The Scourge of the Solstice

A friend of mine this week mentioned to me one of the really recurrent problems of the holiday season, no matter what your religion – or even lack of religion. It is an insidious and potentially dangerous problem. That this friend is one I know on a social media platform for healthy eating gives you some idea of this dangerous problem: Christmas cookies. Not just Christmas cookies of course, but potato latkes, sofganiot (a.k.a jelly doughnuts) yule logs and the terror of cardiologists everywhere: egg nog. There is also all those holiday editions of standard junk food that comes out this time of year like mint chocolate kisses and holiday Oreos. If one is trying for a healthy lifestyle, the month of December is not a good one.

There is a repeated story in the book of Exodus and the book of Numbers. the most extreme case is in Numbers chapter 11:

And the mixed multitude that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us meat to eat? We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; But now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. And the manna was as coriander seed, and its color as the color of bdellium. And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of fresh oil. (Lev 11:4-8)

Ever had a craving? Here is a whole passage about cravings. It isn’t out of need, the people had perfect good and tasty manna, which for most people sounds delicious. Cravings are something besides a nutritional need. I’ve learned about cravings in a rather personal way. Back in 2004, I started on low carbohydrate diet. Due to a malicious prank done to me in seventh grade and an auto accident in college, my lower back could no longer stand the majority of my weight bearing down on it. It had decided that if I was going to put all that weight on it, it was going to shut down my sciatic nerve in response. For a month before I started, I could not walk, or stand without holding on to something as my legs were like rubber every time I got out of a chair. Thus 30 pounds had to go. Though taking my cue from Atkins diet, I did not get as strict as that diet. I figured that if I could cut my carbs down to 100 net carbs a day, I would lose weight, though slower than the Atkins. As I began my diet and did some research, I realized how many carbohydrates I was eating – almost a whole kilogram a day, with half being sugar. Dropping down to ten percent of that seemed reasonable. I was rather surprised when in that three months I dropped 35 pounds. Oddly enough, I felt more energized as well.
I thought about my diet the memorial day weekend after I had lost the weight and was maintaining it. People were amazed at my willpower to avoid some real no-nos on my diet, like cake with ice cream and hot fudge smothered all over it. During an Alaskan cruise with my I took with my mom (may her memory be for a blessing) that same year, I was also rather good. In a ship where it is very easy to gain weight from all the food, I actually lost a pound or two. While having the occasional dessert, I declined a lot and avoided even more. People were amazed when I went to the chocolate decadence midnight buffet and didn’t eat anything. This from the same guy who would used to say “life is uncertain, eat dessert first” and hit the dessert buffet before even looking at the appetizers.

I’ve talked to many people about the success I had, the verse from Numbers 11 keeps coming up. It too easy to start to want things we no longer can have. One can’t help but think of them. Things like chocolate for example. Then there’s the stuff we never eaten before but want to. In Numbers 11, during a desert trek people are going to have a hard time finding free seafood or green crops like cumbers. That they never actually had them back in Egypt is beside the point. Similarly on a diet, there is the potential for getting cravings when you can’t eat something, even something you’ve never had before. There are ways of dealing with those cravings however, and that’s what my diet taught me.

For those unfamiliar with biblical Hebrew, it is a rather nuanced language. There is a school of thought that God created the language, and every word, even in its spelling, carries nuanced thought. The Hebrew phrase for intense craving in the Torah passage is התאוו תאוה hitavu taaveh, which is a curious word. First of all it’s in the reflexive tense. It’s a craving the people gave to themselves. Secondly, the verbal root אוה Aleph-Vav-Hey is a little odd. From a grammatical standpoint you can’t get a weaker root than this: Two silent consonants in a hollow verb, which means it’s consonant is so weak, it’s often only a vowel. In short, if one looks at the verb, there’s almost nothing there and whatever seems to be is really self-imposed. So too with cravings — it’s entirely want we make of it.

There is the Hasidic story of a man on a little more extreme diet: He was involved in a week long fast for devotional purposes. One hour before his fast was to end he passed a well, and his craving for water overcame him. He walked to the well, but through force of will he stopped himself in time and walked away. He became overcome with pride in his act. But then he realized that it was better to ruin the fast with a drink of water than fall prey to the greater sin of pride. When he walked back to the well, his thirst was gone. The thirst was the want, not the need. The craving was all in his head.

So heres the secret to my dieting success: it’s analogous to eating kosher. In modern kashrut there are two possibilities when making food choices: either find a substitute which is Kosher, or do without it. Things we do with out, treif, we actually revile. In one of the many stories about pagan women trying to seduce Rabbi Akiba, Akiba has no interest in this incredibly seductive young woman who pulls out all the stops in trying to seduce him. When she fails, His host asks him about this as it was a test of Akiba’s fidelity. Akiba, explains that she was beautiful, but the pork on her breath made her repulsive. It wasn’t the sexy lady but the thought of pork that Akiba couldn’t stand. So my secret was simply thinking of high carb foods as treif. They simply lost all appeal for me. Whether it’s a pulled pork or pulled kosher chicken sandwich, any sandwich was bad in my eyes because I couldn’t stand eating bread. Cookies and doughnuts were just icky stuff. When there is an alternative, I went for that instead, such as a square of a 70% chocolate bar.

One of the downfalls of a diet based on low carbohydrates is that other things which aren’t healthy get eaten – like animal fats. While I don’t eat red meats, only poultry and fin fish, the amount of animal and processed fats were too high. When I had my first bad report on a cholesterol test, my eating fell apart, oddly enough on doctors orders. I tried to eat healthy and get the cholesterol back in line not only to fail that, but put all the weight back plus more, over several years of losing those habits. There was nothing I could think of as yuckky or treif, because everything got too confusing figuring out where the cholesterol was.
After a series of minor health related problems this year, my wife and I, who also wanted to lose some pounds, decided we would begin both a healthy eating and exercise program. We are training for a 5K run and counting our net calories, while watching all the other nutrients we are putting into our bodies. Our health has improved and we are losing weight, slower than last time but it is still coming off. I have noticed already some changes in my diet which brings back what happened back in 2004-2006. I’m back to getting sick to my stomach looking at doughnuts, for example. In a business meeting recently, not only did I feel sick looking at a doughnut, I actually got sick eating one so as to not refuse his hospitality. Many foods are no longer appetizing. High calorie foods are now once again like my view of a big slab of bacon, which has looked repugnant since I gave it up over fifteen years ago when I began some kosher observances.

As we enter the holiday season and many are tempted by bad food while we gain cravings which seem impossible to control, it might be good to remember these lessons. It is our minds that determine what is good or bad food, what we want to put into our mouths and stomachs. Just as we once learned that we should stuff our faces with Ho Ho’s and Big Macs, we can learn they are bad for us, and unappetizing as well for us spiritually and physically.

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Toledot 5773: Siblings within Me

When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp. 28 Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob.

What can be said of siblings is obvious. Siblings, even twins, are different. Each has their own personality, and parents do favor one child over another. Sibling rivalry and its after effects are universal, and the Story of Jacob and Esau is just one of the early ones of the common trope. But there are deeper symbols. The rabbis saw Esau as Rome,  and Jacob would become Israel. But these can be the siblings internal to us as well. They are child thoughts of our own souls, two different personalities within us driving us in different directions.  Esau brings home the food at night, Jacob stays close to home. Esau my have done things to hurt his parent, but he never lied to them or cheated them., like Jacob did.  Neither kid is perfect. The one who brings home the game, Esau is very much in favor now. Eleven hours a day I’m at my office. Jacob’s  study at home (or in my case Starbuck’s) , has fallen by the wayside, and this column with it.Deep inside I know neither my Inner Esau nor my inner  Jacob should be dominant, but there should be a mix. Somewhere in the middle is the healthy option. But I look at the bills, and want to do something about it. So I keep writing apps, and really doing nothing else. I thought of this while checking some stats today, on this account, and realized that I want to go back to some writing, but it is difficult given all the hours I’m spending programming, trying to make a deadline for a 2012 release of my next app.  SO I decide to put Jacob into the mix, although only a little. So for a while Shlomo’s Drash will be 500 words or less.  It’s a good exercise in getting me involved with little time commitment, and in writing a lot more concise pieces than I have before.

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Assignment Nov 7 2012

I Kings 8: 38-53

Koheleth 8:8

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Noah 5773: The Tower of Babel and the App Store

There is more to the world than the United States. That should be obvious, but events this week floored me into realizing it. What floors me more is that the very liberal, open-minded person that I thought I was could ever make that mistake.

This week’s Torah portion has two known stories, and that second one dovetails into my current thoughts so well: God becomes dissatisfied with all flesh on the earth, and thus plans to destroy them, saving one family, that of Noah, and a handful of animals. In the wake of the destruction that follows, God promises not to try that stunt again, using a rainbow for a contract. Noah, with a bad case of Post-Traumatic Stress, gets drunk and stupid. After the unpleasantness of this incident, a few more generations are born. With only a rainbow as a contract, these later generations don’t completely trust God. They decide to make a tower to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.

5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. 6 And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they purpose to do. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city.[Gen 11]

Something about these verses interests me.  God plans to confound their language, and instead scatters them. The text never say, that the people working on the tower first had their language changed and then were scattered. Genesis 11:9 seems to fill in that missing piece:

9 Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

I’m not sure they weren’t simultaneous acts. I’d go as far to say God confounded language by scattering people. We are limited by our perceptions, and even more by our physical senses. These limitations create a situation where we tend to think locally. What is outside our local sphere of perception is ignored, the lesson I learned this week.

Among the other things I do, I’m a budding app developer.  A friend of mine who is a public health educator had an idea for a counter for smartphone which would count the number of time one would wash their hands. I decide to explore the idea, and for the various festivities around the globe associated with Global Hand washing Day on October 15th, I’d give away the app as an educational item. I wrote the Handwashing Counter in about a month, and got it into the Apple App Store on October 11th.  Unfortunately, as of this writing I haven’t heard from my friend, so I assume she never promoted the app.

The marketing guru Seth Godin calls writing apps a sucker’s bet. The world is full of apps already. For you to be found in the top ten is not likely. If you aren’t in the top ten, you won’t make all that money you thought you would. I’m not making any money at this to be sure —  I’ve sold about 130 of my paid apps in the 8 months they have been in the App Store.   I did not expect a lot from the hand washing app given my main promotional never happened.  A week after introduction, there have been over 130 downloads of Handwash Counter, the most I have ever had for that period of time. There are now more downloads  in a week than all the paid apps I have ever sold. But what got me was this:  it was downloaded in 34 countries, yet only a quarter were in the U.S.

It was a shock to me, one that has got me thinking. The market is not the United States, it’s everyone else too. I had been thinking about one place, I was thinking local, when what I should have been doing is thinking global. God’s trick of making me distant from others got me.  I did an analytics check on this blog and the numbers are extremely different. Two thirds of my shlomosnewdrash hits are US based. This blog is a lot of English. The average entry is about 1200 words.  The Handwashing Counter app has very little in comparison.   With a few localization changes, the app works anywhere.  I’m planning to improve that.  I’m going to add more graphics to the app in its next version, because I can see the less words, the better.

God split us up at Babel the story goes.  Being too far away to talk or communicate meant variation came into the picture. In time that variation became different languages.  But what happens when that barrier of distance starts to break down?  A tweet I send right now is visible anywhere on the planet in a few seconds. We still have language barriers of course. The 18% of downloads by China and Russia require those users to know a Latin alphabet just to use the app.  Yet 75% of my downloads was from outside the US.  The Internet connects lot of people. With cell phones being the most common way in even developing countries to communicate, smartphones with web browsers are slowly becoming common in the most unlikely places.  We are getting closer to all having a link to everyone else, if only we had a common language again.

Thirty years ago, Steve Jobs took some  ideas from Xerox, whose executives thought it was not a profitable avenue for their company, and built an icon-based computer.  The Macintosh led to the icons found in every program and app we use today. The idea that ancient languages had, of using pictograms as visual language, returned. In doing so it became so much closer to a universal language again. Those icons, buttons and sliders that make up my apps are still easy ways for people to understand things.  It is a simple language. That I can transmit that anywhere is quite miraculous.

There is a bit of programming I do, actually mandated by Apple, known as delegates. Two parts of a program don’t talk to each other. In order to get them to talk, I have one program part, known as a class, have a requirement of what it thinks is communication, and the other class to do that part. If I want the communication both ways both classes need to have requirements and both need to make part of their code that requirement.

Babel was the time when we stopped communicating and started talking. We forget we need to be part of each other and know what that part was. We stopped having delegates to each other.  The program, the building of a great tower, collapsed.  God could have spread us half an inch apart from one another, but if we lose our ability to connect, we lose our ability to communicate. Even with the same vocabulary and grammar we can be talking different languages.  This week I have hope we can connect. A little app showed me there is hope we can all communicate.

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It really is a small world…and I’m small headed.

Rather interesting statistic came across my desk today which leaves me thinking. My downloads of apps are only 25% US and 75% the rest of the world. I’ve been missing the markets that are important, trying to market to the US, when just from search engine hits (though I don’t have analytics of where) I’m getting the vast majority of my downloads.

I’ve been a small headed American. I’m chastising myself a lot.

That said, thank you all for recommending the Handwashing app yesterday. My bumbling social media effort unfortunately failed, but I look at it as a learning experience. I have a lot to think about who my market is and how to serve them before attempting this again.

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For Global Handwashing day — Handwash Counter

There is a Global Handwashing Day — and it’s October 15.

The idea behind Global Handwashing day is to educate children around the world about good hand hygiene.
you can find out more here:



In honor of World Handwashing day, I have created a free app for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. Handwash counter does exactly what it says — it counts the number of times you wash your hands. It also can give you instructions for washing your hands, complete with a 20-second countdown timer.  To help educate and brig greater awareness of hand hygiene, please download my app from here:
Not washing your hands, even in biblical times, was considered fatal.  Torah mentions both the construction of a handsink and the washing of hands in Exodus 30:17-20.

17 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 18 ‘Thou shalt also make a laver of brass, and the base thereof of brass, whereat to wash; and thou shalt put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and thou shalt put water therein. 19 And Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat; 20 when they go into the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to cause an offering made by fire to smoke unto the LORD; 21 so they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not; and it shall be a statute for ever to them, even to him and to his seed throughout their generations.’ {P}



The world health organization estimate that millions of children would not fall ill to fatal diseases if all they did was wash their hands regularly with soap and water.  Do what you can to prevent disease. Wash your hands.




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Is Religion a Good Thing?

Is religion a good thing? For the last few years, it has been a question that seems to loom over many of us. There definitely are sides. There are atheists and religious fundamentalist positions vying for their one Truth, and there are many of us stuck in the middle. In the last few years, fundamentalism has risen its ugly head, not just to dictate to their congregation but force their view as the law of the land.

This is not the first time. Such corruption is as old as the Bible. One story is of course the story of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel and the Prophet Elijah. In their quest for an institutional religion, the king and queen massacre prophets, and Elijah has a price on his head. On the run, he heads south and ends up in a cave on Mount Sinai. Like Moses before him, Elijah gets to be in the presence of HaShem on the mountain:

And He said: ‘Go forth, and stand upon the mount before HaShem.’

And, behold, HaShem passed by,
a great and strong wind rent the mountains,
and broke in pieces the rocks before HaShem;
but HaShem was not in the wind;
and after the wind an earthquake;
but HaShem was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake a fire;
but HaShem was not in the fire;
and after the fire a still small voice.

And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said: ‘What doest thou here, Elijah?’
[I Kings 19]

Many many years ago a guy named Isaiah, inspired by God was angry about a corrupt priesthood. Isaiah cries out in the name of God:

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith HaShem; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations– I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.
Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith HaShem; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

The sacred ritual had become mere rules, devoid of their meaning, static and unmovable. While there were times they listened under Jeremiah, the priesthood and the kings remained corrupt. The priesthood died at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar’s army, but in the exile that followed, God was with the people. Jesus and his disciples was angry about a corrupt priesthood (actually political appointments from Rome). While they counted Cohanim among their numbers, The Rabbis of the Talmud also bristled at the travesty that the Temple had become.  The Talmud [Gittin 56a-b] makes some rather remarkable statements in the story of bar Kamza and the destruction of the Temple. First, ignoring hospitality even to one’s enemies, leaving them embarrassed, destroyed the temple: The second was fundamentalism destroyed the temple.

Rabbi Yohanan said, “The discretion of Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas destroyed our House, burned ourTemple, and exiled us from our Land.”

The fundamentalist rejects diversity by believing only the  static perception of someone else is the whole and entire truth. By this view one can not believe or even tolerate anything outside their truth, nor does their truth change and evolve. They do not acknowledge that there may be other truths for other people.  The truth is not just the truth for them but must be the law of the land. It must be enforced by Earthquakes, fire and wind. To the fundamentalist, the Infinite One which each of us humans can only understand in limited terms can only be described in one way, not as many as the number of people on the Earth or stars in the sky.

The story in Gittin continues with Rabbi Yohanan b. Zakkai faking his own death to be carried out of Jerusalem, meeting with the Roman general Vespasian and  essentially trading the old religion of Jerusalem for  an academy at Yavneh and rabbinic Judaism, changing everything to hear the still small voice away from the corrupt institution.  In the loss of everything, The Still Small Voice accompanied Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism wherever they ended up after the destruction of the Temple and Priesthood.

HaMakom is the omnipresent. The Divine is in all things, and it takes those who honor and respect that fact to keep and grow the holiness in the world. I am and know of many people who I will refer to as Benei Shechinah,  literally children of the Divine Presence, people who believe in a greater power that can manifest itself in the world around us. We believe in God, but may not believe what God is exactly the same way, nor do we completely agree on how to serve God, or even if service is what we are supposed to be doing.  What we can agree on is that  the Divine calls to each of us in different ways.  Those of us who agree enough alike to the questions “What is God”  or “What does God want of us?” may form a community, both small and big,  to grow together in their answers to those questions, or in finding new questions about those answers.

The Benei Shechinah are increasingly uncomfortable and questioning of what their greater communities, their religions,  are doing in the name of God. Religions more often  seem to take fundamentalist positions, or just acting corruptly and going against some the most important agreed on answers to the questions of service to God: caring for other human beings. Religion has become  as Isaiah rails, and Jesus famously quotes:

Thus says HaShem of hosts, the G-d of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place.
Don’t trust in lying words, saying: ‘The temple of HaShem, the temple of HaShem, the temple of HaShem, are these.’
But if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if you thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor;
If you oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt;
Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.
Here, you trust in lying words, that cannot profit.
Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye have not known,
Then come and stand before Me in this house, whereupon My name is called, and say: ‘We are delivered’, that ye may do all these abominations?
Is this house, whereupon My name is called, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Hey, I, even I, have seen it, says HaShem.[Isaiah 7]

Organizations, interested mostly in their own survival, both in socially and financially have never been good at this. They get bogged down in rules, cannot hear the still small voice in the Thunder and Fire and Earthquakes of their rules and enforcement. They consistently give false witness,  worshipping the false Idols, the Baal of Money,  and marketing false prophets for profit.

I look  to the biblical prophets, and the history of religion in the times after the prophets.  Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah all look to the institutions of the land, the kings and priesthood and condemn them for corruption and for not doing what is the most important things: care for other people, especially those people who are strangers widows and orphans, those who cannot care for themselves without help. Yet time after time, the greater institution fails in this. Survival of the fittest is not holy, Atlas shrugging is the act of a pagan god, though institutions fall into the trap repeatedly.  The prophetic books end with the destruction of the Temple, and exile to another land. Yet God goes with the people.  Many of the thinkers of the first Century Israel were just as fed up with the corruption of the Second Temple practices, for very much the same reasons. The Temple became a profit center for the rich and powerful, not a prophet center.  In Christianity, Jesus and his disciples had lots of problems with this system. So too in Jewish thought did the Rabbinic Mןnd. While the Tannaim of Talmud did preserve a lot of tradition of Temple Practices, they had no problem letting it crumble and be replaced by Rabbinic Judaism — which has survived longer than Temple Judaism ever did.

Rabbinic Judaism, where prayer and study  replaces sacrifice, has its origins in Biblical times. The centralization of all sacrifices in the Temple and destroying the high places, the Bamot, had an unintended effect. People couldn’t afford the the time or money to come to Jerusalem frequently — so they started studying and praying instead. The institution was replaced by the community. By the time of the destruction of the Temple, this was a common practice, coming together in small prayer communities instead of the mass institution and spectacle of the Temple sacrifice. Our smaller prayer communities, the synagogue, church or prayer circle, emerged from these original communities.

Some grew into larger organizations. There are advantages to larger organizations. There can be a consistency of message over many smaller communities. There can also be a bigger force of message and action when many people band together. Yet there is an even bigger chance of depersonalizing the Benei Shechinah’s  diverse, personal witnessing of the Holy One. There is an even bigger, and fallacious idea that the survival of the organization, of the religion,  is paramount to the the survival of the small communities and the individuals within them. Biblical precedent is clear here: the first and second Temples were destroyed, and with them the priesthood and sacrifice system. Judaism survived both, and in the ashes of the Second Temple, Christianity arose as well. The Shechinah will abandon the religion and it capricious rules made by humans, but The Shechinah does not abandon any of her children.

We are once again in a time where we see so many counter examples of “love thy neighbor.” People often treating the widow, orphan and stranger with cruelty instead of kindness in the name of religion and the Baal of economic necessity. There are many who are obsessed  with what they would call Sodomy, that brutal force is necessary to suppress it, instead of believing what both Isaiah 7 and Genesis Rabbah  make clear: the sin of Sodom was to treat the stranger, and indeed everyone, with evil intentions, not homosexuality.  Sodomites were rapists, and would rape anyone, any way on sight, not care to the needs of the stranger or the weak.  It is not the sin of those referred to in  one small verse in Leviticus 18:22. The sin of Sodom, found dozens of times in the Bible, is the core sin of many fundamentalists today. Their religion stands on oppressing the weak. Their religions stands on  oppressing women and denying the status of human being to GLBT people within and outside their community.

Yet, this is the voice of some institutions and religions — there are others who have different views. Even more so the still small voice in the small communities  of God, the Kehillat HaShem,  who may  even associate with a institution, work towards the goals of seeing the Divine in all things and all people, then act on that with a respect and goodness. It is not the big organization that will bring about the will of God and Tikkun Olam. It is the small community, as it was in days of old.

The Talmud [Sanhedrin 38 a] Gives the greatness of God being compared to to a king who mints his own coins:

Our Rabbis taught: [The creation of the first man alone] was to show forth the greatness of the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. For if a man mints many coins from one mould, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned all men in the mold of the first man, and not one resembles the other

On each coin is an image of the king and all are the same. But God mints coins in his own image, and  yet no two are the same. We are God’s currency each witnessing  and completing Creation differently.  We are all unique and holy, but when we get together as a group holiness increases. As the Perkei Avot  [3:3]tells us that for three to eat and talk of Torah, The Holy One Joins them at their table. Community is important and does makes us stronger, and creates a synthesis  — a presence of God — that one person alone cannot manage.

Religion is a dressing of organization over our servitude to God. There is no word for religion in ancient Hebrew, — it is an alien term to  scripture, never mentioned. Religion is neither bad or good — but its institutions, in their desire for self-preservation may lose their way, and often end up corrupt and evil. As thought they are prophets, It is up to individuals and the smaller communities who might be under the umbrella of a religion to stand up and make there voice and action known, for like the Temples before it, the institution will fall, but the Divine Presence will accompany her children wherever they journey.

As Elijah found out on Mount Sinai, the thunder and fire of religious institutions is not where God resides, but in the still small voice within the practitioner. To listen to the still small voice is not enough, we need to get together with others. Let us share our still small voices in community and heed them in doing gemilut hasidim, good works, in our selves, in our community, for the poor, the oppressed,  and for our world.

It takes the individual to truly believe, not the organization. It is good to have a community who share experiences and ways of experiencing and bringing Ribbono Shel Olam more into the world in their own ways, like helping the widow orphan and stranger in their midst. Like Elijah, we may have the whole world, government, and priesthood after our head. But we do not listen to their thunder, fire and wind, because God is not there. We together listen instead to The Still Small Voice, for there is where הקדוש ברוך הוא The Holy One Blessed be sHe, really is.

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Sukkot 5773: Is the Simple Life Complex?

Since I was about five years old, I’ve been involved in building a sukkah. My family did not have our own in our own yard, but we did put together every year a sukkah in the parking lot of our synagogue. Every year my dad led the congregational effort, and came up with a new design each time. In Rochester, New York Sukkot was not just when the leaves fell but the sun would hide behind clouds until sometime in late spring. Often there were a few snowflakes in the air, though it was never an accumulation. Building that sukkah every year is one of my fondest childhood memories.

That memory surfaces every year as I now build sukkahs along with my congregation. there is a holiness about making a sukkah that I don’t find in many rituals, it is also one which I do the most in joy, no matter what the ever unpredictable Autumn weather brings.

Only five days prior to Sukkot we read about a sukkah in the Yom Kippur Mincha Haftarah. Jonah makes one to see what happens to Nineveh. The roof leaks light and heat of the sun burns him. Only the gourd gives him comfort, which promptly dies the next day. IN other biblical stories, At the town of Sukkot Jacob builds a house for himself and builds sukkot for his cattle, naming the town.

We also have the סכת שלמך the shelter of peace from the liturgy. In English we might call this a booth or a hut. Hebrew’s verbal counterpart to Sukkah(סכה) is Sachach(סכך) a word meant to overshadow, screen or cover. Our sukkot screen or shadow us. The Talmud of Sukkot begins the tractate by stating that if there is more sun than shade coming though the sukkah’s roof, it is not a valid Sukkah. Yet it is not a complete covering and must be made of plant material.

While I was sitting in the sun on Brannake Beach on the Island of Kauai, a local family put up a portable tent in about fifteen minutes. I had some interesting conversations with them, but I was rather interested in their point of view as locals about being out in the sun and being on the beach. The point of the tent was to keep the blazing sun out while able to see everything in this beautiful place. It may not have been a sukkah, but it was doing the same thing — keeping the sun out, but let them see the sea turtles swimming by, the crashing wakes against the rocks, the surfers riding a wave towards the shore.

The sukkah has a simple purpose. It’s supposed to be a simple booth. But when we put together the sukkah this year at my congregation, it took hours, not the fifteen minutes of the well-engineered popup tent. The complexity of the task is in fact amazing. It may be a simple hut but takes a good chunk of Talmud to describe its building.

My life is complex. Lately, I’ve begun to simplify things. I’m thinking about life in an idealized sukkah, the simple shelter, kind of way. I started to think about simple around the time of another Harvest festival, Shavuot, when I was told to pack up my office for the remodel of the offices at work. I realized I had a lot of stuff to pack. My office was crowded with stuff. For most of the summer, I was in a temporary location, either in another part of the building or in my own office, sharing it with others who offices were being remodeled.
There was a lot of stuff I shoved into boxes. As I unpacked however, something extraordinary happened. I started to not put things back, but throw them away or donate them. I realized in my office and in my home how much stuff I had accumulated.

Some people are good at accumulating things — they have problems throwing them away. I’m not not talking about hoarders here, just people who have a hard time getting rid of something. They reason the stuff might be of use later. I’m one of those. In what I do there times that is a very good strategy. But many times it is not.

Complexity in my life often come from collecting things and not letting go of it. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that is true of. Some of my things, as I mentioned in my Yizkor Drash, are hooks to memory, and cannot be thrown out because I want to remember my mom through some of her stuff. There is my artworks and sculptures, there to remind me that I can accomplish things. And there is my book collection, a reference library on several topics I’m involved in: Programming, Web design, Jewish studies, Educational Psychology, Business, Science, and Regulatory Affairs. That’s just the stuff I have reason to have in my office. There is also stuff I’m not quite sure why it is there. I just ignore it like it is invisible. That would be the problem stuff.

This week, I stand in a sukkah. Everything is so simple. There is a table and I eat. I shake a lulav and etrog. So much like the way I’d like my office to be — simple. In my dreams, I sit down in my office and I work on one thing until it is done. How nice it wold be but that is far from the truth. Looking out of that tent on the beach in Kauai, and looking out of the sukkah, I realize life isn’t simple. Outside the shade of simplicity that is the sukkah is a complex life — it can’t be avoided. Like the sun coming trough the windows of my office, I will have infinite interruptions and complexities in my day and I will get nowhere in any of the simple tasks of my day.

But complexity can be mitigated. The high holidays, besides ridding of what most would call sin, also gives us time to remove the needless complexities of our lives. The evaluation of our sins is the sealed judgement of Yom Kippur. The evaluation of the complexities is Sukkot, in living in the simplest kind of structure. Similiarly, I can throw out the needless junk in my office. All of it leads to a new beginning, the beginning of the Torah cycle and of the story of Creation.

We come out of Sukkot ready to create a new world for ourselves, one we hope is better, and in some sense simpler than the last one.

May your new world be a good one.

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Now available: The Tzaddik Of Klaas in Print

My First book, the Tzaddik Of Klaas is now available on Createspace, and soon on Amazon. com in print. It is also available for Kindle for $0.99

When a thief starts looking for redemption, he goes to the Great Hasidic Master the Baal Shem Tov. After a puzzling encounter with the great man, he learns of a plot to destroy the village and the Baal Shem Tov. When the thief creates an insane plan to save the town, he starts something that will change the world forever.

Now Available on Create Space.

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Post Yom Kippur 5773: Return, Again.

I believe in Signs from God. That I just got one certainly colors my view. That it was the same sign as I got seventeen years ago just rattles me. While I’ve written about this before, there is a bit of my old history that you need to understand what happened this Yom Kippur.
Just after my Bar Mitzvah, after great Haftara reading, I was asked to do the afternoon Torah reading for Yom Kippur. In more traditional liturgy, this is Leviticus 18, the odd inclusion in the service which lists prohibited sexual conduct and other prohibitions like turning your child into a burnt sacrifice. In retrospect, it was not very smart of our rabbi to give me a NC-17 rated reading like that. It soured me, not for any one line*, but the entirety of the piece. It shattered my Hebrew school image of Judaism, and in the emptiness left I went elsewhere of a spirituality that worked for me. For many years, into my adulthood, I was involved in Taoism and Zen, not Judaism.
Everything changed on a summer study abroad program to Rome for graduate school when I had a dream. In the dream, a Hasidic rabbi and I were alone in a room freshly plastered, yet without doors. The Rabbi told me to fresco on the walls some passages in Hebrew, though he did not tell me what. Though I did not know how to read Hebrew at the time, I began to write perfectly, and even knew what I was writing: the Shema. As I got through the fresco of the third wall, somewhere in the middle of Haya Im Shmoah, the room begun to spin, and the letters spun upwards towards Heaven like a upside-down tornado.
I had never had a dream like it. It began a search for a place I would belong as a Jew. A year later, almost in the same place as the first, I had a second dream which told me a lot of where I would go. That place turned out to be a Jewish Renewal Congregation on Chicago’s South Side, Makom Shalom.
After my return, I wondered where the dream came from. Was it all original material? It took me a few years but I had an idea of its source. In the Yom Kippur liturgy is the stories of the ten Talmudic martyrs. One of these was the story of Hanina b. Teradyon:

His death was terrible. Wrapped in the scroll, he was placed on a pyre of green brush; fire was set to it, and wet wool was placed on his chest to prolong the agonies of death….His heartbroken disciples then asked: “Master, what seest thou?” He answered: “I see the parchment burning while the letters of the Law soar upward.”(Avodah Zarah 17b et seq.).

By the time I learned that fact I was entrenched in the masters of Jewish studies program at Spertus, and could read that passage not only in english, but the original Aramaic. Shlomo’s Drash was born in the period, and for quite a while I was writing regualrly.
While I was faltering for a while before my mom’s death, as I wrote last time, her death killed Shlomo’s drash, and in my anger towards God for taking her away, just about killed my motivation for anything Jewish.
Then came this Yom Kippur, when God made absolutely sure I got the point. It started on Rosh Hashanah when a friend of mine was looking for people to do readings for the part of the Yom Kippur service she was leading.Without ever looking at the reading I agreed.
I looked at it Yom Kippur morning as I was getting dressed for services, and burst out crying. It was a poetic interpretation of the martyrdom of Rabbi Hanina b. Teradyon.

…He who will see this desecrated Torah
will make good, somehow, my dying
I see the parchment burn
but the Letters are soaring to their source
You may burn a Torah
But Torah will not be consumed
You may kill Jews
but the Jews will survive
and serve witness
to the Genesis– patterns of creation
and the Isaiah — prophecies of hope.
[ Danny Siegel pg 902 Kol Ha Neshama Mahzor]

When I got to services, I asked the friend who assigned the reading, if I had told her the story of the dream in Rome. She had no idea what I was talking about. Not to leave that to coincidence, while I wandering about, waiting for the doors to the sanctuary to open, there was a new display in this synagogue we were renting for services. It was a Holocaust Torah, one of many the Nazis collected and stored when busy destroying everything else Jewish. It has been damaged to the point it could not be repaired, and so was on loan as a display piece. On the display was the words of Hanina b. Teradyon.
The words of Hanina ben Teradyon
Maybe some will take this a coincidence. Maybe some will say it was my subconscious. playing tricks on me. I’m still of the belief that it was all too strange to be any of that but a sign from God. Like it did the last time, I was to return. As I got my seat and put on my talit for services to begin, I thought of the song that was popular at my renewal synagogue way back when:

Return again
Return again
Return to the land of your soul.

Of course that was when services started with the choir singing, yes, Return again.

The song makes sense. The word teshuvah means not only repentance, but return. Nothing like a blatant message from God. So, unlike Jonah’s vain attempt at fleeing, I’m back, returning once again.

Don’t think I have much choice, unless I want more signs.

*Though Lev 18:22 would dog me for my entire adult life, cause some of the most serious swings in my life-path, and in ways I never would have imagined. But that’s another story and another Drash all together.

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