Monday, September 21, 2015

Returning to our Senses #3: Ears

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Shabbat Teshuva 2015

This High Holiday season I am exploring texts and inspirations about our sensory organs, as a path to approaching Teshuva. Returning to our senses. This piece reflects on the ears. (Check out previous installments: the Eyes and the Mouth).

You have heard my voice:
Do not hide your ear at my breathing,
at my cry. (Lamentations 3:56)
קוֹלִי שָׁמָעְתָּ, אַל תַּעְלֵם אָזְנְךָ לְרַוְחָתִי לְשַׁוְעָתִי (איכה ג:נו)

Yom Kippur is the time of  the ear. On the day in which we refrain from putting food in our mouths, keep our hands to ourselves, and direct our eyes inwards - our ears perk up, ready to do some work.

The first day of Rabbinical School. My teacher in pastoral counseling (and life) Dr. Michelle Friedman tells us sharply: “You might think you’re here to learn what to say to people, to acquire the Halakhic answers, the teshuvot. In fact you are here to learn how to listen. When people turn to Rabbis, they are rarely actually seeking advice. They are seeking to be heard. You are here to learn how to listen to people. You’re here to grow a pair of ears.”

Ears are quite awkward. Protruding, strangely shaped, and – unlike the ears and mouth – lacking a proper cover. What is the spiritual work of the ear?
The school of Rabbi Ishmael taught: Why is the ear made of stiff parts, but the ear lobe soft? So that if a person hears something improper, they can fold the lobe into the ear. (Talmud Bavli Ketubot 5a)
Before a trend of folded-lobes becomes a big thing, it is worth giving some depth to this idea. At first glance it is yet another knee jerk moralism, blocking out what the world has to offer in an act of self-ghettoization. But for Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, in his 16th century ethical-anatomical treatise “The Palm of Devorah”, it is about learning to hear the universe the way God does:
One ears should be ever open to hear only the good. Evil speech and ugly rumor should be barred from entering the ears, just as the Divine ears do not allow any cry of criticism or evil talk enter them. So too, a person should listen for the good and useful things; and anything which is angering - should receive no hearing whatsoever. (Tomer Devorah Chapter Two)
Yet filtering out the bad and hearing only the good is just the first level. Psychologists and Philosophers of Language have taught us just how hard it is to truly hear the other, to hear beyond hearing. This begins with differentiating between what I am hearing and what is being said to me. Our auditory input is experienced through veils of our own projections and interpretations, anxieties and concerns. Can we ever hear beyond all the veils?
Hearing beyond hearing begins with being attuned to oneself – so that all of my projections and anxieties can be set aside, in a pile of their own. Next, we seek to listen beyond the speaker’s own projections towards us, their reactions and messiness, to that which is at the heart of the matter. I am continuously jealous of a good therapist’s ability to say: “Here is what they are actually asking when they are saying this…”
Hearing beyond hearing should not be misconstrued as a dismissal of the express content of the statement. I still vividly remember my frustration when – as a child – I would have a tantrum and my parents would say: “You’re not angry about X, you’re simply tired”. If I wasn’t angry until then, I became angry once that was said (I now clumsily make the same mistakes with my children…).
Similar to the way every musical frequency creates multiple overtones without negating the fundamental tone, thus refining our hearing involves being able to hear and differentiate the various fundamental tones, overtones and harmonies created within what is being said – and registering each of them independently.

Hearing the Overtones
The ability to hear the overtones of all people is how Rabbi David Cohen, the Nazirite Rabbi, understands Avraham. He interprets Avraham’s name – Av Hamon Goyim – the father of many (hamon) nations, to derive from the Hebrew word המייה (hem-ya) which means song or harmony. Thus Avraham: Father who understands the harmonies of people. Abraham could hear both the individual tones and the overtones, truly hearing the yearning of the heart of each person and nation. And it is in the overtones where people who seem to be singing different notes are actually aligned and harmonious. To be Jewish, a child of Abraham, is to hear the music surging forth from every human being.
R. David Cohen, The "Nazirite"
For Cohen, Judaism is all about ears. His masterpiece, titled “The Hebraic Auditory Logic”, claims that while Western logic is based on the primacy of the visual, that which can be seen and contemplated, Judaism is all about the auditory. Just as the English language continues to encode the assumption that eyesight is the path to truth (“Seeing is believing”, “seeing the light”, “world-view”, “I see” refers to comprehension, etc.) thus Judaism espouses an “auditory logic”: truth is achieved through the ears. Hear O Israel is much more central than See. God cannot be seen, but is achieved by hearing. To hear God means to obey him, thus the centrality of Halakha and actions in Judaism. According to Talmudic Damages, if one deafens the other, they must pays damages as if they took their entire life away. Functional ears are what make life worth living.

Between Hearing and Obeying

I am in synagogue, the Yom Kippur prior to my Bar Mitzva, reciting the viduy confessional of sins. Apparently beating my chest quite enthusiastically in the process. A compassionate face turns around and says: “You know, beating on the chest is not a form of self-punishment. We are simply knocking on our hearts. Hopefully it will hear the knocking and open up.”
At first glance, Yom Kippur is a day in which we account for whether we heard God in the past year. We confess – sounding to our ears all the ways in which we failed to fulfill Gods word, lishmoa be’kolo, to follow his voice. But keeping Yom Kippur as a test of obedience is missing the point. To obey refers to a power dynamic, while to hear is first and foremost a relational category. Perhaps we didn’t always obey – but did we hear God nevertheless?
Not that hearing is any easier. Obeying can be done from a distance. Hearing God assumes proximity. It is a much scarier affair. Adam and Eve, having failed to fulfill God’s commandments, reflect this first:
“God called to the human and said to him: Where are you? Ayekah?
He answered: I heard the sound of You in the garden,
and I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself” (Genesis 3:9-10)

According to the Midrash, God’s voice continues to call out, asking humans “Where are you? Ayekah?” Avraham was not the first human that God spoke to. He was simply the first who heard… and didn’t run the other way. He heard… and fulfilled.
During Mussaf of Yom Kippur, we retell the story of the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies. At the experiential center of the retelling is the moment in which the High Priest, as part of his confession on our behalf, recites God’s explicit name, the shem hameforash. When the Israelites in the Temple, and respectively when we in synagogue, hear this recitation, we fall to the ground. The ripples of hearing God’s explicitness in this world is such a visceral auditory experience that it makes us become embryonic once more. We turn hearing from a passive experience into a full body dance, repeated multiple times.
Yom Kippur is the day in which we reflect on our hearing God in the world. The externalities of it refer to obeying, but the internality relates to the ability to hear God’s call to humanity. We knock on our heart and ask: Where are you?
To hear the question - and not hide.

God, Hear Us

Neillah at the small and crazy Yom Kippur minyan I pray at in Jerusalem. The fast is all but over, most other synagogues breaking out the refreshments, the supernal gate about to be locked. But we’re still singing: we’ve got our foot in the door, preventing the gate from closing. We cry out: “Hear our voice, God. Don’t let your ear ignore our call, our cry. We ain’t leaving until you do…”
Like good Jews, we answer God’s Yom Kippur question with a question. Time and again on this day, we open the ark and ask: Can you hear us? We demand:  שמע קולנו, Hear our voice! We cajole: You have heard my voice: Do not hide your ear!
The ark becomes God’s ear, and we rise to meet it and to call out: Hear our voice. Make our lives matter. Don’t ignore us.
At the end of the day, the sharp sound of the Shofar clears our ears - and God’s. In the newborn year, may our ears be open – to God’s question, to our own, to others.

Gmar Hatima Tova,

Friday, September 11, 2015

Returning to our Senses #2: Mouth

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Rosh haShana 2015
Exploring texts and inspirations about our sensory organs, as a path to approaching Teshuva. This second piece reflects on the mouth. (Check out #1: Eyes).
Death and Life are in the hand of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21)

מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד לָשׁוֹן, וְאֹהֲבֶיהָ יֹאכַל פִּרְיה. (משלי יח:כא)

Our mouth is a most curious anatomical beast: a vacancy, a receptacle holding lips, teeth and tongue. It is rare among our organs in being both an input and an output mechanism. Eat-speak-interiorize, as Derrida puts it. It is the gatekeeper of the body, the primary organ through which foreign objects are allowed to become part of our selves. From the baby’s initial cry, to its subsequent suck, mammals experience the world through mouth before anything else. As the locus of eat-speak-interiorize Psychoanalysts saw the mouth as metonymic of the ego. As Jean Luc Nancy put it:
There is – there once was – a mouth that opens and says: I write, I mask myself, I fabulate, I am my body, I am a man – always inextricably uttering: I take refuge in myself or I distinguish myself. The ego says: neither the presence nor the absence; neither the structure, not the feign of the subject – but the utterly singular experience of the mouth that opens and closes [itself] at once. A tongue moves there. (Jean Luc Nancy, Ego Sum)

The Talmud placed enormous on the mouth, as one would expect from the creators of the “Torah on the Mouth”, תורה שבעל פה. Often the tongue is described as an uncontrollable fiend, a loose and ferocious dagger which needs to be encased behind tooth and lip, lock and key:
R. Yohanan said: The Blessed Holy One said to the Tongue:
All members of the human body are tense, while you lie loosely;
all members of the human body are outside, while you are guarded inside;
not only that, but I surrounded you with two walls, one of bone and one of flesh; thus it says:
“What shall I do to you, and what more can I give you, O deceitful tongue?”
 (Talmud Arakhin 16 quoting Psalms 120:3)

While the midrash focuses on speech, this could easily be said of eating too. The eating is by definition insatiable – for while the stomach that can be satiated, but never the mouth or tongue. The mouth is the locus of consumption, and on its own knows no limits. Indeed, as we’ve lost the effort that procuring and creating food once required - and with it all but lost the rituals of mindful eating – the mouth can easily be framed as the symbol of our consumerist selves.
But the claim that the body, mouth or tongue is inherently the enemy of the good doesn’t hold in most corners of Jewish tradition. Rather, the mouth is the primary site through which the self will show whether it chooses good or bad, life or death. As Rava puts it: When we seeks life – we do it with our mouth. When we seek death – we do it with our mouth. (Talmud Arakhin 15b).
Fittingly, Rosh haShana offers us many rituals of the mouth. Through eating, speech and sound, the mouth is placed at the center, inviting us to return to this most primal of organs, where our selfhood, indeed our very humanity, are epitomized.

Simanim: Rituals of Mindful Eating

In the documentary film “Unknown White Male,” the protagonist loses his memory while on the subway, waking up in Coney Island without any recollections. In one scene two friends take him out to dinner, to eat all the things he never knew existed. Cheesecake, strawberries, sushi and steak ensue. Mango – who knew! I’ve always been jealous of the concept of being reintroduced to taste in such a manner.
Sitting around the Rosh haShana table, we place symbolic foods ripe with blessings for the new year. In a deliberate process, we taste the foods and bless the new year in their symbolism. Traditionally the site of numerous Hebrew puns, our family tradition has become to have guests bring an object – edible or not – with which to bless the new year. But beyond punning carrots and honey coated toddlers, there is an opportunity here to allow the first eating of the new year to help us reset the way we will eat this year. Hitting the reset button on ourselves begins with hitting the reset button on our mouths. Returning to the primacy of taste – sweet, sour, bitter – we make the tongue alive again, as if it was created anew today. Hopefully our own renewal will ensure.

Creation: Bridging the Chasm Between Speech and Action
Before creation, there was speech. God, in the Biblical story created the world through speech: “And God said let there be Light – and there was light”. This aspect was intensified by the Rabbis, becoming a key characteristic of God’s praiseworthiness: “Blessed is he who said – and the world was created” ברוך שאמר – והיה העולם. For the Rabbis the world was described as constructed of strings of words and letters, God’s speech projected eternally out into the cosmos, keeping all of creation in place.
If God is God in the aspect that his speech is his action, and his action is speech, what does that say about us? While we humans are differentiated from the animal kingdom thanks to our ability to speak, the fact that we are not yet Gods emanates from the all-too-human chasm between our speech and our action.
As we pour mountains of words about the new year we hope to enter, we are invited to ponder the gap between our statements and our actions. Seeking to walk in God’s path includes trying to better bridge the chasm between our speech and our actions. As creation by speech becomes renewed this Rosh haShana, we can pray to become renewed ourselves in the way our speech and our action correlate.

Shofar: Returning to the first voice

Before speech, there was voice. Speech is defined, but voice, like the cry of the newborn baby, says it all without reducing it to specifics. Returning to who we really are means trying to reach back to a place before words and vowels. Rosh haShana is called Yom Truah, יום תרועה, the day of Wail – usually understood as the wail of the Shofar. But the Torah also strangely calls it a day of Zichron Truah, זכרון תרועה – the memory of a wail. What is the wail stored in our memory above all? Perhaps it is that moment in which we were all mouth, emitting the vulnerable wail, full of potential. Zichron Truah, the moment in which we became an ego, yet also so dependent on mother (parent!) and world that we were truly “part of” more than autonomous egos. One hundred voices, one hundred wails. Will it be enough to bring us back to that initial moment, full of promise? Will it be enough for us to see others from that perspective, as creations who were once just mouth, a vulnerable wail? Will it be enough to remind the Creator that at our core, we are but vulnerable wailers, mouths calling out to reconnect to the source of good? As we lift the shofar to our mouths, lets pray it is.

Shana Tova,

Friday, September 4, 2015

Returning to our Senses #1: Eyes
Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Elul 2015

Three organs are under a person’s control:
the mouth, the hands, and the feet.
Three are not under one’s control:
the eyes, the ears, and the nose.
Midrash Tanhuma, Toledot #12

This summer I studied with the 2015 Bronfman Fellows about various commandments relating to our senses and organs. Our focus was commandments of the Mouth: eating, gossiping, rebuking and praying. But the text that seemed to spark the most amount of thought and debate was the quote above from the Tanhuma. Are our organs under our control? Do we want them to be? Inspired by these questions, I’ve been using Elul, with its invitation for reflection and returning, to try to “come to my senses”. Focusing on how I control my sensory organs - and how they control me. Between now and Yom Kippur I hope to share texts and inspirations on those organs that are under our control (according to the Midrash), and those that aren’t. 
This first piece reflects on the eyes.

גַּל עֵינַי וְאַבִּיטָה (תהלים קיט:יח)
Uncover my eyes / So I can see (Psalms 119:18)

THIS has been a troubling week for our eyes. A human crises of global magnitude, brewing for years, crashed upon our eyes with one poignant, painful image. What the eyes have taken in cannot be erased. Cover my eyes, the online world begged. In our usual human weakness, it was not until the eyes SAW that we were shocked into realization, and empathy set in. Will action follow? "Uncover my eyes / so I can see."
Our eyes can be a wonderful moral actor, allowing us to go beyond ourselves and see the Other. And yet they are also our biggest adulterers. Our eyes are always somewhere other than where we are. Always hungry, on the prowl, never satiated. Beyond our control, says the Tanhuma and gives up. Yet a deeper look teaches that it is not simply about what we see, but what kind of gaze we embrace; what kind of eyes we develop.

Slit Eyed Looks

“Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said to his students:
Go out and see – what is the key to the straight path a person should choose?
Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye.” (Mishna Avot 2:9)

“We have sinned before you in narrow eyes
We have sinned before you in conspiratorial eyes,
We have sinned before you in proud eyes,
We have sinned before you in baseless hatred.” (From the Yom Kippur confessional)
עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ בצרות עין... בשקור עין... בעיניים רמות... בשנאת חינם

IN the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides writes that 90% of all evil in the world is caused by man (the rest by the laws of nature, by the way, not by God, God forbid). The reason for human evil – is that Man experiences the worlds resources as a zero sum game. If you have something, it means there is less for me. The crucial resources are not just land, money, belongings, but eventually – love. Is there enough love for me too? That essential question of sibling rivalry, epitomized by what Cain felt that morning when God paid attention to Abel’s offering, and not to his. This town isn’t big enough for the both of us.

“Narrow eyes” refer to employing a zero sum game view of the world. “What you have – I want. The fact that you have it and I don’t makes it impossible for me to be happy for you”. I cannot look at the Other without immediately comparing to my own state. Narrow eyes engender conspiratorial eyes: “How can I get that for myself”. Both reflect an inability to see the Other on their own terms. The narrow glance – unwilling to be satiated with my own share – is the root of our betrayal of the Other, and of ourselves. Faith, says Rav Shneur Zalman of Liady, is about believing that “there is enough”, that the world is not a zero sum game. Turning from a materialistic world view to a spiritual one. What Rabbi Eliezer called: “Having a good eye”. Narrow eyes at their core are heretical – they claim that God does not have enough love in the world for everyone.

Eye to Eye, Face to Face
It is striking that the Yom Kippur confession focuses not on the actual transgressions against others, but on the distortions of our consciousness which led (or even just potentially might lead) to harming others. Rav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) connects narrow eyes to the next sin on the list: baseless hatred.
“The distortions of Narrow eyes and Conspiratorial Eyes are intertwined and cause the third and gravest sin: Baseless Hatred. Hasidism interpreted Baseless Hatred (Sinat Hinam) as hatred that emanates from the basic existence of the Other. The very fact that he exists irritates and burdens me. He burdens me because his very gaze causes me to lose my freedom, and from there a deep hatred rages forth, seeking to eliminate them.
This sin is the source of shame – we can no longer look eachother in the eye, face to face. Standing “face to face” represents a sphere in which we can treat eachother favorably, celebrate in the others existence. Kabbalah describes the mythical process of the High Holidays as generating a return of the divine faces back to being “face to face “, bringing back the simplicity, the warmth and the trust to relationships.” (“At the Door”, Rav Shagar Sermons for the High Holidays, 2001).

Breaking the Gaze

Within the writings of the great Teshuva movement called Gender studies, Laura Mulvey has taught us to see the male gaze employed all around us. Her call for Teshuva focused on the film industry, the way the camera lingers over the curves of a woman's body, putting the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. She’s allowed us to see how from “high” western art to street billboards to HBO, we’re constantly invited to internalize a sexualized gaze. In my dreams I envision a coming together of feminist theory about the male gaze and halakhic moralisms about keeping of the eyes (shmirat ha-eiynayim). In one respect this is the most patriarchal of Halakhot: don’t gaze at women says the Shulkhan Arukh (Even haEzer 21). Any flight between New York and Tel Aviv invites an encounter with an Ultra Orthodox man lowering his eyes when confronted with a women (then asked to be moved to a different seat on the plane…). The most jarring move of modern “modesty” discourse across religions has been the externalizing of the male gaze: instead of men being required to control their gaze, women are required to dress in a way that keeps the eyes of those men for them. The internal moral move of changing our gaze has become an external – and immoral - demand from others.
Can we get Shmirat haeiynayim to “do Teshuva”, returning to its source as a conjunction against applying the sexualized male gaze towards other people? One good place to start is with the Shulkhan Arukh’s commentator the Magen Avraham, who explains that the prohibition on looking at women is not about mere looking but about embracing a certain kind of gaze. Just as we are prohibited from “feeding our eyes” off the Priests when they offer Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Benediction), he explains, so we must not “feed our eyes” off of people in a sexualized look. Helping our world wean itself off of the sexualized male gaze – and the fundamentalist response to it – could be a wonderful joint agenda of Feminists and Halakhists.

Eyes of Beauty, Eyes of Praise
So how should we look? Where does having a good eye start? Our technological age allows our eyes to see anything and everything in the world. We have seen it all before, on some google search somewhere. This spring I travelled to Arizona, encountering with my eyes some of the most beautiful views I had ever seen. Yet at first the redness of the rocks did not influence me – I had already seen it on my beautiful HD computer screen. The 2D HD image in my memory prevented me from truly seeing, from making room for a new, full gaze, of the beauty I had around me. My eyes were weary, cynical and unappreciative. It took several hours, days, until I could truly see what was right in front of me. And if it is so for radical beauty – how much more so for mundanity.

"I want to always have eyes to see / the beauty of the world and to praise” wrote Natan Zach, begging to "never become blind to the beauty of the world". As Rosh haShana celebrates the birth of the world, it’s a time to turn weary eyes into fresh eyes, to appreciate the beauty of creation, to embrace eyes that seek it out. Taking Rosh haShana as an eye-cleanse – from screens, from cynicism, for mundanity – to eyes that see so much beauty it makes us burst into praise. When our eyes dwell on beauty, forcing us to appreciate the inherent beauty found in the mundane – we can see the world, others and ourselves anew, and believe the world is not a zero sum game after all.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Moonshine Shavuot: In Search of Obligation: Robert Cover and the Talmud

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Moonshine Sivan | Shavuot 2015

If you believe in mythical time, on this coming Saturday night the Torah will be given to you. Again. Shavuot doesn’t celebrate a historical event from the past, but rather a real occurrence that is about to take place. You don’t want to be caught off guard.
So we stay up all night and study Torah. Or at least we make a point, on this coming Saturday night, to study something. With a hevruta, teacher, child - or on our own. Mythical or not, we thus signify to ourselves that we are part of this thing called Torah, given to us anew each year.
This month’s Moonshine, dedicated to Shavuot and the month of Sivan, offers a Talmudic discussion and an article by a legal theorist, on the themes of Choice and Obligations, Rights and Commandments. Like all good learning, it’s psychology, political science, history and current events all rolled into one, if you take it there...
In case you haven’t yet made other arrangements, this might make a fine offering for Shavuot night learning.


What was given on Shavuot? What does “receiving Torah” mean?
In one reading, it is about mitzvah, being commanded. On Shavuot we celebrate being part of a path and destiny which is larger than ourselves. We bow our head to the authority on the mountain which has chosen us as their tool. We shall obey and we shall hear.
In another reading, though, on Shavuot we received Text. With Divine Text came Human Interpretation: questioning, understanding, misinterpretation, debate. Text invites our full autonomous self to engage, study, challenge – as a way of seeking (divine) truth. The authority of the text does not undermine my own authority, in fact it recognizes my autonomy, requires it, albeit challenging me to redeem myself from the vain and mundane. At its core lies a moment of personal choice.
These two readings play out – famously – in the Talmud (Shabbat 88), a text worth returning to each Sahvuot. The first opinion is that of Rav Avdimi. Mount Sinai hovering over my head, I have no choice. Accept the Torah – or die. Generations later, I might never have stood at Sinai, but that is the whole point: it isn’t about me. I am obligated.
Rava is having none of it though. “If that is the case,” says Rava, “then the binding nature of the Torah is like that of a contract signed under coercion – unenforcable.” Since God gave us text and law to study, we have developed based on it a self understaning of the importance of choice in the legal process. The Torah is a contract like any other – and must abide by the (human) rules set for it.
(There’s a third opinion, but that would take us to a whole other holiday. Study the full text here).
This classic discussion is played out in the essay “Obligation: A Jewish Jurisprudence of the Social Order” by the late and great Yale legal theorist Robert Cover. What is described about as an internal Talmudic debate, Cover takes as the basic difference between the “fundamental word” of the Western political tradition - “rights” - to that of Jewish law - “obligation”. Cover begins by playing out the two fundamental words of each tradition and the myths that fuel them:
Social movements in the United States organize around rights. When there is some urgently felt need to change the law or keep it in one way or another a “Rights” movement is started. The story behind the term “rights” is the story of social contract… making the collective arrangement the product of individual choice and thus secondary to the individual.
In Jewish law an entitlement without an obligation is a sad, almost pathetic thing… A child does not become emancipated or “free” when he or she reaches maturity, rather the child becomes bar or bat mitzvah – literally, one who is of the obligations” The basic word of Judaism is obligation or mitzvah. It is intrinsically bound up in the myth of Sinai, a myth of heteronomy. The experience at Sinai is not chosen.
When I first read this, I thought Cover was positing the power of Obligation as a traditionalist Jewish apologetic or as a conservative’s yearning for a lost past. Yet as he deepens the discussion, it becomes clear that he is expressing the yearning of the Liberal to obligate himself and his society in distributive justice:
A jurisprudence of rights naturally solves certain problems while stumbling over others. It has proved singularly weak in providing for the material guarantees of life and dignity flowing from the community to the individual. While we make talk of a right to medical care, the right to subsistence, the right to an education, we are constantly met by the realization that such rhetorical tropes are empty in a way that the right to freedom of expression or the right to due process are not… The “right to an education” is not even an intelligible principle unless we know to whom it is addressed. Taken alone it only speaks to a need. A distributional premise is missing which can only be supplied through a principle of “obligation”.
I believe that every child has a right to decent education and shelter, food and medical care; I believe that refugees from political oppression have a right to a haven in a free land… I do believe and affirm the social contract that grounds those rights. But more to the point I also believe that I am commanded – that we are obligated – to realize those rights.
Cover invites us to seek out this Shavuot how we can reclaim commandedness and obligation in service of the projects we believe in. The language of rights is powerful, but insufficient (as is the language of Obligation). It is an American question, and a Jewish one. No one likes being commanded, and yet we seek to be obligated to the things that matter most. Otherwise we'll never make it from the foot of the mountain to the promised land.

Dedicated to a theme in the Jewish month, Moonshine is a combination Dvar Torah and springboard for learning in the coming 30 days. Moonshine - in honor of the Hebrew month’s commitment to the lunar cycle, with a hint of distilling fine spirits off the beaten track and - perhaps - intoxication.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Making it Count: Studying Sefirat Omer, Judaism’s Best Game

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Moonshine Iyar 2015 | Text and the City

“From the morrow of the Sabbath you’ll count fifty days,
And offer up a new offering to the Lord” (Leviticus 23)

Few things are sillier in Judaism than Sefirat haOmer, “counting the days” from Passover until Shavuot. This innocuous spring ritual consists of ritually reciting a number each night, then repeating the way that number divides into seven. Today is the Twelfth day, which is one week and five days to the Omer. Those who can count the correct number each night through forty nine, win a hefty portion of cheesecake on the fiftieth night. Undoubtedly, if it wasn’t for the brilliant game layerof Sefirat haOmer (forget one night, and you’re out…), this ritual would never have survived three thousand years of Jewish upheaval. Yet dig into the silliest rituals and you’ll find microcosms of the biggest questions.
This month’s Moonshine is an invitation to dig into Sefirat haOmer through three lenses: read the original verses in Leviticus, study Nehama Leibowitz’ exploration into the meaning of the original Omer ritual through traditional commentaries, or explore the Hasidic-psychological reinterpretation of the Omer in a delightful essay from the “Netivot Shalom” Rebbe of Slonim. You can even order a Sefirat haOmer spiritual workbook online. Sure, counting the Omer began a few weeks ago, but there are still five weeks left to make it count. Download one of these resources and study it before the fifty days are up.
A recap of some of these ideas and my own thoughts follows.
I love digging into the genealogy of Jewish rituals and uncovering their layers: the fossilized remains of ancient food, the lava-like polemics that have since frozen over, the small gems of interpretation that have crystallized amid the rocks. Studying the sources one finds that what at first seemed to be an empty shell of meaningless actions, held together by a sense of tradition, is actually a flourishing field. Feeding off the nutritious geological wonder hidden below it, it offers a fertile land for growth and rootedness today. Or something like that…
Such is the ritual of the counting of the Omer. At the bedrock level, it is an agricultural ritual of marking the grain harvest season, and counting from the very first crops to the peak of the harvest fifty days later, as described in Vayikra 23. It was a sanctification ritual of food and labor, recognizing the source of this goodness and zooming out to the larger purpose of our life’s work. In 16th century Tsfat, R. Moshe Alshikh described it as a corrective to affluence at the time of reaping profits:
“Affluence has the most pernicious effect on a person’s character, causing them to be haughty and arrogant… This can be avoided if a person acknowledges that Divine source of wealth instead of boasting that ‘my mighty hand has gotten me this wealth’ (Deut. 8:17). With the onset of the barley harvest, which is the earliest before beholding the abundant produce in the storehouses and on the field, man must recognize that his strength is illusory, for ‘all is vanity’ (Keheleth 3:19). Thus God has commanded us to offer up the earliest product of the harvest presenting the priest one omer as a token of gratitude… only after the omer has been offered up on the altar may Israeli enjoy the new produce of the year.”
But that agricultural reality ended hundreds and hundreds of years ago – covered over by a layer of Roman war and destruction. But the keen geological eye also recognizes the remnants of a great Jewish war, a huge intellectual debate between Pharisees and Sadducees, repeating a few centuries later between Karaites and Rabbinites. The focus: the start day of the Omer, and thus the date in which Shavuot is celebrated. Is it fifty days after Passover, or fifty days after the Shabbat after Passover? How does this frozen over lava of a debate resonate today? I hear in it echoes of the question of the Enlightenment: is liberation an end in itself, or only in the sense that it lead to a greater good? Is the Passover Exodus a sufficient redemption, or does it only bear meaning in its connection to the the covenant at Sinai on Shavuot? In other words, are Independence and liberty a goal in itself (negative freedom), or do they only set the stage for the achievement of a larger vision of society (positive freedom).
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch in 19th century Germany claims that’s what the counting of the Omer is all about – creating a trajectory from liberation to construction, from exodus to obligation:
You have celebrated the Feast of your Liberation (Passover) and remembered before your God your independence, living in your land and eating its produce. You have therefore reached your freedom and the benefits of independence, the very goals all nations aspire to. You, however, are but on the threshold of your calling as a nation, and have started counting the days to the attainment of another goal. The Torah expresses the commandment of the Omer thus: “From the first time you put the sickle to reap the crops, you shall commence to count seven weeks” (Deut 16:9). When others cease to count, you being your counting.
Independence is amazing. It will be celebrated in Israel this week; will be reclaimed in every speech of an American presidential candidate in the coming 18 months; in the mouth of every graduating student this spring. But what is the goal of this independence? How does it tie into the achievement of a greater calling? It’s easy to agree about independence, but it’s what we do with it that matters. The counting begins now.
As one reaches the top of the Omer geological formation, a new layer appears. It is not about agricultural reality or national calling, but about personal journey. In the hands of Kabbalists and Hasidim, Counting the Omer becomes a psychological journey, an act of self-transformation, a tool of individual redemption. The grains of wheat turn into illuminations, the counting - a process of ethical and spiritual distillation. The Rebbe of Slonim articulates this best in his “Netivot Shalom”, then takes it in a surprising direction:
Counting (“sefartemספרתם) refers to the word sapir, meaning light, illumination. Thus “u’sefratem lachem” – ספרתם לכם – comes to mean “create for yourselves illuminations”. And these illuminations refer specifically to the elements of “on the morrow of the Sabbath”. The work of Sefirat haOmer should be specifically in the secular and concrete elements of life, those of the “morrow of the Sabbath”. Thus the seven weeks of the Omer are for finding elevation and holiness within that which is permitted, the bodily pleasures, the breadFor bread has two meanings in the Torah – actual bread, and sexual intercourse – food and sex. Distilling our relationship to these two elements is the new grain offering we are asked to offer at the end of the fifty days.
(A full translation of the Slonimer’sessay on Sefirat haOmer is attached here, in my humble translation. To explore the Omer as a journey of personal self transformation, I recommend Simon Jacobson’s delightful booklet: “A Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer”)

Suddenly we are back in the world of actual grain, the Omer is about how we deal with “Bread”. Yet as the Slonimer notes, it is no longer about us as producers of grain, but as its consumers. This is where we need the work of refinement and distillation. Its not an easy process – and it requires disciplined daily work in order to be met.
Anthropologists have notes that good ritual is one which offers a very specific container yet leaves a lot of room for varied interpretation. Add onto it the game layer of the Omer, and you have the trappings of some excellent ritual. Life – at its base - is counting the time go by. Lets make that counting count.
Happy counting,


Netivot Shalom on Sefirat haOmer | A New Grain Offering Translation

Sharing an abridged and "fast and loose" translation of my favorite modern Hassidic text...

“And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Sabbath, from the day of bringing the Omer sheaf, seven whole weeks, until the morrow of the seventh Sabbath you shall count fifty days – and then bring a new offering of grain to the Lord: Two loaves of bread…” (Leviticus 23:15-17)
We must understand the significance of this “new offering of grain”; and why the Torah doesn’t give a specific date for Shavuot, only naming it the fiftieth day; and why we count forty nine days when it says to count fifty. And through these questions we can understand the deeper purpose of the Counting of the Omer.
For the entire period from Passover until Shavuot is one unit, in which the Exodus out of Egypt is completed. For the entire purpose of Passover is that it is “the time of our freedom”, in other words to exit into freedom from the enslavement to Pharaoh in Egypt – meaning the enslavement to the klipa, the external shell of Egypt. But this liberation is not completed until Shavuot, for “you do not have anyone as free as one who busies themselves with Torah”, and as it says “When you liberate the people out of Egypt – you shall come and worship me on this mountain” – meaning that the liberation from Egypt is only complete when you have worshipped Me at Sinai. For the Exodus and the Receiving of the Torah are one thing and stand on a continuum. For until a Jew goes through the period of cleansing and arrives so at the Receiving of the Torah – there is no complete “time of our freedom”.
Thus the period of Sefirat haOmer includes two aspects. The first is the completion of the Exodus, as it says in the “Divrei Moshe”:
 […] Just as the Exodus is mentioned in the Torah in regard to the commandments fifty times – so there are fifty aspects of leaving Egypt. And even after having left Egypt in one aspect – there are still many more aspects to be liberated from, up to fifty times. And in these fifty are included all the personal traits and attributes. For in each of them there is an aspect of Exodus. As the midrash states on the word “hamushim - armed did Israel leave Egypt”, to read “hamushim - only one in fifty left Egypt” that on the first day of Passover they were liberated from only one portion in fifty out of Egypt, and they were liberated in only one aspect of the 50 required for completion. And they had to go through another forty-nine days until they could leave out of all 50 aspects of the exodus.
Thus the goal of Sefirat haOmer is being a continuation of the “time of our freedom”: that in every day we have an exodus out of one more element of Egypt, until we reach the telos of the Exodus – which is the receiving of the Torah. And this is the point of the 49 days of the counting – to purify us from our shells and impurities – in other words to be liberated and redeemed from all fifty aspects of the impurity of Egypt.
Based on this we can understand why it says “you shall count fifty days”, for the number fifty includes also the first day of Passover, during which we are liberated from the first part of fifty of the Exodus, and then during the other days we leave the other 49 aspects. Now we can understand the need for the counting to be complete, such that if one missed one day of the counting – they can only count without saying the blessing. For every day of the Omer has an aspect of the Exodus, and if you missed one – you have not fully left Egypt.
Moreover, the counting must be continuous from the first day of Passover. Because all of the energy of the days of the counting come from the illumination of the first day of Passover. As the Rabbi Moshe of Koznitz says:
The first night of passover has an aspect of expansive mind (gadlut mohin) – for the light comes directly from the Creator unnaturally and suddenly – and then this expansiveness disappears and the person falls into smallness of mind (katnut) and a person must then collect the holy lights gradually one after the other in the days of the Counting (Sefirah), to elevate from one aspect (sefirah) to the next and to elevate themselves each time more and more until the holy day of Shavuot arrives, the day of the Receiving of our Torah, to arrive at that point to the essence of that first illumination from the first day of Passover – for that illumination gives power to the person to return to their initial strength. And all this is possible thanks to the light revealed on the first day of Passover, and even though that light disappears – there is still the trace of it (reshimu) from which one can get the power needed later in the days of Counting to strengthen and climb from one aspect to the next, each day a little more, until they arrive at Shavuot to that same initial illumination.
The second aspect to the Counting of the Omer is in its being a preparation for Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah. This aspect is rooted in what Rabbi Hayim Vital says: that the purification of one’s personal traits, the work of the midot, is in itself the creation of a chair and carrier in which to receive the Torah. For as long as a Jew does not purify their traits, they cannot receive the Torah, and the Torah cannot reside in them. Therefore as a preparation for receiving the Torah God gave us these days of Counting – during which the work is to purify our traits so that we will be worthy of receiving the Torah.
And they say in the holy books that the 49 days of Counting equal in gimatriya Lev Tov לב טוב – a good heart, which alludes to all the traits relating to interpersonal behavior, bein adam lehavero. As it says in Pirkei Avot: “Rabbi Yohhana ben Zakkai had five students and asked them: “Go and find what is the best trait a person can seek for themselves… and Rabbi Elzazar ben Arakh said: Lev Tov, a good heart; and R. Yohnan ben Zakai said: I see the words of Ben Arakh for his trait includes all of yours.” For the heart is the source and root of all personal traits.
And furthermore 49 in gimatriya is El Hai אל חי – Living God. As the AR”I, R. Isaac Luria, says is the name of the sefirah of Yesod, that when one purifies themselves in this sefirah they can feel the beating pulse of Divinity.
So the role of the days of the Sefirah is to purify and distill all the traits, both those relating to interpersonal behavior, seeking to achieve a Good Heart - Lev Tov, and those relating to one’s relationship to God – to achieve the experience of Living God, El Hai. For this is the true preparation needed in order to receive the Torah on Shavuot -  dependent on the work of distillation which takes place on the days of the Omer.
And as the Maharal of Prague wrote, that the true wholeness in a person requires three elements: Whole with the creator, whole with their companions, whole with themselves. And it is this type of wholeness which a person must strive for during this period, so that they will be worthy of the Torah residing within them. Thus the days of the Counting are a period of purification of our personal traits in order to receive the Torah. […]
And from this we can understand what the Torah means when it says “you shall count fifty days, and offer up and new grain offering to the Lord” (Lev. 23) – for this is the purpose of the days of Counting, that once a Jew has purified themselves and distilled their traits during seven whole weeks, then they will attain on Shavuot to “offer a new offering to God” in receiving the Torah. As it says in the Kli Yakar that the “new offering” refers to the Torah, as the Rabbis say “ every day the words of the Torah should appear to you as new” and each and every year these is a new receiving of the Torah. And this is why no exact date is given for Shavuot in the Torah – because the receiving of the Torah is dependent on the continuum which begins with the first day of Passover, and all the days from Passover, through the counting, until Shavuot – are all one continuous unit. And the more one invests in the work of purifying their traits and the work of interpersonal relations – so do they achieve a higher aspect of the Torah on Shavuot.
For the continuum works thus: The initial illumination which God shines on from high is an awakening from above (it’aruta d’leila) – for such is the “passing over” of Passover – and it all but disappears. Yet it leaves a trace throughout the 49 days which allows the Jewish person to slog and toil in refining their traits – creating an awakening from below (it’aruta d’letata). And it is based on this toil that the Jewish person creates the ingredients from which to offer a “new offering” on Shavuot, and arrive ready to receive the elevated illuminations of Shavuot and the Torah.
And my grandfather, in the Beit Avraham, says on the verse “and you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Sabbath” – counting (“sefartemספרתם) refers to the word sapir, illumination, in other words “sefratem lachem” - create for yourselves illuminations. And these illuminations refer specifically to the elements of “on the morrow of the Sabbath” – that the work of Sefirat haOmer should be specifically in the “secular” and concrete elements of life, those of the “morrow of the Sabbath”. […] For the seven days of Teshuva between Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur are for transgressing the forbidden, for correcting outright sins, but the seven weeks of the Omer are for finding elevation and holiness within that which is permitted, the bodily pleasures. […]
And thus we can explain why on Shavuot the offering in the temple was of two loaves of bread. For bread has two meanings in the Torah – actual bread, and sexual intercourse (as it says in relation to Joseph and Potiphar - “he allowed him all but the bread which he eats”). And this is the new grain offering we are asked to offer at the end of the fifty days.
This explains the contradiction regarding Hametz on Passover and Shavuot. For during Passover one must annihilate all hametz, implying that one must distance themselves from hametz in totality, and yet during Shavuot the Torah commands us to bring an offering of two loaves that are specifically made of hametz.
And we can explain this by relating to the two aspects which are called “bread”. That indeed before one purifies themselves in those two elements – food and sex, which are called bread – one must treat them like hametz, like something which is totally unnecessary. For while one is stuck in the 49 aspects of impurity, one cannot offer up an offering to God from among that which is impure. But once one has gone through the process of purification of the 49 days of counting, once they have purified themselves in those elements of “the morrow of the Sabbath”, then they can offer a new offering to God, even one that is from Hametz.

[1] Translation Rabbi Mishael Zion, fast and loose.