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Parsha Post: VAYEIRA

This week’s Torah portion brings much controversy and family drama!

Vayeira, in which Abraham attempts to sacrifice Isaac, our authors threaten their fathers with a knife and feel crushed in the synagogue. Hagar, however, gets to see G-d.

As usual, we provide you three handpicked tidbits from books we published, to enrich your weekly Torah portion experience… …or feel like you are not the only one about to run screaming from the synagogue.

The Binding of Isaac, Church of Narga Selassie, Dek Island, Lake Tana, Ethiopia. Photo by A. Davey

Also, we are glad to showcase this week not only one, but two bilingual poets who write both in English and in Hebrew! (We are going to share the English.)

We’re going to start with the poems, because they are more tension-filled, and then the discussion of Hagar speaking to G-d will bring a bit of an emotional resolution.

(OR NOT)

(I MEAN)

(FAMILY STRIFE INCOMING)

The first poem is by Herbert J. Levine, from his English/Hebrew poetry collection An Added Soul: Poems for a New Old Religion. This book explores through poetry how one can relate to Judaism while still having a non-theist perspective. This is a longstanding enterprise of Herb Levine’s – there are two volumes so far that we published, and they can even be bought in a bundle:

From Generation to Generation by Herbert J. Levine

How can I forget
that my son threatened me with a shovel,
swore he had been falsely accused over money
his sister had stolen?

How could my father forget
that I once raised a knife
to his face when he stood behind me
showing me how to carve the Thanksgiving turkey?

After the ram was slaughtered,
how could Abraham forget
the devouring knife that Isaac seized
and held against his trembling throat?

The second poem is about Sarah – to have something to match a poem about Abraham (I feel there’s always more about Abraham, though that’s changing!). Technically it is set on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, but there is no earlier or later in the Torah 😉

It is also a poem about going to synagogue and feeling that it is DIFFICULT. Which is a legitimate feeling to have! But often underdiscussed too. I think this Torah portion especially provides material to struggle with / feel uncomfortable about.

It’s from NOKADDISH: Prayers in the Void by Hanoch Guy-Kaner. (This book is in English, but he also writes in Hebrew.)

“[A] startlingly honest exploration of what it means to be a person living with the Absence and Presence of God.”

Wings by Hanoch Guy-Kaner

Let us magnify his holiness,
lovingkindness and compassion.
How lovely his tents are.
Beloved Sarah is under the divine wings.
Let her be bound in the garland of lives.
How fortunate is Sarah,
Born on the first day of Passover
Died on the second day of Rosh Hashanah,
When the gates of heaven are wide open as on Yom Kippur.
Angels chant soft hymns,
Ascending and descending ladders of light.

Mourners bathe in compassion, memory,
winter’s soft light coming through
stained glass windows.

The more Rabbi Linda piles up thanks to god,
recites his compassion and kindness,
The harder I am smothered by wings,
Crushed by the closing gate.

I just really like this – beauty, compassion, repentance, and the poet goes I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE. (Relatable content.)

And now for Hagar – This short excerpt is going to be from Torah Journeys by Rabbi Shefa Gold, a book that explores the spiritual challenges of every weekly Torah portion (+ gives exercises to focus on them). It shows the journey to the Promised Land in the Torah as a journey you take within yourself (so you don’t have to physically go anywhere!) and how the events of the Torah illustrate personal spiritual growth.

The name Hagar means “the stranger.” She represents the stranger in our midst. When we cast Hagar out into the wilderness, her offspring becomes our enemy. When the stranger is banished, our opportunity for seeing God is squandered. The ability to see God passes instead to the stranger, to Hagar. “At the moment of deepest despair, God opened her eyes.” She is blessed with a vision of God who appears at the living waters of life.

In receiving the blessing of Vayera, we are both the one who banishes the stranger, and the stranger herself. In finding the compassion to welcome the guest, to open our heart to the one who is different, the best tool we have is our memory of being the stranger ourselves.

I skip ahead a bit, because the next part is going to be especially interesting – and it’ll also show the power of midrash as fix-it fic 😉

Much later in the story, Abraham takes another wife named Keturah, which means “spice.” The midrash says that this new wife is Hagar, returning, the-stranger-welcomed-home. She is transformed from a bitter, desperate stranger into a source of sweet fragrance.

Welcoming Hagar back into our hearts bestows on us the blessing of seeing God once more.

By the way, we have a whole book that explores midrash as fix-it fic, and we suspect it predates the term “fix-it fic”. It’s from 1977! The new & updated reprint edition of Tales of Tikkun – New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World:

It retells classic Bible & Talmudic stories, and it also has a (different) story about Hagar & Sarah. (I feel this story just makes people feel “that CAN’T be it, right? RIGHT?”) That story is long, so I chose not to include it here, but you can get the book.

Which classic Bible stories would you fix? This Torah portion has more than one tempting stories, I feel. But we can always go beyond that… (C’mon, Avraham! C’mon, Sarah!!! C’mon, THE ENTIRE CITY OF SODOM!!)

Thank you for following along, and make sure to check out our entire series of Torah portions!

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Parasha post for Simchat Torah: V’Zot HaBrachah

Prepare for the holiday with us!

Moses dies, but where is he buried? We offer a startling possibility… There are also poems, because what would Simchat Torah be like without poems?

Crowns of Torah scrolls, by shlomi kakon, CC BY

As usual, we offer three different selections from our books that follow the parasha cycle. The first one is an excerpt from Torah Journeys by Rabbi Shefa Gold – this book offers a blessing & a challenge for each portion, and a practice to go with them.

These discussions are several large-size pages long, so we’re only highlighting some choice portions from this week’s chapter (p. 221-226).

Moses dies in this Torah portion. Yet it is an unusual death in multiple ways. Unlike other religious leaders, we don’t have access to his gravesite so that we could go there to pray. Why is that important? Rabbi Gold explains…

The death of Moses represents the ultimate and most profound spiritual challenge that God gives to each of us. The vast body of literature, poetry, and midrash that describe the death-scene and burial of Moses stand in contrast to the actuality of the stark and spare text in Deuteronomy that says he died (by the mouth of God) was buried, and that no one knows where his grave is.

The fact that Moses’ gravesite is unknown, poses a major challenge in the development of Judaism. Religions tend to develop as the glorification of some great man. “He was so great and we are nothing. Let us worship him, or pray at his grave, or receive the merit of his goodness.

We’d note in parentheses that Jews tend to do this too, if not worshipping leaders, but definitely receiving the merit of their goodness. The pilgrimage to Uman, the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is a famous example.

However, Rabbi Gold notes:

But here the message becomes, “Don’t look to Moses… it is not really about him… the Torah is about you.”

A bit later, Rabbi Gold talks about one of her own spiritual experiences that relate to this portion …and that turned out unexpectedly:

Once during a meditative journey I asked, “Show me where Moses is buried”. I was told, “It’s not out there. Moses is buried within you.” […] The moment I found stillness, a flower opened up inside my heart.

How can we incorporate Moses’ death, or our own, into our spiritual practice? As Rabbi Gold points out, this was discussed even in the Talmud…

Rabbi Eliezer, one of our great sages, taught his disciples, “Turn (repent) one day prior to your death.” And his students said to him, “Master, how can anyone know what day is one day prior to their death?” His response to them was, “Therefore, turn today, because tomorrow you may die.”

BT Shabbat 153a

How can we incorporate this awareness into our lives? Here is a contemplative exercise

[I]magine that you are lying on your death-bed, surrounded by everyone you have ever known. Your heart is filled with memories of the life you have led. What do you regret? What are you proud of? What seeds have you planted? What are your priorities “one day prior to your death?” Now, turn towards the faces that witness you – family, friends, bosses, employees, co-workers, enemies, neighbors, strangers. Perhaps the meaning and fullness of your life can only be expressed through the blessing that you impart to them.

Rabbi Gold notes that this portion is not just about Moses’ death, but also about the blessings he provides to the tribes! What blessings could we offer to the people we know? And could we accept blessings from other people dear to us?

And because we are SOMEwhat contrarian here at Ben Yehuda Press, we’d also like to ask you to consider receiving a blessing from your enemies.

What would that be like? Can you think of a time when that happened?

There is a famous example of just that in the Bible, discussed by one of our authors, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, on her blog. Very timely, also because next up we’re going to share one of her Simchat Torah poems…

Mobius by Rachel Barenblat

For Simchat Torah

I want to write the Torah
on a mobius strip of parchment

so that the very last lines
(never again will there arise,

arpeggio of signs and wonders
stout strength and subtle teaching)

would lead seamlessly to
the beginning of heavens

and earth, the waters
all wild and waste, and God

hovering over the face of creation
like a mother bird.

This is the strong sinew
that stitches our years together:

that we never have to bear
the heartbreak of the story ending

each year the words are the same
but something in us is different

on a mobius strip of parchment
I want to write the Torah

I love how the first and last stanzas tie together – if you wanted, you could write out the poem on a Mobius strip.

You can get Rabbi Barenblat’s collection Open My Lips from us –

We also have another book from her, Texts to the Holy

And now, another poem, this one from we who desire: poems and Torah riffs by Sue Swartz – this book also follows the weekly cycle, so now is a good time to pick it up and start anew!

(infinite in all directions)
by Sue Swartz


This is the book of face to face.
In it, curved throat of god brought close.

In it, nothing remains itself very long.

Our fingerprints are all over its pages,
our minds’ lathe spinning and spinning –

Dear reader, dear dizzied reader:
Enjoy the circumnavigation.

I will not lie. There are easier ways
to make a life. But this is your only one –

Do not disappear yourself from it.

*

& it was evening and it was morning,
a hundred hundred perfections arrayed
in all their fertile expanse –

all the lands we permit ourselves not to see,
pointed twig and the intention of –

so the instructions are in a foreign tongue
so the skies melt in our hands

let us praise the wild and waste,
the floating out there, tumbling down there
beyond

you said let there be and there was
we said let there be and there was

*

Like a pencil poised for calculation –

A key not yet turned in the twitchy ignition –

We end on this point, full of possibility and renewal. Thank you for following along, and let us welcome you for another cycle!

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This week’s Torah portion: KI TEITZEI


It is time for our weekly discussion of the Torah portion!

This week we have Ki Teitzei, a portion filled with a lot of small details and lesser-known commandments! Including, yes, something related to birds…

Nesting Eurasian Coot. Photo by SkywalkerPL

But before we get to the birds, let’s discuss something else about the portion, based on Rabbi Shefa Gold’s always fascinating Torah Journeys

She notes that Maimonides counted the commandments in this portion and there were 72 of them. That’s a lot! We have all these commandments, so what do we start with?

(I note that it’s not “A list of a bunch of commandments”. If the Bible happened to be edited by an academic press, it would’ve been like that. Subheading 2! Underline! We are not an academic press either and can be forgiving of a lack of subheadings. 😉 )

No, the Torah portion starts with something rather unexpected: “If you go out to war against your enemies”.

How does that relate to the commandments?

Well, there are commandments about going to war too, but there is also a deeper meaning, as Rabbi Gold explains. This is about how commandments can be a struggle. Not just doing them (though I’d say, that too…), but also understanding and receiving the values and qualities they are meant to convey.

I am reminded of the classic Chasidic song…

“Essen esst zich, trinkn trinkt zich, vos zol men ton az es davent zich nisht”

Which means, eating and drinking work by themselves, but what can one do if the davening doesn’t go by itself?! Here is Avraham Fried singing it – probably a relatable sentiment.

As Rabbi Gold says:

“Ki Tetze begins by acknowledging the struggle. It’s much easier to be a decent human being when you are at peace… but there is a battle to be waged and that battle will try our decency, challenge our integrity and put every good intention to the test.”

What can be a struggle? Rabbi Gold notes that one possible clue comes from the title of this book of the Torah. Deuteronomy is called in Hebrew “Devarim”. Which also means THINGS (among other things).

(Are we covered in things already? I am covered in books…)

“One voice inside keeps saying that if only I would be more organized then the battle with clutter could be won.

Another voice whispers that perhaps the problem is deeper and the solution more radical.”


(We suggest the Marie Kondo method, it’s not only good for messes, but it also helped me resign from a job!)

Rabbi Gold also has a bunch of suggestions, some are related to the holidays… E.g., on Passover, instead of buying the extremely processed readymade kosher-for-passover food items, cooking and eating simpler foods. (We had to do this because of the pandemic and we survived!)

Another suggestion that you can try RIGHT NOW …welll, ok, *checks time* in a few hours… is about Shabbat.

She suggests that even if you don’t observe Shabbat traditionally, you try turning off the computer/TV for one day.

My friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who works so passionately for social justice throughout the rest of his week, turns off his computer before Shabbat and says,

“The world will just have to save itself for the next 25 hours!”

(He still managed to write several books this way, we have a small pile of them!)

And we also have a small pile of Rabbi Shefa Gold’s books – hmm, maybe it’s time for a bundle? (This also brings up one of Rabbi Jill Hammer’s books, because it was blurbed by Shefa Gold 🙂 )

But while we’re at Shabbat, let us enhance your Shabbat experience and your upcoming High Holiday experience at the same time with an excerpt from Wilhelmina Gottschalk’s The Sabbath Bee, from our imprint the Jewish Poetry Project! This book has prose poems, microstories and thoughts about Shabbat – often personifying it or presenting it by analogy to something else…. Like in this chapter: beads.

Beads
(Rosh Hashanah)

Shabbat clinks into place with the lacquered clarity of a bead sliding onto a necklace string. At this stage, the new Shabbat is clear and unmarked — a perfect pearl.

It takes its place along the length with nearly a year’s worth of Shabbats, each one engraved with the faces of all the people I saw that day. The workmanship is flawless.

Soon this bead too will grow heavy with the gilt edges of delicate designs, dozens of tiny faces etched upon its surface.

The necklace weighs down like a yoke upon my shoulders, almost choking me.

Is it heavier than usual, or do I simply notice the weight because I know that the jeweler will be coming soon, to examine each individual bead and determine the value of my year?

If you liked the excerpt, you can get the whole book:

The Sabbath Bee

It also has genderbent Shabbat Queen!! You need genderbent Shabbat Queen in your life.

The last tidbit I picked from Rabbi Jill Hammer’s The Jewish Book of Days – it is for today (12 Elul) and it relates to the theme of struggle and to the theme of the commandments.

She quotes from the Midrash Tanhuma:

“There were two sittings of Israel where they would meditate on Torah night and day. Twice a year, in Adar and Elul, all Israel would gather and engage in the battle of Torah until the word of the creator was established.” (Noah 3)

What kind of battle was this?! Rabbi Hammer explains. This was the classic Talmudic way of studying:

“Their method was to study in pairs, with each person bringing prooftexts and arguments to one another.”

She also notes:

“Both Elul and Adar are before harvest festivals (Passover and Sukkot). The tradition of Torah study during these months reminds us to gather in the fruit of the Torah as well as the fruit of the earth.”

What does this teach us?

“[T]wo study partners must listen carefully to one another’s positions while holding to their own points of view,” and this “trains us in how to have respectful conflict with one another.”

And if you liked this, we do have a Rabbi Jill Hammer bundle!

The Jill Hammer Collection

(Now that you’ve gotten rid of the things that do not spark joy, you can bring in things that do 😉 )

And at the end, back to the birds!

I just wanted to highlight some of the lesser-known commandments from this portion, and ask you for your favorites.

1. (My paraphrase) If you take a bird’s eggs, chase away the bird first.

Here I must say that I had to change the cover image for the portion, because my first choice had a license that explicitly ruled out its use in a context of chasing away birds. Therefore I can’t show it to you either.

2. If your husband is fighting with another man, don’t grab the genitals of the other man.

I remember being rather scandalized to realize that this was explicitly stated in the Bible, but I was young and innocent.

3. Fence in your roof, because if someone falls from it, that’s going to be terrible.

(Interestingly, the Talmud discusses people falling from roofs & things falling from roofs, so I guess not everyone put up a parapet, regardless…)

Thank you for following along! Now it is your chance to share some commandments you found interesting, either from this weekly portion or from any other! Chabad brings you the complete list, as per the Rambam.

Some other favorites that are timely:

* Not to destroy fruit trees even during the siege
* Not to insult or harm a sincere convert with words
* Not to move a boundary marker to steal someone’s property

Now it’s your turn!

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Are We There Yet reviewed as “Deeply Inspiring”

The first Amazon review for Are We There Yet by Shefa Gold is in:

5.0 out of 5 stars
Living a Life of Exploration and Wonder
February 4, 2019

Rabbi Shefa Gold’s personal memoir shares how she has cultivated a pathway of living life each day as if she is on a spiritual pilgrimage. Through her stories and life experiences she teaches the reader how to live a life of exploration. In each place you “travel” you gain insights on how to see the awesome beauty of the moment, the gift of your own life, and the opportunity to give and receive blessings! These lessons apply to every opportunity: from eating dinner with your family to trekking through a safari in Africa. This book is short, clear, and deeply inspiring and I’m giving copies to all the fellow spiritual travelers in my life.

Are We There Yet?

It’s the perpetual question: Are we there yet? But impatience can cloud the real question: Where are we right now? Are We There Yet? shows a way to turn travel into a spiritual practice.

From The Gully to The Crossroads—walking, driving, flying—Rabbi Shefa Gold shares her experience and insight on travel and helps us reexamine our natural inclination to focus on our destinations—both physical and spiritual. Ride along with her on her many journeys—some mundane, some mysterious, and a few near miraculous—and discover the joy of what can happen when you stop worrying about there and focus on here.

Are We There Yet? lets you tap into the potential of each journey—starting with the first step.

Part memoir, part spiritual how-to, Are We There Yet is the fourth book from Rabbi Shefa Gold, the author of Torah Journeys, In the Fever of Love, and The Magic of Hebrew Chant and the composer of several albums of Jewish liturgical music.

The Hebrew Priestess

The Hebrew Priestess

Advance Praise:

“A very readable and much-needed book!” —Starhawk
“An extraordinary and amazing work.” —Alicia Ostriker
“A book to savor.” ­—Max Dashu
“The articulation of my dreams and longings.” —Rabbi Shefa Gold
“Read this book, but don’t stop there—live it as well!” —Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Ben Yehuda Press proudly presents The Hebrew Priestess, a landmark work of Jewish feminism.

The Hebrew Priestess carefully excavates the forgotten roles of women as Jewish spiritual leaders from the millennia before women began receiving rabbinic ordination in the 1970s. Building upon the past, so richly presented in The Hebrew Priestess, the authors offer up uniquely feminine forms of spiritual leadership for our time.

From before the days of Miriam the Prophetess and Deborah the Judge, Jewish women have offered their talents as religious leaders. The Hebrew Priestess tells their stories, often reading between the lines of the Bible and Talmud to rediscover the women that rabbinic editors downplayed and perhaps even tried to erase.

Rabbi Jill Hammer brings vast erudition to this book as well as unique personal experience. She is co-founder, with co-author Taya Shere, of the Kohenet Institute, which trains Jewish women as Hebrew priestesses. Hammer and Shere believe that the spiritual gifts of Jewish women will only be incorporated into Judaism when women explore the Divine through their own lens. The Kohenet Institute offers an embodied, ecstatic, earth-based approach to Jewish spiritual practice and leadership.

The Hebrew Priestess weaves a careful examination of historical antecedents of these new priestesses with the personal experiences of women who embarked on this new path of Jewish priestesshood.

The Hebrew Priestess delineates 13 models of spiritual leadership (among them prophetess, weaver, drummer, shrinekeeper, midwife, mother, maiden, witch, and fool) and shows how each model of women’s leadership was manifest in ancient times and throughout Jewish history, and how women in our day are following that path. Finally, it shows how each model can be incorporated into one’s own spiritual life.

Ambitious, learned, practical, and deeply personal, The Hebrew Priestess offers a strong feminist connection to Jewish history and to a personal experience of the sacred.

In the Fever of Love

In the Fever of Love (cover)

You don’t have to be a mystic to enjoy Rabbi Shefa Gold’s new commentary on the Song of Songs, but it may make you into one. Rather than address herself to the reader, she speaks directly, and passionately, to God, The Beloved. She invites us to share in her conversation with life itself, with the mystery that wells “at the center of every molecule, at the heart of my being.”

IN THE FEVER OF LOVE breathes new life into the ancient practice of both Jews and Christians to read the Song as an allegory of the love between God and human beings. This rich, poetic text of can be used for pondering, praying, and perceiving life in a deeper way by people of any faith, but remains deeply rooted in Judaism’s down-to-earth approach to the world. Rabbi Gold brings a modern psychological awareness to this ancient text.

For those who want specific directions, she appends ten “commandments” from the Song which can be maxims for daily living.

Torah Journeys

Torah as a guide to personal growth

Following the framework of the ancient tradition of weekly Torah reading, Shefa Gold shows us how to find blessing, challenge and the opportunity for spiritual transformation in each portion of Torah. An inspiring guide to exploring the landscape of Scripture… and recognizing that landscape as the story of your life.

Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land promises to turn the year-long cycle of Torah reading into a journey of personal spiritual growth. The first book by Rabbi Shefa Gold, the popular teacher of chant and meditation, Torah Journeys is designed to be meaningful for those at any spiritual level.

Shefa Gold is renowned in Jewish Renewal circles and beyond for her teachings, particularly in the realms of chanting, meditation, and connecting to the sacred. She received rabbinical ordinations from both the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Salomi.

In Torah Journeys, Rabbi Gold reveals a blessing and a challenge hidden in each weekly Torah portion, based on her principle that the Torah is happening now, and that its stories – from the Creation in Genesis through the death of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy – are about each individual’s life journey.

Drawing from her spiritual search as an adept in an array of practices, Rabbi Gold offers transformative practices for each week, ranging from meditation to visualization to chant.

Torah Journeys is the fruit of the religious journey of an engaging teacher with an impressive grasp of the texts and liturgy. Having experienced other traditions inspired Rabbi Gold to search out similar tools in Judaism to expand consciousness, become fully human and know God Rabbi Gold shares with us her insightful approach to Bible study and personal growth. The result is poetry for the soul.

Torah Journeys is a book that is not merely about Jewish Renewal, but in fact, gives the reader tools to do it.

Destined to be a classic of Jewish spiritual renewal.