidekaphobia? Afterwards our hands are covered in green. wanna dance with this guy?There are chairs at my high school that to this day are covered in green stains, never to be lifted. Tomorrow's no better. Once again the leader is clad in a white death-robe (or in some communities, a poncho, trenchcoat, or raincoat) and praying for rain in a plaintive melody. In the communities that wear the waterproof prayer-gear, we throw water at the prayer leader (anyone at Koach's services at the Columbia/Barnard Hillel last year should remember this). Finally we dance with heavy Torahs while impaired and inebriated and singing prayers to the Star-Spangled Banner and college fight songs while simultaneuously taking shots of hard alcohol (careful not to drop the Torah) and reading the last parts of the Torah again and again making sure each and every person present gets a shot to go up to the Torah.

It seems to be a nine day rain dance we do, some days in different forms than others. The Torah is equated to water and both are treasured above all else during these days.

Hoshanah Rabbah, Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah; those crazy Jews. A point of advice, if you are going to invite a non-Jewish friend to Jewish services, don't make it these three days. I made the mistake of inviting some friends for the Purim Megillah Reading and didn't explain it to them in advance. Awkward... Those crazy Jews...

Monday, October 09, 2006

"Dem Bums"

I have honestly always lowered my expectations when it comes to the Dodgers, particularly during the rare occasion they are in the Playoffs. Doing so lessens the constant disappointment with which I should be faced from March to September (and sometimes the first week October). The Dodgers have only won one post-season game since they won it all in 1988. There's always next year... for further Dodger disappointment (chas v'shalom).

In other news, I decided there is nothing better than having a hot glass of turkish coffee before davening on Yom Tov while sitting in a sukkah and reading the Sunday newspaper and/or the Mishnah Torah. Yep.

Moadim L'Simcha (Chagim U'Zmanim L'Sason)
[Et Yo-oh-oh-ohm Chag HaSukkot Ha-ze-eh...]

Zochreinu Hashem Elokeynu Bo LeTova (amen!)
U'fokdeynu bo livracha (amen!)
V'hoshiey-ey-ey-nu bo lecha-yi-im (ah-meh-en!)

I would go through all of Musaf, but it is more fun to respond this way in person.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

A Mishebeyrach for the Dodgers

This is incomplete and poorly written, I need to shower, and the Dodgers are 0-2 in a 3-of-5 game series so this is going to take a prayer and a miracle. Here’s the prayer.

He who blessed Gibby in ’88, may he bless those who are vested in the blue and white, Thy glorious colors. They that dwell in a city which invokes Your heavenly host, the City of Angels, look to Thee in supplication to grant victory to their battles against the enemy on the other side of the Great [Mississippi] River. May the Holy One grant salvation to the Los Angeles Dodgers, partularly reinforce their endgame and protect them from choking, as it is written, “In the Big Inning” (Genesis 1:1). He who has compassion on bride and bridegroom, as it is written “voices of happiness, voices of joy, voice of the bridegroom, voice of the bride”, may God be compassionate to those known as the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. May their bride be the victory of the world [series]. Crown their efforts with victory and may they persevere over "the dead ones" (Mets).

v’NOMAR Amen!

Friday, October 06, 2006


Sukkot is the ultimate Festival. One of its names given in the Jewish tradition is "החג" “The Festival”. A trivia question on previously my favorite game show, “Win Ben Stein’s Money” was something to the effect of “What is the Jewish Thanksgiving?” The answer, which I somehow was not able to identify, reasoning that every single festival involves some sort of “thanksgiving”. The answer was “Sukkot”. It is a holiday for which we give thanksgiving to the gifts we are given in nature. For seven days we brave the elements and spend more time eating outdoors than we might cumulatively during a summer. LA has a Mediterranean climate but if you’re in New York (which many of my readers are), then you have cold and rain to deal with. And yet, we desire not the rain, cold, or wind which are so necessary for agrarian societies, that which we are celebrating on this holiday. That is, until the conclusion of the festival when we begin to pray for rain. For now, we want mild weather to be able to dwell in our Sukkot in relative serenity.

There were some very unique Temple rituals that took place during sukkot. The dwelling in booths is quite unique for this holiday, as is the strange ritual with the lulav and etrog, possibly a knockoff of an ancient pagan fertility ritual (hint: they allegedly used to use a second etrog).

We read in the first mishna of chapter 8 of Sukkah,
"כל מי שלא ראה שמחת בית השואבה, לא ראה שמחה מימיו".
If one did not witness the Simchat Beit HaShoeva ceremony, they have never experienced true joy in their lives. This ceremony of the water libations of Sukkot was jam-packed with joyous celebrations. People sang, people danced, people juggled fiery torches. Fun was had by all. We are unable to describe the feelings experienced by the attendees of this event and we desire its reinstitution. Think Carlebach Shul on Simchat Torah but more fun and more fire. The residents of Mathilde Schechter Residence Hall a few years back did one of their own non-sanctioned Simchat Beit Hashoevah ceremonies, one which involved placing cups of water on top of the elevator door causing the water to libate on victims heads. I later read a Rambam that non-priests were not allowed to perform a Simchat Beit HaShoevah under penalty of death. Oops.

The other ritual I want to focus on is the interesting number of animals slaughtered on Sukkot. Bulls are the animals of choice on this festival. On the first day of sukkot there were offered, in addition to the normal stuff and the extra libations, 13 bulls. On the second day, 12, and decreasing by one daily until the seventh day there were 7 bulls offered. The total amount of bulls offered during the festival of Sukkot is 70. Seventy is one of those key numbers in Judaism. It is the number of elders in the Torah. Here it corresponds to the 70 “Nations” of the world (descended from 70 non-Jewish families in the Torah). These bulls are meant to atone for the sins of all the other nations. The Jews are the “Light unto the Nations” and have always seeked the welfare of Jew and non-Jew alike. But there was an Eighth Day of Assembly for God to celebrate just with His people, and one final bull was sacrificed for the nation of Israel. 71 Bulls in total; the Sanhedrin was composed of one more person than the elders of Moses’ time. 71 members, one of whom was the nasi, the leader. The Jewish people are the nesiim of the world and have a role in being guides, the aforementioned “Light Unto the Nations”

Go out and be that light unto the nations

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim L’Simcha!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Teshuva Hotline and Birthright message

Stephen Colbert - Days of Repentance Hotline

Too funny and [in]appropriate for me to pass up. I needed to post this.

Happy Rosh Hashanah from birthright
"I wish Yom Kippur was gonna be this fun..." "YEAH!!!"

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Yom Kippur: A requiem

This post will be full of relatively quick bullet points

-There is nothing that tastes better than that first sip of water after 26 hours of fasting. I could go longer, but who wants to?

-I feel like Ariel in "The Little Mermaid", my voice was not present when I needed it. Shacharit went pretty well except for the fact that I couldn't shout, even though I was as virtuoso as usual. I masked this fact by singing quieter and in lower, more subdued ending notes, with the pretense that Yom Kippur is "darker" and more severe than Rosh Hashannah in attitude (For example, Yaaleh V'Yavo, which I do in major on Rosh Hashannah, I did in minor today).

-All-in-all it went pretty well, though I did screw up at one point when I wasn't looking in my Machzor and skipped a line in Tzur Yisrael of all places (I scrambled to fix the mistake)

-Further with the voice thing, the Ritual Director, Yossi, had me do the Chassidic Kaddish once again at his Neilah. Let me first explain that there are thousands of people at two different Neilah services. It's pandamoneum in there and they don't do everything because the choir is in there. In the small Winer Chapel, however, they have ~200 people doing a gantze Neilah and Maariv which I felt was considerably more "East Coast Traditional" than the Sanctuary or Secondary Service. I should mention that there were not enough seats in this small room. It didn't matter anyway; we were standing for an hour.

-I dislike these new Machzors they use at VBS. I have to inconveniently call other pages in order to follow my melodies, sometimes many hundreds of pages at a time. Just annoyed.

-How bout dem bums? The Dodgers are going to the playoffs and are gonna face the Mets! I also heard this Dodgers Song from 1962 which I really enjoyed. Here is the chatima (sorry, still in YK mode):
So I say D, I say D-O,
The team that's all heart
All heart and all thumbs
They're my Los Angeles
Your Los Angeles
Our Los Angeles
Do you really think we'll really win the pennant?
Bums! Oooo dem bums!

So you see,'s' foundations predate Al Gore's invention of the Internet("Do you really think we'll really win the pennant?")

-Going full circle, the break-fast: I made four quiches (e-coli-less spinach) for break-fast. They went pretty quickly. I think that whoever hosts a break-fast is accorded the honor of the High Priest, they made a party for their friends after succeeding in gaining atonement for Israel.

Uh, that's all for now, I think. Next fast is exactly one season away, the 10th of Tevet, 3 months away. L'Shana HaBa Bi'rushalayim Habnuya!!!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Yom Kippur (The still small voice)

The prayer that epitomizes the High Holiday season has to be the Untane Tokef. It captures the sheer awesomeness and awfulness of the season. It's scary to boot! It basically says that you're going to die. Here are the choices (you don't get to choose) on how you will die... Yep. Fun, lighthearted stuff. Even the angels are freaked out. Everything you have ever done, even the stuff you have forgotten, is written in a book which is reviewed by God, a book which we sign off on.

The history of its composition is as intriguing as the prayer itself (I recite this from memory, it may be slightly different than the original account). A millennium ago European anti-Semitism was reaching one of its many peaks. In Mainz, Germany, though the Archbishop and Rabbi got along, the Pope was putting pressure to dissolve all ties between Christians and Jews and to convert as many as possible. The Archbishop told his friend, Rabbi Amnon that he had to convert to Christianity or die. Rabbi Amnon asked for some time to think, a request which his former friend granted in the form of three days. When R’ Amnon got home he was livid at himself for even considering becoming an apostate and waited the three days for the papal goons to drag him off. The Archbishop asked, “are you ready to renounce your religion?” The Rabbi responded, “I will only walk in the path of Hashem”. The Archbishop therefore ordered his legs be chopped off and repeated the question, to which Rabbi Amnon responded, “My hands only serve God”. His hands were chopped off. “Last chance”, said the Archbishop. “Let me speak the praises of the Lord” was Rabbi Amnon’s response. So he removed his tongue. He left the Rabbi a bleeding mass in front of the synagogue. It was Erev Rosh Hashannah when this happened. The Rabbi wasn’t dead but he didn’t have much time. In the morning right before the Kedusha, members of the synagogue placed the dying, legless, armless, tongueless rabbi in front of the open Ark, and right after the chazzan said the U’vchen which precedes it, the Rabbi miraculously sang(he didn’t have a tongue) extemporaneously, "בראש השנה תכתבון וביום צום כפור יחתמון... מיחיה ומי ימות..." “On Rosh Hashannah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die!”. Having completed his opus, the Rabbi expired before the open ark. After Yom Tov, the Rabbi came to the Cantor in a dream and repeated all of the words of the Untane Tokef, which the latter wrote down and instituted eternally as the preface to the Musaf Kedusha, scaring the bejesus out of people who have paid attention at services now for over a millennium.

Even without this remarkable story, which I love to regale people with at Shabbat meals (as some people at my table at a Hillel-wide dinner a couple of semesters ago will attest), there cannot be anything taken away from the awesome and awful power hidden within these words. Besides the numerous hideous ways listed that we can possibly die, there is a lot of beauty here. God is our Shepherd and we are His sheep. We do His Will, and He counts us. A shepherd has compassion for his sheep, even when they do stupid destructive things, after all, they’re just stupid animals. We must confront our actions.

קול דממה דקה ישמע. The great shofar is sounded and yet a small silent voice can be heard”.
Amidst the chaotic nature of the day, God listens to everyone. According to BT Brachot, If a simple shepherd says “thanks for the bread” in lieu of the Motzi before eating a meal, God accepts the prayer. The still silent voice of Bonche the Silent (who I mentioned in my Dvar Torah for Parashat Ki Tetze) is treasured by God. In the Midrashic accounts of the story of Esther, it is only after the children, condemned to an earlier death by the evil Haman, cry out to God from the dungeon that God tears up the heavenly decree against the Jews and turns the tables on the evil Vizier. There are so many examples in rabbinic literature and in the Wissenschaft des Judentums (to borrow an overused term)

“the meek shall inherit the earth”

"ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה", repentance, prayer, and righteousness will avert the evil decree. It used to be rendered "מבטילין את רוע הגזרה", that these things “cancel the evil decree”, however this is obviously not the case. Good people die along with the bad, and some of the most evil people can live to a ripe old age. Theodicy is a very serious subject in Judaism. How does someone wholehearted and righteous as Job suffer at the hands of God and The Satan? Jonah, to bring in a Yom Kippur example, doesn’t want to go to Nineveh to warn the Assyrians to repent. Why? Through their teshuva and fasting they were able to tear up the heavenly sentence for their own destruction… and go on to destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel and wipe out 10 of its 12 Tribes. But they got their just desserts in the end. Anyone who oppressed the Chosen People did not stand the test of time. Even from the Jewish standpoint, we die just as everyone else does, and our good deeds mean bupkis in terms of if and when we are going to die. Actually, what seems to be expressed in this prayer is how you’re going to die. Will we live to a ripe old age or will we die untimely? Will it be in some horrible disaster or execution or will we die peacefully? Will we have a lot of money to leave to our descendents or will we be poor? When we are remembered, what things will be called to mind? Will we be remembered? Life and death, these are rightly out of our hands. What we have in our power is the ability to live virtuous lives. Even the poorest person must give tzedekah. The wealthiest shouldn’t feel any better than the poorest when they give tzedekah, even though they may give much more money. To quote the Prince of Egypt, “to one lost sheep, a shepherd boy is greater than the richest king”. Like so many things quality must be stressed over quantity. Using one of my current online obsessions as an example, Wikipedia, though it may seem more glamorous to make as many edits as possible, it is considered even better to vastly improve a single article. I have way too many facebook friends. It cheapens the entire purpose of friendship so much that I have begun to reject people that I don’t know (sorry if you’re one of them, message me in the way you actually know me and I will consider it, just don’t stalk me). Um, anyway, the message is that we all must make a positive difference in the world in whatever way we can. We admit that we are nothing. In the grand scheme of things we are as a driven leaf. Bonsche the silent was assigned this moniker. Dust in the wind, A passing dream.
But remember that the still small voice is heard amongst the chaos. Bonche was welcomed with open arms into paradise until he screwed it up with his mouth and insipid lack of ambition. We must aspire for greatness and still be grounded enough to realize that we are human and mortal. The crown of a good name exceeds all other types of crowns.

Humans need teshuva. I think the build up without it would lead to hatred, loathing, and murder. Teshuva predated the creation of the world, my Rabbi said Saturday morning at services. I said that I disagree with the Midrash and that teshuva was planted within the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If it was in the world beforehand, then only discerning minds could learn how to unlock it. The only one to never have Original Sin (another thing that got brought up in the discussion yesterday), I said, was Cain, who was chronologically born before the eating from the Tree. He had no concept of Teshuva, so when he felt Abel and God wronged him, he went out into the field and murdered his brother. When God asked what Cain had done, Cain infamously asked, “am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain shows no remorse, no teshuva. He can’t. He doesn’t know. He is filled with so much hate that he has no ability to vent or accept anything. Teshuva is foreign to him and if the entire world was filled with people like him, everyone would be dead. If God was not forgiving, then Noah and his clan wouldn’t have been saved in the flood or its aftermath either. It takes the ability to say you are sorry and the ability to accept apologies. Both of these things take the greatest resolve, courage, and in order to do it you have to “lose face” as the kids call it these days. Pharaoh was unable to listen to Moses because his heart was hardened. Likewise, so many of us have hardened our hearts, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to reason, to compromise, to peace. The Torah and the High Holiday liturgy suggest a cure, may we circumcise our hearts (metaphorically of course) to love God so that we may live. We need to learn to open our hearts to accept those who beg our forgiveness, just as God readily does for us, and we need to soften our hearts and tread on our egos to “lower” ourselves to apologize for wronging others. Then maybe, just maybe, we can live in peace.

Gmar Chatima Tova, May we be sealed for a year of goodness. Also, if I have wronged any of you in any way in the past, please accept my apology. I am also ready to accept people who have wronged me, just ask.