Behold a Real Mensch: RBG and Character Day

It is one thing to hold a value and another to live that value. What is involved in the process of moving from thought to belief to action?

One thing we can do is to seek out people  who exemplify our highest values. In beholding a value manifest in another human being we learn how we might emulate them.

Such was the case last night when Adina and I had the pleasure of seeing Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Joan Bader Ginsburg. I had the honor of saying the blessing for seeing a wise scholar. The Bracha is:

Bracha is Baruch Atta Melch HaOlam SheNatan MeChachmato LeBasar VeDam

ברוך אתה ה’ אלקינו מלך העולם שנתן מחמחתו לבשר ודם 

Blessed are you King to the World Who emparts from God’s wisdom to flesh and blood. 

Anyway, this Bracha is made rarely because it should only be made for a wise scholar. Surely RBG is a model of wisdom, justice , grace, and grit. 

I have been thinking about this especially since today is Character Day which is brought to us by Tiffany Shlain. She and I worked on a special poster for this year. 

Here is the link where they can see the poster

The Nororius RBG inspires me to realize my potential of bringing justice to this world.  

  • For more resources on Character Day look here 
  • And more resources on accessible Jewish wisdom look here

Reap What We Sow: Lesson of Accessibility

I recently saw an amazing video of about a man who despite being late for an job interview stopped to help an old man with his broken car. I have no idea if the story is true or not, but I really enjoyed it. If you want to get into the Holiday spirit I suggest watching this short video:

Jimmy reaped what he sowed. His good deed from earlier in the day turned into a job offer at the end of the day. Jimmy just had to endure the “not knowing” in the middle.

This made me think about the Hasidic idea that during the days of Elul “the King is in the field.” The metaphor follows that gaining an audience with the King during Tishrei is a whole to-do. We must travel to the capital city, arrange an appointment, and then get permission to enter the palace. It may be days or weeks before we are finally allowed to enter. And even then, when we do finally get to see the King, the audience is likely to be short and very formal. Lost among the throngs of people, it is hard to imagine it being a deeply personal interaction. Since very few of us actually live in the capital city, these royal surroundings we experience during the High Holidays makes us feel out-of-place. By the time we get there we might have even forgotten why we came to seek the audience of the King in the first place. It hardly seems like a good plan for a meaningful experience.

Once a year, the King leaves the capital to visit the various constituents of the Kingdom. According to the Rabbi Schneur Zalman (the first Lubavicher Rebbe) during Elul “anyone who desires is granted permission and can approach the King and greet the King. The King received them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all” (Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b) Now a King can’t just enter a city unannounced. This explains the shofar. Here in the field the formality is transformed into familiarity. We the common folk are allowed to come out to greet the King and receive personalized blessings. During Elul, with limited effort, the King is accessible. God might even be seen kicking the tires in frustration and need some help.

7 Years of Emunah: Reflections on Faith and Fidelity

While her secular birthday was on September 2nd, Emunah’s Hebrew birthday is today. It is crazy to realize that today she is 7 years old. It is also crazy for me to pause to recognize that I have been writing this blog for 7 years. This blog started with her birth and I has grown along with her for the years. Every year around this time I reflect on Emunah, the name, person, and concept. I feel blessed to have them Emunah in my life.

As I have quoted before Martin Buber writes:

This ‘existential’ characteristic of Emunah is not sufficiently expressed in the translation ‘faith’, although the verb often does mean to believe (to believe someone, to believe a thing). It must further be noticed that the conception includes the two aspects of a reciprocity of permanence: the active, ‘fidelity’, and the receptive, ’trust’. If we wish to do justice to the intention of the spirit of the language which is so expressed, then we ought not to understand ’trust’ merely in a psychical sense, as we do not with ’fidelity’. The soul is as fundamentally concerned in the one as in the other, but is decisive for both that the disposition of the soul should become an attitude of life. Both, fidelity and trust, exist in the actual realm of relationship between two persons. Only in the full actuality of such a relationship can one be both loyal and trusting. (Two Types of Faith 28-29)

This year I take pause to thing about what it might mean to falter in one’s Emunah. The paradigm of this in the Talmud is the life of Elisha ben Abuyah a rabbi born in Jerusalem sometime before 70 CE who adopted a worldview considered heretical by his community. So why did he lose his Emunah? We learn in the Talmud:

‘How did this happen to him? He [Elisha] once saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree on the Sabbath, take the mother-bird with the young, and descend in safety. At the termination of the Sabbath he saw a man climb to the top of a palm-tree and take the young but let the mother bird go free, and as he descended a snake bit him and he died. Elisha exclaimed, ‘It is written, “Send away the mother bird, but the young you may take for yourself; that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days (Deuteronomy 22:7).” Where is the well-being of this man, and where is the prolonging of his days!’ He was unaware how Rabbi Akiva explained it, ‘That it may be well with you in the World [to Come] which is wholly good,’ And that you may prolong your days’ in the world which is unending. ( Hagigah 15b)

The Talmud depicts that Elisha lost his faith when he saw injustice in the world. As we see in Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, there is supposed to be a reward of life for sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs. In comparison Rabbi Akiva kept his faith because of his belief in a world to come where the perceived God’s injustice would be made right. In either of their cases it is about having or not having faith or belief. What about Buber’s idea of having fidelity and relationship?

It is said, “Mr Goldfarb goes to synagogue to be in relationship with God. I go to synagogue to be in relationship with Mr. Goldfarb”. It is interesting the Talmud does not say that Elisa did not believe Rabbi Akiva, but that he was unaware of his teaching. Is the assumption that if he was aware Elisha would have believed Rabbi Akiva? Maybe if Elisha was aware of Rabbi Akiva’s teaching he would have known that the system works for someone in his community and he would have stayed in relationship with Rabbi Akiva and his community.

Seven years later while Emunah my daughter might be a struggle times, my relationship with her is steadfast and unshakable, even if my relationship with faith is often a still struggle. Regardless I am still in dynamic relationship with my Emunah and look forward its development for many years to come.

 

 

The DNA of Responsibility : Ending the Story of Racism

I recently watched momondo‘s video about ” The DNA Journey“. The video shares interviews with a broad cross-section of British society. In the first half they ask these individuals their feelings about their own group identity and their thoughts on other cultures/ nationalities/races and groups. The researchers then offer each of them free travel to visit their ancestral homes as determined by a DNA test. In the second part of the short film they share the DNA reports with the participants. It is worth watching to see the impact of these reports in challenging their assumptions about themselves and the world.

On their website momondo says:

We only have one world, but it’s divided. We tend to think that there are more things dividing us than uniting us.

It is fascinating how personal narratives rarely align to the stories told by our DNA. Race and other social groupings are clearly just a construct and not as “real” as we have been led to believe.

I  was thinking about this when talking to my friend Adina Konikoff this morning at the bus stop. She is giving a Dvar Torah at her Minyan on Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion,  race relations in the country, and the story of the Egel Arufa, the heifer.  There the end of Shoftim we read:

1If, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, 2your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. 3The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; 4and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an ever-flowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. 5The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of the Lord, and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. 6Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. 7And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of blood-guilt. 9Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 21: 1- 9)

It is untenable in the Torah for a murder to happen without fault and someone taking responsibility. The ritual of the Egel Arufa, the heifer, is an effort to reconcile  society’s responsibility for that murder. It has profound implications in modern society in which almost the entire world is inhabited and we are more interconnected than ever online. If we have this level of responsibility of the Egel Arufa when the victim is not connected to us, how much more responsibility do we have today?

I was thinking about this anew since watching the The DNA Journey video. We often resort to our tribal identity to define the sphere of responsibility. But these identities and narratives are just a social constructs. The story told by our DNA is that we all intermingled and truly responsible for each other. The surge of racially motivated violence needs to stop. In the The DNA Journey video in response to getting her report one woman replied saying, “I’m going to go a little far off right now, but this should be compulsory… There would be no such thing as extremism in the world if people knew their heritage.” How will we eradicate the scourge racism? We might need to sacrifice our old narratives, but we are responsible to tell a new story. This story is already in us, right there in our very DNA.

Cut Ourselves: Re’eh and an Argument for Competition

The continuity conversation seems to occupy most of the communal conversations. Be it the Jewish communal servant or the volunteer, we often sound like conspiracy theorists looking for the magic bullet that will save our community. In fact there is not ever going to be one solution. If we hope to make it into the 22nd Century a nation we will need a wide array of different approached to ensure our collective vitality.

I was thinking about this where reading Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

You are the children of the Lord your God: you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God, and the Lord have chosen you to be God’s own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)

The plain meaning of this prohibition is tattooing our bodies because this represents our holiness to God. On this Rashi comments:

You shall neither cut yourselves: Do not make cuts and incisions in your flesh [to mourn] for the dead, in the manner that the Amorites do, because you are the children of the Omnipresent and it is appropriate for you to be handsome and not to be cut or have your hair torn out. ( Rashi on Deuteronomy 14:1)

Rashi emphasizes the issue of imitating our neighbors with these tattoos. In the Talmud we see a completely different read on these prohibition. There we learn:

Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yochanan: Read the verse “you shall not cut yourselves”, which means do not form separate groups. (Yebamot 13b)

It is not about cutting our corporeal bodies, but rather dividing our national corporation. What is the fear of cutting the people of Israel into different groups?

In our era we have seen a wonderful proliferation of different expressions of Jewish life. While this might give cause for a sense of hope, still others like Reish Lakish  fear that we are losing a sense of a common Jewish life. While I too have that fear, I know collectively we will be better off continuing to differentiate creating many niche forms of Jewish life. While this will put certain stress on our resources it will foster a healthy competition for the nature of Jewish life. This regression to Reish Lakish’s point of view makes Judaism stale and not relevant (see suburban big top synagogue) and gives rise to the corruption and being ineffective (see the Rabanut in Israel). In our era it might be that cutting in different competing units itself is what makes us as a collective so holy.

 

Faith Minus Vulnerability

In Eikev, this week’s Torah portion we read:

The graven images of their gods shall you burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it unto yourself, lest you be snared therein; for it is an abomination to the Lord your God.And you shalt not bring an abomination into your house, and be accursed like unto it; you shalt utterly detest it, and you shall utterly abhor it; for it is a devoted thing. (Deuteronomy 7:25-26)

What do we make of the use of the word”abomination” in the context of idolatry?  In the Talmud Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai noted the word “abomination” in common in both our portion and in Proverbs which says:

Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; my hand upon it! he shall not be unpunished(Proverbs 16:5)

They deduced from the common use of the same word “abomination” that people who are haughty of spirit are as though they worshiped idols (Sotah 4b).

I was thinking about this in the context of the work of Brené Brown. In her brilliant discussion of vulnerability she writes:

Faith minus vulnerability and mystery equals extremism. If you’ve got all the answers, then don’t call what you do ‘faith.’
Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai are on to something – there is a certain abomination of being too haughty and close minded to be vulnerable. The secret of whole-hearted living is to break the idols in our lives and be open to the mystery of the unknown, the Unknowable, and even yet to be known self. These are only revealed through the hard work and practice of humility.

Not Being There #nevertrump

One of my favorite books Being There by Jerzy Kosinski. In this 1970 novel  the writer explores a satirical view of the absurd reality of America’s media culture. It is the story of Chance the gardener, a man with few distinctive qualities. To Chance the whole world was a garden, but others mistake this simpleton’s description of an actual garden for an extended metaphor about the economy. Chance emerges from nowhere and suddenly becomes the heir to the throne of a Wall Street tycoon and a presidential policy adviser. His simple and straightforward responses to popular concerns are praised as visionary despite the fact that no one actually understands what he is really saying. The book was turned into a famous movie with Peter Sellers.

Today in the context of the Donald Trump’s presidential campaign Kosinski’s words seem prescient. For example Trump said that he would build a wall along the border between Mexico and the U.S. to curb illegal immigration — and has vowed that Mexico would foot the bill. Trump said, “It’s gonna be a great wall. This will be a wall with a big, very beautiful door because we want the legals to come back into the country.” When Trump “speaks from the heart” you cannot be sure if he is being literal or metaphoric. We are left thinking that Trump is either a simpleton way out of his element who is not fit to be the president or an evil narcissist who should just never be allowed to have any more power. In either case we need to look in the mirror and ask how he got to be a candidate for the most powerful office in the world. What is the nature of our media driven culture that would allow the rise of Chance?


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