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Torah Commentary- Ki Tissa: “Strong Leaders” and the Golden Calf

Feb25

by: on February 25th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

I. “Strong Leadership” as Communal Failure

These days, much of the world is surprised by the ascendance of extreme demagoguery within the US political process. We are shocked by the ascendance of a disruptive “strong leader” who wishes to make “America great again” through force, violence, and hate speech. It seems like another age, the return of a malevolence that we thought was suppressed many decades ago. In contemplating this week’s texts, which deal with the flawed demands of the recently liberated people for a new form of leadership (in this case a golden calf), we can see parallels to the current situation and a response.

When dealing with the repetitions of the mishkan (tabernacle) narrative in the book of Shemot (Exodus), we discussed the idea of boundaries, of distance introduced as a result of the sin of the golden calf. The mishkan structure itself, and the garments of the priests, act as signifiers of, and simultaneously as a means of overcoming the boundaries and distance introduced by the sin of the golden calf. In his discussion of these texts, R. Zadok Hacohen makes the following comment, which would be incredibly radical except that the source of the quote is the Talmud (BT Nedarim 22b)

“If it weren’t for the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jews would only have received the Five Books of the Torah and the Book of Joshua”.

It was only with the second set ofLuhot (tablets received by Moses at Sinai) not the first set smashed because of the golden calf, that we were given the Oral law. R. Zadok understands this to mean that had there not been the distance introduced by sin, our relation with the Torah text would have been an unmediated one, one that would not have required the supplemental hermeneutics of the commentaries and supercommentaries familiar to the student of Jewish studies.

Had this episode of the golden calf not occurred, our understanding of the Torah would have been akin to what Maimonides describes of Adam before his sin, that he would have had a pure objective relationship with God undistorted by subjectivity (which is why the forbidden tree in Eden was known as that of “good and bad”, good and bad being purely subjective categories, liking something or not liking something, as opposed to the tree of ‘life’, which Maimonides saw as symbolizing empirical, objective knowledge, as in science (science as a medieval thinker would have seen it, which included theology).

According to the biblical text, Moses’s absence is taken to mean that he is dead and the people demand a new leadership, this time in the form of a golden idol in the shape of a calf. Our thematic question is, what was the ‘allure’ of the golden calf, what kind of leadership were they looking for, and why would that error lead to a divine recognition that suddenly the five books of the Torah are no longer adequate, and that supplementation with a vast commentary is necessary?

The Meor V’shemesh has difficulty comprehending how a generation that experienced what it experienced could lapse so crudely into idolatry of the most primitive sort. What was it that the people wanted from this idol? His response is that it wasn’t a “god” they were looking for at all, but rather a “strong leader”, an authority figure.

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Torah Commentary- Perashat Vayigash: Confronting Societal Injustice, Confronting Ourselves

Dec18

by: on December 18th, 2015 | Comments Off

 

In these troubled times, when we see societal tolerance of speech approaching that of fascism, when open hate speech about anything or anyone approximating an “enemy”, where even the victims of oppression are treated with hostility and suspicion, one feels helpless in attempting to maintain a sense of justice and decency. How does one respond to what appears to be a situation of crisis? What kind of discourse is appropriate as a response?

This week’s perasha (Torah portion) begins at a similar moment of crisis- All seems lost. An innocent descent to Egypt to purchase food has ended up with youngest brother Benyamin imprisoned by the enemy authorities. To the brothers, it would seem that their own actions have put the children of Rachel at risk of total decimation (with Yosef believed dead and his only brother Binyamin in a place worse than death), an outcome which would compound their father’s already unrelieved grief to beyond mortal tolerance. The family appears helpless in a Kafkaesque trial situation which caught them entirely unawares.

In an act of desperation, Yehudah steps forward and begins to plead with the enemy leader for his brother’s life. The text uses some unusual language- the text reads:  Vayigash Elav Yehudah, literally Yehudah “encountered” him. The use of the term vayigash, from the root hagasha, (to come close, also to prepare) is somewhat unusual, both linguistically and even in terms of the action, given that they were in the same room. And to whom is the second word in the phrase,Elav, “to him”, referring to?

In fact, why does the text need to quote Yehuda’s speech at such length? This speech does not reveal anything new towards the linear development of the plot; we are given no new facts about the brothers’ history, and no new personal revelations. Yet this speech is clearly central to the story and thus extensively analyzed by the Midrashim. The Midrash choreographs entire dialogues lurking behind the words of Yehudah, referring to all sorts of hidden meanings within his every word, both conciliatory and threatening words; the prelude in the Midrash Rabbah (BR 93:3) insists that the words of Yehudah “can be interpreted from every angle”. We will find that the words of Yehuda teach us several useful lessons on mindfulness in the moment of apparent crisis.

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View from the Ladder

Dec3

by: Irwin Keller on December 3rd, 2015 | 5 Comments »

Eighty years ago, the United States debated whether it would open its doors to Jewish refugees fleeing the terror of the Nazis. It did not. And this historical echo was not lost on me, as I’m sure it was not lost on Jews throughout this country.

These have been weeks of significant gravity. Serious things have happened. We have been weighed down in their aftermath, by sadness, fear, and anger. What happened on a Friday evening – the Shabbos! – in mid-November in Paris captures our imagination and won’t let go. And the attacks last week on the tourists in Mali just add to our fear and helplessness.

All of this would be enough to burden us heavily. But then comes a second wave of injury, as we watch politicians turn tragedy into cheap rhetoric. Two dozen American governors saying they would close their borders to Syrian refugees: the very people who are fleeing ISIS. Offering terrorists their victims back. And knowing that the public is insular and racist enough to believe that we couldn’t possibly tell refugees and terrorists apart.

So what can we do? What course do we take? Maybe a first thing is to climb out of this morass for a higher view. But how do we climb, when the drama and trauma hold us so tight, when gravity weighs so strong?

We dream a ladder. That’s what we do. It’s what Jacob did, in last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayetzei. He was fleeing danger too, running scared. He was escaping his brother, but in the world of Torah, violence between siblings is meant to point also to violence between nations. So Jacob’s moment was not so dissimilar to ours.

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Torah Commentary: Perashat Vayetze- Dreams of a Refugee

Nov20

by: on November 20th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

When I reached manhood, I saw rising and growing upon the wall shared between life and death, a ladder barer all the time, invested with an unique power of evulsion: this was the dream….Now see darkness draw away, and LIVING become, in the form of a harsh allegorical asceticism, the conquest of extraordinary powers by which we feel ourselves confusedly crossed, but which we only express incompletely, lacking loyalty, cruel perception, and perseverance…. Rene Char, Fureur et Mystere

In the traditional literature, the patriarch most symbolic of the Jewish people is Jacob (Yaakov in Hebrew), who comes into his own in this week’s Torah reading. While more of a passive player in the previous episode, Jacob comes to life- as he is forced into exile. This essay will deal with dreams, the dreams of a refugee. It is not accidental that the first dream recorded in the Torah is associated with a man on the run, who has placed a stone from the road under his head in order to sleep. That dream is the lyrical dream of the ladder which ascends to heaven in which Jacob sees angels alighting and descending, which the Midrash suggests may be read as allegorical for Israel in exile, subject to the rise and fall of nations and circumstances over which they have no control. It is thus fitting that this week we contemplate dreams and exile, and the plight of the refugee. Sympathy for the refugee is a biblical sentiment from the very earliest passages, and that must not be forgotten in these troubled times.

The commentators from the earliest days noted the relationship between place/circumstance and the appearance of the dream. The Midrash latches on to an extraneous word in the verse- “and he chanced upon the place and rested there”. The Midrash explains the word vayifga, “and he chanced upon”, as meaning “he prayed there”, using as a proof text the use of the same term in the Jeremiah 7:16 and 27:18. The Midrash states that there, in that place where Yaakov rested, Yaakov created the evening prayer, the Arvit service, described by R. Shmuel bar Nahman as embodying “May it be Thy will that You remove me from darkness to light”. Exile as night.

A second curious midrash is found on verse 28:16, which reads “and Yaakov awoke from his sleep, mishenato“. The Midrash alters it to miMIshnato, from his studies, from his “learning”. At first glance, one might suspect a surprising anti-study, anti-intellectual message, likening study to sleep, in that Midrashic reading. Why is study like sleep?

The Maor V’Shemesh understands the emptiness of study without dreams. He says that the “Torah spiritual life” is made up of two intertwined elements- study and prayer (compare the Maharal in Netivot Olam A, chapter 7). Neither approach, neither study alone, nor prayer alone, is adequate on its own. This is the lesson of Yaakov’s development as narrated by the midrashic readings. The Midrash narrates that Yaakov spent 14 years in the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever”, yet he never had a heirophany, a divine revelation, until this episode, which takes place not in a study hall- but on the road, alone, uncertain of the direction his life might take, a refugee, with only stones under his head for comfort. This situation, which moved Yaakov to beseech God for his very survival, is what “awoke his learning” as well, infusing his years of study with the urgency of dreams, transforming study into yearning and a route for redemption.

It is the encounter with the dark silence of reality that is transformative. A refugee sees the world collapsing around them and dreams, urgently, that there must be a better reality where normal life can proceed.

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Torah Commentary- Noah: Transcending Deluge-Era Consciousness

Oct16

by: on October 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

The story of Noah is on the surface rather straight forward. The people are bad, Noah is good, God decides to wipe out the Earth but saves Noah and a large number of representative animals in a big wooden boat. After bringing down rain for 40 days and nights, the rain stops, and Noah sends out two animal emissaries, when the second finds dry land, they disembark. Makes for a great children’s book, cartoon, or sci-fi movie. Versions of this tale are found throughout the ancient world, and much literature is dedicated to the roots of this story. Ultimately, though, in any version of this, it is a horrible story, so much death and destruction, and it doesn’t even end well for Noah.

My interest is less in the ancient near eastern roots of this narrative, nor about its authenticity. What moves us in this series of essays on Tikkun is what meaning or sense could be derived from the text we have by the serious spiritual thinkers who have encountered these passages over the generations. Is there a meaning beyond “be good or be a good swimmer”?

Much of the Rabbinic writings focus on Noah, why was Noah saved, what merit did he earn that can be emulated? Much like in the contemporary presidential debates, the ‘media’ as it were seeks a winner. If one compares Abraham, Moses, and Noah, among the great religious figures of crisis, who did the right thing and who committed ‘gaffes’? My interest, however, and for which there seems to be no strongly held position, was what did humanity do that was so terrible that a collective punishment of this scale was warranted, and what lessons does it have for us today?

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Hoping for Rain- Biblical Understanding of Cosmic Order, Human’s Nature and Drought

Jun27

by: Rabbi Belle Michael on June 27th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

A photograph of Lake Mead (Arizona/Nevada) in the midst of a drought.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Chris Richards.

As we all heard, 2014 set record for being the hottest year in a decade; in fact scientists say that every year in the past few decades set a record for being the warmest year. We know it for fact now; our planet is getting warmer each year.

Some scientists are still trying to figure out the causes for Global Warming while others study the effects of Global Warming on extreme weather events such as heat waves, hurricanes and droughts. As to the drought in California, so far no scientific link between Global Warming and the drought was found. Research has shown contradicting evidence and thus, contradicting conclusions.

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For the Sake of Heaven

Jun23

by: Melissa Weininger on June 23rd, 2015 | Comments Off

Close up of a flame.

Credit: CreativeCommons / Oliver.

According to reports, when a young stranger walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last Wednesday night, the senior pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, invited the young man to sit next to him so that he would feel welcome. It was literally an article of faith that the church should embrace the young man, though he was not a regular member of the community, though he was white in a historically black church. These things didn’t matter to Pinckney and the other members of the Bible study group that met that night. What mattered to them were tenets of faith and the standards of their community, a congregation built on the premise of inclusion, particularly inclusion of the marginalized and rejected.

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Torah Commentary: The Seder and Transformative Consciousness

Apr3

by: on April 3rd, 2015 | Comments Off

The Torah tells us of four sons…

One of the central passages of the seder involves a presentation of the questions of, and the responses to four paradigmatic sons. We are told of a wise son, a wicked son, an innocent or naive son, and the fourth described as one who does not know how to initiate a question. Each of these “sons”questions, in one way or another, is about the meaning of the ritual observances surrounding Passover, and for each one an appropriate answer is given, depending on the personality of the son. Each of these ‘sons’ questions and answers are constructed out of biblical proof texts which contain a reference to instructing one’s offspring. However, they are not presented, Powerpoint style, in order of their appearance in the Torah, and are used in a homiletic manner to teach certain points. What these points might be is also left unexplained in an almost zen koan like challenge to comprehension; we will see that loaded within this seemingly innocuous passage is a call to transformative consciousness.

The entire passage is unclear, for example, the question of the wise son and the wicked son are similar, while the answers they receive are curious; furthermore, the answer given to the wicked son and the non-questioning son are derived from the exact same verse. What do all these texts with their attributions to different types of children come to teach us on the first night of Passover, what does any of this have to do with liberation from oppression?

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The Iconography of Sorrow: How Easter Transforms Our Response to Suffering

Apr1

by: Luke Bretherton on April 1st, 2015 | Comments Off

From pictures of poor farmers in Depression era America to bloated children in Sudan, the contemporary aesthetics of poverty subtly reinscribe the ancient division between the children of the soil (chthonoi) and children of the gods (theion) familiar to us from the Greek and Babylonian myths.

Those who live some form of what is often deemed the ideal “Western” lifestyle look down from Olympus with sympathy on the sons and daughters of the soil and their visceral imprisonment to nature and necessity.

“We” who benefit from consumer lifestyles, technological advancement and decent sewers contemplate the photographs of stricken faces and think: “If only they can be more like us.”

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The King and the Ring: On Purim and Violence

Mar4

by: Aryeh Cohen on March 4th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

The question, twenty years after Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding tens more, is this: How can we celebrate Purim? Goldstein, heard the reading of the Megillah on Purim night, heard (for the fortieth time?) that the Jews took vengeance on their enemies, slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children. Twice. Goldstein, a medical doctor, then rose early in the morning, went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and shot his M16 until he was overpowered and killed, having killed or wounded tens of praying innocents. How do we read this tale of revenge when we know that that revenge, the Purim revenge, the revenge of “the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1) has been wreaked?

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