Tag Archives: Talmud

Elijah the Reconciler

Here is a text version of my sermon from 4/13/19 –

     It may be hard to believe, but one week from today seder #1 will already be over.  This coming Friday night Jews around the world will gather with family and friends, recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt, eat their matzah and maror, drink their wine, and celebrate their freedom.  The seder is a series wonderful rituals, from the symbolic foods that we eat, to the four questions that we ask, to the story of the five rabbis in B’nei Barak that we tell.  

     Were you to ask me what my favorite moment in the seder is it would be hard for me to choose, but if you pressed me I would probably say the moment when we welcome Elijah the Prophet to our seder table.  I have vivid memories from my childhood of intently staring at Elijah’s cup after the opening of the door, always astonished when somehow, seemingly by magic, the wine filled kiddish cup set aside for the Prophet began to shake.  It wasn’t until I was around the age of bar mitzvah that I learned the cup shook because my Uncle Marvin would bump the edge of the table with his thigh.

     At our seders I try to recreate that sense of mystery for the young children who are with us, although our niece Lily, now 9, long ago learned about the thigh bumping trick.   And the truth is my interest in Elijah and my fascination with the idea of the Prophet coming to the seder has stayed with me all these years.  Elijah’s arrival at the seder is a turning point in the ritual, redirecting us from the past we’ve been remembering – the Exodus events, the plagues, the experience of slavery – and pointing us to the future, the potential of a messianic era when pain and suffering will no longer be a part of the human experience.  

     The old joke is how does Elijah manage to get to all of those seders?  He must use the same Uber driver as Santa Clause.  But the truth is Elijah appears in the course of the Jewish year at three liturgical moments – the seder is one – what are the other two?  One is havdallah, and those of you who have come for Saturday evening services know that at the end of havdallah it is traditional to sing the song we’ll sing about Elijah at our seders – Eliyahu HaNavi!  So Elijah’s presence is invoked at every havdallah ceremony.  And when else?  The bris!  According to tradition Elijah is present at every bris, and if you’ve been to a bris recently you may remember that just before the circumcision the baby is placed in a special chair, referred to as Kisai Shel Eliyahu – the Chair of Elijah.  

     The question is why does Elijah appear at these three moments, what is it that they have in common, and the answer is each is a moment of transition.  On Pesah we transition from slavery to freedom.  At havdallah we transition from the end of Shabbat to the work day week.  And at the bris the baby transitions from being outside of the covenant to being on the inside.  And Elijah is the symbolic figure of transition in Judaism, because Elijah, according to the tradition, is the one who will announce the coming of the messiah, and that will be the ultimate transition.

     But if Elijah is the figure of transition in the tradition, he is also a symbol of resolution.  I imagine you know that the Talmud is filled with debate after debate, about just about anything you could imagine under the sun, from dates to rituals to the meaning of biblical text.  And sometimes, in the course of talmudic discourse, the debate is left without any kind of resolution, without any kind of decision being made as to which opinion is right and which is wrong.  When that happens in the Talmud – when there is an unresolved dispute –  you will often find the following word written at the end of the debate: Teiku.  That is actually an acronym in Hebrew – ת – י – ק – ו and those letters stand for Tishbi – Yitareitz – Kushiyot – u’Ba’ayot – which means:  the Tishabite will resolve the talmudic debates and other problems.  Who is the Tishabaite?  Who is the Tishbi?  Elijah!  And the tradition believes that when that day comes, and Elijah arrives to announce the Messiah’s imminence, he will also resolve all of those talmudic debates, telling us which opinion was right, and which one was wrong. 

  That idea of Elijah as the one who resolves debates and fixes problems also has something to do with Passover.  If you were following along with Ben’s chanting of this morning’s haftara, special for this Shabbat, Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover, you may have noticed that in the last lines of the text Elijah is mentioned.  Here are the verses:  “Behold I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great, awe filled day.  והישיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם – and he will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.”

     In other words, Elijah, at least according to this text, will be the reconciler, the one who restores broken relationships in families, who heals the rifts that all too often develop over time between us and those we love.  And so we need Elijah to appear, not only on the night of the seder, but also on this Shabbat, almost a week before Passover, because we know when the holiday comes our family will be gathering.  And we know how painful it is to sit at the seder table with someone with whom we feel distant.  Or how even more painful it is to sit at the seder table without someone who should be there, because of some old, unresolved dispute.

     But it is here where I would differ with the tradition.  Don’t wait for Elijah to come to resolve those disagreements and divisions.  In the seders of my childhood Elijah’s cup moved not because the great Prophet had arrived and somehow sipped the wine.  Instead, as I learned when I got older – that cup was shaking because of human action.  So it is in our own lives and our own families.  When we want to heal a division – in our world, in our families, even in our own hearts – we are the ones who must, to use the words of this morning’s haftara, heishiv lev – we are the ones who must turn our hearts.  That internal turning is the only thing I know of that can lead to the external actions – the call, the conversation, the apology, the decision – that can make the difference between the world we live in now, and the world we want to live in one day.

     May Passover this year bring that spirit into our hearts and into our world – 

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Of Gates and Other Interstitial Spaces

Just as the beautiful back shore curves around to the west there is an ancient looking gate.  It has a small wooden tile roof, covered with moss.  The wooden door is often open,  unlatched, in some way beckoning the passers by to a mythic inner sanctum.  A low stucco house can be glimpsed, a stone path, flowers English garden style running alongside.  The gate posts are large, even imposing, made of great stones cemented together long ago by an old world stonemason, his practiced eye picking and choosing for shape and size as he worked.

What is astonishing about any gate is that it can suddenly bring you from one world to another.  Remember the back of the closet in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy fumbling through old coats and scarves and suddenly walking along a snowy lane.  Or in Tolkien’s work the various gates that lead into the Mines of Moria or the Old Forest or the halls of the Elven King in Mirkwood.  The gate is an interstitial space, a kind of tunnel between two distinct areas, or even better a mystic link between one world and another.  On one side is what we know, where we dwell and walk and go about our day to day life.  But just beyond the gate is another world.  Of Magic and adventure, of mystery and the unknown, of gorgeous gardens and storm tossed seas, where otherworldly creatures might dwell, or time works differently, or the rain falls in a certain kind of way that we’ve never seen before.

There are gates in nature and gates in time as well.  When dawn comes or night falls, when the year turns, when the clouds of a great storm move swiftly through the sky as the weather clears, when we peer into the darkness as we stand on the edge of a wood, these are all gates of time and place and mind.  Death and birth are gates, perhaps of an altogether different kind, but gates nonetheless.gates

And there are gates in Judaism.  Three volumes of Talmud are called the First, Middle, and Last Gates.  The huppah in the wedding ceremony is a kind of gate, the bride and groom entering that space as single and emerging from it as a married couple.  We speak on Yom Kippur of the Gates of Prayer and how they close at the end of that sacred day, a moment marked by the Ne’ilah service.  There is a traditional Shabbat song, Hasidic in feel, with the following lyrics:  ‘the entire world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear.’

Every gate is a narrow bridge, linking one world to another.  Every gate is an opportunity to walk into a never before seen space.  Every gate leads from what is known to what is unknown.  Every gate opens before us a series of new possibilities.  Gates can be entered and bridges crossed.  The main thing is not to fear.

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Turn, Turn, Turn…

In December of 1965 the folk/rock group the Byrds released their second album, entitled Turn, Turn, Turn!  The record’s title was taken from its first released single, with its memorable chorus “To every thing (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn,) and a time to every purpose under Heaven.”   The lyrics, originally penned by the great Pete Seeger in the late 50s, are loosely taken from the 3rd chapter of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.  On December 4th of ’65 the song hit number one, holding that spot for three straight weeks.

The turning image in the song reflects the mood of the biblical text.  The author of Ecclesiastes urgently feels the swift passage of time, and struggles in that powerful stream to gain his bearings.  Tradition teaches that the book was written by King Solomon in his old age as he attempted to come to terms with his own mortality.  The author speculates about life and its meaning, about the coming and going of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun.  Is it simply cyclical, he wonders, repeating again and again and again, or is there meaning to it, does it work in a particular direction, ultimately enabling us to reach some place we are destined to be?  If we are turning to whom are we turning, and for what purpose?

This is a time of year when Jews think a lot about turning, whether they even realize it or not.  The start of a new year always brings with it the sense of time’s passage.  But the idea of turning is also central to the process of teshuvah, a word we commonly translate as repentance.  The three lettered root of the word most often means to turn, or to return, to come back to something, someone, or some place you’ve been before.  This is what we all hope to do in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days.

A wise rabbi once observed that turning doesn’t require much effort.  It isn’t that you have to move a great distance – instead, you simply stop going in the direction you are going, and turn yourself so you are facing in a different direction.  Sometimes it is that slight reorientation that can make all the difference in the world.  Isn’t it true that life is often about the small things, the slight changes, often in attitude, that can make everything look different?

But there are two types of turning.  We can turn to, or we can turn from.  I sometimes think our initial instinct is to turn away.  When a challenge arises, when a relationship grows difficult, when we feel estranged from faith and God, turning away is often the easiest path.  We turn our backs, cast our eyes in a different direction, and in so doing shield ourselves from potential hurt and harm.  This kind of turning may feel safer, but ultimately it leaves us lonelier, more isolated, less connected.

Turning to is more difficult.  It often requires confrontation, either with ourselves, or others, or both.  It asks us to open ourselves up, to face what we might be inclined to look away from, to engage when we might feel like shutting the door.  But turning to has the potential to repair things that have gone wrong in our lives.  Turning to gives us the best chance of making changes we hope to make, of rekindling friendships, reinvigorating relationships, and reinventing ourselves.

The Talmud teaches that there is a short way that is long, and a long way that is short.  Too often in life we choose the short way and never reach the place we hope to reach.  Choosing the long way can make the journey more difficult, more time consuming, more challenging, but in the end can give us the best chance of arriving at our intended destinies/destinations.

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An Old Dog

You know the saying, one of the most popular proverbs around:  you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  What we mean by this is that people are set in their ways, that they reach a stage in life when they are who they are, and they will not be changing anytime soon.  In fact, they will not be changing at all.  The way they act, their interests, even how they think, are all, to use another saying, ‘set in stone.’

The implication of the proverb is the older we get, the harder it is to change.  There seems to be some truth to this idea.  When we are young we are more open to new ideas and experiences.  Our views about life and the world around us are not yet fully formed. We are more likely, in our youth, to meet new people and have experiences we’ve never had before.  But as we age our world in a sense becomes smaller.  Our friendship circles are for the most part closed.  We rarely if ever do something for the first time.  Even our general sense of the world becomes jaded – ‘it is what it is,’ we say, meaning ‘it isn’t perfect, but it isn’t going to change either.’  Perhaps this is why the tradition understands that King Solomon penned the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes when he was an old man, a book that contains one of the Bible’s best known verses – “What has happened will happen again, what has been done will be redone – for there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

My wife and I are the owners of an actual old dog, our loyal and trusted pooch who this year will celebrate his 10th birthday.  The eager young puppy who was filled with energy, who would bound out of the house in the morning and tug you down the street, has slowed down considerably.  These days he solemnly surveys the street before going out, and once outside spends time sniffing the air before deciding in which direction to walk.  His pleasures are simple – to roll in grass on a hot summer day, or watch keenly from the top of the steps the street outside, or to lie quietly and comfortably on the couch as his ‘humans’ watch a bit of television.  Even as I type this he has just entered the room and settled himself comfortably behind my chair, somehow keeping one eye on me while napping at the same time.  If only I could learn to do that!

And yet even in his old age he has not become jaded.  The world is still wondrous to him. When a new season arrives he is thrilled at the change in weather, at the new scents that waft up from the ground in the spring, at the cold winds that ruffle his fur coat in the winter.  He is master of the neighborhood now, the oldest dog on the block, literally, but he loves to meet a young puppy, all bubbly energy, huge paws, overgrown ears.  He’ll play with his younger compatriot, as if to say ‘here is how you do it, now go out and have fun while I lie back here and take a snooze!’  He continues to change, to grow, to study the world around him, to live in the moment.  And this old dog will even, when properly motivated, learn a new trick.

One of the fundamental ideas of Judaism is that people have the capacity to change.  As set in our ways as we might be, as comfortable in our shoes, to fully live life we must be open to what is new.  New people, new experiences, new ideas, new relationships, new knowledge – all of these should be part of the way we grow and change, and growth and change should be a life long processes.  The old proverb and King Solomon were both wrong.  An old dog, when open to the world, can learn new tricks.  And there are many new things under the sun, waiting out in God’s world to be discovered.  As it says in the Talmud:  זיל וגמור – go out and learn!pooch

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Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home

You may remember the series of Rabbi Small books, written by Harry Kemelman. Popular in the 70s, each installment had a title that began with a day of the week – Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, etc. When he ran out of days of the week he used other titles – one was even called The Day the Rabbi Resigned, if I remember correctly. They were mysteries, and in each volume Rabbi Small solved a crime. Set in a fictional Massachusetts town outside of Boston, the Rabbi solves the crimes using logic learned from the Talmud and Jewish values. As they say, what could be bad?

I’ve always suspected that part of the reason the books were so popular is that the protagonist is a member of the clergy, and in a way even more curiously, a rabbi. In other words, your regular old detective character is just like everyone else, but he or she just happens to earn his or her living by solving crimes. But a rabbi ISN’T like everyone else. He is a bit holier. Man of God, and all that business. He thinks different thoughts, has a more direct relationship with the Divine. Heck, just reading about the rabbi would be interesting in and of itself. But a rabbi who solves crimes? Using talmudic logic? Go straight to the best seller list.

But of course the truth is rabbis are no more or less interesting than anyone else. Same foibles. Same problems. Same stresses, same things make us laugh, frustrated, angry, happy, relieved. Before games my old high school soccer coach used to say to us about our opponents “they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else.” The same can be said about the rabbi. No different from anyone else. No better or worse. No holier, no closer to God (maybe further!). Do we know more about Judaism, Jewish history, Jewish theology and text? I hope so! That is what we spent years studying in school, and just like you want your doctor to know more about physiology/biology/illness than you, your rabbi should know more about Judaism. But just like you know your doctor is a regular old person, just like you, the same is true of your rabbi.

Full confession. I neve read any of the Rabbi Small books. So I can’t comment on how accurately or inaccurately he portrays rabbinic life, the rabbinic family, rabbinic work. Could talmudic logic actually help to solve crimes? I suppose, although truth be told the idea strikes me as being a bit fanciful. And entitling one of the books ‘Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home?’ No rabbi I know. That is one way that rabbis are different from most folks – we work on Sundays.

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The Age of Indifference

A play on the title of Edith Wharton’s 1920 serialized novel, ‘age of indifference’ was the title of a Pew Center report of a year or so ago that suggested the younger generation was less concerned with the news, with what was going on in the world around them, and more concerned with their own lives, their ‘inner circle.’ I am not convinced. Anecdotally the young people I come into contact with have a sense of what is happening in the world, probably even more so than I did at their age. In my day the challenge was to find the information. Even if I was interested it in, I couldn’t always track it down. Today, a young person’s challenge is separating out the wheat from the chaff. There is so much information, so much news available, so much detail about anything and everything, how do you decide what to actually read, what to spend time with, what is worthwhile? It is less the age of indifference and more the age of information overload. We’ve been talking about compassion fatigue for some time now. Perhaps we need to spend some time thinking about information fatigue.

There are two traditional ways to study Talmud. One, ‘bikiut,’ means something like ‘survey course style (technically the word means ‘expertise’). The idea is to get through a lot of material, as many pages as possible, with a decent level of competency, and along the way you become somewhat ‘expert’ in Talmud. But then there is ‘b’iyyun’ study. This is a study of depth, of digging deep into a short section of text, of going through level after level of analysis on one idea. Peeling away the layers. Imagine wringing the washcloth out, squeezing and squeezing it until every last bit of moisture has been extracted. That is the way ‘b’iyyun’ study works.

There is pleasure in both kinds of study, and either approach to the text can help one to grow Jewishly and humanly. But I’ve always felt it is the ‘b’iyyun’ study that most accurately reflects the approach of the talmudic sages themselves. There is something meditative about it, prayerful even. A way to access God’s presence, to open up a sense of higher consciousness. From Ben Bag Bag in the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 5:22): Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn from it, and never move from it, for there is no better portion. We are living in a time of ‘survey’ learning. Snippets of information pass quickly before our eyes, even more quickly into short term memory and out again. But what about cogitation? Mulling over a problem, an issue, taking the time to actually think all the way through something? That is the kind of thinking Talmud study requires. A skill I would argue that we need more than ever.

So it is for this reason (and a few others) that I am starting a Talmud class. We will work slowly, taking our time, word by word, idea by idea. Hoping to meet regularly, once a week or close to it. Work in the original Hebrew or Aramaic or both. Student’s will need to be able to read Hebrew, although translations will be available. It is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while. Years even. But, as they say in Hebrew, היגיע הזמן, the time has come. And then you have this, also from the Mishnah, also Pirke Avot, this time from Rabbi Tarfon: You don’t have to finish the work, but you have to at least get started!

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the J Street ‘Vote’

So what is the message of yesterday’s vote in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations?  (J Street’s membership in the group was voted down)  Is the community reaching a point where there will be no tolerance for an organization (or a viewpoint) that does not toe the party line, that does not parrot the positions of the Israeli government?  And to paraphrase the great sage Hillel, if this is where we are, where are we?

I would say not in a good place.  First of all, are we so afraid of alternative view points that we don’t even want to hear them?  Does that mean we feel we don’t have the intellectual ability to muster a proper counter argument, to express our own view in such a way that it will be compelling enough for people to listen to?  Haven’t we always prided ourselves on our ability to make a good argument, to take apart an issue, put it back together, and shape it so that our agenda can be respected and moved forward?  Are we admitting defeat?  We don’t know of any appropriate counter argument, so we’ll ignore the challenge and just hope it goes away.  This may be the same strategy that Malcolm Hoenlein has in terms of the Palestinians.  Not a good strategy, and I would also argue not a Jewish one.  We can do better.

This from a blog I wrote a year and a half ago:  “The old joke is two Jews, three opinions, and like with any good joke there is truth at its core.  We have long been an argumentative people.  Our core religious text, the Talmud, is a book filled with arguments.  The Talmud speaks of two types of Torah scholars.  One is the ‘Sinai,’ the sage who knows every jot and tittle of the law and can reproduce it from memory.  The other is the ‘oker harim,’ the uplifter of mountains.  This scholar can look at an issue from all sides, can argue from one side or the other, and is a critical thinker.  Both approaches are needed for authentic Jewish discourse, and traditionally both approaches have been part of a vibrant and vital dialogue about Jewish life in general and Israel in particular.  I worry that that is no longer the case.  The ‘oker harim,’ the independent thinker, is no longer welcome at the table.

     This is not only un-Jewish and a shame, it is also bad for the Jewish people, and it is bad for Israel.  It leaves many Jews, especially younger Jews, wondering if they have a seat at the community table and a voice in the community conversation about one of the most important Jewish issues of our time.  It strays from the most traditional form of Jewish dialogue, what the Talmud calls shakla v’taria – the give and take argumentation that deepens understanding of an issue.  We should not be afraid to have that kind of conversation in the Jewish community.  That is the way we have always done it, so why change now?  And more importantly, that kind of conversation – with true depth, with give and take, with an attempt to understand those who might think differently than you –   is at the end of the day the most productive and meaningful.”

Without J Street at the table we can’t have that conversation.  This was a missed opportunity not for J Street as much as it was for the rest of us.  We are all diminished by yesterday’s vote.  Of course loyal, dedicated, caring Jews will begin to pick up the pieces.  I worry that it will take a long time, and at the end of the road it might be too late.

 

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