Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fancy a grasshopper?

No grasshopper?  What about a locust, then?  A cricket, perhaps?  Me, neither.  And why the heck am I even talking about insects, anyhow?  Well, I’m glad you’re thinking about that!  It’s not a conversation I expected to take up before breakfast, that’s for sure.

I’m participating in a most awesome project, in which women and men, Jews and Gentiles, each commit to needlepoint 4 verses of Torah onto a piece of fabric, which will be returned to the artist who conceived it, Temma Gentles.  She will have all those individual pieces of work stitched into a massive Torah scroll, which will be exhibited publicly.  You can read lots more about that here: - and you can also sign up to participate.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to the insects.  The reason I’m thinking about them is that this week, I received word of my 4 verses for the project.  Temma’s email said that they were from Leviticus.  “Oh,” I thought.  (Leviticus is not one of my favourite books of Torah – it’s very prescriptive and has rules upon rules upon rules.)  And my verses are Lev. 11:20-23.  Here they are, so you don’t have to look them up:

20 All winged swarming things that walk on fours shall be an abomination for you.  21 But these you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground – 22 of these you may eat the following: locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper. 23 But all other winged warming things that have four legs shall be an abomination for you.

To be honest, I was kind of hoping for something more… beautiful, perhaps.  Or profound.  Perhaps something from the Song of Songs – “Ani le dodi, ve dodi li…” (“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”).  Or maybe from Exodus, the Song of the Sea (which my father used to sing, albeit not the melody we use at synagogue), Oz ya shir Moshe…  I just love that one.  But no, I get locusts.  And grasshoppers.  And crickets.  And what am I going to do with this?!

Well, firstly, I am going to honour my commitment, and do the best work I can do at stitching my verses.  That goes without saying, really.
Let me introduce you to some kosher insects.  Below, top to bottom, we have a bald locust, a grasshopper, and a cricket.  I have never had any desire to eat any of them.  Several years ago, I was given a gag gift (and I did kind of gag at it, actually) – a lollipop with a cricket inside.  I couldn’t even lick the candy to taste it.  The ewww factor was way too high!  (But if it had been prepared under rabbinic supervision, it would've been kosher!!)

So here I am with Leviticus and the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary rules).  I’m pretty much ok with them, even though one or two of them cause me to roll my eyes.  I don’t eat pork or shellfish, and I don’t mix meat with dairy (that’s an eye-roller for me, in case you wondered).  My friend Jen says, “Show me a chicken that can give milk, and I’ll stop eating chicken Alfredo!”  I completely get what she’s saying.  Chickens can’t give milk.  And the cheese you have on your hamburger certainly doesn’t come from the same cow that gave you the meat.  My rabbi suggests that perhaps one way to consider it is that by not mixing meat and dairy, we’re not mixing the dead (the meat, obviously) with the living (a cow doesn’t have to die so that we can have cheese).  That makes it a little better, but only a little.  Fortunately, I have no great love of cheeseburgers and am happy with a veggie cheeseburger, so it’s all good.
Because I’m observant, I also don’t eat pork or shellfish, and that’s fine.  Occasionally, I miss some dishes, but generally it’s ok, and I don’t feel especially deprived.  Observant Jews also do not eat snails, though – escargots – not even when they are sautéed in butter, with a bit of garlic, tucked into mushroom caps, and topped with just a soupçon of fine breadcrumbs and cheese and broiled to the perfect moment of golden deliciousness.  Because, you see, I have eaten all these things.  I didn’t start out as an observant Jew.  Not eating pork and shellfish, not mixing meat and dairy – these are changes I have made, and commitments I have made as a Jew.  I don’t think it’s quite the same for someone who has never eaten those things.  And I rather miss escargots.
What if I slip up?!  Seriously!  What if cross-stitching 4 verses of Torah about the things I ought not to eat reminds me so much of the things I’ve given up that I go out and get some escargots?  I am not certain that this could not happen.  It might.  I hope it won’t, but the temptation pops up whenever I smell garlic in a restaurant!  And if I do go ahead and order some escargots, does that invalidate all the work I’ve put into becoming an observant Jew?  Or am I already looking for a loophole?  The commentary in my Eitz Chayim (the book containing Torah readings that we use at synagogue) says, “What is important is to be on the path of observance, to be, in the words of Emet ve-Emunah, a ‘striving’ Jew.”  Well, I’m striving, all right.  But then, I’m always striving. It occurs to me that I shouldn’t be looking at this as a loophole… but… escargots…
I know from having made my own tallit (ritual prayer shawl) that creating a holy object can in itself be a kind of prayer.  In fact, embroidering a tallit turned out to be one of the most profound, most holy, most prayerful things I’ve ever experienced – most particularly when I was tying the tzitzit (the fringes at each of the four corners, that remind us of the mitzvot – the commandments).  I thought that perhaps I would recapture something of that – and maybe even a little more.  Because while I will never be a sofret (a female Torah scribe), I thought that perhaps the feeling of doing this work might be something close to that – it’s certainly as close to writing a Torah as I will ever get.
I had hoped that participating in The Torah Project would help bring me closer to God, and closer to Torah, and found myself a little … disappointed … in the verses I was given.  Disappointed?!  I’m disappointed in Torah?  Well, I’m rather bold, aren’t I?  Every single verse, every single character of Torah, is important.  Are there some that are more important than others?  That’s entirely possible.  Some verses make me incredibly happy, and some of them make me really angry – but whether I am happy or angry, the verses cause me to have a dialogue with God.  Disappointed?!  All verses of Torah are important – but it occurs to me that my disappointment with those verses (not merely with my assignment of those verses – with the verses themselves) is kind of arrogant.  If I am disappointed, maybe I’m missing something.  If I don’t know immediately upon reading these verses why they are important, then it’s high time I blew the dust off my graduate school education and did some exegesis.
While I wait for my fabric and thread to arrive from Toronto, I am going to start looking hard at Leviticus.  The whole book, not just my 4 verses.  I will read it, and study it, and pray over it and with it. I will mine it for meaning, as my professors taught me to do.  I will do midrash.  And when I push the needle through the fabric for the first time, perhaps I will say a Shehechiyanu (Jews have prayers for pretty much everything – including one for the very first time of doing something.  I think that fits here.)
This is a journey, and I’ve barely taken the first step.