Passing on Paradise for Love on Earth

We’d sung happy songs and deeply moving prayers. We welcomed Shabbat in with Feelin’ Groovy and were moved (again), when our second oldest member, Ruth Kingberg, beckoned in the angels of peace by singing Shalom Aleychem. Mi Chamocha featured our new cowbell. Veshamru, the high and slender sound of the recorder.

Time for the drash, the story, the reflection.

The subject: Parsha Lech Lecha – particularly, Genesis 15. The content: Night visions, dreams, predictions, a covenant.

In the first of two nighttime encounters with the Divine, Abraham mourns his childlessness. God knows how that anguish haunts Abraham and makes him a promise of children. God commits to the Divine promise by invoking a ritual well-known to the Ancient Near East (though strange to us).

In that ritual, animals were sacrificed and the parties to the contract would walk between their divided parts. Should they violate their agreement, the punishment would be dire: They would end just as the animals beside them: cloven in two.

In this night vision, God Godself is the one who passes between the animal parts. It is God who must keep the promise. Abraham is merely to believe in it.

In the second night dream, God comes upon Abraham to foretell his descendants’ future. They will be enslaved for four hundred years before knowing freedom again. It is a dark vision, a vision of horror and pain.

Two visions, two dreams, two futures: Life with children to follow, to keep the memory of one’s short existence on the earth alive, to carry a good legacy. Then, the knowledge: We cannot make our children safe from the real world they belong to.

Whoever we love, whether attached to us biologically or not, these are the beloveds we long for, the souls we want to make safe. Those two night visions – the one of hope and the other of dread – they are both, in essence, about the power of human connections on this earth. They are about love.

That night, I also told a story about Adam and Eve. In that tale, they find life outside the Garden of Eden difficult, challenging, and painful. But when God offers them the chance to return to the Garden they flatly refuse – even though they are both old and exhausted from years of labor. They cannot bring themselves to leave their real lives behind. Not before they must, anyway. They refuse to leave their children, their memories, and their earthly experience for the happy forgetfulness of paradise. They reenter the real world, the world of earthly love.

I asked my congregants to imagine they stood before the gates of the Garden of Eden. Would they enter? Would they, too, refuse? If the latter, what was it that held them to the earth, to the real world?

Everyone had a card and a pen. They began writing.

After the service, one of our children showed me his card. He had written his name on the top: Caleb Malin. Next to it, he had drawn a Star of David, a tiny Torah scroll and, finally, our Temple Or Olam logo, the fiery letter shinn. Below he listed all the things he could not leave behind:

My dog my Parents my brother my gram my PaPa my Granmuther my ante my uncl my rabis my cusens my Grandfather my ont.

“Caleb,” I said, “this is absolutely beautiful!”

“Those are all the things I won’t leave behind,” he said. “Can I draw a picture, too?”

“Please!” I answered. “Let’s go find you another card.”

Later at the oneg, Caleb came by to show me his picture. I read the card again. “Caleb,” I asked, “I didn’t know you had two rabbis. Who is your other rabbi?”

“Mr. Ralf!” he said.

I laughed.

Mr. Ralf, of course, is my husband of almost thirty years. At every service, Ralf plays a range of instruments, from the darbuka, a Middle Eastern drum, to recorder, to (most recently) the cowbell.

Ralf has a calm and quiet soul. For seven years, he has done one task after another for our congregation, from creating earlier websites to designing our monthly Shmoozeletter to maintaining our data base to schlepping all the instruments and musical equipment and our Torah to every last service and to every last bar or bat mitzvah. He has comforted congregants and made them laugh. He is a beacon.

No rabbi could do more.

I cannot bear the idea of leaving Ralf behind. Were the Holy One of Blessing to offer me Paradise, I would refuse it – even if the cost was that I would never see it at all and would have given up, say, one little minute with Ralf.

God would not ask such a thing, I think. God would know that my longing is to be with Ralf, with my beloved family and friends as long as I can be, just as God knew that Abraham longed for those he needed to love to live – Ishmael and Isaac. The real world, with all its pain and sorrows, with all its frustrations and disappointments, contains our dreams.

Perhaps there will come a time when I am ready to go. Maybe I will feel that way someday, though it seems so impossible to me now.

But if and when God or Paradise beckon and welcome me, may they do so only after I have made it clear that my dreams, like Abraham’s, were about the love I bore for those I loved while I was on this earth.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reptilian Rapture in Ancient Israel

Honestly. I thought I’d read it all when it comes to Jews.

Teaching courses on the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust (as I do) forces one to wade through centuries of muck. In the first century C.E, the noted Greco-Egyptian grammarian Apion accused Jews of, among other things, holding some random Greek personage hostage in the Holy of Holies, fattening him up with delicacies and dainties, slaughtering the poor gent, and serving up his remains to the multitude. Shades of Hansel and Gretel.

Or, perhaps, a precursor to the blood libel that emerged in the thirteenth century. In that story, and versions thereof, Jews kill Christian children in a mock reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion, draining the child’s blood so that it can be used to make matzah for the Passover celebration. Little known fact: A blood libel accusation was made in our United States of America as late as 1928 in upstate New York. Better known fact: The blood libel is alive and well in the Middle East and some parts of Europe.

And how’s this for a twenty-first century twist? Jews are actually Nazis, and a Star of David can morph into a swastika. There are cartoons out there showing you just how it works.

We will not regurgitate all the things that have been said and written. You can find them in many other locations, if you must. It’s all old news, really.  And new news, I am sad to say.

Here, however, is a recent addition to all these various calumnies: Jews of ancient times worshiped lizards.

It is true. Not that Jews worshiped lizards, of course, but that a living, breathing person has alleged such a thing.

Said person made this statement on an exam in my course on Hebrew Bible. I do not remember who wrote such a thing. I blocked out the association of lizards and any particular student immediately after grading. For one thing, I have a lot of students each semester. For another, it seemed important to me not to remember which of my dozens of students had made such a claim. I was afraid that I would not be able to look said student in the face if I made the association.

Student raises hand.

Dr. Thiede: “Yes?”

Student: “Is there going to be a study guide for the next exam?”

Dr. Thiede: “Omigosh, aren’t you the student who claimed the ancient Israelites worshiped lizards on the last exam?”

(For the record, I send out detailed study guides before each exam.)

Aside from the mad hilarity said statement caused me then and now, aside from the fact that I occasionally wonder what I might have said in class to induce my student to connect ancient Israelites with the worship of lizards, aside from the fact that I am likely suffering some post traumatic stress after reading said exam, I ask myself: To what end do I mention this at all in any forum?

There is a reason, actually.

There is no hope for a world in which we do not know more about each other. We cannot create peace and lovingkindness among peoples on the basis of our present colossal ignorance. Education matters because, as I keep telling my students, it has the capacity to make you a better person. You can become a whole lot more humble when you have a smidgeon of an idea about how little you know about anything. You can become less judgmental, less inclined to seeing everything through the narrow field of your own experience.

You can learn, and by learning, learn to care.

That’s what this drash is about, actually. That’s what every drash should be about.

The Hebrew word “drash” means to seek, to inquire. Ask. Wonder. Reflect.

Do your thinking with drash, not dross. Have the energy to strip yourself bare of assumptions. Why are Jews still be circumcising their sons? People are asking that question – and they aren’t just gentiles. Is God really “in” everything (and does that include the cow manure)? Why do we keep repeating a prayer that insists that God will choose who shall die by sword and who by fire each year at High Holy Days when most Jews don’t believe any such thing?

Look here (if you like). Adrenaline Drash will do its best to live up to its name.