Getting Past the “How” of Torah: For the Love of Learning

In Nitzavim VaYelech, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the reception of the Torah. There we read:

For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ (Deuteronomy 30:11–13)

Learning should be hard, but not to hard and definitely not out of reach. Here we see learning Torah depicted as some elaborate scavenger hunt. What zeal would we bring to trying to learn Torah if it was in fact hidden in the heaven or on the other side of the ocean?

I was thinking of this when I saw this article on dangerous journeys to school around the world. Here are two pertinent images:

Not in Heaven:

children-going-to-school-around-the-world-25

Beyond the Sea:

children-going-to-school-around-the-world-42

It is inspiring to look at the rest of the images. In the world there are so many barriers to education, but as you can see there is still a hunger to learn and grow.

In our community there are many efforts to make Torah more accessible, but still people feel alienated. What are we missing? Perhaps we have made Torah too accessible? We have lost our zeal. Would we try harder if it was in heaven or across the sea? But I do not think that is all of it.

We fail because we have not done a good job expressing the “why”? Yes I am Hassid of Simon Sinek.  And if you have not seen this TED talk please stop everything and watch it now.

Why is learning valuable? I have my thoughts on this, but for now I just want to put the question out there. In Sinek’s words,

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.

As we prepare for the High Holidays it is interesting to think about your own “why”. And once we figure out our “why” it will not matter if learning Torah is in heaven or across the sea, that is just a “how”.

Creating Memory – 9/11 for Another Generation

This week we commemorated the anniversary of 9/11. This was a transformational day for me personally. A the time of the event I was learning in yeshivah and living in Manhattan. There are so many memories I have from that time it is hard to imagine communicating them to someone who has not experienced it. I was shocked to realize that all of the Bnai Mitvah from now on were not even alive when 9/11 happened. I pause  to ask, how will we communicate the nature and gravity of this event to the next generation?

I was thinking about this when reading Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about the ritual of Bikkurim, bringing the first fruit on Shavuot to the Temple. About this we read:

And you shall come to the priest that shall be in those days, and say to him: ‘I profess this day unto the Lord your God, that I am come unto the land which the Lord swore unto our fathers to give us.’ And the priest shall take the basket out of thy hand, and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. And you shall speak and say before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.  ( Deuteronom7 26:3-8 )

The generation who entered the land of Israel did not have first hand experience of the slavery and redemption in Egypt. This ritual was a means for this next generation to preserve a memory they never had. It is interesting that this ritual had a script. We learn later that in order to make the script more accessible the priest would say it and the person coming would repeat it.

We have a crises in being Jewish today. How will we share our memories with the next generation? I think we can point out a few things from the ritual of Bikkurim. Like the priest repeating the words,  we need to find ways to make it more accessible to more people. We need to build this difficult memory into something festive and not let the next generation get stuck in the gloom We also need to find the balance between the script that they need to say and the innovation. The next generation needs to find a way to breathe their own imagination into the ritual in order create their own memories around the ritual.

The script from this Bikkurim ritual is the foundation for the Hagadah. The Hagadah is the model of balance between tradition and innovation in order to keep memories vital throughout history.  In every generation we are to see ourselves as having been redeemed from slavery in our own Egypt. I would venture to say it is the most rewritten book in history. In order to get my children to connect to Jewish History  or even 9/11 I need to give them the space to explore what these events mean to them in their lives without the full burden of my understanding of history and what it means to me in my life. Rituals help preserve a dynamic tension between tradition and innovation. Without this tension we will break the chain linking our past to our future and our future to our past.

Fence on The Roof- 50 Years Since Fiddler

It has been 50 years since the production the Fiddler on the Roof. Til this day it stands as a unique artistic phenomena  explaining the old world Jew to the contemporary American audience. In her great article on the subject Professor Ruth R. Wisse brilliantly explores some of the challenges presented in the theatrical and film adaptations of Tevye and his Daughters (or Tevye the Dairyman) and other tales by Sholem Aleichem. Like others Professor Wisse thinks they went too far in rewriting  Tevye to make him more accommodating  to the new world. While this might be true, the idea of adaptation itself was part and parcel of the original conception of the character of Tevye. How will the simple old world Jew make his way in the emerging complex new world?

These issues are themselves explored in renaming the work as the Fiddler on the Roof. The title stems from  Marc Chagall surreal paintings of Eastern European Jewish life which often including a fiddler.

   

In the play Tevye says:

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!

The Fiddler is a metaphor for survival, through tradition and joyousness, in a life of uncertainty and imbalance. While life beyond Anatevka might be much more pleasant and simple, it seems that here America in relative security we are struggling to keep our tradition.

I remember when I was little I was climbing on the roof of the garage. My mother came yelling,”If you fall off there and break your leg I will smack you”. I was thinking about this and Dr. Wisse’s great article when reading Ki Tetzei , this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

When you build a new house, make a fence around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof. (Deuteronomy 22:8

Obviously their architecture was different at that time and they actually used their roofs, but still I have to ask, who would be stupid enough to go on a roof? Well, the Torah wanted us to take precautions even for the person who might end up on the roof. How might we preserve this sacred balance as we try to maintain our tradition in the 21st century?

This makes me reflect on the first teaching in the Perkey Avot. There we learn, ” Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.” ( Avot 1:1) If we are “cautious in judgment”  and work in the service of universal justice and not just “what is good for the Jews”, we will not have to worry about continuity. Simply put we will have “many pupils”. When we have many pupils will have many different interpretations. While this is exciting it might ultimately erode our sense of having one community to marshal a more just world. To this ends we need to build a fence. I realize that everyone will have different notions of what these limits are, but we can all agree we need them. With theses fences in place each of us needs to find our own way to become that Fiddler on the Roof.

Stammering Justice

Stuttering, also known as stammering, is most commonly associated with involuntary sound repetition, but it also encompasses the abnormal hesitation, blocks,  or pausing before speech. Stuttering is generally not a problem with the physical production of speech sounds or putting thoughts into words. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, stuttering does not affect and has no bearing on intelligence. Apart from their speech impairment, people who stutter are normal. Anxiety, low confidence, nervousness, and stress therefore do not cause stuttering, although they are very often the result of living with a highly stigmatized disability.

Although the exact etiology of stuttering is unknown, both genetics and neurophysiology are thought to contribute. A variety of hypotheses and theories suggests multiple factors contributing to stuttering. Auditory processing deficits have been proposed as a cause of stuttering. Stuttering is less prevalent in deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and stuttering may be improved when auditory feedback is altered. Although there are many treatments and speech therapy techniques available that may help increase fluency in some stutterers, there is essentially no “cure” for the disorder at present.

So, what is my sudden interest in stuttering? In Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the establishment of the court system. There we read:

Tzedek Tzedek-Justice, justice shalt you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:20)

Why the repeating word, “Justice”? Most commonly it translated to assume that it is emphatic. As to say, “Justice you will surely pursue”. But, maybe this reading overlooks the speaker.

When Moshe is called to be God’s messenger, he resists saying, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). From this the Rabbis concluded that Moshe had a stutter.  Rashi  explains k’vad peh, “heavy of mouth,” and k’vad lashon, “heavy of tongue,” by which Moshe describes himself, as stuttering. Rashi translated it into medieval French word balbus, stuttering or stammering (from which comes the modern French verb balbutier, to stutter).

Moshe had a unique relationship with God and surely the voice of God. In this you can also say that he had an auditory processing issue.  It does not seem the Moshe has a problem communicating with people when God is not around. Maybe it the presence of God that causes Moshe to have this auditory processing problem and this stutter.

If you made it this far in my argument maybe you will join me in this last question. If all this is true, why is this the one time the Torah tepresents Moshe’s stuttering in print? Maybe it has something to do with the pursuit of justice itself. Beholding true justice would mean seeing the world from God’s perspective. If you truly pursue justice you will achieve being in the presence of God. This would cause anyone to stammer.  Surely there is no shame of pursuing justice.

 

Hard Reset- Shmitta and Socialism

In Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the upcoming shmita, Sabbatical year. There we read:

For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shalt surely open your hand unto your poor and needy brother, in your land.’ If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, he shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you shalt let him go free from you. ( Deuteronomy 15:11-12)

Here we see a connection between the remission of loans and the freeing of the slaves on the seventh year. If some one is down on their luck regarding a loan or having been in slavery, the Torah commands the community to take responsibility to help them . Here we are called to look out for the needs of our fellow Jews. But what does it mean that, “poor shall never cease”? Why can we not imagine a time when poverty is over?

It seems that this question is answered in Isaiah’s Messianic vision in our Haftarah . There we read:

Ho, every one that is thirsty, come you for water, and he that had no money; come you, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do you spend money for that which is not bread? and your gain for that which satisfied not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat you that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.( Isaiah 55:1-2)

The ideal for the future is a time in which our needs are met without the disparity inherit in a society that is built around privilege, debt, and the imbalanced nature of currency. I am not foolhardy enough to think that our world can survive without the forces of capitalism, we just need to recognize that inherent in that system is perpetual poverty. It is also possible that our approach to poverty cannot be limited to any single community looking out for their own. But, as a Jewish person I can say that I am looking forward to the new year. It seems that we all could use a reset.

Dr. Seuss and Being a German Jew

It is clear throughout history that the Jewish people have contributed so much to the world. And I believe that the best is yet to come. There is still so much more that we can contribute to make the world a better place. With the rise of radical Islamic forces and the reemergence of the garden variety European antisemitism on one hand and Jewish disinterest and assimlation on that other hand, it is scary to think that we might disappear. We might be killed by those who hate us or we might forget what it means to love ourselves.

I think being a German Jew, as I am, I am proud of the many aspects of my identities. As Jews, we were always in the avant-garde of Jewish expression in Germany. Being German, we are associated with the brand standard of antisemitism. I think we are in a league of our own in terms of loving to hate ourselves. I was thinking about this recently when our 8-year-old son Yishama asked us a question. He said, ” Is Dr. Seuss anti- symmetric?

 

 

As you can see in his artwork Dr. Seuss was clearly anti- symmetric, but was he  antisemitic?  It seems that Theodor Seuss Geisel was a complex, talented and passionate man. I found a PBS article that said:

[He] struggled to remain hopeful inspite of the “dissemination of stupidity” he saw all around him. Above all, Dr. Seuss and his work were intrinsically political. A self-proclaimed master of “logical insanity,” the author of such fanciful tales as Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat devoted much of his considerable talent and influence to advocating political and social change. From condemning isolationism and attacking anti-Semitism to his later works for literacy, the environment, and against the arms race, Dr. Seuss’s most popular works reflect his passion for fairness, democracy and tolerance.

So it seems that  Dr. Seuss was not antisemitic. But what do I do with the fact that our 8-year-old thinks it is as normative as Dr. Seuss to hate the Jews. To confront antisemitism we will need to understand the the source of their hatred. Anything short of this would not create a lasting solution or worse it would deny them their humanity. How can we get to the bottom of that this without losing our own love for ourselves? I ask this as a German Jew who just loves symmetry.

Shabbat Growth Mindset

Shabbat Nachamu – the Shabbat of Comforting  takes its name from the haftarah from Isaiah ( 40:1-26) that speaks of “comforting” the Jewish people for their suffering. There we read, “Comfort you, comfort you My people, said your God.” ( Isaiah 40:1) This haftarah is the first of seven haftarot of consolation leading up to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. It occurs on the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av. It is understood to be the start the national healing process. Like no time in recent history we really need this Nechemta- comfort.  But with such suffering now in the world how might we make that shift to comfort?

Recently I have been reading  Dr. Carol Dweck‘s Mindset. It is a wonderful book in which she uses her research in psychology to outlines two typological mindsets. Mindsets are beliefs  about yourself and your most basic qualities. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life? People with a Fixed Mindset believe that their traits are just given. People with a Growth Mindset, on the other hand, see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Below you can see a great graphic explanation of these two mindsets. Dr. Dweck argues that having a Growth Mindset is the secret to being successful in everything including sports, parenting, business, school, teaching, coaching, and relationships.

As a nation if we had a Fixed Mindset and we experienced the set back of Tisha B’Av or the current attacks by Hamas in Gaza we would have just given up and been done. We would not have lasted as we have throughout history. But instead, we choose a Growth Mindset. With Shabbat Nachamu we are invited to work and developing our relationships with each other, the world, and God.

I was thinking about this when listening to John Newman ‘s song, “Love Me Again”. In this song he is trying to resolve the nature of a relationship in his life. Will the object of his affection love him again? The song goes:

Now I’m rising from the ground
Rising up to you
Filled with all the strength I found
There’s nothing I can’t do!

I think it is worth listening too.

If we have a Growth Mindset and we are trying to answer John Newman’s question after Tisha B’Av the answer has to be that there’s nothing we can’t do. With Shabbat Nachamu is seems that God is willing to love us again. And if we work on it,  in seven weeks we will be back in God’s good graces. When it comes to how we relate to each other, our neighbors, our friends, and  even our enemies there is much to do.  I hope we will recover a Growth Mindset regarding this crisis in the Middle East. It is time to repair,  prepare, and grow. With the right Mindset there is nothing we can’t do.

 

-Another blog post on Mindset


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