Good Life: Death and Chukkat

In Chukkat, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the bizarre rite of the para adumma– red heifer.  It was a cow brought to the priests as a sacrifice, and its ashes were used for the ritual purification of Ṭum’at HaMet (“the impurity of the dead”), that is, an Israelite who had come into contact with a corpse. It does seems strange that some how the ash of one dead animal would deal with their fear of having come into contact with a dead body. The notion of a para adumma seems out of step with our lives. How do we make sense of this in the 21st Century?

I was thinking about this question when reading Atul Gawande’s  Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. In his bestselling book, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Here he examines its ultimate limitations and failures – in his own practices as well as others’ – as life draws to a close. And he discovers how we can do better. He follows a hospice nurse on her rounds, a geriatrician in his clinic, and reformers turning nursing homes upside down. There he writes:

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

In today’s day we have removed death from our lives. Even doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients’ anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them. And we the families go along with all of it.

So while it is crazy to imagine how the para adumma removed the impurity of death from the Israelites lives, it seems even crazier that we have feebly tried to removed death itself from our modern lives. We might not find ourselves going to the Priest for a consult, but we should find people who show us how to have the hard conversations about death before it is too late. Gawande writes:

Our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end.

 

Black Lives Matter: Korach in Words And Actions

The most recent rash of police violence against black men in this country has touched off a wave of violence against police. There is no excuse for violence in any case, but I have to say that I am particularly outraged by the police. Dealing with difficult situations is their job. I am not saying that it is an easy job, but that is what they signed up for when joining the police force and taking an oath to serve and protect. Mind you, if it was not for cell phones we would not even know about these situations. It is only recently that every citizen has a device to keep an eye on the police who were supposed to be keeping an eye on us. Its makes you think about how deep the history of violence has been beyond the people killed by police this year.

And for us as a society not admitting that there are profound and deep issues around race in this country makes fixing these problems intractable. Confronting or avoiding the history of racism in this country seems to be played out in the tired volley between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”. You do not need to be against police to want to see them do their jobs and ensure that black men are not targeted.

I was reminded of these dueling slogans when reading Korach, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Now Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up in face of Moshe, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown; and they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aaron, and said unto them: ‘You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’ ( Numbers 16:1-3)

What does it mean when Korach says,”all the congregation are holy”? On this Rashi quotes Midrash Tanchuma to say that, “All of them heard [the] words [of the commandments] at Sinai from the mouth of the Almighty.” On the surface Korach is arguing that everyone should share power because they are all equal. While his words are noble, his actions are not. In reality he shows up with his posse to demand power for himself.

Like Korach, when people say “All Lives Matter” their language of equality is but a thin vale. While Korach was trying to get power for himself, people who say “All Lives Matter” are trying to preserve a racist status quo and keep power for themselves. If that was not the case the “All Lives Matter Movement” would be leading the protests against the police. Were not Alton Sterling and Philando Castile also people? Did their lives not matter?

So lets just say “Black Lives Matter”. It does not mean that their lives are the only things that matter, but it gives voice to the fact that we need to change our racist system. I do believe that words matter too, but in the end we will be judged on our actions. I am afraid that if we do not deal with these issues the violence will swallow us whole.

In Our Own Sight : A New Vision of Jewish Camp

As parents, we want to see our kids succeed in all facets of life – whether that is getting into a certain college, establishing themselves in a career of their choice, or empowering them to compete in the global marketplace. In many ways, our children’s success is the “promised land.”

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In Shelach, this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are waiting to enter the actual Promised Land. Before entering, God instructs them to send a representative from each of the twelve tribes to check it out. Two spies came back with glowing reports, but the other ten spies told stories of gloom and doom. What would cause the spies to experience the Promised Land so differently? They were given the same information before leaving, and they reported on the same land and people. We read:

‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.’ (Numbers 13:31-33)

How we experience life is so often a result of how we see ourselves. It seems that the only difference between our spies was their self-image.

How do we help our children get to the “promised land” of success? We have to stop preparing the way for the child and do the hard work of preparing the child for the way. Instead of just helping the child build up a robust resume, we need to offer them the chance to develop and foster leadership, grit, collaboration, creativity, tenacity, resilience, and a strong self-image.

And, you know what? Summers at Jewish camp encourage the growth of all of these things. Away from our watchful eyes, our campers and staff increase their independence, friendship, confidence, responsibility, and teamwork, along with a sense of peoplehood, community, and heritage. At Jewish camp, they learn 21st century skills and become mensches with strong character.

Here the “promised land” is more than just academic and career-oriented success. It means nurturing social and emotional intelligences, critical-thinking, and problem-solving abilities. It means a new generation that not only “does well” but “does good.” The “promised land” of today is a generation that values self-awareness, self-actualization, and a strong self-image.

Inspired by the life skills that camp has nurtured in generations of campers, we’re highlighting 21st Century Skills for a summer blog series. We’ll be featuring personal stories from camp alumni and professionals across the field exemplifying how Jewish camp provided the ideal environment to become the best version of themselves.

This is the first in a new blog series developed by Foundation for Jewish Camp reposted from eJP 

Full of It: Rethinking the Second Amendment

As I sit down to write this blog post our country in embroiled in a debate about public safety since the horrific shooting in Orlando. At some level it is an honest debate regarding the Second Amendment, and at another it is calling into question our being complicit with the NRA’s control of our government. When ratified into Law the Second Amendment read:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

It is clear that this virtue of self-defense is baked into the core of the American psyche. Even beyond the grip of the NRA, it is clear that we are in a cultural deadlock on the issue of Gun Control. How did we get there?

I was thinking about this question when reading  BeHalotecha, this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites wandering in the desert. Sick of the tofu bland Manna day after day they complained saying that wanting meat to eat. (Numbers 11:4) In turn to deal with their kvetching Moshe asks God to give them meat to eat. God concedes and gives in to desires. There we read:

You shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you; because that you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have troubled God with weeping, saying: Why, now, came we forth out of Egypt?’ ( Numbers 11:19-20)

This gives new ( or old) meaning to cutting off your noses to spite your face. The Israelites kvetched so much that they got the meat they wanted, but it came in such volume that it was literally coming out of their noses.  The Israelites needed to grow up and understand how setting limits would be good for their own health and happiness.

While I deeply respect this drive for self-defense and to defend our families, but I think we need to consider that adding some commonsense limits to the Second Amendment would save lives. I have to say that this blind commitment to “security” is killing us and those who think otherwise are full of it.

 

The Greatest: Ali and a Strong Pluralism

Considered to be the greatest sports picture in the 20th Century, I have not been able to get this image of Muhammad Ali out of my head since he passed away last week.

Neil Leifer’s photograph captures the 23 -year-old heavy weight boxing champion Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over the 34-year-old Sonny Liston. Ali had snatched the title from Liston 15 months earlier. One minute and 44 second into the first round, Ali hit Liston in the chin putting Liston down on the mat. In this iconic image Ali is screaming, “Get up and fight, sucker!”

This picture captures the image pf the spirit of a true competitor and gives us some insight into the life of a great athlete. In his life Ali was the consummate fighter. Fighting in the ring, fighting the draft, fighting racism, and fighting Parkinson’s. As President Roosevelt talked about in his famous 1910 Man in the Arena speech, even Ali failed he failed valiantly while ” daring greatly”.

In addition to all of this, this image of Ali standing over Liston has also come to symbolize my commitment to pluralism. I am not talking about the weak  sauce modern pluralism of “I am OK Your OK”. Just telling everyone “You Be You”  runs the risk of cultivating cold and dispassionate society in which no one cares about each other. I am talking about a strong pluralism in which there is actual mutuality and a sense of family while at the same time making room for deviance, diversity, and real differences. My commitment to pluralism is not despite my Orthodoxy , but because of it. As an Orthodox Jew by definition I think that my life choices are right. So what is my commitment to pluralism?

Living a life committed to Halacha is the greatest, but we are only our best when our competitors are at their best.  In my pluralism I want everyone to get up and fight. I sincerely hope that everyone else feels the same way. Together we need to make sure that everyone is at their best, only then will be mean something to win the title.

Search Within: Some Thoughts on Omer and Education

In remembrance of the tragic deaths of 24,000 Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, several mourning practices are observed in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot. It’s important to understand why they died and what it means to us today.

We can start by looking at the Gemara in Yevamot. There we learn:

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot” (Yevamot 62b).

What is the Talmud teaching us by claiming that they died because they did “not treat each other with respect”? This is peculiar for students of Rabbi Akiva, who believed “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) was the Torah’s underlying principle (Torat Kehonim 4:12 / Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4). All students learned this foundational teaching. Perhaps, they learned it, but they didn’t internalize it?

Rabbi Akiva believed good character needed to be lived and not just taught. Before we love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to love ourselves. In order to love ourselves, we need to know ourselves. Of the students who know the general principles of the Torah, how many have internalized these lessons?

As the educator Parker Palmer said, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” We need to spend much more time at the start of the learning process to help our students listen to their lives in order to understand themselves.

In these 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, as we transition from liberation to revelation, we strive to internalize this lesson. In order to “treat each other with respect,” we need to have profound love and deep understanding of ourselves.

– As posted in Blog B’Omer

Hard Work: Some Thoughts on Uncle Ernie z”l

With the recent passing of my Oma’s brother I have been thinking about the importance of my German ancestry. For as long as I can recall Uncle Ernie z”l exuded a certain nobility, honor, impeccable style, and German accent. In his 98 years of life he saw the worst and best of humanity. His Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story was exemplified by the joy he took in driving his Jaguar. For the longest time Ernie served was a link to the long gone mythic European world of my family. This was not just a romantic notion of the alte heim, but also connection to a greater generation. Much has been written about the shift from the generation that lived through the horrors of World War II to the world we live in today, in reflection I am interesting in a shift in work ethic.

My mother’s first language was German, but sadly not that much was passed on to me of the language.  In writing this piece I had to call my mother to get clarity on as expression I recalled from my youth. When referring to a worker engaged in heavy physical labor she would say Schwerarbeiter- heavy worker. From a young age it was burned into my consciousness that there was a value of working hard. I have internalized this as cultural  devotion to the idea and value of working hard.

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

I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt from being slaves to them; and I broke the pegs of your yoke and led you upright. Leviticus 26:13

On this idea of breaking the pegs Rashi says:

A plowing yoke consists of a bar that is placed over the animal’s neck and reins that are placed under its neck and threaded through two holes at each end of the bar. This term מוֹט refers to a type of peg, which is inserted into the two [holes at the] ends of the yoke. [These pegs therefore jam the reins tightly through the holes,] preventing the reins from coming off the ox’s head and [preventing the] undoing of the knot. ( Rashi on Leviticus 26:13)

So when the peg that tethered the yoke to load is removed the animal is free. But just removing the peg does not make you stand “upright”. As Prof. Dan Dennett said, “The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” We were redeemed from slavery in Egypt to serve a higher cause. Yes we were free from Egypt, but more importantly we were free to go to Sinai. The issue with slavery was not the hard work, but rather the lack of connection to the cause of that labor.

Recently a dear friend Rabbi Dan Utley shared a meaningful poem with me. In her poem “To be of Use“,  Marge Piercy wrote:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.  (To be of Use)

No one wants to be a slave. We all want to be the ones to put in the peg and drive home the work that we want to get done. Even if it seems old worldly I want to work hard along side of others for a common and noble cause. So yes I am tired, but when my days come to an end, like Uncle Ernie, I too want to be known as a Schwerarbeiter.


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