Elijah in the Desert

I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see the painting Elijah in the Desert  by Washington Allston.  http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/elijah-in-the-desert-30844

1200px-Washington_Allston_-_Elijah_in_the_Desert_-_Google_Art_Project_4A great deal of my time is spent viewing digital photos and images.  In fact, I found the image of this painting through a google image search for Elijah.  As a small jpg, the picture is stunning enough – a stark portrayal it seems, of Elijah in the throes of despair.  I used this image as a banner for a study session I’m leading called “Elijah the Prophet: Zealotry, Despair, and Hearing kol d’mama daka.”  By great coincidence, the original hangs in the MFA.  In fact, it was the first ever acquisition for the MFA. In 1870, Allston was such a highly regarded American painter that the donor of the painting suggested naming the museum after Allston.  I did not know this prior to seeing the painting.  I just thought it would be a good idea to see the original.

It’s so easy (for me at least) to forget how powerful a painting is in the original.  I sat in front of Elijah for maybe an hour, looking from all angles, up close, far away, to the right and to the left, sitting, standing, letting thoughts and feelings run through me.   People passed through the gallery, mostly cruising past the room full of paintings, only infrequently stopping for more than a couple of minutes for anything.  So the first observation was:  how easy it is for humans to walk without taking in impressions, without feeding on the painter’s laborious and careful work.  Similar to speed reading through novels, without enjoying the precise language crafted by the writer.

It was a treat for me to have the time to sit and absorb this one painting, and to have knowledge of the text behind it (1 Kgs 19).  Here is what I saw.   The sunlight breaking through over the mountains is striking and brilliant.  It appears to highlight Mt Horeb (Sinai) in the distance.  It breaks through the clouds of despair.  It lands brightly on Elijah’s head as if to convey a message to him (from the divine) that all is not lost.  The raven, too, carrying food to Elijah, into the light, may be a beacon of hope and comfort.  Yet it’s not clear in the painting if Elijah can see the raven, or the light, any more than it’s clear in the text if Elijah can hear kol d’mama daka, that strange, stringent, quiet, ice-breaking voice of God.  The painting illuminates the central question of the text:  is Elijah grateful and learning, or is he unable to hear God’s voice?  I kept wanting to get my eyes right in front of Elijah’s face, but could not.  The painting was tantalizingly out of my reach, as is the meaning of the text.

Vashti and Esther in Images

Purim is a time when we remember to think about Esther and perhaps learn to think about Vashti.   I present here a small picture gallery.  Images have the power to convey ideas very quickly.

I hope you will enjoy this visual tour and that this will stimulate thoughts about Esther, Vashti, gender politics, the meaning of Purim, and your own identity.

The first image is by Gustav Dore and can be found in digital format in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University.  Notice Vashti’s power, independence and command.  She is recognizably a woman, but on her own terms.

Queen Vashti Refuses to Obey the Command of Ahasvuerus

Queen Vashti Refuses to Obey the Command of Ahasvuerus

Now we have Dore’s Esther, version one.  Here we see Esther in similar command, accusing Haman before the King Ahasvuerus.  Notice how Esther dominates both King and subject.  Like Vashti she is a woman on her own terms.

Esther Accusing Haman

Esther Accusing Haman

Dore has another view of Esther.   I believe in this case he is illustrating a verse from the Greek version.   Note how Esther has lost her power and how King Ahasvuerus dominates.  In her aspect as woman she is now subject of male gaze, vulnerable, not in command.

Esther Faints

Esther Faints

And finally, one more modern illustration from Athalya Brenner’s book, A Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith and Susanna.   The illustration is by Leonard Baskin and is discussed on the page.  This version of command is strikingly different in quality.  Brenner calls it “pillar-like.”   It seems to lose characteristics of gender altogether.  Even more so, seems to lose characteristics of being human.

Queen Esther L Baskin




Escape to Canada: A Rabbinic Consideration

Headline: Escape plan: How to Move to Canada if the Election Doesn’t Go Your Way

A Personal Response with the aid of Rabbinic Tradition

Talk about escaping to Canada if one’s preferred candidate does not win the election is plentiful.   It has been plentiful before, when George Bush was re-elected, after 9/11 and so on. No doubt escape hatches will be touted again and again. This calls to my mind rabbinic commentary on the story of Elimelech and his wife Naomi.   What follows is not a political statement, but a rumination on where the consequences of escape touch upon my personal life.

In the book of Ruth, in the space of the first 5 verses, we learn the following: There was a famine in Bethlehem, in the land of Israel; Elimelech and his wife Naomi leave Bethlehem with their two sons to sojourn in Moab; Elimelech dies; their two sons die without offspring; Naomi survives alone. This is clearly a tragedy.   The text tells us how tragic by this: “And the woman was left of her two children and of her husband” (Ruth 1:5). Naomi was so bereft that in losing her husband and her two children, she lost her identity, indeed her very name. She is left like a remnant.   “R. Hanina said: She was left as the remnants of the remnants [of the meal offering].” (Ruth Rabbah).   I mention this so that we don’t overlook the fact that the real tragedy of this moment is on the shoulders of Naomi, who is embittered and alone.

The rabbis interpret that the deaths were a punishment for Elimelech (and I would add Naomi and the children) for leaving the land of the famine. “Why then was Elimelech punished? Because he struck despair into the hearts of Israel… He was one of the notables of his place and one of the leaders of his generation. But when the famine came he said, ‘Now all Israel will come knocking on my door, each one with his basket [for food].’ He therefore arose and fled from them.” (Ruth Rabbah). Elimelech left behind those suffering from famine, rather than taking responsibility for the people of his country.

As I said, talk of escaping to Canada brings this story to my mind, but whether those who might flee this country (now or in the future) are unsafe in remaining, entitled to a better future, or should be frowned upon for leaving behind those less fortunate, is not for me to judge and is not the point of my re-telling.   The story leads me personally to my relationship to my Jewish community, to the shul wherein I daven and take on various leadership roles. Two years into my president emerita status and I feel very much like escaping, if not literally from the campus, internally from all responsibility. There are many things I don’t like about how the organization is run, how volunteers are recruited and nourished, and how visions are created (as in NOT). In fact I have been internally escaping for some time.

The response of the rabbis to Elimelech pulls me up short. Not because I am afraid of punishment as such. But I need to think very carefully about my responsibility to the people in my own small country, the land of my shul. These are folks who have nourished me, and whom I have nourished.   According to the teaching in Ruth Rabbah, one does not flee from those whom want might be able to help. Is this a moment to double down on my efforts to work with others to create a better community? Or is the a moment to go sojourn in Moab?   Not sure about this yet, but I do know I’m not moving to Canada any time soon.

Ki Tisa as a Song of Longing – Ex 30:11 – 34:35

Parasha Ki Tisa is a Song of both longing and danger. First, the longing. Previous to our parsha, Moses has gone up to the top of Mount Sinai, entering the cloud of God’s presence, to remain with God for 40 days (Ex 24:18). While Moses is up on Mount Sinai encountering the Divine, the children of Israel wait expectantly at the foot of Mount Sinai for Moses to return with God’s prescription for a holy life.

Now the period of time is coming to an end and the people are restless, “for this Moshe, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” (Ex 32.1 Everett Fox translation). They go to Aaron, brother of Moses, and say to him, “Make us a god who will go before us!” (Ex 32.1 Everett Fox translation).   There follows the well-known story of the creation of the golden calf from the gold rings of the people, and of the people eating, drinking, and dancing wildly around their creation.

I would like to read the creation of the golden calf as the story of people who are yearning for God’s presence, and who do the best they can in their circumstances to fill that longing. But there is a problem with this reading, and that is where the danger comes it.   Although Moses successfully pleads with God not to destroy the people entirely (Ex. 32:31-34), nevertheless God sends a plague upon the people (Ex. 32:35). Moses himself orders the Levites to assassinate 3,000 of the Israelites. (Ex. 32:26-28). If the people were expressing longing for God, how do we understand a world in which they can be punished for doing so?

We can illuminate the Exodus text by following the ancient rabbinic tradition of reading Torah intertextually with Song of Songs.  But fair warning, the Song illuminates the danger as well as the longing.

Exodus shows us that the people bear witness to the awesome and physical presence of God on Mt. Sinai, to thunder, smoke, lightening, and shofar blasts when God reveals God’s commandments (Ex. 19:16-20:18). Aviva Zornberg says “At the moment when God spoke at Sinai, a whole nation lost consciousness and regained it.” (The Murmering Deep, pg 246). She quotes from Shemot Rabbah 29:3, which incidentally provides a good illustration of how the rabbis read Song of Songs with the Torah.

Levi said: Israel asked of God two things – that they should see His glory and hear His voice; and they did see His Glory and hear His voice, for it says, “And you said: Behold, God has shown us His glory and His greatness, and we have heard His voice out of the midst of the fire” (Deut. 5.21). But they had no strength to endure it, for when they came to Sinai and God revealed Himself to them, their souls took wing because He spoke with them, as it says, “My soul left me when he spoke” (Songs 5:6).

Zornberg suggests that the people are destabilized by “the shock of God’s voice.”  Their souls have left them. And in this destabilized condition, it appears to them that Moses has left them too. Moses has learned from God that it will be possible (and necessary) for the Israelites to build a sanctuary, so that God may dwell amongst them.   Ve-asu li mikdash, Ve-shachanti be-tocham. (Ex. 25.8). But the people do not yet know about a Mikdash where God’s Shekhina שְׁכִינָה can dwell amongst them shachanti שכנתי. Their souls have left them, and Moses has left them. They erect the golden calf.

When Moses descends from Sinai, the the Israelites are dancing around the calf. Joshua tells Moses that he hears the cry of war (kol milchamah).   However, Moses hears (Ex 32:18, translation Robert Alter)

Not the sound of crying out in triumph,
and not the sound of crying out in defeat.
A sound of crying out I hear.

Moses hears the people simply crying out, neither triumphant nor defeated. I read this as the people crying out from their souls, for God’s presence. This may remind us of Hannah’s prayer:

I pour my soul out before YHWH וָאֶשְׁפֹּךְ אֶת-נַפְשִׁי, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.  Sam 1:15).

Like R. Levi, we can read Song of Songs with the Torah, but we read a little further in the verse and discover how the singer felt when her soul left her, how she sought but could not find her lover, as the Israelites sought and could not find Moses or God. In Chapter 5, the singer is called to the door by her beloved, but hesitates, and then:

I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had turned away, and was gone. My soul failed me [left me] when he spoke. I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer. (Song 5:6)

As the lover called out, so too the Israelites call out with “the sound of crying out.” They don’t yet know about building a Mikdash, so they gravitate to the one thing which they know about that might bring God’s presence – the golden calf.   In this reading, they do not have intent to blaspheme, to worship idols, or to turn against their God. Yet, if they are expressing their longing for God in creating the golden calf, it seems harsh that they must be punished.   Is it for lack of faith? It still seems harsh, yet very much like a reflection of the real world.

Listen to the Song in conjunction with the punishment of people at Sinai:

And he [Moses] said unto them: ‘Thus says YHWH, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor. And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. (Ex. 32:26-28).

And YHWH smote the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made (Ex. 32:35).

Immediately after the singer of the Song laments over not finding her lover, the next verse says:

The watchmen that go about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my mantle from me. (Song 5:7)

Who are these watchmen? It is surely dangerous to walk about the city when the very guardians of public safety are liable to beat the walker. Is the walker in a dream? Is she beaten because she is dreaming? Because she is yearning? Because the search she conducts for her lover does not fit with the societal norms of male pursuing female? The moment when the singer of the Song is beaten by the watchman, and the moment when the children of Israel are punished by God (and by Moses), are awe-full moments. Their hearts were full of longing, and then, wham! There are other, and plentiful, times of joy, of success in finding. But punishments are troubling and remind us that the world, then and now, is not always a safe place in which to be out and to follow one’s heart.

Here is the text of Song 5:2-8 in its entirety.

 אֲנִי יְשֵׁנָה, וְלִבִּי עֵר; קוֹל דּוֹדִי דוֹפֵק, פִּתְחִי-לִי אֲחֹתִי רַעְיָתִי יוֹנָתִי תַמָּתִי–שֶׁרֹּאשִׁי נִמְלָא-טָל, קְוֻצּוֹתַי רְסִיסֵי לָיְלָה. 2 I sleep, but my heart waketh; Hark! my beloved knocketh: ‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled; for my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.’
ג  פָּשַׁטְתִּי, אֶת-כֻּתָּנְתִּי–אֵיכָכָה, אֶלְבָּשֶׁנָּה; רָחַצְתִּי אֶת-רַגְלַי, אֵיכָכָה אֲטַנְּפֵם. 3 I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
ד  דּוֹדִי, שָׁלַח יָדוֹ מִן-הַחֹר, וּמֵעַי, הָמוּ עָלָיו. 4 My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my heart was moved for him.
ה  קַמְתִּי אֲנִי, לִפְתֹּחַ לְדוֹדִי; וְיָדַי נָטְפוּ-מוֹר, וְאֶצְבְּעֹתַי מוֹר עֹבֵר, עַל, כַּפּוֹת הַמַּנְעוּל. 5 I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with flowing myrrh, upon the handles of the bar.
ו  פָּתַחְתִּי אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי, וְדוֹדִי חָמַק עָבָר; נַפְשִׁי, יָצְאָה בְדַבְּרוֹ–בִּקַּשְׁתִּיהוּ וְלֹא מְצָאתִיהוּ, קְרָאתִיו וְלֹא עָנָנִי. 6 I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had turned away, and was gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
ז  מְצָאֻנִי הַשֹּׁמְרִים הַסֹּבְבִים בָּעִיר, הִכּוּנִי פְצָעוּנִי; נָשְׂאוּ אֶת-רְדִידִי מֵעָלַי, שֹׁמְרֵי הַחֹמוֹת. 7 The watchmen that go about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my mantle from me.
ח  הִשְׁבַּעְתִּי אֶתְכֶם, בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָם:  אִם-תִּמְצְאוּ, אֶת-דּוֹדִי–מַה-תַּגִּידוּ לוֹ, שֶׁחוֹלַת אַהֲבָה אָנִי. 8 ‘I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, what will ye tell him? that I am love-sick.’



Jeroboam and the loss of inheritance [nachalah]

In our class on Kings, we often read that such and such a king was as evil as Jeroboam son of Nebat, and/or will suffer his fate.   For example, after King Ahab’s wife Jezebel has Naboth killed, and Ahab takes possession of Naboth’s vineyard, the prophet Elijah says to Ahab:

Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will utterly sweep thee away, and will cut off from Ahab every manchild, and him that is shut up and him that is left at large in Israel. And I will make thy house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasa the son of Ahijah, for the provocation wherewith thou hast provoked Me, and hast made Israel to sin. [I Kgs 21:21-22].

In seeking to understand exactly what Jeroboam did that was so nefarious, one class member suggested that it might be related to the way in which King Ahab and Queen Jezebel tried to alienate Naboth from his vineyard, from the inheritance [nachalah] of his ancestors.  For in this matter, Jezebel and Ahab are subject to the same curse and manner of death as Jeroboam.

Jeroboam enters our narrative as he raises up his hand against King Solomon [I Kgs 11:26] and runs to Egypt to escape being killed by Solomon.  After Solomon’s death, Jeroboam is called back to be the leader of the opposition in the north to Solomon’s son and heir apparent, Rehoboam.

Rehoboam refuses to promise the northern tribes that he will remove from them the burden of taxation and forced labor imposed upon them by Solomon.  When the northern tribes (called Israel) see that Rehoboam will not harken to them, they say to King Rehoboam (who is the representative of the house of David, son of Jesse):

‘What portion  [chelek] have we in David? neither have we inheritance [nachalah] in the son of Jesse; to your tents, O Israel; now see to thine own house, David. [I Kgs 12:16]

And here we have the beginning of the division of the monarchy into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.  Certainly Jeroboam will be remembered for more than one nefarious deed – we have not even mentioned his encouraging the people to bring the golden calves into their worship (join us on March 25th as we study Jeroboam and the calf worship).  Yet it seems that there is a clear connection between Ahab who alienates Naboth from the inheritance [nachalah] of his ancestors, and Jeroboam whose leadership results in the northern tribes losing the inheritance [nachalah] of the house of David.  We understand why Ahab therefore will suffer the same fate as Jeroboam.

March Schedule


Here is our upcoming schedule
Weds Feb 25: Intensive on Jezebel – limited to regular class participants only
Weds Mar 04: NO CLASS – join us at EC for ~~~~PURIM!!!!!~~~~
Weds Mar 11: Intensive on Jeroboam and the division of the monarchy – limited to regular class participants only
Weds Mar 18: REGULAR CLASS continues – come one come all!!!!
Weds Mar 25: Intensive on TBD – limited to regular class participants only
1st and 3rd Weds – continue REGULAR CLASSES as always
2nd and 4th Weds – Intensive study on varying topics open ONLY to regular class participants
I hope that anyone who has been holding back due to weather will make a special effort to come on March 18. Mark your calendars now. Let’s get SPRING in our minds.

King David as Inspiration

Despite his rascally ways, King David holds his place in our tradition as a source of inspiration. Though he is shown in the book of Samuel to be a guerrilla warrior, an uncertain lover, a not entirely loyal friend, and not always a dedicated father, yet he triumphs in establishing his kingdom. The book of Kings tells us David is a model, who was loyal to YHWH. For David’s sake, Solomon and his son are allowed to hold on to the united kingdom. And in the world to come, David’s lineage will once again return. Despite the destruction of the temple, twice, it seems there is an eternal hope that someday the world will again be in good order.

Study 1 Kings with Penina on January 8, 2014

We had an amazing discussion in our class on December 18, 2013, about the Presence, corporeal or otherwise, of the Divine in the Temple.   Who, or what exactly came into the Temple once Solomon built it?  And was Solomon sort of Moses-like, or was he trying to cloak himself in Moses’ mantle for political reasons?   On January 8, 2014, we will pick up the discussion at 1 Kings 8.43.

By Jan 15 we should be up to the Queen of Sheba.  I read the opening stanza from “The Visit of the Queen of Sheba” by Yehuda Amichai 12/18/13.  I must say it was variously received.  We’ll look at it again on January 15th.  Come hear it for yourself and express your own opinions!

As always, no Hebrew is required, learning is at all levels.  Feel free to bring wine or other beverage and snacks.    See you at 7:30pm at Congregation Eitz Chayim, 136 Magazine Street, Cambridge, MA.

Rosh Hashanah Speech 2013

Speech I gave as President to Congregation Eitz Chayim, Fall 2013


Thanks to Rabbi Stern, Cantor Debby Gelber, School Director Laurie Shapiro, Administrator Judy Lavine, Interim Adminstrator Dennis Friedler, the High Holy Day crew, represented by our venue coordinator, Armond Cohen, to the Board of Directors and the Committee Chairs, and many individuals whose hard work throughout the year has once again brought us to the space to celebrate the New Year together.   Welcome to members and visitors who are celebrating with us.

What I wanted to talk about today, is what it takes to build and sustain our remarkable Congregation. By way of preface, I remind us all that this year, like any other year, we celebrate victories in the public sphere, but we sometimes despair of completing our dreams.   Marriage equality moves forward, but trans folk still do not have the protection of law that guarantees free access in public accommodations; Egypt holds free elections, and the military deposes the president;  We celebrate 50 years since Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, with an African American President and Attorney General, while the Supreme Court overturns key provisions in the Voters Rights Act of 1965.

What we do here at Eitz Chayim is: we create a Jewish home, within which we can educate our children, study as adults, worship, support our members throughout the lifecycle and work on tikkun olam, repair of the world.

Our texts teach us what it takes to building the building.   In Exodus, the children of Israel built the Mishkan, the itinerant tabernacle. God gave them an exact blueprint in advance, and they followed that blueprint. They participated with from a willing heart, nediv lev – they willingly brought the fruits of their labors, their jewels and treasure, and they had the advantage of knowing exactly what to do. Continue reading