Sunday, 22 June 2014

Eyal, Gilad, Naftali and Joel

Yesterday, I was speaking in Shul as part of our series on the Minor Prophets.
I was down to do the prophet Joel. This is what I said:

Honestly, you’ve probably never considered Joel to be an important book in the Tanach.

Not everyone remembers that Joel even IS a book in the Tananch.

But in the next three minutes I want to convince you that Joel is worth reading carefully.

To start with the text itself is beautiful.

It contains that lovely line that Debby Friedman quotes in her song:

“And the old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions”

Secondly it asks big questions about where is God in the world.

Thirdly it is incredibly relevant to a situation happening in Israel right now.

Joel is made up of four chapters. At the centre of book is a scene in the Temple Courtyard where the people of Israel gather, fast and lament.  (That’s the part we read as part of the Haftorah on the Shabbat before Yom Kippur) 

The Temple Courtyard is a stone’s throw from the area in front of the Western Wall, where people gather today. When I was growing up, they used to called it the Wailing Wall.

Ibn Ezra, commenting on Joel, says that the Temple Courtyard was the place for mass supplication because the Temple proper was an unseemly place for wailing.

The first two chapters of Joel describe the terrible damage done by swarms of locusts.  The locusts destroy the crops- the wheat and the barley.  Everything is destroyed - the fig trees, the apple trees, the vines, the new oil fails.  The cattle and sheep have nothing to eat. The sky goes black from the swarm.

The text says:

“Before them it was the garden of Eden, and after them a desolate waste”

In response to this crisis, the people of Israel are called to return to God and these are the qualities of God described – 

“gracious and compassionate and slow to anger, abounding in kindness and renouncing punishment”

A call goes out to come to the Temple Courtyard – everyone is called - the babies and the old, the bride grooms and the brides, the priests and the congregation,

They stand together in the Courtyard, and the priests say:

“Oh spare your people Lord let not

Your possession become a mockery to be taunted by nations

Let not the peoples say

Where is their God?”

I was wondering that myself.

I was wondering a lot of things when I saw a photo recently of 250 thousand people attending a mass prayer rally in the area in front of the Western Wall for the three kidnapped teenagers Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel. 

I wondered if they were my children would I want people to stand there quietly praying or go out knocking on doors in Hebron to look for them.

I thought about the futility of prayer, and the purpose of prayer. 

If nothing else, standing together brings comfort, knowing you are not alone in your suffering.

But it’s possible that communal prayer in that context serves another function.  It could function to remind people to remember the qualities of God and not to take vengeance into their own hands. 

God forbid 250 thousand angry people knock on doors in Hebron.

The second half of Joel is about days when God will avenge all the damage done to the children of Israel

It’s God who will "roar from Zion

And shout aloud from Jerusalem

And Egypt will be a desolation and Edom a waste because of the outrage to the people of Judah

In whose land the blood of the innocent was shed"

This is the dream, the vision, the prophesy of Joel.   2500 years later we are once again in Jerusalem, still wailing in the courtyard, and waiting for our children to come home.

Thursday, 10 April 2014


My grandfather, with his sisters and parents

God minted every person with the stamp of Adam
And not one of them is the same as his fellow
For this reason every single person must say
The world was created for me
Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37B

This is the world that was created for me- I was born a white Jewish girl in Cape Town.  I have my birth certificate, some photos and memories to prove it.

I have memories of drinking wine, singing and reciting from the Hagadah at Seders with my family twice a year at the festival of Passover, the celebration of the liberation from Egypt 3000 years ago. 

The story starts with "This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat."  

We end with a song called Chad Gadya.

When I look at the familiar Hagadah now, I am shocked to discover that all along I was learning Talmud and singing in Aramaic. 

In my head are messages, memories, and beliefs that have been passed down to me, and I didn’t even see it happening. 

Harris, grandfather of my grandfather, and grandson of Nochim

This is a photo of my grandfather’s father, Harris Rosenberg.  Records show, he immigrated to South Africa from Suwalki, Lithuania in 1873.

According to his tombstone, his Hebrew name is Tsvi Hirsch ben Kalonymus.
I know less and less the further back I go. 

 I can see my grandfather’s grandfather’s father’s birth certificate online – His name was Kalman Rosenberg.  His father’s name is registered as Nochim.

That’s as far back as I can prove but I can imagine twice a year at the Pesach Seder my grandfather’s grandfathers grandfather, Nochim Rosenberg said the following words:

"This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat."  
And the children drank wine and sang Chad Gadya.

But I can’t prove anything, except that that all my ancestors stayed alive long enough to procreate and passed on their values, memories and traditions to their children.

Like it or not, this is my story. 

This is what is bred to my bone.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The difference between men and women

Mordechai and Esther decorate Dura Europos Synagogue in Syria, 245 AD

Rabbi Joshua writing 2000  years ago in the Midrash Rabba, notices that men and women are born different. 

He notices that women have higher voices, use perfume and are harder to please than men. Unlike men, they menstruate, cover their heads, light candles on Shabbat and walk in front in a funeral.   He notices that men need women. 

He notices that men put their sperm in women and women don’t put their sperm in men.

I’ve noticed that too. (Although it’s no longer common practice for Jewish women to walk in front in funerals)

I was born in 1962, and was raised  in the  Cape Town Orthodox community.  Our schools provided the same opportunities for boys and girls, but  our synagogue had separate entrances and separate destinies for us.

That’s just how we did things then. There’s a lot of wisdom in my tradition, but there’s some crazy stuff too, particularly with regard to women.

There are many places in the Talmud where women are seen as the dangerous, distracting Other.  

 But in Truth, there is no Other.

In the Shul I go to now, there is one door for men and women to share. I can sit where I like and I don’t have to leave my best Western values behind when I go in.  

Although there is usually a quick whisky at 10.30, we are mostly involved with  reading from the Torah and praying. 

 As noticed in the Talmud, (Berachot 13b) sometimes there is recitation and sometimes there is kavanah.

I may be wrong, but as far as I can see, I’m not disturbing to sit next to in Shul. I don’t chat or use much perfume.  My voice doesn’t seem to have any seductive powers either.

All our voices blend together, and we create an exquisite whole, that I love being part of.

In my experience, men and women sitting next to each other together  in Shul does not lead to mixed dancing, it leads to learning. 

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus 2000 years ago.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The problem with vowels

I can read a bit of Hebrew. I learned it at school and my mother is a talented Hebrew teacher. So I can tell you that I am familiar with all of the 27 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, even the ones that sound the same at the end of words but take a different form.

But there’s one letter that has long been the bane of my life and that is the vav.  

The vav can be said three ways:
·         As a consonant you say V
·         With a dot on top you say OR
·         With a dot in the middle you say OO

I have no idea why I struggle with vav. It isn’t the hardest letter. Kaf, for example, also has three forms. But kaf is not my problem. Vav is.

I was walking with my friend Naomi on the Heath last week.  All good Heath walks include a coffee stop at Kenwood House, but it was raining so we couldn’t sit outside, and she had her dog with her so we couldn’t sit inside.  We stood in the covered courtyard with coffee-cups in hand, looking out at the rain, and I found myself telling her about my vav complex.

I told Naomi how hard my mother had tried to teach me the difference between vav with the dot on top and vav with the dot inside.  She tried teaching me with games, with explanation and with repetition and with patience. Despite all her skill and efforts, the penny never dropped for me.

As I stood in the courtyard, I noticed I still couldn’t remember which way round it was. It was obvious for Naomi. It wasn’t for me.  It was such a small thing but I couldn’t remember the difference no matter how hard I concentrated.

A few days later I was standing in synagogue, without a coffee-cup in my hand but still with vav on my mind.

It suddenly occurred to me to test my abilities to read vav correctly while singing along loudly with everyone else.  

It was the beautiful concluding prayer sung when returning the Torah to the Ark. The prayer begins with lines from Proverbs, concerning the finding of wisdom.

I watched myself singing along all the while looking ahead in my prayer book, scanning for approaching vav’s.

A tree of life to those that reach for her
And whoever holds on to her is content
Her ways are pleasant and...

There was a vav coming. What was going to come out of my mouth when I sang:

… her paths are peace

I got it right.
I felt like I was clearing hurdles as I ran around the track.

Take us back God to yourself
And let us come back

My voice soared along with everyone, correct again and again,

Make our days new like it used to be

I was perfect.

As the doors of the Ark closed and the notes of the prayer faded,
I realized there was nothing wrong with my brain
That there never had been
And that when the situation demands it, the right words will always be there