Unscrolling: My New Weekly Torah Blog Starts Today

UNSCROLLING: A Year of Wrestling, Quoting, and Reclaiming Torah
Amichai’s New Weekly Blog (10/2013-10/2014)
This year I’m reading the weekly Torah portion through the eyes of 54 creative wrestlers   in Reboot’s new book Unscrolled. My year long journey will be blogged weekly as commentary on their commentary, quoting quotes, plucking pearls from this pool of biblically inspired juices for a more inspired now.
Week One and Two: The Saddest Road
“Guide me to write a different better story.”
Josh Radnor believes in God and jump starts this journey. But he’s not praying here to that angry scripture papa that smites and judges and alienates. 72% of American Jews believe in some sort of God or universal spirit, according to the new Pew Report released this week  – and I think more will believe and pray and feel part of something bigger if they read what Josh was writing about divinity –  wild, and loving, mystery, a moan, a father-mother mixer at the core of what we are. Not that what matters is if more people  believe in God and if more Jews know more  Torah and Jew it better. But what matters, here, to me, is the beauty of the journey, questions asked, words that tackle life’s big meaning, ancient text as pretext to the journey of our lives. If this was the case then this report would look quite different and I think one day it will. So many of us are so removed from the simple soul truths that are covered by layers of austere religion. We need to start again, from the beginning.
Radnor, a beloved brother, brave spiritual warrior, prays the first step of this year long journey: “Teach me the true meaning of the garden, the snake, the apple and the fall. Let me learn anew.”
Then fall, and flood, and crash:
“The tower crashed. After the dust cleared, the people looked around, bewildered, coughing.
They all began talking at once. It was loud and confusing.. Someone was singing a song no one had even heard before, to a melody that had no match.
I was weeping on the ground and a man walked by.
…He reached into  his pocket and unscrolled a parchment. He read it quietly for a while. Than handed it to me.
I could not read a word of it, but mostly it was just a picture of a road. A long road into an open horizon, which matched the view I saw when I looked up.
But where does it lead?
To everything.”
Aimee Bender takes on Babble – tower, topple, words gone wrong, what happens when communication crashes, quoting Andre Breton, she frames the second Torah portion and the second genesis of our human polyglot reality sending us to translate signals, seeking ways to get on the same scroll:
“Keep reminding yourself that literature is the saddest road that leads to everything.” Aimee quotes Breton, and I quote her here, traveling along the same and the saddest road, less traveled by and also full of smiles, that leads to everything, one word, one week at a time, unwinding like this giant scroll.
Join us for the journey.

Word to the Wise: Say Less. Word #40.

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

 

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words

דברים
How many words you read a day? how many words you speak, and hear? how many truly penetrate and reach the core to make a difference in a life?
Thousands, daily, maybe more. Instructions, descriptions, greetings, gossip, shared dreams, occasional pearls of poetry, crude comments, status updates, curt courtesies, white lies, seductions.
We are perhaps the most word- inundated generation in human history.  What’s the price of this verbose inflation? What place of honor do we give the single, simple, spoken word?
I realize the irony of writing this in a blog named ‘word’. I try, as well, to minimize, and focus.
At breakfast in an Upper West Side diner yesterday I catch up with my friend G., an editor of an online news magazine, who keeps scanning his smartphone for urgent txts and laments the state of the indust
ry: ‘It’s not about the content anymore or about nuance – it’s just about what catches people eye and drives them to the site to boost the numbers.’
A talented writer, he yearns to pause and take the time to write, with care, a much awaited novel.
Later that day I lunch with JTS Chancellor Arnie Eisen, in the seminary’s courtyard. We talk about curriculum for rabbinical studies and he tells me of a recent study that shows how most universities are shrinking their humanities departments, favored less than computer science and more practical skills. ‘Harvard, Stanford, Yale’ – he shakes his head – ‘history departments are closing down not to mention literature and philosophy. It’s all about the bottom line, not the soul, not poetry. What can we do to coax students back into the humanities – into what it takes to be fully alive?’
Good to be back in  conversation. Big ideas and questions, old friends, good teachers. Welcome back to NYC.
Got back  on Sunday, pumped a bike (thanks sally) and biked up Riverside Drive Tuesday morning, back to JTS for  3 summer courses, back to back – Jews and Popular Culture in Antiquity, Queer Midrash, and a course with Elie Holzer about dialogue as an educational approach – to the art of life. That’s not the academic description, but I think that is the point of this course, and perhaps the point of all learning: In the ideal learning environment we don’t  learn to (just) gain facts and make connections. We learn to be in dialogue with other – and also to grow within our selves – emotionally, morally, spiritually, and become better beings.  It is not about the bottom line – it’s about the process. One word at a time.
And also: It isn’t just the words that are shared – but how and why we do so. That’s what makes a difference from data to depth.
The non-verbal matters just as much if not more than the text. Words are as good as the intentions with which they are created.
This may seem obvious to anybody who watched more than one TED talk or bat mitzvah speech, but when it comes to the study of sacred stories –  Bible, or Talmud – in fairly traditional study or ritual set
tings, this a big shift in perspective and in approach: the role of the words is different, and the goal of learning is not about accumulating details – it’s about being better at being human.
That’s what Eisen was talking about at lunch, and what my friend G. was lamenting: we’re drowning in meaningless words and something in our lives goes missing. How do we refocus? How do we write and read less so we can gain more, and how can learning not be about training skilled workers to do more doing but to rather pause and be more being?
That’s was Moses tries to do this week, as the fifth and last book opens, with the title, simply, ‘words’.
D’varim is that tricky Hebrew words that means both ‘words’ and ‘objects’. Words are things – a solid mass that melts reality like smoke or water.
Moses, the man whose words did not come easy, delivers his ultimate sermon, and the word ‘diber’ – ‘spoke’ appears over a dozen times in this portion alone. Moses recaps the journey to the people who’ve been on it, as we get to listen in and learn the lessons. He  keeps talking about conversations – the ones he’s had with th
em, and the ones they’ve had with God.
And perhaps that’s the most important lesson: Moses is reminding us how to pay attention to the fragile force of words and the vital role of attentive conversation.
Some words are spoken at you. Others are shared with you. Its a small and giant difference.
Moses  learned this the hard way and became the ultimate role model: He learns to speak with the Divine, face to face, each word black fire on white fire, partners in a careful conversation about what it’s all about.
I want to be more in the type of conversation with the world that is about speaking with others – not at them. As a teacher, co-worker, learner, father, lover, friend. To pay more careful attention to what words I say, and how, and why, and how to really listen when others share theirs.
And maybe that’s why I’m here at JTS. I’m learning how to be a rabbi, like Moses, the first of them all, or in other words, how to use words, wisely, and how to really learn, and how to really listen. One word at a time.
Shabbat Shalom

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

Changing God’s Mind: One Law at a Time! Word #38

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

 

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Judgement

משפט

The turning of tides started, this week, with Wendy Davis.
Davis rose in defiance of the Bible bashing law makers for 13 hours  and helped make history -not just in Texas,  not just for women, and not just for all who believe that abortions are a right, not a sin, but for all of us who care about progress and equality.
Barely had time to digest that when the best news came from DC on Doma and Prop 8.
Edie Windsor, Wendy Davis and so many more stand tall this week, and along with them are  five heroines right from the pages of the Bible, whose story is repeated this week in memory of judgment reversed and human rights dignified and celebrated. When it’s time for justice – sometimes even God is wrong, and the law changes.
There is a famous story in the Talmud about a legal dispute. Two camps take sides, and one of them, led by the solitary Rabbi Eliezer claims to speak for God, even creating magical proof. But the other camp wins. And God, say the rabbis, laughs and says: You won, kids, you won!
Michelle Bachman clearly doesn’t think so, (and to quote Nancy Pelosi – who cares?) but this week, laws of the land, touted by many as God’s words were reversed, in a stunning admission that things can and do change: even God’s mind, as recorded in our laws, beliefs and values.
What has been challenged this week is patriarchy itself – the notion of who is in God’s image, who counts, and what’s sacred. In all legal matters this week, the old word, the old guard got a taste of major change, and God, if one may feel so, laughs within and watches the old structures crumble, and something new emerging slowly to the top.
Even in Israel one could smell the patriarchal old school shake somewhat: The Chief Rabbi Metzger arrested for financial misconduct and sexual advances at men. To quote most Israelis – so what? – Along with compassion for a man clearly trapped in his hidden sexuality and the men who were his victims – and with hopes of healing for all – there’s the recognition here that this old structure – chief men rabbis in black speaking for God and alienating most of us – is in disgrace – is losing its grace and standing.  It will take time – but it’s about time.
And then there’s the five sisters, named, victorious, in an ancient court of law:
Mahla, Tirtza, Noa, Hogla and Milka, orphaned sisters, descended from Joseph, are getting ready to enter the Promised Land. But as single women they realize that they have no plot, no promised land of their own: that right is reserved for men and their male heirs. They go to Moses, all five, challenge him, he goes to God for judgement, and God rules, quite plainly – they are right, and I was wrong.  You won, kids, you won.
The law changes. Women, as well as men, are now able to get plots in the new land that awaits beyond the river. A biblical Feminist precedent, no less.
(never mind that the verdict will be challenged a few weeks from now and the five sisters will be told to marry their cousins so that the territory stays in the family. For now, lets linger on the triumph.)
Standing up for women’s rights to control their body and block the law that prevents abortions 20 weeks and up, law makers, activists and protesters stood up to power in much the same way, pushed beyond midnight and got it done. Here, too, some next steps may interfere, but for now, lets focus on the courage and the wisdom in fighting for what’s right – and within the system.
DOMA’s demise, ten years in the making, honors the rights of so many of us to love as we do and look God in the eye, as create in Divine image, not second class citizens in any way.
And God loves it. She really does.
And I do care that not everybody thinks so, and that for many June 26 will go down as a day of shame, but right now, for God’s sake – I just want to celebrate the day of pride,  the courage to change, the patience to listen, the humility of progress, and the dignity of disagreement – in the name of law and love.
Mazel Tov America!!! Happy Pride.
Shabbat Shalom.

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

Drink Down! No Love for Lapid’s new Liqueur Law. Word 36

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

 

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drink

לשתות
Did you hear the one about the former media star turned politician who walks into a bar?
And gets thrown out?
It’s about to happen.
Mid summer heatwave, a new financial decree was announced in Israel this week by Yair Lapid, following up on the most recent 1% hike in income tax: the liqueur law. In an attempt to curb teen drinking and equalize the price of spirits, cheaper alcohol like vodka and Arak goes up 50% while the more top shelf whiskeys are reduced by almost 30%. This law, debated for its reason, reasonability and results, was not Lapid’s idea – it was planned long before he took over finances, but he chose to go ahead with it, earlier than planned, with a clear message to the working/lower middle class: You count less and will pay more.
People are pissed. This isn’t a basic human right violation we are talking about it, and we got bigger problems to deal with, but it is a big deal, if only on symbolic levels. Arak is more than a drink.
Dubbed  the national drink of Israel, Arak has crossed over to the general population since the 70’s. A Middle Eastern favorite for centuries, made of grapes and Anise, affordable and perfect for this climate, it has migrated here from Lebanon, Morocco and Iraq and has become quite popular in many social settings but is still in many ways a low-brow brew. I, too, who grew up knowing nothing of it, have became an avid fan. Especially with an ice cube, mint leave, and a bit of grapefruit juice. A big part of its popularity is its reasonable price. The cheaper Arak bottles go for 35 NIS – about $7.  Not anymore.
The new law goes into effect July 1. Liquor stores are already pretty much empty of Arak. Everybody’s stocking up and the distributors are not releasing new stock. Yesterday, at a random liquor store, while waiting for my car to get some work done in a nearby garage, I interviewed the owner about the news. “it isn’t just the Arak or the cheaper Vodka or the income tax’ he tells me, ‘Lapid just doesn’t really care about your average working person. He and Bibi care about the ones who make as much money as they do, and we are all too weak and tired to scream.’
Arak isn’t bread (that’s getting more expensive also, btw) and it really is too hot to protest, but there is a rumble in the air. Lapid’s party is doing some good things in the Knesset – such as the new bill that was just passed this week incorporating women, for the first time, in the committee that nominates religious judges. But on the whole – there is a thirst for more, for change, for more sensitive wisdom that was promised pre elections but does not seem to be delivered.
I don’t think the Israeli public will hit the streets over the price of Arak. But thirst – of all types, for all reasons, legitimate or not, can topple leaders and create chaos and sometimes create real change.  And sometimes it ends badly, with everybody losing tempers and nobody winning at all.
That’s sort of what happens in this week’s Torah text, Chukat, in which the thirst for water ( if not for harder drinking) dominates the day. Miriam dies, and with her dries up the well that fed the people. It’s a gorgeous metaphor that hints at the loss of matriarchal leadership – quenching the soul thirst of the people, not just the needs for security and jobs.
The thirsty people protest and Moses, helpless, hits a rock instead of talking, as instructed. The place is renamed ‘the waters of strife’.
I think about that thirst of Biblical proportions. Theirs is a thirst of days- not the post workout or bike ride or long day in the heat thirst, with a bottle moments away – but the parched, many long days in heat thirst that dulls the senses: that kind of thirst.  It is not unlike the deeper thirst for love, for meaning, for being part of something bigger and for being truly taken care of.
That ancient frustrated meets today’s as bleak reminder but also as a hopeful hint.
It takes 12 men to replace one woman – shortly after Miriam dies the leaders of the tribes create a ritual in which they stand in a circle, sing a song to the well, and raise the water. This circle of leadership, the popular people’s circle is the response to the thirst, to the leadership that’s gone too far.
The Hebrew words for well, באר, is oddly linked to the English word for watering hole – the bar – exact same letters, and very similar needs. Water, or Arak, and all other options, I hope that we find – and create ways in which to come together, circles of care, to sing, and protest, and care of each other, and clamour for changes, and drink, responsibly, together.
I’ll drink to that! With the last of my cheap Arak.
L’chyaim. Shabbat Shalom.

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

Late Night Crave 2 Early Grave? How to feed or not a hungry Soul. Word 33

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

 

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meat
בשר
It’s 1am and I’m driving back to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv after a 4 hour Tantric Meditation Workshop for men in which I was both teacher and participant and I’m really hungry. For meat.
There’s not that much open at this hour on a weekday and although I have some fruits at home, and some decent cheese, I know that the late night shwarma joints are still open for a bit on Agrippas St. and the thought of one of those right now, with their salad bar of exotic types of pickles keeps me going through the drive. I didn’t have dinner. But what of my mostly vegetrian vows, and what of the recent urproar about what’s really going on in slaughter houses all through Israel?
I make a note of these objections, hesitate, but a louder voice, of which I’m neither proud nor totally ashamed, insists of hunger, not just for food but also for the consolation that it sometimes brings. Comfort food, some call it. Or frustaration food, a compensation, clearly noted, for the fact that here I was in a room with 15 amazing men, all breathing together and talking about erotic selves, and even though it’s the noble and right thing to do – here I am driving home alone, again. And hungry. Hm.
The link between the flesh and  meat, all the colors of desire, and of craving, and the human need for more. How often it gets us into trouble in sex and in food and from crave to grave. Dealing with this tension is exactly what the Tantric training is about.
So yes, the wrapped up meat sandwich, with parsley, pickled radishes, garlic spread, fresh finely cut salad and just the right amount of spice is warm and deeply satisfying as I sit there at Sami’s, surrounded by taxi drivers and an religious couple on a date. I am in bed by 2am, both satified and mortified, a restless sleep ensues. I think I dream of deserts, vast and empty, with only wisps of smoke in faraway horizons forever eluding my grasp.
In the morning I open the book to look deeper at this week’s text and there is the meat, and there is the craving, and there are the graves of lust. Numbers Chapter 11,  this week’s Torah text, B’halotecha, is a weird mix of protests for meat and prophetic visions. The people are tired of Manna, claiming that ‘our soul is dry’ and Moses yells and people begin to claim prophecies and visions, and from up above the qualis are sent, as they migrate each year, and the people hunt and binge and die in droves, the meat still in their teeth. The graves of lust are mass graves of desire, a warning forever etched in our collective soul.
What’s there to learn of this horrendous story? The simple lesson of ‘less is more’, of less craving, of more presence, of being satisfied with what you got. But who are we kidding? the desire for more flesh, sex, intimacy, meat, plenty, power is what drives us to distraction from those days in the desert to right here and now.
There are times for real needs to be met. Oliver’s ‘please sir, I want some more’ comes from an honest place of hunger. My yearning for that wrapped up flesh earlier this week comes from a hunger deeper yet, and more or maybe less complicated. I judge it and perhaps I ought to be more stern and disciplined – but I give it room, compassion and a sigh, and a hug.
Perhaps the story in this chapter of the wanderings of our ancestores is about greed that is based on nostalgia, on desires not for what is here and now, but for anything but. This is a hard lesson to learn, to remember, to put into use. Comfort food, after all, is about what we know from home, from Egypt, from childhood, even though it may be what our adult selves know to be ethically questionable and nutrioun wise – wrong. Part of growing up is about taking a stand on difficult choices, away from the past wrongs, towards a better next. Giving up on meat is def. one of those battles that we human must, i think, take on.
I try.
There is a fine line between excessive desire and ascetic withdrawl. Not every crave leads to an early grave. But many do.
We each must find that fine line and stick to it as often as possible.
Warning heeded, thank you Torah. But everything in moderation, including moderation. Every once in a while, like that other night, going to sleep with meat between your teeth (even though I flossed and brushed) is just what makes one really happy, and that, forgive me cows, and sorry Moses, is as good as it sometimes get. And yet it’s good to aspire higher.
Shabbat Shalom

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org