From the Rabbi's Desk
Take a trip down a rabbit hole with me. A few weeks ago, we observed Passover. This year I participated in four Passover observances: our community’s first Seder at Langley’s restaurant, a family second Seder at Lisa and Pete Marcus’s house, a very special Passover Kiddush with residents at StoneRidge Senior Living Community, and the pinnacle of Passover storytelling at the Feinstein Family Sederama. Each was unique, beautiful, and meaningful because of the care and creativity of the organizers. Each gathering was both a retelling of our ancient Israelite Exodus and a contemporary offering.
In ancient times on the day before the festival, community representatives would go out into the fields and tie up bunches of mature barley stalks. After the festival, they would return to the field and reap the tied sheaves into a basket. The grain would then be threshed, dried, and milled to produce barley flour. Finally, they mixed the flour with oil and frankincense for the Omer offering. I’ve tried to keep this explanation very general because, like everything Jewish, there is plenty of debate on the process. The Torah tells us to count seven weeks from this offering until Shavuot, which aligned with the beginning of the wheat harvest.
I’ve always been interested in the agricultural links of both Passover and Shavuot, especially the timing. While counting the Omer, I usually find an entrance to my Omer rabbit hole. I search the internet for articles about the timing of barley and wheat harvests. This year I found two items of interest. For the first item, I give credit to Frank Nelte, who posted a letter he had in his possession from an agent in the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture extension service in 1983. The agent explained the timing of the barley harvest in the modern state of Israel. Typically, the barley harvest in modern times is in late April and early May, depending on climate conditions. The agent explained that the harvest would have been a few weeks earlier in ancient times because of harvest methods. Modern automated harvesting requires a much lower moisture content, so the barley must dry in the field longer. I have studied this before, but reading the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture letter was very interesting.
The second item of interest I found on my trip down the Omer rabbit hole was a presentation from graduate students working with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Their presentation focused on the history of barley cultivation and modern problems, research, and practical solutions. In the penultimate slide of their presentation, a quote by Charles Eliot caught my eye, “…a good past is positively dangerous if it makes us content with the present and unprepared for the future.” So, I went down another branch of the rabbit hole to find that Charles Eliot was President of Harvard University from 1869-1909. At that time, there was a pitched battle between those who insisted that colleges focus on classical education. I found his quote in a printed edition entitled, Inaugural Address as President of Harvard College. In its 38 pages he eloquently outlined the necessity of transforming higher education. Eliot saw the need to dramatically expand the focus of colleges and universities on science and its practical uses. He is credited with transforming the entire college and university system from strict classical education to an expansive education system grounded in science and specialized areas of study.
I emerge from the Omer rabbit hole with the past, present, and future in mind. Reform Judaism is solidly grounded in our past’s moral and ethical teachings. But as Reform Jews, we are cautious about how tightly and in what ways we hold onto our Jewish past. Further, we insist our Judaism be creative and transformative, respond to modernity, and prepare us for a future we cannot yet imagine. We cannot be stuck in our past lest our future withers in the field.
I have always been intrigued by the beautiful calligraphy of the scribes who wrote and still write Torah scrolls. I bring this up, because this month we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. The word shavuot means weeks and refers to the seven weeks between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. A Torah is written on kosher animal skin attached to two wooden rods called atzei chayim, Trees of Life. It is written by hand with a handmade quill or reed. The quill is usually from a kosher turkey or goose. The sofer hand cuts the tip of the quill or reed and is used with specially made ink. Iron nibs may not be used on the quill to write a Torah, since it could pierce the parchment and also because it is a metal used to make instruments for death and war. I had read that if you make a mistake on any word that is not G-d’s name, you may use a blade made of ivory or wood to scrape it away. If the mistake is made while writing G-d’s name, that panel must be buried. There are 62 to 84 panels of parchment used to create a Torah scroll. There are 4,000 rules to know before scribing a Torah and 304,805 letters to calligraphy! The oldest Torah scroll found in its entirety is about 800 years old, and has been carbon dated to between 1155 and 1225. I was told 20 years ago by a visiting sofer that our small Torah was about 150 years old, and thanks to Pat Sher’s artistic eye, we think it may have been pieced together from 2 different Torah scrolls because of the way the letters are scribed. I would love to know its history. I’m not sure of the age of our large Torah, but it appears to be much younger than the small one. The larger Torah is written so beautifully and is such a pleasure to read from. Did you know that the 613th commandment is to write a Torah? I had the opportunity to fulfill that mitzvah when I had visited a synagogue which had commissioned a sofer to write a Torah for them. I made a donation and placed my hand on the sofer’s hand to write the letter tav on the new panel of parchment. It was an amazing experience. I learned that it can take a year or more to scribe a Torah and only a man, a sofer, was allowed to scribe a Torah. I’m happy to say that has changed. In 2007, Jen Taylor Friedman, a soferet, is thought to be the first known woman to scribe a complete Torah. Since then many more women from around the world have studied everything needed to become a Soferet STaM, one who can scribe a Sefer Torah, Tefillin, and Mezuzah. Women have studied and chanted the words of Torah and now they are writing them with the love of Torah in their hearts and with the skill of their hands. There are many articles out there about women who have become sofrot. I’m including a couple of links that you might enjoy. Whether you are a sofer or a soferet scribing a Torah is a commitment of the heart, soul, and mind. I am in awe of all of them.
As New Year Dawns, Jewish Women Mark Milestones – The Forward
Ink of our Own: Women Who Scribe | Jewish Women’s Archive (jwa.org)
Women Who Write Torah – The Forward
Summer Shabbat Services will begin on June 30. Summer services are lay-led with help from me if you like. I’m happy to help you put together a service, chant Torah, and help with music. If this is something you are interested in, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send out the dates that are available.
This past month we had a Board Retreat/Strategic Planning full day meeting. Not only is that a mouthful to say, but there was a lot of effort put in to make it happen (a big thank you to Armi, Roberta, and many others) and a lot of “work” that will come out. The reason I say “work” is that plans are only as good as you execute them. The meeting itself was a lot of fun. We did it in person, which was actually the first in person Board Meeting in about 3 years. And the venue was beautiful, right on the water (thank you to the Town of Groton for allowing us to use their space).
As I’m writing this we actually have a Board meeting tonight (delayed a week by Passover which has my monthly calendar way off) where we will continue our discussion on the “work” that needs to be done. The other reason I put “work” in quotation marks is because a lot of what goes into doing what we do should be fun! When we developed our vision (Temple Emanu-El strives to be a… …fun and caring community (full vision is on the website) we discussed and debated over the word fun, which was actually a bit of fun in and of itself. But that’s not the point. The point is that when we do things, the “work” that we put in should be collaborative with each other, should be something we enjoy doing, and the end result should be positive and dare I say fun! If we can’t be doing things in this way, then why are we doing them?
I’m going to make a few pitches tonight for the items we should be taking up from our ideas at our Board Retreat. I can guarantee that if we can pull them off, they will all be fun. Come help us put in the “work” so we can continue Building a Vibrant Community Through Reform Judaism.