Red Alert: Israel Above Our Greatest Joy

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of being at a wonderful wedding. Near the end of the chuppah, the officiating rabbi who was also the father of the bride explained the ritual of the breaking of the glass.  Many people who know nothing of Jewish law, tradition, or history know that you break a glass at the end of the Jewish wedding. This custom is based on an event mentioned in Berachot 30b  where Mar, the son of Ravina, was making a wedding for his son. When he saw that the guests were becoming overly joyful, he took an expensive glass and broke it in front of them, thereby tempering their joy. But what is wrong with being joyful at a wedding?

One reason is that we were learn to recall the destruction of the Temple. This is based on the verse, “I shall elevate Jerusalem above my greatest of joys” (Psalm 137:1-6). A wedding is our highest joy, but even at this moment Mar teaches us that we need to keep Jerusalem higher in our consciousness.

I have been to many weddings in my life, but none like this one. Last week when I was in Israel I put the new App Red Alert: Israel by Kobi Snir on my iPhone. Red Alert provides real-time alerts every time a terrorist fires rockets, mortars or missiles into the State of Israel. Without exaggeration I can say that my phone alert went off more than 15 times during the Chuppah. There is no doubt that I was keeping Jerusalem over my highest joy. People ask me  why I did not take the App off my phone after having left Israel. As my phone was going off in my breast pocket I was thinking about Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi‘s famous quote describing life in the Diaspora, “Libi BaMizrach VaAni BeSof Maarav- My heart is in Jerusalem although I am living physically in the farthest part of the west.”  We should be standing under the chuppah and not sitting in bomb shelters. We should be breaking glasses and not dropping bombs. We need a lasting peace for everyone. And I hope that the buzzing on my phone stops soon.

Shabbat Shalom – And I mean Shalom.

 

Question of Focus: A Reflection on My Past Week in Israel

This last week I had the pleasure of going to Israel for the First International Dialogue on the Israel Educator. The program brought over 120 Israel educators from around the world to explore the future of Israel education. As part of the program I spend part of Tuesday hearing from social innovators who are bringing different flavors of spiritual rebirth to Tel Aviv. These innovations were exciting and spoke of a mutual relationship between Jewish life and expression in Israel and in diaspora.

After this I met up with a friend to take a walk and have dinner. As we were walking we heard the sirens announcing incoming missiles from Gaza. Not sure what to do, I started looking around for a bomb shelter. Across the street I saw a family of three in an empty lot waving us over. The father calmly said that we should stand up next to the wall. So there we were standing and I innocently asked which direction Gaza was. If  we were on the south side of that wall it would not help in shielding us from the approaching missiles. The same father immediately responded by saying that Gaza was on the other side of the wall.  A few minutes passed and then we heard the two pops of the Iron dome hitting the approaching missiles. We waited a few more moments to let what ever debris from the explosion come down. And just as fast as our little huddled mass banded together we disbursed to go about our day.

It was a surreal experience. These few minutes have left me with many questions. How could we just go back to our normal routine of life? How could we not? How could this have become the new normal for people in Israel? How might this new normal impact what we think of in terms of Israel education? How has this new normal impacted the constant state of geographic consciousness? The father just knew where we were relative to Gaza.

In the oft quoted saying of Rav Nachman, “Wherever I go, I am going to Jerusalem.” The Jew should always know where he or she is in relationship to Jerusalem.In writing this post I grasp the necklace I have worn since my Bar Mitzvah. The back of the necklace says, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” ( Psalms 137:5) With the constant barrage of missiles and growing range of missiles a larger segment of Israelis always need to  be aware of where they are in relation to Gaza. I cannot help but think how this consciousness overtime will ware at the Jewish soul. I know that we need to come up with a more peaceful, dignified, and sustainable reality with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but I do not want this existential crisis that Hamas has imposed on us to allow us to lose focus on our own moral grounding. We should stay focused on our hopes and dreams and not just our fears and nightmares. I hope that this situation resolves itself soon with no more needless bloodshed.

Hating Hate- Balak and the Cycle of a Fixed Mindset

I hate the word “hate”. How do I respond what I hear someone say, “I hate someone”? It is such a strong word to use so freely. But if we pause, as I think we need to, we might realize that we do not actually mean it. What would it mean genuinely to hate someone? What would someone need to do for us to hate them? While I know that camp is a bubble filled with love, it is hard to ignore all of the hate that is in the world right now.

I was thinking about this while reading Balak, this week’s Torah portion. While much of the portion deals with the prophet Balaam, his errand to curse the Jews, and his talking donkey, we often just gloss over the role of Balak who sent him on this errand. Why does Balak hate the Israelites? There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moav became very frightened of the people, because they were many; and Moav was disgusted because of the children of Israel. And Moav said to the elders of Midian: ‘Now will this multitude lick up all that is round about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.’–And Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moav at that time. ( Numbers 22:2-4)

It all started when Balak saw the Israelites’ success over the Amorites. From there it seems that he quickly moves from fright, to disgust, to teaming up against the Israelites, to dehumanizing the Israelites calling them oxen, to enacting a plan to bring them down.  I am sure we can all relate to this cycle. How often do we respond well to the success of our friends and friends let alone the success of strangers or even enemies? We are often stuck in a fixed mindset. For some reason it is hard for us to use these experiences to inspire  ourselves to work harder. Hating them seems easier than dealing with our own deficiencies. But in the end as we curse other people’s success we ourselves miss out on the blessing of growth.

Jewish ethics are founded on the ideal that everyone is created in the Divine image. There is a part of every person that is a mystery of what potential goodness and Godliness may be  hidden within them.  To hate someone is to deny the unique nature of their creation. In trying to curse them some part of ourselves is diminished in not maintaining the search for the hidden goodness within them. It is our job to explore this mystery in everyone, maybe even more so for the people we hate or claim to hate us.

- I encourage you to read Mindset by Carol Dweck

Body of Discourse: My Response to all of this Talk on Body Talk

 “All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.” – The Kotzker Rebbe

Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859), was a Hasidic Rebbe who was known for his caustic character and sharp wit. As the story goes he once asked his disciples, “Why don’t we do sins?” Knowing their teacher they should have known that this was a Klutz Kashe, a foolish question, to which they were never going to get the right answer. The students replied, “God does not want us to do sins,” “It is prohibited by the Torah”, and “The Rabbis do not want us to do sins.” The Rebbe snapped and summarily rejected each answer. Finally the Rebbe said, “We do not do sins because it is a waste of time. Rather, we should be using our time to do mitzvot- good deeds.”

Recently there has been flurry of writing on the “Body Talk” guidelines at Eden Village Camp.  Many of the articles (including The New York Times, Slate, Kveller, The Forward) and just about all of the responding comments and blog posts explore the merits and risks of these guidelines, a warranted discussion for any parent. It should be noted, however, that the articles failed to mention that the camp does promote healthy body-awareness through sports, music, arts, nutrition education, and integrated conversations about body image, social pressures, and self-esteem. According to Eden Village Camp’s “Body Talk” guidelines,”the temporary respite from all the body commentary, together with… sessions and informal conversations on body image, allow for important sharing and insight about how one feels about one’s own body or the pressure one might feel to look a certain way, and where those messages come from, and tools for going home and being a lighthouse in a world that’s usually really different from camp.” The absence of this crucial nuance from this discussion has resulted in a conversation that has spiraled from valuable to hypothetical and misinformed.

It seems that we have fallen into the trap of the Kotzker’s Hassidim. Have we missed the point?  Have we gotten lost in the merit or risks of “Body Talk” instead of focusing on having conversations that matter? What are the conversations that we want to be having?

In Jewish thought, we do not treat speech lightly. Words change lives. In Judaism, words are the very media of the creation of the world. There are so many examples that this world is broken. Each of us needs to do our part in fixing the world. What good conversations are you a part of that will lead to actions that will help fix the world? For thousands of years the discourse of Jewish life has been and needs to continue to be about making the world a better place. We need to demand of our girls, our boys, and ourselves to focus on having important conversations. It is not a question of morality; it’s a question of how we use our time.

- Reposted from the Canteen

Consuming Role

In Korach, this week’s Torah portion, we learn that Korach, along with Dattan, Aviram, and 250 men from the tribe of Reuven, challenged Moshe’s and Aaron’s leadership. Eventually Korach, Dattan, and Aviram, along with their entire families were swallowed up by the earth, while the 250 men were consumed by a heavenly fire. While they repressed a threat to Moshe’s and Aaron’s authority their extreme nature of their punishment seems out of proportion. At the end of the Torah portion we read that Aaron is appointed as Cohen Gadol, high priest. Aaron’s election is confirmed through a “test of the staffs”. There we read:

17 ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and take of them rods, one for each fathers’ house, of all their princes according to their fathers’ houses, twelve rods; you shall write every man’s name upon his rod. 18 And you shall write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi, for there shall be one rod for the head of their fathers’ houses. 19 And you shall lay them up in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. 20 And it shall come to pass, that the man whom I shall choose, his rod shall bud; and I will make to cease from Me the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against you.’ 21 And Moshe spoke unto the children of Israel; and all their princes gave him rods, for each prince one, according to their fathers’ houses, even twelve rods; and the rod of Aaron was among their rods. 22 And Moshe laid up the rods before the Lord in the tent of the testimony. 23 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moshe went into the tent of the testimony; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and put forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. 24 And Moshe brought out all the rods from before the Lord to all the children of Israel; and they looked, and took every man his rod. (Numbers 17: 17-24)

This seems like such a more reasonable way to resolve conflict. Each loser takes his staff home, no one gets eaten by the earth or burned to death, and the winner gets an almond treat.  It seems that the Levi bracket in the tournament was really tough. Why did we need to have the whole Korach ordeal and this almond lottery?

Before I discussed this idea and its connection to the story of Esther. This time I wanted to discuss it in the context of the story of Yonah. Near the start of his story we see him on the run from being a prophet for God. God sends a storm to thwart his escape by boat. To preempt the ship being destroyed he and the people drew lots to see who was causing the storm. Just as the almond staff bloomed for Aaron, this lot fell on Yonah. He is thrown from the boat only to be swallowed by a giant fish just as Korach was swallowed up by the ground.

What do we make of this juxtaposition of these two stories? Where this is the end of Korach’s story, this seems to just be the start of Yonah’s story. Korach was never really satisfied with his role as compared to Moshe’s role. From being swallowed Yonah turns his life around and finally fulfills his appointed role.   I often reflect on my role in life. How do I  come to accept it? Figuring that out can be quite consuming.

 

- A special shout out to our friends Ari and Adina on the bris of their son Yonah Shemer. I think that is how I got Yonah on my mind. Mazel Tov.

 

Higher Purpose

At the end of Shelach, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Challah. There we read:

Of the first of your dough you shall set apart a cake for a gift; as that which is set apart of the threshing-floor, so shall you set it apart. Of the first of your dough you shall give to the Lord a portion for a gift throughout your generations. Numbers 15:20-21

Today we call Challah the braided loaf of bread, but it is more precise to just call it bread. Challah is actually the part that we give awChallahay. It is a beautiful idea that our Challah bread is identified by what we take away from it and raise for a higher purpose. What happens when we take  our time, our resources, our money, and our talent and raise it up for a higher purpose? When we commit ourselves to the causes we hold dear we ourselves are transformed.  In the act of giving away something what is left is enriched. Acts of altruism help us raise up the rest of our lives. Like Challah we can be called by the name of a higher purpose.

- Check out other thoughts on Challah.

 

Mussar Meets the Science of Character

I wanted to share a new resource inspired by Tiffany Shlain’s Periodic Table of Character Strengths.  Titled “Making Mensches Periodic Table”, I hope this poster will inspire discussion about how to develop Middot, character traits.  I’ve intentionally left it as an informational resource for you, your family, or your organization to utilize in whatever creative way you find relevant.

To get the creativity flowing, I’ve included some questions for camp’s to consider as they discuss organizational visioning, personal development for staff and campers, and ways for you or your staff turn these ideas into a program or initiative at camp.

I am continuing to develop additional educational resources surrounding this project.  If you would like to contribute any suggestions, please contact me or just comment below.  For those of you who missed Tiffany Shlain’s presentation at the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly, or just want a refresher, you can view The Science of Character (8 min.)here Please let me know how you use this.

Mussar Meets the Science of Character

Questions to Consider at Camp


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