Archive for October, 2014

Life on the Fringe

Friday, October 31st, 2014

By Sam Glaser

I experienced my first taste of yeshiva learning when I was a twenty-something wanna-be rock star in LA.  After perusing an attractive brochure that appeared in the mail, I applied for the all-expenses-paid scholarship to study in Jerusalem.  Aish HaTorah provided an incredible curriculum with a dozen brilliant rabbis that taught us hour by hour in an Ottoman Empire study hall  perched atop the Old City walls.  I considered the millennia-old alleyways comprising the “shuk” my personal playground and had the Western Wall as my front yard.  The neophytes were never expected to join the yeshiva prayer services but since I had a fair grasp of the basics from Hebrew School I would often don my tallis (or tallit, meaning a prayer shawl) given to me at my Bar Mitzvah and join the minyan (prayer service.)

At one point one of my peers announced, “Sam, you don’t need to wear that tallis here.”  “Why not?” I responded. “I feel more comfortable praying in this thing.”  My friend then sat me down and gently explained that according to Ashkenazi tradition, men don’t wear a tallis until they are married.  I looked around the minyan and saw that he was right.  “But what about the last paragraph of the Shema?  I need a tallis to kiss the tzitztit, right?”  “Look, Sam,” he replied, “this way the single ladies on the other side of the mechitza (room divider) know who the single men are.”  That was all I needed to hear…I never wore a tallis again until I was married.

I enjoyed four months of intense learning and growth on that formative trip.  I was on fire!  Loving Torah study, loving Jerusalem, perceiving God’s presence from one end of the universe to the other.  Then Passover arrived and everything changed.  My first seder was with one of my favorite rabbis and it lasted nearly till dawn.  I learned so many new songs, some of which I still sing today.  All the study in preparation for the big night allowed me to connect to the Hagadah in the deepest way.  While I adored the Reform-style seders at my Grandpa Bill and Grandma Zetta’s home in Sacramento as I grew up, I never had an intellectual/spiritual marathon anything like this.  Afterwards, my fellow yeshiva bochers (students) passed out for a few hours and then the rabbi directed us back to the Old City.  For some reason he thought it would be funny to send us down the road to Hebron, in the opposite direction from where we had to go.  In our dress shoes.  Not funny.

Then I needed to find a second seder the next night since I am a Diaspora Jew (the locals only have to do one.) I remember having to shlep all over the Rova (Jewish Quarter) in search of a certain visiting American family.  Thankfully I found the place and the gracious host treated us royally and gave us an eye-opening overview of the Jewish calendar.  He explained the deeper reasons for the counting of the Omer and the juxtaposition of the Pesach holiday with Shavuot.  One of my fellow students turned to me and said, “Sam, you know no one is going to want to hear your music for the next month and a half.”  Of course I didn’t believe him.  Judaism without music…how could that be?  Well, the next day I verified it with my rabbi and now had perfect clarity that the time had arrived to go back to my LA recording studio and sports car.

My last Shabbat at the kotel was bittersweet.

While touching the cool, ancient stones of the Wall, I prayed an abbreviated service on my own since I was already running late for lunch. How could I leave this magical place, this “Jewish Disneyland?” It felt like I had learned more in those four months than in four years at my university.  But then there was also that feeling of homesickness, missing my family and longing for my beachside apartment.  One by one, my rabbis pulled me aside to discourage me from going back to LA so soon.  Particularly Rabbi Weinberg, my beloved Rosh Yeshiva.  “C’mon Sam, give us a year,” he implored, looking at me with that trademark gleam in his eye.

As I stood there at the kotel that final day I remember thinking, “God it’s been so good getting to know you.  I am so grateful for this chance to learn and to celebrate my Judaism in this incredible country.  I love you.  Thank you.”  Tears started streaming down my face.  I realized that I had been touched for life; that this knowledge of the truth and power of Torah was now a part of me.  There would be no going back.  I said a few passages in the Pseukei D’zimra (Psalms of Praise) and then the Shema. “I really wish I had my tallis on right now,” I muttered.  “I feel naked without it.”  Just then I heard footsteps behind me.  Before I could turn around, a man with an intimidating beard placed an oversized tallis over my shoulders.  Wow…now that’s service!  He motioned that I should come over and join a minyan at the back of the kotel plaza.

As I recovered from my shock I reluctantly followed the man, still not sure what he wanted from me.  Rabbi Sheinberger, a kabbalist and famous kotel personality indicated that I should be the one to serve as hagbah (to lift the Torah at the end of the public reading.)  This is a big honor!  I had no idea why he picked me but I stepped right up, grasped the worn wooden handles and thrust that beautiful scroll as high as my 6’3 frame would allow.  As I spun around allowing all to see the crisp calligraphy I recalled the Rosh Yeshiva saying that here in Jerusalem reaching God is a local phone call.

My next connection with a tallis would be at my wedding seven years later.  I sent my Israel-bound mom on a mission to purchase the tallis of my dreams.  She returned with a simple black and white, super lightweight, extra large garment and “sold” it to my fiancé since the custom is for the wife to give the tallis to her new husband.  That sunny Sunday afternoon we stretched it atop four poles and stood underneath as a cavalcade of seven illustrious LA rabbis gave us our blessings.  Now whenever I wear it I feel the hug of my wife as well as the warmth of God’s “wings” holding me close.

When one wraps oneself up in a tallis there there is sweet prayer that is said, Ma Yakar.  Since I found it difficult to hold a book while surrounding myself in the flowing fabric I simply wrote the text into a song to allow me to memorize the words.

“Clothing me in the shadow of Your wings

Shelter me in the comfort of Your home

Light of life, surrounding me with love

In Your arms I’ll never be alone”

When we gather the four corners before saying the Shema we ask that God collect Jews from the four corners of the earth in peace.  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach told me that he collects the corners deliberately and lovingly as if he’s gathering all the Children of Israel together in a warm embrace.  So I do it the same way.  During the Shema we kiss the fringes every time we mention the word tzitzit.  It’s a very intimate act that’s been performed by legions of brutish, sleepy men every morning for millennia.

The “forget me knot” fringes tell a story of their own:  the numerical value (gematria) of the word tzitzit is 600.  Add to that the eight strings and five knots in each corner and you get to that mystical number of 613, the sum total of commandments throughout the Torah. Furthermore, one of the strings is dyed blue with the ink of a certain snail (although today most people don’t have this blue thread.)  The idea is that you see that beautiful aqua blue which reminds you of the sea, which reminds you of the sky, which reminds you of the “heavenly throne.” In other words, tzitzit remind us that by observing our breathtaking natural world we can extrapolate the presence of the Creator and concretize that relationship with the observance of our 613 commandments.

Since the tallis is typically worn only during the morning service there is a way to stay connected to the mitzvah all day:  I wear a “tallit katan,” a small t-shirt style cotton garment under my shirt.  Some tuck the fringes in to maintain a low profile.  I say, let them hang out!  I celebrate my tzitzit! After all, the mitzvah is based on SEEING them and then connecting to God and the commandments.  I think that the tallis katan serves as a subtle badge of honor; when you see someone wearing them, you can be pretty sure they are deeply respectful of Torah and scrupulous with mitzvot.  The fact is that it was a challenge for this surf short/t-shirt wearing California kid to add another layer of clothing everyday.  I can corroborate the Ethics of the Fathers, which states, “according to the effort is the reward.”

Since I’m always on the move I’m pretty tough on my fringes.  For that reason I learned to weave my own tzitzit, a skill that I usually practice on long airplane flights.  The people sitting next to me think I’m doing some bizarre crochet.  I try to weave with mindfulness and carefully follow the tradition of winding the string in between knots 7, 8, 11 and 13 times, which hints towards the metaphysical values of those numbers.  I like to emphasize to my curious seat mates that wearing fringes is an optional commandment; we only have to place them on four-cornered garments. Unless you are living in Mexico and typically wear a poncho, it’s pretty rare to find such angular clothing.  Therefore, by actively seeking out a garment with distinct corners, we are making the powerful statement that we desire to connect with the Almighty all day long.

There is an amusing coda to the aforementioned story: during a recent concert tour in Israel I wound up in Rabbi Scheinberger’s Friday night minyan at the wall.  After the spirited davening I asked the rabbi if he remembered the incident when he called a young stranger from across the kotel plaza to be hagbah.  He didn’t recall the day but remarked, “well, that makes sense…I like giving Hagbah to tall guys.”

My relationship with my prayer shawl and tallis katan is a loving one, as long as the temperature doesn’t get too hot!  Wearing them is a privilege that I anticipated from childhood when I played with the fringes of my dad’s tallis at our synagogue.  Whereas I used to say that I never wanted to be so forthright with my Judaism, displaying this round-the-clock four-cornered garment has become a celebrated part of my life. Believe it or not, I have some wonderful fans in the deaf community that have shared with me that the sign language gesture for “Sam Glaser” is two hands at the waist with fluttering fingers pointing down.  Keep your eyes open next time you’re at an airport.  You may see me at one of the gates wearing my black and white superhero cape, doing my part to save humanity.

Lucky Seven

Monday, October 13th, 2014

by Sam Glaser

The matrix of the world is built on a system of “sevens.” During lunch today I asked my kids to figure out all the times seven appears in Judaism.  We came up with over fifty!  And yes, my daughter did check Google at one point.  I started thinking about sevens recently at a neighborhood shiva call.  Shiva (from the root sheva, or seven) is the week of intense mourning for a loved one and is typically shared by the whole community.  Everyone gathers around the mourner for seven days of prayers, bringing them food and offering the solace of company and a listening ear.  In this case, my friend Jeff Mann didn’t have much family…the community was his family and we all needed comforting.  Another reason that this shiva stood out is that I was going straight from these somber minyans to “sheva brachot” celebrations for a friend’s raucous wedding that I had just played with my band. There’s that number seven again!  At a wedding the bride circles the groom seven times and seven blessings are recited under the marital canopy.  Then the couple celebrates for seven days with family and friends.  During this strange week I danced a schizophrenic ballet from mourning and tears to table-pounding jubilation, nearly every night.  Part of the joy and responsibility of living in a Jewish community is sharing lifecycle events, from birth to death.  And all have that mysterious number seven at their core.

Judaism maintains that seven is the number associated with the natural world.  Modern physics counts seven basic qualities like length, mass and time that describe all known matter.  I recall the acronym ROY G. BIV from grade school science to describe the seven colors of the rainbow.  Any musician will concur that there are seven notes in a major scale.  Seven planets surround Earth.  I find it remarkable that the entire world is anchored to the seven-day week; although some societies have attempted to modify the length of this period we find it stubbornly remaining the universal standard of marking time.

Just beyond seven is the number eight, which for Jews signifies the realm of the supernatural.  That’s why we invite our baby boys into the eternal Jewish covenant on the eight day of their lives.  That’s why we celebrate the power of Jewish unity and survival in the form of the eight-day holiday of Chanukah.  Eight represents “one step beyond.”  Science is here to address the realm of seven.  Your rabbi is here to help you grapple with eight.  Our body is seven, our soul, eight.  And Judaism is obsessed with dragging the number eight into the realm of seven; our task is to infuse our day-to-day “meat space” with spiritual intention such that we walk a tightrope between the physical world of seven and the metaphysical realm of eight.

So why would God use seven as the core construct material of the universe?  Among our discoveries at lunch today: the first sentence of the Torah has seven words and therein begins the description of the seven days of creation.  There are seven commandments associated with Noah, before Judaism upped the ante to 613.  The rabbis later codified another seven, like lighting Shabbat candles and making blessings.  Noah released the raven and then the dove for seven days each.  Our matriarch Leah had seven children.  Joseph was freed from prison only after interpreting Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat and skinny ears of corn and cows.  Moses appeared on the scene seven generations after Abraham and was born and died on the seventh of Adar.  The menorah that he made had seven branches.  Joshua had to conquer seven nations in the ancient land of Canaan.  We have seven major holidays and two of them last for seven days each.  Shavuot (another “sheva” root sighting) is the anniversary of the receiving of Torah and is not given a biblical date but is instead celebrated seven weeks from Pesach.  We just entered the “shmittah” year where we let the land go fallow every seven years and count seven of these cycles to get to the Jubilee or Yovel year.  Are you seeing a pattern here?

My awareness of this magical number began when I attended Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem for my first time as a wide-eyed twenty-three-year-old traveler.  A week into the Jerusalem Fellowships we were given a five day course called Discovery.   Our small group journeyed to a mobile home caravan community in the wilderness of the West Bank and our minds were blown with a formative version of this now popular seminar.  The bottom line: modern computing has allowed mathematicians to analyze the entire text of the Five Books of Moses as a single string of letters (without the spaces in between.)  What did the researchers find?  An awe-inspiring system of sevens and forty-nines stretching from one length of the book to the other.  One example occurred in the description of the creation of fruit trees in the Garden of Eden.  By counting every seven letters starting from that sentence we found the names of the “seven species” that according to tradition flourish in the Land of Israel.  We learned about scores of these patterns…just enough information to pry an opening into our secular, science-fed minds that perhaps our Bible might actually have divine origins.

We stand now in Tishrei, the seventh month of the biblical year and by far the most noteworthy and holiday-drenched.  It opens with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, then the day of forgiveness, Yom Kippur, followed immediately by our primary season of joy, seven days of partying called Sukkot.  So many holidays that you might as well call in sick for a month.  Rather than feel inundated by festive meals and overlong services, hopefully you can relish in the chance to unplug from the daily grind and reprioritize.  Think of Tishrei as an annual “shmittah month.”  A chance to let our normal routine go “fallow,” to live in the moment and come back to your source.

We remain anchored in God’s original plan for the universe thanks to our weekly commemoration of the seventh day of creation, Shabbat.  It’s as if God is saying: “My children, I created the world just for you in seven days and I am still here with you every moment.” Perhaps that’s why God orchestrated both the material and physical realms to continue to operate in this heptagonal matrix.  We see a beautiful natural world that on the surface may seem to be operating on its own but in fact the watchful eye of the grand designer winks every time we see that number seven throughout our lives.  Shabbat gives us a once-every-seven-days break to ponder the miracle of our universe and give God full credit for our gifts. Engaging in acts of creation on this sacred day quickly erodes the possibility of the establishment of this transformational beachhead of living with simple faith on a weekly basis.  I’ll say it again: “more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

Now it makes sense why our lifecycle events seem to gravitate to this number.  It’s at these times of transitions that we are most likely to stop and reflect, to perceive the great gifts that God has bestowed upon us. In fact I think that even my ardently agnostic friends can look back at their precious lifecycle events and in their hearts feel the warmth of the smiling, loving face of God.  We all can remember attending a meaningful bris on the (seven plus one) eighth day of the child’s life.  We recall how as Bar/Bat Mitzvah boys and girls we had to grapple with the seven aliyot of our own birthday’s Torah portion.  Then to the chuppah where the beautiful bride surrounds the groom seven times with her innate spiritual essence and protection.  Another seven: well-informed couples wait for seven “clean days” each month before engaging in holy relations.  And then at the end of life we help to escort the departed to the next realm by comforting their loved ones for seven heartbreaking but intensely meaningful days.

Yes, seven is our lucky number.  May we all make the most of this special seventh month, may we readily perceive the presence of God in our lives and be sealed in the Book of Life.