Arbitrary Rules : A Parenting Perspective

With the advent of Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we are presented a long list of rules. Last week’s story of the revelation of the 10 Commandments at Sinai seems like and interesting mix of nomos and  narrative, but this week there is all law and almost no lore. What is the significance of this shift in the text?

There is no doubt to me that there is a value of law in society and it would make sense for the Torah to communicate laws. Laws helps us enforce certain behavior,  but laws are not inherently meaningful. It seems obvious when we say it,  we need stories to make sense of our lives. Stories are not childish or for entertainment. So where are the stories in our Torah portion?

The one section of narrative in this Torah portion is another take on the story of revelation. There we read:

And Moshe went up into the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the glory of the Lord abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the seventh day God called to Moshe out of the midst of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moshe entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount; and Moshe was in the mount forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:15-18)

The source of these laws is a devouring fire. As a parent I can relate to this burning desire sometimes to have my children follow rules blindly, but in the long run I realize that things would work out better if I took the time to explain the meaning of the things I want my children to do.  Just as I am not surprised if not actually happy when my children push back on why perceive to be arbitrary rules and directives, I am no surprised that the sin of the Golden Calf will come before the end of these forty days and nights.




On Organizational Coaching: Yitro Helps Us Start with Why

In Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, the nation of Israel received the Torah. The Sinai experience, arguably the main event in our history, is introduced by and names for Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, coming to visit. Yitro is the consummate professional coach for Moshe and organizational coach for Moshe’s fledgling nation. Long before the modern Start-Up Nation, B’nai Yisrael was brand new entrepreneurial venture. Well, not exactly, it was actually a rebirth of an old brand that desperately needed to go through a re-branding process in order to make a big splash on the work marketplace of ideas. While the Jewish stock never took over the market, it has been a consistent blue chip product. It seems to be Yitro’s critique that brings about the giving of the Torah- the business manifesto for this Good To Great organization. There we read:

And Moshe’s father-in-law said to him: ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Hearken now to my voice, I will give you counsel, and God be with you: you will be for the people before God, and you will bring the causes to God.( Exodus 18: 17-19)

Seeing Moshe working himself to the bone, Yitro gives him a plan to organize the adjudicating of the law. In order for them to keep the law they needed a system for teaching the people the law. They desperately needed a “re-org”. There is a natural progression from his suggestion to Mosche to the people getting the Torah at Sinai.  Yitro is playing the role of a great organizational coach. He helps them operationalize their success, but I do not think that is the limit of his consultancy.

If you have not seen, I would to encourage you to see Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk. He presents a simple but powerful model for inspirational leadership all starting with a golden circle and the question “Why”.

I think this is exactly what Yitro did right at the start of the portion. There we read:

Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moshe, and for Israel God’s people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moshe’s wife, after he had sent her away, and her two sons; of whom the name of the one was Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land’; and the name of the other was Eliezer: ‘for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.’ And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moshe to the wilderness where he was encamped, at the mount of God. (Exodus 18:1- 5 )

It makes sense that in response to hearing about all of the trials, travails, miracles, and wonders that happened to his son-in-law that Yitro came to see Moshe. It even makes sense that he brought Moshe’s family for a reunion. It does not make sense that in the midst of this reunion the Torah went out of the way to explain the origin and meaning of Gershom and Eliezer’s names. What is the meaning of this?

In thinking about this I was reminded of an old joke. Mr. Altmann and his secretary were sitting in a coffeehouse in Berlin in 1935. “Herr Altmann,” said his secretary, “I notice you’re reading Der Stürmer! I can’t understand why. A Nazi libel sheet! Are you some kind of masochist, or, God forbid, a self-hating Jew?” Mr. Altman replied,”On the contrary, Frau Epstein. When I used to read the Jewish papers, all I learned about were pogroms, riots in Palestine, and assimilation in America. But now that I read Der Stürmer, I see so much more. It says that the Jews control all the banks, that we dominate in the arts, and that we’re on the verge of taking over the entire world. You know – it makes me feel a whole lot better!”

No matter how good or bad things are going we always have a choice as to which story do want to tell. Yitro is the consummate organizational coach. When he shows up he did not just bring his family, but he put before Moshe a choice. Which story did Moshe want to tell? Did Moshe want to tell the Gershom story that they were marginalized or the Eliezer story that they were in a relationship with a God that helped them? In choosing the story Moshe had to identify their ” Why”. Everything flows from this choice. How would they get to Sinai without a “Why”? They would only meet God – HaShem- the name in Hebrew when they picked a path. This might be the essence of the entire book of Exodus, Shmot- names in Hebrew. Which name do they choose for their “Why”?

More than ever we need to revisit Yitro’s guidance and advice. What story do we want to tell? Is being Jewish an articulation of being an “Anti- Anti-Antisemite” are or are we on a divine mission to help the world? Are we Gershom Jews or Eliezer Jews? Or do we need to make a new name for ourselves? All I know is that a good organizational coach should help us reflect on the fact that we need to start with our “Why”. Operationalizing our plans and efforts will be easy once we can name our 21st century “Why” .

Priority List: What Yitro Has To Teach Us This Year

Despite the fact that we are almost done with January, I feel that the year has just started. And yet some how my To-Do list is already too long with hardly enough checked off. How will I ever get through it all this year? But I do not feel alone. It seems that we all have too many things to do. Making lists help us structure and prioritize our time, but do the lists represent us? Do these to-do- lists portray our personal, professional, or organizational values? While we want to be accomplished, do we want to be identified just as the people who do the things on our lists? Is there a soul to our lists?

Wanting to check “write blog post” off the list I turned to Yitro, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about the receiving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments. Interestingly enough, there was a period in Jewish history when they wanted to read the Ten Commandments in the synagogue liturgically. This practice was rejected for fear that people would think that the entire teaching of the Torah was just this To-Do (or Not-To-Do) List. Surely these ten commandments are important, but what is their relationship to the other 603 commandments? Are these a list of priorities or values? If they are a list of values, how does the rest of the Torah spell out these values? And if they are priorities, does this really manifest the values of the rest of the Torah? Or more importantly how does a list speak to the soul?

This got me thinking about Atul Gawande‘s 2009 The Checklist Manifesto . Gawande points out that, while airplane pilots use checklists to ensure optimal outcomes, surgeons do not. While the surgeon might think that their education is beyond needing a remedial checklist, that is not the biggest difference. The biggest difference is if the surgeon fails the patient dies while if the airplane pilot fails he goes down with the ship. It is easy to distance yourself when you do not have as much invested in the outcomes. The book’s main point is simple: no matter how expert you may be, well-designed check lists can improve outcomes.

It is impossible for me to read Yitro without think about our beloved FJC’s Yitro Program for assistant and associate directors (ADs) of Jewish camps across North America. With the continued support of the AVI CHAI Foundation this program is running its third cohort. Yes, I love each cohort equally. In this program we are training these ADs to enhance the Jewish experience at their home camp. In short they need to explore the soul of their camps. As everyone knows these ADs have a crushing amount of work to do. Their To-Do-Lists would give most people apoplexy.  Together in this program we are doing the hard work of defining and elevating the soul of these lists.

Taking their example to heart I think it makes sense for all of us to review our lists for the coming year to ensure that our values and priorities are aligned. We all have a lot of work to do to live accomplished value driven lives.

Shabbat Shira: On Divide Between Music and Law

Recently I was visiting a Reform Temple on a Sunday morning. This congregation had 500 children in its school. They had dozens of high school students who were there as teachers helpers. In itself it might be considered a miracle to hold on to these teenagers post Bar Mitzvah. While I was visiting they were having a service. At this service more than a dozen of these teen helpers were playing a musical instrument. It is clear from this and many other experiences I have had that music is central to the Reform Jewish experience. My experience of Orthodox Judaism is not devoid of music, but it is not on the same level as our commitment to Jewish Law.

It was there in that Temple that I got to thinking about Beshalach, this week’s Torah portion. There it describes the Israelites’ deliverance of from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea. The experience of this miracle as a nation sets the stage for the revelation of the Torah at Sinai to the entire Jewish people. It is here in our Torah portion that we read the Song of the Sea and Miriam’s Song. What is the connection between song and revealed law?

It was there in that guitar driven service in that Reform Temple that I realized how strained the connection has become. While I knew that these youth had a positive Jewish experience it had a limited connection to what one would call Halachic Jewish life. It is almost as if Reform Jews have opted for the Songs of the Sea and the Orthodox have opted for the Laws of the Land. What would it mean to strive for a connection to both?

Egypt’s Original Sin

A few weeks ago when reading Miketz we learn that Pharaoh is being vexed by two strange dreams. His cup-bearer recalls his experience of Yosef who correctly interpreted dreams in prison.  On the merit of Yosef ability to interpret Pharaoh will through the veil of the dreams of the cup-bearer and the baker, Pharaoh brings Yosef to interpret his dreams. After  Pharaoh recounts his two dreams we read:

And Yosef said to Pharaoh: ‘The dream of Pharaoh is one; what God is about to do God has declared to Pharaoh. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven lean and ill-favored cows that came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine. That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do God has shown to Pharaoh. ( Genesis 41: 25- 28)

While it might have been completely vexing for Pharaoh to interpret these dreams any other way, maybe we just say that because of our 20/20 hindsight of Yosef’s interpretation and it coming true.

I was thinking about that when reading VaEra, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

‘When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying: Show a wonder for you; then you shall say to Aaron: Take your rod, and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it becomes a serpent.’ And Moshe and Aaron went in to Pharaoh, and they did so, as the Lord had commanded; and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did in like manner with their secret arts. For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods. And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he hearkened not to them; as the Lord had spoken. ( Exodus 7:9- 13)

In light of the skinny cows eating the fat cows or the skinny ears eating the good ears, what could Pharaoh have been thinking when he saw this? This clearly is foretelling the end of Egypt. But you only have 20/20 hindsight when you remember what Yosef said. But as we read at the start of our story Pharaoh did not remember. There we read, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Yosef.” ( Exodus 1:8) At its core this story pivots on this Egypt’s original sin of forgetting the interpreter .



The Secret Life of Moshe II : Shemot and Purim

Can you keep a secret?

As I written about before, I think that secrets play a dynamic and critical role in the Bible, Jewish memory, Jewish life, human psychology, contemporary life, and of course most family issues.  OK that is not the best secret. If only the Elders of Zion really existed I would have some better secrets to share with you. But how might I argue my claim of  the importance of secrets? For now I am going to focus on this week’s Torah portion.

In the beginning of the book of Sh’mot we see that a couple from the tribe of Levi clandestinely have a male child. They, Amram and Yocheved, need to keep this a secret out of fear that this male child will be killed under the new government rule. How long will they be able to keep this secret? They put the child in a basket and put him in the river. None other than Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidservants discover the baby in the bulrushes. Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, names him Moshe and brings Miriam and Yocheved into the plot to raise Moshe as a closeted Israelite in the house of Pharaoh.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead. ”  How did so many people conspire to keep this secret? It seems somehow that these people are able to keep a secret; Moshe grows up with his secret secure.

Moshe’s identity seems  safely hidden until one day when he sees an Egyptian slave master beating an Israelite. Moshe is inspired to action, but he does not want to betray his secret. We read, “And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12) It seems like the perfect act of vigilante justice. He saves his fellow Israelite, there are no witnesses and he is able to  maintain his old secret of being an Israelite and his new secret of killing the Egyptian. The very next day Moshe intervenes as one Israelite is beating another. The Israelite responds, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you plan to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14) Moshe leaves town out of fear that his secrets are known by all. The juxtaposition of these two secrets, one kept and one not, frame the importance of secrets in Moshe’s life.

In many ways a secret is like being naked. If shared with the right person it is high level of intimacy. If your secret is revealed to the wrong person you feel exposed, embarrassed, and even in real danger. But, if you had a secret that you could never  share, it could be a very large burden to carry having to keep this part of yourself in the closet. In the words of Sigmund Freud, “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” Moshe had to leave Egypt because  everyone knew his secrets. He also had to leave to evade the deafening sound of the  Tell-Tale Heart. While he might have been killed if he stayed, keeping his secrets bottled up would have also killed him. But if his secret identity as an Israelite male would have been known he also would have been killed.

This seems to be resonant with the story of Purim.  Like Moshe, Esther has a secret identity of being Jewish at a time when the Jewish people are going to be killed. Like Moshe’s connection to Yocheved, some how she and Mordecai  the court Jew carry on their relationship without anyone knowing her identity. Esther maintains this secret even after she reveals the secret plot to kill the king in the name of her uncle.  The main difference between the two stories seems to be the role of God. In Moshe’s story when his secret comes to light his role is to share the secret of God with the people.  In the story of Purim the climax comes when Esther reveals her secret identity to the King, but if God has a role in the story, that remains a secret. There is still more to be explored as to the role of secrets in the Torah.

– Reprieve of an older post on Moshe and His Life of Secrets

On the End of Genesis

Here we are at parshat VaYechi, this week’s Torah portion, and the end of the book of Genesis. It seems to be the end of all of the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the tying up of all the loss ends.  Yaakov gives all of decencents their blessings, he will give instructions for his death, he will die and then Yosef will follow his father’s lead.  There seems to be a lot of reconciliation with Yosef. Most obviously is that his children Efraim and Menashe are elevated to the status as two of the original band of brothers.

Reuven as the eldest child of Leah should have received the birthright, but it was permanently taken from him because of his sin. Here the Midrash makes an interesting claim. Yaakov told Reuven: “The birthright, the priesthood, and kingship were yours. Now that you have sinned, the birthright has been given to Yosef, the priesthood to Levi, and kingship to Yehudah” (Gen. Rabbah). Juxtaposed this we see that Yaakov is not to be buried with Yosef’s mother, his true love Rachel, but rather in the cave with Reuven’s mother Leah.

As Genesis comes to a close we are reminded that family is complicated. As Rachel’s son Yaakov treated Yosef differently in his childhood. He cannot undo his missteps, but Yaakov can recognize how he mistreated Leah. Even if it seems to work out for Yosef in the end there seems to be some recognition of the lives lived and mistakes made along the way.

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