It’s Snark Week

One of the most important ways of understanding the Bible is to remember the saying of the Rabbis:

דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם
The Torah speaks in the language of mankind.

That is, the text is purposely presented in a way that we can relate to. So it should come as no surprise that as we read of various Biblical characters communicating with each other, we occasionally find priceless examples of dry wit, irony, and downright sarcasm. Who can’t relate to that?

Therefore, I present to you my:

Top Five Sarcastic Biblical One-Liners:

5. God rolls His eyes at Jonah
Jonah 4:4

Anyone who raised a teenager can relate to Jonah. Filled with melodrama and narcissism, Jonah always makes everything about him. Towards the end of the story, Jonah complains to God that the entire errand of warning the Ninevites of their impending destruction was just one big waste of his time. So later, while Jonah was sitting in the unbearable heat, God provided a big plant to provide shelter and relief. The next day, God took the plant away. Jonah, attempting to win Best Actor in a Short Film, raised the back of his hand to his forehead, and cried to the heavens, “Oh! I would rather die than live like this!”

To which God, in an uncharacteristic instance of perfect understatement and not just a little sarcasm, replied,

“Are you really upset?”

 

4. On behalf on an ungrateful nation
Exodus 14:11

Just what do you have to do to get any respect? The Israelites, enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years, are finally free. They personally witnessed the power of God, and watched the Egyptians suffer 10 devastating plagues, including the death of every first born son. They were guided by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night (early GPS–God Positioning System). So it was pretty clear by this time that Moses and God had their backs.

As they were approaching the shore of the Red Sea, with the pursuing Egyptian army in the distance, one guy, obviously the ancestor of a modern day temple president, went up to Moses and asked,

“There weren’t enough graves in Egypt, so you had to bring us out here to die?”

 

3. Animals? What animals?
I Samuel 15:14

The story of King Saul and King Agag is a deeply poignant and troubling episode. Saul was instructed by God to wage war against the tribe of Amalek and utterly wipe out everyone and everything. In a time when putting the males to death might be common, this command was way over the top–it specifically included not only the men, but every woman, child, baby. And every animal. Complete genocide.

King Saul, probably in way over his head, obviously had major reservations about carrying out such an order. He ended up sparing his counterpart King Agag (letting the vanquished king live was common in war–sort of like professional courtesy), and allowing his soldiers take some of the cattle.

God sent his prophet Samuel to confront Saul and call him out on his disobedience. Samuel asks Saul, “Did you completely follow God’s command?” Saul replies confidently, “Yes, I did everything God asked me.”

Samuel uses his dry wit to make his point, as he looks around and sees a bunch of cattle that used to belong to the Amalekites. With pinpoint timing, he asks Saul,

“So what’s this bleating of sheep I hear all around?”

Busted.

 

2. For this we sent you to Brandeis?
Judges 14:3

Before there was Fatal Attraction, there was the story of Samson. What most people know of this gem of a story is a guy who likes to wear his hair long and the femme fatale who tricks him into getting a haircut with dire consequences. In fact, the entire narrative of Samson is a story of romance, desire, betrayal, anger, and violence. It was also written with a great deal of irony and comedy.

First we read of Samson’s beginnings. Because his parents, Manoach and Mrs. Manoach (that’s correct–the Tanach can’t even bother giving her a name), had great trouble conceiving a child (a common motif in Biblical stories), they pledge their soon-to-be-born son to the service of God as a Nazarite. Among other restrictions, that meant no wine and no haircuts. Samson is born, gets older, and goes on Spring Break to a city called Timnah, where he meets and falls for a Philistine woman. He returns home and excitedly tells his father that he’s getting married to this woman.

Samson’s father asks his son the question that is destined to reverberate throughout the next couple thousand years of Jewish life:

“What, there were no Jewish girls for you to marry?”

 

1. Dude, that’s my wife
Esther 7:8

The story of Esther that we read on Purim is one of the most familiar and well-known narratives of the entire Bible. It also happens to be a perfectly constructed short story, filled with effective literary techniques–foreshadowing, conflict, irony, and yes, a good deal of comedy.

There are a few points in the story that don’t get as much attention. One such passage provides what I think is the best laugh-out-loud moment of the entire Tanach. Towards the end of the story, Haman’s plot has completely unraveled, and he finally knows the jig is up and he’s in big trouble. Esther has identified him to King Achashverosh as the person who is seeking to wipe out her people, the Jews. The King is furious and in his anger, storms out of the room. Haman, overcome with the fact that he’s pretty much dead man walking now, feels faint and collapses right on top of Esther, who’s lying on her couch.

At this precise moment, King Achashverosh walks back into the room, takes in the scene in front of him, and with a timing and delivery bordering on sheer perfection, asks:

“So you thought you’d shtup my wife, too?”

 

B-B-B-Bad to the Bone?

You gotta hand it to those ancient rabbis–they sure knew how to tackle classroom management. In fact, we read about their nuanced understanding of effective pedagogical techniques each year at the Passover Seder.

Forget everything you thought you knew about education. The rabbis had it all figured out: there are simply four kinds of learners–the familiar four sons that appear in the Haggadah:

The Wise Son
The Wicked Son
The Simple Son
The Son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask

(Of course, in true traditional Jewish fashion, the women-folk were relegated to the kitchen, so we’re not sure what the daughters were up to.)

So which kind of kid do you think is the best? Which one might go on to become a Jewish professional or effective leader? Who is more apt to make Mom and Dad proud?

No brainer right? I think it’s the wicked child.

Like a lot of kids who seem to resist learning, I think the wicked child is the most misunderstood. Let’s take a closer look at how the Haggadah presents this type of learner.

We might imagine that he simply disappears during the Seder. Maybe he announces to everyone, “This is stupid!” and storms off to go partying and have an illicit bagel with his other hoodlum friends. But that’s not what happens at all. This kid is engaged. He’s present. He’s asking questions and challenging authority. Rather than absenting himself, he wants answers. And most surprising, he’s knowledgeable about the Seder and the Torah. He uses a direct quote from Exodus–What does this service mean to you?–and puts a sarcastic twist on it by emphasizing the words “to you,” challenging the adults in his life to explain why and how he should embrace these rituals. He wants in–but needs to see more.

In other words, what the rabbis of the Haggadah called the Wicked Son is really just a typical teenager.

And here’s where actually understanding the Hebrew text comes in handy, because in most translations I’ve read, this next part is simply omitted. When asked how we should handle such an awful child, the text reads:

.אף אתה הקהה את שיניו
Smack him in the teeth.

Obviously, those guys had very little patience for anything but blind obedience. That’s why they loved the wise child, an annoying little goody-two-shoes who sat right up front, always raised his hand first, and begged to be called on with the correct answer. (Good thing the Jews never believed in gym class, because this kid would have been toast.)

As for me, give me the wicked child any day. I much prefer to be around students who ask difficult questions, challenge established beliefs, and rethink the best way for them to engage in Jewish tradition.

Finger Puppets and Genocide

Long ago, I think some corporate executives within the Organization of Jewish Religion decided that they had a ratings problem.

Christian merch was flying off the shelves and their branding was expanding around the globe. The Jews felt they had something special–after all, it was their legacy product that set the stage for everything that came after. They had secured all the important celebrity endorsements–

“I’m proud to call the Jews My chosen people!”–God

–and had established their headquarters in a desirable Jerusalem neighborhood.

Still, the Christians were killing it. So the marketing executives in the corporate office set out to find out why. They quickly realized what every modern company knows so well–get the kids hooked and the customer stream will follow. Christmas was introduced with their new mascot–Santa Claus–which was also a brilliant piece of cross promotion with Coca Cola and brought in needed revenue. They unveiled the Easter Bunny–a bit controversial since the Bunny character inexplicably laid eggs and didn’t even have a passing connection to the Resurrection of Jesus, but it was an instant success and had a lasting effect on public school calendars for all time.

The report got sent upstairs–Target the kids!

Everyone got to work right away. It wasn’t easy. Many of our Jewish holidays deal with serious, complicated, and violent themes. There’s brutality and sexuality throughout. How do you turn an R-rated subject into something G-rated?

They began with Purim, and took a cold hard look at the holiday. A dubious leading man, Mordechai, schemes to place himself at the pinnacle of power using every Machiavellian trick in the book. He pimps out his nubile underage niece to the non-Jewish middle-aged king to secure a presence in the palace. He skulks around the grounds until he spots an opportunity to turn in would-be traitors to ingratiate himself with the king. He sets up the mighty but ultimately dim-witted Haman to take the fall for attempted genocide. Finally, in the climax of the story, the newly powerful Mordechai leads the Jews on a killing rampage throughout Shushan, wiping out 75,000 non-Jews who had been bent on their destruction.

The solution: Let’s get the kids to dress up and make a ton of noise. We’ll market character costumes and manufacture promotional noise-makers with Jewish stars and Torah logos on them.

Next came Chanukah. This one was tough. It was a rather dry festival commemorating a military victory. To further complicate matters, the victors in the story–the Hasmonean Dynasty–never made much of themselves after this episode. They themselves ended up assimilating and falling victim to the very thing which their recent ancestors had fought against. It was a fairly decent story of underdogs overcoming the odds, but how can you repackage this one for the kids?

The solution: We’ll create a new back story. Snazz it up with special effects–a divine miracle–and introduce a product that everyone has to have. Before this point, no one even knew what a menorah was, but soon enough it became the hot button product of the time, with people lining up around the shuk all night to get the latest release. Throw in a dreidl (with a hint of gambling to appeal to parents), and Chanukah became the must-celebrate holiday of the year for the whole family.

The marketing department even looked at stories from the Torah–in particular the story of Noah and the Flood. The team took a unflinching look at this story–how could they spin the needlessly violent and agonizing death of all humanity, not to mention the horrible suffering of all the animals on earth?

The solution: Focus instead on the very few animals that were actually spared, and portray Noah as a benevolent and avuncular figure who was simply along for the ride. Instead of worrying about the devastating effects of the flood, transform the ark into a cruise ship with lovable animals, bobbing happily along the waves on an extended tour of the ancient Middle East. Using the rainbow as their logo, this story of a happy man with cute pairs of animals became enshrined in children’s hearts forever.

Fast forward to today. This once-brilliant marketing campaign has become a victim of its own success. Every facet of Judaism seems tailored only for kids. The medium has become the message. This became apparent when I recently spied a certain product intended for kids at a Passover seder–Ten Plague Finger Puppets. Some Jewish company thought this was a good idea? OK, frogs are pretty amusing, and in fact, that particular plague was itself intended to be a somewhat comical jab at the Egyptians. But blood? Vermin? The Death of Every First Born Son and Animal??

In our Siddur, it explains that during Passover, except for the first two days, we recite an abbreviated version of Hallel, the series of Psalms and blessings added for every festival. The reason for this, according to Jewish tradition, is because our own joy and celebration must be tempered by our acknowledgment of the deaths of so many Egyptians, during the plagues and then their drowning in the Red Sea. An incredible Jewish concept–we don’t take pleasure in the suffering of our enemies. That’s also the reason why we remove a drop of wine from our glasses during the recitation of the Ten Plagues at the seder. So should we wear our Finger Puppets while we take a drop of wine out of our cups?

Let’s make Judaism an adult religion again. Let’s not infantilize kids and teens and assume they can’t handle any serious subjects. Let’s struggle with reconciling the violent and anachronistic episodes of our tradition with living a life of holiness and community. Let’s come up with ways to explain a modern concept of what God is, what God means, and what God can be, and move away from the white-bearded father and king who lives in the sky that so many people learned about as children without the possibility of any more sophisticated and adult alternative.

I’m fully confident that our ratings will go up and we’ll once again establish brand loyalty.

 

We Have Met the Deity–and He is Us.

דע לפני מי אתה עומד

Da lifnei mi atah omed

Know before whom you stand

 

These words commonly adorn the bimahs and arks of countless synagogues around the world, and presumably serve to remind us that we are in the presence of God (and to stop texting during services).

Instead, could these ubiquitous words carry another meaning?

One Shabbat morning while I was leading services, I was staring at this Hebrew phrase, and the thought occurred to me that rather than that conventional interpretation, this message might be thought of in an existential context. (And here you thought I was daydreaming during the service.)

What if the one who we are standing before is…ourself? The creation story as told in Genesis hints at this answer. The text specifically says that we are created in God’s image.

This perspective is further emphasized throughout Jewish tradition. The Hebrew word for prayer itself is להתפלל, l’hitpalel, a reflexive verb. By definition, we don’t pray for something, but rather to effect a change in ourselves. The act of praying, gathering together as a community, engaging in Jewish ritual…these are not actions meant to please some distant and invisible deity. We do these things to bring ourselves closer to each other and to connect with tradition. Our centuries-old charge is Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place. We don’t pray to God to make that happen. We don’t recite a few words in the prayer book, throw up our hands, and say, “I’ve done my part. Now it’s in God’s hands.” Prayer is an inward act–it inspires us to see the world around us and seek to make a difference.

We are the agents of change, and our prayers help to provide the impetus for making that change.

Similarly, it’s much more powerful and compelling to think that it is we ourselves who must judge our own actions. When a person is accused of any type of destructive or dishonest action, don’t we often ask, “How can he face himself in the mirror?” We are perpetually in the position of looking over our own shoulders and evaluating our deeds.

In the Talmud, we read the story of Rabbi Yochanan’s students, who rushed to the rabbi’s deathbed, eager to get a blessing from their teacher before he died. Rabbi Yochanan, with his last words, told the students, “May you fear God as much as you fear man.” The students were confused and upset–how could such a respected scholar mean such a thing? Rabbi Yochanan explained, “When you commit a sin, your first thought is, I hope no one saw me.”

Know before whom you stand. You’re standing in front of yourself.

 

The Blooper Reel: Not-So-Great Moments in Cantorial History

Everyone loves watching the outtakes from a movie–sometimes presented during the credits or as part of the bonus features of the DVD. (Does anyone watch DVDs anymore??) Unfortunately, all of my scenes are live presentations with no chance to redo them.

I’ve had more than a few bloopers in my many years as a cantor. A few memorable ones come to mind:

Early in my career, I was soloing at services for one of the first times, and I was pretty nervous. When we got to the part when we announce the yahrzeits (the anniversary of a death) for the coming week, I not-so-eloquently announced, “The following yahrzeits will be celebrated during the coming week.” No one said anything to me after services, so either they weren’t paying attention, or they took pity on a newbie cantor.

Being inexperienced isn’t just nerve wracking–it can also be dangerous. At one of my first funerals, it was time for me to cut the mourner’s black ribbon with the little razor that the funeral home gives out. In a bit of nervous energy, I not only made a cut in the ribbon, but also succeeded in slicing my finger. But the show must go on–I surreptitiously grabbed a tissue, kept it wrapped around my finger for the entire service, and only bled on my book a little. No one ever noticed. Still, I’m happy that most funeral homes now use the self-tearing ribbons.

One Shabbat morning, it was the week before Rosh Chodesh, the new Jewish month, when it’s traditional to add a prayer announcing the coming new month and exactly when it begins. That would have gone very smoothly had I actually bothered to look at a calendar ahead of time and seen not only what day the month began, but also which month it was. Before I started chanting the page, I had no choice but to do the walk of shame over to the rabbi’s side for a quick whispered conversation. Lesson learned.

Finally, one of my all time favorite and memorable moments in the history of services. During a bar mitzvah many years ago, the family had assigned the honor of reading the Prayer for Peace to a friend who had traveled in from South America.

Do you know what happens to the Prayer for Peace when it is recited with a South American accent? It turns out that the long ē sound in the word “peace” doesn’t quite make it all the way. (Go ahead, I’ll wait till you try that out.)

And so, while the guest proceeded to recite the now unfortunate line, “And may a great peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea,” I stared laser beams into the carpet in front of me.

Does anyone else have any good work-related bloopers to share? Do accountants find it funny when they add two numbers wrong? Do doctors ever say, “So there I was about to cut the left arm…”

I guess it’s just a cantor thing.

That awkward moment…

Over the years, my colleagues and I are constantly asked the question, “Why did you become a cantor?” The best response I ever heard was “So I could have awkward conversations with the person sitting next to me on the plane.”

It’s something that I never envisioned, but whenever I’m a guest at an event, or meeting people for the first time, or yes, sitting down in my seat for a flight, I’ve come to dread those 5 little words:

“So what do you do?”

Ah, it would be so much easier for me to say, “I’m a computer programmer,” or “I work in a bank,” or any of the myriad professions that exist. By this time I do have it down to something like a science. I duly respond,

“I’m a cantor.” I observe the blank stare, wait a brief moment, and quickly follow that up with,

“Do you know what that is?”

This has become so routine that I sometimes forget myself and answer,

“I’m a cantordoyouknowwhatthatis.”

In fact, it really is a teachable moment for most people, many of whom may only have a passing familiarity with the term but are often very surprised at the range and depth of training, responsibilities, and professional status of a synagogue cantor. (“You can actually marry people?”)

Other times, the person sits in polite silence, clearly figuring that they got in way too deep with what was supposed to be a polite question. Now that they’re chatting with Mr. Jewy Jewman, how are they going to extricate themselves from this awkward situation?

Even if they don’t realize it yet, I know exactly what’s coming. Sure enough, I see a little light flick on in their head, and I think to myself, OK, here it comes:

“Hey, there’s a Jewish family on my street. The Goldbergs. Do you know them?”

So I’ve gotten much better at avoiding these interactions each time I sit down on a plane. I decide at that moment how much I’m in the mood to chat with the person next to me and respond in three possible ways to “So what do you do?”

Level One: I’m not in the mood for small talk at all and really just want to be left alone.

Response: “I work for a non-profit organization.” (Crickets….mission accomplished)

Level Two: A little friendly conversation is OK while we’re waiting to take off.

Response: “I’m a music educator.” This can result in some fun conversations and memories of piano lessons of years past.

Level Three: I just sat down next to someone returning from a Victoria’s Secret catalog shoot.

Response: “I’m a flight instructor.”

Jewish Mythbusters

We need a Snopes for Jewish life. You know, some kind of site where people can enter “facts” that they know about Judaism to see if they’re true. (Maybe we could call it Shnapps.)

While we’re waiting for such a site to get launched, I’m happy to provide this installment of Jewish Mythbusters–persistent Jewish urban legends that keep making the rounds no matter how silly or unbelievable they may be.

 

1. If you drop the Torah, you have to fast for 40 days.

First, you should realize that dropping a Torah scroll is an extremely rare occurrence.

I can’t imagine going a couple hours before figuring out what I’m eating next. Forty days? Where did this number come from? Why does every Hebrew school kid seem to have this questionable factoid at their fingertips? Why does every relative at a bar mitzvah think they’re being so funny when they tell the kid, “Careful you don’t drop the Torah so we don’t have to fast for 40 days!”

The number 40 was probably batted around because it served as a logical counterpart to the 40 days it took for the Israelites to receive the Torah. So while there’s no set procedure for the very few times this might actually occur, Jews might decide to create a day of study and/or have people donate money to tzedakah to acknowledge the sanctity of the Torah scroll. If there were many people present who witnessed the Torah falling, each person might fast for a short time during the day and then come together for a study session. The best way to react to this unfortunate event is to turn it into a teachable moment as well as an opportunity to bring community together and engage in acts of tikkun olam.

But no need to cancel your dinner plans next month.

2. A person with a tattoo can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

If this were true, we’d be stacking bodies up like firewood trying to figure out where to put them all.

True, Jewish law prohibits getting a tattoo, because one is not supposed to mark or scar our bodies, which are seen as God’s work. (An obvious exception of which is circumcision, which is specifically commanded). But fashions and trends come and go, and many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, choose to get a tattoo. I can assure you that when the time comes, no one will take a look at your little butterfly and turn you away.

Stay tuned for more installments of Jewish Mythbusters. Do you have an example of something that just doesn’t sound quite right but you keep hearing about it? Let me know and I’ll report back to you…

 

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