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The Sound and Silence of Torah
Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: `When God gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox made a sound, angels did not fly, Seraphim did not say “Kadosh,” the sea did not stir, no creature spoke. The world was utterly silent–and a voice was heard: “I am the Lord your God.”
Midrash Shemot Rabbah, 29
A season is set for everything…under heaven:
A time for silence and a time for speaking.
Kohelet 3:1, 7
Reading and interpreting Torah, my teacher Rabbi David Aaron has said, is perhaps the only thing about Jewish community that remains constant across time and space. Think about it: What do we twenty-first-century Reform Jews have in common with Jews in Babylonia 500 years before the Common Era, or with Jews in Jerusalem while the second Temple stood, or with Jews in eleventh-century Europe, or twelfth-century North Africa, or with Ultra-Orthodox Jews today? And they with each other?
We may not speak or dress or eat or pray or think the same way. We may not raise our children or give tzedakah or celebrate or mourn the same way. We have different priorities and different ethics and different theologies from Jews of different lands and distant eras, not to mention the Jews who may be living down the street or a few states over from us, today. By what right do we all call ourselves Jews? By what measure do we feel any sense of community or continuity with other Jews?
We even read and interpret the Torah in vastly different ways. But there’s the thing: we all study Torah. In every part of the Jewish people, we return to it, again and again, seeking truth.
Now, I know we don’t every single one of us individually study Torah. Some of us are profoundly ignorant of Torah. Some Jews actively repudiate much of what’s in the Torah. And yet, if we were to ask any Jew in the world what makes her or him feel most Jewish—whether the answer is love of Israel or honoring parents or lighting Shabbat candles or speaking Hebrew or Yiddish or Ladino, or feeding the hungry or eating bagels with lox—it all leads back, in part if not in whole, to Torah. Consciously or not, just about everything we do as Jews is informed—or was once, thanks to some teacher, beloved or forgotten, some ancestor or ancestor’s teacher—by Torah.
You may be be thinking this over now, trying to imagine what I mean, or looking for a point to argue. After all, we’re Jews. We find the values of analysis and argument in the Torah, too. Perhaps we can set up some time to actually have this conversation, perhaps even in honor of Shavuot this month, but here and now my point is simply this: Shavuot, the anniversary of God’s revelation to Israel at Sinai, God’s supreme gift of Torah, is coming.
Beginning this year on the evening of May 14th, the 6th of Sivan every year in the Hebrew calendar—Shavuot—we celebrate Torah, the source of our wisdom and strength and sometimes our folly, our link to God and each other, our past, present and future.
How does Torah provide all this? Through speech and through silence. In the words that pile up week after week, crowded columns tumbling across scrolls of parchment, words we read and chant and discuss; and also through silence. The gaps in the narrative, where names or years or thoughts don’t appear. The stories of silence, when one or many of our protagonists fall speechless before the sanctity, pain, joy, or plain mystery of life in this world. Our own silence, as we listen to generations of readers and teachers before us unfurl and embellish all those words.
Shavuot is not the raucous, excessive celebration of Simchat Torah, when we mark the end and beginning of another Torah reading cycle with dancing and revelry. Rather it is a quiet, understated celebration, our least-known festival, a tribute to a moment of revelation when, as with all revelations, there was silence. And there was speech. And then the world changed, forever: for us, for every Jew who came before or after. A cord connecting us all.
Oh, my . . . God!
Is God supernatural? Or is God nature? Is God a message from the cosmos? A voice within? Does God change the course of history? Or the course of your day? Is God love? Or judgment? Where is God in moments of terrible tragedy, cruelty, terror, or pain? And where is God in moments of joy, celebration, or inspired creativity? Is God all-powerful? All-knowing? Is God very near, or far away? Absent or present? Benevolent or vengeful? Or simply disengaged?
These are some of the questions I’ve been exploring with our adult chat group over the past six months, and these are some of the questions that are taken up in the powerful documentary, God in the Box.
Whether you are a believer, a doubter, or a confirmed atheist, the idea of God is one that has profoundly influenced this world we share, both for better and for worse. The fact that God is not a fact—cannot be proven or disproven, mapped or measured—has never stopped human beings from time immemorial building and destroying nations, institutions, landscapes and lives, all based on thoughts about this mysterious idea, power, or presence. If there is one thing we can all agree on, it is this: we are dealing with potent stuff.
And so, we talk about it. We listen. We learn. We strive toward understanding and compassion for one another, and perhaps a broadened way of thinking for ourselves. This has been our hope for the adult chat series about God, and this is our goal in screening God in the Box on April 6th. Please plan to attend—and plan to bring all your friends, of every stripe, secular or religious. We’ll watch and listen. We’ll talk, and learn. (And the next morning, we’ll talk and learn some more at the adult chat—new-comers welcome!)
Whether or not we feel closer to God at the end, perhaps we’ll feel closer, more connected, to each other. Maybe we’ll feel just a little bit better prepared the next time we encounter the power and diversity of this “God” idea, to wield or respond to it for good, and for healing, and for the building of a better, kinder world.
“Just as we have a period of preparation leading to the High Holy Days in the fall, it is appropriate that we spend some time getting ready for our spring festivals:
Passover and, seven weeks later, Shavuot, are the ‘high holy days’ of the second half of the Jewish year. We are now about as far as we can get in the calendar from Yom Kippur and the spiritual reckoning that comes with it; after the release and ribaldry of Purim, it is time to reset our internal compass, to focus once again on questions of ultimate importance. Spring cleaning isn’t only for the insides of our homes; stripping away the hametz, the leavening or puffiness, of our spirits brings its own considerable rewards.”
Rabbi Kassoff has prepared a set of short texts to help prepare for Passover. Download them by going to our Newsletter page and downloading the file titled Preparing for Passover
Did you know we have members who are budding Picasso’s, latent Leonardo’s? Well, we do!
On February 16 and 17 a group of exceptionally talented (and extremely dedicated) members met at Rivendell School. The school had identified a classroom desperately in need of some sprucing up. Our group prepped the room and painted a primer coat on some very dark brown and lime green walls (ugh!). The next day they returned and transformed that dull room into a lovely lavender learning space. After cleaning up, they went the extra mile and shampooed the carpet.
Rivendell has been very good to Or Hadash. They have served as the center of Religious Education for our children and adults as well as a social hub for Adult Chats and Mah Jong. Helping this partner of ours was not only Social Action, it was a Mitzvah.
Special thanks to Matt and Simone Dickstein, Lenny Abels, Matt Rosing and John Schaer who helped “repair the world” at Rivendell.
Look up “preparing for Passover” on your favorite internet search engine and you’ll find lots of advice. Cleaning, shopping, cooking, even napping gets its due. But it takes some digging down to find any reference to what I’d suggest is the most important aspect of Passover preparation: attending to the needs of the spirit.
Just as we have a period of preparation leading to the High Holy Days in the fall, it is appropriate that we spend some time getting ready for our spring festivals: Passover and, seven weeks later, Shavuot, are the “high holy days” of the second half of the Jewish year. We are now about as far as we can get in the calendar from Yom Kippur and the spiritual reckoning that comes with it; after the release and ribaldry of Purim, it is time to reset our internal compass, to focus once again on questions of ultimate importance. Spring cleaning isn’t only for the insides of our homes; stripping away the hameitz, the leavening or puffiness, of our spirits brings its own considerable rewards.
Passover recounts the ancient tale of our people’s redemption from slavery in Egypt; our re-enactment of this tale each year in the form of the Passover Seder makes this the annual season of our redemption, too. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, also means “narrow places.” From what mitzrayim do we wish to free ourselves, and others? What changes must we make in order to get from here, to there?
In order to help you along this journey, I will share this year one text from our tradition for each day in the three weeks leading up to Passover. During these final days of Adar and as we enter the holy month of Nisan, as the moon wanes and then waxes again to its Passover fullness, I invite you to join me in engaging with and reflecting on words of wisdom from Torah and our sages, both ancient and contemporary. I will share these texts on our website, via email, and at my blog, ponderingJew.blogspot.com. We will have opportunity to discuss some of these texts during my next visit, in the days immediately preceding Passover.
Here is one to start on, from Rabbi Kerry Olitzky’s Preparing Your Heart for Passover:
The rabbis suggest that … leaven [the stuff that makes bread rise, the stuff we don’t eat during Passover] transcends the physical world. This leaven, this hametz, also symbolizes a puffiness of self, an inflated personality, an egocentricity that threatens to eclipse the essential personality of the individual. Ironically, it is what prevents the individual from rising spiritually and moving closer to holiness. Thus, what hametz effectively does in the material world is exactly what it precludes in the realm of the spirit. That’s why it has to be removed. Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls this kind of hametz the “swollen sourness in our lives.”
And a few questions to send you on your way: Where is the hametz, the “swollen sourness” in your spiritual life? Why might hametz, which causes bread to rise, cause the spirit to shrink away from holiness and God? How might you begin to search out this metaphysical hametz of the spirit?
gam zeh ya’avor,
Purim is the festival on which we celebrate the power and the pleasure of masks and unmasking. We play with fixing and unfixing our identities in order to figure out, at the deepest level, who and what we are, what we stand for, where we will bend and where we draw the line.
In the story we tell about this raucous, playful day, Esther and Mordecai are willing to compromise away much of Esther’s Jewish identity—external observances, certainly any public statements of faith or affinity—in order to secure her position as Queen of Persia. But we see Mordecai literally standing up for his faith in his refusal to bow to Haman (Jews are forbidden to bow not to other people as a sign of respect but rather to other gods; Jewish tradition suggests that perhaps Haman presented himself as a demigod, much as Egyptian pharaohs were considered to be part divine). And of course the climax of our tale comes when Esther finds the courage to “out” herself as a Jew to King Ahashverosh under perilous circumstances—for should the King find her uninvited presence in his throne room irksome (much less her surprising revelation), it could cost Esther her life!
Indeed, there would be no Megillat Esther (scroll of Esther) at all had Queen Vashti not spurned the King’s request that she provide lewd entertainment for his drunken guests. In this story, every major character save Haman appears to have his or her breaking point, beyond which principle outweighs material self-interest.
How appropriate (if ironic), then, that the story of Jewish women getting arrested at the Kotel for the crime of wearing tallit and praying aloud has resurfaced with new vigor in this season of Purim. Jewish women, practicing their faith as God calls them to, are once again being detained, fingerprinted, and charged with criminal activities by the Jewish government of Israel.
Israel, as we know, has its share of problems. And far be it from me to present any of you with a reason not to love Israel with all your heart, as I do—after all, we love our families, with all their problems. To be honest, it would be far too easy to take from this story a depressing lesson about sinat hinam—senseless hatred—among Jews. This is most definitely not why I’m sharing this story with you today.
Rather, I share it now because this week I read two pieces about the arrests of women at the wall that, explicitly or implicitly, connect these events with Purim in an instructive way, and offer inspiration as we, members of the gorgeously diverse tapestry that is the Jewish people, travel this rocky and even fractious road toward identity, self-determination, and ultimately, we pray (as we will celebrate one month from now with the festival of Pesach, Passover), to redemption.
First, on Wednesday, I encountered JordanaHorn’s Kveller post, “What’s Truly Holy About the Western Wall?” She had me from the first line, but she really caught me with her last paragraph:
On Friday night, let’s light the candles and think about that which is truly holy: the people of Israel, surviving years of persecution and praying according to different customs and traditions, but praying with devotion and love to the same God. I believe in a God who expects more from us.
Yes, let’s, I thought. For what is Purim if not a celebration of Jewish survival in exile, Jewish survival as a value above the letter of the law, and certainly above sectarianism. As Horn points out, the stones of the Kotel are not holy. They are made holy by people, who have gathered near them over the millennia in service of “the same God.” And people are holy, not inherently, not all the time, but when we see and honor what connects us above what divides us. Take off the “masks”—the shifting externals of religious garb and ritual practice—and we just might (we might!) recognize in one another—feminists and traditionalists, progressive Jews and fundamentalists—a common love for justice and peace, and a desire for the wholeness and healing of all God’s creatures, and all of God’s creation.
Perhaps it was some variety of this recognition that led Esther and Ahashverosh to their celebrated deeds, their respectively brave and compassionate choices that saved the Jewish people. Persian or Jew, we all seek out love, loyalty, and dignity. (Who knows? Perhaps even Ahashverosh found some dignity in the end!) And another lesson: perhaps only by shedding our pride—even, temporarily at least, letting go of dignity—by immersing ourselves in the masquerade of Purim, say, or by opening ourselves up to police detainment for the sake of our beliefs, only then can we see clearly what is worth fighting for and what isn’t, what is a mask, and what is holy, an integral, permanent and good part of ourselves.
On Thursday I saw another piece, this time at the Jerusalem Post online, written by a very young, impressively wise and articulate woman who was among those detained at the Kotel two weeks ago on Rosh Hodesh Adar. As a condition of her release, she was required to sign an agreement to stay away from the Kotel for 15 days, which would mean she could not join her sisters in reading Megilat Esther there, as they had planned. The author compared her plight to that of both Vashti and Esther, who refused to bow to conventional wisdom, to quietly settle for what was most personally expedient. Just as both Vashti and Esther resisted oppressive decrees, this young woman found the courage to return to the police station where she had been detained and request an exemption for Purim, to hear the megillah read by and with her sisters at the Kotel. “Miraculously,” she writes, “the police…granted it!”
As we celebrate Purim this year, let us think not only of the Women of the Wall, but of all people around the world, of every race, religion, and nation, who seek the strength and courage to strip away the masks—of fear, docility, prejudice—that lead to suffering and oppression. Let us celebrate the potential for holiness that connects all people. Let us celebrate our freedom to hear and recite the Megillah, the story of our deliverance from destruction. Let us celebrate together. Beneath the masks, we have so much in common.
For another Purim reflection on the Women of the Wall, which I read after I wrote this, check out Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz’s sermon from this past Shabbat at her wonderful blog, This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.
For Members and their invited guests
WHEN: Tuesday, March 26th starting at 5:30 pm
WHERE: The Fort Collins Senior Center
HOW TO RESERVE A SPOT: Fill in the reservation that Simone mailed to you.
Once again this year we will have Jewpardy and the 4 questions in various languages:)