Night

And I was making speeches
Trying to straighten creases,
Pushing all the blemishes
off your body.
expunging all complexity
Then Night fell
And everything was straight.

Oh how I love you at night
When darkness blankets all
Swallowing daylight’s scars
The sun might disinfect
But the darkness perfects.
My imagination glimpsed
Perfection, for real.

O my love at night
To touch and not see
To feel and not know
Totality of darkness
Climaxed in my heart

We’ll cuddle in the sheets
Of darkness covering the earth
The rats and butterflies
And why ask
Is that sound a burglar, or lover.
I know, it is a heartbeat.

Storytelling For The Ages – Hagaddah

Tell me a story”. Children ask it from their parents, students ask it from their teachers, grown-ups ask it from the bookstore or storyteller. Who doesn’t love a good story, told by a master storyteller.

The art of telling a story isn’t to convey the information in the story, for that we have history books and academic lectures. All of which are pretty boring and have little influence on our lives. A good storyteller knows how to make the story come alive, he doesn’t necessarily get all the dates right or all the details exactly correct, contrary, he might skip out some details he deems uninteresting and make up some other details. A good storyteller knows how to use drama, dialogue, props, and different tools, to put the listeners into the mood of the story, and to make them feel as if it is actually happening then and there.

The foundational story of Judaism is the story of Pesach, which we retell every year in the Haggadah the Seder, Its transformational power, lies not in its detailed accuracy, in its lists of dates and names, but in the tools and techniques built into the Seder which help to create the atmosphere of the story, to recreate and reenact the story so that it comes alive right here and now. As the Haggada says, to see ourselves as if we are now leaving Egypt.

Chazal set up the directions to achieve it the best dramatic tradition. They said you should always create dialogue, begin with questions from the audience, Mah Nishtana. Not because the children really don’t know, they all heard the story, but to create the interest and suspense to set the stage for the story. Just as a good director knows how to set up suspense in a play so that the audience really feels the story is happening, to laugh when it is happy and to cry when it is sad. This is sometimes referred to “the suspension of disbelief”, where good drama makes the audience feel as if they are actually part of the story, as if it is actually happening, even if in their mind everyone knows it’s only a play.

In the same vein Chazal said you must tell the story with props. בשעה שמצה ומרור מונחים לפניך. You can’t just go and give over the information. You must demonstrate it, show and tell. Drink four cups of wine, lean back דרך חירות. Build suspense, we start with the low parts, מתחיל בגנות , and make the story better and better until the climax. In short, do everything so that you can make the story the most interesting and alive. As the Rambam’s version says clearly, חייב אדם להראות את עצמו כאילו יצא ממצרים, you must show yourself, play, as if you are leaving Mitzrayim now.

It is only with this understanding that we can understand what the Hagaddah says that Kal Hamarbe Lesaper Harei Zeh Meshubach. Without this it is impossible, how can one person’s story be longer than another person’s? Either it happened or it didn’t happen, and where would one find what to add to the story. As dramatic storytelling this is simple. Whoever elaborates more who imagines more details who can stretch out the story to make it more alive to make it more relevant to the audience, is doing the Mitzvah better. For the point isn’t to have the most accurate history, the point is to have the most alive history. And what better way to demonstrate this than by telling a story, מעשה ברבי אליעזר וכו’, to let us imagine how the sages had so much to say it took them all night. What did they tell at that seder in Bnei Brak? We don’t know, but we can imagine some of the Midrashim and stories of Chazal were first told there.

Pesach is calling – Vayikra/Hachodesh

In preparation for Pesach we read the Parsha where we are commanded to go and buy a lamb for the Korban Pesach and the rest of its Halachos. This Parsha begins Hachodesh Haze Lochem Rosh Chadashim. We might wonder what is the connection between the opening line and the rest of the story here. Yes this is the date this was said, but how is the preface declaring this the beginning of the months relevant to the entire Korban Pesach.

Vayikara El Moshe, (as Rashi elaborates), more than a technical call for Moshe to come to hear the voice of God in the Ohel Moed, this represents the deeper connection Moshe had with God. Had the point of the commands been just to let us know the technical details, how many ounces of blood to sprinkle, how many Kzaysim of meat to eat, etc. there would be no need for a call. God would just chance upon Moshe and let him know whatever there is to know. The call sows us is a two sided relationship which leads to these laws. First I am calling you, you pick up the call, this puts us two on the same line.

Furthermore, the call says God needs Moshe to answer, and had he not answered, there would be no law. This makes Moshe an equal partner in the law. This isn’t God chancing upon humans, dropping one sided commands unto them from above. There is dialogue, and it is only within this dialogue that the law has a meaning. If not for Vayikra, the korbanos would signify nothing.

When we go to the shop and buy a lamb for the Korban Pesach, make sure it conforms to all the laws and regulations spelled out in this parsha. Or in our way today, going through all the required preparations for Pesach, we need to first establish the relationship in which this occurs. Who is doing what for whom. Only by knowing this can Pesach have any meaning.

The call that establishes this contact is Hachodesh Haze Lochem. As a community, as a people, we need a yearly renewal to create meaning into the yearly cycle. Establishing this month as the beginning creates the context into which the celebration of Pesach can be placed. This isn’t an individual project, the first thing Moshe says about the Korban Pesach is if you don’t have enough in your household for a lamb, pair up with your neighbor, with those close to us. It is this bond between the people, and between them and God, that gets renewed every spring.

Nowadays, when no sacrifices exist, neither Pesach nor all year, and the myriad details of Hilchos Korbanos are foreign to us, the call still echoes with us. The voice, which only we can hear, still calls us to the sanctuary for a private audience with God. It still calls us to our friends and neighbors to establish the yearly renewal, to rekindle friendships, to establish a new and better world.

Vayakhel Pekudei – Don’t execute the execution

The two Parshiot Vayakhel Pekudei read this week consist of an almost play by play recap of the two parshiot Terumah and Tetzaveh. In Terumah we have the plans for collectiong donations and building the Mishkan, and in Vayakhel we have the actual collection of and the mishkan being built. In Tetzaveh we have the plans for the priestly garments and the artisans to make them, and in Pekudei we have the actual appointment of artisans and creation of the garments. (As Rashi remarks (35,5) there is no need for him to rehash the explanation of these as he had already explained them previously)

Anyone who has ever worked on any project knows the gulf that exists between planning and execution. Planning is always grandiose, inspiring, exciting. You get to grapple with the great questions your project is trying to build upon, and to bask in the greatness of your vision. Compared with this, the execution phase is so utterly banal and boring. The moment you start to execute your plans, to bring even the greatest thought to fruition in the realness of this world, you are bogged down in endless details, mindless paperwork, missed deadlines and endless arguments over minute details.

Even when you get to cut the ribbon on your great building, the final product is almost always a disappointment to the visionary. Rarely does a completed work convey the breadth of vision its planner envisioned. Even more rarely does the project continue to provide the kind of inspiration that inspired its creator in the first place.

Perhaps once in a lifetime, we chance upon a project whose execution doesn’t obscure the greatness of its vision, and whose continuity doesn’t hide the radicalism of the idea that germinated it.

In recounting every detail of the planning at the execution stage, and stressing each time separately, “as god has commanded Moses”, connecting the command or plan to the execution thereof, This Parsha is aiming at matching the enthusiasm of the plan in the minutia of execution. Infusing every detail of stringing the hooks for the curtains, or hemming the end of the garment, with the same greatness as the original word of god that started this ball rolling. And infusing the final continual product with the same divine presence Moshe found himself under at the moment of his prophecy.

This week we read Parshat Parah, the command to purify ourselves from the contamination of death in preparation for the spring renewal which culminates in Pesach. Parah is the spiritual pesach cleaning which is to cleanse our souls from the death of vision in detail. As the impure person must be sprinkled with water from a live well, with the ashes of a heifer which has never carried a yoke, signifying the freshness youth and liveliness we are to celebrate Pesach with. Let’s not let the minutia of this itself cause us to forget the point. Let us purify ourselves from death and become alive again.

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