An “Easy” Fast?

“Tzom Kal = “Have an easy fast.”

On fast days, this is one of the greetings our Jewish vocabulary prescribes for us. We wish each other an “easy fast,” hoping, perhaps, that the day in which we show our devotion by refraining from eating, drinking, wearing leather, sex, and anointing ourselves with oils or perfumes, is “easy.”

I have never felt comfortable with this greeting.”Easy”? Is it supposed to be “easy”, particularly regarding Yom Kippur, the only biblically-mandated full-day fast?

Leviticus 16:29-31 —

“בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ תְּעַנּוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, וְכָל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ הָאֶזְרָח, וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם. כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם:  מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תִּטְהָרוּ. שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן הִיא לָכֶם, וְעִנִּיתֶם אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם–חֻקַּת, עוֹלָם.”

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must afflict yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must afflict yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”

The command is reiterated in Leviticus 23:27-32 and Numbers 29:7.

ta’anu ‘et nafshotékhem” – “You must afflict your souls.” R

ענוה – humility.
לענות – to answer, to respond.

So “ta’anu” – perhaps, creatively, “make your soul humble”? Or even, “answer to your soul”?

If the commandment on this day is “ta’anu ‘et nafshotékhem,” and the essence of that is affliction, denial, humility, and response, we don’t fulfill our obligation if it’s “easy”. Let the fast not be so overwhelming that we cannot do our duty in worship, but let it not be easy. Let it be meaningful, spiritual, difficult. Let it be powerful, worthwhile. Let it facilitate stark reflection and self-evaluation.

I don’t know the etiology of the prescribed phrase “tzom kal”. This year, instead of wishing each other an “easy fast,” let us wish each other a “G’mar Chatimah Tovah,” – a wish for being sealed for good in the Book of Life. Let us be comforted, in the presence of community, as we all struggle for meaning and self-reflection this Yom Kippur.

Gimru Chatimah Tovah!

ADDENDUM: According to Tali A., a different Israeli greeting for fast days is tsom mo’il (צום מועיל), wishing for an “effective fast.” Interesting stuff!

The Full Moon of Elul

WordPress’s Daily Post reminded me that today is the full moon — which means tonight will begin the fifteenth of Elul. As my last High Holy Day season (God willing) as a cantorial student approaches and the first of Tishrei skulks around the corner, I am torn between gleeful excitement and terrifying anxiety.

Elul, the last month of the Jewish year if you count from Rosh Ha-Shanah (in Tishrei) and the sixth month of the year if you count biblically (from Nisan), is meant to be a season of repentance, reflection, and soul-searching. We customarily recite Psalm 27 twice every day: once in the morning, once in the evening. In the morning, our recitation is preceded by a loud and often startling shofar blast, followed by these words: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? / The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” … “Hope in the Lord, be strong, brace your heart with courage, and hope in the Lord.”

The words of Psalm 27 linger with the ringing echo of the ram’s horn. The first and last verses of this poem, which I quoted above, are not the whole story. The Psalmist begins whole, with full confidence in his God, but then his reality begins to unravel. “When evil-doers come close to me, to eat my flesh,” (Ps. 27:2) all “adversaries and foes” fall when the Lord protects our poet. The reiteration of this confidence in the subsequent verses feel a bit like the lady doth protest too much. When all of these atrocities happen to the Psalmist in verses 2-6, despite everything, he continues to have faith in the Lord. It’s cocky on one hand, and feels almost sarcastic on the other. The celebration in spite of atrocities seems rote, forced.

Confidence fails the poet in verse 7. “Hear God, my voice calling; be gracious to me, and answer me.” Where is the surety? Where did God go? Where has the poet misplaced his faith? The Psalmist in the subsequent verses begins searching for God, whose face is hidden from him; he begs for God’s attention and support. The insecurity is palpable, relatable. Not every day can one be as confident as the Psalmist was in verse 1 of this text.

The hope — not security — in God’s protection at the end of Psalm 27 shows the maturity res of surviving a struggle. It is the larger story of the biblical Israelites, who first knew God face-to-face at Sinai but then needed to rediscover Him for themselves in subsequent generations.

It is with this meditation that I see the full moon of Elul.

Repentance is not about the security of forgiveness, it is about hope. The angst of anticipating an apology is worth the growth, and worth the potential repair of relationships even if not in the short-term. My heart races with thrill and fear equally as I look forward to my station as shelichat tsibbur this Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur knowing that I am so blessed to be the catalyst for the prayer experiences of my congregation while, as always, feeling the weight of carrying the congregation on my shoulders – musically, textually, spiritually. Then again, they carry me also: with their collective energy, song, and spirit. I have learned to trust my congregation for their positivity, their attentiveness, their faith.

As I stare at the full moon tonight, knowing that when it disappears for the very next time a new year will dawn, I will think about how I am different. Not different just by virtue of the full moon as the Daily Post suggests, but different by virtue of a full year of growth and change. With a full year since the last time I stood at my High Holy Day pulpit, I am quite aware of my personal development. In some ways, for worse; in other ways, for better.

We are all different than we were a year ago at this time. We all improve in the future from reflecting upon what is past, both failures and successes. No guarantees, except that hope in ourselves, in our future successes, and in God, is always worth our energy. “Hope in the Lord, be strong, brace your heart with courage, and hope in the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).

Music: Melting-Pot or Fruit Salad?

So far, so good. Camp is going well, I’m enjoying myself and trying many new things – today was yoga. I’m no butterfly, but I’m learning. Pluralism is touchy. Didn’t have the greatest Shabbat this week, but maybe I’m just homesick or feeling out of place. Perhaps I’ll write about it after I have another Shabbat under my belt.

My observation and what’s been on my heart this Shabbat, actually, is musical.

The camp where I’m working has a really interesting musical repertoire. The songs sung here are largely not the “typical” Jewish summer camp songs (at least, based on the camps in which I’ve been a camper and staff, which are all Ramah camps). Sure, every now and then we are graced with a niggun (mostly by Carlebach), but more often than not the songs being sung are Negro spirituals, or borrowed from church groups. They are American folk songs. Every now and then we hear a melody that rings South African or African tribal. Often we chant mantras, a concept that is borrowed from the Buddhist tradition – even if they are chanted using Hebrew text, they don’t ring “Jewish”.

Though it’s a Jewish camp experience, I’m really missing Jewish music. Where have all the augmented-seconds gone?? (For the record, someday I will teach the whole world that Carlebach’s Psalm 29 is not in major.)

Beyond my own yearning, though, came a different sadness. While I acknowledge that we benefit greatly from knowing others’ musical traditions, it’s still a little sad to think that faith groups, cultural groups, and national groups no longer own their own music. We fell that we can sing mantras that ring Buddhist, spirituals that ring African American, chants that ring African, gospel music that rings Baptist. We no longer have to intercourse with these groups in order to share music — we feel entitled and able to sing it for ourselves. But to what end? Because it is meaningful? Why can’t we find meaning in our own music? Why can’t we reinvigorate and compose within our own faith tradition? Why did we abandon our own song?

The poet asks in Psalm 133, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Is this the Lord’s song? Scratch that. Is this our Lord’s song?

Perhaps blurring the lines is a benefit. Perhaps it creates a Unity of Humankind. There are those who would tell you that a Unity of Humankind is exactly what we’ve always been hoping for. After all, the second paragraph of Alénu does tell us that “all flesh and blood will call in [God’s] name.” Well, it’s a nice story, but it doesn’t account for our differences — our beautiful differences. The world is a wonderful place because each person has his/her own voice. Does that principle not extend to cultural groups? Frankly, other faith groups don’t go around singing Jewish music. Maybe they sing a piece or two in choral settings; but not often in worship. And how would we feel if they did?

Yes, we know historically there was cross-sharing when it came to musical traditions. Melodies from the synagogue made their way into the church service, while secular and some church melodies made their way into the synagogue. (For more on this, see Eric Werner’s The Sacred Bridge.) I don’t know — this feels different. William Sharlin talks about active assimilation versus passive assimilation of music: in “active assimilation” (which he discourages), outside music traditions are forced into Jewish worship, while “passive assimilation” allows them to permeate the borders of the music tradition with out being obtrusive. This doesn’t feel like borrowing and repurposing; it feels like stealing.

Then again, as one of my mentors once said, “Who am I to prevent anyone from being exposed to this music?”

So we hang in the balance. In a place that doesn’t insist on a prerequisite knowledge of Hebrew, how do I introduce more Jewish songs into the ethos? Can I leave a uniquely Jewish thumbprint? Can I insist on musical seclusion? Well, probably not. Definitely what to think about as we near the start of the camping season.

Suggestions?

The Poet’s Handwriting

This morning I received a compliment: “Your voice is beautiful.” Generally, I welcome these kinds of compliments (who wouldn’t?). Today, however, I’m frustrated.

The comment was in response to my chanting of an El Malei, a memorial prayer, in remembrance of those brave soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces who have died in combat – today is Yom HaZikkaronIt felt, to me, like a prayer that came directly from the bottom of my heart. I poured all of myself into the text, and tried to communicate its meaning to those with whom I was davening.

“Your voice is beautiful.” The compliment, while well-intentioned, frustrated me. It’s like having read a poem and then having complimented the poet on his handwriting.

Perhaps I should be grateful that the t’filah connected with this person on any level. Perhaps this morning, this person was not mentally or spiritually ready to accept the t’filah for its words or its true sentiment. Perhaps this person simply didn’t have the vocabulary or wherewithal to express deeper connection with this prayer. Perhaps what this person doesn’t generally appreciate cantorial music, or that the cantors this person had heard had left a negative impression, so this was high praise. Perhaps there was no baggage, and the compliment was meant simply for the words it contained. Perhaps I should not judge.

I won’t speak for all who endeavor to lead prayer. However, speaking just for myself, leading prayer is not about the music; it is about using the music as a vehicle for spiritual connection and awareness. I never thought in preparation for this morning’s El Malei, “How can I make this sound beautiful?” I asked myself, “How do I communicate these words so my entire being will understand them? How do I, in the framework I’ve internalized, send these words from the page, through the hearts of my community, straight to the Kisei HaKavod (God’s throne in Heaven)?”

The voice of the cantor is oft-disparaged in our modern Judaism. Cantors are accused of “performing,” of extending services too long, of not engaging the congregation appropriately, of “liking the sound of his/her own voice.” Yes, there are those. After all, there was a period not long ago when cantorial music was almost exclusively a high performance art. When it comes to the most meaningful of t’fillot, the deepest in the heart, though, I have never met a cantor who wasn’t filling the words with every fiber of his or her being and trying his or her best to take a prayer and send it as directly to the Heavenly Throne as possible.

The lesson, then, to any congregant listening to any prayer leader: please do not compliment our voices after a worship experience. Tell us you find meaning in what we do. Express the deeper implications of what you say. Engage us in conversation. Tell us why you found something spiritual, and tell us also why you didn’t. We, in turn, will talk about our preparation, our intentionality, and our experiences, and we will not judge.

Sacred Trash

Handwritten inscription to an English copy of the Holy Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1939, given as a gift to the author of this poem by his friend in 1944:

The Old Prayer Book by Jacob Cahan

This book of prayers, old and
stained with tears,
I take into my hand
And to the God of my fathers,
Who from ages past has been
their Rock and Refuge,
I call in my distress
In ancient words, peace,
With the pain of generations,
I pour out my woe
May these words that know
the heavenly path,
ascend aloft unto God on
high
To covey to Him that
which my tongue cannot
express. All that lies
deep hidden
within my heart,
may these words,
simple and true,
speak for me before God
Entreating His mercy
Perchance the Heavenly
God who hearkened to my
fathers prayers,
Who gave them courage
and strength
To bear all of their sorrow
and degradation
Yet ever to hope for
redemption —
Perchance He will also
hear my prayer and
hearken to my cry,
and be to me a protecting
shield,
For there is none to
help or sustain me,
But God in Heaven.

I have no words to supplement Cahan’s beautiful, heartfelt, incredibly personal prayer. This text, in the author’s own handwriting, was found inscribed in the front pages of a copy of an English Bible just saved from the geniza. I wonder – what other prayers, written and dreamed, have been buried among our sacred trash?

The Ocean and the Shabbat

Cape Cod Beach
Photo by Hinda Eisen, Keyes memorial Beach, June 5, 2012.

This morning, I jogged/walked the just-under-two miles to the Keyes Memorial Beach in Hyannis, MA. I hadn’t set out for it when I left the house, but when I ran into a road called “Sea Street,” knowing that I was close to the ocean, I figured there must be water at the end – so I decided to take an adventure. I’ll admit that I’ve never really been a beach person, and I wasn’t expecting to spend much time there – I expected to see the ocean, take a moment to admire it, and continue on my route back to the house. I miscalculated. Like the strong pull of an inward tide, I felt magnetically pulled down to where the soft waves were hitting the sand. Perhaps because it was a work day, or perhaps because the summer season hasn’t yet officially begun, or perhaps because it was 52 degrees Fahrenheit, I found myself alone on the sand. For a while, I walked just along the line where the wet sand turned dry. As I stared down, I saw some of the most beautiful, untrampled seashells.

After skipping over a number of large rocks in what appeared to be some kind of barrier for the creek leading under the road (shown above), I found one that was relatively dry and flat, and sat for a while. Staring out onto the horizon, I was confounded by the fact that I probably hadn’t seen the horizon in its unobstructed form, as is on the ocean, for quite some time. On land, we don’t see the true horizon much – trees, great buildings, roads, mountains, and other things all obscure our view.

At that moment, I was inspired to shevach – to praise God for His wonders. As I’m not generally the type of Jew who is inspired to Buddhist- or Hindu-style worship when I encounter nature, I turned to the b’rachot proscribed in the Mishnah.

ברוך אתה ה’, א-להנו מלך העולם, עושה מעשה בראשית.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who made the works of Creation.

And as I stared out onto the water, for the first time in a very long time, my mind went completely, blissfully, blank.

What is it about nature that so inspires us just to breathe? What is it about the simplicity and vastness of an ocean vista that inspires us to praise of Divine Creation? In this world where we are so attached to our “glowing rectangles” all the time, where we sit all day plugged into computers, telephones, mp3 players and other devices, an opportunity to just sit and feel a breeze blowing across our cheek is so rare that the experience becomes that much holier.

There has been a great effort recently to encourage young Jews to unplug, with a very American Jewish bent – not because “God or Religion Says So” but because it facilitates “the value of creating sacred ‘no connection’ time regularly”  (SabbathManifesto.org). Current kudos go to Rabbi Danny Nevins, who published “The Use of Electrical and Electronic Devices on Shabbat” for Conservative Judaism’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, officially approved by the committee May 31, 2012 (the entire text is available by clicking on the title above). His teshuvah (responsum) expresses not only reasons not to use electricity on Shabbat, but also deals with specific issues relating to modern technology and modern uses of technology. Rabbi Nevins indicates that there are two separate issues at play: Melakhah, which he defines as “actions which result in a durable physical change,” and Shvut, defined as “actions and even thoughts which compromise the tranquility of Shabbat and erode the distinctiveness of the seventh day.” He beautifully concludes that “By desisting from melakhah, we begin to appreciate the natural resources of our remarkable world and become able to resist the temptation to define life’s value primarily in terms of our our own actions. By dedicating the day to tranquility, we dignify our lives and are refreshed for the tasks awaiting us on the six days of labor” (p. 58).

You might know that there are two versions of the Ten Commandments that appear in the Torah: one which appears in Exodus 20 (we read this on the first day of Shavuot and in Parashat Yitro in January), and the other which appears in Deuteronomy 5 (Parashat Va’etchanan). In each set, the commandment for Shabbat is the fourth. Interestingly, in the Exodus account, Israel is commanded to remember Shabbat because “in six days did the Lord create the Heaven and Earth, and on the seventh day He rested” (Exodus 20: 8-11). However, in the Deuteronomy account, the Israelites are instructed to keep Shabbat because “You shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The Kiddush for Friday night uses both of these motifs (Creation and Exodus) in its sanctification of the day.

I have always felt that the difference between the rationale for Shabbat in these two accounts indicated a flexibility of purpose: Shabbat will always be there, but in each generation it may serve a different function for its observers. In the immediately post-Exodus generation, Shabbat perhaps served as a reminder of the One God, that God was the god of their ancestors. They had not been allowed to take a break from slavery on Shabbat; but God, more merciful than their Egyptian masters, not only allowed rest but required it. These folks did not need a reminder of the Exodus; they had just experienced it. In the next generation, the generation who would be fighting for their land and their lives in what would become the Kingdom of Israel, was charged with using Shabbat to remember that they were once enslaved, and that God delivered them – as he would deliver them now.

Perhaps in our generation, we need Shabbat to serve its purpose for us as set out in Exodus (and as indicated in Rabbi Nevins’ teshuvah) – we need Shabbat in order to remind us that God created the Heavens and the Earth. We need a day to leave our harried lives controlled by computers and cell phones and create a space in time for ourselves to recognize the godliness in the natural world.

May we all have a restful, peaceful Shabbat. May we all find time, whether on Shabbat or during the week, to appreciate the world around us, to notice something that perhaps has always been there but we haven’t seen before. And may we carry this peace with us throughout the rest of our days.

An Old Message As If New

In 1927, a Jewish writer in Paris published one of the most stunning and optimistic memoirs of Jewish identity composed to date. He opens with this, speaking to his yet-unborn grandson:

     When will you be old enough to understand me? My eldest son is nineteen years old. When will you be born? In ten years, perhaps fifteen…. When will you read what I here set down? About 1950, 1960? Will people still read in 1960? What form will the world then take? Will the mechanical have suppressed the spiritual? Will the mind have created a new universe for itself? Will the problems that trouble me to-day exist for you? Will there be any Jews left?
I believe there will. They have survived the Pharaohs, Nebuchadnezzar, Constantine, Mohammed; they have survived the inquisition and assimilation; they will survive the automobile.1

Replace “automobile” with “iPad” or “cell phone,” and it could have been composed in 2009.

As we sit on the eve of Ta’anit Esther and Purim, I am keenly aware of how Edmond Fleg’s words ring so true in today’s American and global Judaism. Jews have endured and survived so many trials. I am also keenly aware that, having originally published this book in 1927, he could have never known that Jewish security would come crashing down once more, not a decade later, to face one of the most horrific crimes against humanity the world had yet seen. So, now, we can edit Fleg’s words: Jews have survived Pharaohs, Nebuchadnezzar, Constantine, Mohammed, and Hitler.

Fleg’s work reads like a journal. He dictates his own personal experiences, reflects on epiphanies he had along his journey of rejection and then rediscovery of Judaism, and poses questions he cannot answer. It is clear that Fleg is aware of the contemporary persecution of Jews around him; he addresses the political situation immediately post “Great War” and talks about impressions of Jews that surround him. He is greatly influenced by his immersion in secular society, finding, as all modern Jews strive toward, a sense of balance between the secular world and his Judaic roots.

     A Jewish Race?
It seems that all the anthropological types are found in Israel: broad-headed Jews, long-headed Jews, white Jews, yellow Jews, black Jews. Could Israel then only be a race in the spiritual sense? Could these different bloods for one blood because there flowed in them but one thought?”2

Fleg leaves us to read on his book without addressing this question – he leaves it hanging in the air so we feel it weighing on us throughout the rest of the experience we share with him. It was just twenty-four years before Fleg’s publication that Otto Weininger attempted a self-hating answer to this question. Weininger was a precocious Jewish psychologist (converted to Christianity at the start of his professional career) who published a 600-page textbook entitled Sex and Character in 1903 at age 23. The book contained a chapter entitled “A Jew Must Free Himself from Jewishness,” where Weininger asserted that Judaism was a racial psychosis inherited from parent to child, and undoubtedly irreversible. In contrast to Fleg’s beautiful words, Weininger’s sentiment here is haunting:

The Jewish race offers a problem of the deepest significance for the study of all races, and in itself it is intimately bound up with many of the most troublesome problems of the day. I must, however, make clear what I mean by Judaism; I mean neither a race nor a people nor a recognised creed. I think of it as a tendency of the mind, as a psychological constitution which is a possibility for all mankind, but which has become actual in the most conspicuous fashion only amongst the Jews.3

(Weininger then committed suicide because he felt that was the only way to purge the world of his “inferior” Judaism. The book itself was not published in English until 1906, when it achieved post-mortem recognition.) In today’s day and age, while we might try to be more “P.C.” than Fleg, we certainly recognize the same sentiment: Jews today come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. Whether we are racially unified is a question more than anything of semantics, and social pressures, since the idea of Jews as a “Race” became taboo after Hitler (inspired, by the way, by Weininger’s work).

At the climax of his memoir, after having dictated his loss of faith and then his exploration through other faiths before his full-force return to Jewish commitment, Fleg leaves his reader with twelve statements, answering concisely and compellingly the question, “Why am I a Jew?” His answer is as follows:

I am a Jew because born of Israel and having lost it, I felt it revive within me more alive than I am myself.
I am a Jew because born of Israel, and having found it again, I would have it live after me even more alive than it is within me.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks every possible sacrifice of my soul.
I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the message of Israel is the most ancient and the most modern.
I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is a universal promise.
I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; men will complete it.
I am a Jew because for Israel man is not yet created; men are creating him.
I am a Jew because Israel places Man and his Unity above nations and above Israel itself.
I am a Jew because above Man, image of the Divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.4

As we celebrate commitment to Judaism this Purim, and every day, may we be inspired and able to affirm our faith and our devotion to our spiritual nation, as Edmond Fleg felt so inspired to articulate in 1927. His words resonate today just as loud as they did when he penned them eighty-five years ago.

1 Edmond Fleg, Why I Am a Jew, trans. Louise Waterman Wise (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1929), xiii.
2 Ibid., 63.
3 Otto Weininger, Sex and Character (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1906), 303. Accessed from Cornell Online Library by HTzE, 6 March 2012.
4 Fleg, 93-95.

Back to Top