Posts Tagged ‘Velveteen Rabbi’

A Jewish holiday I never knew about

August 15, 2011

Today was a Jewish holiday that I’d never heard of before!

Tu B’Av — apparently an ancient Jewish kind of Valentine’s Day.

Who knew? Well, Google for one. My Israeli-American friend Danny Shapiro called my attention to the logo on Google’s Israeli search site today:

Tu B’Av — the fifteenth day of the month of Av — apparently marked the beginning of the grape harvest during the Second Temple period. Yom Kippur marked the end of that harvest. According to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel in the Talmud, there were no greater festivals for Israel than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. On both days, the young women of Jerusalem would dress in white and dance in the fields, and young men looking for wives would follow them there.

Yom Kippur, of course, evolved  into the most solemn holiday in the Jewish calendar, with well-known rituals of fasting, penitence, and prayer. Meanwhile there are no rituals attached to Tu B’Av  —  no actions we’re required to take or avoid, no festive foods we’re supposed to eat.

In modern Israel, Tu B’Av is apparently seen as a kind of Valentine’s Day. Couples often calendar weddings for Tu B’Av.

So what should we out here in Diaspora-land do? Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser offers this suggestion on his Reb Jeff blog:

Do something intentional today to make yourself a little bit extra joyful. Put on some clothes that make you happy. Get a massage. Give your loved ones an extra kiss. Make yourself happy for your own sake, for the sake of those around you, and for the sake of God and the world.

And Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt offers this in her Velveteen Rabbi blog:

In his book The Jewish Holidays, Michael Strassfeld notes that Tu b’Av comes one week after Tisha b’Av, and sees today as the definitive end to our formal period of mourning. Today we shake off the last vestiges of whatever mourning consumed us last week. It is as though we are all mourners who have been sitting shiva together, and now we can feel released from those strictures and that sorrow. Even if we’re not putting on white dresses and dancing in any vineyards today (though I envy any of you for whom that practice is actually possible!), we can try to experience today as a day of celebration, a day to shake off our sorrows and let our spirits dance.

These are both terrific blogs. I often learn something from them. Today that “something” was Tu B’Av.

A happy new year, but less so for Isaac

September 10, 2010

The Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah is one of the most powerful but also most disturbing episodes in the Bible – the Akedah, or sacrifice of Isaac. 

You know the story: God tells Abraham to prove his devotion by sacrificing his son Isaac. (Cue up Springsteen singing “Prove it all night.” Or if you want to be more literal, Dylan at the start of Highway 61 Revisited.) Abraham takes Isaac to the top of Mt. Moriah, and when the boy asks why there is no lamb for the ritual sacrifice, he says only that God will provide the lamb.

Ram spice box

Abraham ties Isaac up, gets out the knife and is prepared to kill him when, in perhaps the original instance of deus ex machina, an angel shows up and tells him to stop. Miraculously a ram appears in the bushes to take the place of hapless Isaac. 

This is horrible on so many levels. What kind of God would make such a demand on a parent? What kind of parent would go along with such a request, without even a protest?  

How can Judaism glorify and praise Abraham’s mindless – inhuman – obedience? What kind of psychological scars would this incident have left on Isaac? And what about the ram? 

In one of the first high holiday services that I attended at Temple Sinai, Rabbi Steven Chester gave an entire sermon on the Akedah from the point of view of the ram – who committed no sin, harmed no one, was merely going about his ramly grazing when he was casually eliminated, collateral damage in God’s game of chicken with Abraham. 

In all honesty, I don’t remember the details of any other high holiday sermon. But I remember that one. 

Of course there have been all kinds of justifications of the Akedah over the centuries: 

  • God never really meant for Abraham to kill his son. He was just testing him.  

That’s nearly as bad in my book. Why should God design such a vicious test? Isaac may not have perished physically, but I suspect he suffered a death of the soul – betrayed by his father, toyed with by God. Like the ram, Isaac was collateral damage. 

  • Abraham never meant to go through with it.  He was just testing God.  

Ditto. How dare Abraham use his son as a pawn in his chess game with God? 

  • The point of the Akedah story is not that God asked Abraham for a human sacrifice, but that in the end God repudiated human sacrifice. For that historical era, this was actually a progressive and humanist statement.  

Well, that holds a little more weight with me but not much. The Akedah story isn’t just about human sacrifice, but about unquestioning obedience to God – about setting aside reason and even the deepest human bonds of love to carry out God’s will. 

And we know where that leads today – to suicidal jihadis, Quran-burning preachers, zealots who murder abortion providers, the dust of 9/11. 

If I ever get my current two novels sold, I have a germ of an idea for the next one: Not giving away any details, but it would be a modern take on the Akedah. 

Now, none of my thinking on this is remotely new. There is loads of anguished  writing about this. Rabbi Chester, in fact, has over the years made a personal project of collecting poetry and fiction on the Akedah. 

In that sermon that made such an impression on me, he quoted from Yehuda Amichai’s poem The Real Hero about the ram: 

The real hero of the Isaac story was the ram,
who didn’t know about the conspiracy between the others.
As if he had volunteered to die instead of Isaac.
I want to sing a song in his memory—
about his curly wool and his human eyes,
about the horns that were silent on his living head,
and how they made those horns into shofars when he was slaughtered
to sound their battle cries
or to blare out their obscene joy.

(You can find the full text of The Real Hero here, from a U.C. Press translation by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell.)

The British poet Wilfrid Owen wrote about the Akedah in 1916 in his Parable of the Old Man and the Young, which is more about World War I than about the Bible. (Owen died on the battlefield two years after writing this poem.) You can find Owen’s poem, and a couple of others about the Akedah, here

Much more recently (hot off the electronic presses, in fact!) rabbinical student and poet Rachel Barenblat just posted a cycle of poems about Abraham, Sarah and Isaac on her blog The Velveteen Rabbi. Here’s one of them that I particularly love. But it’s worth visiting her site to read them all

6. The angels say

Avraham failed the test.
For Sodom and Gomorrah he argued
but when it came to his son
no protest crossed his lips.

God was mute with horror.
Avraham, smasher of idols
and digger of wells
was meant to talk back.

Sarah would have been wiser
but Avraham avoided her tent,
didn’t lay his head in her lap
to unburden his secret heart.

In stricken silence God watched
as Avraham saddled his ass
and took Yitzchak on their last hike
to the place God would show him.

The angel had to call him twice.
Avraham’s eyes were red, his voice hoarse
he wept like a man pardoned
but God never spoke to him again.