Passover Village and My Levite-ness

A blog entry from Bill Finn (this and other offerings fro Bill can be found at (http://unorthodoxtorah.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/1260/#more-1260)

“In this physical world, they serve the invisible”

In the spring of 2013, Linda and I ventured into Joshua Tree.  It was our third year at Passover Village.  A bunch of people go camp in the desert and do Seder.   The first year we enjoyed ourselves immensely.  Wonderful people and beautiful desert.  The second year was calamitous.  A never ending wind destroyed my tent and made us sick.  I was anxious.  What would our third year be like?
Our first day at the campsite went pretty much as expected.  After packing and driving for hours in the morning, we arrived at Joshua Tree.  Once we scouted out a campsite, we hauled bedding, firewood, food, cooking utensils, a propane stove, as well as an ice chest full of food and medicine.
And 15 gallons of water.  Every minute, for the entire 4 arid days I was there, I was either drinking water or carrying a bottle of water someplace.
We also carried two shelters: a tent for sleeping and a free-standing shade that we usually use for our car.  Once our kitchen, chairs, emergency supplies, shade, and sleeping space were set-up, we nailed tarps to the ground for a clean dressing area. We unpacked warm clothes and flashlights for when it was dark and cold; hats, light clothes, umbrellas, and sunscreen lotion for when it was hot and sunny.
Linda and I are many things, but we are not light campers.
Sometime during the afternoon of the first day, we had reached a point when we could relax.  Our essential survival needs were taken care of.  I sat down on a chair by my tent, too exhausted to move. Our tent was nestled at the foot of a small steep mountain that was covered with huge round boulders.
Above the mountain, a large high-altitude ice cloud floated.  Illuminated by the setting sun, it glowed with a variety of neon colors.  The mountains hid in dark adobe shadows. It took me a while to realize that the stones of the earth and the radiant cloud actually shared the same color palette.
When the ice cloud grew and spread its wings like a bird, I thought of eagles.
A few months earlier I had seen a video about the band Eagles. Early in the band’s history, sometime in the wee hours of a morning, after they had finished a music set, they decided to head out to Joshua Tree, with nothing but, “peyote, tequila, and a bag of trail mix.”  It says a lot about the zeitgeist of that era, that a group of adults thought this qualified as a “good idea.”
Once in Joshua Tree, they built a fire and sat around. To their astonishment, they saw an actual eagle, the namesake of their band, and their presumed totem. One of the band members was taking a dump in the desert, and pulling up his pants when he saw the lordly eagle. To him, the soaring raptor was disdainful and mocking. The musician fantasized the lofty, magnificent eagle sneering, “Huh, you guys are eagles? Right.”
They had gone out into the desert on a vision quest.  The message they received was one of awe and humility.  That seems to me a pretty legitimate message.
Now, here I was sitting in Joshua Tree, looking at a magnificent entity in the sky.  I had come to the desert and had seen my eagle.
It was above me in every sense of the word, floating through levels too rarefied to support a mundane creature, such as myself.  Without a thought, it rendered all around it into insignificance. I felt that I was in the presence of an immense being that was way beyond my personal self in size, scope, and beauty.
Like the eagle, the solitary ice cloud existed at levels beyond my comprehension.
I thought of the conflict that I had seen between the life of the spirit and the demands of the physical world.  So many people struggle to be as high as the cloud, but are dragged down to earth.  The few that succeed, pay a price. The eagle flies high, but he flies alone.
Not bad, I thought.  I have been at Joshua Tree for only a few hours and, already I had a revelation.  That night, I lay on my back for hours, watching the full moon transit across the width of my tent’s doorway.
My third year at Passover Village was off to a good start.
The theme of this year was tribes.  We had spent the entire year studying the various tribes of Israel.  We were asked to pick a tribe and represent it at the Village.
For me, there was never any question about my choice of tribe.  Unlike many Jews, I actually know what my tribe is.  I do not recall when my father told me that we were Levites, but it was sometime when I was very young.
These days there isn’t much to being a Levite.  I get called second to read at the Torah. Twice a year at the western Wall, Cohens say a blessing for the nations.  Levites, such as myself gather at the washing stations in the plaza and wash the hands of the Cohens.
I did this when I lived in Israel. It is not a particularly dignified experience.  The Levites shout “Bo Cohaneem!” (Come Cohens) like vegetable sellers shouting “tomatoes!” in a shuk (marketplace).
Genetic research has demonstrated a Cohen gene.  It is amazingly persistent, occurring in Jewish communities located in areas as diverse as Africa, Asia, and Europe.  As we stood around the washing station in the Western Wall plaza, I gazed at my fellow Levites, and wondered if we too shared a mutual gene.  I knew a few of them personally and definitely saw commonalities. For one thing, we were all wise guys, smart alecks, the kind of guy who would interrupt you telling a joke, because he already knew it and could tell it better.
Over the years, I have linked a few of my personal traits to my Levite-ness. Explaining my quirks through my Levite-ness is not rational.  However, I do not see it as less valid than an astrology sign, or even a psychological profile.
As befits someone who is descended from temple servants, I frequently ended up in supportive positions for rabbis.  For example, in the 1980’s, I met Daniel Lev in jail, while we were protesting Diablo Nuclear Power Station. Daniel told everyone that he was Abraham Herschel and needed to do a Rosh Hashanah service.
I moved heaven and earth to get that service together, not a simple task when incarcerated. After monumental efforts, we succeeded and arranged for a service.  Although, I enthusiastically helped Daniel with preparations, I was indifferent to the actual service itself.  This experience of spontaneously assisting a spiritual leader is fairly typical for me.
Another trait that I associate with my Levite-ness is my ability to move stuff.  Levites carried the ark through the desert. When I was younger I was a world-class shleper.  Once, when I was a chiropractor, working for another chiropractor at a new office, I became impatient with waiting for workmen to move some furniture.  Without a thought, I moved large desks, treatment tables, and filing cabinets through narrow hallways into tiny rooms.  My boss and the chief admin came into the office and stared at me in disbelief.  “You did that by yourself?” they asked.  I was astonished by their astonishment.  To me, it seemed easy.
Levites were also guards.  Some part of me, especially at night, is always on the lookout, always listening.  When I lie down at the end of the day to go to sleep, my hearing becomes acute; I hear the hums of electronics, as well as the ticking of a clock in nearby rooms. If a dog is barking anywhere within several blocks, I don’t fall asleep. Once, I was woken up by a ringing telephone, which in and by itself isn’t unusual.  However, this telephone was located several houses down the street.
I had not expected to learn anything about my Levite-ness at Passover Village. For one thing, I was spending most of my energy on basic camping survival tasks.  For another, it seemed irrelevant to the challenges of my everyday life.
To my surprise, while at Passover Village, I discovered another Levite part of myself. A personal trait that has puzzled me can be explained by characteristics of my tribe.
I found time to read The Twelve Dimensions of Israel by Nechama Sarah G. Nadborny.  The book looks at the “deepest meanings of the twelve tribes of Israel.”
As I mentioned before, one of the significant mitzvahs of the Levites was the carrying of the Ark through the desert. Nadborny’s book explained that the Cohens fashioned the contents of the Ark, but the Levites never saw inside it.  In this physical world, they serve the invisible.
In fact, the invisible is clear to Levites.  When others are lead astray, they remained steadfast, their vision fixed on the truth of hidden holiness.
It has always been simple for me to see beneath the surface, but what is obvious for most people eludes my understanding. One intuitive person called me a klutz, because I always stumble through the clearly visible, while my perception is focused on the unseen.
The Twelve Dimensions of Israel still had more to teach me. About a third of the Levites guarded the king. Another third served the Temple, and a many of them were soldiers.  So, most Levites lived in Jerusalem.
It makes sense that Levites occupied the heart of the country, since “Lev” is Hebrew for heart.  Marc, our leader, pointed out that the Hebrew word for heart is spelled differently that the one for Levite.   “Lev” uses a bet, while “Levite” ends with a vuv.  The root of “Levite” is often described as “joining’ or “alongside.”  This reflects the brotherly affection that the Levites had for the Cohens whom they help.  Marc and I decided that vuv, which is a traditional sign of connection between the higher worlds and the lower ones, is an appropriate letter for Levites. Levites worked to connect the hearts of the people.
The remaining third of Levites who did not live in Jerusalem, were dispersed throughout the country.  The directions associated with the Levites are the “center” (2/3 were located in Jerusalem) and “everywhere,” i.e. scattered throughout the land.
Why did Levites live among all the tribes?  To keep an eye on them.  Levites were the snitches, and the enforcers.  As pointed out above, a very high proportion of Levites in Jerusalem were soldiers.
Levites were a violent tribe. When someone needed to be killed, they did it.  Heck, even when someone didn’t need to be killed, they still did it.
The dark side of having a clear vision of holiness is unrelenting and uncompromising fanaticism.  This is an aspect of Levite-ness with which I do not identify. Indeed, my entire life I have been repelled by religious extremism, violence, and militarism.
While I was processing this upsetting information, I had physical work to do. Marc took my Levite-ness seriously, and that meant assisting him with decorating the sanctuary.
At one point, several people and I carried and arranged rocks in the middle of the gathering tent.  Each stone represented a tribe.  Appropriately, the Levite rock occupied the center in a circle of stones.
Every once in a while, someone would move the Levite stone, and substitute candles, a figurine, or some kind of decoration.  These minor changes in adornment usually looked pretty good.
However, I noticed something about myself.  Every time someone moved the Levite rock, it REALLY, REALLY bothered me. I mention this to my wife, Linda, who laughed, and said such changes were temporary.
I objected.  “Moving the stone gives Israel a heart attack!  It’s moving the heart from the center! It violates the natural order of things!”
Except for this one conversation with my wife, I kept silent about my growing indignation. Finally, at the closing circle, I expressed my outrage about the displacement of the Levite stone. Like my wife, the Passover Village participants thought this was funny.
I had begun my third year of Passover Village anxious about the outcome. Would it be wonderful like the first year or calamitous like the second?   Instead, something quite unexpected happened; I got in touch with my inner religious extremist.

Earth Blessing #1: Sheh-ka-khah Lo

Earth Blessings

Bill is offering a series of blessings for earth as part of our study this year.  This is his first offering, a general blessing for the discovery of wonder in nature all around us.  His comments:

  1. This blessing is for “on seeing the small-scale wonders of nature, such as beautiful trees, animals, and people.”  There is a different blessing for big stuff, such as oceans and mountains.
  2. As Jews, we do not bless the spirits of the tree, or the animal; we bless G*d who creates all beauty in the world.  Beauty is a way for us to connect to the holy expression of G*d in this world.
  3.  One way of reading the Hebrew is that this this beauty is for Him (G*d).  There is a teaching that G*d created Creation for His joy.
  4. Typically the translation says “Who has things such in His world,” but a closer reading of the Hebrew eliminates “things” and says just “such in His world.”  This implies you must be in the presence of the thing of beauty to say the blessing.  While the object of beauty remains third-person (I/they) in the blessing, saying “such,” instead of “such things” creates a more intimate, personal relationship with the object.
  5. The last two words, “lo b’olamo,” rhyme.
  6. The last sound of the last two words is “o.”  This is the sound people make when they encounter wonder, which is one reason why this blessing is a good one to use when you are feeling awe in the presence of beauty. 


This too is pursuit of wind . . .

Saturday, July 6, 2013

This too is pursuit of wind . . .

We met in Santa Monica in the shade of the awning, to continue our study of the transition of the throne from David to Solomon. 

Proverbs 1:1: The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel  . . .
1:8 My son, heed the discipline of your father,
                 And do not forsake the instruction of your mother;
            For they are a graceful wreath upon your head,
A necklace about your throat.”

Kings I: 2:1  “. . . be strong, and become a man”
David gives his deathbed instructions to the youthful king Solomon.  His words are clearly designed to build backbone into Solomon to allow him to face the lifetime of challenges that lay ahead, particularly in the immediate future to consolidate his fragile hold on the throne.   David’s instructions are very Gevurah in nature – be strong, become a holy man, follow and guard the ways of YHVH, and be sure to lead your people in those ways in order to fulfill the promise that the kingship will not be cut off from the Davidic line.  After these general instructions. David gets down to realpolitik, brass tacks on how to deal with those remaining who would undermine and usurp the leadership from Solomon (Joav and Shimei – “do not allow his white hair to go to the grave in peace”) as well as those who will support him (the Barzillai clan – “they shall be among those who eat at your table”).   These are huge responsibilities put on the young king, as the Talmud tells us the importance of government is to keep the people from being at each others’ throats.  But the early passages of this chapter only begin to raise the question of how do we reconcile David’s counsel to seek vengeance on his enemies with those of a moral justice found in the Torah of Moses?  These questions grew more urgent as we proceded into the text.

Kings I: 2:13.  “Adonijah, son of Haggith, came to Bat-Sheva, Solomon’s mother.”
Adonijah, half-brother of Solomon, his earlier coup attempt thwarted, now asks Bat-Sheva to ask Solomon to give him Abishag, David’s former young concubine, for a wife.  When Bat-sheva requests that Solomon give Abishag to Adonijay, Solomon immediately sees this as a renewed first step of a new attempt by Adonijah to reclaim legitimacy to the throne for himself.  While Solomon spared his life the first time around, this time he quickly dispatches his “hit man” Benaiah, who quickly kills Adonijah.

We begin to sense we are smack in the middle of an episode of “Game of Thrones” or “The Godfather”. 

We wonder at Bat-sheva’s motivations for relaying Adonijah’s request to Solomon, in what was a not so subtle move to undermine her son.  Is she so politically naïve?  But we remember the power she held – the prophet Nathan had come to her to inform David of Adonijah’s initial coup attempt.  And she stood to the right of Solomon in offering her suggestion, the place of the advisor to the king.  And we wonder: was it her conscious intent to communicate the subterfuge of Adonijah in such a way that Solomon would clearly see through her words?  What was her body language? The tone of voice?  Whereas David was very Gevurah and clear in his instructions, are the ways of the feminine advisor more fluid, more contained within the lovingkindness of Hesed (on the right side of the Tree)?  We have a new picture of Bat-sheva and how she acts very consciously to advise her son and lead him to his decision. 

Spirited discussion on major themes brought up by this scene.  Here are some brief selected commentaries from the group:
·      David’s role is as “Don Corleone” – “I promised I would not make war, and (to Michael Corleone/Solomon) here’s how to do it”
·      Patience and ruthlessness
·      Discipline of the father
·      Wisdom confounds us – here it leads to murder
·      This book is history, not moral guidance in how to act
·      Loyalty is the guiding force
·      How do leaders prevent self-serving subterfuge from undermining the greater good?
·      Why does our tradition hold David up so high?
o   David was a Master of Teshuvah
o   He had a rare warrior-poet duality
·      What ever happened to the 10 Commandments?  How is this acting like the “Chosen” ones?
o   We are “chosen” as a people to serve humanity in a certain way (by carrying Torah and Shabbat), the way each other people is chosen in their way, the way each organ in the body serves the body as a whole
o   The idea of “chosen” meaning “superior” is not how it is meant, but is rather a distortion caused by the oppression of the Jews over millennia leading to a reactive defense to maintain our unity (e.g. the way an abused child might develop a defense mechanism to survive), combined with the Christianization of the concept to justify colonization and oppression  by “The Church” over the course of history – e.g our way to God is the only way.
·      Are there examples of leadership that does not rely on these power-plays?  How would Ghandi have led if given the chance?  What does the example of Mandela have to teach us?
·      There are many examples in our tradition where to obey God means to kill: after the golden calf; the destruction of Amalek; the slaughter of Midian
·      There is a legacy of violence in our tradition that we really don’t deal with – the genocide of the Book of Joshua.  Was this reflected in other genocides of history?  The slaughter and colonizataion of indigenous tribes by the Christian Europeans?  The history of Native Americans in this country?  The Holocaust?  Current genocidal thoughts about Israel in parts of the Middle East?
·      The IDF is always struggling with maintaining morality in its actions.  There will be war – so how do we conduct a just war?  Given the geography of the location of Israel, history has taught us there will be war at that crossroads.  So how are we to be a holy people and deal with all of the violence around us?

 Are you disturbed yet?  If not, read on.

Kings I:2:28: “Joav fled . . . and took hold of the horns of the Altar”
Having gotten rid of Adonijah, Solomon moves on the others who followed him in his coup.  He exiles the High Priest Abiathar, sparing his life because of his past actions in suffering with David in his struggles, and in carrying the Ark when David brought it to Jerusalem.  He sends Benaiah to kill the great warrior, David’s former general, Joav, who flees into the Mishkan seeking refuge, grabbing onto the horns of the Altar and refusing to leave.  Benaiah, after getting the OK from Solomon, kills him on that spot, and sends him to his house to be buried.  We wonder about the issues of lack of safe haven from punishment, and at how receiving the body of Joav, the great warrior, would have affected the minds and hearts of his clansmen, perhaps setting them up forever against Solomon, as was/is the way of tribal and clan justice and retribution that we still see to this day in the Middle East, as well as in the gangs of the inner cities of America.  Death leads to death.  Finally Shimei is put in house arrest in Jerusalem, but after 3 years leaves Jerusalem briefly only to be executed upon his return for having broken the terms of his life-sparing internal exile.

So, Solomon has consolidated his hold on the throne by handling his enemies in 3 ways: death, exile, and internal exile.  And he appoints others, Benaiah as his general and Tzadok as High Priest, to watch his back.  Leaving us with many questions. How does a leader maintain a bearable order?  Is it the case that sometimes you just don’t have a choice of being moral?  A lesson in power politics worthy of SunTzu, Machiavelli, and Don Corleone.

This is our mythology.  These are our wisdom teachings.  Checkouts mostly revolved around feelings of varying degrees of discomfort, unease, anger, sadness – all feelings stirred up by today’s readings.  We signed off with the words from the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), written by Solomon:

Kohelet 1:1.  The words of Kohelet son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Kohelet 1:17-18: So I set my mind to appraise wisdom and to appraise madness and folly.  And I learned – that this too was pursuit of wind/spirit (Ruach). 
For as wisdom grows, vexation grows;
To increase learning is to increase heartache.

Next Meeting: Saturday, August 10, 10 AM (prompt!) – noon, Location to be announced

Long Live King Solomon

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Long Live King Solomon

We met in Santa Monica, 4 blocks from the edge of the continent, cool sea breeze blowing through the open patio door.  Personal check-ins connected us in our various states of enthusiasm, stress, emotional exhaustion, and joy.  We all shared a certain nervous anticipation about what path we were about to embark upon with the beginning of our study this year.  We discussed our options: Kings, return from Babylon, circle back to Judges, and decided to read from each and see how they feel.  We never got past the first, as we were quickly immersed in the story of the succession of David’s throne, the palace intrigue, the family dysfunction, and the joy of learning together.

Kings I:1:1  “King David was old . . . they covered him with garments but he did not become warm”
David, after a life of struggle leading to political and spiritual accomplishments is in his final decline.  His servants bring him Abishag, a young, beautiful woman to warm him, and she becomes his caretaker.  The text is unclear whether the intention was to provide David with Abishag to provide sexual relations, but it is clear that David did not “know” Abihshag, and that her role was one of tending to his needs and providing human warmth and comfort.  One wonders, where were all his queens?

Kings I:1:6.  “Adonijah, son of Haggith, exulted himself saying “I shall reign!”
Adonijah, David’s eldest remaining son following the death of Abshalom, attempts to usurp the throne and is joined in this coup de etat plot by several key, powerful people including Joav, David’s most powerful general.  We are told that Adonijah was “never scolded” by his father, perhaps explaining the arrogance which leads him to try to grab power despite the past prophecies and promises that Solomon would inherit the throne.  We see again, as so often in Judaism, that the “right” of the first born at times of transition of power is often (perhaps always?) supplanted by the meritocracy of who is the one that is spiritually appropriate to lead the people forward.  Thus, Isaac not Ishmael, Jacob not Esau, Joseph not Ruben, Moses not Aaron, all the way to David rather than his older brothers.   Up until this moment, there has been no established hereditary kingship either, as David from the tribe of Judah had supplanted Saul, the first king of Israel, who was a Benjaminite. 

Relevance to Passover Village is apparent, as we consider the theme of family.  How do we build our own community “family”, increasing levels of connection, intimacy, consideration?  Who are the kings and queens, sons and daughters of PV?  The process of “Circle Work” comes to mind, placing youth in the East, young adults in the South, etc, and consider possible ritual expressions this could take in our future gatherings.

Kings I:1:11.  “Nathan spoke to Bath-sheva saying, Adonijah has beome king, and David does not know”
Why does the prophet go through Batsheva, rather than directly to the king himself?  He knows that Solomon is prophetically named to be king, as does Batsheva his mother.  But she would be the most directly aggrieved party if Adonijah’s coup were to succeed and Solomon be supplanted.  Indeed both of their lives would likely be at stake.  So the lesson seems to be that if we want to accomplish what is needed, don’t rely on a prophet to speak for us, but on ourselves to communicate our intention and act through the people in our community to bring what we need into reality. 

This section also raised the question: what was the contemporary role of the prophet?  Were they recognized as prophets at the time, or is this designation one that is arrived at later, in hindsight?  Do we “see” the prophets among us, even within ourselves, or do we dismiss them?

Kings I:1:29: “The king swore ‘As YHVH lives . . . Solomon your son will reign after me . . . so shall I fulfill it this very day.” 
The double-team effort of Bathsheva and Natan rouses the king to the challenge, and you can sense the blood flowing as he steps forward to quash the coup and install Solomon.  We note that he invokes, and presumably speaks, the name of God as YHVH, whereas we know that generally this name is spoken only once yearly by the Cohen Gadol in the Holy of Holies during the Yom Kippur service.  Does David really say the Name?  Does he pronounce it in the sacred, hidden way?  Or does he use, as we do today, a euphemism (such as Adonai, meaning “my Lord”)?  But the text indicates YHVH as the nature of God that he is invoking.  For as opposed to Elohim, which is the creative Wellspring aspect of God, YHVH is that ever-flowing essence of Presence and Consciousness, moving always through nature, space, and time, the unification of the Masculine and Feminine principles of the Universe, the Unity.  It is this that David invokes, whether pronounced in its most sacred form or not. 

This story is playing out like a political scandal, and one wonders who knew what when?  Does Solomon know he’s been prophetically indicated to be the next king?  Did Batsheva know that?  Clearly David and Natan did, for Natan had received the prophecy and communicated it to David.  But how was it to happen that Solomon will succeed David, what will be the story of that succession in what is being played out now.  This is an example of what the first chapter of Sefer Yetzirah teaches regarding Sefer (the fixed laws of the Universe, what is destined), the S’far (the number or process, how things work to be manifested), and the Sipur (the story, how free will acts on the process to change it, alter it, determine the path by which the destiny will ultimately be manifested).  This was apparent earlier in the story of the union of David and Batsheva.  While the commentators state that David and Batsheva were destined to be together, the way in which David went about acquiring her by sending her husband to his death, was his choice and was one of his greatest errors and led to grave consequences. 

Kings I:1:32.  “King David said . . . mount my son Solomon on my mule and take him down to Gihon . . . and anoint him as king over Israel”
King David orders the ritual of anointment immediately and firmly.  It will be accomplished publicly by the high priest, Tzadok, and the prophet Nathan.  David is moving with a firm, clear step to quickly put the coup de etat to rest and establish Solomon as the rightful heir, in plain site of the people. 

Why the mule (Hebrew:Pirdah)?  The horse is often a symbol of war, while a donkey that of a peaceful servant.  Perhaps the mule, the infertile combination of the mating of those 2 species, symbolizes the transfer of power from the warrior David, to the peacemaker, Shlomo (meaning: “his peace”).  The commentators state this was an  incontestable demonstration of Solomon’s choice to be successor, and a sign that David did not consider Adonijah, who had gathered horses and chariots and warriors, a serious challenger.   

Kings I:1:39.  “Tzadok . . . anointed Solomon, they sounded the shofar, and all the people proclaimed “Long live King Solomon! . . .  and the ground burst from their noise!”
Solomon is publicly anointed at the spring of Jerusalem, and there is no doubt who is king.  The shofar blast shifts the spiritual energy to its new state of being, as it has done at almost every momentous event and transition of power in our peoples’ history.  He is brought up from the spring, and the people rejoiced and played flutes, and there was such a joyous commotion and celebration that “the ground burst from their noise”.   What a site and sound this must have been!

This clear political power play has its intended effects.  The coup dissolves around Adonijah, who then seeks refuge by grasping onto the horns of the altar, and is pardoned by Solomon in his first act as king. 

Solomon was 12 years old at the time he took the throne, and the story of his rise and his reign will fit in well with our stated intention to include youth in our next Passover Village. 

Next Meeting: Saturday, July 6, 10 AM, location to be announced