Awake Standing Guard: A Tune for the End of Sukkot

This past year I got hocked on this earworm by the Shira Choir. I dare you to listen to Im HaShem LoYivneh Bayit without singing it all week.

The lyrics come from two verse in Psalms. There we read:

אם-השם, לא-יבנה בית–    שוא עמלו בוניו בו
אם-השם לא-ישמור-עיר,    שוא שקד שומר

 הנה לא-ינום, ולא יישן–    שומר, ישראל
If the Lord did not build the house, they labor in vain that they build it
If the Lord did not keep the city, the watchman are awake in vain (Psalm 127:1)
Behold, God the protector of Israel does not rest or sleep  (Pslam 121:4)

Some say both these Psalms in their liturgy from Sukkot to Passover. I have been thinking about this recently with the rise of a third Intifada in Israel, Jews are experiencing a resurgence of Antisemitism in Europe, and the persistence of gun violence in America. These situations and this song both ask us to think about the need for a Divine Protector. To what do all of our efforts to build a safe environment for our children amount?

Since we have been blessed with Libi in our lives, I cannot utter her name without thinking about the current situation in Israel. As often Adina and sometimes I  get up in the middle of the night to deal with our children I can relate to God’s fatigue in God’s role as a protector who does not rest or sleep. At this time of the year as we say goodbye to the Sukkah and retract to the safety our homes for the winter I hope that we do not forget the truly precarious nature of our existence. I would love to take comfort that God is a protector and that all of our efforts are not in vain, but until that time we need to work for peace and safety and stay ever vigilant. At the least I have shared with you a nice tune to keep in your head as you are awake standing guard.

Ushpizin and Ushpizot: Leah Goldberg in the Sukkah

We have arrived at the Shabbat of Sukkot and weather permitting we will eat Shabbat dinner tonight in the Sukkah. Like every other night of Sukkot we will do the Ushpizin. This is a custom originating with Lurianic Kabbalah is to “invite” one of seven “exalted guests” into the sukkah. Traditionally these ushpizin represent the seven shepherds of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. Each of the ushpizin has a unique lesson which teaches the parallels of the spiritual focus of the day on which they visit. A special thank you goes to Meir Balofsky for sharing this timely and timeless  picture.

A more modern tradition is to invite the Ushpizot:Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Avigail, Hannah, Huldah, and Esther who are the seven female biblical prophetesses. There are scores of other lists of people who people have opted to “invite” into their lives over Sukkot.

Dov Abramson a graphic designer in Jerusalem put out another take on Ushpizot. From Ancient to contemporary he made 22 posters for people to “invite” voices from our past into today’s Sukkah. It is awesome check it out.

As you can see here, one of the Ushpizot that Dov Abramson made was of the poetess Leah Goldberg. In honor of Sukkot, I wanted to offer another way to invite her into your Sukkah. With the help of my friend and colleague Sholom Orzach we created a contemporary page of Talmud exploring the poem “Pine” by Leah Goldberg.  The question for all of us to consider as we enjoy Sukkot is what of or who from our past do we hope to be in conversation. Please enjoy Landscapes of Israel and have a Chag Sameakh and a Shabbat Shalom.

Other pages of Contemporary Talmud

Pontification: The Pope and Our Parsha

Pope Francis‘s tour of the United States is all over the news. Even if he does not have any true nation-state power, this Pope has proven that he has tremendous influence as a world leader. As the Pope he is the  head of state and government of the Vatican City, which is an internationally recognized nation-state with an army, but I doubt that the Swiss Guards pose and real threat to anyone. With so many people swooning over him, it seems that they think that he is much more than just another Bono. I was thinking about his beyond rock-star status when reading Ha’Azinu, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Is this how you repay the Lord, you disgraceful, unwise people?! Is God not your Father, your Master? God has made you and established you. ( Deuteronomy 32:6)

Moshe is warning the people to recognize that God is the true Master and alone is responsible for the people’s existence. On the idea that God established you Rashi comments:

After making you a special nation, God established you upon every kind of firm base and foundation: your priests are from among yourselves; your prophets are from among yourselves, and your kings are from among yourselves. Indeed, you are like a city from which all resources are drawn. — (Sifrei 32:6)

On one level is interesting to imagine the nation a self-sufficient city. On another level it is amazing to see that in the Midrash that Rashi quotes that the greatness of the Jewish people comes from our leadership coming from our own ranks. This idea itself points to Pope Francis’s success.  He is not a rock star because he is on stage or holding his office, rather his greatness comes from his ability to connect authentically with his nation and the world. Pope Francis’s authenticity flows from his being one of the people.

Indeed, if you were to see Pope Frances the blessing you would say is:

Blessed are You, HaShem, our God, King of the universe, Who has given of God’s glory to human beings.

As we learn in our Torah portion, the true glory comes from God. The true lesson in that the people who claim to represent God job is to truly represent their people and reflect that glory away from themselves, maybe even to God. If the Pope did not pursue this he would just be another guy with a Kippah going around New York City trying to do good and impress his mother.

Shabbat of Shabbats: Yom Kippur and Camp

A couple of months ago I had the pleasure of reading a very touching piece by Dr. Oliver Sacks z”l in the New York Times. In the piece, the world-renowned neurologist reflects on his youth growing up in a traditional Jewish house and having Shabbat with his family. He shares the heart-wrenching story of his leaving that world. Through a turn of events before the end of his life, he revisits Shabbat with family. About this rediscovery he writes:

The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived? (Sabbath- NYT August 14, 2015)

This depiction of the Sabbath brought me back to camp. Camp was really the first place that I truly connected to “a stopped world”.

Is there anything better than Shabbat at camp? What is there not to love? It is amazing, you get all cleaned up, get on your nicest clothes, partake in better food, have some less structured time with people you love in a place filled with beauty and memories. It is the gold standard of food, folks, and fun. I often hear from people, “I do not keep Shabbat at home, but for me Camp is the Shabbat of my year.” On one level, this is so beautiful. This sentiment expresses their love of camp and Shabbat. They have found holiness in their lives in these amazing immersive experiences. On another level, it makes me sad. Do Shabbat and camp need to be all or nothing? These peak experiences at camp two months a year might preempt other amazing experiences 10 months a year, or worse for years in their lives when they can no longer come to camp.

I pause to reflect on Shabbat in preparation for Yom Kippur a day described as “Shabbat Shabbaton” (Leviticus 16:31, 23:32). On a simple level, it means a day of complete cessation of work, but on a deeper level is a day to reboot our system. Yom Kippur is a day in which we spend time reflecting on how we can repair what is broken and return to a better version of ourselves. For me, that means going back to camp.  It is a day we can give ourselves permission to take the best part of camp and Shabbat and bring them into our lives. What would it mean to take time every Shabbat to grab some unstructured time within a beautiful place and eat some yummy food with people you love? Yom Kippur asks us not to let perfection get in the way of success. We do not need to wait until the end of our lives to “wonder what if“.

Gmar Chatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom

Ruthless Interrogation: Ta-Nehisi Coates, the High Holidays, and the Making of a Mensch

Recently I had the joy of reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is written as a letter to his 14-year-old son about the black male experience in America today. Coates puts forward a disturbing and convincing characterization of our country’s past and ongoing violence against black men. While Coates’s depiction is bleak and not one filled with hope, his profound ability for personal reflection itself is uplifting and inspiring. I have no doubt that I will reflect on this book and my own issues around white privilege for years to come, but seeing that we are in the middle of the High Holidays and about to enter into Shabbat Shuvah, it seemed both timely and timeless to share one of Coates’s reflections now.

Coates recalls that when he was his son’s age and got in trouble his mother would give him writing assignments. About this Coates writes:

Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing- myself. Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God? ( Between the World and Me p.30)

His even-handed view of his own limited humanity opens a whole vista to understanding the flawed dream of America. Despite all of our differences, we are all the same flawed creatures. This inspires me to look deep inside at my own limitations in preparation for Yom Kippur.

This in turn made me think of a Gemara in Rosh Hashanah where we learn:

Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the in between. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed definitively in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed definitively in the book of death; the doom of the people in between is suspended from New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death (Rosh Hashanah 16b)

Like Coates’s story from his adolescence, in this time of year we are all in the middle of our own writing assignments. Which book will be inscribed in?

Seeing that today is Global Character Day, I wanted to draw your attention to Tiffany Shlain‘s new movie the Making of a Mensch, which I had the honor of helping with and came was release today. Inspired by Coates, this Gemara, and this movie I suggest we all experiment with a Mussar practice of regularly keeping a journal so you can all “ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing” ourselves. In the process we will create new habits ensuring that we will inscribed in the right book. Gmar Chatima Tova.

-For more resources on Mussar check our this new page: Accessible Wisdom

-Check out my friend Jonah Canner’s Yom Kippur Journal Practise

The Loudest Noise: The Sound of Rosh HaShanah


As we get ready for Rosh HaShanah, we get ready to hear the blasts of the Shofarassociated with the Jewish New Year. In comparison, I think about the ruckus I hear every time I go visit a Jewish summer camp. Both are loud and disruptive. But while the sound of camp always fills my heart with joy, the shofar often evokes a negative feeling. It is something my 9 year old son would call “judgative.” Yes these are the days of Judgement, but why do I need to feel so judged? What is the meaning of all of this noise on the Jewish New Year?

For some of us, the sound of the Shofar might be a new thing and a strange sound. For others it may remind them of growing up and hearing it at synagogue. And for yet others it might remind them of the way they aspire to live their lives. Some people might hear the walls of Jericho tumbling or the coronation of the King while for the people sitting next to them, it might be a blast to the past hearkening back to the ram at the binding of Isaac when Isaac was almost killed by his father Abraham. For some it might be the sound of Sisra’s mother at seeing the death of her child. And yet for others, it might just be disruption and an annoyance. I imagine the Shofar blast is supposed to evoke a combination of all of these feelings and more.

The sound of the Shofar makes me stop and ask myself am I fully realizing my potential? Am I in a groove or in a rut? It is less about being judged and more about comforting the uncomfortable and discomforting the comfortable. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement, commented that the loudest sound in the universe was the breaking of a bad habit. Are creatures of habit or are we living with intention? If we listen closely to the sound of the Shofar this year we might figure out if we are indeed (and in deed) the best people we can be. Similarly, Jewish camp is a place in which we get to try on new persona and practice new habits. Maybe the ruckus of camp and the sound of the Shofar are not so different. In both we might hear the call to realize our inner Mensch.

Becoming a better person is not just about breaking bad habits, it is also about doing the hard work of making good habits. For more on answering the call of that inner Mensch check out Let it Ripple’s The Making of a Mensch on September 18 – Character Day 2015. The film, directed by Tiffany Shlain, and accompanying resources takes a look at character through the lens of these ancient Jewish teachings. Over 5,000 screenings are scheduled globally in schools, synagogues, JCCs, nonprofits, Jewish camps, and other community organizations. After the 10 minute film, engage with a range of learning materials designed to spur conversation and reflection. What better time to dive into questions around morals, personal growth, and character development? Gmar Chatima Tova – May we all have a sweet New Year. Who does not like the sound of that?

-Reposted from eJewishPhilanthropy and the Canteen.

Knowing Heart: Ki Tavo and Intuition

Recently I was talking with a friend about Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion. She was helping her daughter write a Dvar Torah for her Bat Mitzvah. Her daughter was focusing on the idea at the end of the portion. There we read:

And Moshe called to all Israel, and said to them: You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and unto all his servants, and unto all his land;  the great trials which your eyes saw, the signs and those great wonders; but the Lord has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.( Deuteronomy 29:1-3)

It is interesting in that the Torah is challenging the idea of intuition. What does it mean for the heart to know? On this Rashi says that it means “to recognize the kind acts of the Holy One, Blessed is God, and therefore to cleave to God”. What does it mean to cleave to God? In an age of fundamentalism I am very afraid of people doing acts of terrorism because of what they think they know in their hearts. I had not thought about it until looking more closely at this line, but what is the juxtaposition in this portion of the Torah. What does that mean for the heart to know as compared to the what the eyes see or what the ears hears?

This reminds me of the final chapter of Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink. There he writes about how orchestras hold “blind” auditions where musicians literally play behind a screen. So-called expert judges are able to hear with “just their ears” rather than look first and, in that blink of an eye, make instant (often unfair) assumptions based on what they see. A tiny woman, for example, could never be a great French Horn player because she couldn’t possibly have the strength or lung capacity. Gladwell writes,“Until they listened to her with just their ears … they had no idea she was so good.”

It seems that good intuition is based on determining what is the right thing to focus in on and what is the right thing to ignore. The scary thing is how much people ignore of the world so that they can maintain their claim on what they know in their hearts. Coming of age at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is really the beginning of a process of defining your own lens for how you will start to see and hear the world and determine how you will know things in your adult life.

-link to another piece on blink Blind Taste Test



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