Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


Finally, from a distance, from the edge of the desert, I heard the singing and knew I wasn't lost. I had been walking for about 15 minutes through the empty streets of Mitzpe Ramon, looking, a bit worried, for the party. It’s a tiny town, Mitzpe Ramon, 5,000 people, in the middle of the Negev desert, built on the edge of the fantastic Ramon Crater, the largest such geological site in the world. Tourism is one of the town's major industries (the nearby air force base coming in second). But I didn't come here to tour the natural landscape – I came to meet local educators and learn about the theories and practices, obstacles and opportunities that guide the educational visions that guide this peripheral, diverse and interesting town. The 2-day study tour was organized and led by the Mandel Leadership Institute, as the final program at the end of a full year of studies. We were a busload – about 60, a motley crew - educators, entrepreneurs, local leaders and social activists, mostly Israelis, a few from the US. After check-in at Mitzpe Ramon's only hotel, we headed right into dinner and a program. Afterwards, I sat in the hotel lobby chatting with some of the other folks, when D. texted with directions to the informal, impromptu party on the cliffs of the crater’s edge. It was past midnight and everybody else was too tired, but I wanted to go. And there I was on this little adventure, into the dark, silent streets of the sleeping city, in search of the edge.

It's a short walk from the hotel to the crater’s edge, but at that weird hour, in the empty streets, the heat still oppressive, a million stars overhead, and no clear directions – I felt like I was walking through a giant movie set, closed for the night – a horror movie with aliens. I was just starting to suspect that I’m actually lost and that I won’t find them and-at-least-I’m-having-a-nice-walk - when, faint at first, I heard voices – singing, laughing – and there they were, right on the edge of the crater. The wind was strong there, the crater opening like a vast dark empty ocean; two guitars playing, a bottle of scotch going around, little clusters of people, a big group sitting and singing a Beatles medley. The scotch must have helped, and the fact that this for many of us was the final night of a great and rigorous year of research and studies, and the presence of the crater – we sang furiously, ecstatically, for a while, anyway. When we got to "Imagine," everybody who was there somehow joined in, and the singing got louder, and one by one people got up, and a circle was, casually, formed. Everybody knew the words. We sang and giggled and danced a little and took pictures. Later we walked back to the hotel through the empty streets, still singing (by then, ballads by Duran Duran.)

There’s something totally vulnerable and intimate and silly and sacred about singing with a bunch of people – certainly when some, or most of them, are in some sort of ‘professional’ and ‘academic’ context. Singing ‘Imagine’ with this bunch of people was like a moment of prayer – a spontaneous call to hope and happiness - using the familiar liturgies of our generation.

All generations sing their songs. Once, in another desert, not too far away from where we were sitting, the generation that left Egypt sang a song to the well. It’s an obscure and lovely biblical song, found in this week’s Torah episode, ‘Chukat’, at the end of chapter 21, right after a plague and just before a war.

“Then Israel sang this song: Rise up, O well—sing to her! A well dug by princes, carved by the leaders;
With scepters, with their own staffs.”
(Num. 21 17-18)

There are lots of legends and commentaries attempting to interpret the secret of this song and the meaning of this well. One source, from the Midrash, links a thread from the song of the well to the recent death of Miriam, who perishes earlier in the chapter. She was the guardian of the water, the keeper of the well, and once she died, it was the people’s responsibility to guard the well and to dole the water. Twelve leaders from each of the twelve tribes stood in a circle, raised their staffs, and, in unison, rhythmically, for hours, brought them down on the earth and raised the well that nourished them through their wanderings in the desert.

It’s a beautiful legend – and a powerful symbol. The 12 leaders in this Tribal-trance-dance, forming a circle of song; raising the well of nourishment. They sing, and the water rises and opens to all 12 directions, quenching the thirst of each of the tribes. Where’s that song now? What’s the well? Who are the singers?

We sing at weddings and Karoke Bars, around pianos and in the shower, when we march and protest or parade (happy pride Jerusalem and NYC!) in houses of worship and around dinner tables and campfires and at national events. We sing to feel good, and to harmonize, and to remember and to pray and to cry and to laugh and to care. It’s like raising wells.

Of all the official goodbye ceremonies, speeches, evaluations and festive dinners that we had this past week at Mandel – singing on the edge of the crater is what I’ll choose to remember most. There we were, a random bunch of well diggers, proclaiming to the world, singing into the vast emptiness of the world’s largest crater: ‘Imagine!’.

(and to all the generous well diggers at MLI who’ve made this thirst-quenching possible for me and for all the other singers and diggers – thank you for the music.)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


The Sabbath lunch table was set for 40 – heavy linen table cloth and matching napkins, crystal wine glasses – but it was all about the view. Outside the dining room windows – the golden Dome of the Rock – in full glory, only a few hundred feet away: The best view of the Temple Mount I’ve ever had. The home that overlooks the dome belongs to a very orthodox, very wealthy, very generous, quite nice and, it appeared, quite right-wing American Jewish couple, who’ve turned their multi-leveled palace in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter into a Judaism & Zionism Boost Center. They host many Israeli soldiers for educational seminars and support for the welfare of veterans; dozens of plaques and thank you mementos from every possible unit in the IDF fill the house. The crowd for lunch is mostly American, Orthodox. Some, like the host and hostess, have been living here for over a decade. Others are attending various Jewish study programs in the area or just visiting. I somehow ended up here as a guest of a guest, promised what indeed turned out to be the best view of the Temple Mount ever and great food, and interesting people. It got interesting right away.

As soon as we’re done blessing the wine and the large loaves of homemade wholewheat challah, our host stands up, dramatically opens a bible, and hands it to the yeshiva boy seated next to me, commanding him: ‘read’! The guy starts reading out loud the English translation of the weekly Torah portion – the story about the 12 spies sent to check out Canaan– the part about how they came back and reported on the land that is full of milk and honey but also occupied with people, who are armed and dangerous.

‘But?’ our host cries out, ‘notice that BUT in there! This is the call of the coward! These are the people who always see what’s negative, and these are the people that are afraid of settling the land, then and now.’ Heads nod, murmuring consent. Outside, the Golden Dome glows even more golden in the afternoon air. The Muslim call to prayer is heard from the holy mountain, so close.

D. interrupts, protesting the host’s interpretation. ‘It’s not so clear to me that the spies are evil or cowards’, she says. Like me, D. is a guest of a guest, we’re the outsiders here; she’s an Israeli, secular, human rights activist, chain smoker with that kinda voice. ‘Maybe the ten spies who focused on the bad news weren’t cowards at all? What if they were compassionate and smart and didn’t want to take over a land already full of people? Maybe they didn’t want to kill women and children to get to their promised land. Maybe they considered morality.’

There is quiet for a second or two, startled silence, and then voices erupt and a whole conversation starts, with the overtones of a fight. There is a Biblical Studies professor explaining how morality was not a factor in the Bible when it came to annexation of land, and a rabbi who rose to say that the people who lived in the land before the Israelis (he didn’t’ say Israelites – he said Israelis) came in were immoral and evil and had to be wiped out of the holy land. They probably even had AIDS. He really said that. (He also had a gun on his belt, inside a holster). We were simultaneously talking about the biblical story and the current political reality and the room was very tense, finally interrupted with ‘Let’s sing something’, suggested, graciously and wisely, by the hostess – and someone started singing a Chassidic melody and then everybody joined. I caught D’s eyes across the table, smiling in conspiracy, two protesters in a sea of black and white and convictions. Lunch was soon over and polite goodbyes exchanged. It really was a great view - not just of the top of the temple mount – the holy site of oh so many homes of worship, but also of the inside dynamics of one particular, speculator, mildly fundamentalist home. (And maybe not so 'mildly.') On the way back to our own homes, winding through the alleyways of the Old City, a few of us debrief the lunch - talking about dissent, and about how to let the voices of dissonance be heard in the public conversation in a constructive way.

Maybe nobody’s opinion changes around the lunch table, D. said, but at least they heard my protest – loud and clear.

I recall D’s lunchtime protest when I sit later that day to read ahead and check out this coming week’s Torah tale – Korach, which is all about yet another fatal protest, another failed revolution against the leadership of Moses & Aaron. This protest is orchestrated by one of the Levite, Moses’ cousin Korach, and his followers. Theirs is a direct assault on Moses’ leadership – why are you the only leader? they demand to know. Who put you in charge?

Moses takes it personally, and answers them – isn’t it good enough that as Levites you get to be in the top tier? Why do you also want to be priests? ‘Why do you murmur against Aaron?' (Num.16:11)

That word ‘murmur’ is interesting. The Hebrew is ‘talonu’ – translated elsewhere as ‘complain’, ‘blame’, or ‘protest’. I can almost hear it – the bitter murmuring – bubbling up dissent– moving into open protest – blowing up as a cry for change.

But – they lose. Supernatural powers are brought in to help Moses crush this latest coup: Korach and Co., some 250 men, women and children of the offending clan, are swallowed up by the earth: A Mass grave. Moses moves on.

There are many ways of interpreting Korach’s motives and the specifics of his protest, and the details and implications of his dreadful death. In the literary reading of the Biblical text and in most traditional readings he is clearly the bad guy who just wants more power and deserves it. But from a slightly more democracy driven angle – Korach is also a protester for good and the victim of religious oppression. He demands the distribution of power and government reforms, challenging the authorities that then silence him, or try to anyway. Korach’s protests lost but his story remains, and the message heard – loud and clear, chanted annually, a grim retelling of the role of protest in rigid circumstances. But, also – a reminder– there are other voices always present, challenging the party line, rocking the boat, making us think harder, maybe get us to really step up to power – to demand change. According to some Jewish legends, the sons of Korach didn’t really die – they are still alive, singing psalms and praises, in between the world, quietly, eternally, protesting injustice.

This is not unlike what is happening in the streets of Iran right now: the rage, the risk – the protest for justice, government reforms, distribution of power – even the regime’s fierce reaction, in the name of God.

The vote recall that Mousavi is demanding in Iran this week is not exactly what Korach was complaining to Moses about back in chapter 16 of Numbers – but the move of protest - of demand for equity and dignity – is similar in both cases. It’s also similar, on smaller scale, to what happened during that lunch in the Old City, when D. asked an inconvenient question - holding up a sign with the word ‘morality’ smack in the middle of a smug lunch table and changed the conversation. Hers was a protest that challenged a room full of single minded people to re-examine, if briefly, their convictions and beliefs – reminding us all that there are so many ways of looking at one text, one reality – and that no one narrative or possibility is the only possible – or the only right one. We will, most likely, not be invited back there for Sabbath lunch. Oh well.

What will happen in Iran is anybody’s guess. My guess is that, sadly, what worked for Moses will work for Ahmadinejad and the protest of the courageous Iranian people, open faced in the streets, will be suppressed with force. But their protest is heard, like Korach’s – inspiring – there will be change. Here’s one protest, as subtle as D’s, from an Iranian ex-pat in Canada, inspired by The Matrix: The Matrix in Iran.

Here’s to compassion, and morality, and courage, and change.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


On the last day of their first trip to Israel, they had a terrible fight. D. stayed up all night crying on the balcony of their hotel room, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. K. was down at the hotel bar. K. is an old friend of mine, born and bred in NYC, a nice Jewish boy. D., his partner, born to a devout Hindu family in London, is considering conversion. They’ve been together for three years. This trip was meant for them to really discuss the conversation issue, to see Israel for the first time, together.

We met for breakfast early in the morning after their terrible fight. I walked into the hotel lobby and immediately saw that something was wrong: both of them sitting, stiff, at two ends of a sofa wearing sunglasses, reading newspapers.

So, nu, how do you like Israel?


I drag them to a rooftop café with excellent fresh baked bread and a grand view of the city. Eventually, it all comes out: The short version: K. hates Israel. D. loves it.

The tension, the loudness, soldiers with guns everywhere, the heat, the occupation, the arrogance, the amazing food, the sky, the no-nonsense friendliness of the people, how sexy they are, even the soldiers, the history everywhere, the smell of Jasmine at night. D. is reminded somehow of India – just so different and unfamiliar. ‘Maybe that’s exactly why I am so uncomfortable’, K. muses, ‘it’s so unbearably familiar – like back at temple growing up, only all the time and much, much louder.’ They don’t even remember what started the fight – something about the politics, for sure, some conversation they had with a tour guide in reaction to Obama’s Cairo speech. At this point in the game – forget conversion – they are not even sure they want to stay together. ‘How can he be so self-hating?? So negative about his homeland?? It makes me doubt everything about him’ D. confides in me when K. walks off to find the bathroom. Later that day, K. and I, sit on the ancient wall overlooking the valley of Kidron separating East and West Jerusalem. To our left, the barricade – the New Wall separating the territories from Israel is clearly visible. ‘Yes, I am a naysayer on this,’ K. says. ‘And it’s ok for D. to be all damn positive and full of love, it’s beautiful and I get it – but – reality bites! This is hard to witness, it colors everything for me.’ One couple, visiting one country with two completely different views: I’m waiting for updates.

One people, completely different views – here’s another update:

In this week’s installment of the Torah, Shlach-Lecha, twelve tourists are sent by Moses to check out Israel, before the rest of the people migrate. In later descriptions, the 12 delegates, each one a leader of one of the tribes of Israel, will be described as ‘spies’, but at this point in the history they are just ‘men’ sent to ‘tour’ or ‘scout’ the land. The Hebrew verb is actually the same as the English one – ‘tour’ – visit – come back to describe.

The terrible fighting begins when the delegation comes back to report to Moses and the people, describing what they saw. Two of the tourists are all thumbs up – the land is milk and honey. The other ten are terrified: giants, large walled city, indigenous people prepared to fight. That night, the Torah tells us, the people weep. They want to go back to Egypt, choose a new leader, turn back to Egypt.

Two interesting verbs show up to describe how the tourists described the Promised Land. The first is va’ysapru – ‘they told’ – from the root SFR – origin of the Hebrew words for story and for book. After forty days on mission, the 12 come back with souvenirs – samples of giant grapes and a fruit basket. “This is what they told him: ‘We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.’” (Num. 13:27 NJPS translation)

Then comes the bad news, and the more complex verb: “And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, ‘The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature.’” (Num. 13:32 King James Bible) ‘Brought up an evil report’ is elsewhere translated as ‘spread lies’, ‘gave bad account’, ‘spoke Ill’ or ‘spread calumnies.’

The Hebrew is actually three words – va’yotziyu dibat ha’aretz – a modern translation may be ‘they slandered the land.’

Confused by lush fruit and bad news, the people begin another revolution. They even lift up stones to attack Moses, but God interferes. It ends up badly, of course, the ten tourists who said ‘nay’ are mysteriously killed and the entire generation is doomed to die in the desert. One of the two ‘yay’-saying tourists, Joshua Ben Noon, will soon become their new leader.

The ten tourists are classically seen as the bad guys in this story. Today, the ADL would probably have them on its watch-list for being anti-Israel or worse.

But their voice is heard here, and echoes - a legitimate, if deeply disturbing description of what some see when coming here. D. and K. are but two modern examples of this ancient multi-headed way of looking at, and describing, the holy land.

And it’s not just about Israel – it’s about how we choose to look at reality – how we choose to describe what’s going on – positive, negative, fruits or fears. Both are real, and both are legitimate – and sometimes this and sometimes that prevails. There are more than two sides to many coins. What matters here is what we choose to see and how we choose to describe reality.

Milk, honey, giants and guns – the people of Israel chose in, and here we are still, debating the land, describing it from so many different angles, fighting to be heard. There is more than one way to read this story, or tell this tale. The word ‘describe’ refers to the act, the art of refereeing that which is written – scribed – and interpreting it. Text or terrain – the personalized process of description has to enable a multiplicity of possible readings.

The huge challenge of pluralism – for each individual – for each group – how to let all those voices co-exist, and respect each opinion and description, the critical and the supportive together. Somehow, the various descriptions of reality define our grand destinies and holiday destinations.

I haven’t heard from K. & D. yet, but the Facebook status of one of them read ‘Wish you were here. Good to be home.’

Monday, June 08, 2009

Maven in Riverdale: A Delicious Doosey
by Deanna Neil
June 8, 2009

This past weekend was a doosey. I finished off my year long collaboration as a Maven Mentor with the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale. It was a doosey because it closed out the year and also because our show was the longest parsha in the whole Torah, and it had to be done full Kriyah. Parshat Naso, I shall never forget thee.

The name of our show was "The Priest and the Pauper." We examined the role of Ithamar, Aaron's youngest son, and his managerial responsibilities. We imagined what his spiritual connection was like after witnessing his brothers be consumed by flame. Our Ithamar was a bit disillusioned, to say the least. It was brilliantly played by Phil Keisman--our Mobile Maven who came from within the synagogue. A recent graduate of Brandeis, he jumped enthusiastically into translation and performing--two recently acquired skills. He's now on his way to Pardes to study Jewish education in Jerusalem. It seems as though his work with the synagogue and Storahtelling this year brought him to an interesting path.

The antagonist of our story was an Israelite woman who was seeking holiness. She wasn't a Levite and she was "just a woman" who felt she had no place in the spiritual community. She idolized the priesthood and Ithamar and eventually took the vow of the Nazarite in order to mimic some elements of priestdom and find a connection to God. The role was executed perfectly by Annie Lewis, who's skill of tying a headscarf was inspirational. Oh, and she's also studying to be a Rabbi.

What happened when this ultimate insider and ultimate outsider of Jewish spiritual community collided? They served as catalysts for deeper meaning in each others' lives. It also prompted us to ask the question to the congregation: Have you ever had "holiness envy" in your lives, like Ithamar and this Israelite woman had for each other? (I've since tried this questions on many friends and received answers as varied as Leonard Cohen to Orthodoxy to people who are in committed relationships.) It was rewarding and fulfilling to hear peoples answers in the shul, especially the kids, who commented that they would find God by "concentrating" really hard or that they had holiness envy for people who worshipped without caring what other people thought of them.

Personally, it was a beautiful experience to be a part of the congregation for the whole year. I got to see familiar faces, work with people, know the drama. Instead of jumping in and jumping out, as we usually do for Storahtelling gigs, I was going back with a recurring role. It made completing and creating this maven particularly meaningful. I hope that we have the chance to collaborate again, but even if not, I know that I will always have a place to explore. We ended the show by calling to stand all those who work things out by talking them through because that's what worked for Ithamar and the Israelite woman, and also because the parsha ends with Moses speaking to God, who's presence/voice came to him from between the two cherubim facing each other on top of the ark of the covenant. My experience at CSAIR proved to me again, that it is in our interactions with each other and what we learn by looking at each other--like the cherubim--and our different ways of being, that we can really see what holiness is, and "hear" something divine.

Maiden Voyage at Limmud CO
by Dr. Caryn Aviv - a Mile High Maven-in-the-Making, Posen Lecturer in Secular Jewish Culture at the University of Denver’s Center for Judaic Studies, and Director of Research with Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity.part of our Colorado Maven Training Cohort. (Generously supported by the Rose Community Foundation)

This past weekend, Ilan Glazer, Naomi Less and I performed Destiny's Child: Parshat Bamidbar at Limmud Colorado (the 2nd ever) at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs on Shabbat morning.

We had helpful assistance from Aaron Freeman (Chicago maven par excellence), Rabbi Eliot Baskin (Mile-High Maven in the Making) and Rabbi Josh Rose, a local Boulder rabbi, who leyned with us. We held Bruce Shaffer (our Mile High Maven and partner in crime on script development) in our hearts, as he was off celebrating his daughter's graduation that weekend.

Naomi and Ilan and I had an INTENSE rehearsal last Thursday to work out all the kinks in the script and get the music down. Baruch Hashem for Naomi's brilliant ritual directing and guitar playing, and for Ilan getting totally into his PostTraumaticStressDisorder-inspired character of Merari the Levite, because it really all came together beautifully and we had a lot of fun.

We got fantastic, glowing feedback after the performance, and four Colorado Jewish community folks have approached us to set up gigs. There is a hunger in our local community to have more Storahtelling, which is really exciting.

The most moving part of the show for me was during the third aliyah ("making lemonade out of lemons"). Under the tallit, a very sweet older woman talked about coming to the US from the Ukraine with $164 in her pocket, trying to make the best of her difficult circumstances, and finding solace and strength in opening up the Torah and finding meaning in what she found. Wow. She came up to me after the show with tears in her eyes and said this was the most beautiful Torah service she had ever been to in all her years in the US. I was very moved.

I think I speak for all the Colorado Mavens in the Making by exclaiming, with lots of enthusiastic punctuation, that we're super-excited for our upcoming training this August, can't wait!!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


On the morning of Shavuot, after staying up all night and watching the sun rise over Jerusalem, I ended up at Kol HaNeshama, and sat in on a storytelling circle of parents and toddlers. They were reading together from a cute book that made the Ten Commandments simple for 3 year olds. The 10th commandment, ‘Do Not Covet’, was translated as ‘married people only love each other.’ Or something like that.

There may be better ways of explaining to a child the meaning of ‘do not desire what does not belong to you.’ But it’s not simple. Coveting, like its siblings Desire, Lust, and Greed are with us, or so it seems, from a very early age. Don’t we always want more of what we can’t or shouldn’t have? Haven’t we always?
The tenth commandment does not refer only to the sins of lust. It lists the types of properties one must not desire – someone else’s spouse, servant or ox (or laptop). Like the other nine commandments, this one is a pretty good idea, an early form of ethical norm making. But, unlike the other nine, it is the only one that prevents one from even thinking about transgression. It’s an early version of mind control. But how well does it work?
Coveting, in all its manifestations, can easily, perhaps too easily, be identified as the possible root of so many evils – consider consumerism or adultery, and useless wars and crashing markets. Have I mentioned global warming? Throughout human history, it seemed, with an eye always on the next big thing, our healthy appetites became binges of craving, crashing delicate eco-systems of propriety, and destroying lives, homes and countries. Now it may even be the planet.

That delicate, seductive boundary between wanting and coveting gets easily blurred. Somewhere, somehow, I know they are all the right ways to keep us from blurring.

But even the people Israel, who had just seen God, been fed manna by the heavens and led home by a pillar of fire, were lost in the blur - never satisfied and craving more. One day, in the middle of the Sinai, they demanded meat and caused a riot. The whole story is told, as if written for the stage, in Chapter Eleven of the Book of The Wilderness, smack in the middle of this week’s super-packed Torah portion called B’halotcha. It’s the tale about the miracle of the quails and the fatal food poisoning that happened after. It’s a cautionary tale about excess:

“The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, 'If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!'”

(Treat yourself to this entire chapter, honestly, it’s a great read, especially in the excellent English translation of the New JPS Bible now free online – on this excellent site.

I am torn between feeling sympathy for the protein protesters (I am no vegetarian) and deep contempt. The text, I know, wants me to hate them. But in their craving I hear a longing for some more profound than flesh. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. What was it they desired? Why was it so wrong?

‘Felt a gluttonous craving’ is a funny translation. The Hebrew expression used to describe the demand of the ‘riffraff’ that instigated the riots (not a bad translation, rather) is Hitavu Ta'ava – something like ‘they desired desire’. It’s as if what they wanted was simply more than what present. The rest of the people (call them ‘the mainstream’ then get swept by the momentum of discount and raised the flag over the shortage of meat. But it could have been anything. The rest of the story is intense: God gets involved and a lot of angry words are hurled back and forth, and finally the flocks of quails descend upon the Sinai, and the people hunt, and eat, and are satisfied, and many die, mysteriously, with the meat still within their teeth. They then name that place Kivrot Ha’Ta'ava – the graves of gluttony, or perhaps - the death of desire.

When desire itself is the motive of the craving, and not the specific object of desire, something goes wrong. Perhaps that is why the tenth commandment prohibits even thinking about that which is off limits, excessive to what we need, or what we get to get.

I think about the cost of craving as real riots flare outside Jerusalem today. Angry Jewish settlers were protesting the Israeli government’s dismantling of several outposts in the West Bank. They burned tires, stopped traffic and set fires to Palestinian fields. Here, in the land where land is the biggest coveting victim of all, wanting more is almost the norm. Everybody ends up losing.

“It was once religion which told us that we are all sinners… it is now the ecology of our planet which pronounces us all to be sinners because of the excessive exploits of human inventiveness. It was once religion which threatened us with a last judgment at the end of days. It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day… the latest revelation – from no Mount Sinai, from no Mount of the sermon, is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation.”

This fantastic quote, from the late philosopher Hans Jonas, is a somber reminder for why taking care of our desire habits and coveting less is no longer a luxury. It should perhaps become the commandment number one.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

HUC Maven-in-the-Making in Rye, NY
by Student Cantor Joshua Breitzer

On Saturday, May 23, my fellow HUC Maven-in-the-Making Rabbi Beth Kalisch and I performed our take on Parashat Bamidbar, "Duty/Free" at Community Synagogue of Rye, New York for the 40 congregants in attendance at the weekly 8:45am Torah study minyan. The show focuses on Gershom ben Moshef as he becomes acquainted with his "strange" new Levite family, and their charge to serve their Cohen cousins. How should Gershom negotiate his Levite duties along with the desire to live his own life? The dilemma allowed for the kahal to explore their own perspectives on balancing autonomy with family obligation.

For me, this mavenning was the first in which neither I nor my partner was currently employed by the congregational venue. Beth had served there as the rabbinic intern last year, but that Saturday was the first time I had ever stepped foot into Community Synagogue. That made me quite literally a "stranger in a strange land," and I tried to use that perspective to inform my characterization of Gershom. Whether it meant posing precariously on the bima stairs with my back turned or squeezing in between pulpits to allow 'olim through, every logistical challenge became an opportunity for me to stay in character. Like Gershom, I struggled between "duty" to the show (remaining a maven in the midst of it) and the "free" will to flee from the script (do I crack a smile? do I break that fourth wall?)

Ultimately, everyone could relate to Gershom's struggle, and our show was well received. We even finished in time for b'not mitzvah photo shoots at 10:30am! I look forward to my next opportunity to maven in a new community.