Robe, River, and Bond in Morning Prayer

Wrapping

The early morning section of a Jewish prayer book focuses — with some variety in content and order (see below) — on wraps:

  • God is robed in majesty (Psalms 104:1-2).
  • Jews are wrapped in fringes (blessing for wearing a tallit [prayer shawl]).
  • Humans take refuge in the shadow of divine wings (Psalms 36:8-11).

The focus then shifts — with the verse, “For with You is the fountain of life. In Your light do we see light” (36:10) — away from God’s universal (and one-sided) kindness toward a more specific relationship with expectations on both parts: “Continue Your lovingkindness to those that know You and Your righteousness to the upright in heart” (36:11). This is followed by verses from Hosea (2:21-22) promising betrothal “in righteousness,” “in justice,” “in lovingkindness and in compassion,” and “in faithfulness.” (More below on these verses, tefillin, and the upcoming World Wide Wrap.)
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Sibling Prophets Together Before God

This post originally appeared on Clergy Beyond Borders’ News/Views blog, June 9, 2011.


Sibling prophets argue but find a way to remain together in the third Bible portion in our “wilderness” series. The reading — Numbers 8:1-12:16 — includes a dramatic, rather cryptic, passage* involving the prophet Miriam, sister of Moses, covered in “scales, white like snow” [tzaraat ka-sheleg, in Hebrew] (Numbers 12:10).

The same snowy scales appear on Moses’ arm at the Burning Bush (Exodus 4:5). In the Qur’an (7:108, 20:22), Moses’ arm becomes “[shiny] white without blemish” or “luminous.” In both Islamic and Jewish tradition, the white/shining skin is a sign of prophecy.

In Jewish and Christian tradition, tzaraat — which is often translated as “leprosy” in English bibles — is also associated with gossip and other sins of the tongue. In the passage here, Miriam and Aaron “speak against” their brother. Related commentaries include background tales of conversations involving Moses’ wife and Miriam.

Still, the “speaking against” Moses in the text and the family issues in the commentary center around prophecy. Three prophets in one family — and Moses’ wife Zipporah has her own encounter with the divine (Exodus 4:23-26) — seems to have its challenges.

God chastises the speakers, saying: “How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” However, the prophetic siblings stand up for one another before God and remain together throughout the episode. In fact, Numbers 12 is the only passage in the Torah which mentions Aaron, Miriam and Moses together.

In the Qur’an (2:136), we read:

Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants [literally: “grandchildren”], and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.”

Miriam’s episode of tzaraat may be a sign of prophecy or of divisive speech, or both. But the episode is limited by God so that a joint future — with all three siblings traveling together — is possible.

This week’s “wilderness” reading is called in Hebrew “Beha’alotekha” ([“in your lighting (of the lamps)”]. One message we can glean from it is the danger of believing that ours is the only light.
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You Didn’t Have to Be There: Prayer, Sinai and the Grateful Dead

There’s a great scene in a fairly silly movie, called Must Love Dogs: The struggling divorced man played by John Cusack is obsessed with the movie Doctor Zhivago. He watches it over and over at home and then drags the young woman he is dating to a revival house to see it. Leaving the theater, the dating couple runs into the romantic lead, played by Diane Lane, who declares that she too loves Doctor Zhivago. She watches it over and over again hoping, she says, “that once Lara and Yuri will get together again…in the springtime preferably. And wear shorts.” The young date responds, “OK, but they can’t because it’s just a movie.”

Of course, Diane Lane and John Cusack do get together, even though things still don’t look so good for Yuri and Lara. And I believe the Must Love Dogs view of Doctor Zhivago has a lot to say about this week’s Torah portion Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and about our prayers.
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Tisha B’av

During all the years that Israel was in the wilderness, on the eve of every ninth of Av, Moses sent a herald throughout the camp to proclaim, “Go out and dig graves, go out and dig graves!” and the people went out and dug graves, in which they spent the night. In the morning, the herald went and announced, “Let those who are alive separate from the dead!” The living then stood up and found themselves some fifteen thousand short [NOTE: One-fortieth of the adults died each year — see parashat Shelach-Lecha for narrative explanation]….In the last of the forty years, they did the same….finally when they saw that not one of them had died, they said: It appears that the Holy One has removed the harsh decree from over us. The declared that day a festival. Continue Reading

Seeing You in 42 Familiar Places (Mattot-Masei Prayer Links)

“In that small cafe;
The park across the way;
The children’s carousel;
The chestnut trees;
The wishin’ well.

“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places…
I’ll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.”

The relationship described in the Fain/Kahal song is so strong that it imbues the very landscape with the absent loved one. A similarly powerful relationship between God and the Israelites is described in midrash on the Torah portion Masei, with its 42-stage journey recitation. (Mattot, the penultimate, and Masei, the final portion of Numbers/Bamidbar, are read together in non-leap years.) And in many ways, the siddur is designed to call prayer participants and God to remember “the park across the way,” like the stages of the desert journey, prompting renewed recognition.
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“…The Time That We Get Shabbat…”: (Pinchas Prayer Links)

The People’s time in the wilderness with God — “the love of your bridal days” (Jer. 2:2) — is coming to an end in the portion Pinchas. This is perhaps reflected in the portion’s “extras”: the additional sacrifice for Shabbat (Numbers/Bamidbar 28:9-10) and the eighth day “atzeret,” at the close of the festival of Sukkot (Numbers/Bamidbar 29:35-39). These small, ephemeral extras help imbue Shabbat and Shemini Atzeret with a sense of intimate, transitory pleasure.
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The Tents and Dwellings are YOURS (and they’re plural): Balak Prayer Links

Perspective — who can see what? who is MEANT to see what? and what might it all mean, anyway? — is a key element in parashat Balak. No one (except God, who is not sharing everything) has the “whole view.” And we are reminded of this even in the words which have become part of our morning prayers.

[I realize that this note is arriving in the week of parashat Pinchas, BTW. Sorry. These remarks on the prayers will, I hope, be relevant at most any time.]

“How goodly [fair, wonderful] are your tents, O Jacob,” the seer Balaam pronounces (Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5), making clear that he can see the entirety of the camp…during this attempt to curse the Israelites; during the previous attempt he could see only a “sliver” (Bamidbar/Numbers 23:13-24) The Israelites, in their own tents in the valley below, have no such vantage point.

In a similar vein, Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen note that in many synagogues, “Mah Tovu” — Numbers/Bamidbar 24:5, followed by Psalms 5:8, 26:8, and 69:14 — is recited while participants are gathering and donning their own prayer shawls. Therefore:

…people rarely have an opportunity to survey the entire scene. To someone watching is (from above) however, all those Jews would appear to have literally made their own personal tents! “How wonderful are your tents, Jacob!”Continue Reading