More Sacrifice

In the list of general obligations that closed the previous post, the concept of “sacrifice” per se does not appear. This raised the question for me: Is “sacrificing” for the community or for a greater goal a Jewish notion?

A few notes from a brief further exploration:

The substantial entry on “sacrifice” in the Jewish Encyclopedia, as a central example, focuses on the ancient system of ritual and interpretations, through the ages, of that system. Only three paragraphs in the 15,000-word article speak of non-ritual understandings of “sacrifice.” These are based on ancient ideas that study, prayer, and good deeds replace the Temple sacrifices.

Sacrifices are alive and well” in My Jewish Learning begins with the origin of the term :

The term “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word meaning “to make something holy.” The most common Hebrew equivalent is korban, “something brought near,” i.e., to the altar. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC Press, 1981, p. 750)in terms of “making something holy,” saying that the “most common Hebrew equivalent is korban, “something brought near,” i.e., to the altar. (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, UAHC Press, 1981, p. 750)

In this piece, originally published by the Union for Reform Judaism, Deborah Gettes concludes:

Whether we have sinned or not, whether we have done so intentionally or unintentionally, we still have the desire to move closer to God, to offer our own korbanot. To do so, we must put forth the effort to show kindness, compassion, generosity, and goodwill even if that is not easy. At the same time, we must put forth the effort to study Torah and attend worship services. As Pirkei Avot states, Mitzvah goreret mitzvah: The more good we do, the more good we do. This is really a model for life. Sacrifices are alive and well: They just have to be slightly redefined.

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“Prayer is the heart…of significant living,” Gettes notes, quoting Rabbi Morris Adler.

This brings me back to the “heart map” and prayer as an avenue to making Judaism’s “counter-cultural” message and covenant a part of our being. In particular, it puts me in mind of one comment incorporated into the map:

“Why fixed prayer? To learn what we should value…” (a teaching from Rabbi Chaim Stern included in the 1975 Gates of Prayer and in newer Reform prayerbooks.)

Covenant and Liturgy

A pair of questions disturbed journalist Sebastian Junger as a young suburban Boston resident, living “in a time and a place where nothing dangerous ever happened,” he tells us in  Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging:

How do you become an adult in a society that doesn’t ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?
— Tribe, p.xiv

I found these oft-quoted lines baffling, and I was not alone in this reaction:

I am tempted to remind Junger that sacrifice and courage are necessary in many fields of life, from parenting to volunteering in refugee camps. He could also join a solidarity movement. That is what he claims he is seeking, after all.
Joanna Bourke in The Guardian

His analysis of life in Boston and its suburbs, for example, totally overlooks the sacrifices made by teachers, nurses, or those fighting for social justice, workers’ rights, against racism or other social ills in his own or other communities as well as the dangers experienced by African Americans or the poor in nearby Somerville or Boston itself.
Suzanne Gordon in Washington Monthly

But Rabbi Danny Zemel, in his Rosh Hashanah sermon at Temple Micah (DC), explained that he finds these questions “paramount,” understanding them somewhat differently in Jewish terms:

How do we become counter cultural? How do we become breakers of idols?”

Zemel points out that “[the Jewish] covenant commands us to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and argues that the synagogue should be a “place where we can learn and absorb” a “counter-cultural” message in a world that can seem to applaud self-interest over group interest. He asks:

How do we learn this call – actually more than just learn it, but feel it in our being? How does it become “us?”

How does it become “us”?

For me, one clear answer is the liturgy, which I tried to express in the “heart map” below. Another is ensuring that we recognize, and regularly celebrate, the many opportunities to prove one’s worth to the community highlighted by Bourke and Gordon above. I remain confused by Junger’s youthful state of mind and join critics of Tribe who find that his “danger” focus led him to glorify war and miss abundant examples of courage.

As it happens, this year’s National Blog Posting Month theme is “Type your heart out.” Look for more daily posts on courage, heart, Judaism, and covenant as November unfolds.

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NOTES:
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging NY. Sebastian Junger. Hatchette Book Group, 2016

Heart map inspired by Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking by Jill K. Berry.

Dwelling Within a Fallible Construction

Sukkot is the holiday “most closely associated with the Oral Law,” according to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, as so much of the holiday — from identifying “p’ri eitz hadar” [“fruit of goodly trees”] (Lev 23:40) to determining what constitutes a sukkah — is determined via Oral Law (see below). Taking this thought one step further: Throughout this holiday, we dwell, more literally than usual, within a divine-human collaborative construction.

hoshana1Each year, we erect a new structure resembling the ones our ancestors built but using the materials and hands available to us at the time. Each year, our conception of Torah carries the teachings of our ancestors but makes use of new insights and adaptations to changing circumstances.

Sukkot asks us to dwell, for a time, deeply in shakiness: for some this translates into awareness that all depends, ultimately, on God; for others, the focus is on interdependence with others in living through forces far beyond our control.

In the sukkah we also dwell, for a time, deeply in an awareness of the human, fallible construction of our Torah understanding and of our abilities, individually and collectively, to put Torah into practice.

As we prepare to leave the sukkah, we may hope that next year’s construction will be of even stronger, more beautiful materials erected by even surer hands. But that hope for the future need not throw doubt on the value of this year’s construction or diminish our enjoyment in this year’s dwelling place.

Only through the Oral Law, can we identify the words
פרי עץ הדר with an etrog, the fruit of the citron tree. The Beit HaLevi (Derush 18) suggests that it was on Yom Kippur, when Moses came down with the second Tablets, that the Oral Law was conferred on the people of Israel. But while Yom Kippur commemorates the giving of the Oral Law, Sukkot is the holiday which actually celebrates it. The Sadducees and Pharisees argued about some very basic rules involving the Sukkot festival. Indeed, what is a sukka? What should its height be? From what materials may it be made? The vast majority of the rules of Sukkot are oral traditions from Sinai. Sukkot is therefore the festival of the Oral Law.
Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur p.891-893

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Opening and the Ark

What does it mean to open the Ark?

In my experience the Torah service exhibits more diversity than any other part of a Jewish service. Reading length varies across denominations. General approach ranges from informal circles embracing Torah to formal, long-standing choreography. And the Torah service is one spot where women’s absence on the bima, in congregations without egalitarian practice, is the most obvious. Moreover, it is one of the few moments where division of Jews into Kohen, Levite, and Yisrael is still obvious in Orthodox and Conservative congregations (where a kohen [priest] is called to the first aliyah [“going up” Torah honor] and a Levite to the second).

How much is shared across this variety? And what do the variations mean? — Are they matters of custom, preference, and leadership style, or theology? Which one(s) work for you and why?

The Torah service is not the only point when the Ark is open. But the beginning of the Torah service presents a prominent opportunity to contemplate what it means to us, individually and communally, to open the Ark… to approach Torah and have Torah brought into our midst.

Here is a prayer of my own, based on words commonly recited as the Ark is opened. Below that are links to the prayers that inspired mine — B’rich Shmei and Anim Zmirot — and more thoughts on opening the Ark.

What is your prayer for approaching the Torah?
To what are you opening?

Entering the Torah Service
Here in this Torah Service we travel the wilderness in the company of the Ark, stand again at Sinai, and re-enact the process of transmission and interpretation as multiple individuals rise to bring the Torah from script to voice. Time collapses. We join the ageless chorus reciting verses that challenge and comfort, awe and enrage, perplex and command. We feel the presence of Jews who have experienced much, in endurance and in celebration, preserving these words. We feel the call of future Jews depending on us to grasp this Tree of Life and hold it for them.

At this expansive point we pray that our hearts open to the essence of Torah and ask for the gift of God’s good light to guide us through our daily lives.

In this precious, liminal moment, fear and need merge with strength and hope. May we all, particularly those observing lifecycle events at the Torah, emerge from this service with a renewed sense of blessings. Let the divine flow of communication represented here bring to us, and to all whom we touch, peace, mercy, sustenance, and gratitude. Thank you for this good teaching. Amen
–Virginia Spatz

More on Opening the Ark

My prayer, above, is based in part on language and themes found in several prayers, including B’rich sh’mei [blessed is the Name], recited at the start of the Torah service.


בריך שמה דמרא עלמא
Blessed is the name of the ruler of the universe

(from Zohar, parashat vayakhel)

The Zohar says, “Rabbi Shimon said: When the scroll of Torah is removed from the ark to be read to the congregation, the heavenly gates of mercy are opened and love is aroused in the world above. Here a person adds….”B’rich sh’mei d’marei alma…. [Blessed is the name of the ruler of the universe!…]”

Blessed is the name of the Master of the universe. Blessed is your crown and your place [v’atrach] May You love your people Israel forever. Reveal the salvation of your right hand to your people in your sanctuary. Lead us to discover the goodness of your light, and accept our prayer in mercy. May it be your will to prolong our lives in happiness.

I am the servant of the Holy One, whom I revere and whose Torah I revere at all times. Not on mortals do I relay, nor upon angels [or “messengers”] do I depend, but on the God of the universe, the God of truth whose Torah is truth, whose prophets are truth, and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth. In God do I put my trust; unto God’s holy, precious being do I utter praise. Open my heart to Your Torah. Answer my prayers and the prayers of all Your people Israel for goodness, for life, and for peace. Amen.
–See My People’s Prayer Book


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אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרֹג כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַּעֲרֹג
Soothing songs and poems I weave because my soul longs for You.

I was also inspired by a woman’s kavvanah [intention] associated with Anim Zemirot. This hymn is recited when the Ark is open, sometimes early morning, sometimes in concluding prayers; sometimes on Shabbat, often on Festivals. It is not included in the Shabbat Mishkan T’filah, but it does appear in the Weekday/Festival edition. Here’s a link to the full text of Anim Zemirot, sometimes called “Shir HaKavod [Song of Glory],” as well as several recordings.

Here is the women’s meditation from Aliza Lavie’s collection:.


Master of the universe. Just as the Holy Ark is opened here, so may a window be opened in heaven: the gates of mercy. May my prayer be accepted among the other pure prayers that are surely accepted before You, and may it be a crown for Your head….Remember me, my husband, my beloved children, and dear ones, at the time that is called a time of favor and a time of success, so that our lives may be called lives of joy, lives of sustenance, lives of blessing, lives of peace, lives of mercy, and of Your good teachings. Bless us with the three keys that have never been handed over to any emissary, but come about only through Your own blessing. With this I conclude; hurry to my aid, God of my deliverance.

…Protect us all from that which my heart fears, and spare me, my husband, and my children from mortal charity. Hear my prayer [name of worshipper], daughter of [mothers name], as You heard the righteous Hannah and the other righteous women. Amen. Selah
A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book. Aliza Lavie NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2008


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More Thoughts on Opening the Ark

A few more thoughts, from two different prayer books, on opening the Ark and taking out the Torah…

We approach the Torah slowly. First we open the ark so that the Torah is visible. We look at the Torah but refrain from touching. Next, the Torah is removed from the ark and held by the service leader. Later the Torah is carried through the congregation, and everyone can touch the Torah. This demonstrates that the Torah is not the property of those leading the services; the Torah belongs to the Jewish community. Finally, the coverings of the Torah scroll are removed, allowing us a privileged intimacy with the words we hear.
– Dan Ehrenkrantz, Kol Haneshamah [Reconstructionist] siddur

The verses we sing when we take the Torah scroll from the Ark and when we return it recall the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, when they carried the Ark with them….We are a people defined by history. We carry our past with us. We relive it in ritual and prayer. We are not lonely individuals, disconnected with past and present. We are characters in the world’s oldest continuous story, charged with writing its next chapter and handing it on to those who come after us.
–Jonathan Sacks in Koren Sacks [Orthodox] Siddur, p.xxxiv-xxxv

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Key Footnote

I asked local scholar Norman Shore for help with understanding the “three keys.” Here are the sources he provided, shared with gratitude.

R. Johanan said: Three keys the Holy One blessed be He has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the Key of Rain, the Key of Childbirth, and the Key of the Revival of the Dead. The Key of Rain, for It is written, ‘The Lord will open unto thee His good treasure, the heaven to give the rain of thy land in its season,’ (Deut 28:12) The Key of Childbirth, for it is written, ‘And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb.'(Gen 30:22) The Key of the Revival of the Dead, for it is written, ‘And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves.’ (Ezek 37:13). In Palestine they said: Also the Key of Sustenance, for it is said, Thou openest thy hand etc. (Ps 145:16) Why does not R. Johanan include also this [key]? — Because in his view sustenance is [included in] Rain.
— Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 2a-2b

And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land (1 Kings 17:7). Now, when [God] saw that the world was distressed [because of the drought], it is written, ‘And the word of the Lord came unto him (Elijah), saying, Arise, get thee to Zarephath’ (ibid 8ff). And it is further written, ‘And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick’ (ibid 17). Elijah prayed that the keys of resurrection might be given him, but was answered, “Three keys have not been entrusted to an agent: of birth, rain, and resurrection. Shall it be said, ‘Two are in the hands of the disciple[1] and [only] one in the hand of the Master?’ Bring [Me] the other and take this one, as it is written, ‘Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth’ (ibid 18:1).”[2]
–Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 113

Footnotes, like text, from Soncinco, public domain edition:
1) Since the key of rain was already in Elijah’s possession, and now he was asking for the key of resurrection too.

2) I but not Thou. The whole passage is adduced to shew how God, having given the key of rain to Elijah, obtained its return, and that the illness of the widow’s son was for that purpose.

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Beyond Body and Soul: Expanding Morning Prayers

I have heard it said, frequently from the bima of Temple Micah (Washington, DC), that a proliferation of words doesn’t always aid prayer. Rabbi Danny Zemel has often said that his own preference would be to choose just a few words on which to focus at any prayer service. I understand this perspective and do sometimes find a day’s worth of prayer in just a few words…

Ribon kol hamaasim [Source of all Creation]
Adon kol han’shamot [Sovereign of all souls]…
Mishkan T’filah (Shabbat Morning I), p.196

…to take just one example.

But I confess that I love words. Lots and lots of them. I am particularly fond of the psalms and of the “Nishmat” prayers which immediately precede the official call to worship on Shabbat and Festival mornings. I miss them when they’re not around.

Nishmat” does appear in Mishkan T’filah, but Temple Micah often skips this. Psalms are generally pretty scarce in the “new” (2007) prayerbook’s morning service, and we usually sing only Psalm 150. So, I carry an extra siddur and quietly add my favorite psalms, as well as the opening and closing prayers for Psukei d’Zimrah [songs of praise, i.e., “Baruch She’amar” through “Nishmat“].

For the most part, I just hope this is not too distracting to others, and I try to keep my finger on the “right” page in case a visitor needs orientation. However, there are times when this practice creates some interesting juxtapositions, one of which I share here.
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