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The Edible Torah

 

Archive for the ‘journey’ Category

Clueless

I arrived at the kollel, the house of study (literally – this was a house that had been emptied of everything, including interior walls, and re-purposed as a space for married men to come and study Talmud, Torah and other texts throughout the day) at 7:45pm, the usual time. I found one of the few English-Hebrew siddurs and opened it to the section for afternoon prayers and waited expectantly for the rest of the crowd to arrive.

It was all part of my routine since arriving in this neighborhood 4 months earlier. Thursday nights at the kollel: davening (praying) a quick mincha (afternoon) service and then sitting for an hour to study with my “learning partner” (a euphamism for “the incredibly patient young Rabbi who graciously volunteered to shepherd me through the painful first steps of rudimentary  Talmud study”).

7:55, the normal start time for Mincha, came and went but the room was still suspiciously empty. Another 5 minutes and 2 other men arrived, but didn’t have that rushed “I’m late to pray” look I would have expected. I began to suspect I had missed something. Screwing up my courage, I approached one of the guys, a solidly-built man wearing the standard white-shirt-black-suite uniform of the frum Jew, with a thick black beard and a kind face.

“Is Mincha downstairs today?” I asked, hoping I had made the easiest of all possible gaffes.

He paused, and I could see him working hard to understand the context of my question. Which caused my heart to sink further, since this was another clue that I had missed something bigger than just being on the wrong floor.

“Mincha?” he finally answered carefully. “We davened mincha this afternoon.”

I tried to make my voice sound both unperturbed and curious, hoping it wouldn’t betray the embarrassment and frustration that crushed down on me. “Oh really? What time was that?”

“1:30. Mincha is always 1:30 after the High Holidays.” while he spoke with nothing but kindness, my insecurity mentally overlaid a patronizing tone laced with derision.

I thanked the man for the information, choosing not to mention (to yet another person, for what seemed like the hundredth time) that it’s hard to know what “always” is when everything seems to be a “first” for me.

I  went back to the place where I had carefully laid out my siddur.
Closed it up.
Placed it back on the shelf.
Fought the urge to just ditch it all and leave.
Sat with myself and came to grips with the fact that I was going to miss mincha prayers entirely.
Waited patiently for my partner to arrive

What frustrates me most in these moments (and this was not the only example that led to my writing this post. Nor was it even the first. Nor, I’m afraid, will it be the last.) is not the mistake. What’s really hard for me to swallow is the feeling that there are instructions for these things, but I’m somehow not seeing them, or understanding them. I feel like an illiterate foreigner, sitting at a bus stop on a national holiday when service has been cancelled. Making matters worse, there’s a large sign next to me stating that fact but, being a stranger in a strange land, I can’t read the sign. I don’t even know the sign has anything to do with the bus service. So I wait, and wait, and wait. Until someone takes pity and tells me what’s going on.

The condition of being both uneducated and inexperienced, of having to figure out what’s going on based on “sideways clues” (the guy next to me turned a page. I better turn mine too.), of always having to put on the self-effacing humor and “oh golly shucks I messed up again” smile because pounding the table in frustration (which is what I feel like doing) will only make the situation more awkward, the effort of swimming upstream against my own ignorance is exhausting in a way I find hard to even describe.

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This essay has sat on my computer for some time, and I come back to it each time there is a new embarrassment, a new gaffe that leaves me feeling demoralized. I would work at the words like one might pull at the strings in  a knot, solving nothing and, in fact, only making the entire thing tighter and harder to unravel. But I kept thinking that if I could get this post just right, it would help me find a way out of the cycle.

In the end, my solution came from someone much more experienced in these matters. Not a Rabbi, not a Jewish studies professor, not a Hebrew tutor  and not even a been-orthodox-my-whole-life friend. It came from someone who knows a great deal about living with, and even embracing, this state of not-knowing.

As we were standing together one Shabbat morning, I looked up from my prayerbook where I had been painstakingly sounding out yet another prayer I didn’t know, to find my 8-year-old son looking up at me. “Are you done reading that already?” I whispered.

“Nope.” he answered nonchalantly. Then he confided, “I haven’t learned this one. So I pray by watching everyone else.”

There were so many things wrapped up in his small, simple answer. Faith that he would, one day, learn “this one”. Confidence that even if he didn’t learn how to say the words, he still had options. Trust that he could still connect to God in a way that was authentic and valid.

But above all, he was unconcerned about not measuring up. To extend a famous quote by Abraham Lincoln, he intuitively knew that his legs were long enough to reach the ground, and that his soul was tall enough to reach heaven.

I began to study how he experienced the world, and discovered a seemingly endless series of things he didn’t know, which he dealt with daily. I saw the way faith and trust and a sublime acceptance of the each moment -asking it to be nothing more or less than what it was – how all of that was a natural part of his responses. I realized that, in growing up and getting all sorts of amazing skills and tricks and knowledge, I lost the very thing that allowed me to acquire all those things in the first place.

That disconnect, more than anything, was my actual problem. I’m now working to fix this deficiency.

The other day, I found myself in that situation again. Asked to open the ark (twice – once when the Torah came out and again when it was being returned) I found that I had no idea about the mechanics of the job.

I didn’t know when to go up. I didn’t know when to open the doors. The leader waited (it seemed to me) until the last possible second to come up and actually get the Torah, and I stood in pure terror wondering if I was supposed to bring it to him. Instead of escorting the Torah around the entire sanctuary, I (practically) ran back to my seat and stayed there (only to be immediately informed by a well-meaning elder of the congregation of my gaff). Later, when the Torah was put back, I closed the ark too early.

But you know what?

A friend told me when to go up. The president of the congregation (who sits up front) clued me when open the ark. The gabbai, seeing my panicked expression, gave me the “it’s ok” sign so I knew to sit tight and wait for the leader. And when I started to close the ark at the end, the leader was up there and explained I was too early.  I re-opened it, and we kept going.

We all make mistakes, and as much as my lack of functional knowledge frustrates me, it’s also to be expected. It is understandable for someone in my position. It is forgiven by everyone in this community, many of whom have stood where I stand. If we are brave enough to start at all, we will all have to start somewhere, and some-when for that matter. And after that moment of beginning, it’s a sure thing that there will be mistakes. The scientific term for this, I believe, is “learning”.

I got back to my seat after closing the ark (this time at the correct point in the service). My son was waiting to shake my hand. It was clear that, as far as he was concerned, it had all gone off without a hitch.

And he was right.

I Am Here, and I am Not Worthy

Even after a few years through the yearly cycle of liturgy, “traditional” prayer services are still very new to me. Even so, I’ve already found a few of my favorite moments – things I look forward to hearing and savor as they pass.

If you are in the right state of mind, the Days of Awe present a lot of those moments. For me, one is the prayer “Hineini” (“Here I Stand”), or “The Chazzan’s Prayer”. You can click here for the traditional text, or here for a more poetic interpretation. But it reads, in part:

“Hineini – Here I stand, impoverished of deeds, trembling and frightened with the dread [...].

I have come to stand and supplicate before You for Your people Israel, who have sent me although I am unworthy and unqualified to do so.

Therefore, I beg of you, [...] Please do not hold them to blame for my sins and do not find them guilty of my iniquities, for I am a careless and willful sinner. Let them not feel humiliated by my willful sins. Let them not be ashamed of me and let me not be ashamed of them. Accept my prayer like the prayers of an experienced elder whose lifetime has been well spent, whose beard is fully grown, whose voice is sweet, and who is friendly with other people. ”

I find myself deeply moved by the private, personal and human tone of this prayer. Many prayers – throughout the year as well as on the High Holidays – are written as communal “we ask you… please help us…hear our prayer” types of supplications. But here is a prayer written for the solo voice.

It’s just my interpretation, not anything I’ve learned formally, but I truly believe this is the voice of the Kohain Gadol as he stood in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. As he stood in the small boxy room, a nation’s hope riding on his shoulders and a rope around his leg to drag him out if he died for some undetected sin, in that moment what could anyone say except “You and I both know I’m not up to this job. But those people out there, they are good and holy people. Please don’t let me let them down.”

Weirdly, this reminded me of one of my favorite sequences from T.H. White’s story “The Ill-Made Knight“. In it, Lancelot is called upon to heal a fellow knight. The problem is that, because of his failings, he no longer believes he can perform such a feat:

“Miracles, which you wanted to do so long ago, can only be done by the pure in heart. The people outside are waiting for you to do this miracle because you have traded on their belief that your heart was pure – and now, with treachery and adultery and murder wringing the heart like a cloth, you are to go out into the sunlight for the test of honour.

Lancelot stood [waiting his turn], as white as a sheet [...] He walked down the curious ranks [of knights], ugly as ever, self-conscious, ashamed, a veteran going to be broken.

“Oh, Sir Urre,” he said, “if only I could help you, how willingly I would. But you don’t understand. you don’t understand.”

“For God’s sake,” said Sir Urre.

Lancelot looked into the East, where he thought God lived, and said something in his mind. “I don’t want glory, but please can you save our honesty? And if you will heal this knight for the knight’s sake, please do.”

[a bit later...]

The cheers which now began, round after round, were like drumfire or thunder, rolling round the turrets of Carlisle. All the field, and all the people in the field and all the towers of the castle seemed to be jumping up and down like the surface of a lake under rain.

In the middle, quite forgotten, Lancelot was kneeling by himself. This lonely and motionless figure knew a secret which was hidden from the others. The miracle was that he had been allowed to do a miracle.”

The days ahead have the potential to transform. There is an opportunity to encounter the Divine and leave our old selves behind us. During the process, keep in mind that the amazing thing might not be that God forgives us, or grants us another year. Maybe the most amazing thing is that we will have the chance to stand before God at all.

Of Prayers and Potholders

Courtesy of ufoadministration.blogspot.com

Most weekday mornings I hang out with a great bunch of guys. They are down to earth, come-as-you-are, non-judgemental and yet also passionate about and committed to their Judaism. They appreciate differences. They accept people for where they are in the Jewish spectrum.

They also pray like a heavy machinery auctioneer hopped up on a combination of Jolt Cola and 4 shots of triple-espresso.

By contrast (at least at this stage of my Jewish growth), my prayer is thoughtful and heartfelt. It is also halting, clumsy and slow.

Praying with these guys is an exercise in creative editing. I’ve learned that there are parts of the service I can skip. I’ve been told I can meditate on the theme of each bracha with intense kavannah, sending the avodah (work) of my heart heavenward like the sacrifices of old. And of course God speaks English, so I shouldn’t feel ashamed to do so as well.

Are you buying any of this? Cause I’m not. In real life, those sincerely-offered instructions equate to some prayers only half-said (because I have to jump ahead lest I become irrevocably lost), some prayed in jarringly-out-of-sync English, and moments when my “mediating on the theme” leaves me feel disconnected from the group, from myself and from God.

When you are surrounded by people all praying with confidence, fluency and familiarity  – in Hebrew – it’s very very (did I mention “VERY”?) frustrating to be doing anything but.

I confided this to a Rabbi recently. “God knows what’s in your heart,” came the answer. “and no matter how insufficient you feel it is, you have to believe that it is cherished for what it is, coming from the person you are today.”

His words were less than comforting. I feel – quite acutely at times – that I am standing before my Creator, pouring out the best I have to offer, and it is an incomprehensible babble of half-uttered thoughts and disconnected ideas. I feel that God has asked for the intricate tapestry of my prayers, and I’ve shown up with a potholder.

I get it. I honestly do. My kids all made potholders at various grades in school (it must be part of the art curriculum). Each one is uniquely cute, funny and adorable. They were given with great ceremony and enthusiasm. They are cherished.

They are also useless, even as potholders. They are knotted, uneven, garish and full of holes. Very much, I fear, like my prayers.

My wife likes to knit. She makes  intricate, useful and extremely gorgeous things. We’re talking people-on-the-street-offer-$200-for-the-sweater-off-my-back kind of gorgeous. I want my prayers to be like that.

I know that prayer – like life – is a process. It’s not a single product nor is it a race or a contest. I know that I’ll look back in a month or even just a week and realize that I have, in fact, improved. In my less whiny moments I recognize that it’s happened already, and (God willing) will continue.

I also have had chances to glimpse the journey of others, and take comfort in the knowledge that they weren’t simply born with a talent I lacked. Like me, they started learning on a particular day in their life, and that learning continued.

The other day, as we continued the (seemingly endless) work of unpacking ourselves into the new house, my wife pulled out a ratty, pinkish, mis-shapen square.

“It’s a potholder.” she explained. “I made it the day Grandma Hetti taught how me to knit.”

There may be hope for me yet.

Jewish Journeys: Imperceptible Motion, Monumental Movement

the road more travelled, Forêt de Bouconne
Creative Commons License photo credit: simonsterg

We are all on a journey, whether we know it or not. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to notice that we are moving, until we look back:


It’s a Saturday morning in March, 2011.

I’m standing outside my new home – where lights had been carefully set the night before and will remain unchanged all day -  while my wife locks the door before we enjoy the short (1 block) walk to synagogue. Being able to walk to shul is one of the main reasons for moving here.

“Is this really us?” I ask her. “How did we get here? This wasn’t anywhere I imagined us being in our life.”


It’s 1978.

I’m 11 years old,  sitting in the pew-like seats in the “chapel” of Brith Emeth, a reform synagogue in suburban Cleveland. I’m listening to a grownup – an adult but even at 11 I can tell he’s kind of youngish and probably “hip” (except, to an obnoxious, know-it-all 11 year old) – talk about his Jewish choices. I’m completely falling apart – turning red, laughing, rolling my eyes. Not that he’s particularly trying to be funny. But he just said,

“So one night,” he was saying “my wife and I were lying in bed and…”

(Alarm bells are now going off in my brain. I’m barely able to keep from either laughing, hyperventilating or barfing – maybe all three. I’m sure he’s about to tell us about his sex life.)

“…lying in bed and I said to her ‘maybe we should start keeping kosher’ “

The incongruity silences the 120 decibel laugh-track playing in my head. I feel cheated. Any sentence that begins with “lying in bed with my wife” should not end with something as stupid and utterly useless as keeping kosher. The Rabbi notices the snot bubble I’ve blown from my convulsive snort-laughing, and I’m excused from the rest of the talk.


It’s just over a year ago.

My wife and I were (I apologize to any 11 year olds who are reading this) lying in bed. We’re talking about keeping kosher. The irony is not lost on me. My boys have been going to a Jewish day school for the better part of a year and they are asking if the food in our house is kosher (“Well, buddy, it is because it has a heksher. But it’s sort of not because none of our plates or pots or pans are kosher.”). Which of brought on the question of when (not if) all our stuff will be “really kosher”.

At the time of this pillow-talk conversation, the family had been experimenting for a few weeks – not eating meat and milk together, waiting an hour after eating a meat meal before eating dairy, etc. We decide, that night as we lie there, to start the process of kashering the kitchen. We have a lot of questions, I have a few misgivings, and my wife has a lot of conviction.


It’s a dark winter night in 2007.

We’re driving home after a Shabbat visit (including sleepover) at an observant family with whom we were friends before they became orthdox. Very orthodox, from my perspective. Maybe not shtreimel and gartel orthodox (not that I knew those words at the time) but definitely black-hat. I’m telling my family about Saturday night services, where I felt like I was a visitor on an alien planet: Everyone seemed calm, kind and easygoing. But things were so foreign that I couldn’t be sure that laser pistols wouldn’t suddenly be drawn and the natives announce this was the part where they ate my brains. My wife assured me that wouldn’t have happened. Lasers aren’t Shabbosdic and human brains aren’t kosher. Her words do surprisingly little to comfort me.

I state that the whole things was way too over-the-top for me, and that I don’t need to go back to that shul ever again.


It’s August, 2011

I’m talking with my 16 year old daughter, who (duh!) knows everything but is decent enough not to rub my face in it too often. I am in the middle of saying

“He asked me where we were at, Jewishly. I told him that since we’re ba’alei teshuvah, we…”

When she cuts me off. “Dad!” she interrupts. “We are so totally not ba’alei t’shuvah!

“Uh, darling…” I respond. “We go to a synagogue where we “daven” instead of pray, read the full Torah portion every week, and do a full Musaf service; we keep kosher; we’re moving to a house that is 1/3 smaller than this one because it’s in a neighborhood where we can walk to shul. What, exactly, would you call us?”

She (grudgingly) concedes the point.


It’s 11:30pm on the second night of Passover, 1990.

My wife and I are walking home from a (far) more observant family, who graciously invited us over to share the experience. We walk – not because we usually walk on holidays, but out of respect for this family and because our house is exactly 3 blocks away.

At this hour of the night, after the longest seder of our lives, we feel like strung out, shell shocked, matzah-stuffed zombies. We re-assure each other that, while this was an interesting experience to have once, it’s not the way we imagine our Passovers will ever be when we are running them.


It’s 3:00am on the second night of Passover 2011.

My wife and I, along with our four children, are walking home from the second seder. The night before ended just as late. We have to keep reminding the kids not to sing so loud because some people are actually asleep at this hour.

We are all energized, feeling more engaged to each other and our Judaism than we can recall feeling in a great while.


I respectfully submit the idea that you are on a journey, even if you don’t perceive your own movement. Depending on how you want to figure it, even sitting in a chair, you are still traveling at a speed of 800, 67,000, 447,000 or even 1,342,000 miles per hour (don’ believe me? Read this.)

Intergalactic calculations aside, you are still on a journey. As we respond to the world around us, we automatically adjust our understanding and therefore our behavior.

From a Jewish perspective, even if you think you are doing nothing you are probably wrong. Because just like the illusion of not moving while you sit in a chair, there is an illusion of not moving along a spiritual path even if you haven’t passed anything (yet) that would indicate your movement.

My advice is to stop looking around you for a mile marker. There is (as I’ve mentioned before) no line that you cross and suddely POOF, you are conservative, or reform, or reconstructionist. Close your eyes and look inward. That’s where you will see the movement.

And remember: “never” is a very long time.

When You Have Nobody to Pray For

Art of Healing
Creative Commons License photo credit: h.koppdelaney

At some point during the Shabbat service there comes a moment when the leader stops and invites the congregation to speak the names of people in need of healing. The congregation, having heard those names, keeps those people in their thoughts as a prayer is spoken.

The prayer is the Mi Sheberach. It is based on a tersely worded entreaty to God by Moses himself – the shortest supplication recorded in Torah: “El na refa na la” (Please God, heal her now!”). It appears in Parsha Beha’alotcha, which we’ll read this comming Shabbat.

There is, of course, something every exposing about the whole process. I know people who would be horrified to know that they had been “outed” in this way.

I don’t believe the tradition developed as a way to satisfy the voyeuristic impulse. I believe that the mi sheberach is a communal experience. We say the names out loud and in the public of our chosen community so that everyone can know when someone needs support without the need for the suffer-er to ask people directly, or to have someone ask on their behalf.

This week, I realized that having this moment during the service accomplishes another important task: it’s a good indicator of how self-absorbed you are.

There are plenty of good reasons not to speak someone’s name: you know someone else is in the congregation is going to do it, you don’t know their Hebrew name and your congregation prefers it, etc. But even so, you have have a name in mind. Your intention is clear.

This week – as most weeks – I sat silently as those around me spoke the names of those they knew who needed healing. I marveled at the 3 people who each held a list of a dozen (or more) names to recite. And that’s when it struck me:

If you have nobody in your life who needs healing on some level; nobody in such a condition – whom you know well enough to want to say their name out loud in the congregation – then there are really only two explanations:

  • Either you are remarkably blessed to be surrounded by incredibly healthy people…
  • Or you are so wrapped up in your own life that you aren’t paying attention to those around you. You aren’t part of your community at all.

So… which is it, and what are you going to do about it?