Torah 20/20: Looking with Fresh Eyes

As the story goes, was a  baal teshuvah, newly religiously observant person, who started crying in synagogue during the Torah reading.  When the rabbi asked him about this display of emotion, he replied that he just does not understand why Joseph’s brothers could sell him into slavery. This profound empathy moved the rabbi to tears. The next year when they got to Parshat Vayeshev the rabbi was ready and went over to console the crying parishioner during the Torah reading. The following year the rabbi preempted the situation and brought the congregant a tissue. The rabbi was surprised to see that he was not crying or sad, but instead visibly angry. When the rabbi asked the person why he was angry he replied, “I am really annoyed. I used to be sad that his brothers had it out for him, but this time why didn’t Joseph learn his lesson?” 

Every year, the Jewish community reads the entire Torah, our most holy text, on a weekly cycle. With the advent of Simchat Torah we will end this year’s reading of the Torah and start reading it again from the beginning.  It is quoted in the name of Louis Pasteur, “No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. Each year we look at the wisdom in this text like a stranger with fresh eyes, and each year we turn to it for sustenance as we navigate our ever-changing, yet also frequently cyclical, world. The nature of the Torah is that we can revisit it throughout our lives. When we learn Torah we demand relevance from revelation and its meaning evolves. 

As we start again from the beginning, we can look at how Adam and Eve saw things. There we read:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. (Genesis 3:6-7)

Something is peculiar in the language here. If the eating itself caused their eyes to be opened, the Torah would have said that she ate and her eyes were opened and then he ate and his eyes were opened. Instead it says “the eyes of them both were opened” only after they both ate. What do we make of this?

In his genre creating masterpiece, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the way we can influence each other. There he wrote:

…if I smile and you see me and smile in response–even a microsmile that takes no more than several milliseconds–it’s not just you imitating or empathizing with me. It may also be a way that I can pass on my happiness to you. Emotion is contagious.  (The Tipping Point 84-85)

I posit that this is exactly what happened in Eden. Eve ate of the fruit, enjoyed it, and shared it with Adam. When Adam ate, instead of reciprocating with a microsmile, he winced. In so doing he rejected her bid to share something pleasurable. With that wince his eyes made it clear that they did not experience Good and Bad the same way anymore. In that moment, both of their eyes were opened.

Since then the complexity of coming together has grown exponentially. The nature of politics in a democratic society is preserving the tension between our wanting to be the same and struggling with our differences and desire for individuality.  Each of us may have radically different notions of what is tasty or pleasurable, let alone what is Good and Bad for society. From the beginning, this country has been an imperfect but valiant effort “to form a more perfect Union.” 

As we return to Genesis and the Garden of Eden we are all invited to revisit this tension. This cycle of reading the Torah will accompany us through a high-stakes year in America life in 2020. In Torah 20/20, T’ruah is asking rabbis, writers, political leaders, and artists to explore democracy and questions of how to build a just society through the lens of the weekly Torah reading. How might we want to cry or get angry when reading about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers? How does exploring this wisdom impact how we might want to fight human trafficking, systemic racism, or economic disparity? As we look ahead at 2020 we see the value of seeing the world anew with fresh eyes.

 

Advertisements

Facepalm

I am reminded this week of one of my favorite Hassidic stories.  The story goes that a Rebbe is walking and sees a little boy standing by a wall crying. The Rebbe asks the boy why he is crying. The boy replies that he was playing Hide and Seek with his friends and he thinks that his friends forgot about him. At this point the Rebbe starts crying and the boys asks him why the Rebbe is crying. The Rebbe responds, “Now I understand how God feels”.

I was thinking about it this again this week when reading Ha’Azinu, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

And God said: ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; for they are a very contrary generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. (Deuteronomy 32:20)

For years I assumed that this Biblical theodicy like the Hassidic story was about God hiding from us. It is only now in our current state of affairs I see this in a different light. 

While the beginning of the 21st Century was overflowing with hope, in the last period of time the pendulum has gone the other way. Between the rise of Trump, Brexit, and inability to shake Bibi we see that people are clearly regressing to jingoistic self interest and isolationism. And we have seen a crazy resurgence of antisemitism and hate crimes against people of color. The world is in sad state. We have opted for fear over hope. 

In light of our current situation, the image conjured up in our Torah portion is not that God is being playful, mysterious ways, or even angry. In many ways we can imagine a God that is demoralized and  embarrased. Similar to this image of the Statue of Liberty with a facepalm. We have not lived up to ideals or our potential.

 

Image result for facepalm statue of liberty

We were created in God’s image and it is very sad when God would be embarassed by that fact. In many ways it is even sadder then humanity forgetting to look for God is a God who cannot handle looking at us and our deeds because it brings God shame.

We have a lot of work to do to earn God’s trust back, let alone to make God proud to look at of us. 

-Also see Hide and Seek

Returning the Hug: Facing the Judge on Yom Kippur

I find that people are often incredulous that Rosh HaShana is called Yom HaDin– the Day of Judgement. Isn’t that Yom Kippur? Actually Yom Kippur is about what happens after judgment, namely atonement.

I was thinking about this distinction this year as I have been following the Amber Guyger case. On September 6, 2018, off-duty Dallas Police Department patrol officer Amber Guyger entered the Dallas, Texas, apartment of Botham Jean and shot and killed him. Guyger said that she had entered the apartment believing it was her own and that she shot Jean believing he was a burglar. On October 1, 2019, the second day of Rosh HaShannah Guyger was found guilty of murder. As reported in the New York Times, the next day, Mr. Jean’s brother, Brandt Jean, took the stand to address Ms. Guyger after her sentencing to ten years in prison. He turned to Judge Tammy Kemp for permission to express his forgiveness. “I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug, please?” he asked, looking up toward the judge’s bench. “Please?” After a pause, the judge agreed. As he walked toward Ms. Guyger and wrapped his arms around her, Judge Kemp used a tissue to wipe tears from her eyes. After Judge Kemp had spoken with and hugged Mr. Jean’s family, she emerged from her chambers, flipping through the pages of a Bible. She approached Ms. Guyger at the defense table and handed her the book. “You can have mine,” she said. “I’ve got three or four more at home. This is the one I use every day.” Afterward, Ms. Guyger stood up and reached her arms toward Judge Kemp. The judge briefly shook her head, before returning the hug.

A former Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger, was sentenced to 10 years for murder in an unusual police shooting case. At the end of the trial, Judge Tammy Kemp gave her a Bible and a hug.

While there is much to write about the systemic racism brought up in this case, for now I just want to pull out one thread of the power of a hug. As we prepare for Yom Kippur I find these hugs compelling from each perspective. From the vantage of Ms. Guyger, while few of us have or will ever do anything as horrible as what she did, we all have unintentionally or intentionally done bad things and hurt people this year. Does sin make us beyond salvation, irreparable, or unworthy of compassion?

And what about from the the point of view of Brandt Jean? While Yom Kippur allows us to atone for our sins between us and God, it does nothing for the wrongs we have done to each other. Repairing those relationships is work each of us need to do. What would it take to get to his level to forgive someone who killed someone we love? I for one know I have some work to do.

And from the bench, what did it look like for Judge Tammy Kemp? After the ordeal of the trial and the sentencing her job was done. With the simple gift of her personal Bible she communicated compassion. She was telling Ms. Guyger that while she is guilty and will do time she is not beyond salvation. And with the simple humane embrace the Judge expressed that this sinner was still worthy of love. Thank your Judge Kemp for reminding what can happen after the Day of Judgement.

This picture of the judge hugging Ms Guyger is what I will be thinking about at when the Neilah service this year. As the gates of Yom Kippur are closing we make our final appeal. The ordeal of the trial will be over, we have received our sentence, hopefully we will have made peace with the people we have wronged, and we stand up and reach our arms toward the Judge. The Judge briefly shakes God’s head, before returning the hug. With the compassion of the Judge we remove the Rah HaGezerah– not the judgement, but the bad part of the judgement. In the end we appeal for the relationship with God. With the divine response of a simple hug God tell us that we are worthy of God’s Love. We just need to reach out for that hug.

Getting Uploaded to the Cloud: Rethinking the Media of Yom Kippur

Before Marshall McLuhan  popularized the idea in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man Aan educator Angus MacLean coined the phrase “The method is the message.” For McLuhan it morphed into the idea that “The medium is the message.” McLuhan uses the term ‘message’ to signify content and character. The content of the medium is a message that can be easily grasped. And the character of the medium is another message which can be easily overlooked. McLuhan says “Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” For McLuhan, it was the medium itself that shaped and controlled “the scale and form of human association and action.” It means that the nature of a medium (the channel through which a message is transmitted) is more important than the meaning or content of the message.

I was thinking about this last year on Yom Kippur during a walk with Yishama right before Neilah. My 12 year old and I needed to stretch our legs before the last service so we walked around the block from the synagogue. As we were headed back into the synagogue some said, “Gmar Chatima Tova“. Yishama asked me what that means. First I translated it for them- that the other person was wishing that we ” End with a Good Seal”. He looked at he if I was crazy so I launch into explain the Rabbi Kruspedai’s three books.

There in turn made me think of a Gemara in Rosh Hashanah where we learn:

Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the in between. The thoroughly righteous are immediately inscribed definitively in the Book of Life; the thoroughly wicked are immediately inscribed definitively in the Book of Death; the doom of the people in between is suspended from New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the Book of Life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the Book of Death (Rosh Hashanah 16b)

So we say on Rosh Hashana we should be inscribed in the Book of Life and on Yom Kippur we should be sealed in the Book of Life. Again Yishama looked at he if I was crazy. He understood is a nice salutation, but it was lost to him.

If McLuhan and MacLean are right, what is the meaning of the media/method of a Book of Life? What might this mean for a child of the 21st Century? I turned to him and said, “On Rosh Hashana we saved to God’s desktop and on Yom Kippur we should be uploaded to the Cloud.” This made sense to Yishama and had meaning.

cloud computing platform, cloud server hosting, data infrastructure, dedicated cloud hosting, virtual cloud server icon

If the media is the message, a book might not continue to work for his generation. It is uplifting to know that being “saved” does work. It also makes me rethink all of the metaphors we use for God. To that ends, on this Yom Kippur I hope that we are all blessed to be uploaded to the Server up on high.

The Sound of Deep Empathy: Thoughts on the Rise of Antisemitism and the Sound of the Shofar

In getting ready for Rosh HaShanah I have been giving some thought to the strange year which was 5779. From the shouting in synagogues to demagoguery in the White House is has been a tough year. One thing that stands out this year is a rise is antisemitism domestically and abroad. From political antisemitism like Corbyn’s Labour Party and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to the physical violence we saw in Pittsburgh and Poway as Jewish people we find ourselves being hated by the left, the right, all over the world. From Cohen to Kushner and Adam Schiff to Volodymyr Zelensky we are in the thick of much of our current crisis. While no one knows how this will all go, it does not take the Vilna Gaon to realize that this will not ends well for us. Given the current context it is hard to imagine the scenario in which we will not be blamed.

Since the advent of Elul I have been thinking about this resurgence of antisemitism in the context of the daily blowing of the shofar? All of these blasts are leading us to Rosh HaShanah which is filled with the blowing the Shofar. And why do we blow Shofar on Rosh HaShanah? On one level we could see that Rosh HaShanah is the trumpets announcing God’s coronation. Is Rosh HaShanah just another expression of nationalism? How is our celebration of our King with shofar blasts categorically different from any other jingoism? Is it so different from China’s celebration of 70 years of communism with all of the tanks and missiles on display?

In fact there are a number of different reasons given for blowing shofar on Rosh HaShanah. One of the more interesting reasons comes from a discussion in Gemara of Rosh HaShanah where the Rabbis were trying to determine the length of time a shofar blast should last. The Mishnah suggest  that a terua should be equal to the length of three whimpers. There we learn:

Isn’t it taught in a baraita that the length of a terua is equal to the length of three shevarim, i.e., broken blasts, which presumably are longer than whimpers? Abaye said: In this matter, the tanna’im certainly disagree. Although the first baraita can be reconciled with the mishna, this second baraita clearly reflects a dispute. As it is written: “It is a day of sounding [terua] the shofar to you”(Numbers 29:1), and we translate this verse in Aramaic as: It is a day of yevava to you. And to define a yevava, the Gemara quotes a verse that is written about the mother of Sisera: “Through the window she looked forth and wailed [vateyabev], the mother of Sisera” (Judges 5:28). One Sage, the tanna of the baraita, holds that this means moanings, broken sighs, as in the blasts called shevarim. And one Sage, the tanna of the mishna, holds that it means whimpers, as in the short blasts called teruot. (Rosh HaShanah 33b)

Simply to quote Numbers and say we blow shofar on Rosh HaShanah because it is the day of blowing shofar is tautology and does not add much insight. In comparison it is interesting to make the connection to the wailing of  Sisera’s mother. As we learn in the book of Judges, Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. After the prophetess Deborah persuaded Barak to face Sisera in battle, they, with an Israelite force of ten thousand, defeated him at the Battle of Mount Tabor. After losing the battle, Sisera fled to a settlement where he was received by Yael. She brought him into her tent with apparent hospitality and gave him milk. Yael promised to hide Sisera and covered him with a rug; but after he fell asleep, she drove a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet, her blow being so forceful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. After this we read:

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, Behind the lattice she whined: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”  (Judge 5:28)

It is strange enough that the Bible depicts this general’s mother there at the window watching her son die, but it seems even more peculiar that we evoke the sound of the mother of our enemy on Rosh HaShanah. Why?

Image result for empathy

While it is easy to relate with our family, community memberd, or those who are like us, it can hard to empathize with those that are different from us. Hearing to the voice of the mother of an antisemite in the sound of the shofar can help us build a profound foundation of empathy. We can never forget that every child regardless of what they turn into or do started life with a parent who loved them. So yes we need to call our and confront antisemitism in any form and from any source, but even with this vigilance we cannot forget that even Sisera had a mother who deserves our empathy. If we can hear that voice we can build on that love. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” We will not uproot antisemitism with more hedonistic hatred or nihilistic nationalism. The sound of the shofar is an invitation for us to cut through the darkness and build on the light of empathy. On Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Judgement, we must work hard and unearth ahavat chinam, a love without cause.  We need to construct a foundation of universal and deep empathy upon which we can build a better world. If we can do this we will be judged favorably in 5780.

Shanah Tova. Maybe all be blessed to do our part to build a foundation of universal and deep empathy.

More the Stranger: Returning to the High Holidays and Sinai

Yesterday I got a very sweet message from a childhood friend who had recently lost his mother. He wrote:

I am writing to let you know that I am thinking about you these High Holidays regarding spending your second High Holidays without your Abba. It is very hard for me to think that this is the first year I don’t get to wish my Ima a Shana Tova. Please know that he was so proud of you, he loved you so much, and you have been and always will be to your parents, an exemplary son! Love you my friend! Happy New Year!

I called him right away. Between the years and miles between us I realized that I just needed to hear his voice and thank him. Today I am allowing his words to sink in and I think about who I am this year as compared to last year.

I was thinking about this when reading  Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before HaShem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with the Lord, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Not with you alone do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before the Lord, your God, And with whoever is not here with us today.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

What does the Torah mean by “whoever is not here”? There was clearly an audience to the Torah at Sinai, how could people who are not there connect to the experience. Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

Thinking about the note from my friend I wanted to offer another reading of what the Torah meant by “whoever is not here”. 

Am I the same person I was last year this time? Last year my father’s passing was all so fresh. Last year was filled with many firsts without him. This year Yizkor will not be a new thing. It is possible that “whoever is not here” is not referring to future generation that have yet to be born, but instead it might be referring to future versions of the people that were actually “standing here today” at Sinai. The covenant was not limited to those people in that state of mind at that moment.

It is quoted in the name of Louis Pasteur, “ No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. The nature of the Torah is that we can revisit it throughout our lives. When we learn Torah we continue to evolve in its meaning and demand relevance from revelation. When we return to Sinai we are invited to welcome the inner “stranger” 36 times.

Yahrzeit for 9/11

The 23rd of Elul is the 18th Yahrzeit of 9/11. Where were you when you heard about the Twin Towers being hit? Where were you when you realized we were under attack? These are moments we will never forget. This series of four coordinated terrorist attacks killed 2,977 people and changed the world as we  knew it. For many of us, 9/11 is formative to the people we are today.

We are two professionals, partners, and parents jointly committed to strengthening institutions of Jewish Life. Adina has spent much of her career working in Jewish Federations on behalf of synagogues and more recently day schools and strengthening the pipeline of professionals in Jewish communal organizations, Avi has spent his career working at a national umbrella on behalf of camps and on a college campus. As we recall that inauspicious day, each of us found ourselves taking solace in institutions. When the plane hit the first tower, Avi was in the basement of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Adina had just come out of the subway on her way to HUC cantorial school after the second tower was hit, catching a horrifying glimpse of the first tower crumbling. While both of us had already chosen paths of  Jewish communal life to make an impact, in the days that followed 9/11 we were inspired by the heroes who were driven to fix this broken world and we recommitted ourselves to doing our part through our sacred communal service. 

We pause today to take stock of who we are as individuals, the blessings of our family and our community, and what we have become as a nation. Looking back 18 years we shutter to realize that this year the 9/11 babies born after this fateful day will go to college. The junior counselors in our camps who will be looking after our children were born into this new reality. Like our own kids, this generation will only know a post 9/11 world. 

As we think about what will become of the legacy of the institutions of Jewish life that we inherited, we must note the poignancy that to this next generation, 9/11 is their legacy. On a visceral level this generation will have a radically different orientation to brick and mortar buildings, to the value of community, and to the causes that matter.  We must recognize that 9/11 represents a radical paradigm shift, especially for a generation for whom active shooter drills are the norm and the daily effects of global warming remind them of the fragility of their future. They are a generation living with existential and physical angst; where will they seek comfort? As we learn in Psalms 121:1, “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence shall my help come?” Our daily work is informed by the need to radically rethink our institutions, so that the next generation continues to find comfort, be motivated and inspired by Jewish life. 

 

Cantor Adina H. Frydman is the Executive Director of Community Resources at UJA-Federation of New York. Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the Vice President of Innovation and Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Together, they are the proud parents of four children born after 9/11.

* reposted from ejewishphilanthropy.com


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 193 other followers

Archive By Topic

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: