Monthly Archives: May 2017

How Do We Receive Torah

At Shavuot, how we receive the gift of Torah is one of the great questions posed.  I found a path towards understanding in a passage of the Talmud.

One is really two and two is really four. This is not a set of alternative facts but an insight from the Talmud (BT Shabbat 2a) about the nature of things. Shavuot is the time of the giving of Torah. But in any transaction there are two components, giving and receiving; one is really two. But it doesn’t stop there.

Both giving and receiving are either active or passive. In giving, we can thrust it towards another actively or we can be passive and open our hands for the other to take it. Similarly, in receiving, we can actively take the gift with eagerness and enthusiasm, or we can open our hands to passively receive the gift that is to be bestowed upon us. Two is really four.

So at this time of matan haTorah, the giving of the Torah, how do we receive it? Our tradition focuses that this is a gift from God to us and it is about the giving. The Eternal gave it once but we are always receiving Torah. And although we think of ourselves as all being at Sinai in this incredible moment, each generation comes to Torah to take it as their own. It is entirely up to us to accept it passively or embrace it actively.

How will we come to Torah?

Will you grab the Torah with gusto or just accept it. Is it truly a gift a living thing that brings meaning to us, something extraordinary to be treasured, loved, and lived; or is it some musty manuscript kept safely away in an Ark in a place we rarely visit if ever? The choice is ours, collectively and individually.

Perhaps it is this distinction in the way we receive this gift that helped God understand that the generation that received Torah was not the generation ready to enter the Promised Land. For the way we receive a gift can affect how the giver gives the next gift, which builds on the first. If we receive it enthusiastically and with gratitude, the gift giver might be more excited to bestow the next gift. And if we receive it passively perhaps the giver might consider whether, in fact, the recipient was ready for it or for the next gift.

This brings to mind the phrase mitzvah goreret mitzvah (Pirkei Avot 4:2) a good deed encourages more good deeds. So at this special time and place, are we able to exclaim a special Shehecheyanu, enthusiastically offering gratitude to God for this amazing gift of Torah, and use it to live our lives fully and with meaning, and preparing ourselves for God’s next gift?

 

Timelessness our Eternal Journey

 

The Twelve Tribes by Yoram Raanan

The recent New York Times article We aren’t built to live in the moment by Martin Seligman and John Tierney proposes that it is humankind’s ability to contemplate the future that makes us unique as a species. This insightful article comes as we begin the book of BaMidbar. BaMidbar is our story in the Wilderness, a place of infinite beauty and discovery, a place where time seems to stand still. How timely is it that we read this article and this Parsha come together this week and we witness Torah’s expansiveness.

 

We are often thought of as the “People of the Book,” which often is interpreted to mean that we are also a people of memory. These memories have been codified and handed down for generations to help us with issues of meaning and morality. An extraordinary part of our journey is recounted in the book of Numbers, BaMidbar. The opening parashah starts with a census. Through the census, we are taking stock of who we are. The counting itself is based on the past, coming together into one place in preparation for moving forward under God’s guidance.

This melding of our past, present and future parallels our conception of God. The Tetragrammaton, YHVH, the four letter name we use for God is understood as a timeless representation of the Eternal One, embodying the past, the present, and the future.

All is intertwined. And that is part of the extraordinary wisdom of Judaism. Past, present, and future are inextricably bound together. We cannot understand who we are or begin to ask the deeper question, why we are until we comprehend that our past, our present, and our future all inform us. We cannot fully exist without these three pillars. It is they together that create our meaning, our context. The hope of Olam Haba, the World to Come, is a vision that we see in the present based on the place from which we have come. Past, present and future unified. BaMidbar is part of the unfolding story of our people, timeless like our God.

Shabbat Shalom – a Prayer for US

After a tumultuous week in American politics, Shabbat is about to descend. As we bring this week to a close, I embrace the blessings that we invoke during the week and on Shabbat.

As part of our daily prayers, we ask God’s blessing for just, merciful and competent judges. On Shabbat, we ask God’s blessing for our community and for our country. Our government institutions are always being tried, but now appear to be particularly tested. We believe in the institutions of our government and the checks and balances put in place by the Founders. We hope that even under duress, these cornerstones of our nation will endure and prevail against all assaults no matter how severe.

May our leaders rise to the occasion placing country over party and justice over power. May we have the courage and strength to demand the best from each of them.

As an American, the words of our National Anthem stir within me with a deep resonance. Ultimately I believe that our nation is strong and its government ultimately dedicated to the people it is intended to serve.

As a Jew, as we continue our march toward Sinai and the receipt of the Law. May we rededicate ourselves to preserving protecting and defending the world’s great manifestation of our Jewish ideals in this great country of ours.

Shabbat Shalom.

Time to sit down for a beer

I need to talk about the current ad Heineken has produced and also the talk about the talk surrounding the current ad.

For starters, we all need to acknowledge the ad is designed to promote Heineken beer. With this disclaimer, we can proceed. Bottom line, I found the ad had a positive message (beyond Heineken is a good beer to drink with someone). I believe the message was that people operate according to preconceptions whether or not they are fully informed or people hold opinions that keep them from hearing another viewpoint, but it does not have to be so.

The ad was a message about building bridges across those divides, seeing that the other is not merely stupid or a threat, or perhaps something even worse. We can find ways to connect ways to create relationships where they did not exist before; we can find that despite the things that differentiate, our common humanity can be something that brings us together.

The ad is precisely that, a four-minute frame into which the message of building bridges and the selling a product are interwoven. It is neither Shakespeare nor the Bible; although interesting, it is not the best of plots, or cinematic artistry, or even acting. But it is an important message none-the-less, one deserving of notice and embrace, not ridicule or cynicism.

I am struck that because I hold this opinion, some call me out as stupid for liking the ad and even stupider for not knowing how stupid I really am. People are reacting in a way that feels extremely condescending, or just smug,  contemptuous of anyone who does not have the incisive clarity that this dangerous insidious ad requires.

The ad can be scrutinized and might actually be a starting point for some of the serious conversations we need to have, including what the ad omitted, the subtle prejudices it contained, what are the important issues dividing us, etc. But a conversation is hard to have when only one viewpoint is acceptable. It seems like some of the people so vocal in criticizing the ad would have been good “before” characters for the ad. Consider that as a working premise, we share our common humanity. Then over a drink, let’s sit together to talk and listen.