Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Moveable Feast of Torah

An idle thought about modern minyanim --

We're not very tied down, at Zoo Minyan and its various havurah-nik and minyan cousins. Last shabbos, we comforably fit a Moveable Minyan into one car-load:
  • siddurim (three sets)
  • chumashim
  • pews (a half-dozen backjacks)
  • catering (okay, really just dishes, utensils, etc)
  • tallesim, kippot, madrich, luach, etc
  • yad, torah blessings, tikkunim, and torah coverings
and most important, a sefer torah!

That's pretty much all we need to have a minyan (besides a minyan, of course). No permanent building, no stained glass and no organ (just our vocal chords), not a lot of paraphenalia and bulk. And of course that's by design -- not just a contrast between independent minyanim vs institutionalized religion, but also an essential aspect of yiddishkeit. Maybe it's a reaction to so many generations living in the shadow of so many exiles, needing the ability to flee and then re-establish a community quickly. Or maybe it goes back even earlier...

We just paused in the midst of our Torah-reading cycle in the middle of Perek Dalet in B'Midbar. We're reading about the duties of the various clans of Levites for moving the Mishkan -- the original Moveable Mishkan. Through forty years of wandering in the desert, and some more wandering even after we arrived in Eretz Yisrael, we had to assemble, disassemble, and re-assemble our sanctuary and altar over and over again. The instructions in these parshiot are detailed, practical, and quite a bit of work! Yet everything was clearly designed for mobility from the beginning, with carrying staves built into various large objects, ballasted foundations to support the erection of anything vertical, etc.

But we interrupted the reading of these instructions this past shabbat with a yontiff commemorating our receiving Torah, which happened even before the Mishkan was constructed. And Torah is the ultimate in mobility. A sefer torah is really the only thing that a Jewish community absolutely must have. And some Torah-learning is really the only thing that a Jewish community must know. All the rest, as it says, is commentary.

So how do we take full advantage of this unencumbered religion? What do we do with this weightlessness of the spirit? At Zoo Minyan, it means we get to bring davenning to your living room (check the calendar for dates that still need volunteers to host!). What are your stories of moveable -- and therefore ubiquitous -- torah?

PS: If you didn't get enough of Megillat Ruth over Shavuos, you can feast on this wonderful reading / drashing by Reb Zalman.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Shavuot at the Zoo

It's the only one-day yontiff of the year, but we've got a lot going on for Shavuot at Zoo Minyan. Check the calendar for details on the Tikkun, starting Thursday night -- until we all reach Sinai and receive the Torah at dawn.

Then sleep to your hearts content on the 1st day of Shavuot, wake up and join us for:

Blintz Fest at Deborah and Shalom's
- 1st Day of Shavuot
- 4pm, May 29

No RSVP necessary.


Come join Shalom & Deborah for their Annual Shavuot Blintz Fest!
(Fri. 5/29) Come by starting at 4pm.
Blintzes come fresh from Grandma's heirloom blintz pan - you are invited to bring toppings. If you are in the mood, other hekshered potluck items are welcome but certainly not required. Eat bubbelah eat!

Fri. night Davening will follow the Blintz Fest.  It will be both yontiff and shabbos, so there will be an abbreviated Kabbalat Shabbat.  Though since we'll be following the nusach Shivyoni / nusach Sefard minhag, not quite as abbreviated as nusach Ashkenaz -- Ps. 29, 1st two and last two verses of l'cha dodi (no limit on the ya-dai-dai's), and then mizmor shir l'yom ha-Shabbat.

After davenning, we'll have a pot-luck shabbos dinner.  Even if you're stuffed from blintzes, stay, shmooze some more, have a ka-zayit of challah....Unlike the usual Zoo custom, please bring heksher-only pot-luck contributions (if you're not sure whether your kitchen counts as heksher-only, just write back to and ask).

And if we still have any energy after dinner, there could even be a little of learning (a "micro-tikkun"?).  Maybe just some highlights of people's favorite learning from various tikkunim the night before; or if you've got something you want to share, bring it along!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tossing Desserts in the Desert this Shabbos

With the glorious spring weather we've been having here in DC - the breezes, the greenery, and the rain showers that make all that growth possible, it's a bit of a contrast thinking about this week's parsha - Bamidbar. The desert! Which is similar but slightly different in spelling than 'dessert'. Which reminds me, there will be time during the torah reading for throwing candy, but we're getting ahead of ourselves...

This Shabbat:

We'll be gathering for davenning, lunch, shmoozing, singing, etc. this Saturday at the home of Laura, Darya, Sarah, & Scott. Once again we will be on the Mount Pleasant side of the Zoo. We'll also have the joy of an Aufruf this Shabbos i.e. the traditional pelting with candy of 2 beloveds about to be ritually joined for life under the Chuppah. The whole community is invited, so don't skip this week just because you may not know the Bride or Groom - Nechama and Toby.

Volunteers for leyning are not needed (there is one left if you want it), but volunteers for leading, davenning treats, torah schlepping, and the famous Zoo Minyan veggies are very much appreciated – write back to

The self-service leyning spreadsheet is:
(maybe sign up for June?? 'tis the season of Torah after all, what with Shavuot coming soon!)

Please check out our Google calendar and all sorts of other goodies at
our (still excitingly new) website: Two new drashot are up this week, the link for contributing to the Friday night kitty, plus lots of other goodies. You can even add the Zoo Google calendar to your Google Calendar view --
AND... we now have dates through

A huge line-up of events for next week, from co-sponsoring the Tikkun Leil Shavuot with TLS and Adas, to Blintzfest and Kabbalat Shabbat.  More details on the Zoo calendar, as always.

For help adding Zoo Minyan to your calendar, email ;)

The Details:

Zoo Minyan
This Saturday, 23 May 2009
Parshat Bamidbar,
10am sharp, with a joyous Psukei d'Zimrah
Pot-luck dairy/veggie lunch -- main courses especially appreciated

At the home of Laura, Darya, Sarah, & Scott, in Mt. Pleasant.

For directions, check your Zoo Mail, or write to

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Professor Robert Alter was the visiting scholar at Adas this past shabbos. His shiur Friday night focused on the use of repetition as a literary device in Tanach. He dismissed the idea that minor variations in re-tellings were a glitch in oral transmission, and pointed instead of the use of those variations to draw comparisons or to intensify a pattern.

Looking fairly randomly into Tanach, two examples in the first and second chapters of Melachim Bet (II Kings 1:9-15 and 2:1-6) jump out. Let's take a quick look.

The first example is a classic three-tuple: two identical repetitions with negative outcomes, and a third with a dramatically different outcome that shows what should have happened in the first place. A divine messenger instructs Eliyahu the Prophet to rebuke the wayward King Ahaziah. The message reaches the King, who send a troop of 50 soldiers to...well, it's not clear what the military mission is, we don't hear the orders of the King himself. The captain with the first troops arrives at Eliyahu on the mountaintop, and shouts out that the King orders him to come down ("reida"). Instead what comes down, at Eliyahu's command, is fire from heaven (1:10), consuming the troops and the captain. Events with the second troop of 50 soldiers and their captain unfold exactly the same way, word for word, except that the command is come down NOW! ("meheira reida").

The third captain, a devout or at least an observant soul, tries a different approach, acknowledging the fate of his predecessors, and imploring Eliyahu that his soul, and the souls of these fifty servants, may be precious ("tikar-na") in Eliyahu's eyes. At which point the divine messenger tells Eliyahu to go with them to the King. The message driven home by this three-hold repetition could not be clearer -- in a contest between military force and divine force, there is no contest. And it doesn't hurt to say please.

The second example seems subtler. It is time for Eliyahu's ascent to heaven, and he instructs his disciple Elisha three times to stay behind. Elisha refuses all three times, and eventually accompanies Eliyahu up to the moment of his ascent, and literally assumes Eliyahu's mantle ("aderet Eliyahu"). The three repetitions, as Eliyahu makes his way to Beit El, then Jericho, and finally the midst of the Jordan River, are *nearly* identical, but not quite.

Beit ElYerichoYarden
Va-yomer Eliyahu el Elisha, "Sheiv-na...Va-yomer lo Eliyahu, "Elisha, sheiv-na...Va-yomer lo Eliyahu, "Sheiv-na...
Eliyahu said to Elisha, "Please stay...Eliyahu said to him, "Elisha, please stay...Eliyahu said to him, "Please stay...
Va-yerdu Beit ElVa-yavou YerichoVa-yelchu sh'neihem
They went down to Beit ElThey came to YerichoThey went together

These tiny variations in the midst of a nearly identical three-fold repetition carry a potent message. Eliyahu is about to leave this earthly existance forever; Elisha may or may not be a worthy successor. With each repetition, Eliyahu addresses his friend in just-slightly more intimate ways. And with each repetition, their travel together becomes more unified, until the conclusion of Eliyahu's request that Elisha stay behind is stated with utter clarity: "They went together".

These are small, nicely self-contained examples of the power behind Professor Alter's method, a method which the meforshim (classical commentators) have long employed. What examples in Tanach have you noticed lately?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Now that Lag b'Omer has past, we are into the final stages of Sefirat ha-Omer (and yashar koach to those who are still in the midst of their bracha for the counting).

Sefirat ha-Omer has many cycles and movements within it. But the two poles (separated by Lag b'Omer) are marked by barley and wheat, and by Rabbi Akiva and Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai (the Rashbi). As those who were at Zoo for the last Friday night Raza d'Shabbat drash already know, the Omer period begins with the barley harvest (an "omer" is the measure of barley offered at the altar), starting the day after the Pesach holiday.

Now barley is not an impressive offering. Nowadays, mushroom-barley soup may be comfort food, and foodies may delight in a Barley Risotto with Asparagus and Hazelnuts. But in biblical times, barley was basically animal feed, just barely fit for human consumption.

Sefirat ha-Omer ends with Shavuot, associated of course with Matan Torah (received Torah at Sinai) but also with the beginning of the wheat harvest. Ah, now, wheat -- there's a proper offering: finely ground, baked into challot, rich with oil.

So the first phase of the Omer encourages us to be "barley Jews" -- take whatever we've got, even if it's just barley, and offer it. The important thing is to take action, without worrying about whether it's good enough. But that can't be the end of the story. After Lab b'Omer, we're striving to be "wheat Jews" -- not satisfied until we reach the highest of the high, still striving even after we've given our all.

These are the poles represented by R. Akiva and the Rashbi. Akiva took action, even when one couldn't be sure if it was the perfect time -- most famously, in the Bar Kochba rebellion. But the Rashbi sought only perfection, immersing himself (and his son) in the pure study of Torah for seven years.

So after Lab b'Omer -- we move from Akiva's, "it's good enough, let's just get going already" to, the Rashbi's "we can go to the next madrega; Ha-Shem, make me higher." Lag b'Omer, the Rashbi's yahrzeit, is the day we affirm that dreams don't have to stay dreams.

It would be nice to stop at that point, all aglow from the inspiration of the Rashbi. But Lag b'Omer also involves remember the costs of traveling farther because we dared to reach higher. We remember the thousands of "students" (soldiers) of Rabbi Akiva who did in the "plague" (battles with the Roman Legions). We remember the poor farmer turned to a pile of bones by the fiery gaze of the Rashbi (B. Shabbat 33b). There is nothing linear about the Omer count -- spiritual heights mingle with tragedy, and it can be hard to distinguish one from the other.

So on Lag b'Omer, we not only affirm that dreams don't have to stay dreams. We take on the even harder task, of affirming that the price of turning those dreams into reality can sometimes be worth paying.