Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Little Joy, A Little Oy

I love my desk calendar. But today is its last day. The final day for A Little Joy, A Little Oy. The desk calendar made its debut two years ago on the copy desk of my college newspaper, the Daily Nebraskan. People loved it. It was all the range. How quirky and Jewish! Anyhow, I bought another for 2006, but not for 2007. I can't keep up with desk calendars. But I thought I would share today's quip:
It Takes More Than Chopped Liver
Jews have marched on -- and survived -- for millennia with a little help from their brains, not to mention their humor:
A new flood was predicted and nothing could prevent it. In three days, the waters would wipe out the world. The Dalai Lama appeared on worldwide media and pleaded with humanity to follow Buddhist teachings to find nirvana in the wake of the disaster. The pope issued a similar message, saying, "It is still not too late to accept Jesus as your Savior." The chief rabbi of Jerusalem took a slightly different approach: "My people," he said, " we have three days to learn how to live under water."
Amen to that. I wish you all a happy 2007 and a continued pleasant 5767!

Just another day in paradise.

Ahh, yes. The Tenth of Tevet (עשרה בטבת).

The day -- a minor fast -- begins tomorrow at sunrise, and I'm going to be completely honest and say that I'm glad the days are short this season. I've never complained or moaned or groaned about the fasts. I take them quietly, focusing on the day. But fasts were always hard during school because I was up at 8 a.m. and functioning well through sundown. But now, now in this winter of discontent (let me be ridiculous!), I'm a copy editor who sleeps till 1 p.m. and works from sunset into the evening hours. This means, of course, that like all smart folks, I'll be sleeping through a great deal of the fast, waking only long enough to suffer grumbles and torment for a few choice hours amid a bus ride and walk. But enough about me.

Asarah b'Tevet remembers the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (pointedly Nebuchadnezzar) and the events leading up to the destruction of the First Temple (that's Solomon's) in 586 B.CE.
“And it came to pass in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month (Tevet), in the tenth day of the month (Asarah B’Tevet), that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came, he, and all his host, against Jerusalem, and pitched against it; and they built forts against it round about. And the city was besieged...” (2 Kings 25:1-2)
The day is connected to several other fast days throughout the timeline of the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile, including the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B'Av. Some consider the day a day to remember those murdered in the Holocaust. Many consider the day to be one of repentence and a call for return to Torah and Talmud.

According to Yanki Tauber, the Talmud describes how, instead of uniting against the common enemy, Jewish factions battled each other in besieged Jerusalem. "Because of baseless hatred between Jews," concludes the Talmud, "was Jerusalem destroyed." How is the situation different today? Questions of "Who is a Jew?" and the battle of Jew vs. Jew. Orthodox and Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist and secular. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in questioning the focus on "baseless hate," says that, despite pragmatic and ideological differences, no reason is reason enough for hate.

Says Tauber: "For if there is one redeeming virtue in being under siege, it is the opportunity to realize that we're all in this together."

Think on that tomorrow, whether you decide to fast.

(Also, an interesting tidbit for those of you familiar with Shabettai Zvi, one of my favorite infamous Jewish history characters: One of his first completely outlandish acts as the "messiah" was to change Asarah b'Tevet to a day of feasting and joviality. Needless to say, chaos ensued.)

Friday, December 29, 2006

Va-Yiggash: The family reunites!

BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELTS! It's gonna be a wild ride on this one. In the future my intent is to look more at commentaries outside the brief bits in Etz Chayim, to include Rashi and other classic Hasidic texts. Why? Because I can :)

+ So I got all riled during my Torah study. Not particularly with the parsha itself, but because of some questions it drudged up in my mind regarding words. The importance of words. How we use them, what they mean and how we attach ourselves to them and often misinterpret them.

The word I'm referring to is ger. Ger (גר) translates in biblical Hebrew as "stranger," and as we know it is used to describe a convert to Judaism, although sometimes converts are known as ger tzadik, which translates at the elementary level as "righteous stranger." However, most will tell you that ger tzadik means "righteous proselyte" or "righteous convert" ... Also noteworthy is that the word derives from gar, meaning "to dwell."

In the Torah, the word appears in many forms in many contexts. In this week's parshah, the brothers say to Par'oh, "We have come ... to sojourn in this land." Sojourn being gimel-surek-resh, or gur, and being a temporary stay. Avram says in Genesis that he is a stranger coming to live among the people. At that point, of course, Judaism doesn't exist. Avram merely says that he is a ger toshav -- to very contradictory words, with toshav meaning resident. In essence, Avram says he is both a stranger and a resident.

After searching for something, anything, on the distinction of ger as convert/proselyte/stranger, I came up with little. But then I found which had some interesting insight, particularly on the introduction of the idea from parsha Chayyai Sarah. It has also helped me come to a conclusion regarding the word ger, and how we use it.

The ger is a stranger in a land not their own. The person who is toshav is a resident of the land. And thus we have this:
The term ger has come to refer someone who is the process of converting to Judaism. They are not yet Jewish but are living within the Jewish community. They are effectively living a Jewish life but they have not yet become fully Jewish. Standing at the threshhold of Judaism, their status is neither Jew but no longer non-Jew. Religiously, they are betwixt and between. (emphasis my own)
When one stands before the bet din, immerses in the mikvah and goes about the other devotions to becoming a Jew, one steps up from being a ger and becomes toshav.

Right? Abraham refers to himself as a ger toshav, right? Well, the roblem is that most in Israel would refer to a gentile living in the land as a "ger toshav." Which sort of complicates the argument. Also complicating the argument is the many references to "ger" in the Torah, such as those in which we are ordered to treat the "ger" in our midst with respect and justness. Thus in those instances, the ger is not a convert, but merely a stranger.

So how does the word get from point A to point B? What should a convert be called? The most important thing we are told when converting is that once you convert, it is as if you were never not a Jew. That is, despite how beautiful the documentation of your conversion is, you shouldn't display it. Of course, converting can never be forgotten. Someone will ask you or you'll say something and someone might suspect it and you feel the need to clear the air. But I don't think ger is a good word for what I am. I am a Jew by all accounts (*cough* ... let's not debate that here, this is a different boat). Yet there still must be a word for the community to refer to me, no?

Another argument:
In rabbinic literature we have the term ger tsedek, the "just ger," to distinguish the sincere convert not only from the ger toshav, the "resident ger" who does not convert . . . in the heyday of the Roman Empire — in which, before the establishment of Christianity as the state religion, conversion to Judaism was widespread — we find yet another distinction between the true ger or ger tsedek (Latin proselytus or Greek proselutos), and the yerei-elohim or "God-fearer" (Latin metuens and Greek phoboumenos). The latter category consisted of individuals, perhaps comparable to some converts to Reform Judaism today, who identified with Jewish monotheism and its practice without committing themselves to a strict observance of the 613 commandments of Jewish tradition.
And further:
The ger toshav was not a convert. He was, according to the rabbis, a gentile who lived among the Jewish people, happy to be part of the Jewish world and supportive of the religious and social frames of Jewish life. He could eat tref (nonkosher) but was not permitted to publicly worship other gods, and if he was circumcised, he could partake of the Passover sacrifice. He was a lover of the Jewish people, though not a Jew himself.
Interestingly, many refer to the nonJewish spouse in an intermarried situation as a ger toshav.

In essence, I'm walking myself in circles here. I'm curious for opinions on the word, it's meaning meanings and forms, and whether you think it's an appropriate term for he or she who has become -- by all means -- Jewish. I might have to have a sit down with Rashi or some commentaries on this one.

+ Moving on in the parsha, though ... I'm intrigued by Serach (different than Sarah, which ends in a he) the supposed daughter of Asher, son of Jacob. (Gen. 46:17) She is mentioned in the counting of Jacob's family that enter the land of Egypt, and is mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, too. She's found her way into oodles of legends and some midrashim tell of her breaking the news to Jacob that Joseph was still alive. In return, it is said, Jacob blesses her by saying that she should be blessed for all her life and never die. The story goes that she was one of the few who were allowed to enter Heaven while alive (the others were Enoch and Elijah). For a midrashim on Serach, look here.

+ I love the debate between Rashi and the Ramban in Gen. 45:29 over who wept: Joseph or Jacob? The text says, "Joseph ... went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while." Rashi says Joseph wept. Ramban says Jacob wept. Now, if you follow the rules of sentence structure, it's clear that Joseph was the one weeping. Joseph ... presented himself to Israel ... embracing Israel around the neck ... Joseph wept on Israel's neck. I understand where the Ramban is coming from here ... perhaps Jacob does have more of a reason to be incredibly weepy. At the same time, Joseph has been living as a stranger in a strange land without his family. Jacob, while without his prized youngest son, has been living among his family and his many relatives over the years. I'd say Joseph, while being a top dog in Egypt and having so much power, has had it worse. Thus, I side with Rashi on this one. (EDITED: Thanks W.J.) To read more on the debate, click here.

+ The Torah commentary in Etz Chayim likens the brothers ignoring Joseph's wishes that they lie about their occupations to what it is to be the Jewish Diaspora. I think this is pretty interesting. Joseph asks his brothers to say they're livestock breeders, as shepherds are the lowest rung on the ladder of respectable professions. Joseph, raised in a foreign land, is, well, self-conscious about how they'll be viewed, so he tries to get them to hide part of who they are. The brothers, confident and raised in their own land, tell Par'oh that they are in fact shepherds, much to Joseph's dismay. The commentary suggests that this passage reflects "the healthy self-esteem of a people raised in their own land, in contrast to the concern of Diaspora Jews as to what their neighbors think of them."

Is it true? I've lived in the United States my entire life, yet I will admit to feeling as a stranger even at the small utterance of "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter" or "did you taste the shrimp!? it's great!" I've never been deeply concerned about what those around me think, but I can understand Joseph's need to hide that part of who he is (that is, that he, too, is part of a shepherd's household).

Additionally, in the commentary it says, "Jewish law and custom legitimates adjusting our behavior ' for the sake of ways of peace' (mi-p'nei darkhei shalom), furthering good relations with those around us by avoiding giving offense to their values and sensibilities." This suggests that Joseph may not have been being self-conscious, but rather that he was concerned about the customs and such of the Egyptians. At the same time, I wonder why this rule isn't applied to more aspects of our Jewishness.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Amuse me!

You know you're a city liver when you have to ride the Metro for nearly an hour to get to a Target to procur inexpensive clothing items.

You know tourists get on the Metro, when they're wearing tapered leg jeans and a Bass Pro shop hat. It reminds me of when I lived in Missouri.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Un moment.

From to me to you on this fine yet snowless day (at least where I am) as everyone prepares for faux resolutions and a fresh start:

Don't Just Stand There
You have to keep moving forward. As long as you’re holding on to where you were yesterday, you’re standing still.
From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe; rendered by Tzvi Freeman.


As for my thoughts on Christmas? The holiday I "celebrated" for the first 20 odd years of my life? I really don't have any. I stand by my frustration that it's a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus, a Jew, even though pretty much every biblical scholar knows he wasn't born during this time of year. It seems sort of fake in that respect, to me, and that just rubs me the wrong way. Then again, a holiday should mean what you choose it to mean, I suppose. Either way, the only thing I like about Christmas is that it inspires folks to put up lights and oftentimes it snows. Lights and snow. But those are two things I can have with Chanukah, so you won't hear any whining on this end.

The nice thing about D.C., though, is that everything isn't shut down today. Amen for that. I got my Chinese food (Kung Pao chicken!) and can safely say I'm content.

So there we are.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

I couldn't resist.

And I most definitely could not wait until tomorrow. Plus, I'll be to busy stuffing my face with Chinese food to post! Enjoy!

A break from the bustle.

I present, the 13 Principles of Faith of Maimonides (aka Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Ramban)
  1. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created; He alone has made, does make, and will make all things.
  2. I believe ... that there is no unity in any manner like His, and that He alone is our God, who was, and is, and will be.
  3. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, is not a body, and that He is free from all the properties of matter, and that there can be no (physical) comparison to Him whatsoever.
  4. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, is the first and the last.
  5. I believe with perfect faith that to the Creator, blessed be His Name, and to Him alone, it is right to pray, and that it is not right to pray to any being besides Him.
  6. I believe with perfect faith that all the words of the prophets are true.
  7. I believe with perfect faith that the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, peace be upon him, was true, and that he was the chief of the prophets, both of those who preceded him and of those who followed him.
  8. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that is now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses, our teacher, peace be upon him.
  9. I believe with perfect faith that this Torah will not be exchanged, and that there will never be any other Torah from the Creator, blessed be His name.
  10. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, knows all the deeds of human beings, and all their thoughts, as it says: "Who fashioned the hearts of them all, Who comprehends all their actions." (Psalms 33:15)
  11. I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His Name, rewards those that keep His commandments and punishes those that transgress them.
  12. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless I wait every day for his coming.
  13. I believe with perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator, blessed be His name, and His mention shall be exalted for ever and ever.
Just think on them. That's all.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Chanukiah: Super sized!

So I finally got the video from my cellphone sent to myself. It's a 10-second clip, but I think it expresses the mood of the National Menorah lighting that I went to Sunday. I put it together in this little movie with some other photos from the event and from this evening. The picture in the final clip is a little music box my mom got me for Chanukah that plays the dreidel song. Thanks, mom!

Mi-Ketz: Joseph rises, his brothers bow

As usual, before getting into this weeks parsha, I have a few things to mention. Sort of random in nature but significant enough I feel like sharing.

1) I waited at the bus tonight to go to the Post Office, which was closed when I got there (I could have sworn there were holiday hours, but alas, it closed at 5). So I waited for yet another bus at a stop with a man who talked to me about the wrestling match he went to last night and to a woman there with her toddler, Amit. It seemed like she was speaking Hebrew, but at times it also sounded German. But then, as Amit grew wrestless and began toddling about, she started singing to him -- in Hebrew. She must be Israeli, I thought. Mind you, I only learned Amit's name after I heard her singing in Hebrew. Not that Amit would have given it away, anyhow. Then my suspicion was cleared as a woman in a kippah showed up at the bus stop with a menorah and the two struck up a conversation about Hebrew school. I desperately wished I could have struck up conversation in Hebrew. Alas, as I've said, my speech is limited. I suppose I could have said, "At mavinah ivrit?" But then I would have sounded stupid. I also could have said "Ani mavinah k'tsat ivrit!" But then she would have looked at me like "Um, congratulations."

2) The other thing I want to share is about giving. Now, I have my own money problems and am not rolling in the dough, but I'm not broke enough that I live in a shelter and can't afford dinner. There is a program in D.C. for homeless individuals to help put together a newspaper called "Street Sense." They give out the issues on streetcorners. I walked into the CVS in Dupont, faithfully not making eye contact, as I try to do with a lot of panhandlers. But on my way out, I gave in. I gave them a $1 and said "happy holidays" in response to the man's "My, that sure is a festive blazer for Christmas!" (My coat is red, btw.) Now, the only reason I share this is because of the incredibly, incredibly warm feeling it gave me as I walked away. I smiled, I glowed, I felt happy to help. For the longest time in college, I would give leftovers from restaurants to the homeless. But never money. I was told by one friend that I should give the begger the benefit of the doubt -- despite my sentiments that "they could be buying booze and cigarettes with that dollar I give!" I've struggled with this, even though I know that it's a mitzvah to give to those without when I am blessed with so much (even when I WAS living paycheck to paycheck). Around this time of year, I'm used to the Salvation Army and bell ringers. I tend to pack those things with quarters because I know where the money goes. But this year, in D.C., they are few and far between. So I guess I will give in the best way I know how. And NOT just because it makes me feel so warm, but because it's the right thing to do.


This week's parsha involves Joseph interpreting Pharoah's dreams about the cows and corn. Joseph rises up, his brothers pay him a visit, and he tests them.

+ First, some interesting tidbits on Egypt. In the Torah, Egypt is Mitzrayim, the root of which is metzar, meaning constriction, distress or boundary. Appropriate, I think, for the context of the last and next three parshas.

+ I have often mentioned those who seek G-d only when faced with adversity. Sometimes people will ask G-d to help them when they NEED something or ask G-d why he has forsaken them when someone dies or is injured in some way. So many, I think, struggle to dedicate themselves entirely to HaShem because they do not compromise. So many view their relationship with G-d as circumstantial and based on a "what can you do for me" philosophy. And it cuts both ways. People sometimes donate money and then say, "Okay G-d, I gave money, now let my brother live." But it doesn't work that way. Commentary on Gen. 41: 5 says the following: "We must store up resources of faith, even as the Egyptians stored grain, to nourish us spirtually when events turn from us." Brilliant, nu?

+ In Gen. 41: 10, why does the cupbearer speak to Pharaoh in the third person? Then again, in Gen. 41:25, Joseph speaks to Pharoah in much the same manner. It almost sounds like he is addressing another audience, telling the audience what he TOLD Pharaoh -- "It is just as I have told Pharaoh" (Gen. 41: 28). Afterthought, in the comments on Gen. 41:34, it says that Joseph continues to emphasize "Pharaoh" so as to not raise suspicion about creating a new focus of power. I'm not sure if I agree with this. It's overly excessive at times and sounds less like "Joseph told Pharaoh" than "Joseph told some people what he told Pharaoh."

+ Oh, and for those keeping score at home, "Pharoah" in Hebrew has a hard "p" -- that is, it is the letter pe with a dagesh, which means it is pronounced like the p in puppy, no like the p in phosphorous. Technically, then, according to a precise translation, it should be pronounced "Par'oh" ... the root meaning or translation is "to lay open or untie." According to, this means "that the goal of Egyptian rule was to break down the defenses in the personality and lay it wide open to the inroads of the yetzer ha'ra -- our selfish instincts." The site's comments also say, "Once this power gains full control, spiritual redemption is no longer possible."

+ Right when I was about to get all flustered that Joseph was changing his name to be Egyptianized and was given a nice Egyptian wife ... I read the commentary. Joseph is given Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, to wed. According to the commentary, Asenath actually is the daughter of Dinah and that she was adopted by the childless Potiphar, thus making her a relative. The discrepency between Potiphera and Potipher is irrelevant, as the rabbis believe this is the same person -- Potipher being who Joseph served in Chapter 39, too. So much as those before him, Joseph marries within the tribe.

+ Joseph and Asenath have two children: Manasseh and Ephraim. Now, before I knew of Ephraim in the Torah, I only knew of Ephraim from that TV show "Everwood." The moment I heard it, though, I sort of decided I wanted it to be the name of one of my children, despite my grand maternal holdbacks. The name means (according to the Torah text) "G-d has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." Living in the Diaspora -- not necessarily a "land of affliction," but definitely a land where things are not always as they seem -- I think this name is beautiful. Additional interpretation of the root describes the word as "fruitful" or "fertile" or "productive." Indeed, that is what the Jews are.

+ Re: The famine. For the nonbelievers out there, I must point out that the famine in Egypt is well documented in Egyptian and other Near Eastern texts (much as the flood story is told in many histories). It takes little for famine to set in, as Lower Egypt relies entirely on the Nile floods caused by a periodic rise during summer months. A shortfall of a mere few inches could cause such a famine.

+ T'shuvah. Here's an important topic. I hope someone reads it, anyhow. I have to admit that this is news to me, but isn't surprising. Words (such as olam) become changed throughout time. Meanings grow or become something that they initially may not have been. T'shuvah is one of those words. First, the term is brought up because Joseph testing his brothers is, in essence, him seeing whether his brothers will commit t'shuvah.

The common translation of t'shuvah is "repentance," which means to "turn away from sin" or "atone" or "to do penitence." While these terms are almost there, they aren't quite what t'shuvah is all about. Shuvah is derived from shuv, meaning to "return." To make t'shuvah is to return to Torah observance. Essentially, t'shuvah is to return to where you once were -- to do this, of course, there has to be a starting point of Torah observance. In that respect, one could say that a lot of Jews are inable to make t'shuvah. But meh!

How does this fit in to Joseph and his brothers? The commentary says that t'shuvah is "finding oneself in a similar situation that needs responding differently." (Ex: From the previous paragraph, if one is presented with a big ole' pork sandwich that they had gotten used to eating every Friday night, t'shuvah might be stopping and responding differently, returning to Torah observance, and rekindling kashrut.) Thus, Joseph needed to know whether the brothers he sent away would return with Benjamin, or would leave the lone brother to anguish in prison, as they had Joseph. Of course, the brothers do respond differently, and have made t'shuvah.

+ Joseph truly is a righteous man. He puts aside his torment and anger at his brothers in Gen. 42:27. It is true that "Revenge is almost always sweeter in the contemplation than in the realization." This, folks, is why I no longer hold grudges. Okay, I take that back, no one is perfect. I can think of one grudge I hold. But given the chance to do to this woman what she did to me, I would not. Why? She is not worth the torment and time, that is why. Given the chance to help her, I would indeed pity her and put aside my long-standing grudge. Make no mistake, she hurt me deeply, but I do not hate her. (In fact, I do not think I've ever hated anyone ... not since I was a kid anyhow. Kids can be mean, though.)

PS: I love the brick testament ...

Monday, December 18, 2006

Chanukah: Day No. 3

On this, the third night/day of Chanukah, I nearly forgot to light my menorah here at home. Shame, shame. Perhaps. But it was overshadowed by the fact that I was at the National Menorah lighting ceremony earlier today. As in, from 4 to 5:30. I have to say, it's a mighty fine tradition that I was ecstatic to be a part of. There were nearly 2,500 people gathered on the ellipse to watch the lighting of what is said to be the world's largest menorah. In fact, it almost appears to dwarf the National Christmas Tree.

The event was put together (as it is every year) by the American Friends of Chabad Lubavitch. It was complete with a dancing dreidel and three fantastic cantors who even participated in a colorful rendition of the dreidel song. Yes, the entire ceremony was clouded by another ceremony going on just yards away (evidently THEIR ceremony has been going on since 1948, our bad, really). So you'd hear some tunes from the Nutcracker speech as the rebbe talked about light and darkness. There were children, grandparents, Holocaust survivors and newborns. There were Chabad, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and some guy who tried really hard to sing along to the dreidel song. But really, who DOESN'T know the dreidel song?

When the ceremony, speeches and songs (my favorite being "Oseh Shalom" of course), everyone attacked the latke/donut booth. They gave away two latkes a person and as many donuts as you could carry. They had small apple sauce cups (no sour cream!) and a variety of delicious drinkable products. As I was leaving to go back to work, scarfing a jelly-filled donut, I passed a bunch of women speaking Hebrew. I kept wanting to say "Slicha! At mavinah anglit!?" Just to say something in Hebrew to an Israeli counterpart. Alas, I stuffed my face and kept on walking. I seriously power-walked back to work. I said "I'll be gone an hour!" but ended up taking a two-hour hiatus from the not-so-pressing grind of the news business.

Oh! I also picked up a menorah set. Yes, I have my own. Can you have too many chanukiot? Yes, yes you can. I'm fond of the one-for-everyone plan, so I'll be giving this one away. It's cute, though.

I intend on posting photos and video of the event tomorrow, after my camera's batteries have recouped and recharged. For then you will hopefully see the dancing menorah and the three cantors (the three tenors have NOTHING on these guys).

And finally, on the Chanukah vibe, a word from Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, who spoke at the lighting and who had some pretty inspiring things to say: We should not be fighting darkness, we should be bringing light into the world. It is that statement that I likely will be writing about in the next few days. I'm curious whether light can be brought into the world, when there is darkness, without fighting the darkness. Can you ignore darkness for the sake of light? Curious. I will elaborate!


In other news, I'm a hero! No, really, a genuine hero! Okay, so I didn't do all the work, but I did some. I came home after work tonight, dropped my things and headed out front to check my mail (which is on the porch of the house I live in, and I live in the basement with a side entrance that is beyond a gate. So I have to walk through the gate, down some stairs, out onto the sidewalk, up the porch stairs, and there I am). As I came out of the gate, I noticed a man running across the street yelling at a woman, but I couldn't understand what they were saying. I then looked two houses down and there was a fire in the ivy leaves (most people round here don't have front lawns of grass, but rather just large patches of ivy leaves). The man was on the phone calling 911 and the woman, who I then realized was horribly cracked out and smoking a cigarette, was jabbering senselessly. The moment he got off the phone, a woman came out of her house and said she had a hose that might reach. The cracked out lady then quickly walked away, mumbling and yelling. So we got a pot and a big bowl and started throwing water at the patch of ivy leaves that swarmed up a tree. We were worried that if we didn't get the fire out soon, it would work ALL the way up the tree.

We put the fire out and THEN the fire truck arrived, figures. Turns out the house is empty right now, but used to be a doctor's office/house. The doctor evidently "taught" or "schooled" the children of drug addicts, or "crackbabies." Interesting, I think.

Anyhow, it was my good deed for the night and it gave me a chance to talk with the neighbors, who I realized are my age. Maybe more chance encounters will wind me up with some friends? Hah.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

On this day in history.

Every now and again I like to post famous and infamous events of this day in years past. Today, on the Jewish calendar, is the 25th of Kislev. This day is known as the first day of Chanukah, but also is the day in which Cain killed his brother, Abel, in 3720 BCE.

Additionally, England passed its Bill of Rights in 1689 and the Boston Tea Party was in swing in 1773. In 1937, two men escaped Alcatraz by boat, never to be seen again. Those two men were Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe. And in 1942, Heinrich Himmler ordered that all Roma -- or gypsies -- should be sent to the death chambers at Auschwitz. Finally, in 1991, the U.N. rescinded it's 1975 ruling that Zionism equated racism.

In 1770, Ludwig von Beethoven was born, bringing an ultimate talent to the world of classical music. In 1980, Col. Sanders of chicken fame died on this day and in 2005, John Spencer -- known best probably as Leo McGarry on West Wing -- passed away.

Today is independence day in Kazakhstan, a country that has recently made us all curious about its traditions and lifestyle. In South Africa, today is the national Day of Reconciliation -- a day for all races to foster reconciliation. It was implemented in 1994 after Apartheid ended.

Ahh, time. You are filled with so much and fly so very quickly. I'll tie this up with one of my favorite groups singing one of my favorite songs. If you haven't gotten the LeeVee's album, there is STILL TIME!!!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Chanukah: In the beginning ...

Tonight begins Chanukah. Festival of Lights. Many eves of dreidels and gelt and latkes. Applesauce and sour cream. Potlucks? Family? I'm missing the last two there. Unfortunately, I'm missing most of those things in the eve. For I work most of the nights of Chanukah. The newspaper life wasn't meant for me. I could make it work, sure. But I'd have to make it work without Shabbat (as I do now, and yes, a play on words), and that's something I'm tired of sacrificing.

But for now, Chanukah, this holiday of yore and splendid celebration of our people. Did I mention the building's electric menorah sits RIGHT behind my desk? I was worried for a while because the Christmas tree went up, but no sign of the menorah. Then, after my days off I came in and BAM! It's worn, too. One of the bulbs is falling out of the socket, and I have my suspicious as to whether it will even turn on once plugged in.

I have complete and full intentions to blog as much as possible throughout the week on this holiday, mostly because I am not as close to it as I would like to be. Raised in a household of the golden rule and Santa Claus and the christmas tree, there wasn't much about Jesus or G-d or anything associated with the holiday. So I sort of have an advantage, I suppose. I have a menorah at home that I bought at a Walgreens back in Nebraska two years ago. It is silver and covered in leftover wax from my past two Chanukahs. I bought colorful candles this year at CVS and have full intentions of laying down the foil tonight, to prepare. Even though I won't be home to light the candle at the sun's down, I'll light the menorah when I get home, most assuredly.

My intention for tomorrow is to get up, head to the store for some food coloring or sprinkles and then make sugar cookies shaped like menorahs, the Maccabees, dreidels and magen Davids. I bought the cookie cutters a few years ago and last year made the cookies for my coworkers at the college press, so I figure I've got something going here. My Chanukah will be filled with dozens of festive sugar cookies. Hopefully, someday, I'll be the bubbe with the cookies. Lots of them.

So how do I want to begin the holiday? Firstly with a tidbit on what Chanukah is about (for those out there unaware, then a bit on the menorah (inspired by a friend's query) and then by some thoughts from Rabbi David Zeller, the founder of the Shevet Center for Jewish Spirituality and Medidation in Jerusalem.

1) In a nutshell, Chanukah celebrates a miracle for the Jewish people -- both religiously and militarily. Now, the military side of the miracle isn't really emphasized that much, but it's significant because it is what set the lights rolling. The Maccabees, who were religious, were enraged at the defiling of the Temple and restrictions on the Jews, rebeled and reclaimed the Temple. Much of the battle was considered the work of miracles because the Maccabees were far outnumbered, of course. They cleaned and rededicated the temple in 164 BCE and set the ner Tamid (Eternal Flame) aflame with the only bit of purified oil that was left, but realized they only had enough to keep it lit for a single day before more purified oil could be gotten. But the lamp stayed lit for eight days -- a true miracle on top of everything else, wouldn't you say?

Perhaps the greatest thing about Chanukah is that it is a time to bring light to the world when it is at its darkest (think about how dark it gets so early now!) in wintertime. It's about renewal, just as the Temple was renewed. It's about putting forth light from amid the darkness, finding all the greatness amid the darkness.

2) A friend e-mailed me today asking what the difference is between a menorah with 7 branches and a menorah with 9 branches. So for those of you who have seen both and know not the difference, here you are: The menorah commanded by G-d to be lit each day in the days of the Temple had six branches and one stem for the seven days of the week. These are often seen in synagogues today, and my shul back home in Nebraska had two electric ones that flanked the bimah, and each Shabbat they were turned on. The seven-posted menorah has many rules and regulations regarding what it can and cannot be made of, etc. The menorah that is most commonly seen and is associated with Chanukah borrows from the original menorah, of course, and has eight branches and one stem, which is for the shamash. The shamash is the candle lit that serves as the "worker," in that it is used to light the other candles, which represent the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days. Ta da!

And finally ...

2) Rabbi Zeller has said that Chanukah is "one of the most mystical of holidays, because it comes out of the oral tradition," rather than from Torah. Additionally, he says, "The deepest secrets are contained in this holiday. It carries a tremendous power."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Books and Va-Yeishev (Joseph's journey begins ...)

Before Torah, I have to mention the two books I picked up today. Yes, I'm still reading The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis (by the way, it's amazing and maybe better than The Outside World), but when there's cheap books, I'm weak in the knees and my wallet sort of opens itself up and the money just ... well ... floats out. So I stopped by the $3 book sale and picked up Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl, which I read in AmJew fiction in my last semester of college but hope to reread and take some more time with. It's a good portrait of the survivor's mentality and subsequent destruction therein. The other book is by Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua. Now, I've tried before to get through a Yehoshua book, but failed miserably. I actually don't even remember the book I was trying at, but it just couldn't keep me interested. It was, to be frank, dry. By this author is one of the greats, and no one will question that. So I picked up the book Mr. Mani because I desperately want to get why the man is so heralded and widely read. The construct of this book looks sort of, well, interesting, as it's a series of conversations among family members with biographies of each of the characters in each of the stories.


Now, for the Torah. I don't have a lot of different things to say on this week's parshah, but there is a lot on a few topics, mainly the first one. You can expect I'll examine the idea of "Sheol" further, of course.

This week's portion begins to tell the story of Joseph (which ends up spanning the entirety of the rest of Beresheit, or Genesis), in addition to a bit on Judah. The parsha ends with Joseph analyzing the dreams of the cupbearer and baker and the subsequent death of the baker. The cupbearer forgets Joseph, for the time being, and the beloved son remains imprisoned ...

+ Sheol? All well-read scholars know that the concepts of "heaven" and "hell" are not present in the Hebrew bible. But the term "Sheol" is used frequently in referring to the place of the dead. For example, in Gen. 37:35, Israel is mourning the loss of Joseph (who he believes is dead) upon the return of his sons. Israel says, "I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol." The commentary on this term says this is the most oft used term for "the abode of the spirits of the dead." The region is assumed to be situated "deep beneath the earth, enclosed with gates." Additionally, it was a place of "unrelieved gloom and silence" where everyone -- good or bad, great or small -- was received. All were equal there and none could leave.

I'm curious about this term, as I've been unaware of it prior to this passage. Did I just not notice it? I deeply appreciate that the concept of "Heaven" or "Hell" is left to discussion and ambiguity, for it gives us a greater chance to explore our time in the present. At the same time, this explanation of Sheol is sort of troubling to me. If the assumption is that it is a place of gloom and silence where everyone is equal, then it can't possibly ever translate into a "heaven" concept of the afterlife. Yet, it doesn't particularly convene a place of unrelenting pain and sorrow, thus can't really translate to "hell." So what is this place? Gloom -- a state of partial darkness; melancholy. Is it a place of partial darkness and silence?

After some poking around on the Web, there's various thoughts on Sheol, what it is and what it means. One suggestion is that it's purely a place where all creatures -- beast or man -- go. That is, dust to dust. It isn't necessarily a place where souls reside, but merely the word given to the depths of the earth where all dust/remains of the dead end up. Toward the time of Jesus, though, a believe among Jews in resurrection was highly believed and people began seeing Sheol as a "holding area" for those who've passed along and are waiting for the coming. NOTE: It must be mentioned that this is in no way the same concept as purgatory of Catholicism. In Sheol, it was believed, the dead awaited the resurrection whether in torment or in comfort. Either way, it was viewed as a place of abandoned shadows.

I guess I can understand why the idea of Heaven and Jesus as the savior became so heavily touted by folks, especially when considering this view of Sheol. At the same time, what's so wrong with Sheol? If you live a happy, righteous, fulfilling life and Sheol is all you get ... well, so it goes. I guess I prefer to believe in a holding realm where I can live with my content rather than immediate gratification of heaven.

+ The interjection with the story of Judah is curious ... necessary, of course, but curious.

+The commentary regarding Joseph's existence as a successful man and as a man in the house of his Egyptian master is significant, I think. It reads: "Some people are conscious of G-d's presence in their lives only when they are successful. When adversity strikes, they believe G-d has abandoned them," pointing out that Joseph felt G-d's presence in both good times and bad. It's significant because I think this is how about 80 percent of believers view G-d. Of course, it's psychologically understandable. What's the first thing we do when something bad happens to us? We look for someone to blame. "Things don't just happen!" we declare. If it's good, it's because we're being rewarded for being great, of course. If it's bad, then it must be the work of G-d and then we ask "what have I done to deserve this? Was it because I didn't tip my waitress at Denny's? Because I ran over the Feldman's cat last week? Why have you abandoned and punished me!?" I must admit I was that way for a long time -- but damn it feels good to be above and beyond those sentiments and reactions to things that befall me.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The streets where you live.

I'd like to take a moment, a break away from the significant journey that is redefining -- or perhaps, defining -- ourselves to talk about why I like my neighborhood.

I live in Mt. Pleasant in Washington (our nation's capital, that is). The neighborhood is predominately black, but the presence on streetcorners, grocery stores and at the laundromat is of the Latino community (which is the second largest community in the neighborhood). There is three supermarkets within a two-block area, in addition to a cafe called Dos Gringos and about six restaurants that serve Mexican/Salvadoran food. Mixed in is a few Chinese food joints, a hardware store, several "Latino clothing" stores, an antique store, an honest-to-G-d bakery and several small convenience stores. Mt. Pleasant (the street, that is) spans but five blocks, yet is jam-packed with all of those things and so much more.

No matter how hot or cold, there are the regulars at the 7-11 -- Latino men who drink cup after cup of coffee while chatting about things that I can't understand. There's the man who sells huge carpets with giant tigers on them and big beach towels with characters like Spongebob and Superman. There's the man with the crutch who talks to himself as he wanders through Mt. Pleasant, down Park Road and into the park. There are people crowding the streets at all hours of the day, it seems, chatting or lugging groceries or huge bags of rice. There is life, laughing and children rolling about on their tiny feet with dogs and cheap toys bought at the wholesale store on the corner. The Latino men sometimes call me "chica" or "senorita" and more often than not, I hear that I'm pretty while making it from the busstop to Lamont, what I consider "safe" territory late at night when I leave work.

There are a few typical drivers who handle the 42 bus. My favorite, a black man who must be in his 30s, makes sure to bid goodnight to everyone who gets off the bus -- at every stop, without fail. His enthusiasm is contagious. The UPS men rarely change, and the mailman crawls through railings from rowhouse to rowhouse so as to not have to run up and down the stairs at every residence. Tonight there were two UPS men taking on the early rush of holiday deliveries. The larger fellow went one way and the smaller fellow banged on a door of a lit house, eventually yelling "UPS" to those inside who didn't seem open to answering. One of the men had a box of Hickory Farms, which really took me back. We used to get packages from Hickory Farms en mass around this time of year from my grandparents -- cheeses, meats, spreads and little chocolates. Tis the season, I suppose.

Lamont Street -- like most streets in the neighborhood -- is filled with row houses, old and new. You can tell which ones have been carefully looked after and which have been filled with interns and college kids or folks with no time or energy to keep track of a century-old home. The thing I love most about this neighborhood, though, is that when people want to get rid of things -- TVs, chairs, tables, children's golf sets, old soccer shoes, even stuffed animals -- they put them out on the lawn near the sidewalk typically with a sign, "PLEASE GIVE A GOOD HOME" or "TAKE! PLEASE!" or "Free stuff." The alleys become spotted with goods to grab, though I haven't gotten around to taking anything. There's always something, including a really nice UHF/VHF television up the block in the alley. That, my friends, is recycling in practice.

So take a moment to appreciate your neighborhood. It's quirks. The people, the culture, the sounds and smells. Mmk?

Class dismissed.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Call me crazy ...

Every Reform convert I know (and I know a few, by golly) went to the mikvah, sat with a beit din and had a formal ceremony at the shul. But this article, which discusses the importance of Orthodox rabbis accepting potential converts, says the following:
The Reform movement requires that the potential convert agree to observe the commandments (according to Reform standards) and participate publicly in the community, but they do not require mikvah or milah. The movement recommends that the potential convert be made aware of mikvah and milah, and that a Reform conversion would be unacceptable to Orthodox Jews.
I think it's the "according to Reform standards" that drives me nuts. Yes, the Reform movement is not binded to the 613 commandments as Orthodox Jews are, but then again, many Conservatives are not either.
Yes, it's just one article in one publication in one point in time, but damnit, they make us sound like lepers!

I once had an Orthodox Jew ask me HOW I could be reform. I went to shul regularly (when I was able to, that is), I kept kosher (to an extent), I had strong feelings of faith and dedication to the House of Israel. HOW could I be Reform, he asked. Of course, it never clicked that I was a convert. I think it would have blown him away to know I was both a convert and Reform. But it was the Reform movement that embraced me, took me in and let me grow in their midst. I went to a Conservative shul and felt outcasted by the rabbi and long-time members. So I converted through the Reform movement because there were classes, there was discussion, there was learning and faith and a driving force of community. Yes, sometimes I wonder if my beliefs are more in line with the conservative-leaning Jewish "brances" ... but I don't judge.

Wait, I take that back. Yes, I frown on the Jews I know who don't know enough about their culture and religion to truly embrace it. The twice-a-year Jews or the ones who use the word to describe themselves yet can't define what the word means. I look at people who were born into such an amazing community and yet do not embrace or understand it. Who don't even try! Then I remember not everyone has the passion, the desire. It's one of those feelings I wish everyone was could experience. My judgement comes as a result of jealousy, I suppose.

I didn't have a baby-naming ceremony.
Or go to Hebrew school.
Or have a bat mitzvah.
Or go to Jewish camp.

It's like ... taking something for granted. Taking this amazing connection to something for granted. It boggles my mind.

Anyhow. I am Reform. Get over it. Someday I might convert Orthodox, and I've thought about it deeply. There's a lot there I want to explore. But right now, I'm okay with my "movement." We're all Jews, you know.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Va-Yishlah, or Israel and Edom

+ I find the commentary on Esau in Etz Chayim interesting. Esau is "viewed as the ancestor of the Edomites (36:1) who sided with the Babylonians in destroying the First Temple and as the prototype of later Roman and European anti-Semites." I never knew there was a "model" for the anti-Semite.

+ The divine force (Gen. 32:25). According to the commentary, classic thinkers are "nearly unanimous in seeing him as evil, a malign force." The commentary goes on, though, to say that the text can also be seen as Jacob wrestling with his conscience. "He outgrows his Jacob identity as the trickster and becomes Israel, the one who contends with G-d and people instead of avoiding or manipulating them." So if the divine force with which he wrestles exemplifies his typical "lie and flee" attitude (which is bad), but the outcome is that Jacob becomes something better (Israel, which is good), then how can the divine force be viewed as "evil, a malign force"? I suppose it goes back to the age-old question of whether good can come from an evil act. Anyhow, I disagree with the classic commentaries. 'Nuff said.

+ Ahh, here's the morsel of knowledge for the evening, which I think just about everyone could deserve to hear. It comes from R. Jacob: "G-d answers a person's prayers if the person prays by searching himself, becoming his own opponent." It returns us to the idea that we can beg and plead with G-d ... but it takes so much more than just a prayer.

+ Okay. Either there's a typo or the commentary failed to address why there are two different spellings of the name of the place where Jacob wrestled with the divine force. In Gen. 32:30, it is spelled Peniel (פניאל) and in Gen. 32:32, it is spelled (פנואל). The difference, of course, it the middle letter (yod and sureq, respectively). The transliteration, as such, is Peniel and Penuel, respectively. Not a huge deal, of course, but usually there's simply a stray marking in texts that create discrepancies in the texts over words or places, not completely different letters!

+ Ahh! A biblical precedent for Kosher practices. In the future, I'll point folks to Gen. 32:33. "That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob's hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle." As per the commentary, "This biblical verse underlies the requirement in kosher slaughter that "the entire hind quarter of the animal be considered unfit for consumption by Jews (Ashkenazic practice)." This is one other reason I'm sort of glad I consume no beef. I don't even have to think about it!

Note: That is also the first reference to the "children of Israel" in the Bible. Of course, it means not only Jacob's children but all Jews."

+ I admire the commentary on Jacob's decision to order Leah and her children before Rachel and Joseph (which we all know causes a big ruckus later). The commentary addresses favoritism among families and says, "Children long to have their parents recognize their individual strengths and talents, to be treated uniquely, not equally." For a second there I was rethinking the desire of having two children. This is a good parenting strategy, nu?

+ The Dinah/Shechem incident reminds me of Luke and Laura on General Hospital. It's sort of a twisted concept, when you think about it. In the Luke/Laura drama of General Hospital, Luke raped Laura, who then fell in love with him. They got married and lived happily ever after (as much as someone on a soap opera can, that is). In the case of Dinah, though, and her brothers' reaction of slaughter upon the people is defended by Maimonides on the grounds "that they became implicated in the serious crime of the rapist by not punishing him." Is this permission of the death penalty? It sure sounds like it to me. The brothers did not assume that G-d would take care of the matter, and rather took things into their own hands. (Gen. 34:25) Yet it would appear G-d approves of the action, even still (Gen. 35:5).

+ In the Torah, there are several occurrences of El Shaddai (אל שדי), which the commentary says is a reference to G-d that has an unknown meaning. I was curious about this (there has to be an etymology for everything, right), so I decided to Google. According to popular site "Hebrew for Christians," this reference to G-d means "The All Sufficient God" because evidently, Shad means “breast” in Hebrew. This, of course, doesn't really express how one gets from "breast" to "all sufficient."

Now, the root, shadad, means "to destroy" or "to overpower." Now, this instance I'm referencing appears after Jacob's (Israel's) kids go out and pillage the people. G-d appears to Jacob, telling him to book it. So, perhaps it was an ode to G-d as condoning the destruction? El Shaddai as a "G-d who destroys" ...? I find that the "Hebrew for Christians" site is false in its translation. I also like the Midrashic interpretation of shin-dalet-yod as an acronym standing for "Guardian of the Doors of Israel." I love that there are so many instances of interpretation of words as acronyms for profound phrases!

But this makes me wonder why Etz Chayim suggests that the meaning is unknown ...

+ Call me crazy, but this connection of Edom/Esau to the model for antiSemites is fascinating. It is interesting how the two lines split so significantly. It also makes me curious about the idea of the "self-hating Jew." Is there a little bit of Edom in the self-loathing Jew? The haftarah for Va-Yishlah this week is the entirety of Obadiah. Particularly striking are the following lines (Obadiah 1:15-18) which address the House of Edom:
As you did, so shall it be done to you;
Your conduct shall be requited.
Yeah, against all nations
The day of the Lord is at hand.
That same cup that you drank on My
Holy Mount
Shall all nations drink evermore,
Drink till their speech grows thick,
And they become as though they had never
But on Zion's mount a remnant shall
And it shall be holy.
The House of Jacob shall dispossess
Those who dispossessed them.
The House of Jacob shall be fire,
And the House of Joseph a flame,
And the House of Esau shall be straw;
They shall burn it and devour it,
And no survivor shall be left on the House
of Esau
-- for the Lord has spoken.
This is incredibly expressive, and I could probably go on and on about this for hours. I find it fascinating, the striking mood of these statements regarding the fall of the First Temple and the house of Edom's role in it. This is incredibly inspiring, saying that no matter who tries to destroy the House of Israel, they shall be straw and Israel a fire. Edom is the "enemy" of the Jewish people, the destroyer, those who seek the destruction of the Jews. Edom is the Nazis. Edom is the Crusaders. Obadiah captures the essence of the Jewish history long before much of the destruction beset the House of Israel.

Of course, Obadiah left out the most important aspect of Jewish history, and every event of attempted destruction. There's an oft-quipped line that goes something like this: "They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat!" So, Obadiah managed to leave out the eating part. Then again, so did G-d. I'm sure it was the intention though ... :)

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

A bit on YHWH.

I received a random note from a fellow on YouTube today. I used to obsessively check YouTube and make videos once a week, but I've become lazy and uninterested. The note I received from the fellow had a video attached about the "Reason for the Season" and whether Jesus was it. Evidently he's an ex-Jehovah's Witness who still feels very strong about a lot of the precepts. He sent me another message about Jehovah and the message, etc. I started to wonder, where DID the word "Jehovah" come from and what precisely does it even mean? I sort of always understood it as another name for Jesus, maybe a bastardization of the word.

And then, out of the blue, there's my 10 Minutes of Torah e-mail with this note about YHWH or yud-hei-vav-hei:

"The G-d of Israel is forever unique, invisible and unknowable. We sometimes refer to G-d as HaShem, The Name. Of one thing we are certain: the Shem of HaShem is not 'Jehovah.' As Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut tells us in his commentary on B'reishit, a sixteenth-century Christian writer, unaware of Jewish custom, misunderstood the vowel signs under the four letter symbol of G-d's shem and trasliterated the Hebrew ... as 'Jehovah.' His error has been perpetuated ever since.

"Indeed, even if we wished to, we no longer know the pronunciation. The Shem was so holy that, in the days of the Temple, only the High Priest had the authority to voice it, and on only one day of the year, Yom Kippur. With the destruction of the Temple, the knowledge of the pronunciation disappeared."

I went to Wikipedia (the journalist's source of places to start when looking for legitimate sources) where I discovered that the evolution of the word went something like this ... Iehouah (1530 C.E.) to Iehovah (1611 C.E.) and finally, Jehovah (1769 C.E.). Evidently the pointing of the vowels created quite the uproar from the destruction of the Second Temple till, well, now. There's disagreements about what vowels were REALLY in YHWH in certain instances (as in, with certain prefixes like mem). Interesting. There's oodles of interesting stuff ... which I don't quite have the time to delve into right now. But feel free to share anything you know, mmk?

And that is your morsel of knowledge for the evening.