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July 2006

A weekend in Montreal

I've already blogged about my erev Shavuot. My Shavuot day had a different flavor; I spent it on a train moving through upstate New York, en route to Montreal for a weekend with several of my dearest blogging friends.

The train ride was beautiful. At this time of year the countryside is gloriously green, and often the tracks took us alongside lakes and fields. And trailer parks, and little houses, and rocks, and streams. For a long while, great swathes of honeysuckle in bloom. Fields, some shorn and some knee-high with grain and some just sprouting.

The train shook from side to side as it moved along the tracks. Behind me a man talked earnestly to a woman about tai chi and the importance of proper breathing. Sometime while I was immersed in Sandra Cisneros' Caramelo, they got off the train and went their separate ways. And throughout, the distant sound of the train's whistle, letting the people in the towns we passed know that we were here, and then that we were gone...

Our train sat a while at the border, as a cadre of courteous customs officials worked their way through the cars. Just before we started to move again, I saw several train employees (the man who had taken my ticket, and the woman who worked behind the counter of the snack car) step out of the little prefab customs building eating bright-orange sherbert in wafer cones, waving goodbye to the people still inside.

(To be continued...)

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Tikkun leyl Shavuot

My little shul had a lovely little Shavuot observance this year. Since it's traditional to eat dairy at Shavuot, we began with an ice cream social. We were a small group, maybe fifteen in total, of all ages. We ate ice cream with caramel and hot fudge and whipped cream. One of my b'nai mitzvah students helped to watch the rabbi's littlest girl. The kids played with hula hoops.

Then we lit the festival candles, and Jeff, our rabbi, gave a little vort of Torah. Shavuot, he pointed out, is the only one of the shalosh regalim (the three once-upon-a-time pilgrimage festivals when the Israelites used to take sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem) with no major observance. At Passover, we hold a seder and eat matzah, taking the holiday into ourselves; at Sukkot, we build little booths and dine in them, placing ourselves inside the holiday. But at Shavuot, there's nothing we need to do, per se, other than be conscious of the holiday and rejoice in it.

Shavuot celebrates z'man mattan Torateinu, the time of our receiving of the Torah at Sinai. And the reason we don't have big observances on this major festival, he said, is that we're already so immersed in what it commemorates. Because we live lives imbued with Torah, we're already celebrating, all the time -- at Shavuot, we just pause to remember and be glad.

A major rainstorm was coming, and thunderclaps punctuated Jeff's words like vast echoes of "Amen!" We held a short and sweet evening festival service, punctuated by one of my favorite niggunim, and then about eight of us settled in for an abbreviated tikkun leil Shavuot (late-night study session.)

We didn't try for an all-nighter, as we have the last few years; as our congregation grows younger (e.g. lots of families with little kids), achieving critical mass for an all-night affair on a weekday just isn't feasible. But we had a terrific study session even so; Elma taught a lesson on the meanings and implications of ruach (loosely, "spirit,") and Jeff taught a lesson on the last two commandments (the one about bearing false witness and the one about coveting) which drew on Talmud, the Chofetz Chaim, and a variety of other sources to explore the deep implications and nuances of those instructions in our lives.

And now the counting of the Omer is over. The spiritual passage from liberation to covenant has reached its fruition again; the anniversary of our covenant with the Source of Being has enlightened and enlivened us. Now we get to keep working on living out that covenant, creating lives that shine.

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This week's portion: on jealousy and the ritual of the Sotah.

This week's Torah portion, Naso, features one of the most fascinatingly bizarre rulesets in Torah: the ritual to be performed if a husband suspects his wife of adultery.

In my d'var at Radical Torah this week I draw on writings by Blu Greenberg and Rabbi Judith Abrams to bolster my notion that this text, while problematic for the contemporary feminist, is redeemable. And then I spend a little while looking at what Torah tells us about the grain offered at the beginning of the Sotah ritual:

I'm fascinated that the barley flour brought as an offering in this instance is not anointed with oil, nor glorified with frankincense, because it is an offering of jealousy. (Everett Fox calls it "a grain-gift of jealousy / grain-gift of reminding that reminds of iniquity.") There's a poetic kind of appropriateness to the lack of oil and spice. Jealousy negates what is rich and valuable and beautiful. When jealousy consumes us, we are dulled in a way that obscures the flavor of our relationships, even our relationship with God.

Read the whole thing here: Jealous bread and bitter water.

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