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)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Don't Miss Shavuot on June 7


A community wide Shavuot Celebration, called Up All Night, will be held this year at Rembrandt Yard, 1301 Spruce Street in Boulder, beginning at 8:30 pm on June 7th. I will be teaching as will other rabbis from the Boulder community. There will be Torah yoga, music, Jewish art, traditional learning, conversation, not to mention Ozo coffee, ice cream and other treats. Please come and stay as late as you like. “Up All Night: Shavuot in Boulder” is being sponsored by Rabbi Rose’s and Rabbi Goldfeder’s project, Soulfood, with a generous grant from 18 Pomegranates.

For those who want some basic information on Shavuot:

A Little Bit About Shavuot
Shavuot falls on the 6th and 7th of the Hebrew Month of Sivan. This year that corresponds to the 7th and 8th of June. In the Torah Shavuot (“Weeks”) is an agricultural festival. Along with Sukkot and Passover it is one of the three pilgrimage festivals during which the ancient Israelites would come to Jerusalem to make special offerings at the Temple. Eventually the rabbis of the Talmudic era proclaimed that Shavuot marks the day on which the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. Even for those of us who do not understand the Sinaitic revelation literally, Shavuot has become a day recognized as holy because it represents our receiving of Torah as a way of life.

Important customs associated with Shavuot are: Tikkun Leil Shavuot (“Set Order of Learning on the Night of Shavuot”), during which the community gathers to stay up all night (see below for details of the community-wide celebration this year); eating of dairy foods such as blintzes and cheesecake; using floral decorations in the synagogue and home; and reading the Book of Ruth.

A Bit More
Agricultural Origins
Shavuot, or Chag Ha-Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, is one of three names for this holy day. It is called “Weeks” in Leviticus 23 because the Israelites are told to start counting off weeks from the Second Night of Passover until they have counted seven full weeks, at which point they make offerings of bread and animal offerings.

In Exodus 23 it is referred to as Chag Ha-Katzir, the Festival of the [wheat] Harvest. It would have fallen at the time that the wheat crop was beginning to ripen.

The third name is comes from Numbers 28, where the holy day is referred to as Yom Ha-Bikkurim, the Day of the First Fruits. On this day the Israelites were to bring the first fruits of the season and offer them at the Temple. They would continue to do this until Sukkot (in the fall).

Shavuot and Revelation

Clearly Shavuot observance was rooted in agriculture, as at least the second two names – the Festival of the Harvest and the Day of the First Fruits – suggest. We should continue be blessed to view the creation of food as evidence of a divine presence active in the universe, creating and overseeing a mystifyingly complex web of life. And as the Torah tries to get us to see our food as a gift for which we must be thankful, and which we must offer back in some way to God, we should view the overwhelming material bounty of our own lives as a spiritual challenge to us to remain grateful, giving people – rather than people who act as if the whole world was created just for them.

But it is also true that each generation must breathe new life into Torah, to find new meaning that is concealed within ancient teaching. For our Sages – the spiritual leaders of the Talmud and early Judaism – Shavuot’s importance was not in its placement in the rhythms of the earth’s sustenance. It was that Shavuot was the day on which the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai.

How so? Step one is that the Torah tells us that the Exodus from Egypt happened in the month of Nisan. Step two is that Exodus 19:1 tells us that they entered the wilderness of Sinai on “the third new moon” after leaving Egypt. This would be the month of Sivan. Step three is that the rabbis agree that the Torah was given on Shabbat. The first Shabbat in Sivan would bring us to the current date of Shavuot (a rabbinic argument about a detail in the Torah results in the actual day of Shavuot being moved from the 7th to the 6th).

Finding Meaning in Shavuot Today

For us this rabbinic notion that Shavuot was the day on which the Israelites received the Torah continues to have meaning. But the power of the Festival is not in looking back and seeing the 6th of Sivan as a commemoration. Rather, we should view it as the day on which we will again receive Torah.

Torah in the broadest sense is what we celebrate and seek out on Shavuot. Not just the Five books of Moses but the centuries of interpretation, insights, extensions, and inspiration that have flow from this regenerating source in every generation, in every moment.

What role does Torah have in our lives? Jewish teaching begins with the assumption that each of us must learn to become a certain kind of person, that we must learn to create a certain kind of society, and that we must learn to develop fill relationships with other people and with God if we are to understand what it means to be fully human and to live a righteous life.

This is a tall order, but on Shavuot we open ourselves and commit ourselves to this reality. We affirm that the daily striving of our lives, the material concerns, the stress, the anxiety, the financial worry, the ambition – that it all has a broader spiritual purpose. We affirm as well that through a life of commitment to Torah values – to learning wisdom, to inspiring ourselves to become better people – we can imbue our lives and the lives of others with real meaning and inspiration.

The Talmud teaches that even the words of a great teacher in the present day were actually revealed at Mount Sinai. That is, the teachings of Torah are not just a collection of laws that happened long ago. They can be present and very real in our own lives.

It is significant that Torah was revealed on a mountain. It is a high place, removed from ordinary experience, a place to look up to, a place of transcendent beauty. But most important, it is an earthly place. High up, yes, but not beyond reach. Moses, an actual person, went up to Mt. Sinai and came back down, his face radiating the light of revelation. He came back down to the people Israel to share this light with them.

As Shavuot approaches, we prepare ourselves for this encounter with Jewish teaching and instruction, so that we might reinvigorate our spiritual lives with the energy of Torah.

Please join me and many, many others on Tuesday, June 7th at 8:30 pm at Rembrandt Yard, 1301 Spruce in Boulder.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What's the Deal in Israel?

Completely confused by the dustup about Israel over the last week and a half? I think this review will clarify what some of the handwringing was all about.

I've been thinking a lot about the reaction of much of the Jewish community to President Obama's speech about Israel (full transcript here).

Obama said, principally, that any future peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians must be based in the 1967 line (the "Green Line"), with the assumption that there will be land swaps (which I believe can be understood to mean that Israel will not have to abandon or dissemble important settlements in the West Bank).

The President also said that Hamas must recognize Israel, and he made clear his opposition to the UN Vote currently expected in September in which the UN will vote to recognize Palestine as a state. It will pass the General Assembly, we can assume, and then be vetoed in the Security Council.

The reaction from important quarters of the Jewish community to Obama's comments regarding the 1967 line was one of outrage. Many people felt that he had, to quote Mitt Romney, "thrown Israel under the bus."

My reaction to this anger and frustration was one of puzzlement. Here's what I said in the Intermountain Jewish News, in an article quoting several area Jewish leaders.

I’m a bit baffled by much of the critical reaction to the president’s speech.

First, Obama made clear his opposition to the UN vote and affirmed the necessity of Hamas’ recognition of Israel.

Second, in asserting that the 1967 line should form the basis of negotiation (and not, as some have characterized it, ‘insisting’ that Israel withdraw to it), Obama formalized what has been universally recognized inside and outside Israel as the de facto starting place of any peace initiative. It was the basis of Oslo and the informal position of the previous two administrations.

The status quo is unjust, contrary to our highest values, and unrealistic. If our love for Israel leads us to fear any step toward negotiation, we will end up endangering Israel.

Most puzzling to me is the fact that Obama's comments appear to be identical to those made in a Novemeber 2010 joint statement from Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They said,

The Prime Minister and the Secretary agreed on the importance of continuing direct negotiations to achieve our goals. The Secretary reiterated that "the United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements." Those requirements will be fully taken into account in any future peace agreement.

So, what gives? Well, a very astute article by Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitor points out a very subtle difference between the Obama speech and the Netanyahu/Hillary statement. Obama didn't characterize the 1967 line as a "Palestinian goal," which the joint statement does. Those who would like to read a great deal into this (supposed) omission argue that Obama made the shift from merely acknowledging the neutral fact that 1967 line as a Palestinian desire to stating it as a desire (a policy) of the United States.

I'm still not quite convinced that we should read that heavily into the omission of the phrase "Palestinian goal." Here's Aryeh Eldad of Israel's nationalist National Union (Ichud Le'umi) party said

I wonder why all the pundits were so excited about Obama saying '1967 borders' as if he invented something knew. We tend to forget these were the Clinton guidelines, that Barak negotiated with Arafat based on them. Ehud Olmert also negotiated on these terms with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] - and they all failed.

At its core, Obama's statement that a future peace should be based upon the 1967 line, with land swaps, is very old news indeed. It has been known inside and outside of Israel for many, many years that this is the only possible future for a Palestinian state, and therefore, for peace. In 2000, 2001, and 2008 the Israeli government used those lines as the basis for (failed) negotiations with the Palestinians.

The notion that because of those failures, Israel or should now back away from negotiations on that basis is a sad and dangerous one. So, Israel takes the position that is always mischaracterized as being the more knowing, more realistic, more "tough" stance and gives very little. What then? (Look at The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg writing in Bloomberg online for an argument as to why the Palestinians should be thrilled with Netanyahu's current position).

What does the future hold for Israel under circumstances in which the Palestinians are not offered a viable state? An Israel that is not Jewish? An Israel that is not democratic? An Israel that is in constant conflict? An Israel surrounded by Arab neighbors whose governments are currently unknown quantities? Dependent on the United States for billions of dollars in aid at a time when support for Israel is less and less strong and widespread among Americans?

Those are the questions that must be answered. They must be answered before we reject as unrealistic the only path to peace that Israeli and American leaders and negotiators have taken seriously for years.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fullness of Years: Dylan Turns 70

Indulge me in a little bit of Dylan rambling (or ramblin' as he would have once said).

For starters, I wanted to post a video of Dylan playing this song, but the only live versions are not so great. This is the original posted by someone, I know not who. Apologies for the cheesy video.

Also I tried to find the obvious birthday wish Forever Young from the Last Waltz, a truly amazing performance. But it no longer available on Youtube, even though other Dylan performances from that movie are. So, a beautiful song with inevitable overblown rock all star cast singing along appears at the end of this post.

Here's a link to a wonderful written tribute to Dylan, and another, and another. Thank you to Allen Taggart who is always so generous in sharing his passion for music for these links.

I'm a huge Dylan fan. No person has a right to craft so many songs that are brilliant and that just don't age - but he did. I don't imagine that his status as an artistic genius can be debated at this point, but I just want to express marvel at and gratitude for the amazing creative energy that God invests human beings with. Very few people in any generation can open themselves to it as fully as Dylan and other artists of his stature do. The danger of the genius label is that it separates the artist into a different category, as though they are super human. But of course what is so astonishing about the work of a genius is its deep resonance, its ancient familiarity. In fact a genius does not transcend the ordinary human experience but delves deep into it, drawing on a source that is in each of us but which is left unexamined by most.

In any event, I listened to "My Back Pages" (for obvious reasons) today. Not his greatest song, but it is sung with incredible power (so many people ridicule Dylan's nasal tone but I think he is one of the great singers in music. Really. His sense of rhythm as a singer, his ability to bend phrases around the beat, is just phenomenal. Try singing along with a Dylan song you know and you'll see what I mean). What struck me about it was that it feels like it was just written today, like he is singing about an experience, or an awakening, as it is unfolding. At the end of the same album (Another Side of Bob Dylan) is "Ballad in Plain D." A beautiful, cruel, self-flagellating and self-justifying, brutal and terrifyingly honest song. You can hear his fury and his devastation. Actually a frightening song. And it, too, sounds like he is revealing himself today, in the present.

The newness of Dylan's music is its most beautiful quality to me. I mean this in three ways. First, as I said above, so many of his songs just don't age - they are alive whenever you play them. Second, Dylan refused to allow these songs to become self parodies, refused to allow himself to become bored by them and so when he played them live he would reinvent them. This could be maddening if you fell in love with the recorded version and then heard him play a song live that had only the lyrics in common. Often he made you hear a new life in the song that was concealed in the original.

The third aspect of the newness of Dylan's music is the most important to me. That is his constant reinvention as an artist and public figure. No one ever owned Dylan, no one ever had his number. Look at this video - at the 4:40 mark you get a sense of this (Dylan was probably the least friendly and most entertaining interview subject in music). He was interested in becoming ("he not busy being born is busy dying") and not resting on some image that he had conjured or that others perceived. His themes, his style, his concerns, his influences, his forums for expression, all of these were changing constantly and still are.

This is powerful to me because I see it as a kind of spiritual striving (I'm not making claims about Dylan's spiritual life). We are challenged by Torah to reject faith in the idol of self, not to mistake the person we put out there for others to see with the truest being that no one else gets to see. And it is a Jewish struggle to constantly emerge and grow, and not be satisfied with what we have become already. There is always teshuvah to be made, always something new to become. In the yotzer prayer (recited every morning) we acknowledge God as the one who m'chadesh b'chol yom tamid ma'aseh bereishit, who renews the work of creation every day. That includes us. And in the second prayer of the Amidah we pray to God as m'chayei ha-metim, revives the dead, which I see as a prayer for ongoing spiritual life, an expression of fear of dying internally.

The Aish Kodesh taught that such ongoing renewal was an essential part of the Jewish spiritual struggle. If we don't do this, he writes (in Tzav v'Zeruz, #2), it is as if we are living in the body of a person who lived years ago, rather than living today. He interprets the phrase from Genesis 24:1 that Abraham was old, ba b'yamim, which is usually translated as "advanced in years" but very literally means "he came into his days" to mean that even in old age, Avraham was still becoming. This is the great life-affirming feature of Torah, that we are invested with a divine spark that has an eternally renewing power. So, for me, striving towards constant renewal and becoming, and avoiding the slow death of spiritual stagnation is essential to a life of mitzvah.

Pirkei Avot 5:25 says that at age seventy a person should achieve "fullness of years." That sounds a little too staid for Dylan, so my wish is that he keeps becoming Dylan in whatever way he needs to be.

Anyway, Happy Birthday Bob Dylan, and thank you.

Netanyahu's Speech

Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking before a join session of Congress. Fascinating and impressive. More later.... I can't figure out how to embed it, so here's the link


Monday, May 23, 2011

Obama on Israel, Ctd.

I'm not sure how to square this with the outrage of those who criticized President Obama for referring to using 1967 lines as the basis for future negotiation. It is from November of last year following a meeting of Secretary of State Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu:

The Prime Minister and the Secretary agreed on the importance of continuing direct negotiations to achieve our goals. The Secretary reiterated that "the United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements." Those requirements will be fully taken into account in any future peace agreement.

It comes from the official website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Day After the End of the World

I'm sure we all heard that the world was supposed to end yesterday. The man who predicted it was "flabbergasted" that it didn't happen.

While I was not surprised to wake up this morning, there was an interesting resonance that I haven't seen written about.

Saturday night began Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer ('Lag' comes from the Hebrew alphabetic equivalent of 33, the letter lamed plus the letter gimel) . We are commanded in the Torah to count the days between Pesach and Shavuot. Over time this became a period of mourning, associated with the death of thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students. The 33rd day of the Omer is seen as a break in the period of mourning.

The tradition took on new forms over time and the 33rd day of the Omer became recognized as the day of the death of Shimon bar Yochai, who is, according to tradition, the author of the Zohar.

There is a talmudic story about Shimon bar Yochai that connects (at least in my mind) to the 'end of the world' anxieties. Pursued by the Romans, he fled to a cave where he was miraculously sustained by a carob tree and lived for many years. He studied Torah continuously there and when he emerged, he was so immersed in Torah learning, and so cut off from the real world, that he was contemptuous of the lives of those he encountered - they were engrossed in banal physical tasks such as planting, rather than studying Torah. Such was his indignation that everything he gazed upon was destroyed.

This kind of angry, world-destroying piety was not looked upon kindly by God, who sent him back to the cave so God's world would not be destroyed by Shimon bar Yochai's pious gaze. When the sage re-emerged, he did so at greater peace with the world, and could live in it, having accepted its imperfections.

We remembered this Sage's death just hours after the world was supposed to have been destroyed.

Apocalyptic warnings - and fantasies - are a way to resolve the gap between the perfection of Divine reality and the ugliness of the messy world. They imagine a kind of awful perfection in which the world is completely destroyed so that true perfection can begin.

There is a resonance here with Shimon bar Yochai's initial attitude toward the world. Steeped in the perfection of Torah and Sagely meditation, he cannot face the real world in its spiritual imperfection.

But God's lesson to him is that Shimon must not permit his longing for deeper spiritual connection lead to contempt for the physical world, nor to a desire for its destruction. Thus, the Sage is sent back to the cave.

Retreat to the world of Torah, of prayer, and our desire for the magnificent quiet of deeper spiritual development, must not lead us to bitterness. True Torah is in the world, engaged with the world, with all of its brokenness. That is, in fact, the essence of Torah.

This powerful story has real contemporary relevance and import. While it is true that not so many people are apocalyptics, there is a parallel spiritual development in our culture to which many of us fall victim.

So many people - whether they consider themselves spiritual seekers or not - seek solace from the messy and painful world outside. The search for meaning in our culture is so often expressed in an utterly internal way. We seek "inner peace," we try to "get away from it all," we try to "find out who I really am," or to "get at peace with" ourselves. None of these things is bad, and in fact, each has a place in the spiritual search. But when the interiorization of the spiritual search ends where it begins - within the individual - we become like Shimon bar Yochai, stuck in the cave, looking for perfection, growing ever distant from God's world.

So, look: the world is still here, thank God. Go to it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Obama on Israel

A significant and not-so-significant speech from the President yesterday.

Significant in that he formalized a policy toward Israel: the US endorses using the lines drawn after the 1967 War as the basis for future negotiations. Significant also in that he said Hamas must recognize Israel for there to be peace, and that he expressed opposition to the proposed UN vote.

Not-so-significant because the 1967 line (not a border because it is not yet a state nor a negotiated boundary) has been the de facto basis of every serious discussion about peace. It was for Oslo, it was for the Clinton and Bush administrations, it is for peace proponents inside and outside of Israel. So Obama merely made formal what has been guiding the discussion for a long time.

Many Jews and Jewish organizations have reacted with outrage and anxiety. Sometimes our People's love for eretz yisrael is expressed through fear, and so this is inevitable. But Israel has always been founded on hope, and its future will only be secure if the Jewish people can find the strength to balance fear (expressed as reasonable caution) with hope.

Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol yisraeil. May the One who makes peace in the high heavens bring peace to us and to all Israel.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Joshua Rose
3950 Baseline Road
Boulder CO 80303