12.25.2008

Miketz and Christmas

Two separate items. I am not suggesting a relationship between them.

First, here is another great American Jewish World Service d'var Torah, this time on Parshat Miketz. I wish it recommended reputable organizations that are doing just what the d'var Torah suggests--preventing hunger and famine, rather than responding to it after the fact. Anyone know of any good places to donate towards this cause?

Secondly, I was in Bethlehem last week, including on St. Nicholas Day, and saw a great Santa Claus decoration. There is no reason at all why Santa Claus should be pasty white--St. Nicholas was from what is now Turkey.


I don't know if I am in a place right now to write extensively about Bethlehem. It was a different world from my world in Jerusalem (West Jerusalem, that is), and many aspects of the trip were quite difficult for me. I was happy to read this recent New York Times article ("Palestinians Work to Jolt West Bank Back to Life," December 23, 2008) about increased tourism in Bethlehem and other West Bank cities, since that seems like it would improve life for everyone in the region.

Happy holidays to all who are celebrating something at the moment!

12.21.2008

Still true

This is still true. I wish I was in a space to write something this hopeful and assured this year, but I am not. Maybe by the 6th night of Chanukah, I will be.

Tonight is Shira's eighth yahrzeit. You can read more about her here and here. I don't have anything to say about her yahrzeit this year. I am thinking about her, though.

12.07.2008

Public works worthy of investment

This is probably one of the more generally ignorant posts that I'm ever going to publish, but I hope that those who know more can comment and teach me.

I just read this New York Times article ("Obama Pledges Public Works on a Vast Scale", NYT, 12/6/08), in an attempt to keep up with what is going on in the US these days. I haven't really been reading any news online, and, as such, am terribly under-informed. The article basically talks about the major infrastructure spending that Obama is planning in order to create more jobs, in the model of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which created many highways and bridges that are now on the verge of collapse.

My main reaction is that I would hope that infrastructure spending would focus on mass transit and alternative energy, both of which I think are incredibly important and too often under-funded in favor of building more roads and bridges.

Cities that have mass transit should have better mass transit, and cities that don't have mass transit should build it. And subways are way faster than buses, people. I don't know about light rails--I assume that they are faster than buses but slower than subways. How did cities like Washington, DC, finance the construction of their relatively new Metro subway system in the mid-1970s? Why aren't more cities building them or improving their existing ones? Los Angeles, anyone? Dallas? Houston? Phoenix? Not only would investing in mass transit create jobs, it would also make cities more pleasant to live in by reducing smog and congestion and lessen dependence on both cars and gasoline.

Alternative energy is also a no-brainer to me. There is a limited amount of gas; we need other ways of running all of our computers, home appliances, subways, buses, and cars. I would hope that investing in alernative energy would also involve investing in education, especially science education, on all levels.

12.03.2008

11.28.2008

Grandparents and recalling Christmases past while hiking in the Negev

This was sad and poignant and strange. Aspects of it reminded me of my childhood, growing up four hours from my paternal grandparents and a whole country (and a wide country!) away from my maternal grandparents. It made me nostalgic for a childhood that I didn't have, of living close to extended family. It also made me miss my grandparents, both dead and alive. I know that I was lucky to have them in my life for as long, and as much, as I did, but I still want them around for longer.

I spoke to my grandmother, my one living grandparent, on the phone last night, in honor of Thanksgiving, and it made me miss her even more. I hadn't spoken to her since I left the US in August. There is no excuse for that, given the price of long-distance calls these days, but the miles somehow make it seem further. So much of the time we have spent together has been around activities or food, that it's hard to sustain a relationship over the phone. I don't think I would want to commune with her over the Internet, even if she were willing to, which I don't think she would be. It would have been really fun to "do" Thanksgiving over the Internet, via webcam, with the extended family, but it wouldn't have been the same. At all. Thanksgiving is a BIG deal in my family, at least partly because it was the only holiday my immediate, Jewishly-observant family could do with my non-observant wider family. I've only, in my life, had two Thanksgivings before this one without my grandmother, siblings, parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. One was when my grandparents didn't make a big Thanksgiving because they were having a 50th wedding anniversary party the same winter, and the other was when I was in Israel in 1997. (Is it normal to say "make Thanksgiving" the same way one says "make Pesach," or is that a Yiddishism that has crept into my English?) My mother is making Thanksgiving dinner tonight, for my father, sister, me, and two friends, but it isn't the same, although I am looking forward to it tremendously.

I was hiking in the Negev over the past three days, and the subject of Christmas traditions came up. Yes, a bunch of Jews hiking in the Negev, discussing Christmas. Why not? One Jew, who grew up in Utah, recalled hitting the slopes every Christmas, since they were virtually empty. Another Jew, probably from New York although I wouldn't swear to it, recalled movies and Chinese food.

At first, I said that my family didn't have any Christmas traditions, but then one came to mind. My grandparents used to visit us from California twice a year: December vacation and Pesach. The December vacation at the day school I attended typically began on December 26, just to make a point.

The Christmas tradition that I recall most strongly took place on December 26: the day the Christmas chocolate went on sale. We would go to the local drugstore and stock up on red and green Hershey's kisses and half-priced sugar cookies shaped like Santa Claus. All such foods were forbidden by my parents, but allowed, and in quite liberal portions, by my grandparents. The other thing that we used to buy was smoked sable from the local kosher butcher. It was delicious. My mother didn't like it, so we never had it except when my grandparents came to visit. I wonder if you can get it in Israel? And why did I never buy it for myself, once I was of age to do so? My grandfather also used to buy us all the herring we could eat. I don't like herring any more, but when I was seven and eight, I loved it. And, again my mother didn't like it, so we only had it when my grandparents came to visit.

You can't do half-off Christmas chocolate, half-off Santa cookies, smoked sable, and cream herring over the Internet.

Yet.

I never share photos on this site, but I wanted to share some views of the Negev. It was so great to get outside--both to be outdoors and to be away from the beit midrash, largely because of my recent frustrations. I might write about the trip some more at some point. I also want to write about the KolDor conference and the General Assembly (aka "GA"), both of which I attended a few weeks ago now. Enjoy!










11.24.2008

Torah and life

Things are, quite frankly, not going so well in the beit midrash, and thus in life. I am not enjoying learning nearly as much as I have in the past. I'm not really sure why, except for one idea that I am finding extremely difficult to articulate. I look around the beit midrash, see others happily and excitedly engaged in learning, and it makes me sad.

So I have made a list. Because lists are easier.
  1. I used to learn to escape from deep truths and the emotionally difficult parts of my life. I loved learning and did it a lot. It was a great escape on many levels, especially studying Mishna.
  2. Then I decided to stop escaping from deep truths or I stopped being able to escape.
  3. Then I disliked learning Torah, since I only knew how to learn in this bifurcated, sanitized-from-emotions, way. Learning Torah reminded me of that former life of escape from emotions that I had rejected. Also, whenever I learned (and I think this is related), it felt boring and irrelevant. Cut off from the meaty part of life, somehow.
  4. So I didn't learn for a long time (1998-2004).
  5. But I missed learning.
  6. When I started learning again, I found that I didn't feel like I was leaving my emotional life at the door, so to speak. I felt like I was somehow bringing my whole being to my Torah study. And I found that I loved learning as much as I had before (say, back at #1).
  7. But now I am not enjoying learning, to a large extent. It's like I'm back at #3. And I don't know why.
At the end of this past summer, which was spent studying Torah, I wrote that "I have a renewed conviction that one can and should bring one's personal and emotional life to bear on one's limmud Torah." I somehow suspect that the institution where I am currently studying, or the program within the institution where I am studying, does not support this "bringing the whole being" model of Torah study. Somehow, it feels like I am being asked, or forced, or encouraged, to check who I am at the door, and enter the beit midrash sanitized from emotion and personal history. I think if I stood up in the beit midrash and said "I think that one can and should bring one's personal and emotional life to bear on one's limmud Torah," I would either be laughed at, ignored, or just simply not understood.

Do any of you understand what I mean by that? I tried to explain it to someone in person recently and he really didn't understand what I meant. Or, rather, he said that he felt that that's how all limmud Torah is, by its very nature. He didn't understand what the alternative was, that I was rejecting, which made me feel he didn't understand what I was saying.

The kind of learning I am interested in doing is the kind of learning that informs and is informed by the actual lives we live. By my life, and my struggles, and my values. I want Torah study that illuminates rather than represses, that connects and unifies rather than divides. I want Torah that engages me at my core. I want to be able to learn Torah the way that I talk to my closest friends or read the newspaper: with my whole being, informed by everything I've done and that has been done to me, by my feminism, my attention to detail, my liberal proclivities, my concern for humanity, my interest in how legal systems can create positive change in the world, by my need for creative expression. This is my Torah, and more that has yet to be written.

I feel guilty articulating this. I was raised with a certain rigorous intellectual standard for Torah, and the accompanying feeling that anything that actually touched or affected people was fluffy nonsense. Gemara should be about pure Gemara (or, sometimes more accurately, about rishonim). Halakhah should be about serving God, not articulating deep emotional truths. I still cringe when people try to make Torah about politics or current events. How is that different from what I want? I don't want some watered-down version of Torah just for the sake of making it personally meaningful--do I? Am I just a casualty of the "me generation," where if it isn't about me, it isn't worthwhile or important? Just how self-absorbed am I, anyway?

I have two other goals besides learning Torah in a way that engages my whole being and that involves bringing my whole self--warts and all--into the beit midrash. (No, I don't have actual warts. Just metaphoric ones.) Another list:
  1. I also want to know everything. Really. I want bekiut that I don't have at the moment. And I want to acquire it in some way other than, say, reading through the Shulkhan Arukh, which I find to be boring. Maybe I just haven't found the right way to do it or the right person to do it with. I don't know.
  2. I want better skills. I want a larger Aramaic word bank in my head. I want to be able to read through a page of Gemara with less difficulty, and even to attack Tosfot with some expectation of success.
I have loved learning Gemara, halacha, and Tanakh in the past, and I want to love learning it again. I don't know how to fix whatever is wrong. Heck, I can't even really articulate it that well! (I'm not even 100% sure that the problem is this (see above), and not something else more pragmatic, like not being in the right shiur or not being interested in the particular material I am studying.)

Does this sound like anything any of you have ever felt? I am hoping that if people ask me questions or challenge me to be more articulate, I could better explain what I mean.

Someone help me, please!

11.18.2008

Rashi supports women's empowerment!

See this nice d'var Torah on Parshat Chayyei Sarah. I'd never noticed that Rashi before, or that Rivkah's father and brother first attempt to send her off without asking her before they changed their minds and ask her.

I do wonder what the role of Rivkah's mother is in all of this. She is mentioned, after all, in Genesis 24:
כח ותרץ, הנערה, ותגד, לבית אימה--כדברים, האלה 28 And the damsel ran, and told her mother's house according to these words.

נג ויוצא העבד כלי-כסף וכלי זהב, ובגדים, וייתן, לרבקה; ומגדנות--נתן לאחיה, ולאימה 53 And the servant brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebekah; he gave also to her brother and to her mother precious things.

נה ויאמר אחיה ואימה, תשב הנערה איתנו ימים או עשור; אחר, תלך 55 And her brother and her mother said: 'Let the damsel abide with us a few days, at the least ten; after that she shall go.'

11.09.2008

Remembering Rabin and enjoying democracy in Israel

Today, the 11th of Heshvan, was Yitzhak Rabin's thirteenth yahrzheit [anniversary of his death]. I can't believe it was thirteen years ago. That makes me feel old. So much has changed in the world since then.

I know exactly where I was when I found out--at the local nursing home, where I visited residents every Shabbat afternoon. I usually ignored the televisions that were on in residents' rooms, but that day, it was impossible. I don't think I knew that he had died; only that he was shot. I didn't really get the full story until after Shabbat ended. After I found out that he had died, it occurred to me, for the first time, that a democracy could stop being a democracy under the right circumstances. I had to take some SAT IIs the next day, which was quite difficult.

Fast forward thirteen years. I am here in Israel. I listened to someone read a lovely Rabin memorial poem on the radio was I walked from Talpiyot to Meah Shearim. (One of my new activities is taking long walks, since Jerusalem is a lovely city for walking and I need the exercise.) I read many interesting, scandalous, depressing, and humorous campaign posters for the upcoming mayoral elections. On Friday, I watched teenagers standing next to each other on street corners, holding up signs and passing out fliers for opposing candidates, but chatting in between handing things out. On Shabbat, I chuckled at the (inexcusable given the number of native English-speakers campaigning for him) poor English translation on one of Nir Barkat's handouts: "Barkat shall execute!"

I am really enjoying this election. In a way, I feel more connected to this election than to that other recent election, although I voted in that one and won't vote in this one. I don't really have time to read any newspapers here, so I wasn't following Obama/McCain at the end, but here, the election is all around me and it feels like everyone is involved and everyone cares. And it's nice.

11.04.2008

Prayer before voting from neohassid.org

Enjoy [PDF]! And happy voting. [Hat tip to Steg.]

I voted from Israel with an absentee ballot and I hope my ballot arrives in time--even though I was voting in New York, where it is extremely unlikely to matter.

10.20.2008

Computer tips--not just for your grandmother

I expected all of these to be old hat, but they weren't. I learned a thing or two (literally--one or two things). Did you know that tab + shift allows you to jump through a form backwards?

I haven't read the comments yet, but I feel like there are probably some gems in there, too.

10.06.2008

Mental health parity and amusing Rashbam

  1. Yay for the Paul Wellstone Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2007. It's about time. I am so glad that this made it into the bailout bill. I don't quite get how these two issues are related, but whatever. I guess it's more like they got bundled together with other issues and they were all passed and signed into law as a unit. (8th grade civics was a woefully long time ago.) I am also impressed with the bipartisan nature of this bill and hope that this bodes well for future health care reform in the US.

  2. For a good time see the Rashbam [medieval commentary] on Genesis 24:1, "ברך את אברהם בכל" (Warning: I have an interesting idea of what constitutes a "good time" sometimes. I don't want to get your hopes up--it was more momentarily amusing and interesting enough to share with someone in the beit midrash than a long-lasting "good time.")

9.28.2008

Spare change

I haven't gotten into the Elul/Rosh Hashanah mood yet. I've been saying Psalm 27 almost every day (more or less), and went to selichot two Saturday nights ago, but haven't been feeling it.

What I am feeling right now, and have been feeling since the first of Elul, is some combination of overwhelmed, exhausted, burned out, apathetic, and scared. I was feeling particularly bad about that last Thursday, when it occurred to me: I am feeling all of those things because I am changing. A lot. (Heck, I have change to spare if you need some.) And if Elul/Rosh Hashanah isn't about taking a close look at one's life and deciding to change, I don't know what it's about. It's just that I made the decisions to change (= to do teshuva) several months ago, and now I am living out the results of those changes in real life and real time. And man, it's hard...

Why is change so hard? Why am I so resistant to doing the things that would most help me in life? Why is it sometimes so easy to do the wrong thing and so hard to do the right thing? Why, even when we make changes that we think are for the best, does it still not feel good? Should I interpret this general weariness as a sign that I have made a big mistake in uprooting my life, quitting my job, and transplanting myself to a new country, or just as a sign that I have uprooted my life, quit my job, and transplanted myself to a new country--and those things are exhausting, hence the weariness? Is this what we call a "difficult transition"?

One of the things that has been particularly difficult in this change is my new environment of intellectual challenge. Simply put, I am studying difficult texts, with relatively little support from people other than my chavruta [study partner], and shiur [class] is difficult for me to follow, at least partly because I don't get through all of the sources before shiur begins. Like this summer, there is a relatively wide range of background and experience in the shiur, but unlike this past summer, I feel like I fall out on the lower end of things rather than the higher end of things. This is not a feeling that I am accustomed to, and not because I am especially brilliant, but because I've always gravitated towards the things that I was naturally better at, and avoided the things that were more difficult for me. Thus, it is hard for me not to understand everything, and to accept that I won't be able to understand something in particular. I have so much to learn and I can't learn it all instantaneously. That's what I'm here to do, right? Learn? So I need to accept being with not understanding things and not asking the most brilliant, penetrating questions, and just listening sometimes, without necessarily taking anything in.1 This goes against my nature.

All in all, I would say that this Elul, I am changing and learning to live better and differently. It's not, as I sometimes feel our classic liturgy impresses upon us, to feel bad, unworthy, and guilty. It's about closely examining the way things are and learning to live in a way that is productive, rather than constantly damning. It's about learning, in my case, to understand less, rather than always pushing to understand more and feeling stupid for failing at it.

My blessing for my readership is: May this coming year of 5769 bring you to the changes that will sweeten and deepen your life. May you have the courage, as I am trying to, to do things that are difficult and to be open to admitting their difficulty--let's agree not to pretend that everything is easy, okay? May the things that inevitably begin with difficulty this year bring immeasurable rewards in the end. May you be able to appreciate the fullness of those rewards in their time.

To change!

______________________________________________
1. Moving down to an easier class is not an option. The next lower class would be too easy. Also, since I almost always understand more than I think I do, I am assuming that that is true in this case, too, and that I am getting more out of just sitting, listening, and not understanding than I think I am. If that makes any sense.

9.25.2008

Shmitah: Restoring Purpose to the Sabbatical Year

Another essay about shmitah and its broader implications. Almost, but not quite, too late. Just under the wire. (As is my minhag.)

* * * * *

What happens when a law designed to help poor people ends up hurting them? What happens when a law designed to give the land a bit of rest has the potential to destroy entire agricultural settlements? Do you follow the letter of the original law, trusting that it will all work out, or do you enact new laws to fix the old laws and maintain their spirit?

These are the kinds of questions that arose centuries ago in connection to shmitah, the sabbatical year, which is taking place during this Jewish year of 5768. During shmitah, fields are left fallow, slaves are freed, and debts are forgiven. In this essay, delve into how the Bible and the Rabbis tried to preempt or mitigate problems with letting the land lie fallow and forgiving loans.

The Bible itself anticipates that the Jewish people will lack faith that they will have enough to eat in the seventh and eight years if they neither harvest nor plant in the seventh year, as the shmitah laws ordain:

“And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in.”
—Leviticus 25:20–22

The Bible promises that the sixth year’s crops will produce a triple yield: enough to sustain an agricultural economy for the sixth, seventh, and eight years of the cycle.

The Bible also anticipates a potential societal problem that would have severe ramifications for the poor: people would refuse to loan money to poor people as shmitah approaches, due to the law that requires loans to be forgiven during shmitah.The solution? Once again, God promises to reward, with blessings, those who follow this law.

Beware lest you harbor the base thought, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings.
—Deuteronomy 15:9–10

The Rabbis saw that despite the incentive of Divine blessing, the problems anticipated by the Torah had, in fact, arisen. Poor people were being denied essential loans in the years leading up to the shmitah, and the agricultural burden became increasingly difficult as small-scale local economies were transformed first by the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel and later by the development of a modern economy in Ottoman-era Land of Israel. In response, they developed two other solutions to these fears: prozbul, instituted by Hillel the Elder circa 30 BCE to 10 CE (see page 8 for definition), and heter mechirah, first introduced by several rabbis in the Ottoman-controlled Land of Israel in the 1888-1889 shmitah year (see page 17 for definition).The discourse that surrounds these rabbinic enactments provides a fascinating view of the competing forces within Jewish law.

In the narrative below, learn about prozbul and heter mechirah as ways of thinking about the interplay between the letter and the spirit of the law, and between the biblical injunctions and how later generations contend with them. Use the development of prozbul and heter mechirah as a lens through which to view both the process and the objectives of halakhah, or Jewish law.

* * *

In the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, the Rabbis acknowledge how difficult it is to keep all of the laws of the shmitah year, and suggest that he who follows these laws is stronger than anyone else, because he sees his hard work destroyed day after day for an entire year, and still follows the law:

“The mighty in strength that fulfill His word” (Psalms 103:20). To whom does the Scripture refer? Rabbi Isaac said,” To those who are willing to observe the shmitah year. In the way of the world, a man may be willing to observe a commandment for a day, a week, a month, but is he likely to continue to do so through the remaining days of the year? But throughout that year this mighty man sees his field declared ownerless, his fences broken down, and his produce consumed by others, yet he continues to give up his produce without saying a word. Can you conceive a person mightier than such as he?”
—Leviticus Rabbah, 1:1

One solution to the problem of loan forgiveness is for people to voluntarily repay their debts, despite their cancellation. This is the advice given by Abbaye to Rav Abba in the following Talmudic passage:

“Abba bar Marta, who owed Rabbah money, brought it to Rabbah’s house in the seventh year. Rabbah said: ‘I cancel the debt.’ So Abba bar Marta took his money and went away. Subsequently, Abbaye, seeing that Rabbah looked sad, asked him,’ So, why are you sad?’ Rabbah told him what had happened. So Abbaye went to Abba bar Marta and asked him, ‘Did you offer money to Rabbah?’ Rav Abba replied, ‘Yes.’Abbaye: ‘And what did he say to you?’ Rav Abba: ‘I cancel the debt.’Abbaye: ‘And did you say to him, “Nevertheless, take it?” Rav Abba: ‘No.’Abbaye said to him,’ If you had said to him, “Nevertheless, take it, he would have taken it. At any rate, go now, and offer it to him.” Rav Abba went and offered it to Rabbah, saying, “Nevertheless, take it.” Rabbah took it from him and said,’ Until now, this disciple of the wise did not know what to do!’”
—Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, 37b

Even though Rav Abba was the disciple of the wise, he did not understand that if one has the money, one should voluntarily repay even a cancelled loan. Abbaye understood this delicate social and financial balancing act, and gave good counsel to Rav Abba.

This voluntary repayment of loans was not, however, ultimately enough. To understand why it was necessary for loans not to be forgiven during shmitah, it is helpful to read Deuteronomy 23:20: “You shall not deduct interest from loans to your countrymen, whether in money or food or anything else that can be deducted as interest.”

Because no interest was allowed, loans existed mainly as a short-term way to aid the poor between the periods of planting and harvesting crops. Most loans were given to poor people the lenders personally knew.

The combination of interest-free loans and loan forgiveness ended up hurting the very people it was designed to help; the law no longer fulfilled its stated purpose because the wealthy stopped lending their money out. In doing so, they violated an explicit prohibition in the Torah:

“Beware lest you harbor the base thought,’ The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing…”
—Deuteronomy 15:9

Hillel the Elder therefore opted for a change to the legal system itself, called a prozbul, rather than relying on voluntary repayment of cancelled loans.

The Mishnah in Tractate Shevi’it (10:3) reports: “When [Hillel the Elder] saw that people refrained from giving loans one to another and transgressed what is written in the Law,’ Beware lest you harbor the base thought…’ Hillel ordained the prozbul.”

What is a prozbul? The prozbul is a method by which people transfer their personal loans to the beit din, or Jewish legal court. The beit din, because of special powers granted to it to redistribute property, is then able to authorize people to collect their loans even during or after the shmitah, when loans are normally abrogated. This “legal fiction” provided a way around loan forgiveness and restored the Torah’s goal of helping, rather than hurting, the poor.

While this may seem like a loophole designed to help wealthy people get their loans repaid, it was really a way to encourage people to continue offering interest-free loans to the poor. Thus, a Mishnah in Tractate Gittin (5:3) adds that the prozbul was established by Hillel the Elder “to repair the world.” In Hebrew, this is called tikkun olam.There are only a few instances of older laws being superseded by later laws in order to achieve tikkun olam.This is a phrase that speaks to the highest level of ethical and moral considerations.

In addition to changes made to find ways around the shmitah loan forgiveness law, changes were made, throughout history, that affected the law about letting fields lie fallow so that the land could rest during the seventh year.

Rabbi Judah the Prince, the editor of the Mishnah, began this process by limiting areas of the Land of Israel in which agricultural laws, including shmitah and tithing, had to be observed. The Jerusalem Talmud (D’mai 2:1) reports:

“Rabbi [Judah the Prince] permitted Beit She’an; Rabbi permitted Caesarea; Rabbi permitted Beit Guvrin; Rabbi permitted Kfar Zemah.…”

Those around him were uncomfortable with his permitting what they felt that the Torah prohibited. In response, Rabbi Judah the Prince shared a parable about a verse from II Kings:

“Rabbi, thereupon, expounded to them the following verse: ‘[Hezekiah] also broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it.’ Now, is it at all likely that Asa did not destroy it? Or that Jehoshaphat did not destroy it? Surely Asa and Jehoshaphat destroyed every form of idolatry in the world! It must therefore be that his ancestors left something undone in order that [Hezekiah] might distinguish himself. So, too, in my case, my ancestors left something undone for me to distinguish myself.”
—Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hulin 6b-7a

Still, how was Rabbi Judah the Prince able to say that Beit Shean was not part of the Land of Israel, in order that it be excluded from the agricultural laws of shmitah and tithing? The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Hulin 7a) continues:

“To this, Judah, son of Rabbi Simeon the son of Pazzi, demurred: Is there anyone who holds the view that Beit Shean was not part of the Land of Israel? Is it not written: ‘And Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beit Shean and its towns, nor of Taanach and its towns?’ [Judges 1:27] [When he raised his objection] there must have escaped his attention the statement of Rabbi Simeon son of Eliakim who reported that Rabbi Eleazar son of Pedath in the name of Rabbi Eleazar son of Shammu’a [said as follows]: Many cities that were conquered by the Israelites who came up from Egypt were not reconquered by those who came up from Babylon…. They did not annex these cities in order that the poor might have sustenance from them during the shmitah year.”

This was not the only thing that Rabbi Judah the Prince did to ease the burden of the shmitah laws on the poor. The Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 3:1) reports that a man who was suspected of breaking the shmitah commandment was brought before Rabbi Judah. He said to them: “What should this poor man do? He works [his land] in order to keep himself alive,” thus suggesting tacit approval, or at least acceptance, of the man’s decision to ignore the shmitah laws.

Some later commentaries, as well as the Talmud in other places, posit that the shmitah laws were no longer biblically ordained during this period, and that they were only rabbinic in nature. Thus, the Rabbis had the ability to modify them to help the poor.

Under another circumstance, Rabbi Yannai actively commanded farmers to sow the land during the shmitah year. This was during a time when the Land of Israel was under Roman occupation, and annual taxes were payable at harvest time. If there was no harvest, the taxes could not be paid and people’s lives would be endangered.
—Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 26a

Josephus tells us that the Israelites were exempt from paying taxes only during the shmitah year during the days of Caesar (Josephus, Ant. XIV, 10, 5-6). This exemption was abrogated in the year 261 CE, and the Jews had to start paying taxes every year, whether it was a shmitah year or not.
—Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews, vol. 4, and M. Auerbach, Jahrbuch der Judisch-Literarischen Gesselschaft 5 (1907)

Between 70 CE and 1878 CE, Jews were not sowing and reaping in the Land of Israel at all. Although there were Jews living in the Land of Israel continuously during that period, they bought produce from the local Arabs. The first modern agricultural community in Israel, Petach Tikvah, was established in 1878, but it had failed by 1882, the next shmitah year.

The first time there were successful agricultural communities in the Land of Israel during a shmitah year was 1889.These included Rishon L’Zion, Rosh Pinah, Zichron Yaakov, and a reestablished Petach Tikvah.The farmers were afraid that if they stopped working the land for a year, their communities would fail. The financier who backed these communities, Baron Rothschild, threatened to withdraw economic support if the farmers let the land lie fallow for the shmitah year, and suggested they get loans from Jerusalem to stay afloat. In desperation, they wrote to Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spektor, the Chief Rabbi of Kovno, who was a member of the early Zionist organization, Hovevei Tzion, that had established the town of Rishon L’Zion.

Rabbi Spektor permitted heter mechirah, literally “the permission of selling,” by which the land that the young Jewish farming communities worked was temporarily sold to non-Jews for the shmitah year. Since the laws of shmitah only applied to land in Israel that was owned by Jews, the Jewish farmers could work this land. This controversial legal loophole was opposed by the rabbis in Jerusalem and by others. However, heter mechirah was later reaffirmed as permissible by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi in the British Mandate of Palestine.

Today, there is still much controversy over the acceptability of relying on heter mechirah in Israel. Some let their fields lie fallow and just take what grows naturally from the previous year’s planting. Others rely on newer innovations of recent decades, such as hydroponic growing, permitted because the shmitah laws only apply to produce that is rooted in the land, not the water. On a similar principle, some farmers grow produce in beds that are raised above the ground during the shmitah year.

* * * * *

“The Shmitah (sabbatical) year frees the land from total human ownership. The yield of the land in that year, whatever grows without human effort, is ownerless and is available for all, including the animals of the earth. The philosophy of the interrelatedness of all life within itself and with its Creator is the seed for vital ecological and socio-ethical insights, responsibility, and promise.” —Dr. Eliezer Berkovits, Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halacha (New York: Ktav, 1983)

9.24.2008

Shmita primer

It's a bit late for this, but technically not too late! I wrote this about a year ago, but am just posting it now. More on shmitah to follow--something I wrote about pruzbul and heter mechira, about six months ago.

Shmitah: Your Sabbatical Year

The new Jewish year, 5768, is a shmitah, or sabbatical, year.

In the Jewish tradition, the shmitah year is when farmers in the Land of Israel let their fields lie fallow in the seventh year after six years of planting and harvesting. Farmers let produce grow naturally from the previous season’s planting without any human intervention, and then, instead of harvesting the crops, rich and poor alike come and take what they need for their immediate use. Despite the distance that most of us have from hands-on farming, the idea of letting land rest resonates with us today, as we discuss contemporary food issues such as sustainability, organic pesticides, crop rotation, and supporting locally grown food to reduce carbon emissions. The idea of redistributing food from the wealthy landowner to the landless poor also resonates with us today, in an age when many rely on food pantries for their very subsistence.

As part of the Bible’s incremental process to eliminate slavery altogether, slaves are freed permanently from their masters during the shmitah year. In the Bible, slavery can only exist under very specific circumstances, and is only for a period of six years, which necessarily reduces permanent dependence on slaves. While slavery is an ethically perverse idea to us, what it means to treat workers fairly is a part of our daily discourse as a society.

Finally, in the seventh year, loans and debts are forgiven and some land that was sold in the intervening six years returns to its previous owner. While unbridled capitalism would reject such a stark redistribution of wealth, in our own time legislators and universities are discussing loan forgiveness programs as a way to ensure that recent college graduates who wish to pursue careers in public service are able to do so.

These three freedoms—for the land, for people, and from debt—serve to remind us that although we may feel that we are in charge of the food we eat, people we employ, and money we make, they are all beyond our ultimate control. The shmitah year is inaugurated by a public reading of the Torah, called hak’hel, the ultimate inclusive, free, public education. Hak’hel serves as a further reminder that it is text, not land, money, or employees, that we turn to in order to find meaning in our lives.

Throughout this essay, explore passages from the Bible from which we learn about the concept of shmitah. Read other texts, ancient and contemporary, that refer to our analogous struggles with these issues of land, food, work, and redistribution of wealth.

Just as a fallow period regenerates the land, the sabbatical year renews the human mind—and lays the groundwork for a richer future harvest. Celebrate shmitah by making it your year for a personal sabbatical, during which you take some time to study and reflect on Jewish texts, including the Bible, Midrash, and Talmud, short stories and films, and historical, theological, and spiritual texts.

“The mighty in strength that fulfill His word” (Psalms 103:20).To whom does the Scripture refer? R. Isaac said,“To those who are willing to observe the Year of Release. In the way of the world, a man may be willing to observe a commandment for a day, a week, a month, but is he likely to continue to do so through the remaining days of the year? But throughout that year this mighty man sees his field declared ownerless, his fences broken down, and his produce consumed by others, yet he continues to give up his produce without saying a word. Can you conceive a person mightier than such as he?”
—Midrash Leviticus Rabbah, 1:1


Freedom for the Land

“When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath of the Lord: You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the undergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its Sabbath will produce—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.”
—Leviticus 25:2-7

“We do not inherit this land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
—Native American proverb

“And should you ask, ‘What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in. But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”
—Leviticus 25:20–23

“If you are planning for one year, grow rice. If you are planning for twenty years, grow trees. If you are planning for centuries, grow men.”
—Chinese proverb


Freedom for People

“If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.”
—Deuteronomy 15:12–15

“But what more oft, in nations grown corrupt, And by their voices brought to servitude, Than to love bondage more than liberty— Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty—”
—John Milton, Samson Agonistes

“What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist—the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”
—Rose Schneiderman, garment worker and labor organizer, 1912

“Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.”
—Albert Einstein


Freedom from Debt

“Every seventh year, you shall practice remission of debts. … Every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow; he shall not dun his fellow or kinsman, for the remission proclaimed is of the Lord….Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.…Beware lest you harbor the base thought, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,’ so that you are mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing….Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.”
—Deuteronomy 15:1–11

“Today, the average student leaves college with more than ,000 in student loan debt. This [is] discouraging many young people from choosing careers in fields such as teaching, social work and law enforcement— the low-paying but vital jobs that bring large benefits to our society…. The Higher Education Access Act of 2007 will… completely forgive the loans of those who enter society’s most needed professions….Our society needs more teachers, more emergency management and law enforcement professionals, more public health doctors and nurses, more social workers, more librarians, more public interest lawyers, and more early childhood teachers.… Under our bill,we’ll produce more of them, because they— and all the groups I’ve just mentioned—will be eligible for loan forgiveness.”
—Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), at a press conference on June 20, 2007


Hak’hel

“And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities— that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching.”
—Deuteronomy 31:10–12

“The hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth.”
—Erasmus

9.21.2008

A risk that paid off

I wrote this post on August 25, but didn't have time to review it and post it until now. Busy, busy, busy, as my grandma, z"l, always used to say! (Actually, both grandmothers often remarked on how busy I always seemed to be.) I am not going to update it, since it captures a particular time and place that I kind of like having in captivity, one month and many changes later.

* * * * *

I’ve been wanting to write a wrap-up post about my experiences in the yeshiva for awhile now, but I’ve been very busy with last-minute doctors’ appointments (health insurance in Israel for people who might theoretically have pre-existing conditions—any advice?), setting up my freelance writing and editing business (clients, anyone?), finalizing things with my subletter, and packing up my stuff (not done yet).

But here I am, in Omaha, Nebraska, waiting for a flight back to New York after my cousin’s bat mitzvah. The bat mitzvah was beautiful, and much more joyous and hopeful than I had expected. (If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you may recall this.) I also got to see my grandmother’s gravestone for the first time, which somehow felt…right. The family members who chose the inscription chose very well.

Aliza Mazor came to the yeshiva to do a wrap-up session on the last Tuesday that we met. She asked us all how we think differently about our own Jewish life as result of the experience. I hadn’t thought about it, since I was so busy learning. Once I started writing, I found that I couldn’t stop. This is the list that I made, and I think it’s safe to say that most or all of these merit their own posts. Someday, I hope!
  • I feel like more of an actor or an active player in my own Jewish decisions. I would have described myself that way before the summer, but, in retrospect, I have been passively floating along for a very long time.
  • I have new confidence that I have something to say and that other people want to hear what I have to say.
  • I have a new feeling that egalitarianism isn’t beyond the pale religiously or sociologically.
  • I have a new sense that perhaps tefillah and limmud Torah aren’t as totally separable as I previously thought they were. Perhaps you can’t honestly do one without the other.
  • I have a renewed conviction that one can and should bring one's personal and emotional life to bear on one's limmud Torah.
  • It’s possible to not be afraid of a challenge, even if it sometimes includes failure.
  • Halacha can be relevant, interesting, and more than either an intellectual game or a sort of traditional, ethnic code of conduct that's divorced from the intellect.
I was mildly terrified of the yeshiva experience before I went. The days were long; I hadn’t learned in such an intense environment in a very long time; I wasn’t sure how I felt about the egalitarian davening setting.

And it worked out. In fact, it worked out so well that I didn’t even remember by the end that I had been (mildly) terrified before I started. It wasn’t perfect—of course. It had its attendant frustrations, which were only exacerbated by the fact that I had such high expectations. I was given a choice between two gemara shiurim [Talmud classes], and I chose to be in the one for people with slightly less experience, which may have been a mistake. I had a great chavruta in that class, though, which was amazing. (I don't know if I recognized how great it was at the time.)

I don't really have time to write more--I have a plane to catch. I just wanted to tell everyone, after this summer of relative silence, that I am glad that I made the decision to spend the summer learning, and I'm glad I decided to do it where I did it.

9.15.2008

?סדר היום? צלותא דאברהם

Does anyone know anything about a book called "צלותא דאברהם" by אברהם לנדא? It's a book about tefillah [prayer]. There are two or three other books by this title written by other people. This one is eluding me.

How about one called "סדר היום," possibly by the , מגן אברהם, aka "ר' אברהם אבלי גומבינר"?

Thanks!

P.S. I'm sorry for the long absence. I am still alive and kicking, now in Jerusalem. I have a bunch of blog posts up my sleeve (including a wrap-up of my summer yeshiva studies), but no time to write or finish them, since I am so gosh darn busy learning. (Also, I have no internet at home (yet), so my internet time is severely limited.)

8.20.2008

Suicide on college campuses and thinking about long-term career options

I am taking a break from packing for Israel to tell you to read this. It doesn't surprise me. I only hope that colleges are starting to deal with this problem in a responsible way, through providing adequate (or better!) medical and mental health care, rather than trying to immediately kick anyone out who might have any mental health problems due to liability concerns. During my five years in college (a story for another time, I suppose), I saw the university shift in some positive and some negative ways, both towards more fear of liability but also towards a heartier array of helpful resources for students, and more interest in publicizing those resources.

Anyone who wants to read more on the topic can start with College of the Overwhelmed, by Richard Kadison and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo. I know Richard Kadison and was interviewed for the book.

I was very active in mental health advocacy in college, mostly on behalf of students to deans, advisers, and other university staff. I also worked on reducing stigma in the student population, and served as an informal resource for a lot of students who wanted to seek help for their mental health concerns and didn't know where to turn. I really miss that work. It was the first public speaking that I ever felt comfortable with. I thought that I might make a career out of it at one point, but I didn't get the one job that I applied for in that field, so, instead, I ended up doing something else for the last five years. (I did get an interview, though, which felt promising at the time.)

Part of me still feels drawn to some kind of career in public health/urban planning/environmentalism/anti-domestic violence. I don't know exactly how all of those things intersect in my brain, but they do, in interesting ways. For me, it basically boils down to this: People should live in environments (both macro and micro) that support their full potential as human beings and that allow them to be supportive members of larger communities, while engaging their minds and bodies fully, and in a way that is sustainable in the long term. That's the life that I want to lead and that I want everyone around me to lead. Now, how can we make that happen? I know it's a tall order, but I think it has to do both with how people interact on a micro level and how cities are designed and built on a macro level. Who gets to think and learn and write about this stuff, and how can I sign up?

I worry, sometimes, about getting fully sucked up into the wonderful world of Jewish learning, and setting aside all of these other nascent interests that I have, that have not-very-much to do with gemara or halakhah.

8.18.2008

For kids getting ready for their first day of school...

This brought back memories. Mostly of watching TV, not of going to school!

If you've got a kid on your hands who somehow already hates school (shame!), try this. (The "Teeny Little Super Guy" animator, Paul Fierlinger, animated this as well.)

And for those of you looking for a full-on nostalgia experience, this. I don't recognize most of the stuff after 1987 or so, which is understandable. I was surprised by how much of the old stuff I recognized, until I remembered that Sesame Street reuses old clips all the time. I wonder if they still throw stuff from the 1970s in just to shake things up a little?

8.16.2008

One day...

I hope to get married and be able to use this Alternative Gift Registry.

I truly enjoyed buying something or giving a donation off of this registry, since the celebrants wrote up a little bit about why it was meaningful or important to them. I am perfectly happy to donate a pizza stone and cutter to you in honor of your wedding, but it's so much more fun when you tell me why you want it! (Did you have pizza on your first date? Will it help one of you win a bet as to whether you can make vegan pizza taste good? Do tell!) It also seems infinitely customizable, which is appealing to me.

Mazal tov, EM and JN!

Who can tell me...

why the Mechon Mamre parallel Hebrew-English Tanakh website looks like this (see below, click to enlarge) on my Mac in Firefox now?

I don't think I changed any settings. What happened and how can I fix it?

This is how it looks in Safari, but I use Firefox almost exclusively, so all that helps me know is that it's a Firefox issue, not a computer-wide issue.

Other Hebrew looks normal in Firefox, and when I copy and paste from the funny characters into, say, a blog post, it comes out fine.

Does it have anything to do with this? I feel like it must somehow be reading this as a page of Hebrew instead of a page of English, but I don't know how to fix that.

Thanks, blogosphere!

On a related note, if anyone can give me a good workaround for using Word for Mac (2004) with Hebrew text, please share! I can paste into TextEdit or a gmail message without reversing all the words in the Hebrew, but when I copy and paste from a Hebrew website either directly into Word for Mac (2004) or from TextEdit or a gmail message, the Hebrew words appear in the wrong order. I would hate to have to buy Windows just to get around this problem. Plus, I would have to buy Windows and the Windows version of Microsoft Word, which would really be irritating. I love my Mac, but due to all the learning I am doing these days, I am writing more and more in Word using Hebrew text, and I need to be able to do that. Thoughts?

I was disappointed that none of my astute and well-versed blog readers had an answer to my kinah query. Oh, well. It probably isn't online anywhere, and the only way to get it electronically would be to type it out or scan it and find some Hebrew OCR software.

8.10.2008

Post-Tisha B'Av query

Does anyone know where I can find the full text of the kinah that starts with "אָז בַּהֲלוֹךְ יִרְמְיָהוּ אֶל קִבְרֵי אָבוֹת"? (It's a daytime kinah, listed as 27 or 28, depending on the book.) I thought that הזמנה לפיוט would have it, but they don't. I have it in print, but that seems so...useless.

Thanks!

Because your brokenness is as great as the sea: כִּי-גָדוֹל כַּיָּם שִׁבְרֵךְ

I was going to post, at one point over the past three weeks, about how I wasn't really in the "Tisha B'Av mood" this year, and how hard it wasn't particularly difficult to feel sad, but it was difficult to feel sad for this.

It is all too easy for me to read Eicha or kinot and feel sad for the losses that I have experienced personally. Experiencing communal losses, especially losses that took place so long ago, has always been more difficult. One of the challenges of Tisha B'Av for me is to move away from reading the lamentations of Eicha and personalizing them (as I tend to1), and to try to think about what it means for a community to be destroyed and what that destruction did to us, rather than how our lives might sometimes look as tragic as Jeremiah's lamentations.

I was sitting, listening to Eicha last night, and the second half of this verse suddenly blew me away with its beauty:

יג מָה-אֲעִידֵךְ מָה אֲדַמֶּה-לָּךְ, הַבַּת יְרוּשָׁלִַם--מָה אַשְׁוֶה-לָּךְ וַאֲנַחֲמֵךְ, בְּתוּלַת בַּת-צִיּוֹן: כִּי-גָדוֹל כַּיָּם שִׁבְרֵךְ, מִי יִרְפָּא-לָךְ. 13 What shall I take to witness for thee? What shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? What shall I equal to thee, that I may comfort thee, O virgin daughter of Zion? For thy breach is great like the sea; who can heal thee?

I can't say that I love the JPS (1917) translation. I would translate it as: "For your brokenness is as great as the sea, who can heal you?" The implication clearly being: Nobody can heal you.

Hearing this verse read last night made me feel, as perhaps nothing ever had before, that things were so horribly undone with the destruction of the Temples and subsequent exile that they can never be done up again. My life was irrevocably changed by that event, and that the tragic events of those years somehow lives in on each of us. The brokenness of that time was so great that it, in fact, could not and can not be repaired. Somehow, instead of reading my personal life as a gloss over the text of Eicha, I was able to read Eicha as a gloss on my own life. Rather than "I am that," I felt "that is me."

I can't say what life would have been like had the Babylonians not sacked Jerusalem in 586 BCE or the Romans in 70 CE. If the prophecy of Deuteronomy 4:272 hadn't come about, how would the world be different? How wold the Jewish people be different? Would we still be sacrificing animals in the Temple? Would there be a priestly class and a class of Levites that ate special food (i.e., maaser)? Would instant messaging have been invented in the Land of Israel rather than the State of Israel? Would psychoanalysis exist? Would Hollywood? Would Spain be different? Would Germany? Some of these may seem like silly questions, but maybe they aren't. We would live in a different world if these two tragedies hadn't happened.

My life would certainly be quite different. I would not have spent the past five years working in the field of Jewish education in New York City; I would not have spent the past summer studying Talmud and midrash and halacha. I cannot calculate the extent to which my life, both inner and outer, is shaped by an ancestral history of exile, oppression, emigration, and immigration. I would not be who I am today without my dual status as both an insider3 and an outsider4 in the United States. Even if I had grown up in Israel and somehow didn't have this feeling of being an outsider in a majority culture, I would be a person entirely shaped by living in a state that arose during modernity, not a state in continuous existence from the time of the Romans.

Part of me wants to say that if that had somehow not happened, if our ancestors had not so royally messed up, Jerusalem might still be a "קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה," a "faithful city," about which is said "מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט, צֶדֶק יָלִין בָּהּ," "she was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her" [Isaiah 1:21]. I do not mean to cast general aspersions on the modern city of Jerusalem; I wish to imagine, briefly, a world in which Jerusalem was now and has been for the past 2000 years the widely-recognized seat of righteousness and justice in the world. Can you imagine that? Could that have happened, or was that merely a dream of a frustrated prophet?

Something I've thought about a lot lately is that when we mourn, we mourn not only for the tremendous loss of life and the Temples, but for the losses that have plagued us since that time because of those tragedies and for the lost potential that evaporated when those tragedies occurred. This is a natural thing to think of when we lose a human being before his or her time (what they might have been! what they might have done!), but when a community is prematurely cut off from its homeland, it's less natural to think in those terms. But, in many ways, that is the heart of this tragedy.

The description of how deeply and irrevocably the ancient Israelites disregarded their eternal covenant with God up also struck me this year, perhaps for the first time. Rather than wondering how such total destruction could ever have been warranted, I felt myself channeling Isaiah and Jeremiah and railing a bit at the ancient Israelites. How could you have done that? And, having done that, how could you ask God to save you? I wondered how the text of Eicha could be so shocked at the destruction and plead so willfully for God to remember his covenant if the Israelites had so clearly ignored their half of the deal.

Because of a d'var Torah that was I gave several times during the Three Weeks, I spent a lot of time before Tisha B'Av reading Jeremiah 11:
ח וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, וְלֹא-הִטּוּ אֶת-אָזְנָם, וַיֵּלְכוּ, אִישׁ בִּשְׁרִירוּת לִבָּם הָרָע; וָאָבִיא עֲלֵיהֶם אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַבְּרִית-הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר-צִוִּיתִי לַעֲשׂוֹת--וְלֹא עָשׂוּ. {ס} 8 Yet they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked every one in the stubbornness of their evil heart; therefore I brought upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do, but they did them not.' {S}
ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֵלָי: נִמְצָא-קֶשֶׁר בְּאִישׁ יְהוּדָה, וּבְיֹשְׁבֵי יְרוּשָׁלִָם. 9 And the LORD said unto me: 'A conspiracy is found among the men of Judah, and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
י שָׁבוּ עַל-עֲו‍ֹנֹת אֲבוֹתָם הָרִאשֹׁנִים, אֲשֶׁר מֵאֲנוּ לִשְׁמוֹעַ אֶת-דְּבָרַי, וְהֵמָּה הָלְכוּ אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, לְעָבְדָם; הֵפֵרוּ בֵית-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּבֵית יְהוּדָה, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אֶת-אֲבוֹתָם. {ס} 10 They are turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear My words; and they are gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers. {S}
And a bit later:
יג כִּי מִסְפַּר עָרֶיךָ, הָיוּ אֱלֹהֶיךָ יְהוּדָה; וּמִסְפַּר חֻצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, שַׂמְתֶּם מִזְבְּחוֹת לַבֹּשֶׁת--מִזְבְּחוֹת, לְקַטֵּר לַבָּעַל. {ס} 13 For according to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah; and according to the number of the streets of Jerusalem have ye set up altars to the shameful thing, even altars to offer unto Baal. {S}

What were you thinking? What was so tempting about wood and stone? The feeling I had is also reflected earlier in Jeremiah (2:27):

כז אֹמְרִים לָעֵץ אָבִי אַתָּה, וְלָאֶבֶן אַתְּ ילדתני (יְלִדְתָּנוּ), כִּי-פָנוּ אֵלַי עֹרֶף, וְלֹא פָנִים; וּבְעֵת רָעָתָם יֹאמְרוּ, קוּמָה וְהוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ. 27 Who say to a tree: 'Thou art my father', and to a stone: 'Thou hast brought us forth', for they have turned their back unto Me, and not their face; but in the time of their trouble they will say: 'Arise, and save us.'

It wasn't only that they were worshiping idols. They were also being unethical in their interpersonal relations (Jeremiah 5:1: "שׁוֹטְטוּ בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וּרְאוּ-נָא וּדְעוּ וּבַקְשׁוּ בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ, אִם-תִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ, אִם-יֵשׁ עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט מְבַקֵּשׁ אֱמוּנָה", Jeremiah 5:28: "דִּין לֹא-דָנוּ, דִּין יָתוֹם וְיַצְלִיחוּ; וּמִשְׁפַּט אֶבְיוֹנִים, לֹא שָׁפָטוּ"), which somehow bothers me more but is also more understandable to me.

After all, how often do I walk by a poor person on the street, asking for money, and give nothing? (Almost every day.) How often do I lie around, watching television or reading blogs instead of doing justice and seeking truth? (Too often.) And what am I losing and what am I at the risk of destroying, by my willful blindness and inaction? (I do not know and, I daresay, on most days, I do not care.)

The messages of Jeremiah and Isaiah are clearly very simplistic: Do not sin; if you sin you will suffer greatly; oh, no! you've sinned and now great suffering is happening. But it is also poignant and so often the way of the world. We don't like to think of the connection between sin and suffering, because of its implication that suffering means that someone has sinned. But I don't know if I have such a problem with the reverse, that sin leads to suffering. If you don't treat the widow and the orphan right; if you become corrupt; if you worship material goods rather than God; your society will fall apart and everyone--even the suckling infants--will suffer.

This year, after thinking that I wasn't really getting into it over the past three weeks, it was almost too much for me to bear in the end: the totality of the sin and then the graphic descriptions of the near totality of the destruction. It washed over me, the brokenness of the people Israel, then and now, that was as great as the sea, and I felt (Jeremiah 8:23):
כג מִי-יִתֵּן רֹאשִׁי מַיִם, וְעֵינִי מְקוֹר דִּמְעָה; וְאֶבְכֶּה יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, אֵת חַלְלֵי בַת-עַמִּי. {ס} 23 Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people! {S}

It all seemed so pointless and avoidable yet utterly irreparable, and I couldn't stop obsessing how vastly different the state of the world might be if it hadn't gone that way. What if, instead of Tisha B'Av, a day when we remember injustice and turning to false gods and the subsequent destruction, we had a day to celebrate this (Isaiah 1:17)?

יז לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט, אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ; שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם, רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה. 17 Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.


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1. For example, I would have read [Lamentations 3:8]
ח גַּם כִּי אֶזְעַק וַאֲשַׁוֵּעַ, שָׂתַם תְּפִלָּתִי. 8 Yea, when I cry and call for help, He shutteth out my prayer.
and thought about times in my own life that my prayers have not been answered.
2. Deuteronomy 4:27:
כז וְהֵפִיץ יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם, בָּעַמִּים; וְנִשְׁאַרְתֶּם, מְתֵי מִסְפָּר, בַּגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר יְנַהֵג יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה.
27 And the LORD shall scatter you among the peoples, and ye shall be left few in number among the nations, whither the LORD shall lead you away.
3. a fully enfranchised citizen, a native, a literate person, someone who appears to be part of the mainstream
4. someone who eats differently, who celebrates different holidays, someone who grew up in a bilingual household

8.05.2008

Amusing recycling tip

This appeared at the top of my gmail today:
Film canisters can be reused to store nails, screws, buttons and pins.
I remember using film canisters for all kinds of great things1, but how many people use film these days? I feel like film, if used, mostly takes the form of disposable cameras left for the use of guests at weddings or purchased when one's digital camera was left at home.

I just got my first digital camera in May, and it's thrilling. I am taking far, far too many photos right now, but, still--how fun!

I wonder what other passe, no-longer-culturally-relevant recycling tips are out there? I think we need to recycle more than ever, but not things that we no longer use!

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1. Also, metal Band-aid boxes. I miss those--they were great for storing little treasures as a kid! I was sad when they switched over to cardboard boxes, although it was probably for the good of the world. (I am pretty sure that it takes less energy to produce cardboard than to produce metal, since its raw materials don't need to be extracted from the earth. On the other hand, metal may be cheaper to recycle, since it can be melted down.)

8.01.2008

Online Torah resources

I've added a new section on the right sidebar, called "Online Torah resources."

I've known about some for years (Mechon Mamre, E-daf.com), but others I learned about at yeshiva this summer (Talmud manuscripts from the Jewish National University Library). One more thing to add to the extensive list of things I got from yeshiva this summer!

Let me know if you have things for me to add to the list. I am always happy to learn about new sources of learning online. I far prefer full copies of traditional texts in Hebrew to either English translations or to websites with Jewish content, which I think are easier to find with Google. (I'm not saying that there aren't many good ones out there--myjewishlearning.com among them--but that I don't want to add a list of them to the side of my blog.)

Another thing that doesn't belong on that list but that I have found to be useful is the Wikimilon (wikidictionary in Hebrew).

Shabbat shalom!

7.30.2008

Overflowing with blessing

Brief update: Life is exceedingly good. Yeshiva was amazing and life-changing, I have secured two writing-Jewish stuff (a.k.a. Torah)-for-money gigs for the coming year (both of which will require a lot of work, but I like to work hard at things that I love), and I will be speaking at a shul in Manhattan this coming Shabbat. (E-mail me for details if you want 'em. I would love to see friendly faces in the audience.) I have never spoken in or to a shul before; before this summer, I don't think I would have thought that I could. But I have things to say! Hopefully, interesting things! This is sort of like my bat mitzvah, seventeen years too late, and hopefully more interesting than anything I could have come up with seventeen years ago.

Whew. I want to write a lot more about a lot, as always, but polishing up my drasha takes precedence.

7.14.2008

Online siddur resource

Here. Online siddur. The only problem (thus far) is that it doesn't properly copy and paste into Word. At least not on a Mac. If anyone has a solution, please do share! (It pastes into TextEdit just fine, but all the words are in the wrong order in Word.)

7.09.2008

Text Two: Torah's Relationship to Me

The second text that I shared in fulfillment of this assignment was much shorter. It was this:

יט הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ--הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed;

This is Deuteronomy 30:19. I was sitting and learning Tanakh on my own one day, when I was a senior in high school. It would be a severe understatement to say that I was going through a rough patch. Everything was hard. Nothing was going right. Life really sucked and throwing in the towel seemed kind of like a good idea.

And then I read this verse, and it was like God was speaking to me through the text. I saw, for the first time in my life, full acknowledgement from a source that I considered authoritative that there was both life and death in this world; both good and bad; both blessings and curses. God put both before us, and gave us death, bad, curses, etc. In my life at the time, it seemed that acknowledgement of the bad parts of life was forbidden. One should focus on the positive, be grateful for all that one has, etc. It's like people were afraid to acknowledge that sometimes life just totally sucked.

So to me, in 1996, this verse recognized that there was bad, death, and curses in the world, and that they were put before us by God just like the good stuff was. But the verse also recognized that God gave us the power to choose something else over death, bad, curses, etc. He gave us the power to choose life. God was telling me that I had a choice--that I had agency. This was the first time I understood, really understood, bechira chofshit. I felt like this idea--that I had choices in life and that God trusted me to make those choices--was new and exciting and phenomenal and comforting, all at once. Wasn't I seventeen? Wasn't my every move still controlled by an idiosyncratic set of rules contrived and enforced by adults?

No, this text said, no. You are a human being and you always have a choice. And this verse, with one word--"choose"/"וּבָחַרְתָּ"--both tells us that (a) we have a choice and (b) urges us to make the choice in one particular way--towards life. So I did. I chose life then and I chose life over and over again, every time I saw the choice between life and death, good and bad, blessings and curses, laid out before me.

I frame this not as my relationship to Torah, but the Torah's relationship to me. Time and time again (not frequently enough that I can expect or count on them, but not so infrequently that I lose hope that I will never have another moment like this), something--a verse, a mishna, an aggadata--reaches out from the page, picks me up, grabs me, and shakes me, and my life is changed forever for the better.

I chose to think of this as God speaking to me through text. I don't know where these texts come from, but I feel, from personal experience, that their holiness lies in large part in the messages that they transmit directly to our hearts. Forget all of the sturm und drang of my intellectual love affair with Torah, muddled as it constantly is by my concerns as a free-thinking, critical, post-Modern, feminist, Western, single, childless woman. Fuggedaboutit! These are texts that transcend those concerns and that, in a way, is what makes them most Godly. These are texts that I read in a particular time and place that flip a switch in my heart, in the deepest understandingest part of me, and make me love life.

I know, for a fact, that non-Torah texts have the power to do this to me, also. But there is something about these texts being mine, by dint of birth and 29 years of all-encompassing Jewish living, that makes them more valuable to me than non-Torah texts that flip similar switches in my heart.

This is much shorter than my Text One piece, but I think that's because it's really almost not about words at all, or at least not as much as Text One was. It's about words that quickly transmogrify into strong emotions. It's almost as if the less said about it, the better. I am sure that this is one of those things in life that would only get worse with more analysis, with more words, with more footnotes. Analysis is for Text One: My Relationship to Torah.

Text Two: Torah's Relationship to Me, defies words.