How Do You Jew An educational, informational, conversational blog and (someday) podcast about Judaism, Jewish practices, customs, and rituals, Israel, and whatever else we decide to talk about.

July 12, 2006

Short and sweet.

Filed under: Shabbat,Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 17:14

I delivered the following mini-drash on July 8 at Ohr Shalom. I am indebted to my mom for pointing me to the Talmudic passage I reference.
Six hundred thirteen. Sound familiar? It should – that’s the number of mitzvot most rabbis tell us are in the Torah. And we should all believe our rabbi, right?

Yes, but as we also know, Jews never just agree about something. Even if the result is agreement, the road to get to consensus is long, arduous, and filled with, er, shall we say, friendly intellectual debate?

Thus we find that there are alternatives to the much-talked-about 613. One well-known example is Hillel’s response to the man who wanted to learn the entire Torah while standing on one leg: “‘What is hateful to you, don’t do to others,'” Hillel said, “The rest is commentary, now go and study!”

This is essentially all the mitzvot distilled into one. But this isn’t the only time our wise sages played the numbers. In one of those friendly debates in the Talmud (Makkot 23b), Rabbi Simla’i points out that, at the end of today’s haftarah (Chapter 6, verse 8 ), the prophet Micah said, “God has told you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

So there you have it! The Jewish trinity! The final word on how many mitzvot there are, right?… well, not exactly, since the same rabbi makes arguments for several other counts as well… But my point is that there ARE always mitzvot – the Torah isn’t just a book of history or tall tales, blessings and curses, begats and animal sacrifices. It’s a powerful guide for our everyday lives and our relationships with each other and with God. Want to know more? Go and study!

Shabbat shalom!

June 17, 2006

Synchronicity (not the Police song).

Filed under: Commentary,Shabbat,Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 22:57

I delivered this D’var Torah this morning at Ohr Shalom:


I really love it when circumstances come together to create a harmonious, pleasant situation. Some refer to this as synchronicity; in my worldview, this is evidence of the existence of God. I don’t see God as an old man with a flowing beard sitting in a throne up above, conducting human affairs. For me, God is, among other things, those little clues and hints that things are going the way they should, that I should keep heading down the path I’m on.

So it was with great delight that I informed Rabbi Meltzer that I would deliver the drash this morning on Parashat Be’Ha’alotcha. Besides the practical concern that I couldn’t commit to being in shul next Shabbat and could therefore not speak about Shlach, I had found in this week’s parasha much to relate to and speak about. At the beginning of chapter 10, God instructs Moshe as to the crafting of two silver trumpets, to be used to “summon the community and set the divisions in motion.” As a former trumpet player, this appealed to me greatly. But I’m not talking about that.

At the end of chapter 10, we find the familiar verses we recite when the Torah is removed from and returned to the Ark, “ויהי בנסע הארון…” etc. But I’m not talking about that either. The parasha goes on for a couple more chapters which I also won’t be speaking about, today anyway.

Much of the portion, which begins with chapter 8 of the Book of Numbers, deals with technical and ritual details of the Tabernacle, the portable Ark that the Israelites traveled through the desert with so many generations ago. Beginning with verse 5, we find instructions for the preparation of the Levites – the workforce that will handle the Ark and the sacred objects associated with it.

As a Levy, I was naturally struck by the coincidence of the opportunity to drash on this subject, but the Torah didn’t let me off so easily. Verse nine reads, “You shall bring the Levites forward before the Tent of Meeting…”, then verse 10 repeats the construction, “and bring the Levites forward before the Lord…” In Hebrew, the verses are

והקרבת את הלוים לפני אהל מועד… והקרבת את הלוים לפני יהוה…

The Hebrew word used here for “bring forward” – והקרבת – is from the same root as the word קרבן – sacrifice. The parallels continue in verses 11 and 13 when Moses is instructed to have Aaron “designate the Levites before the Lord as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may perform the service of the Lord.” Again, the verbs in the Hebrew,

והניף אהרן את הלוים תנופה לפני יהוה… והנפת אתם תנופה ליהוה

are the same used to describe actions taken during ritual animal sacrifices.

Regardless of your opinion of the Torah’s authorship, I hope you’ll agree that it’s well written enough that such parallels aren’t, in fact, just flukes.I certainly hope, as the Etz Hayim commentary notes about verse 11, “that this ritual was executed only in symbolic form.” What, then, does this wordplay tell us?

Well, at the time of the Exodus, and then later in the Temple periods, the Levites served God on behalf of the Israelite people. It can be said then, and the Torah explicitly does say, that they were “closer to God.” In order to achieve and maintain this exalted position, the Levites had to make some sacrifices of their own – including full body shaves and only wearing ritually pure clothing. They were thus “set apart” from the Israelites, God says in verse 14, and belonged to God.

Today, we have no Holy Temple, and we do not engage in ritual sacrifice; that is to say, we have no official priestly class to do the “dirty work” for us. We all have the opportunity to get closer to God, but, just like the Levites, we have to make some sacrifices. So we give up some of our Friday evenings or Saturday mornings to come to shul; we keep separate sets of dishes and think about what we eat; at times, we display some obvious outward symbols of our faith. They may not be as drastic as a full body shave, but we do all these things in our efforts to elevate ourselves, to make our lives, and the world, a bit better, more Godly. I hope you see these sacrifices as I imagine the ancient Levites saw theirs, not as burdens, but as gifts from a loving God and a wise tradition.

May 8, 2006

Our Difficult Texts

Filed under: Arab-Israeli Conflict,Commentary,Israel,Shabbat,Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 22:50

בראש השנה, בראש השנה…

On Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year) 5766/2005 I had the honor of delivering a d’var Torah at Ohr Shalom Synagogue here in San Diego. I first met Rabbi Scott Meltzer in 1998, and our relationship has evolved and progressed quite a bit in the near decade since. I am proud to consider him a friend as well as a teacher, and I’m grateful for the repeated opportunities I’ve had to address his congregation.


Shana Tovah! First, I want to thank Rabbi Meltzer for this opportunity to speak about our Torah reading today. Several years ago, Rabbi Meltzer taught me that a good Dvar Torah should be brief, it should be personal, and, of course, it should teach some Torah. I hope I fulfill these conditions today with my 18-page thesis.

The story we read each Rosh Hashana, about the expulsion of Hagar & Ishmael from Avraham’s house, is a difficult one. I thought long and hard about how to spin the story positively. I considered the “new beginnings” and new home Hagar & Ishmael were forced to find and the connection to the new year, but I believe that would have been disingenuous and evasive. The bottom line is, this is a distressing, intensely disturbing story, and I wanted to tackle it head-on. (Incidentally, if you find it hard to believe that the Torah treats us to challenging tales at seemingly inopportune times, you should come to shul more often (wink & nudge to Rabbi).)

Seriously, though… If we take this time of year – well, seriously – it shouldn’t come as such a shock that each year on Rosh Hashana we’re forced to read a story that compels thorough introspection and self-reflection. Let’s recap: Avraham and Sarah failed to conceive children; Sarah gave Avraham permission to sleep with her handmaiden Hagar; the resultant offspring was Ishmael. In the portion we will read today, it is years later. Husband and wife are well into their golden years, and God tell Sarah that she will, in fact, have a child of her own. She laughs this silliness off, but then carries and gives birth to Isaac. She then experiences what is arguably one of the most severe bouts of post-partum depression in human history, and orders Avraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael. The father of the Jewish people initially protests, but then none other than God the Almighty tells him to listen to Sarah and accede to her wishes, whatever she says. Of course, as we know from reading ahead (or recalling from last year), Avraham tends to be the “follow God’s orders first, ask questions later (or not at all)” kind of guy, so the forced evacuation of Hagar & Ishmael is carried out. They are sent out into the desert with some bread and a skin of water.

Here’s the thing: Hagar, as previously mentioned, is a “handmaiden” – essentially a slave. So this expulsion is explained by some commentators, based on the laws of slavery at that time, as her being granted her freedom. What could be better than freeing slaves?! They live happily ever after, end of story, right? We now return to Avraham, Sarah, and Isaac, already in progress.

That doesn’t sit well with me. Hagar was an integral, even intimate member of Avraham and Sarah’s household for a very long time. Her relationship with the ancestor of our people was clearly more than slave and master, so the whole “you’re free now!” argument holds about as much water as the skin Avraham gave her and their son when he sent them out to the middle of the desert.

There are many possible moral lessons hidden in this tale. Many commentators view Ishmael unfavorably. With or without this prejudice, he is considered the father of the Arabs, with whom the Israelites of course have a long and, er, shall we say complicated history (I’ll refrain from getting into political or historical details here; maybe I’ll tackle those next year, if I get invited back).

Rather, I want to stay with Hagar & Ishmael on their journey. One particular turn of phrase, highlighted in the Etz Chayim chumash commentary on page 115, struck me this year.

After wandering in the desert for some time, their provisions run out, and Hagar leaves her son under a tree and goes to sit at some distance so as not to see him suffer and die. In chapter 21, verse 8, God speaks to her, saying,

קומי שאי את הנער והחזיקי את ידך בו – Get up, lift up the boy, and (as the translation has it) hold him by the hand.

But my familiarity with modern Hebrew (and, conveniently, the Etz Chayim commentary, as well) tells us that the literal meaning of “hachaziki et yadech bo” is “make your hand strong in his” – that is, draw strength from him! In contemporary Hebrew, we still use this phrase, although almost exclusively in parent-child relationships. In Hebrew-speaking households, “tachzik li et ha-yad” – hold my hand, or make my hand strong in yours – is the phrase invoked by parents and children for protection when crossing the street or walking in a crowded, potentially threatening place.

Hand-holding is relegated mostly to parents and children, and additionally to couples in love who aren’t afraid of “public displays of affection.” When we hold each others’ hands, literally or figuratively, we are capable of acts of courage or strength we wouldn’t be able to accomplish on our own. Thus the sense of protection and safety we feel crossing the street. But this strengthening extends beyond the personal realm, to the communal and the global levels. Our Jewish community organizations serve as financial, social, and spiritual hand-holds for needy individuals in our midst. And, at times, our entire community together can extend its hands in aid to other communities in need, as we just did in gathering aid for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and in response to previous disasters.

It is powerful indeed for me, as an Israeli-American Jew living in the 21st century, following centuries of conflict and bloodshed, to take such a potent lesson for strength and cooperation from the mother and son whose descendants we are trying to make peace with today. I pray that this year and always, we will be empowered by the example of Hagar & Ishmael, and remember that it is with our hands held that we strengthen each other and are able to accomplish the greatest acts of chesed and tzedek – lovingkindness and justice.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life. Shana tovah u’metukah – a sweet, healthy, and happy new year.

May 5, 2006

Spam is NOT kosher; our Shabbat dinner is.

Filed under: Israel,Shabbat — howdoyoujew @ 18:06

I got my first comment today, and I got briefly excited because it meant someone had found my blog before I publicized it to anyone (including my family and friends), but I was quickly cured of my elation by the content. I duly marked it as spam and let WordPress do its thing.

Jenn and I love entertaining, having people over for holiday and weekday meals, game nights, and just because. Sometimes, these occasions are planned a couple or a few weeks in advance, other times – like this evening – they come together in a few days. Among the friends coming over tonight are a couple who just got back from almost two weeks in Israel, and another who we haven’t seen in a while. We’ll be serving a crockpot roast and some meat cupcakes (meatloaf in cupcake cups).

Looking forward to the weekend. Shabbat shalom!

April 28, 2006

By way of introduction…

Filed under: Shabbat,Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 19:40

I guess I should say something about myself, now that this is working, and now that I’ve commited myself to updating it regularly… But maybe not… Perhaps I should just go ahead and keep posting these old divrei Torah, and once I get that out of the way, I’ll start posting current-event, what’s-on-my-mind-at-the-moment blog posts. Next dvar Torah: delivered May 14, 2005, for parashat Emor:


Laws, laws, laws.

Laws of priesthood. Laws for the holidays. Laws of ritual sacrifices. Criminal laws.

This week’s parasha, Emor, is all about laws. Booooring, right? Well, not quite. Because just when you think you can’t take any more of the legalese, you reach the end, and “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc…” (ch. 24 v. 20)

Well, truthfully, that’s not the only interesting bit. Just before this is a juicy bit about some schmoe who blasphemed. His sentence is that he’s stoned to death by the entire community. Granted, this is pretty dramatic, and it should make us grateful that the holy name is, thank God, ineffable.

But what’s a little stoning when you’ve got “an eye for an eye”?

Of course, over the generations our sages have interpreted this verse figuratively and metaphorically, not literally. Rather than taking the life of a healthy cattle animal to compensate for a destroyed one, for instance, the rabbis taught that the injured party – the dispossessed owner – would be paid the assessed value of the animal. This was even extended to cover human bodily injury. Granted, the punishment for murder was the death penalty, but, again, the rabbis made it so difficult to carry out this most harsh of sentences that it was effectively abolished. Namely, it was reserved for cases in which there were two witnesses, and the murderer was warned about the consequences of his actions and went ahead anyway. Of course, all these laws were written for a time when Jews ruled their own destinies and had political and social standing that made having the rules relevant. As we know, until the 20th century, those times were scant indeed.

This Shabbat, having just observed Yom Hashoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – and Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut – Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day – I wish to draw your attention to the one place where these rules of law are relevant once more. Law and order in the modern state of Israel is partly, if not largely inspired by the ancient verses we read each week. This goes beyond the mundane things like the lack of public transportation on Shabbat and holidays, and the fact that you can eat out throughout Passover AND keep kosher.

It is reflected in the fact that Israeli society puts such a high value on human life that the death penalty is reserved only for war criminals, and, as such, has only been carried out once, famously, in the case of Adolf Eichmann. Despite years of criticism and protest, successive Israeli governments have resisted extending capital punishment to terrorists. It is telling that, as the Torah instructs, Israel’s laws apply equally to its own citizens and the gerim – the strangers or foreigners – living under its jurisdiction. Thus, the calls to expand the death penalty to apply to convicted terrorists have been rejected along with those calling for the execution of “unique” criminals like Yigal Amir, the assassin who murdered Yitzhak Rabin.

Behind this reticence about state-sanctioned execution, I believe, lies the underlying respect for not only life, but the body in which we live it. Because really, what is “an eye for an eye” if not the Golden Rule stated in reverse? As Hillel famously said to the aspiring convert who wanted to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary, now go and study!” So, while codifying capital punishment in such a way as to make it singularly difficult to prosecute, our tradition built in the powerful mitzvah of taharat ha-met – purification of the dead – an intense and empowering ritual that I’ve had the honor of participating in a couple of times over the last several months. (This is a rite in which members of the community prepare a deceased’s body for burial.)

Our bodies, the tradition tells us, are not really our own – they’re on loan from God. And as such, we should take care of them, from the moment we arrive on this earth until literally the moment we reenter it. Judaism’s abnegation of human sacrifices, a common practice among the pagan peoples surrounding the ancient Israelites, is one of the principal tenets that separated us from the masses – made us a goy kadosh – and has helped sustain us through the ages.

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Jewish scholars seem to have internalized this philosophy long ago, and it is our privilege to read the verses that inspired them and be galvanized in our own turn to act in ways that exalt our bodies.

April 26, 2006

Tilling on Shabbat

Filed under: Shabbat — howdoyoujew @ 15:31

When I moved to San Diego for graduate school in 1999, I made a commitment to myself not to work on Shabbat. Notice I didn’t say “to observe Shabbat,” with its connotations of not driving, not using electrical appliances, etc. My observance of Jewish ritual and practice had been evolving for years, and I was comfortable in the Conservative part of the spectrum, itself allowing for a great deal of diversity and customization. I simply decided not to do schoolwork on Shabbat; I knew I’d be plenty busy the rest of the week with it, and I wanted to set aside a day when I’d be forced to concentrate on other things. I managed to live up to that commitment for the entire run of my Master’s Degree studies, including getting my department to alter the comprehensive exam schedule, normally Friday to Monday, to accommodate me (and a fellow student, more formally observant than I).

Since then, I’ve gotten married, to a woman blessedly on the same page as I was in terms of observance. We’ve maintained the sense of kedusha – holiness and separation – by trying not to do things on Shabbat that “felt” like work. Thus it was with a conflicted mindset that I agreed, on this particular Shabbat, to join my father-in-law for some yard work. The decision was weighing on me even more since I’d decided to wear a kippah full-time during the Omer; going to a non-kosher restaurant and ordering something that wasn’t explicitly treyf was one thing, but how could I go into a business and carry out a monetary transaction? Now, as I sit here with my hands in so much pain that typing is something of a chore, and my head covered by a baseball cap, I truly appreciate the blessing of this day, and of my tradition.

The work in question was tilling the back yard in our new home, and both front and back at the in-laws’. It involved renting a roto-tiller – a gasoline-powered implement – and not a small amount of manual labor, clearly violations of the Shabbat in traditional terms. But several things occurred to me in the span of the couple of hours it took us to complete the work. First, after guiding the tiller in my own yard for 10 minutes, I gained a new-found respect for my 65-year-old father-in-law, whom I already thought of highly. His strength of body and character are inspiring; I would love to have his constitution in three decades, when I catch up to him.

Immediately following on this thought, I was struck by the image of one of my ancestors, watching his father tilling his field – without the aid of a motorized tool, and having much more property than the typical suburban American home. Then I realized what time of year this was: we just celebrated Pesach, and are in the period of the Omer, anticipating the arrival of Shavuot, which, notwithstanding the rabbinic connection to matan Totah, was at its origin a harvest festival (historically, the Omer was the portion of grain brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering immediately after Pesach).

So it was that doing yard work – on Shabbat, no less – became a transcendent, Jewish experience. The point of my wearing a kippah – the point of virtually every Jewish ritual, in fact – is to add spiritual significance to everyday acts. This can’t be done casually; simply going through the motions doesn’t count. So, while I’m no scholar or expert, I know enough to stop, think, and appreciate a moment that’s informed by Jewish experience. I also know enough to know that my interpretation wouldn’t sit well with a lot of people, even in my own denomination, and I’m aware that I have plenty more to learn, such that my own feelings on the subject might change over time. Still, this Shabbat morning provided me with at least as much spiritual nourishment and food for thought as shacharit and Torah services at shul would have, and for that I feel truly blessed.

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