Understanding Rabbinic Notions of Love in Tamudic lore.

We are not always in harmony with ourselves. Rabbi Nachman of Breslav would often speak of himself as a microcosm of the universe and its accompanied cosmic eruptions. It was a way of contextualizing his profound unease both with himself and the world around him. He was tormented from without and within.

Paul Simon in perhaps his finest album "Graceland" echoes this sentiment, "There's a girl in New York City who calls herself the human trampoline and sometimes when I'm fallin' flyin' and tumblin' into turmoil, I say whoa, so this is what she means..."

There is no greater culprit than love for the emotional chaos that Simon describes. As for Rav Nahman, the same rings true, but the object of his desire would be the Holy One.

Pirkei Avot, The Values our Fathers, is a potpourri of pithy aphorisms from early Sages that teaches what should truly be important. Love does not get a tremendous amount of attention in this relatively short work, but it does get some--

Any love that is conditional the love will cease when the condition upon which it depended ceases. Love that is unconditional will never cease. What would be considered a love that is conditional? The love of Amnon and Tamar. What is an example of unconditional love? David and Jonathan. Pirkei Avot 5:16
It is interesting to note that Amnon's desire for his half-sister is considered a conditional love. The condition is his desire for her, and once that longing has been fulfilled by his rape, he not only ceases to love her but despises her.
The presumption of the rabbis--post-modern literary critics notwithstanding--is to see the love between David and Jonathan as pure, with no ulterior, or erotic overtones. Does this mean that all love that has an erotic component is by definition a love that is conditional and therefore, not enduring?
It's funny that when people speak of Platonic relationships they mean to say it is not serious whereas the definition of a Platonic relationship is "purely spiritual love", a love that is on a higher plane than erotic love. What one should say, when asked if a relationship is serious, is "No it's just a sexual relationship."
If it truly is serious, then the sex would be incidental--if at all, because the relationship would be like David and Jonathan where not only was the sex not the goal, but it was not even a factor in a relationship that was considered spiritual and pure.
David and Jonathan is one of the only friendships described in the entire Bible. The Rabbis take their relationship at face value, and view it as a truly Platonic one, totally apart from the realm of physical attraction.
Except they would never call it a Platonic relationship, but they may have labelled it a Rabbinic one.
According to this understanding of love, it is the conditions that get us into trouble. Once the love is conditional it is in constant jeopardy. "What if the condition isn't met?" The irony is that as long as the condition is not met, the desire is constant, painful and full of anxiety, but constant.
As soon as the desire is met, it is replaced with either emptiness, or contempt. This is what Paul Simon describes in the song quoted above: "losing love is like a window in your heart. Everyone sees that you're blown apart."
The pure spiritual love only ends when life ends and then it is sad for the surviving friend. The Rabbis are idealizing their relationships with their learning partners in this Mishnah, when they say, "All we want from each other is the best understanding we have of the book in front of us. It does not matter who is better, or smarter or stronger, all that matters is that I am there to help you. It never occurs to them that they are to be helped in turn.
Husbands and wives often describe each other as "best friends", as if that might be unusual. But, in fact, it may be the true definition of enduring love, a friendship beyond the kids, beyond the sex and, of course, beyond the self.


A Memorable Quote from a Master of my Youth

"The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show.”
--Leonard Cohen

Reverend Al Preaches to the Horizontally challenged!

Jeff Goldberg gets a diet tip from an avuncular Al Sharpton!

"What's your diet secret?" I asked him. After all, stripping weight away is somewhat easy, compared to keeping it off. Sharpton put his arm around my shoulder and said, "I'll tell you the secret. You ready for the secret?" He lowered his voice. "Never, ever eat anything after 6 p.m. Never."

Just as Reverend Al channeled Pirkei Avot with his favorite mantra "No Justice, No Peace!"
Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three things, on justice, on truth
and on peace...(See Chapter 1:17)

He does so again when he channels Ben Zoma with his advice for a trim waistline:
"Who is considered mighty? One who can conquer his desires!" (Chapter 4:1)

Not only mighty, but THIN!


Rambam on fiscal responsibility with commentary

Ok. I converted it to a Pdf file and now you can download it in living color. Two pages from the Susan Ordman of the Medieval Period--only better!

More than a Building Manual

After all the epic themes of Genesis, and the high pyrotechnic drama of nation building and revelation, we have Parshat Terumah. A place where many a Jew has been known to stop reading. After all, it's hard to get cranked up over a Divine House instruction manual. With a little imagination, however, a healthy curiosity, and some patience,this building manual holds clues that do reveal more than meets the eye.

For instance, take the cherubs,

Exodus Chapter 25
18 You are to make two cherubs of gold, of hammered-work are you to make them, at the two ends of the purgation-cover.
19 Make one cherub at the end here and one cherub at the end there; from the purgation-cover are you to make the two sphinxes, at its two ends.
20 And the cherubs are to be spreading (their) wings upward with their wings sheltering the purgation-cover, their faces, each-one toward the other; toward the cover are the cherubs? faces to be.
21 You are to put the cover on the coffer, above it, and in the coffer you are to put the Testimony that I give you.
22 I will appoint-meeting with you there and I will speak with you from above the cover, from between the cherubs that are on the coffer of Testimony? all that I command you concerning the Children of Israel.

If you were trying to promote a religion that shunned the worship of graven images would you place two cherubs directly below the presence of your voice? On top of that, would you not give any explicit purpose for these cherubs? Click here for a lengthy look at what those little guys are doing there?


Rambam on fiscal responsibility with commentary

Hebrew and English in readable fonts, plus some bon mots and pithy aphorisms from Yours truly. You can email me and I will be happy to send them to you!


They Should Have Listened to the Rambam...cont...

Rambam Hilchot Deot Chapter 5 Cont...

And it is forbidden for one to give away all his property and then bother others [to care for them]. He should not sell his field and buy a house, and not sell his home and buy portable goods, or mortgage his home in order to engage in commerce. He should, however, sell portable goods to buy a field. The rule is: His recipe for success is always to exchange the ephemeral for the sustainable, and one should not look for small temporal benefits, or look to have a little gratification in exchange for things that cost him greatly.

Once again, the Rambam is talking about how an astute individual behaves with his finances. He sums it up by saying “he exchanges the ephemeral for the sustainable.”

Hundreds of years before social scientists saw a connection between deferred gratification and happiness, the philosopher, without the benefit of statistical analysis, speaks truth to a future society hell bent on instant gratification, spontaneity, and self indulgence. It ends up not only being unwise, but the source of great misery.


They Should Have Listened to the Rambam!

Maimonides on Personal Finances Hilchot Deot Chapter 5

The way of people who know the ways of the world is that one first finds a profession from which he can make a living, after which he should buy a home, and after that he should marry, as it is written:

Who is the man who planted a vineyard, but had yet to consecrate it, who is the man who built a home but has not dedicated it, and who is the man who betrothed a woman but had yet to marry her. (Deuteronomy 20:6)

But fools begin by marrying, and afterward they buy a house if they are able, and only at the end of his days does he look to have a profession, or he becomes dependent on tzedaka. As it is written in the curses:

He will marry a woman, build a home and then plant a vineyard. (Deuteronomy 28:30)

In other words, the curse is that he will do everything backwards which will guarantee his failure, but when a blessing is offered, Scripture says:

And David was enlightened in all his ways, and the Lord was with him. (I Samuel 18:14)

The Rambam offers common sense advice that requires personal responsibility on the one hand, but does not remove the feeding hand of the community when one goes the way of fools. David Brooks in his column entitled was unwittingly channeling the twelfth century Physician philosopher rabbi. Yes, there is much foolishness, and yes they are still our responsibility. Just as cancer victims who smoked all their lives need health care, and the morbidly obese diabetic needs insulin, the financially profligate need to be reckoned with as well.

People need to be responsible and Rick Santelli's Jeremiad on CNBC, has merit, but no civil society denies a person shelter because of his sins, especially when there is so much blame to go around.

By the way, the Rambam switches the order of the verse in Deuteronomy 20:6 where it mentions building a house before planting a vineyard. One opinion understands this “misquote” as being sensitive to the fact that a vineyard’s fruit cannot be eaten or sold until after the fourth year when the fruit is redeemed. The Rambam assumes that the vineyard is planted, but one could buy a house before the vineyard was turned into income.

Either way, the order of the verse that offers the curse is quoted exactly as it appears, and one might assume that the order of blessing is the opposite of the curse. Both readings infer that the fact that marriage is mentioned last in the more neutral context and mentioned first in the curses is significant. This is an interesting reading, but not a necessary one.
Loosely based on Scripture, the Rambam is imparting his own wisdom here, and it is wisdom for the ages.

Stay tuned for a posted file on this passage.


Beyond Welfare: A Clarification of Values

When analyzing a disagreement in the Talmud the first question one must ask is not "What is the argument about?", but rather, "What can they agree upon." Determining common ground is the foundation for discovering some facts. It may be that the argument is broader than one may surmise, but one knows that at least the argument goes this far. In other words, by minimizing the dispute, one does not only assert a common ground, but s/he actually arrives at a modest truth.

The modest truth being that at least they are arguing about this. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Parshat Ki Tavo enumerates a litany of curses that will fall on those who cross God. One of the more unnerving of those curses is:

And your life will hang (or depend upon) before you, you will be frightened night and day, and you will not believe in your life.

There is a disagreement in Midrash Esther Rabba on how one unpacks the verse, which is instructive:

The Sages taught: AND YOUR LIFE WILL HANG BEFORE (DEPEND UPON) YOU... this refers to a person who has grain for one year.

...AND YOU WILL BE FRIGHTENED NIGHT AND DAY..."this refers to a person who must buy his flour each day from the miller. "

...AND YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE IN YOUR LIFE." This refers to one who must buy his bread from the baker."

Rabbi Berachya, however, disagreed "AND YOUR LIFE WILL HANG BEFORE (DEPEND UPON) YOU..." This refers to one who has grain for three years.

...AND YOU WILL BE FRIGHTENED NIGHT AND DAY..." This refers to one who has grain for one year. "

...AND YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE IN YOUR LIFE." This refers to one who must get his grain each day from the miller.

The Sages asked: What about the one who must get his bread from the baker?

Rabbi Berachya answered: The Torah did not address the dead.

Both opinions agree that the first clause of the verse is not a curse, but in fact, a positive statement of self sufficiency. They also agree that the last two clauses are curses. Their disagreement is one of degree. Is one anxious and insecure, if he "only" has enough wheat for the year? The Rabbis say no, and Rabbi Berachya disagrees.

One might argue that it depends on the individual and maybe Rabbi Berahya would also agree with this, but he is saying that one should be anxious if he is depleting resources throughout the year without necessarily replenishing them. A person should be anxious if he is not very conservative about his spending--if one does not assume this responsibility. In fact, if one is totally dependent on the system for even baking his bread (presuming he is incapable of doing it) Rav Berachya gives this caustic response, that a person who does not take minimal responsibility for his life is not considered to be "alive." The system will not succeed in addressing his needs because the system needs something to work with.

The Rabbis say the Torah requires us to take care of everyone regardless of their (in)capacity.

Nobody is considered lost, but when the system is stretched, there is wisdom in placing ones resources where they will do the most good. How does one ascertain where, how and how much is a question for the ages, but here are two opinions, one conservative and one liberal operating under the same system, deciphering the same verse that have much agreement between them. Their disagreement, however, is profoundly fundamental eliciting images of two very different personalities and orientations.

This is a window on two opinions that are not often quoted in the literature. One can certainly find scores of references that unequivocally require us to care for the most vulnerable, but this is a window on framing how this is to be done and even for whom.

The question in the background is: When, if ever, does a person become a lost cause?

For more learning on this Midrash, click here.

Just Make Sure Not to Rub that Side of Your Face!

Want the latest in wrinkle free treatment? Here's a tip for you.

The latest in wrinkle free treatment comes from foreskins of circumcised babies. Who Knew?


The TSA: Thousands Standing Around for 7 billion

Goldberg just referenced this article written in November, after witnessing a fellow airline passenger being forced to toss her yogurt by the big bad TSA. I recall that Bush was basically bullied by a terrified public and kneejerk Congress to create the TSA so that America would begin flying again. It turns out that TSA really stands for: Thousands Standing Around, or, maybe Trolling Sanctimonious Aparatchiks, or Terminally Sedated Alcoholics, or Theatrical Security Apparatus, Troglodytes Sucking Air...
ישראל בטח בשם


Parshat Mishpatim: Sometimes "the other" is "another"

Values and principles are woven throughout the more expected rules, and a close reading of Parshat Mishpatim yields fruit that is conceptually poetic and marvelous. The Torah requires that one help someone he hates. Not to love him, but to help him. The Torah acknowledges that people hate each other, but that should not get in the way of helping when there is a need to do so. Click on the link above and see how the Midrash understands this Mitzvah.

When are words dirty?

Wallace Stegner arrives at an astute definition, and it was back in the 60's, but still rings true.

Words are not obscene: naming things is a legitimate verbal act. And "frank" does not mean "vulgar," any more than "improper" means "dirty." What vulgar does mean is "common"; what improper means is "unsuitable." Under the right circumstances, any word is proper. But when any sort of word, especially a word hitherto taboo and therefore noticeable, is scattered across a page like chocolate chips through a tollhouse cookie, a real impropriety occurs. The sin is not the use of an "obscene" word; it is the use of a loaded word in the wrong place or in the wrong quantity. It is the sin of false emphasis, which is not a moral but a literary lapse, related to sentimentality. It is the sin of advertisers who so plaster a highway with neon signs that you can't find the bar or liquor store you're looking for. Like any excess, it quickly becomes comic …

More on Parshat Yitro

For more on Parshat Yitro, take a look at the following which was posted on Myjewishlearning.com. The Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning gets the attribution, but it was written by me.

Classic Talmudic and Medieval Literature on War & Peace

The Talmud has always had a moderating influence on the Hebrew Bible and it has been claimed that this accounts for the virtual pacifism of Ashkenazic Jewry up until the creation of Modern Israel. These arguments on whether people can be drafted for wars that do not answer imminent threats do not seem arcane, but downright current, as Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri (1249-1306) comments on a Talmudic dispute:

Where the rabbis and Rabbi Yehuda argue is in the case of a pre-emptive strike where we are fearful of the enemy that they may strike us, or that we know they are preparing to strike us. According to the sages, this is considered an obligatory war, and anyone engaged in the war is absolved from fulfilling other commandments while Rabbi Yehuda considers that as long as the enemy has yet to attack, it has to be an authorized war and one is not absolved from fulfilling other commandments.

Meaning that if someone is engaged in a sacred task, he cannot be drafted for this type of war. The Torah itself allowed for a type of conscientious objector--one who did not have the stomach for it. If your interested in a survey of the literature, and powerpoint click here


Remembering Shabbat According to Rashi

On the Commadment זכור את יום השבת לקדשו (Remember the Sabbath in order to sanctify it) Rashi teaches that the way to do this is by keeping shabbat in one's memory. How does one do this? One should set aside something for shabbat during the week.

Interesting that Rashi doesn't quote the Talmudic passage that required us to make Kiddush on wine זכרהו על היין (Remember it (shabbat) with wine). Instead, he gives us the custom of Shammai the elder as quoted in the Gemara Beitza where he differs with Hillel.

If Shammai found a plump calf on one day, he would set it aside for Shabbat, while Hillel would use it on that day, quoting the verse ברוך השם יום יום (Praise be God everyday).

Shammai, however, did not create this custom in order to remember shabbat, but to honor shabbat. Why does Rashi seem to conflate honor with memory?

Rashi likes Shammai's custom because it achieves both qualities simultaneously. Shabbat is honored materially by setting aside the animal, but in so doing, it fulfills the requirement of memory, removing it from being a passive activity to being an active one. He actively recalls the shabbat as he sets aside the calf. By saying this calf will be saved for shabbat, he is remembering that it is special and he honors it by preparing ahead of time. If he finds a nicer calf the following day, he will set that aside and eat the previous calf. Each day affords an opportunity where shabbat may be remembered, but it is guaranteed that this active memory will be invoked at least once.

Rashi understands that "Remembering shabbat" needs to happen outside of Shabbat and therefore it is part and parcel of honoring shabbat. It is the ideal way to invest every day with the purpose of preparing and remembering shabbat.


Hardware Getting Soft?

My mail server is down. Can you use the femail server? No she quit cooperating when we stopped using (e)unix.

Sullivan quotes Walt

Just to update you on Andrew Sullivan's subtle assault on Israel...He's now quoting Walt, of Walt and Mearsheimer fame as a "realist" on M.E. Policy. This at a time when Hugo Chavez is targeting Jews in Venezuela. At least, they have a place to go...and I would suggest they get going. I wonder when Sullivan will begin blaming Israel and AIPAC for the Iraqi war like the crackpots he is now quoting. Andrew, you don't have to be a theo-con-neo-con to be a gentile Israel supporter--even though it seems that way sometimes.

Stay tuned for Jewish sources on War and Peace.


What did we do to Andrew Sullivan?

In 2006, during the war against Hizballah, Andrew Sullivan might as well have been working for the Israeli consulate. Quoting relentlessly from pro-Israel bloggers, vigilantly condemning Reuters doctored photos, and unequivocally identifying Hizballah as the aggressors, we had Andrew on our side. Questions of proportionality did not enter his discourse--at least not that I can remember.

Now, it is true that Israel did not destroy the bunkers and that Hizballah has storehouses full of rockets, but it is also true that the border has been quiet for three years (Kin ahora, pu, pu, pu) and that Hizballah decided to sit this war out.

Now, he raises all the just war issues in Gaza when he knows that once Israel decided to go in, there would be significant civilian casualties. His claim was that this incursion would not have the desired result and would only serve to further radicalize the people of Gaza. How much more they have been radicalized is an open question, given that the propaganda machine was operating against Jews and Israel full blast before the war.

Now, there has been an Israeli election where southern Israel has voted in droves for Avigdor Lieberman, a thug, because they have been radicalized by the rockets of Hamas. The thug's party has eclipsed Barak and Labor as a potential power broker for forming the next coalition government. Where is the outrage regarding the radicalization of the next generation of Israelis who, according to Haaretz columnist, Tom Segev, no longer believe in peace? Why would they? They only believe in ensuring some quiet and order for a few years until the next time. Are they to blame for this unfortunate turn "against peace", or do we offer them the same understanding that we so generously give to the noble citizens of Gaza?

This is disturbing, but all the fancy talk of "just wars" is risible given the present reality.

Andrew, what happened to you? I really thought you knew better.


What role does religion play in success and happiness?

Univesity of Miami Professor Michael McCollough has authored a study that unpacks why religious people are more successful, and generally more sanguine with their lives than secular folks. It seems that they have more self control:

Research has also shown that young children who do well at delaying gratification (i.e., forgoing a small reward in the present so that they might obtain a larger reward after time has passed) perform better years later on measures of academic achievement and social adjustment (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989). Some social scientists consider delay of gratification to be an important dynamic underlying the behavioral choices of people who believe in an afterlife in which their behavior during this life will be judged. For people with strong beliefs in such an afterlife, it would indeed be rational to deny short-term gains that might come from engaging in behavior that is proscribed by one's religion because the long-term (eternal) gains of not engaging in the behavior might outweigh the short-term gains associated with engaging in the behavior (Azzi & Ehrenberg, 1975; Iannaccone, 1998).

In other words, certain perspectives make it easier to ignore ones salivary glands when confronted with a pot of gold--and it seems it will also make one more successful as well as make one less prone to depression.

The Sages of the Talmud had much to say about self destructive behavior and its origins. Review some of the earliest understanding on the story of Cain and Abel--the first murder.
Here are some seemingly conflicting tidbits:

“Both small and great are there and a servant is free from his masters.” (Job 3:19) As long as a human lives, he is a servant to two urges. A servant to his Creator and a servant to his desires. When he serves his Creator he enrages his desires and when he serves his desires, he enrages his Creator. When he dies, he is liberated. The servant is free from his masters. (Midrash Ruth 3:1)

Rabbi Nachman Bar Shmuel Bar Nachman in the name of Shmuel Bar Nachman said: “And it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) ‘And it was good’—refers to one’s good inclination, ‘and it was very good’—refers to one’s evil inclination. You mean that an evil inclination is very good?!!!?!??! If it were not for the evil inclination one would not build a house, marry and have children, nor engage in commerce. Thus Solomon wrote in Kohelet “skillful enterprise come from men’s envy of one another.” (Geneis Rabba 9:7)

It's another one of Ravavi's faux Talmud pages for your perusal and benefit.

Gold Slobber

A footnote to my previous post. When my sister was living in London, I went to visit her. She gave me the obligatory trip to where the crown jewels were displayed. I wear no jewelry, and these days, a cell phone has become my timepiece. In other words, jewelry is not only not my passion--it is not even of remote interest.

The display of solid gold scepters was where I noticed an involuntary reaction...I was salivating. Need I say more.


Why Goodness Cannot be Legislated (but maybe accountability can)

So sitting around the shabbos table, I point out that all the gold in the world would only fill up two Olympic sized swimming pools, and that gold has no utility, beyond its obvious use. Nobody was stunned by this observation. The fact that gold was beautiful guaranteed its status, it didn't have to be useful. I was flabbergasted by this--maybe it's because I'm not a fan of jewelry, but nobody gets how weird it is that gold became a standard for currency?

The only thing inevitable about the current economic crisis is that once everyone was given enough rope, they would surely hang themselves--and take us along with them. When the Maestro Greenspan gave his feeble excuses before Congress, he expressed his surprise that the institutions did not act in their own interest and police themselves. He expected them to be rational. In Peter L. Bernstein's The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession, he points out that Gold is an element that is virtually without utility. It is useless, but it is rare and it does catch the eye. It is gold's scarcity coupled with it's allure that gives it iconic stature, its lack of utility is of no consequence. Ok. It's visceral--we like shiny baubles, especially if everyone can't have them.

This is what people value, and institutions are basically groups of people, led by the most ambitious and ruthless, but not necessarily the most reflective--maybe he should have taken an undergraduate psychology course to enlighten him. I thought everyone knew that economics was a behavioral science. In the words of Ben Zoma,

איזהו גבור הכובש את יצרו--אבות ד:א

(Who is considered mighty? One who conquers his visceral inclinations Pirkei Avot 4:1)

How have the mighty fallen?


A New Understanding of Pluralism

As denominations become more meaningless to the point that they are not taught to youth for fear of boring them to an early grave--it is high time to redefine pluralism. Make no mistake, the youth of today have the lowest threshold for boredom known to humankind and they would rather have teeth extracted through their heads than be bored. Why should we define Jews by terms that become more meaningless with each passing day? Here's a snippet on how to educate by redefining pluralism. It is a different understanding of difference.

Beyond denomination, beyond race and ethnicity and beyond gender, young people have different temperaments that need to be addressed. I believe that a curriculum must be designed that addresses what I regard as the basic Jewish temperaments: the religious (who may or may not be idealistic), the idealist (who may or may not be religious) and the pragmatist. These three temperaments, valuable as each is, do not naturally co-exist, and when untended can become disturbingly destructive--a phenomenon, we know all too well.

In my judgment, it is the challenge of teachers to identify a student’s best version of his temperament, and then to nurture all their students to the possibility of integrating who they may eventually become into who they are at the moment. This process, however, cannot be done in isolation. Each temperament must take account of the other competing temperaments with consideration and kindness. The Sacred must consider the Idealist, and the Idealist must consider the Sacred, and both must consider the pragmatist as the pragmatist must engage with the others. To paraphrase Kohelet, this three-stranded thread will ensure that a community will never unravel.

If you wish to read the rest of the article, click here.


A Macabre Jewish "Joke" Recycled

Rumors spread in an Eastern European Shtetl that a Christian child had been murdered and a pogrom was in the offing. The whole community went to the local synagogue to pray and gird themselves for the imminent onslaught, when, Moishe runs in breathless, saying, "Good news, it was a Jewish child."

Now, New York Jewish investors are mollified by the fact that Madoff's primary targets were Jews which has mitigated the perceived inevitable anti-Semitic backlash. The more things change, the more they stay the same.


If you're reading this, you may want to...

Click on "Follow this blog" on the top of the right hand column. It's a way for me to know who is out there--besides family members.

How Jewish is Jewish Enough?

We, who teach in the murky world of multiple Jewish temperaments, where nuanced explanations so often replace fervent commitment, sometimes--maybe often--question the value of what we do. Now that most community day school attendees are not for the most part synagogue attendees, we can assume they may not become adult members of any shule in the future. If this is true for non-Orthodox day school kids, how much more so for others? The following article that appeared in Hayidiyon, the RAVSAK (Community day School Network)periodical is an attempt by me to picture what's coming down the road and how to reckon with its complexity.

What's in a miracle?

If the sea splits, and no one is there to cross it? It's not a miracle, it's a fluke of nature.

Making my mark at Hallmark

So, Hallmark cards has a Jewish line called Tree of Life. The problem is that very few Jews work on the line and they are trying to "hit the right notes" when it comes to the pithy aphorisms that express the sentiments of the uninventive or terminally lazy. Enter Ravavi in hours of consultation with these talented artists, calligraphers and writers. What a trip! I even came up with a Chanukah ditty--picture this!
A brassy Jewish mom on the cover ranting:

"You don't write, you don't call, you're never there when I need you!"

Open it up and here goes the punch line: "I just thought I'd give you a little Chanukah guilt!"

Keep your eyes out for it before Kislev 25 rolls around. Bet your sweet latkes!

What are you yelling at me for? Beshalach

During my years as the Senior Educational Officer at Hillel's International Center, I created scores of files designed to be used for study sessions by Hillel professionals throughout the world. These are still parked in the archives of Hillel's website and the links are still alive. Each week I will pick one of my faves and link to it for your edification. So, enjoy this tidbit on Parshat Beshalach! If there is interest in printable pdf. or word files, please let me know, and I will either send them to you through email, or I will put them up on Scorchin.


A Tu B'Shevat Seder with lots of Sources

If you're looking for a Tu B'Shevat Seder, this one is for those who want to learn as well.

Chaim Weizman does a "Yo Mama"!

Prior to the Balfour Declaration, chemist and later to be first president of the State of Israel, Chaim Weizman was asked by a member of the House of Lords, "Why are the Jews so fixated on Palestine while there are so many other underpopulated countries where they could much more easily reside?"

Weizman answered, "Why do you drive thirty miles every weekend to visit your mother, when there are so many elderly women on your street?"
All links are fixed and working, thanks and a hat tip to Mick Weinstein.


Tu B'Shevat: More to it than just planting trees

It was a neat trick for Jews to survive in the diaspora for nearly two thousand years without a nation state. Jewish life, Jewish literature, even a Jewish language (yiddish) thrived without the aid of a homeland. In hard times, like now, there are those who may ask, now that they might feel secure in their host countries, what benefit does Israel have for us now?

Yes, it is true that Judaism evolved without a nation state for millennia, but it is also true that the hope of having one, contributed greatly to its continued existence. Once the dream came to fruition, national needs spawned a cultural life that demonstrated a visceral spiritual vitality that only a home of ones own can generate.

Tu B'Shevat is a case in point. Originally, Tu B'Shevat was the end of the fiscal year for tithing from fruit trees. This is a modest primary source for any holiday, to say the least. The day, took on Kabbalistic resonance thirteen hundred years later because of the verse "For a man is a tree of the field". The mystics created a seder for Tu B'Shevat that glorified creation and the interaction between God, the Torah and nature. The Seder was not something that was widely practiced and because the Holy Land was desolate for centuries, there was also no practical reason to know when the Talmudic fiscal year for fruit trees would begin.

Because Israel was a desolate land that required greening, all of the sudden Tu B'Shevat morphs into the Jewish arbor day. Jews throughout the world "bought" trees to be planted in Israel. The campaign was so successful that the pre-1967 borders of Israel is called the Green line. A stark representation of Jewish enterprise in contrast to those who preceded Jewish settlement.

Coupled with the Zionist campaign to green Israel, the 60's brought a renewed interest in Jewish mysticism. The Tu B'Shevat seder re-emerged and was celebrated by mystics and non-mystics alike. This only happened because Tu B'Shevat was already part of the Jewish calendar/consciousness, and had become a national holiday.

Nowadays, Tu B'Shevat has gone beyond the borders of Israel and has taken on an identity transcendent of its origins. Every Israeli is aware of Tu B'Shevat and its significance, but more impressive is the fact that this material awakening of a land revived a spiritual awakening where Jews celebrate and rededicate their commitment to be good stewards of the planet, The National Arbor day has morphed into a Jewish earth day.

Without a nation state, it's hard to imagine that this would have been possible.

Tu BShevat

One of the purposes of this blog is to make available files that are timely and not necessarily well known. While working at Hillel's Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, I created new files using the format of a traditional Talmud page. These pages have been available on the Hillel.org website for years. Often, these pages were highlighted on their homepage, but some gems remained buried in the archives. My Tu B'Shevat faux Talmud page takes the Biblical verse כי אדם עץ השדה (For a man is a tree of the field) and plumbs its meaning through the able minds of several medieval and later commentaries. I have managed to park this file with a new service, scribd. Scroll down and you should be able to see it as a Pdf. file.


Some of my Work

For those who are interested in an accessible entryway to the world of Kabbalah, my translation of the classic Kabbalistic lexicon Gates of Light is available on Amazon. Rabbi Yosef Ben Avraham Gikatilla is now considered to be instrumental in the popularization of the Zohar along with Moshe DeLeon.

You can read a part of the introduction at KabbalahonLine.org. Just click on these links and they will take you there.