Golden Calf and Trump

In parshat Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion,  starts with God giving Moshe a few last commandments about how to lead the Israelites. Then it continues;

When the people saw that Moshe was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moshe, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don’t know what has become of him. (Exodus 32:1)

Waiting to get the complexity of the Torah was too challenging for them. Masses of people never have the patience for nuance.

This is reminiscent of a talk given by former Supreme Court Justice David Souter. In a 2012 appearance in New Hampshire he made some striking and prescient remarks about the dangers of “civic ignorance”. This video has been circulating and worth seeing:

I was was most struck when he said:
I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’… That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.
Civics is important. We need to know who is responsible and then we can demand performance from them. Like the Israelites in the Golden Calf Incident, as was the case with Rome for Augustus, I am worried about our republic. The people who voted for Trump invested in a demagogue who claimed he alone could solve their problems. There is a never a quick fix to a truly complex problem. And yes everyone knew that health care was this complex. What will we need to do to clean up from this mess? Trump has been up on the Hill for over 40 days. If he wants to clean up this mess he has to do it quickly. He alone can determine if he is going to be Moshe, Augustus, or a Golden Calf. Like the Golden Calf- Trump is a product of an ignorant and impatient group yearning to be heard. It only it was as easy as breaking a couple of Tablets to get them to shut up and listen for a moment.

A Matter of Perspective

Yesterday we celebrated Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah. For the occasion he prepared a Shiur. He allowed me to post he class here. It was a true pleasure celebrating the extraordinary person he is becoming. So here is what he said:

To quote from a book that my family enjoyed reading together “If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.” Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

In preparation for today I wanted ( or at least my Abba wanted me to) do a siyum. Over the last year I have learned Masechet Megillah as part of my Bar Mitzvah Bucket list. I wanted to share a short shiur– lesson as a completion of what my father and I learned.  

My favorite sugya in the Gemara was Megillah 16a which tells a crazy story:

When Haman goes to get Mordechai to dress him in the king’s clothes and parade him around town,  he finds Mordechai himself giving a shiur to the  Sages on the halakhot – laws of kamitzah. What you say is the kamitzah?

Image result for ‫קמיצה‬‎

Good question self. Well the kamitzah was the three finger measurement of fine flour used in the meal offering in the Temple in Jerusalem. When Mordechai sees Haman he tells the Sages to leave so they don’t get burned by his coals.

Which is interesting in that part of the meal offering itself, but back to the story in the Gemara.

Mordechai bravely stands alone before Haman, puts on his tallis and starts davening. We are left with a bizarre image of Haman patiently waiting for his mortal enemy to finish his prayers while Mordechai thinks he is about to be killed. After Mordechai finishes, Haman tells him that the king has commanded him to clothe Mordechai in the king’s clothes and parade him around town on the king’s horse. Mordechai says that he can’t do that because he is dirty and needs a haircut.

Why is he dirty and need a haircut? Excellent question self.

Seeing that his fortune has changed from nearly being killed to being paraded around town by his enemy – Mordechai leaves his state of mourning  and starts to toy with his adversary.

While that occurs Esther closes all the barbershops and bathhouses. She is mean that Esther.

In order to obey the king’s decree Haman had no choice but to cut Mordechai’s hair and bathe him. Haman then dresses him in the king’s clothes and bends down so that Mordechai can climb onto the king’s horse. As Mordechai is climbing on to the horse he kicks Haman. Haman responds quoting Proverbs (24:17) and says “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.”

While doing so Haman’s daughter, lets call her Antikke is standing on a roof and sees Haman walking and Mordechai on the horse. Antikke thinks that the person being lead around in the King’s clothes is Haman her father and the person leading him around is Mordechai. Thinking it is Mordechai from that distance she throws a chamber pot full of poop onto her father’s head.

When I think about this story in the context of the entirety of Megillat Esther I think we can learn some important lessons but I will let you be the judge of that:

1) There are many perspectives in this story that are alternating between comedy and tragedy. In the beginning of the story Mordechai’s perspective is that he is about to be killed. Antikke’s perspective is that she thinks she will punish her father’s enemy but instead punishes her father. Throughout the Megillah it seems that  G-d isn’t actually present, especially in this story we, with the reader’s perspective  see a majestic plan unfolding.

 

2) I as a reader find it problematical that the so called victims of the story are mistreating people. For example Esther’s effort to close the barber shops and showers just seems cruel in that it is engineered to shame Haman. Similarly when Mordechai kicks Haman. He didn’t just kick him, he responds to a Torah quoting Haman by  dismissing him outright, being mean spirited and being dismissive of non- Jews. This is resonant with what we see at the end of the eighth perek when the Megillah. There we read “Moreover many from among the people of the land declared themselves Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.”( Esther 8: 17)  I appreciate that they were feeling oppressed, but why do they need to make others feel oppressed?  

This is especially troubling because of current events where groups are being persecuted as in the Megillah. I hope that we come together as a nation to end persecution of anyone. The root of hatred is fear, we cannot fight it with more hatred, only with more love. This can only happen when we don’t tolerate bad behavior but also don’t behave badly ourselves. We have to strive to keep the highest standard of conduct.

I wanted to summarize what I have learned in light of my becoming a Bar Mitzvah.  There seems to be two main ideas here:

1) In this sugya as in life the line between comedy and tragedy is perspective. As Abraham Lincoln said- We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses. In becoming a Bar Mitzvah I think about this quote whenever something goes wrong or someone does something wrong. I remind myself to regain the right perspective so that I can bring my best self. I try to do this because, lets say if, not that this ever happens, but imagine that Shama and Emi are fighting, and no one was around. They both tell my mom what happened individually and no matter how hard they try, they will tell the story slanted towards themselves. So in order to hear what really happened you have to see the situation from both perspectives. In any conflict there are always three perspectives: his side, her side and the truth.  I think this is why my family liked Wonder so much, because every chapter was told was a different perspective.

2) The other big idea is that we have to be just in our ends and our means. As we saw in this sugya even Mordechai himself might confuse the blessed Mordechai with cursed Haman in being unnecessarily cruel to his adversary. It is a hard lesson to learn for myself or even for our people but I realize that being the victim is never an excuse for behaving poorly.

Thank you friends and family for helping me get through this journey of sorts. Thank you all who came from out of town, from Canada to Argentina. Thank you Abba for learning Masechet Megillah with me and helping me with this speech, thank you Mami for teaching me troupe and the Mincha service, thank you both of you for helping me navigate through this strange world and thank you Shama, Emi and Libi for cheering me up when I was down, and making me feel proud of who I was, from any perspective.

Son of Splendor : Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, we see an elaborate description of the cloths of the priests in the Temple. What was the significance of these clothing? There we see it says he is dressed this way,, “ ​lkavod uLetiferet- for his honor and his splendor” ​ (Exodus 28:2). Living so long after the destruction of the Temple it is hard to make meaning out of all of these fancy clothes.

This week we are celebrating Yadid’s becoming a Bar Mitzvah. In preparation for this we had many conversations about this idea of honor. But to hear more on that you will need to listen to his Dvar Torah on Shabbat. Now I wanted to explore the idea of tiferet.

In preparation for Yadid’s becoming a Bar Mitzvah we brought him to a sofer to get his Tfillin. On the first visit he picked out the hand writing/penmanship he liked in the scrolls that will be in his Tfillin.  It was great to see Yadid make a choice about his own aesthetic of beauty- one translation of Tiferet. And then we went back a second time to the sofer for a fitting. And on this visit we got to talking about why the right strap on the head tfillin is longer then the left. Traditionally the right side represents  rachamim-compassion, where the left  side represents din-  judgement. The right is longer as a reminder to always be more compassionate.

Seeing Yadid put on this tfillin for the first time as a Bar Mitzvah at school I could imagine the fancy clothing of the priests in the Temple. Tiferet is the force that integrates the Sefira of Chesed (rachamim) and Gevurah (din).

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As you see here Tiferet  is the balance between these two spheres. Yadid is very holy person with a deep sense of faith. Yadid is filled with a profound sense of compassion and a deep sense of what is right and wrong. Yadid gracefully finds the balance. Seeing him in his Tfillen I was filled with an overwhelming sense of  his ​splendor. I  am honored to be his abba and excited to see him emerge as a young adult. Mazel Tov Yadid.

Insecurity President : Insides, Outsides, and Terumah

As we see in Terumah, this week’s Torah portion, when our ancestors first built the ark that held the Tablets they were instructed to cover it with gold on the outside, and on the inside. (Exodus 25:11) Surely, a vessel that is meant to house the Ten Commandments should be adorned with gold on the outside, but why cover it with gold on the inside as well? This seems like a waste of gold.
On this topic  learn in the Talmud:
The verse states concerning the Ark: “From within and from without you shall cover it” (Exodus 25:11). Rava said: This alludes to the idea that any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside, i.e., whose outward expression of righteousness is insincere, is not to be considered a Torah scholar. Abaye said, and some say it was Rabba bar Ulla who said: Not only is such a person not to be considered a Torah scholar, but he is called loathsome, as it is stated: “What then of one loathsome and foul, man who drinks iniquity like water” (Job 15:16). Although he drinks the Torah like water, since he sins, his Torah is considered iniquitous and this makes him loathsome and foul. (Yoma 72b)

I was thinking about this when reading a recent article indicating that President Trump has suggested that anti-Semitic threats across U.S. are coming from within Jewish community. He claimed that these treats and acts of terror are being done by Jews against Jews to make certain people ( his alt right base) look bad. This “false flag” claim is crazy, destructive, and deeply disturbing.
Obviously this claim like many other  things that Trump has claimed is simply a lie, but imagine for a second that were true. Even imaging this reminds me of situation that plays out with my children regularly.  Emunah, who is 7, cries to me that her brother called her stupid. I reply, ” Well, that is not nice, but are you stupid?” Emunah say, ” No”. I reply, ” Than who cares what he called you? Ignore him.” If her insides are not what he claims to be her outsides, who cares? If she knows who she is in a deep way she can deal with any  insecurity.
The forces of hatred in this country are stupid. If they look bad, it is not our fault. Their insides are just evil.  Despite all of his efforts to cover them and himself with gold, sadly Trump’s presidency is all about the emptiness of that inner box. Trump got his base behind him under promise of him being the security president. Trump alone was going to protect us from the international forces of evil. Trump alone was going to build a wall to secure our boarders from evil immigrants. Trump alone was going to round-up the “bad hombres” to secure us from within. And all of this is lie. What has he done to deal with these domestic security issues accept blame the victim?  Trump’s security issue is actually just his own personal security issue. Not everything is personal attack that needs him to take to twitter or worse the nuclear codes to strike back. Trump alone needs to deal with his insecurity issue.

Strangers Look Out for Strangers: Mishpatim and Trans Rights

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 empathize and care for other strangers.

I was thinking about this on Wednesday night when reading about the Trump administration’s withdrew of Obama-era protections for transgender students in public schools that let them use bathrooms and facilities corresponding with their gender identity. In a recent study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics. The study suggested an association between the drop in teen suicide attempts and the implementation of same-sex marriage policies. Suicide is the ultimate expression of the feeling of being a stranger. While the study did not prove the drop in teen suicide attempts was caused by the implementation of same-sex marriage policies, it would seem that even the possibility that more open policies would drive down the number of people committing suicide would create a moral mandate to extend these policies.

As descendant of strangers I feel that it is our mandate to look out for people who are foreigners, be they not born to this country or to their birth sex.  Social conservatives love to talk about the primacy of life, it is strange in that they clearly do not mean it.

Poor Zeidi: Trump and Yitro

Like many other I watched with amazement as Ami Magazine’s chief political correspondent Jake Turx asked what seemed to be a very respectful and respectable question.

The Haredi  reporter began by telling the president that no one in the Jewish community where he lives has accused him or his staff of anti-Semitism. Most obviously reminding everyone that Trump has Jewish grandchildren. Turx even threw in that Trump is their zeidi. At which point Turx asked about the rise in anti-Semitism since the Trump victory last November which has included 48 recent bomb threats against Jewish centers. He said:

What we are concerned about and what we haven’t heard you address, is an uptake in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it.

A belligerent Trump had enough, was anything but respectful and respectable, and ordered Turx to sit down. The President went on to misunderstand the question as an attack on his fidelity to the Jewish community as compared an opportunity to set it clear that his administration is there to take action and make the country safe for its citizens ( including his daughter and grandchildren). Now, Trump bumbled on to say:

So here’s the story folks. No. one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. No. two, racism. The least racist person. In fact, we did very well relative to other people running as a Republican.

When will Trump stop running for office and actually just focus on filling the office? Turx knows that Trump is “least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life”. The Jewish community is looking for a solution(other than any final one) to keep our kids safe.

It is interesting to contrast Trump to Yitro from this week’s Torah portion. At the start of our reading Yitro, Moshe’s non-Israelite father-in-law, coming to visit. 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. What would not make sense is that Yitro would be so narcissistic to change the conversation to be about himself. I do not actually think that Trump is anti-Semitic, but it is clear that this zeidi is not up the job and should probably retire to Florida.

Half Full: Let’s Stop Complaining

We read in the Psalms:

Our fathers in Egypt did not contemplate Your wonders, they were not mindful of Your abundant kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea at Red Sea. (Tehillim 106:7)

What does it mean that they “rebelled by the sea at the Red Sea”. The second sea seems redundant. The midrash suggests that there might have been two rebellions. The first rebellion was marked by the fact that no one wanted to descend into the Red Sea. The second rebellion involved complaining about the muddy ground which they had to walk through after the Red Sea split.

But was it muddy? In parshat B’Shalach, this week’s Torah portion, that the ground was yavash, dry. Was the ground wet or dry?

Obviously compared to the wall of water to their left and right of them it was dry,  but it seems reasonable to assume that it was muddy. It seems crazy but the midrash depicts the Israelites as though despite experiencing a miracle like no other they were complaining that they had to get their shoes muddy. If it were in fact dry you might even count it as a whole other miracle. When faced with the possibility of being killed by Pharaoh’s approaching chariots or drowning in the sea, a huge miracle happens and that is not enough. They are complaining about their shoes.

This reminds me of one of my favorite lines by Woody Allen. As the old joke goes:

Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.

Even if it is hard to relate to the generation that experienced the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea, we can all relate to the fact that if we were there we would have found something about which to complain.

Recently I read an article that said that according to science complaining Is terrible for you. Steven Parton the author of this article is a student of human nature and explains how complaining not only alters your brain for the worse but also has serious negative repercussions for your mental health. In fact, he goes so far as to say complaining can literally kill you. Here are three of the ways he claims that complaining harms your health:

  1. Complaining beget more complaining
  2. You are whom you hang out with
  3. Stress is terrible for your body, too.

There are two types of people in the world — those who see the glass as half empty and those who see the glass as half full. Some see a thorny rose-bush and admire the beautiful roses, and some see it and complain about the fact that the roses have thorns.

This week with the reading of the miracle of the Red Sea we are reminded to take stock of the wonders and abundant kindnesses we experience in our lives. What would it take to rebel against the urge to complain and just enjoy these miracles?  And yet still I have Woody Allen’s voice replying, “No, you’re wrong. I see the glass half full, but of poison. “


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