Toward Harvest, part 1 (Beyond 41)

Originally posted during the Omer 2015. References to the exact date of the count have been removed or placed in {{}} to avoid confusion. Also note that Behar, the Torah portion including Jubilee instructions, is read on its own in leap years (like 2019).

The Jewish calendar places us in several different moments simultaneously. We are just over a week away from Shavuot, our re-experiencing of Sinai; but we are also Behar [at the mountain] already, as we close out the reading of Leviticus in the annual Torah cycle (Behar, Lev 25:1-26:2, & Bechukotai, Lev 26:3-27:34). We have counted {{number of}} weeks already, and we have ALSO counted {{number of}} days so far — We are commanded (Lev 23:15-16) to count both 50 days and “seven complete weeks.”

We are also, as Rabbi Joel Mosbacher notes in his commentary on this week’s Torah reading, at a precarious moment in history, as well as in the agricultural cycle:

And since these holidays are also connected with the agricultural cycle, the counting of the omer is a time of trepidation—these days of spring will determine whether we have an abundant harvest or not. Will the hard work of planting and tending come to fruition, or will it be wiped away by drought or pests? It is a time of both fear and anticipation….

As we count the years since the great [Civil Rights] movement [of the 1960s] in our own nation, we also wonder if the planting that was done in the civil rights era will come to fruition, if we will reap the harvest of our predecessors’ hard work. Americans are being crushed once again, with violence and economic and racial inequality. We have not yet achieved the magical, transcendent moment of Sinai.
— see “Free At Last?” from T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights
See also “Jubilee (Beyond 37)

One theme of this omer journey toward Revelation has been working to ensure that we widen our perspectives so that we can absorb more this year at Sinai than we might have in the past. In yet another aspect to the Jewish calendar, we are coming up on Shabbat, a time to set aside worries, take a “breath,” and celebrate being. And, in the spirit of all of the above, I offer links to “Ackee and Saltfish.”

 from film,
from film, “Ackee and Saltfish”, well worth the £3 ($4.53 US). Watch it now.

Ackee and Saltfish is a short film and webseries that both celebrate precious, ordinary moments between friends and offer an entertaining commentary on issues of diversity and cultural appropriation.

While set in England, the series’ themes are familiar to U.S. viewers. This picture of dismay, as the friends find Olivia’s favorite Jamaican take-out lost to gentrification, might easily be set on Martin Luther King Avenue in DC’s Ward 8 and in other locales across the U.S., as well as in London. Justin Simien, director of Dear White People — a full-length film you should also (re-)see sometime — says on a recent episode of Exhale on Aspire that part of his work is to “debunk the belief that people of color can’t be the everyman.” Cecile Emeke, creator of “Ackee and Saltfish,” brilliantly participates in this work as well.

The first five web episodes, all short and entertaining, are available free of charge (though support is welcomed); the short film is available for small donation ($4.53 or £3).

Making the Omer Count

from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression
A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.

So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me.

Food for All Creatures

“[God] prepares food for all creatures…” This line, which appears in the first section of the blessing after meals [Birkat Hamazon], has been giving me pause lately…Quite literally, if I’m paying the least attention to the words, I find myself stuck — “on pause” – as I consider whether what I just ate was the appropriate food for this particular creature at this particular time.

To understand how difficult this question is for me requires a bit of family history.

I do not come from a long line of women who enjoyed or excelled at cooking. On my maternal side, I descend from women who considered the successful boiling of noodles an accomplishment, although my mother did make a mean fudge. Stories of the elder women in my mother’s family – “Little Grandma” and “Big Grandma” – are devoid of fragrant bread or savory soup.

My father’s culinary repertoire offered two prominent recipes of no use to a household with peanut allergies (not to mention issues of kashrut): fried peanut butter and bacon sandwiches and crackers topped with peanut butter and horse-radish mustard. He failed to instill in me his love of anchovies, although I did take up his habit of adding something salty to ice cream. Semi-annual visits to his mother’s kitchen convinced me that canning and baking were foreign practices with no role in city life.

Fudge and salty ice cream. For a long time, I was happy enough with this legacy.

For years, I was unaware that families outside books or television might offer more varied lessons in food preparation. I eventually realized that some folks enjoyed preparing and serving meals, but I still found the concept hard to grasp. As a parent, I became increasingly aware of how much I had never learned about food. But it was only with the diagnosis of Type II Diabetes in mid-life that I started to accept how much I needed to know.

Only in recent days, as I begin the blessing after meals – “Blessed are You, God, Sovereign of the Universe, who in goodness feeds the world…who prepares food for all creatures…” – do I stop to ask: Was what I just ate for me? Did it really feed me?

“[God] prepares food for all creatures” is usually understood to reference worms for birds, grains for mice, bugs for frogs. But lately I’ve been hearing it as a nudge to ask: Was that meal the best choice for this particular creature at this point in her day? Would something else have served me better?

Lately, the blessing has been reminding me that fudge and salty ice cream – however suitable as treats for a child in motion – are simply not the best option for me right now. I am using the prayer as a prompt to open my eyes to the plethora of healthy, enjoyable options that won’t upset my diabetes control. Blessed are You, God, who prepares food that can contribute to my health.

Awaiting the Harvests: Re’eh Prayer Links

“You find three verses [two in this week’s portion] that command you to rejoice in the Feast of Tabernacles….For Passover, however, you will not find even one command to rejoice. Why not?” Several explanations are offered in the commentary for the variations of joy-related commandments (there is one command to rejoice for Shavuot). Each explanation suggests important ideas about the calendar, including the upcoming fall holidays, and reciting Hallel throughout the year.

(For more on the festival cycle, see, e.g., Michael Strassfield’s article at My Jewish Learning.)
Continue reading Awaiting the Harvests: Re’eh Prayer Links

[One Hundred Thirty-]Six Degrees of Separation: Devarim Prayer Links

The mighty kings Og and Sihon — mentioned in Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:4, with more detail in chapter 3 — were defeated while the Israelites were still in the wilderness (Numbers/Bamidbar 20, 21). But Og and Sihon provide a direct connection to several prayers as well as to contemporary debate about what, more generally, is a “morally uplifting offering” in prayer.

The kings are also linked to midrashim on Genesis and Exodus, and, less directly, to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and an array of texts through the years. In fact, a brief exploration of Og and Sihon suggests that, as hypothesized about world population, any given Jewish text is no more than six degrees of separation from any other.
Continue reading [One Hundred Thirty-]Six Degrees of Separation: Devarim Prayer Links

Acharei Mot: Language and Translation

Sound and word patterns evident in the Hebrew text do not always translate well into other languages. Fox* notes that Chapter 17 of Leviticus/Vayikra is “built at least partially on repeating sound patterns”:

A threefold refrain is “That man is to be cut off from his kinspeople,” stressing the seriousness of the prohibition. Four times we hear “any-man, any-man” (Heb. ish ish), reinforcing the unusually broad scope of the command indicated by the beginning of the chapter (“to Aharaon and to his sons and to all the Children of Israel”). Finally, in v. 10 through 15, the word nefesh occurs nine times, with the alternating meanings of “person” and “life” (the pattern is 1-3-1-3-1 in these meanings). — p.588

JPS* and Alter* translations — like Fox* (quoted below) — use “life of the flesh” for “nefesh ha-basar.” Stone, however, uses “soul of the flesh” to emphasis the word repetition Fox mentions above: “For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the Altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul” (Lev. 17:11).

And any-man, any-man [v’ish ish] of the House of Israel or of the
sojourners that sojourn in their midst
that eats any blood;
I set my face against the person [nefesh] who eats the blood;
I will cut him off from amid his kinspeople!

For the life [nefesh] of the flesh — it is in the blood;
I (myself) have given it to you upon the slaughter-site, to effect-ransom for your lives [nafshoteichem],
for the blood — it effects ransom for life [ba-nefesh]!

Therefore I say to the Children of Israel:
Every person [kol-nefesh] among you is not to eat blood,
and the sojourner that sojourns in your midst is not to eat blood.

And any-man, any-man [v’ish ish] of the Children of Israel or of the
sojourner that sojourns in your midst
who hunts any hunted wild-animal or a bird that may be eaten
is to pour out its blood and cover it with the dust.

For the life [ki-nefesh] of all flesh — its blood is its life [nafsho]!
So I say to the Children of Israel:
The blood of all flesh you are not to eat,
for the life [nefesh] of all flesh — it is its blood,
everyone eating it shall be cut off!

And any person [v’chol nefesh] that eats a carcass, or an …
–Leviticus/Vayikra 11-15, Fox translation

Continue reading Acharei Mot: Language and Translation

Tzav: Great Source(s)

“People of the book”? — “People of the table,” too.

With the repeated destruction of local and central sanctuaries, the power of the sacrificial system necessarily diminished. The decline of sacrifice did not end Jewish concern with food, but channeled it in a different direction. Meat-eating became separated for sacrifice, and non-sacrificial forms of worship flourished.

Rabbinic Judaism, the new form of Judaism established after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, elevated non-priestly and non-sacrificial values and institutions to central importance. The primary avenues to God became Torah study, prayer, deeds of lovingkindness, and fulfillment of the countless ritual observances established by the Rabbis. These activities had not been part of the hereditary priestly system and therefore were not prohibited for women or non-priestly men. This change gave a greater religious role to those who had stood on the periphery of the religious order.

The Rabbis transformed the sacrificial rites of the Temple into domestic table rituals….Passover sacrifices became a family feast of highly symbolic foods….The Rabbis composed dozens of berakhot (blessings) to be said over food and after eating. The holiness that was previously contained within the sacred precinct of the Temple extended into homes and community. Sanctified food, which once referred to the food designated for sacrifice, now meant the food prepared for every Jewish family’s use….

Popular tradition teaches that Jews have been “the people of the book,” prizing Torah study above all. This is only partly true. Rabbinic Judaism made us “the people of the table” as well. The table was at the center of every Jewish dwelling. Laden with food, with books stacked up in the empty spaces, it substituted for the altar.
— Jody Elizabeth Myers, from “The Altared Table: Women’s Piety and Food in Judaism,” IN Lifecycles Volume II*

* Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information.

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

Toldot: Language and Translation

The lads grew up and Esau became one who knows hunting, a man of the field; but Jacob was a wholesome [tam**] man abiding in tents. Isaac loved Esau for game that was in his mouth; but Rebecca loved Jacob.

Jacob simmered a stew [va-yazed yaakov nazid], and Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. Esau said to Jacob, “Pour into me, now, some of that very red stuff [min-ha-adom ha-adom] for I am exhausted.” (He therefore called his name Edom.) Continue reading Toldot: Language and Translation