Meditations on Morning Blessings: Failure, Memory and Change

on the occasion of a bat mitzvah and a young military death, a prayer for mindfulness and action **

    In the midst of the Viet Nam War, the great folk-singer/writer Steve Goodman wrote: “Tonight there’s 50,000 gone in that unhappy land, and 50,000 Heart ‘n Souls being played with just one hand.” Today, here and around the world, there are still too many empty spaces in the lives of young people… too many un-drunk welcome-home beers, too many lives reduced to a photo on a t-shirt, too many unshared stories, and too many unmaterialized adulthoods.

    In memory of the lost and for the ones we might yet save, let us pray:

As we celebrate the flourishing of some young people in our community, let us be ever aware of our many youth with no such opportunities for learning, support, and affirmation… or even the chance to grow up.

Keep us mindful: when young people suffer injustice or die in violence — whether in wars, declared or otherwise, or in seemingly endless street violence — it is the elders who have failed.

In honor of the many who do not thrive or survive, let us redouble our prayers for justice and peace.
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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

Acharei Mot: Something to Notice

Acharei mot [after the death].”

This expression refers to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu after they “came near” (elsewhere: “brought strange fire”) before the Lord (see parashat Shemini). For some readers, I imagine, it’s a relatively simple chronology-determining statement: this happened after that. For people who have experienced a cataclysmic loss — the early death of a parent/care-giver, e.g., or the untimely loss of a partner — at some point in their lives, however, “after the death” can be a more powerful divisor: there’s pre-loss life, and then there’s life acharei mot: no simple ordering of narrative events; there’s a fundamental change in the person’s universe “after the death.”

For a long time, I believed that my own father’s death, when I was 16, was simply one of many elements that shaped my life. As I get older, however, I am more and more aware that I have experienced life in two distinct portions: the first 16 years of life in a family with my father, and acharei mot…. So, the title words of this week’s portion usually stop me cold.

This year, untimely loss in a friend’s family laid an even stronger focus on those words, as I watched another family struggle with figuring out how to manage life “acharei mot.” But this year I also noticed some interesting things about the other words that open this portion.

Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe acharei mot shnei bnei aharon…dabeir el-aharon achicha…

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother

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Shemini: A Path to Follow

“And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads [rasheichem al-tifra’u] and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kin, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that [YHVH] has wrought.” — Leviticus/Vayikra 10:6 (TWC translation*)

Commentary from Onkelos:* The entire house of Israel, may mourn. This teaches that when Torah scholars have difficulties, their problems are a burden for the entire community, who are expected to grieve over their distress (Rashi based on the Babylon Talmud, Moed Katan 25a)


from Stone Chumash:* The entire house of Israel. The Sages derive from this verse that the suffering of a talmid chacham [a Torah scholar, in this case, the grieving Aaron and his sons] should be shared by all Israel (Rashi).</p?

True, a Jew should try to accept God’s justice with faith that it is for the best — as Aaron did and as his sons were commanded to do — but other people should mourn and grieve over the misfortunes of a fellow Jew (R’ Shlomo Kluger)

All Are (Like) Kin?

I have not studied the Talmud* section cited above, but I see that it includes a discussion of whether “all are kin” or “all are like kin” to Torah scholars. This, I think, is one fascinating path raised by this week’s text:

What is our kinship to Torah scholars?

How does that apply in a community of egalitarian learning/teaching?

For the rabbis of the Talmud, was “Torah scholar” code for “one of us”?

And, if so, what is the implication for other communities, whatever the level of “scholarship” of each individual in the community?

What is the nature of communal grieving?

Do we ever grieve instead of our scholars or leaders, i.e., while they cannot grieve, perhaps for reasons to do with their leadership roles? How?

Are there other ways in which “their problems are a burden for the entire community”?

Bitter Water and Loosened Hair

A bit further in the discussion (25b) appears what strikes me as an unusually poetic quote attributed to Raba:

When more than ‘a third” wadeth in water deep
Remember the covenant and mercy keep
We strayed from thee as a wayward wife
Leave us not: as at Marah, save our life.

Footnotes reference Numbers/Bamidbar 5:22 (“the Sotah”), wherein the suspected wife is given bitter water to drink. This I find fascinating in part because the sotah’s hair is unloosed, using the same verb which is so awkwardly, and variously, translated into English:

“And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, ‘Do not bare your heads [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (JPS)

“…’Do not let your hair grow long [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (Onkelos)

“…’Your heads, do not bare [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (Fox)

“…’Your heads, you shall not dishevel [rasheichem al-tifra’u]…'” (Alter)

What is the relationship between loose hair and mourning?

What is the relationship between loose hair, mourning and bitter water?

We at least think we know what “arm” or “hand” mean, metaphorically, when they appear in the Torah as God-parts. But what does “hair” mean in this context?

Is hair simply a vehicle for describing age? See, for example, p.247 in The Many Faces of God: A modern reader of theologies. Or does hair represent something else or something more?

I don’t know — haven’t been far enough down this path — but it looks worth exploring.

*Please see Source Materials for full citations, on-line source links and additional information.

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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.

Chayei Sarah: Great Source(s)

Students of Torah know that the text rarely spends time describing the emotional state of its characters. In fact, this is the only Torah portion that shares details of mourning for a woman. Abraham’s tears for his wife here are quite unexpected, and in order to understand their power, we have to understand their context.

Thought I usually resent any broad generalizations that all men behave in a certain manner, it does seem clear that when they suffer a death, a strong majority of men are less comfortable expressing their feelings and more comfortable springing into action. We are good at making the arrangements, at picking people up at the airport. We show our love less by heartfelt expression than by demonstrable deeds.Continue Reading