“Stories From Eve’s Tree” coming up soon

Y’all, my maggid troupe is putting on a show and I’m going to be in it. The show is called “Stories From Eve’s Tree” and you can read about it on the Web site. The show is coming together amazingly well and I’m really excited about it. Guys, it’s going to be so good, seriously. The stories everyone will be telling are funny, profound, touching, and you will cry at least once, I guarantee. (But you’ll laugh too! I swear.) These women are such skilled storytellers it kind of freaks me out to be among them. Come to the show and enjoy the hell out of it. It’s going to be awesome.

D’var Torah for Shacharit, Yom Kippur 5773

On Yom Kippur, we read from the Torah about the origins of Yom Kippur itself. We learn about the Yom Kippur sacrifices, commanded to take place every year on the tenth day of the seventh month. The portion we’re about to read concentrates largely on the sacrifice of a pair of goats.

The ancient rite of Yom Kippur must have been something to behold. We think we’re worn out after hours sitting in synagogue… imagine watching while Aaron and his sons brought sacrifice after sacrifice, changing their garments and ritually washing their hands and feet at various points in the service. I imagine that by the time they led in the two goats in the early afternoon, the service was at a fever pitch.  The priests had already drawn lots from to determine which goat was to be sacrificed to G-d as a sin offering and which was to be sent into the desert to atone for the people. Aaron sacrificed the goat “for G-d” as a sin offering on behalf of the Kohanim, the priests, saying aloud the unpronounceable name of G-d while the people prostrated themselves, just as we will do later today. Shortly after that Aaron took the Azazel goat to the gate, leaned his hands on its head, and confessed the sins of the entire people of Israel. Rather like the Al Chet today, Aaron called out a general confession while those in the crowd would confess their own sins privately. When all those sins were piled onto the goat, Aaron led it into the desert, leaving behind only forgiveness for all the people. It must have been some kind of exciting when he returned, knowing all that burden of sin had been carried away.

So what *is* Azazel exactly? Well, the origins of the name “Azazel” is a matter of some debate. The most widely accepted theory is that the name refers to a desert demon that was feared by the people living around the region. Nachmanides viewed sending the goat “to Azazel” as a way of symbolically sendingthe people’s wrongdoings back to “the source of impurity”. That probably sounds pretty familiar to most ofus… sending the sins of the people away into the desert is a pretty heavy symbolic gesture. But let’s talk for a minute about the goats themselves, not as symbols, but the actual animals.

In Tracate Yoma of the Talmud, the rabbis say: “The mitzvah is for them [the goats] to be identical in appearance, size, and value, the two shall be chosen together.” The goats are to be so similar they could be mistaken for twins. It seems like a strange choice. Shouldn’t there be something to differentiate the goat that’s being sacrificed to G-d and the goat being sent into the desert bearing the sins of the people?  One might think so, but this isn’t the case. The goats were selected by casting lots, so it was mere random chance that made one goat designated for G-d and the other goat for Azazel. In Western society we’re accustomed to black and white, either/or thinking. It’s not too much of a stretch to think of the Azazel goat as “bad” and the other goat as “good” — or at least the goat for Hashem as “sacred” and the Azazel goat “profane”. So what can we make of the fact that the goats were similar in every way except for their final destinations? I’ll come back to that in a minute.

It seems any time we talk about the Azazel ritual, sooner or later we’re going to talk about the Azazel goat as representing the yetzer ha-ra, the evil impulse. And we hear that, perhaps, the sending away of the Azazel goat symbolises our resistance to temptation to give in to that evil impulse. The idea that we should “send the evil away from us” is a very popular one, and with good reason. All of us have impulses or habits that we just don’t like about ourselves. Whether it’s how we talk to our children when we’re tired or the fact that we don’t stand up for ourselves to our parents, or even just some seemingly minor habit like being unable to give up drinking soda, we all have things that trouble us about ourselves. And we wish we could exile those parts of ourselves — those parts that we think are awful, in favor of the things we like about ourselves. I can’t count the number of times in my life I’ve wished I could just send away destructive habits and behaviors.

And most of us really do try! With the best of intentions, we push away the parts of ourselves that we think are “undesirable”, especially the secret ones of which we’re ashamed. And sometimes this works. But for most of us, what happens more often than not is that our “bad goats” just come wandering back to us. What’s wrong with this picture?

During the High Holy Days, and especially on Yom Kippur, we face this issue like no other time of year. If we’re engaged in the process of teshuvah, this struggle with ourselves can be the most exhausting thing we do over the course of the Ten Days. It’s hard work getting down to the bottom of things and pulling up all those nasties we’ve tried to ignore or get rid of for the past year. And it’s tempting to punish ourselves. After all, we’ve done wrong, and wrongdoers deserve to be punished, right?

I submit to you today that this is the wrong approach.

Do we need to take responsibility for our actions? Absolutely. But owning up to what we do wrong and beating ourselves up for it aren’t the same thing.

I said we were going to come back to the twin goats. Like those goats, our “good” and “bad” parts are extremely similar, because they are both from within ourselves. We can’t have the good and exile the bad. We can’t be the people we actually are in reality without the parts of ourselves we wish we could destroy. To try to send away our shameful, secret “goats” is to try to destroy a part of ourselves! It’s no more possible or desirable to remove our evil impulse than it would be to cut off a limb.

And both sides of us need the same thing: acceptance. It’s easy to accept the good parts of us, but not so easy to embrace our own shortcomings. But this is the most crucial point of all, because you see, the only thing that transforms our “evil impulse” is loving it.  It’s hard to say to yourself, “I love myself for yelling at my kids” or “I love myself for not forgiving my mother” or “I love myself for neglecting my partner”. But I tell you, this is the path to freedom: to love yourself, not in spite of your faults, but because of them. Once we can truly embrace *every* part of who we are, we accept our own reality, we stop punishing ourselves for *being* ourselves, and we can truly start to change.

Because punishment doesn’t transform anything. It only makes us feel *more* pain and *more* sadness. Being punished, especially when we’re the ones doing the punishing, makes us feel small and ashamed. Shame and self-hatred have never and can never give rise to more loving behavior. If we can fully and completely love ourselves *because* of our faults, exactly as we are, we give ourselves the ultimate gift and the best tool for self-betterment we can ever find.

It seems like a paradox, but it’s true: the only thing stronger than fear is love, and only love can shine a light on our dark corners.  Only love can give us the space to truly change.

The liturgy of Yom Kippur reminds us that for sins against another human being, atoning to G-d alone won’t suffice. We must make amends with that person before we can be forgiven. Perhaps we not only need to remember this when it comes to others, but apply the same principle to forgiving ourselves.

As we go through the solemn pageantry of this holy day, as we talk about the ancient, original scapegoat, let us not scapegoat ourselves. As we do our very hard work of self-examination for another year, let us remember that we’re each doing our best. May we all find a way to embrace our inner goat and to transform ourselves, not through punishment and exile, but through true love and acceptance. Blessings to your transformation this Yom Kippur, and may you find the space to love and accept yourself no matter where you are in your journey.

Hebrew Name Translation: Yisraela Nivchara

Okay, in my last post I talked a little about having fun with translating and interpreting Hebrew. I’m going to apply this process to the one thing most Jews have in common: the Hebrew name.

Almost all Jews get a religious name, whether at birth for born Jews or at conversion for Jews-by-choice. Most commonly the name is Hebrew, although I understand some Sephardic Jews use Ladino for their religious names, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn some eastern European Jews use Yiddish. But for most of us our religious name is Hebrew.

Names in Judaism are extremely powerful, especially Hebrew names, because Hebrew letters are considered in the tradition to have cosmic and mystical significance. In some of the mystical traditions of Judaism, changing one’s name can change one’s entire life, fortune, and health. And religious names are almost always considered based at least partially on the meaning of the words. Assigning a Hebrew name can be a way of imbuing the person with the characteristics associated with that name. The name Gavriel, for example, means “G-d is my strength”, which seems like a nice wish to make for a new baby.

So one of the very fun ways to get comfortable with doing your own interpretations of Hebrew words is to take your Hebrew name and come up with an etymologically grounded poetic translation. For example, my Hebrew name is Yisraela Nivchara bat Avraham v’Sarah. I won’t go into details about how I got here, but I’ll give you the rough meanings:

Yisraela (יִשְׂרְאֵלָה)  = “contending/wrestling with G-d”

Nivchara (ניבחרה) = “to be chosen or selected”

bat (בַּת) = “daughter of”

Avraham (אַבְרָהָם) = “father of a multitude”

Sarah (שָׂרָה) = “princess, noblewoman, queen”

So I could put together the interpretation of my Hebrew name like this:

“She Who Chooses to Wrestle with G-d, Contentious Daughter of the Benevolent Head of the Clan and the Queen who Holds Dominion with Power”.

Quite a mouthful, yes? This is a five-minute interpretation. By digging into the etymology further, we can find even more gems. Whiiiiiich is what I’ll be doing in my NEXT POST! Word!

Fun with Hebrew Etymology and Torah Poetics

So I’m doing a minimal amount of work on the job today, due to being tired, which leaves me some free time to do something I like more than geeking out with computers: playing with Hebrew. Yippee!

Hebrew has a high barrier to entry for a lot of liberal Jews — among other reasons, there are considerable mental gymnastics required to learn a new alphabet, memorize vocabulary, and deal with the weirdness of learning a language with an unusual vowel system, especially when you’re trying to do all those things at the same time. But it’s worth learning, at least as much as you can manage. I’m going to talk a bit now about how I work when I write poetic translations of Torah (see here for examples).

One of the really fun things about doing the poetic translations is gleaning fresh insight from the Hebrew words and phrases. Hebrew is ancient, and originated from a completely different mindset than we’re used to in the West. Ancient Hebrew doesn’t have the concept of abstraction from reality. That is, every word in ancient Hebrew (or at least the three-letter root word) has its origins in something concrete from the real world. The word רֵאשִׁית (re’sheit), for example, which we find in the very first verse of the Torah, is usually translated as “beginning”. So we usually read “In the beginning G-d created…”.  רֵאשִׁית/re’sheit comes from an unused root word. That root word also gives us רֹאשׁ (rosh), meaning, among other things, “head of a man”, “top of a mountain”, “chief of the nation”, “height of stars”. It’s pretty easy to see how רֹאשׁ/rosh and רֵאשִׁית/re’sheit are related, and how the concrete notions of being the head or top could morph into the abstract concept of “beginning”.  Add that to the fact that every word in Biblical Hebrew either comes from a three-letter root word or is itself a root word, and you get whole groups of seemingly unrelated words that in fact share a common core, and therefore can be linked in meaning in some way.

You can also gain multiple meanings from one word, depending on the original meaning of the root and how the word has evolved. It’s not too far a stretch to then go into the original Hebrew of the Torah and translate poetically, not just literally. The ambiguity of the language really allows for some stretch and pull if you’re open to new things.

I use Blue Letter Bible for much of my translation work. The site utilizes Strong’s Concordance, which is the premier work when it comes to finding the original meanings of the Hebrew words. Strong’s takes every single word in the Bible and gives the definition, the root word, and some context for the word. I highly, highly recommend Strong’s… it’s just extremely useful.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert in Hebrew by any means. There is so much depth to the language that I don’t yet get because I don’t speak Hebrew other than for prayer. What I’m doing basically amounts to decoding a cipher. In time I will learn more and my translations will (hopefully) be more insightful. For now, I get as much meaning as I can and hope I can touch on a spark of wisdom now and again.

In my next post I’ll nerd out by translating a Hebrew name using this poetic style. THIS IS SO MUCH FUN YOU GUYS. YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW.

S’micha weekend!

Please join us for any or all the following events!

Erev Shabbat Services: Friday, January 27th, 7:30 PM

Shabbat Morning Services: Saturday, January 28th, 10:00 AM

Both services completely maggid-led! Festive lunch to follow Shabbat morning service!

Maggid Storytelling Concert: Saturday, January 28th, 7:30 PM

Admission is FREE!

S’micha (Graduation Ceremony): Sunday, January 29th, 2:00 PM

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 32:1-4, retranslated

Devarim 32:1-4 is a good example of parallelism, a device often employed in Hebrew poetry, where two clauses of a sentence are directly related to each other in some way. They may say the same thing in similar ways, or perhaps contrast each other, but in any case, the parallel phrases are a hallmark of Biblical poetry and a very important device to study if you want to understand Biblical poetry. (See here for a decent overview of parallelism.)

This particular passage shows Moshe (Moses) speaking to the assembled Israelites right before his death, on the brink of the people going up to the promised land. He starts off with these four p’sukim (verses), what my teacher calls his Storyteller’s Prayer.What I’ve done here is rewrite this snippet from Devarim using my own parallels. Most of the other reinterpretations I do are grounded in the original Hebrew, which is to say I take all the definitions of the Hebrew words and play around with them, spinning them around a bit using some artistic license, with the purpose of ending up with etymologically based poetry, rather than a strict translation. In this case I have only referred to the etymology obliquely and usually only to help set the tone of the poem. Mostly I just tried to feel the spirit of the original and let that lead me. Enjoy.

The original, from the J.C. Hertz Torah commentary:

Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak;
And let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
My doctrine shall drop as the rain,
My speech shall distil as the dew;
As the small rain upon the tender grass,
And as the showers upon the herb.
For I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
Ascribe ye greatness unto our God.
The Rock, His work is perfect;
For all His ways are justice;
A god of faithfulness and without iniquity,
Just and right is He.

The Punk Maggid retranslation:

Hear my song, O Universe, all you stars and suns and nebulae,
listen to the niggun I chant for you, digging moles and Douglas firs.
Torah, the light and the fire, sparks from my fingers, my head, my mouth.
My words crackle along the page.
Black fire smoldering behind my eyes,
white fire consuming my kishkes,
I can only burst forth like a phoenix into my flaming song,
crooning, “HashemAdonaiShaddaiShechinahYahElohimRibbonoShelOlam,
you are so fucking magnificent, divine holy sweet thing…”
She is the whole mama earth,
the swirling, silent ocean,
compassionate, loving, all-only-ever embracing,
mending every broken, splintered bit
of my hurricane-wrecked heart.
Solid like the redwood, fair like the rain,
she is the one truly undeniable thing in my world.


Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1-8, retranslated

(See Ecclesiastes chapter 3 at mechon-mamre.org for the original Hebrew and JPS English translation. This translation is grounded in the Hebrew etymology.)

For everything there is a set time,
and an experience of every desire beneath the stars:

A time to create and midwife creation,
and a time to be extinguished;
a time to be grounded,
and a time to be yanked up from your ground.

A time to annihilate,
and a time to stitch a wound back together;
a time to crack and break,
and a time to be restored from exile.

A time to cry bitterly over those lost,
and a time to sing and play;
a time to beat the chest with grief,
and a time to stomp the ground in joyous dance.

A time to throw off your stony heart-shield,
and a time to heap up your sacred jewels;
a time to hold close,
and a time to hold yourself distant.

A time to find what you want,
and a time to give it up as lost;
a time to preserve and protect,
and a time to throw off.

A time to tear away,
and a time to stitch together;
a time to be still and quiet,
and a time to declare yourself.

A time to desire with your every breath,
and a time to loathe and detest;
a time to fight as a warrior,
and a time to make wholeness, completeness, peace.