Friday, August 27, 2010

Life imitates West Wing? Or vice-versa, perhaps.

From today's New York Times, a discussion about placing religious symbols in public locations.

From Episode 13 of Season 1 of the West Wing (Take out the Trash Day):

Toby is working at his desk. Sam enters quietly. 


There is a town in Alabama that wants to abolish all laws except the Ten Commandments. 

I saw it. 

Well, they're gonna have a problem. 

Because the Constitution prohibits religious activity in any form connected to Government? 

Good point! Two problems. 

Sam, I'm busy here! 

I just mean that some of those Commandments are pretty hard to enforce. 

What is it? 

I just got a call asking me if I wanted to comment on a story that's gonna run in the 
Georgetown Hoya tomorrow. 

The student newspaper? 

A sociology professor has been teaching what the paper, at any rate, feels is racist 
stuff. Too much funding for Head Start, welfare mothers, and... 

And why are they talking to us? 

Zoey's in the class. 

Who cares? 

This minute? The Georgetown Hoya. Tomorrow...? 

The President's daughter got an idiot sociology professor, and we gotta... 

I'll talk to Zoey. 

Please. [long pause] What else? 

Coveting thy neighbour's wife, for example. How are you going to enforce that one? 


Monday, August 2, 2010

Turn your ear into a funnel: A D'var Torah for Parshat Ekev

I delivered these words this weekend at Beth Judah Congregation in Ventnor, NJ. I owe many of the thoughts to the teaching of Rav Shai Held. Additional inspiration from Rav Benny Lau. 


There are few things Jews can agree on. So go the idioms: Two Jews, three opinions.

One island, two synagogues.

But if there’s one thing that we Jews agree on, is that we love food. Sure you say kugel, I say kiegel. But in the end we all ask for seconds.

And so at the end of the first aliyah today, when Moshe introduces the people Israel to a land literally overflowing with bountiful food, you can picture the scene. All mouths drop — simultaneously. A land not only flowing in milk and honey, but one with streams, springs and fountains, of wheat, barley, grapes, figs, dates, pomegranates and olive oil. The seven species of fruits of the land of Israel. The list puts even the great produce junction to shame.

It is a land where the people will lack nothing.

Yet the Israelites are reminded just verses earlier to slow down. Not so fast my friends! After all, they survived in the dessert. 

Ki lo al lechem lvado yihyeh haadam ki al kol moza pi adonai yiheye haadam.

“Humanity does not live on bread alone, but may live on anything that HaShem decrees.”

One does not need to mine the depths of the Rabbinic consciousness to draw a direct connection between Torah and bread from this pasuk, between physical satisfaction and spiritual nourishment. Humanity does not live by bread alone. But by what God issues.

Humanity survives on more than what it farms. It lasts, indeed thrives, on the words of God.

Let’s follow the metaphor. Bread and Torah.

HaMotzi Lechem Min HaAretz. It’s such a fundamental statement. The first prayer we learn as children. There’s that cute tune from pre-school, “We give thinks to God for Bread, our voices rise in song together.”

But when we take a second glance at it, even briefly, we notice that on its simplest level, it is simply not true. We don’t bring forth bread from the Earth. Humans make it from component parts. We do the plowing the reaping, the grinding, the baking.

Some of the early kibbutzniks in Israel went as far as to change the brakha to “Praised be the farmer who brings forth bread from the Earth,” a switch which caused the religious establishment in Israel to bristle.

Yet this is clearly not the norm, rejected by the kibbutz movement, certainly by the rest of the Jewish world.

We don’t have any problem stating HaMotzi Lechem Min HaAretz. We joyfully teach the blessing to our children. We believe that God had a hand in the creation of bread. And humanity carried forth in the rest of the process. There is sheer Wonder in the process of planting a vegetable in the spring and then digging into the soil and digging it out of the soil in the fall. Failure to acknowledge it as anything less as Wonder bears perjury to the soul.

But for many of us, the term Torah min HaShamayim, Heavenly Torah, is a tougher term to swallow. We may have taken an Introductory Academic Bible class at university and learned some of the theories that the Torah is made up of component sources, that the first two chapters of Genesis represent the P source and the J source. We recognize immediately the parallels between the Code of Hammurabi and Parashat Mishpatim of Shmot and wonder what is so different between our Biblical Law of “Eye for an Eye, Tooth for tooth” and that of other Ancient Near Eastern legal codes; between our flood story and that of the Atrahasis Epic or of Gilgamesh. The History Channel always shows the historical roots of the Biblical Exodus during the spring months, trying to match up the plagues with natural events during the time.

So then, what is Torah Min HaShamayim, with all of the above facts, and more?

Firstly, Torah min HaShamayim has many meanings, and has since the Rabbis of the Talmud first began explicating the depths of the Torah during post-Second Temple times. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s magnum opus Torah min HaShamayim, recently translated by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, culls Rabbinic literature for how the Rabbis interpreted the notion of a Heavenly Torah.

Even by simply looking at the size of the book, by judging it bys its cover, so to speak, we ascertain that the Rabbis had many understandings for the term “Heavenly Torah.”

During Shavuot last year, my teacher Rabbi Shai Held drew my attention to an article by 20th century Jewish Theologian Jakob Petuchowski, appropriately titled for today “Not by Bread Alone.”

He identifies this essential trop of the Torah and bread sustaining humanity. The parallelism of Lehem min HaAretz and Torah min HaShamayim. Bread From the Earth and Torah From Heaven.

We say one with gusto, without thinking twice. So should it be with Torah. I believe in Torah from Heaven just as I believe in Lechem min HaAretz.

I say this not to appease myself. Nor anyone in this room. But because I believe it is the honest articulation of what it means to study the breadth and depth of our Tradition. To live a Jewish life of passion, charging forward and learning as much as possible without straps which hold me back. To study the entire gamut of Torah min HaShamayim, a divinely given corpus of text, infused with human ingenuity and interpretation throughout the generations.

This is the meaning of Torah min HaShamayim. This is the meaning of Lechem Min HaAretz.

I push the metaphor of bread and Torah one step further.

If indeed there is direct parallel between physical nourishment and spiritual nourishment, then why do we not say a Birkat HaMazon of sorts after we study, as is Biblically prescribed for food in this very Parasha! We read in Chapter 8, verse 10, V’achalta v’savata, uverachta ed Adonai Elohecha, al haaretz hatova asher natan lach. When you eat and are satisfied, you should bless HaShem your God for the good land that God has given you.

If we’re going to use a metaphor, after all, let’s use it.

There is a discussion in Massechet Brachot page 11a, about the proper prayer that we should say before studying Torah, determining that it is asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav laasok bdivrei torah, who commanded us to engage with Torah, as well as the blessing we are familiar with from Birkot HaTorah, asher banu mikol haamim v’natan lanu et torato. (These are on page 6 in your Sim Shalom siddur)

Commenting on this, the medieval commentators the Tosefot (the grandsons of Rashi, for historical reference) rhetorically ask why one only should say this prayer only in the morning? Why not say the prayer over studying Torah every time one sits down to study?

They answer: because every hour that one is awake one has the obligation to study. Therefore one says it upon waking up in the morning and is exempt for the rest of the day.

Translating it back to my question about Birkat HaMazon, one is never satisfied or satiated from studying Torah. Therefore there is no finality to the “meal.” One prayer before studying lasts the entire day. 

The Tosefot say this in the grammatical indicative. One is exempt from saying this prayer for studying throughout the day because the obligation for study is not bound to a particular time.

I issue it in the grammatical imperative. Of all times, during Shabbat pick up a book that you haven’t read before. Read over the parsha. Mine the depths. Make studying for half an hour a regular part of your Shabbat afternoon, at the beach, at your home, with your family, on your own. Let’s face it. We’re all going to the beach this afternoon, anyway.

We read on page 3a of Massechet Hagigah in the Talmud, Taaseh Oznecha k’afarkeset ukneh lcha lev mevin. Make your ear into a funnel, thereby acquiring for yourself an understanding heart. (such imagery!). The moral? Listen first. Allow all information into your mind and heart. Filter it only after you have opened your ear as a funnel.

On this Shabbat, turn your ear into a funnel. Ensure that saying the brakha over studying Torah in the morning really does last for the entire day, because you will be studying throughout the course of Shabbat.

Acquire yourself a lev mevin, an understanding heart, through the spiritual nourishment of Torah min HaShamayim.