Thursday, November 25, 2010

How Fast Is Fast, or The Tale of Three Rowboats

Sometimes, it’s not a bad idea to be a little flexible…. every once in a while. A case in point: every Shabbat morning at our friendly shul, Musar Avicha, there is an on-going mishna shiur in English (mishna being the first attempt to write down the Jewish oral law about 1800 years ago) starting a half hour before the davening begins at 8AM. My initial reaction three years ago was ‘I can’t do that. It’s too early. I’ll never get there on time. Maybe we’ll be away sometime and I’ll miss something.’ Etc. In other words, if I couldn’t do it 100%, then I wouldn’t bother at all. Maybe I’m mellowing (like fine wine) or maybe I’m just getting to be more sensible, but I realized recently that I was being ridiculous. Why not try? Whenever I arrive, I arrive. If I miss a week, I miss a week. Whatever I am able to learn, that’s how much I learn. But if nothing else, at least I would be on time for the davening, instead of wandering in fashionably late, as is my wont.

So a few months ago, I started to put a proverbial toe in the water; I pushed myself out of bed a little earlier Shabbat morning and got to shul in time for the last ten or so minutes of the shiur. With a little more effort, I was able to make it in time for fifteen minutes. More recently, I’ve been showing up almost at the beginning; and once when the rabbi giving the class was late, I arrived before he did.

As you might expect, considering the earliness of the hours, the shul is not packed with men eager to learn, but there is a solid cadre of about eight guys who show up regularly. Mishna, without the extensive and often convoluted commentary of the gemarrah is relatively straightforward, perfect for learning at a time when the brain is not kicking in on all cylinders. Because the mishna is exceedingly concise, it is possible to complete the entirety of it, all the tractates, in the course of a manageable number of years, without the sense that you are drowning in a sea of arguments and conjectures. Nobody at the shiur is in a hurry, there’s plenty of time for questions and tangential discussions, and wherever we leave off, we pick up the following week. Shortly after I started showing up, we began going through the tractate Ta’anit, which deals mostly with how and when our holy rabbis during the time of the Beit Hamikdash would decree communal fasts, especially because of drought situations.

“The seventeenth of Marheshvan (that’s usually in October F.C.) arrived and the rains did not fall, individuals began fasting three fasts…..Rosh Hodesh Kislev arrived (about two weeks later F.C.) and the rains did not fall, the Court decrees three fast for the community…….[translations, for those who care, are from the English language Kehati]. And so on: who, what, when, where. As the rabbi giving the shiur, Gedalia Meyer, pointed out – although it should be obvious if one gave the matter a little thought – no rain in The Land, no water, no life. Two thousand years ago in parts of the world where there was a rainy season and a dry season, people used wells and dug cisterns to collect rain water. If the well went dry and the cistern emptied out, ooooow, were you in trouble. So you used your water sparingly and you worried a lot; hence, you prayed a lot.

Now, as Cole Porter used to say, times have changed. But the sporadic nature of rainfall in The Land has not. There are good years and bad years – not so good the last six or seven years. It has rained once or twice this season, even making it to our neck of the woods, but there is no good reason to believe, precipitation-wise, that things are looking up – as the Gershwins used to say. We’re supposedly in for a short, dry winter. Good for our heating bills; not so good, terrible in fact, for our water supply. It simply does not rain here when it’s warm.

OK. You’re sitting in a shiur about rainfall and fasting in The Land two thousand years ago. Even if your brain is working at half speed (remember, it’s 7:30Shabbat morning), there are a few questions begging, pleading, to be asked. Do these rules for fasting apply today? If not, why not? (Not that anybody is looking for an excuse not to eat, but a question is a question.)

Rabbi Meyer first response was, in a sense, sociological. We’re not as obsessed or stressed out as we used to be about water – at least here in The Land. Most of us can’t imagine there not being any water. We turn on the tap and there it is, hot and cold. We can even drink it. If I’m finicky, I can take my shopping cart down to the makolet three minutes away, pay twelve shekels for a six pack (two liters each) of spring water, and shlepp it back up the stairs to our apartment. If we had to, Israel could probably import large quantities of water in freighters from countries like Turkey which have more than they need. Thanks to the JNF, we have reservoirs aplenty. Israel has pioneered in the development in drip-farming and desalinization. What reason is there for us to go boo-hooing to G-d?

You know the old story about the three rowboats? A fervent believer is caught in a flood. He goes up to the second story of his house, whereupon a National guardsman in a rowboat spots him and offers to rescue him. The f.b. declines the offer, declaiming, “G-d will protect me!.” The water keep rising, and our man goes up to the attic. Another guardsman passes by. Same thing: “G-d will protect me!” The man is now on the roof, still refusing to get into the next craft because, “G-d will protect me!” Not surprisingly, he drowns and winds up meeting his Maker. Still sopping wet, he lodges his complaint. “I was certain you would protect me!” “What are you complaining about; I sent you three rowboats.”

I can imagine the following dialogue: “Hashem, forgive our sins and send us rain, as you did in days of yore.” “No one knows better than I what knuckleheaded and out of control things you the children of Israel are guilty of. I am giving you a pass – not forever, but for now – because of your willingness to resettle the Land I gave you and thereby sanctify My Name. But water? I’ve given you water. If you haven’t used it well; if you haven’t even used the technology which you yourselves developed; if your Finance Ministry refused to fund the desalinization plants your Knesset approved…… I can forgive you your sins, but your stupidity, that’s another story.”

Right on cue, the week after this particular Shabbat morning shiur, some rabbis, perhaps from the Rabbinate, called for a fast, but in a very low-keyed way (meaning that many people didn’t know about it or heard about it second or third hand, and then generally ignored it). My Barbara, upon reading about it on the next-to-last page of the Jerusalem Post, responded in a not-so-low-keyed way: “The rabbinate, they should fast for their own sins!” (My wife, believe it or not, has a very low opinion of the Rabbinate here. My guess is that on a scale of 1-100, she would give them about a three. Perhaps she is being a little overly critical. Myself, I would rate them between 10-20. They are no more guilty of stupidity than our politicians and no more guilty of hatred than the leftist intellectuals who have hijacked our cultural institutions. At least that’s one man’s opinion.)

The following Shabbat morning, our little group of learners reconvened to continue discussing the absence of rain and the lack of participation in the fast (full disclosure: I was in for half a day, whereupon I lost interest.) Rabbi Meyer came in with an answer which he said up front wouldn’t be satisfying. There’s no individual rabbi or official group of rabbis around today who believe they have the authority to institute the kinds of fasts described in our mishna. Trying – unsuccessfully, thank G-d – to segregate the streets in their neighborhood; trying – with who knows what result – to annul retroactively huge numbers of conversions; trying – very successfully – to make the most outrageous statements which antagonize as many of us as possible and delight the secular press, itching for some juicy tidbit to print. All these remarkable activities various factions can do. But if group A called for a fast on Thursday, group B would insist on Monday, and group C would question the credentials of both A and B. So effectively, no communal fasts. Whatever rain falls, falls.

In my unofficial capacity as silver lining seeker, I am pleased by the rabbinic modesty in this regard. In a way, it’s like the headline we saw the other day, that the ‘Palestinian’ Authority had announced that Jews had no intrinsic right to pray at the Kotel. Why? The Western Wall had no connection to the Temple Mount. That’s good, I said. At least they’re on record as admitting that the Beit Hamikdash actually existed. Likewise, our official rabbis are forced to admit the limitations of their authority and – more importantly – their ability to organize and represent the body of Israel.

We here in The Land will have to muddle through another year, and we will. The desalinization plants that will contribute between 10-20% of the water we need are being built; members of the Knesset are stopping their bickering long enough to consider what stop-gap measures can be taken to conserve this elusive liquid. There may even be attempts to locate underground water (which has always been there, like the natural gas reserves offshore, just waiting to be tapped). Our citizenry is finally getting the message. Consumption is down a little bit – to be fair, more than a little bit; the supply of water to farmers and industrial users has been rationed. Our future is bright – if we don’t muck it up. It doesn’t take much to make a hole in the bottom of a rowboat.

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