Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Hundred and First Time

Parshat Mishpatim
22 Shvat, 5771
January 27th, 2011

My first Shabbat in college, I, a very Jewishly engaged teenager, proudly walked into Hillel expecting to find my place immediately. This expectation was not to be born out.
Everything seemed wrong: they prayed wrong, services felt wrong, people acted wrong. No one was friendly. Nothing was right. I was then asked to make Kiddush, which, to my mortification, I proceeded to butcher in front of 200 people. I stepped out of that building and didn’t return for two years.
 The irony, of course, is that I’ve found my home in Torah and Judaism, made a grateful life out of its practice. Those people who weren’t friendly (who were actually just giving me space) are good friends.
There is a beautiful teaching that helps me to understand my experience. “There is no comparison,” teaches the Midrash, “between one who has studied a chapter a hundred times and between one who has studied it a hundred and one times.”Ö
            I cannot deny the power of the newness of things and the attraction of love at first sight. However, it seems to me that first sight is also where we’re the most blind.
            Torah is almost ridiculously in favor of second sight: not of reading, but re-reading; not of experiencing, but rather re-experiencing. Its wisdom is that our lives regularly turn out in ways that we could not have dreamed of previously, and that we often make treasures out of what we initially reject: even ma’asu habonim haitah l’rosh pinah – the stone that the builders rejected has become the foundation. Psalm 118
May the wisdom of understanding through repetition become part of your spiritual practice.

Shalom u’Verakhah
Peace and Blessing,
Rabbi Scott Perlo
Ö Midrash Zuta, Kohelet 9

Friday, January 21, 2011

It Takes Two

Parshat Yitro
16 Shvat, 5771
January 21st, 2011

When you walk into a synagogue during the Torah reading, you will always see multiple people crowding around the bimah. This is not, as most would suppose, only about correcting the reader. Rather, says the Shulhan Arukh, “since Torah was given through a mediator (Moses), so too do we use a mediator to read Torah.”*

Basically, the giving of Torah (coming to you this week at shul) wasn’t a solo act. It was, rather, a duet.

We have a weakness for solo leaders: the hero alone, the one who stands against many. We are all, always, waiting for a messiah, and when we find a likely candidate for the post, we’ll often load our deepest expectations onto that one person. And then we wait for our dreams to come true, or be disappointed.

But that is not the model that Torah and life experience present us: God and Moses gave Torah, Moses and Aaron led the people, Abraham and Sara created us, Esther and Mordehai saved us. The most successful, the most effective, the most creative and vibrant of our ventures are developed in partnership. “Havruta o mituta,”** teaches the Talmud, “partnership or death.”  Redemption comes in twos.

*Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 141:4. The original source of this quote Talmud Yerushalmi, Masekhet Megillah 74d
** Talmud, Masekhet Taanit 23a

Friday, January 14, 2011

Metaphorical Danger

Parshat Beshallah
9 Shvat, 5771
There was, in my first full year in Israel, a point when I began to get frightened. The year was 2005, and the Disengagement from Gaza was rapidly approaching. In the media, on the buses, in public places I started to hear a repeated phrase about the prospect of the withdrawal: “it’s like Sharon is coming to rape my sister.” This statement terrified me.
            It terrified me because this peculiar metaphor means something to Jewish ears. There is a  law in the Talmud called the rodef – the pursuer. It describes a person who is coming to murder or to rape another human being. The law states that it is permitted, perhaps even commanded, to kill such a person before they accomplish their crime. What I was hearing was the religious justification for political assassination.
            What I was hearing also wasn’t true. Ariel Sharon was attempting to leave Gaza, and forcibly remove Jews from their homes. But no matter one’s opinion on the Disengagement, he was not, in fact, coming to rape anyone’s sister.
            Using metaphor this way is damned dangerous and irresponsible. Hitler was Hitler – not the leader of the political party we despise, who isn’t in fact a genocidal terrorist. Nazis are Nazis – not the au courant favorite political insult both here and in Israel. And a blood libel is the false belief that we used the blood of Christian children in baking matzah – a lie for which we died by the tens of thousands – not the response of a criticized politician.
            Torah is unequivocal about our responsibility to watch our words: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Proverbs 18:19 We are awash in metaphor, and it’s time to stop.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


1 Shvat 5771
January 5th, 2011

The Governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated this week by his own bodyguard, incensed by his employer’s opposition to a law that condemns those who insult Islam to death. Facebook pages in support of the assassin are sprouting up faster than Facebook can take them down.

This presents a problem for us Jews, though it is not the problem you might think.
The problem is that Torah contains a commandment identical to the Pakistani law:
“And a fight broke out in the camp and…The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name of God, cursing it, and he was brought to Moses…
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: take the one who cursed God outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.”
Leviticus 24:10-13

You may have noticed that even in the most earnest of Jewish circles we no longer stone people to death for blasphemy. Have we then abandoned Torah?

We have not. But we have brought revolution to religious ideas. And we do believe that those revolutions bring us closer to God. The relevant revolution here is what my teacher, Rabbi Sharon Brous, teaches as the central Torah of her life: that God’s dignity is expressed through human dignity; that injustice harms the image of God. So we’ve learned that to kill a person for cursing God degrades God’s holy Name even more.

Fundamentalists are forever attempting to uncover the Torah (Bible, Koran) in its immaculate form. But only dead things don’t change. Etz hayyim hi – Torah is a living tree. It is eternal because lives beyond change. To ignore our own spiritual evolution is to ignore God’s plan for the world.