Live Long and Prosper

As I was preparing for Shabbat I heard the sad news of the passing of Leonard Nemoy z”l. He was an icon of an actor breathing life into the character of Spock from Star Trek. In is memory I suggest seeing this worthy commercial:

As an actor he never shied away from his Jewish identity. Quiet the opposite is true. Nemoy brought Judaism to the masses with the character of Spock. Tonight and forever when I bless my children with the priestly blessing it will carry the connotations of Spock’s blessing to “Live Long and Prosper”. May his memory be for a blessing.

 

To understand the origin of this check out this interview (around 11:30 minute mark).

– Of all the souls I have met in my travels his was the most human.

From Continuity to Contribution: Beyond Antisemitism

It is astounding to me how much money we spend as a community on Holocaust education. Particularly now with the recent spike in antisemitism in Europe I am sensitive to the need to “never forget”, but do we need to pay for other people to remember?  Let them pay for their own crimes and their feeling of guilt. The Holocaust is clearly part of our memory and history, but so too is the breadth and depth of Jewish literate, art, and culture. No matter what we teach our neighbors they will have to decide for themselves how they want to live. Our primary concern should be how we educate our children. My fear is that we spend more time teaching our children about how we died over and above teaching them how we lived let alone how we might live as Jews. You can disagree with me, but I doubt that a discourse of survival will be compelling to the next generation of North Americans who are growing up in affluence and safely.  So what are we left with?

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we read that God tells Moshe to tell the Israelites, “Let them take for Me a portion, from every man whose heart motivated him you shall take My portion“(Exodus 25:1). The Israelites who had only recently escaped slavery do not limit their expression to preserving the memory of the experience they had in Egypt as we see in the Seder. They communicate their devotion to the Jewish project by making a contribution. Instead of continuity for the sake of continuity they throw themselves into the project of building the Mishkan, Tabernacle. In the contribution we create community. Does God really need a Mishkan? Clearly we did.

There is a certain sanctity in inviting and trusting  people to join the Jewish project. We must throw off the helicopter parent’s urge to prepare the way for the child as compared to preparing the child for the way. Do we trust the next generation to do their part? We need to be open to the fact that there are many ways for people to contribute. While we must stay vigilant about antisemitism we must stay on message and give the next generation the gift of allowing them to contribute in their own way.

 

Hands Up Don’t Shoot

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read one of the many times in the about how we are supposed to treat the stranger. There we read:

And a stranger you shall not wrong, neither shalt you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry– My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:20-23)

We are charged to look out for the needs of the stranger for the very reason that we had the same experience.  On this Rashi commented:

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: If you taunt him, he can also taunt you and say to you, “You too emanate from strangers.” Do not reproach your neighbor with a fault that is also yours (Mechilta, B.M. 59b). Every expression of a stranger (גֵּר) means a person who was not born in that country but has come from another country to sojourn there.

The fact that our national story is born in Diaspora in Egypt means that we have a mandate to relate to other strangers. In light of this I wanted to share these images:

Image result for ferguson hands up boy

We cannot just through our hands up and say that the racial issues in this country are not our problems. We too need to put our hands up and work with those who are estranged by the systems power. We need to do our part to enact a rule of law that treats everyone equally.

In the words of Common in the song Glory from Selma:

Justice for all just ain’t specific enough

That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down” and we stand up

We are either part of the solution or we are part of the problem.

Yadid’s Journal: A 10 Year-old on Self-Conscious

A few weeks ago my son Yadid handed me a sheet torn out of his journal from school. It read:

Dear journal,

Today I was on the bus ride home when I thought to myself something, in my opinion interesting question. What makes us believe what we believe? Why do we believe in God and not gods or kings? Then my self-conscious answered “because that’s what we choose to believe and we can’t be judged for that. We might disagree but we can’t fight about it. Because that would cause another world war, you wouldn’t be able to trust even your family and there will be no prosperity”. So my self-conscious said this, ” Never stop believing because if you do you may never believe again”.

Then my brain and not my self-conscious said back “so your saying that if I tackled you and said change to my religion a world war would start.”

My self-conscious responded “no I am saying that you shouldn’t be a terrible person because the world doesn’t follow what you believe because theirs no point”.

I share this here in recognition that it was a cconversation with Yadid and his self-conscious that prompted me to start writing this blog over five years ago. When my son Yadid was four years old he came home from daycare and reported to me that he got into trouble. He got put into timeout for throwing sand at another child. Yadid said,” Myself said to myself, I do not want to be in timeout. Myself said to my cry, I do not want to cry”. And with that we started a conversation about his conscious life. It seemed only fitting to continue that conversation with a blog with the same name.

My son spoke in the words of Ecclesiastes, “I said in my heart: ‘Come now, I will try you with mirth, and enjoy pleasure’; and, behold, this also was vanity.” (Kohelet 2:1) My mission is to model a life that is personally meaningful, universally relevant, and distinctly Jewish. I aspire to be frank and to speak of Torah in real life. It is wonderful to pause for a moment to realize how this discussion has evolved over time. Yadid is almost 11. In the last five years I have grown in many ways in forcing myself to find a voice for my parenting, my Torah, and my self-conscious. In many ways I think it would be helpful for more people to force themselves to be more intentional and explicit. Thank you Yadid.

Work Life Balance: Lessons from Yitro

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. Most are quick to point out that Yitro is the consummate consultant. It his critique that seems to bring about the giving of the Torah. 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. This is a natural progression to the people getting the Torah at Sinai.  Yitro is playing the role of a great consultant helping them operationalize their success, but I do not think that is the limit of his consultancy.

We should not forget what Yitro did right at the start of this week’s Torah 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. What is the value of bringing Moshe’s wife and children into the picture? Why is this the moment for  Moshe’s family reunion?

As a communal professional who works in the field of Jewish identity building it is safe to say that my personal identity is deeply invested in my work. While this is deeply enriching, it is also problematic. If I allow too much of my self-worth to be defined by my work as compared to my private life I might lose a sense of priorities. Yitro is the consummate consultant. When he shows up he did not just bring Moshe his family, but he put before Moshe a choice. Do you get your love at work or at home? I can relate to Moshe. We need to have systems in place to ensure that we are efficient and effective at work. We also need to model work-life balance or the whole project will fail.

 

– Interesting article on work-life balance

– Also see to Consummate Consultant : The Essence of Exodus and Being a Good Consultant

Divine Tension: Thoughts on the Parsha

In Beshalach, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. After suffering the tenth plague, Pharaoh finally acquiesces to letting his slaves go free. It is strange that it does not say Pharaoh let them go. Instead we read:

Now when Pharaoh sent the people, God did not lead them by way of the land of Philistines, although it was closer, for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’(Exodus 13:17).

Was  does it mean that Pharoah sent the people? Was Pharaoh still in power? What are we to learn from this use of language Beshalach?

The text seems to suggest Pharaoh as the principle sending the Israelites on shlichut as his emissaries. This seems peculiar because the text clearly says that it was God alone who took them out of Egypt with a strong-arm. We see from the rest of the verse the psychological reality of the slaves. However bad it was being a slave, Egypt was familiar and would always be tempting to them when compared with the unknown. We see that even when the Israelites were free from Egypt, they were still slaves to Pharaoh. To receive the Torah they would need to understand that God alone was in power. Freedom would only be realized in their recognition of being a shaliach, an agent, of God.

In my life, it is hard to connect with the idea of being an agent of God. I hardly understand myself or my own motivations. How can I claim that a God, with whom I understand even less, is directing me? This claim of being an agent of God in the 21st century  is even harder to make against the backdrop of the horrible acts of terrorism perpetrated by people claiming to be enacting the will of God. So why do I keep my divine shackles on? Within the myth of divine direction, the circuitous path of my life has become more than just meaningless wandering. While few and far between from time to time I have experienced moments when it seems that water parts and my path is clear. This commitment has left me open to experience wonder. But in the end, I have found that I thrive in the tension between Judaism and the culture around me. This tension allows me to clarify my motives without being blinded by either.  Within this tension I have a sense of confidence, but hopeful a tempered arrogance. And some times even with this tension I can stop to sing along the way.

Black and White: Another Take on Wearing Tefilin in Public

Being over six feet tall it is no wonder that I hate traveling by plane, it seems that my legs are just too long. Being that tall and ritually observant does make traveling in the early part of the day interesting. Just this week I had to take six AM out of LGA to ORD. On these such occasions I find myself having to get my Jew on in public. For me that was next to the United help desk in Chicago. There is really nothing quite like having to suit up with my tallis and tefilin in flagrante in the terminal or even worse on a plane. While I might attract extra attention to my underpants with my head covering, my tefilin actually look like I am strapping a bomb to my arm and head.  What is my commitment to these rituals?

While I usually experience wearing tefilin with a deep sense of pride in our tradition, in the context of this week’s portion and recent events, it might actually be a little more complex. At the end of Bo,  this week’s Torah portion, we read:

And it happened when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to send us out, that God killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I offer to God all male first issue of the womb, and I shall redeem all the firstborn of my sons. And it shall be a sign upon your arm and an ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand God removed us from Egypt. (Exodus 13:15-16)

While they might ground a plane for my putting on tefilin, it seems that God is the terrorist killing all of the firstborns. What is the cost of our rituals? Did others need to be harmed for our nationalistic expression or religious freedom? I realize that most observant Jews take putting on tefilin for granted. We pray and often live amongst our own. We have  forgotten the significance of this symbol. It takes leaving our own little world to realize the meaning of content and context of our inner ritual lives.

This past week marked the celebration of the memory of  Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. To mark the occasion Adina and I went out this past Saturday night to watch Selma.  MLK taught the world the importance of seeing beyond the superficiality of race. In his unforgettable words, ” I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It is a sad truth that most observant Jews spend more time worrying that our tfilin are completely black then the racial inequality in this country. We have missed the forest for the trees. We have gone along with the narrative that the commitment to wear tefilin means you are an Orthodox Jew and the commitment to doing social justice means you are a Reform Jew. For all Jews the daily ritual of tefilin reminds us of our opportunities and responsibilities to help those who are less fortunate. We all have a responsibility in having been freed from slavery to work for liberation for all. I do not feel shame in wearing tefilin in public. I  wear my tefilin with pride, it creates accountability.

– See a similar piece on wearing a Kippah and a related one to this post on tefilin


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