Embodied Jewish Practice

At the start of Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

If you walk in My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. ( Leviticus 26:3-4)

It seems clear enough that the Torah instructing us to keep the rules. What is the difference between a חוק and a מצוה? What is the differences between walking and observing them? What are the differences between laws and commandments?

Sforno explains this:

laws- chukkot are like Royal decrees, something person has to be guided by if he expects his endeavors in life to prosper. The Hebrew expression describing the fact that one abides by them is called הליכה, “walking.”…The thrust of our verse then is as follows: “if you will conduct yourselves in accordance with the practical part of My Torah, i.e. the performance of commandments requiring deeds, and you will study these laws in order to understand their purpose and in order to give meaning to your performance of these laws, you will accomplish that you will deserve the description of being a creature which reflects “God’s image.” ( Sforno on Levitius 26:3)

Traditionally the difference between a חוק and a מצוה is that a חק is irrational, while the מצוה is rational.  חק can also mean something else. It could also come from the word חקק, which means to engrave, to be embedded.  (v. ויקרא רבה לה:ה) 

The חקים are those things, those aspects of the tradition that are embedded within us.  They are the things that we do because those who came before us did them – they are the lessons and the morals and the customs that are passed down from generation to generation, and create an imperative. In our walking in these aspects of religious life we forge ahead with them engraved within us. This represents an embodied notion of Jewish life.

As we prepare for Shavuot, this resonates with our experience of Sinai. Na’aseh V’Nishmah, in the doing we will come to understand. So maybe a מצוה is the rational, but the חוק is the embodied. In keeping these laws we walk the walk of הלכה- embodied Jewish practice.

Beyond Mountains: Behar and Paul Farmer

This week’s Torah portion, Behar , starts:

God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Or in other words, why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  I think there is yet another even simpler question that can be asked. What is the significance of talking about Shmitah on a mountain?

This question reminds me of a classic story of the mythic town of Chelm. There we read:

Once upon a time, in the little village of Chelm, the people decided that they needed a new cemetery.  The population of the city had expanded, people had begun to build larger homes, and the need to find a new location for the townspeople’s eternal resting place.  They looked, and looked, and could not find a suitable location.  They called a meeting of the wise people of the town and for seven days, debated the issue.

At the end of the seven days, the people reached a conclusion: they would move them out and that was on the southern side of the city and utilize the space created by moving the mountain as the new cemetery. This of course, raised a new question for the people: how does one move a mountain?  They debated the issue for another seven days.  Finally, the wise man of Chelm came up with an idea. “we will all rise, all men of the town as one – united in spirit and body – and together we will move the mountain.” The townspeople quickly accepted this “wise” advice. Quickly, all able bodied men – young and old, rushed to the mountain on the southern side of the city.

A crowd quickly gathered and surrounded the mountain.  The men pushed and shoved and leaned and tried as hard as they could, but they could not move the mountain. 10 minutes went by, allowing the participants to catch their breath before they strenuously tried again.  Again, they pushed and strained and shoved but could not move the mountain.  At this point, the menfolk of Chelm were drenched in sweat and beginning to get uncomfortable.  The men removed their shirts, depositing them on the side, in preparation for their next try. As all the men struggled, a group of petty thieves watched the men in earnest.  They quickly came with small carts and as the men of Chelm  strained to move the mountain, the thieves stole all the shirts and quickly disappeared from the town.

After an hour of straining, one of the wise men discovered that his shirt was missing.  Soon, all the men discovered that their shirts were missing.  They began to wonder what was going on.  The wise man of Chelm surmised the answer. “We must have been successful” he told them. “We must have moved the mountain so far that we cannot even see the place where we left our shirts.” Upon hearing the explanation, the people began to applaud, cheer and even break out into dance over their success.

( As retold by Rabbi Shabsi HaKohein Yudelovitch)

They were foolish to think that losing their jackets were a sign of their success, but they were not foolish in looking for a metric for success.  Where in Chelm they were looking for room for their cemetery in Behar through the institution of shmittah we are looking to create room for the underprivileged and economically marginalized parts of our society. But still I ask, why is this message delivered at a mountain?

When I think about the unending issue of addressing the needs of the poor I think about Dr Paul Farmer z’l. Farmer, who tragically passed away this year, heroicly worked to bring health care to rural Haiti. In is the award-winning book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Tracy Kidder he described Farmer as “the man who would cure the world”. There he writes:

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.

Mountains Beyond Mountains)

The book’s title comes from a Haitian proverb, which is usually translated as: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” According to Farmer, a better translation is: “Beyond mountains there are mountains.” The phrase expresses something fundamental about the spirit and the scale and the difficulty of Farmer’s work. The Haitian proverb, by the way, is also a pretty accurate description of the topography of a lot of Haiti.

To return to Rashi’s  question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” What we learn from Farmer in terms of health care is the same as in terms of access to food and other issues of poverty, beyond this mountain there are more mountains. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, ” It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” ( Avot 2:16) Shmitah is an approach to dealing with poverty. The revelation of need in society is an opportunity to enact Torah in this world and therefore its own revelation like that at Mount Sinai. This is similar to Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levi when he said “ Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horev (Sinai)” ( Avot 6:2) This is to say that beyond this mountain ( Sinai) there are more mountains. May Dr. Paul Farmer’s memory be for a blessing.

Mysterious Letter: Abram Orlow’s Yahrzeit

Tomorrow is the 72th Yahrzeit of Abram Orlow z’l. He is important to me, but alas I know very little about him. My paternal grandfather passed away when my father was younger than Yishama. It always seemed a little mysterious to be the namesake for something with whom I have no connection.

This is what I do know. He was born May 3, 1900 and died April 30, 1950. He was born in Poltava, Ukraine, a region of the world that has been top of mind. I had the fortune of visiting there during my stay in the FSU. His family emigrated from northern Ukraine to Philadelphia when he was young. His first language was Yiddish, but he seemed to do fine in English. He went to University of Pennsylvania where he later was a political science professor. The story goes that he was the first Jewish professor at Wharton.

Image result for abram orlow

Abram and my grandmother Lena had two sons. My father James Joseph and his younger brother David. Abram, Lena, and my father were all immigration lawyers. In fact in 1948 Abram was the Second President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Interestingly Lena went on to be the president of AILA in 1954 and twenty years later my father was president of that organization the year I, Avram Orlow, was born. 

A few month ago I got a mysterious Facebook message from on Laurence Tauber. He was reaching out after having gone through their father’s papers. There he found an amazing letter from Abram. When he looked him up online he found about about Abram Laurence found a post that I published in 2018. I republished a poem that Abram wrote  January 11, 2018. Here is the letter:

Rabbi Kirschenzweig was a survivor of Buchenwald. Abram was working to get him sanctuary here in this country.  

There are still many mysteries here. But now I know a little bit more. Abram Orlow was a mensch. May your memory be for a blessing. Thank you Laurence Tauber.

Yom HaAtzma’ut: Sharing the Cookies

What is your oldest memory? One of mine is from when I was in Kindergarten. I remember going in the required blue pants and white shirt. I also have a vague memory of some construction paper thing on my head. My local Jewish Day school went to a nearby Jewish old age home to sing for them.  After we finished singing two older women with thick German accents  singled me out of the crowd and pulled me aside. They told me how they were friends with my Oma, herself a German immigrant. And just like that they handed me two big bags of home-made cookies. While so many details have washed away over the years I can recall it as just yesterday the joy of sharing those cookies with my classmates on the bus.

These two women were strangers in a strange land, but they made me feel special and at home by connecting with me. Since that day I feel a responsibility to share the experience of belonging with my fellow Jews. When I reflect back on my personal and professional life since that time I realize that this experience really defines me . The work that I have been striving to do in the Jewish communities in Belarus, Washington University in St. Louis, and camps across North America for over 25 years has been about doing for others as these landsmen of my Oma did for me so many years ago, help me feel that I belonged.

As few years ago my mother handed me this picture:

I was blown away. There I am on the right with my blue overalls, white turtleneck,  and construction paper thing on my head celebrating Israel at 30. It turns out that my earlies memory is of Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. All of these years later I recognize the significance of having the State of Israel. With a rebirth of our national homeland we would never really be alone again. Instead of a life of paranoia, fearing what might be coming for us or having to live as strangers in a strange lands, Israel would always be there to have our backs.

I wanted to share this story and this image today on Yom HaAtzma’ut. We should take a moment to appreciate that Israel was founded to help our people experience pronoia, the sense that people are conspiring to help them. To be a Jew is never really about independence, but rather it is about interdepedence. We should all take joy in sharing the cookies. Have a memorable Yom HaAtzma’ut.

Dealing with Damocles

I few days before Passover I got a call from Yadid in the middle of the day. I was in the middle of a meeting, but it felt ominous so I picked it up. He was in a car accident. He hydroplaned on the Cross Country driving home from his last final. I had a pit in my stomach at the thought of his being hurt and I felt like I might vomit. He was worried to tell me because he totaled the car. I was thrilled to hear that he walked away from it unharmed and no one else was hurt. As they say, any issue that you can fix with money is not really broken. But the feeling in the my stomach lingered.

Clearly the Taanit Bechorot, the Fast of the Firstborn, and the 10th plague at the Seder sat differently for Yadid and us this year. And as nice and sumptuous as the Sederim were I have to admit that his near death experience put a pall on the holiday.

I was reminded of the story of  the sword of Damocles. According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat on the king’s throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Though having much fortune, Dionysius wanted to make sure that he would be steadfast and vigilant against dangers that might try to overtake him. With risk looming overhead the food lost its taste. Damocles begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

Don’t get me wrong, my brother’s corn beef was delicious, but I was much more aware of the fragility of life. Yadid’s experience put me in touch with the miracle of being alive. And even if we think we are free, life might be held together by a horse’s hair.

With the close of Passover I thought I could get past it, but then we had Yom HaShoah yesterday. If I felt so horrible about possibly losing my son, how does one begin to articulate the loss of 6 millions sons and daughters?

I was thinking about these things when reading the start of Achrai Mot, this week’s Torah portion. Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. (Leviticus 16:1-2)

What does life look like after death? After the death of his sons Aaron is instructed how he should show up for work. After something cataclysmic, how or can things go back to normal?

“After death” we should not opt for a return to normal, rather we should choose to live a life with meaning. I know that this is the harder choice. There is so much desire to go back to normal. To go back to the way things were before we saw the sword dangling overhead. One of Finland’s most popular writers V.A. Koskeniemi wrote:

Man <sic> is not free in life unless he is free from the fear of death too. We can certainly not be rid of it by not thinking of death, but on the contrary only by becoming accustomed to it, by learning to be at home in it. Thus we snatch from it its greatest advantage over us, its strangeness. In preparing ourselves for death, we prepare ourselves for freedom, and only he who has learned to die is free from life’s slavery…

There is no turning back. There is only the freedom to cherish every moment we have, the people in our lives, the work we get to do, and the meaning we get to make.

-related piece The Sword of Damocles: Rosh HaShana and Parenting Today

Needing as a Blessing: Connecting,Covid-19, and Metzorah

In the beginning of Genesis, we read of the curses that God meted out to Adam, Eve, and the snake upon their violating the prohibition against eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam needs to work the land to get food. Eve will have pain in childbirth. The snake received the different punishment. There we read, “and the dust of the earth you shall eat all the days of your life.”( Genesis 3:14 ) The Hassidic master Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa asked why this punishment at all. Now the snake, by virtue of this curse, would be able to subside on dirt. This being the case, the snake would never have to work to obtain sustenance, as dirt is everywhere! This seems like more of a reward than a punishment.

Juxtaposed the snake, when a person is having difficulty sustaining themselves and will turn to God for help. While people have to endure hardship in order to achieve certain goals, they can turn to God to ask for assistance. Rav Simcha Bunim argues that God wants us to ask for help when we need it. The process of asking for help itself helps us to develop a bond between us and God. One should feel that he or she is asking a friend, someone who is close, caring, and willing to help. God wants a close bond to exist between us. In this way prayer is a way of creating and strengthening this bond.

Ironically, the snake is fortunate in that it has all of his needs provided for. It has nothing to ask of God and nothing for which to request God’s assistance. The curse for the snake is no reason to develop a relationship with God.

Woman finds giant snake - YouTube

I was thinking about this when reading Metzorah, this week’s Torah reading. Here we learn about a ton of maladies. Fear of COVID-19 has sparked a vigilance for various symptoms. Before this we have never been so attuned to all of the ailments, impurities, fevers and rashes in our lives. Spending so much time stuck at home has made us much more aware of what is and not coming into the house. Strangely Metzorah is more relevant then ever. There we read:

When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Leviticus 14:35)

There is an interesting way in which we need to go to a priest to explore how to make meaning of the plague. There is an assumption that there must be meaning behind the plague and we cannot claim to  know what it is. Therefore we say that there is “something like a plague has shown itself to me”, without certainty (see Rashi there). We must seek connection with another person to make meaning out of this event.

We see that this plague mandates that people reach out to make a connection with a priest. In the spirit of the Rav Simcha Bunim’s lesson on the curse of the snake being its disconnection from God, the blessing of Metzorah is the connection to people. Needing is a good thing. It is the foundation for growth and connection.

Covid-19 and all of its variants has been horrible. We recently passed 6 million deaths due to this disease. But in light of this Torah portion, we see that another curse of Covid-19 is the compliancy and comfort we have developed for social isolation. Like Rav Simcha Bunim, Brené Brown, my Vulnerability Rebbe, writes:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

The question for us as we emerge from Covid-19 is if we will allow ourselves to express need, be vulnerable, and reach out to make human connections. That will surely be a blessing.

GOMO: Being Grateful for Missing Out

When I was younger I would always be overrun with FOMO, but living through Covid I see the wisdom of JOMO, the joy of missing out. Just because others are having an experience, it does not mean we should want that experience. We should bask in being present where ever we are.

You might think that the most obvious case of JOMO, is Pesach, or more accurately Passover. The english name of this holiday is taken from the plague of the death of the first born. There we read:

And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.

Exodus 12:13

The nadir of the plagues for the Egyptians was the miracle of the death of the first born. The Jews put blood on the lintels to their doors and the Angel of death passed over their homes sparing their first born children.

But maybe that is a little bit of an oversell. Is the experince of Passover joy? We do say hallel, which is a good metric. But it does seem wierd that we would take joy in missing out on the death of our first born, maybe we should just be expressing gratitude. So in that case Passover is a holiday in which we celebrate GOMO, being grateful for missing out. I can deeply relate to this sense of gratitude. This makes the Charlton Heston line sound even better, “Let my People GOMO!”

Glasnost: A Word for Passover

As it was reported in the Guardian and Foreign Policy, on March 28, Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s oldest independent newspapers, announced it was suspending operations until the conclusion of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Since the start of the war, the Russian government has blocked or shut down all remaining independent sources of information in Russia, including the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, the television channel TV Rain, and the bilingual news website Meduza. This scene of a winnowing free press in Russia is reminiscent of the Soviet control of the media.

While there is nothing as bad as the horrors of war, this is scary. Without a free press, there is little hope for the future. Without any public accountability, how will Russians know the truth? They might not even know that they need to push their government to end this war.

Gorbachev’s Glasnost policy ushered in a new era of cooperation between media and government in the early 1990s. This policy opened the door to muckraking in the name of reform—after all, if problems cannot be named and openly discussed, how can they be solved? The last years before the Soviet collapse saw the rise of a new media that sought to critique, investigate, and, above all, tell the truth. Sadly with Putin and his way on Ukraine this has come to a stop.

What does the word glasnost means? In the Russian language, the word гласность means “openness and transparency”. It come from the word глас – the voice, or гла́сный -public, open” and‎ -ость -ness. This was a policy of opening up the voice of the Soviet Union.

This idea of glasnost finds a parallel to a playful Ukrainian Torah of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev . He 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.  Before we can become free we need to speak our truth.

This year as we prepare for Passover we need to speak the truth about the terror being perpetuated against Ukrainians. We cannot have a pehsach without glasnost. Liberation means having a voice. We need a free press.

Sheryl Grossman z”l: Opening the Doors

This past Sunday Sheryl Grossman z”l passed away. BD”E. Even though she was only 4-foot-3, in my eyes she was a giant. She was a force of nature advocating for people with disabilities in Jewish community and in the larger world. I was honored to meet and become friends with her in St Louis during my years as the Hillel Rabbi at WashU. Like so many other people who connected with Sheryl, I have many cherished memories of our debates. Something I have been carrying with me all of these years is Sheryl’s story how the Jewish camp that she went to stopped accommodating her needs. Despite or because of everything and everyone pushing her aside, Sheryl was a model of faith and action. She belonged in the community and represented us so well to the larger world. Her belief opened the community for others. She made us better. In her absence we all have more work to do.

In pondering her memory I am reminded about the story of the deposition of Rabban Gamaliel. After he was kicked out they removed the guard. There we learn:

A Tanna taught: On that day the doorkeeper was removed and permission was given to the students to enter. For Rabban Gamaliel had issued a proclamation [saying] “No student whose inside is not as his outside may enter the Bet ha-Midrash”. On that day many benches were added. Rabbi Yohanan said: There is a difference of opinion on this matter between Abba Yosef ben Dosetai and the Rabbis. One says that four hundred benches were added, and the other says seven hundred. Rabban Gamaliel became depressed and said: Perhaps, God forbid, I withheld Torah from Israel!  

Berakhot 28a

One could have a whole conversation how the guard during Rabban Gamaliel’s time might be able to discern which potential student’s inside were not as his outside, but I will leave that for another time. For now I want to understand Rabban Gamaliel’s sentiment at the end. Why was he depressed? What did it mean that he withheld Torah from Israel?

The simple meaning would be that Rabban Gamaliel saw with the removal of the doorkeeper there were more people in the Bet Midrash. There might have been a disagreement as for the number of benches needed, but Rabban Gamaliel was saddened to see the number of people who could have been learning from him. But alas, they did no come in due to the barrier he set up. He was depressed that more people did not learn from him when he was in charge. Another way to read this is not about quantity, but rather of quality. The guard’s job was to judge people on their outsides. When they removed that barrier more people had access to Torah. This fundamentally changed the nature of the Torah that was being learned in the Bet Midrash. A Torah that does not speak with and for the full diversity of learners is itself an incomplete Torah. Rabban Gamaliel became depressed because this accessible and universally relevant Torah was withheld from Israel!  

Sheryl Grossman z”l was a inspired and inspiring person of faith and action. She spent her life removing the doorkeepers, bringing in more benches, building ramps and elevators, bringing sign language interpreters, making sure the text was available in large font, etc. She worked tirelessly to make sure that the richness of an assessible Torah would not be withheld from Israel and the world!

May her memory be for a blessing and inspire us all to realized her vision. If you would be interested in learning Mishna in her memory please join in here.

– Links to related post on JDAIM,

Like a Reed: We Need Agility for Creativity

It is hard to be be creative when your world is falling a part. But in so many ways this is the story of Passover. In many ways when we think about creative breakthroughs we focus on the paradigm shifting moments like the splitting of the Red Sea, but for me I find a lot more inspiration from a different, more subtle, image by the water. I am very moved by the image of Miriam standing in the bulrushes. There we read:

When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?”

Exodus 2: 3-7

It is noteworthy that it is Miriam, Moshe’s sister, and not Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, who is waiting in the bulrushes. Miriam has an idea as to what might happen. She put that idea into the world. When she saw Batya come forward she jumped in and improvised and got her mother in to care for her brother.

People often talk about necessity being the mother of invention, but I believe it is the ability to take a risk and be creative that is actually the sister of invention. Miriam had an idea and then she shifted on the fly to meet the changing needs. If she were too committed to her plan it would have broken like a cedar. Indeed Miriam is not just standing among the reeds, but as a reed.

To be creative we do not need to split the Red Sea, we just need to put ideas out there with confidence without knowing how our offering will be received. We need to let go of our rigidity. If we are too close to ideas we will not be agile enough to allow the idea to morph and flex. To be creative we need to be flexible like a reed. As we learn in the Talmud, “A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar.” (Ta’anit 20a-b)


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