Monday, January 27, 2014

Learning How to Be From the Torah (and with apologies to all football fans!)

This past week’s Parshat HaShavuah was Mishpatim. As Rabbi Lord Sir Jonathan Sacks writes in his weekly teaching, we make an abrupt move from narrative of amazing people and situations (as well as some that give us cause for question) in our Torah as Storyteller to a completely different mode of Torah, that as Law Giver. He asks why don’t we continue on to the narrative of the events that make us who we are but then just as quickly and in his singularly articulate manner, explains that we need the laws to know who we are and how to be. He explains that the vision of US as a PEOPLE is found in the details of our lives, so many of which are found in Mishpatim and will continue to be the subject of coming weeks.

Clear and beautiful as well as simple to understand. Yet, it is precisely these details that many people find irrelevant or too difficult and prefer to dismiss them. I really do get it. Let me explain. Next Sunday is Super Bowl Sunday. And my husband and many friends are truly experiencing the pre-pre-pre-show to this very elevated experience. THIS I DO NOT GET!

I finally actually (as opposed to pretending which is what I normally do) watched my very first football game several weeks ago, you know, the Eagles game (I forget who they were playing already) dubbed the SNOW BOWL. It was so much fun watching these guys rolling around in the snow. It was really cool and fun. BUT not the point, I am told. What I was watching was not the vision of football, defined by all of its particulars and detailed regulations; but just a fun blurry white snowy mess.

If we do not stop to look at and understand the particulars and important details, we do not get the bigger picture. Yet, before we get to the particulars and important details, we need the vision of the bigger context of what it is we are concerned about. Torah does this. First we get the stories, the people, the situations and the potential of what we can be. Then once we experience the series of events that bring us to the point to BE ALL THAT WE CAN, we must understand the particulars and the details that will be part of our reality. In my daily learning of Gemara, in Masechet Shabbat, at one point in the discussion of the Tabernacle/Mishkan and the covering (coming up in next week’s reading and to continue for a while), the question is posed “Why are we teaching this Law? What relevance does it have for us today?” One proposed answer (sparing you all of the details for obvious reasons) is that we learn about Tefillin regarding how they are made and what materials can be used. These we continue to use daily even though we do not have the Tabernacle/Mishkan. By following this practice of utilizing proper materials (in this case, the discussion is actually about animal skins permitted in the leather parts), we are not only doing something that makes sense to us today but we are also continuing the practice that links us to so much in our past. In Mishpatim as we read through the Ten Commandments, the laws of indentured (and very limited) servitude, laws regarding how we treat each other, and so much else, we are looking ahead. We are considering the lessons of the past amazing chapters of our lives in the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and the years of Moshe’s leadership and leaving Egypt as we set the tone for our future, which will be forever tied to our past through our observance of the details and the particulars of the people who we are and the way we live. This is history, bringing together our past and our present, insuring our future.

So years ago, I was returning home from a consultation visit to another community and met a football player from years ago – a Philadelphia Eagle, no less. We exchanged first names and talked about life. My family was not too pleased with me for not getting his autograph and particulars. Clearly, I just did not get it – I just thought he was a quite nice older gentleman. We were talking and he was stating how disappointed he was that football today is not the same game he played years ago. He felt it had “sold out and become too commercialized” and was not as much about the sport any more. He felt that a tradition (the vision he had learned and been part of!) had been lost, even corrupted.

Judaism is often touted as the one ancient way of life most accurately preserved. This is precisely because of the vision, intact in our minds through our yearly repetition of the stories of our past and our daily learning of the many details that were informed by that vision and take us back to our roots as well as bolster our existence in our lives today.

So does this mean football fans and players and associated parties could learn something from Torah? As for me, I am hoping the Super Bowl will be another Snow Ball! Sorry! (I mean Snow Bowl!)

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Most Wonderful Gifts of All

I continue to be reminded about how much good common sense is found in the texts of our Jewish heritage in my daily study of Gemara. So, here I am in the middle of Masechet Shabbat and lo and behold on 10b we have the following elements of discussion: When one conveys a gift upon another person, they should inform him about it. This is discussed in terms of Moses being “gifted” by G-d with a radiant face and perhaps needing to better understand this change. As the discussion continues, it is suggested that the incredible gift that G-d gives is Shabbat, the day when we can live like royalty and not be workers, so to speak, able to experience a higher level of existence. Then in typical Gemara fashion there are some stories regarding Rabbi Chisda who says he will give a gift to the one who gives them a new teaching. This then morphs, as these discussions often do (and keep in mind I am doing major editorializing here to make this a clearer concept) to the type of gifts we give to each other, referencing specifically the coat that Yaakov gave to Yosef, which as we know, caused so much contention. We then come to a lesson that we should treat our children equally and not give one of them a far better gift that will cause jealousy and so many problems, as we know happens through the story of Bereshit/Genesis.

Okay, so as I was reading this text, I was so excited. First the idea of checking in and acknowledging that people have received what we have given them is interesting in terms of the idea presented here versus social conventions as to whether or not we should do so. Then we note that words of wisdom and important experiences are the most valued and important gifts and that material gifts can cause serious problems if we are not careful. Finally, we should treat our children equally (not meaning the same necessarily), giving them each what they need and not favoring one above the other. Such great advice for living our lives.

So there I am sitting at my kitchen table, which is where I sit when I am learning Gemara. Straight ahead of me is a beautiful collection of cards that have been chosen, written and given to me by my children. They are truly beautiful expressions of their gratitude for what I have given them, but more important to me, they are indicative of the amazing gifts they have given me by becoming these incredible people who are making such important differences in our world and showing me day by day that they are now able and eager to pass on to others what they have learned by being part of our family. Their wise words are truly gifts to me and the experiences we have all shared are so much more powerful than the various material things we have bestowed upon each other.

I love each of my four children the most. That is to say, I am honored by what they have become and cannot express the extent of my gratitude for how each of my children continue to maintain the extremely close relationships that have been the soul of this family through the years. Parenting is an amazing adventure to be sure. You give everything you have and it is so clear to me that even with that, you still get so much back. I hope and pray that each of my children will come to know the incredible joy and gift of parenting I have experienced. And may we all learn the true meaning of gifting and the value and nature of the gifts we give!

I will end in honor of the words of Masechet Shabbat by wishing all a Shabbat Shalom – may you enjoy the peace, experience and the words of wisdom you acquire this coming Shabbat and in all that follow.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

My new favorite name for a girl is …. Yilta!

I want to begin a campaign to name our girls Yilta. I did suggest this to my daughter Yoella, who is expecting in March (B’Sha’ah Tovah) and her response was … why it rhymes with gifilte … so now our name for Baby-To-Be is Yilte Gefilte Kriger, but Yoella has assured me that she will never agree to keep the name once little Yilta is born. I am sad….

So who was Yilta, you ask? It’s a fair question.

Some years ago, I had the privilege and honor of learning with Chana Safrai z’l, an AMAZING teacher of Talmud. One of her areas of concentration was the women who are named in the Talmud, and surprise, there are not many! So, as Chana taught me to do, I am hyper-sensitive to whenever we actually have a name, you understand, a name of her own, not the wife of this one or the daughter of that one. And YILTA is named for her own sake, even as the wife of Rabbi Nachman. Further, I would suggest that this is for very good reason and there is an important lesson to learn.

So here is the story (oh, and by the way there are others, so she was obviously VERY important). In Masechet Berachot (51b), Rabbi Ulla comes for dinner to Rabbi Nachman and YILTA’s house. They are have made Kiddush and Rabbi Nachman asks Ulla to pass the Kos Kiddush (the Kiddush cup) to Yilta. Ulla refuses and quotes a verse indicating that a woman is not blessed for her own sake but through her husband. Yilta hears this and is beyond furious. She immediately stomps away from the scene of this offense and proceeds to where the wine was stored and broke 400 jugs of wine (that’s a lot!). Nachman turns to Ulla at this point (and was not too pleased, I would imagine) and asks again for him to take a new cup of wine and to appease (apologize to?) Yilta. Yilta would have none of it however and really gave it to Ulla in poetic fashion of course, saying “from itinerant peddlers come ide words “ or something to that effect.

So here we have Women’s Lib in the Talmud. Bella Abzug would be proud!

So why won’t my daughter join my campaign? She stated that breaking four hundred jugs of wine is not a legacy she wishes to pass on. So, I asked her why so many of us love and use the name Yael. After all, do we want to name our daughters after someone who lured a tired warrior (granted not a worthy person, so we are taught) into her tent with warm milk and then speared his head?

Hmmmmm, well four hundred jugs of wine for rudeness? I think I am more comfortable with that, maybe. But do I really want to have a cute little girl named Yilta Gefilta? Well, maybe I have to think of another way to call attention to Rabbi Nachman’s formidable and important wife!