Sunday, December 14, 2014

A letter home to Mater

Dear Brandeis University,

I guess I owe you an explanation, but in a way, I guess you owe me one as well. So, as tough as this letter is for me to write, I want to clear the air between us so you know what precipitated this break-up. It isn't you and it isn't me. It's you.

You probably have been combing through the applications, trying to find the one marked "Madeline Rosen." You figure, "That's a Brandeis Family! Surely their child will apply to the school." And I wish you were right. We ARE a Brandeis family, and proud of it. In fact, I am sitting right now wearing a Brandeis scarf. A scarf for heaven's sake! A scarf that I have saved for the last 20+ years and which I love wearing not just because it keeps my (ever more sensitive) neck warm, but because it proclaims to the world "I went to Brandeis and that's pretty darned awesome!" And when the Mrs. wears her "Let's shoot for the top" t-shirt, or when I show the kids my Brandeis English department sweatshirt? We smile and embrace great memories of our time on campus. And you know what? Of all the schools which I attended, Brandeis is the one school that I consistently give money to as an alum. That must say something. Two generations, 4 Brandeis students (my parents, and the wife and I, all hail to the white and the blue) and yet you aren't going to find an application for my elder child.

Maybe it isn't because you have changed -- maybe I just didn't see what you were back then and my parents were willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the world has changed around us. I don't know, but let me detail my thought process so you can understand my thinking.

First off, you, while a fine school, have made political decisions which highlight your openness and at the same time, call in to question your mission to be a safe haven for Jews and Zionists. Yes, I know, it is important to foster open debate and freedom of thought because if we stifle it for any group, we run the risk of endorsing censorship for the Jewish voice. But the fact is, my child, an ardent Zionist, should not be wandering through a campus which allows voices of hate to carry the day. It is, to my mind, simple. Maybe I am holding Brandeis up to a separate standard, and that isn't fair, but I do it. When I attended, there were all sorts of voices of dissension but there was an underlying sense that to be pro-Israel would never go out of style. The news I have read and the anecdotes retold to me by my own students who have gone through campus tell me otherwise. Sure, you say, there is tension, but that tension exists on many campuses. Yes, it does. And yes, wherever Maddie goes, she will have to confront hatred and bigotry. And if all else was equal, Brandeis, with a relatively small anti-Zionist contingent might still be a viable option for her. But all else isn't equal.

Next, you are a fine school, but one which costs a huge amount. My parents, God bless them, were able to afford to send their children to expensive schools. I am simply not in that boat. I do fine; don't get me wrong. I know that compared to the mass of the American population, I am blessed and in the top levels. But when it comes to schools, sinking 250k plus into 4 years just isn't in the financial cards. I don't want Maddie leaving school saddled with huge debts (and don't want those debts for myself) and, because the Mrs. and I are squarely comfortable, we just don't qualify for any solid financial aid. Sure, FAFSA might throw a few thousand bucks at us and I'm neither rejecting nor taking that money for granted. But the fact is, a yearly tuition bill over 50 thousand (plus all the other costs) is not defrayed much by $4,800 in grant money. But again, could we make it work if everything else was equal? Maybe. We'd scrimp and save and cut corners and find a way. But all else isn't equal.

I left Brandeis with a degree in English and American Literature. The wife left with a double BA in English and in History. We are children of the liberal arts and we are proud of it. A liberal arts education creates a rounded person -- someone who knows just enough about many things to either create a well-informed world view, or be an asset on a Trivia Night team. We, I'd like to think, are both. We both were prepared for graduate school and have found careers which leverage our multi-faceted education. But the fact is, it took me 4 years after graduation to find myself and during that time, I was lucky enough to have parents who could continue to carry me (again, God bless them). My liberal arts degree trained me to think critically and communicate effectively, but not actually DO anything. And the world has changed. No longer can a student leave having tasted of the intellectual delights of a broad range of fields and then start to find direction. While some families might still be able to set up a financial plan which can weather a longer road towards "life" and "career" we cannot. We want Maddie to try different things and end up happy in a field which suits her passions, but we need to get her on that path a touch earlier. And Brandeis, while you have many classes and tracks which I still would love to try out, the fact is, for her areas of interest, she would be floating between departments for four years, never being able to focus and start herself towards anything real. She could create her own major but how would that look to prospective employers. At other schools, she could go into a well regarded program, one nationally ranked, one with established connections into industry.

So with a heavy heart, I have to tell you that you should not expect that she, a student whose temperament, family history and intellectual curiosity would otherwise make her a poster child for Brandeis, will be applying to walk your storied halls. I have another child --- one with a different skill set, but one with the same parents, with the same underlying concerns and with the same financial limitations. Maybe in the next few years, I will win the lottery, the price of education will drop precipitously due to competition from online degree programs, or you will realize how cool it would be to have a third generation student at your school so you will come a-calling and throwing money. Maybe, you will rediscover your mission and take a stand against injustice and evil, and realize that one does not have to have a mind so open that one's heart falls out. But probably not.

So while I might still send in some money each year, it won't be as much as I have. While I may eventually come up for a reunion, it will be to relive the past, not celebrate the future. And while I wear this scarf, I will not be able to hand it down to a next generation of Brandeis student in the family. We can still be friends.

If you want to talk, feel free to contact me. To thee, alma mater, we'll always be true.

Dan ('91)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Look it up

I wrestle often with the question of technology in the classroom. Part of me wants to remove it completely -- no watches, books or shoes ("machinery and equipment developed from the application of scientific knowledge") and have a good, old fashioned Socratic chat with the students, inviting them to think in response to challenges about what they think they know and/or believe. At other times I wish that I could plug each student into the internet and take for granted that basic background information has been assimilated and integrated into the world view so I can move onto the good stuff.

I think that some of this tension derives from the experiences of my teacher mentor, Charlie Moore.

Charlie Moore worked with an honors class back in the late eighties and it wasn't an easy class. You had a geek who was into math, a preppie guy who was hyperintelligent and good looking. There was a prodigy, and angry black woman, the artsy ditz, an immigrant and a motorcycle dude who was ashamed of his own intelligence and didn't want to be confined with the rest. Class periods were about 5 minutes long and there didn't seem to be any real curriculum but week in, week out, Mr. Moore tried to impress upon his students that facts were only a starting point and a real interaction with thought happened when students challenged themselves and each other and saw how the dry facts relate to their world.

Also in the class was a student named Dennis Blunden. Dennis was somewhat overweight and was a computer genius. In 1987 the idea of a computer genius resonated with me because I aspired to be a computer genius. Here is a picture of him, sitting at an Apple, way beack then.

Didn't I mention that this was a TV show? Maybe I should have mentioned that.

This was a TV show. A prescient TV show.

Dennis didn't just have some PC sitting in front of him (ironic that that picture has him at an Apple product), but one that had all the information one would need to second guess a teacher. He had sort-of internet like connection to an encyclopedic range of information. Now back then, I had a computer too. It was also connected, via a 300 baud modem to other bulletin boards. Eventually, I moved to 1200 and then 2400 so the dial up systems I accessed could present ways to hack public phones at what seemed like light speed. I didn't have an encyclopedia or access to one on my computer - when I finally started using Gopher servers, I could still only get information piecemeal, nothing like what Dennis could produce in 1987.

I mention this because I have classes full of modern-day Dennises, and this constant influx of information (assuming they aren't shopping or playing a game...Dennis never seemed to be shopping or playing a game) is a double edged sword. Anything I say is subject to fact checking by a raft of teenagers who can decide my worth as a teacher based on whether or not Wikipedia happens to agree with my understanding of a piece of literature. Now, sure, this keeps me honest (whereas my professional integrity would do nothing of the sort) but it also distracts students from thinking about ideas because they are looking to find chinks in my intellectual armor. Often this does encourage students to pursue independent lines of investigation but sometimes, that is to the detriment of their being exposed to the ideas I am discussing at that given moment in class.

Yesterday, while covering a question of logical, literary and stylistic import in our analysis of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a student went into his virtual world and came back with, "Douglas Adams was asked why he did that and he said 'because I wanted was a joke'." He assumed, and the class followed suit with the assumption, that this not only answered my driving question, but undermined the validity of my holding the conversation and exploring a variety of options. Technology stifled thought. In fact, I was able to reframe the topic and show them how there was still literary value in both the question and the process and that Adams actually supported my position. Fortunately, I can still out-think a bunch of high school students so I saved that class but the threat is there constantly. The presence of excessive factual resources allows students to subcontract their memories, sure, and that might be a good thing, but it also puts too much value on those external thought processes.

SO I am torn. Having a Dennis in the class can be very useful. When a student asks what a word means, I can point to a dictionary or tell the student to look it up. When I can't remember a fact, or make a cultural reference, I can be sure that some kid will plug the gap in either my memory or find the song, show, book or other media piece which will highlight my point. And I can even imagine a class built solely on that skill, finding and making bizarre connections, as popular and useful preparing students for an online interactive future. But when the finding of things steps on the valuing of the self as a source of knowledge and innovation, or when it suborns a subversive approach to the classroom, encouraging students to devalue what the teacher is trying to accomplish by empowering them to focus on the minutae of what is said instead of the ideas presented, it corrodes the vitality and utility of the classroom. Dennis would never have done that to Charlie. Dennis realized that Charlie had more to contribute and had an expertise in thinking and appreciating the whole world and he realized that THAT was what he was supposed to be learning about.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

In Defense of Shylock

I would like to take some time to commit to writing some of the things I have presented to my students over the years regarding the possible reading of Shylock not only as a sympathetic victim, but as a character infused with an awareness of Halacha and the Jewish identity which makes him idealistic, heroic and admirable. It is one of three readings that I work through as we read the play and I don’t present any one as the absolutely correct and exclusive reading, only that any of the three is equally (textually) plausible.

I am not going to focus on the mechanics of court room scene (as defenses on legal grounds have abounded) and am going to confine myself to a close (almost talmudical) reading of the text itself occasionally correlating Shakespearean lines with Jewish law or comparing Shakespeare’s character with others in the Bard’s canon. I am not, though, arguing that the play was written by anyone other than Shakespeare (especially not by a Jewish woman) or that William had some unexpected knowledge of Hebrew as evidenced by other plays. This is about Shylock and the text of Merchant.

1. If Shakespeare wanted Shylock to be the villain he knew how to do it. He gave us Iago, an unapologetic villain who never justifies his evil. Edmund is evil and Regan and Goneril are no prizes either. Richard III, Lady Macbeth? Does any of them get to give a speech which defends their behavior as proper? Yet Shylock has at least one full speech – he explains that Jews are just like non-Jews in ALL ways. If you tickle him, he will laugh. If you hurt him, he will be angry. And, like anyone else, if you act out against him he has the right to take revenge. He lists all sorts of crimes committed against him (being spit on, kicked and called names along with having his business ruined). He even states that he learned about revenge from the non-Jews! So his behavior is justified and even precedented. If Shakespeare wanted him to be a clear villain, why tell of times when he was the victim?

Why have others steal from Shylock (in their encouraging his daughter not only to flee but to take his jewels) which is what motivates him to be strict on the (heretofore joking) terms of the bond. Had they not pushed him, he wouldn’t have pushed back. And even then, he seeks justice, administrative redress, not personal revenge. That’s not villainy, just self-esteem and a sense of self-worth. Villains shouldn’t have that.

So why make Shylock human? Why make the Christians evil in their approach to their religion and to others? Why not have them “turn the other cheek” and let Shylock be the sole voice of evil? The simple fact is that Christians could have been presented as without fault (unlike the superficial Bassanio and the spiteful Antonio) so the contrast with an evil Jew would be stark. But that’s not how the play works.

2. A basic question has to be answered – what knowledge of Judaism did Shakespeare have? Jews had been expelled from England in 1290. While it was possible that some stayed as hidden Jews or that some business men travelled through, it is safe to assume that the average resident of England would have little or no discourse with a Jew. This would also mean that there would be little access to the tenets of Judaism other than the most obvious/textual ones and ones referred to through the lens of Christian teaching. To write a Jewish character would mean to impute all sorts of thinking onto that character without much basis in fact which should highlight the most damning stereotypes or mistaken impressions of Judaism. And yet, Shylock’s statements reveal a substantial amount of awareness of Judaism by Shakespeare, and even validation of Jewish law. It would have been easier to draw a villain in broad and ignorant strokes but all of this unexpected insight into Judaism actually serves to soften our impression of Shylock!

When invited to dinner, Shylock explains (I, iii, 28) that he will not “eat with you, drink with you nor pray with you.” It is nice that he has a list of three items (though the list of things he agrees to do has 4 items) but why does he separate eating and drinking? He had been asked to “dine” which would, one might assume, include eating and drinking. Sure, Shylock wants to distinguish himself and his behavior so he refuses to pray also but why list drink separately (And as a third item on the list, Shylock appends "pray with you" which would reflect a particularly Jewish understanding that ones says a grace AFTER the meal)? Maybe it is because he is aware of a separate set of laws which limit drinking with non-Jews even when the drink, itself is not “not-kosher”. His reasoning for refusal is textually based in the eating of pork (though he doesn’t cite the laws of Kashrut, simply that Gospel account of Jesus driving demons into pigs, making them undesirable to eat) but he resists even drinking because he is aware of additional rules of non-Jews touching uncooked wine. The laws of yayin nesech (wine used for idolatry) are arcane and not as well-known as the biblically listed rules of unfit animal consumption but Shakespeare sees fit to allude to them by explicitly separating eating from drinking. But even if one says that this comment isn’t a reference to those particular laws, there is still an invocation of Jewish law.

Even wine that is not used for idolatry poses a problem because the commentators and law codifiers in Judaism forbid extensive social interaction with non-Jews (stam yeynam). Why? To avoid the situation where this interaction might lead to intermarriage. So Shylock resists the meal because he is abiding by a subtler law, one designed to safeguard the religion of his daughter. He agrees to go out to one social event, and what happens? His daughter intermarries! It seems that the caution taught in Judaic law is being validated. Shylock is victimized because he does not follow Jewish law strictly enough; the legalistic tradition could have protected his religion and only when he compromises and goes out does Jessica leave. Why would the “villain” be shown to be not Jewish enough, being punished for compromising his initial, idealistic stance?

[As a side note to the underlying knowledge Shakespeare presents, take a look at what Lancelet Gobbo says when he indicates a wish to leave Shylock's employ which he can't do simply by running away, the way a regular employee might -- (II, ii, 112) "I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer." Is this what normally happens when slaves stay with their masters? Do they turn into that master? Is Gobbo concerned that he will turn into Shylock, a money lender or that he will start to observe the mitzvot? No! The fact is, the laws of owning a slave indicate that one who stays with a Jewish master, upon being freed, becomes a Jew. If Lancelet waits until he is freed, he IS a Jew; he doesn't say "I will turn the Jew" or "become" but "I am a Jew." How would Shakespeare have written with this kind of accuracy about a subtlety unique to the Jewish conception of servitude? Shylock, to ensure that Lancelet never becomes a Jew (and knowing that the slave is not fully Jewish until he is freed), does not free him, but resells him to Bassanio so that Lancelet never has to face becoming a Jew!]

3. Why call your villain “Shylock”? Shylock is a non-biblical name and definitely one that the audiences would not immediately connect with Judaism. It has no clear Jewish/Hebrew etymology – some connect it to the biblical person Shelah who was Judah’s third son by the daughter of a non-Jew (Gen 38). Others see it as close to the Hebrew word “sheyeilech”, ‘who will go.’ But the bottom line is that if Shakespeare wanted a character who would be tied to Jews, he could have taken a biblical name which alluded to someone memorable and Jewish. From Ariel to Davy to Michael, Shylock knew biblical names and could have chosen any that represented “Jews” but he chose a non-name! Even IN this play he references Jacob and Abram -- he could have made the lead "Jew" who cheats people have a name connected to Jacob who might be the deceiver, but he doesn't.

For the other Jew, he chose “Tubal”? This is not, on its own, even a name, but a prefix for a name, as in Tuval-Kayin, the child of Tzillah and brother of Na’amah (again, a pre-forefathers, pre-Mosaic name). The only interesting thing about Tuval-Kayin is that he took the craft of creating and turned it into “creating weapons for murderers.” AHA you say – perfect description. Except in the text it isn’t – Tubal has no connection to any killing, and Shakespeare could only invoke this idea if he knew the commentators and medrash surrounding the text, which would indicate an abnormal level of Judaic knowledge, one that would not be shared by his audience. So he chose either inconsequential names from well before Judaism developed, or took things that weren’t even really names! For Shylock’s daughter he opted for “Jessica”. This is also not a biblical name let alone one connected to Judaism. There was a name in the Hebrew, Yiscah, and she was (by extra-textual commentators) connected to Sarah but the leap from Yiscah to Jessica, even if it could import some sort of meaning by which audiences could judge Judaism, is strained.

5. The other characters mock Shylock for his reaction to the loss of his daughter because he wanders around bemoaning the loss of both his child and his money. Had Shakespeare wanted to make him greedy and villainous, he would have had Shylock make NO mention of Jessica, instead speaking only of the money. Mentioning his daughter reminds us of his status as a grieving father. But as presented, it seems that Shylock is not confused about which item he misses more, but about the combination of the losses – that his daughter was complicit in the loss of the money. This is compounded when she spends the money in ridiculous ways and loses items of significant sentimental value (a ring which was a gift between her parents). His shock is not that she, herself, leaves or that the money, itself, is lost, but that his daughter participates in the theft and squandering of the money. He expects that she would still practice honoring her father and mother but instead, she affiliates with Christianity (ignoring biblical law) and shows disdain for her parents not as Jews, but as human beings! As she switches her identity to one as Christian, she becomes villainous. Her rite of passage into the non-Jewish identity is the victimizing of Shylock, a role which she embraces, and then the making of stupid financial decisions (which puts her in league with the profligate Bassanio).

What is her criticism of her father’s house? That it is tedious. She likes mischief and then says she is not like her father’s “manners.” And what manners have we seen? His adherence to Jewish law but not in any way which is negative. She is rebelling against her religious obligation. Had Shakespeare given the reader any impression that Shylock was criminal or that his religious adherence was somehow flawed, or even that life in his house was destructive and not simply lacking of excitement, then he would be less defensible. But what we have seen of Shylock does not contribute to that.

6. Ignoring, as I said, the specifics of the court room scene, there is still one larger idea which must be addressed. The entire question of the law is ultimately decided by someone who is in no position to adjudicate. Portia is a woman and a non-lawyer/judge. She is impersonating a law clerk but has no legal standing! Other important officials, when reviewing the case, could not find a way to avoid holding Antonio responsible, so they have to bring in another “expert” to resolve this in their favor. It is unconscionable to consider that a Jew may be on the side of the correct application of the legal system. Shylock, under the law, seems to be in the right. It takes someone who is ignorant of the law to find a way to twist the system to limit his quest for justice. If Shakespeare had wanted Shylock to be the villain, he might have portrayed him as twisting the law or misrepresenting it, or as pursuing something which runs counter the law on its face and which the entire legal system could easily refute and condemn. Instead, Shylock’s legal position is given credence by the local authorities and is only refuted when someone who is in no position to make a judgment does so, victimizing Shylock by misapplying law and bastardizing the system.

Again, this is not all to say that Shylock is a great guy or that Shakespeare intended for us to read him as a sympathetic hero. My only point is that a close reading of the text can be used to reduce the blame and stigma associated with the Jew character and mitigate the vitriol and label of anti-Semitism many associate with the play.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Modus Opera-dumb

I am a staunch defender of the First Amendment. I like many of the amendments, in fact, and have been known to defend them when given the chance. However, I do so with two caveats:

1. I defend them in their spirit, not always in their strict construction, but also in their explicit wording and not in a later presumption of meaning
2. I defend them in a context of evolving legal thought, not in a way limited by their wording or historical origin

I'm sorry if that doesn't sound like a free and easy, unqualified defense but it allows me a measured view of things. It allows me the leeway to criticize and condemn due to logic without running afoul of strict constructionist thinking, but it allows me to understand the precise language and not get lost in the theory.

So when it comes to the recent flap over the "opera" The Death Of Klinghoffer, I worked hard to develop a nuanced reading of the situation. The piece, written in 1991 about the Achille Lauro hijacking and the subsequent murder of Leon Klinghoffer, is being produced at the Met in NYC and there has been a public backlash, an outcry from those who feel that the piece should not be produced.

What I present now is a series of statements which, I feel, summarize my position on the matter. By presenting them here, I remove the need for anyone to tip-toe around the issue when having me over for drinks and small talk.

Point the first: Just because you can doesn't mean you should. That's the Frankenstein argument. Sure, you can create life in a lab, but does that make it an obligation? The Met and its creative directors don't need to put on a controversial piece simply because they can. The balance between curiosity/investigation and sensitivity is maintained when the canon of journalistic ethics drives media sources not to print a rape victim's name. They CAN legally, but that doesn't mean that they feel they must. You CAN tell the story of a monster and paint him as a victim, but that doesn't mean you have to.

Point the second: Just because it is a right doesn't mean that doing it IS right. We have a moral compass which supplements our legal guides. This doesn't mean that the text is inherently "evil" or "bad" but that it bespeaks a particular political and moral approach and defends that position and anyone who produces it is giving voice to that position (and thereby, to some degree, condoning it). Not all voices deserve a place in the public sphere, especially not without rebuttal or qualification.

Three: The constitution puts a limit on what the government can suppress in terms of speech. There is nothing in it which forbids private agencies from deciding what they will and won't present to the public. Any radio station, public or private, can choose not to play a song if the program director doesn't think it fits. No one is required to play/produce/print everything that comes to his hands. This isn't censorship. This is simply being selective.

Three-A: The right to free speech is not absolute. There are topics subject to prior restraint. I'm not saying that the content here falls under any of those headings, but the legal system has already decided that the government CAN "censor" certain messages. Once the notion of absolute protection fails even at the hands of the government, then it becomes obvious that other agencies have the right to do the same. And, by the way, the right to protest has the same protection and should be (by those who defend the opera's existence) be as valued and cherished, not condemned as a suppression of the freedom to express. Defenders of the play should be defenders of the protests and even the interruptions of the play (aren't they also valid expressions? Why not?)

Four: Unless you think that an opera which makes James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Hitler and the 9/11 terrorists all appear to be sympathetic is appropriate, don't selectively decide that one which recontextualizes the murder of a Jewish civilian is a fair expression and a story which deserves to be told. Pick any evil which has befallen you or your family and think how you would feel to see people hearing that evil's side of the story and its laying of equal blame on you and yours. Do we want to hear a rapist get to tell his sad story of how "she was asking for it?" Do child abusers get to have a play which explores why their expression of violence is actually a sane and rational behavior in the light of what they believe?

Does any of this mean that I applaud the work of Maplethorpe who trampled on the sensitivities of the church? No, but I see a decided difference between the criticism of an institution (religion) and the creation of moral equivalency between a man who was shot and pushed overboard (and who represented no particular system) and those who shot him claiming their act was political expression and criticism. They simply are not the same. Would those who defend Maplethorpe defend a complex and subtle analysis which allows a priest to explain why raping tens of altar boys was a valid political statement? Or the musical about the church as an institution defending moving said priests around and not telling parents because the children affected represented a cardinal sin and the priests were justified in their behavior? I'm sure that the Nazis who killed Anne Frank saw the Jewish people as the problem. I can't wait for the musical which tells their story.

Not all simple parallels are truly parallel and not all cases are identical. Not all voices need to be displayed and not all positions automatically earn a place in the public mindset.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A post in praise of Bill Murray

Good job, Bill Murray.

Good job.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Two Torah Thoughts

This was a really good Rosh Hashanah. It had a slow start but I really hit my stride and feel like I connected with the day and its various messages, so I'm feeling pretty good about that. During the last few days, I developed a couple of ideas that I wanted to commit to virtual paper.

The first was inspired by the speech the rabbi gave in shul yesterday. He started off with a story and as I listened to it, I thought to myself, "that's nice but it could be so much more powerful if only it went like this..." So I am writing this up as "Inspired by a true speech which included a probably apocryphal story which I will make more apocryphal by inventing half of it."

There was a tradition that, after the end of the sabbath, people in the small community of New Square would line up to wish the Rebbe a good week and receive a blessing from him. The practice was so popular that the lines grew and grew. Even past 2 AM the line still snaked outside of the Rebbe's office as people waited nervously to shake the great sage's hand. On the line was a young man, new to the community who was looking forward to his first meeting with the Rebbe. He was scared. He had run home after services and cleaned himself up. He put on a freshly laundered shirt, straightened his hat and sharpened the crease on his spotless, black pants. And he waited. As he waited, he heard stories of the piety of the Rebbe and his works. He heard about the miracles which seemed to have been inspired by the Rebbe's wishes and the intuition and intellect which the man exhibited, presenting insight into character and understanding into text which amazed Jews everywhere.

As his turn approached he began to sweat. The sweat was not so much that there would be any stains, but enough to make the young man self conscious. He wanted to present himself as a paradigm of youthful idealism and religiosity. He had studied and was prepared to discuss topics if asked by the Rebbe. He had learned in yeshiva for many years and had also secured himself a job which would make him a good shidduch possibility and a provider, willing to give charity back to the community. But he was scared. He had prepared what he would say, down to the comma, practicing for hours at home. He wanted it to be perfect.

Slowly, each person in front of him entered the Rebbe's presence and the young man moved forward. Finally, at 3:30 AM, it was his turn. He was tired and scared, visibly shaking as the door opened. The Rebbe sat across the room, radiant and full of life. He beckoned for the young man to come forward. As he did, the man saw himself in the mirror.

He stopped and stared at himself. Slowly, he began to cry. Small tears, leading to uncontrolled sobs as he broke down in front of that mirror. The Rebbe was (and this does not happen often) speechless. He rose, and crossed over to the young man who was sitting on the floor, weeping. He held the man for a few moments and calmed him. He joined the man on the floor and stayed with him while the tears passed and he said, "My son -- please, don't be frightened. I want you to feel welcome and comfortable asking of me. What can I do for you and how can I help ease whatever pain you are in?" The young man, on the verge of tears at the magnanimity of the Rebbe finally caught his breath and said, "Rebbe, I came in here to ask your blessing, I wanted to ask you for success, a wife, health; I wanted you to be happy with who I am and who I can become. I wanted to ask your for your support so that I can be somebody." The Rebbe paused (a bit humbled maybe by the faith the young man had in him), and slowly said, "OK, so nu? Why all the crying?"

The Young man said, "Rebbe, I saw myself in the mirror -- I recognized all the effort I made just for this one meeting and I feel ashamed! I realize that there is only one thing I should be asking you blessing which is the only one that matters because it is the only one I now understand I really need. And I feel like a fool for wanting any other!"

There was a silence as the young man worked up the strength to ask.

"Rebbe, please give me the ability to care as much and to work as hard to perfect my look, my manner, and my speech before I approach the King of Kings, God himself, during my daily prayers, as I have before meeting another human being to ask for a favor!"

And now it was the Rebbe's turn to cry.

The second one is a more traditional Torah thought but with a similar theme:

We spend much of our time looking for a way to connect with Hashem. Back in the olden days, the path was laid out for us. Grab an animal, deliver it to the temple authority, and you can please God, find some absolution, feed the poor, celebrate a holiday...what have you. Agricultural tithes or animal sacrifice (or a meal offering, depending on your net worth) was the prescribed method of fulfilling the obligation to serve Hashem. It wasn't easy, but hey, it was sacrifice. You took the best of what you had, what you had paid for, worked for and striven to achieve, and you gave it over to show that what is yours really isn't yours. The message was good and the means was relevant and powerful.

But all that changed when the temple was destroyed. Since the beit hamikdash's destruction almost 2000 years ago, this avenue for religious fulfillment has been closed to us. So how can we now achieve the kind of connection? The prophet Hoshea says (14:3) Uneshalma parim sefateinu -- the bulls (sacrifices) will be completed by our lips. The avodah, the sacrificial service, is to be replaced by the avodah shebalev, the "work of the heart" which is prayer.

Huh? How is this supposed to work? Do I have to read the portions related to sacrifice so my relating them is as if I completed them? Some say yes, which is why we have the section of korbanot in our daily morning and musaf prayers. But I don't think that this is what it means (at least not exclusively).

The word "korban" (sacrifice) actually has 2 identities. As it is usually translated, it means "sacrifice," the loss of something of value for a greater purpose. Its other meaning though, stems from its root k-r-v, coming closer. The sacrifice is designed to foster an approaching to God, a nearness with the divine. Does just saying the words of the sacrificial service do that?

I teach in a high school. Watching most high school students daven is maddening. They don't always seem to value to opportunity to petition, recognize, and thank Hashem for what is all around us. We speak of daily miracles but they simply don;t see things that are miraculous. And most of all, they would rather be doing something else. We live in an amazing time -- we have technology, we have cuisine, we have entertainment. We have all sorts of things that vie for our attention and reward us.

What do we have of value that we can sacrifice in order to bring about closeness? Money? We give charity and this does help to some degree. But when we throw our pocket change into a box, what are we sacrificing? If I really wanted that slice of pizza, would I be dropping the quarters in the pushke? Probably not. But I have one thing that I can never get back and that I value incredibly highly: time.

This is the commodity of daily life. This is what I value and I demand others value: my time. I live by the school bell and the schedule. My TV shows are scheduled. My football team races the clock to get down field. My microwave has me stare at it while the timer counts down to zero because the three minutes and 32 seconds that it takes to reheat that potato must be abided by to the second. Time.

Davening requires that I stop what I am doing and give up my time. It requires that I put other things on hold and take the one precious commodity that I can't bank and simply hand it over to God. It isn't a cow, or a bird, or corn, or money. It isn't replenishable. And in the middle of a busy day, it isn't convenient. On Rosh Hashanah, it isn't easy to sit around for hours in shul. On Yom Kippur, this means sacrificing an entire day -- I can go to work and not eat, but that's not what this is about. Hashem wants me to lose the only thing that I have a finite amount of with no hope of extending.

And when I realize that this is the sacrifice that I have to be willing to make -- that my tefillah is SUPPOSED to take time because it isn't just the words I say, but the fact that I am willing to make the gesture of losing my place in the rat race that is the world to set aside minutes to say those words, any words, which allows me to become closer to the divine. The avodah shebalev is SUPPOSED to be work, not easy and not simple. The heart has to be in it and has to ache at the missing minutes which could be spent elsewhere. The loss should lead to a gain, but if I avoid the loss by zooming through the prayers or not spending the time it should take to say them with thought, then how can I expect to earn the gain of connection with Hashem?

I hope that as we enter any prayer situation, we take an extra moment or two to realize that we are making an important sacrifice, and that we should value our decision to give of ourselves so that our prayers can be that same sacrificial loss as those bulls were in the temple, and they can lead to the same resting of the shechina in our mikdash me'at.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What in God's Name

A Torah thought inspired by the upcoming high holiday season.

Throughout the text of the Torah, we are confronted with two major aspects of God's "personality" -- the trait of justice and the trait of mercy. The former is signaled by the use of the Hebrew word often transliterated 'elohim.' Mercy is brought out through the 4 letter name, the tetragrammaton. I see the "attributes" as more significant than this divide, and the names' uses as pointing to an additional dimension to our interaction with the divine.

During the account of the creation, the name "elohim" is used (I am writing the complete name, and not substituting the K for the H for a couple of reasons -- one will be apparent soon and the other is that I see the discussion of Torah a valid place in which to use a name of God). Creation, the rabbis say, was done under the aegis of justice and the intent was for all of creation to be judged according to its deservings. Only in chapter 2, when man becomes a vocal part of the world does the notion of mercy become introduced through the use of the 4 letter name. Man, it seems, needs a merciful God for if man is judged strictly according to his actions, he will always be found wanting. And the name "needs" (if we can say such a thing about God or a name) man's proper intentions and study for it to become fully part of this world. God's mercy only has a place because man needs it (in the same way that it wasn't called for until man was created), and the mercy-name only has power if man says it properly at the proper time.

The word "elohim," as described by the Ramban, does much more than just point to justice. It denotes power. The word means "Master of all forces." Using the word then is a recognition of God's might, and creation is an exercise of power. God wills the world into existence and it comes into existence. God the all-powerful can make anything so we use a word which points to that strength. In fact, the text often uses the word to call forth other claimants to power. It is used to refer to a judge when applied to Moses, the one who has power over all of Egypt, including Pharaoh. It is used to refer to idols and other things placed as gods which man confuses for the one God because he misattributes the power to a pawn. Man might worship the sun because the sun brings the heat and light and life to plants in the day -- but Abraham sees past that and understands that the sun is not the source of that power, God is. So the word often is used when people misunderstand how power operates and label something as the divine because they are stuck on one level of perception, that of simple strength.

But man must move beyond that one characteristic of God if wants to know the one God. So God gives us a name to use which adds not power but God's relationship to man, something which a false God like the sun cannot have, into the mix. The 4 letter name only has value when it is pronounced properly. Pronunciation is an area unique to mankind. Man can call the idea into existence through recognizing the divine correctly! Anyone can say the word "elohim" and mean any number of different things by it, but the 4 letter name is special in that it is only and can only be a name of God. It points to mercy because it points to the possibility of a connection between man and God, if man is able to "read God's name properly" (which would include our use of the replacement word "ado-shem" which shows that we are appealing to the merciful one but don't want to pronounce the special name either incorrectly or when we are not empowered to appeal on that level). We have to call to him in his name, which we cannot do unless we study and connect and learn about this name.

The name is given to man so that he has access not to a nebulous notion of power, but to a God who listens and cares. In our blessing we say "blessed are you, 4 letter name" at the start -- our prayer has to recognize that a powerful and just God would not be swayed by human prayer -- if the person deserves punishment, then so be it. We appeal to the mercy-name and say "you gave me this name to use and I'm trying to use it properly." Only then do we, in some blessings, say that the same merciful God figure is also the powerful one who rules the whole world. And on Yom Kippur, back in temple days, the high priest would say the 4 letter word explicitly when asking for forgiveness. He would invoke the precise name to make that connection to God even more explicit.

The 4 letter name is therefore a representative of the facet, a sign of God's mercy and the method that the mercy works through. It is both the signifier and the signified, calling the merciful one and being the medium through which mercy can be delivered.

When we pray during this high holiday season, we should pay careful attention to the names of God we invoke and recognize the amount of mercy being afforded us simply by our having access to this particular name. I wish for everyone to see the presence of mercy which leads to availability for repentance and the hope for atonement.

Happy new year!