Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cleaning out the Chametz

Between Purim and Pesach, it is traditional to clean out the chametz from your home.  In the traditional sense, chametz is anything leavened and it's done in order to prepare for Pesach, when Jews are forbidden to possess leavening.

I'm not so traditional.  Plus, I share my home with a non-Jew, so I think that simply refraining from eating bread and the like is enough.  It is simply not practical to banish non-Passover foods from my kitchen.

But, inspired by a haggadah I read this weekend, I'm still cleaning out chametz.  In my case, it's all the extra stuff that I don't need, the stuff that I don't want, and the clutter that makes my life less enjoyable.  I spent a couple hours each of Saturday and Sunday, and since it's a 3-day weekend for me, today's the day for some heavy lifting.  My focus has been on my bedroom, and it already looks much better.  I'm getting excited to see my chametz-free room.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Miriam's Cup

A little bit about the symbolism and ritual of Miriam's cup. I like
this article, because it does not focus on feminism. I think it need
to be deeper than that in order to be worth adding to the Seder. This
explains why including Miriam's cup makes sense and adds reflective
value to the evening.

I know I will include Miriam's cup in my future Seders, but I haven't
decided how. Since I won't be hosting this year, I have plenty of time.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Well, I just made another huge Judaica order, most of it things for Passover. I got a seder plate (with six tiny bowls) and a Miriam's cup. I also got a wine bottle cork and some things to donate to the congregation upon my conversion.  I'm excited about them, even though I probably won't host a seder this year.

What will happen is that my mother will join me at the community seder. That ought to be interesting. She still doesn't quite get it, but I think she might get more than I give her credit for. She asked if the temple was going to have an Easter gathering, which is a silly thing, but I think she was just trying to figure out if I was going to be busy on Easter. I hope the seder goes okay.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


No, I'm not talking about Jewish SAT questions.

For the past few months, the Rabbi's been presenting us sections from his dissertation on the Exodus and how it happened. He contends that it was not nearly as described. Today's segment focused mainly on geography, and then on wordplay. One of his key points is that when people tell stories, the geography is accurate, even if the story isn't. We all know that Juneau is far to the southeast of Denali, and we'd never describe it any other way. If the Israelites were living in Goshen...then where is that?

One of the first things he talked about was how ancient geographers described locations. Apparently, they were pretty consistent in the words they used and spacial relationships. This makes it especially interesting to uncover the fact that the Hebrew and Aramaic texts say they crossed the Yam Suf. In all other Hebrew and Aramaic texts, Yam Suf refers to what is now called the Gulf of Aqaba, which is on the other side of the Sinai Peninsula from the Red Sea. The first time the text refers to the Red Sea is when it was translated by the Septuagint, and for some reason it has stuck, even though it's inaccurate. This implies that the Israelites weren't necessarily in the Nile Delta. If they weren't in the Nile Delta...then where were they?

The Rabbi made a list of places referred to in the Exodus story, the "itinerary" sites. He then went through the Biblical texts to see how they're described, paying special attention to things like "blank is near blank", and then cross-referencing the known locations and putting them on a map. All of them are east of Egypt, most are northeast of the Sinai Peninsula...not in Egypt. There are records of Egyptians in some of these areas, but not so much about Pharaoh in these places. It's interesting, especially for a geography nerd like me. There's a lot that makes sense about it, because it does pull from the historical record. If we know that Goshen is near Egypt, and Midian is in Saudi Arabia...then what can we extrapolate from that?

Next came the wordplay section of the evening. The Rabbi started with having us read Exodus 1, in which we learn that Pharaoh has decided that the Israelites are "too numerous", so something must be done and in all his wisdom, the best idea he can come up with is slavery. That doesn't work, so Pharaoh decides to be extremely illogical and kill all the boys at birth. The Pharaoh is outsmarted by a couple of midwives, there are still too many Israelites, and Pharaoh decrees that all toddler boys must be killed. In the Biblical text, the Hebrew words for "increase" and "people" appear seven times. That's a significant number, and tends to mean that those words are important in some way. If they're significant...then what are they trying to say?

In another story, the wise Judean King Solomon enslaves the Israelite people in order to build a temple and a palace. He is cruel and the people rebel, and they are unsuccessful. Solomon dies and his son Rehoboam takes over. He is even more cruel, and the people rebel, led by a man named Jereboam. Any guesses what Jereboam means in Hebrew? If you guessed "the people increase"...then you'd be right.

There are more parallels between the Jereboam story and the Moses story. They both fled a leader whose rule they found tyrannical. They both returned after the leader died, confronted the new leader, and brought their people out of slavery. Apparently, their stories align on 14 points, even though I don't remember them right now. This is also a significant number and suggests more than a coincidence. If the two stories are linked...then what does that mean?

The Rabbi suggests that the Moses story is an allegory. Fiction. His theory is that it was written by the Judeans as the Jereboam events were happening as a way of protesting. This is why there's no archaeological evidence of the Israelites in Egypt in the time that the slavery was supposed to have happened. This is why the itinerary sites aren't in Egypt, but are in Moab, Judah, the Negev, the Jordan River valley, and the body of water they crossed was outside of Egypt's defended borders. If the Exodus from Egypt never happened...then what does that mean for Judaism?

It's a very good question. Of course, what the Rabbi did with the story was simply a literary analysis. 
The Judeans could simply have noticed the parallels between Jereboam and the oral tradition of Moses and wrote the story in such a way as to point them out. 
Since we are dealing with a story that survived orally for hundreds of years before it was ever written down, it could simply be a case of people forgetting or omitting some itinerary sites. This wouldn't explain the lack of archaeological evidence, though.

I don't care if it's allegory or if Moses just existed somewhere slightly different than Egypt. It's still my favorite story in the Bible.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I know my name

I will choose Miriam Tzipora.

I like that these names are associated with Moses and the stories of Exodus. I like that they appear in the parshiot that correspond with my birthday. I like that they are very clearly Biblical names, but they do not refer directly to G-d; they refer to nature. I like that they were both pretty amazing women, one a prophetess, the other the great woman behind a very special man.

I even like that they are opposites, in a few ways; Miriam had a problem with Moses's wife, who goes unnamed in that particular story, for being dark (and probably for taking up so much of his attention), so HaShem makes Miriam snow-white by afflicting her with leprosy for a week. They are also opposites in terms of background. Miriam was born an Israelite, the sister of Judaism's great leader and also of the first high priest. Tzipora, however, was not born into the tribe; she would have been a convert like me, from a different religious background (also with family ties to a high priest, being the daughter if the high priest of Midian).

I choose Miriam, partly because it is the name my mother suggested for me when I asked her. It was one of the names I asked her about and she liked the meanings behind it. She thought it fit me best. It's not completely clear what Miriam actually means.
In Egyptian, it could mean "beloved", which my mom thought was good, partly because when we watched the movie (based in the Toni Morrison novel), Beloved's mother tells her "you're my best thing", and my mom always thought the same of me.
In Hebrew, Miriam means "bitter water/sea", which almost sounds like a bad thing. But I've always loved being near the ocean, even though I don't love swimming. So a reference to water makes sense for me. To explain the bitter part, I like thinking about a Chinese idiomatic 
expression, "to eat bitter". This is how they would talk about perseverence. To me, that is very important, because that which is worthwhile is not always easy. It also seems to apply to the Biblical Miriam, because she was known for her kindness and generosity of spirit, even when she was going through difficult times personally.

That is something I asipre to and, I think, very worthy of a name.

I choose Tzipora, partly because it refers to my mother's pet name for me, in a way. Tzipora means "little bird", and as best I can tell, usually refers to a songbird. Mom liked to call my sister and I her "little chickadees". She doesn't say it about my sister as much anymore, but she still says it to me. Chickadees are very common birds in my hometown, and they used to congregate in our backyard to eat the tiny crabapples on our flowering crabapple tree. I also like Tzipora because I have always pictured her as dynamic, graceful and intuitive. Part of how I picture Tzipora is very dependent on how I perceive the relationsip between Moses and his wife, and therefore in how I understand marriage. Because Moses was clearly very special, I picture Tzipora being special, too. I think she was there to support Moses and help him find the courage to do what he needed to accimplish, whether it was dealing with his guilt after he killed the Egyptian, pulling himself together enough to confront Pharaoh, or constantly acting as a go-between with HaShem and the Israelites.She also showed that she understood what Moses taught her about HaShem and the covenants when she thought fast during the bridegroom of blood incident and saved Moses' life (or maybe Gershom's).

I think this is especially important to me and worthy of a name, because she, like myself, learned the mitzvot as an adult and took on the challenge of adapting to life with slightly new rules.

Try as I might, I couldn't decide between the two. Both names hold a great deal of meaning, both in Jewish culture and for me personally. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I would never be able to pick just one. I think it is best to take them in combination 
and hope that I can live up to them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Another Meeting

I met with my Rabbi again today.  We talked about what I've been studying, which is pretty much just Torah.  I've been reading as many commentaries and listening to as many podcasts as  I have time for.  

Naturally, since I've been gathering so much information, I want to write a report about anything I find interesting.  I'm a nerd; I'm okay with it.  So I've been updating my Torah blog a little bit, but it's not really anything worth sharing at this point.  I wouldn't even call it up to date, since my recent pattern is to post the week's parsha on Saturday evening.  Still, I think it's slightly valuable as a type of dialectical journal.  If I manage to keep up with it, it will be interesting to compare what I wrote this year to what I write next year.  The few entries that I wrote last year are very different to what I put up recently for the same parsha.

My rabbi thinks that it's good that I'm joining the commentary conversation.  He seems to think that when students realize that they can write their own midrash or insert themselves into the characters, they learn more.  I'm not sure if it's because we become more eager to study when the element of creativity is added, or if it's because it just becomes more personal, but I would tend to agree with that.

We talked a little bit about this week's parsha, about the commentary sources I've been using, and about whether it's valuable to read (or listen to) commentary that brings up an interesting idea, but is factually incorrect.  I think we slightly disagree on the last one.  I think that as long as you know where the facts fail, it's possible to learn a moral or philosophical lesson; my Rabbi is a bit leery on that idea.  But if I understand his logic, it's mostly because that would mean that the moral or philosophical lesson was not meant to be taught by that parsha, so you're focusing on something that's not entirely relevant.  In my experience, this seems to happen most on commentaries from a specific point of view (social justice, feminism, ecology, etc.).  We agree that commentary with failed logic is awful and not worth one's time.

At the end, we also talked about the actual conversion.  The Beit Din will almost certainly be on Shavuot, either the first day or the second.  He said that I should not have any problems getting through that part, since it will be all oral questions and I do well expressing myself in our conversations.  My official conversion certificate will bear the Beit Din date.  Then comes the mikveh.  There are still a few unresolved questions here.  He's not sure how many witnesses I might need.  I have already chosen one attendant, and he thinks she is a good choice and can help me with the blessings.  We're just not sure if I'll need more to say that they were there and I most certainly dunked.  The last question is the not-so-small matter of where.  This shouldn't be too awful much of a problem anymore, since there is no time limit.  It just has to happen after the Beit Din.  I'll get another certificate saying that I immersed on whatever date.  During some Friday night service after that, I'll be introduced to the congregation, given my Hebrew name, and given the Torah.  I'll recite the Shema, and that will be that.  I'll be a real, full-fledged Jew.