The Talking Donkey and the Braying Minyan

INTRODUCTION

In advance of the Aquarian Minyan’s 36th anniversary celebration Shabbaton at Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley on June 25-26-27, 2010, Rabbi Diane Elliot asked me to prepare something for the Friday night service of 8 to 10 minutes duration.  As it is my custom to give over a few words on the parashah at such times, I wrote the following midrash.

I introduced it by pointing out that no one is adequately prepared to be touched by the divine, and that the children of Israel were no exception.  I explained that the parshiot of this season describe how over and over again the capacity of the people to live up to the revelations they had received were exceeded by the revealed light.  They kept butting up against their limits and had to undergo purification in order to grow and be fit to receive new revelations.

I also pointed out that the Baal Shem Tov was told by Heaven to reveal his light at the age of 36, and that he, like Moses was at first reluctant to assume the mantle of leadership.  According to the story that has come down to us, when he told his wife that he had been ordained as the leader of his generation, she asked, “What shall we do?”  He replied, “We must fast.”  As I read in Martin Buber’s collection, Tales of the Hasidim:  Early Masters, they lay on the ground for three days without eating or drinking.  I picture them on their backs, with their palms open.  At the end of the three days, the Baal Shem Tov said, “If this is Heaven’s decree, we must comply.”  They arose, and he assumed his duties.

I suggested that the Minyan, too, might have reached the level from which its light could freshly emanate, inasmuch as the community had been refined by repeated crises and had survived.  In other words, perhaps the time had come for its regeneration.   This midrash is a symbolic retelling of a portion of its history.

THE TALKING DONKEY AND THE BRAYING MINYAN

— A Midrash —

In the days long ago, when the stories in the Bible weren’t written down yet, when the experiences of our ancestors were fresh and immediate, not yet the stuff of legend or paradigmatic models of positive or negative behavior, our tribes encountered a mighty prophet, Bilaam, a gentile, but one with a direct pipeline to the Almighty.  He had been hired by Balak, the Moabite King, to curse us.

Now in those days, our tribes were still fairly distinct from one another.  Not much intermarriage had yet taken place, nor had any land been distributed.  Each tribe had its own camp and marched toward the Land of Promise in set divisions and formations.

In addition, each tribe had already acquired characteristic traits.  Issachar, for example, was described by our forefather Jacob as “a strong-boned donkey,”and Naftali as “a deer running free.”  Nowadays, even though the tribes have merged, to a great extent, some of these characteristics persist among our people.

Now we know that HaKodesh Baruch Hu did not approve of Balak’s request that Bilaam curse the children of Israel, nor of Bilaam’s greed when offered much gold and honor, despite his protestations that he would only utter what God had put in his mouth.  God showed his displeasure by sending an angel with a drawn sword to stand in Bilaam’s way as he rode along on his donkey.

The donkey saw the angel and shied away, but Bilaam did not see it and beat the poor animal, whereupon the donkey opened her mouth and protested, “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?”

Bilaam, quite infuriated, shouted, “You have been playing games with me!” He even said, “If I had had a sword in my hand just now, I would have killed you!”

His donkey pleaded, “Am I not your old donkey? You have been riding on me as far back as you remember.  Have I every been in the habit of doing this to you?”

Bilaam replied, “No.”

God then gave Bilaam the ability to see, and he perceived the angel standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand.  Like most people who see an angel with a raised sword upbraiding them, Bilaam straightened up fast.  He asked, humbly, whether he should continue his mission or turn back.  The angel told him to go ahead, provided that he really only uttered the words that God would put into his mouth.

God really wanted him to go on this journey, but only with the right attitude.  His ulterior motives were not sound, for he had been tempted by the promise of much wealth and great honor should he say the words that the King wanted to hear.

Now this part of the story is pretty well known — and yet it never fails to surprise and to please its readers and listeners.  After all, the most surprising thing about the story is not that the donkey spoke, but that Bilaam didn’t notice anything unusual about it.  Well, maybe was a bit of a Shaman as well as a prophet, and altered states were a common experience for him.

Anyway, back to the tribes of Israel and their particular characteristics.  Issachar was like a donkey, strong but stubborn, patient but determined.  We learn from Reb Shlomo that Issachar, who is associated with Iyar, the month of Counting the Omer, the month of Pesach Sheni, that Issachar always knows what time it is.  The ArtScroll commentary notes that “two hundred heads of [the] Sanhedrin came from this tribe.”  One of their specialties was establishing the cycle of leap years, thus regulating the calendar.  Issachar is a steady, reliable bearer of burdens, an essential component of Jewish nationhood.  If this story is in large part about a talking donkey, it’s also about a braying minyan.

A braying minyan always knows what time it is.  It knows when to start davening, when to light candles, when it’s time for silence, where in the service the Kaddish may be recited, and which broches are appropriate for each occasion.

But there’s another tribe that’s part of our heritage, the tribe of Naftali, the graceful free-running deer, the founder of the playing minyan.  Naftali loves to improvise, to dance, to gambol, to utter ecstatic strings of words, which are sometimes regarded as poetry or spontaneous mantras.  The playing minyan and the braying minyan would seem not to have a lot in common.  And yet these tribes and the other 10 tribes were destined to coalesce into one nation, just as the 13 original colonies did.

But before that could happen, they had to travel their separate trajectories, reach their own limits, hit their own dead ends, and realize how much they needed each other.  Let’s see how their different journeys got played out in this parashah.

Oy vey! There’s more to this parashah than the episode of the talking donkey and the blessings that Bilaam was obliged to confer on us.

Let’s imagine a comparable situation today and project it backwards in time, to the era of our ancestral desert wayfarers.

How does the braying minyan daven? They light candles on time, they daven the same melodies as the previous week and the week before that — in fact, without the melodies they would have a hard time remembering the words properly.  They bray and bellow — not always on key — stamp their feet, bump into each other good-naturedly, end early enough to have a good meal, and then they go to bed, always before midnight, and rest very well.

The playing minyan comes together with a quick, light step; they greet each other with lavish and extravagant terms of endearment; they pour forth profuse words of blessing, and race around in giddy circles proclaiming their oneness.  At the end, they say, “That was a great service! Want to go clubbing?” A second one asks, “Who’s playing?” “The Midianites!” another one cries, and they race off to the nearest tent to hear the renowned stars perform their unique ethnic songs and exotic tribal dances.  “What a treat!” they say.  “Maybe we can bring some of this vitality into our worship circle.”  “Oh, those braying donkeys would never let us do that.”  “We can form our own herd.  We’re wild! Not like those domesticated donkeys — so staid and conservative.”

We learn from the Midrash that the Midianite girls lured the Hebrew boys into joining their rites; rites which included heaving excrement at the statues of their gods.  The poor boys, caught up in the frenzy, and thinking that God would approve of this desecration, did not realize that this was the form of worship actually employed by the Midianites.  God punished them for their idolatry, just as the angel would have killed Bilaam and spared his donkey, had the donkey not saved her master’s life by turning aside.

Sof, sof, the tribes recognized that they needed to learn from one another how to worship the Creator correctly.  After all, they reasoned, we’re all quadrupeds, even though some of us have split hooves (and split personalities) while others have solid hooves and one-track minds.

And that’s how the deer, Naftali, learned to bray, and the donkey, Issachar, learned to play, like the deer and the antelope play.  Together, they were finally able to PRAY.

Baseball Kabbalah

For Gerry,

athlete and scholar,

my first teacher in baseball

“Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.”

Deuteronomy 28:3

“Baseball is good for ya, little reuben.” – Cinquefoil,

in Chapter 18 of Michael  Chabon’s Summerland

My friend Shelley, a couples and family counselor, once told me about an experience he had as a youngster in Hebrew School.  The school he went to in the 1950s was orthodox and strict, with attendance in class and at Shabbat services closely monitored.  One Saturday he was playing ball with some friends at a distance from shul, thinking that he was safe.  But someone had seen him.

When he returned to Hebrew School the following week, he was severely reprimanded for his malfeasance.  In all innocence, he responded, “But I feel much closer to God when I’m playing ball than when I’m in Junior Congregation.”  Uh oh.  The first scolding he had received was mild compared to the outburst that followed this heretical utterance.

For the summer after my father’s Bar Mitzvah (this would be 1920), my grandfather – Pop – had arranged for him to study Talmud with a respected teacher in the neighborhood, whom he paid in advance for the privilege.  My father spent the summer playing ball with his friends.  When Pop met the teacher around the High Holy Days, he asked about his son’s progress.  The teacher replied, “Your son? I haven’t seen him since the end of school!” I am sure that Judgment Day was heavier for my father that year than ever before.

I take it as a given that this experience is fairly common.  In fact, it reminds me of some stories that are told about the Ba’al Shem Tov((The Ba’al Shem Tov (literally, Master of the Good Name), Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), known to history as the founder of the Hasidic movement or, in Professor Arthur Green’s memorable phrase, “the figure around whom the Hasidic movement crystallized.”)) and Reb

Nachman((Reb Nachman – Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov and a profoundly influential Hasidic Master in his own right.  He taught that sparks of the primeval creation lay slumbering in every blade of grass and could be raised by sincere prayer.  How many prayers have been uttered (or muttered) in the field! – From the neophyte’s, “Please don’t let it be hit to me,” to the batter’s, “Please let me get a hit,” to the pitcher’s plea, “Just let me get this guy out!” The pastoral environment itself supports the yearning of its (albeit temporary) residents and is uplifted along with them.  We are told that “Isaac went out to meditate [or supplicate] in the field” (Genesis 24:63), just prior to the arrival of his bride, Rebecca.  Reb Nachman uses the central verb, “lasuach,” which also means, “to speak,” as a proof-text for his recommended form of prayer and meditation:  talking directly to God.)), both of whom at times preferred being in nature to learning in the beit

midrash (House of Study) and often prayed outdoors.  I suggest that there are some similar principles at work in both baseball and Jewish teachings.  There is certainly a deep affinity between baseball and Jewish Americans that equals the attraction that the national pastime has for members of other ethnic groups.  While seriously underrepresented at the competitive level (even with such exceptions as Hank Greenberg, Al Rosen, Sandy Koufax, Ken Holtzman, Shawn Green, and other, more recent sensations, duly noted((Green retired at age 35 – prior to the 2008 season – with 328 homers to his credit, three fewer than Hank Greenberg’s lifetime 331.  Among his Jewish successors in the national pastime are Boston Red Sox stand-out and potential MVP Kevin Youkilis; 2007 Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers; his teammate Gabe Kapler (formerly of the Red Sox); Brad Ausmus of the Houston Astros; Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers; and some half dozen others.  The number of high profile Jewish players in the game today is likely greater than in any previous era.)) ), we have been disproportionately represented among the sport’s scribes, chroniclers, statisticians, agents, and owners.  At an evening program I attended some years ago at Cody’s Books, entitled “On Writing Baseball,” noted critic and San Francisco State Professor Eric Solomon announced his plans for a book focusing on Jewish involvement with the sport, and his venture is far from the only one.  Numerous such books have appeared in the last half-century.  However, distancing myself from this particular ethnocentric focus, my purpose in this article is not to dwell on the relative talent and frequency of Jewish ballplayers (a deservedly and thoroughly researched obsession), but to examine the resemblances between certain Jewish mystical and moral teachings and the folkways, rules, and logic of baseball, beginning with the remarkable congruity between the kabbalistic Tree of Life and the positions of a team in the field when an opposing player is at bat.

I will ask you to imagine the layout of a team­ – three outfielders, four infielders, and the “battery” (pitcher and catcher).  That’s a total of nine players.

Add the batter, and you’ve got ten players on the field at the time the ball is put into play, the same number of sefirot (Divine Emanations) that constitute the

Tree of Life, a schematic drawing of the universe used by mystics to contemplate and comprehend the workings of God, the energy patterns set in motion by the

Divine Will.

According to this analogy, or metaphor, God might have said, “Play ball!” instead of “Let there be light!” And you’ve heard of the seventh inning stretch?

Does that sound like Shabbat to you? Well, in any case, along with a diagram of team positions, you will also need an image of the Tree of Life.  Miriam Stampfer, with the help of MacPaint, has obliged me by creating a suitable baseball graphic, and Rabbi Ayla Grafstein gave me a basic chart of the sefirot and their connecting paths, a schematic model of the Tree according to the system of the earlier kabbalists, which I have placed above it.  The dotted circle, known as Da’at, or Knowledge, appears in its present location in versions of the chart that omit Keter.  In my analogue, it represents shallow center field and reminds us of the range and mobility the center field position requires.  In his translation of Sefer Yetzirah, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan says that Da’at “is not a Sefirah, but merely the point of confluence between Wisdom and Understanding.”  He goes on to explain that “in many ways, however, it behaves as a Sefirah, and it is thus often included among them.”((Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, trans., Sefer Yetzirah:  The Book of Creation – Revised Edition (York Beach, Maine:  1997), p. 25.))   In some versions of softball, as if following this very template, one fielder is assigned to short center and another to deep center.  Baseball, however, retains its allegiance to the earlier model and expects one fielder to patrol both zones.

You can also think of Da’at as the zone where an infielder, usually the shortstop, runs to relay a throw from the outfield, as well as the place where three fielders – typically the second baseman, shortstop, and center fielder – converge to strive to snare a Texas Leaguer (a short pop fly).  Kabbalistically, this is a place of transition, where the energies of the Upper Worlds are transformed or stepped down, in electrical terms – to enter the world of duality, a situation, of course, that is fraught with all kinds of peril, a juncture at which collisions and breakages are liable to occur.  Excellent coordination is required to avoid disaster, and agility and alertness are needed to capture the spheroid and convey it to its intended target.  Here caution is married to daring.

Thus, the Tree, with its ten sefirot, may be superimposed upon the players in the field, poised to begin their game.  And this is the correspondence, at least the way I read it:

Keter /Crown (Fontanel)…………………………………………………………………..Center Field

Chokhmah /Wisdom (Right Brain)……………………………………………………..Right Field

Binah /Understanding (Left Brain)……………………………………………………. Left Field

Chesed /Lovingkindness/Overflow (Right Arm)………………………………Second Base

Gevurah /Strength/Discipline/Limit Setting (Left Arm)………………………Shortstop

Tiferet /Beauty/Harmony (Heart)…………………………………………………………….Pitcher

Netzakh /Victory/Endurance (Right Thigh)………………………………………….First Base

Hod /Splendor/Grace (Left Thigh)……………………………………………………..Third Base

.

Yesod /Foundation/Communication (Sign of the Covenant)………………………Batter

Malkhut /Sovereignty/Groundedness (Feet)……………………………………………Catcher

Of course, what makes the game or the Tree interesting and relevant is the motion that develops when the system is activated.  It is a dynamic system, responding to circumstances but guided by several underlying principles or rules.  In the case of the game, the elaborate rules of baseball govern.  In the Tree (or game) of Life, it is the complex laws revealed in the Torah.  In both systems, actions take place along particular paths.  In the sefirotic system, the paths between the sefirot are as important as the sefirot themselves.  In baseball, the runners must proceed along certain predetermined base paths, until they either make an out or advance on a hit, force, error, sacrifice, fielder’s choice, stolen base, passed ball, wild pitch, or balk.  In Kabbalah, there are 32 Paths of Wisdom – the ten sefirot and the 22 lines that connect them.  In baseball, too, there are ten players on the field and complex interconnecting lines that manifest when the ball is put into play and the spheroid is hit, caught, or thrown from player to player.  However, the paths between the bases are the most crucial ones.

Whatever the runners and fielders do, a scorekeeper records the results, an action analogous to Cheshbon HaNefesh (accounting of the soul) by which an ethical Jew periodically assesses his behavior.  If someone scores a run, he comes home (Olam HaBah – the world to come) and receives a reward – a positive mark in the score-book – and a warm welcome from his teammates and fans.  If he is a great player, he may be admitted to the Hall of Fame, like a pious Jew or anyone replete with good deeds entering Gan Eden (Paradise).  There, in the gallery of exalted heroes, his deeds are acclaimed by successive generations and compared with those of other standouts.  There is similar hagiographic praise for the accomplishments of great prophets, sages, scholars, and rabbis in our sacred literature.((We are told, for example, that during the lifetime of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the Talmudic sage who is traditionally credited with authorship of the Zohar, no rainbow appeared because his merit was sufficient to sustain the world without God or humanity needing any further reminders.))

In both disciplines the concept of teamwork is paramount.  A player who sacrifices himself for his team (Mesirat HaNefesh – selfless service, even martyrdom) or who leads his team (Admor the leader of his generation) is equally praised.  In Jewish terms this quality is alluded to in Pirke Avot – Ethics of the Fathers, in the words of Hillel, who said:   “Do not distance yourself from the community” (II:5).

Now let’s take a look at some of these positions and see how they match up with the sefirot.  In center field (Keter or Crown) you have some of the greatest players ever to play the game:  Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Wahoo Sam Crawford, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider.  Great outfielders are not only great hitters; they are also known for their great arms (and golden gloves), which they need for strong throws to the infield to catch runners or prevent them from advancing.

Babe Ruth, Carl Furillo, Rocky Colavito, and Roberto Clemente, among right fielders, and Barry Bonds (in his prime) among left fielders, are but a few of the many outfielders known for this ability.

It is also interesting to note that right field and left field are so called because they are seen from the position of someone who is facing the field – whether as home plate umpire, catcher, or batter.  The Tree is analogous to the back of an androgyne, so that its right and the left sides correspond to right and left field, an example of bilateral symmetry, although ballpark dimensions vary widely and are often far from symmetrical – unlike the infield dimensions, which are scrupulously identical, although the quality of the various surfaces (true also of the outfield) differs widely.  Thus, although these structures complement one another, they are not mirror images, and the outfielders are “out there” in a free-ranging world of their own, essential and alert but patient, waiting for the time when they will be needed, yet all the while exerting an influence by their very presence and availability – like the Partzufim, or Divine Personalities, described in esoteric kabbalistic texts and hymns.

But as we noted above, most of the action takes place in the infield, the world of the seven lower sefirot.  There is constant interaction between the second baseman, or Chesed (Lovingkindness), and the shortstop, or Gevurah (Strength and Discipline – which includes setting limits), popularly known as “the keystone combination.”  To see a pair of accomplished middle fielders turn a double play is a thing of rare beauty, like seeing a pair of skilled dancers execute a pas de deux with apparent ease and grace.  The shortstop is often captain of the team  (Pee Wee Reese comes to mind) or is the infield leader, calling out who should catch pop flies, and might also be the holler guy, the assertive one, maybe even the rally killer.

The pitcher, Tiferet (Beauty or Symmetry) is the heart of the team.  It is he (or she) who initiates the motion by hurling the spheroid to the catcher, Malkhut (Groundedness/Responsibility/Receptivity), the signal caller, with whom he has an intimate relationship – indeed, they are called “battery-mates” – past the batter,Yesod (Foundation/Connection), who is standing there with a phallic club in his hands, whether he is a right-handed, left-handed, or switch-hitting player.  Without making the analogy too pat, Yesod is related, among other functions, to the sexual or generative.  Thus, the batter is trying to generate runs (offspring) to the orgasmic delight of his teammates (family) and fans (friends, clan, tribe).

An iron man – Lou Gehrig, Ted Kluszewski, or Gil Hodges – often fields first base (Netzakh or Endurance).  Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games at the position, a record that has only recently been broken – after 60 years ­- by Cal Ripken.  Gehrig epitomized the quality of Netzakh (Endurance), with which Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses, our Teacher) is identified in the Jewish heroes’ hall of fame.  Moshe also is known for his profound humility, a quality that came easily (and out of necessity) to Gehrig, who played on the same team as the flamboyant Ruth.

Spectacular fielding third basemen, responsible for Hod (Splendor or Grace), such as Brooks Robinson, are famous for the tremendous agility they demonstrate in their extremely difficult role, which in kabbalistic terms corresponds to the priestly role of Aharon.  The position is aptly named “the hot corner,” for the blazing line drives and hard grounders that are frequently hit there.  Pie Traynor, Graig Nettles, and Mike Schmidt are still appreciated for the seemingly impossible plays they made.  To see any one of them extend his body, while airborne, across the bag, to spear a liner, or to stretch and snare a ball deep in the hole and make the long throw to first from his knees, challenges the limits of what we had thought possible.  It verges on the miraculous.  For both the fire pan and the fielder’s glove often have prevented catastrophic losses.  One of the most moving passages in the Torah is the description of Aharon HaKohen, the High Priest and the brother of Moses, rushing into the midst of his perishing people, his fire pan extended, on which the smoking incense burned.  The Torah says, “He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was checked”

(Numbers 17:13).

Of course, to compare physical agility and moral strength is also quite a stretch, but in both examples I think you will find a willingness to take personal risks and assume personal responsibility for the outcome of a crisis on behalf of the kehillah – the collective, the nation, or the team – the group to which one is loyally committed.  Such an example is inspiring, no matter what is ultimately at stake.

I hope I have by now sufficiently established the underlying similarities between these two models for life, one considered a game, “the national pastime,” and the other an all-embracing lifestyle, if followed to its full extent.

I’m sure you can think of numerous additional applications.  Some that have come up in discussions so far have been in response to questions:  What about the umpires? Easy.  They’re Dayanim (rabbinical judges).  That’s why they wear dark colors.  Managers? Rebbes (spiritual guides).  Coaches? Gabbais (assistants).  Batboys and equipment managers? Shammeses (maintenance men).  Substitutes? Batlanim (benchwarmers).  The opposing team? The Sitra Achra (the Other Side).

But it is well-known that with no Yetzer HaRa (“Evil Urge” – libido or E´lan Vital), life would be static.  In Genesis Rabbah (IX:9), a midrashic commentary on the Torah, Rav Nahman says in the name of Rav Samuel that “were it not for the will to evil, men would not build homes, or take wives, or propagate, or engage in business.”  He goes on to quote from Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), whose authorship is traditionally assigned to King Solomon:  “I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.” (Kohelet IV:4)((Cited by Nahum N. Glatzer, Hammer on the Rock:  A Midrash Reader (New York, 1948, 1962, 1977), p. 15.))  Thus, even within a team, according to Clem Labine, the great Dodger reliever, “harmony was not always a good thing:  a little tension, a little edge was useful, if only to show that things matter.  Labine liked the idea of a team that sustained a manageable degree of anger – ‘It shows you’re not lethargic about what you’re doing’ – so long as it did not flare [up].”((Michael Shapiro, The Last Good Season:  Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together (New York, 2003), p. 53.))  Without this intensity, this drive, the mainspring of activity would be paralyzed.

And this game, while at times slow moving, is fraught with anticipation and filled with continual mental references to precedent.  Thus the master strategists – managers, pitchers, catchers, and hitters – are always weighing the consequences of a particular deed, like the mitzvah mavens (those who perform righteous acts) of old, the sages of the Talmud.  Yet temptation and risk-taking are intrinsic to the game.  The overweening urge to prevail over one’s opponent, to win, might sometimes obscure one’s better judgment.  Yet often, playing the percentages, maintaining a steady, conservative approach, does not result in the desired breakthrough to victory, either.  Likewise, in true Gnostic fashion, the home team becomes the “other side” for the visitors, or to their opponents when they go on the road.  This is quite in accord with the nature of “Ivri,” the original name for Hebrew, which means “from beyond” or “the other side,” referring to

Abraham and his clan, those Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking associates who came from the other side of the Euphrates River with him.  In due course, we have allies and enemies, who have transmogrified into philosemites and antisemites.  The word “fan,” of course, comes from “fanatic,” which is derived from fanum or temple.  Thus, the first frenzied fans were religious fanatics.

Richard Grossinger aptly named his 1985 anthology The Temple of Baseball.((Richard Grossinger, ed., The Temple of Baseball (Berkeley, 1985).))  He borrowed the title from a column by my friend Lowell Cohn, in which he recounts an interview with former Los Angeles Dodger second baseman Jim Lefebvre who, to his own surprise, uses the term to describe Yankee Stadium.

Evil changes shape and turns into its opposite.  The game itself is a paradox, charged with ambiguity, uncertainty, and perennial, unanswerable questions, such as, “Would old-timers be able to compete with today’s players?”

This kind of question parallels the suspicion voiced by numerous commentators that Noah, a Tzaddik tamim (a pure and saintly person) “in his generations”

(Genesis 6:9), would not have been so special in Abraham’s time.  There are also the “What ifs?”:  the dangling sense that if a certain course of action had not been followed, then everything would have turned out differently.  There are often excruciating post-game analyses as detailed (though not as weighty) as the debates about blind curves in Jewish history.  Baseball is a game that offers life-like analogies while Judaism is a religious civilization that strives to close the gap between metaphor and reality, so that Malkhut Shamayim (the Kingdom of Heaven) may exist here, in our earthly life.

I would like conclude this section by mentioning a conversation I had with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi at the 1989 P’nai Or Kallah, a week-long gathering of representatives from dozens of Jewish renewal communities that took place at Bryn Mawr College in early July.  Reb Zalman, who was then turning sixty-five, had his two young sons, Barya and Yotam, with him.  Lately he had begun playing ball with them and, apropos of this, remarked to me, “You know, I used to think baseball was a silly game – ” “Oh no,” I broke in, “it’s the American Kabbalah!” “But now,” he went on, “I’m beginning to like it.”

First addendum

At a 1999 Oakland A’s game, a 6-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox, my youngest son, Elishama, noticed a painted jersey on the outfield wall in right, with Joe DiMaggio’s name and number (5), clearly visible.  He asked whether major league baseball had retired the Yankee Clipper’s number, and I replied that I had heard no such thing.  Jackie Robinson’s #42 jersey appeared at its left, and Elishama suggested that this was probably a commemorative gesture in honor of the 50th year since Robinson joined the Dodgers and integrated the game; Robinson, however, broke in with the Dodgers in 1947, although his best year, when he batted .342 and won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, had indeed occurred 50 years before, in 1949.  Other jerseys, on the left field wall, honored Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter, two A’s players from the 1970s championship teams who had won election to the Hall of Fame.

We observed that no Philadelphia A’s were so honored here, although many of them were also in Cooperstown.  Then it hit me.  Joe had died this year; therefore, for the rest of the year, perhaps until his Yahrtzeit (the anniversary of his death), his painted jersey would remain in place.  In synagogue, that very morning, I had noticed the plaque affixed to the chapel wall, to the right of the ark, on which were visible the names of congregants who had died within the year, a reminder of past distinction, and a focal point for those saying Kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer, in their honor.  Another cultural parallel, another spiritual motif.

Second addendum

In the course of attending a couple of post-season games this past year, I noticed more parallels.

  1. The Rules of Major League Baseball – the authoritative guide for determining how an umpire should rule on every conceivable play – is matched by the Shulchan Aruch (“Set Table”), the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, which serves as a guide to the conduct of observant Jews.  Depending on circumstances, both codes permit considerable latitude in many areas where the law­ – or rules – are applied.  The rabbi must exercise his own discretion in interpreting the law.  The umpire, too, is often called upon to make a “judgment call.”  Simply calling a runner safe or out and calling a pitch a ball or strike is in many cases exceedingly difficult.  Likewise, deciding whether a chicken is kosher (fit for consumption) or not is but one of many areas where the decision of the rabbi can be influenced by numerous factors inherent in the situation.  In both cases the ruling is binding, and appeals are rarely successful.
  2. Superstition.  A baseball player will often wear the same socks or the same shirt, use the same bat, wear the same hat or medal, hitch his pants the same way, chew the same brand of gum, or practice any of a hundred variables so long as doing so seems to bring good fortune to his game.  Likewise, there are many well-known folk customs, perhaps derived from centuries of countering bad luck in foreign lands, such as spitting three times (or simulating spitting by saying “poo-poo-poo”), saying kayn ayin ha-rah (“against the evil eye”) or Chas v’Chalilah! “God forbid!” and numerous other practices that have even become enshrined in Halakhah (law), though perhaps beginning as minhagim (customs), such as Tashlikh (the symbolic casting of sins into a body of water on Rosh HaShanah), covering mirrors after a death, and so on.  Timely spitting seems to be one custom to which both traditions adhere.  And both practices might have similar folk origins.
  3. An intense interest in numbers.  The compilation, analysis, and general obsession with statistics is a well-known and often remarked upon aspect of baseball culture.  This interest, originally developed to evaluate skills as measured by an objective standard, has evolved into using the information thereby obtained for strategic purposes, known as “playing the percentages,” the most prominent example of which is assuming that the percentages favor a right-handed batter when the opposing pitcher is left-handed and favor the pitcher who is right-handed in a match-up with a right-handed batter.  The statistics supporting this conclusion encourage managers to carry out a pattern of substitution, most notably in the use of pinch-hitters and relief pitchers.

In Judaic lore, each Hebrew letter is assigned a number, and words therefore have a numerical value.  Words and names and phrases with identical numerical values are assumed to have cognate meanings.  This form of seeking out similarities or equivalents in apparently dissimilar or unrelated places is known as the science of Gematria.

It is important to note one significant difference, however.  The assigning of relative degrees of excellence to players based on their statistics, such as batting average, fielding percentage, earned run average, and won-lost record does not have an exact counterpart in Jewish life.  Although a somewhat mechanistic scale of values has evolved, whereby the performance of mitzvot (commandments) is contrasted with the commission of avayrot (misdeeds), the true calculation of excellence is understood to lie beyond human understanding.

The True Judge, alone, is deemed qualified to determine a person’s worth, which is based not only on actual deeds but also upon the opportunities to serve with which one has been blessed, one’s inner intention, one’s love for God and God’s creation, and one’s dedication to the purposes for which he or she has been given life.  In baseball, too, it must be said, outstanding numbers are frequently outweighed by the possession of certain “intangibles,” which often determine the value of a player to his team and the reputation he thereby garners in the annals of the game.

For biblical corroboration, see Psalm 147:10-11 – “Not in the strength of the horse does He desire, and not in the thighs of man does He favor.  HaShem favors those who fear [stand in awe of] Him, those who yearn for His kindness.”

This passage reminds us that victory is not always achieved through the obvious and outwardly impressive attributes of strength and power.  Many a team seems superior on paper but stumbles as Goliath did when he was faced by the redoubtable and resourceful David.  (For the full story, see I Samuel, chapter 17.)

The attempt to assign value to a player based on salaries, bonuses, and incentives also has a counterpart in Jewish lore.  Reb Nachman’s allegorical fairy tale, “The Master of Prayer,” mocks – yet has compassion for – the community whose members assign rank and status to individuals based on the amount of money each possesses.  Their distorted sense of values is attributed to a great storm (in kabbalistic terms, Shivirat haKaylim, “the shattering of the vessels”) that scattered the once unified human family across the world, an uprooting which in turn led to confusion and a diminution of standards.  As the story progresses, however, the Master of Prayer gradually joins forces with the similarly exiled warrior and other dispersed members of the King’s court and restores proper perception of the truth to all of erring mankind.

I have come to regard this essay as my attempt to reconcile these contrasting paradigmatic figures, demonstrate their essential unity, and point to their common source.  If, along the way, you have enjoyed a few smiles and flashes of recognition, I will consider our exchange another step toward Tikkun Olam – repair of the world.

Third addendum

And finally, inescapably, I must make mention of the uncanny correspondences between the Hebrew calendar and its Holy Days cycle with the baseball season.

Spring training begins in March, and the final exhibition games are played in early April, followed by Opening Day.  Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year, also begins sometime in March, and Passover, the first major festival, usually occurs in April, although occasionally it begins at the end of March.  It is typically preceded by a thorough house cleaning, the main point of which is to get rid of bloat – chumatz – identified as any of the five species of grain that rise, like bread, upon contact with water:  wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt – and the primary leavening agent itself, yeast (and baking powder).  Likewise, major league rosters, swelling at 45 players, must be trimmed down to 25 by Opening Day.  The superfluous grains and their byproducts are sent elsewhere, such chumatz being either burned or sold to a non-Jew (that is, someone who is not obligated to observe these ritual stringencies).  Players who do not make the final cut are either sent to a team’s farm club, traded, sold, or released outright.

Like chumatz, they can also be bought back.

The fifty-day interval between Passover and Shavuot (the next major Holy Day) is a time of self-scrutiny, as the psalmist says, “teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom” (90:12).  We count the omer – in ancient times, by waving an omer, a sheaf’s worth of barley meal in the six basic directions:  south, north, east, up, down, and west – and today by counting with a blessing.  This is a way of keeping track of the shifting permutations of days and weeks and the specific qualities, based on the sefirot, that are associated with them.  The driving purpose of this daily counting ritual is to refine our midot – personal attributes that can be elevated into virtues or diminished into vices –  in order to merit receiving the Torah, the gift with which Shavuot (the Festival of

Weeks) is today chiefly associated.

The first two months of the baseball season are also a time for close examination, during which the manager and his coaching staff and the owners and their front office personnel wonder whether the team has the right combination of players and the right chemistry to go all the way.  If not, adjustments can still be made, that is, until the trading deadline (July 31st).

By mid-summer the season has begun to take its toll.  There might be injuries to key players and other unexpected setbacks, even the firing of managers or the release of players who can no longer contribute or who do not perform as well as expected.  Such deleterious trends and patterns of weakness in the lineup are noted by fans and scribes, who protest some decisions, recommend or applaud others, and watch with increasing concern as the clubs jockey for position.

In Jewish lore, the midsummer crisis centers around the three weeks that encompass the fast days of the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, which generally occur starting anywhere from late June to mid-July and conclude by mid-July to mid-August.  It is a time when previous national disasters are recalled and collective responsibility assumed for the internal dissension or violation of social norms that allowed these calamities to occur.  There is a special focus on avoiding backbiting, rumor-mongering, and gossip, all of which tend to embarrass individuals and fracture group esprit.

In the home stretch, September and October, the pennant races heat up.

Every play counts, and every player becomes even more aware of the possible consequences of a misplay, error, or temper tantrum leading to an expulsion, suspension, or benching.  Fracases between teams and teammates are more likely to break out, and umpires’ decisions on close plays are more hotly disputed.  Yet some teams jell, and the early claims of good chemistry are proven true – or, in some cases, disproven, if, for example, some prima donna cares more about his own records than the team’s success.

Jews are entering the last month before the great accounting that takes place on Rosh HaShanah (Head of the Year) – also known as Yom HaDin (the Day of Judgment), Yom Teruah (the Day of Sounding the Shofar) – and, more obscurely, Yom HaKesah (the Day of Concealment), referring both to the barely visible New Moon and to the Judgment itself).  In Elul, the month that precedes our New Year, we seek to mend our frayed relationships, straighten out past misunderstandings, and heal interpersonal wounds.  To do so requires a considerable measure of humility, expressed as a willingness to acknowledge one’s own failures, faults, and flaws.  Likewise, our relationship with the Sovereign of the Universe is often in need of renewal.  Fortunately, this time of year is considered ideal for a sincere approach.  Many beautiful interactions occur as people meet one another with open hearts and approach God in a spirit of repentance or t’shuva, meaning “return” to the path of righteousness.  There is even a well-known saying, “The King is in the field,” to describe God’s closeness and easy access to the true penitent.

On Rosh HaShanah, we are taught, God inscribes our names in the Book of Life, if we merit it, or in the other book, if we do not, for the coming year.

During the Ten Days of Teshuvah or Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, which fall between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there is still time for the inscription to be emended.  On Yom Kippur, however, the written

Judgment is sealed – made permanent – although some say the sealing is not final until Hoshana Raba, the seventh day of Sukkot (which I’ll get to in a minute).

And what is happening on the diamond? Final determinations are also being made in the standings.  Some teams are out of contention, others are still in the throes of the race or barely hanging on, and a lucky few may have already clinched their division title or a wild card position.  The playoffs generally happen around this time, and by Sukkot, the fall harvest festival that follows Yom Kippur by four days, the World Series combatants have emerged from the scuffle.  Here’s a stretch:  the distinguishing features of Sukkot are 1) the construction of a Sukkah, a temporary shelter with a permeable roof, and 2) “bentching lulav,” the holding together of the “four species” (arba minim) and, after saying a blessing, shaking them in the six directions referred to earlier.  These species consist of a palm branch (lulav), a citron or etrog, three branches of myrtle (hadas), and two of willow (aravah).  To my conceptual vision, the lulav resembles a bat, the etrog a ball, and the five combined branches of the other two species the figure of a glove.  Okay, it’s a stretch.  But do you really think it’s only a coincidence that the World Series is often played at precisely this time of year? And sometimes in a stadium with a retractable roof?

What is a coincidence? C.G. Jung used the term “synchronicity” to refer to otherwise apparently unrelated events that occur simultaneously, and energy healers and holistic thinkers alike often remark, “There are no accidents.”  Their point? There is a link, there is a connection.  And while I agree that these circumstances may only demonstrate parallel evolution, with no demonstrable causative influence, that is exactly my point – there is an underlying pattern of which these instances are examples.

Baseball today is likewise usually played in an enclosure that is exposed to the elements.  Like the sukkah, it has certain minimum required dimensions but no fixed shape.  Thus, unless cookie cutter models are used, no two are alike and each has its charms and its peculiarities.   And like the 360° lulav shaking, which, ideally, takes place in the sukkah, the ball can travel in all directions – in the air, on the ground, in fair or foul territory, that is, in front, behind, up, down, and to either side.  And, of course, a ball hit into foul territory can still count for something.  It can be caught for an out and even result in a double play if a runner is caught off base.  It can become a sacrifice fly if a runner tags up and advances a base.  If not caught, it can count for a strike, and even if there are already two strikes on the batter (who cannot strike out on a foul ball – unless it’s a third strike bunt), the foul ball at least adds to the pitch count and could therefore lead to a pitcher being replaced sooner.  Every action counts.

Before and after each time the lulav bundle is extended, it is held close to the heart.  The team that plays with heart and determination is more likely to win and better able to bear loss.  “Ya Gotta Have Heart,” the signature song of the Washington Senators in Damn Yankees, the Broadway musical and movie based on Douglass Wallop’s novel, The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, bears this out.

Want more? Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, occurs in December, a couple of months after the baseball season has ended.  But memories of the season just past are still fresh.  They fire the embers of discussion in the Hot Stove League.

It’s also the time of the Winter Meetings, where baseball executives talk business and prepare for the next season.  During Chanukah, according to some, the sealed judgment can still be opened and revised.  In January or February, as the sap rises, Tu b’Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, is celebrated, and players and their teams buy new equipment, among these items being the bats that are made of carefully chosen and aged billets of ash.

Here’s a memory.  One of the most exciting World Series games ever played occurred on Simchat Torah, 5746 (October 25, 1986), between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets.  Simchat Torah, in the diaspora, is the ninth day, as it were, of Sukkot, but actually it is an extension of Shemini Atzeret (the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly), for in Israel, the two days and their ritual observances are combined.  It is an extra day devoted to rejoicing in the Torah with a series of seven hakafot, circle dances that culminate in the reading of passages from the concluding section of the Torah.  In traditional congregations, the complete conclusion and the beginning are only read the next morning.  However, in some communities, the end and the beginning are both read at night.

On that memorable evening, my community, the Berkeley, California-based Aquarian Minyan, was holding a Simchat Torah retreat at Camp Lodestar in the Sierra foothills.  The Red Sox and the Mets were playing their sixth game, with the Red Sox leading three games to two.  Someone at the retreat had a radio, and between hakafot, he checked the score.  Our group would dance ecstatically for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes and then pause.  During these brief intervals, our friend would report on the progress of the game.  I think we were all rooting for the Mets, as most of us had closer ties to New York than to Boston.((Despite the hilarity of this occasion, there is also great pleasure to be gained by staying within the sanctity of the day and waiting until after the conclusion of the festival to receive news of sporting results and other secular events.  That is how I have presently organized my life.))

As the tense, close game proceeded, we began to speculate that when the Mets fans in their countless synagogues concluded their services – which they were likely to do well before we would, as it was three hours later on the east coast, their focus on the game might shift the balance and push the Mets to victory.  The Mets did win, in a completely unexpected way, on Mookie Wilson’s ground ball, the culmination of a ten pitch at-bat, which rolled under first baseman Bill Buckner’s glove and through his legs, in the bottom of the tenth inning.  But whether this outcome was due to a sudden surge of fan attention, or for some other reason, I cannot say.  The next day’s game was rained out, and the

Mets won the seventh game, 8-5, taking the Series, four games to three.  The date was 24 Tishrei/October 27.

This year, 19 years later, through a computer from my home in Israel, I watched the Chicago White Sox beat the Houston Astros in four straight games.

I watched the final innings in the early morning hours of 24 Tishrei, which once again fell on October 27th, as the civil and religious calendars coincide every 19 years.((For more information on this topic, see my essay, “Your Portion in the Torah.”  To discuss any of the ideas implicitly or explicitly stated in this essay, or any of the illustrative examples, feel free to send a note to my email address, poetsprogress@gmail.com.))

When I started to write about these correspondences, I was elaborating on a flash, a sudden insight.  I hadn’t yet realized how far-reaching and intricate the parallels between these analogical realms were.  Therefore, I approached the subject light-heartedly, as much interested in creating a humorous effect as in the substance of my comparisons.  The frisson of humor that accompanied my investigations leavened the search and increased its appeal to those who heard it.

I even wrote a disclaimer to the essay, advising its readers not to take it all too seriously.  In “A Caveat to ‘Baseball Kabbalah,'” I explained:

“I wrote this extended comparison and analysis a bit tongue-in-cheek.  I don’t mean to imply that every analogue is filled with deep significance, nor do I mean to claim to have proven that these correspondences necessarily possess some overarching cosmic meaning.  Nevertheless, I feel that the preponderance of apparent linkages – in schematic layout, in numbers, and in assumed and expressed values – is no mere accident.  Rather, these seem to emerge from some vast and perennial underlying pattern.  I hope, therefore, that through example and humor, I have established some connection, some relation, between these worlds.”

This belated display of caution is evidence of my concern that taking this comparison too literally could eclipse the charm of the original idea and possibly lead someone to regard it as flippant or even heretical.  So let me clarify my point, one more time:  it’s all a metaphor; it’s poetry; it’s a game, but one with high stakes.  You can learn from one to live the other.  Baseball models something that Judaism manifests, and Judaism models something that baseball manifests.  Both reflect seasonal patterns in strikingly similar ways and exemplify fond hopes, great dreams, and joi de vivre, even though the kavanah – the intentionality – that each brings to its practice and discipline reflects its particular contrasting reasons for existing:  victory on the field for one, redemption of the world for the other.  Yet those who immerse themselves in either of these paths – players, fanatics, and worshippers alike – are blessed with moments of transcendence and vindication, a reward for their commitment and justification for all their toil and pain.

*                                   *                                   *

This essay originally appeared in the author’s community newsletter, The Aquarian Minyan Tz’khok /Laughter (Berkeley, California, 1990, pp. 2-3).  A nearly identical version appeared Worlds of Jewish Prayer:  A Festschrift in Honor of Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi, edited by Shohama Wiener and Robert Esformes (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1993).  These early versions have since been further developed and greatly expanded.  This essay also has the privilege of being included in a volume entitled, What is Jewish About America’s “Favorite Pastime”? edited by Marc Lee Raphael and Judith Z. Abrams and published by William and Mary Press in the summer of 2006.  Thanks to Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group for permission to publish this essay there.

To order the book, write to http://www.wm.edu/religion/publications.php.

More recently, the first section was published in The National Jewish Post & Opinion, on July 9, 2008 / 6 Tammuz 5768, Volume 74, Number 21, edited by Jennie Cohen.

The entire essay appeared in my booklet, Trains of Thought:  Essays, Articles, and Features (Berkeley:  AGADA Books, 2008).  Earlier versions and excerpts can be found on various websites, such as HavurahShirHadash.org and AscentofSafed.com.  We endeavor to make this web site’s version the most up-to-date and complete.

Biographical note

Reuven Goldfarb grew up in Brooklyn and rooted for the Dodgers, under the tutelage of his older brother Gerald, z’l.  Their Manhattan-born father, Samuel, was a Giants’ fan, and Reuven’s son Yeshayah now works in its front office.  Two of Reuven’s poems, “Cheering Gino Cimoli” and “Ozzie Smith Retires,” appeared in Spitball:  The Literary Baseball Magazine.  He edited all eleven issues of AGADA, the illustrated Jewish literary magazine (1981-88), and has published dozens of poems, essays, and stories in other venues.  He and his wife Yehudit presently live in Tzfat, a mountain village in northern Israel, known for over four centuries as a center of kabbalistic study.

Significant Synchronicities

The convergence of Passover in 1943 with two other significant events

 – a scientific discovery made in Basel and a civilian uprising in Warsaw –

 draws the author into pondering their connections.

 

Yom Shishi, 11 Nisan, 5767 / Friday, March 30th, 2007

 

            As I began preparing for Passover last week, I recalled that we are in the midst of twin anniversaries that go back 64 years – the discovery of LSD’s potency by Dr. Albert Hofmann, and the Warsaw Ghetto revolt – both of which occurred in conjunction with that year’s Pesach.  The first accidental absorption of lysergic acid diethylamide-25, and then, three days later, the first conscious ingestion of a minute quantity (250 micrograms) of this chemically synthesized psychoactive substance, have had, through its subsequent manufacture and distribution, a transformative psychological, social, and cultural influence on the world.

A mixed influence, to be sure, as not all users experience the same effect.  For some, it has been a spell-binding journey of kaleidoscopic colors and spiritual exaltation, while for others, it has been a journey through hell and a visit to the depths of despair and depression – and for some, indeed, for many, to both these polar opposites, either on the same trip or in vastly contrasting trips.

The human psyche is a delicate mechanism, an arena where powerful internal forces strive for dominance and control.  Aldous Huxley describes one function of the brain as a filter, one which carefully and constantly screens input and prevents overload, or, in kabbalistic terms, an excess of light for the strength of the vessel, a crisis which can cause a cracking, breaking, or shattering, a shiverat hakaylim.  Scientists estimate that the human brain can process one million bits of information every second, but that only forty such bits become conscious.  When this screen is lifted or made more permeable, the resulting flood of sensations, images, and concepts can upset the individual’s balance or lift him or her to new heights of inspiration.  As William Blake wrote, “When the doors of perception are cleansed, everything will appear as it is, infinite.”

This perception, I would add, includes an appreciation of the interconnectedness of all things, the inner meaning of HaShem Echad [God is One], as I understand the phrase.  Ben Azzai avers, “There is no person that has not his hour and no thing that has not its place” (Pirke Avot, 4:3).  Likewise, “Ain od milvado – There is no place that lacks God’s Presence” (Devarim, 4:35).  To me, therefore, the maintenance of balance and the quest for justice, tzedek [equity], in all realms, is the implied mandate of this experience, even a religious obligation.

The first of these signal events, the accidental absorption, occurred on April 16, 1943, which, following the Hebrew lunar calendar, coincides with the 11th day of Nisan.   In 1943, 11 Nisan fell on a Friday, Erev Shabbat HaGadol, “The Great Shabbos.”  This special Shabbat precedes Passover, which is biblically designated to begin on the 14th day of Nisan, “ba-erev,” in the evening, “Seder night.”  That year it fell on a Monday, the evening of April 19th.  April 16th was the day on which Albert Hofmann, the chemist who had first discovered LSD-25 in 1938, and then set it aside as being of no observable value, decided to cook up another batch and test it again.  At some point during the experiment, he could not help but notice unusual physical and mental phenomena.  The full account of these changes and his subsequent actions are fully described in his book, LSD – My Problem Child, which I highly recommend.  He did not know to what to ascribe the onset of these phenomena, but he suspected that LSD-25 was the cause, a minute quantity of which, he reasoned, might have been absorbed through his skin.   Three days later, he tried the experiment again.  This time he purposely ingested, orally, a miniscule quantity of the compound and was rewarded with the first full-blown, conscious LSD trip in history.

Although Dr. Hofmann* is not a Jew, I am persuaded that his experience replicated the true meaning of the Pesach Holy Day, which is known in our liturgy as Z’man Chayrutaynu, “the Season of our Liberation.”  This year, the 11th day of Nisan also falls on a Friday, March 30th, while the 14th day of Nisan, Erev Pesach, again falls on a Monday, April 2nd, with the Seder in the evening, although both anniversaries occur 17 days earlier than in 1943, according to the solar calendar.

In 1943, at this same time, another signal event occurred.  Nazi generals, intending to make an offering to their Fuhrer on the following day, his birthday, April 20, directed their war machine in an attack on the Warsaw Ghetto.  To their shock and dismay, the lightly armed but desperate and determined Jewish residents mounted a counter-attack and drove the Germans out.  This revolt was the first civilian uprising in occupied Europe.

The defense of the Ghetto lasted for three weeks, and pockets of resistance continued to be active for several months afterwards.  The heroic resistance of the Jews and the dismay of the German forces and their collaborators marked a turning point in the war.  The Poles were emboldened by Jewish resistance to stage their own revolt a year later, and the uprising encouraged partisan fighters, concentration camp prisoners, and allied forces alike.  It punctured the myth of Aryan invulnerability and led to the ultimate defeat of the Nazi regime.

Thus, the struggle for freedom encoded in the Hagadah Shel Pesach was manifested in multiple ways in that terrible and magnificent spring of 1943, sixty-four years ago.  May we give thanks for our continual process of liberation and redemption and rejoice in it again and again.  Perhaps this year we can all lift the Fifth Cup to the many journeys we have taken and the ones yet to be made, by all of humankind, and by all forms of life, to the time of our true and lasting liberation.

Reuven Goldfarb, founding editor of AGADA, is the author of essays as diverse as “Baseball Kabbalah” and “Your Portion in the Torah.”  A resident of Tzfat for the past six years, he has a long-standing interest in correspondences.

*Dr. Hoffman was still living when this article was published.  He died at his home in Basel on Tuesday morning, April 29, 2008 (24 Nisan), at the age of 102.

Contact information

Email:  poetsprogress@gmail.com;

Phone numbers:  510-868-0272 (from the U.S.); 04-697-4105 (in Israel)

Address:  Rechov Keren HaYesod 128, Kiryat HaOmanim, Tzfat 13201, ISRAEL

My reply to Talkback entries:

“Dear Readers (especially those who have been puzzled or provoked by the connections I tried to make),

“The thematic thread that unites these three events is liberation – 1) from slavery through divine intervention, 2) from oppression through armed revolt, and 3) from the prison of conventional thinking and emotional armoring via new means to explore inner space and reconnect to the natural world.  [This is a slightly improved paragraph.]

“Nobody objected to my linking the first two.  Only when I linked them both to the third event were people offended, upset, or confused.  If, as in the opinion of many readers, you don’t regard LSD as a possible path to liberation – even for some people, not for all – the linkage won’t make sense.  That’s why this talkback exchange turned into a debate over the merits of LSD.  Since I do consider it a vehicle for experiencing expanded consciousness (mochin d’gadlut), even if the attainment is temporary, I regard the temporal-historical coincidence as meaningful.

“Thanks for all your comments.  I include thanks to all who thought it was a joke or pernicious in some way.  A copy of the article as originally submitted is available from me upon request.

Chag Sameach!

“Reuven”

P.S. If I’d had the space, perhaps I would have added to 3), above, “…in optimal settings, such as with a stable guide or tripping companion, in pleasant and natural surroundings, with basic support gear on hand, of adult years, and so on.  Some correspondents have also spoken in favor of psilocybin and peyote or mescaline, preferring these organic psychedelic compounds to the synthetic varieties.  Personally, it’s been a long time since I sampled these potent allies from the plant kingdom or from the laboratory, but to allay the concerns of those who persist in regarding them as gateway drugs -gateways, that is, to addictive substances such as cocaine and heroin (aka crack and smack or blow and snow) – I beg to differ.  For those who are so pre-disposed, that may be the case, but I think it more likely that psychedelics are potential gateways to spiritual practices, such as prayer, meditation, and study, or art, music, dance, and poetry, that can keep one more constantly alert and attuned to the awesome beauty and majesty of the creation and more willing to commit to keeping it healthy and flourishing.  In that way, LSD-25 can serve as an antidote to the death and destruction that characterized the era into which it was born.”

To my surprise and delight, the article above, which I had written and almost immediately circulated on the Aleph-Pnai-Or list, and afterwards revised to conform with newspaper guidelines, was accepted for publication by The Jerusalem Post, where it appeared, after further editorial treatment, in the Op-Ed section on Thursday, April 5th, 2007, the 17th of Nisan, 5767, my mother’s 22nd Yahrtzeit.

While I received a lot of appreciative feedback, the article also elicited quite a few critical remarks in the Talkback section of the on-line edition, to which I responded with an explanatory note.  I have included that note following the version of the article, as I intended it to appear, that I sent to Elliot Jager, the Deputy Editorial Page Editor, on 11 Nisan, 5767 / March 30th, 2007.

Ideally, it would have come out before Pesach – perhaps even before Shabbos HaGadol – but that was not possible.  The actual publication date necessitated certain minor changes in the text of the manuscript, but most of the changes – and the emphasis given by the choice of subtitles and captions – were made by Mr. Jager, whom I thank for publishing the largely intact piece.  I also thank my friend Gavriel Fiske, the “In Jerusalem” section editor, for giving me Mr. Jager’s email address and calling the piece to his attention.

Anyone interested in reading the revised version that the Post published, can click on this long url:  http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1173879246452&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FPrinter   To read the Talkback entries, either click on the “Back to  article” phrase, or write to me.  I saved them.  It is no longer possible to add some of your own.

If you’d like to read the earlier (and shorter) version of this article that I sent to the Aleph-Pnai-Or list on March 28th, just ask me for an e-copy.

Your Portion in the Torah: Hebrew Birthdates as a Tool for Awareness and Insight

“We resonate with the parashah, whether we know it or not, whether we read it or not. It’s an underlying structure of reality that all Jews resonate with. – Arlene Goldbard, in the name of Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, z’l

 

Torah tzivu lanu Moshe, morasha kehillat Ya’akov

(The Torah that Moses transmitted to us

is the heritage of the community of Jacob)

Devarim, 33:4

 

 

I.

 

For millennia, our predecessors have assumed the existence of a significant link between one’s date of birth and the weekly portion. The midrash evokes the image of an angel who teaches Torah to the fetus in the womb, providing a rationale for focusing on the subject of the final lesson, given on the week of the soul’s emergence in human form. Many teachers seek to align their student’s birth parashah (weekly Torah portion) with the week of their B’nai Mitzvah ceremony.

The preparation which he or she undergoes often includes close scrutiny of accompanying commentaries, which may in turn lead the reflective student to view the parashah as being itself a commentary on emerging events, ranging from those of a purely personal interest to those of family, community, national, world, or even cosmic concern.

Many wedding invitations identify the parashah of the week in which the wedding will take place along with the location, time, and other pertinent data. Ideas or themes or other references can be worked into the sermon or d’var Torah given by the darshan, whether it is the bride or groom, officiant or guest.

I suggest that not only officially recognized life-cycle events but also transition points of many kinds can be energized by an infusion of well-timed Torah reflection. Initial counseling sessions can be organized around a search for a relevant passage in the subject’s birth parashah. Pre-marital counseling can be an occasion to look for complementarity in the couples’ respective weekly – or daily – readings. My particular insight has to do with looking closely at the aliyah that corresponds to the day of the week of the person’s birth.

For example, today, the day I am writing these words (24 Kislev, 5759 / December 13, 1998), is a Sunday, the first day of the week whose parashah is Miketz. This is the middle parashah of the Joseph narrative, and in the first aliyah we learn about Pharaoh’s upsetting dream, which no one in his employ can adequately explain. The wine steward remembers that when he was imprisoned, along with the chief baker, a young Hebrew man in jail with them was able to interpret their dreams. He recalls, “We told him our dreams, and he interpreted them. He provided each of us with an interpretation, and things worked out just as he said they would.” (B’raisheet, 41:11-12) [This and subsequent translations – unless otherwise noted – are from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah (Brooklyn: Maznaim Publishing Corporation, 1981)]

 

Well, that’s just what I’m trying to do. When it comes to in-depth understanding of complex matters, there’s nothing like the illuminating power of the Torah. I’m not suggesting that every such instance is susceptible to having its outcome clearly predicted, but, as in the I Ching, images, patterns, adages, and exemplary tales can provide inspiration and insight that feels just right for the situation.

Today (25 Kislev, 5759 / December 14, 1998) I served on a Bet Din which examined a male candidate for conversion. I have known this man for several years and consider him sincere and worthy of admission. A few days ago, as the Av Bet Din and I surveyed several possible dates for the examination to take place, I checked the parashah of the week to select the best day. In the second aliyah of Miketz we find the line, “Can there be another person who has God’s spirit in him as this man does?” (B’reisheet, 41:38) In the world of scheduling, human beings can choose auspicious times, based on the readings. The first day of Chanukah, the festival of re-dedication and education (from Chinukh) also seemed auspicious.

Now that he is a Jew, I suggested to him and his wife that they might wish to re-sanctify their union. I asked for the date and year on which they were married. His wife told me it was January 21, 1995. I checked my trusty Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil Calendars (compiled by Fred Reiss and published by Behrman House, Inc., West Orange, New Jersey, in 1986) and found that the original date was a Saturday night, the 21st of Shevat, 5755, corresponding to the first aliyah of Mishpatim. (One could also check HebCal.com.) This Hebrew year, the 21st of Sh’vat again falls on a Saturday night, the 6th of February, 1999, again corresponding to the first aliyah of Mishpatim, in which we read, “If another [wife] he take for himself, her food, her raiment, and her conjugal rights shall he not diminish.” (Sh’mot, 21:10 – Rabbis Abraham Ben Isaiah and Benjamin Sharfman, The Pentateuch and Rashi’s Commentary: A Linear Translation into English (Brooklyn: S. S. & R. Publishing Company, Inc., 1949)) This struck me as an appropriate passage for a second marriage, as theirs is, and even for a remarriage, after one’s status has changed.

Here is an example of how a d’rosh based on other passages might be developed for a wedding ceremony.

 

D’ROSHA FOR THE WEDDING OF JESSICA MONTEL AND

AVINOAM BEN-TZUR, 2 CHESHVAN, 5758 / NOVEMBER 2, 1997

 

Kol ha-olam – Ha-Makom ha-zeh. All the paths of the world converge in this place. Kol ha-olamim – od olam v’od olam – achshav. All the worlds – all eternity – is centered in this moment.

“Jessie, bat Yehudit v’Conrad, was born on the 10th of Adar, 5728, Yom HaRishon, the first day of the week of parshat Ki Tissa (from Sefer Sh’mot), which begins with a directive concerning the taking of a census. V’y’daber adoshem el-Moshe laymor, ‘Ki Tissa’… – ‘G*d spoke to Moses, saying, “When you take a census of the Israelites to determine their numbers, each one shall be counted by giving an atonement offering for his life. In this manner, they will not be stricken by the plague when they are counted. Everyone included in the census must give a half shekel.”‘

“This passage is the source of the Jewish custom – I say custom (minhag), not superstition – of not counting people but only things that represent them so as not to turn the people into integers. People are not numbers. Anashim lo misparim. By giving each other respect – kavod – we avoid terrible consequences, symbolized by the plague – an unchecked and seemingly random chain of disasters.

“One of the guiding principles of B’Tzelem, the human rights organization in Israel for which Jessie works, is that each person is precious and unique, individual and indispensable. The rule of law and due process, principles which B’Tzelem upholds, protect each person. According to this approach, no one should be considered merely a statistic, merely an anonymous dot on a demographic chart. Through her work, Jessie strengthens the soul of Am Yisrael.

“Avinoam, ben Hadassah v’Eliezer, was born on the 14th of Tevet, 5724, Yom Sheni, the second day of the week of parashat Sh’mot, in which it is said, ‘G*d benefited the midwives [Shifra and Puah, whom some commentators identify with Yocheved and Miriam] – and the people increased and became very strong. And it was because the midwives feared HaShem that G*d made them houses.’ ‘…V’ya-as la-hem bateem.’

Avi, in his government work, reviews and approves – or disapproves – the building of houses and other structures and modifications to existing land use. He makes long-term decisions affecting environmental quality, and by doing so he contributes to the physical health – the guf – of Eretz Yisrael.

“Body and soul, soul and body – which is more important? One thing is clear – neither can exist, in this world, without the other. They, and this couple, are interdependent – not co-dependent (chas v’chalilah) – and this assumption is encoded in their ketubah, as you shall hear. They each come to this union from a place of strength, and, therefore, they are able to willingly share themselves with each other, even, when necessary, to challenge and accept the challenges posed by the other – not in competition but in encouraging themselves to become the people they were meant to be – and to engage in forthright and tender dialogue about all the issues of their lives, from the most mundane to the most sublime.

“In this week’s parashah, Lekh Lekha, Avram and Sarai go forth together from their place of origin, from their family domain, with that which they have acquired: their substance (the means to live) and their souls – the spiritual essence and support from whom those they had befriended. Soul and body, body and soul. They go forth in faith, not knowing all that might befall them, what obstacles and what opportunities they might encounter, yet believing in themselves and in one another and following the inspiring love that led them to take this path, to make this choice: to build a home in Eretz Yisrael.

“We, family and friends, are witnesses to the high intentions with which Avi and Jessie begin their journey. When they step forth from this chuppah, they will be more than friends, more than lovers – something deeper than and inclusive of both. They will be husband and wife, full partners in every sense of the word, dedicated to strengthening one another and, together, strengthening the soul and body of Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.”

Here we see how the life path each partner has already chosen is rooted in Torah and connected one to the other. Self-knowledge is a crucial asset in enabling their union to take place.

My friend Ilana, an ardent social activist and dedicated community worker, was astonished to learn that her birth parashah, Ki Thetze, had in it the following lines, corresponding precisely to her date of birth: “Do not withhold the wages due to your poor or destitute hired hand, whether he is one of your brethren or a proselyte living in a settlement in your land. You must give him his wage on the day it is due, and not let the sun set with him waiting for it. Since he is a poor man, and his life depends on it, do not let him call out to G*d, causing you to have a sin.” (Devarim 24:14-15) Skipping down to verses 17-19, we read, “Do not pervert justice for the proselyte or orphan. Do not take a widow’s garment as security for a loan. You must remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and God your Lord then liberated you. It is for that reason that I am commanding you to do this. When you reap your grain harvest and forget a sheaf in the field, you must not go back to get it. It must be left for the foreigner, orphan and widow, so that G*d your Lord will bless you, no matter what you do.” I had the pleasure of watching her jaw drop as the remarkable correspondences of these verses to her life’s work became apparent. In a recent conversation I had with her, she recalled, “It was really quite an amazing moment when you read it to me.” Why? It confirmed what she already knew about herself and further sacralized the noble impulses of her heart.

A mutual friend of ours, Miriam, is a world-renowned cell biologist. Her specialty is research in the etiology of breast cancer. Her parashah? Tetzaveh. Her birthday? A Monday, corresponding to aliyah shayneet, in which we read, “Make a decision breastplate.” (Sh’mot, 28:15) What else do we know about this scientist? She’s highly intuitive, records her dreams, and seems gifted with precognition. What did the High Priest’s breastplate include, besides the twelve precious and semi-precious stones, which were emblematic of the twelve tribes? The Urim and Thumim, an oracular device which Aaron wore over his heart when he came before G*d. (Sh’mot, 28:29-30)

Coming down to earth, I will conclude by citing one more instance of the Torah’s synchronistic insight. I have another friend, with I share the name Reuven, who lives in Israel and is self-employed as a tour guide. He escorts travelers in the Paths of the Prophets and specializes in taking spiritual pilgrims to places of historical significance, natural beauty, and sacred resonance – “power spots.” He’s initiated many individuals, couples, and families into the secrets of the Holy Land – Eretz Yisrael – land which he has hiked, davened, and meditated in for decades. He was born in New Jersey over sixty years ago, during the week of Parashat Mishpatim, on a Friday. In the sixth aliyah the voice of G*d proclaims, “I will send an angel to safeguard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be careful in his presence and heed his voice.” (Sh’mot, 23:20-21)

In each of the instances I have cited above, the people to whom I have applied this method were all grown, seasoned, and mature. They had already fulfilled many of the stages of life that we are heir to as human beings. I had no concern about them recognizing themselves in the words of the parashah. However, I would be careful about using this technique to predict the future or assume too much about a child’s future development. There are many subtle levels at work which the guide might not be sufficiently equipped to notice or navigate. However, since I have been blessed with this insight, it would not be proper to keep it only for myself. I offer it to you as a wisdom tool which you can use to increase your own self-awareness and enhance that of others. My advice is: be cautious in utilizing it, but where it seems appropriate, do not leave it out of your calculations.

II.

Supplement to the foregoing:

While giving a workshop on this topic at the 1999 Aleph Kallah, I received many questions that have prompted me to add a few essential remarks.

1) What if my parashah section seems unpleasant or meaningless? This can happen. Not every verse in the Torah is crystal clear and speaks to one’s immediate situation. Some, at first blush, seem xenophobic, vengeful, or concerned with extremely obscure matters. These can offend or puzzle the contemporary sleuth. One solution is to have a more advanced student of Torah guide you to the deeper levels of meaning. If no such person is available, and perhaps even before consulting a more knowledgeable person, please consult the sources. Find a Chumash with a good commentary, preferably one that lists a variety of responses to particular passages. Often there is an ethical, homiletic, agadic, midrashic, or kabbalistic interpretation that “sweetens the din” (judgment) and enriches the text. I use Aryeh Kaplan’s Living Torah (Maznaim), the Stone Chumash (ArtScroll), or Elie Munk’s The Call of the Torah (also from ArtScroll, with the same translation but a completely different set of notes penned by the great German born and trained French rabbi). Others may prefer W. Gunther Plaut’s The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Reform), J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary (very British and for many years the standard text in use in all branches of Judaism – and still unsurpassed in some respects), Rev. A. Cohen’s The Soncino Chumash, the version of Samson Raphael Hirsch (the founder of modern orthodoxy); straight Rashi (“the brother of the Torah”), such as the inter-linear edition referred to above; Etz Hayim, edited by David L. Lieber and Jules Harlow (the Conservative Movement’s new translation); Everett Fox’s path-breaking translation, The Five Books of Moses, inspired by Buber and Rosenzweig’s translation into German; or Mikraot Gedolot (the classic anthology – but available only in Hebrew).

Beyond those options, suppose you’re doing a reading for someone (or yourself) and want to find something more substantive on which to base an interpretation. Check the Haftorah. These selections from the Prophets were chosen for their topical or thematic links to the parashah they now accompany. And, of course, that’s the standard B’nai Mitzvah strategy: compare the Haftorah to the Torah reading or concentrate on the Torah reading with scant reference to the Haftorah, depending on one’s interest in, the clarity of, and the apparent relevance of the various texts to one another and to the individual most concerned with them. And these factors are sure to change year by year.

What else might be germane? Is the date proximate to a holiday? Does it fall during the Omer Counting? Is there a significant Yahrtzeit coincident with it? Any of these might shed light on the implications attendant upon someone’s nativity. This leads us to…

2) Holiday readings. During festivals there is usually a Torah reading for each day. The third intermediate day of Passover, for example, is assigned Shemot 34:1-26. A person born on that day inevitably acquires that passage as a code to decipher. However, there will also be a Torah reading at the end of the week, which can be treated the same as the Torah reading in a non-holiday week. The fourth day of Chanukah is assigned BaMidbar 7:30-41. Should the fourth day be a Wednesday, for example, the individual should also look at Revi’i (the fourth aliyah) of VaYeshev or Miketz, whichever one is the Shabbat reading for her or his year. Both of them are read during Chanukah when the first and eighth days fall on successive Shabbatot, but the one read on the Shabbat that follows her or his birthday is the one to consult.

When one of the days of Pesach, Shavuot, or Sukkot (Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as well) falls on Shabbat, the holiday reading replaces the regular weekly reading, postponing it to a subsequent week. For example, on the Intermediate Shabbat of Pesach (and of Sukkot), the reading will be Shemot 33:12-34:26, which is divided into seven shorter-than-usual aliyot. One of those aliyot can be read in connection with its numerically corresponding day of the week along with the reading specific to that day. Rosh Chodesh has its own readings, too.

Thus, there are many exceptions to the general rule I laid out earlier. If a seven or eight day Pilgrimage Festival (Sukkot or Pesach) begins on a Tuesday, let us say, and the person is born on a Monday, the passage read that morning in Orthodox and Conservative synagogues world-wide will not be from the Shabbat Holiday reading but from the postponed Shabbat reading that might not be read in full for another week or two. (If an eight day Chag begins on one Shabbat, then the pending weekly reading will be postponed to the third Shabbat. This happens very often with Shemini.) Thus, a person has two options, both of which may be exercised. 1) Pay attention to the second aliyah section of the holiday reading for that week or of the reading that would ordinarily have been read but for the interposition of the holiday. Or, 2) exercise a third option: pay attention mainly to the part of the reading that is actually chanted aloud on that very day.

3) Many Conservative synagogues have adopted the custom of the triennial reading, wherein each parashah is divided into three sections (beginning, middle, and end), only one of which is read on each succeeding Shabbat, so that the entire Torah reading is completed in three years instead of one. I am not well-versed in Reform and Reconstructionist customs, but I understand that there, too, only part of the weekly reading is necessarily chanted aloud. In Jewish Renewal circles, excerpts are chosen based on shifting criteria, but the usual one is perceived relevance or supposed communal interest. (Preparation time and available expertise are also factors.)

Nevertheless, all these communities acknowledge the standard weekly division and, in fact, do not limit the choice of subject matter for a d’var Torah to those passages that have been actually chanted aloud. Therefore, no one associated with these congregations, minyanim, or havurot need feel any less connected to the parshiot than those whose custom it is to hear the entire Kriyat Torah, week by week. It might take more effort on each individual’s part to discern what is actually there, however.

4) There are all kinds of other intricacies and irregularities that one should be aware of. They all offer the possibility of a more diverse and multi-layered understanding of the signals that the Torah is sending to her acolytes. A person born on Shabbat afternoon, for example, might consider checking, for spiritual guidance, not only Shevi’i, the seventh aliyah of the weekly reading which culminates on Shabbat morning, but also the Shabbat Mincha (Afternoon Service) reading, which is the first aliyah of the following week.

A person born in Israel, where the Second and Eighth Days of Pesach, and the Second Day of Sukkot, are not observed as a Chag, should follow, at least initially, the minhag (custom) of her or his birthplace. (Nothing hinders such a person from also checking out other Jewish minhagim. One who lives in the Diaspora or has strong connections to it is likely to find them relevant.) It should be noted here, if only as a matter of general interest, that in Israel Simchat Torah coincides with Shemini Atzeret, while outside of Israel it is a separate day, a “Ninth Day,” as it were. Because of these discrepancies, Jewish communities in Israel and Chutz La-Aretz (outside the land), sometimes read different Torah parshiot in the same week, with Israel a week ahead, until the Diaspora catches up by scheduling a double reading of short parshiot that are combined in non-Leap Years.

5) Some of the theory behind this schema comes from a midrashic cum scientific understanding of pre-natal influences. According to the Zohar, the developing fetus learns Torah under the tutelage of an angel; according to the latest research, environmental influences – light, sound, and emotional currents all penetrate the inner sanctum of the womb. My supposition is that among the many intellectual currents present in the world is the cycle of Torah readings. The family may be more or less attuned to it, but transmission takes place nevertheless. “A voice goes forth from Sinai continually.” Inasmuch as the fetus grows for up to nine months before parturition, it “learns,” however we come to understand that term, or is exposed to, only about 3/4 of the entire Torah. The reading of the day and week of her or his birth is, as it were, the interrupted final lesson of the term and is informed by all that came before it. The just-born soul is unaware of the remainder but continues to absorb its teachings and stories through the social matrix. Inner attunement proceeds on its own course, as allowed or encouraged by the family, culture, and society of which the child is a part. The midrash tells us that at the time of birth an angel taps the child between the upper lip and the nose, where a vertical groove is located, causing her or him to forget the learning she or he has imbibed. Henceforth she or he must reacquire it through her or his own efforts. “The Torah does not come as an inheritance.” Learning it consciously is essential to true comprehension of the world, as the Torah testifies on its own behalf: “All the nations will say, ‘Surely this is a wise and understanding people that has such a set of laws to guide them'” and “Lo baShamayim he – It is not in Heaven…. It is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can keep it.” (Devarim 30:12,14)

6) Knowing as I do how easily the most well-intended suggestions, when offered in a religious framework, might be construed as obligatory, let me say uncategorically that this set of recommendations and guidelines, though based on established custom and usage, does not have any authority behind it except that of this individual’s own experience and whatever other precedents might be discovered. It is not a mitzvah; if you don’t find it useful, you are under no compulsion to proceed with the method; dismiss it. If you do use it, however, please do so with care, respect, and discretion.

Completed on 18 Tevet, 5760 / December 27, 1999, in Arad, Israel, one day prior to the seventh Yahrtzeit of my distinguished father, Shaya ben Yoel ha-Kohen v’Rivka, Samuel Goldfarb, 1906-1993. Last revised on 19 Menachem-Av / August 20, 2008. A close approximation of this version appeared in my booklet, Trains of Thought: Essays, Articles, & Features (Revised and Expanded), published on 22 Sivan, 5768 / June 25, 2008. A skillfully edited version of this essay appeared in Pumbedissa, Vol. 7, No. 3 (2000/5760). Thanks to its editors, Rabbi Gershon Winkler and Lakme Elior, for their judicious pruning. Thanks also to Jennie Cohen, editor of The National Jewish Post & Opinion, where this essay has just appeared. See www.jewishpostopinion.com for Volume 74, Number 25 — September 3, 2008 / 3 Elul, 5768.