Tent of Understanding and Patience

How do we respond to existential crisis? I would assume that no two people would respond exactly the same way to the same situation. And I would also assume that the same person would respond differently to different crises.

I was thinking about this question when reading the start of Vayera, this week’s Torah portion. Avraham and Sarah were promised a great nation, and there she finds herself old, menopausal, and childless. We see God looking after Avraham in his tent. Avraham sees three strangers traveling in the desert. He runs to invite them in and host them. Avraham and Sarah meet their needs and go way beyond that. I can only imagine the anguish of Sarah’s life. She thought her life was about having and caring for a child and now she is schvitching getting food ready for these strangers. As it turns out, these travelers were actually angels sent to bring messages. One of these messages is that Sarah was going to have a child. Her response is to laugh. There we read:

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?”

Genesis 18:12

She laughs because it seems absurd that she should be able to have a child. The humor of the situation reveals her patience in light of God’s tardiness in delivering on God’s promise.

It is fascinating to compare Sarah’s response to Lot’s daughters behavior at the end of the Torah portion. Like Sarah they are faced with what they perceive as existential crisis. Their town had been destroyed, mother turned to a pillar of salt, and they find shelter in a cave. There we read:

Lot went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar; and he and his two daughters lived in a cave. And the older one said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one went in and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. The next day the older one said to the younger, “See, I lay with Father last night; let us make him drink wine tonight also, and you go and lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night also they made their father drink wine, and the younger one went and lay with him; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. Thus the two daughters of Lot came to be with child by their father.

Genesis 19:18-36

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman wrote, “We are prone to blame decision makers for good decisions that worked out badly and to give them too little credit for successful moves that appear obvious only after the fact.” Lot’s daughters do something horrible, but from their perspective you could appreciate their motivations. They assume that the entire world has been destroyed and they want to save it. How should we judge them for their actions?

Even if I am understanding of their perception, I would say it was horrible. Not only because it was unethical and gross, but because their stance toward time. It seems that no time passes and they are working on a solution to the problem of populating the world. While their issues and Sarah’s are similar, their perception of time is very different. Sarah is patient and Lot’s daughters are impatient and impetuous. It is particularly fascinating to visualize the juxtaposition between Sarah’s tent and Lot’s Daughter cave. How to we react to crises? Do we run to caves or take our time in tents? Do we jump to the wrong conclusion or do we wait too long?

Arabian Desert Tent Images, Stock Photos & Vectors | Shutterstock

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” How do we get out of the case and position ourselves in tents of understanding?

Lessons from the Second City: Rethinking Rebuilding

-written with Stefan Teodosic

On October 8, 1871, a fire broke out in Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn on the southwest side of Chicago, Illinois. It soon spread to envelop the entire city. Lasting until the 10th, the fire burned through the heart of Chicago, killing 300 people, and leaving one-third of the city’s population homeless. 150 years ago, while the embers were still smoldering, they started the process of rebuilding Chicago. The destruction was devastating, but it’s the rebuilding of the city that has drawn our attention today. While some rushed to rebuild Chicago the way it had been, others set out to realize a new vision for what Chicago could become. The “Great Rebuilding” was a bold effort to construct a new urban center. 

Michigan Avenue bridge relief in Chicago. The relief called Regeneration depicts workers rebuilding Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; Shutterstock.

Their vision for a new Chicago would include new architecture. The Windy City built skyscrapers with steel and terra cotta. They changed major systems including laying the city out in a grid and making trash alleys to improve their waste removal. They also took care to protect themselves against future fires. To this end, they passed new laws requiring new buildings to be constructed with fireproof masonry and sprinkler systems and people to purchase fire insurance. They also opened an academy to train firemen. 

Accomplishing these things required alignment amongst organizations and partnerships between government, companies, investors and philanthropists. In short order, boosters needed to communicate this opportunity with all stakeholders, including citizens, to move forward on these fresh, transformational ideas for a safer, nicer and more resilient Second City. This new metropolis would become the home to big businesses, innovative buildings and a new style of architecture. 

It has been 150 years, but where is the Jewish community today? We have been dealing with COVID-19 and its variants for over 19 months. Having just finished the holidays, we look forward to the work ahead of us in 5782. In many ways the embers are still smoldering. Are we going to rebuild our community the way it was, or are we going to set out a grand revision for our communities’ “Great Rebuilding”? What lessons can we learn from Chicago?

Just as they did, we have to rise up and meet the moment, make sustainable change and lay the foundation for the future. We must co-create an intentional process to assess the damage, see what should be salvaged, and bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to do an intentional, thoughtful, transformational visioning process. We need to see the blessing in the crisis and not just recreate what we had. Like the boosters that led the rebuilding after the Chicago fire, we need to tell a new story. We need to move beyond the trappings of tradition for its own sake, embrace this opportunity together to identify shared outcomes, and figure out our priorities, strategies and the resources we will need to achieve this vision. We need to create ownership and buy-in at all levels of the community and create partnerships within and across sectors. This coalition of the willing will have to align and seize the opportunity with passion and a unified sense of purpose. 

Just saying it does not make it easy. To do this we will need to be courageous, vulnerable, open and trust divergent perspectives. We will need to explore possibilities for our future with childlike curiosity along with well-tempered discipline to pursue this new venture. And even when we can articulate a shared vision, we will need to follow a methodical change management process. We will need to continue to measure our success and failures against agreed upon outputs and outcomes. And like the fire academy, we must teach the next generation so they are prepared for the next trauma no matter what it might be. We need resiliency in this chaotic world where the only constant is instability. 

While Chicago focused on its buildings, we need to evolve our organizational architecture. How will we rethink our finances, human resources, technology, marketing and communications, governance and training of our professionals and board members? How will we rebuild our communities while prioritizing the mental, emotional, social and spiritual health of individuals? Just as Chicago redrew the lines of how the city was organized, we too need to open up lines of communication and collaboration between different sectors of engagement and education (overnight and day camps, youth groups, schools, congregations etc ), critical mass builders (JFNA, Movements, North American intermediaries like FJC, Prizmah, Hillel, Moishe House etc), funders (philanthropists and local Federations), government and other partners in the Jewish communal ecosystem in North America, Israel and around the world.

We happen to be two Jewish camp guys at heart. While we are always working to add value in our own spaces, we know we each have a limited perspective. If there ever was a time to look beyond ourselves, our assumptions, our individual communities and our own sector – to listen to a diversity of ideas, priorities, experiences and perspectives and share how our work and vision may intersect and impact each other in the broader communal field – it’s now. It is imperative that we lean in and listen to the needs of the Jewish people, not just Jewish institutions. We need to adopt a truly inclusive approach, based in a posture of abundance. We will not be successful if we start with scarcity and judge people based on a current or past level of participation or engagement. All of our voices and our data have to be in this process. If not we could build something thoughtful and intentional, that flat out misses the mark. 

This past Shabbat we read Lech Lecha, in which Avraham and Sarah strike out to innovate and build a new nation. Similarly, this is our chance to do a grand re-envisioning and to imagine a new way to organize and explore Jewish life. Survival is not enough. Rebuilding the way it was or just adapting it is not enough. As we emerge from COVID, we have the opportunity to learn from the Second City, disrupt the status quo, and build a better, more resilient community for the future. What will our community look like in a year? In 10? In 150? 

The two of us may be starting this conversation, but we are hoping that you will continue it. Whether you show up as a Jewish communal professional, an individual community member or a lay leader, your unique voice is integral to weaving the rich tapestry of the Jewish life of tomorrow. If you are interested, please add your voice to this conversation. How might we rebuild Jewish life anew? Introduce yourself, share your thoughts, and identify how you’d like to take part in this process here. We would love to be in conversation. 

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow (he,him) is the vice president of innovation and education at Foundation for Jewish Camp. He can be reached at avi@jewishcamp.org 

Stefan Teodosic (he,him) was a longtime Jewish camp director/executive director and is the founder of Maverick Soul Consulting, based in Chicago. Maverick Soul provides a trusted, collaborative teammate with corporate experience and a nonprofit soul in the areas of vision, strategic planning and change management. He can be reached at Stefan@mavericksoulconsulting.com  

Reposted from eJp

Start of the Mission

Any story are defined by their beginning. This idea is put forward by Rashi in his first commentary on the Torah. There on Genesis 1:1 he wrote:

Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse, “This month shall be unto you the first of the months”(Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to God’s people the strength of God’s works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that God might give them the heritage of the nations.” For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be God; God created it and gave it to whom God pleased. When God willed God gave it to them, and when God willed God took it from them and gave it to us” (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187).

Rashi on Genesis 1:1

Why not just start with our story of us as a nation? Rashi’s answer is that the creation story gives us a claim to the land of Israel. But like most things the question is better than the answer. I would offer that a stronger answer might have been that this singular origin story creates a common context for the beginning of our story as humanity. This start forms the ethical foundation for our society ( see: Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). No one is better or more important than anyone else because we all come from the same beginning. By starting with our common biological origin we all live in the context of a story where despite or because of our differences we have moral obligations to each other.

But, we read Bereirshit a few weeks ago. Why am I bringing this question up now when we read Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion?

Here at the start the story of the first Jewish family. There we read:

The LORD said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you.And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth. Shall bless themselves by you.” Avram went forth as the LORD had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

Genesis 12:1-4

Why doesn’t Rashi ask his question here? Again we could have started our collective story with “This month shall be unto you the first of the months”(Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment given to Israel. You can claim the same answer that this is the proof of God promising to give Avraham and us the Promised Land. But, I would argue that just as Adam and Eve gave us a common biological origin, Avram and Sarai give us a common ideological origin. By starting our national story with Lech Lecha, our ideological origin story, we all live in the context of a story where despite or because of our ideological differences we are bound to each other. Even if it does not always seem like the case we are all on the same mission. Though we might debate and fight, we are all beneficiaries of their project. No one is better or more important than anyone else because we all trace the idea of Judaism back to this moment when Avram set out to ” make a great nation”. Lech Lecha literally and figuratively gives birth to Judaism as a movement.

Babel on the Hill: We All Need an Audience

Zoom-fatigue is real. I need people. These screen and zoom boxes are not cutting it.

This reminds me of a troubling story told in the name of the Besht:

There was a king who loved music but his real passion was the violin. A fiddler was brought to him to play and one particular melody captivated him. He instructed the musician to play this melody several times a day. After a time the musician grew weary of the tune and found it hard to play it with the same passion as before. To rekindle the fiddler’s love for his favorite melody, the king was advised to summons a new audience every day. Strangers were brought into his palace who had never heard the melody.
This arrangement seemed to work. A new audience stirred the fiddler to play with enthusiasm again until there was no one left to invite. What to do?
It was decided to blind the musician so that he never see a human form again. He then sat before the king and whenever the king sought to hear his favorite tune he would simply say “Here comes someone new, One who has never heard you play before!”
And musician would play his tune with the greatest joy.

I will come back to violence another time. But it is clear that we need an audience. It is really hard to perform without one. I was thinking about this when reading John Winthrop’s, oft quoted homily, City on a Hill from 1630. He wrote: 

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

John Winthrop
Searching for the City on a Hill: Tracing the Roots of America's Metaphor

It is interesting that Winthrop and subsequently America has cast an imagination that the whole world is watching as they build this city perched on a hill. Our civilization is the stage and the world is our audience. It speaks to this basic need to be seen. And yes we will fail, but in having an audience we will always strive to become better.

I was considering all of this when thinking about the failure of the Tower of Babel. There we read:

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.— And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

Genesis 11:1-4

I offer for your consideration that they failed in building their Tower on a hill as an exemplary civilization precisely for the reason that ” everyone on earth” was involved in the project. They were all on stage. In not having audience they lacked motivation, inspiration, or accountability.

The First Luftmensch

Some times I get lost in thought. On more then one occasion I have been called a luftmensch. I realize that at times I come off as aloof. A luftmensch is an impractical contemplative person. This is an airy appellation taken from Yiddish which breaks down into “luft” (a Germanic root meaning “air” that is in the the name of Germany’s airlines and also related to the English words “loft” and “lofty”) plus mentsh, meaning “human being.”

Ferienstart in Hessen: Lufthansa empfiehlt rechtzeitige Anreise zum  Flughafen - Lufthansa Group

I was thinking of this when reading Bereishit, this week’s Torah portion. The Torah is short on words. Amidst a whole list of “begot”ings and ages one line stands out. There we read, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him.” ( Genesis 5:24) Enoch walked with God with his head in the clouds. Many interpret his being “no more” that he left the world as Elijah without dying. Never having lived on the ground there is no attributed years of his life.

This reminds me of a nugget of wisdom that my friend Jay Frankel shared. He said, ” As employers, we are always worried about our employees who might quit and leave. We should be more worried about the ones who quit and stay.” While the luftmensch might lead a life blissfully untethered by our quotidian existence, they also have resigned themselves to have no impact on the world.

In many ways Enoch is the foil for Yaakov. He starts out as a luftmensch, sitting in his tent as his brother is out in the field ( Genesis 25:27). But later we see him evolve. Most poignantly we see him have a dream of angels ascending and descending. There we read, “He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its head reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.” ( Genesis 28:12) One way to read this is that this ladder is Yaakov himself. His “head” was still in the sky, but now his feet were firmly rooted in the ground.

In many ways the project of humanity is to live with the tension of our being animals and being divine. We need to always be reaching for the heavens AND be deeply rooted in this world. We cannot resign ourselves to either or. Me must be both. To be a mensch is to strive to live up to our full potential.

Glimpsing the House of Tomorrow

From the start of Elul through Shemini Atzeret, we recite Psalm 27. There we read, “One thing I ask of the Lord, only that I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent God’s Temple” ( Psalm 27:4). On a simple level, when meditating on this we are beseeching God to allow us to return and stay in the Temple. Do any of us pretend to understand what it was like to be in the Temple? What are we really asking for? 

Maybe we are seeking the feeling of home.  

My name is Avi Orlow. Over 20 years ago, I was honored to start as a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) while its beit midrash, or study hall, was still nascent. There, I felt that sense of home described in Psalm 27. I came to YCT with a deep love for the Jewish people, and thanks to my education there, I left it years later with a profound appreciation for what Judaism has to offer humanity. I look back fondly at how after every class we would discuss how we might transmit the experience of YCT’s spiritual environment to the outside world. 

Many of us yearn to create a sense of home in multiple areas of our lives. For me, I have attempted to replicate that feeling of comfort in both my professional and personal spheres. It is not surprising, then, that my professional growth has run parallel to that of my family. The same spring I was ordained by YCT in 2004, I became a new father. I was fortunate enough to have our son’s bris, and then his pidyon haben, at YCT. Soon after these events and my graduation, our growing family packed up our books, the BabyBjörn, and our life in New York as we prepared to take on the bigger world.

Along the way, my career has taken me all over the country. First, I spent four years as a Hillel rabbi at Washington University in St. Louis where we opened our home to students. While I loved working on campus, I moved on when given the chance to impact how thousands of young people every summer understand Jewish camp to be their home away from home. I have spent the last 13 years at Foundation for Jewish Camp where I have traveled the country learning from and with Jewish camps all over North America about how to spread joyous Judaism. During that time, my wife and I have been blessed with three more amazing children.

While I have helped build the home that is my family, I have never forgotten the home I knew at YCT. My connection to YCT has waxed and waned over time, but I have always stayed curious as to the successes and challenges of my fellow alumni in our efforts to bring the goodness of the YCT beit midrash to the world. Many of us started at YCT with little more than a vision for what Open Orthodoxy could mean. In some moments, I haven’t always been sure how much impact our small school has had on the world.

Recent events, however, have made me realize that the home we all built together at YCT is being realized in unforeseen ways across generations.

A few weeks ago, I was picking up some of my children at the Camp Stone bus stop in White Plains, New York, where I live. I was expecting to see the usual neighborhood YCT suspects: Rabbis Jack Nahmod (‘05), Seth Braunstein (‘06), and YCT faculty member Chaim Marder. Our children are all friends from the neighborhood and we send them to the same camp. 

a school bus stopping on a road with its doors open while a line of small children with backpacks walk in a line to get onto the bus

I was surprised, however, when I spotted Rabbi Seth Winberg (‘11), the executive director of Brandeis Hillel, at the stop. It was his daughter Hadas’s first summer at camp so she had flown there. She had assumed, however, that she would know people on the way home, so she came back on the White Plains bus. Rabbi Seth had come in from Boston to pick her up. As we chatted and caught up, the buses rolled up the street. Rabbi Seth found Hadas, and I found my daughter Emunah. I asked Emunah if she knew Hadas. She responded, “Of course I do, Abba! We just sat next to each other on the nine-hour ride home from camp.” What are the odds, I thought to myself!

When we got home, Emunah did not want to talk with us. We were not surprised. She just wanted to talk with her camp friends. She talked with her friend Amollia for over an hour. Later that night, she was having trouble falling asleep. It turns out that when you work in camping as I do, your kids do not get homesick at camp. Rather, they get campsick at home. To calm her down, I asked her to go through a list of her friends. I stopped her when she told me about Amolia Antine from Maryland. Her father, Rabbi Nissin Antine (‘06), from Potomac, was ordained two years after me at YCT. Truly, what a very small world! It was astonishing to me that, without any direction or interference from me, my child had just naturally gravitated toward the children of other YCT rabbis.

When Kalil Gibran’s Prophet is asked about children, he responds:

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

Emunah discovered these people on her own. She is her own person, and she is finding friends who share her interests and her values. It is amazing to see the emergence of the next generation of YCT as our children build their own community. 

This time of year, when I get to L’David 27, I reflect on how the world is sometimes a very big and a very scary space. I cannot say that I want to hide from it in the Temple, but there is a part of me that yearns for the comfort and holiness of the beit midrash I knew as a rabbinical student. I know that the YCT rabbis are each doing what we can to share this experience of home from the beit midrash with the larger world. And while I might not be able to gaze upon the beauty of our children’s “house of tomorrow,” I find that even a glimpse is heartwarming, affirming, and worthy of meditation. 

-Reposted from YCT Blog

Herd,Happiness, and Hakafot

Hakafot on Sukkot bring happiness. In this ritual we encircle the bimah while holding the Four species on each of the seven days of the holiday. On Simchat Torah, the custom is to take the Torah scrolls out of the Ark and to encircle the bima and throughout the synagogue with great joy, singing, and dancing.

This circular movement is a symbol of perfection and unity, and communal cooperation. According to the story told in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites walked around the city of Jericho once a day for a week and seven times on the seventh day, with the priests leading the way, carrying the Ark of the Covenant each time. On the seventh day, the people blew the  shofar and shouted, causing the walls to fall and allowing them to enter the city. In the Temple period, when they wanted to add area to the Temple Mount, they first encircled the desired area and only after added land to the Temple Mount. Clearly this ritual finds analogous behavior in our Muslim’s circumambulation around the Kaaba Stone.

This might give us the historical context of the hakafot, is there any inner meaning to the custom? I had not given this much thought until I saw this extraordinary footage from a drone of a reindeer cyclone from above:

If you are a young, old, or weak reindeer, you will find yourself at the heart of the herd and it offers you protection. If you are strong you are on the outside protecting the weak. The herd provides you purpose. As Dr Daniel Dennet said in one of my favorite TED Talks” The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” In their circular movement all of reindeer find their happiness in that they can dedicate their life to the safety of the herd.

We see the same thing when it comes to hakafot. Our circling as a community centers the needs of the community at the heart of our herd.

I would think we feel the same way about getting vaccinated. This is the very idea of the strong supporting the weak and creating a cyclone effect of herd immunity. It seems on this level getting vaccinated would give our lives religious purpose.

Zero-Based Budgeting and Avinu Malkeynu

For many of us who actually work off a budget, be if for profit, for not-for-profit or personal we just roll over one year’s budget from the last. Developed by Peter Pyhrr in the 1970s, Zero-based budgeting (ZBB) is a method of budgeting in which all expenses must be justified and approved for each new period. ZBB starts from a “zero base” at the beginning of every budget period, analyzing needs and costs of every function within an organization and allocating funds accordingly, regardless of how much money has previously been budgeted to any given line item.

zero_based_budget_process_ppt_example_file_Slide01

There are positives to ZBB:

  1. Accuracy: This type of budgeting helps companies to evaluate every department to ensure they are appropriately funded.
  2. Efficiency: It helps judge the actual needs by focusing on current numbers rather than the momentum of previous budgets.
  3. Reduced waste: It can remove redundant spending by re-examining potentially unnecessary expenditures.
  4. Coordination and Communication: It allows for better communication within departments by involving employees in decision-making and budget prioritization.

There are also drawbacks of ZBB:

  1. Bureaucracy: Creating ZBB within a company can take enormous amounts of time, effort, and analysis that would require extra staff. This could cause the process to be counterproductive in cutting costs.
  2. Bloat: In using ZBB, managers can skew proposed budgets to characterize expenditures on pet projects as vital activities, inventing a “necessity” for them.
  3. Intangible Justifications: This type of budgeting requires departments to justify their budget, which can be difficult on many levels. Departments such as advertising and marketing have to justify expenses they may or may not use in the next year due to the fluctuation of the market. This could cost them profits in the future due to not being able to justify a certain amount.
  4. Managerial Time: ZBB comes at the cost of time and training for managers. This means spending significantly more time every period on the budget.
  5. Slower Response Time: Due to the amount of time and training is required to do ZBB, managerial staff could be less likely to revise the budget in response to a changing market. This means that it will take longer for a company to move money into departments that need it the most at the time. ZBB could potentially leave gaps in a company because the budget might not react to departments’ sudden needs

Performance measures are a key component of the ZBB process. At the core, ZBB requires quality measures that can be used to analyze the impact of alternative funding scenarios on program operations and outcomes. Without quality measures ZBB simply will not work because decisions cannot be ranked or evaluated. Traditionally, a ZBB analysis focused on three types of measures:

  1. effectiveness,
  2. efficiency, and
  3. workload for each decision unit.

I was thinking about this yesterday near the end of Yom Kippur when singing the end of Avinu Malkeynu. There we say:

ah-vee-noo mahl-kay-noo chah-nay-noo vah-ahh-nay-noo kee ayn bah-noo mah-ahh-seem ahh-say eeh-mah-noo tzih-dah-kah vah-cheh-sed vih-hoe-shee-ay-noo- Our Father, Our King! favor us and answer us for we have no good deeds; deal with us charitably and kindly with us

Every other time I said this it came off as a child pleading to their Father to save them. Yes we know we are crap and have done nothing good, but since you love us as a parent loves a child you will save us. But here during Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur after a day in which we have already repented and we have done teshuva I got to thinking about what this means. Maybe after the slate has been cleaned from year of sin, it has also been cleared from any good we have done. We too have to go through a ZBB for our lives. For better and for worse nothing will roll over from last year.

So let’s get to work and make 5782 everything we want it to be. Here is to a year filled with health, happiness, effectiveness, efficiency, and good decisions.

Reb Asher the Dairyman: Will We Hear Him This Year?

For various reasons I recently found myself reading Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s In My Father’s Court recently. I just love his depiction of the old world and his story telling. Each of the stories helps to paint a different aspect of Singer’s early life growing up the son of a Hassidic Rebbe and Rebeitzen. His family had moved from the country into Warsaw. In the stories we see Singer himself exploring the world beyond his own.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

There is one story there I can not get out of my mind. The title of the story Reb Asher the Dairyman already had me thinking I could reconnect with Shalom Aleichem‘s Tevye. But this is a different story. Reb Asher was tall, broad, strong, with a black beard, large eyes, and “the voice of a lion”. He volunteered in Singer’s Father’s makeshift High Holiday minyan as the Hazzan. Singer also tells how Reb Asher takes him under his wing to bring him to the train to see more of the outside world. It is clear that Reb Asher is a friend of the family.

There we read:

One year, at the close of the Day of Atonement, this same Asher, our friend and benefactor, saved our very lives. It happened in this manner. After the day-long fast, we had eaten the repast. Later a number of Jews gathered in our house to dance and rejoice. My father had already put up the first beam of the Sukkah. Late that night we had at last fallen asleep. Since benches and pews has been set up in the bedroom, and the entire house was in disorder, each of us slept wherever he could find a spot. But one thing we has forgotten- to extinguish the candles that were still burning on some of the pews. Late that night Asher had to drive to the railroad station to pick up milk. He passed our house and noticed that it was unusually bright. This was not the glow of candles, or of a lamp, but rather the glare of a great fire. Asher realized that our house must be burning. He rang the bell at the gate, but janitor did not rush to open it. He too was asleep. Then Asher set to ringing the bell and beating on the door with such furor that at las the Gentile awoke and opened the gate. Asher raced up the stairs and knocked on our door, but no one answered. Then Asher the mighty hurled his broad shoulders against the door and forced it open. Bursting into the house, he found the entire family asleep while all around, benches, prayer stands, prayer books, and holiday prayer books were aflame. He began to call our in his booming cantorial voice and finally roused us, and then he tore off our quilts and set to smothering the conflagration.

In My Father’s Court (166-167)

In some way we see Singer depicting Asher reliving the Midrash of Avram discovering God when stopping to investigate a castle that is has it’s lights on and/or is engulfed in fire. But in another way this story from the old world seems prescient in describing our moment in history today. Just like the Singer family we have fallen asleep and the world is burning. Be it global warming and its forest fires, political fervor, raging racism, or this evolving Covid-19 plague, our reality feels like it burning to the ground. How do we deal with trauma? How might we address the underlying root causes?

As we prepare for Yom Kippur I pause to think about the voice of the Hazan. Will I allow myself to get lost in the nostalgia? Will his voice lull us to sleep with a false sense of comfort? Or, will the booming “voice of the lion” wake us? We will only be saved when we face the issues burning all around us. As we prepare to stand in God’s Court during Yom Kippur we should all be blessed to be saved by our friend Reb Asher on his way to the railroad station to pick up the milk.

Tzom Rabin

On November 4th, 1995 at 21:30,  at Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv at the end of a rally in support of the Oslo Accords assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. I pause to remember the man he was and his importance to the Jewish people. In President Bill Clinton’s eulogy for Rabin he wrote, “Yitzhak Rabin lived the history of Israel. Throughout every trial and triumph, the struggle for independence, the wars for survival, the pursuit of peace and all he served on the front lines, this son of David and of Solomon, took up arms to defend Israel’s freedom and lay down his life to secure Israel’s future.” As I look back on the past 26 years since his death I think about how much has changed and how much as stayed the same.

Israel's Yitzhak Rabin assassinated at peace rally - archive, 1995 | Middle  East and North Africa | The Guardian

There are clearly growing generational gaps between the Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and the Gen Zers. We have not even begun to understand the impact of the recent political and environmental shifts let alone the effect of Covid-19 on this next generation.

Just as my father knew exactly where he was when Kennedy was shot, I know exactly where I was when Rabin was shot. And for our four children Rabin will be as distant as Kennedy is to me. Despite the distance of time, I hope that our children learn from Rabin that contributing to the world as a responsible citizen does not happen despite their Jewish identity, but actually can be lived out more fully through their Jewish identity. Rabin’s assassination teaches us how violence is senseless. And I want Rabin’s memory to be for what he did and tried to do, not what was done to him.

I was thinking about this yesterday in trying help my children understand the significance of Tzom Gedalia.  Gedalia was the governor of Yehudah. His assassination by a fellow Jew ended Jewish autonomy following the destruction of the First Temple.  Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” When will we learn?


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