Monday, May 30, 2016

Bechukotai: Yes, We Should Study Torah--But to What Purpose?


“If you will walk according to My laws….” (Lev. 26:3)

            Torah study is one of the most important mitzvote, commandments, for Jews to pursue in their lives. In explaining the above quotation which begins our Torah portion, Rashi (1040-1105), prince of Torah Commentators, says that it means, “You will study much Torah.” It is customary for B’nai Torah/Torah scholars who learn in yeshivote/Jewish academies to recite the following prayer, called the Hadran, upon completing a masechta/tractate of Talmud:

הדרן עלך מסכת ____ והדרך עלן דעתן עלך מסכת ___ ודעתך עלן לא נתנשי מינך מסכת _____ ולא תתנשי מינן לא בעלמא הדין ולא בעלמא דאתי
Here is the transliteration—perhaps you might wish to read it, noting that it is written in Aramaic (no, not Arabic), a mixture of Hebrew and Greek, and the lingua franca (spoken tongue) in Israel from about the time of Alexander’s conquest through the Talmudic period:

Hadran alakh Masekhet _____ ve-hadrakh alan da'atan alakh Masekhet _____ ve-da'atekh alan lo nitnashi minekh Masekhet _____ ve-lo titnashi minan lo be-alma ha-din ve-lo be-alma deati.

Here is the translation: We will return to you, O’ Holy Tractate [Name] of the Talmud, and you will return to us; our mind is on you, Holy Tractate, and your mind is on us; we will not forget you, Tractate, and you will not forget us—not in the World of Judgment and not in the World-to-Come (that is, the Afterlife).  

Isn’t it remarkable that, once we complete studying a book of Torah, it becomes for us a witness, a mayleetz yoshare, an Intercessor for our Good Deeds with God? And yet, Ethics of the Fathers (Perek) tells us, “If you have studied much Torah, do not brag about it; you were created expressly for this purpose.”
The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) states that, unlike ordinary laborers, those who study, or labor in, Torah, do not receive any tangible reward. A shoemaker or computer programmer, for example, receives a salary for what they produce, but the reward for Torah study is—more Torah study. Furthermore, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) takes a verse from The Book of Job, “Man was created to labor” (5:7), and interprets it to mean that the main purpose of Man’s creation was for him to labor in Torah. There, a Rabbi Yeruchem argues that God created most flora and fauna in their complete, or near-complete, state, and that they need to grow only in size to become what they were meant to be. Human beings, on the other hand, must continually strive toward perfection, while aware that true perfection is unattainable. It is the striving, not the goal, that counts.
Returning to the verse above. “If you walk according to My laws” represents the Journey. We must never cease in our striving toward spirituality, with Torah study as our chief means and reward.
Still, I must dare to gently disagree with the giants of Torah—Rashi, the Chofetz Chaim, and Chazal, the Talmudic Rabbis—whom I quoted above. I am not worthy to shine their shoes scholastically. But, writing this with Mother’s Day past and with Father’s Day still to come, I recall the example of my parents z’l, who managed to combine their love of Torah with the need to provide for their families.

My mother was an English teacher on both the elementary and later college level (she got her Master’s degree while in her 70’s), and my father an industrial chemist, who, when I was young, ran a Science Club on Sunday mornings at my Hebrew Day School and our family shul, the East Side Torah Center. Under his guidance, we peered through a microscope at fly blood corpuscles and bee’s wings. He also brought home scientific oddities: a glow-in-the-dark tube, painted with luminous paint, and an early prototype transistor radio with a wire-and-alligator-clip-antenna that we attached to a chickenwire fence to listen to the Drifters on Radio Station WABC with Disc Jockey Cousin Brucie.
After the rabbi of the shul passed away in the mid-1990s, my father, for many years president of the shul, did his best to maintain Shabbos and weekday minyanim/services, fundraising, serving as parttime shames-caretaker-sexton, and doing whatever was necessary for the good of the shul he and my mother loved so much, until he passed in 2000 and she in 2005.

As with most synagogues of that time, there was a “Big Shul” (the Main Sanctuary), and a downstairs “Bais Medrosh,” a small chapel/study hall. Someone suggested to Dad that they rent out the Bais Medrosh to a Kollel, a sort of Perpetual Learning Society consisting of young married men who sat every weekday and learned Talmud, going home on weekends to spend Shabbos with their families and make babies. During the week, they sat and learned, while their in-laws supported them, or their wives held down a job and cared for the babies.
“We’re getting a Kollel in the Bais Medrosh,” Dad told me when I phoned him from NH, where I was then serving as rabbi at Temple Israel of Portsmouth.
“What do you think of a Kollel, Dad?” I asked him. Dad was an Industrial Chemist, as I said before; he had gone out to work as a young man during the Depression, when jobs were hard to find, while attending first City College of NY for his BS in Chemistry, the first member of his family to do so, and, later, Brooklyn College for his MS. He told me once about one chemical factory where the acid on the floor of the lab was so deadly and powerful, it ate through the very soles of his shoes; he had to buy new shoes every couple of weeks. On another occasion, he worked for the American Safety Razor Co. I knew this because I had found his old ID badge, photo attached, while exploring his desk, as young boys will. The Depression meant that you would take any job you could find, and I knew he had given most of his meager salary to his parents to help support them and his younger sister.

            “David,” Dad said to me in slow and solemn tones, “A young man who has the strength and ability to work to support his family, but doesn’t, and instead sits on his tuches all day, reading a book while his wife works and takes care of his children—David, I don’t care how learned or religious he is. David, that young man is no mensch. He is a bum.”
“If you will walk according to My laws,” says God. Walking means that you’re going somewhere; you’re not just sitting and studying. Walking can mean, walking to work, and doing your job in an upright and ethical manner. God doesn’t want us to just study His Torah; God wants us to live it. Thanks, Dad. Give Mom a kiss, up there in Heaven. We love you.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Behar: The Prophet Jeremiah, Kirby the Shih Tzu, and Me


            Racked as I was with worries over the fate of Israel—would there ever be peace in the World, and in the Middle East in particular? And wondering what sort of d’var Torah (Torah commentary) to write for this week’s Temple Sholom newsletter, I sat up ‘til late, reading and re-reading the Parsha/Torah Portion—what could I possibly have to say about Sabbatical years or Jubilees? I was no farmer, nor a farmer’s son. The hours crept by, and it grew late; my head started to nod….
Off to the side of my book-crammed study, in the antique bentwood postoffice-style chair that resembled my Grandpa Henry’s z’l, I suddenly saw I was not alone. There the Prophet sat: wrinkly-eyed, long-bearded, but not old: indeed, he resembled the yeshiva-bochur type I knew, from the Arthur Szyk paintings of him. His right hand held an official-looking scroll—parchment, and bearing a great clay seal, with leather ribbons dangling.

It was Jeremiah, author of the Haftorah, the Prophetic Portion for this Shabbat.

The Prophet’s eyes were closed; did I dare awaken him? I looked at the clock; it was almost midnight, and I had to teach the next day. Kirby, our little brown Shih Tzu, lay on his pillow by the file cabinet; gingerly, he crept over, smelling the fresh-leather-cardamom-cinnamon scent of the Shuk, the old Jerusalem Market, on the stranger’s clothing. He licked Jeremiah’s hand, and wagged his tail.

The Man of God stirred in his sleep, and his lips moved, but I heard no sound.
Half-boldly, I reached out and gently tapped the Prophet’s knee. He snorted through his mustache, opened his eyes, yawned, and saw me. He looked around, slowly and confusedly.
“Am I—home? Is this Anatote, my home village?” he asked, in the accents of a Jerusalemite, dropping the scroll and stretching. Kirby backed away, retreating to his bed.
Amazingly, I could understand him, despite his speaking Hebrew in the style of 605 BCE.
“Milord Prophet Jeremiah, you are far from home,” I said, as softly as I could, so as not to startle him.
He frowned slightly, looked around, his glance lingering on the computer screen, electric lights, bookshelves, and, in particular, the rotating fan above—he shook his head slowly at that—“What powers that dervish-whirler? I see no boy-servant about,”—but turned back to me.
“All things are possible; all is in the Hands of God,” he said, “And I, a Prophet of God, am compelled to speak, in His Name. Who are you?”
“Also a servant of God,” I said, “And David is my name. I am one who is eager to listen and learn. Will Israel survive and go on, following the threats and verbal accusations?”
“Of course!” he said, “But there will be—wars. And rumors of wars. I wish—I wish I could have stayed, a simple kohen, a priest, in Jerusalem. But the soldiers came; first, those of Asshur, Assyria. And now, Bav-El, the Babylonians, under that maniac, Nebuchadnezzar….They are many; we, but few. God ordered me to become His Prophet; who can resist the Call of God? But our king will not listen to me….”
He brightened, suddenly. “But I have faith, faith in the Lord God. And look you, look at this!” He thrust the parchment at me: despite its being in K’tav Ivri, the ancient Hebrew script, I could see that it was, most clearly, a Bill of Sale, for Jeremiah’s cousin Chanamel, having sold his field at Anatote, Jeremiah’s hometown, for 17 silver shekalim.
“This is the proof, Sir David,” Jeremiah said, his hands shaking slightly, as he brandished the parchment at me, “for who would be so bold—or foolish, as to purchase a field, in a country about to be invaded? Answer me that! And I will deliver this deed, when the Lord God shall deem me ready to return to my own time, to Baruch ben Neriyah, the scribe and notary, who shall place it in a sealed jar, as is right and proper. For no Chaldean, no Babylonian, shall place a foul hand upon the Holy Land of Israel.”
“But what of those who have no land of their own, O Prophet?” I begged, “Answer me that! Is there no balm in Gilead? Will there always be fighting and dying between the Children of Isaac and the Children of Ishmael?” (Though I knew, in my heart of hearts, the cruel fate that was in store for my dear, idealistic Jeremiah—to be swept down to an Egyptian darkness, to die in exile there. But I was not to let him know.)
Instead, there in my little, book-lined study, there at Midnight on the eve of the week’s beginning, the Prophet of the One True God took his parchment, his deed to his own little, hopeful piece of Israel, and, shaking at first—he was no youngster, after all—stood up in his place, holding on carefully to my computer table, looking ruefully at the monitor that blinked its curiously-colored lights upon his ancient countenance.

(Kirby hid behind my chair, poor little fellow; he was never one for loud proclamations.)

And Jeremiah declaimed with full voice, in deep, full-throated tones:

“Thus speaks the Lord, God of all Israel, God of the Universe: I am the Lord, God over all humanity. Is anything too hard for Me? As surely as I will bring the evil of Babylonian captivity upon this people, so surely will I bring upon them all the future good that I promise, through the words of this, My Prophet, My Jeremiah. In this land, desolate and barren, handed over to Babylon, fields shall again be purchased. People shall buy fields for money, property deeds shall be sealed and witnessed, in the places about Jerusalem, and in the cities of Judah, in the highlands and in the lowlands. And I will ensure a place and a holding for all. For I will, by My Name and the Power of My right arm, cause all to return from their captivity.”

            And he vanished. Here endeth the Visitation of Jeremiah. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Emor--Meet Elisheva, Wife of Aaron, High Priest of Israel


Scene: A desert tent. The sun is setting. Although Spartan in appearance, it is cozy and welcoming; there is a small pot on a cooking fire in the middle, and the smoke goes up through a center hole in the tent-roof, which can be closed in case of rain.
A model altar stands in the eastern corner, with miniature clay animals set on it, as if for priestly-practice. In yet another corner, a small oil-lamp burns, as a Eternal Memorial Flame; above it hangs a needlepoint in Hebrew—“L’Zecher Nishmotayhem—In Loving Memory of Our Dear Boys—Nadav & Avihu.” Next to it hangs another needlepoint, “High Priests are People, Too!” and, “Please Wait Your Turn Patiently: Aaron is Always Glad to Listen to Your Issues.”

As the scene opens, Elisheva, Wife of Aaron, enters. She is a woman in her sixties, tall, with long, graceful arms and legs, as if she had been a dancer, which she was, years before. Her hair is dark brown, curly, with streaks of grey that she makes no attempt to hide; she is proud of her age, her strength, her classic Jewish beauty. She goes over to the pot on the cookstove, stirs the stew, tastes a little, adds some spices from the clay dish nearby. Then, she stands tall, stretches, smiles, looks slowly around the interior of her home.
Her gaze lingers on the Eternal Flame flickering in the corner. She goes over, and kneels before it, checking to make certain that the wick of the lamp is sufficiently long; one gets the impression that she will instantly replace it if it does not meet with her approval. Satisfied, she waves her hands over it, slowly, gently, as if stroking the head of a child. She speaks, while looking upward, towards the Invisible God Who Dwells in the Skies:

Elisheva (softly, at first; then louder): How long, O’ Lord? You took my boys from me—how could You? So suddenly—and I will never know why. What mistake did they make, (bitterly) there, at Your all-holy, almighty Altar? That morning, they were so proud, so happy—we all were—all they wanted to do was serve You…. (She looks upward, pleading) Show Your Self, O’ God—please (she moves her hands to her cheeks; tears are streaming down)—forgive me, Lord; I am but a silly woman, not knowing You; I know that You love us; surely You have told us so; my brother-in-law, Moses has told us so, but it is hard, O’ Lord (she sobs) to lose one’s baby boys, one’s flesh and blood—so very, very hard.

(While Elisheva has been speaking, the tent-flap parts, and Aaron enters. He is weary from the day’s sacrifices, and all the business of a High Priest among the People of Israel. He is older than she—early seventies, perhaps, but vigorous; short-haired, long-bearded, as befits an Israelite Elder; his bright-blue eyes fix upon her, and he knows, immediately, what she has been saying, and to Whom. He does not move to touch or hold her. Instead, he stands, still in the ash-filthy, bloody priestly garments of the day’s labors, folds his hands, bows his head, and waits. As Elisheva ends her soliloquy to God, she turns—there is little that she misses, in her home.)

Aaron (crossing to hold her in his arms, gently): My dear—I’m so sorry.

Elisheva (pushing him away, sarcastically): Oh, Aaron—that sort of sympathy may work with the people you counsel, but I can’t, don’t, wish for it here. (She walks to the other side of the tent, still weeping, and looking at the Eternal Flame.) And you said you would be home when the sun touched the edge of our tent-peg, and Son Itamar called the people to Evening-Psalms—but that was at least two hours’ time ago—the stew is just about burnt; you may eat it alone, for I will not.

(She goes to curl up, catlike, on a large pillow in the corner, and turns her head away from him.)

(Aaron sighs; his being late is an old flashpoint-argument of theirs. He holds out his arms to her, thinks better of it, instead crosses to the water-bowl, and washes the ashes and blood of the sacrifices off his face, before continuing, trying to change the subject:)

Aaron: I saw young Ramiel and his wife Sapirit today. They seemed happier than before I counseled them yesterday. That is the reason I am late; I was hurrying home, and they chased after me. They were holding hands, laughing, hugging one another….What am I to do, Elly-melly? I am but one man, one High Priest, and all of Israel seek me out for help and advice.

(He dries his face on the towel that hangs by the bowl, looks to her, smiling like a boy who has been reproved by his mother, trying to reconcile.)

Elisheva: I note that your brother Moses took the advice of his Midianite father-in-law, Jethro—who is also a High Priest of his tribe—and appointed both judges and under-judges to help him determine whether a dove or a rooster is kosher, whether Ploni’s bull trampled the manna-share of Almoni, his next-door-neighbor—perhaps you could, at least, ask your own sons Eleazar and Itamar, who are priests as well, to take some of the burden off of you, by taking on some of the less-pressing counseling cases. (Aaron sighs; Elisheva glares at him) Don’t I count for anything in your life, Aaron? Am I not as important as that ne’er-do-well, Ramiel, and his half-Egyptian—what am I to call her? They are not even married; she is not one of our Israelite tribe.

Aaron: She’s only a quarter-Egyptian, and (a glare from Elisheva makes him change his tone)—you’re right, as usual. I will speak to our boys. There is no reason why they can’t handle the younger folks, when it comes to giving advice. But what if it’s (uncomfortably) women’s, uh, uh—

Elisheva: --Issues? Like niddah, time of the month, that sort of thing?

Aaron: Um, um—yes, of course, that. That, uh, um, blood-spotting business.

Elisheva: Then, it’s all simple. What about Eleazar and Itamar’s wives, Renana and Nagida? They are both intelligent women; both are mothers, both skilled in midwifery.

Aaron: Those girls? What do they know?

Elisheva (exaggerated sigh, rolling her eyes): Oh, Aaron—you should spend more time with your family, and less with those sheep and goats you are always slaughtering! Just the other day, Renana was telling me about how Miriam, our sister-in-law, was teaching Hilchote Ha-Mishpacha, Family Laws and Customs, to the womenfolk. Miriam has been quietly schooling all of our ladies in proper conduct, when to go to mikvah, the ritual bath, and all the important rules.

Aaron: Uh—does my brother know about this?

Elisheva (sniffs slightly): Your brother—your high, exalted brother. Moses. I do love and honor your brother, Aaron, but, just as you are up to your priestly crown in livestock and advice-giving, he is all full of worries over Korach, Datan, Aviram, and that lot of rebels. I believe he will be trying to negotiate with them next: bunch of nincompoops—I’d negotiate with ‘em with a bullwhip in my hand, I would—let ‘em return to Egypt, and to Osiris with the lot of ‘em!

(Aaron goes to the pot of stew, takes the ladle, and takes a taste; he nods, and she smiles, in spite of herself)

…Between that and getting prophecy from the Mysterious One, I doubt your precious brother has any time left to study Torah, let alone teach it. You and he should thank the Holy One for the women in your life—women like myself, and your daughters-in-law, and your very own big sister, Miri. What exactly do you think we do all day? Scrub your smelly laundry, and yearn for our big, strong husbands to come home and embrace us? Honestly, Aaron! Do you know you’re going to be a grandfather, soon? Nagida’s in her third month, already. Hm?

Aaron: What? Why—why—that’s wonderful! And now—see here, Elly—you know that—that--—everything I do—you know that I do it for—

Elisheva: --Except when you’re not around, and I do the advising for you. And Renana and Nagida cover for your two boys, when folks come ‘round to make offerings, and there’s something amiss with their livestock—broken hoof, cracked horn, or some such. It’s all family; I thank (she hesitates, looking at the Flame) God, for our family. Too bad about Tsiporah and Moses, though—

Aaron (trying to recover his dignifty) Now, Elly, don’t blame that on me! I did try to bring about a reconciliation, you know—

Elisheva: Yes, but no one is superhuman—not even your precious Moses. I almost feel sorry for him—you know, Aaron, your brother is spending altogether too much time in—in—well, would you call it heaven? With his Mysterious God, when he ought to be paying more attention to his family on earth—and you know what, Aaron dear? For a prophet, I don’t believe that he’s even aware of his family—unlike you….

Aaron (finally realizing): Because I’m lucky. To have you in my life. Thank you, Elisheva, and God Bless You.

Elisheva (smiling): Yes. That’s a beginning. You’re Welcome.

Aaron (reaching for her, as she rises): My dear—

Elisheva (Putting a finger to his lips): Not yet (pointing to the Eternal Flame)—we must say the Parents’ Mourning Prayer for our poor dear boys, as we do, every evening—

Aaron: You are right. (They hold hands and stand together before the Flame, as the light fades) O’ dear God, how blessed, but how sad, we are….

Monday, May 9, 2016

Starfish in Moonlight: An Old Tale for Our Times

Starfish in Moonlight

By David Hartley Mark

            A Man walked along a beach. The moon was full.

            He was neither young nor old, rich nor poor. But he was not happy. He had been out in the world, and had seen the evil in people. He had gone to war, and tried to free a country, only to see new villains arise to take the place of the old villains he had overthrown. At the end, he fought only to protect his comrades on his right and his left, in front of him and behind, shooting anyone he thought was a threat, until the officers higher-up told him it was time to go home.

            He had no wounds on his body, but he was broken in spirit and heart. He did love to walk along the beach; the waves and the wind and water eased his mind. And the moon was the most beautiful thing of all: its pale loveliness called forth his soul, and invited him to a world of spirit, where life and love and death and victory and loss all meant the same, which was nothing.

            It was only him and the Moon.

            But this night was different.

            It was low tide, and the beach was littered with the bodies of starfish. They had ridden the waves merrily, as they were accustomed, but now, with the water receded and gone, they were all left panting on the sand. They could not move; though they had five arms, they were stuck in the sand.

            They were going to die.

            As he walked along, the man felt the nightwind in his hair, and thought, “Well, what of it? This is the way of things. This is nature. Starfish must die. My friends died, in the battles we fought. And my friends were far more valuable than a few dozen starfish.”

            The man walked, and the starfish lay, in heaps.

            The moon looked down.

            The man cleared a crest in the sand, there where the ocean did not reach, and he came upon a little girl. She was playing—but not really. She was busying herself, running back and forth, gathering as many starfish as she could, and flinging them hard-and-high into the waves, hoping to save them.

            Hundreds of starfish, it seemed. And just one little girl.

            The man stopped, and put his hands in his pockets. He watched the little girl. She could not have been more than nine years old: running back-and-forth, back-and-forth, scooping up starfish by the armload, soaking herself wet, in the night air.

            After a few minutes passed, the little girl stopped, exhausted. She looked around, at the enormous heaps of starfish. She noticed the man. And smiled.

            “Can you help me?” she asked, “I’m trying to save these starfish. I’m trying to get them home. Home, in the water. Home, so they won’t die.”

            The man kept his hands in his pockets. He was silent.

            The little girl looked at the man, and the man looked back. But he did not move.

            Finally, exasperated, the little girl said, “Oh!” as only little children can who see the pigheaded stubbornness of adults, and went back to scooping up the starfish, and running back-and-forth, back-and-forth, flinging them into the water.

            It was then that the man—veteran of bloody battles, a person who had seen what was right and wrong and good and true about the world, a man who knew the world in all of its evil—spoke:

            “You know,” he said, “There are simply too many starfish. It won’t make a difference, what you’re doing.”

            While he spoke, the girl looked at him, as if she were seeing him for the first time. One starfish in each hand, she walked up to him, slowly, prepared to listen, prepared to learn from this man, this person who had been out in the world, and was ready to teach her the Lessons of Life.

            “It will make no difference to the starfish—“ said the man, continuing.

            The little girl turned, abruptly, and flung the starfish into the water with all of her might. And she smiled at the man, her tiredness forgotten.

            “It made a difference to this one,” she said.

            The moon looked down.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Kedoshim: Seeking the Holy in Everyday Life


            This parsha/Torah portion begins with the phrase that has launched a thousand sermons and bar/t mitzvah speeches: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy’”(Lev. 19:1-2). It is all very well to use the word, but what, truly does “holy” mean? If we search in any synagogue, it is easy to find holy objects: siddurim/prayerbooks, chumashim/Pentateuchs, tallitote/prayer shawls, and the holiest of them all: the Torah scroll itself.

The challenge begins when we journey into the world and seek holiness there.

In his Howl and Other Poems (1956), Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), one of the foremost Beat poets, conjures up a Walt Whitmanesque vision of holiness in the universe:

“Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! Everywhere is holy! Everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel! …
“The typewriter is holy the poem is holy the voice is holy the hearers are holy the ecstasy is holy     “Holy time in eternity holy eternity in time holy the clocks in space holy the fourth dimension….
“Holy forgiveness! Mercy! Charity! Faith! Holy! Ours! Bodies! Suffering! Magnanimity!
“Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!”
Every generation believes they invented three things: music, fashion, and sex. I always point out to my young college students, “Great-Grandma must have ‘done it’ at least once, because you’re here.” They may have a difficult believing it, but are forced to agree, in the end. And Ginsberg’s frank and extreme descriptions, including his earthy language (omitted here, obviously), never fails to attract their attention, worldly though they consider themselves.

I believe that the poet is here expressing a very Jewish concept: nothing human is alien to his experience; everything human—indeed, everyone on earth and everything in heaven— has the potential to become holy. Our Israelite ancestors did not worship in synagogues, nor did they possess a temple, which was not built until 1000 BCE, allegedly during Solomon’s reign. The earliest Jews perceived holiness in nature, “sermons in stones,” because they were not living amid the concrete canyons and plastic-and-metal technology we Post-Modernist Jews inhabit today.  

And yet, it is not so far a theological leap from Moses’s God-inhabited burning bush to Ginsberg’s “holy typewriter,” ending in the words my computer keyboard sends forth. What links them all is the Divine whisper, the heavenly echo we can all perceive, if we would but lift up our eyes and see. A sensitive, spiritually-attuned mortal can reach beyond the dehumanizing, workaday strife that envelops us all. Through Torah study, service of God through doing mitzvote, and, perhaps, meditation, we can all draw down holiness from Above.
“Well yes,” you say, “I try to do mitzvote, but I cannot sense God in my life.”

One must develop a heart like a celestial wind-chime, in order to recognize that God is present in every second of the day, and that every moment of our lives is brimming with divine potential. Let us, inspired by this Torah portion, become more attuned to the myriad ways in which God is reaching out to us, calling to our souls, tapping on the windows of our eyes, and tugging at our hearts. We have, all of us, the potential to work greater miracles than angels, if we but answer God’s call. Would you introduce more holiness into your life? Then recognize how each one of us is made in God’s image, and treat one another accordingly.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Note on Holocaust Memorial Day: Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird"

Holocaust Memorial Day is soon come. For me, the consummate (an inappropriate word here, but I can think of no other) Holocaust novel is Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird," which leers at me from its lowest shelf in my study-- a copy turned up in my rabbi's office at the temple, like a bad penny, and I brought it home. It has a bit of Florida-moldy smell, not unusual for our state. I opened it at random, read a few words: the memories popped back into my brain, where they had lain latent, for all these years, back from my teenage years of poring over its hyper-porno-violent pages of peasants, rape, murder, torture, and destruction-- all directed at an innocent, dark-eyed, black-haired Jewish boy who is narrator, victim, and witness.
The novel, it turns out, is not memoir, as "author" (plagiarist, really) Kosinski would have had us believe; it is fiction. His reputation as a writer has been descending for all these years, as the grass on his grave lengthens. Here is a link why:
Still, the book remains popular: it is the blackest bit of putrefaction from the Holocaust-heap; as such, it retains a weird fascination for those seeking "information" about that time of absolute depravity, death, and denial of common humanity.
Should it be read? Should it remain part of the pantheon of Shoah Literature, along with Weisel's mighty bookshelf, the works of Weisenthal, Appelfeld, Levi, Frank, Keneally, Ka-Tzetnik, and so many others?
Yes, I suppose. But not by me; no, never again by me.
It is too frightening, too vile, too harsh and deep a look into the Heart of Darkness. 

A Longago Passover Memory

Years ago-- 1969-- I had just graduated YUHS, and discovered the "Jewish Liberation Project." I was post-Orthodox; they were Hippies, of the sort I had seen in magazines, but never up close. I was ready to embrace the Movement.  

Vietnam was roiling, Nixon in the White House, and I wandered the streets of NYC like a lost soul, with an Anchor Bible under my arm-- I was taking a Comparative Lit course at NYU that summer, I think. I was lost and lonely, a 21-year-old who had just left a majorly intense Religious Experience which, in High School and College, had lasted eight years, including one in Israel. 

I went to the JLP's Freedom Seder that spring, in a big, nasty loft on Lower B'way. I sat alone; no one spoke to me. The food was meagre; we weren't there for the food; we were there to liberate ourselves from American Capitalist Society (I suppose; no one said anything about Why We Were Doing It). They passed out copies of The Jewish Liberation Hagada; some of the participants went on to become Big Noises in the Leftwing Jewish Community. 

I did my reading; no one spoke to me. Hippie bullsh*t. I don't care if you are progressive or Orthodox or pearls drop from your mouth: show a little derech eretz, a little menschlichkeit, a little humanity: if you see a stranger in your midst, say hello. 

I never went back. 

I was liberated.