This week's parashah/ Torah reading, Ki Tissa, doesn't offer much tranquility . . . as we have gone from meteorological storm to meteorological storm this week, our ancient ancestors in the wilderness underwent emotional storm after emotional storm.
Moses, descending from Sinai, shatters the Tables of the Covenant just created by God. Fury, frustration, incomprehension are all packed into this moment.
In the aftermath, God tersely instructs the Israelites that they will embrace and adhere to the following:
For you shall not bow down to another god---because Adonay: His name is Jealous, He is a jealous God--that you not make a covenant with the resident of the land . . . .You shall not make molten gods for yourself. You shall observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, which I commanded you . . . Every first birth of a womb is Mine, and all your animals that have a male first birth, ox or sheep. You shall redeem every firstborn of your sons. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Six days you shall work, and in the seventh day you shall cease: In plowing time and in harvest, you shall cease. And you shall make a Festival of Weeks, of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Gathering at the end of the year. . . . You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice on leavened bread. You shall bring the first of the firstfruits of you land to the house of Adonay your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (excerpted from Sh'mot/Exodus 34: 14-26, Friedman translation)
This has a ring of the Aseret Hadibrot / Ten Utterances / Ten Commandments of course. Especially in the opening strictures of not bowing down to another God and not making molten images. Clearly, at the moment, these commandments needed repeating: the people had just contravened exactly these commandments in their building and worshipping the golden calf.
The rest of the list is interesting and does depart from the familiar Ten Commandments list:
The unique place of the firstborn of animals and humans as dedicated to God.
The stricture against blood sacrifice.
The first fruits offering.
The prohibition against cooking meat in milk.
The list is quite different from the Ten Commandments list in that the theme of mitzvot guiding the relationship among humans is missing, the "mitzvot bein adam l'havero" commandments between one person and another: there is not "you shall not steal," "you shall not murder," "honor your father and your mother," . . . Every mitzvah on this post-golden calf list is in the category of "bein adam lamakom", "between a person and God." These are mitzvot about our relating to God.
In contemplating this list, it strikes me that this is a list of mitzvot that place our consciousness of our relationship to God before us on an ongoing basis. These are mitzvot that are scattered throughout our day, our week, our year, guiding us to constantly keep in mind that we are in relationship with God at all times.
God has learned, the hard way, that among the frailties of human beings we must count short memories and lack of confidence. After the glory of the redemption at the Sea of Reeds, the awe of the revelation at Sinai . . . within weeks we were building an idol and looking to worship it. Anathema to God and a complete dismissal of the commitment (na'aseh v'nishma . . . we will do, we will obey) we had made at Sinai.
Ours is a tradition that puts our relationship with God before us all day, every day, in a multitude of ways. Ours is not a one-day-a-week tradition or a tradition that can easily be pigeon-holed. Judaism is at its richest and most meaningful and most inspiring when we engage with it every day.
A recent Huffington Post essay caught my eye: "Proof that Boredom Isn't As Bad As Your Parents Told You." (October 22nd).
In her essay, author Carolyn Gregoire wrote: "The constant connectivity of life in the digital age has created a situation in which boredom is a rarity. We are ... constantly receptive to "interestingness" and filling our brains with new information, whether via Twitter, news sites, Instagram or online advertising. Whether we're walking down the street, sitting at home, going to the bathroom (75 percent of Americans use their phones while on the toilet, according to a 2012 study), or sitting in the park, we're often filling our brains with information via smartphones at the same time.
These ceaseless streams of information and entertainment can keep us from ever getting bored or simply doing nothing, and that may not be a good thing....
We tend to cast boredom in a negative light, but it can actually be good for our thinking and our physical health. Daydreaming has been shown to boost creativity, and according to one psychologist, it could even help you to achieve the goals that are most personally meaningful to you. Taking the time to let your mind wander could also lead to unexpected insights."
My thoughts immediately went to Shabbat. When our people first began to set aside one day of rest, we were quite the phenomenon in the ancient world. Before Shabbat became the communal practice of our people, no one had the benefit of a weekly day of rest. Now, of course, at least one weekly day off from work is an almost universal practice.
In the context of our modern, plugged-in, constant-stream-of-information age, though, one traditional aspect of Shabbat observance may be more worth embracing: On Shabbat, traditional Jews (not just Orthodox Jews, but traditional Conservative Jews, too) do not use computers, do not use smartphones, do not watch television. Yes, traditional Jews have been benefitting from a day of restorative, day-dream promoting, mind wandering boredom for millenia.
Several years ago, I participated in a four-day retreat for rabbis run by the Jewish Theological Seminary. We met at Ramah Darom, the Conservative summer camp facility in beautiful, rural Georgia. The first day, 60 Conservative rabbis sat in a big circle, and we went around the room introducing ourselves. I watched as one colleague after another pulled out a cell phone and took in the fact that there was no cell phone reception at the camp. It was almost comical to watch the same progression of expressions cross everyone's face: Perplexity. Disbelief. Horror. Relaxation!
There is liberation of spirit in being incommunicado.
Fortunately, we do not have to journey to the wilds of Georgia to experience that liberation of spirit . . . all we have to do to attain that restorative state of day-dreaming, mind wandering latitude is observe Shabbat. The wisdom and the opportunity have been on our doorstep all along!
Every few years (the algorithms of the Hebrew calendar are beyond me), Yom Kippur and Shabbat coincide, as is the case this year. It's an interesting contrast of themes and dynamics: Shabbat is supposed to be a day of עונג/oneg/delight. On Shabbat we are supposed to enjoy the best food of the week, wear the best clothes of the week, sing and relax and, yes, pray with our community. Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day of עינוי/inu'i/self-affliction. On Yom Kippur we are supposed to fast, to wear white (the traditional color of mourning), reflect, look past physical pleasures and, yes, pray with our community.
These seem to be mutually exclusive. So how do we understand this potent day of Shabbat and Yom Kippur together?
I found some inspiration from Ariana Huffington, the editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post. Ms. Huffington is developing an initiative, The Third Metric, which aims to redefine success beyond the first two metrics of money and power to include well-being, wisdom, our ability to wonder and to give back.
Huffington said she personally uses mindfulness and meditation to help achieve those goals.
"Silence is an amazing way to recharge ourselves," she said.
Making time to incorporate this third measure of success can not only change your life, but transform the workplace, Huffington said, by helping people become more creative, productive and connected.
"Olympic athletes get naps. When performance really matters, taking care of yourself is key," she said.
In a speech to more than 800 women at the Women Of Influence luncheon that included Twitter Canada CEO Kirstine Stewart, Huffington stressed that the "hurry-up culture" is not working, and that the whole concept of multitasking is a myth. (Huffington Post, 9/11/13)
On Yom Kippur, the day of the year during which we are given the opportunity to take stock of our priorities, review our relationships with our families and friends and community and God, we should take God as our role model. God, ultimately, has "rochmones"/mercy on us when we approach life with integrity and good intention. Why shouldn't we be as kind to ourselves and those we love?
The underlying thread of the delight of Shabbat flowing under the challenges of Yom Kippur are the best of that Third Metric of Ms. Huffington's. Breath. Let go of that "hurry-up culture." On this ultimate Day of Awe, give yourself permission to feel that awe.
Ask yourself: What are the observances and practices that most say "Judaism" to us? I'd imagine that somewhere at or near the top of your list would be: Shabbat.
Celebrating Shabbat in Jewish community has been a core experience for millennia. Indeed, one of the most profound statements about Shabbat was penned by a an early 20th century Jewish essayist who wrote: "More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews."
One of the striking things about this statement is that it was written by Ahad Ha'am (the pen name for Asher Ginsburg [1856-1927]) who was a secular Zionist thinker! Shabbat reigns in the imagination even of the non-observant Jew.
The roots of Shabbat are found in the creation story of Genesis. After a day-by-day account of what God created each day, Breishit/Genesis relates: "God had finished, on the seventh day, the work God had made, and then ceased, on the seventh day, from all work of creating. God gave the seventh day a blessing and hallowed it, for on it God ceased from all work, that by creating, God had made." (2:2-3)
The initial model of this seventh day is that of a day of rest. This was a groundbreaking concept in the ancient world, in which no concept of a weekly day of rest existed.
Since that first concept of a day of rest, our Jewish people have embroidered on, deepened, enriched the concept of our day of rest. Our great theologians have waxed poetic about our Shabbat:
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote (The Sabbath):
"Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else."
Shabbat, teaches Rabbi Heschel, is the opportunity to step back, slow down, appreciate the mystery and the holiness that surrounds us. Shabbat gives us the opportunity to savor our own holiness, by virtue of the soul implanted within us by God.
Almost two thousand years ago, a midrash (homiletic text) related:
"Israel said before the Holy One, Blessed One: 'Master of the world, if we observe the commandments, what reward will we have?' God said to them, 'The world-to-come.' They said: 'Show us its likeness.' God showed them the Sabbath." (Otiot de-Rabbi Akiva).
The world to come: In Judaism, this is a time that will be free of strife, free of struggle. We will no longer be plagued by disease or fear or insecurity. Shabbat is meant to give us a glimpse of just such a time.
Jews who savor this imagery will save their best clothes and best food for Shabbat. Friends will gather around each others dining room tables, enjoy generous meals, sing, talk about Torah and life, laughter and indescribable warmth.
As we cross the threshold into the sacred time of Shabbat this evening, we at Torat Yisrael will gather together for social community (at Shalom to Shabbat this evening before services), for a unique prayer experience (with our unique Friday evening service designed for the month of Elul preceding the High Holidays) and for multigenerational, interactive study (at tomorrow morning's Torah at the Table). These are the ways we here create for ourselves a glimpse of the world to come.
This opening verses of this week's Torah reading / parashah present a core principle of Jewish tradition that, truthfully, has confused many people for a long time:
"And Moses assembled all of the congregation of the children of Israel and said to them, "These are the things that Adonay has commanded, to do them: Six days work shall be done, and in the seventh day you shall have a holy thing, a Sabbath, a ceasing to Adonay. Anyone who does work in it shall be put to death. You shall not burn a fire in all of your homes on the Sabbath day." (Exodus / Sh'mot 35: 1-3)
The passage then continues in a direction we would not expect. Instead of continuing to define "work," instead of listing the activities that are "holy enough" for Shabbat, we move on to a mitzvah/commandment directed to our Israelite ancestors in the wilderness to collect certain rare and expensive items to donate to the construction of the Tabernacle: the walls, the accessories, the priestly garments, the food items to be sacrificed . . .
The effect of this "turn without signalling" has been to spark the rabbinic imagination. A 2nd century rabbinic text, the Mishnah, connects the two passages and concludes that the "work" that is prohibited in verse 2 is defined by the human activities required to construct and create all of the pieces of the Tabernacle described in the ensuing verses. Thus, building, hammering, planting and sowing, creating fire, cooking, carrying items back and forth, weaving, cutting to measure . . . all of these become prohibited as "work" on Shabbat.
There is another derivation of "work" that is hinted at in verse 2: just as the seventh day was a day of "ceasing" to God--in Genesis/Breishit God rests on the seventh day after creating light and dark, dry land and oceans, plants, animals, stars and moon and humanity--so the seventh day should be a day of "ceasing" from creating for human beings as well.
What is it that we humans create? Our human endeavors, over the ages, have largely been focussed on providing food, clothing and shelter for ourselves and our loved ones. It is certainly the case that today, few of us are directly engaged in wielding a hammer, weeding a vegetable garden or cutting a sewing pattern . . . and when we are, it is more often a hobby or personal passion than a direct, compelling imperative to put clothing on our backs, food on our tables and a secure roof over our heads.
In today's complex economy, we provide food, clothing and shelter for our families by going to work and earning a paycheck and by shopping.
It may be physically challenging to carry a carton of books from the basement to the attic, but it isn't "work" in the Shabbat sense . . . that act of "shlepping" is not contributing to the creation of food, clothing or shelter. It may provide a sense of peace and accomplishment to pull out our knitting on Shabbat afternoon . . . but knitting is a human activity that literally creates clothing and, as such, is an activity proscribed by this definition of Shabbat.
For the majority of us, who have not made the commitment to turn to Jewish law / halachah to guide our actions, why should we turn the week's most convenient errand day into a day that produces no progress in the "food, clothing, shelter" department?
The rabbis of 2000 years ago suggested that Shabbat can be "a taste of the world to come." If we were to project ourselves into an existence where all that toil and worry about food, clothing and shelter were no longer necessary, what would our lives look like? No wallets. No watches. No ATMs. . . . an existence infused with peace and health and security and time to bask in the presence of our loved ones.
That is the potential of a "work-free" Saturday . . . a weekly opportunity to taste the world that might be.
Those who follow the Jewish press, may be aware already that the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards met this week. As is the case at each meeting, the members of the CJLS (including me) reviewed and critiqued a number of draft teshuvot (papers establishing approaches to outstanding questions of halachah/Jewish law) for the first or second time, and held formal votes on papers reviewed at prior meetings. Sometimes, a passed teshuvah relates to a topic of such general interest that its passage will be reported in the press, as was the case with the document accepted by the CJLS providing models for ceremonies binding same sex couples and ceremonies dissolving those unions as well.
Another paper, easily of equal significance in terms of demonstrating the credibility of halachah as a guide to life in the modern world, is the work of Rabbi Daniel Nevins who has succeeded in bringing order and reason to the issue of the use of electricity on Shabbat. Rabbi Nevins' teshuvah approaches the length and depth of a monograph more than a concise teshuvah and therefore I cannot possibly summarize it in this short blog. But I am eager to publicly convey my thanks to a hard-working, intelligent and passionate colleague for rendering comprehensible a complicated topic that has confounded me, and many others, for a long time.
Going far beyond a declaration to reasoned proof, Rabbi Nevins establishes that electricity is by no means the fire whose transmission is prohibited on Shabbat, that opening an electric circuit is not "boneh", is not building an entity that did not previously exist on Shabbat, that running electricity through an appliance does not transform the appliance itself rendering a prohibited change.
In such a topic, details and technical parameters are of utmost importance. Rabbi Nevins reviews and categorizes a number of electric appliances and categorizes them in terms of prohibition or permission according to a number of criteria. His work provides the basis for analysis of electric appliances in terms of Shabbat usage, but does not provide blanket permission to the Shabbat observer to use any electric appliance on Shabbat.
We who voted in favor of this teshuvah (and I am proud to have cast my vote in favor) hope that those who seek to observe Shabbat on the basis of tradition and science and spiritual fulfillment will be informed by this work. We hope that colleagues will find very useful material for teaching and for their own reviews of electricity use on Shabbat for their communities.
For all that, Rabbi Nevins' work, passed by a large majority but not unanimously, does not constitute blanket permission to use electricity in every way in every conceivable electric appliance on Shabbat. Far from it. A central principle to this teshuvah is that an action (like cooking) which is absolutely prohibited on Shabbat does not become permitted simply because the cooking implement is heated by electricity rather than flame. That which is prohibited on Shabbat remains prohibited on Shabbat.
Yes, there will be conversations about, and probably adjustments made, to our policies here at Torat Yisrael regarding some uses of electricity based on Rabbi Nevins' work. Once again, the Conservative Movement demonstrates that it is more than possible to live a life committed to Jewish tradition and Jewish law in the modern world.
Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei Torah Reading: Exodus 35:1-40:38
Educators, child psychologists, even rabbis are expressing concern over the phenomenon of over-programmed kids. From school to hockey to band to gymnastics to soccer to karate . . . it seems as though many kids today have no time to just do nothing. My friend and colleague, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses shows us how this week's Torah reading provides us with a valuable guiding principle as we prioritize time for our children:
"In this Torah portion Moses tells the people that they are commanded to set aside the seventh day as a day of complete rest. It is a day in which no productive labor is allowed, a day in which the emphasis is put on "being" instead of "becoming" or "having."
Think about your own life. Is there enough time and room for simply stopping and being with one another? Stop now and take a breath. See how that feels. Think about ways to incorporate rest into the busy life of your family. Some families choose to put aside a day of the week and celebrate the Sabbath as a day of rest. Others pay attention to the principle of the day and figure out where to find the resting moments in life."
Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, www.myjewishlearning.com
This week's Torah reading invites us to integrate Shabbat into our lives. Here are some accessible ways to weave the values of Shabbat into our week:
1. Make Friday evening family dinner night. Go around the table and have each family member talk about something good, exciting or challenging that happened during the week.
2. Make or purchase a tzedakah box (a Jewish piggy bank!) and on Friday afternoon have everyone in the family put a few coins in the box. Twice a year, count up what you've contributed and decide on a cause to send your donation.
3. Trying to control your family's intake of sweets or salty snacks? Ban them during the week and rename them "Shabbat Treats." Everyone in the family gets to pick one Shabbat Treat (candy, chips, whatever...) that they will enjoy during Shabbat.
4. Bless your children. Whatever parenting challenges you may have faced during the week, take a few moments at Friday evening dinner to treasure those little blessings in your life. Put your hand on each child's head and recite the blessing that has been part of our people's heritage since biblical times:
May God bless you and guard you.
May God's light shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God show you kindness and shower you with peace.
Then . . . and this is really important . . . then kiss each kid on the head!
Parashat Ki Teitzei Torah Reading: D'varim/ Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19
Week after week, month after month, year after year, we return to the text of the Torah . . . the gift from God that our liturgy tells us is an expression of God's love for us. Among the many blessings this gift brings us is a treasure trove of values, helping us to prioritize our lives.
Just such a value is accessible to us in this week's parashah / Torah Portion. The people of Israel are, in the book of D'varim/Deuteronomy, being prepared for their entry into the land of Israel. In this context, the people are presented with a list of contingencies which provide military exemptions for those of age and ability to serve. The young man who is married for less than a year and/or has yet to build a home for his family is exempt from military service.
The message for us, living in a country where there is no compulsory military service? That family is important. Really important. Establishing and providing for your family in fact trumps other obligations.
Author Jessica Gribetz, in her rich sourcebook: Wise Words: Jewish Thoughts and Stories Through the Ages, outlines for us the essence of family for our people:
The family forms and defines us. Within its borders, our principles, ethics, self-worth and aspirations blossom or wither. Parents seek to replicate or refashion their own upbringing, hoping only for the best. But the best differs for each of us. I have only to look at my four girls, each with her own singular beauty, talents, and traits, to know that there is no one way to love and nurture. Our home is a hothouse and each flower has its needs. . . . Our biblical forefathers are presented to us, warts and all--because the message is not to deny human nature but to overcome its darker side.
Yes, one can make a case for the dysfunctionality of the families of Genesis an Exodus: parents showing favoritism for children (Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob) or being ready to sacrifice a child as an act of allegiance to an unseen God (Abraham), or simply a remote and uninvolved parent (Moses). Perhaps these glimpses into the imperfect family lives of our matriarchs and patriarchs have been preserved in order to provide us with role models who are as real and human as we are. In order to encourage us to overcome the darker side of our characters and to strive to provide for our families an environment in which each member of the family can thrive.
This imagery of family . . . of the context in which each individual can grow and follow his or her own path, in which love and nurturing are available in many different ways, is also my vision of community. This is my vision for our Torat Yisrael family.
Parashat Re'eh Torah Reading: D'varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17
This week's Torah portion speaks with great joy of the three Pilgrimage Festivals of the Jewish calendar: "Three times a year--on the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Pesah), on the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and on the Feast of Booths (Sukkot)--all your males shall appear before the Holy One your God in the place that God will choose. They shall not appear before the Holy One empty-handed, but each according to their own gift, according to the blessing that the Holy One your God has bestowed upon you."
I am grateful to my colleague, Rabbi Brad Artson, for the lovely insight that these verses teach us that celebration means giving and sharing as well as receiving. Rabbi Artson cites the Talmud that the gift one brings to God should be: "(Gittin 59a), "in accordance with one's own acumen." In other words, there is not one standardized gift that is acceptable to God when we come to celebrate the Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot . . . or, indeed, any time we come together to pray, celebrate or learn. But rather the gift of spirit, devotion and engagement that we bring must be uniquely meaningful to each of us whatever our "acumen," whatever our level of Hebrew, of knowledge, or commitment.
I feel that there is another exceptional element to the gifts we bring to God when we gather before God not empty-handed: I have very vivid memories of my parents handing me a few coins to bring to Sunday School for me to donate to "Keren Ami," a fund for the very young state of Israel. The gift I brought was actually given to me from others, from my parents, with the understanding that I would, in turn, give that gift to others.
The dynamic of the gifts we bring to God is a bit different . . . for the gifts we offer God at the time of our celebrations with God are the gifts that God blessed us with in the first place! Our spirits, our families and friends, our community . . . these are all our blessings. And it is in community, sitting with family and friends, opening our hearts to God that we give share with God the joy of our Festivals and the peace of our Sabbaths.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.