Monday, November 15, 2004

Toldot: Yaakov the ganiff (Jacob the thief)

“ . . .lifné ivér lo titén michshol . . .” do not put a stumbling block in front of a blind person . . . “ (Vayikra Kedoshim, Leviticus chapter 19, verse 14) The rabbis put an interesting spin on this. In their interpretation, a blind person was someone who was ignorant or easily tempted. A stumbling block, therefore, would be anything that might cause the ignorant or the weak-willed to sin.

Surely Yaakov/Jacob must have known that his brother, Eisav/Esau, tended to think of his physical needs first and his spiritual life later. Yet he placed a michshol—in the form of a bowl of thick soup—in front of him when he was famished, deliberately tempting him to sell his birthright. Not, mind you, that Eisav comes out smelling like a rose in this transaction either, but still . . .

Then, of course, there’s that little incident in which Rivka/Rebecca and Yaakov conspired to get Yitzchak/Isaac to give Yaakov the blessing that should have been given to Eisav as the firstborn. My rabbi the displaced “Black Hat” (right-wing Orthodox Jew) hit me with various midrashim/traditional interpretative stories justifying the theft, stories ranging from the notion that Eisav was a heretic who showed no respect for his grandfather up to and including the rather outrageous charge that Eisav was a rapist. (!)

Personally, I think Eisav got a raw deal and still gets a bum rap. Okay, so maybe he wasn’t a paragon of virtue—he did sell his birthright for a bowl of soup, after all—but he was a good-hearted son who was just trying to please his dad. He even went out of his way to marry a wife who would please his parents, once he realized just how upset they were about his choice of wives. Yes, he threatened to kill his brother after their father died, but even with an army backing him up, he didn't do so when he had the opportunity. What’s so bad about this guy?

Thursday, November 11, 2004

One for the traditionalists, one for the egalitarians—another glorious Ritual Committee meeting

Many moons ago, I promised an update on the great Include-Dad-in-the-MiSheBérach Debate. (See my September 8, post, and my September 12 post, ). Well, here it is, and the news ain’t pretty. No sooner did the words come out of the rabbi’s mouth that adding the name of the father of the sick person to the name of the sick person’s mother was forbidden by halachah/Jewish religious law than my motion was defeated, 4 against, 2 in favor, 2 abstentions. Nobody wants to go against the rabbi. Even though he’s an Orthodox rabbi in a Conservative synagogue, and, therefore, his interpretations are stricter than those of any of his predecessors. Even though, for all his protests against me mentioning the fathers’ names after the mothers’ names, it took him six months as our rabbi before he even noticed that I was doing so. Even though the previous rabbi, a graduate not only of the Jewish Theological Seminary but also of the Orthodox Maimonides School in Boston (founded by none other than Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik—you may have heard of him) never objected once in five years. Irrelevant. What the rabbi says, goes. My Orthodox readers, and some of my Conservative readers, as well, will protest that that’s exactly as it should be, that a congregation’s rabbi is the mara d’atra for his synagogue, the person whose interpretation of halachah rules. All I can say is that if I’d wanted to follow an Orthodox interpretation of halachah, I would have joined an Orthodox synagogue. It’s bad enough when half the congregants, including many of the women, one of whom is my age, oppose my way of thinking, but when the rabbi’s against it, too, it’s just too discouraging.

On the plus side, the Ritual Committee had a very interesting discussion concerning the qualifications for being a gabbai/Torah-reader’s assistant. Much to my shock, the rabbi insisted that there were absolutely no halachic requirements—he said that the gabbaim were there only as escorts for the sefer Torah/Torah scroll. I finally had to turn to the chazzan/cantor for support, since he, being our baal koreh/designated Torah reader, was the person for whom the question was most relevant. Would he prefer to have a gabbai who was merely decorative, or one who could read Hebrew well enough to correct him when he made an error? Well, duh. Naturally, the committee decided that, on weekdays, when we run out of men who can read Hebrew well enough to follow the Torah reading, a woman who is capable of following the reading in Hebrew may be a gabbai. (Thus far, it hasn’t been an issue on Shabbat or Yamim Tovim/holidays.) So maybe next time the only second gabbai available on a Thursday morning is a guy whose Hebrew is so poor that he can’t even read the brachot in transliteration without making a fool of himself, at least the cantor won’t feel obliged to pick him instead of me. Did I mention that I’ve known how to leyn/layn/chant from the Torah scroll for almost 30 years?

Sigh. Now you now why I’d never make it as an Orthodox Jew.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Chayei Sarah

“The Life of Sarah” is an ironic name for a parsha/sedra (weekly Torah-reading portion) that begins with her death. So what was her life like? Well, she was married to her half-brother, Avraham, who twice asked her to lie about their marital status out of fear for his life. She was a barren woman who lived to regret giving her servant to her husband as the first surrogate mother on record (to the best of my knowledge). She was chastised by G-d for laughing when He told her husband that they’d have a child in her old age, though her husband had also laughed at a previous such prediction and gotten away with it (see Parshat Lech Lecha/ Genesis, chapter 8, verse 17). Later, when she’d had enough of Hagar’s son Yishmael/Ishmael’s mockery of her own son Yitzchak/Isaac, she had them expelled from their home. But Hagar got the last laugh—midrash (rabbinic legend/interpretation) tells us that Sarah died of a broken heart when she found out that Avraham had taken Yitzchak, her only child, to be sacrificed.

. . . and my brachah for an election that didn't go my way?

Same—Baruch . . . shehecheyanu (Praised is the One who has kept us alive, [and sustained us, and brought us to this season]). Why do I say a "shehecheyanu?" Because whatever else one can say about this election, it was an election—nobody died, nobody got shot, there was no rioting in the streets. This was a peaceable selection of government officials. Considering the alternative, as I was saying, it could have been worse.

To see a brachah/blessing and some interesting prayers before voting—and to read some (mostly) thoughtful responses to this past one—go to

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

What’s the brachah for voting?

Surely there must be an appropriate brachah/blessing for voting. After all, we’re fortunate enough to be living in a time and place in which we can do so--not everyone is lucky enough to be able to participate in the choice of their government. I couldn’t come up with anything else, so I said a shehecheyanu (Praised are you, HaShem our G-d, who has kept us in life, and sustained us, and brought us to these season).
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