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The Edible Torah


BlogElul Day 2: Act

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

blogelul It’s an old feeling, almost forgotten in the blur of years which has been my career. Washing over me before I have time to react or mentally prepare, I am overwhelmed. I can feel the tunnel vision, hear my pulse in my ear, feel tension vibrating in my face like I’ve been shocked.

After two and a half decades, I’m in front of an audience again – a real audience, not just a group of business people listening to me spice up dry facts and figures with a wry joke and goofy delivery. I’m delivering lines as a character who bears a strong resemblance to me but is definitely not me. Or at least not JUST “me”. 

I’m acting. And the unfamiliarity of it, despite having been second nature through my youth, is threatening to swallow me up. 

Unbidden, unexpected, I hear the whisper of a voice in my head. Someone who was able to teach and nurture and raise up. A woman would could do it at a scale and for a duration of time which defied all logic. A teacher whose impact was completely out of proportion to the tragically short number of years she was allowed to share her talents with this world.

“What are you doing, Leon?” I hear her gently say. “Right now. In this moment. What are you getting done?”

I’m shocked into moving again, going about the business of speaking my part, appearing to listen even though I know what’s going to be said.

“Don’t pretend. Those people – the audience – they deserve better than make-believe. It’s so much more honest to just do it. To just act.”

Now I really am listening. And although I am already familiar with the words being said, I’m still surprised by the tone, the pacing, the reality of how these moments are coming together differently than any other time we’ve rehearsed. This gives me a grounding into the present, and with it the emotional center I needed. “What am I doing?” I ask myself. I need to explain, to teach. And so I start doing that, until I’m so caught up in the act that I forget that I’m supposed to be acting.

The Days of Awe are their own kind of overwhelming force in our lives.  They can come at us with a suddenness and weight that threatens to overwhelm us, to swallow us up in their inescapable gravity.  

And we can get tripped up even further believing we already know what is going to be said. After all, we hear this script year after year – one High Holiday after the next.

But the words I heard in the echo of my teacher – may her memory be for a blessing – are equally relevant here. What are you doing? Right now, in this moment, on the second day of a month whose very name demands you look deeper?

You have the chance right now – not to pretend or do it for show or make believe. You have a chance to recognize that this moment is unique and for all it’s similarity to years past it holds it’s own unique potential. You have the opportunity to express the your most honest self.

You have the chance to act.

BlogElul Day 1: Do

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

blogelulOne of the pitfalls adults face when learning about Torah is when they fall into the trap of “pediatric theology”. This is where an adult’s secular education (science, math, etc) have advanced normally, but their religious education ended somewhere around 3rd grade.

So you end up with an adult who has a firm (although sometimes more intuitive than instructed) grasp of such varied concepts as weight distribution, tensile strength, group dynamics, and biology; but whose ability to explain the story of Noah starts and ends with “a big boat that carried two of every type of animal, and then there was a rainbow.”

This creates an understandable conflict, and the more educationally-developed set of explanations wins out. Meaning the adult comes to the conclusion that the Noah story is physically impossible, so it’s (at best) an elaborate metaphor or (at worst) completely false and is a sign that everything else in Torah must be false, too.

The situation is not helped by well-meaning folks who go to great lengths to find scientifically satisfying explanations, which more often than not end up being less plausible than the original narrative.

The problem, in my opinion, is that people are looking in the wrong direction.

“Its like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”
- Bruce Lee, “Enter the Dragon”

Often, the Torah is not telling us what happened. What happened is merely the finger (to use Mr. Lee’s analogy). The heavenly glory is what people DID when something happened.

To continue with the Noah narrative: What happened is that people were behaving badly. And a man named Noah chose to act better than those around him. What happened is that God told Noah he was going to destroy mankind and start over with him.

What Noah did then was choose to follow instructions, to save those close to him. To accept that this was the correct course of action. Generations later, Abraham would choose to argue with God, but ultimately cede the point. And generations after that, Moses would demand that if the people were all killed, he would prefer to die with them.

Everyone remembers Hamlet’s famous quote,
“To be, or not to be”

Fewer remember the important words that come right after that:
“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”

If you focus on Hamlet’s initial musing, you’ve once again missed the point. It’s nearly impossible to “be” or “not be”, at least in the long term. It’s what you do – passivly allow events to affect you, or struggle to overcome them. And in struggling, potentially bring an end to them

We are here In this world to do.

The fact of life is that things are going to happen to us. Good things, bad things, exciting things, boring things. There will be moments where everything goes just right, and moments where there’s nothing on tv and we’ve already done the Sunday crossword puzzle. Twice.

For the most part, we have no control over what happens to us. Sure, we can be careful about choosing where we live, who we hang out with, what we eat, and which internet provider we use. But like the t-shirt says, sh…tuff happens.

But make no mistake, that’s the gift that God is bestowing upon us. Every day, every moment, we’re gifted with things happening to us that offer us the opportunity to act. To do. We can do things in a holy way, or we can do them in a mundane way. Or we can opt not to do them at all. That’s our choice. But in choosing what we do, we engage in the very God-like act of creating ourselves.

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Albus Dumbledore, “Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets”

In this month of reflection, this month of Elul, we must come to terms not with what happened,  but with the things we did when those things happened.

And after that month of introspection, on Rosh Hashanah we will stand ask to be judged worthy of being given another year. We have to recognize that our verdict it will based on the changes in our hearts and minds – not about who we wish to be – but about what we plan to do.

BlogElul Day 0: Prepare

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

blogelulThe Rabbi stood in front of the class and proclaimed, “As I’m sure you all know, Shabbat starts on Wednesday.”

He stood there smiling through the pregnant pause, where many of the attendees were surely considering if it was proper to ask a Rabbi to provide documentation of either his Semicha (ordination) or sobriety. Or both.

“What I mean to say,” he continued. “Is that you can’t just turn around on Friday at sundown and expect for Shabbat to magically work if you haven’t done anything beforehand.”

He elaborated about the obvious: Setting lights, setting up the crock pot, warming tray, etc. And then he went to the not as obvious: laundry has to be done, at least so that you have clean cloths, but also so that you can go into Shabbat with an uncluttered mind. Many of us cannot call it a “day of rest” if there’s a pile of unsorted socks screaming at us from the laundry room.

For those of us with kids, having games available – all the pieces together, knowing which ones don’t require batteries, etc – is as necessary for a happy Shabbat experience as having a well-seasoned cholent. The same goes for a ready supply of interesting books

And all of these – the Rabbi assured us – are Shabbos-dic tasks. They are as much a sanctification as the kiddush wine. Because through our preparation, we are showing we care enough about Shabbat to interrupt our weekly grind, to turn our minds toward the holy and prepare ourselves even when we are in the middle of mundane time.

The same goes for the year. As we stand at the edge of Elul, we have the opportunity to acknowledge that we see Rosh Hashana coming and we are beginning to sort out the place settings of our thoughts, to ensure the ingredients in our intentions are pure, and to launder and lay out a clean white set of intentions for us to put on when we stand before the True Judge.

#BlogElul Day 8: Believe

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

“Ani Ma’amin” – I believe with perfect faith…

Several years ago , I was part of a weekly Shabbat program teaching Jewish topics to families. I’d meet with the kids first (I had 5th grade) and teach a concept. Then later bring several families would come together and we’d go over the same content, but with all the members of the family able to share what they had learned in their respective sessions.

One week, I pulled out the God card.

“So tell me,” I said. “Who is God toyou? Is He Jimminy Cricket sitting on your shoulder? The ‘dear diary’ you talk to at night as you review the day? The big Police Cop in the Sky? The please-don’t-mess-up-what-I-have-going?”

The discussion with the kids was loud, active, and passionate. There were lots of opinions and feelings and ideas. The input gave me plenty of chances to pull in the Jewish view of God and help the kids frame and further develop their God-concept.

When we added adults to the mix, I was looking forward to hearing more layered and nuanced ideas. I was eager to here the more analytical voices.

What I got was crickets. Nothing. A silence that spread like the fog that represented the Angel of Death in “The Ten Commandments”.

As the silent seconds ticked by I became certain I had asked the Dumbest Jewish Question On Earth. After all, this was a self-selected group of families, who chose to take their Saturdays to learn together rather than go the traditional Sunday School route. Asking about their internal sense of the Divine had to be the most juvenile use of ti…

“This question makes me extremely uncomfortable.” one woman stammered out. “I’ve never thought about God at all. Especially not like that.”

There were immediate nods from the other adult heads around the room.

It took me a few moments to recover from that. And several more to re-build the lesson plan in my head.

I never did a follow-up to that session. I never had the courage to broach the subject again. But I was given a powerful example of how important it is to at least know where we stand with regard to religion and our understanding God.

This year  - as I have for several years now – I pray that anyone in a similar situation take the time – just a few moments – and consider before Whom they are standing.

I hope they take a moment to consider what, exactly, it is that they believe.

BlogElul Day 7: Be

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

(This post will BE a day late (and a dollar short) because a water pipe burst at 1:30am and it was more important for me to BE focused on that, and then to BE in bed, catching up on sleep afterward)

While my knowledge of Hebrew is extremely sparse, what I understand is that it does not contain a verb “to be” – at least in the way English and other languages understand it. And even other languages don’t understand “to be” the way English does. In French you can’t say “I am cold” or “I am 46 years old”. You say “I have cold” or “I have 46 years” instead. To say “I am cold” would imply that you are cold personified. Which may be true if you are a superhero, but otherwise it just makes you sound weird.

And I find that interesting because I think it’s correct and that English got it wrong. I don’t think we can actually BE.

I think you can DO something. You can HAVE something. You can BELIEVE something.

But BE-ing – who you ARE or WERE or WILL BE – is only a reflective state. Meaning you can only know your state of being by looking back on how you behaved.

With that insight – that lashon kodesh (holy speech, a euphemism for Hebrew) doesn’t allow for the fiction of a current state of being – I have new insight into the upcoming Days of Awe.

I cannot (linguistically) stand before God and say “This is who I am. I hope you find me worthy.” It’s impossible to say because it’s impossible to do.

Rather, I have to be honest with myself and say “These are the things I’ve done.  I am proud of these. I regret those. All together the paint a picture of who I was in the past year. Using that as a guide, I change this, augment that, and envision a path to the person I want to become .”

I hope God thinks that person – the one I want to BE – is one worth investing another year in.

BlogElul: Day 6: Do

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

(My Geek Creed requires that I invoke one of the all-time great quotes in response to today’s BlogElul prompt)

“Do, or Do Not. There is no Try” – Yoda

While one might want to argue that Yoda’s principle is extremist, you have to take his point in context. Luke was about to attempt something difficult, something that Luke himself wasn’t certain was possible. He said (as many of us in that situation might), “I’ll try.”

The problem is that Yoda understood that only a complete mental and emotional committment to the outcome would result in success. The attitude of “Try” in that particular situation would be immediately self-defeating.

Which is why I’m invoking Yoda’s quote here, during the month of Elul.

As we prepare for the Days of Awe, it may be tempting to take the easy way out, to say “I’ll try”.

  • I’ll try to make time to honestly assess how I have performed this year
  • I’ll try to admit (to myself) that the things I’ve done wrong were, in fact, wrong
  • I’ll try to seek out people I’ve wronged and apologize.
  • I’ll try to make amends with them
  • I’ll try to take accountability for my actions

As I prepare this month to stand before the Heavenly Court on Rosh Hashana, I am keeping in mind that there is no try.

BlogElul Day 4: Accept

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

Today is Shabbat, and I decided to accept two things:

First: I was uncomfortable with the idea that something I had a part in creating would appear on Shabbat.

Even though I know, and most of my readers know, that it was created in advance, and only turned on via an internet “timer” – much like the light in my dining room – it was still non-obvious enough to bother me.

That discomfort puts me in a particular place on the Jewish spectrum. It may not be who I was at one time, but it is who I am now. I accept that (albeit with some trepidation)

Second: I wasn’t going to get my act together to write this blog post. Sunday’s isn’t done yet either, but I am hopefuly I’ll have time to get that one done, and get ahead for the coming week.

BlogElul Day 3: Bless

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

Jacob said to the Stranger “I will not let you go unless you bless me”.

The idea has always captivated me.

I am engaged with You. I am entwined with You. I cannot get past You, over You. I can’t get You out of my mind. I will not cease to try to wrap my head around who You are. I will not stop obsessing on You.

Until…  you give me something of You to remember You by. And piece of You that you give will alter who I am irrevocably.

I will let you go when I am no longer myself.

“I will not let you go unless you bless me”.

BlogElul Day 2: Act

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

“It always goes back to the theater degree, doesn’t it?”

That was the comment by a friend around the dinner table one Shabbat. And it’s true. For over a decade, acting was my primary (and sometimes singular) pursuit. Theater carried me from my tweens and teens all the way through college. It gave me my first real job out of college. In my most formative years, it was what defined me.

So when I hear someone say “you have to act”, that word carries a very particular nuance for me. Not just the “doing”, but the presentation to the outside world of doing.

For some that may sound tantamount to going through the motions. To the emotionally empty recitation of prayers devoid of meaning or personal committment. “Acting” in this context carries the implication that “I don’t really care – I’m just putting on an act.”

Anyone who’s spent any time on stage knows this couldn’t be further from the truth.

To stand in front of audience and be convincing, you have to be MORE – not less – committed to what you are saying. Your words must have a life-or-death importance to you. An urgency that transcends everyday speech. On stage, to be truly believable, every emotion is heightened.

Every action is essential, nothing omitted, nothing unnecessary.

In less than a month, on Rosh Hashana 5774, I am booked to act in the most important performance of my year, for an audience of One. My life depends on a positive review.

It always comes back to the theater degree, doesn’t it?

BlogElul Day 1: Prepare

This post is part of the #blogelul project started by the inimitable Ima On (and off) the Bima. I am using it as my motivation to rejeuvenate this site and get myself back into the swing of things.

Preparations have never been my forte. There is always an aspect of winging-it-ness to the things I do and – it my own mind at least – to the best things I do. The writing that is off the cuff, the solutions that come from an unexpected burst of inspiration, the activity that I-don’t-know-we-it-just-happened.

Not to say that I *never* prepare, or that I refuse to prepare. It’s just that my life has given me every incentive to skip it whenever possible.

But not Elul.

Partly because I’m of Sephardi heritage, and our tradition is – for the entire month before Rosh Hashana – to get up well before dawn (or stay up late into the night) to say Selichot.

And partly because, for whatever reason, this idea sank into my brain and stuck there.

And partly because I am learning about the nature of my un-preparedness. From Whom, exactly, do I think those inspirations and happy circumstances come? So not only would it be ungrateful to show up at Rosh Hashana only to say “I didn’t bring my notes from this year, do you have a copy”, but the fact is that God has made copious notes and if there is a choice between His and mine, the safe bet is to go with mine.

So here I am, on day 1, pencil sharpened, prepared to begin preparing.