Storahtelling Performs 5 Mavens Last Weekend
Parshat Ki Tissa
One of my greatest privileges being Storahtelling’s Associate Director is that each time a Maven team goes out on the road, the performer(s) call me after the gig and give a report on how everything went down. 95% of the time, it’s fair to say that the reviews are more-than-positive. This time, however, every single team (including my own) reported that this was one of the most successful, meaningful, enjoyable Maven gigs they’d performed. Every single team expressed great pride in the script they created. Every single team member felt humbled by their work’s effect on the congregation/community they’d visited. We want to share! Behold – five brief postcards from the Golden Calf.
‘Mounting Sinai’ - Amichai Lau-Lavie at the Nehirim Gay Jewish Men’s Retreat at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, Connecticut
30 hands go up when I asked this question at the Nehirim Jewish Gay Men Retreat this past Saturday morning, as we danced with this terrible biblical text and wrestled with its meaning to our lives. 5 refused to dance ("too loud and messy"), and 2 abstained.
The weekly Torah portion "Ki Tisa" repeated the saga of idolatry and its aftermath - the first religious war in our history, a bloody day. The Storahtelling version that I presented focused on how the golden calf story illustrates not a bygone historical moment but an enduring depiction of a supposed split between the abstract and the sensual, the body and the mind, the image - and the word. For gay Jewish men who were raised, for the most part, being told that the Law of our People rendered our love an abomination - this split is super familiar and painful. And so yes, we wanted to dance.
People were invited to the Torah to stand as witnesses to the healing that we want - the words we've heard, the yearning we've felt, the violence we've endured and inflicted - all in the name of the search for love and intimacy. What did the builders of calf want after all? Intimacy, security, the divine in their midst, even if it wasn't Moses' abstract and faceless deity. Our yearning, in that room, no different - and no abomination, not worthy of hate.
I've told this tale before, and challenged congregations over the years to wrestle with the golden calf tale in many ways. But this was different - intensely personal, deeply redeeming. I'm so glad it touched the hearts of all present. Michael, who attended, a new friend sent me this:
"Learning with Amichai on Shabbat morning at the Storahtelling program was a full-body immersion in the Golden Calf story. He connected the text to his own story in a way that grabbed me by the heart and did not let go until I was there, in the desert, sobbing in the shadow of a G-d who was about to stand idly by while my people's leaders murdered me. This was a gut-level journey, unflinching in its honesty, into one of the most painful moments in our story. And right there, as my tears fell, I felt more a part of our people than I ever thought I would. Thank you, Amichai."
Thank you Michael, and thanks to all the brave men at Nehirim who danced with me around this fire. This story will never be the same again. It never is.
MOSES IN MIAMI
This last weekend Shira Kline and I traveled to Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, Florida to present “The Stories We Tell,” or our Storah version of Parshat Ki Tissa.
By Jake Goodman
So often when working on Maven scripts, we start off with grandiose goals and big ideas which we hope to translate into a compelling script that will meet our standard challenge of “changing their lives!” Each Torah portion is full of potential and exciting challenges that we cannot wait to sink our teeth into. Then, something happens. We begin working. What once seemed so clear becomes murky and impenetrable. The script structure, which in theory seemed so manageable, does not support our ideas. We get tired. Life gets the best of us. Frustration takes over. Deadlines loom. Always, we try our best but rarely are we completely satisfied with the result. Last weekends gig was, for me, one of those diamond in the rough exceptions.
Shira Kline and I—along with the assistance of our wise (and demented) Maven Mentor, David Wolkin—traveled to Beth Am in Pinecrest, FL last weekend to perform “The Stories We Tell,” our version of Exodus 32:1-14, the Golden Calf/God-wants-to-destroy-everybody-but-Moses-saves-us-in-the-end story. This was perhaps the most ambitious Maven I’ve ever worked on: we both played characters (two charming and extremely good looking angels) instead of having one of us play the MC/Narrator; we incorporated music; it was hilarious; we went extremely deep and still managed to connect all of our outlandish ideas to the text in an accessible way to the intergenerational audience; we had fun.
We based our narrative off a midrash which states that, when creating the world, the Great Creator basically had an anxiety attack: what if this new world doesn’t work out? So, God created a backup plan: if, in the future, the Israelites do not accept the Torah God will return everything to chaos. Do over! Shira and I each played angels (think of the two Jim Henson movie critic muppets, only more spastic).
We based our bullseye off of a quote oft used by Storahtelling by Nigerian poet, Ben Okri:
“Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will face the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that help them face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.”
The whole story, then, became an examination of the way we each interpret events, the stories we tell ourselves, and how these stories can be destructive. We realized that the Israelite people were telling themselves the story that they could not function without a leader and when they felt abandoned by Moses and God (they were left alone for over 40 days, for crying out loud), they had a golden calf built to lead their way. Aaron recognized their need and built it for them, but changed the story for them by telling them that, the next day, they would use this calf to have a celebration for YHWH, Hebrew God.
God, however, did not see things this way and, perhaps, felt abandoned. Remember, this is not long after the Creator pulled out all the stops to get the Israelites out of slavery and Egypt, only to see them worshipping another. So perhaps God felt abandoned, and that is the reason God wanted to destroy all the Israelites. During the stretch, we asked the people to be like Aaron, and try to help God change the story. What did God need to hear to change the story, and not destroy everyone?
We ended the stretch with a challenge:
“For the third and final aliyah, we'd like to call up all those who are willing to take the same challenge we are giving God: to examine the stories we each tell ourselves, in our lives, today. And once we figure out what they are, to examine whether they are helping us or not.
- These could be very old stories: women are not as good as men;
- They could be stories that hold us back: I'm not good enough; I don't deserve...whatever; I'll never be happy; nobody understands me
- Or they could be something else: I'm better than everybody else”
The gasps of recognition in the audience surprised me. They got it. The whole story clicked for them in that moment, it seemed. For me, it was a magical moment.
Face Time with God, Sort of: By Deanna Neil, live from Blue Bell Pennsylvania
JPS Translation: And I will take away My hand, and thou shalt see My back; but My face shall not be seen.'
Aryeh Kaplan Translation: I will then remove My protective power, and you will have a vision of what follows from My existence. My essence itself, however, will not be seen.
Onkelos/Aramaic: and I will take away the word (dibberath) of My Glory, and thou shalt see that which is after Me, but My Aspect shall not be seen.
Pseudo-Jonathan/Aramaic: And I will make the host of angels who stand and minister before Me to pass by, and thou shalt see the handborder of the tephilla of My glorious Shekinah; but the face of the glory of My Shekinah thou canst not be able to see.
The varying translations alone reveal how different scholars have interpreted God—from the literal to the metaphorical. After asking people in the congregation what it could possibly mean to see God’s “face” or God’s “back”, I left them with a few explanations that have always stood out to me.
The word for “face”, “existence”, “Aspect” is actually PANIM, and it can also be translated as “presence” or even “before”, like LIFNEI. But the root can also come from PNIM, bifnim. The unbelievable challenge for us is to understand that God’s face PANIM is going with us, is everywhere, although invisible, and that it’s also BIFNIM, PNIM it’s also within us. So maybe PANIM is something that we can never see, because it’s inside.
Even though we don’t see God’s face, we do get to see God’s “back”. The word isn’t actually “back”, that would be GAV. The word is ACHORAI, which can be translated as “afterwards”, “what’s behind”, “what follows”, “that which is after me”, “the handborder of the tephilla”. What does this mean to see God’s “afterwards”? Some say it’s that humans can never see the future, but we can see the past. Others say that Moses saw the shadow that falls on our lives when God isn’t there anymore—so he knew what was holy and what wasn’t. The orthodox Chatam Sofer teaches that we can only see God’s work when we look back on our lives, we can only perceive it after the fact. But the most unanimous answer I received from the congregation, and the one that still resonates most with me, is that the “afterwards” is what God has left us behind in our tangible world, leaving us to be God’s permanent partners, seekers and interpreters.
Notes from Bonai Shalom in Boulder, Colorado
It was about even when Aaron got his feelings hurt while trying to own the copper washbasin, and stormed out in a hissy fit leaving Moshe wrestling his crisis, alone. With sage-storyteller Caryn Aviv reaching across the millennia, audience members shared their experiences of loneliness, regret, and uncertainty to cajole Moshe back into constructive consciousness. Ehiyeh asher Ehiyeh, he recalled hearing. Embrace this moment of opportunity: IT will be what it will be.
In the last aliya, backed by those who’d blessed the torah for surviving their own uncertainties, Moshe and Aaron reconciled over the Mishkan’s finishing touch (a closure, of course), allowing the Mishkan’s completion. A Love Shack, at last, and a first for the Mile High Mavens – our premier in Boulder. Here are a few reviews:
The Storahtelling was quite engaging, and for me, came to an emotional peak when the two brothers, Moshe and Aharon, cut the tension that had been building between them, with a deep look into each others eyes and a hug. This authentically demonstrated moment - of love in spite of differences - not only brought tears to my eyes, it reminded me how simple it can be to mend the difficulties that can arise in relationship.
-Charna Rosenholtz, MA., & Torah study leader
The Mile High Mavens were engaging and enlightening! After years of re-reading the same boring Mishkan specs, Marc, Bruce, and Caryn skillfully drew me into a colorful world of anxiety, loneliness, frustration, and tension. Even my 3-year-old daughter spent the entire ride home asking difficult questions about the relationships between Moses, Aaron, and G-d -Daniel Sherwinter
Thanks for helping us work through the mishigas around the mishkan. StorahTelling is great edutainment! -Kathryn Bernheimer, Boulder JCC Program Director
Location: Queens, NY - Reform Temple of Forest Hills
Show: In Treatment: Sessions at Sinai
Maven: Naomi Less
In Ki Tissa - Moses, upon seeing the cavorting family and the oracle/ouijia board/golden bovine his "kids" created, "yichar af" (translated as becomes angry, enraged, etc. A closer translation is: flaring his nostrils in anger. Can you picture: smoke coming out? How angry does someone have to be to flare their nostrils. A gentleman in the talk back further "drashed" this moment: what animal is famous for flaring its nostrils? A bull, of course. And what did the Israelites make as their idol to take the place of Moses and help lead them?? A baby bull - a calf. Moses shows anger many times in the course of their journeys. Maybe when the people need a substitute for him, they went to the part of him that they remember clearest. The dark side of him, the anger side. As a father figure, perhaps Moses sees that the family is clinging to his shadow side - the dark side - the nostril flaring side...and maybe, just maybe, this is why he breaks the tablets. He's embarrassed.
This gentleman said this midrash only came to him because of the depths we went to as a community in looking closely at the story, at the different family members and what their part is in the conflict. When we look deeply inside and can recognize each of our parts in conflict, that's when the blame game ceases.