Friday, June 29, 2012

Parshat Chukat, 5772/2012 thoughts

Basics here.

Limited time.  Trying to sneak in a quick post.

Previous, re weird "red cow" business, Aharon/Aaron's punishment, Yiftach/Jepthah's daughter:
Current thoughts, on one foot:

  • G-d's an apikoris/kofer (heretic).  :)  Why on earth would He tell anyone to build an idol, which is, essentially, what that brass snake was?  (Numbers 21: 5-9)  At worst, it was an idol; at best, it was a segulah (for which superstition-based practice I have no fondness, as I posted previously).
  • B'nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) are apikorsim/kofrim.  Why on earth did they sing to a well? (Numbers 21:17).
Posting quickly, while I can.  If I think of anything later, I'll add it later.
  • Added later:   All of a sudden B'nei Yisrael are entering the Land.  What the heck happened to the forty years of wandering in the wilderness?  Did someone (or The One) cut a few chapters?  (My husband says that the encampments described in this parsha/weekly reading all lasted for significant periods of time.  And nothing happened during the wandering that was worth mentioning, other than the changing encampments?  Now we know what killed the sinners:  forty years of boredom.)
Here's Woodrow's D'var Torah on Chukat.

Monday, July 2, 2012 update:

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his Covenant and Conversation for Chukat, posits that Moshe/Moses lost his temper and struck the rock (instead of speaking to it, as HaShem had ordered) because he was upset over the death of his and Aharon's sister Miriam.  Makes sense to me.

What doesn't make sense to me is that no one other than Moshe and Aharon seems to have noticed Miriam's death.  What, no 30 days of mourning?  I suspect that it was this apparent lack of mourning for Miriam that caused the rabbis to credit Miriam with having provided water for the people through her merit--a well was said to have followed her, and to have disappeared after her death, resulting in the people's complaint that they had no water.  Thus, the rabbis killed two birds with one stone, er, one midrash (rabbinic interpretive story), justifying the people's complaint about the lack of water by passing off their complaint as a sign of respect for Miriam after her passing. 

    Thursday, June 28, 2012

    Two complaints and a cautionary tale

    "Excuse me, your slip is showing"

    The above used to be a common phrase when I was growing up.  Nowadays, it might be considered ridiculous.  Does anyone care?

    I've already complained about the "boobs on the half-shell" look that's so popular among women these days, even at the office.  (See here.)

    But now, the men are getting in on the act.  The latest look, among some young men in New York City, is the extreme-low-rider look (or whatever it's called), in which a young man in casual clothing wears pants so loose in the waist that they hang down and expose part of his underwear.  This is getting worse, lately--yesterday, I saw a guy with his pants so low that almost the entire back of his fancy boxer shorts was visible.  (Maybe I should call this the "buns on the half-shell" look.)  Nu, if you're going to wear your pants that way, why bother with pants at all?  Why not just leave the house in your boxer shorts?  Or are you too young to have seen the old "I dreamed I [did whatever the advertisement writer could think of] in my Maidenform bra" ads?

    Who's party is this, anyway?

    The synagogue's annual barbecue was supposed to have been for members and their families only.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I walked into the room and discovered that roughly half the people present, davka especially at the tables marked "reserved," were people whom I didn't recognize at all, despite the fact that we go to this shul every Sabbath and Jewish holiday.  The president and his wife had, apparently, decided that the shul's annual barbecue was just an excuse for them to throw their own private party.  My best guess is that they deliberately told us congregants, in the synagogue announcements, that the bash was a members-only affair in order to leave enough room for them to invite however many people they wanted.  On the plus side, at least they paid for all their guests.

    Sore eyes for sight :(

    Normally, this much-older, always-meticulously-dressed woman would have been a sight for sore eyes when she walked over to say hello to me.  But I could hardly miss the fact that her gorgeous suit was stained in several places.  I'd never given much thought to the impact of dimishing vision on one's ability to tell when one's clothing needs cleaning.

    Monday, June 25, 2012

    New Yorkers touring New York

    If my so-called memory serves me correctly, I've now lived in New York City, in various boroughs, for roughly 39 years, give or take a few months, yet there are still places in NYC that I've never seen.  I've been trying to remedy that.  In May 2011, my husband and I went to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.  Here's a sample from their greenhouse, er, Conservatory:

    Yesterday, we decided to try a much-newer part of the city, the new park along the East River in the Long Island City section of the borough of Queens.   It turns out that not only is this a state park, Gantry Plaza State Park, but, as delightful as it is now, it's undergoing expansion at both ends and will be even nicer when the construction is completed.  Already, though, there's quite a view, or perhaps I should say views.  Not only did we get fabulous views of the Manhattan skyline in front of us and the new neighborhood of upscale apartment buildings behind us, but we also got close-ups of some gantries,

    some plain trees :),

    and this hard-to-miss Pepsi sign (click on the photo to get a better sense of scale),

    a reminder that Long Island City has always been a mixed-use area, with homes, businesses, and light-industrial sites frequently located on the same streets.

    I just like this shot:

    Below is a photo of the 59th Street/Queensborough Bridge, which was recently renamed the Ed Koch Bridge after a former mayor.  It's one of the bridges that connects Manhattan to Queens.  If you'll please put on your magnifying glasses (or click twice on the photo below) and look past the pier on which I'm standing, the pier in front of the bridge, and the bridge, you'll see what appear to be old low-rise structures undergoing gut renovation (definition, though I'm not sure that the hurricane information applies in NYC) in Manhattan on the waterfront.  If anyone knows anything about these buildings, please let me know.  I'm curious.

    Future candidates under consideration for our intra-city visits:

    Recommended for architecture buffs:  High Line Park, another new-to-us place, which we visited this past Mother's Day.  (Feel free to click once or twice on any of the photos above or below, especially the next one, for a closer look.)  What a treat!  But oy, my feet!

    The views from roughly third-floor height can be neat,

    And the angles are something one certainly doesn't see from the street.

    Being tourists in our own town is hard to beat!

    Sunday, June 24, 2012

    Parshat Korach, 5772/2012 second thoughts

    Basics here.  Original link-fest here.

    Might as well start with this fine old post by DovBear.  He's changed "comment providers" so often that, apparently, he's lost all his old comments :(, but he did an excellent job of illustrating what a mess the story of Korach's rebellion is.

    Long story short:  If Korach was at the entrance to the Ohel Moed/Tent of Meeting with his censer, as ordered, how could he have been swallowed up when the earth opened up near his tent?

    My conclusion:  With due respect to my more traditional readers, I'm calling "scribal error" on this one.  Korach died with the other censer-carrying rebels at the entrance to the Ohel Moed; Datan and Aviram were swallowed up by the earth.

    The obvious parallel is that the people want to replace Shmuel/Samuel with a king, and, like Moshe/Moses, Shmuel protests that he's never taken anything wrongfully from anyone else.   A less obvious parallel is the extreme manner in which Shmuel has the people punished--Moshe asks HaShem to open up the ground and swallow the rebels; Shmuel asks HaShem to send a thunderstorm that threatens to destroy the wheat-harvest (see 1 Samuel, chapter 12, verse 17-18).  Those were rather nasty responses from two servants of HaShem, if you ask me.

    Friday, June 22, 2012

    Some interesting posts

    Jewish division:  Why Our Sons Should Learn to Bake Challah.  Personally, I can barely boil water, much less bake anything, but our son lit Shabbat candles every Friday evening and Yom Tov candles every Yom Tov eve.  I've always believed that egalitarianism works in both directions.

    Secular division:  What E-Publishing Means to a Country Boy  (Hat-tip:  Meryl Yourish)  I grew up in, and have always lived in, a home filled with books, and in places where books were readily available.  It never occurred to me how lucky I am.

    Parshat Korach, 5772/2012 thoughts

    Not much time, so just let me link, since I can't think of anything new at the moment:
    Conservadox learns this lesson from Parshat Korah--Don't get smote.  :)

    Tuesday, June 19, 2012

    Pop quiz :)

    How many b'rachot/blessings are there in the Birkot HaShachar/Morning Blessings, and/or how are they divided, if at all?

    I'm working from memory here, so please bear with me.  Feel free to correct me in the comments, if corrections are needed.  I'm also working from the oldest to the newest of the following siddurim/prayer books, to the best of my recollection.

    All references are to Nusach Ashkenaz 'cause, hey, I'm Ashkenazit, and that's what I know.  :) 

    • The Birnbaum Siddur starts a new paragraph at "Yehi Ratzon/May it be Your will . . . "
    • The ArtScroll Siddur notes say that a new paragraph should start before there, at the b'rachah "hamaavir sheinah mei-einai/Who makes sleep pass from my eyes . . .," and proceeds to start one right at that point.
    • The Koren Sacks Siddur doesn't indicate a clear paragraph break, and seems to treat all of the b'rachot as one big long b'rachah (or b'rachot series), stating that one should stand for the entire "list," a practice that I've never seen (but perhaps that's British minhag/custom).
    So who's right?

    In typical Jewish fashion, maybe they all are.  :)

    The ArtScroll version "frames" the final b'rachah, "gomeil chassadim tovim/Who bestows good kindnesses" with an "opening" b'rachah "hamaavir sheinah mei-einai/Who makes sleep pass from my eyes . . .," "

    The Koren Sacks ignores the fact that there's a "Yehi Ratzon/May it be Your will" smack dab in the middle of the series.  B'rachot are so inconsistent in their structure that there's probably another one like that somewhere else in the siddur that I can't think of, at the moment.  :)

    Personally, I rather like the Birnbaum's paragraph break.  All of the b'rachot preceding "Yehi Ratzon/May it be Your will . . . " are either in the first-person singular ("sheh-lo asani/who did not make me . . . " or sheh-asani/who made me . . .," depending on your haskafah/religious perspective) and/or talk about HaShem in the third person ("Who gives sight to the blind"), ending with "hamaavir sheinah mei-einai/who makes slumber pass from my eyes."  Starting with "Yehi ratzon/May it be Your will," however, the rest of the series is entirely in the plural, except for the closing b'rachah, which, just for inconsistency's sake :), goes back to praising HaShem in the third person ("gomeil chassadim tovim l'amo Yisrael/Who bestows good kindnesses on His people Israel.")

    On the other hand, one could also argue that Koren Sacks has it right--a third-person b'rachah "asher natan/Who gave" at the very beginning is topped off at the end by another third-person b'rachah "ha-gomeil/Who bestows."

    Have fun with this question.  Don't worry--I'm not grading.  :)

    Wednesday, June 20, 2012 update:

    I took another good look at the Birkot HaShachar this morning while davvening/praying, and it occurred to me that I'd missed something that should have been obvious--the b'rachah beginning with "Yehi ratzon/may it be Your will . . . " is not only all one b'rachah, it's also not the same kind of b'rachah as the previous ones.  To quote Entering Jewish Prayer, by Reuven Hammer, "Blessings are words of praise for what God has done. Prayers are requests for God to help us. Sanctifications are those that hallow the name of God—kiddush ha-sham. Havdalot would be those in which a distinction is drawn between categories such as light and darkness, day and night, the holy and the profane."  All the earlier b'rachot are "blessings," but Yehi ratzon is a "prayer."  (Some might call this type of b'rachah a "petition.").  I'm delighted that I've learned something new.

    Related posts of mine:


    Through rose-colored glasses

    Here's the story of Rachav as told in last week's haftarah.

    Summary:  Rachav was a prostitute who chose to help her city's enemies in order to save herself and her entire family.

    Here's the story of Rachav as told in midrash (rabbinic legend).

    Summary:  Rachav was a prostitute who was so impressed by what HaShem had done for the Israelites that she converted to Judaism, married Yehushua Bin Nun (Joshua), and become the ancestor of numerous prophets and Kohanim/Priests.  [For the record, no, I don't believe any of this, but I give our ancient sages credit for having good imaginations and good intentions.]

    Judaism tradition seems to alternate between showing our heroes with all their faults and turning our heroes into saints.

    Thursday, June 14, 2012

    Shelo asani ishah/who did not make me a woman

    I don't remember how I managed to mention, at our recent Tikkun Lel Shavuot, the controversial b'rachah/blessing, found in Orthodox siddurim/prayer books, "Praised is [the One who] did not make me a woman."  But I do know that the traditional explanation that I was given by a fellow congregant--that men thank HaShem for the privilege of being obligated to perform more mitzvot than women--got on my nerves.  And since I'm still annoyed, I might as well blog about it.

    Rabbi Eliyahu Fink has taken care of the traditional explanation quite nicely here:

    "Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks offers this explanation:

    …they are acknowledgments of the special responsibilities of Jewish life. Heathens, slaves and women are exempt from certain commandments that apply to Jewish men. In these blessings, we express our faith that the commandments are not a burden but a cherished vocation

    In other words, the blessing is an affirmation that extra commandments are a privilege. Well, why doesn’t everyone have this privilege?

    It is easy to see why the blessing is an affront to many women. It implies inferiority at worst or less opportunity at best. It could be argued that just because Judaism has some specific roles for men and women does not mean it deserves a blessing to that effect. I completely understand why some find it offensive."

    [Lest I misrepresent this Orthodox rabbi, I should mention that he also adds:

    "Rabbi Kanefsky’s feelings about the blessing are justified. His actions are what are subject to scrutiny. His feelings are not."]

    Let's try this from a different angle.

    Would anyone expect a black person to be any less offended when a non-black person uses "the n word" simply because the non-black person explained that that word was derived from foreign words meaning "black?"

    Bottom line:  If it looks like a duck and it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck, darn it, and I'm fed up to here with men telling women that we're not supposed to be insulted when they thank HaShem for not having made them female.  Who is anyone to tell anyone else what to consider an insult?  No one needs permission to feel offended.

    Gentlemen, it's not your place to tell women not to be offended by this b'rachah anymore than it would be my place, as a white person, to tell a black person not to be offended by the n word.  It's up to each individual Jewish woman to decide for herself whether this b'rachah is an insult or not.

    Friday, June 22, 2012 update:  See Susan Esther Barnes's post regarding this b'rachah.

    Tuesday, June 12, 2012

    Just another day (sigh)

    My mother died on June 12, 2009, on our 32nd anniversary.  It took me three years to figure this out, but it finally dawned on me that the only way to avoid having our anniversary celebration coincide with my mother's yahrzeit would be to begin celebrating our anniversary on the Jewish-calendar date, rather than on June 12, which is the date on which we've always celebrated it in the past.  So we'll celebrate our 35th anniversary, and all future anniversaries, on 26 Sivan, and leave 20 Sivan as a day to remember my mother.  It seems so strange, after (almost) 35 years, to have June 12 be just an ordinary day.  But that's what happens when one must squeeze in an anniversary celebration among three yahrzeits.

    Monday, June 11, 2012

    A longer-haired-lady's lament

    My hair is only about two inches longer than it was a year and a half ago, yet my shel rosh (head tefillin) now slides all over the place.  It didn't slide when I had shorter hair.  Sigh.  Now I understand why some Chassidic men cut the hair on the top of their heads extremely short.

    Wednesday, June 06, 2012

    Heirs of the Tribe of Levi, in a manner of speaking?

    In my previous post, I speculated that perhaps the point of a priestly and "priests'-assistants" class (in Jewish tradition, Kohanim and Leviim, all members of the Tribe of Levi,) was to remove a certain number of men from the jobs pool and give them dignified but non-productive work so as to enable others to make a living.  This approach may have worked quite well in the days when society consisted largely of farmers and shepherds fighting (among themselves and/or with one another) over limited land.  It certainly doesn't work now, when relatively few people "live off the land" and most individuals must support themselves by other means, as unskilled laborers, skilled tradespeople, "service" workers (such as restaurant employees), office workers, businesspeople, technicians, professionals, etc.

    But the idea that some people should be set aside for holy purposes has persisted to this day.  In both Western and Eastern religions, some men and women become priests, monks, or nuns.  In the Jewish community, some men (and, among the non-Orthodox, some women, as well), become rabbis and/or cantors.

    In addition, among the Orthodox (and to some extent among the non-Orthodox), men (and, more recently, women as well, I'm happy to say) study long-term in institutions of higher Jewish education known variously as Yeshivot G'vahot/Yeshivot G'dolot/Advanced Yeshivot for men (please correct my transliteration if my grammar is incorrect), Midrashot for women (such as Drisha, Midreshet Lindenbaum, and Nishmat), and Kollelim.  Non-Orthodox Yeshivot G'dolot/Midrashot offering long-term study programs include, for example, Yeshivat Hadar and Pardes.

    Rabbis, cantors, and those teaching in community kollelim have roles similar in some ways to the role of the Tribe of Levi in the wilderness and Temple times.  Serving community institutions is their long-term career, and they receive salaries from community institutions in return.

    Those who study in kollel for life in non-community kollelim have a role that resembles that of the Tribe of Levi in ancient days, in that their studies are life-long, but, if I understand correctly, their role is different in that they provide little or no tangible service to the community, functioning more as perpetual students than as community scholars or leaders.  Unfortunately, the economy as it currently (mal)functions simply cannot support massive numbers of people who spend their entire adult lives learning rather than earning.  The days of the Kohanim and Leviim living off of tithes are gone, and even they, as Temple functionaries, worked for a living.

    Monday, June 04, 2012

    Parshat Naso, 5772/2012 second thoughts

    While I was following the Torah reading at shul (synagogue) this past Shabbat (Sabbath), it occurred to me that I might have missed a few things, even in this line-up.

    Nazir (Numbers, chapter 6, verses 1-21)

    I believe that "nazir-ship" (n'zirut?) may be Judaism's first recorded chumrah (extra stringency not required by halachah/Jewish religious law).  This may account for the fact that a man or woman who takes a nazir vow must bring a chatat (sin offering) at the end of his/her term.  The Torah, while allowing an opportunity for people who insist on acting "holier than thou,"  is, apparently, ambivalent, at best, about such behavior, especially when it affects a person's own family, and I can see at least one good halachic reason why--it's chutzpah (nerve) to put oneself deliberately and unneccessarily in a position to be forbidden to bury one's own dead.

    Birkat Kohanim/the Priestly Blessing (Numbers, chapter 6, verses 24-26)

    To the best of my knowledge, this may very well be the only prayer that survives in current Jewish liturgy that predates the first Bet HaMikdash/Holy Temple.  Wow, that's old!

    The Census of the Tribe of Lev, part 2 :) (See Leviticus, chapter 4, verse 1-49)

    • My guess is that only Leviim from 30 to 50 served on the "Ohel Moed transport squad" (see verses 3, 23, and 30) because the younger and older men were needed to help the women and children transport the Tribe of Levi's personal possessions.  Tents, tent poles, and pots are heavy, man.  :)
    • Regarding my complaint about the absurdity (in my opinion) of 8,580 (see verse 48) men being needed to carry the disassembled Mishkan from one encampment to another, one wiseguy at our Torah discussion at Seudah Shlishit opined that this was a "jobs program," while another chimed in that "that's what politicians do."  :)  They may have been joking, but they may have had a point--in the days when only the oldest son got a full inheritance, maybe some way was needed to remove a certain number of men from the market by giving them non-productive but dignified work so that others could make a living the old-fashioned way--by earning it (to paraphrase an old advertisement).

    Wednesday, June 6, 2012 update:  See my follow-up post.
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