“How hard did the first person have to struggle to toil before he could eat a piece of bread: he seeded, plowed, reaped…But I arise in the morning and find all these foods ready for me….How hard did Adam toil before he could put on a garment…How many skilled craftsmen are industrious and rise early to their work. And I arise in the morning and all these things are ready before me.” (Y. Berakhot 9:2)
This musing, part of a longer teaching on gratitude, is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (AKA “Yerushalmi” or “Palestinian Talmud”). It is attributed to ben Zoma. Judith Abrams explains that ben Zoma “had the ability to look at the tiniest of details and learn great things from them.”
Ben Zoma is one of the four who (later, presumably) entered Pardes, the one who “looked” and went mad as a result. It is, in fact, a fine detail that sends him over the edge. In the passage above, however, awareness of details seem to contribute to what Abrams calls “an elevated state of awareness of all the gifts one has while one has them, almost as if he sees everything through a microscope.”
— from The Other Talmud: The Yerushalmi: Unlocking the Secrets of The Talmud of Israel for Judaism Today by Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2012)
Note: The same story appears in the Babylonia Talmud, Berakhot 58a.
“Our hearts beat with certainty
that there is a day and an hour, and a mountain called Zion…”
These messianic words startled me when the congregation was asked to recite this unfamiliar passage the other day:
The good in us will win…
Our hearts beat with certainty
that there is a day and an hour, and a mountain called Zion,
and that all of the sufferings will gather there and become song,
ringing out into every corner of the earth, from end to end,
and the nations will hear it,
and like the caravans in the desert will all to that morning throng.
— p. 241 Mishkan T’filah (“Hugh Nissenson, adapted“)
The Shabbat morning services I regularly attend ordinarily skip this passage. Moreover, our siddur study group has noted numerous Reform liturgy revisions to avoid messianic vision, and we had recently discussed early reformers’ aversion to “Zion” language. (See, e.g., David Ellenson’s commentary on p. 159 in My People’s Prayer Book, v.2, The Amidah.) So this very specific, if metaphorical, reference definitely caught me by surprise:
“…beat with certainty”? How rarely do our prayers insist that we, as a group, are certain of anything! And the thing we’re certain about is a future vision centered on a specific, dangerously contested, location?!
I like change of pace in the worship service, and I do not expect every word we read to be in concert with my own beliefs. I’m even in favor of an occasional jolt: better to be awake and a little disturbed than to sleep-walk through prayers. But this reading did prompt me to further consider the whole idea of “Zion” and what it means in prayer.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) needs new God-language and is asking for input. Here are two cents, which I hope will be useful to the CCAR and all who happen upon them.
Searching for Reform perspectives on the Amidah, I stumbled upon a “RavBlog” post relating to one of the blessings. Rabbi Leon Morris, a member of the editorial team for the Reform movement’s inchoate machzor, asked: How “Current” Should a Prayer Book Be?”
His post raises a number of questions, ones I’m not sure the author intended but ones the CCAR — and the rest of us — would do well to consider.
Berakhot 7a discusses the topic of God’s prayer:
R. Johanan says in the name of R. Jose: How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, says prayers? Because it says: Even them will I bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer (Isaiah 56:7; more below). It is not said, ‘their prayer’, but ‘My prayer’ [תְּפִלָּתִי]; hence [you learn] that the Holy One, blessed be He, says prayers.
What does He pray? — R. Zutra b. Tobi said in the name of Rab: ‘May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.’…
וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל-הַר קָדְשִׁי, וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי–עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן, עַל-מִזְבְּחִי: כִּי בֵיתִי, בֵּית-תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל-הָעַמִּים
Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon Mine altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
–“Old” JPS translation (borrowed from Mechon-Mamre)
The last word of the Torah is ישראל (Yisrael), making the final letter of the Torah ל, lamed. The first word is בראשית [“in the beginning”], with the initial letter ב, bet. This leads many commentators to suggest “reading backward,” from the final word of Deuteronomy to the first of Genesis, seeing Torah as the “heart” [לב, lev] of the Jewish people.
Another commentary connects the final lamed to the initial bet through the act of beginning a new reading, as at Simchat Torah when the one reading cycle is completed and a new one begun. The “heart,” then is in the continual striving to re-read and re-glean. This perspective also celebrates the the “white space” between letters of the Torah, through which each generation learns to understand and live the text.
ל >>>>>>> ב
Throughout November, as part of NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), “A Song Every Day” has offered daily posts with some connection, however tangential, to the number 30. And lamed, as it happens, is also the number 30 in Hebrew counting.
Note, please, that the motto of National Blog Posting Month is “Type Your Heart Out,” and that December (like Jan, Feb,….) is also NaBloPoMo.
Pre-script: The 30 days of National Blog Posting Month are coming to a close, and Temple Micah‘s Siddur Study group is studying the closing blessings of the Amidah [standing] prayer. So a few (OK, quite a few) words on the first of Avodah [worship] blessing. (The version in Mishkan T’filah happens to consist of 30 words.)
In honor of this odd confluence of holidays — 30 Days of Dead, Chanukah, and Thanksgiving — I offer these thoughts on Jewish worship, text study and the Grateful Dead. It is not necessary to know anything about the (Grateful) Dead or to like them, musically or culturally, to explore this analogy. I’ve been told by fans and non-fans that it is helpful. I hope you enjoy and find it useful and welcome comments.
The material was originally shared at Temple Micah (DC) for Shabbat Shelach in 2011. Here’s the introduction from that dvar torah.
Not Just for Dead Fans
“How the Grateful Dead, Jewish Text and Worship Explain One Another and Raise Interesting Questions.”