Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Shabbat-O-Gram for May 25
Memorial Day and Shavuot: Imperfect Together?
One holiday features dairy foods and the other barbecues. Unless you are into barbecued blintzes, it seems like a mismatch.
But Shavuot and Memorial Day have more in common than we would think. For one thing, both celebrate the unofficial beginning of summer. For another, they are both curiously neglected and rarely are they observed as originally intended.
In the case of Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah at Sinai was a later insertion of history into what was essentially an agricultural holiday. These days, most Jews are unfamiliar with Shavuot altogether, as it gets the least attention of all Jewish festivals (here's a funny quick primer, "The Idiot's Guide to Shavuot" ).
Memorial Day, meanwhile was originally a day to remember war dead ("Memorial" Day...get it?), before it became an occasion for car sales, beach trips and barbecues. Maybe this year we can regain some of the deeper meaning of each festival, now that we'll be celebrating them together.
All weekend long, ironically, our cemetery will be officially closed because of Shabbat and Shavuot. I can't recall a time when our cemetery has been closed on Memorial Day. But on Memorial Day, the second day of Shavuot, we will recite Yizkor prayers at our morning service, and at that time, I'll be reading the names of some American Jewish soldiers who have died recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. This weekend, I hope that each of us will take a moment to recall those who have made the supreme sacrifice.
Weather permitting, we'll be holding Shabbat morning services OUTDOORS this week, in honor of the beginning of the summer season (which Memorial Day and Shavuot both mark, unofficially). Look for us to the left of the office entrance, in the shady area with tree stumps. If this works out, we'll do it again during the summer. Dress is campy-warm weather-casual.
NUMBERS and NAMES - a TEXT Message for this week's portion
I've had the honor of being included among dozens of rabbis, educators and other Jewish leaders who have contributed to the new book "Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens," being released this week by Jewish Lights. It so happens that this week's portion of Bamidbar is the one that I wrote about. Nice timing! With permission of Jewish Lights, I share it with you here.
I've never been great at math, but I've always had a fascination with numbers.
"Who knows one? I know one!" we sing at the Passover Seder- the same event that boasts four cups, four children, four questions, three matzot, and ten plagues.
Come to think of it, Jews are obsessed with numbers. We even have an entire book of the Torah called Numbers, though in Hebrew it has an entirely different name-Bemidbar, "in the wilderness,"
which is also the name of this Torah portion.
Bemidbar contains a count of the Israelites. It is very rare for the Bible to contain a census, or count, and Jews have always been a little nervous about such counts. But wait: how could a tradition so obsessed with numbers be so afraid of counting people?
Here's the answer.
We don't want to turn people into numbers.
In the haftarah (the prophetic reading) that goes with this Torah portion, the prophet Hosea seems to be sending that message when he states that the number of the people in Israel cannot be counted, much like grains of sand. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, says something similar in a commentary to Exodus 30, which also contains the story of a census: "The evil eye controls something that has been counted." The Talmud echoes the idea that God only imparts blessing to that which is not quantified. In very traditional Jewish worship services, when people calculate whether there is a minyan (quorum of ten worshippers), they'll count "Not one, not two, not three ..." to fool that "evil eye."
Yes, that practice probably seems superstitious, but what is it really saying to us? It is saying something very big and very valuable: a human being is more than the sum of his or her parts. We can't be reduced to merely our statistics: our age, our phone number, our Social Security number. We are more than all of that.
We can learn this, terribly, from the Nazis. When the Nazis wanted to totally dehumanize someone, what did they do? They assigned him or her a number, and they tattooed that number on the person's arm. After all, if you can reduce an entire life to a number, then it makes it that much easier to erase that entire life. As someone who loves sports, I look closely at statistics, but I know that while a player's stats can be impressive, they never tell the whole story. A basketball player's scoring averaging doesn't
tell us whether he can block out, set picks, or make a perfect pass.
For me, the number "twelve" will always remind me of my favorite quarterback, Tom Brady, and "fifty-six" is Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak, but we cannot measure the accomplishments of these players in numbers alone. When we rate someone's looks numerically ("She's a ten!"), it may be flattering, but we have just turned that person into an object.
In the words of the theme song to the old television show Secret Agent, "they've given you a number, and taken away your name."
We live in a digital age. After all, when you really think about it, what are all of those photos on our computers, or the streaming music, or the text messages, or the Skype chats, or the Google searches? They are all based on computer language, and computer language is nothing more or less than infinite combinations of ones and zeros.
There can be something very powerful-even sacred-about the relationships and connections that we forge online in that virtual world.
But the Torah suggests that from time to time, we step back from the virtual to the real, the world of infinitely complex and infinitely beautiful human beings created in God's image. We are more than our numbers.
And finally, join us on Sat. night for our "Food for Thought" panel (begins with a musical service at 8:30)
For the main course, we've got renowned food author Ronnie Fein, nutritionist Greta Meyers and Rabbi Michelle Dardashti discussing these intriguing questions, among others...
- What makes Jewish food "Jewish?"
- Is kosher/Jewish food healthy?
- How much is enough? When should we stop eating?
- Are Jews fatter than the general population?
- Is pizza on Friday night sacrilegious?
- Is the food the prime factor that keeps people identified as Jews?
- What's YOUR favorite Jewish food?
Click here for a complete study guide on "Jews and Food" and be prepared to come here and use your mouths extensively that night, for both talking and eating (yes, we'll have cheesecake!) and some praying too.