We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
I gave this D'var Torah on Saturday morning, January 23, on the Shabbat before Debbie Friedman's 10th yahrzeit.
On a Sunday night in early January 25 years ago, Laurie and I were living in Queens and there was a big Nor’easter brewing. Some of you may remember, it came all the way up here – it shut down New York City for several days. We had tickets to a concert at Carnegie Hall and decided to go anyway. This was before we had kids, but even so we wouldn’t usually go out late on a night before a work day. We got to our seats way up in who knows which balcony, and the performer came out on stage and said, “Welcome to Beth Carnegie!” And for the next couple of hours Debbie Friedman turned Carnegie Hall into a shul, into camp, into a Jewish revival. Debbie, zichronah liv’racha, is the composer and singer who gave us Misheberach, L'chi Lach, the ya-la-la-la-s of Havdalah, I Am a Latke – just for some examples. This coming week we will remember Debbie’s 10th yahrzeit.
At Beth Carnegie in 1996 Debbie had on stage her sign language interpreter EJ Cohen, who lives in New Hampshire and who I met years later up here. Were any of you there by chance? After it was over, Laurie and I went to the backstage door. The snow was already really coming down but we wanted to say hi to Debbie before she left, the way you’d go out to try to get an autograph from a Broadway star.
We wanted to talk to her because the Savetts have a connection to Debbie Friedman’s family that may be unique, as surely we are the only two Jewish families who have settled in both Utica, New York and St. Paul, Minnesota. Debbie was an alum of my alma mater, Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul -- Debbie and Jack Morris, major league pitcher (they would have just missed each other there).
Growing up, Debbie was involved in the youth program at Mt. Zion, the large Reform congregation in St. Paul whose legacy includes Rabbi Gunther Plaut, editor of the Reform movement chumash. In the mid-1960s Mt. Zion started encouraging kids to go to Jewish summer camp at Olin Sang Ruby in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and before twelfth grade Debbie went back to New York State in the summer to the NFTY Song and Dance Leaders Institute at Kutz Camp. The next year, right out of high school, Debbie was in Israel on Kibbutz; she was leading music for Mt. Zion’s youth group and religious school; she was regional and national songleader for NFTY; and she was back at Kutz on the staff of the Song Leader Institute.
Cantor Jeff Klepper, composer of our Shalom Rav melody, met Debbie that summer of ’69. He was 15 and remembers a charismatic musician, age 19 and about the same size as her 12-string Martin guitar. He says that Debbie was already a celebrity at camp that summer and the best song leader on the staff, the most effective teacher.
This was the time in her life when Debbie was beginning to compose. She didn’t formally study music; she never learned to read music, but she was a sponge for all kinds of songs, particularly folk music both American and Israeli. You can hear Peter, Paul and Mary in a lot of Debbie’s early music, and later Peter Yarrow himself got to know her and said that Debbie was like Mary.
The Savetts always got Debbie’s early vinyl hot off the press, and her records became part of our Friday night ritual at home. We would eat our Shabbat dinner, and sing out the songbooks we pilfered from Herzl Camp, where Dad was the doctor for a week during the summer and we’d get to eat with camp and absorb songs and ruach. I was just in elementary school when these traditions began. After dinner we’d go into the den and put on a Debbie album. The first one, Sing Unto God, was basically a whole Friday night service. She recorded it with the high school chorus from our alma mater as her backup singers. They helped her debut the songs in a presentation at Mt. Zion. That album contained among pieces her quickly-famous Sh’ma.
I don’t remember really meeting Debbie as a young kid that much. She was more than 15 years older than me and I knew she was a big deal. I remember stopping by the Friedman home from time to time with my parents, and seeing her parents Frieda and Gabe and her sister Cheryl. When I would go to camp and we would sing Debbie's first Mi Chamocha or Im Tirtzu, I always felt a little less homesick.
Debbie did something within her first few years of creating that no one else had done before. She bridged camp and Temple. She made the same music the music of both. She wasn’t the first to set traditional Jewish words in a pop or folk style. This was just a few years after Tom Lehrer had already made fun of the 1960s attempts to make worship hip and young in his song “The Vatican Rag.”
But Debbie was the first to make that music work on the bimah. I remember going to Mt. Zion from time to time and hearing there the melodies I knew from our living room, and the music worked even in a Sanctuary that was cavernous, with the very formal cantor and the robes and the bimah up high and the organ. I’m sure being a home-town talent made a difference, but it wasn’t just in Minnesota that her music was catching on. And remember that Debbie started doing this as a woman at a time when the Hebrew Union College had still not ordained a female rabbi or cantor.
I think there are a few reasons Debbie was the one to pave the way of synthesis between camp and Temple, between stand-alone creativity and conventional prayer services. First of all, Debbie was like Mozart. She was a young prodigy, so soulful and so creative but in a tight frame that people could come to recognize and assimilate, that stretched them just the right amount. There’s something familiar across her many generative years. You can hear certain kinds of intervals over and over -- Oseh Shalom, the tears may fall but we’ll hear them call,v’im lo achshav, and the women dancing with their timbrels. Or the same thing in a slightly different mode -- While we’re here in Hebrew School, samekh ayin pay fay…. Oseh shalom – hear it? Those are bits of different kinds of songs from over a twenty year span, but there’s something threading through. She had a few patterns like that she reworked over and over. Each new Debbie album was like getting together with an old friend to catch up and then settling in to hear about her latest adventure in some new part of the world.
You don’t hear anything quite like Debbie’s signature vocal motifs in anyone else’s music, but still anyone can sing or lead a Debbie song. She doesn’t make you go up high to notes you can’t reach, or throw in a bridge that only one person in the group can do. Debbie had plenty of range in her voice, but she mostly sang to us in our range. And when she herself was in front of a group Debbie never did what a James Taylor or a Peter Yarrow does from time to time, vary up a familiar song to make this performance different from another. It was different because the moment was different and she was in the moment with your particular group. Maybe this time she’d sing faster or slower, maybe change the instrumentation, but she never made herself superior to you when she was singing to you or leading you. Not in a concert at a synagogue, or at a Reform movement convention or at CAJE, and not even at Carnegie Hall. Debbie’s songs and their experience were something she was giving to you, so they would belong to you. Her music sounds great if a great cantor sings it, if a choir sings it -- if you sing it.
Debbie packed a lot of Hebrew words into her music. This is the opposite of the niggun approach of repeating a few words, and it was a bit of a counterculture to the art of English in the New Union Prayerbook. She figured out how to make you want to know the Hebrew rather than be scared off by it. Her music was the spoonful of sugar; not sugary (or very occasionally) but more like honey with fragrances that get around the barriers your conscious brain might put up. She did plenty in English too, liturgical and educational – but she came to want to study the original texts and she would return again and again to certain words, like the Song of Songs or Mi Chamocha.
Debbie didn’t create new theological language, but she translated the new metaphors others were teaching and brilliantly made them hearable. While we rabbis began struggling with how to say “God of our forefathers and our foremothers” or “God of our ancestors”, Debbie came up with “Who blessed the ones before us.” She started out using the language of the traditional Reform prayerbook in all its gender-not-neutral formal English – “And Thou shalt love the Lord Thy God with all thy heart” – and eventually she went back and revised some of her own early songs in English. Her Renewal of Spirit album of healing prayers included many that address God very directly and traditionally as “You.” Don’t hide your face from me, I’m asking for your help. Instead of theology, just the real moment of prayer.
Debbie never made herself a celebrity or even a personality outside of her music. In public she taught and narrated through her concerts, and she loved the teaching process up close with musicians and students and in big groups, but she didn’t ask you to listen to a story of her personal experience as the price of connecting. I think it was only much later in her life that people outside her circle knew of the physical ailments she was struggling with. Laurie and I heard her in Atlanta about ten years after Carnegie Hall, in a synagogue just a few years before she died, and it was obvious she wasn’t herself but she didn’t talk about that. Debbie helped give voice to Jewish feminism and some of the spiritual revival from the 1990s onward, but she wasn’t an activist outside of the music itself. The most activist thing was the women’s Seder that her music has become so central to.
For the Jews of North America, Debbie Friedman stands where only Naomi Shemer, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, and Ehud Manor stand.
For me the most important Debbie music is from her third album called Ani Ma’amin, put out in 1976. She created it as she was working with a group just out of high school at Camp Olin Sang Ruby, and the cover has a picture of Debbie sitting on rocks by a lake looking out. The Savett home probably listened to this one the most of all on Shabbat evenings through my junior and senior high years.
Debbie wrote on the jacket about the meaning of “I believe in the coming of the Messiah”, the gaps between dreams and visions and reality, but the music sounds like all the dreams are real and the visions have come to pass. We all mostly know Ani Ma’amin as a somber Shoah melody, but Debbie’s was the first melody I ever knew for this, and it’s entirely different.
That album’s interpretation of Shabbat is that the rest we need isn’t an escape, a break from a world too broken, but a transport to a world where everything true is just real, without effort. That’s what the album sounds like. A world where God’s Torah and love are just there on any given day and it’s no question they will always be – V’ahavatcha al tasir mimenu l’olamim, Baruch Atah Adonai, Ohev Amo Yisrael. And Your love will never move from us, not ever – Blessed are You, Adonai, Who loves Your people Israel.
As we mark ten years without Debbie Friedman’s live voice, may we take to heart what she gave us to say every week: Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing. Debbie’s voice in our minds and on our recordings, and our voices singing what Debbie gave us -- may they always be a blessing.
This was my opening invocation for the annual Southern NH Outreach for Black Unity Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast on January 21, 2019.
I am so honored to be invited to join you for some opening words today. My name is Jon Spira-Savett, and I serve as rabbi for the Jewish community in our area through Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua. I’m a member of the executive board of the Nashua Area Interfaith Council and one of its recent past presidents, and it’s because of that network that I have met many of you.
Rev. King is one of my own most important religious teachers. I call him Rev. King because though he was Dr. King, a scholar and theologian, he was a pastor and a preacher and a teacher, for his own communities and for my community, the Jewish community of America.
Rev. King’s voice in our nation, and his many visits to synagogues and rabbinic conventions, inspired and mobilized people in the Jewish community, from college students to older rabbis. He inspired many in the Jewish community to march with him in Alabama, to travel down to Mississippi in that Freedom Summer, to work the pressure points in Congress for civil rights. There is even a story of a rabbi or two running into a Midwestern Senator at the airport in 1964, just by chance, quote-unquote, having been tipped off about where to find a man trying to hide out and to remind him there was no hiding from a vote for justice.
And the last interview of Rev. King’s life took place at the national convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, just ten days before he was taken from all of us. There Rev. King spoke a verse from the prophet Amos that you have heard from him many times: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
and righteousness like a mighty
Rev. King had preached those words in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and he had written them to send to religious leaders from his cell in Birmingham Jail, and he would preach these words of Amos again the night before he was killed, in Memphis. In front of the rabbis Rev. King didn’t preach them, he said them soberly, as quiet as he had ever said them, as he was in a tough time – let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
What was it about these particular words from Amos? I could read you fifty other equally beautiful verses about the virtue of justice, the glory of righteousness. But these words.
First of all, Rev. King was saying that justice is a power as natural as gravity, which just pulls the water down from the mountains into any place that is not already raised high. Justice is built in; it’s the hardware of our system. Just as gravity can take something small, and the longer it moves down, the more force it gathers, the harder it is to stop – so too justice can take any single person, any group no matter how small, and make them unstoppable.
In the verses before this one, Amos was talking about the so-called power of oppressors, all the work they have to do to twist justice, to feast on bribes, to take what they have not earned, to look away from the poor and drive them out of their community. The hard work it takes to look so pious and religious, when you are complicit in so much injustice.
Amos is saying: That so-called power -- that’s what’s unnatural. That kind of power is a wearying power, a power that spends itself and takes us constantly away from the Divine and from one another.
So why does that power seem so real? Because the verse from Amos really says that justice swells like waters -- like a rolling wave at the edge of the sea, like the piling up of the waters at the bottom of a waterfall – and behind that surge is an emptiness, an undertow, until the next wave. A depression where the so-called power of the so-called powerful can slip in.
So when Rev. King spoke about justice rolling down like waters, he meant that we have to get down from up high where we see things so clearly but we are smaller than we could be, and we have to roll together and make ourselves more powerful. We have to plunge down together so we can surge together, and we have to keep grouping up and keep on coming, to leave no time after one wave of justice until another, no lull that makes it easier for the other so-called power to just slide in there. When I said yes that I would presume to stand in front of you and say some words, it is because I wanted to tell you that I am tired of being a small wave and seeing small waves, and I want to be with you and roll and surge together. Let justice roll down like waters.
And as for the mighty stream, there is only other place in the Hebrew Bible where that particular phrase occurs and it will knock you out. It’s in a remarkable law in the book of Deuteronomy that happened to be the text at my Bar Mitzvah, so I’ve never forgotten it.
Deuteronomy talks about the case of a dead body found in a field between towns, and no one knows who is responsible. The elders of each of the surrounding towns are required to measure from the body to the edge of their town. Whichever town is closest, the elders of that town have to take a pure young calf, one that has never pulled a yoke, and bring it to a mighty stream that has never been worked or tilled – a stream that is mighty only during the rainy season, when it gushes with water from the heavens that overflows onto terraces and fields, and the rest of the time is just the memory of a mighty stream, or the hope for one to come.
And there the elders wash their hands and sacrifice the calf, and they lead a call and response. The later rabbis of my tradition say the gist of what they say, back and forth to each other, is this: We, the leaders of the town closest to here, we swear that this man did not pass through our town without anyone noticing. We swear that in our town it’s not possible that no one offered him a place to stay, or a meal to eat, or protection when he was ready to leave and go out into the dangerous world. For if we had failed in any of those ways, then it would be as if we had killed him ourselves, and his blood would be on our hands.
This particular mighty stream was hiding in the background every time Rev. King preached from Amos. It’s the stream where the elders of the city go down together to ask: Have we been responsible for every person, every single person – or have we washed our hands and just pretended that our righteousness is flowing like a mighty stream?
Have we been responsible for every person we don’t know personally, but we know she is here, he is here, yet still isolated from the rest of us, and we let that be all right?
Have we been responsible for education in every school, have we been responsible for dignified housing in every neighborhood, have we made it clear that no one can be bullied or harassed by another kid or by someone in authority because of how they look or how they speak, or where they were born, or who and how they love?
Have we been responsible not just to run after problems righteously, but to build the community that can sustain and love every person who passes our way?
Maybe we are the elders who ought to go down to the river, to the mighty stream that runs just a few hundred feet from here, maybe every year right around Martin Luther King Day, and see who else is there and ask these questions.
I believe Rev. King would say to us that the very same stream, the same place, can be a place of sorrow, or it can be flowing mightily with righteousness. All it takes is for us to be those leaders who gather there, who between us blend the wisdom of elders who have seen it all, the sweep of history and the big picture, with the freshness that comes from seeing people one at a time in dark corners. The mighty stream is a place for leaders who come for rituals that rivet us, and words that drive us, with measuring sticks of analysis and loving eyes. The mighty stream is a place for all of us, and not just on this one day a year.
Let justice roll down, like waters
and righteousness, like a mighty
These are words to hear preached in hope; and these are words to say soberly in difficult times. There is a hydropower in justice, and it is time for us to generate it together, to harness our power together.
Holy One of love and mystery, known to us by many names, or by no name at all – we pray that we will be blessed by the memory of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who taught us how to be sisters and brothers, to be colleagues and teachers for each other in justice and righteousness, to be the leaders we need with each other and for each other. Amen.
This year I updated my usual re-post about Moshe and Yeshayahu, your "two personal spiritual assistants", and published it at the Times of Israel:
Post 1 today after George Floyd's killing. This one isn't the main point. More to come.
I was thinking about the president’s posing with a Bible last night after his speech, as I said my brief morning prayers while wearing tefillin. Tefillin are leather boxes with little scrolls from the Torah inside them, attached to leather straps that wrap around your nondominant arm and around your head in a literal implementation of Deuteronomy 6:8. Trying to get the words into your arm and into your head, by spiritual osmosis. When you take off the tefillin, they leave an imprint on your arm for a while, like when you sleep on the wrinkle of a sheet and then look in the mirror (also your hair, I’m not putting that in a photo).
I don’t keep my tefillin on for very long each morning, not nearly as long as those who say a full service. And this was one of the hardest practices for me to take on for a variety of reasons. I wear the tefillin that belonged once to my great-grandfather and that I got refurbished in the Old City of Jerusalem. I have my tefillin on long enough for me to say the Shma (passage from Deuteronomy 6) about the oneness of the divine, love of God through heart and soul and action, and seeing Torah as new every day, the language I should use to speak, and the lens for “sitting in my house and going on my ways.” Then I say a brief part of a prayer that evokes the Exodus, the part that recalls the divine as one who lifts the lowly and humbles the arrogant and redeems those who call out, and that quotes the song of the first moments of redemption and freedom from Exodus 15.
And even so, with the imprint of all this on my body, it is hard during the rest of the day to be and to appear like someone who was wrapped in the Bible. It’s required in my tradition every day, with the exception of Shabbat and festivals when we hope the very air is so Torah-filled that we don’t need the extra help. It doesn't really "work" just once in a while.
So how dare anyone make a show of holding the Bible at arm’s length, standing on the *outside* of a house of worship he has demanded that people be allowed to enter inside as a national priority. Show me that something has made an imprint on your arm, at the very least. Then I will believe it has anything to do with your actions. Then I will believe you are, in your words, "pay[ing] my respects to a very, very special place."
I just finished these thoughts. They are a combination of commentaries, reflection pieces, discussion prompts related to the Seder text, the Pesach Haggadah. You could read them before or after a Seder, or even during. Wishing everyone a good festival and a Zissen (sweet) Pesach.
This is a version of the D'var Torah I gave on Saturday, April 4, 2020, Shabbat Hagadol 5780.
According to the Passover Haggadah:
“The Torah speaks of four children. One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple, and one does not know to ask. Echad chacham, v’echad rasha, v’echad tam, v’echad she-aino yod’ea lish’ol.”
I have been thinking about these four children as responses to COVID-19. The smart responses and the evil ones, the simplistic and the – what -- oblivious or simply dumbstruck. I think each of these children has two sides, a side that needs support and encouragement and a side that needs teaching and guidance.
The wise one asks: What are the specifics about this disease? What do we know about how it spreads? What steps have been effective in different countries or regions? What do the models say? Who are the chachamim, the experts and Sages, to whom we should be listening?
In the Seder, the wise child asks: Mah ha-eydot v’hachukim v’hamishpatim asher tsiva Adonai etchem? “What are the testimonies, the rules that you don’t ask questions about, and the rules whose reasoning is important, that Adonai has commanded?” What is based on well-attested research, what are the things we don’t have time to debate but simply all have to do, what are rules that will work better if we take the time to understand them?
That’s the chacham of today, and the more of this we have the better we will all be. We need to encourage more people to be both well-informed and trusting of the scientific policymakers and the officials who are listening to them.
The Haggadah says that you should give the chacham detailed answers, of the specifics of the laws of Passover. So too today, the chacham needs ways to be practical – things to know and to teach others, concrete ways of giving tzedakah and doing for people who are vulnerable in all the ways that people are at risk now.
Of course, it’s also hard to be chacham right now. The chacham is the one who knows more than most what there is to be frightened of, who has the burden of seeing the danger in a trip to the store or a walk in the park. Who worries about people who have no option of staying home to work safely, who has no one to go shopping for them. These aren’t reasons to avoid being the chacham. But the chacham needs support – so as not to become overwhelmed or burn out. So as not to become so worried or sad that it’s impossible to smile or laugh or share a good moment with someone.
The wicked one asks: What is the burden that you have all taken on? In most years at the Seder, we often call this rasha not wicked but rebellious, in a sort-of good way, and we have more understanding than the rabbis of old seemed to. We say it’s just a phase, or it’s a teenager, or there is value in critical thinking, and maybe we even admire the rasha for not going along with the crowd.
But today we can say that there are wicked people, and we see them all over. They are standing too close to other people in the supermarket. They are coughing without covering. Online they are suggesting that only older people will die and we shouldn’t all have to lose our jobs because of that. Or that this is all a hoax or a liberal conspiracy.
And the Haggadah’s answer to the rasha is no answer today – fling it in his teeth, fine, if that’s your position you will not be redeemed. That’s not going to work now. The hazard of their wickedness isn’t just to them but to the rest of us through them.
So we are in the position of what Judaism calls the mitzvah of tochacha, confronting and trying to correct someone’s behavior. Which means taking a stand in public and telling strangers to step back or get out of here, as evenly but firmly as we can.
And to anyone who expresses views that can make this all worse, we have respond calmly also – in the way we repeat the new mantras of safety, by combating the bad reads with good ones that aren’t angry or ideological but sensible and factual.
I think too that today’s rasha needs understanding. There may be terrible fear at the heart of this: a fear of confronting what is really happening, or of having one’s worldview suddenly challenged or possibly irrelevant to the day. The rasha needs comforting.
And the online rasha who says it’s really not that serious a disease has long ago become deeply mistrustful of knowledge and of political authority.
Now is a time for us to show that knowledge works. People who value knowledge are creative and faithful and tireless and compassionate. Now is a time for us to key in on figures in authority who are relentless about human life; who show what it means to take responsibility and be advised by those who know more; who admit error and move on because they are committed to the people who chose them. We have to notice all these people now, and talk about them to people we know who are stuck in rasha mode.
The simple one says: What is this? This tam is the one who doesn’t keep close tabs on the news; who isn’t intentionally going out unnecessarily or willfully misbehaving but is making do with a minimum of information and precautions while out.
Or maybe the tam is the one of few words. Cooped up in the house with everyone, this is the one who doesn’t really want to fill the time together with talk, or doesn’t want to talk about feelings or worries.
And the Haggadah says: Open up to this one: “With a strong hand did Adonai bring us out of Mitzrayim.” Don’t overwhelm with more than they want to talk about. Start with the big picture: We are in a tough time and we are fortunate that there are strong powers out there doing their best to keep us safe and guide us through. And I will be here for you, to answer whatever question you have, about what’s going on or about what this is like. To talk to you when you do want to talk.
There is one who does not know what to ask or how to ask – she-aino yode’a lish’ol. The Hebrew could mean: One who does not know how to ask anything at all, or one who doesn’t know that it’s okay just to have questions, or one who doesn’t know which of the many questions would be appropriate to ask at this moment.
I think about our actual children, who will have this interlude in their formative years that will shape them, or who are aware enough that this time will be something shadowing their adult lives. They must be so full of questions, and it’s hard to have answers we don’t know what the next few days are going to be like.
And I think of the teaching of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who taught that the one who doesn’t know how to ask is the most profound of the four children: For who even knows what questions are worth asking?
What do we ask at a time like this? Sure, there’s a too-familiar script of questions from catastrophes past: Why is this happening, why did this person die, why did I get sick or why did I not, what kind of God is this?
Now on top of that: What will it be like to hug someone again, to be with a boyfriend or girlfriend, to put out a bowl of potato chips at a party? How do you talk if the only options are to be focused through a phone or screen, or not to talk at all? We used to sit around in a room, talk for bit, wander and in out, talk a bit and stop and talk again. If we spend two months seeing people only on screens except for those in our house plus the quickly cashier at the supermarket, what will be the impact on our friendships? On society?
What will be the effect of this big unplanned experiment in distance and togetherness? Will we find ways to be more close and more responsible for people we don’t usually see, but who are tied to us, who affect us, who feed and care for us? What will we discover that we cherish about our face-to-face, local communities?
You can go crazy thinking of questions. I am, a bit. Or you can be fascinated by them. I am, actually, a lot.
It’s appropriate to take time not to ask anything, just to deal with what is in front of you. It’s okay to be overwhelmed by so many questions that you just can’t ask anything.
It’s also important that we move from not-asking, or not-being able to ask, or knowing what to ask first.
The Haggadah says: When you don’t know what question to ask or answer, tell the story, and say: “This is something that Adonai did for me when I went out of Mitzrayim.” We’re going to have stories to tell. Don’t forget to put yourself at the center. How it affects you. How you are acting. Your part of the story matters no matter what. You are the person who deserves to be taken care of while we are in this Mitzrayim, and you are the person who deserves to be brought out from this Mitzrayim.
We are all children now, in the midst of a society of children who are wise and wicked, simple and overwhelmed. We will do our best to understand this story while we are in it, and to teach each child of any age according to the need they have right now. So that as many of us can come out as possible, as we once came out Mitzrayim.
May you all be well, Shabbat Shalom, and even in these times a Zissen (sweet) Pesach.
Again, I'm behind in my post though not my studies...
The second chapter of the Talmud begins with a discussion of the concept of kavvanah, which means "intention." The specific issue is whether one can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Sh'ma by mechanically vocalizing the sounds, or whether kavvanah is required. The Talmud begins by positing: yes.
There is an entertaining part of the discussion, in which an example is suggested: A person is proofreading a Torah scroll at the time when one is supposed to recite the morning Sh'ma, and happens to be proofreading Deuteronomy chapter 6. Does this count? You know you're reading these words, you know it's the Torah -- but you have the purpose of proofreading, not the purpose of affirming the oneness or uniqueness of God.
More to the point, the rabbis discuss the meaning of the word "Sh'ma" itself -- does it mean the physical act of hearing, or the concept of hearing and receiving, i.e. understanding. So there is a debate about whether the essential thing is to say the Sh'ma audibly to one's own ears, or in a language that one understands whether or not it's Hebrew.
What distills from the exploration is that kavvanah could have four possible meanings:
#2 and #3 are usually the debate within traditional Judaism, about how deep kavvanah has to go -- but at least an awareness of the mitzvah/command dimension is needed. In my next post I'll go into #4, which I was surprised to find in the Talmud -- kavvanah possibly detached from the mitzvah act.
I am almost up-to-date in my studies, but a bit behind in posting reflections. The first chapter of Massechet Berachot ends with a discussion of two kinds of things that are linked despite being experienced or named differently. One is the series of persecutions and exiles of the Jews. The other is the names of biblical figures.
The Talmud discusses the issue that new experiences of persecution might drive older ones from Jewish memory or salience -- the exile to Babylonia might replace the slavery in Egypt as the focal point of memory, mourning, or even inspiration. There is a sense in the text that we have to integrate all of them, possibly into the original Exodus consciousness.
The rabbis look for insight into that by noticing that some of the renamed people in the Torah have their names permanently changed, but some like Yaakov/Yisrael seem to keep both names. Even for someone like Avraham, the name Avram is remembered later, which the Talmud says is to remind us of the moments that occasioned the spiritual transformation that made him into Avraham and Sarai into Sarah.
I wonder if this is meant to be the final comment on the Sh'ma itself, the foundation of the whole chapter -- oneness of the divine. Transformations in the world, transformations of us spiritually, historical progress and setback and backsliding, personal progress and backsliding -- these all have to be integrated. When we recite Sh'ma, it's to remind us to bring all of these things together, or to guard against burying some of them or forgetting. Or it's just to remind us of the mystery that someone all of these are one in the mystery of the workings of divine energy in our human universe.
A reflection on myself the Talmud student, after a chapter: When I began, I would have said and still say that I'm not really a Talmud person. For years I hardly cracked a volume, and only recently have I found myself doing so more often. I'd have assumed that I had learned maybe 1 percent of the Talmud ever. Now I realize that before I started this, I probably already had, I don't know, 3 percent, which isn't a lot but almost 1/30th!
And I also realized that even though I hadn't studied this chapter in sequence as a single chapter, a lot of it was familiar. It was thrilling to see things in their original composition and order, and to share knowing virtual glances with other people doing the same. I actually didn't have to rely nearly as much as I thought on translations, and the basic argumentation structure was fairly familiar to me. I know when we get into other technical areas beyond theology and prayer I'll need the study aids much more.
My goal right now is just to know what's where. I'm not a great memorizer -- but so far, I could probably without much effort rattle off a lot about what's in the first chapter of Berachot. We'll see if it sticks. But if it does, it's because of the genius of the rabbis and editors, and the community who are subtly learning in sync.
Go to my post from a couple years ago, with links to the text and to a later reading of the letter from King himself. Simply the most important teaching about what it means to be religious that I think I have ever read: