Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tribeca Hebrew RituaLab

By Emily Warshaw

Storah On The Road

I'll say it: I blog this week with a bit of hesitation. I'm going to give my rendition of what happened last Friday night when Storahtelling musicians Chana Rothman and Ronen Itzik accompanied Kabbalat Shabbat services, led by Amichai Lau-Lavie (with unending help from Jake Goodman), for Tribeca Hebrew in New York City. Let me set the stage (I do so figuratively and literally, acting as Production Coordinator for our 2nd of 4 Friday night services with the TH community): We are on the road, but at home, in downtown NYC. We are hugged together by our tent walls, but pray and sing in St. Peter's Church, the first Catholic Church ever established in Manhattan. We are guests, and we are also leaders, hosts. We welcome our 25 hours of rest by playing music past sunset. We coax the kids off of their seats in the pews to stand, to clap, to sing even if they don't know the words. We do this in the name of community building; we know we are doing something special not just by bringing the Storahtelling world and Tribeca world together, but we are honoring the Sabbath Queen. Enter: my hesitation in blogging - the secret - I worked on Shabbat (shhh!).

I plug in cables, I fiddle with sound levels, I move banners, I even open bottles of wine for Kiddush. I run around a chapel, throwing tent flaps out of the way to make volume adjustments, or to insure that the Tribeca Hebrew 2nd graders have enough cups as they lead their families through the various ritual blessings. I choose the most inconvenient time to run across the back of the chapel. Everyone's back should have been towards me. But no, they are facing me, 180 eyes readying the Sabbath Queen's entrance from the back door during L'cha Dodi, and I run across their view, carrying who knows what, to prepare for dinner. "Oh *&^$," I think, "I'm ruining their moment!" Perhaps running with my head down will make me invisible. I reach my destination and crouch down, to physically hide from them. And then I have a thought: These people, families, are pausing and reflecting on their weeks, allowing nothing to happen in this moment only waiting... for nothing... not nothing, they are waiting for Shabbat, welcoming Shabbat.

Why can't I allow myself the same moment? I stand up, I join them, their moments, and wait. They come back together as community, one that I've separated myself from because I take my work seriously and I must get the job done. But literally, at the end of the day, who will care that I moved through their stillness? I don't think they will, I don't think fellow Storahtellers will, only I care. I worked through Shabbat, and in doing so asked myself the question that I know so many have asked before me: How do I balance work with a spiritual moment? I don't know the answer, probably most people have their own, but what works for me today, or last Friday, is: I don't necessarily have to have a balance, but I am allowed to have this moment, be it 2 minutes or 24-some-odd hours. The moment I have is to pause, reflect, do nothing, and allow the Sabbath Queen to enter my mind, however fleeting the moment may be, one moment out of a week full of thousands of moment, I am allowed one. We are all allowed, asked, to take the time.

But I have to run; grape juice just spilled on the bimah.

(Not Just) Another Brick In The Wall
Parshat Mishpatim

By Sarah Sokolic
Verse Per Verse

Many of you who know me know that I have two beautiful healthy young sons and I could not be more thankful or feel more blessed to have them in my life. But long before they were born I had become pregnant. My name is Rachel Bat Shutelah – thank you for allowing me to share my story. I was a working in a brick factory in Egypt, and like all the other pregnant women I was forced to work all through my pregnancy with no accommodation for illness or discomfort.

I was working in the factory the day I went into labor and, because of the ruthlessness and inhumanity of the Egyptian rulers, I had no choice but to deliver my baby right there in the factory. With little fanfare his body slipped from me into the pit of the mortar and sand below. I had seen it happen to so many other women in the factory too. I knew that the fate of my baby was to become one of the millions of bricks of Pharaoh’s pyramids...but this thought has haunted me throughout my afterlife.

I’m here today because the Angels in heaven told me that it has become a tradition in your modern times to read the history books on a weekly basis, and that I should make a visit here to check those holy books to see what might have become of my baby.

In the beginning of my research I found that it says in Exodus 24:10 that when Moses, Aaron and his sons Nadav and Avihu and the 70 elders of Israel went up the mountain of Sinai they saw God, and:

וְתַחַת רַגְלָיו, כְּמַעֲשֵׂה לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, וּכְעֶצֶם הַשָּׁמַיִם, לָטֹהַר.

…translated by the New Jewish Publication Society as:

“and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness.”

It gave me a clue but no real answers.

The King James translation of this verse explains it even more precisely:

“and they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.”

A body of heaven – could it be, I thought?

I looked at one more - the Pseudo Jonathan. It says here:

“and under the footstool of His feet which was placed beneath His throne, was like the work of sapphire stone a memorial of the servitude with which the Egyptians had made the children of Israel to serve in clay and bricks…a footstool under the cathedra of the Lord of the world whose splendor was as the work of a precious stone, and as the power of the beauty of the heavens when they are clear from the clouds.”

Even further explanation of this in what you call midrash says that at the exact same time I was giving birth on earth, God was taking a vote of the angels up in heaven to decide if it was fair to drown the Egyptians as punishment for the persecution of us Israelites. As the angels ardently debated, the archangel Michael descended from the heavens and carried the brick that held my baby in its center up to God to show an example of the atrocities that the Egyptians perpetrated onto us. God was so moved by this evidence that the judgment was made – the Egyptians would be punished. Now I now know that the fate of my first born baby was not to become a symbol of evil, rigidity and subordination. My son had a divine purpose.

With this knowledge I can go back to the heavens with peace in my mind and in my spirit. May all of us in our work and life be builders of community and upholders of tradition. In whatever work we do we are making bricks, setting the foundation, creating a magnificent footstool with which our children, our gems, will learn how to elevate every moment of life.

May we all continue to reach for the heavens and find the divine in ourselves and in everything we do.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Writers of the Torah go on strike!

By Stephanie Pacheco
We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog for this news break.

CANAAN - In what has been a long-disputed case of credit and compensation, the Torah Writers International Guild (TWIG) announced today that a strike was authorized for 50% of vote-casting members. (The remaining 50%, as represented by the divine, was unavailable for comment.) TWIG is demanding higher residual fees for repeat broadcasts in synagogues, as well as new media distribution and other digital outlets. The union claims that writers are not receiving adequate compensation from popular Torah publishers and translators, such as JPS, Plaut and Artscroll, or new media distribution, such as or the messianic Torah Talk (available for podcast on iTunes).

The strike has the Torah consumer community in an uproar. Shoshi bat Hymie, a long-time reader of Torah, says she is afraid of what will happen if the parties do not resume negotiations. "What if this whole thing is never settled and the Torah goes into reruns for the next 2,000 years?" bat Hymie asks. "I mean, I love the stories, but can they really last in syndication?" Natasha Vaginovitch, an active member of the local Jewish community who is currently in rehearsals for Below the Bible Belt, a stage show adaptation of the Torah's Book of Genesis, believes that the union's actions are unconscionable. "Shouldn't they just be happy that their material is getting out there?" she demands, noting that the strike will affect not just the writers, but also the Torah Actors & Directors Association (TADA) and audiences world-wide.

In his weekly column, business analyst Ron Grover acknowledges, "it looks as if studio executives are prepared to wait out the writers for weeks, months, maybe more. For those of us at home, that means more warmed-over reruns and reality shows no self-respecting cable channel would dare offer under normal circumstances." What might those be? This writer proposes Survivor: Mesopotamia and America's Next Top Mohel.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

From Parshat Beshallach/Take the Long Way Home

Minnesota, 1/18-20/08

By Shawn Shafner

Storah On The Road

This past weekend, Naomi Less and I got up early in the cold New York morning and headed to the airport. Four hours later, it was still early in morning, but in a much colder Minnesota air. Seriously cold. Like zero degrees was the high. It was a painful, blistering, cough-when-you-inhale kind of weather that we, for some reason, brought with us this past weekend. We steeled ourselves inside our rental car and took stock. We had a Friday night Kavannah and introduction, a Saturday morning Maven and talkback, Saturday night youth workshop, and a Sunday morning extravaganza—a keynote speech (for which Naomi was amazing!), and three workshops to be taught. Whoo! So we put our courage to the sticking place, checked the rearview mirrors, and revved up the engine. Neither hail, nor sleet, nor threat of frostbite could keep us from accomplishing our mission: spreading the Storah.

By which I mean story. One of the things that has never ceased to amaze me about working on a parsha as we do, is that it begins to show up in my life. The ancient story seeps through the walls of time, and the questions we’re refining for our show pop up like friendly gnomes around every tree. I begin to see Beshallach everywhere I turn; a red light becomes the Sea of Reeds, and I’m Nachshon, struggling to be free. Sometimes I forget that when we take it on the road, it becomes infectious.

“I just got back last week from my father’s yahrzeit, and I feel so much like I’m carrying his legacy. Seeing Joseph’s bones on the bimah was so touching for me, and comforting.”

“Since yesterday when you guys did the show, I keep finding myself thinking about little bits of the story. It really illuminated some things going on in my life, which I don’t think I’d really realized were there.”

“I found myself wanting so badly to tell your character to just calm down, to just believe in the process. And then I realized I was talking to myself. Thanks.”

Torah is a mirror. What a joy and a privilege it is to get to travel around and maybe hold it up for people.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Parshat Yitro: Its like thunder, and lightening, the way you love me is frightening…

By Chloe Ramras
Verse Per Verse

I am no scholar, but this is a big one folks. Dot dot dot the house of Jacob and all the children of Israel therein step up to the plate and get smacked upside the head with the good book.

It’s like thunder, and lightening, the way you love me is frightening…

“And G-d said to Moses, ‘Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish.’” (Exodus 19:21)

DUN, DUN, DUN!!!!!!!!

What a crazy scene? Jews fearing for their lives, seeing the light, thunder and smoke. Blinding visions of G-d, the raw deal. I’d be scared too. The people at the bottom of the rock ended up not being able to handle all Ten Commandments. We got the first two from yours truly and asked Moses to take the rest of the heat. Ouch! We couldn’t handle the TRUTH.

PARANOIA: What if Moses was messing with us? Moses was not the best lingual translator. Sure, G-d picked him first out of the line up, but why is it that the Jews did not receive the Torah, the guide to life, first hand? WE WERE RIGHT THERE!

Well it turns out not all of us were ready to handle the revelation at Sinai. Accepting G-d as the creator of everything you know and love without question is THE hardest thing to do in life. Period

I just returned from Eretz Yisrael this past week. I had the ineffable pleasure of spending Shabbat in the Holy city of Tsfat. At the highest point of the city on Saturday morning, I looked out onto the rolling mountains and saw several layers of clouds bleeding one into each other, ten layers to be exact. Each layer of cloud got thicker and thicker as it rolled on until I could no longer see anything but white. I cried and then connected in that moment the significance of the number ten (gematriah is so hot). TEN, I am to understand is a very Holy number. In Kabbalah, they say there are ten layers or spherot, between a human and G-d. Each layer is exponentially thicker as you get closer and closer to G-d. I would like to say that I recognized G-d that day and I am now ready to give my whole life to Torah… but I am not ready. I am going to listen to Moses for a few more tunes. Maybe press repeat on ones I didn’t quite get the first, or 37th time.

The Zohar says the whole purpose of life is to elevate one’s spiritual self. Or HaChaim says that it is important to stay alive while doing this. I am reminded of a story...

There once was a boy who wanted to know what would make him happy for the rest of his life. The boy went to the smartest Rabbi in all the land. This super smart Rabbi also happened to be the richest and had a gorgeous palace to show for it. The boy went to the Rabbi’s palace and took a number. The smartest Rabbi in all the land was a very busy one too. The boy’s number was finally was called. He entered the Rabbi’s office and asked, “Rabbi, I want to know what will make me happy for the rest of my life.” The Rabbi, looking down, shuffling over papers and Starbucks cups said, “Um, I am little busy son, come back in an hour and I will answer your question. Go enjoy my palace and take this spoon filled of three drops of oil with you. You must keep the oil in the spoon. Come back and I will answer your question then.” The boy took the spoon, completely confused and left the Rabbi’s office. He carefully walked down the hallways and corridors out into the garden never taking his eyes off the oil in the spoon. “Such a ridiculous task must have some deeper significance. I want my question answered and I doubt the Rabbi will answer if I do not fulfill this task.” An hour later, the boy went back to the Rabbi’s office, oil intact and says, “Okay, here is the oil. See all three drops! So, Rabbi can you tell me now, what will make me the happy for the rest of my life?” The Rabbi answered, of course, with another question, “How did you enjoy my palace, boy? How about my collection of Bonsai trees? Pretty impressive, no?” Hopelessly stalling, the boy replied, “Uh, yeah, I guess it was pretty cool, er?” The Rabbi furrowed his thick brow knowingly, “You were not paying any attention to my beautiful palace at all. Go out again. Keep the spoon and oil and please have a good time. Check out my Kid Robot collection and pick some fruit from the orchards. It’s the best in the land. Come back in another hour.” Embarrassed the boy turned and left the Rabbi’s office. The palace turned out to be the cream of the cribs crop! The boy was floored by the state of the art gallery space, the gorgeous naked women in the orchards and more succulent fruit than he could stomach. He went back to the Rabbi, drunk with pleasure. “Dude, rebba, your palace is the shizznit! We could throw the sickest foam party here! So, you got the low on my inquiration, brah?” The Rabbi looked at the boy who at this point had the spoon twirled somehow in his hair, oil dripping down his face. “Boy, to live a fulfilled and happy life one must keep his integrity in his heart and enjoy the riches of life at the same time.” The Rabbi added three more drops to the spoon and handed it back to the smiling boy.

I am on a learning journey. I battle with myself and ask (do I dare even ask?) the question “do I believe?” In weak and lonely moments I have trouble and wrestle with the validity of my existence. So, I take a step back. Think about what I do know and what I do believe. Then, I look at the moon and the trees and remember the sound of my mother’s voice telling me how proud she is of me, and to do my best.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Parashat Beshallach: Sink or Swim

By Franny Silverman and Naomi Less
Verse Per Verse

How many times in your life have you simply wanted to -- STOP --? Come on everyone has the lottery fantasy, (even those of us who never play).

“First I would quit my job.” (Stop) “I would buy a house for my parents” (So they could Stop.) “Of course I would donate a ton of money, start a foundation…” (Of course) “And, I don’t know…maybe buy a place on an island and just…” (Stop.)

Familiar? I am an optimistic, joyful person and I know that I live a very fulfilling life. I also know that it is sometimes at the peak of joy or success when fear can inject its poison into a person’s consciousness creating another challenge to overcome. And sometimes, just before the moment of accepting the challenge, before even the bravest among us choose faith over fear, there comes a moment of “STOP!!!! Can’t it all just stop?! The planning, the email, the phone, the deadlines, the meetings, the buzz, the traffic, the rain, the expectations, the desire…STOP!”

And then we (I) take a deep breath. And vow (again) to start meditating on a regular basis. (To create time for STOP in my life) and KEEP ON TRUCKIN.

It is here at this moment of “STOP!!!!!!” that we find the Children of Israel. This is in the beginning of Beshallach, after the leisurely tour that God takes them on of the surrounding area and before the actual crossing of the Sea of Reeds, before the tinkling of Miriam’s timbrels and the Mi’Kamocha, before all of that, the Children of Israel stood en masse at the bank of the sea with all water ahead of them and all of Pharaoh’s army behind them.

וּפַרְעֹה, הִקְרִיב; וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד, וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶל-יְהוָה.

As Pharaoh came close, the Israelites looked up. They saw the Egyptians marching at their rear, and the people became very frightened.

The Israelites cried out to God.

– Exodus 14:10, The Living Torah, Kaplan

And what did they יִּצְעֲקוּ/scream or cry out?

וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין-קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר: מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ, לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם.

הֲלֹא-זֶה הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְנוּ אֵלֶיךָ בְמִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר, חֲדַל מִמֶּנּוּ, וְנַעַבְדָה אֶת-מִצְרָיִם: כִּי טוֹב לָנוּ עֲבֹד אֶת-מִצְרַיִם, מִמֻּתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר.

They said to Moses, “Weren't there enough graves in Egypt? Why did you have to bring us out here to die in the desert? How could you do such a thing to us, bringing us out of Egypt?

Didn't we tell you in Egypt to leave us alone and let us work for the Egyptians? It would have been better to be slaves in Egypt than to die [here] in the desert!”

– Exodus 14:11-12, The Living Torah, Kaplan

Sarcasm. “Not enough plots in Egypt, you [Moses] had to bring us out here to die?!”

Not STOP verbatim, but certainly not anything forward-moving.

So what happens next?

How do the Israelites continue on their journey after a GPS-free funhouse trek led by God forward and backward and around again only to be STUCK between a rock and a hard place. Panic sets in (and they had no Xanax). So?

My favorite version goes like this. The fearless (?) leader, Moses begins to daven. Fervently shuckling back and forth and on his knees, “What to do? What to do?”

And as the people are fighting, praying, crying, frozen, fearful, STOPPED, one from among them emerges: Nachshon.

He springs forward into the sea, flailing, up to his nose in H2O. And between desperate gulps of air and water, he cries:

“Save me, O God, for the water comes into my soul. I am sinking deep into the muck where there is no standing.”

This action of bravery, and the accompanying cry, breaks Moses from his prayers, his arms flying up and as they raise, the sea splits and the muck hardens and Nachshon and Moses lead the people across the threshold of fear to faith and ultimately, to freedom.

Indira Ghandi, former Prime Minister of India said, “You must be still in the midst of activity, and be vibrantly alive in repose.”

Nachshon, was alive and ready to move forward when the whole of the People of Israel were paralyzed by circumstance and fear.

In these unsteady times, when our faith is challenged and the ground we stand on seems shaky, we must gather up courage to move forward, empowered by the stories of our past. Maybe we learn the lesson that the ground has NEVER been steady to begin with – but we have faith in the process. Onwards…

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Future/Present/Passed-Over @ Reform Temple of Forest Hills

By David Wolkin

Storah On The Road

This past Shabbat, I had the honor of participating in my first official "gig" with Storahtelling. Mind you, this is after two years of employment with the company, working in the office, planning a retreat, teaching, dancing, praying, enjoying, and an unbelievable amount of shlepping (no complaining, though). Finally, finally, I get to take to the stage, the very reason I found my way into Storahtelling in the first place. From the perspective of my own personal history, I am struck by two particular elements of this experience (that I will attempt to somehow tie to the performance itself):

1. I was lucky enough to be paired with none other then Deanna Neil for this gig. Not only have she and I known each other for more than 20 years, but she was an inspiring partner, teacher and friend throughout this process, rising from her sickbed to make it to this gig, to sing and perform and inspire while down with the flu.

2. Five years ago, I lived in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens. I have not once been back since I moved into the city, and here I was, just blocks away from an old bus stop, at a synagogue I didn't know existed at the time. And as I walked to the train with Amichai, a whole chapter of my life that I had almost forgotten came flooding back to me, reminding me of how much I have changed in that time.

And this synagogue, the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, is a special place itself. On the way out, Amichai and I noticed a plaque on the building, informing us that on those grounds, Helen Keller had worked with Anne Sullivan, the inspiration for the play "The Miracle Worker".

And what of the gig itself? Deanna and I told the story of the tenth plague in Parshat Bo. We attempted to explore this painful narrative through the lens of a Jew throughout the stages of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Deanna deftly inhabited each of these three roles, each time taking a different perspective on both God and Pharaoh (played by moi) within this story. Was Pharaoh really the bad guy? Did God manipulate Pharaoh and if so, why? How do we tell this complicated tale to our children, since this is exactly what the Torah asks of us?

Our audience had many children who may not have fully understood the struggle that we were trying to present, but were clearly more engaged by us than they would be by the standard Torah service. And I was impressed by the level with which the adults were engaged with our performance, and the many thoughts that they offered during the second aliyah stretch. Taking a backseat during this stage of the show, I was able to take notice of one thing in particular. The looks on these people's faces, it was probably the same look I had on my own face the first time I truly encountered Storahtelling. So while we are still trying to figure out exactly what it means to be a Maven, I am personally satisfied that we were able to touch some people this past Shabbat.

And here's the thing: many years ago, when Deanna and I were children just like the one she played in the first Aliyah, we were in the same school, hearing these stories just a few classrooms apart. And 5 years ago, I was sitting in Queens forcing myself not to think about these pieces of the Torah because they were too difficult to accept. Today, just like in our performance, through this process with Storahtelling, I've made my own peace with the God that is written in the Torah, bringing my story full circle by re-telling it with an old friend.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Last Midnight, Parshat Bo at Rabbinical Training Institute

By Naomi Less

Storah On The Road

Change….seems everyone is talking about it. It's in the Presidential Race…It's in the Jewish educational national conversation…It's happening right now at JTS. This past Sunday and Monday, Amichai and I were invited to present the opening program as well as a Maven performance at the JTS's Rabbinic Training Institute at Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland. Both a privilege and pleasure for me personally to humbly share the secrets of Storahtelling with colleagues from my own alma mater – people I have studied with and learned from during my tenure at the Davidson School. Amichai and I were able to share our own Storahtelling call for change – the call for a deeper understanding of our ancient texts – a call for biblical literacy in this sea of change where faith and the "old testament" is on the front page of the paper and on the docket for the election. How immediate and critically important it is for us to develop a nuanced understanding of our own texts! And we were thrilled that with the opening workshop and the Maven Torah performance on Monday morning on Parshat Bo, we were able to begin discourse with over 60 rabbis, who, along with JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen and Rabbinical School Dean Danny Nevins, loudly echoed this call.

It's interesting that the Parsha we investigated and performed for the Maven Storahtelling performance on Monday morning was in fact Bo. Bo has a particular moment where the Egyptian servants actually request from Pharaoh to think twice about sending out the Israelites – the Pharaoh's courtiers actually make a plea to the establishment to ask for change. To petition Pharaoh, their "god-king" – could not have been easy – they had courage to speak up. The words are written clearly on the scroll as to what they said, but what tactic, what method, what tone did they use? How, today, do we challenge the 'old establishment' to both allow for and actually endorse change. On that note, we are extremely excited and eager to begin discussions with JTS after being invited by the Dean of the Rabbinical School to do work with their students. Change is definitely in the air…and Storahtelling is ready to meet it with open arms and open scrolls!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Parashat Bo: Enter

By Amichai Lau-Lavie
Verse Per Verse

This week’s Torah episode is named after the heroic act that is described in its very first sentence: BO – Enter. Moses enters, again, into the Pharaoh’s boardroom, the domain of oppression, the narrowest of the narrow places known as Mitzraim- Egypt. On a literal level, one may read this scene as it is told in Hebrew Schools this coming week, or around the Seder table in months to come – this is a historical fight for freedom between slaves and masters, starring Moses as the good guy and Pharaoh as the bad guy who dies at the end.

But, wait, did this ‘really’ happen? Is this ‘history’ or ‘myth’ or both or neither? Whether one buys into this story as ‘historical reality’ and believes that the Bible describes real events or not is an important discussion that has certainly made its way beyond the religious sphere and is now dominating the public sphere – including the 2008 race for the presidency, arguably the most religious in recent memory. Which of the candidates would claim that the Exodus really happened and which would voice the modern view that these are but allegorical descriptions of the human yearning for meaning via symbolic tales? (and, on that note, which of them is destined to become a liberating Moses, and which – a feared Pharaoh?)

This morning I had the privilege of hearing Professor Arnie Eisen, the new and impressive Chancellor of JTS, address a room full of rabbis at the JTS Rabbinic Training Institute, just outside Baltimore. Discussing faith in the modern age, he challenged the current trends seeking validity for the impact of Biblical tales in scientific or archeological ‘proof’. There are some basic assumptions of faith, he claimed, and one of those assumptions is the presence of these stories in our lives as inherited sources of inspiration. Later, at breakfast, we sat together and discussed the weekly portion – he had just seen a Storahtelling version of BO and was impressed by our ability to ‘raise the Torah to its original level of importance and impact’. He discussed the word ‘BO’ as we translated it – enter – get in there – get under the skin of the King in order to radically change who he is. The modern tyrant is not a human being, not necessarily, he mused – it is a condition, and sometimes an institutional reality, resisting change..

So where does the tale of Moses entering the presence of the Pharaoh relate to modern personal experience? Where is the un-historical validity that makes this text matter?

The key is indeed in the word itself – BO – translated as ENTER but also as COME or perhaps GET IN THERE. The basic command should have been GO – why is this odd usage of word? Many commentaries have dealt with this question, and offer a variety of translations and solutions. The Zohar considers this to be one of the real secrets of the life of faith - a recipe for dealing with self renewal in profound way. Moses represents the part of the self that is motivated towards change and growth. Egypt – and the Pharaoh – represent the part of us that is narrow minded, short of vision, reluctant to change. In order to really change and become more of who we want to be – we must enter that place inside ourselves that resists innovation. We must, like Moses, ENTER the very domain which holds us back – and this is often a scary, dark place.

“Rabbi Simon said: It is time to reveal the secrets as they emanate from above and below. What is the meaning of “Come into the Pharaoh”? It should say “Go to the Pharaoh”. Rather, God led Moses into rooms within rooms.. God said to Moses, come – with me, into the Pharaoh” (Zohar Bet 34:B)

It isn’t just that we are inspired and instructed here to enter the dark places in order to come out into the light – it is also, according to the Zohar, a task that we will not be asked to do alone. ENTER the Pharaoh, but not alone – says the Zohar, go with God – with an inner faith in the process, in the inevitability of the triumph of freedom and progress over the tyranny of fear.

Faith or fear, history or myth, this weekly episode of the world’s best seller is another reminder, harsh and tender at once – enter to exit, and may the force be with you.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Live from Tel Aviv

By Amichai Lau-Lavie

Storah On The Road

I sip tea with a friend at a trendy Tel Aviv café and she tells me of how the Israeli religious climate has changed. ‘Religion is everywhere – from the most old school pious to the most interesting new fusion’, she says, ‘listen to the radio – the playlist is 75% ancient prayers in modern garb – this would have been unheard of 10 years ago. There are some exciting new experiments and trends’. That morning, Ha’aretz publishes the results of a local poll: 75% of Israeli teens consider themselves Jewish first, Israeli second – an amazing fact that both mirrors and molds the current reality of a country struggling to identify itself on the eve on its’ 60th birthday.

Across the street from that café is ALMA – Ruth Calderon’s center for Jewish learning for adults – one of Israel’s hippest hotspots for new Jewish culture. This past Saturday morning I was invited to attend Shabbat services at ALMA, convened by Beit Tfila – a grassroots community of seekers who have created a non orthodox congregation at the heart of secular Tel Aviv. About a hundred people shuffle in to the library, where chairs are arranged in a circle, and a small ark stands upright – hosting an ancient torah scroll, originally from Bagdad and donated by a supporting community in Buenos Aires. Esteban Gottfried – one of the two co-founders is getting over a bad cold, but as he is joined by musicians on cello and piano, he leads the morning prayers with gusto. Everybody sings along, using photocopied pamphlets with highlights of the Shabbat liturgy. They have a Hebrew translation of ‘What a Wonderful world’ that makes everybody giggle and a few original tunes written by some of Israel’s top composers such as Shlomo Grunich, who sometimes attends.

Several friends of mine make their way in just before I begin the Storah – we had dinner the night before and they all went dancing – by the look of it – they haven’t been home yet! They bring a few friends along, eyes similarly red.. ( I learn the full story later – this is the first time I know of that clubbers make it straight from all night dancing to a storah show, enticed by the prospects of juicy torah...)

When’s it’s my turn to take over the service for the Storahtelling – the crowd is ‘warmed up’ and eager to play. The story is Shmot – the first of the Exodus saga portions, and we follow in the footsteps of Moses as he stumbles out of the palace, seeking to reconcile his split identity – Egyptian/Hebrew, Master/Slave.

Several interesting things happen here – very different from what would have happened in an American congregation. First – I ‘translate’ the torah from Hebrew to Hebrew – Biblical to Israeli, and in the process, more so than in the usual Storahtelling tradition – the story turns current and political. Second – the issue of split identity becomes a painful and heartfelt conversation as we quickly turn from history to current events – only blocks away is Israel’s fast growing neighborhood of foreign immigrants – many of them living in squalor and battling sub-minimum wage.

On a personal level – doing Storahtelling in Hebrew enables me to delve into wells of midrash that simply don’t work the same in English. I am quickly moved into tears as people start responding to my questions about Moses’s decision in naming his firstborn son GERSHOM – ‘a stranger there’. The story is about him, but it is also about me… here and there, Israeli in America, and now an American visiting Israel… life in split screen.

Following the prayer service we gather to discuss the prospects for Storahtelling in Tel Aviv. As in my previous events and workshop in this trip – the responses are overwhelming and the demand for local programming is intense. Several rabbis from local reform congregations are in attendance as well as a superintendent of the Ministry of Education who wants to see this curriculum enter the public school system. A Kiddush featuring local arak seals the deal, and we all shuffle off to a sunny Saturday in Tel Aviv, scooters everywhere and from a nearby car, the radio blasts a recent top of the charts song – psalm 150…

Extreme Makeover of a Redemptive Kind

By Judith Schiller
Verse Per Verse

As the page of our secular calendar turns to a new year, many folks may think about New Year’s resolutions. While this often lacks the deeper inner work of teshuva that we undertake during the Jewish New Year, it gets people thinking of ways they want to change their lives, set new goals. But what does it take to effect fundamental transformation in our lives?

As we enter parshat Vaera, we are at the very beginning stages of an enormous change process. B’nai Yisrael is inured to slavery, lacking hope and vision of a better life. Any notion of change is met with hostility and mistrust, especially since things have only gotten worse since Moses’ and Aaron’s initial efforts to persuade Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves go free. Moses expresses his frustration to God and accuses God of “not rescuing your people.” Here God reconfirms His promise, and tells Moses in Shemot 6:6-8

6. Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the YHWH; and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from servitude to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great (acts of) judgments;
7. I will take you to me for a people, and I will be for you a God; and you shall know that I am the YHWH your God, who brings you out from beneath the burdens of Egypt.
(Everett Fox translation)

We find here a curious set of verbs, corresponding to the four cups of wine we drink at our Passover seder often translated as:

Hotzeiti - I will bring you out/ I shall take you away
Hitzalti - I will rescue you/ free you
Ga-alti - I will redeem you/ liberate you
Lakachti - I will take you (to Me)

At first glance these words have similar meanings. They appear to be different ways of saying essentially the same thing. Are they all synonyms for redemption or liberation? Or is this an intentional sequence of words? Do they need to go in this order?

In the Stone Chumash, the editor notes that these two verses contain four different expressions, representing progressive stages of the redemption of B’nai Yisrael . R’Bachya explains that the expressions, start with being removed from the burdens of slavery and culminate with being given the Torah at Sinai.

Biblical references of redemption often are within the contexts of: a redeeming kinsman who can buy back property; paying the ransom of a captive; or a case of levirate marriage in which a widow marries her deceased husband’s brother, in order to provide a child in her late husband’s name. In all these situations, we find a theme of restoration, of recouping from loss or lower status.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees these verses describing a rescue from a dangerous and destructive situation. God is stepping in as the redeeming kinsman through whom the Hebrews will regain their rights and independence.

A search for definitions of redemption yielded various possibilities, including:

To make up for
To restore the honor, worth, or reputation of:
To set free; rescue or ransom.
To save from a state of sinfulness and its consequences.

Some synonyms for redemption are:

change, transform, recapture, reclaim, recoup, regain, reinstate, repay, repossess, restore, win back

In these verses we find the outline of the change that is about to start for B’nai Israel culminating in verse 6:8:

I will bring you into the land (over) which I lifted my hand (in an oath) to give to Avraham, Yitzhak, and to Yakov.

In essence, we are looking at an extreme makeover of the soul of a people, being brought out from slavery to freedom, to a new life, new identity, and a new world order.

Redemption implies a change from a lower state of being to a higher one. I’m drawn to the notion that these verses describe progressive stages of redemption. If any of these stages do not happen, redemption is incomplete. It may be a rescue but not transformation. In this sequence of actions we find a model of full restoration of dignity and renewed purpose.

It reminds us that this notion of redemption is not a single act, but an intensive process, requiring several steps, and full commitment with full heart. We have examples of rescues in our world, past and present. For example, one could argue that the African Americans were freed from slavery, but were not fully redeemed, in that they were not provided new relationships, supports, respect, and a home as our Hebrew ancestors were. Last year we read in our local paper about the lost boys of Sudan, a group of young men who escaped a harsh and violent life in the Sudan to come to Cleveland, only to encounter violence and neglect in the U.S. Since their story broke, members of the community have stepped up to offer help in a variety of ways- food, housing, education, employment, and friendship. These actions of chesed are what made all the difference in restoring their dignity, hope and faith, and illustrate what it takes for humans to be agents of redemption for their fellow humans.

Back to Shemot 6:6-8, how else could we translate these verses? I suggest:

I will bring you out from under your pain and oppression; I will free you from your terrible burdens; I will make up for this time of harshness and dehumanization and restore your honor, worth, and reputation. Then we can be in a loving relationship, and live together in a new place, defined by new terms.

May God’s model of redemption of B’nai Yisrael inform our efforts in being agents of redemption for ourselves and others.

Wishing you peace, love and blessings in 2008.