Thursday, February 28, 2008

Parshat Vayakhel

By Amichai Lau-Lavie
Verse Per Verse

This week’s Torah Episode “Vayk’hel” lists the generous contributions to the tabernacle, but the tale hides a word and a story about survival, sexual arousal, and feminine intelligence—hinting at the erotic and mystical dimensions of the sacred.

It all begins innocently enough: when it was time for the construction of
the Sacred Sink—a washing station for the tabernacle employees—the
Levites. This is the only plumbing device featured in the plans for the
Mishkan, and the construction called for brass or copper, but the source of
this donated metal proved to be a source of some contention.

“And he made the laver of brass, and the base thereof of brass, of the
mirrors of the serving women that did service at the door of the tent of
meeting” (Exodus 38:8, JPS translation).

Who are these women and what are they doing at the tent's threshold and
what's with the mirrors? The Hebrew “b'marot hatzov'ot” does not
explicitly mention women, but the verse identifies the keepers of the
mirrors as “feminine” and “assembled” leading to multiple translations:
"mirrors of the women who assembled;" " mirrors of the ministering women
that ministered at the door of the tent of meeting;" " women who performed
tasks;" "women who served at the entrance;" "mirrors of the women-work-force;" or "crowds of women who crowded before the tent". The Pseudo Jonathan delivers a curious version – covering up a bigger story:

“And he made the brazen Laver, and its foundation of brass, from the brazen
mirrors of the pious women, who, at the season, came to pray at the door of
the tabernacle of appointment, standing with their oblations, giving thanks
and confession, and returning to their husbands, the mothers of righteous
children, who had been purified from the uncleanness of their blood.”

Brazen mirrors?? What this translation alludes to is a lesser known legend,
quoted by Rashi—tracing the mirrors all the way back to Egypt, where they
served as sex toys, raising the oppressed and repressed Hebraic libido and
bumping up the population surveys: “When their husbands were weary from the hard labor, they would bring them food and drink, give them to eat and take the mirrors. Each one would look into the mirror together with her husband and tease him with words saying: ‘I am more beautiful than you.’ In the course of this they would arouse their husbands' desire and copulate.”

Moses, according to the legend, did not want those “brazen mirrors” in his
new tent, but the Holy One intervened, instructing the inclusion of these
sacred objects of vanity in the very place where bodies would be sanctified
for divine service.

The Hebrew word for “mirror” is very similar “mar-aa” and is also related to
the Hebrew word for “vision”. Thus, amid smoke and mirrors, the visionaries, midwives, artists and freed slaves join to tell the hopeful tale of freedom over oppression – political, sexual, religious and aesthetic. Just in time for Passover.

Next time you wash your hands in your bathroom sink, ponder: where in your
personal sanctuary is the erotic elevated into the sacred?

Next week – Parshat Pikudei: Exiting the Exodus in High Fashion

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Maven Deflowered

By Avi-Fox Rosen

Storah On The Road

This last Friday night, I had the pleasure of performing my first maven gig with Deanna Neil at the Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, NJ.

I must admit, that I had some trepidation about the part, because a Maven has to speak. I get nervous when I have to speak, because even though I'm a confident guitarist and singer, I ain't got no acting chops!! But, thankfully, with the support of an awesome, experienced, and beautiful lead Maven, I felt well at ease the whole time.

The show was for Parashat Ki Tisa, a ripe old portion (for details see my previous blog about the portion). We focused our interpretation on Exodus 33:7-23, which have mainly to do with the ritual surrounding the Tent of Meeting, where Moses receives instruction from God, and with one particular conversation that Moses has with God where he demands to see God, and God's allows Moses to see God's back.

Ripe. As I said.

My role was as a musician underscoring the dialogue and a narrator giving details of the story and quoting God's voice. Deanna explored several character's: in the first aliyah, a plain Israelite; in the second Tziporah, Moses' wife; in the third, Moses himself.

The overarching theme we explored is that of moving closer. How do we move closer in the many relationships we find ourselves in, as friends, colleagues, lovers? This last point was highlighted by the good fortune of having a recently engaged couple's aufruf as part of our service. And how do we use our experience in our human relationships to navigate a relationship with the divine?

Friday, February 22, 2008

DAYENU (A hymn to Storahtelling)

Storah On The Road

This just in: Judy Schiller, one of the Jewish educators who attended last weekend's STORAHLAB educators training composed this amazing lil poem:
Thanks Judy!

If you had given us the opportunity to connect with old and new friends, without giving us a transporting ritualab with glorious music, Dayenu

If you had given us a transporting ritualab with glorious music, without
an awesome storah-service, Dayenu

If you had given us an awesome storah-service without hearing all about
the state of the Storah, dayenu

If you had given us the state of the Storah, without enriching Shabbat afternoon workshops, Dayenu

If you had given us enriching Shabbat afternoon workshops without a lovely dinner together Saturday evening, dayenu (and thank you for so generously picking up the tab)

If you had given us a lovely dinner together Saturday evening, without one karaoke song, dayenu

If you had given us one karaoke song without a glass of wine dayenu,

If you had given us a glass of wine without 10 karaoke songs, dayenu

If you had given us 10 karaoke songs without Bust a Move, dayenu

If you had given us Bust a Move without teaching us great new warm-ups, dayenu

If you given us great new warm-ups, without collegial study and sharing, dayenu

If you had given us the opportunity for collegial study and sharing, without deep focus review of cool tool, dayenu

But you gave us all of this and more!

Thanks so much for giving us a great weekend at the Storahlab reunion. I feel nurtured and nourished in body, mind and spirit. Many thanks to everyone- the teachers, musicians, the storah staff- who made it such a great experience.

High fives, group hug

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Parashat Ki Tisa: I’ll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours…

By Avi Fox-Rosen
Verse Per Verse

Parashat Ki Tisa is one of the ripest, juiciest, yet in some ways most frustrating parshiyot of Exodus. Just to refresh our memories since we graduated Sunday school: the portion begins with a census and tax code to fund the building of the Ohel Mo’ed, the tent of meeting. It continues with Bezalel’s appointment as chief architect for this project, then a recap of Shabbat sanctity (where we get the “Veshamru” text), and God’s writing of the first set of tablets. Followed by the entire incident of the Golden Calf, and God’s subsequent fury. Moses then talks God down, but when he descends and sees the Bacchaean revelry, he smashes the tablets himself. Darn.
Moses leads a militia of Levites to slaughter 3000 sinners in retribution, then must atone on Israel’s behalf to God. In a delightful meta-moment, Moses threatens God saying, effectively, “Forgive Israel for this calf thing or take me out of yer darn book.” God accepts (thank goodness, as the Books of Moses would be very different without Moses). We are then privy to the intimate details of an encounter between Moses and God in the Ohel Mo’ed, where Moses asks God to reveal Godself, to see God’s face. In a beautifully symbolic anthropomorphism, God allows Moses to see God’s back, but shields Moses with a divine palm that God’s face may not be seen. God proceeds to dictate the second set of commandments. When Moses finally descends the mountain 40 days later, he is a changed man. Rays of light emanate from his face, causing fear in Israelites so that he must veil his face in public from now on, only exposing his face in the tent of meeting in God’s presence. Fin.

What intrigues me most through all of this is the character of Moses, and the tension between the two biggest public commitments he has made in his life up to this point: his commitment to serve the people Israel, and his commitment to serve God.

Moses is a leader trying to balance on a tightrope of intimacy. He is pulled in one direction to the needs and responsibility of serving his community. This is a nitty gritty job! Israelites have needs: needs for food and water in an unforgiving desert; needs for clear laws and guidelines for living as a free people; needs for resolving family disputes; dealings with foreign nations; social services; religious ritual and a sense of the divine… the list goes on, and Moses is at the helm of a newly emerging nation with all of the realities and challenges of that undertaking.

But Moses is pulled in another direction at the same time; a yearning for transcendence, for meaning. Moses desires more than anything to look God in the face, to see God panim el panim. God must remind Moses that no human being can look into unbridled divinity and live. Yet Moses does not fear for his life- it seems that at least a part of him would gladly die for access to a Godly presence of mind.

When I approach it from a certain perspective, I find myself in a bind similar to Moses. I experience in my own small way the tension of being pulled between “service of Israel” and “staring God in the face.” I understand service of Israel as the experience of being a human of flesh and blood. My service of Israel is the service of my physical needs for food and shelter. It is the nitty gritty of being human. My need to be involved in and serve my local and global community, make a living, find camaraderie. I understand my desire to “see God’s face” as the yearning for transcendence; to serve a pure creativity that could lead to losing touch with the land of the living, and death by over stimulation, self absorption, and loss of compassion.

Obviously, the dichotomy is not simple- as Jews we understand that Im ein kemach, ein Torah, that without bread, we ain’t gonna learn no Torah. And without Israel, Moses cannot serve God.
But here Moses serves us as an ideal of how to live in this contradiction. None of Moses’ greatest desires for himself, his God, or his people will be fully consummated in his lifetime- but his life is spent in service.

What of Moses’ glimpse of God’s back?
Is this the ultimate tease of Moses’ life? Or is it the small concession by God that will allow Moses to keep serving? An admission that though God cannot allow Moses to be fully absorbed into divine relationship, God understands that Moses needs to feel valued, and have access to greater intimations of transcendence?

I wonder if Moses felt that he had gotten what he wanted from God. He had gained access to a level of communion with God that no other human will ever have. Yet that closeness with God created a greater distance from his people. His very appearance inspired fear in the people he served, and he had to shield his face with a veil for the rest of his life, only uncovering his face to God.

Is this really any different than how any of us lives?
We all wear the veils of public life. We act with courtesy to save face, engage in social graces- we speak in veiled terms, insinuating through politeness. The times when we take off the veil are few and far between- only in our most intimate relationships.

Food for thought.
Let me know what you’re thinking !

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Parashat Tetzave: Romney’s Underwear

By Amichai Lau-Lavie
Verse Per Verse

As the race intensifies, more and more about each candidate for the presidency is revealed, often, below the belt. In light of the weekly Torah episode that will be broadcast at a synagogue near you this coming Saturday, one wonders about important details regarding the makings of leaders – including what kind of underwear they wear. Briefs or boxers, Barak? And what DOES Hillary wear down there? These are important stylistic decisions that tell much about a person’s character. The Bible understood this as does Mr. Romney. See, in this week’s Torah there is a long description of the sacred garments that are provided for the spiritual leaders of the nation – the Kohanim, or priests. After a long list of special and fantastic garments, including an oracle and bell festooned linen tunics, the Divine commands the makings of sacred priestly underwear, thigh to hip, to prevent the priestly private parts from being publicly displayed as the men climb the steep stairs of the altar. Practical. Like many other glories of the Hebraic Priestly Cult that have vanished with the destruction of the Temple 2,000 years ago these sacred vestments were forgotten and disused. Or so I thought. A recent search, prodded by a close reading of this week’s Torah text in Exodus revealed that the ancient undergarments are alive and well – in Salt Lake City. Known as ‘magic underwear’ or ‘Temple Garment’ this two piece underwear set is quite common among adherents of the Latter Day Saint Church. In one Mormon source it is referred to as ‘the garment of Aaronic Priesthood’.

Wow. Who knew? (check out John Safran vs. God for amazing short vid live from SLC)

Anyway. Romney’s undies don’t really matter anymore and I don’t really want to know what McCain wears (though I’ll bet its military issue boxers) what I am really interested in is the bizarre biblical focus on these details. From a deeper, mythic level there is more here than just mention of practical couture. According to some teachings, every detail about the Tabernacle and its makings reflect a mapping of the human soul and journey, representing our notions of sacred space. So why do the undergarments of the priests really matter? The Torah doesn’t elaborate, but a hint is dropped casually in the Talmud, during a discussion about the protocol for the biggest Temple Celebration of the Year. The Water Drawing ritual, conducted on the full moon of the fall – the first night of Succot – included live music, elaborate choreography and the lighting of every lamp in the Temple. ‘What wicks should be used?’ asks somebody in the Talmud, and someone else replies- ‘the discarded undergarments of the priests are used for the making of wicks for this celebration only.’ (Mishna, Succah 5:2)

Thus, curiously, it appears that our ancestors in Jerusalem recycled Levitical undergarments in order to light up the night of the great prayer for rain, for life. From the deepest deep comes a plea for sustenance from the highest high.

Having said that, If anyone has any info on candidates’ lingerie choices, please share.

(And, hm, Happy Valentine’s y’all. Keep away from those edible panties.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Life-Changing Weekend

By Jake Goodman

Storah On The Road

I want to report the news from Storahtelling’s most recent busy, fabulous, life-changing weekend! Storahtelling had three different teams going out this weekend, performing/facilitating three totally different programs, all with reportedly wild success. Here is a run-down:

Harrison Carter’s Bar-Mitzvah: Amichai Lau-Lavie, Shira Kline, Ronen Itzik, Isaac Everett, Jeremy Brown, David Wolkin and Sarah Sokolic all played various roles in making Harrison Carter’s Raising the Bar/Bar-Mitzvah a truly life-changing event. Apparently, many members of Harry’s non-Jewish family wanted to convert. While this is certainly not our goal, it does attest to the power of the ritual these Storahtellers and the Carter family helped to create. Mazal tov to Harry!

Maven Shabbaton Weekend at Temple Israel in Columbus, Ohio: Shawn Shafner and Shoshana Jedwab wowed the Temple Israel community with a full weekend of Setting the Stage, an incredibly funny/interesting/meaningful Maven Torah Reading Ritual of a very difficult parsha, and two workshops for students and educators. Some of the educators were apparently on the verge of tears during the workshop because they found the material (and Shawn’s and Shoshana’s teaching) so meaningful. They changed their lives! AND, poor Shawny and Shosh had some airplane woes that they handled with calm and grace. On the upside, Shawn apparently shook Hulk Hogan’s hand in the LaGuardia airport bathroom. I do not question, I only report.

National Union of Jewish JGBTQ Students (NUJLS) Conference at Columbia University: Amichai Lau-Lavie and Jake Goodman (whoever he is) facilitated a workshop for Columbia, Barnard and JTS students entitled “GAY-ned in Translation” at Columbia University on Sunday. Addressing the theme of “A Time of Change,” Amichai and Jake shared personal stories with the group, spoke about Storahtelling’s vission (mission/vision) and why it is directly related to Queer rights and pluralism, and engaged the participants in a short but very exciting Versatility exercise. Clearly, the Storahtelling vission is catching. We are changing their lives!

I am proud to be a member of this company. I love you all.

A cog in the life-changing wheel,

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Parashat Terumah: The Burden of Priestly Power

By Michelle Weiss
Verse Per Verse

Such a pity. I can barely see the beautiful embossings made of pure gold, as they are covered in years of blood from our ritual sacrifices. I remember my father describing to me what each carving is, its fine detail, and legends of the tremendous care that was taken in creating each piece in the Holy of Holies. But I've never really seen it. As long as I can remember, as long as I've been the High Priest, as long as anyone's been the High Priest, this room has been a place of holy duty, for our eyes only; a place of precise work and worship, not appreciation of art, even in the service of Hashem.

Exodus 25:2-7 '2 Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering. 3 And this is the offering which ye shall take of them: gold, and silver, and brass; 4 and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats' hair; 5 and rams' skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia-wood; 6 oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense; 7 onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate.'

I can only imagine what this looked like hundreds of years ago, before it was touched by sacrifice. Each carving so specific, made by the hands of devoted Jews, newly rescued from slavery, giving what was valued as wealth before we had the true wealth of freedom. The people were asked to give freely – whatever their hearts moved them to give would be accepted. A person could enjoy beautiful gold, copper and silver, the acacia wood, fine linens, the blues, purple and crimson strands and precious stones, but what is really a treasure is to be in control of one's own life. The sparkling jewels, reflective metals and woods, linens, and their time to create such wonders. It is a testament to the passion and gratitude they must have felt for being truly free.

Sometimes when I am preparing to enter the Kodesh Ha Kodesh, I think about the people making this place – our ancestors. I think about people working together, sharing tools, intently creating the most beautiful of designs to hold our most precious objects. They must have felt such joy in undertaking this holy work. Sometimes, I think they had more joy in making it than I take in seeing it. I can imagine them standing together looking at it when it was complete – fathers and sons, neighbors and friends, seeing their faces reflected in the sides of the ark, showing their humble pride at what they had wrought.

Exodus 25: 23-29 23 And thou shalt make a table of acacia-wood: two cubits shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof. 24 And thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, and make thereto a crown of gold round about. 25 And thou shalt make unto it a border of a handbreadth round about, and thou shalt make a golden crown to the border thereof round about. 26 And thou shalt make for it four rings of gold, and put the rings in the four corners that are on the four feet thereof. 27 Close by the border shall the rings be, for places for the staves to bear the table. 28 And thou shalt make the staves of acacia-wood, and overlay them with gold, that the table may be borne with them. 29 And thou shalt make the dishes thereof, and the pans thereof, and the jars thereof, and the bowls thereof, wherewith to pour out; of pure gold shalt thou make them

I admit it – I get angry sometimes. Why am I so special that only I can make these sacrifices to Hashem, covering such beauty with blood? I don't even get to enjoy the craftsmanship, as I am so overcome by the stench of dead carcasses. I enter the holiest place, and I am terrified for my life before the presence of the Almighty, terrified to make a single misstep and suffer the consequences. The weight of this is too much for one man.

Sometimes, I even wish the Babylonians would just get it over with already. This is a loosing fight, and I don't even know that I want to win. I know, isn't that terrible?

But if the Babylonians fight us, maybe things will change. Maybe if the Babylonians fight us, we will stop sacrificing animals. We'll have seen enough blood that we will know Hashem doesn't need any more spilt for honor. The air will become sweet again, and everyone could see the terrifying beauty of the cherubim. Everyone could see the menorot, so beautiful with their almond blossoms and cups and spheres, making me think of a warm day in the shade with a cup of wine, when there is no stress, and your mind can float to the clouds. Everyone would be able to tremble before God and account for themselves. And everyone would see their face reflected in the pure gold, and know that Hashem is within them, too.