Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Parashat Chayei Sarah

Synchronicity, ESP, and Finding a Wife

By Julie Seltzer

Verse Per Verse
One afternoon, you start thinking about an old friend that you haven’t seen in ages. Minutes later, the phone rings. On one level the synchronicity astonishes you, but on another level you’re not surprised in the least – you saw it coming.

The Talmud makes reference to this kind of seeing. In what way, asks the Talmud, is the light that was created on Day One different from the light of the sun, moon and stars, which were created on Day Four?

“Rebbi El’azar said: With the light which the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day, one could see from one end of the world to the other.” (Chagigah 12a)

What does it mean to be able to see from one end of the world to the other? If distance – ie, space – is collapsed, then so is time. Without speed-of-light constraints, our perception was not limited by laws of sequential time or causality. As clearly as we could see the present, we were able to see everything that was and everything that will be. This light, this intuitive sight, was soon hidden. But hidden means that it’s still there, just harder to access.

In this week’s parsha, Chayei Sarah, Avraham’s servant experiences such a moment of seeing. He is charged with going to find a wife for Avraham’s son Yitzchak. But how is he to find the right one? How is he to know? He envisions a scenario:

"If I say to a girl, 'Tip over your jug and let me have a drink,' and she replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels,' she will be the one whom You have designated for Your servant Isaac'….." (Kaplan translation)

Barely has Eliezer (as he is later named) finished envisioning the course of events, that sure enough, reality begins to play out exactly as it played out in his mind:

“He had not yet finished speaking, when Rebecca appeared. […] She quickly lowered her jug to her hand and gave him a drink. When he had finished drinking, she said, ‘Let me draw water for your camels, so they can (also) drink their fill.’” (24:15; 24:18-19 Kaplan translation)

Talk about déjà vu! The text follows with:

“וְהָאִיש מִשְׁתָּאֵה, לָהּ; מַחֲרִישׁלָדַעַת הַהִצְלִיחַ יְהוָה דַּרְכּוֹ, אִם-לֹא”

Everett Fox translates this line as “The man kept staring at her, (waiting) silently to find out whether YHWH had granted success to his journey or not.”

My focus is on the word משתאה “mishta’eh,” translated here as “staring…(waiting)” The word is unusual, not found anywhere else in Torah, and the commentators can’t even agree what the root is. Rashi says that it stems from שאה meaning empty wasteland or desolation. He and others connect the word to being astonished or dumbstruck – hence the “staring.” Rabbi Sadia Gaon says that mishta’eh comes from שתה, to drink, and that Eliezer is simply drinking the water that Rebecca gave him. Onkelos connects it to the root “שהה”, meaning “waiting” or “staying.” The Targum reads: “But the man waited, and was silent…” The New American Standard Bible translation also incorporates this notion of time lapse: “Meanwhile, the man was gazing at her in silence...”

My understanding also combines emptiness with a drawn-out moment in time: mishta’eh is about creating space for what normally eludes the naked eye. In this moment of vacated time-space, Eliezer becomes acutely aware of everything that is happening. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, addresses Eliezer’s perception: “He understood that God brought him what he asked for.” (Rashbam’s comment is in direct opposition to the simple translation of the text, which is that Eliezer was waiting to see whether God had brought him what he asked for, for he did not yet know if Rebecca was from the right lineage.)

With clarity of vision, Eliezer perceives what is about to happen and perhaps even helps reality along by thinking it. In this moment of (col)lapsed time, he also gazes at the infinite permutations for what might have been – each and every alternate version of the story. Like a photon that traverses every possible path before it is located in a particular point in space, lingering in the present moment permits the hidden primordial light to shine from one end of the world to the other. Not only could Eliezer intuit what would unfold, he could also see the various permutations for what could have unfolded – or perhaps, in other terms, what did unfold in an alternate dimension.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Storahtelling @ Queer Shabbaton

October 20, 2007

By Rabbi Jill Hammer

Storah On The Road

Storahtelling at Nehirim's Queer Shabbaton New York decided to tackle the story of how Abram/Abraham, while traveling to Egypt because there is a famine in Canaan, asks his wife Sarai/Sarah to say that she is his sister. The Storahtellers (Jake Goodman, Shira Kline, Shawn Shafner, Shoshana Jedwab and Rabbi Jill Hammer) felt this story had a lot of resonance for us and for other GLBT Jews. We called our production "Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Parashat Lech Lecha”. We decided to base our Torah reading on two midrashim, one from Genesis Rabbah and one from the Zohar. In the Genesis Rabbah midrash, Abram is so afraid that the Egyptians will take Sarai that he hides her in a box. When he reaches the border with Egypt, he offers to pay anything rather than open the box, but the border crossing official makes him open it anyway, and this is how the Egyptians find out how beautiful Sarai is. We made the theme of our service "journeys," and between sections of the service, Jake and Shawn delivered monologues: a nosy neighbor watching Abram and Sarai's household leave their native land behind, and a (hilarious!) Egyptian customs official warning of security concerns now that famine had driven so many foreigners to seek food in Egypt.

Our Torah service began as Shira narrated a story from her own life related to hiding. We called up journeyers, people who felt that they had been placed in boxces, and people who had gotten out of boxes. We narrated Abram's request to Sarai: "Say that you are my sister.." Shoshana/Sarai climbed into the cardboard box as Jill/Abram explained her concerns about Sarai being taken away. A funny dialogue between Avram and the customs officer led to the box being opened and Sarai being discovered. In the second aliyah stretch, Shoshana/Sarai introduced herself to the "harem," the whole audience, (noticing that Pharaoh had both men and women in his harem), and invited other harem members to talk about their boxes. Sarai then narrated the third aliyah, where Sarai's true relationship to Avram comes out, and Pharaoh sends Avram and Sarai away from Egypt. At the end of the Torah service, Jill reflected on the themes of journeying, trying unfamiliar things, making mistakes on the journey, and continuing to move forward. The service ended with Kaddish and Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu.

There was a lot about this Storahtelling that I liked. The music was well-chosen, people got into their roles, and the audience shared beautifully. As someone who hates to fly, it was very cathartic for me to play someone at a security checkpoint who throws a fit and doesn't want to open the suitcases! But the thing that really touched me was the overall sense of freedom in the room: we could play with the story of Avram and Sarai as a queer story, with queer characters, in a safe, fun, and (relatively) reverent way. Both Shira's story and Shoshana's Sarai monologue gave me a sense that a Jewish queer story was being told in a compelling way, to an appreciative audience, and that was the best part of the day for me.

Parashat Vayera

By Deanna Neil

Verse Per Verse
When looking for your new housing in New York City or wherever you may be, make sure that your neighbors aren't sadistic and make sure that they fear/ awe God.
We're still in Genesis. Abraham just hacked off his foreskin at the end of the last chapter as a sign of covenant. So, we've got a lot to learn in terms of morality and how to operate as a family and as a people. It's just the beginning.

The JPS translation calls this section "Community Development", which is interesting. My first instinct was to call it "Lessons in Incest: How to make your daughter your lover and your sister your wife", but sexual mores are only one of the many issues addressed in this section. The actual Hebrew title of this section is called "VaYera" which means, "and he appeared."
Similar in root, the chapter ends with Abraham naming the location of Isaac's non-slaughter "Adonai Yir'eh" which means "God will see." "On God's Mountain, he will be seen." The word Vayera is also close in root to Vayar, which means fear/awe. So, what exactly are we supposed to see? What exactly are we supposed to fear? And how does this help our community to develop?

The most interesting element of this section of the Torah is why it is all placed together. Why tell the story of Abraham and Sarah with the strange interjection of Sodom and Gomorrah right in the middle? It is because even as far back as Genesis, Jews had to figure out how to operate as outsiders within a community. Even if you don't say "Jews", moral individuals had to figure out how to work within the greater community.

Here we have two parallels-- Lot living in the world of Sodom and Abraham living in the world of Abimelech and the Philistines. Lot was saved, but he could not live in the Sadistic world Sodom. Why? No matter how much you try to separate yourself you are still influenced by your community. For example, Lot's wife was killed because she absorbed a touch of sadism--she wanted to watch the city being destroyed. A lesson to all of us who want to watch public hangings or to join in gang rapes where we are voyeurs of sadistic behavior. How many times do we turn and look at destruction instead of turning away? (I could even potentially argue that Lot's daughters adopted some of this sadistic behavior by seducing their own father, but God didn't seem to punish them for this. Furthermore, Lot had offered their virgin bodies to a violent mob of horny sadists back in Sodom. It seems only fair that they end up raping him.)

Tangent on gay sex: And as far as the argument against homosexuality goes, it's not so bad that the Sodomites were trying to rape men, they were trying to rape angels! How much more sacrilegious and less God-fearing can you get?
And I don't buy the Sodomites being burned to death for their lack of hospitality either. My argument is that it is the sadism that led to their destruction--their lust for raping strangers, whether they were men or women.

Let's move on from this point, though, and return to Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham figures out how to live with Abimelech and the Philistines, who turned out to be moral. Abraham migrated to the land of Gerar. Abimelech was king of Gerar. Abraham lied when traveling and told people that Sarah was his sister, and not his wife. Abraham said this because he felt the one thing that was missing in Gerar was a fear of God. (Again, note the spelling of the Hebrew word, "Yirat" from the similar root to vayerah again, harking back to the chapter title.) Abraham thought he would be killed because of his wife. (Why, remains unclear. Is she so beautiful that men would kill for her? But I thought she was old and infertile? This is confusing; if you have
an answer, please let me know).

Here we see that the other main difference between the Sodomites and the Philistines is that the Sodomites did not fear God. The two Sodomite men to whom Lot's daughters were betrothed thought that Lot's warnings were a joke.
They burned. Now, Sarah also laughed at the angel who told her that she would have a child. But when called out on it, she lied out of fear (ki yareyah--that same root again) and said she did not laugh. She was smiled upon. Lot's wife, on the other hand, did not fear enough, and she turned into a pillar of salt.
As it turned out, Abraham was wrong. Abimelech and the philistines did fear God. Abimelech had a dream where God told him that Sarah was married and he would die if he did not heed the dream. Abimelech woke up in the morning (Vayashkem--the same word used for when Abraham awoke to sacrifice Isaac and for when he banished Hagar and Ishmael), and he whispered to his servants about his terrible dream. They were afraid (Vayireu--the same root of fear again). They did fear God and they respected Abraham. Abimelech even established a pact with Abraham around Beer-Sheba, and Abraham stayed in the land peacefully for a long while. This is a better environment to live in over Sodom.

So, in sum, your neighbors can influence you. Chose wisely where you live-make sure your community is not full of sadists or full of people who have no awe, no fear of God (Whether I agree with this or not is another thing, but this is what I think the Bible is saying). There is, of course, a bunch of interfamilial complexities that occur in this section as well, with the banishment of Hagar and family hierarchy. I'll let you explore that on your own.

One more important note that comes out of this chapter-just because you fear God doesn't mean that you can't argue with him or his angels. This is the "seeing" part of Vayerah-seeing from God's mountain. Moral arguments with God are good ones. If Abraham hadn't bartered with God, then Lot wouldn't have been saved at all. Lot argued with an angel, saying that he couldn't make it all the way to the hills without succumbing to his evil, so the angel let him go to a nearby town. And of course, the biggest community defying moral move of all, Abraham doesn't sacrifice his first born son.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

RituaLab & Maven at Queer Shabbaton NYC

October 19-21, 2007

By Jake Goodman

Storah On The Road

This weekend was the much-anticipated Queer Shabbaton at the JCC Manhattan, which was sponsored by Nehirim. I could go on talking about how amazing and truly awesome it was to be surrounded by so many queer Jews, and how inspiring the programming that I was able to attend was. But this blog will be long enough…

Shoshana Jedwab, Jill Hammer, Shawn Shafner, Shira Kline and I led a Saturday morning RituaLab and Maven. The parsha was Lech L'cha (the story that begins with Avram leaving his homeland and includes Avram trying to "pass" his wife Sarai off as his sister), and our theme was Journeys and boxes ( be explained soon below).

The RituaLab was so special. Shira took the lead and eased everybody into and through prayer in a way that positively and visibly surprised people and allowed them access to a depth of prayer that many later commented to me they can not usually achieve; Jill helped to guide and connect the RituaLab with meaningful, creative and simply gorgeous commentary; Shosh helped drive the RituaLab with her sexy drums (you've all seen how her rhythms affect people), interjections and Ashrei; and Shawny and I interjected 2 monologues in character (Shawn was a hilarious customs officer and I was a nosy neighbor) that helped set the context for the upcoming Maven Torah translation.

The Maven Torah Translation Ritual was very interesting. We decided to focus on the part of Lech L'cha in which Avram begs his wife Sarai to pass herself as his sister, so that when the Egyptians see how beautiful she is, they will not think she is his (Avram's) wife, and kill him and let her live. We related this to the times in our lives when we feel the need to pass, or others would like us to hide our relationships with our partners or (major) parts of our identities so that we can pass as something we are not, so that things "might go well by" other people. Using a Midrash from Genesis Rabbah 42a in which God places Sarai in a protective box while she was in Pharaoh’s harem, the big idea of the Torah service was: The Boxes We Put Ourselves In/Others Try To Put Us In. You can imagine, I'm sure, how resonant this was for a queer Jewish audience.

Afterwards, so many people came up to all of us, telling us how meaningful it was for them. I know of one young woman who said that if ALL services were like this, she would attend shul. There is one lovely gay couple who is getting married in Florida and are very excited about the possibility of Storahtelling coming down to do a Torah service during their special weekend! (I am sooooo excited about that.) There's so much more to say!

I think we would all agree that the Queer Shabbaton is a very special event to be part of. Mazal tov to Storahtelling! Mazal tov to all the participants! L'chayim!

Friday, October 19, 2007


Three day master class at Denver University with Amichai Lau-Lavie.
I just traveled from Goshen to NYC, via Rome, Baghdad and Berlin, spanning 2,500 years in just three afternoons – and all inside a Denver University classroom! The Making Maven Matter workshop was intended for DU students as well as open to the community, and the mix of people – about 25-30 was indeed that – all ages, religions, and backgrounds. Using a PowerPoint presentation, lively discussion and various interactive exercise, we covered the history of the Maven tradition – the live translation of Bible into contemporary conversation and lively presentation. For most people present – including rabbis, professors, and various lay leaders, this was new and very exciting information and several reflected on how this technique and its radical ramifications for their ability to re think their relationship to biblical literacy and religious thought. Over and over people expressed the surprised joy at having fun while examining biblical passages, and at the sense of relief to be allowed to ‘play’ and find personal meaning in these ancient and so often constricting texts. For our final exercise, the participants split into small groups and created their translation of the Burning Bush story – choosing language and character to convey this timeless tale of listening to the personal call for action. People chose Maya Angelou, Smokey the Bear, a little child, God’s voice of compassion, the fire, and – George Burns. It was a great way to end a great workshop – see the attached picture of one fantastic interpretation of the Moses and the Bush story, analyzing the feminine/masculine archetype of this tale. For me this was a fantastic opportunity to share the Maven history with a new type of audience – beyond the Jewish community and reaching the wider population – where I am hoping Storahtelling will be of help and impact in future. One response came in via email this morning – very much speaking to this effect, and warming my heart..

Dear Amichai,

thank you for a fantastic experience. We Christians tend to forget that our roots are in Judaism, we share with you the beginning of our story.

When I told my daughter Victoria about "Making the Maven Matter", and asked her to come with me, first she did out of curiosity; on Tuesday she left early to go to Rugby practice, today she said to me "I am skipping practice, I really want to stay for the whole thing." Tonight after we left you we sat for coffee to talk about what we've learned, actually, she did most of the talking, she said she wishes she could have taken this workshop at least a couple of years ago, before having to translate Virgil's Aeneid from Latin last year, and having to take four years of Theology in high school. So, I now see the Bible's teachings with a completely different set of mind and with renewed interest, thank you again.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Parashat Lech Lecha
"Who's Your Momma?"

by Elana Architzel

Verse Per Verse
Well the world has been created, Heaven, Earth, animals, Eden, the whole shebang. The struggles of Adam, Eve, and the serpent, are trials we are usually pretty familiar with from the opening stories in Genesis. So God said to Noah "There’s gonna be a floody floody… you know how it goes". This all leads up to a man most of us learn about at an early age. Yes… you know his name well, Abraham. So, welcome to Parashat Lech-Lecha.
This particular story reminds me of my good old days at Jewish Day school reading the classic "Lech Lecha m'artzecha, mi'moladitcha, mi'beyt avicha." Many of us also know this parsha to deal with the slicing and dicing, circumcision. So I started to look deeper into the text and was not drawn to Avram but rather the ladies of this story Sarai and Hagar.
Avram, Sarai and their crew pack up and wander around town for a bit. This whole time, without children of their own. God has promised Avram an heir and a nation as plentiful as the stars, but so far no luck for Sarai. It is at this point in the tale I would like to pick up. Sarai and Avram are in their late 70’s and I am sure Sarai has tremendous feelings about not being able to conceive. I believe it is these feelings that lead her to her next action in Genesis 16:3 (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan ) it says:

"After Abram had lived in Canaan for ten years, his wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian her slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife."

The UAHC version states:

"So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her maid Hagar the Egyptian-after Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan ten years-and gave her to her husband Abram as concubine."

Two things struck me about these differing translations. First: the translation of the words ishah lo ishah. Did Sarai initially intend for Abram to simply sleep with Hagar for the sole purpose of securing an heir, or, did she mean to include her fully in their family as a second wife? When I hear the word concubine used versus wife, it has an instant reaction for me. Concubine brings up feelings of a sort of whore, or just there for his pleasure, or almost used in a way. The word concubine comes from con meaning with and cubine meaning to lie with. Nowhere are there implications of this meaning wife. When most of us hear the term wife, we think of warm feelings; a family surrounded with love and happiness and bonding. The slight differentiation in translation brings a completely different tone to this section. We do not know what Sarai’s intention truly was in regard to Hagar and Avram, but future actions lead me to believe wife was not a term she expected Hagar to hold.
Second: the placement of Sarai being Avram’s wife versus Sarai, Avram’s wife. In one translation Sarai comes after Avram where in the latter she is mentioned before. In the version where Sarai comes before him, is the intention for us to believe she is the first and only wife in his eyes? Does this give Sarai an elevated status over Hagar from the start and if so, how can Hagar ever measure up?
Some animosity Sarai might hold for Hagar could be due to the fact that Hagar does get pregnant with Avram. The conception of a child seems like such a simple act; one I am sure Sarai and Avram have attempted for years without success. Lehavdeal, just the opposite, this seems to happen in an instant for Hagar. Genesis 16:4 (Kaplan)
"Avram came to her, and she conceived…..."
The thought of years of sex with Avram leading to nothing and what seems like one hot and heavy night with Hagar and poof, baby - must have really set Sarai off. To me, this in many ways explains her abuse and harsh treatment, vt’aneh Sarai, towards Hagar driving her out.
Does this story have some insight into a polygamist lifestyle? Is it asking us to question can one man and many women really coexist peacefully? We know many men in the Torah to take on more than one wife and in my opinion, they do not turn out too well. We know what happens with Jacob and his wives and children and yet time and time again, we see this sort of thing in the Torah. Is this our first glimpse into surrogate mothers and the difficulties that go along with that process on both sides? Was the intention for Hagar to give birth to a son, Ishmael and Sarai raise him as her own? Unfortunately, that question is never answered since Hagar and Ishmael are not welcomed to stay in camp.
What is also missing for me in this piece of the story is Avram’s involvement in this whole episode. He up and moved his family, just said this is what we’re doing and yet when it comes to Sarai and Hagar, gives Sarai free reign to dictate things. Very little respect and sympathy seems to be thrown Hagar’s way on both sides. Does Avram feel guilty for sexing it up with Hagar, her in turn giving him a son? What is his parental role with his son Ishmael when Hagar returns to camp and he is born? There seems to be little words to detail these inquiries.
For a man that many consider a tzadik, and a great leader, he seems lacking as a parental role model. Many times in history and in the modern world, those we look up most to, those that inspire, those that make great strives for mankind, cannot seem to pull it together at home. Maybe Avram is like Joan Crawford…no wire hangers Ishmael, there is no written text for us to know of their relationship. What we do know is that two great nations shall come from his seed and that has to speak for itself somehow.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Parashat Noah

G!d Learns

By Akiva The Believer

Verse Per Verse

Whaddya mean, G!d learns?
I thought G!d was perfect.
That everything is preordained.

I was taught that even though WE believe we have free will, in fact, G!d supposedly knows HOW we will respond.
And He knows it BEFORE we do anything. He sees all and knows all.

Excuse me, but that is NOT what the Holy Torah says. Not in THIS parasha.

Parashas Noah is my favorite portion of the whole Torah. Here we have the first inkling that the Torah is not just about us, the humans. It is also a journal about G!d.

G!D grows?

Let us go to the text:

"Now the earth had become corrupt before G!d." (Genesis 6:13.) Usually "corrupt" is explained as idolatry, immoral behavior and even robbery.

(Let us not stop to debate the pros and cons of what corrupt means. Let us grant that we humans somehow displeased our Creator in a fundamental way.) What is HaShem's solution?

"The end of all flesh has come before me...and I am about to destroy it (all flesh) from the earth." (Ibid.)

Great. We sin. We die.
Along with all living creatures, except the fish who couldn't drown.

Try explaining this to any child. They just look at you with wide uncomprehending eyes. Remember, not just the "sinners" drown. All living flesh ends. All. Every newborn, every puppy, every cricket, all. Some commentators try to tell us that in fact all flesh was, by this time, sinning. Not very believable.

Some folks, at this point, throw up their hands, in disgust, and say "I'm outta here. Keep your punishing G!d. I'm going East or maybe out of the religion racket altogether."

The key, I think, to this riddle, and to many other riddles, occurs AFTER the flood. After what is really the first Holocaust.

"G!d places a rainbow in the sky. "And G!d said,'This is the sign of the covenant that I give between Me and you and every living being that is with you, to generations forever......
"I will remember my covenant...
"And the water shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh." (Genesis 9:12-15)

I believe these words come to teach us that G!d has regret. That G!d acts, as we do, hastily, rashly and without full understanding.
I know this is very radical. But it explains so much.

Doesn't G!d flash anger and nearly destroy all of us all right after the Golden Calf? Doesn't Moses have to talk G!d out of doing just that? Again, G!d seems to show signs of regret or remorse.

I believe this is "Young" G!d. Or "Early" G!d. The G!d of black and white. The G!d who destroys as a way of teaching. The G!d of Judgment without Mercy.

So the rainbow is not just a reminder for us that the covenant exists. It is also for G!d. G!d is learning.....

Are we not in G!d's image? Why wouldn't our G!d, then be like us, learning, growing even suffering?
One of the reasons we pray is to offer solace or comfort to G!d.
That's why praying should always be done with kavana and not just by rote.

Do you wish everyone "Shabbat Shalom" or "Gut Shabbos" on Friday evening? What about G!d? Ever look G!dward and wish a silent blessing to the resting G!d?

When I wish Gut Shabbos to G!d I affirm that rainbow, that covenant. The Promise that reminds us all of Mercy, of Love, of Learning and of Growth.

The Last Temptation of Moses

Denver, The LAB at Belmar

Saturday Night, Oct. 6 2007

By Amichai Lau-Lavie

Storah On The Road

"It was a great evening and I think a wonderful kick- off to the whole series. Amichai is amazing. It was funny, touching and very thought provoking...I loved it. I hope Amichai was happy with the evening. We had a pretty diverse audience which was great as well." - Jamie Polliard, Assistant Director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver.

The Lab at Belmar is a brand new performance venue in Denver, overlooking an ice-skating ring and from its balcony offers a breathtaking view of the mountains. Last Saturday night 150 people gathered here for an evening of sacred story, climbing up a mountain in the footsteps of the dying Moses. This was the first event as part of my six weeks residency in Denver, as scholar and artist in residence at the University of Denver's S'hema program – a year long focus on 'what Jewish culture sounds like'

As soon as the show was over, an elderly gentleman walked over to me with tears streaming down his cheeks. 'You made me cry', he told me, 'and I haven't cried in ten years. I didn't come here expecting this at all.' Another audience member came right after him – a young woman who works for the University of Denver's Public Relations team – 'you were really funny! I didn't think the Bible could be funny!' Following her were several rabbis, a team from a Baptist church in town and a dozen or so young students from DU, all of them sharing interesting feedback that has mostly to do with their surprise at what 'The Last Temptation of Moses' had to offer them – a totally different theatrical experience.

Based on the original Bible text for Simchat Torah – in which Moses dies, the Torah ends, and the world is created again as Genesis starts, this performance went the gamut from the death to the birth, with a lot of breathing in between. The highlight for me was the last minute addition of Danya Rivlin – an amazing singer who chanted, sang and filled the room with a soft but penetrating voice. Ayal Rivlin – her newly wed husband, and Ariel – a local percussionist added the music. Ayal and I know each other since the mid 90's, in Israel – and this was the first time we got to really play together. It was, we both knew right away – the beginning of many more to come.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

An Apple, A Day

By David Loewy

Storah On The Road
Naomi Less and I presented "An Apple, A Day" -- our take on Adam, Eve, the Serpent, and the world's most famous mid-afternoon snack -- at Temple Har Shalom of Warren, NJ.

We conducted a brief discussion following the performance to field any questions about how the show was developed, who we are, etc. After a couple of minutes a 10th-grader named Amanda raised her hand and asked, "Why did G-d create temptation?" (This made her my new best friend.) With only ten minutes for the "talk-back session," I didn't want to give short shrift to her very deep question, so I asked her to approach us afterwards to talk about it at length.

Downstairs in the social hall, I was being greeted by a number of the people who had been in the congregation that evening and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Amanda, hovering and waiting. I told her that she asks good questions. She said, "Thanks. Can you answer it?"

I tried. I said that temptation was a natural by-product of being passionate about something, and Jewish tradition admires passion. We should "wake like a lion" and "run to do mitzvot." I explained that being drawn towards things is not a problem in itself, but it should be viewed in light of our "good inclination" or "bad inclination." If we are stirred, tempted, drawn to things that also serve greater good or at least cause no harm, there's no problem with that. It's only when we are tempted toward things that are entirely self serving that there might be real sin involved.

My answer is almost insignificant, however. What is important is Amanda, who stood there, voice quavering, full of the fidgets, but with her eyes intent and her chin set, determined to get answers. She was the very embodiment of Eve as we had seen her in that day's story. Everything she had been told did not satisfy her curiosity, her drive to know. The status quo was insufficient, so she went outside her comfort zone and sought new sources. Almost defiantly, she endured the nerves and uncertainty in the hopes of becoming a more advanced human being, of having her eyes opened, of better knowing good from bad. (Many thanks to Amanda, whose last name I never caught.)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

On Second Glance

Verse per verse: The Weekly Storah
By Naomi Less

Ahh, the Garden of Eden! Just when you think you’re done purging your sins on Yom Kippur, you turn around and it’s Simchat Torah – back to the beginning – back to the first recorded sin. Eve, The Serpent and Adam ...Whose decision was it?

In Genesis, Chapter 3, verse 6, our friends at JPS translate the verse as follows:

When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.

I’m interested in that word ‘saw’ – or tereh. Was it something about the appearance of the tree that Eve saw on the surface that caused her to be magnetically and uncontrollably drawn to that tree? James Kugel translates that “the woman understood that the tree was good…”

This struck me – Eve understood. She had an epiphany. The snake didn’t convince her or trick her. She wasn’t force-fed. She had external information that she listened to, evaluated, surmised and made a decision. She added one and one and realized it would be fruitful to access this wisdom. Only then, did she eat. Eve had a trigger, a catalyst that caused her to rise up to the 20,000 feet perspective and literally see the forest for the trees. And then she saw. And then, she made her decision.

The nachash, the serpent, was arum, usually translated as clever or subtle . Interestingly though, the root of of that word A.R.M. (ayin.resh.mem) is the same root as the word for “naked” – arom. The serpent had candor and gave eve the naked truth to help her gain perspective.

Eve is a model for decision-making. She had an outside source of information, a trigger, a catalyst that caused her to check her assumptions. She weighed and evaluated – and then made a strong decision. So, instead of blaming Eve for the first sin, we should thank her for creating the first internal decision-making process. All we can do, in this life, is receive those information sources, seek perspective and hope that we can make strong and confident decisions based on the information we have and our ability to evaluate. Thanks, Eve!

Yom Kippur Afterthoughts

By Storahtelling Musicians

Storah On The Road

How can we, as human beings and Jews (or non-Jews) who want to do good in the world - how can we live with the innate contradictions of our own humanity? We say this list of ways we have missed the mark; yet it's in our nature to be here again next year, reading the same list. One answer offered by a brave fellow: "Well maybe next year my own personal list will be smaller."

Personal/Communal/Political: What I love about Storahprayer is that we are not allowed off the hook. We are individuals, responsible for our own personal growth. We are also part of a community (even if "tempororary") and must acknowledge our role within the group - are we participators? Leaders? Spectators? All of the above at different times? Are we contributing to the overall good of the group? Finally, we are making political choices even if we don't phrase it that way - our love of iPods and fancy buildings (like WTC Bldg 7 with fancyelevators) are part of what creates unequal distribution of wealth in the world.

Yet still we sing a new Shehecheyanu! Still we belt out Avinu Malkeynu as if our life depended on it (for perhaps indeed, it does)! Still we have each other's backs. We, Storah musicians, watched each other intently for signals. We learned to communicate our needs as much as we could. When Amichai asked the group to get in groups of three as Bet Din before Kol Nidre, we did it too. When Amichai sobbed for the gates to open, we pushed harder into the music. Although we are not perfect, we achieved some moments of spiritual/musical perfection.

A sweet year for all of us!

- Chana Rothman

An amazing time...I know you all know that, but it must be said again and again. I found myself struggling at times with the performance aspect. That is to say, it was not easy at every moment to receive the blessings and inspiration, when my musician self was focusing on a missed note, a problem with the sound, etc. However, each musician at one time or another played something or did something or said something that brought me back to the place I needed to be. Thank you all.

I remember Kol Nidre night, Amichai said something like, "Each breath we take could be the last breath we take" (it was during the conversation that included the kayaking story). The moment he finished that statement, literally EVERYONE in the room took a deep breath in. The sentiment of that statement and the sound that resulted has stuck with me. Just one of many truly amazing moments.

Thank you all again, and I can't wait till we can do it again. (Shemini Atzeret, anyone?)

-Jeremy Brown

Yom Kippur was in a word - AWEsome.

I am blessed with the privilege of sharing these days with you and have learned so much not only about myself as a fellow human being but about you all and the incredible talents, compassion, kindness, and wisdom you all possess.

Amichai, you are truly one of the greats - as Naomi would say "The Real Deal"

I learn so much from you every time I'm part of a Storah service and am always deeply moved and profoundly affected by it for days. The energy in the room was beautiful and present and flowing always and that is in large part because of your spirit and open heart and commitment to the higher good in all of us.

-Katie Down