Non Sequitur : Behar and a Memory of My Father

In this year since my father James Joseph Orlow z”l passed away I have tried to take some extra time to ponder his impact ( both big and small) on me and the world.  I have found myself often quoting his maxims. One of his go-to-phrases was ” Do you walk to work or do you like the color blue?” He really loved a good non sequitur. Much humor can be found in the juxtaposition of two things that do not go together.

I was thinking about this when reading  Behar, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

God spoke to Moses 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, mentioning this Mitzvah at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai seems like a non sequitur.  While I have explored different answers to this question in the past, for today I am happy leaving it as a question and thinking about my father and the color blue.

Check out some answers to this question:

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Memory Moorings 

As told in a Chassidic story by Rabbi Yechezkel Panet ( 1783-1845), a king was traveling through the desert, and his son, the crown prince, thirsted for water. But instead of dispatching a horseman to fetch water from the nearest town, the king ordered a well to be dug at that very spot and to mark it with a signpost.

“At the present time,” explained the king to his son, “we have the means to obtain water far more quickly and easily. But perhaps one day, many years in the future, you will again be traveling this way. Perhaps you will be alone, without the power and privilege you now enjoy. Then the well we dug today will be here to quench your thirst. Even if the sands of time have filled it, you will be able to reopen it if you remember the spot and follow the signpost we have set.”(Mar’eh Yechezkel)

This is brought as an explanation for Emor, this week’s Torah portion, where we read, “ These are the appointed times of God, mikra’ei kodesh– callings of holiness, which you shall call in their appointed time.” (Leviticus 23:2) What does it mean that we have these “appointed times”?

In a sense each of the festivals are landmarks in time at which we are empowered to call forth the particular holiness or spiritual quality embedded within it. Passover is the mooring for freedom; Shavuot is the landmark for our getting the Torah; Rosh Hashanah is for God became king of the universe; Yom Kippur is for the gift of teshuvah; and so on. The human experience is hard to navigate. These “appointed times” are set up to help us find our way. 

The special mitzvot of each festival are the ways with which we “call forth the holiness” of the day: eating matzah on Passover anchors our freedom, sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah connects us to awe, and so on with all “the appointed times of God.”

Similar to being lost in the desert is being lost at sea. Amidst the turbulent sea of our lives, like the Kong’s well these rituals are mooring for memories allowing us to deeply connect and get our bearings even when we are far from shore. 

Love Your Brother: Interdependence on Independence Day

This is a very busy time of year. Last week we had Yom HaShoah and today we commemorated Yom HaZikaron and tonight we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut. To end off this cycle of anguish and exhilaration, this Shabbat we read Kedoshim. There we read:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your brother. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)

While the Golden Rule is supposed to be a guideline for all of society, amidst this week we cannot help but understand it in the unique national context of brethren. This week I saw a tear-jerking video on the tension between brothers that you should watch:

This gets to the foundation of our being brethren, but did we need to learn it from Adolf Hitler? And what will our understanding of who we are as a nation be when there are no more survivors in our midst to remind us?

If we did not learn this lesson from our Torah portion, we could also have learned it from any number of other places  in our tradition. I just found an interesting take on this Golden Rules by the Kav HaYashar,  Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover  a 18th Century teacher of Mussar. He wrote:

It is written, “And you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The Sages have remarked that this verse is a fundamental principle of the Torah (Toras Kohanim, Parashas Kedoshim 4). And there is no greater display of love than the mandatory rebuking of one’s Jewish brother if he sees in him some unseemly matter, that is, a sin or transgression. For the souls of all Israel are intimately connected to one another. (Kav HaYashar 5:1)

How can we be in a deep relationship with people who act differently without being so “judge-itive”? The nature of caring about people is caring about how they act. In a profound way our actions reflect on each other. This intimate connection should also be measured by how much we respect each other’s choices. This is the challenge for every family, nation, and our world today. This starts with how we model the bounds of respect with our siblings and children. We should be blessed to not need Hitler for this.

Yom HaAtzmaut is Israel’s Independence Day and a day for us  to celebrate our interdependence as a Jewish People. Chag Sameakh

Sweet Sweet Candy: A Thought for Yom HaShoah

Recently I was talking with my dear friend Rabbi Seth Braunstein about our synagogue’s Women’s Prayer group. They were having an issue in that the children were demanding to have a Candy Lady there, just as we have Chaim,our beloved Candy Man, in the regular service. The question was if the new Candy Lady should get the candy from Chaim Ezra. Why would Chaim Ezra pay for their candy?

Image result for dum dum lollipops

In thinking about this question I reflected back to a blog I posted back in 2011. There I wrote:

Our 7-year-old son, Yadid, recently went to the dentist who informed us that he has three cavities. My first response to the news was to cut the volume of candy in his diet. But how can I deprive him the experience of getting that lollipop from the “candy man” in our synagogue on Shabbat? The “candy man” is Chaim Ezra.  He is a saintly elderly man who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the forest.

My wife and I have chosen to not tell our children about the Holocaust until they are older. Too often our community has chosen to teach the Holocaust as an expedient educational route.  It takes a lot less time to teach someone how Jews died then how to live Jewishly.  My wife and I choose not to teach the latter partly because we don’t see the added value of educating our young children about anti-Semitism.  Why would I want my children to know anything accept for the sweetness of Jewish life?

For someone like Chaim Ezra who has tasted the bitterness of true hatred in his life, I cannot imagine denying him the joy of bringing joy to the next generation. We live in a time of tremendous freedom. While the Holocaust will always be in our memory, as the years pass there will fewer and fewer survivors. I often worry that our youngest, Emunah, might not have memories of knowing a survivor.

In commemoration of Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Remembrance day, I encourage everyone to introduce their children to a survivor and find a new way to make Jewish life sweet. And it can never hurt to brush. ( Saidtomyself.com April 29, 2011)

Eight years later we all feel blessed to have Chaim Ezra in our lives. It seems like just yesterday, but that 7 year old is now 15. And instead of my insecurity about Emunah having a relationship with him, Libi has taken her place as our youngest. I do get special joy of bringing her to synagogue to get a lollipop from the Candy Man. And as I reflect on today being Yom HaShoah, I look back at this post and ask myself, “How naïve was I?” From Pittsburgh to Poway and from Christchurch to Sri Lanka, we are regularly discussing Antisemitism and other acts of terrorism that have become the new normal. As sad as I am for our society and my children to witness the reemergence of this hatred and heightened levels of terrorism in our world, I have a different level of sadness for Chaim Ezra. While no one should experience such hatred in their lives, knowing what Chaim Ezra has gone through it is excruciating that he has to do it again. Were all of those times we said, “Never Again”, just platitudes?

We commemorate Yom HaShoah on the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We choose to create memory around our fighting back. At this moment I feel particularly moved by the words of Rabbi Yisroel  Goldstein the Rabbi of Chabad of Poway. He said, “I guarantee you, we will not be intimidated or deterred by terror. Terror will not win.” We need to dig in deep and do the real work of making sure that hate and terror never beat out our love and devotion. While we need to teach about the Holocaust and Antisemitism, we cannot allow terror to fool us into taking the expedient educational route.  In his eulogy for Lori Gilbert-Kaye Rabbi Goldstein quoted the Rebbe and said, “Victims live in the past, but survivors live in the future.”  While we need to reinvest in safety and security in our community, we cannot cower in fear or let that investment replace investing in the joy of living Jewishly.

With that I return to the question that Rav Seth shared with me. Why would this Holocaust survivor want to pay for all of the candy? As it turns out, Chaim Ezra pays for the candy with money he gets from German reparations.

A month and a half ago on Purim we read about our salvation from another genocide in the Persian Empire. There we we read on Purim: 
As the days when the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month that was reversed for them Mi’Yagon l’Simcha – from grief to joy and from mourning to a festive day-to make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:22)
There is a special profound feeling that comes from a reversal of sadness into happiness. Chaim Ezra and all of our survivors deserve this kind of sweetness in their lives. We all have a lot of work to do to ensure that we can reverse all of the grief of this last year into joy. We need this for ourselves and our children. And I still think it could not hurt to brush.

Let My People… Wait, What?

Of all of the thousands of things Moshe says in the Torah, his most line famous by far is, “Let my people go.” But when we look at the actual text of Exodus and read what Moshe says to Pharaoh, it surprising and complex:
Afterward Moshe and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel:

‘Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness’… The God of the Hebrews has manifested Himself to us. Let us go, we pray, a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God…” (Exodus 5:1-3 )

Three days?! Why would Moshe ask for a three day holiday instead of liberation from slavery? Besides being an easier pill for Pharaoh to swallow, what could he have been thinking?

Have you ever tried something new, only to discover that you didn’t realize the full potential of what you were missing? Though I doubt the Israelites were enjoying their lives as slaves, it’s the only life they had ever known. No one but Moshe knew anything about a life of freedom. Before the Israelites had their first taste of actual freedom, Moshe understood the importance of helping them imagine what their new life would be like. Experiencing the juxtaposition of slavery and freedom would make it perfectly clear – their new life would be a utopia.

Anyone who has ever spent time at Jewish camp knows this to be true. Camp is truly a utopia – a place of ideal perfection. Camp is where many of us experience freedom on our own for the first time. After each summer, we return back to reality and wonder what life would be if we could spend every day of the year at camp with our friends laughing, singing, and dancing. But in reality, camp would not feel like the utopia it is if it were not for the ten other regular months of the year.

Jewish camp gave me that first taste of the way my life could be. This Passover, when I ask myself how am I doing at being the Moshe in my life, I think of how I can grant the gifts of camp – of freedom and discovery. This Passover, let’s all be grateful for the utopias we have in our lives.

-rereposted in FJC blog 

The Plague of Dark Money

One of the most memorable elements of the Seder is the recounting of the Ten Plagues. While all of them represent a level of pain or discomfort for the Egyptians, clearly the Death of the First Born seems categorically different. I cannot imagine the horror of the death of a child.  While slavery is horrible, the death of an innocent child seems not only harsh, but also unjust. We respond to the severity of this through the ritual observance of the Fast of the First Born the day before the first Seder commemorating when God passed over our homes untouched by death. This plague overshadows ( pun intended) the penultimate Plague of Darkness. While it is an annoyance, it does not seem like the rest of the Ten Plagues. There in Exodus we read:

Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moshe stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. (Exodus 10: 21-23)

Egypt was paralyzed by terrifying fear and enveloped in thick darkness. In retrospect we can imagine their horror awaiting the death of their first-born children, but that was not the case. If Pharaoh would have let the Israelites go after the 9th Plague there would not have been a 10th Plague. Rashi interpreted “darkness that can be touched” (Ex. 10:21) through following the midrash: “It was doubled and redoubled, and so thick that it was palpable.” This makes senses in that for darkness to be a plague like the rest it has to be tangible and impact the bodies of the Egyptians oppressors.

Thinking about the idea of darkness as tangible gets me thinking about Quantum mechanics. If it is possible that light can behave simultaneously as a particle and as a wave, is the same possible for the absence of light? What does it mean that the darkness was behaving as a thick, doubled, redoubled particle, or the absence of that? This is already way beyond my understanding of physics.

Rabbi Baruch Epstein, in his commentary Torah Temimah, offers us another way of understanding what was meant by this tangible darkness. There we read:

A darkness that can be touched—this indicates that those Egyptians who were standing could not sit down, and those who were sitting could not stand, because they were groping in the dark, as it is written: darkness that can be touched. The midrashim explain that the darkness was as thick as a dinar [a coin], and this is very strange, for what sense is there in giving a tangible dimension to darkness? This requires investigation also because, according to Rashi, throughout the duration of the plague there was only night and no day at all; therefore the order of the created world changed, but this is highly problematic insofar as the Holy One, blessed be God, promised Noah that “day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). (Mekhilta Be-Shalah 4)

While it is interesting to explore the subversion of the natural order of things, that is true for all of the Ten Plagues. They are all miracles meant to demonstrates God’s power over Pharaoh. This is not unique to the Plague of Darkness. It is also interesting to ponder the implications of God’s uprooting of God’s promise to Noah, but that I will have to address in a future post. For now I am more interested in this language of the darkness being “thick as a dinar.” Instead of understanding it as a plague of literal darkness, what might it mean that their vision was obscured by money?

When I look around the world I see so many interesting cases where people get blinded by money. In this context, the most obvious parallel to the Plague of Darkness comes from Dark Money in American politics. Dark Money first entered politics with Buckley v. Valeo (1976) when the United States Supreme Court laid out Eight Magic Words that defined the difference between electioneering and issue advocacy. This ruling lifted the requirement for nonprofit organizations (e.g. social welfare, unions, and trade association groups) to disclose their donors. Such organizations can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and unions. In this way, their donors can spend funds to influence elections, without voters knowing from where the money came. The New York Times editorial board has opined that the 2014 midterm elections were influenced by “the greatest wave of secret, special-interest money ever raised in a congressional election.”(Editorial, Dark Money Helped Win the SenateNew York Times. November 8, 2014). Dark Money’s influence in politics has only grown in the last 5 years. It is painful to see how people are convinced to vote against their self-interest. They are in the dark as to the very process of democracy. This is pernicious in that the electorate has no idea who is pulling the strings.

Money is not only a plague in politics, it is also an issue in philanthropy. For years there has been so much “groping in the dark” with the misbehavior of investors. The heavy demands to raise money for good causes has silenced victims of predatory behavior. The #metoo movement has done a great deal to shed some light here, but we are still not out of the dark.

So what was the Plague of Darkness for the Egyptians? They were slave masters who were blinded by their desire to keep the status quo of having slaves. The release of the Israelite slaves would have meant an upheaval of the Egyptian economy and way of life. As they were getting closer to inevitable emancipation, their blindness to the suffering of the Israelite slaves was itself the Plague of Darkness. As my dear friend Shalom Orzach pointed out, look at the end of the description: “no one could see anyone else”( Exodus 10:23). The cause was not darkness. The darkness was a result of their avarice that blinded them from seeing the mistreatment of others.

We learn a similar lesson from Proverbs. There we read:

Whoever loves money shall not be satisfied with money; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. (Proverbs 5:9)

Avarice is a basic human problem. The love of money makes people blind to the wealth they already have. This blindness to the abundance in our lives can easily spread to how we look at people, power, sex, philanthropy, and politics. If we really could see the infinite potential of every human being in front of us, we could move beyond a culture of scarcity. But if we do not see our responsibility to work for the inalienable rights and basic human dignity of everyone, we are still living amidst a Plague of Darkness.

Image result for candle in darkness

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it well when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We pause on Passover to reflect on how we might shine a light on the people, families, companies, organizations, communities, and nations we want to be. We should all be liberated from a plague of scarcity. Freedom is realizing that the blessing of love is free, it does not cost a thing.

Liberation from Lockdown

From Friday night Kiddush to the daily donning of Tfillin , we have rituals throughout the course of our a week and the entire year to remember our Exodus from Egypt.  The Seder goes a step beyond insisting that we remember the experience of slavery, the Hagaddah demands that “in each generation, each person is obligated lirot et atzmo, to see himself or herself, as though s/he  personally came forth from Egypt.” It is not enough simply to remember or even to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we must imagine ourselves in the story in order personally to experience the move from slavery to liberation.  It seems nearly impossible to fulfill this commandment. It is hard to imagine what slavery looked like thousands of years ago, so what are we to do?

It seem that the best thing we can do is to connect with a contemporary experience of slavery in order to empathize with those who are being oppressed, and from there we can imagine our working toward our collective liberation. It seems like a noble idea, but how might I do that in a way that includes anyone from 8 to 80 years old at my Seder?

For me the gold standard for this is something my brother’s friend Jonny Garlick did at Seder a couple of years ago. Jonny is a Professor of Oral Pathology at Tufts, absolutely fascinating, and an amazing educator.  Jonny brought to our table two beakers of water. One was clear and filled with purified water. In the other he had yellow sticky water that was his students best approximation of the contaminated water coming out of the pipes in Flint Michigan.  With those two simple props he enjoined many generations to discuss the water crisis in Flint encrusted in the ritual of the day.

So as Shabbat HaGadol arrives I pause to think what will try to bring to life through ritual this year. I was thinking about this Jonny Garlick challenge when I got to thinking about the debate that my brother and I have every year regarding Sh’foch HaMatcha, opening the door for Elijah. We disagree if we should keep saying this at our Seder.  That debate always concludes that we should keep the ritual so we can have the debate the following year. For this and other reasons I am not interested in changing that, but I got to thinking about the moment right after this ritual when we close the door.

This year is our first Passover after the Tree of Life Shooting where a White Supremacist went in and killed 11 Jews in a Synagogue in Pittsburgh. All of us, including our children, have had to become familiar with emergency lockdown protocols. The Parkland Shooting is still pretty fresh on our minds. Sadly we all need to know what to do in the case of an active shooter. In the case of a partial lockdown the doors leading outside are locked such that no person may enter or exit. In the case of a  full lockdown people must stay where they are and may not enter or exit a building or rooms within said building. If people are in a hallway, they should go to the nearest safe, enclosed room. When we lock the door after we open it for Elijah I want to let that moment linger for a minute.  After this I want to invite everyone to share their experience and how this makes us feel.

 

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Are we slaves to guns in this country? I appreciate that for a small group of people in this country understand that their freedom means an absence of subjection to despotic government, which is directly connected to their inalienable right to have guns. For a vast majority of us freedom means the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. We cannot allow the freedom of this fringe group, based on a the misreading of the Second Amendment, to impinge on the freedom of the majority of us. One person’s right to have a gun cannot outweigh the demand for public safety. None of us should be slaves in lockdown. What would it take to liberate us the from the grips of the NRA?

-Check out Full of It: Rethinking the Second Amendment

-Check out The Beaker of Privilege: A New Seder Ritual


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