Moreynu Rabbeynu Byron Sherwin זכרונו לברכה

On Erev Shabbat BaMidbar, my teacher Byron Sherwin became an echo of Eternity.

I first met Byron over the phone in 2000. I had heard about doctoral studies at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago and hoped that this would be a way into more spiritual growth. At the time, I felt stymied: an associate Rabbi at a large congregation, I was so busy helping others that I could see no way of furthering my own spiritual journey. Doctoral studies seemed a perfect way out, or forward, or …. something.

Dr. Sherwin wasn’t so sure that I was right for the program. I remember our conversation, remember being somewhat surprised; I had been an honor student in college, did just fine in Rabbinical school. What was his question? Was it that I didn’t quite know what I wanted? It frustrated me. It made me think.

Byron, who became my teacher and my mentor, was just that kind of provocative, insightful spirit. There must have been something in my voice of the chip on my shoulder – a half-baked feminist, reactionary reformist, mostly thoughtless sloganeer. What Byron heard in my voice, I now know, was indicative of a very green apprentice. Perhaps just considering what it would take to gentle me out of my ill-considered anger, to help me settle down to listen to the Still Small Voice, was exhausting.

Whatever – he let me into the program. I thanked him with an excoriating evaluation after my first learning seminar in Chicago.

Later, much later, he would explain to me that he had been quite ill at the time, more than he had known. And, in truth, all the later years of my learning at Spertus were better than that first one. And, in truth, the first one wasn’t bad. I have the notes. His reach, and his grasp, of the material was extraordinary.

Thank G-d, and thank Byron, I am no longer half-baked, half-thoughtless, half-reactionary. Here are some of his teachings:

1. Feminists don’t have to go outside of Jewish tradition to make their case. They just have to become learned enough in the tradition to find their ammunition there.

2. Corporations are golems. Just you wait and see.

3. Some day a person will have two, or three, or maybe four parents. Halakhah can make sense of this.

4. Life is lived below as well as above the neck. Try to unify yourself.

Byron Sherwin was a brilliant mind in a quirky psychology in a body that let him down too soon. He took care to supply all of us, his students, with voluminous resources on the topics we studied, “so that for the rest of your career, you’ll have what you need to teach.” He spent careful time reading final exams that numbered in the hundreds of pages, and didn’t grade on a curve. He cared about our personal lives  no less, following the role modeling of his own masters, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and others, Rabbis in the Hasidic tradition:

One day the Rabbi asked the student, how is your study partner?

the student replied, I don’t know.

The Rabbi shouted, what do you mean, you don’t know? you study together, you eat together, you work together – how can you not know if your study partner is happy or sad, content or in need?

Byron cared about our personal lives and took us in as far as we needed. I only wish I did not have the feeling that we were not, really, able to give him what he himself needed from us, his students.

It is said in the Talmud that a faithful student does not speak a word contrary to the master’s teachings in his lifetime. I confess I can’t imagine why I would, now.

ברוך דיין האמת

 

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Shabbat BaMidbar, erev Shavuot: What Is This Torah That We Receive?

The very first lines of Pirke Avot, a famous collection of Rabbinic 1st-century ethical “sayings of the ancestors”, goes like this:

Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; 

Joshua to the elders;

the elders to the prophets; 

and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.

Pirke Avot 1.1

The question is, what exactly is that Torah? A close reading of the Scriptures itself indicates that what Moshe received and what he passed on were not identical. We see this in several instances in which Moshe has to consult G-d for guidance, even after the Torah, with all its laws, is given. And Moshe also “edits” G-d’s directions (which is what Torah literally is, the word “Torah” being Hebrew for “direction”); as the people prepare to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, described in Exodus, we see him explicitly doing so:

HaShem said unto Moshe: ‘Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready for the third day; for on the third day HaShem will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai. … And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their garments. And he said unto the people: ‘Be ready for the third day; do not come near a woman.’  (Exodus 19.10-15)

If Moshe transmits Torah with interpretation at the moment at which Torah is transmitted, then it seems clear that Torah is understood to be something more than the five written books that we revere as key to the meaning of Jewish life in all ages. It’s the “all ages” part that we should note. As our friends in the UCC church put it, “G-d is still speaking,”

Torah means “direction”. We are directed upon a path, in Hebrew halakhah. The meaning of our progress upon that path is always being interpreted; we, directed by the Torah sheh-b’khtav, Written Torah, are constantly accompanied by the Oral Torah, Torah sheh-b’al peh. Moshe invented it at the moment that he interpreted G-d’s directions for getting ready to receive Torah. And this process of interpretation, of making what we should do clear to us at every moment, must continue as it always has, because otherwise Torah would no longer direct us in our lives as they are now. Life keeps changing. Teachers keep unveiling new levels of understanding implicit in Torah. They were always there, just as the petals of a rose were always there in the tightly closed bud: under the light of sun and warmth, the rose unfurls new beauty, and with the light of interpretation and commentary, Torah does the same.

This is why we need not be irritated by the specifics of Moshe’s interpretation. It must have been necessary at that time, in that place. But Torah continues to unfurl. We are not limited by its shape in earlier days; rather, we are all gardeners, invited to help to bring Torah into the 21st century more fully – more open, more relevant, more amazing in the learning we can do and the depths of human spiritual experience we can reach.

BaMidbar, our parashat hashavua, means “in the wilderness”, and indeed we often find ourselves wandering, wondering where to find direction along our path. At the close of this Shabbat we’ll have a chance to review the path, the direction, and the gift as the Festival of Shavuot begins. According to Jewish tradition, we confirm our acceptance of Torah every year on Shavuot, and in some ways, every time we recite the blessing for Torah. What is this Torah we receive?  What does it mean for us?

May we each find our own personal blessing in Torah’s direction, as well as that of our community and our people, so that we can join the Psalmist in declaring that “these words are a light for my eyes, a lamp for my feet.” (Psalm 119.105)

shabbat Emor: the price of disrespect

Parashat Emor includes, coincidentally, the mitzvah (command) of Sefirat haOmer, the counting of the omer (a sheaf of barley). The original idea is probably agricultural: during the ongoing barley harvest, bringing a sheaf from each day’s harvest for a formal count may have been some kind of ritual effort to keep the harvest abundant. It is true that we sometimes delight in counting out or otherwise measuring that which we are excited about, or care deeply about.

Today, erev Shabbat, is the 34th day of the Omer; yesterday was the 33rd, which is a minor holy day known by a name derived from the count: Lag BaOmer literally means “33 of the omer”. (Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and so every Hebrew number can also be pronounced. Thus the names of the holy days Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, and Tu b’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat.)

  וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה:  שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה

Count for yourself from the day after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the omer to wave; seven complete weeks

  עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת, תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם; וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה, לַיהוָה

until the morrow after the seventh week, count off fifty days; and then present a new meal offering unto HaShem. (Lev 23.15-16)

Lag baOmer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, marks the end of the period of semi-mourning which characterizes the first 32 days of the counting period. Why should the first 32 days after the Pesakh Seder be a somber time, when by traditional minhag weddings are not celebrated, beards are not cut, and parties and dancing are considered inappropriate?

The traditional explanation is that during this time period, long ago in Israel, 24,000 students of the celebrated Rabbi Akiba died of plague. The Talmud does not stop with the story, though – it goes on to give a reason:

“Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand students and all of them died in one period of time because they did not treat each other with respect. It is taught that they all died between Passover and Shavuot, and that they all suffered bitter deaths” (TalmudYevamot 62b). 

It may seem outrageous that so many would die as a result of being disrespectful, but consider the ancient teaching that “because of baseless hatred, the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled from our land”. (Talmud Yoma 9a) Much of what happens to us, insists our Jewish sources of learning, has to do with our morality. Certainly the prophets would agree. After all, it’s not as if we are asserting that if we behave badly, a giant hand will appear from heaven and punish us in some way; the prophets insist that, rather like losing one’s kingdom for the want of a horseshoe nail, the integrity of our world depends upon apparently small, small things. After all, we are taught that the entire world does rely upon three things: study, internalization of that which is learned, and acting with kindness at all times – TorahAvodah, and Gemilut Hasadim.

Whatever the source of sadness that echoes through the Jewish calendar at this time of year, it is real. The traditional minhagim restricting joy during these 33 days (it lets up after Lag BaOmer) are a haunting reminder of a grief that is no longer remembered directly. Like a yahrzeit, it comes yearly to remind us that we have mourned, as a people, the consequences of immoral behavior toward each other. 

On this Shabbat, consider the destructive consequences of your smallest acts of disrespect toward others – your colleagues, friends, children, parents, strangers – and seek to replace them with kindness. May we all become more mindful of the power we wield.

Shabbat Akharei Mot-Kedoshim: The Goal of Torah Study

This week’s parashah is once again a double: Akharei Mot, “after death” and Kedoshim, “set apart”, which is what “holy” means in Jewish religious culture. 

Because every couple of years these two parashot occur as a double (meaning that we read at least a third of them both), it was only natural that our inquisitive and creative Sages who comment upon and interpret every aspect of Torah should comment upon this too: what do we learn from the juxtaposition of these two parshas, and their names? Are we to understand that after death we are holy? what exactly would that mean?

It’s not a stretch for us to accept the idea that the memory of our beloved dead is holy to us, that is, it is set apart in our hearts in a special place, so to speak. We might even set that memory apart to recall only at special times, such as yizkor, the memorial prayers we recite four times a year (at the Festivals and on Yom Kippur). 

When we pause to consider the place of death in Jewish tradition, we discover that other aspects of holiness may come into play. For example, we read in the Talmud that after the Roman massacre of Jews at Betar, we were not allowed to bury the bodies – in this final battle of the third failed Jewish revolt against Rome, they were to be a terrible lesson to the rest of us. The Talmud asserts that years later when we were able to bury the bodies, they had – miraculously – not decayed. This idea of a miraculous preservation is later expressed in connection with a belief in what happened (or didn’t) to the dead bodies of tzaddikim, “righteous ones”, such as great Rabbis. These bodies have become different, set apart in our religious tradition, and therefore, in a way, holy.

But does death itself connote holiness? A dead body carries the quality of making all that come into contact with it tamei, “spiritually unready” to stand in G-d’s presence. It causes one to be “set apart” in that way, and such a one must undergo a ritual process in order to become once again tahor,  “spiritually ready”, or what we might call normal, as afterward one does return to normal life.

The place of death in our lives is alternately problematic, fearful, tragic, and inevitable – and sometimes even a blessing. All of us will face it. The Jewish question is how does Jewish learning help me face it? Torah study is able to follow us everywhere. The question is whether we let it in.

Aryeh Ben David, writing for eJewishphilanthropy on February 11, 2015, notes that Jewish learning has been conceptualized as having two primary foci.  Now, he suggests, it’s time for a third.  The first stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “What do I know?” The second stage of Jewish learning asked the question – “Am I connected to what I know?” 

He writes:

The third stage of Jewish learning asks “How can I bring my learning into my life? How does what I know and my personal connection to this knowledge change me? How is Jewish learning making me a better person?”

2,000 years ago, Judaism instituted the reciting of blessings before eating. The goal of saying a blessing is not only to know the words and meaning of the blessing. The goal of saying the blessing is not only to feel connected to the words of the blessing. The goal of the blessing is ultimately to affect me and transform how I eat.

The test of saying a blessing is whether it changes how I actually eat.

Similarly, the goal of learning Torah is not only to know content, and not only to be connected to what I know.

The test of learning Torah is whether it changes how I actually live.

http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-third-stage-of-jewish-education/?utm_source=Feb+11+Wed&utm_campaign=Wed+Feb+11&utm_medium=email

May your learning change your life and all that touches it for good.