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The Edible Torah


BlogElul Day 6: Search

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.


I remember AltaVista.

There were other services before it – Lycos, Go, and WWW Worm, to name a few – but AltaVista was the my first go-to solution to find the obscure, the hidden, the I bet-it-won’t-have-this.

I remember the amazement at what it (and all the other tools that came after – Excite, Yahoo, Dogpile, AskJeeves, and of course Google) could find, and how easily answers were obtained.

But like so many advances in technology, once the novelty wears off, the amazement fades quickly and turns to indifference.

What I’m saying is: Google has changed the way we think about what it means to search. What was once an active word, something that implied movement and trial and error and discovery now conjures up an image that is little more asking someone at your dining room table, “Do you remember the names of all the kids on ‘The Partridge Family’?”

I’m left wondering if, as comfortable as we have all become with the concept of searching, and how we all take intuitively understand the power of a well-phrased search query, whether we’ve simultaneously lost the ability (or at least the will) to really search if it involves something other than a screen.

In Hebrew, the word Elul means “harvest”. In Aramaic, it shares the root of the verb “to search”.

During this month, our inward-focused searching should increase. We should endeavor to seek out those dark corners of our soul, and address what we find there without fear or shame.

And on Rosh Hashana, we should gather everything we find together and be prepared to present the fruits of our seeking to the One who sees us completely.

BlogElul Day 5: Know

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.


Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.”

For over 25 years, I have worked in Information Technology, where “knowing” is treated like everything. Knowing system specifications off the top of your head; knowing  arcane commands along with all the variations of sub-commands by heart; knowing every computer system in a company, along with how they all work together.

In his book Accidental Empires, author Robert X. Cringely highlighted the importance of memory (and therefore “knowing”) in IT culture

“Charles Simonyi, one of the world’s truly great programmers, once lamented the effect age was having on his ability to remember. “I have to really concentrate, and I might even get a headache just trying to imagine something clearly and distinctly with twenty or thirty components”, Simonyi said. “When I was young, I could easily imagine a castle with twenty rooms with each room having ten different objects in it. I can’t do that anymore”.”

This emphasis on knowing, while being laudable in many regards, has also lead to an extremely disheartening behavior: Nerd Strutting.

Blogger Karen Lopez defines this in a recent article where she says:

“I’d bet that if you attend enough events, you could name the people most likely to nerd strut before the speaker has even gotten 15 minutes into her presentation.  They ask questions, often sprinkled with references to product codenames, Greek philosophers, small startups and archaic error numbers.   They use highly jargonized terms.  They use insider terms. They want you to feel outside the inner circle.  They want you to know just how freaking smart they are. ”

Why am I discussing this here?

Because I also interact with in another environment where knowing is extremely important: Judaism.

Whether it is the Torah portion of the week, a bit of talmud relating to business dealings, digging into deep thoughts out of Mishna such as the quote at the top of this post, or researching the historical basis for various traditions, Jews of all stripes can be found engaging in life-long learning.

The emphasis on knowing in this context may be even more intense than in I.T. – not only the ability to recite from memory huge chunks of text, but knowing references from one body of work to another, across vast (and often rambling) subject matter. Plus there’s the whole fact that this information may be presented in English, Aramaic, or Hebrew – ancient, medieval, or modern.

One of the more remarkable aspects of all this is that, despite the ferocious pursuit of knowledge, all teachers are welcome. I have watched a teenage present his newest discovery – a piece of text he had just learned in school – to a group of adults who had surely studied it several times, and even taught it themselves. But the room was nothing except respectful, supportive, interested, and engaged. I have watched seasoned teachers insist – with absolute sincerity – that they learn more than their students each time they offer a class.

These are not isolated incidents or examples of a group humoring an eager learner (or an over-indulgent parent). This happens all the time, in every city.

During Elul, many people find the drive to share what they know (including those of us participating in BlogElul!) It might be tempting to fall into the trap of shutting out all these voices, believing we have heard it before or that our knowledge is somehow more valid.

We should instead take the opportunity to learn from everyone, in the hope that we are shown the same level of support as we stand before the One who truly knows all.

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.

blogelulA couple of months ago, Erka Napoletano wrote about an experience she had giving a gift to someone who was less than gracious in their response. You can read it here (note: Erika doesn’t pull punches or filter her language).

Her piece made me think (I’m pretty sure it was supposed to) about how we often overlook the effort or meaning – or even the existence of the gifts we are being given. This, in turn, reminded me of “The Daddy Prize”, an essay by Robert Fulgham. When he realizes what he was given, Fulgham writes:

“Molly had given me her treasures. All that a seven-year-old held dear. Love in a paper sack. And not only had I missed it, I had thrown it in the wastebasket. Dear God. I felt my Daddy Permit was about to run out.”

We do this. All of us. In our mad and frequently selfish rush through our day, imagining ourselves to be the star of our personal movie, we lose sight of the effort it takes for others to reach out to us and give. And how often that happens.

Rabbi Yaakov Labinsky of Becoming Divine once gave a talk that put this in an interesting light for me. (I’m paraphrasing here)

“Imagine you are sitting at home, when there’s a knock on the door, and it’s someone delivering a present. It’s all wrapped up with a card. When you open it, you discover it is extremely valuable and extremely rare. You would probably be thrilled to receive this gift, even if you felt a little awed that someone went to the time and expense to send it to you. But… as soon as you finished unwrapping that gift, there’s another knock on the door, and another gift. Once again it’s incredible valuable and it’s from the same person. And the moment you finish unwrapping that one, you receive another. And another.

How many of these expensive gifts would it take before you became completely overwhelmed? Before you called up the giver to not only thank them, but to explain how you don’t think you could ever reciprocate. Each gift was more than you would ever have to spend, and all together the cost is staggering.”

But God gives us these gifts every day. We breath. Our heart beats. We enjoy innumerable pleasures. We avoid innumerable hardships. All of that comes from God.”

There is no way to repay a heartbeat, or the taste of chocolate, or an uneventful dentist visit.

But to Ms. Napoletano’s point, how often do we fail to show the most basic gratitude to the Giver? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that God is “hurt” by our failure to graciously accept the gifts He is giving 24×7. But I am saying that it doesn’t help us when we fail to set aside time for it.

Elul is a time to recognize we have been given a plethora of things – good, bad, exciting, boring – they were all given to us. Before we can even begin the process of teshuvah – of considering and repenting for they way we treated those gifts – we first must accept them.

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.

blogelulI entered the room as part of a throng of men, escorting the groom to see his intended after their week of separation. My daughter sits before us, enthroned in a high-backed wicker chair and limned in soft light. Her mother and future mother-in-law hold court with her to either side.

This moment isn’t really about me. It’s about the two of them – bride and groom. But I have a part to play – I need to bless the bride.

What exactly, I wondered for the hundredth time since being told I had this task, does it mean to bless someone?

“I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing”
- God’s promise to Avram [Bereshit 12:2]

Recently a friend and co-worker – someone on his own religious journey – were comparing notes. He confided in me that he’s skeptical about the existence of heaven, but that it shouldn’t be a limiting factor in any faith. He believed that religion was meant to engage us in the here-and-now, not the hereafter. Our only task, he told me, was to be joyful in our experiencing of all the good things that the world has to offer. Our job is to celebrate and give thanks for the good in our life, and to strive to keep in mind how much of our lives are, in fact, good.

The thought resonated with me. As Abraham Joshua Heschel famously observed, Judaism creates cathedrals – not in a place, but in a moment. We light candles to mark the beginning of “sacred time”. We thank God for the times when we are able to perform one of the mitzvot. It isn’t the thing we do which we celebrate as much as the fact that we have been brought to the moment where we have an opportunity to do it.

If so, if my friend is right, then giving a blessing may have nothing to do with any special status I have, or can confer on another. One person “blessing” another may be nothing more than the act of helping someone recognize the good that is before them, so that THEY take a moment to be thankful. A blessing is the act of opening someone else’s eyes, which in turn sparks in them the desire to connect to God.

“And through you will be blessed all the families of the earth.”
[Bereshis 12:3].

I reached out my hands over my daughter’s head, sent my own prayer for guidance heavenward, and began to bless.

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.