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The Heart of the Torah

Just a few weeks ago we finished the High Holiday season with Simchat Torah and that wonderful moment when we finish reading the Torah with the last words of Deuteronomy “l’eynei kol Israel” “in the eyes of all Israel” and, without so much as a pause to catch our breath, start reading the Torah again with “beraisheet bara…” “In the beginning of God’s creation….” The famous drash (interpretation) of this is that the last letter of the Torah is Lamed ל and the first letter of the Torah is bet ב. When we combine the ending with the beginning we get the word לב – lev – heart.

When we make that jump from the end back to the beginning we are somehow putting the heart into Torah. It is as if we are saying: this is not a book that we read and then put down. This is not a straight line that goes from beginning to end. It is a circle that never ends. Or, better, it is a spiral, in which we paradoxically do and we don’t come back to the same place. We circle around and read the same words, but they are changed because we have changed. They say you can never step into the same river twice, and we can never read the Torah exactly the same way as we read it before. We have new perspectives and the words strike us differently.

So, the weekly reading of the Torah isn’t just about acquiring knowledge, or at least that is not the heart of the matter. Yes, we get more knowledge of the text as we read it, but we get to the heart of Torah when we listen each time to what it has to say to us. Mixing and deepening the narrative of our lives with the narrative of the Torah can have a wonderful effect on our lives. I’m often amazed how the struggles of Abraham’s family, or the wanderings of the Israelites, or the ethical laws of Deuteronomy, or even the rituals of Leviticus seem to be speaking to me in my present situation. When a community all follows these narratives they form a background like a musical score to a film, giving an extra dimension to our lives.

Another entertainment analogy that comes to mind is that when a community is all tuned into the parshat ha’shavuah, it’s like we’re all watching the same T.V. drama (lehavdil! – not to really compare Torah to T.V.!) There is a narrative that everyone is talking about; there’s a gripping story and there are lessons to be learned. The main difference is that we get this series year after year – and yet it doesn’t get old.

Perhaps that’s because, in the Torah, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint “the meaning.” There are so many ambiguities, so many things that don’t seem to quite make sense, that it stimulates us to dig deeper, come back again, reinterpret. The great anthropologist and scholar of mythology Claude Levy-Strauss once made the observation that myth mostly disappeared as a mainstay of European culture when people started writing novels. In a novel you can tell, more or less, what the narrative is, and, with room for interpretation, what the meaning is. He also noted that when myth started to morph into novels, it left a vacuum in the culture for that depth and mystery that myth had provided. He proposed that this was the time classical music began to fill that vacuum: it evokes, it stirs thoughts and emotions, but, like myth, it doesn’t reveal its “meaning.” The Torah, even though it seems to tell stories, is actually more like music or myth than like a novel.

We in the modern world often don’t have much in the way of myths, music or narratives that hold us together as communities and give a deeper perspective on our lives. T.V. and other entertainment come and go. Music, for the most part, has become a personal preference and not something that usually defines a community. The beauty of the changing seasons is too often reflected in the mainstream culture in the latest sale displays or commercialized holiday. We’re barely done with one shopping season when we’re urged to buy something else for the next binge. We are pulled from one news story to the next, one political battle to the next crisis. Yes, it is important to keep up to date on what’s happening in the world, but where do we find perspective on it? Where do we check our core values and the truth of our hearts against the rushing urgencies of the world?

Jews have been known as the People of the Book, and on some very basic level that means reading the Book, and lettings its rhythms become our rhythms. Experiencing the Torah as the year-long, underlying story (or music) of our lives can open our hearts as we listen for the heart of the Torah.

Kevah Organic Torah Miniseries – Sign Up Now! Embodied Torah

Taught by:
Rabbi Natan Margalit, Ph.D.
Founder, Organic Torah Institute

Embodied Torah: Holiness and the Body in the Torah.

Judaism embraces this world, nature and, of course, our human bodies. In fact, the Torah is a network of organic patterns and connections; flexible and strong. Viewing the Torah this way as an organic whole, the result is a holistic, new and ancient, deeply moving understanding of Judaism.  In this class we’ll explore how such things as our hair, skin, blood and clothing are all central to understanding the religious and social meaning of biblical texts.  Why are the Priests (kohanim) prohibited from letting their hair grow, while the Nazerites (those who make a vow of holiness) must let it grow?  Why are does a mourner tear their clothing while a Priest is not allowed to?  These questions bring us to deep patterns of leadership, authority and holiness in ancient Israel.  And, those in turn help us reflect on our own ideas today.  We’ll be focusing on text from the Tanakh itself, with some references to Talmud and Midrash. We’ll use original Hebrew texts, but English translations are always available when needed.

4 Mondays 11/24, 12/2, 12/8, and 12/15
Cost: $96, scholarships available

Congregation Eitz Chayim, 136 Magazine St., Cambridge

To sign up, or for questions, e-mail Natan at or Joe Sousa, course organizer, at joseph.c.sousa@gmail.comh today!

A Poem for Rosh Hashanah

I want to share this poem by E. E. Cummings (apparently, contra the myth that he legally changed his name to e e cummings, he actually preferred his name with the normal capital letters).  I want to thank Linda Yael Schiller for reciting this poem, at a memorial circle for Shira Shaiman, at Dance New England Dance Camp this August. It was at that time that I was struck by the resonance of this poem with themes of Rosh HaShana.

i thank You God for most this amazing

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

For me, this beautiful poem speaks deeply about the essence of Rosh HaShana. The Rambam (Maimonides) explained that when we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShana the purpose is to wake us from our slumber. Of course, he wasn’t talking about being physically asleep, he meant awakening to a deeper level of awareness, awakening to a sense of what is beneath the surface, but which is infinitely real: “now the ears of my ears awake/ and the eyes of my eyes are opened”

And, when we are in that state of consciousness, that feeling of being awake and alive, the natural response is one of gratefulness and awe, a sense that we are a small part of something infinite, beautiful and . . . awesome. The High Holidays are traditionally called the Days of Awe, and Rosh HaShana is traditionally called “The Day of Judgment” – Yom HaDin — and in our society which values egalitarianism, self-reliance and the infinite value of each individual, it can strike a negative chord, bringing associations with outmoded ideals of hierarchy, domination, male father figures demanding submission. But, Rosh HaShana is paradoxically both a “Day of Judgment” and also a day of celebration, a day not to fear but to try to be very clear about who I am and where I stand in the world.

I think that this poem captures that intention: I am “human merely being” . . ., I am “lifted from the no of all nothing” — I recognize my limitations; my place as a tiny being that has been given the gift of life. But this recognition isn’t a resigned, fearful or weak feeling of submission. It is, rather, a recognition that I want to remain awake, remain conscious and grateful. It is a feeling that simultaneously acknowledges the vastness of which I am but a small part, while feeling joyful, expansive and alive.

Rosh HaShana is also traditionally known as the birthday of the world, and this newness is reflected in the poem: “and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth/day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay / great happening illimitably earth)” There is a sense that everything is renewed, that there is a chance for a new beginning which encompasses the whole wide world, but also myself personally (I who have died am alive again today. . .) When we talk about the “judgment” of whether or not we will be written into the Book of Life on Rosh HaShana this is what we mean: will I be really alive? Will I consciously feel the essence of my life and the beauty of being alive? Or will I be bored, living on the surface, asleep?

Rosh HaShana and all the High Holidays are very focused on God, and specifically the God of creation, the God who brings into being all the earth, the sky, the trees. The old picture of the Creator God, who, In the Beginning, spoke and commanded all the cosmos to appear isn’t one which resonates with many of us today. Yet, this poem captures the idea of the God of creation in a much more resonant way: there is a “yes” that emanates from the world, especially the world of nature. There is no separation between that which is natural and that which is infinite.

That “yes” (which lifts us out of the “no of all nothing”) is what we call God. That “yes” is saying that the world isn’t neutral, inert or random. Rather, as God observes in our creation story: it is good. This is a God within nature, undeniable when we are awake and seeing with the eyes of our eyes. It (S/he?) is a God who we intuitively want to thank and praise – “for most this amazing / day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees. . .

Whether we are listening to the sound of the shofar, or walking in nature, or reading poetry, this is the time in the Jewish calendar when we are given the invitation to wake up, to see anew, to feel with all our senses, to feel thankful for the renewal that is constantly offered by that “yes” whispering in the trees and the blue true dream of sky.

Challah and Halakhah

I’m a pretty good challah maker. Actually, I’m being too modest. I make some of the best whole wheat challah most people have ever tasted. I think that part of the reason it comes out so well is that at crucial points in the process, I don’t rely on measurements in the recipe, but I rely on my senses to see what is actually happening with the dough. I add flour to the liquid little by little, so that I get the exact right consistency for the dough. I can feel the weight, the bounciness, the shine of the dough. I know in my hands when it is ready. No measurement in a recipe could get that kind of accuracy. Simply following measurements in a recipe you don’t know all sorts of things like the exact coarseness of the flour, the temperature that day, the hardness of the water, etc. When you knead and feel the dough, you get exactly the consistency you want.

natan-challah-1I was happy to see that one of my favorite food writers, Michael Pollan, is on the same page. In his most recent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan at first goes into the world of bread baking with the normal expectations that this is a world for the exacting, perfectionist, carefully measuring, carpenter or computer coder types. Not the artist, writer, poet type with which he more identifies. But, it turned out not to be the case. Yes, he needed to buy a scale that measured in grams, but when he sat down to read the recipe for one of the most amazing breads he had ever tasted, the “Tartine bread” made by Chad Robertson, he found that, “Robertson encouraged bakers to be observant, flexible, and intuitive. . . He talked about dough as if it was a living thing, local and particular and subject to so many contingencies that to generalize or make hard-and-fast rules for its management was impossible. Robertson seemed to be suggesting that success as a baker demanded a certain amount of negative capability — a willingness to exist amid uncertainty. His was a world of craft rather than engineering, one where “digital” referred exclusively to the fingers.”

It turns out, this intuitive approach is also the secret to Jewish civilization: for centuries Jews have followed Jewish law, in Hebrew: halakhah, a word that comes from the word “to walk.” It is a path, an active going one step at a time. It is not some theory proposed by a philosopher in an ivy tower. It is not a recipe. It is, at least when it is working well, a constantly evolving, constantly fine-tuned feedback between lawyer/scholar/teachers (rabbis) and the rest of the people who are living out Jewish life, walking on the path.

There is no one set of principles or abstract deductions on what is Right or Truth. Rather, there are stories, examples and arguments all woven together. Any rabbi or practicing Jew who wants to decide a question of Jewish law needs to have a feel for the law and a feel for the community and the individual people involved. Then a decision can come out exactly right for that moment.

natan-challah-2Of course it didn’t and doesn’t always work that way. But apparently it has often enough that the Jewish people survived for 2000 years in difficult exile and are miraculously still here today. The organic structure of learning, action, law, has been flexible and durable, like an eco-system adjusting to new conditions and continuing to grow.

In the case of making challah, the key point is that the baker has to develop a sensitivity to the dough. He or she needs to be in second to second contact and feel in his hands the dough’s weight, stickiness, bounce. It’s a feedback loop, as the dough responds to my hands and my hands respond to the dough.

In the case of an organically alive Jewish community, there is a constant, dynamic, shifting and alive feedback loop between the tradition and the lives of the people. It’s not limited to rabbis and big legal decisions. Even a simple thing like opening a book of the Torah, Talmud or other book of Jewish learning – when it is done successfully it is a back and forth interaction between our perceptions, values, insights and the text. And the text, of course, itself is a record of centuries of such conversations. There is never one clear solution, but many perspectives. One day I might be swayed by this argument, another day, with some new information or changing circumstances, I might see something new.

The beauty of baking bread, or any craft, is that because you are in a feedback interaction with something, it is never possible to completely control it. You work hard to perfect your craft; you have discipline and consistent practice to build your skills in order to get something beautiful. But so much of the beauty actually comes from the surprising things that happen not as part of your plan. The real accomplished artist knows how to ad lib and play off the aliveness of the work.

natan-breakwater-1I’m powerfully reminded of this whenever I walk on the historic breakwater in Rockland, Maine. I always marvel at the way the huge slabs of granite were placed there, 700,000 tons of them are lined up, almost perfectly in a line on one side, and more random on the other side. You can see the dynamic process recorded in the pattern of stones. Someone back in the 1890s was making aesthetic decisions, planning where to place each granite slab, but only so far; also improvising and reacting as each stone is put into place. There is a beautiful aliveness in this record. It’s the beauty of all craft – it is always a feedback loop of action and reaction, a living system. It’s a record of the interface between our striving for order and control and the dynamic randomness of the living world.

Whether its baking Challah, building a rock wall, or trying to figure out what God’s will is for me in this moment – we’re always asked to stay awake: using our skill and to shape and form, but always open to feedback, looking, listening and feeling for that perfect moment of aliveness. In that way, we’re always on the path.

Reb Zalman’s Passing and a New Era Emerging

I wanted to add my own little story into the flood of memories, stories and reminiscences that so many have shared in the past few days since Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z’tl, beloved teacher and rebbe to so many, passed from this world.  Probably my fondest memory of Reb Zalman was at a Simchat Torah retreat in 2004 at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York.  That was the time that I proposed to my (now) wife, Ilana, and Reb Zalman was there to give us his amazing brakhot.  I remember that he blessed us to build a “binyan adei ad” – which translates something like “an eternal structure.”  I was overjoyed with this blessing because binyan adei ad is a favorite phrase of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, whose book, Mei HaShiloach, I had been learning regularly for a number of years.  When the Ishbitzer uses that phrase he is referring to any act that a person does which accords with the deepest truth, the deepest need, of that particular moment – then that act, and the person doing it, participate in eternity. I love this idea and it resonated as the perfect blessing for a marriage – a lifetime that is made up of the sum of so many little moments, so many opportunities to make the right decision, to open up to the moment – to create a binyan adei ad.

Reb Zalman was a Rebbe who knew how to give the exact right blessings. He created a binyan adei ad, an eternal structure in so many ways.  I want to bless us all now that those structures that he brought into the world: Aleph, Pnei Or, Jewish Renewalby whatever name it goes by, will have that quality of truth, deep resonance with the needs of the present moment, spiritual “rightness” so that they endure, continuing to nourish and re-generate the life and aliveness of the world.

I also want to acknowledge and honor Reb Zalman as the pioneer who courageously stepped out into the void – out of his world of Old-World Hasidut, with nothing but his faith that he was building a bridge as he walked – connecting that rich old world to the new, emerging world of 20th and 21st century America. Reb Zalman knew that in order to navigate the turbulent waters of these times we would need the ancient wisdom of Torah, but he also knew that we would need to re-imagine that wisdom in new ways that resonate with this age of the world. We needed to see the paradigm shift.  Along with so many of his followers, I can attest that everything that we do at Organic Torah is built on his recognition and articulation of paradigm shift.

Now that Reb Zalman has left us, we will continue to walk on that bridge he built. May we all be blessed to strengthen it, broaden it, until, speedily in our day, it no longer feels like a narrow, scary bridge, but the knowledge of God will fill the earth, like the water covers the sea.