Judaism - Torah

Our Long-Nosed God – Parashat Vayikra

Despite my family’s French heritage, I’m not what you would call a sophisticated wine drinker.

I enjoy a glass of red every now and then, I know the difference between a Malbec and a Cabernet, and I’ve even recently rediscovered that white wine has its merits. But if you asked me to pair a wine with a dish for dinner, I would be totally lost. I can’t really discern overtones from undernotes, and I certainly have no idea why someone would want to drink a wine that is described as tobacco-like.

Having said that, I do know something about some of wine’s other well-known characteristics. If you have you ever come home after a long day of work, exhausted; perhaps stressed the tasks still remaining to be done, and poured yourself a glass of wine to help alleviate some of that stress, then you know, as I do, that a glass of wine can be quite relaxing.

Now I’m not advocating that we all turn to wine to solve all of life’s problems. But if you are familiar with this experience, I want to say: congratulations, you’re in good company.

Even the Creator of the universe, our rabbis teach, knows the value of a relaxing glass of wine.

Whoever becomes more relaxed after a glass of wine, says Rabbi Hanina of the Talmud, has an element of God within them, since God acted similarly after smelling the sweet aromas of a sacrifice. (BT Eruvin 65a)

Remember the story of what happened to Noah after the flood?

Noah and his family emerged from the ark, and Noah offered a sacrifice to God. The sweet aroma of the burnt offering rose up to God, and, our rabbis tell us, God was relaxed, and said: I won’t ever again curse the ground because of humanity” (Gen. 8:21).

It’s as if, after a particularly stressful day (of nearly wiping out humanity) God sits back, inhales the sweet scent of Noah’s sacrificial offering, and just… mellows out. The smell of Noah’s gracious offering is just as potent as drinking a glass of wine.

This pleasing sent – a ריח ניחוח – is a frequent motif throughout the Torah. After Noah, it appears a total of sixteen times in the book of Leviticus, which we begin reading this Shabbat. And it will appear seventeen more times in Numbers. In total, God is pleased by a ריח ניחוח thirty-six times throughout the Torah! God, clearly, likes to kick back and relax after a hard day of being the Master of the Universe!

But what is it about the ריח ניחוח that acts so potently upon God?

Have you ever smelled a scent that acted upon you immediately? In particular – have you ever smelled a scent that spirits you away to another place, triggering ancient memories?

Marcel Proust was one of the first to suggest that smell is the sense most linked to memory. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust writes:

“When nothing else subsists from the long-distant past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell… of things remain poised a long time, like souls… bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”

The scent of musty corridors of an old building triggers for me vivid images of exploring the cellar of my Great Aunt’s house as a five-year-old, trying to find the deep-freezer, so I could pick out an ice-cream treat.

When I smell my scented beard oil, I am immediately whisked away to my grandparents’ house in Hamilton, Ontario, and filled with memories of playing pine-walled home where my father grew up.

And every autumn, the smell of biodegrading leaves and fresh mud takes me back to years of playing in the farm fields where I used to go to school.

What do your memories smell like?

God, we are taught, also responds emotionally to scents.

“The sense of smell, in the Holy [Hebrew] Language,” writes Rabbi Moses Mendellsohn, “corresponds to the power of memory in the soul, for the idea of memory is the remaining impression in the soul, after the tangible experience has passed. That is the unique property of scent… one which will provoke the desired memory before God.”

I wonder what God is thinking about when smelling the pleasing scents of the ריח ניחוח?

One idea is that God is remembering the promise to be compassionate toward humanity that God made to Noah.

There’s a great clue to this: in the Torah, we learn that one of God’s attributes is ארך אפיים – which we usually translate as being “slow to anger.” You might be familiar with this from Rosh Hashanah or other chagim, as we recite a list of the thirteen attributes of the Holy Blessed One.

But ארך אפיים doesn’t literally mean “slow to anger,” it actually means “long-nosed”! Why does the Torah have this imagery of God with a long nose?

Perhaps because it is through this metaphoric nose that we arouse God’s compassion. A longer nose equals more smelling power!

It’s a powerful, very human metaphor: God’s patient, gentle attitude toward us is triggered in a way remarkably familiar to us – by these powerful, pungent scent-memories that Proust spoke of.

The ריח ניחוח are the result of what we call sacrifices, but the English word “sacrifice” is not an adequate translation. In Hebrew, they are called korbanot – which comes from the root “to draw near.”

Just like scents can bring us remarkably closer to past memories, the ancient Israelites’ sacrifices were an attempt to get closer to God, to arouse God’s compassion, and remind God of memories of our covenantal relationship.

We don’t offer sacrifices anymore. But we still live in covenant with God, and we still want God’s compassion. And we still emit things into the world.

The things we send out into the world – both literal and figurative – can have both creative and destructive power.

You might think about this environmentally: is what are we emitting sustaining the world, or harming it? Is it pleasing, or polluting?

Or you can think of it emotionally: does the attitude we send out into the world create room for others to draw nearer, or does it close off?

You could think of this spiritually, as our ancestors certainly did: are the prayers and blessings we offer to God perfunctory, or do they come from a place of serious intention, of a desire to elevate our spirits and brings us closer to the holy and the transcendent?

Just as everything we “give off” here on earth is received physically and emotionally by others, we have an image of a long-nosed God who acts similarly. Everything we “give off” can either push us away or draw us closer to God.

How might we work to ensure that what what we put out into the world draws us nearer to God and to each other?

These ריח ניחוח, these pleasant aromas, were not pleasing to God because of their smell alone, but because of the intention of the person performing the sacrifice.

Just as scents are only the tiniest, microscopic of particles of something much greater, the ריח ניחוח were just the tip of the iceberg, a small hint of something much larger.

The ריח ניחוח are a taste – or scent, as it were – of the depth of intentions that each person brought to their offering. And that’s why this idea is so powerful – our offerings to God have always been a just a small taste of something more to come.

They point to something much greater than ourselves.

My Bubby Jeanne, zichronah livrachah, used to make classic French dishes for Shabbat dinner. My favourite was her Coq au Vin – chicken and wine, a classic French dish. I’m sure that there are many dishes in a restaurant that might smell or taste just as good as hers. But hers, I know, was made with love and care for me and my family.

When I walked into my grandparents’ home every week for Shabbat and smelled the sweet scents of the chicken cooking, I knew that I would be surrounded by the loving embrace of our family’s Shabbat celebration.

And it is that love, encoded in a scent, that has become fixed in my memory, drawing me closer to her memory.

The idea of sacrifices might seem ancient, backwards, irrelevant or even inhumane when compared to how we pray today. But the korbanot – these acts of drawing nearer – have built into them a very human idea.

The ריח ניחוח serve to remind God, and us, of basic human desires that we all share: we want to live and thrive, we want to be loved, and we want to do this in sacred relationship with each other.

Perhaps this is the lesson of these smelly sacrifices – to send out love and compassion, and to receive those “scented” offerings with a long nose.

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Jewish Education

Doors and Windows

img_4481-e1520862686176.jpgIf one day, millennia from now, archaeologists came across the remains of the device shown in the image to the right, I can safely guess that they would probably recognize it as a door. Of course, this assumes that there are no radical advancements in door-design in the coming centuries…

What they might not realize is what kind of room the door opens into.

The elaborate locking mechanism that secures the door might lead them to believe that this door enters into some sort of high-security facility. Or they might think that behind this door is a vault where valuable or sensitive private information is stored. Check out those industrial-reinforced-padlock-style bars that extend in three directions!

Though it’s hard to notice from the angle where I took the photo, if these archaeologists  looked at the window in the door, they would find that it is a shielded, one-way mirror. It works so that if you are standing inside the room, you can see out, but those outside cannot see into the room.

This is a pretty secure door. Whoever built it doesn’t want the people on the outside to be able to open it or see inside without permission. When you look at the door, you also get a sense either that whatever is on the outside is potentially dangerous or terrifying, or that whatever lies inside this door is valuable and needs to be safeguarded.

I came across this door last weekend and was caught off guard by it. You see, the door doesn’t open up into a vault or into a secure facility, or even into a private room of any sort.

Continue reading “Doors and Windows”

Judaism - Torah

One Minute of Wonder

While researching my rabbinic thesis, I came across what is now, by far, one of my favourite teachings from the Talmud. I might be obsessing a bit over it – I’ve written about it here and here. I find its philosophy to be such a relevant antidote to our hyper-partisan age.

I’m thankful to have be asked to share a quick window into it on video, as part of the CCAR’s One Minute of Wonder series.

One of the Talmud’s ideas about pedagogy is that innovation is vital to the Jewish understanding of Torah education.

Anticipating the anxiety of every Bar and Bat Mitzvah student, the Talmud poses a brilliant question: if there are seemingly limitless interpretations of Torah, how could we ever learn it all? And moreover, what happens when different interpretations disagree?

The Talmud’s answer is simple, yet sublime: sucks to your anxiety. You need to listen to everyone. And you need to do it empathetically with love and care.

Of course, this is not an “anything goes” idea. We can (and should) have foundational beliefs and practices – things upon which we’re willing to stake ourselves. But that doesn’t absolve us of the duty to listen to others – even when we fundamentally disagree.

Life

Can we Ever Kick our Smartphone Addiction?

I spent a couple weeks in Germany a few years ago, and found myself – by accident –  near-totally disconnected from the digital world, thanks to my cell phone not working in Berlin. No notifications. No pings. No little-red-dots hovering over every app icon on my home screen.

It was a transformative time. I realized the extent of my smartphone addition, And when I returned, I began scaling back my dependency on iPhone notifications. Initially, I turned off all of my notifications (except for CBC News, and Maple Leafs scores), and switched my email over to “pull” instead of “push.” Then I deleted the Facebook app. Twitter and Instagram soon followed. Recently, I’ve blocked facebook.com entirely from my iPhone browser, and have limited myself to 15 minutes per day on my desktop browser, using the great Safari Extension, WasteNoTime.

There’s more than enough evidence of the deleterious effects of smartphone addiction. Once you kick the habit, it’s hard not to see it everywhere around you. But it’s the long-term implications that scare me. We’re just beginning to understand the damage we might be doing to our plastic brains, and the new evidence on how smartphones are damaging the bonding between parents and newborns absolutely terrifies me.

That’s why it has been heartening to see some tech industry leaders taking notice of this. The Globe and Mail has a fantastic dialogue with Jim Balsillie, former chairman and co-CEO of Research in Motion (now known as BlackBerry Ltd.) and co-founder of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

The piece – Can we ever kick our smartphone addiction? as a whole is an illuminating read. Here’s a sobering chunk from it (emphasis mine):

Privacy and mental health are inextricably linked, especially for young people. You need periods of privacy to form a self and an identity, a task not completed until at least the late teens. Having an autonomous, spontaneous self is the result of a long psychological process where you have time to “step back” from the crowd, and from your parents, to reflect. It requires time to let that self – your true feelings, your own quirky, uncurated reactions – emerge, spontaneously. The new phones foster enmeshment with parents, and the world, and hamper individuation, the process of becoming a unique individual, because kids are overconnected

The “wisdom of crowds” is overrated; many crowds are far more regressive mentally and emotionally – and stupider – than the individuals who make them up. Kids know this, but lacking a solid sense of self, still long for the mob’s approbation and are terrified of its censure. And so they keep checking for and fishing for “likes” and now are compulsively virtue signalling to avoid being disliked, instead of developing actual virtue

Social media is a 24/7 hall of mirrors, with everyone watching themselves – and everyone else – and making comparisons, all the time. This hugely exacerbates the ordinary painful self-consciousness, insecurity, narcissistic vulnerability and drama of young people’s lives… Depression has increased since 2005, most rapidly among people 12 to 17…

It also teaches kids precisely the wrong way out of the mess: grow your vanity. Post selfies of your best underwear pic on Snapchat; airbrush your opinions to get likes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, pondered the soul of the modern bourgeois as affected by social life. He observed – as beautifully summarized by Allan Bloom – that the bourgeois “is the man who when dealing with others thinks only of himself and in his understanding of himself thinks only of others.” That is many kids today.

Israel, Politics

Speaking from Heart to Heart, and the Jewish Community’s Faustian Bargain

One of my favourite gemaras from the Talmud (it adorns the “Teaching and Learning” page here on my blog) advocates a fierce commitment to openness to dissent and the ability to learn from a multiplicity of opinions, even those that may diametrically your own:

אף אתה עשה אזניך כאפרכסת וקנה לך לב מבין לשמוע את דברי מטמאים ואת דברי מטהרים את דברי אוסרין ואת דברי מתירין את דברי פוסלין ואת דברי מכשירין.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya taught… make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear both the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those who prohibit actions and the statements of those who permit them; the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements of those who deem them valid.

Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 3b

The Talmud’s argument here is that while a person/community may have a sense of what is halakhically permissible – what is, quite literally, “Kosher,” – one must still open oneself to learning from others why their beliefs are different.

I think the Talmud specifically refers to both “ears” and “hearts” here to encompass the entirety of self that one needs to open to others – this isn’t just about being nice and tolerating a different opinion; we have to open all of our learning senses – our intellect and our emotions – to understand why it is that people have different beliefs and opinions.

I’ve been thinking about this philosophy quite a bit lately, particularly as part of my training through Resetting the Table to bring people together for meaningful conversations across charged political differences.

This gemara also came surging to my mind as I read about the lamentable smear campaign that was launched against Rachel Lithgow, former head of The American Jewish Historical Society. You can read about it in her words on Tablet, or in the recent New York Times article covering the incident.

TL;DR version: Jewish organization innocently (without political motivation) allows people associated with Jewish Voice for Peace into its space; chaos ensues; head of said Jewish organization denies any ideological support for JVP; head is still smeared by a defamation campaign (itself, a violation of halakhah); head of organization forced out of job and/or quits.

Lithgow describes her expunging in stark terms:

It is a Faustian bargain for the Jewish community as a whole to trade talent and passion for some mythic notion of ideological purity that we never enjoyed–and which will never placate this new iteration of zealotry anyway.

She’s right. Goethe, himself, noted this in Faust: “A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart,” he wrote. “You’ll never speak from heart to heart, unless it rises up from your heart’s space,” he warned.

If we are only willing to see in the world what we already believe; if we are only willing to inhabit ideologically pure spaces; if we are unwilling to listen, hear, and understand… we will be condemned to a life in isolation.

A life without learning.

A life without meaning beyond what we think we already know.

But the antidote, the alternative, the voice crying out so loudly from our tradition… is so clear, if we would only hear it:

Attune your ear to the voice of the other.

Attune your heart to be more understanding.

When you feel yourself resisting the words of another, wanting to push that person outside of your circle, what would happen if instead, you drew them closer, asking questions and searching for meaning?

There is, nor has there ever been, any sustainable ideological purity in Judaism.

Our people is strong enough to withstand dissent. Indeed, we are made stronger by it.

Judaism - Torah

Parashat Noach: No Dress Rehearsal, this is Our Life

It is difficult to speak of biblical flood stories when there are those still suffering from literal flooding in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean.

It is difficult to speak of a mass natural disaster, when thousands are homeless, ravaged by fires in California and earthquakes in Mexico.

It is difficult to speak of mass human death, when we are still reeling from death in Somalia; in Niger; in Las Vegas.

But here we are this week at parashat Noach – one of the most famous of Torah stories, one that we must acknowledge, is filled with destruction and death.

How are we to work towards repairing the very real death and destruction around us, if we are just up against a God who permits such devastation?

Continue reading “Parashat Noach: No Dress Rehearsal, this is Our Life”

Judaism - Torah

Fierce Chesed

Here we are in the aseret y’mei t’shuvah – the ten days of repentance. After spending long hours in synagogue praying, reflecting, and attuning ourselves to the holy, we are back for Shabbat. Given the grandeur and majesty of Rosh Hashanah, it might feel somewhat anticlimactic coming down from those great heights.

The soaring melodies, stirring poetry, and deep worship of Rosh Hashanah helps us do that ever-important soul work. But now, it’s a little more quiet. What are we to do now?

Here’s the truly great thing: Maurice Lamm teaches that God is not just a Rosh Hashanah God. Holiness is available to us, if we acknowledge it, every day. God’s majesty cannot be contained within a synagogue ark, or squeezed into the stone walls of Jerusalem, or locked tight in the 25 hours of Yom Kippur.

Continue reading “Fierce Chesed”