The King is Listening: The New Year and COVID-19

How many new years do we have? As we learn in the Mishnah in Rosh HaShanah:

There are four new years:The first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of beasts. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishri. The first of Tishri is the new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the words of Bet Shammai. Bet Hillel says: on the fifteenth of that month. ( Rosh HaShanah 1:1)

It seems clear that Rosh Hodesh Tishre beat out the other three to be the Rosh HaShanah. Tishre is the ” new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables”, but what about Nisan and “the new year for kings and for festivals”? Maybe with all of the darkness I am searching for a new beginning, but I still think that there is something here to explore the New Year of Nisan. But to do this we need to explore the lead up to Tishre.

According to Hasidic thinking the days of Elul from the ” the new year for the tithe of beasts” are the time when “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 blowing throughout Elul. 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. We just need to go out and greet the King.

This idea that God is accessible during the month before Rosh HaShana got me thinking about the time we are in now. We know that on Passover God is passing over our homes, but where is the King  during the month leading up to Passover? We read in Exodus:

And the Lord continued, “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-10)

In this period God is up on high, but the King is not deaf to our collective suffering. The Prime Mover is moved by our crying and suffering. When we are preparing to “see ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt”, God removes the barriers so that God can hear our crying.

Exactly a month prior to Passover we celebrate Purim. There the Megilah depicts Haman putting into motion a plan to kill all of the Jews. When hearing about the plan Mordechai is deeply saddened. There we read:

When Mordechai learned all that had happened, Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. He went through the city, crying out loudly and bitterly,until he came in front of the palace gate; for one could not enter the palace gate wearing sackcloth. ( Esther 4:1-2)

But who is there to hear his crying? In the story of Purim there is no God. The King is absent from this story. Interestingly,  later on we see the story shift when Ahashverosh cannot sleep in his castle. There we read:

That night, sleep deserted the king, and he ordered the book of records, the annals, to be brought; and it was read to the king. There it was found written that Mordecai had denounced Bigtana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who guarded the threshold, who had plotted to do away with King Ahashverosh. “What honor or advancement has been conferred on Mordecai for this?” the king inquired. “Nothing at all has been done for him,” replied the king’s servants who were in attendance on him. ( Esther 6:1-3)

In the story of Purim the King is hidden. But it seems that the King hears our crying via agency of  Ahashverosh.  While this king sleeps, we know from Psalms that the King does not. There we read:

Behold, God the protector of Israel does not rest or sleep  (Pslam 121:4)

It is not immediate, but the story shift from a tragedy to a comedy because Mordechai’s cries are answered.

While the month before Tishre is a time when “the King is in the field” , the month before Passover is a time when the King hears our crying. While playful, the Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explained that Pesach literally means pehsach, “the mouth (peh) talks (sach).” On Pesach, the mouth talks about the wonders and miracles of liberation. On the most fundamental level, our greatest freedom is using our voices. But before we can experience liberation we need to be able to articulate our suffering and give voice to pain.  The lead up to the new year of Nisan and Pesach is God reminding us that God is open to hearing our pehsach- our voices crying.

We do not need the God of Elul now. Even if “the King is in the field”, most of us are stuck at home. We need the God from the run up to the new year of Nisan. This year more then ever in my life people around the world are crying, isolated, living with anxiety, or are suffering from being sick. We need liberation. We need to support the Moshes in the medical profession who are working non-stop to save us. We need to cry out for what is important and hope that God will be moved by our tears.  I hope that the King is listening.

-Drawn from a similar post from Elul

 

Cinderella Story: Liberation from COVID-19

Hodesh Tov. With the advent of Nissan many of us have Passover on the mind. I am sure we all are looking forward to a new month, new fortune, and getting one step closer to liberation from COVID-19. With this is mind I was excited today when I saw Dictionary.com’s word of the day. (Yes, I am a devotee of getting to learn a new word everyday. It is no daf yomi, but I like growing on the daily.)So today’s word is Cinderella which is a person or thing that achieves unexpected or sudden success or recognition, especially after obscurity, neglect, or misery. As I learned on Dictionary.com:

Cinderella is a partial translation of French Cendrillon “Little ashes,” from Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre “Cinderella or the Little Glass slipper” (1697). The story of Cinderella is ancient: The Greek geographer and historian Strabo tells the earliest recorded version of the folk tale in his Rhodopis (written between 7 b.c. and a.d. 24), the name of a Greek slave girl who married the King of Egypt. The first modern European version of the folk tale appears in Lo cunto de li cunti “The Tale of Tales” (also known as the Pentamerone), the collection of fairy tales written in Neapolitan dialect by the Neapolitan poet and fairy tale collector Giambattista Basile (1566-1632), from whom Charles Perrault and the German folklorists and philologists the Brothers Grimm later adapted material. Cinderella entered English in the 19th century.

The familiar plot of Disney’s Cinderella revolves around a girl deprived of her rightful station in the family by her horrible stepmother and stepsisters. Forced into a life of domestic servitude, she is given the cruel nickname “Cinderella” as she is forced to tend the cinder from the fireplace. She accepts the help of her fairy godmother who transforms Cinderella so that she can attend the royal ball and attract the attention of the handsome prince. But, the spell will only work until the first stroke of midnight. While at the party Cinderella loses track of the time and must flee the castle before she blows her cover. In her haste, she loses one of her glass slippers, which the prince finds. He declares that he will only marry the girl whose petite foot fits into the slipper. Cinderella’s stepsisters conspire to win the princes’s hand for one of themselves, but in the end, Cinderella arrives and proves her identity by fitting into the slipper.

It seems that the story of Cinderella is very similar to the story of Passover. We were lowly slaves in Egypt and then out of nowhere Moses comes in as the fairy godmother to invite us to the big ball  ( insert 3 day holiday here). Pharaoh and his court play the role of the stepmother and stepsisters afflicting the Israelites with back-breaking work.  We were not prepared for this moment and at the first strike of midnight we had to run off (insert Matzah here). It is interesting how we commemorate this anxiety every year by mandating that we finish eating the Afikoman by midnight.

At this point in the yearly narrative, we have had our first encounter but still longing to rejoin God who is playing the role of the prince. While Cinderella was counting down to be discovered by the prince, the Jewish people are counting “up” to Shavuot. We are reminded that we are but slaves and we are on the march to complete freedom. It is understandable that we might get lost in the excitement of being asked to elope with God, but we are not yet secure that we will be discovered and ever escape our slavery. We are waiting for God to return to see if the slipper fits (slip on Torah here).

COVID-19 is a reminder that no matter our station, wealth, or class we are but human. Nissan and the word of the day are reminders that even a dirty human can ascend to great things. Ah, you got to love stories with happy endings. I hope that this COVID-19 story ends well and soon.

Assembling Big and Small

As we come to the close of the book of Exodus with Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei we come together to  assemble. At the start of this week’s Torah portion we learn:

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל  

Moshe then assembled the whole Israelite community… (Exodus 35:1)

On a related note Rav Nachman of Breslov the 18th Century Chasidic Master taught:

The essence of Teshuva– return is in the month of Elul because it is during these days of favor, when Moshe ascended Mt Sinai to receive the second set of Tablets and opened an yet-charted path in which to go. Now, the path which Moshe made is this: Moshe bound himself with even the smallest Jew, and gave of himself for them, as it is written, “But if not, please blot me out!” (Exodus 32:32). This is also the meaning of: “And Moshe assembled…” (Exodus 35:1)—that Moshe would gather, unite and bind himself with all of Israel, even with the smallest of the least. This is the meaning of “They have entirely withdrawn; together” (Psalms 53:4). Even when I see a Jew who has totally withdrawn from God, I nevertheless need us to be “together”—I must unite and bind with him, just as Moshe did. (Likutei Moharan, Part II 82:3:1)

I was thinking about this Torah from Rav Nachman this last week.  This last week was supposed to be FJC’s Leader’s Assembly. In this biennial conference we bring together 800 Jewish camp professionals, lay leaders, and supporters of the field of Jewish summer camp Sunday- Tuesday in Baltimore. In addition I was planning to spend last Shabbat with over 40 camp directors from outside of North America.  Alas with the onset of COVID-19 – this did not happen. A week prior we called it off and then within 48 hours the team turned it around and produced an amazing virtual conference.

It was an amazing experience to get together with that many people in the cloud when so many of us were quarantined at home. The FJC team did an amazing job helping the field of Jewish camp chart a new path to assemble and connect with each other. While we know that the coming weeks and months we find ourselves in uncharted territories, together we must keep our eyes on the future of the field, its continued growth and the important, life-long community that camps build. Despite the mandate for social distancing we know that we still need to assemble.

Amidst these tumultuous times it is clear to me that camp leadership are acting as Moshe did giving of themselves and doing whatever it takes to draw our community together no matter the barriers or challenges.  Like the days of Elul- in coming to Jewish camp we return to a utopian vision of the world and do Teshuva to return to better versions of ourselves. Camp is the opposite of social distancing. Camp is the place of belonging. From the smallest camper to our teens, to new staff members, to year round professionals, to their families, to board members, to all of our supporters Jewish camp brings them “together”. It is at camp that any Jew big or small can connect to Jewish Life, develop a passion for Israel, feel like a part of a vibrant Jewish community, or even discover God.

This Leaders Assembly was proof that people really just wanted to assemble. I am in awe of these leaders’ capacity to give of themselves. Right now the world needs Jewish camp more than ever. We all seek belonging and they are playing a critical role. Together we need to “unite and bind” us and assemble all of Israel.

Biblical Proportion: Making Meaning in Difficult Times

In these troubling times we find ourselves amidst a plague, governmental incompetence, and political unrest of biblical proportions. I find it hard not to connect to this week’s Jewish calendar and Torah portion in visceral ways. First we have the odds game with COVID-19 and the lots drawn on Purim sealing our fate as people. My family’s lack of patience waiting at home to leave voluntary quarantine and the Israelites’ impatience as Moshe to come down from Mt.Sinai. Moshe himself spending 40 days up on Mt. Sinai and the endless hours in the Zoom Cloud. In thinking about Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion, I am struck by  the interaction between God and Moshe after the GCI (Golden Calf Incident). 

While Moshe is up on Mt. Sinai getting the Ten Commandments the people are below sinning with the Golden Calf. Moshe comes down from Mt. Sinai and deals with his people.  And then we  read,

31 And Moshe returned unto the Lord, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. 32 Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray of You, out of Your book which You have written.’ 33 And the Lord said unto Moshe: ‘Whosoever has sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book. (Exodus 32: 31-33)

If God does not keep God’s promise to the Israelites, Moshe asks to be erased. While Avraham confronted God at his destruction of Sodom, Moshe pulls off the ultimate Keyser Söze. As imperfect as they are, Moshe puts himself on the line and casts his lot with the people of Israel. One compelling reading is the Moshe breaks the fourth wall sharing with us the reader his consciousness of being the protagonist of our story ( see Stranger Than Fiction). 

Another understanding of this is that Moshe was opting into a life of meaning with his people and with there narrative. As Viktor Frankl said, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.” Moshe is modeling for us what it means to opt into a life of meaning and allowing his narrative and our collective narrative to be one. In so doing, Moshe is the model for living a life of biblical proportion. Like Moshe, we can read ourselves into the narrative we can share our suffering and add meaning to our lives. 

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Eventually COVID-19 will pass and we will leave this quarantine. The next time I see a person wearing a mask I will just think of Moshe  descending Mt Sinai with his radiant face having to cover his face with a veil(Exodus 34:33). I cannot be the only one living a life of biblical proportion.

Heroic Breastplate

There is so much heaviness in the world right now. I really just wanted to think about something positive and protective. In Tetzave this week’s Torah portion God instructed Moshe to make sacral vestments for Aaron: a breastpiece (the Hoshen), the Ephod, a robe, a gold frontlet inscribed “holy to the Lord,” a fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash, and linen breeches. The Hoshen is particularly ornate with its rows of stones. There we read:

Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes. (Exodus 28: 17-21)

This sacred breastplate was worn by the High Priest. It has a number of names. It is called the efod, the Hoshen Mishpat- the breastplate of judgment, and the Urim and Thummim. With all of its splendor and their names engraved, this was clearly a central symbol of unity of the Israelite Tribes.

I was thinking about this image a few month ago when we brought in Isaac and Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik to do a workshop for a group of assistant camp directors. Their work had us bring together pop culture, comic books, art and Torah study to make out our own Paper Midrash. It was a  sophisticated text study through a unique art practice, leveraging contemporary narratives from comic books, movies and other pop culture to inspire new insights into traditional texts.

In their workshop I let my mind go and explored my own understanding of leadership in light of comic book heroes and this vision of the High Priest from this week’s Torah portion. I came up with this:

 

 

In my breastplate the stones themselves where made out of the breastplates of 12 different comic book heroes. It is interesting to realize that they all wear their identity on their chest for all to see. The bottom of this is Kavod, the honor and respect, that is the foundation of all leadership. If you do not lead from that place  you are no superhero. It seems that now more then ever we need unity, protection, leaders who put themselves out there and a renewed foundation of respect.

Cultural Gifts of the Heart: Encounter and Terumah

As Torah portions go, this is a big week. In Terumah we start getting the blue print for the Tabernacle. There is a clear plan for what will be built and made, but that is not where they start off this large-scale project. Rather, they start off with themselves. As we read:

‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering.( Exodus 25:2)

While their gifts are going to fit into a very clear and focused plan, their gifts were not all the same. The gifts were not of the same value, but all valuable becasue they were from the heart. At the center of our national narrative is a collaborative non-profit project that celebrates the diverse offerings of every individual while working toward a common goal. And about this project God says:

And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

The text does not say “make this building so that I can dwell in it“- the Tabernacle, but rather in “them”. When building the Tabernacle we were building a place for God to be with us.

Image result for encounter israel

I was thinking about it this week while I was in Israel on Encounter. It is am amazing program that seeks to grow the Jewish community’s capacity to contribute to a durable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which all parties live with respect, recognition, and rights. One theme that emerged from the myriad of lessons that I learned this week is the need to divide the seemlingly intractable political and security issues of the conflict from the cultural and human elements. Had the conflict preempted my ability or interest to see Palestinians as a people with a unique a rich culture? Did this two dimensional image of Palestinians bar my ability to see them as anything other then enemies?

While there is no clear blue print for building a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the one thing that is clear is that the Deal of the Century is not the answer. Nothing unilateral will work. Before we get to solutions that will cost a lot of money or bloodshed we need to do something that costs us nothing. We need to pay each other respect. Nothing will work if it does not allow for all of the different voices in the conflict to be heard and respected.

Encounter was filled with experiences of Palestinian education, arts, and culture which transformed me. I am not saying that this shift will erase the conflict, but I know that erasing Palestinian culture does nothing good for anyone. When we are open to what our neighbors contribute to our larger society, we start to see each others as people and it has the potential to sactify the world. In contributing to the larger society we see our national worth. In appreciating each other’s contributions we learn to respect for each other as nations. We do not need to get lost in who gave more or less, we just need to see, enjoy, and respect the gifts of the heart. When we give and receive these gifts of culture we can make room for each other and even God in our lives.

The Failure of Democracy

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays.  Amidst this litany of commandments we read:

You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute -after the majority must one incline —nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute. (Exodus 23:2-3)

Simply put it is suggesting that justice cannot be political. The adjudication of what it right or wrong cannot be defined by what is popular. The law to follow the majority is the birthplace of democracy.

This principle comes into play in the story of Tanor Shel Aknai. The story starts with a debate over the halakhic status of a new type of oven but ends with a crazy disagreement of the nature of law and authority. Rabbi Eliezer standing by himself uses miracles and even a Bat Kol to prove his side of the debate. The Rabbis hold their ground saying that God does not have authority over the Torah after giving it to humanity and the law must follow the majority. Check out this video from Godcast z”l on the story:

There in the Gemara we learn:

Said Rabbi Yeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Bat Kol, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, “After the majority must one incline”.( Exodus 23:2) (Baba Meitzia 59b)

This means that we need to follow the majority and overlook the divine will expressed in miracles. The power and authority sits with those who debate within the walls of the yeshiva. We literally silence the divine voice to make room for the voice of the human majority.

This reminds me of a story that my brother Daniel shared with me. He was an avid rower in college and even coached. A while back he sent me the following joke:

Yeshiva University decided to field a rowing team. Unfortunately, they lose race after race. Even though they practice and practice for hours every day, they never manage to come in any better than dead last.

Finally, the team decides to send Morris Fishbein, its captain, to spy on Harvard, the perennial championship team. So Morris schlepps off to Cambridge, Mass. , and hides in the bushes next to the Charles River, where he carefully watches the Harvard team at its daily practice.

After a week, Morris returns to Yeshiva. “Well, I figured out their secret,” he announces.
“What? Tell us! Tell us!” his teammates shout.
“We should have only one guy yelling. The other eight should row.” 

Who is rowing and who is leading? Too often we think we are leading by screaming and not just rowing. Successful rowing is by definition not a democracy.

These stories have a strange relevance to this moment in our politics. For right now we see the Democratic candidates all screaming at each other and no one is driving the boat toward the finish line. We are at a scary moment in our democracy where an impeached president is going unchecked. This is leading him to continue to behave as if his voice is divinely ordained, he necessarily in the right, and should win every debate. With Russian meddling in the news again many fear that they will pervert the voting process again. People do not trust that their vote represents their voice. How might we go “after the majority” if we do not trust our capacity to hear their voice? This is the failure of democracy.

As Churchill wisely said:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.… (House of Commons, 11 November 1947)

Let’s just try to scream a little less.

– For more on this story of the Tanor Shel Aknai- check out this source sheet


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