Winning the Lottery: Yom Kippur and Gift of Life

And who by fire, who by water

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial

So starts “Who by fire” by Leonard Cohen. Here he sings his modern version of the traditional Hebrew prayer “Unetanneh Tokef“, chanted on Yom Kippur. In this prayer we discuss who will be inscribed in the Book of Life on Rosh HaShanna and sealed in that book on Yom Kippur. This prayer evokes the precarious nature of life. 

In saying Unetanneh Tokef we are awakened to the perception of Damocles coming to an awareness that Dionysius’s sword is hanging overhead. Our lives are in peril. But it is not just a sword, it might be by fire, water, etc. It seems random and strangely sobering. It is as if we are reliving our own version of Shirley Jackson’s Lottery

The random nature of our mortality is underscored within the Temple sacrifice of the scapegoats we commemorate on Yom Kippur. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol took two goats and presented them at the door of the Tabernacle. Two goats were taken and by lot determined its purpose. One would be selected to be for God, which was offered as a blood sacrifice, and the other to be the scapegoat to be sent away with all of our sins into the wilderness and pushed down Azazel, a steep ravine, where it died.

We see this same idea of random lots again on Purim. There we see that Haman wants to kill all of the Jews. There in the Megilah we read:  

On the first month, that is, the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, pur—which means “the lot”—was cast before Haman concerning every day and every month, [until it fell on] the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar. (Esther 3:7)

The holiday’s name Purim comes from “pur” the random selection of when Haman and his allies were going to commit genocide. But, what does this have to do with Yom Kippur?

Some say that Yom Kippur which is referred to in the Torah as Yom Kippurim. While this is traditionally translated to mean “The Day of Atonement”, some say it actually means “ The day that is like Purim”, or Yom K’Purim. Both Yom Kippur and Purim are days in which we are aware of our mortality and our collective lot in life. Both seem random, but it seems that the lot of the scapegoat is fated, where Esther steps forward to serve her people and in so doing affirms her and our collective destiny. What is the role of our agency in determining the outcome? On Yom Kippur we acknowledge that it might seem random (who by fire and who my water), but affirm our own agency like Esther K’Purim in determining the outcome. 

I was thinking of this idea of agency and chance in the context of people testing their DNA through Gift of Life. What are the odds that we have in our body the cure for someone else’s disease? What a blessing to have in our agency the capacity to save another human life? We might not be able to determine who by fire and who by water, but we can save people from an extraordinary number of terminal illnesses.  This is an amazing way to commit our lives to a higher purpose. Continued efforts of Gift of Life have led to 23,000+ matches and 4,300+ life-saving transplants. We cannot win that lottery unless each of us get tested and donate if they are a match. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

Tzom Rabin: When Will We Learn?

On November 4th, 1995 at 21:30,  at Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv at the end of a rally in support of the Oslo Accords  Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. I pause to remember the man he was and his importance to the Jewish people. In President Bill Clinton’s eulogy for Rabin he wrote:

Yitzhak Rabin lived the history of Israel. Throughout every trial and triumph, the struggle for independence, the wars for survival, the pursuit of peace and all he served on the front lines, this son of David and of Solomon, took up arms to defend Israel’s freedom and lay down his life to secure Israel’s future.

As I look back on the years since his death I think about how much has changed and how much as stayed the same.

Israel's Yitzhak Rabin assassinated at peace rally - archive, 1995 | Middle  East and North Africa | The Guardian

There are clearly growing generational gaps between the Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and the Gen Zers. We have not even begun to understand the impact of the recent political and environmental shifts let alone the effect of Covid-19 on this next generation.

Just as my father knew exactly where he was when Kennedy was shot, I know exactly where I was when Rabin was shot. And for our four children Rabin’s assassination will be as distant to them as Kennedy’s is to me. Despite the distance of time, I hope that our children learn from Rabin that contributing to the world as a responsible citizen does not happen despite their Jewish identity, but actually can be lived out more fully through their Jewish identity. Rabin’s assassination teaches us how violence is senseless. And I want Rabin’s memory to be for what he did and tried to do, not what was done to him.

I was thinking about this yesterday in trying help my children understand the significance of Tzom Gedalia.  Gedalia was the governor of Yehudah. His assassination by a fellow Jew ended Jewish autonomy following the destruction of the First Temple.  While it might be close to 27 years since the assassination of Rabin, it has been 2604 years since the assassination of Gedalia. We have little information as to what Gedalia did, only what was done to him by his fellow Jew. We also know very little about Abel, only what his brother did to him. As they say, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” When will we learn?

The Queen is in the Field: Another Look at Elul

In Hasidic thinking, the days of Elul are a time when “The King is in the field.” Gaining an audience with the King during Tishrei is a whole to-do. We must travel to the capital city, arrange an appointment, and then get permission to enter the palace. It may be days or weeks before we are finally allowed to enter. And even then, when we do finally get to see the King, the audience is likely to be short and very formal. Lost among the throngs of people, it is hard to imagine it being a deeply personal interaction. Since very few of us actually live in the capital city, the royal surroundings we experience during the High Holidays make us feel out-of-place. By the time we get there, we might have even forgotten why we came to seek the audience of the King in the first place. It hardly seems like a good plan for a meaningful experience.

According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe), during Elul “Anyone who desires is granted permission and can approach the King and greet the King. The King received them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all” (Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b). The King’s arrival is heralded by the shofar blown throughout Elul. Here in the field, the formality is transformed into familiarity. 

While I have always loved this idea, I am not sure I ever truly understood this notion of majestic formality. I got a little more insight into this idea when reading a story about Queen Elizabeth II after her passing. On January 27, 2005, the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Queen Elizabeth hosted a group of Holocaust survivors in St. James’s Palace in the center of London. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was present and later recounted: “When the time came for her to leave, she stayed. And stayed. One of her attendants said that he had never known her to linger so long after her scheduled departure. She gave each survivor – it was a large group – her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each until they had finished telling their personal story.”

What does it mean to break royal protocol? It meant that she realized her role was to listen to their stories regardless of where else she was “supposed to be”. It meant that the Queen was in the field. May the memory of Queen Elizabeth II be for a blessing. While none of us should know the pain of those Holocaust Survivors, we should all feel that we have the royal attention during Elul. There should be no protocol when it comes having our stories heard. Shana Tova

The Parenting Chatzitza: A Lesson in Letting Go

Recently I had the honor to be on a Beit Din overseeing the conversion of a new born. Clearly the main role in this ritual is verifying the parents intent to raise the child in a proper Jewish household. Are the parents committed to educate the child to be upstanding , observant, and devoted member of the Jewish people. There is also a technical element of the ritual. We need to make sure that the child completely submerged into the mikvah. The child needs to immerse completely without a chatzitza. This is a foreign object or even the body itself in an unnatural position that interposes between the body and the water. If someone has a chatzitza on their on her body when they go to the mikveh in order to purify themselves the tevilah is ineffective.

As is the case with of a conversion of a minor, one of the parents went in with the new born. We inspected the child to make sure they did not have a chatzitza. A new born does not know to close their mouth when going under water. So we instruct the parent to blow in their face to startle them. They will inhale, then they can dunk the child without risk. Just before the parent did the ritual, another Rabbi on the Beyt Din said to the parent, ” When you do that, you will need to let go for a second.” In this case, the parent of the child is himself a chatzitza. Regarding the tevilah if the parent did not let go it would have been ineffective.

I paused for a moment realizing the profundity of what he was saying. The act of parenting is the act of supporting, connecting, loving, and cleaving to a child. And at the same time the act of parenting demands that we learn to let go over time. As I learned from my teacher Dr. Betsy Stone, pediatrician and parent-infant therapist D. W. Winnicott, wrote:

While it is hard to imagine this being the case for a new born in a pool of water, this is complexity of parenting. How do we support and frustrate our children so that they grow? When we pause to think about it, we are but young creatures awash in a galaxy in which we could easily drown. There is a depth of realizing that even those that love the child most might be a chatzitza, a barrier to their growth and development. We cannot be helicopter or snowplow parents. We need to prepare the child for the way, and not the way for the child. Gradually we need to let go so they can fall but not fail. In the process of they will adapt, tolerate the frustration, learn to swim, and emerge pure.

-See resource I made with Dr. Betsy Stone –Eating Makes Us Hunger: Yearning for More in 5783

-See related source sheet – Chatzitzah: Lesson in Parenting

Yearly Yearning: Another look at Hunger in Jewish Life

To live as a Jew means that we do not just eat to live. And at the same time, we do not simply live to eat. We have a complicated and nuanced relationship with food. We center Jewish moments around particular foods: from honey dripping on apples on Rosh HaShanah, to the drops of it on our first approach to Jewish text, to salt on the challah on Shabbat, to debating the merits of a hamantaschen vs latkes, our culture is replete with a cornucopia of flavors. We feast to celebrate our survival and success. We fast to remind ourselves of past troubles, purify our inner being and to cement our relationship with God. We bless what we’re going to eat and express gratitude for what we have eaten. Food bonds us to our family, friends and faith.

With the advent of the month of Elul we start our preparations for the High Holidays. Part of our preparation is, not surprisingly, around food. While we might spend some time thinking about the symbolic foods we will have at our Rosh Hashanah table, or the best brisket recipe to use, fasting on Yom Kippur takes center stage. Are we going to decaffeinate to avoid the headache? How hungry will we be? What is the best thing to eat to prepare for the fast? As much as we say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” we are already thinking, “What will I break the fast with this year?” 

While global poverty, food insecurity and urban deserts are problems that need to be addressed, each of our personal hungers are never fully resolved. The nature of our being means that we are only sated for a limited time. We will always need more. Maybe reading all these words about food are even making you feel a little peckish!

Similar to fear and pain, hunger is an essential warning sign. The sensation of wanting nourishment reminds us of the fragility of our bodies, and our ongoing need for physical sustenance. This feeling helps us live. What about the other things that make us hungry? We crave things beyond just food — be it love, connection, sleep, wisdom or meaning. What are the other yearnings that inspire us and plague us?

The two of us, a rabbi and a psychologist, started to wonder about this broader issue of what are we yearning for. The research has pointed out that many of us identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Many are disappointed in the offerings of traditional religious practice. Many of us are seekers who do not yet know what we are seeking. What do we yearn for? How might Jewish professionals and innovators respond to the needs and hungers of those who are dissatisfied with our traditional offerings?

The prophet Amos reminds us that while we may yearn for food and water, a time is coming when people will hunger for meaning in their lives. (Amos 8:11). Maybe that time is now? We have the opportunity to use this time in Elul to prepare for the High Holidays. And not just getting ready for the physical fast, but we also have the opportunity to open ourselves up and explore our souls. Working through the often closely linked lenses of psychology and Judaism, we drafted a resource to assist Jewish organizations, congregations and any gatherings of Jews in a search for meaning that is relevant both to this time in our history and the Jewish calendar. Please share it with people. We would love your comments and suggestions. We also want to invite you to join in this exploration, please share your yearnings with others in the comments. Maybe our shared yearnings will give added meaning to both our communal and our personal yearly experience of the High Holidays.

*Originally published in eJp with Betsy Stone who is a retired psychologist who consults with camps, synagogues, clergy and Jewish institutions. She is the author of Refuah Shlema, a compilation of her previous eJP articles, recently published by Amazon.

Teens and Ki Tetzei: Emi’s Birthday

Today in the 13th of Elul. It is the Hebrew birthday of our daughter Emunah. Today she is 13 years old. I marvel to see the teenager standing in front of our eyes. We were particularly moved to see how much she changed after 2 months at camp this summer. She has already proven herself to be a nurturing big sister to Libi. This past summer gave her special one-on-one time with Yadid. It was great seeing her deepen her connection with her big brother before he went to Israel for the year. Emunah is curious, caring, loving, and resilient.  Here is a picture of her from when our little angel was just one:

Her birthday marks my writing this blog for 13 years. I take pause today to think ahead to what the next stage of parenting Emunah will look like for us.

In thinking about this rethought about Ki Tetzei , this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. When you build a new house, make a fence around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.

Deuteronomy 22:6-8

First there is a law about sending away the mother bird from her nest before taking her eggs. Then we are mandated to build a fence around the roof of our houses. This juxtaposition brings interesting things to light. We see the mother bird defending her nest and then we are instructed to be like the bird and make a safer nest on our roofs to defend our young.

Once we make that connection and empathize with the mother bird, we are left asking ourselves a number of questions: How could we ever be that cruel to take the egg or young from the mother bird in the first place? What does it mean for us as parents toward our children? Are we the aggressor who is taking the eggs or the builder of fences there to protect our child? Are we the problem or the solution for our children’s development?

When Emunah was little it made sense for us to protect her in our nest/home. Amidst pandemics, climate catastrophes, War in Ukraine, and so many other things going on we have to question if we could ever build a big enough fence to protect her from the world. As we emerge from the social isolation and confront the MESSH ramifications of snowplow parenting intensified by COVID, I have to question the merit of trying to shield our children from reality. Now that Emunah is getting older and no longer a fledgling and she will experiment with leaving the nest more. As she enters into her teen years she will thirst independence, autonomy, and agency. I recall the dictum that we should prepare the child for the way and not the way for the child.

While she might be at the age of majority in Jewish law, she is far from being an adult. While my days as a builder of fences for her may be limited, I still have a mandate to make sure that she is a force for good in the world. If she is not part of the solution of removing cruelty from the world she will be part of the problem. There is still a lot to be learned from the Torah’s commandment to cultivate empathy. Even in the mundane act of how we treat a bird along the way we learn how we best treat each other with kindness.

Happy Birthday Emunah. Thank you Adina for bringing this miracle into the world and partnering in parenting her. We will do what we can to raise our little birdy and help her take flight. 

Other messages on our Emunah over the years:

  1. Dear Child to Me: On Emunah and this Blog
  2. Little Birdy: Emunah and Protecting Our Children
  3. 7 Years of Emunah: Reflections on Faith and Fidelity
  4. Emunah Second Birthday
  5. Our Type of Emunah
  6. Our Blessing for Emunah
  7. Fearless: On Emunah’s Bat Mitvah and being a Nazir
  8. Blessing of Emunah: Reflections of Faith, Fidelity, & Trust for Emunah’s Bat Mitzvah

My Father’s Yahrzeit and Stan Rogers: Who Will Know?

Tonight is my Dad’s 4th Yahrzeit. Since his passing I have come to understand that I know very little about him. At some point along the way over this past four years I have started the practice of listening to the music of Stan Rogers in his memory. My father introduced me to his music. Rogers was a Canadian folk musician and songwriter (November 29, 1949 – June 2, 1983). Rogers was noted for his traditional-sounding songs which were frequently inspired by Canadian nautical history. While my father had no connection to Canada, he was in the Navy and loved to sail. In many ways listening to Rogers’ music has been a mediation on my father and a means to exploring the man he was.

On this occasion I wanted to share a reflection on his song Bluenose. Ironically it is a song I only found recently and my father never played for me, but really reminds me of him. In the song Rogers sings about the celebrated fishing and racing ship. The gaff rigschooner was built in 1921 in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada. Under the command of Angus Walters, the Bluenose became a provincial icon for Nova Scotia and an important Canadian symbol. The ship served as a working vessel until she was wrecked in 1946.

Rogers sings:

So does she not take wing like a living thing
Child of the moving tide?
See her pass with grace on the water’s face
With clean and quiet pride
Our own tall ship of great renown still lifts unto the sky
Who will know the Bluenose in the sun?

Here you get a sense of Rogers’ and Canada’s love and admiration for this boat. Likening the boat to a bird, child, and a graceful woman, he laments that she is gone. “Who will know” her?

Listening to this song I connect with my dad’s aesthetic. My father really enjoyed the serenity of sailing. His otherwise frenetic mind was at peace on the water.

Sadly, this also reminds me of my father’s shortcomings. He was a great man who did great things, but he had a limited capacity to express love. It seemed to me that it was easier for him communicate his love for inanimate things like the law, ideas, or even sail boats, than the people in his life. This still makes me sad, both for my and also for him. I know that he loved me, but it was so hard for him to say it. I loved him, but I am still left lamenting that I did not really know him. And now that he is gone I cannot. Who will know him in the sun?

Maybe listening to this song will lift his soul, if not your own. May the memory of James Joseph Orlow be for a blessing.

Throw the Jew Down the Well: The Banality of Evil

Years ago when Yadid was six-years-old he started to go to Jewish school for the first time. A couple of months into school they learned about the story of Esther in preparation for Purim. That year at the Purim Seudah, festive meal, Yadid shared with me what he learned about Purim at school. In his kindergarten, Haman’s punishment ( for attempting genocide) was having to walk behind Mordechai, who was riding on the royal horse, and pick up the poop. Yadid added with a smile that this is his favorite part of the story. Even years later, the banality of evil sticks with me. At what age do we tell our children that it normal to hunt Jews? At what age will they learn that there is nothing normal about anti-Semitism?

I was thinking about this recently when there was a story reported about construction workers breaking ground in 2004 on a shopping mall in Norwich, England. Amidst their excavation they found 17 bodies at the bottom of a 800-year-old well. The identity of the remains of the six adults and 11 children and why they ended up in the medieval well had long vexed archaeologists. Unlike other mass burials where skeletons are uniformly arranged, the bodies were oddly positioned and mixed which was likely caused by their being thrown head first shortly after their deaths.

It was in the news because scientists were recently able to extract detailed genetic material preserved in the bones. Thanks to recent advances in ancient DNA sequencing they were able to understand more about how these people died. The genomes of six of the individuals showed that four of them were related — including three sisters, the youngest of whom was five to 10 years old. Further analysis of the genetic material suggested that all six were “almost certainly” Ashkenazi Jews.

The researchers believe they all died during antisemitic violence that wracked the city, most likely a February 1190 riot related to the Third Crusade. This was one of a series of religious wars supported by the church as described by a medieval chronicler. The number of people killed in the massacre is unclear.

“I’m delighted and relieved that twelve years after we first started analysing the remains of these individuals, technology has caught up and helped us to understand this historical cold case of who these people were and why we think they were murdered,” said Selina Brace, a principal researcher at the Natural History Museum in London and lead author on the paper, said in a news release.

So, yes the science is remarkable. But like the story of Purim as told to a 6 year old, it is shocking that the long history of antisemism is taken for granted and notably not remarkable.

This news story gives added depth (pun intended) to the brilliant satire of Sasha Barron Cohen. If you have not seen it, enjoy ” Throw the Jew Down the Well”:

Sadly, when it comes to the Banality of Evil, still so many of us just sing along.

-Original post about the Banality of Poop

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Never Sleeps: Learning and Living with Chaos

Recently I came across The Devil Never Sleeps by Juliette Kayyem. This is an urgent and transformative guide to dealing with disasters from one of today’s foremost thinkers in crisis management.

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The future may still be unpredictable, but nowadays, disasters are not. We live in a time of constant, consistent catastrophe, where things more often go wrong than they go right. She asks, “So why do we still fumble when disaster hits? Why are we always one step behind?”

In The Devil Never Sleeps, Kayyem lays the groundwork for a new approach to dealing with disasters. Presenting the basic themes of crisis management, she amends the principles we rely on far too easily. Instead, she offers us a new framework to anticipate the “devil’s” inevitable return, highlighting the leadership deficiencies we need to overcome and the forward thinking we need to harness. It’s no longer about preventing a disaster from occurring, but learning how to use the tools at our disposal to minimize the consequences when it does.

Filled with personal anecdotes and real-life examples from natural disasters like the California wildfires to man-made ones like the Boeing 737 MAX crisis, The Devil Never Sleeps is a guide for governments, businesses, and individuals alike on how to alter our thinking so that we can develop effective strategies in the face of perpetual catastrophe.

When thinking about these ideas I found myself going back to my favorite earworm by the Shira Choir. I dare you to listen to Im HaShem LoYivneh Bayit without singing it all week.

The lyrics come from two verse in Psalms. There we read:

אם-השם, לא-יבנה בית–    שוא עמלו בוניו בו
אם-השם לא-ישמור-עיר,    שוא שקד שומר הנה לא-ינום, ולא יישן–    שומר, ישראל

If the Lord did not build the house, they labor in vain that they build it
If the Lord did not keep the city, the watchman are awake in vain (Psalm 127:1)

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

If we want to be agents of good we need better systems to protect human life. And at the same time we must understand our limitations. Kayyem’s depiction of a Devil not sleeping to cause evil is similar to the Psalms’ depiction of a God that “does not rest or sleep” to protect us. Ignoring the predictability of the Devil, or relying blindly on God to watch over us, both do not set us up for success. We need to prepare for disasters before they happen. This needs a different kind of leadership.

I was thinking of this when reading Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read, ” See, I place before you today a blessing and a curse.” Leadership needs the vision to understand proactively the implications of choices. We have blessings and curses in front of us. Will we choose the blessing of being agents of a watchful sleepless protector, or try to ignore the Devil at our peril? This kind of work and this mode of leadership is truly divine.

Accountability and Shame

Eikev, this week’s Torah portion, starts off with God’s blessings of obedience. From there it goes on to giving directions for taking the land, the incident of the Golden Calf, Aaron’s death, the Levites’ duties, and closes with exhortations to serve God. While most of the book Deuteronomy is just repeating older content, but here it is clear that the Golden Calf situation happened in Ki Tisa, here Moshe is just recalling their misdeeds. From their worship of the Golden Calf, the rebellion of Korach, the sin of the spies, their angering of God at Taveirah, Massah and Kivrot Hataavah (“The Graves of Lust”). Moshe seems to be rubbing their nose in it. “You have been rebellious against G‑d,” he says to them, “since the day I knew you.” Why us Moshe reminding them of their errant ways?

This question gets more interesting for the Rambam in his Mishnah Torah Laws if Teshuvah. Rambam explains that Baalei teshuvah tend to be humble and modest. If foolish people shame them because of their previous sins by reminding them of their former deeds, they will pay them no mind. Just the opposite, they will rejoice because they know that overcoming these things is a source of merit for them. When a baal teshuvah is embarrassed because of his former deeds, his merit increases and his level is elevated. It is absolutely sinful to remind a baal teshuvah of their former deeds or to recount them in their presence in order to embarrass them. It is even prohibited to discuss the situation vaguely in order to cause them to recall their sins. This is a form of verbal oppression, which the Torah forbids, saying, “Do not wrong one another” (Leviticus 25:17). (Teshuvah 7:8)

So, why would Moshe remind them of their sins? I am not sure I have a good answer, but I know this speaks to an issue we are struggling with in society today. How do we keep people accountable without resorting to shame? Shame is arresting and makes it hard to do anything. But removal of all shame seems to lead to no accountability. We need to thread this needle for Moshe and for us today if we hope to lead ourselves out of the wilderness.


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