Blog: July 2005

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Meeting with my rabbi

I met with my rabbi today and we talked about the Sh'liach K'hilah program. We talked a lot about writing eulogies because I mentioned it early (new content from last year) and because I said I didn't think I did a very good job with mine. He gave me a lot of good advice there, some of it much more general than eulogies.

We talked a little about delivery, especially when working with a set text (not notes). It's fine -- even not uncommon -- to go ahead and write in stage directions to address your weaknesses -- "slow down", "breathe", "look up", etc. Color highlighting can mark phrases that ought to be emmphasized or places where you specifically want to pause. No one else will see your copy; do whatever works.

I mentioned the challenge of the text-study assignment (I characterized it as "working with people you don't know at all, with different backgrounds, to produce something quickly"), but we didn't really get into it. Another time, maybe. Or maybe I've learned all I can from that experience already.

We talked about next steps within the congregation. He's still a little unsure of how to handle Friday-night services; he said he'd be happy to have me read torah, so maybe I'll start with that. We talked about kabbalat shabbat with no resolution; I said that there's only one Shabbat in the next several months I'll be away and he has but to name a date. We got interrupted while we were talking about this and didn't get to finish, so I'll follow up.

I did not get a chance to ask about further study (much); I haven't asked his opinion about Melton, Drisha, Hebrew College, and others. I'd like to hear his thoughts on those. Next meeting, then.

I did ask (on the way out the door) about Hebrew. He mentioned a publisher called EKS as a good source. I mentioned courses at Pitt; he thinks they start with modern and then go to biblical and you can't just jump into biblical there. But, he said, you really have to learn the two together anyway; you can't do just biblical and be effective. So he thinks a two-pronged approach would work: learn modern at JEI and biblical with him, replacing our talmud study with Hebrew study. The next round of courses at JEI should start in September, so I'll see what they have to offer. The course I took there several years ago didn't work for me, but it's been several years and maybe that style of teaching will work better now.

Edit: Ok, I thought EKS sounded vaguely familiar. I actually have one of their books. A friend and I started to work through it a while back. Time to pull it out again.

Sh'lach l'cha: the wood-gatherer

Last week during the Sh'liach K'hilah program I gave a d'var torah. I spoke from notes rather than fully writing it out in advance. Now I'm writing down very approximately what I said from those notes.


The portion of Sh'lach L'cha records the incident with the wood-gatherer. To review, on Shabbat two men find a third outside the camp gathering wood, a clear violation of the laws of Shabbat they have been given. The men bring the wood-gatherer to Moshe and ask what to do. Moshe, in turn, asks God, who pronounces a death sentence. Pretty harsh!

The talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin, elaborates the laws of capital offenses. These laws are designed to prevent capital punishment; Rabbi Akiva said that a court that executes one person in 70 years is a bloodthirsty court. In order for a death sentence to even be possible, the following conditions have to be met: there must be two witnesses; they must warn the person that he is about to commit a capital offense; he must acknowledge that warning and say he intends to do it anyway; and they must then directly see him do it.

If I understand rabbinic tradition correctly, that the wood-gatherer was executed means that all of that happened in this case. So why didn't the two men prevent this? Where did things go wrong?

When the men bring the wood-gatherer to Moshe, the word in the text is karov. This means "bring" or "draw near". We know this root from other contexts: a korban, usually translated as "sacrifice", is the means by which b'nei Yisrael draws closer to God. And the word kiruv is generally understood to mean "outreach". You know how, when you're walking down the street, a Lubavicher might stop and ask you if you light Shabbat candles, and then give you candles and teach you the blessing? That's kiruv. When an observant family invites you to Shabbat dinner so that you'll experience the joy of the day, that's kiruv. Kiruv is about bringing Jews closer to Judaism -- by drawing them in, not admonishing them. While many of our congregations have outreach programs of various sorts, true kiruv is one on one, one Jew to another. It's not really about adult-ed classes and congregational dinners, nice as those things are too.

I had always understood the witnesses against the wood-gatherer as trouble-makers -- "look what he's doing! stop him!". But I think what we're seeing here is a failed kiruv attempt -- they weren't prosecuting a case; they were saying to Moshe "do something to help this person". Why did this fail? Perhaps because the men failed in their own responsibility, making it Moshe's problem instead of taking a more active role themselves. Our leaders can't be everywhere nor can they solve all of our problems personally; we have to do some things ourselves. We are taught kol Yisrael arevim zeh l'zeh, all Israel is responsible one for another. The men made a good start by recognizing a need, but they didn't follow through.

Next week after Shabbat services, look around at the oneg. Do you see the guy standing in the corner, the one no one talks to because he's socially awkward? What about the 30-something single woman who doesn't have kids and maybe feels a little out of place in a family-focused congregation? What about the 90-year-old who has no local family, but he's been a member of this congregation all his life? And these are the ones who came -- how many others in the congregation aren't even here?

What can we as individuals do for these people? We could invite them over for Shabbat or for a meal in the sukkah. We could invite them to a Chanukah party or a Yom Kippur break-fast. Or it could be something secular, going out to a group dinner or to a movie or the like. Or, more simply, we could talk with them. Do you know their names? Do they have families? What do they enjoy doing in their free time? Do you know why someone who's usually there every week hasn't been around for a month? Is he on vacation, or is he sick?

Kiruv doesn't have to be big and official; in fact, it shouldn't be. It's the small, individual acts that will draw the people on the fringes of our community toward the center. And these small, individual acts are things we can all do without relying on our leaders. Sure, it's not always easy -- but we don't have to do it all at once. Any step we take is better than taking no step at all.

May we develop the ability to treat the outliers in our communities better than the men in this portion treated the wood-gatherer. Kein y'hi r'tzono, may this be God's will.

Post-HUC thoughts

Sunday morning we had a low-key service and then a wrap-up session where we talked about taking what we'd done there back to our congregations. It was a mellow day. Then we turned in our evaluation forms and keys, said our goodbyes, and left.

The drive home took me five hours, with three quick stops. (I've discovered that my steering wheel vibrates just a little; I found I needed to rest my hands. I wonder what that means.) Sunday drivers seem to be more annoying than Friday drivers, but whatever. I was glad to have music and AC in the car. :-)

At the final session one of the other students asked the group how many would be interested in a program next year focused on text study. About a dozen hands went up, which I find gratifying. I feared that there were only four or five of us, which wouldn't be critical mass. (It would be if we were all in the same city or at least region, but not spread out over the country like we are.) And there'd be no reason not to open it up to previous classes too, up to whatever size limit makes sense, so we could do this. A couple people volunteered to host it, but I still want to see if we can do it at HUC. For one thing, it's a compromise for everyone. But more importantly, how can you do serious text study without the resources of a good library? Their library is very good.

So I plan to ask Rachel (the main organizer) if "we're not doing it" means "we aren't doing the work" or "not here". If they'd let us use the site, I think others of us can arrange for there to be a program of study for the people who come. Heck, I could organize something like this, assuming they're willing to put us in touch with student rabbis and maybe even some faculty. Obviously we'd have to talk a lot about money, but since the actual organization would be by volunteers (mostly) and the faculty shouldn't be more expensive than this year (we'd probably use more students and fewer faculty), it ought to be possible to do it for no more than what we paid this yaer -- unless HUC subsidized the program. Ok, that's another thing to ask about.

I'm also going to look into Melton and Drisha and Hebrew College and other ideas, and I'll see what my rabbi thinks would make sense (since he knows me well). Everything's wide open at this point.

I need to work on Hebrew if I'm going to go much farther, I think. I haven't been able to coax much useful information out of University of Pittsburgh's web site. They offer Hebrew courses (that much I can tell); I can't tell whether Biblical Hebrew is an entry point or if they have you take modern first. And they don't have a fall schedule up, nor fees. I'll have to check back later.

Sh'liach K'hilah: Friday and Saturday

(Written Saturday night.)

I mis-characterized this program before. (To be fair, so did one of the organizers.) I had said that last year was focused on information and this year was focused on practical skills. But that's not correct; we learned a lot about practical skills last year and we certainly had some classes this year that were not directly tied into skills we will use. No, a better characterization, I think, is that last year was about learning how and this year was about doing and being evaluated.

So, for example, when I saw two sessions about homiletics (think "preaching", but it's broader than that) on the schedule, I got excited. I thought these would be classes where we'd get a lot of practical instruction. I think the view of the program organizers is that we got that last year; what these sessions actually were were student presentations for critique. That's valuable (I certainly learned from mine), but I was also hoping for some more structured learning in this area. We barely scratched the surface of the topic last year and hadn't come together for any sort of "what have we learned about this in the last year in our own congregations?" discussion before we went off and did it. So there was a chunk missing.

The text studies were a little better in that regard, but here too I had different expectations based on the advance schedule. I saw daily text study and said "woo hoo! we're going to get down and dirty with our sources for a whole week with rabbis who can guide us!". I was practically salivating. This turned out to be the student-led sessions (after the first day). Now these were generally very good and it was certainly a valuable experience for all of us; I'm not dissing student-led study. But again, it violated my expectations. Here, unlike with homiletics, they did first give us one faculty-led text study (as a model) and a class about text study (specifically, learning styles), so they gave us more of the tools we needed before we went off and did it ourselves. I wanted that with homiletics too. Pretty much everything I know about homiletics comes from observing other people (most specifically my rabbi); I think I've figured out some things that way, but before doing it for critique it would have been valuable to formally look at some of those techniques.

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Sh'liach K'hilah: Thursday

Today was a mixed day. Most of the classes were quite good; one was not (and I want my hour and a half back). My group's text study is tomorrow morning and there has definitely been tension within the group as different styles and goals have clashed, but I hope things will be better tomorrow and that if there are any lingering issues we'll be able to talk about them. Read more…

Sh'liach K'hilah: our service (Wednesday shacharit)

This is unlikely to be interesting to anyone else unless you happen to have a recent draft of Mishkan T'filah lying around, but probably not even then. This is for my records, as someday I do hope to own this siddur and maybe the page numbers will even still be relevant. :-) And I think my rabbi may be interested. Read more…

Sh'liach K'hilah: Wednesday

I left the dorm at 7:45AM and returned at 11:30PM. Urg. A good "urg", but "urg" nonetheless. Read more…

Sh'liach K'hilah: Tuesday

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Sh'liach K'hilah: Monday part 2

To satisfy the fears of "too long" of one of my other service-group members, I just read through the service as we've outlined it, taking the longer flavors of everything that was ambiguous (e.g. hadn't chosen a melody). It came in at just under 30 minutes not counting time for a silent t'filah. (We're doing the first three blessings together and then having people finish on their own. I initially wanted to do just a full silent t'filah, but our staff advisor rightly pointed out that most people rarely encounter weekday kedusha.) Since our goal was "under 40 minutes" I think we're fine.

We're currently planning to do something unusual (and possibly controversial, but what are learning experiences like this for if we can't take risks?). We're using Mishkan T'filah (that's not the controversial part), and in that siddur they've restored more of the text after the Sh'ma that early Reform siddurim took out. The paragraph about tzitzit is nicely set up by a (re-)addition to Ahava Rabbah (which comes right before the Sh'ma). So we're going to explain that addition, do that part of Ahava Rabbah, and then continue past v'ahavta into the tzitzit paragraph. I'm looking forward to seeing how well it works. (If the leaders of our movement balk then the congregations probably aren't ready for it.)

Ok, now where was I before that battery problem? Oh yeah, classes. Read more…

Sh'liach K'hilah: Sunday

Today (Sunday, as I write this) was the first day of the Sh'liach K'hilah program. This year is going to be somewhat different from last year, we learned: they explained that last year was classroom learning (those might not have been the words they used) and this year would be workshops and application. Not entirely; there are certainly classes designed to impart knowledge to us in a more structured form. But, to give a flavor of what they mean, we have the following assignments:

  • In groups of three, lead a shacharit or ma'ariv service (this happened last year too)

  • In groups of three, conduct a half-hour text study (on a topic of our choosing)

  • Write and present for critique a d'var torah (5-7 minutes)

  • Write and present a eulogy, interviewing a classmate for the source material (we are to choose non-recent deaths)

The schedule includes an hour and a half per day (through Friday) of "work time" to give us a fighting chance of doing this with everything else that'll be going on. That's reassuring. :-)

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