Pressure to say something interesting

What happens when you have nothing to say in Torah? When another great parsha flies by and you have nothing of note to offer? 

There are several versions of a story in which a king issues a sort of request for proposals from local artists, and the winner will decorate the palace. They will display their wares by decorating a small wing of the palace, and if the king likes their work, they’ll get the contract. In the end, one of the artists provides elaborate tapestries, murals, and the like, and the other offers a mirror that simply reflects the first artist’s work. Surprisingly, the king respects the second “artist’s” work. Not sure if he “wins”, but he is certainly not executed.

Maybe the moral of the story is that sometimes you’ve got something to say, and sometimes you’ve got nothing original to say, but you’ve found someone who does, and you provide a great service by calling attention to it. 

This is not dissimilar to someone who searches the racks of thrift stores to find clothes and things that can be sold in their boutique. It takes a huge amount of skill to find the right things, things that simply need to be presented in the right context, or framed properly. or translated. And sometimes a Torah source needs to simply be found, dusted off, and presented in a modern idiom for us to realize just how useful, inspiring, and impacting it can be.

It is not essential to have something clever to say, to have some new spin to offer. It is also incredibly useful to say, “I found this piece from Rav Kook that is rocking my world” or “this Seforno has completely changed my view on the gender dynamics of 16th-century Italy” or “I thought I understood the nature of reality until I got wind of this Midrash.” 

It can be even more useful (and a lot more vulnerable) to add “and this is how I’m reacting to it” or “this is what I want to do” or “now I am seeing things through the following lens” or the like. 

Maybe throw in some “what are your thoughts on this?” or “does this align with your view of gender dynamics in 16th-century Italy?” or the like.

My point is that there are so many great texts out there. So many great things have been said, and amplifying those things is a great service to offer. One should feel proud that one has found something relevant to share with others, rather than feel embarrassed for not having found something “original” to say.

Speak intensely to your children

We learn a great deal, in the first Rashi of the book of Vayikra, about the nature of the ‘call’ that went out to Moshe before Hashem spoke to him. 

ויקרא אל משה - לכל דברות ולכל אמירות ולכל צוויים קדמה קריאה לשון חבה (יומא ד' ויקרא ר') לשון שמלאכי השרת משתמשים בו שנא' (ישעיה ו) וקרא זה אל זה

And he called to Moshe - for all of the speakings and all of the utterances and all the commandments there was a calling beforehand, which implies affection, language that the ministering angels use, as is written, “And they call to one another.” 

Rashi, from the Gemarra and Midrash, explains that this calling happened every time, regardless of the type of speech that was about to be used. It is interesting, then, to consider, in the opposite direction, what was additional element might have been operative when Moshe spoke to the people. As Rav Kook explains, Moshe had to not only convey a specific message, he had to do so in a way that would have an inspiring effect on the listener.

וידבר ד' אל משה לאמר, צו את אהרן ואת בניו לאמר. כשם שה"לאמר" הראשון הוא מיוסד להגיד, שכח ההשפעה המקורית של הדבור אל משה הופיע ג"כ בהאמירה שלו, למסור דבריו למי שנצטוה להגיד לו את דבר ד', כמו-כן ביסוד   הצואה של אהרן ובניו, שיש בה משום זירוז מיד ולדורות, יעמד כח החיים של דבר ד' הראשון כאשר יצא מפי רועה נאמן לראשית קדושת הכהונה,בישראל, לאהרן ובניו. כמו שהיה מיד, כן יהיה לדורות, באותו רשם הקדש, בעוצם חיותו ועומק קליטתו באמונת אומן נשגבה. והרשם הזה פועל להגן נגד כל התרשלות, האפשרית לבא במקום שיש חסרון כיס, ופועל להקיש את רשם הדורות אל הרשם של מיד. "אין צו אלא זירוז מיד ולדורות. אמר ר"ש ביותר שיש חסרון כיס" (ספרא). 

The first 'to say' is there to communicate that the original effective power of the speech to Moshe was in force when he spoke to convey the word of God to those to whom he was commanded to speak. And the life-force of the original word of Hashem, as communicated by the faithful shepherd at the moment of the original sanctification of the Priesthood, continued to be in force toward Aharon and his sons in order to motivate them, immediately and for all generations. As it was at that first moment, so shall it be for future generations, with this very same impression of the Holy, in its intense alive-ness, and its deep capacity to absorb people into its great faith. And this impression acts to protect against all sorts of weakening which are likely to come when an endeavor is costly, and it also acts to position the impression on future generations as relate to the impression of the original moment. “The word tzav always implies urging, immediately and for future generations. Rabbi Shimon added that this is even more necessary when the act is costly.”

This particular lesson has enormous implications in the realm of pedagogy: It is of  essential importance that we invest our teaching - be it in the classroom or at the seder, or anywhere - with enthusiasm. That is what comes through, in the end. And this can help open up at least one portion of the Hagaddah.

As I have attempted to articulate elsewhere, in light of a teaching from Erica Brown, the Hagaddah is less the story of the Exodus, and more a series of stories about people talking about the Exodus.

Ostensibly, each one of these stories - the Bnei Berak Seder, the 4 sons, the person delivering 1st fruits to Jerusalem, and many others - represents a sort of Exodus in itself. In each, there is some Mitzrayim, and some Exodus, at least in potential. The Four Sons, for example, may represent a family and the need for that family to escape certain patterns that keep that family from the generational healing that Eliyahu the prophet is supposed to bring through the Seder. The bearer of the 1st fruits may be stuck in thinking it is someone else’s story, and he needs to make it his own. 

But what of the Bnei Berak Seder? What’s astounding about this story is that we have no record of what they said (outside of sporadic mention in other parts of the Hagaddah of the five men who were there that could, theoretically, be pinned to that Seder). Rather, we have the simple assertion that these five men, who knew SO much Torah, still enthusiastically engaged with the telling, to the point where they needed to be stopped. 

So what becomes remarkable about the story is not the content, not what they said to each other. Rather, we are left to wonder at the fact that, somehow, there was just so much to talk about. How? Wasn’t the material finite? Sure. but that’s just in one dimension. In this other dimension, driven by passion, enthusiasm, intensity - those things open up so much in the text. So we have an Exodus from the sense of the text, the story, the symbols, the possibilities as finite.


Bo - Where are the adults?!

There is an oft-given homily from this week’s Torah reading that goes as follows: Pharaoh is about to relent and let the Israelites leave Egypt to serve God in the wilderness. He calls for Moses and Aaron and asks: “Who, exactly, would be going to serve your God in the wilderness?” Moses answers, “All of us! Our elders and our youth, men and women, sons and daughters.” Pharaoh believes he sees the farce: “You don’t really need all those people to do your worship! Let just the men go! Those are the only people who are needed in order to perform this worship!”

This conversation is often presented as a juxtaposition between the Egyptian form of worship as the domain of just the men, or maybe the priestly class, and the Israelite form of God-service as a family affair, requiring young and old, priests and laymen, etc. And. But. 

This is not untrue: Judaism, practiced properly, is a family affair. Even within those denominations whose public rituals are entirely led by men, public rituals are not nearly the entirety of God-service. There is so much more: there are meals with questions and answers, there are rituals to be performed at home that everyone can participate in, Sukkahs to build, Purim costumes to coordinate, mishloach manot to deliver, etc. etc. 

Yes. And. Is it possible that Judaism, as it is practiced among many, is too focused on children, at the expense of the adults’ experience? And is it possible that the adults are all too happy to focus their families’ religious practice on Tot Shabbats and Purim Carnivals and the like because they never learned/don’t know/forgot how to make religious practice meaningful and fully engaging for themselves? Is it possible that Judaism itself has become childish for so many people because Jewish adults don’t know how to access the tools needed to update their religious orientation (and this is quite an update for some people - kinda like going from DOS to High Sierra)?

It may well be that I am particularly sensitive at this time of year with 40 days to go until Purim, an adult holiday if there ever was one. Yes, Purim features costumes and schpiels and all sorts of functions and activities that may well appeal to the child in all of us. But really it is a vision quest in disguise, and vision quests are hard, and gut-wrenching (often literally), and require courage and vision and leaving, and friends and fire and trust and truth and faith, and maybe it would just be easier to drive the kids to the Purim Carnival, no?

Shemot - Sometimes, text describes reality

Learning Torah can be dangerous to our well-being. It can cause serious damage to our self-esteem. That would happen particularly when we read something that, in a certain way, inspires us, but ultimately leaves us feeling bad about ourselves because we are not on that level.

The truth is that there are a multitude of such gaps in Jewish liturgy, literature, mysticism, etc. When a “technology” (to use R’ Zalman’s word) is presented and no attention is given to explain how that technology is to be used (and the expectations that should go along with it) it can run amok and leave people feeling hurt, empty, and disillusioned.

Prayer is a common locus for such misunderstanding and pain. One might believe that, once he or she has prayed, then results will follow. (The talmud does deal with that by communicating that iyun tefillin - literally, looking deeply into prayer, figuratively “depending upon one’s prayer, that it will be heard” (Rashi) - evokes a reminder of a person’s sin; “heard” here seems to mean “heard, accepted”.) 

The language of prayer can lead one to big questions: If God “heals the sick”, then why isn’t She healing Aunt Gertrude? Did I do something wrong? Did she? If God opens the eyes of the blind, why are there so many blind people? Is God paying attention? 

This can lead down a rabbi-hole of complex questions, and can lead to serious crises of faith. I understand (not well enough, but at least in name) that prayer is not necessarily determinative of reality, and that, just because we pray for something, doesn’t mean it will automatically happen, and there are many factors, etc. etc. But my point is that we are forced into certain apologetics about prayer because the language of the liturgy lends itself to expectations that therefore require disabusing. And those apologetics are sometimes exist on a slippery slope of reasoning that will require further damage control down the line.

For example, one way (and this is not Rebbe Nachman’s way, BTW) is that we say prayer doesn’t really change the world - it changes us. Now, aside from the very obvious critique that this sounds an awful lot like Reconstructionist Judaism (a point I will BH come back to), one of the big questions on this point is, well, if this is supposed to change me, why should I be using words that I either don’t understand or don’t identify with? If these prayers don’t capture my actual concerns, why should I prayer them? And if understanding is not essential in order to transform me, does that mean they are magical?

All that to say, when a text comes along and tells it like it is, it is such a relief. Suddenly, you feel you’re back in the saddle, like the Torah does in fact reflect and describe (and therefore is allowed to proscribe) your relationship to reality. I found such a passage on this week’s parsha in the Torah Sheleimah (I know I’ve already harped on what an essential text this is. But I mean it). The Torah says, “And it was, over those many days, the King of Egypt died, and the children of Israel groaned from their toil, and they cried out, and their crying-out rose up to God because of their toil. And God heard their wailing….” The Midrash (Tanhuma Ha’azinu 4) says, on this verse:

“…to teach you that the Holy One, Blessed is He, Blessed is His Name, - sometimes He is seen, and sometimes He is not seen; sometimes He hears, and sometimes He does not wish to hear; sometimes He answers, and sometimes He does not answer; sometimes He is sought-after (meaning, allows Himself to be found, after searching? ed.), sometimes He is not sought-after; sometimes He is found, sometimes He is not found; sometimes He is close, and sometimes He is not close.”

Thank you! Thank you for stating the clearly! Even if the reasons why God “chooses” to not hear, or not be found, or not be close would remain a complete mystery, I find this infinitely more satisfying than telling me God is always near (Hashem is here! Hashem is there! Hashem is truly everywhere! Up! Up!) and then leaving me to wonder what exactly I am doing wrong such that I cannot find a connection where I am, which, if I had a partner-in-dialogue with whom to figure that out, I’d love to have that conversation! But if it is just me bouncing my questions off of my neuroses, that’s not going to get far enough to be definitive...

(Also, there is some work that has to be done to figure out whether and how this reconciles with Rebbe Nachman LM I:6:3. Another time.)

Vayechi - Royal Dainties!?

My primary concern, as is evidenced by my publishing record to date, is about how people move through experience, continue to grow, and figure out their place, position, options and possibilities in relationship to God, Torah, ideas, themselves, each other, modernity and culture. 

At the same time, I am unaccustomed to actually putting my thoughts to paper in a more serial fashio, with the intend that my 'idea' will be perceived noth through my ability ot articulate it in one fell swoop but rather my ability to express pieces of it over time. So, this is new for me. 

But I suspect it is important - at least for me - to document my forrays into parsha, holidays, and other sundries that catch my eye, and I will begin now, after this brief caveat: as is well-known, one cannot set out to alternadox. As such, I am deeply committed to not distorting my thoughts and wriitngs with the intention of it being alternadox. I'm just gonna do my thing, and what will be will be.

So, Vayechi. I am particularly interested in the blessings that Ya'akov gives to his sons - specifically, the fact that some sons get a long, descriptive blessing, and other sons get, like 5 words. To wit (translations from, which is a kick-ass website that is only gretting better and better. And it is even more kick-ass since they got access to the entire freaking Steinsaltz Talmud in translation):

Yehudah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, have you grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, like the king of beasts—who dare rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him and the homage of peoples be his. He tethers his ass to a vine, His ass’s foal to a choice vine; He washes his garment in wine, His robe in blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine; His teeth are whiter than milk.

Asher’s bread shall be rich, And he shall yield royal dainties.

Royal dainties!!? Yehudah is a lion, king of beasts, who dare rouse him. He's got a sceptor and a ruler's staff. He washes his robe in blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine. And Asher makes cookies. What are we supposed to do with that?

And yet, as Rav M.M. Kasher brings in Torah Sheleimah (which is an incredible resource that alerts us to just how varied, deep, and sometimes totally bizarre midrashim can be) Genesis Chapter 49 note 394 from the Tanhuma, "Perhaps you want to infer that one of the brothers was greater than the other [like, maybe you think the one who is compared to a lion is more important than the baker - ed.] we see that it says "He blessed them" - that they were all equal." 

It is tempting not to see them as equal, the lion and the baker. I would think that most people would prefer being a lion to being a baker, but it's just not true. In my decidedly anachronistic view, isn't it quite possible that Asher was going to get some out-sized blessing, like "Asher is the elephant who stomped around a lot and made a lot of noise and was really big," and was in fact quite relieved to get the exact blessing that fit his insides: He was a provider of food and nourishment. He was more than comfortable behind the scenes, cooking. 

The concept is enhanced by another Midrash - this one form Bereishit Rabbah Chapter 97: "Since Ya'akov split the land up for them, and gave Yehudah land that yields barley and gave Naftali a land that yields wheat, still yet they were all included in the blessings, such that they would eat from each other's yield, which is what the Torah means when it says, "Each according to his blessing he blessed them." And in another version of the Midrash, Rebbe Elazar adds, "We learn that they suckled/were nourished from one another."

Lions have to eat, no? And bakers need lions, right? Maybe to protect them, and eat their stuff, and maybe even give them purpose sometimes.

Inasmuch (inasmuch as the word inasmuch is a word worth using forthwith) as this section of the Torah is applicable to you and I and today, I hear this very personally. I may have spent too much of my life thus far trying to be a lion (and failing) while there are some royal dainties that need baking. It is ta'avah, a lust, to want to be big, a leader. Leadership is not accomplished by people trying to be leaders. It is accomplished by people doing their thing, with integrity. I think what's-his-name said something like "did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?" Do we need lead roles? Maybe we just need to try to find our thing and do it up and let the larger picture emerge as holding both of us. And thankfully Ya'akov had that larger vision. Ostensibly, each son-tribe had a place in that vision, and if they each did their thing, as well as provided access to each other to be nourished by that thing, then they could move forward together. Or, they could resent each other, clamor for leadership roles, ignore their own talents and gifts, etc.