Repost: Bereishit

October 24, 2019 at 11:09 am | Posted in Bereishit | Leave a comment

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

And God formed the human out of the dust of the earth, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the human became an animated animal.  (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)

Sorry, Michelangelo.  In the book of Genesis, God breathes life into the first human’s nose.  God does not animate Adam with a fingertip, the way Michelangelo painted it on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

I’d like to say I saw this painting on our first full day in Italy.  But we are in Florence, not Rome, and we had to go grocery shopping.  So today all we saw the house where Michelangelo lived as an adolescent, along with two of his earliest relief sculptures.

Michelangelo, Battle of the Centaurs (photo by Melissa Carpenter)

His “Battle of the Centaurs”, completed in 1492 when he was 17, proved that he had already mastered the realistic depiction of the human form (in a period when artists were just beginning to revive the approach of ancient Greek sculptors).  But his own spark of genius had not yet emerged.

Next week we plan to see some of Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures, from “David” to “Captives”.  How amazing that he could create such things out of giant blocks of marble!  How amazing that we are here, and can see them!

What a crazy universe we humans inherited.  We have inspiration, we have beauty, we have life.  We also have despair, and evil deeds, and death.  Can we embrace the good things without hiding from the bad?

Click on this link to read my 2015 post about how humans and God hide from each other: Bereishit: In Hiding.

Repost: Sukkot

October 16, 2019 at 12:02 pm | Posted in Sukkot | Leave a comment

Our studio apartment in Prague

We came home today after a quick trip to Meissen, Germany.  Home is the apartment in Prague we moved into three weeks ago.  We know where everything is here, and we have our new routines down.  We know, finally, how to operate the washing machine.  We know the neighborhood, including our two favorite restaurants, and we know where to put our recycling.  We’ve been watching workers remove the cobblestones on sections of sidewalk, dig trenches, lay cable, fill in the trenches, and replace the cobblestones in decorative patterns.

We know our way around the nearest public square, where we get on the subway to go sightseeing, shop at our usual grocery store, print files at our copy shop, and get cash at our bank machine.  We can make change in Czech koruny.  (They don’t use the euro here in Czechia.)

We are comfortable in our home in Prague.  And next week, we leave to spend a month in Italy.

Traveling the slow way, with no house waiting for us back in the United States, is good practice in accepting impermanence.

So is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.  For a week, Jews are supposed to live at least part of each day in a sukkah, a temporary structure with a roof of branches or reeds that has enough gaps to feel raindrops and see stars.

For this re-post, I polished up my 2013 post on the Torah reading for the week of Sukkot:  Sukkot: Temporary and Permeable.

We too are temporary and permeable.  My husband and I are traveling abroad now because we know the improvement in our health is temporary; someday we will decline again, and someday we will die.

Since life is temporary, why not make the most of it?  Since every home and every habit is temporary, why not embrace change?  And since every soul is permeable, why not open ourselves to joy and edification as well as sorrow?

In Jewish liturgy, Sukkot is known as “The Season of Our Rejoicing”.

Repost: Ha-azinu

October 9, 2019 at 1:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Most years the Torah portion Ha-azinu (“Use your ears”) is read the week before Yom Kippur, but in this new year of 5780 it comes afterward.

I did not prepare for Yom Kippur this time, except to find a synagogue in Prague where my husband and I could go.  I did not review my deeds of the past year or determine where I had missed the mark.  I did not ask anyone for forgiveness (though when a friend reached out to me, I did have an honest conversation and forgive her, and I honor her for that).  I did not reconsider my relationship with God.

I was too busy moving and packing and planning for the big change in our lives, and then I was too busy with the beginning of our journey.

I have continued to say a few prayers every morning, and blessings before every meal, but I have not been to a Shabbat service for the past two months.

In Prague I have been grateful for all the Czechs who speak English, and for the English translations on some plaques, brochures, and menus.  I have also been surrounded by people speaking a language I cannot begin to understand, and writing in a language I can neither pronounce nor decipher.

Jerusalem Synagogue

But when we went to the Jerusalem Synagogue, and I saw Hebrew texts from the psalms on the walls.  I could read them!  Softly I began singing a psalm to myself, uplifted not only by the beautiful 1906 Neo-Moorish synagogue building, but by the words in the universal language of the Jewish religion.

On Yom Kippur, we went to a service led by a small congregation in the Maisel Synagogue, built in 1592 in the Renaissance style.  The building is part of the Jewish Museum except on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, when the Bejt Praha congregation uses it for its original purpose.  We will come back another day to tour the whole building and look and the displays, but on Yom Kippur we sat on folding chairs in the middle of the echoing central hall, and sang prayers.

Maisel Synagogue

Although the congregation had hired an American rabbi who spoke English, the prayer books were in Czech and Hebrew.  Whenever the rabbi or the cantor began to sing, we could find the right prayer in Hebrew.  Most of the melodies were also familiar.  We joined in the singing, and their community was also our community for a while.

I have been happy exploring Prague, not worrying about atonement, so I could not plead with God in the spirit of the holy day.  But praying in the old synagogue with other Jews brought me comfort and reminded me of God.

After Yom Kippur ended, I polished up my 2012 post on this week’s Torah portion, which considers meeting God in a desolate place without comfort, a place where we all find ourselves at some point in our lives.  Click on Ha-azinu: The Tohu Within, to read it.

Yom Kippur: We

October 3, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Posted in Yom Kippur | 1 Comment

Since my husband and I began packing in August, my weekly post has consisted of a reflection on the current step in our journey, and a link to one of my past posts on the Torah portion of the week.  But this week is different.

Jeruzalemska Synagoga, Praha

Today we saw the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague, a breathtakingly beautiful Neo-Moorish and Art Nouveau building completed in 1906 to replace synagogues demolished when the city built a new boulevard through the old Jewish quarter.  During World War II the Nazi occupiers used the building as a warehouse for confiscated Jewish property, instead of destroying it.  After the war a small group of Jews resumed prayer services there, despite Soviet discouragement, and since the Velvet Revolution the congregation has grown.

Tomorrow we will visit Terezin, a fortified village near Prague which Hitler’s government turned into a concentration camp.  The Nazis imprisoned 144,000 Jews there from 1941 to 1945; only around 23,000 survived.  About 33,000 died of malnutrition and disease inside Terezin; 88,000 were sent on to extermination camps.

Four days later we will observe Yom Kippur with a congregation in Prague, and I will repeat the fundamental liturgy in Hebrew, the confessions and pleas that Jews all around the world will recite.

And tonight I find I must write a new post.

*

Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi.

          We are guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have spoken slander.

On the day of Yom Kippur, the day for seeking atonement with God, Jews chant the vidui, a confession of the whole community’s sins.1

Our religion asks each of us to do a personal atonement during the weeks before Yom Kippur.  We consider who we might have harmed during the past year, repent as much as we can, and ask each person for forgiveness (when it is possible, and when it does no further harm).  We also consider how we have fallen short in our service to God, or perhaps to the still, small voice within.  This work is different for each individual.

But on Yom Kippur we all chant out loud a list of sins that we as individuals may not have committed.  And every offense is in the first person plural, “we”, indicated by the verb ending וּ (u) = we.

Ha-evinu vehirshanu, zadnu, chamasnu, tafalnu sheker.

          We have been perverse and we have been wicked, we have acted with malice, we have done violence, we have made false claims.

In the story of Noah, God decided to destroy the world and start over because “the earth was full chamas”, the violence that humans committed.2  To this day, humans have not overcome the habit of violence.

Ya-atznu ra, kizavnu, latznu, maradnu, niatznu.

          We have given harmful advice, we have lied, we have mocked, we have rebelled, we have been unrespectful.

Who are “we”?  This part of the communal confession could refer to any congregation, any relatively small group of human beings.  Nearly everyone has tossed off advice without considering whether it might be harmful to the advisee.  We all tell “white lies” out of what we think is kindness to the other person, or because explaining the truth seems too complicated and unnecessary.  And it is so easy to mock someone who is far away, different from you, and taking actions you resent—a president, perhaps, or someone interviewed on television.  Everyone rebels at some time against an authority figure or what we have learned is our duty.  And I find it takes constant attention to be respectful to every human being and to the Creator.

Sararnu, avinu, pashanu, tzararnu, kishinu oref.

          We have disobeyed (God), we have been immoral, we have been negligent, we have oppressed, we have been stiff-necked (refusing to change).

Who are “we”?  Sure, everyone is negligent at times, there are too many families in which one person oppressed another, and change is difficult.  But this part of the list implies a more serious level of wrongdoing.  What happens when a whole segment of society oppresses another segment, using religion or politics or even a dress code as an excuse?  What happens when a large number of people reinforce each other in refusing to change to meet new challenges that have arisen in the world?

Rashanu, shichatnu, ti-avnu, ta-inu, titanu.

          We have been wicked, we have been corrupt, we have committed atrocities, we have gone astray, we have led others astray.

Who are “we”?  What if “we” means all human beings, including Nazis and others who do evil deliberately?  Including people who do bad deeds out of peer pressure or the fear of punishment?  Including people who merely witness atrocities, and do not know how to stop them?

Ashamnu.  We are guilty.  That is the nature of humankind.  But we can pray, this Yom Kippur and all year round, for atonement and realignment, for change—for us and for all human beings.

  1. Each time the service reaches another vidui, there are two confessions of communal wrongdoing. The first, called the Ashamnu after the first word, lists offenses in alphabetical order (according to the Hebrew aleph-bet), with each entry being a verb in the form “we have ____”.  One tradition is to beat one’s breast when chanting each offense.  After the Ashamnu list, the congregation switches to a different melody and chants sentences asking forgiveness “for the sin we have committed before you”, using another list of communal sins, with the chorus “And for all these, God of pardons, pardon us, forgive us, grant us atonement.”
  2. Genesis 6:11.

Repost: Nitzavim

September 26, 2019 at 4:30 am | Posted in Nitzavim | Leave a comment

Glimpsing how people in other cultures live is one benefit of travel.  Before we left New York, Will and I took a tour of Hasidic Brooklyn—actually of the Lubavitcher enclave in Crown Heights.

Rav Yoni Katz, tour guide

Our guide, Rabbi Yoni Katz, is an American Jew, like us.  But we wore casual clothes that would blend in anywhere in the country, while he wore a 1940-style black hat, an untrimmed beard, and a black suit with white fringes (tzitzit) hanging out from under the bottom of his jacket.  We have only one child; he has seven children so far.  We enjoy the gender equality of our era; he is comfortable in a community that believes women have different natures, a community where most (though not all) women stay home to raise their many children.  We grope to define the mystery called “God”; he speaks as if God were his beloved grandfather, still living in the neighborhood.

It seems natural for him and some other Lubavitcher Hasids we met to take injunctions in the Torah as literal expressions of what God needs from the humans “He” created.  For example, the book of Numbers/Bemidbar tells us to wear tzitzit (knotted fringes) on four corners of a garment to remind us of the rules, so Hasidic men wear tzitzit every day for God’s sake.  The Torah lists rules for kosher eating and the Talmud expands on them, so the men and women carefully keep kosher for God’s sake.

As for myself, I never accept a religious rule because a human being with authority wrote it down and claimed it came from God.  Humans may be inspired by God, but our own brains translate inspiration into words, and a lot can get lost or altered in translation.  Therefore if I cannot think of a good reason for a Jewish rule, I ignore it.  I do not obey chukim (directives with no rationale).

Nevertheless, Yoni’s introduction to the Lubavitcher philosophy of life spoke to my heart.  In short, he said that acting out of egotism will never make life meaningful.  What matters is meeting the needs of others—both other humans who need us and God, who created us because “He” needs us.

Every week during our journey toward Jerusalem, I am sending a link to one of the posts on the weekly Torah portion that I have written during the last nine years.  This week, after listening to Yoni, I chose Nitzavim: Still Standing

What does it mean to be standing before God?  Can anyone do it?  What does it mean to stop acting just for your own benefit, as if you were a god?  Click on the link above and see what I wrote in 2012.

Today, as I post this, we are sitting in the airport in Rome.  Next week I will be posting from Prague.  Our journey continues.

(Note: If any of my comments about Lubavitchers is wrong, please let me know.)

Repost: Ki Tavo

September 18, 2019 at 8:11 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | Leave a comment

Bruchim Habayim (“Blessed are those who come”, i.e. “Welcome”)

Are we there yet?  Is this sign in Israel?

No, it’s part of a bilingual sign welcoming people to Saratoga Park in Brooklyn.  We are renting an apartment across the street, for a week, before we continue our journey east.

Between Portland, Oregon and New York, New York my husband and I spent a good weekend at my sister’s house in the New England woods.

Both my sister and I are called to write.  (To find my sister’s writing, see sarabacker.com.)  We both have a passion for ethics, and a commitment to thinking things through.

For me, ethics is not a list of God-given rules, but rather a method for treating other human beings (and the whole world of living things) with respect and consideration.

So this week I polished up an essay I wrote nine years ago on Moses’ ritual for dedicating oneself to good behavior.  Here’s the link:  Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.

 

 

 

Repost: Ki Teitzei

September 11, 2019 at 9:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our adventure begins before dawn.  Everything we still own that we are not taking on the airplane tomorrow is now packed away in our storage unit.  (We also loaned our car to our son and daughter-in-law.)  At 5:00 a.m. the motel shuttle will take us to the airport, and we will fly the first leg of our trip: Portland, Oregon, to Boston, Massachusetts.  This is the trip we have spent years waiting for, the one that will eventually take us to Israel.

Here is my 2015 post on this week’s Torah portion: Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines.

Repost: Shoftim

September 5, 2019 at 9:07 pm | Posted in Shoftim | Leave a comment

Four things are called toeivah (abominable, repugnant) in this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim: offering defective animals as a sacrifices for God, worshiping other gods, keeping carved images of gods, and practicing magic.

My 2015 blog post on these abominations pointed out that while it is fine to avoid doing things we find repugnant, it is immoral to kill human beings who do repugnant things.

I still believe that.  But when I reviewed my 2015 post, I decided to rewrite the last part of it.  Since the 2016 American election I have become more concerned about government-sponsored heartlessness than about individual heartless deeds.  So here is my rewritten post: Shoftim: Abominable.

Repost: Re-eih

August 27, 2019 at 9:00 pm | Posted in Re-eih | Leave a comment

One can eat meat, but not blood, according to this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”).

Only be strong, do not eat the blood!  Because the blood is the nefesh, and you must not eat the nefesh with the meat. (Deuteronomy 12:23)

nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ) = animating soul, vital force; mood, appetite, desire; individual; throat.

Like humans, animals are animated by a soul that experiences moods, appetites, and desires.  The Torah locates that soul in the arterial blood.

Not only must the blood of an animal be drained and discarded before the meat can be eaten, but the animal must also be kosher.  Later in this week’s Torah portion, Moses repeats the rules for kosher animals.

And every animal that has a split hoof and has a hoof cloven into two hoof sections, [and] chews the cud among the animals that you may eat. (Deuteronomy 14:6)

Birds may also be eaten, but not birds of prey.  Fish may be eaten as long as they have fins and scales.  Any other animals, including shellfish and flying insects, are forbidden in this week’s Torah portion.

Fully observant American Jews heading to Europe would be planning out how to eat only kosher meat, they way they do at home.

I am not strict about keeping kosher.  However, I am planning to continue avoiding meat altogether.  It was hard for me to give up meat 23 years ago, but I did it.  I do not believe an animal’s nefesh is only in its arterial blood, the way the portion Re-eih implies.  I believe that eating any meat, drained of blood or not, is participating in the slaughter of an animal that, when alive, had an emotional life–moods, appetites, and desires–just like humans do.

For some people, honoring the death of the animal with a blessing, a prayer, or another ritual is enough.  Maybe they are right.  After all, everything we eat used to be alive in some sense.  The book of Genesis says God created humans to eat fruit from living trees for nourishment; modern science points out that nature made us omnivores.

Canaan dog

But I cannot watch a dog joyfully greet its roommates, or crows defend an injured member of their flock, and then go and eat meat.  I confess I make an exception for fish, which are less aware of moods and desires than birds and mammals–less like us.  (Fish also provide the B-12 and omega-3 fatty acids my omnivore body needs.)

When I get to Israel, I hope my diet will be easier than in America.  The Jewish prohibition against mixing meat and milk means, I believe, that I need only ask if a dish is “kosher dairy”.

But in Europe, I will ask in the local language whether there is any “meat” or poultry in a dish I might order.  There, as here, I will hope the waiters know what I am talking about.

To read my earlier blog post about the Torah’s version of not eating the soul of an animal, click on Re-eih & Acharey Mot: The Soul in the Blood.

 

 

 

Repost: Eikev

August 21, 2019 at 5:10 pm | Posted in Eikev | Leave a comment

I am exhausted from a week of luxury on an Alaskan cruise.  The cruise reminded me that it is easy to get too much of a good thing, to go from satisfaction to satiation to surfeit.  I am proud of myself for not taking seconds when I faced an abundance of tasty food.  But I wore myself out with a surfeit of experiences.  The concerts and shows on the ship, as well as the tours and sights at each stop, were all enjoyable and even enriching.  But now that I am home again, packing and making last-minute arrangements for a more important journey, I wish I had more energy.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, also considers the concepts of satisfaction and surfeit.  So I brushed up my 2017 post, Eikev: No SatisfactionClick on the link to read it.

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