Monday, February 11, 2013

Ner Tamid

There is many a rationalization that betrays the mind—and body for that matter. One that I’ve been particularly fond of is the idea of the “double portion” on Shabbat. Regardless of how well or how poorly I have been maintaining consciousness and appropriate eating behavior during the week, I have allowed myself free rein to eat anything and everything on Shabbat. After all, it is said that we got a “double portion” on Shabbat when wandering in the desert for forty years—or something like that.  Perhaps it would be useful to examine this idea, to understand just what the Torah says about it before I make it a permanent theological underpinning to my weight management (or mismanagement) regimen.

The reason I stop to ponder this is simple arithmetic. As I was reminded in my Lifestyles class last week, if we add one hundred “extra” calories to our diet each day it has the net effect of adding ten pounds on our bodies over the course of a year! I know that sounds extreme, but doctors smarter than I have done the calculations of the effects of 36,500 extra calories per year, and that’s what they come up with. Just one hundred excess calories a day can do that much damage.

What’s that got to do with the double portion on Shabbat? That little crack in my dyke of responsibility during Shabbat becomes a floodgate for slices of challah smeared with butter, or gravy, or both—not to mention a Saturday morning family favorite of ours—and I know this may sound weird to some, but try it sometime—toasted challah with a heavy blanket of sour cream! Yum!! That’s just the challah. Double portion also includes appetizers, entrees and desserts. After my Saturday morning challah and sour cream, double portion allows for a nice plate of savory leftovers from Shabbat evening—typically chicken, veggies, and quite often a carb of some sort—how about some gravy laden rice? Then I go to shul on many occasions, behave myself during a few hours of prayer until I am unleashed upon the often sumptuous Kiddush buffet. There I might eschew a bagel or maybe just chew a bagel—it could go either way. Same for the occasional blintz, or kugel. I’ll do a pretty honorable job including fruit and salad on my plate, but the real nemesis is the dessert table, often home baked goods. Even the store-bought stuff can be outright delicious and addictive depending on the source. It would be bad enough if the three Shabbat meals were where this sorry saga ended, but having already blown Saturday, I might as well go out for dinner too, extending the double portion rationalization beyond the sunset ending of the day of rest.

As for the “double portion” as described in the Torah, there are a couple of salient details that I had failed to consider. First, when it came to the weekday allotment of manna, the text in Exodus describes it thusly:
16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. .. 17 And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. 18 … whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat.
This text by itself provides a nice lesson. During the week everyone ate exactly what they needed—no more, no less. As for Shabbat, the text goes on:
22 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread…. And when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23 he said to them, 26“…Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.”29 See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days.
This is important. The text does not say eat twice as much on Shabbat. It merely says gather enough on Friday to sustain you on Saturday so you won’t have to work on the Sabbath. There is no double portion on Shabbat. There is as much on Shabbat as all the other days—just enough—no more, no less!

What has any of this to do with Ner Tamid, the title of this posting? Ner Tamid is Hebrew for Eternal Light. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, that is the metaphor that I selected to focus on for the next six months as part of my spiritual practice. The Eternal Light, like the CBS eye, never blinks. The Eternal Light doesn’t give a wink and a nod to a weekly Shabbat blowout in the hopes that sustainable behavior the rest of the week will suffice. Even the most cursory look at the math will underscore the fallacy of such reasoning. Just a few pieces of challah with the spread of choice can easily impose the extra 700 calories per week that would lead to a ten-pound annual gain. The conclusion is simple. Vigilance is a 365-day per year endeavor. The occasional indulgence, when compensated perhaps with additional exercise or restraint at some other meal may be tolerated, but a systematic infusion of extra food on Shabbat is a recipe for disaster.

I’ve added to my practice a particular chant to help focus my intention around the Ner Tamid metaphor. It’s one of Rabbi Shefa Gold’s selections entitled "Fire on the Altar" from Leviticus 6:6. It goes: “Aish tamid tukad al hamizbayach; lo tichbeh – Fire always shall be kept burning on the altar; it shall not go out.” In this passage God is providing detailed instructions on how to offer sacrifices in the tent of meeting to expiate sins of the people. This is not a sometimes thing. The fire must be kept burning. Redundant and even negative as it may read, God felt it necessary to reiterate, “It shall not go out.” When that kind of emphasis is included in the Torah it is done so to underscore its importance. One whose job it is to tend the fire must be doubly careful. Keep it burning and don’t let it go out! The message I derive from this is that I must keep the fire burning seven days a week, and not let it go out on Shabbat if I am to maintain, and not gain.

It’s amazing how narrowly selected Bible quotations can lead to very misleading conclusions and destructive behaviors. We see it in too many places. It was definitely much more fun when I blithely lived by the two-word snippet “double portion” ignoring its context and true meaning.  Ignorance is bliss, but the full text and the scale tell a very different story.

Monday, February 4, 2013


In the beginning there was metaphor.

The Universe exists. Expansiveness exists. Energy exists. Some would argue, even, that Love exists. The mystery of it all is beyond our ability to truly fathom. We search for words, for images to satisfy our rational minds, to provide some understanding of the unknowable. We settle on metaphors that more often muddle rather than clarify. We end up arguing about the correctness of the metaphors as if they were the substance of that which we were trying to articulate rather than mere symbols.  Many use the word "God" as their portal to understanding the unfathomable. Among that community there is much debate over which god is The God. There are others for whom the G-word causes so much confusion or consternation that they refuse to believe. What it is they refuse to believe is not all that clear. To not accept someone else’s metaphor for that which defies definition is not unreasonable. To reject the existence of the mystery that governs the Universe is something else. Do those who reject the metaphor deny that there is a great mystery regardless of our ability to create a common vocabulary with which to express it?

Some religions demand, as a fundamental precept, that all adherents must adopt the same metaphor to maintain membership among their ranks. Thank Metaphor, Judaism does not. Moreover, at least in the circles I run, it is the individual search for Metaphor that unites us more than a shared vision of a single concept. Thus, a week ago, when I began the second week-long session of the Kol Zimra (KZ) Jewish spiritual chanting workshop (Week One was last July) it should have come as no surprise that I did not immediately feel in alignment with some of the metaphors in use by the instructor and my classmates. I hesitate to state it in terms of gender differentiation, although I do suspect, as the only male in the workshop, that I may be reading from a different lexicon when describing the landscape of my spirituality. Granted, it is a self-selected subset of the Universe that would enroll in this workshop to begin with, so my vocabulary ultimately may be more in sync with my KZ sisters than it is with many men. Nonetheless, it may have just been a need to warm up to the feminine waters in which I was wading, but there was definitely a bit of a disconnect at the start.

KZ may be the ultimate environment of metaphor. The course requires of us to continually express the inexpressible. We delve into a world that we experience deeply, but in a non-rational sense. Truths are personal, palpable, and yet unprovable. A common faith is not demanded. Rather, it is a practice of mutual empathy for the expression of each other’s unique Truth. It is hard to say where all the overlapping transparencies of belief and experience lie. It’s a little like witnesses at the scene of an accident. Each of us sees what is happening before us—in the world, in the room, in our hearts—from our own perspective, no two visions are exactly alike. Yet, there is a collective wisdom that at some level we all share, or at least we allow it to float lightly about us without demanding so much definition that it would break apart.

My week was a climb up this mountain of metaphor. At first I wandered about the foot of the mountain searching for a trail head. It seemed that my sisters were already ascending. I could hear their voices, but could not tell exactly where they were coming from or what they were singing. It did not take long, however, for me to find my own path which intersected with all the others at various points along the climb. Whether we all ascended to the same heights I cannot say. There may have been moments when some, if not all, where at the same peak at the same time. 

The thematic metaphor for the journey this week, offered by our teacher Rabbi Shefa Gold, was that of the four elements. We explored our spiritual relationship to earth, water, wind and fire. Each day we focused on a different element. On the third day the theme was air, and for me it was the most significant relative to my own growth needs. I sometimes experience a cosmic lack of the air element—leading to rigidity or a sense of smallness and isolation, while at other times I have an overabundance of it—leading to indecisiveness, scattered thought, or over-intellectuality (e.g., in this very moment moment, no doubt!). It’s not hard to find evidence of too much or too little of each of the four elements. Overshooting and undershooting the mark is easy to do. In fairness to myself I could make a decent case for at least occasionally being in balance in each domain as well.    

At the end of every KZ week we set an intention for personal development in the six-month interval until we meet again. We use the Hebrew word midah (midot, plural) to describe that intention, and we pray for each other’s fulfillment of their respective midot. Last July I chose “lightness” as my midah with thoughts about lightness in spirit as well as in the physical plane where I was already engaged in a significant weight loss program. This time I continued with the theme of light in a different sense. I selected the metaphor Ner Tamid—Eternal Light—as my midah. I could write at length about Ner Tamid. Suffice it to say for now, that tending the Ner Tamid, the ritual fire within the Tabernacle that is my body and my soul, requires a steady, daily practice of awareness underlying all other practices. My quest is that by drawing on my internal light I may charge each day with clarity, and purpose to focus the scattered energy of my continually changing self. I pray that my Ner Tamid within will illuminate my actions throughout the day, connecting me to the Great Metaphor with constancy, persistence, strength, and beauty.