P is for Passover, and also Panic

There are a lot of aspects of Passover that people panic about.  It’s worse than Christmas.  Much worse.

First there are the elaborate preparations.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There might be people who are not familiar with the Jewish holiday that draws relatives, and any Jewish (or non-Jewish, for that matter) friends, visitors in town, complete strangers….to one’s home and table, to participate in an elaborate ritual celebration of FREEDOM.

The ritual is prescribed by the Hebrew Bible, which commands us to gather at the full moon of the Month of Spring (Aviv), which is the Hebrew month of Nissan, which itself is a variant of the word “nissim,” which means “miracles.”

At this gathering, we are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when, after ten dreadful plagues, Pharaoh begged Moses to get the Hebrews (whom Pharaoh had enslaved) the hell out of Egypt so they could have some respite from all the different kinds of badness that God was visiting upon the Egyptians.

The Hebrews jumped on this opportunity.  They had just mixed up a batch of bread for themselves, and since they were in such a hurry to leave Egypt before Pharaoh changed his mind, they just stuffed the unleavened dough into sacks, threw it across their backs, made sure it didn’t get wet crossing the Sea of Reeds (even though it split for them, you know how water tends to get into things), and we hear no more about that until we are commanded to sit and eat this stuff for eight days every year.

Since the words “mitzvah (commandment)” and “matzah” are spelled very similarly in Hebrew, Kabbalah teaches that eating matzah is the Number One mitzvah.

Actually, it’s the Number Two mitzvah, number one being “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus learned that in Hebrew School.

Anyway.

What does matzah teach us, to gain such high status in Mitzvah World?

Simple.

That’s it.  Be simple.

What could be more simple than flour and water?

Of course, Jews have a way of making even flour and water complicated, but that’s for another post.

Let me just say that in Orthodox Jewish circles, the object is to cram as much of the Sacred Crunchy Cracker down one’s gullet as possible.

Now, I love matzah.  I mean, I really LOVE matzah.  I could eat nothing but matzah for the rest of my life.

Matzah with butter thinly spread on it, which is a feat in itself because it breaks very easily.

Matzah with horseradish and a sweet kind of relish made of grated apples, walnuts, and wine.  Heaven.

Matzah with pickled herring.  Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.

Yep, I can eat a whole box of matzah without even trying.  Munch, crunch!

In Israel, matzah is even yummier because it’s made by hand, very thin, and it’s round, and you can get it made from spelt, which is delicious.

No, there is no blood in matzah.  None.  That would spoil the whole thing.  Matzah that has any additive beside flour and water is disqualified.  So let’s get THAT blood libel off the table.  Literally.

Now, sometime between my becoming Jewishly observant and my second or third year in Israel, I became gluten intolerant.  I didn’t know what it was, at first.  All I knew was that on the Sabbath, we are commanded to eat at least three meals containing bread made from any of the five grains that grow naturally in the Land of Israel: wheat, spelt, rye, oats, and barley.  In my circle, spelt was the most common, and all women were to be found on Thursday night or Friday morning lovingly kneading their Sabbath bread.

Me too.  I often hosted 20 or more people on Friday nights, so lots of bread came out of my toaster oven.  No one has money for a “real” oven in Israel.  It’s amazing what a toaster oven and a hot plate can put out in a pinch….or every week!

Anyway.  I’m procrastinating.  P is for procrastination.

So I began to notice that every Sunday, which comes after our Sabbath, I was spending in the bathroom.  Since our Sunday, at least in Israel where there really isn’t such a thing as a weekend if you’re a religious woman..anyway, since Sunday is a weekday, and you go to work, I started having to cancel patients because I couldn’t get off the toilet.  Usually by Tuesday I’d be fine, but that really screwed everything up for both me and my patients.

But since eating bread on the Sabbath is the main thing, I ate it.  And if you eat a piece of bread the size of an olive (or an egg, depending on things too complicated to go into here), you become obligated to say a blessing that takes a minimum of fifteen minutes, possibly up to an hour if you make a meditation out of it (then you get extra Heaven points, for being extra holy).  It’s an obligation, and a privilege, to be done with concentration and love.

When Passover came around that year, I ordered my huge box of extra-holy matzah, and munched away for the first few days of the eight day holiday….then my munching came to an abrupt halt.  I was forced to realize the disastrous connection between the bread, leavened or unleavened, and the bathroom.

How could this be???  God commanded us to eat this stuff.  And commanded us to bless him for all the good things he does for us, and bread is the proof!

“Ve’ahalta ve’savata u’veirachta et Ha’Shem Elokeicha…”

“And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless the Name of Your God…”  The Blessing After Meals says this…so why couldn’t I say it?

And this is the core, the heart, of Jewish ritual observance…because Judaism isn’t something you THINK, it’s something you DO.  Our observance is centered around what the Children of Israel said at Mount Sinai when we received the Torah: “We will DO, and we will HEAR.”  This means that even if we do not understand on an intellectual level what the commandments are about, we do them anyway.

So for me, the paradox of being commanded to eat bread, but the bread making me sick, was incomprehensible.  Why would God command me to do something that made me sick?  Nonsense.  So I kept eating the bread, and got progressively sicker, lost thirty pounds, became anemic, ended up in the hospital bleeding from my ravaged guts and crying out unto the Lord who led us out from Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm….”  And when I got out of the hospital I realized that my God had either failed me or cursed me or both.

But there was one grain that didn’t contain gluten: oats!

Listen, bread made out of pure oats with nothing added is disgusting.  I did manage to develop a recipe for oat pita for the Sabbath that was edible when washed down with copious amounts of dry red wine.  Fortunately, Israel has a rich and ancient tradition of wine making, and therefore some rich and ancient vineyards that produce gorgeous vintages.  (A friend and I used to make pilgrimages to ancient wine presses, 3000 years ancient!  We always brought a bottle from that region to enjoy…and he brought bread, so he could make the after-blessing…)

Then I learned to make oat matzah, which is super easy, and my Passover blues were gone.

A lot has happened in the meantime, and we’re going to skip over it and fast forward to this year, and this night, which is the third night of Passover, in the year 5776 from Creation.

I wanted to celebrate Passover, so I looked around for a community Seder (the word “Seder” literally means “order,” and connotes the order of the fifteen steps of the Passover ritual celebration, and not just the meal that most people associate with the word).  There was one, so I signed up for it, and got my plans together for making my oat matzah on the grill.  No problem!

But then God got in the way again, by causing someone to steal my camp furniture, and me to ask the management what might have become of it, and them to put me out on the street, quite literally, on the night before the day I had planned to make my matzah, which was the day of the night of the Seder.  I guess I could have made it in the parking lot of the truck stop where I slept that night, but to be honest I was so rattled I didn’t think of it….

That is, until I walked into the huge hall filled with Jews from all over the world who had gathered in tiny Flagstaff, drawn from places like Sedona and Las Vegas, to eat matzah, drink wine, and do the annual spiritual pilgrimage to Egypt and back to Freedom of the Mind and Soul.

I was decked out in a muted version of my Passover finery, minus the outrageous headgear, shoes, scarves, jewelry…since I have lead my family’s Seder for the past ten years, my rule is “I’m running this show, so I get to wear what I want.”

It probably wouldn’t have helped.

The “ikar,” the MAIN THING, the WHOLE POINT, of the Seder, is to eat the matzah and drink four cups of wine.  If you do nothing else, eat the matzah and drink the wine.  And I had no matzah.

And suddenly, with that realization, I became aware of the noise…the smell…the presence….of all these people, all these Jewish people who were all going on a spiritual journey through the medium of BREAD AND WINE, and I was there, but I was not going…the train was leaving without me.

“DAH LEHEM OHNI…this is the Bread of Affliction that my Foremothers brought out from Egypt…” the leader intones while holding up a piece of matzah.

Ohni…an Aramaic word meaning “of affliction…”  but in Hebrew, it translates, “MY affliction.”

MY affliction.  The bread of MY affliction.

Suddenly I knew that if I didn’t get out of there, and NOW, I was going to throw up in my fancy fake silver plastic plate.  I took advantage of it being a point in the ritual where everyone is lined up to wash their hands from special lavers, and I snaked my way through the crowd and out the door to my van, which the rabbi had graciously given me permission to park in the Jewish Community Center parking lot for the weekend.

I am sorry to say that I wasn’t able to make myself go to the rabbi’s home for dinner the following night, either.  I felt terrible, because being invited to the rabbi’s home is a huge honor.  But the thought of dealing with people–ANY people–terrified me.  And especially–ESPECIALLY–the black-and-white Orthodox mode of dress, the segregation of the sexes, the hordes of properly dressed children charging around in a frenzied pack (Orthodox children are rarely disciplined, yet somehow morph into polite and kind young people at the age of 12 for girls, 13 for boys.  This is a mystery).

And, of course, I would have to answer thousands of questions.  No, no, and no.  I just couldn’t face it.

So I stayed one more night in the JCC parking lot, grateful for the stand of young trees in the landscaping, since the incoming cold front brought with it a roaring wind.

Now I’m back on the Coconino Plateau, feeling uncomfortably unwashed, since I didn’t have a chance to fill my fresh water tank before being ejected from the KOA.  I’ll be here another night, since there’s a high wind advisory for tomorrow too.  When that’s over, I hope to go Somewhere Else…hopefully to Canyon de Chelly, where I can talk to the Ancient Ones who built the cliff dwellings there….maybe they can tell me why my journey to my roots has brought me so much Bread of Affliction.

Jets Are Circling: War Trauma

Here I sit in my safe little corner of America.

But jets are circling overhead.

Why?

If I were back in Israel it would mean only one thing:  war.

Israel is a very tiny country, surrounded by hostile nations on all sides.

Our greatest love, as the Jewish People, is our Holy City, Jerusalem. 

Three times a day, in our regular prayers, and after eating bread, we pray:

“U’vanay Yerushalayim, ir ha’kodesh, bi’m-hayrah u’vyameynu, ahmein.”

And (please, God,) rebuild Jerusalem (and the Holy Temple that is the definition of Jerusalem,) the Holy City, quickly and in our days, amen.”

In times of threat, the Israel Air Force jets circle Jerusalem endlessly, protecting her from harm.  Jews, Christians, Muslims, all protected by the IAF.

No other air traffic flies over Jerusalem airspace.  If it does, it gets promptly escorted out by IAF jets.  Sometimes it’s an innocent mistake, but even a private plane owner (of whom there are very few) will find himself in big trouble for inadvertently flying over the Holy City.

The jets have left now but I’m still shaking.

I think of those unfortunate people who live in countries where jets overhead mean bombs and death.

During the 2009 war with Gaza, which is such a complicated situation that I can’t begin explaining it here, my windows were in just the right position to hear the mortars and missiles coming out of Gaza, and the bombs dropped on the tunnels and munitions dumps roaring, columns of smoke belching into the air as the cached explosives went up.

And I knew, each time, that innocent lives were being torn apart, killed, burned, limbs lost….And the jets circling, always circling, and the mortars going “whump…whump…”

One day I was sitting learning Torah in my yeshiva (house of Jewish learning, study hall), when the air raid siren went off.  We students did what we were trained to do: head for the nearest miklat, bomb shelter.

But when we got to the door of our yeshiva, we ran into a group of IDF soldiers.

“Where are you going?” They asked us.

“To the miklat!  What are you doing here?”

“We came to sit and learn.  That’s the best bomb shelter!”

So we all sat down to learn together.

But still, when the jets circle over overhead, my heart pounds, my mouth gets dry…

A Coupla Bummers and A Miracle

Well, it was Thanksgiving in America, again.

A friend of mine calls it Shabbos Hodu.  (“Shabbos” is the Eastern European version of the Hebrew word “Shabbat,” or Sabbath).  “Hodu” is the Hebrew word for both “turkey (the bird)” and the imperative form of one of the many words for “to thank.”  Thus, “Shabbos Hodu!”

In Orthodox Judaism there is no “Thanksgiving Day,” because we formally give thanks to God at least six times a day, and sometimes more often.

The three daily prayers, which take up to an hour each, contain 19 paragraphs of blessing.  Each of these blessings opens and closes with a verse of thanks.  There is a separate blessing expressing thanks in general, and when there is a quorum of ten people, a special very beautiful paragraph is sung that describes the praises of the Angels.  There is a verse in every prayer beseeching the Creator to rebuild Jerusalem, our Holy City.

The other three “Thank you’s” are contained in the Blessing After Meals, said after any meal containing more than a certain amount of bread (the exact amount is part of Jewish Law), and a shorter version that is said after eating any non-bread product containing one of the five varieties of grain that grow in the Land of Israel: wheat, spelt, rye, oats, barley.  The long version takes me 45 minutes to say, because I say each word with concentration on its meaning.  I learned this from my teachers.

In these prayers also, the rebuilding of Jerusalem figures large.  Both sets of prayers were codified while the Hebrews were in exile in Babylon, after the Babylonian conquest had razed Jerusalem.

However, I no longer live in a Jewish community, let alone Israel; and to tell you the truth, I’m not really practicing Orthodox Judaism these days.

It was so wonderful living in our little country, being able to practice my religion in an unfettered way.  We could wear our special religious items–you know, the ones we are prohibited from bringing to the Temple Mount–right in the street, in the buses, anywhere, without people screaming epithets and other unpleasantries.

I once had a conversation with a black woman from New Orleans who had converted to Islam, married a Lebanese man, and moved with him to Saudi Arabia.  I met her in India.  She wanted to know why we Jews had to have our own country, when we could be Jewish anywhere in the world.

I was so taken aback by this question that I had to sit and think for a minute.  At last I got hold of my senses and asked her,

“Were you able to practice Islam in America?”

“Well, of course!”

“Then why did you move to Saudi Arabia?”

“Oh, because it’s an Islamic country!  Saudi Arabia enforces strict Shari’a Law, so it is the purest Islam…”

For a moment, understanding dawned in her eyes, but it faded just as quickly.  I developed something that needed my urgent attention, and left my friend wondering what went wrong.

Oh yes. I was talking about Thanksgiving in America.

Since I’m in America for the foreseeable future, I am doing some things American style, like Thanksgiving Day and gifts for Hannukah (our Festival of Lights, coming up next week).  In Israel, Hannukah is a time for celebrating miracles.  Gifts are not really a central theme.  It’s all about the light. ( More on that next week.)  The American practice of giving gifts on Hannukah seems to have arisen in order to keep Jewish children from being bummed out because of Christmas.

Since my son’s father is Christian, my son goes to him for Christmas.  For the past few years, my son and I have been “doing” Thanksgiving together.

While my father was alive, my son would come to my parents’ house and he and I would make a kosher turkey, and we would all get gorked on the usual T-day dishes.

Last year I was still in shock from my father’s death in early October, so my son and his then-girlfriend made a huge feast at his house.  People dropped by, roommates who had stayed in town for their own reasons cruised by and partook, we all smoked a lot of weed, and generally had a good time.  My mother was not invited, because she has made herself unwelcome by her delight in shaming me in front of my son.

This year my mother decided to fly to my cousins and have Thanksgiving with them.  I was not invited.  My cousins, who suck up to her for their own reasons, did not invite me either.  That being the case, I felt no pangs of guilt when I accepted my son’s invitation, party of one.

Then my mother decided to cancel her Thanksgiving plans, for her own reasons.  Since she knew my son had invited me (party of one), she got herself invited to one of her many friends, who has a big family, so my mom could feel really angry that her own family had not invited her.

For some reason my son did not invite anyone else to dinner.  His own reasons, I guess.  It was a little weird having just he and I, especially since he was in one of his dark moods, brooding and irritable.  I really wish he would start taking lithium again, but he angrily rejects the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder that, in his opinion, was foisted upon him as a teenager.

So that was Thursday.

I slept in my camper van, in the parking lot of his apartment complex.  One of his neighbors, who had clearly been watching out for me, accosted me as I headed out to go to bed, demanding to know if I was visiting someone in the complex.  Surely he had seen me exiting my son’s door…

My nerves were already frazzled from dinner with my glowering son, so I fired back,

“Why do you want to know?”

“Because I think you’re just camping here.”  Whoa, let’s just get some holiday spirit of giving on here, hey?

I wanted to say to him, “Listen, Mr. Nice Guy, even if I was ‘just camping here,’ there’s a whole fucking empty parking lot because everyone has gone elsewhere for the holiday.  And what are you angry at, anyway?”

But I didn’t say that, because there’s always the possibility that a poor unhappy fucker like that will call the police, and I was already tired and tense enough.  So instead I said,

“Well, I am camping here.  This (pointing to my camper) is my bedroom.  I’m visiting ____ in Apartment _____.  Would you like him to come out and speak with you?”

As it turns out, this unfortunate fellow has seen my son, who is a weight lifter and quite muscular and buff.  So the sorry sucker subsided, and allowed as how that would not be necessary.  I also subsided, went into my spaceship and slept fitfully, as people constantly came and went, car lights and porch lights flashing.  My PTSD surrounding cops blazed like a tiger in the night.

Friday.  I woke up feeling like shit.  Depression.  Again. Still.

Went in and stood under my son’s excellent shower for half an hour while he went to work for a while.

When he came back, I said, “Listen, I’m feeling really disorganized brain-wise.  Do you mind if I hang out till tomorrow?”

The minute the words left my mouth I saw the twitch in his face that said, Oh No, Not That!

“Um…listen, Mom, to be honest, um, I really need my space.”

My heart hit the pavement.  Then I noticed the spiffy outfit.

Date.

Yeah, I was glad he was able to tell me no, but on the other hand I wished he had seen fit to be honest and say something more like, “Oh wow, Mom, I really wish you could, but since I thought you were leaving today, I made plans.”  That would have sent me off with a smile and a lighter heart.

“Oh, that’s OK,” I chirped, suddenly feeling like I’d been handed the bum rush.*

He graciously allowed me to stay long enough to use his internet to find a campground.  I found one pretty close by, said my goodbyes, and lit a shuck out of there.**

____________________________________________________

I called my mother today, just to see how she is doing, and I wish I had put money on the bet that I made with myself.  I would have won.  She barely spoke to me, and clearly had her victim act all planned out, in case I called.  I laughed.  Couldn’t help myself: it was all too predictable.

Now for the Miracle part.

My sweet Belgian Malinois, Atina, is most certainly an angel.

She sleeps in the right-hand third of my bed.  The left-hand third is reserved for all the computer-related shit that won’t fit anywhere else.

The only thing I had the energy to make for dinner was a cup of gluten-free microwave macaroni and cheese.  While I was mechanically going through the motions of making it, Atina was busy doing something in the bed.

She was pushing my duvet into a nest-like shape toward the pillow.  No, wait.  She was pushing it with her nose, straightening the edge up toward the pillow.  I thought, you cutie, you are making yourself a nest out of my duvet, and you know that’s my spot in the bed!  But I did not scold her.  My heart was brimming with love.  She pushed and pulled at my pillow, fluffing it and making it into a nice continuum with my duvet.  Aha, I thought, now I will see you plump yourself down in my spot!

But that’s not what she was about at all.

When she got my part of the bed all fixed up to her satisfaction, she plopped herself down–on her side of the bed!  She had made my bed up–for me!

I dropped what I was doing and hugged and kissed her for a long time.  By the way she reacted, she knew that I knew what she had done for me…she made a place for me to rest.  She did it with love and care.  As I write this, I am lying in the bed my dog prepared for me.  Her breathing is soft and even as she sleeps in her own third of the bed.

“Friends may come and friends may go, but your dog will always be glad to see you.”

_____________________________________________________

*”The bum rush”: A term dating from the Great Depression and possibly earlier, when many out-of-work men went “on the bum,” going from door to door begging for food, money, a place to sleep…if the man of the house took offense, the beggar would be chased off the place–“given the bum rush.”

**”To light a shuck” means “to leave in a hurry.”  It has its origin in the  Civil War, when dried corn shucks were used as fuses for light cannons and field artillery.  Once you “lit a shuck,” you had to run like hell because not only did the big guns recoil (and could run you over), but also sometimes the cannons would backfire, shooting cannon balls behind instead of in front of them.  The idiom is still in use in the Southern and Southwestern United States.  It is one of my favorites.

 

 

The Shunamite Woman and The Rejection of Suffering

I often get replies and emails from people telling me how fortunate I am to have a life rife with unfortunate events.  I usually trash these well-meaning yet invasive, even brazen, suggestions that my suffering is in fact a blessing.

First I would say that compared to most of the suffering people I know and interact with, mine is petty, and I know it.  But it’s MY suffering, and I will not abrogate my right to express how I feel about it.

I would like to draw your attention to an illustration in the Bible that shows us that even the strong can suffer greatly, although they might not show it to everyone.  There are many such illustrations in Scripture, but this one has always caught my attention: the story of the prophet Elisha (student of Elijah) and the Shunamite woman (Shunam is a place-name): Kings II 4:11-37

True to a common theme in the Bible, the Shunamite woman was childless, and the Man of God (Elisha) caused her to conceive and bear a son.  The son grew and went to the fields with his father, and suddenly cried out “My head, my head!”  And fell down senseless, and his father’s attendant carried him to his mother.  His mother held him on her lap until he died, and then she carried his body to the attic room where Elisha was accustomed to stay, and she laid him on Elisha’s bed.

Then she took a donkey and rode up to the cave of Elijah in Carmel (I have been there and it is on the side of a cliff, no small feat to arrive there).  She called out Elisha and said, “Why did you give me a child if it was just going to be taken from me?”  And she threw her arms around his knees and vowed that she would not let go until Elisha came with her.

Which he did, and found the dead boy lying on his bed.  First Elisha told his servant Gehazi to lay Elisha’s staff across the child’s face, but nothing happened, so Elisha stretched himself out on top of the boy and blew into his mouth.  Nothing happened, so he walked around the house, first one way, then the other, and then repeated the mouth-to-mouth until the boy sneezed seven times and sat up.  Elisha said, “Pick up your son!”  So she fell at his feet in gratitude, after which she “picked up her son and left.” 4:37

This story illustrates that suffering does not always show on the outside.  Elisha knew that the Shunamite woman suffered because she had no child; and when her child died and she went to Elisha, she said, “Did I ever ask for a child?  Did you give me a child just to mock me?”

“What, is this some cruel joke you have played on me?”  says the Shunamite woman.   Elisha had nothing to say to that, so he had to come with her.

This is all very mysterious, and full of implied questions and gaps in logic.  The answers to the many questions raised here are addressed in the Gemara, the huge library of Jewish commentary and law.  One set of the books of the Gemara take up entire walls.

The Gemara is full of stories like the one about the woman whose child dies on Friday afternoon (the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday nights).  Not wanting to destroy her husband’s joy in the Sabbath, she waited to tell him about their son’s death until after the Sabbath, all the while acting as if there was nothing wrong.

I heard of a great scholar in my neighborhood whose wife died on Friday afternoon, and when the Sabbath came in he rejoiced, ate and drank and sang like usual, until the end of the Sabbath, at which time he sat down on a low stool and mourned bitterly.  This he did for the Shivah week, the week after her death, and the following Friday (for Shabbat is not counted in the seven days of Shivah) he got up from his stool, bathed and changed his clothes (part of the intense mourning of the Shivah week is that we don’t do these things), and rejoiced in the Shabbat when it came in.

There is a book put out by the Breslov brand of Hassidim called the “Garden of Emunah.” emunah meaning “faith.”  Since the Breslov sect’s founder, Rebbi Nachman of Breslov, taught (in the 17th century C.E.) that we must never despair, his followers often interpret that to mean “always be happy, never be sad, and depression is a depraved state of mind.”  This book, “The Garden of Emunah,” is filled with anecdotes about horrible things happening to children, and awful illnesses happening to mothers of 12, and the theme is that they all took it as a blessing from God that they got to suffer in these ways.

I am not that holy.

If that’s what it takes to get to….wherever…..it’s like, OK God, these humans are telling me that You don’t give me anything I can’t bear.

Um, let me let you in on a secret.

You made me, right?  And You made the shoulders that are supposed to bear my burden.

Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard the part about how You have wide shoulders, and all I have to do is give my burdens over to You, let go and let God, etc., but let me tell You, Boss, how long to I have to throw myself on the ground and cry out to You before something gives?  Am I a cruel joke, that you’ve created me and now you play with me like a cat plays with a toy?

Elisha, Elisha, where are you?  They say that Elijah the Prophet can appear anytime, disguised as anyone, especially a beggar.  I am certainly a beggar, but I am no Elijah.

I climbed up the cliff path to his cave in Carmel, and I inserted myself into a niche in the deepest part of the cave, and I prayed, and I went into another world.  I lost track of time, and almost missed my ride.  Four years later, I received a healing from something physical, Hallelu-Yah.

I have given up praying for my mental illness to be taken away.  I think of King David and King Saul, both of whom were mentally ill until their deaths.  Saul lost his kingship because of a manic act of disobedience to God.  David’s cycles of elation and crashing depression are clearly written in the Psalms.  Samuel I also illustrates the craziness of both Saul and David, as elaborated in the link above.

So to all you bearers of Sweetness-And-Light, please enjoy your easy lives and don’t envy those whose burdens appear to be heavier than yours.  As a physically disabled friend of mine says, “You are all Temporarily Able-bodied.”

I would add, “You are all Temporarily Sane.”

Get Me The Hell Out Of Egypt

No, not Eretz Mitzra’im, which is the Land of Egypt.

Had I been there, I most likely would have been thrown out in one of the many exiles of my people who came there seeking asylum from the Spanish and Portuguese, long about 1492.  All but a handful of Hebrews have been ejected from that land.

But.

In Genesis 15:13-14, it is said:

And He said to Abram, “Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own–and they will serve them, and they will oppress them–four hundred years.  But also the nation that they will serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they will leave with great wealth.  (Emphasis mine)

There was, in fact, a cordial relationship between the Hebrews and the Mitzrim (Egyptians).   They traded together, and the Mitzrim gladly allowed the Hebrews to come to Mitzra’im in times of famine in the land of Canaan, where the Hebrews dwelt (now called the Land of Israel), to buy food and water.

For the Nile waters the land of Mitzra’im, but the Land of Canaan is dependent upon seasonal rains for sustenance.

Years and generations passed, and Jacob, whose Godly name was Yisrael (Israel), had twelve sons and a daughter.  His favorite son Yosef (Joseph) angered his brothers, who sold him to a Midianite caravan, who sold him to an Ishmaelite caravan, who sold him to Poti-Fera (Potiphar), who was the Egyptian Chief over the Pharaoh’s butchers.  (Gen. 37:27, 37:36, 39:1)

Yosef did well there, and was promoted to be the supervisor of all Potiphar’s household.  But bad luck for him:

After all these things, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Yosef and she said, “Lie with me.”  But he adamantly refused…” (39:7-8)

And she kept after him.  One day she actually grabbed hold of his garment and tried to pull him to her, but he escaped and fled, leaving his garment in her hand.  She screamed “Rape!” and Yosef, who was found outside the house with nothing on, was cast into prison.

You can see from this unfortunate turn of events that even when we are doing our best and thinking things are going well, even the greatest among us may have characteristics that unwittingly trip us up and lead to a fall.

Yosef is called Ha’Tzaddik, The Righteous One, because everything he did was in honor of G-d, and he was able to overcome the most natural of urges–the sex drive–even when freely offered by Potiphar’s Wife, who was said to be the most beautiful in the land.

But it is said that Yosef had one flaw: he was beautiful and he knew it.   He would spend time putting on makeup (as was normal for Egyptian men at the time) and gazing at himself in a mirror of burnished bronze.  Thus, all the women in Mitzra’im longed to be with Yosef.  Indeed, why should Eshet Poti-fera (Potiphar’s Wife) not have him?

Yosef had told her that he was free to partake of anything in his master’s household, with the exception of Potiphar’s Wife! (39:9)

But woe to him, he was thrown into prison; but Yosef had G-d’s favor, and even this turned into a good thing, although not for a while.

Yosef found favor in the jailor’s eyes, and he was made supervisor over the prison (even though he was a prisoner himself) (39:21).  There happened to be two other prisoners there, courtiers of the King of Egypt (for in this verse he is not named).  They were the royal baker and the royal cup-bearer, and they had each displeased the King.

One morning Yosef found them distressed, for they had both had disturbing dreams. (40:6)  Yosef correctly interpreted those dreams, and the outcome was that one servant was reinstated, while the other was beheaded.  Yosef asked the reinstated one to put in a word for him with Pharaoh, for that was his boss, but the man forgot, and Yosef was stuck in prison for two more years.

Nothing happens in vain, and everything is G-d’s plan.

Pharaoh had a disturbing dream, and called all of his wise men, magicians, and necromancers to try to interpret it, but none could.  This jogged the afore-mentioned servant’s memory, and he recalled Yosef, and told Pharaoh, who commanded that Yosef be brought before him.  Yosef was given a bath and a shave and new clothes (41:14), and brought before Pharaoh.

Pharaoh told him his dream (41:17-25) and Yosef correctly interpreted it for him (go and read the dream for yourselves–it’s worth it!); and Pharaoh mad Yosef his viceroy over all the land.

Because of the content of the dream, Yaacov (Jacob, Israel), who is Yosef’s father, remember, brought his whole family, who now numbered 70 souls, down to the land of Goshen which is in the northern part of Egypt, a fertile grassy land perfect for grazing flocks, for the Hebrews have always been shepherds.

There was a time of peace, and Yisrael (Jacob) died, and then Yosef died, and the Hebrews grew to be a large and prosperous nation in Goshen.  But:

A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know of Yosef.  He said to his people, “Behold! the people, the Children of Israel, are more numerous and stronger than we.  Come, let us outsmart it lest it become numerous and it may be that if a war will occur, it, too, may join our enemies, and wage war against us and go up from the land. (Exodus 1:8-10)

 

The Mystery of Seven

We’re always hearing about things that come in sevens: Sinbad sailed the Seven Seas, the Pleiades is a constellation of seven stars, also known as the Seven Sisters; when we are ecstatic we are in Seventh Heaven; Jacob worked for his evil father-in law for seven years to pay for Rachel, but got Leah instead, then had to work another seven for Rachel again.  And don’t forget the Seven Dwarves!   And for some reason or other, there are Seven days in a week.  Who thought that up???  Why not eight, nine, or ten???  I mean, there’s no law that says there have to be seven days in a week, is there?  Seems strange.

In Inner Torah Judaism, there are Seven layers of Heaven.  There are also Seven levels of Hell!  And you have to go through each one of them, getting your soul cleaned out like a giant washing machine.  No thanks.

So what’s the big deal with the number Seven?

Imagine this:

A cube.  It has four sides all around, one on the top, and one on the bottom.  That makes six sides.  Hold that thought.

If you have a cube, then it must contain something, right?  What does it contain?  Wood?  Plastic?  Air?  Who cares?  It contains the seventh element.  The seventh element is The Inner Space.  Or if you prefer, the seventh element of a cube could be a point in the center of the cube.   The Six is on the Outside, and the Seven is on the Inside.

Now let’s return to Six.  What has six?  A week has six.  “Sheshit yamim ta’avod ve’ta’aseh kol melachechah….”  Six days you will work and do all the things you have to do….”  A Hebrew week has six days.  The work week starts on Saturday night (yup!) and goes until just before sundown on Friday evening.  At that point, in an Orthodox Jewish home, every kind of work stops: no cooking, cleaning, yard work, painting, no kindling of fires of any sort including the use of electricity (lights go on timers), no TV, video games, music, iPhone, iPad, iAnything.  No driving, horseback riding, cattle rustling or rounding up bison on ATVs.

It is the Seventh Day.

Va’yachulu ha’shamayim ve’ha’aretz ve’kol tzeva’am

And the Heavens and the Earth were finished, and all of their hosts

Va’ya’chal Elo-him ba’yom ha’shevi’i melachto asher asah

And G-d finished making the labors that He made

Va’yishbot Elo-him ba’yom ha’shevi’i mi kol melachto asher asah

And G-d rested on the Seventh Day from all the labors that He made

Va’yevorech Elo-him et yom hashevi’i va’yekadesh otoh

And G-d blessed the Seventh Day and separated it

Ki voh shavat mi’kol melachto asher bara Elo-him la’asot

For He rested upon It from all the works that He created to do.

What is the secret of Seven?  It is the Sabbath.  As we are created in the image of G-d, so do we follow His example.  If G-d rested on the Seventh Day, it makes a lot of sense that we should too.  It’s a time of pulling back, introspection, recharging of batteries.  It’s a time of celebration, eating and drinking, singing songs and telling stories, hanging out with family and friends, traveling (before Shabbat) to other families to share in their Shabbat.  It’s a complete separation from the workweek and all of the things that one does during the week.

In Hebrew, the days start on the evening before.  They are called First Day, Second Day, etc., until we get to the Seventh Day, which is called Shabbat.  Why do we call it Shabbat?  Because it’s derived from a Hebrew word “to rest.”  It’s in the text above: “Ki voh shavat mi kol…” “For on It He rested from all…”  In fact, if you look closely and listen with soft eyes to the word “shavat” you will hear the Hebrew word “shevah,” Seven.  Shevah.  Seven.  Hmmmm.

Speaking of the text above: what is it and why did I write it here?

It’s a part of the prayer that’s sung at the Shabbat dinner table in the evening, sung standing, holding a full cup of wine.  It’s a prayer that celebrates entering sacred space, where we will remain for 25 hours before being spit back out into the world.  It’s the heralding of a haven: an island in time.  The Seventh Day.

In Kabbalistic space-time, it also heralds the Messianic Era, which is known as The Great Shabbat.  In it, we will no longer know war, strife, hunger, or suffer any of the evils of our present world.  We will be able to turn our attention to eating, drinking, singing, dancing, studying delicious Sacred texts, and who knows what because we haven’t been there yet: but–we get a taste of it on Shabbat.

Six days of the week, like the sides of our cube, are openly visible, without any secrets.  The Seventh Day, the Shabbat, is laden with secrets.

The Seventh Day, the Shabbat, is the Inner aspect of the week.  In it hide the secrets of the Great Shabbat, and true liberation!

Abracadabra, Please and Thank You!

I have always loved magic.  Not so much the kind where the guy with the skinny mustache saws the blonde in half; more the kind where the frumpy looking worm builds a house around herself and in total dark and privacy, somehow manages to turn into something as unlike what she was before as, say, a wrench is to an elephant.  That’s magic.

Everything’s magic, really.  I mean, look around you.  How did all this stuff get here?  OK, I know there’s a basic division between those who believe that everything was created by a Deity, and those who believe that everything somehow managed to get here randomly, and natural selection, and mixtures of all of the above.  OK.  It doesn’t matter.  The question remains: there is all this STUFF.  How did it get here?

The Sabbath is almost here, so I don’t have time right this minute to tell you about how Kabbalah explains the Big Bang.  Don’t worry–I will, after we’ve learned together a little more and gathered a few handy vocabulary items.  For now, let’s just make the assumption that energy is matter and vice versa, and we shall see.

But getting back to Magic: isn’t that supposed to be forbidden?  “Thou shalt not suffer a sorceress to live,” and all that?

It depends.  In fact, it all goes back to Creation.

I’m talking about ABRA-CA-DABRA, please and thank you!

In Hebrew, one of the important words for “to make” or “to create” has the root-form B-R-A  (Hebrew words are formed out of three-letter roots).

As in, “Bereisheet BARA Elo-him et ha’shamayim ve’et ha’aretz.”   “In the beginning, G-d created (BARA) the heavens and the earth.”

Do you see that three letter root in aBRA ca daBRA?  Oh my goodness.  The “a” prefix means “I will.”  The “ca” means “as.”  And what about the last word–dabra?  It has the BRA in it, and it also has “da,” but in this case it’s not a prefix–it’s a whole new word.  Actually, it’s a word-within-a-word.

The word for “speak” in Hebrew is DABER.  Pronounced “dah-BEAR.”

Now we have to get back to creation.  If you look at any of the ten utterances of creation (actually you will see only nine, since one is hidden), they begin, “And the LORD said.…,” and so it was.  And the way it came into being was because G-d said it.  The world was spoken into being.  This teaches us that speech is very powerful, clearly.  If worlds can be created through speech, then we had better take it very seriously.

ABRA-CA-DABRA.  I shall create as I speak.

By now you should be thinking, wait a minute–this is nothing for some joker in a top hat and skinny mustache to be messing around with.  And you’re right!  But no worries–that guy probably doesn’t possess the immense spiritual development that would make him potentially dangerous in the Abracadabra department.

But Avraham did.  That first Avraham, the one we talked about in Jewish Geneology.  That Avraham was so close to G-d that it is said by our sages that he was actually capable of being a partner with G-d in creating new people.  Yes, I know this is freaky.  Stay with me.

There is a hint about that in the Scripture itself, in Genesis 12:5: “Avram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his brother’s son….and all the souls they had made in Haran.”  The Kabbalists hint that “…all the souls that they had made in Haran” were actually real people, created anew in the flesh!  Others say no, this is a figurative term for all the people that Avram and Sarai had turned on to the fact that idol worship is foolish, and so they were “as if” newly created beings.

However…there is a book called “Sefer Yetzirah,” or the “Book of Creation,” which I happen to have staring at me from my bookshelf right now.  It was translated and annotated by a great scholar, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, who passed away a number of years ago at the age of 39.  The book contains virtually all the secrets of life, from the way the universe is constructed, to the secrets of time, months, and seasons, and especially, the secrets of speech and its power to create.

The Sefer Yetzirah is said to have been authored by Avraham himself, and passed down through the ages as a memorized code.  Sometime during the last few centuries B.C., a wise person wrote down the code in super-coded form, not even a page in length, because s/he knew that rough times were coming and a lot of people were going to be killed, and even worse, the traditions of our learning were likely to be broken.

Sure enough, that is just what happened.  And luckily for us, the heirs of the tiny coded Sefer Yetzirah started writing more and more of it down, because they could see the writing on the wall, as far as the incipient scattering of our people.  But the book, even though more of it was on parchment, was still shrouded with layer upon layer of encodement.

It is said that the Maharal of Prague used the Sefer Yetzirah to create his famous Golem, a man-like creature made from clay and brought to life via the secrets of the Sefer and the Four Letter Ineffable Name of G-d (Y-H-V-H).

So what can we learn from Abracadabra?  To me, it means: be careful what comes out of my mouth, because speech is an agent of creation.  We can build our child or our partner or ourselves up, make them feel good about themselves, inspire them to do good and think good, by means of our speech.   On the other hand, we can tear them down with cruel words.

Some say that when we speak we are creating angels: good angels when we talk good, and bad angels when we talk bad.  That is to say, when we are speaking kindly we are releasing good energy into the universe, and conversely, the opposite.

It really does matter what we say–and how we say it!  Abracadabra, please and thank you!  Shabbat Shalom!

Biblical Surgery; or, The First Jewish Doctor

I want you to know that the “Jewish Doctor” part is pure tongue-in-cheek.   G-d is not Jewish.  He’s for everyone!

That said, if you look into Genesis 2:7-8, you will see an amazing thing:

“And the LORD GOD formed the man, dust from the earth;

Va’yi-PACH beh’ah-PAV nish-MAT chayYIM va’ya-HEE ha’aDAM le’NEFESH chay-YAH

And He breathed into his mouth the Spirit of Life and the Man became a Living Being.”

I’ve transliterated the Hebrew here, because if you read it through a couple of times you will see that it has the actual rhythm of breathing!

What are we seeing here?

“And He breathed into his mouth the Spirit of Life…”

The very first CPR!  Divine CPR!  The Breath of Life!

In fact, in Hebrew, the word for soul is neSHAmah, and the word for breath is neshiMAH!  It is the breath that keeps us alive, and it is the Divine Breath that gives life to the First Human.

Not that the world wasn’t populated with tons of living beings already.  This Divine CPR happened on the Sixth Day of Creation, after everything else was ready and in place for the final touch: Man.

But whoops, there was something missing!  In Gen. 13:18 G-d notices that the Man is lonely: every other creature has a mate, but not Adam.  (Adam is one of the Hebrew words for “man” or “person”.)  So G-d says, “It’s not good for the Man to be alone; I will make him a helper against him.”

Huh?  Helper against him?  What is that supposed to mean?

There are multiple ways to interpret this phrase.  Marriage, as we know, is very complex.  At best, the partners have each other’s backs: they are holding each other up, leaning on each other: they are against each other, giving support.

On another level, they challenge each other, ideally bringing out the best in each other, like good sparring partners.  They are not out to hurt each other, but to energize one another.  Have you ever had a partner who gave in to everything you pushed for, who buckled under adversity?  Yech.  I want a partner who is able to push back when I push, not to shove me away, but to challenge me to grow as a person.  This is a helper against me.

So the very next thing G-d does, in verse 19, is to bring all the birds and beasts to Adam, and ask him to give them all names.  Now, we Hebrews believe that names have very special powers: the name is the essence.  So when parents name a baby, they are temporarily imbued with Divine Insight, to know the child’s soul and intuit the child’s real name.

So it says in the verse, “And the LORD GOD formed from the earth every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens, and He brought them to the Man to see what he [the Man] would call them; and what ever the Man called each living creature, that was its name.”

Now, the Jewish Bible has four levels of interpretation: 1)literal, 2)giving a hint that something is hidden there, 3) explication, 4)hidden knowledge.  And for each level, there are miles and miles of commentaries.  I am going to skim over two layers of commentary here, exploring what this business of naming might be about.

The juxtaposition of G-d musing over the idea of giving Adam a mate, with having Adam name all the creatures, is a hint that in order to name something, Adam had to know that creature intimately.  But wait!  Doesn’t intimate knowledge….knowledge in the Biblical sense, as in “Adam knew his wife and she conceived”….could it be that…..?  Some Kabbalistic sources say yes!  Adam was looking for his mate, as is supported by verse 20, “…he gave names to all the beasts, and the birds of the heavens, and all the creatures of the fields, but for the Man he didn’t find his helper against him.”

So some sources say that Adam “tried out” every creature in the literal sense, but did not find his mate among them.

But there is a higher (and more palatable) interpretation of the expression “to know intimately.”  It is that in order to really know someone, you have to be so empathetic that you actually come to know their inner soul.  In fact, it’s as if you are that person, for a time.  You’re really “walking in their shoes.”  And that, says the Zohar, which is the core text of all Kabbalistic knowledge, is what Adam was really doing.  He was melding souls with every creature so that he could intimately know its essence, in order to know what its true name should be.

Now, having been one with all the creatures of the earth (kind of like a Vulcan mind-meld), and not finding his own mate, G-d had another solution, in verse 21-22: “And the LORD GOD cast a tar-DEH-mah** (deep sleep) over the Man and he slept, and He took one of his ribs, and he closed the flesh where it had been. And the LORD GOD built the Woman out of the rib that He took from the Man, and brought her to the Man.  And the Man said, This One is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”

The first surgery.  

What’s going on here?  If G-d is all-powerful, etc, etc, why couldn’t He just create a First Woman for the First Man?  Why did He have to take a chunk out of the Man?  And why on Earth did He put the Man under general anesthesia first, when He could have just **whack** taken out the rib and closed the wound and that was that?

Did G-d just want to be the Primordial Anesthesiologist?  He already knew CPR, so why not?

Stay tuned…..

**The word “tardemah” is still in use in modern Hebrew.  It means “anesthesia,” of course!