Tag Archives: Torah

“Give, You Shall Give”

by Dobra Levitt (Jerusalem, Israel)

Two memories lodged in my past seem to have waited years for my Talmud Torah class to reveal their true value.  We have been learning the laws worded as double expressions in the Torah such as: give, you shall give; lend, you shall lend; load up, you shall load up your neighbor’s fallen donkey. The law of restoring a pledge, “restore, you shall restore,” requires a lender to return the garment of a poor person who has given it as security for a loan. Since his garment is most likely the only covering he has, Torah law made it obligatory to return it to him each day before sunset for as long as it’s held as security. The first memory from my working years in Philadelphia brings this law out of the pages of the Gemarah into living reality.

After university and before I found my first teaching position, I worked for a short time at the Department of Public Assistance.  My job was to visit people receiving financial assistance, lend a sympathetic ear to their cares and concerns, and send in a standardized form recording my observations. The people I visited were humble folk, grateful to the powers-that-be for the help they got and for the “nice miss” who listened to their troubles.

The job took me into neighborhoods I never knew existed. One place was a single room apartment in a building “somewhere near the railroad tracks.”  Its occupant was a small, elderly Afro-American man. By now he’s just a memory of a memory, but for many years he was a living person in my heart.  His slight form, his politeness and gentleness were not abstractions describing him but qualities inseparable from what endeared him to me.  Except for a plain wood bureau and maybe a few items he kept in a closet, the only things he possessed in this world were literally a table, two chairs, and a cot that served as his bed.  Lined up on the bureau top were framed photos of loved ones “from the South.” They were all that really mattered to him. I can’t recall his talking about anything else. I remember standing beside him as he showed me each one, telling me who they were and how they were related to him.

At the bottom of his bed, folded up very neatly, was a khaki overcoat he may have bought at one time from an army and navy store. As sure as I stood there, I knew that coat was what he used to cover himself at night. I may have asked him or found out from my supervisor that a blanket had been ordered for him—it troubled me so that he still had not received it. I must have sent in the visiting form with an urgent request for its immediate delivery, but I was scheduled to leave the Department shortly after my visit, so I never knew the outcome of my gentleman’s story. I always hoped that someone broke through the bureaucratic red tape and got his blanket to him without a minute’s further delay.

Talmudic scenarios, at least literally, are not common anymore. It’s unlikely that when we step out the door we’ll encounter a lost sheep we should exert ourselves to return to its owner or help a neighbor unload his fallen donkey, but there are rare exceptions. With my own eyes I saw how a frail mortal could have nothing to his name in this world but one garment to cover himself at night—and if he had to give it as security, his very life could be endangered if it wasn’t returned on time.  “If you take thy neighbor’s garment to pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; it is his only garment, his covering for his skin; wherein shall he sleep?”

Reading this passage from the Torah, I felt the incredible closeness and immediacy of Hashem in every situation and far more deeply felt the line from tehillim that came to me: “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies extend to all His works.

Years later, and on a lighter note, the second memory is a perfect embodiment of the doubled expression, “give, you shall give.” One of the meanings the sages derived from the repetition was that it was better to give multiple times – giving smaller sums to several charities rather than a lump sum to only one or giving to three poor people five shekels each for a coffee rather than fifteen to one person. Little did I know at the time that I was fulfilling a law of the Torah in this ideal way.

I was at the time learning in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, occasionally making forays into Boro Park for shopping or meeting friends. Leaving Boro Park one early afternoon to catch my bus, I was accosted (if I can use that word for such a diminutive crowd) by a class of very young yeshivah boys in the fourth or fifth grade asking for a donation. It seems they were collecting for some charitable cause that their school turned into a class competition. There may even have been a run-off among individual boys to decide the Supreme Collector of the whole yeshivah.

Good fortune went round that day. For some reason I had a lot of small change in my bag and on the spot became a dispenser of charity coins to maybe twelve very happy boys. You would think a windfall of immense worth fell into their hands as each one walked away, shouting and jubilant, with his nickel or dime. When just two or three boys were left and I had come almost to the end of my change, I began thinking I should hold on to what was left for the bus fare or something else I might need. Walking towards my bus stop, I explained to the boys why I was “closing up shop.” Having done so well as a group, they accepted the decision with a good grace and went their boyish way – except for one unappeased boy. I can almost see him as he stood his ground. He was smaller than the rest and just as it was undeniable that he wore glasses, so was it absolutely clear he wore intelligence. It was written, as they say, all over him. He persisted at my side, backing away with me as I walked. “But I gave to the whole class,” I told him. “Yes, but I’m a different person,” he answered. And to whatever I said that I thought bolstered my argument, he answered in his childish voice, never changing his tone or showing the least irresolution: “Yes, but I’m a different person.”

Of course I gave him. How could I not! He was so preciously unique and his ingenuous logic was unassailable. It was my logic that was below the mark. Surely I must have had a few bills in my purse so I could have gotten change for the bus, and what could I possibly have suddenly needed in the minutes it took to walk to the station that twenty-five cents would help pay for? When I look back, I think I was acting on the not uncommon instinct to preserve my money lest – who knows? – I might go penniless!

I treasure the  memory of my little yeshivah boy. I can’t begin to count how many times his innocent “Yes, but I’m a different person” has sounded in my heart, making me smile and, on occasion, even admonishing me. Sometimes I am unexpectedly approached by a group of needy people here in Jerusalem where, unfortunately, the poor abound. This often happens before the festivals when poor men and women with needy families ask for help. I have to remind myself: true, nowhere does halacha require me to give away all my money, but I won’t fall below the poverty line if I give more than I regularly give to people who are asking.  Each one has a just claim; each one is a different person.

Dobra Levitt lives in Jerusalem where she writes and teaches creative writing.  She published a memoir called The Fish in the Yellow Paper, a collection of essays describing her childhood and high school teaching years in Philadelphia. Here’s a link to her book if you’d like to take a look: https://amzn.to/2ukRsMG

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First Haircut

by Steven Sher (Jerusalem, Israel)

for Nini, on his third birthday

Our grandson dons a tallit katan for the first time
and we ride the bus to see the Rebbes in Geula.
“Sweet boy. Such a sweet boy.”
Each blesses him with Torah, chuppah, chochmah
finishes with a snip of his long curly hair.

Once the barber does his job,
the boy returns home beaming—
buzz cut on top, the neck cleaned up,
a rim of short locks left in front
framing his forehead, radiant payot.

Later he’s the guest of honor: presents,
favorite foods and cake. At the end of the day,
our daughter tells him nothing is as sweet as Torah
and because he’s such a big boy now,
he has to fill his days with it.

“Big candy”—he begins to lick
the sweetness sticking to his lips.

Born in Brooklyn, Steven Sher is the author of fifteen books. He made aliyah five years ago, and now lives in Jerusalem near his children and grandchildren. To learn more about him and his work, visit his website: https://steven-sher-poetry.wixsite.com/writing

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Bible Stories for Atheist Babysitters

by Roz Warren (Bala Cynwyd, PA)

What the five-year-old who I baby-sit for wanted to do yesterday was torture his Barbies.  

“Why would you want to do that?” I asked.

“Because we’re bad guys!” said Hanina. 

“Can’t we be good guys?”

“Not today. Today we’re bad guys.” 

You may wonder what a five-year old boy is doing with Barbies in the first place. They belonged to his mom. She’d hung onto them, no doubt hoping to pass them along to a daughter.  But Hanina is her third son and last child, so they ended up his.  

Hanina doesn’t dress them up and send them out on dates with Ken. Their fashionable outfits are long gone.  Hanina’s naked Barbies participate in the same activities as his other toys. They explore. They fight battles. They act out Torah stories. (Hanina is an Orthodox Jew.)  

We searched Hanina’s room but could only find one Barbie. We carried her to the kitchen table and Hanina got out the Play Doh. He popped off Barbie’s head, then stuck a glob of bright orange Play Doh where her head had been. 

He seemed pleased with the result.

“Can we be good guys now?” I asked.

“Not yet,“ he said, encasing Headless Barbie’s arms and legs in strips of green and blue Play Doh. 

As a feminist, I can’t say I was crazy about this game. But as a creative person, I could appreciate it as a form of self-expression. 

I’d seen works of art similar to “Headless Barbie Immobilized In Play Doh” at MOMA.

As the daughter of a psychoanalyst, I’m all in favor of working through a little boy’s perfectly normal sadistic impulses in a safe and harmless way.  Much better to pop the head off Mom’s hand-me-down Barbie than pop a real school mate in the nose.   

Once Headless Barbie was mummified in blue and green, Hanina lost interest. “Can we read “Bible Stories for Jewish Children?” he asked.  He snuggled up next to me on the living room sofa and I read to him.      

I was raised by secular atheist Jews. Caring for Hanina has meant, among other things, actually getting to know what’s in the Torah.  

We both got a kick out of the fact that when God commands Moses to confront Pharoah and demand that he free the Jewish People, Moses tries very hard to get out of the gig. Yet he rises to the occasion and ends up doing a pretty good job.  

Reading about Samson and Delilah, I learned something I hadn’t been aware of.  The book, calling Samson  “a champion of the Jewish People,” described several of the things he did, even as a youth, to torment the Philistines. One was setting fire to the tails of a thousand foxes, then turning them loose in the Philistine‘s fields, burning all their crops. 

“That’s not very nice,” I said. 

“The Philistines were the enemy of the Jewish People,” Hanina reminded me.   

“I get that,“ I said. “But what did those poor foxes ever do to the Jews?“ 

What I was thinking about  (although I didn’t share this with Hanina) was the so-called “triad of sociopathy,” three signs that a child might grow up to be a psychopath. These are: animal cruelty, fire setting, and persistent bedwetting. The young Samson seems to have killed two of these birds with one stone. (In fact, he’d killed way more than two birds. The kid had killed a thousand foxes!) 

This was a role model?

On the other hand, it put any qualms I might have had about Barbie abuse in perspective. 

“Can we just keep reading?” Hanina asked. 

We returned to the narrative. Samson grows up and falls for Delilah. She betrays him. He brings down the temple on his enemies, killing himself in the process. The full page illustration was of the bearded Samson lying with his head in Delilah’s lap as she signals to a soldier to sneak over and cut off his hair. 

At Hanina’s age, I was reading “The Cat In The Hat” and “Little House On The Prairie.”  Nobody ever sat down and read me Torah stories. This is what I’d missed.  Adult content! Seduction and betrayal! You don’t find a lot of  that in Dr. Seuss.

When we were done reading, we moved on to a game Hanina improvised in which we pretend to be mother and father birds caring for our babies. The living room sofa became a nest.   “We’ve brought you some yummy worms!” we announced to our young.  “Who’s hungry?”  

Being kind and nurturing is more in line with Hanina’s essential nature than being cruel and sadistic. I was happy that, at least for now, he’d gotten that out of his system. But I remained troubled by Samson’s treatment of those foxes. As I was leaving at afternoon’s end, I mentioned this to Hanina’s father, a Kabbalah scholar. 

“Samson was a thug,” he agreed cheerfully.

Not exactly the response I’d expected. 

“He could have used a good therapist,” I volunteered. 

Of course, if Samson had had a good therapist, he might have refrained from tormenting the Philistines. Or falling for Delilah, who, clearly, was a Very Bad Choice. 

And then where would the Jewish People be?

Hanina’s father told me that one eminent Jewish scholar had actually published an article concluding that Samson was a thug.

“A lot of people weren’t happy about that,” he said.  

Maybe not. But I am. And I’m even happier to know that my favorite five-year-old is being raised by an abba who is willing to call a thug a thug, even if he is a hero of the Jewish people. 

As for poor headless Barbie, knowing Hanina, when I turn up next it’s likely that she’ll have her head back and some clothes on, ready to perform the role of Moses‘s mom in our “story of Passover” play.  

But if she’s still encased in Play Doh, I’m sending her to MOMA.

Roz Warren (www.Rosalind warren.com) writes for The  New York Times and the Funny Times. Her work also appears in the Jewish Forward, Huffington Post and Christian Science Monitor, and she’s been featured on the Today Show. (Twice!)  Roz is the author of  Our Bodies, Our Shelves: A Collection of Library Humor. http://ow.ly/LpFgE   You can connect with Roz on Facebook at www.facebook.com/writerrozwarren and follow her on Twitter at @WriterRozWarren. 

This essay first appeared on www.womensvoicesforchange.org and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. 

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Meditation and Organic Torah: The Missing Link

by Natan Margalit (Newton, MA)

“Narcissistic navel gazing” was an accusation thrown around a lot when meditation and other forms of spiritual practice started making inroads into Jewish communities a couple of decades ago. Now, a lot of us meditate, and far from taking Jews away from the traditional Jewish emphasis on community, tzedakkah, and social justice, Jewish meditation has greatly enriched our lives.

And yet, anyone who meditates knows that it often is a struggle to connect our spiritual practice with the rest of our lives. I try to meditate in the morning. Actually, I do my own combination of davenning (Jewish prayer) and meditation. It usually isn’t a transcendent experience, but it can get me to slow down, feel my body, breathe, accept myself for a few moments before I start rushing around trying to solve my problems — or the world’s. On a good day, I get a feeling of something that, on reflection, I might call presence, or even Presence. But all that quickly gets swept away once I come downstairs and face the music: The kids need to get to school on time but Nadav won’t put on his clothes and Eiden wants to play baby dinosaur. I’d love to play with them but instead I’m aggravated because I need to rush them off to school and myself off to work. Maybe it’s just the dynamic rhythm of life: a time to meditate, a time to dress the kids, a time to make a living — to everything there is a season.

But I think that’s not the whole story.

We live in a society and economy that kills Presence more than it needs to. Let me go on with more tales of my mornings: some mornings after I come downstairs I can escape the chaos in the house for a moment by doing one of my favorite chores: taking out the compost. Putting the compost on the pile and covering it up with dry grass clippings, I take note of how it’s doing. It’s like cooking — is there too much liquid, or is it too dry? How does it smell? Like rich, plant-nourishing compost or still yucky? I’m checking its progress from last week’s rotting food scraps to fertilizer for our garden, and in a couple months, more veggies for our table. It’s a mundane but also magical cycle that always amazes me. And it reminds me of what most people say when they are asked where they feel spiritually connected: “in nature.” And it’s true. There is something about the patterns of nature that inexplicably affects our consciousness. Perhaps it’s that everything is connected and nothing is wasted. Nature is a set of cycles and patterns that bring us back to Presence and the Oneness beneath all existence. So composting can feel like a continuation of my meditation.

But, most people don’t compost. The default in our society is tossing it. Out of sight and out of mind. And it does something to our spirit as well as the world when we cut off our minds from the natural cycles. Go to YouTube (or the sidebar of the Organic Torah blog) and check out the short video The Story of Stuff. It powerfully illustrates how our economy is all about a linear fantasy that we can take all the resources we want from somewhere, use them up and dump the waste into an infinite somewhere else. This is the Industrial Age worldview that gets us to rush around in work schedules more suited to machines than to people. Family and community take a back seat to production and GDP.

When I compost valuable organic matter (last night’s dinner scraps) instead of tossing “waste” I’m also keeping a bit of Presence in my life. It not only helps reduce the size of the landfill, but it also expands the breath of my soul. OK, but beyond composting, how can we connect more to Presence in our work and daily lives? Where can we start shifting the structure of our lives to include more natural patterns?

I get at least part of the answer when I do my combination davenning/meditation in the morning. When I think of patterns in daily community life, I think of a little quote from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 127a) that comes right near the beginning of the daily morning blessings. “These are the things of which a person eats their fruit (the yield, or reward) in this world, and the principle (Hebrew: keren, horn) remains for him/her into eternity: honoring father and mother, acts of loving kindness, arriving early to the study house in the morning and evening, welcoming guests, visiting the sick, supporting (a poor) bride, attending to the dead, concentration in prayer, making peace between people. And the study of torah is equal to them all.”

The daily rhythm of saying these words (and the Hebrew does have a beautiful, poetic rhythm to it) reinforces actions that we as individuals can do to strengthen the natural rhythms and patterns of community. The seemingly mundane actions mentioned in the Talmud — honoring parents, visiting the sick, helping out at a wedding, or welcoming guests — recognize the patterns of communal life. These actions, and actions like composting, strengthen those patterns at their most vulnerable and fragile points: the relationship between generations, the cycles of birth and death, and the easily frayed fabric of community. Underlying and emerging from all these actions is the torah. It is “equal to them all” because it enables us to reflect on them together as one interlocking whole. The Sages said about the torah: “turn it and turn it, for all is in it,” because the torah is but another level of the weave of life in which nothing is wasted.

We can do a better job of connecting our meditation and spiritual practice to our daily lives, but we have to realize that the cards are stacked against us. The dominant culture and economy are still operating on a mechanical model that keeps us running away from Presence, away from the patterns that lead us to the One. In order to spread that sense of Presence beyond the sitting cushion and throughout our lives we need a more organic model of daily life. For that, the (organic) torah is a good place to start.

Natan Margalit was raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, studied Anthropology at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, made aliya, and studied for many years in Israeli yeshivot. He received rabbinic ordination at The Jerusalem Seminary in 1990 and earned a Ph.D.  in Talmud from U.C. Berkeley in 2001.  He has held teaching positions at Bard College , the Reconstuctionist Rabbinical College and the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Boston.
Natan is Director of Oraita, a program of continuing education for rabbis of Hebrew College , as well as spiritual leader of The Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life, in Western Connecticut .  He is President of Organic Torah, inc. a non-profit organization which fosters holistic thinking about Judaism, environment and society. He has written and taught for many years on Judaism and the environment, innovative approaches to Jewish texts, Jewish mysticism and spirituality, and gender and Judaism. He lives in Newton, MA with his wife Ilana and sons, Nadav and Eiden.
This piece first appeared on Organic Torah’s website (http://organictorah.org/) and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.
 

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Tribal Ghazal

by Sue Swartz (Bloomington, IN)

Be careful to perform all the words of this Torah, for it is not
an empty thing for you, it is your life…

I would welcome an easy forgetting, if not for the words.
I would pass up allotment and ceremony, but never the words.

Presence/Absence, glory & thunder, text with great resiliency:
Velvet-wrapped, indelibly inked, my self bows before the words.

From birth, a tribalist: daughter with broad receptivity –
I lie down and rise up with the sweet imperfection of these words.

Ancient scrolls stay alive with impudent twists of commentary.
I turn and turn the story, and the story (in turn) turns my words.

Transcendence doesn’t really interest me, nor does equanimity.
I prefer uproar, wild beasts set loose in the Garden of Words.

The believer in me is undecided, often racked with deniability.
Agnostic though I may be, I do not believe these are useless words.

Oh – to be the prime redactor, creator of numinous biography.
Lowly poet, heretical follower, I wrestle headstrong with the words.

Distracted and doubting this afternoon, still here I am, hineni.
Perilous to live like this, can’t stop swooning over the words.

The prophet’s heart is a raging fire, helpless before God’s word.
I’d burn too, wander alone in wilderness – were it not for the words.

Sue Swartz is a poet, essayist, and social justice activist living in Bloomington, Indiana. Her two blogs reflect her current passions and writing projects: Torah, tattoos, and truth are the focus of Awkward Offerings (http://swartzsue.wordpress.com/), while musings on work and workers is featured on Chop Wood, Carry Water (http://cwcw.wordpress.com/).

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