A “tevah” for the Huron

by Clare Kinberg, Beit Sefer director

Last year, on the first day of our religious school, Beit Sefer, I told a story about the word Hebrew word “tevah”תֵּבַ֣ת. When we meet again for the first session this year (10am Island Park) I want to tell the same story. I’m pretty sure at least some of the kids will remember it if I tell it again. I hope so, but it doesn’t matter.

Ann Arbor Jewish religious school

Beit Sefer Students and Teachers on the last day of class last year May 2016

It is Jewish tradition to tell the same stories over and over again. And every time a story is told, even with the same words, it is a different story, because the hearer has changed. You are not the same person you were last time you heard the story. As adults, we’ve heard many stories in the Torah dozens of times. Yet, what you hear and understand from a story, using the exact same words, is different every time you hear it.

Here is the story at I told it last year:

The stories that Jews tell from the Torah are some of our oldest stories. In fact, something like 200 generations of Jews have passed down the stories that are in the Torah. One of the oldest ones, and a story that is told by lots of different peoples, is the story of a great flood that covered the earth, and one family–Noah, his wife Nehama and their children–and the ark they built to ride on the waters of the flood and to save the plants and animals so that the earth could start over.

In Hebrew the word for Noah and Nehama’s boat is tevah. A tevah is a special boat that keeps its passengers safe. In the whole Torah there is only one other tevah:  while Noah and Nehama’s tevah was large enough to hold a pair of every animal and every plant on earth, the other tevah was so small it held only one baby passenger. In the Torah stories, about 100 generations after the great flood, the baby Moses was born and his sister, the prophet Miriam, built a small tevah, a basket more like a cradle than a huge ark, to save Moses’ life. When Moses was a grown man, so the story goes, he led the Jews out of slavery. So while one tevah played a part in saving life on earth, the small tevah played a part in saving the Jewish people.

Since one word, tevah, is used to mean such different things, a colossal ship made of gopher wood and a baby basket made of reeds, perhaps the meaning of tevah, is “life-saver.”

Or maybe it is the stories themselves that are the ark, the boat, that keeps us afloat. The stories I mean are both the stories that have been passed down generation to generation, and the stories we are creating with our own lives.

basket boat used at Ann Arbor Jewish religious school Beit Sefer

Basket-boat

Last year, on the opening day of Beit Sefer, we passed a small boat shaped basket around a big circle of parents and students. As we passed the basket, we each recited, “This basket holds our stories, pass it on.” Then, the person accepting the basket replied, “Thank you, I will learn the stories and pass them on.”

This year on opening day, we are going to make the baskets, and we are going to make a new story, all together. Beit Sefer begins at Island Park at 10am. Parents are asked to stay for a meeting, and to play a special role in writing a story and helping the students launch a tevah on the Huron River. Immediately following the launch, will be our AARC Annual Picnic. Noon to 3pm. Bring protein to grill, a side dish to share. AARC will provide drinks and paper goods.

See you there!

Come see a sofer at work, fixing our Torah

AARC’s Torah is old and much-loved. In fact, it seems to be over 200 years old. In recent years, it’s gotten a bit unstable; there are a number of tears in the scroll, and the stitching at the edges is coming unraveled.  Hagba–the display of the Torah to the Congregation, after it is read–has gotten a little too exciting.

So we’re pleased to say that Rabbi Moshe Druin, of Sofer On Site, will be visiting us on Tuesday, March 29, to fix all the stitching/tears.  He’ll work at the JCC, and you’re invited to come and watch.  Kids and adults–come by at 2:30 or 3.  Sofer on Site frequently does community events for Torah restorations.

Also, if you are able to be there for a bit and take some pictures, please let me know (email me at margo.schlanger@gmail.com).

Shabbat on the farm

Shabbat on the farm

MLK Day and the Ten Commandments

by Margo Schlanger

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, Monday January 18, 2016 , I got together with the Beit Sefer kids the day before, to talk about the Torah and civil rights.

We started with this picture:

Martin Luther King, Jr, with Rabbis Maurice Eisendrath and Abraham Joshua Heschel

Martin Luther King, Jr., R. Maurice Eisendrath and R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, on the March from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, March 1965.

I asked the students what the Civil Rights movement was about.  They talked about African Americans’ claims on equality–voting, jobs, buses, restaurants, and more.

So why did Rabbi Eisendrath think it was important not just to carry the Torah during the Selma march in 1965, but for the Torah’s mantle to show the Ten Commandments?  We looked together at the commandments, focusing on the “Don’t” commandments, illustrated on the Torah mantle with the Hebrew word “לא” (lo — “no” or “don’t”).

Our conversation was mostly about three of the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie about important things (“bear false witness against your neighbor”).

What do these commandments have in common? Some people think we can develop from them (and the others in the ten) a full statement of the requirements of a moral life.  But so many things are left out.  If we can deduce a principle behind these commandments, maybe that principle can help.

The students first developed a “results-oriented” justification.  Who would want to live in a world where other people were allowed to murder and steal? they asked.  Then they moved to the justification that ties the Ten Commandments to civil rights–equality.  You don’t kill people, or steal from them, or lie to them, they said, because those other people are equal to you.  Their lives matter, their stuff matters, their feelings matter.

In other words, the students ended up in the same place as Rabbi Hillel.  We each stood on one foot while I repeated the Talmudic story:

Once there was a non-Jew who told Rabbi Hillel that he was thinking about converting to Judaism, but first, he wanted to know everything he needed to know, while he stood on one foot.  And so Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation.”

D’varim, Tisha B’Av and the Meaning of Justice

My d’var Torah for Shabbat, July 24, 2015.

Painting: The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans

I want to talk today about what I see as a connection between two things: Tisha b’Av, the fast day that begins Saturday evening, and D’varim, this week’s parsha.

I’ll start with Tisha b’Av, the holiday when, traditionally, Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple and the forced exile of the Jews from Jerusalem.

Here’s a story, a fable, from the Talmud about how it is that that destruction came about:

There was a man who was very good friends with someone named Kamza and did not get along with another person with a similar name, Bar Kamza. This man was preparing to host a large banquet. He told his servant to invite his friend Kamza. But the servant made a mistake and invited Bar Kamza.

The host was very surprised to see his least favorite person, Bar Kamza, at his party, and ordered him to leave. But Bar Kamza did not want to be thrown out; he thought that would be humiliating. So he offered to pay for his portion of food. The host refused. Bar Kamza next offered to pay for half of the expenses of the large party. Still the host refused. Finally, Bar Kamza offered to pay for the entire banquet. In anger, the host grabbed Bar Kamza and physically threw him out. [Read more…]

“We heard God’s words without using our ears.”

Shuli and Me“We heard God’s words without using our ears.” So Shavuot is described at the end of Shuli and Me: From Slavery to Freedom, the storybook Omer calendar by Joan Benjamin-Farren you will hear at the AARC havdallah and Shavuot observance. The story, told from a freed slave child’s point of view, imagines those first seven weeks in the desert. We have been following the cloud. Today we are camped at the foot of the mountain. We’ve washed our clothes. We are waiting.

After havdallah, Rabbi Michal will lead us in a discussion of approaches to the concept of torah; the capital “T” Torah, the five books in our traditional scroll, and other uses of the concept of torah. A couple that speak to me, for instance: In a Kol Nidre sermon Rabbi Mona Alfi quoted the medieval scholar, Bachya ibn Pakuda: “Days are like scrolls, only write on them what you want to be remembered.” She explained, “In essence, what Bachya ibn Pakuda was saying is that each life is a Torah for future generations to examine and learn from.”

A description of Carol Ochs’ book Our Lives as Torah: Finding God in Our own Stories, says “Through the process of seeing our experiences in relation to Biblical stories, we begin to recognize our lives as part of the ongoing story of the Jewish people–as Torah.”

Let’s meet there, at the mountain, and discuss: May 23rd 7:30pm till ? At the home, still, of Rabbi Michal and Jon Sweeney, 2960 Lakeview Drive. Dairy, dessert potluck. Early evening all ages, after havdallah for adults, childcare available. Email Clare or Rabbi Michal.

A Torah Story

Shabbat on the farm

Shabbat on the farm

Our Torah scroll was acquired, according to Bev Warshai, at the time when the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Havurah was about to celebrate our first bat mitzvah, the Warshai’s daughter Gal. Although Bev and her husband Yuval belonged to both the AA Havurah and T’chiya, a Detroit Reconstructionist congregation, they wanted Gal’s bat mitzvah Torah service to be here in Ann Arbor. However, the Havurah did not have a Torah scroll, an ark, or a table to use during a service. Around this time, in 1997, several members of the Havurah–Aaron and Aura Ahuvia, Deb Kraus and Danny Steinmetz (and their children Isaac and Jonah Ahuvia (3 and 1 years old) and Molly Kraus-Steinmetz (2 years old)–drove together to Kenosha, WI for a regional Reconstructionist workshop. There they met a member of a Reconstructionist congregation in Chicago that happened to have an excess of Torah scrolls. How does a congregation acquire an excess of Torah scrolls? Danny suggests that “Back in the day, giving a Torah was a big thing, whether or not the shul needed another one. The symbolism of dedicating the ultimate sacred object (since the destruction of the Temple) in memory of deceased relatives is so strong, if a shul was around long enough and had enough members with some money, collecting Torah scrolls was not unusual.” Bev also remembers that two congregations merged, creating even more of an excess of scrolls. Deb remembers the initial discussion, “I was in a workshop and someone was lamenting that they don’t always have Torah readers and I said, ‘at least you have a Torah,’ at which point a person from a Chicago congregation said, ‘Talk to me after this. We have an extra Torah.’”

Arrangements were made. Because the Torah was a gift to the Chicago congregation, they could loan it to us and give us responsibility to take care of it. Although Yuval’s subsequent communications with the Chicago congregation indicated that they have relinquished all claims to the scroll, out of an excess of caution, AARC will continue to care for it in trust. If we ever come into possession of any other Torah, we could decide to gift this one on, again, to another congregation in need. But back to the story!

Yuval and Harry Fried made the trip to Chicago to bring the Torah scroll back to Ann Arbor. Alan Haber made the ark, and other necessities and niceties for a Torah service were collected. In future blog posts I will write more about those objects, including our Torah covers and our yad. So far, we know nothing more about the provenance of our Torah scroll. Since we’ve had it, the scroll has been repaired twice at Borenstein’s in Oak Park, including new wooden spindles. It still has need of stitching repairs and there are many faded letters that can make it challenging to read.

AARC has a fund for repairing or replacing the Torah, though it contains only a fraction of the money needed. Board member Jack Edelstein is leading a new effort to figure out the best path forward. If you’d like to be involved in this effort, contact Jack. And if you’d like to donate to the fund, click here.