Friday, August 21, 2015

9 Words for 9 Innings

A Word on the Word, “Word”… and other Words:
9 words to take with us to the game, 1 per inning.
August 18, 2015/5775

This past Tuesday Temple Israel went to the Holy Land of Fenway Park, 40 strong, for Jewish Heritage Night. As we gathered before walking together, I offered this quasi-irreverent D’var Torah, to  complement our peanuts & cracker jacks:

A D’var Torah is Hebrew for “a word” of Torah.  Davar means “word.”  So let’s take with us to the game a word on the word, “word” along with a few other words….

Our portion this week is called Shoftim.  It’s one the parashiyot in Deuteronomy that does not begin with the word VAY’DABER.  As in, “(God) spoke to Moses saying….”  Vay’daber comes from the same root as “davar,” which as you know now means “word.”  So the first word we’ll toss in our pocket and take with us to the game is just that – Davar.  Word.

1.  Davar. DAVAR is among the most fascinating and multivalent words in the entire language.  It means not only “word” but also thing, speech, sentence, message, report, advice, request, promise, command, decision, theme, story, reason, teaching, event, and, my personal favorite, a commandment. All of these meanings packed into the word for word.  The message is clear—in Hebrew, in Judaism, and indeed in life, the power of language measures up to concept of mitzvah, of commanded action, of doing the right thing OR ELSE…. And speaking of the “or else,” word #2:

2.  Shoftim.  Our first word in this week’s portion, shoftim, refers to judges.  God in our portion commands Moses to appoint judges.  A singular judge is a shofeit, but more often to we see another form of this word—with the same root—mishpat, meaning justice or law.  In our portion, we see this word paired with another word—a word that perhaps matters more than any other word, at least according to my own bias.  The judges, the shoftim, are commanded to judge fairly, to follow what the text calls mishpat-tzedek, a form of justice that is just plain…just.

3.  Tzedek.  Our portion commands, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.”  It’s the only time we see a doubling of a word in this kind of way.  It means, “justice, justice you must pursue (or chase after).”  Tzedek was the obsession of our prophets, the vision of the world as it should be, a world in which every human being is treated with dignity and has a fair shot and making it.  I remember growing up when tickets to a baseball game were $3.  Now the cheapest ones you’ll find – group rates – around $25 or so.  That prices out a huge segment of the population, the under-resourced who perhaps would benefit most from the recreation and sheer joy of baseball.  The very notion of tonight’s game being Jewish Heritage Night is recognition that we’ve made strides.  2-3 generations ago Jewish identity wasn’t something worth celebrating in the public eye, it was a burden that the community had to overcome.  Tzedek, justice, equality, fairness, is something that we have chased and continue chasing after. 

Enough on this week’s portion, now transitioning to the holy words of baseball. 

4.  Kana (kuf nun alef).  This is the closest word in the Bible for being fanatical or zealous.  It’s as close as we come to being a fan.  Now, I’m not saying that if you’re fan you’re insanely zealous.  But there’s some very real connection between being a “fan” and being “kana,” insanely fanatical.   I’m going to break the rules here and make the next word English.

5.  Fan. The word “fan” in English has two meanings.  The first we know quite well, deriving from the Latin word “vannus” or “ventus” meaning “wind”—to vent, to fan.  But what I’d really like to vent about is the second definition, for it’s this meaning that pertains to our game tonight. In 16th century Latin, the word “fanaticus” meant an insane person, inspired by a god.  It made its way into modern English meaning an insane extremist, or, more moderately, a devotee. And thanks to American baseball in the 19th century the word evolved further into the abbreviated form “fan.” Definition two: an enthusiast of the sport of baseball.  And, a only later, an enthusiast for sports in general.  Thank you, Oxford English Dictionary and Muhlenberg College English Department.

(Hang in there—4 more words to go, and the first pitch awaits.)

6.  B’reishit.  The very first word in the whole Torah.  It means: “In the big inning.”  ….I had to.  It’s the worst Jewish baseball joke known to mankind; if I didn’t throw it in I’d hear about it from my dad.  You can bust my chops for that one on our walk to Fenway.  Speaking of…

7.   Halicha, which means “walk.”  We’ll be walking from here to Fenway, about a 15 minute brisk halicha.  You may recognize a variant of that word “halacha,” which means Jewish Law.  That’s not accidental.  “Halacha” actually literally means “way,” a Jewish way.  Holech means walking, lalechet means to walk.  God says to Abraham, lech l’cha—Go!  (In baseball language: Play ball!)

8.  Chalat.  This is the verb for “brewing,” whether beer or tea.  A “brew” is a chalita.  The letters are chet lamed tet, which in the rabbinic period meant engaging in some process of cooking that involved boiling water.  Those same letters, incidentally, make up the verb for “to decide,” l’hachlit – a hachlata is a decision.  Now you know this word – use it carefully.  Don’t confuse chalita, a brew, with “chalcholet” – a word meaning rectum.  That’s different.

9.  This one’s devoted to all who have not listened to single word I’ve said, and to validate your boredom by giving you the opportunity to walk away saying that you learned at least 1 word: the Hebrew word for baseball.  Ready for it?  Baseball in Hebrew is…. Beis-ball.

That’s it.  9 words for 9 innings.  Batter up!  Word?


Friday, August 14, 2015

Becoming "more human," knowing we are "only human"

In this week’s portion we encounter what is the Torah’s most unequivocal statement on economic justice.  It reads, and I’ll excerpt the passage, for the sake of brevity:

Efes ki lo yih’yeh b’cha evyon - There shall be absolutely no poor among you—since Adonai your God will bless you in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion—if only you heed Adonai your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I give to you this day.
     However, if there is a needy person among you, one of your kinspeople in any of your settlements in the land that Adonai your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsperson. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him enough for whatever he needs. 
And beware, lest you hold in your heart the base thought that says “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” and you end up being mean to your needy kinsman and give him nothing. This person will cry out to God against you, and you will incur guilt. Give to him readily, and have no regrets when you do so, for in return Adonai your God will bless you in all your efforts and in all your undertakings. 
          Because the poor will never cease from your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:1–11)

This statement is loaded, it begs for a 45 minute sermon.  But I’ve been taught that a good sermon really needs 3 things: #1 a good beginning, #2 a good ending, and #3 the assurance that #1 and #2 are as close together as humanly possible. 

This famous statement on economic justice found in this week’s portion, Parashat Re’eh, has puzzled commentators throughout history, particularly because of inherent contradiction in the text - the declarative statement that there must not be poor people in the Land -- that’s a commandment, meaning it’s on YOU to ensure that there are no needy-- and then the recognition that there may be needy so this how you should act.  Now, we might reconcile the two in a variety of ways.  But the text goes even further, “ki lo yechdal evyon mikerev haaretz— the poor will never cease from the land!”

So to rephrase, three commandments:
1) There must not be poverty in your midst.
2) If there is poverty, fix it - you’re accountable.
3) There will always be poverty.  

What kind of Covenant is this?  A commandment that we’re given, followed by the Divine proclamation that we have to fulfill it-- and will never fulfill it.  Is this some kind of trap?  

Perhaps.  But perhaps it’s a reflection on the tension between Divine law and human nature, between the world-as-it-should-be and the-world-as-it-is.  God dictates the world-as-it-should-be, but the-world-as-it-is… is dictated by human behavior.  The human being.  

So let’s consider this: What does this text suggest about human nature?  

When we read political part of the Bible, such as this, we can assume: if there’s a law, there’s a reason for it, a necessity for it. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” 
This was not a novel idea, he was likely drawing on the words of John Calvin, who said two centuries prior:
If we were like angels, blameless and freely able to exercise perfect self-control, we would not need rules or regulations. Why, then, do we have so many laws and statutes? Because of man’s wickedness, for he is constantly overflowing with evil; this is why a remedy is required.

This Calvinist polemic, like it or not, resonates among our biblical stories.  From the very beginning, human beings mess up: Adam lies, Cain kills, Noah turns his back on humanity.  As a colleague of mine often says, “Reading these stories, you would never want your children to be like our biblical ancestors.” Abraham shows faith by offering to slaughter his son. Isaac spends the rest of his life traumatized and mostly silent. His wife Rebecca deceives him, conspiring with their son Jacob who cheats and steals the birthright and blessings from his brother Esau (who’s really hairy by the way).  Let’s not even get started on Jacob’s kids (wouldn’t want to ruin act II of Lloyd Weber’s musical).

Throughout the Exodus, we see similarly dreary views on human nature.  Moses’ reluctance, Aaron’ and the Israelite’s betrayal of God at Sinai.  Suffice it to say, if a text can “think,” as literary scholars often urge readers to consider, then this text of ours thinks very little of the human being.

And the Rabbis picked up on this in the Rabbinic Period.  They knew Torah like the back of their hands.  

In the Midrash, Genesis Rabbah (8:5), Rabbi. Simon taught that when God came to create adam, the human, the angels argued with each other, vociferously.  They were divided into 2 camps, with one arguing, “the human being must not be created!” and the other side saying, “the human being must be created!” While they were arguing, God created the human being and said then said to the angels, “what are you arguing about— it’s already done!”

The argument, of course, is whether human beings are good or bad - whether or not Calvin gets it right.  But for the Rabbis who told this story, the question was different.  And for us as well, the question is: 
How do we deal with the duality of our nature. And I mean this not philosophically, but in the most practical, realistic ways. How do we reconcile our potential to love each other - and show our love through actions, generosity, forgiveness, kindness, empathy and laughter…. with our propensity to bend toward sin, selfishness, cruelty, humiliation, lies, even murder?  What does it mean to be human?  This duality makes its way into our everyday language, when we say:
“I’m only human!” vs. 
“How can I be more human” 

Well, which is it?  

That is the question that we begin focusing on tomorrow night.  Tomorrow begins the month of Elul, the final month before Rosh HaShanah, our Jewish New Year.  The hard work of the New Year in Judaism is called “teshuvah,” often translated as “repentance,” but literally it means, “turning or returning.”  
Turning from “I’m only human” to “how can I be more humane.”  And this hard work that goes into the New Year does not begin on Rosh HaShanah— it begins now.

The month of Elul is known as a period of deep introspection, a period of apology, forgiveness, goal setting, hoping, and yearning.  This is hard work, and it requires vulnerability.  There is no other way to begin without the willingness to look in the mirror honestly.  

To notice when our hands are closed so we can open them;
to see when our eyes are resentful, so we can fill them with compassion;
to hear when our hearts harbor thoughts that will make our deeds neglectful towards our brothers and sisters, near and far.  

An 18th century Hasidic master Reb Simcha Bunim famously taught that we should keep two slips of paper at all times -- one in each pocket.  One should say, "Bishvili nivra ha'olam-- the world was create for my sake."  The other slip should read, "Anochi afar va'efer-- I am dust and ashes.”  The most important part is knowing when to pull out which slip of paper.

Living in the month of Elul involves a vacillation between both slips of paper.  And it’s not easy.  How do we lower ourselves to the ground?  How do we lift ourselves up?  What does it mean for each of us, who is only “only human,” to be "more human"?

Welcome to the month of Elul.  

This D'var Torah was delivered by Rabbi Matthew Soffer at the Riverway Project's Soul Food Friday on August 14, 2015