A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Time Out for Fun - My Body is A Cage

A piece of secular music that is actually not secular music, by Arcade Fire. Live at the BBC (stage banter until about 45 seconds in). Lyrics are below the video.

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

I'm standing on a stage
Of fear and self-doubt
It's a hollow play
But they'll clap anyway

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

You're standing next to me
My mind holds the key

I'm living in an age
That calls darkness light
Though my language is dead
Still the shapes fill my head

I'm living in an age
Whose name I don't know
Though the fear keeps me moving
Still my heart beats so slow

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

You're standing next to me
My mind holds the key
My body is a

My body is a cage
We take what we're given
Just because you've forgotten
That don't mean you're forgiven

I'm living in an age
That screams my name at night
But when I get to the doorway
There's no one in sight

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

You're standing next to me
My mind holds the key

Set my spirit free
Set my spirit free
Set my body free

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day - Names of the Dead

Click here for the names of American soldiers killed in the Iraq war. Click here for the names of Iraqis killed during the war.

May the one who makes peace in the high heavens bring peace to us, all Israel, and the whole world.

Tonight: Y-Love and Motet Trio at B Side Lounge

Great music, radical Jewish culture -$8, 9pm 2017 13th Street. Come join us. See the post below for details.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

33 and a Third: The Music of Self-Transendence

Tonight begins the 33rd day of the Omer. Beginning on the second night of Passover, we begin counting, each evening, until Shavuot - fifty days later.

Tonight the blessing is,
Baruch ata Ha-shem eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav vitzivanu al sefirat ha-omer.
Blessed Are you God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us concerning the counting of the omer.
Then you say
Hayom sh'losha usheloshim yom, sh'heim arba-ah shavuot v'chamishah yamim la-omer
Today is 33 days, which are four weeks and five days of the omer.
There are many ways to view these fifty days. In the Torah it is a counting of an agricultural period, beginning at the period of harvest. For the rabbis the counting assured that we would not become so lost in our labor that we forget when we are to go to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot. And the rabbis also affirmed that each day recognizes one of the 49 gates of understanding that Moses received from God. The 50th is not known to humanity, and is beyond our capacity to comprehend.

Because traditionally Shavuot is understood to be the day on which the Torah was given at Sinai, and it concludes the counting of the Omer, the period of counting is seen as an opportunity for the spiritual regeneration and reflection that would allow us to receive Torah. Each of the fifty days should include self-examination and a gradual process of striving to be the best and most pure person one can be.

The first 33 days recount the period during which Rabbi Akiva's 24, 000 students were, according to a tradition recorded in the Talmud (Yevamot 62b), stricken with plague by divine injunction. Their cruelty and insensitivity to one another, and their jealous suspicion of one another, discredited their work as students of one of the greatest Sages in Jewish history.

On the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, the plague was lifted. This day is called Lag Ba'Omer, Lag being the pronunciation of the two Hebrew letters whose numeric equivalent is 33, lamed (30) and gimel (3). The period of counting is treated as period of solemnity and mourning and thus the mourning practice of not cutting one's hair is observed. This is why I currently look like Bigfoot, or at least like George Harrison on the cover of Let it Be. I didn't think to get a haircut before Passover.

But in recognition of Lag Ba-omer and the lifting of the plague, haircuts are permitted. So I am waiting for tomorrow morning (thus, 33 and a third) so I can clean up a bit.

Some resources for the counting of the omer:

Wikipedia's entry on Lag Ba'omer
A take on relating the Sefirot to the attributes to be cultivated in each of the days of the counting.
The counting of the Homer

A Shameful Speech by the President?

President Bush's speech before the Israeli Kenesset on the occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary compared those who would hold talks with dangerous enemies in our own day to the appeasers of the Nazis before World War II. What was otherwise a nice rhetorical moment for the President, with some moving reflections on Israeli history raises some deeply troubling issues.

A New York Times editorial makes a good point: Bush almost certainly knew that the Israelis would, just days later, open talks with Syria (and of course, Israel is indirectly speaking with Hamas through Egypt). If he did in fact know about the Israeli-Syrian plans (and it is hard to believe, but possible, that he did not), that would mean that he stood before those responsible for Israel's fate and who bear its history, and lectured them about the Holocaust. Certainly the Holocaust is a tragedy about which every human being, Jewish or not, is free to try to understand, dissect, and hold an opinion on its meaning and causes. But to lecture Israel, a state that rose from the ashes of Europe's death camps, that a path it has chosen is a moral betrayal of its own past? That is chutzpah, and it would be a funny case-example of the word in Yiddish dictionaries were it not so disturbing. *[see note at bottom of post]

As troubling was the President's use of the word "appeasement" to compare those who would hold talks with enemies today (White House aides have acknowledged that he was speaking about Obama - in spite of official denials - and now it seems that he was, unbelievably, speaking about Israel's leaders) to those who held faith in "the false comfort of appeasement."

As several commentators have pointed out, though, appeasement, as it is usually used in reference to the build up to World War II, refers to the giving of substantial concessions to the enemy in exchange for peace. The most famous example, which Mr. Bush did not cite, is of course Neville Chamberlain, who in the 1938 Munich Agreement conceded to Hitler the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia. This left the country's economic core open to quick attack by the Nazi military. Chamberlain, however, thought that he had found a way to create "peace in our time," as he put it. Oops.

The danger of appeasement, then, is not simply sitting down with one's enemies. It is the act of making substantial concessions, such as strategically vital parts of countries.

With so much at stake we cannot afford to so abuse history and use ignominious catchphrases based in a shallow understanding of our past.

[According to the official White House transcipt, there was applause in the Knesset at this line. I am puzzled by this. I can think of two explanations. First, that the applause came from those in the Knesset that agree that any talks are harmful; Second, that the applause was in response to the President's criticism of appeasement, though the applauders may not have agreed with Bush's definition of appeasement. This seems more likely, since Israel has always been interested in negotiating (and even giving away land - see the Camp David Accords), and its new Syria policy is yet another example of this tendency].

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Soulfood: All You Can Eat for Your Inner Heeb

Gavriel Goldfedder and I have started a project called Soulfood: All You Can Eat For Your Inner Heeb. The idea is to reach out to Jews in their 20s and 30s by bringing to Boulder people who are creatively expressing and exploring aspects of Jewish culture and identity.

Our first gig: May 26th at 9pm, Y-Love, Chasidic hip-hop revolutionary, playing with Boulder's Motet Trio at B Side Lounge (formerly Trilogy), 2017 13th St. in Boulder. Show is $8.

In June we will likely welcome Adam Mansbach, author of End of the Jews, and Angry Black White Boy to discuss his work in the context of Jewish identity. The deal is not final, but I spoke with Mr. Mansbach today - he's interested, we're interested and it looks likely to happen.

Join us for an amazing evening of great music and good people for Y-Love on May 26th.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Gone So Long I'm Glad to be Back

It's been a while and I've missed writing. I'm back.

A couple of new posts - see my comments on the Torah portion below this post.

I've just watched the Christopher Hitchens and Shmuley Boteach debate from a few months ago. Hitchens eviscerates Boteach, who tries to defend a kind of Orthodox literalism. He is not able to match Hitchens' arguments.

Hitchens, for his part, errs in too often missing the essential feature of Judaism. He constantly derides the "primitive" and "barbaric" laws of the Torah. But Judaism is a living tradition, in which revelation is enduring and eternal, in which Sinai is encountered every day. The laws of the Torah as lived by Jews cannot be comprehended by a glance at the King James Bible. Each generation draws the water of Torah through the generations and its meaning changes radically.
To be fair, Hitchens does also attack aspects of the tradition, such as circumcision, that are still very much alive. Anyway, see for yourself:

Torah Portion: Behar - Land for Peace

With that attention-grabbing title, I ask for your indulgence in writing about last week's Torah portion. This week's is B'chukotai, but my thoughts are all about Behar (which means "on the mountain.")

The parshah mandates the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee. God commands that every seven years the earth lie fallow - enjoy a Shabbat, or in English a Sabbatical - and be free from cultivation. Every fiftieth year is the Yoveil, or Jubilee, in which land is returned to its original owners. The underlying basis for these restrictions on how owners can treat the land is that God is the true owner, and human beings are merely "resident aliens" who must not fall under the illusion that the land belongs to us. This sounds like a paen to Gaia whose recitation should precede our prancing around in the forest with drums - but it's from the Torah.

There is a debate between Rashi and Ramban as to the purpose of the Sabbatical year. Rashi argues that the instruction that the Sabbatical year is a Sabbath to Adonai indicates that its observance is in order to glorify God, just as Shabbat (i.e. the Seventh day) is observed, as Exodus 20:9 tells us with the same language - a Shabbat to Adonai - to draw attention to the divine majesty governing the universe.

Translation: we observe the weekly Shabbat and the seven-yearly Shabbat to raise our consciousness and the consciousness of humanity regarding our place in the universe. It repositions us, reminding us of our puniness, and God's greatness, and the fact that we are temporary residents on this physical space created by a force that exceeds our capacity to comprehend.

Ramban is ready to throw down on this one. He points out that Rashi is out on a limb here, as the Sages (the early rabbinic sources) argued that it is instead for a very concrete human benefit: on that day we are to rest and hold back from the performance of labor. In this we imitate God, who, after the creation of the world, Shabbat vayinafash, ceased and rested, on the seventh day. The same is true, the Sages said with the Sabbatical year: it forces us to rest.

On the other hand, as Topel would say.... Rashi's and Ramban's readings work best together. The observance of Shabbat and of the Shabbat of Years both raises our consciousness and restores our bodies. In each case, the mitzvah draws our attention to our createdness and contingency and the divine energy coursing through the universe in whose presence we we continually stand. And in each case, too, the individual and the society are commanded to cease and delight in the fact of their being. Not to benefit from their striving, achieving, laboring, and acquiring - but to simply be.

We might look at all of the mitzvoth in this way. They draw our attention to our orientation in the universe and our presence before that which is beyond our comprehension. And they also serve to elevate us, enrich us, and enoble us. Our spiritual and bodily restoration leads us to a kind of wholeness - shleimut - and peace - shalom.

The Sabbatical Year also carries a radical social and ecological message. It is not simply for individual satisfaction. In the Jubilee year workers are freed from their contracts and are allowed to return to their achuzah, their landholdings. The law underscored, then, a recognition of radical and profound human equality. As Ibn Ezra comments, in the Sabbatical year the ordinary socio-economic relations are dissolved and revealed to be only temporary human constructions: You may continue to gather from the land, but
you cannot do so as would an owner. All shall be equal in [the Sabbatical year], you, your hired laborer, and your resident alien.
What did he mean? In the seventh year, when natural processes continue to bring some portion of harvest, the "owner" of the land has no more right to the growth than do other people. Suddenly what was owned becomes wholly (holy?) public and it can be gathered by all, with the owner prevented from making any special claim on the land. The mitzvah, then, was aimed at individual peace and social peace.

Finally, an ecological, or rather human-ecological peace was created by this year. The land is entitled to its own Shabbat, reminding us that we are among creation, a part of a creation that must function and prosper independently of our own needs. The land has, as it were, its own relationship to the Divine. Adam and Eve are told in Genesis to "till" and "tend" the land, to steward over it. Here we are forced to acknowledge the limitations of our capacity to exploit the natural world. Inscribed in time is a limit to our own exploits, a command that we perfect our relationship to the world we inhabit and take stock of our place in it and its majesty. Here, too, peace.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins tonight.

I've just attended a service at the Conservative shul Bonai Shalom here in Boulder with all of the Boulder Rabbis and Jews (and non-Jews) from across the city. It was emotionally exhausting and also very beautiful. Two survivors spoke - their faces, stories, their language, their experience and wisdom is so needed. As the last of this generation pass away, we remember that life and death hinge on memory, and that we - Jews and non-Jews - must now struggle with how to keep that memory alive.

The poem "Shema" by Primo Levi, read tonight at the service:


You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Also, see this incredible New York Times story about a sefer Torah that was saved from destruction in the Shoah.