Friday, August 26, 2022

We're Back: Ask Chaviva Anything!

It's been awhile and I honestly don't even know if anyone is interested in this series, but I wanted to bring back the Ask Chaviva Anything series because I'm trying to spend more time here on the blog! Ready? Ask away!

Parashat Re'eh: Worshipping Gods You Didn't Know vs. Just Not Worshipping Other Gods

Boker tov and chodesh tov and Shabbat shalom. It's me, again, with another look at the weekly Torah portion from my favorite place in Jerusalem: the shuk!

This week's parashah is Re'eh (Devarim 11:26-16:17), and it's chock full of blessings and curses we've all heard before. But one thing I've noticed though is the repetition of a phrase: 

(singular you) אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתָּ

 (plural you) אֱלֹהִ֥ים אֲחֵרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־יְדַעְתֶּֽם

Gods who you didn't know/haven't experienced

This phrase is used again and again in requests to not listen to others who try and pull you into worshipping "gods you didn't know." The dangers around worshiping "gods you didn't know" or "gods you didn't experience before." All usages are past tense, as well. 

This line appears in Devarim 11:28, 13:3, 13:7, and 13:14.

My immediate thought here is ... does this mean we can worship gods that are new to us? So no idols of Avraham's father but yes to all the others?

Why not just say clearly and definitively, "Don't worship other gods"? Period. Full stop. 

Why the "lo yadata" and "lo yadatem" ... that you didn't know? 

Let's say that the idea here is that the Israelites are supposed to focus on the Gd they do know rather than gods they didn't or don't know. This may be the point of the language because the whole of Sefer Devarim is one big reminder of all the things HaShem did for the Israelites. There is one Gd, HaShem, and He's the end-all, be-all. 

I took you out of Egypt! 

I fed you manna!

I kept you! 

I'm giving you this land!

I promised you'd be numerous as the stars in the sky! 

Look at all I did for you! 

You know me. You didn't know them. You don't know them


It still doesn't sit well with me. There's something uncomfortable about this line that I just don't like or love. Something uncertain and unnecessary. 

What do you think? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Friday, August 19, 2022

Parashat Eikev: Are Jews really better than everyone else?

Happy Friday! I am happy to say these words are coming to you from the comfort of Machane Yehuda, aka the shuk, in Jerusalem, Israel, Planet Earth. Let's dive in. 

This week's Torah portion (aka parashah) is Eikev, which I've written about quite a few times before (including here and here). There are so many compelling events in this week's portion! This portion comprises Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 and includes Moshe's final words to the Israelites and retells the infamous story of the Golden Calf. 

Are the Jews better than everyone else? 

It also includes a verse often cited as troublesome for how the world thinks Jews understand themselves in the expanse of humanity. In Deut. 7:14, the Torah says

ברוך תהיה מכל העמים

Baruch t'hiyeh m'kol ha'amim. 

This often translates as "You will be blessed above all people." This is just one of the places where the antiSemitic trope that Jews believe they're better than everyone else comes from. But that's a mistranslation. There is so much nuance with translation, and this translation misses the mark. The Hebrew uses a mem (מ), which means "from" not "above." Mem is a comparative preposition, and when you compare two things, you're setting them apart from one another. 

The better translation here is "You will be blessed when compared to all people." It's an indicator of a different status of blessing, not a status of being above or better than others. And it makes sense. Jews are viewed by the world as distinct, separate from. Even the most non-religious Jews are still considered as different and separate. This was the blessing from HaShem. 

You can embrace that blessing of difference and celebrate it or view it as a negative and something to fight or battle against. 

What's the deal with the different versions of the Golden Calf story?

Later, the parashah retells the sin of the Golden Calf but changes up a major portion of the story, which makes me wonder. If you recall, the scene here is that Moshe went up on the mount to get the Torah from HaShem. He was gone "too long" for the people, so they panicked and fell back on their old "we need an intermediary to check in with HaShem and see what's doing with Moshe" ways. Thus, they built a calf (not to worship, but to serve as an intermediary to their Gd). 

In Deut. 9:21, Moshe says:

"As for that sinful thing you had made, the calf, I took it and put it to the fire; I broke it to bits and ground it thoroughly until it was fine as dust, and I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain."

But in the original incident in Exodus 32:20, it says:

"He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it."

What's missing? The people drinking the water, of course. Why isn't this brought up in this week's portion? 

Ramban says it's because Moshe didn't want to humiliate them, but that doesn't seem to track. This entire portion is an extensive reminder of how the Israelites screwed up. Ramban also says he doesn't want to tell the people because he doesn't want them to know that he did to them what is done to wives accused of adultery. After all, Israel did cheat on HaShem, right? Sort of, anyway.

Okay, stop. Wait. What? Yes, when a woman is accused of adultery, she's forced to let down her hair and drink some sketchy water. In Numbers 5:17:

"And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water."

So is what Moshe did in Exodus and what happened to an accused adulteress the same thing? The former involves burning something and putting the ashes into water. The latter involves some dust from the floor, which could be some ash mixed in with general dirt. The Hebrew word is the same in Deuteronomy and Numbers, but the version in Exodus doesn't use the word for dust/dirt or ash. But the two don't appear to be the same. Even if the ash on the tabernacle floor was from a sacrifice, those sacrifices are out of holiness. The burning of the calf has nothing to do with anything holy. 

All of that to say I don't buy the Ramban's perspective here. But when something in one place in the Torah doesn't match something in another place in the Torah, we have to explain it, right? 

The reality here is that the drinking that is explicitly called out in Exodus is merely implied in Deuteronomy. One can safely assume that there was a single source of water where the Israelites were camped. When Moshe says, "I threw its dust into the brook that comes down from the mountain" the implication is that the people were drinking out of this brook whether they wanted to or not. 

And that concludes this week's thoughts on Eikev. There are a bunch of other interesting sections in this portion, including gobs of talk about conquering and possessing the land, but I've covered that in previous years pretty thoroughly. Until next week ... Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, August 15, 2022

Fun Puns and Alliterations for Celebrating Sukkot in 2022

Yes, Sukkot has come and gone this year, but after many years of creating alliterative names for the nightly meals in the Sukkah, I thought it might be fun to compile a ton so that when next year rolls around and we're hopefully gathering with friends and family ... you can have some fun, alliterative meals!

For those not in the know, a sukkah is a temporary structure that is also called a booth or a hut or a tabernacle (the latter most often outside of Jewish circles). With that, I give you the alliterative options:

In the sukkah ...

  • Sushi in the sukkah (served with sake in the sukkah)
  • Spaghetti in the sukkah
  • Make-your-own-salad in the sukkah
  • Make-your-own-sandwich in the sukkah
  • Sabich in the sukkah
  • Sausages in the sukkah
  • Smoothies in the sukkah
  • Subs in the sukkah (as in, sub sandwiches)
  • Sambusak in the sukkah (think: middle eastern samosas)
In the shack ...
These could also be used for "in the sukkah."
  • Shakshukah in the shack
  • Schnitzel in the shack
  • Shakes in the shack
  • Shepherd’s pie in the shack
In the booth ...
  • Beers in the booth
  • Brews in the booth
  • Burgers in the booth
  • Bagels in the booth
  • Banana splits in the booth
  • Bibimbap in the booth
  • Blintzes in the booth
  • Burritos in the booth
  • Bourekas in the booth
  • Hummus v'basar in the booth

In the hut ...
  • Hot dogs in the hut
  • Pizza in the hut (this is not alliterative, but a nod to Pizza Hut!)
  • Hamburgers in the hut
  • Hot pot in the hut
  • Herring in the hut
  • Heroes in the hut (as in sub sandwiches)
  • Hamin in the hut (hamin is similar to cholant)
  • Huevos rancheros in the hut
  • Hummus in the hut
In the tabernacle ...
  • Tacos in the tabernacle
  • Tequila in the tabernacle
  • Turkey in the tabernacle
  • Make-your-own-toast in the tabernacle
  • Tajine in the tabernacle
And a few more:
  • Pancakes in the palapa
  • Pancakes in the payag 

Another one that I came up with was cholent or chile en la choza (chili in the hut), but I was told that choza in Spanish is actually more of a hovel than a hut. If you speak Spanish and can let me know, I'd love to hear it in the comments!

Want to share one I didn't think of? Post in the comments and I'll add it to the list!

Friday, August 12, 2022

Chaviva on the Parashat Ve'etchanan: Aliyah, Changing the Law, Prayer, and more

Many moons ago, I sat down and studied the weekly Torah portion (parashah). I started this when I was living in Washington D.C. right after college. I'd finish my shift at the Washington Post, head to a coffee shop in Dupont Circle, and dig into the portion to figure out "What's bothering Chavi?"

It's been a long time since I had the mental or physical space to do this. Being a full-time working parent means my week is filled with living on other people's timelines and managing other people's problems and needs. Now that we're living in Israel, I have Fridays off (for the most part), which means I'm trying to reclaim Friday mornings as my own. 

Sometimes, that will mean heading into Jerusalem to the shuk and sometimes, that will mean staying local and bumming it at an Aroma. Sometimes I'll drive around looking for plaques to understand what occurred in the lands around me and sometimes that will mean going to museums, and sometimes that will mean reading the weekly Torah portion to try and reclaim a me of a bygone era ... a me who learned voraciously. 

This week, it means the latter. This week's Torah portion is chock full of so many thought-provoking verses, but I'm going to try and stick to a few that sing to me at this moment. 

Devarim 4:1 Possessing the Land of Israel

וְעַתָּ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל שְׁמַ֤ע אֶל־הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְאֶל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָֽנֹכִ֛י מְלַמֵּ֥ד אֶתְכֶ֖ם לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לְמַ֣עַן תִּֽחְי֗וּ וּבָאתֶם֙ וִֽירִשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר יְהֹוָ֛ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֖ם נֹתֵ֥ן לָכֶֽם׃ 

Now therefore hearken, O Yisra᾽el, to the statutes and to the judgments, which I teach you, to do them, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers gives you (Devarim 4:1).

Here I am, living in Israel, re-fulfilling a dream I had a decade ago. This life is, without a doubt, filled with struggles and challenges and incomprehensible stumbling blocks. And yet, I'm also fulfilling what the Ramban considers one of the 613 commandments.

There is a positive, biblical commandment to dwell in Eretz Yisrael, as it says, "You shall possess it and dwell in it" (Devarim 17:14, 26:1). (Sefer Chareidim, Mitzvot Asei HaTeluyot B'Eretz Israel, chap. I, sec 15.) 

Chazal (חז"ל acronym for Chachameinu Zichronam Livracha, or “Our sages, may their memory be blessed”) say that the mitzvah of living in the Land of Israel is equal to all the mitzvot of the Torah (Sifrei, Re'eh 28). 

I suppose, then, that it makes sense that it's so hard. If one mitzvah can be equal to all the mitzvot, then surely there must be challenges and feats to overcome. Imagine taking 613 steps versus taking just one. Imagine answering a test with 613 questions versus just one. 

(The truth is that the Land of Israel is easy. It's the State of Israel that is the challenge.)

The sun rises over Neve Shamir in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

Devarim 4:2 Waiting for Revelation, Not Change

 לֹ֣א תֹסִ֗פוּ עַל־הַדָּבָר֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תִגְרְע֖וּ מִמֶּ֑נּוּ לִשְׁמֹ֗ר אֶת־מִצְוֺת֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶֽם׃ 

You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you (Devarim 4:2).

When I was in graduate school at the University of Connecticut-Storrs, I had a fantastic mentor and teacher named Stuart Miller. He was an Orthodox Jew who was also a professor, striking a challenging balance between "this is what I believe" and "this is what the facts tell me." And he was so good and managing that balance without the friction so many academics suffer while knowing what the historical and cultural record says and what the Torah says. 

This week's parashah is V'etchanan in which the pasuk (verse) above says the laws of the Torah are set in stone and must remain as they are literally written, period, full stop. The challenge here, obviously, is that time changes people, technology advances, and the world has become a different place. 

So how do we reconcile and balance the seemingly archaic and outdated laws of Torah with the way we live our modern lives?

What I learned from Professor Miller was that we cannot change the law if we are living Torah-observant lives. 

The Torah doesn't bend to us; we bend to the Torah. Over time, aspects of the law are revealed to us and re-revealed to the point where we can apply Torah to our daily lives in this modern world. The Torah doesn't have to change; we have to look harder and understand better. 

This is where the gedolim ha'dor (the big rabbis or thinkers of each generation) play a vital role. They see how the law applies to modern situations and advise accordingly. It's why there are Shabbat elevators and Shabbat lamps and why we can use timers and hot plates and other things that rabbis of generations gone by would have scoffed at, surely. 

Instead of saying "We live in a new world, the laws of the Torah don't fit with this modern world," we say, "How do these laws apply in our modern world?" 

Obviously, not all streams of Judaism or all flavors of Jews hold by this. In the Liberal world, much of the law has become optional and in the Orthodox world, some groups have taken the law and changed it to be more oppressive and hateful. Neither are what this pasuk says.  

Devarim 4:7 Waiting for Answers That Never Come

כִּ֚י מִי־ג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר־ל֥וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים קְרֹבִ֣ים אֵלָ֑יו כַּיהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֔ינוּ בְּכׇל־קׇרְאֵ֖נוּ אֵלָֽיו׃ 

For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the LORD our God whenever we call upon Him (Devarim 4:7)?

When I was a little kid, I used to pray every night. I'd beg Gd to help me love myself more, for people to like me more, to not feel so sad, to not feel so alone, to be thinner, to be smarter, to be different, to be better. I never asked Gd for things. I was never the type of kid who'd say "I promise I'll be good for the next week if you convince my parents to buy me x, y, z. I was the type of kid who'd say "I promise I'll be good forever if you promise to convince more people to like me."

I was a depressed and sad kid. I was fat and unhappy and my journals from childhood are incredibly upsetting to read. Even as I continue to struggle with so many of these same issues today, I wish I had been kinder to myself. I was just a kid!

The hardest part of those prayers and being that kid was that I was never answered. Gd never responded to me. At least, that's what I thought and felt. There was no booming voice from the sky saying I was going to be okay or asking me to do something different to make my asks come true. As a kid who knew the stories of Gd talking to the prophets and Moshe, I thought maybe, just maybe, I'd hear an answer. 

At some point over the past 10 years, I learned that we always get answers to our prayers; they're just not the answer format we expect, need, or want. They don't come in the timeline we demand either. I spent my childhood asking for self-love and it wasn't until I was a fully grown adult human woman that I started understanding what it means to love myself.  It took until I was in my late 30s to learn that starving myself wasn't the way to happiness and health. I'm still working on it, and not doing a super-great job all the time, but I'm working on it.

So this pasuk (verse): Is Gd close whenever we call upon Him? Does he answer when we call upon Him? The truth is the verse says that He's close, but not that he answers. What does "close" mean? It means that HaShem neither slumbers nor sleeps and is always available to hear our prayers, our cries, our requests. 

The beautiful thing about Judaism is that the revelation at Mount Sinai/Horeb happened before all the Israelites. Everyone saw and experienced those moments. It wasn't a private revelation to one person. It wasn't a setup that said you have to rely on a specific person or persons as a channel to Gd. In Judaism, we all have access. Constant access. Because HaShem is close at all times and, as this pasuk says, aren't we lucky? 

And, indeed, in this parashah, the next several verses talk about that moment when HaShem appeared before the people and what they saw and experienced to serve as a reminder of this very fact. 

What did you see in this week's Torah portion? Do you have any thoughts about anything in this post? Share with me in the comments! 

And if you're curious what my TaNaKh of choice is, it's the Koren's Magerman Edition. I love all of the extra goodies in the back, the easy tabs, the two bookmarks to keep tabs on the weekly Torah portion and the haftarah, and more. Get yours here!