Bring Down and Lift Up

In Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the upcoming shmita, Sabbatical year. There we read:

For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shalt surely open your hand unto your poor and needy brother, in your land.’ If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, he shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you shalt let him go free from you. (Deuteronomy 15:11-12)

Here we see a connection between the remission of loans and the freeing of the slaves on the seventh year. If some one is down on their luck regarding a loan or having been in slavery, the Torah commands the community to take responsibility to help them . Here we are called to look out for the needs of our fellow citizen. But what does it mean that, “poor shall never cease”? Why can we not imagine a time when poverty is over?

It seems that this question is answered in Isaiah’s Messianic vision in our Haftarah . There we read:

Ho, every one that is thirsty, come you for water, and he that had no money; come you, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do you spend money for that which is not bread? and your gain for that which satisfied not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat you that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.( Isaiah 55:1-2)

The ideal for the future is a time in which our needs are met without the disparity inherit in a society that is built around privilege, debt, and the imbalanced nature of currency. I am not foolhardy enough to think that our world can survive without the forces of capitalism, we just need to recognize that inherent in that system is perpetual poverty. It is also possible that our approach to poverty cannot be limited to any single community looking out for their own.

These ideas came home for me when you look at what happened in Charlottesville last weekend. There we saw the painful reminders of a country still ravaged by its history in slavery. There we saw the ugly display of White Nationalist, Alt-Right, and neo-Nazis spewing their hate. It seemed to reach a horrific nadir when one of those white terrorists plowed his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators killing one and injuring many others. And if we thought it could not get any worse the President lent legitimacy to this world view. Clearly the current administration does not have a path forward, so what can we do?

We need to dig in deep to our prophetic tradition. We can leave no room for hatred, but at the same time we need to try to find a space of empathy. There is no room for bigotry, racism, or ant-Semitism, but we need to find other ways to hear the pain in the voice of these white men. Listening to their voices does not make them right or even legitimate, but there is no doubt they are experiencing difficulty. Do any of honestly believe that the current administration will do anything substantive to support poor white America?

What would it look like to live in a society our Torah portion is describing? What would it look like to live in a place where we all looked out for those who are less fortunate? What would it look like if every seven years we rebooted the economic structures of society and gave everyone a fresh start? This is a complicated process of rewriting our collective story and who is part of “us”, but surely it is worth it. Yes we might have to bring down some statues, but in the process we would lift up a lot of people.

Packing for Mitzvah

I spend all of my time thinking about sending Jewish children to Jewish summer camp. It is funny when I pause to realize that two of my own children are actually away at summer camp right now. I love that they love it. I am happy for them and I can admit that it is validating to me and my work.

Just a few weeks ago we were packing the boys up for camp. I can admit that it was difficult. There were moments that we were not our best selves. How could we figure out what to pack and what not to pack? It was really helpful to have a list; I would have been lost without it. I was thinking about that list and our packing when reading Parshat Eikev, this week’s Torah portion.

In the Third Aliyah Mosche tells the Israelites that they will inherit the Land of Israel not due to their own merits and righteousness, but because of the promise God made to the Patriarchs. In fact, Mosche reminds them of the many times they angered God while in the desert, placing special emphasis on the sin of the Golden Calf, when God would have annihilated the Israelites if not for Mosche’s successful intercession on their behalf. He also makes brief reference to the other times when the Israelites rebelled against God. And then in the Fourth Aliyah Mosche recounts how after the Golden Calf debacle, God commanded him to carve two new tablets to engrave the Ten Commandments, to replace the first set of tablets which Moses had shattered.

And there we read:

At that time the Lord said to me: ‘Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first, and come up unto Me into the mount; and make thee an ark of wood. And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables which thou didst break, and thou shalt put them in the ark.’ (Deuteronomy 10:1-2)

What can we learn from the fact that both the broken tablets and the new Tablets go into the Ark?

As a parent I know I make mistakes. I am not perfect and I thank God every day for bringing my children into my life if for nothing else so you can remind me of this fact.

Can I come to peace with the old Tablets and the New Tablets? Can I come to grips with the life I want for my kids and the lives they write for themselves.  Thank God for the packing list. They both get placed/packed in the ark. I know that my children will forge their own path and I will always be there for them. I am very excited to see where this journey leads them. I am sure when they come back from camp we will get a glimpse of what their lives will look like in the future.  Both are holy and will be packed for life. 

Love Till the End: Rabbi Akiva and the Shema

In Va’Etchanan, this week’s Torah portion, we read the Shema, the traditional Jewish credo. There we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our Gcd, the Lord is one . You shall love the Lord your Gcd with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4- 7)

About this Rabbi Eliezer asks, “If it says ‘with all your soul’, why should it also say, ‘with all your might’,  and if it says ‘with all your might’, why should it also say ‘with all your soul’?” (Berchot 61b) The Gemara goes on to ask,  ” Should there be a man who values his life more than his money, for him it says; ‘with all your soul’; and should there be a man who values his money more than his life, for him it says, ‘with all your might’.”  Rabbi Akiva responds claiming that ‘with all your soul’ means that even if Gcd takes away your soul. The rational for the seemingly extra language around the conditions of loving Gcd is to account for every situation a person would experience in life. 

There is no doubt that living in a modern culture the entire construct of belief in, let alone love of, God is challenging. Living in a post- Holocaust generation Rabbi Akiva’s claim seem impossible. How could such a violent Gcd which took away six million Jewish souls  be worthy of our love? It is not much easier to fathom how we could have a loving relationship with a dispassionate God that would allow the Holocaust to happen.

That Gemara it goes on to the tell the harrowing story of Rabbi Akiva’s resistance to the government. Despite their forbidding him to learn and teach Torah he risks his life and persisted. Eventually he was captured by government forces, imprisoned, and was taken to be executed for his crime of teaching Torah. There we read:

When Rabbi Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, ‘with all your soul’, [which I interpret,] ‘even if Gcd takes your soul’. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it? He prolonged the word “ehad- one “until he expired while saying it.(Berchot 61b) 

This is a powerful story of self-sacrifice of a religious person. It is easy to understand how this story would give strength to our people throughout all of the generations facing the anti-Semitic murders of history. So while we might have our theological challenges today, this story always stands as a national mandate. We carry the memory of millions who like Rabbi Akiva went to their deaths saying the words of the Shema. And even in that moment I want to cherish how Rabbi Akiva lived more than how he died. Beyond being a person of faith he was a devoted teacher striving to teach his students until the bitter end. In a beautiful way this act of altruism of sharing his wisdom was born out of a life filled with grit and curiosity. Rabbi Akiva was troubled  his whole life trying to understand the meaning of the Shema. Even at this moment of pain so close to the end he was striving to understand and make meaning.

More than his death, Rabbi Akiva’s life forces me to the ask some questions.  When faced with such hatred would I have the fortitude to respond with love? When faced with the end would I still be as open to growing and learning? Even if I could figure this out would I have the presence of mind to share my thoughts? What will be my lifelong “trouble”?  If I answer all of these questions will I truly know what it means to love?

Worth Reviewing

This week we start reading the Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah.  At the start of Devarim, this week’s Torah portion and  we read:

These are the words which Mosche spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Arabah, over against Suf, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. It is eleven days journey from Horev unto Kadesh-barnea by the way of mount Seir. And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Mosche spoke unto the children of Israel, according unto all that the Lord had given him in commandment unto them; ( Deuteronomy 1:1-3)

The entire book of Deuteronomy is a retrospective of what happened to the Israelite people in the previous 40 years. Deuteronomy, the name of the book in English itself, literally means “second law”. The whole book is a repeating of the stories we have learned about in the previous three books of the Torah. It must be important if it is worth saying twice. As we start this book it is interesting to reflect on what is worth reviewing?

I was thinking about this recently when I ran into a colleague in the Non-For Profit Jewish world in Penn Station late at night on my home from a visiting camps. My colleague was leaving New York after a conference here in the city and had some time to kill before his train. We took this chance meeting as a chance to catch up. Both of us live our lives as observant Jews working for the larger Jewish community. It is interesting in that neither of us grew up that way. In this context it seemed completely natural when he asked me to share my story. He wanted to know how my Jewish journey got me to where I am today.

The first story that came to mind was a memory I have from 1993 when I was a student at Yeshivat HaMivtar. Every Wednesday Rabbi Dovid Ebner would give a Mussar class after lunch. It was the highlight of my week. Rabbi Ebner has a vast knowledge of the Jewish canon and the human soul. In the tapestries of his talks he was able to weave together strands from all over the Bayt Midrash into a stunning and inspiring works of art. Still to this day I feel that his profound truths impact me. While I do not recall the larger topic he was speaking on during the day in question I fondly recall one class. He often brought quotes from a wide diversity of Traditional Jewish sources, but that day Rabbi Ebner said, “The other day I was doing hazara on Catcher in the Rye.” Hazara is the traditional practice of relearning canonical works that are worth reviewing. I remember that moment so well. Rabbi Ebner invited me into the Bayt Midrash in a way I had not felt in the past. I did not have to give up other libraries to show up and be present. The opposite was true. I actually felt and still feel a profound sense of obligation to the entire library of the human experience. Why couldn’t J. D. Salinger be in conversation with the Rambam? If they could both be there, maybe I also should be there. That was the moment that I recall metaphorically pushing all of my chips into the middle of the table. I was all-in for a Modern Orthodoxy that saw that truth regardless of its origin or artistic expression was worthy of review.

We are what is worth prioritize to review. In the process we create memory and meaning. With our starting the book of Deuteronomy I pause to reflect what is worth our review?



Tumahlicious: Are You Ready?

In Jewish law, tumah and taharah are the state of being ritually “impure” and “pure” respectively. A person or object which contracts tumah is said to be tamei, and thereby unsuited for certain holy activities until undergoing predefined purification actions. In Matot Masai, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about all of the rules of what happened to the spoils of war. There we read:

And Eleazar the priest said to the men of war that went to the battle: ‘This is the statue of the law which the Lord has commanded Mosche: Howbeit the gold, and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin, and the lead, every thing that may abide the fire, you shall make to go through the fire, and it shall be clean; nevertheless it shall be purified with the water of sprinkling; and all that abide not the fire you shall make to go through the water. And you shall wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean, and afterward you may come into the camp.’  ( Numbers 31:21-24)

It is interesting how both the person who goes to war as the booty of war are impure. They both need to be cleaned physically and metaphysically before it can be in the camp. What is the connection between the people we are and the material acquisitions in our life?

This question got me thinking about the word booty itself. The word actually means something valuable stolen goods, especially those seized in war. But today it has taken another meaning. This meaning is best known  Destiny’s Child’s earworm  Bootilicious.

There in the chorus they sing, ” I don’t think you ready for this  ‘Cause my body too bootylicious for yo babe”. What does it mean that people talk about themselves or more specifically a part of their body that is something valuable stolen goods, especially those seized in war. While this song seems to empower the female protagonist to claim that the man in questions cannot handle her body, it still assumes that women’s bodies are objects to be won or stolen. What does this say about our cultural assumptions of sex and sexuality?

I am not trying to claim that Destiny’s Child or even modern sexuality is impure, but I do think it is worthy of reflection. Sex is not a subject to be shunned. Quiet the contrary, we have to work harder at bringing that conversation into the camp. Sex cannot be a means of objectification or be tainted by the violence of war. We do need to rethink the language, metaphor, and process of making sex a pure and meaningful act. I would love to hear your thoughts. Are you ready?

Prise de la Bastille: Noble Resistance

On the morning of 14 July 1789, the city of Paris was in a state of alarm. The partisans of the Third Estate in France, now under the control of the Bourgeois Militia of Paris, had earlier stormed the Hôtel des Invalides without meeting significant opposition. Their intention had been to gather the weapons held there. The commandant at the Invalides had in the previous few days taken the precaution of transferring 250 barrels of gunpowder to the Bastille for safer storage.  Amid the tensions of July 1789 the building remained as a symbol of royal tyranny. At this point, the Bastille was nearly empty, housing only seven prisoners: four forgers, two “lunatics” and one “deviant” aristocrat, the Comte de Solages.

The crowd gathered outside around mid-morning, calling for the surrender of the prison, the removal of the cannon and the release of the arms and gunpowder. Two representatives of the crowd outside were invited into the fortress and negotiations began, and another was admitted around noon with definite demands. The negotiations dragged on while the crowd grew and became impatient. Around 1:30, the crowd surged into the undefended outer courtyard. A small party climbed onto the roof of a building next to the gate to the inner courtyard and broke the chains on the drawbridge, crushing one vainqueur as it fell. Soldiers of the garrison called to the people to withdraw but in the noise and confusion these shouts were misinterpreted as encouragement to enter. Gunfire began, apparently spontaneously, turning the crowd into a mob. The crowd seems to have felt that they had been intentionally drawn into a trap and the fighting became more violent and intense, while attempts by deputies to organised a cease-fire were ignored by the attackers. The firing continued, and after 3 pm the attackers were reinforced by mutinous French Guard,  along with two cannons. A substantial force of Royal Army troops encamped on the Champs de Mars did not intervene. With the possibility of mutual carnage suddenly apparent, Governor de Launay ordered a cease-fire at 5 pm. A letter offering his terms was handed out to the besiegers through a gap in the inner gate. His demands were refused, but de Launay nonetheless capitulated, as he realized that with limited food stocks and no water supply his troops could not hold out much longer. He accordingly opened the gates to the inner courtyard, and the vainqueurs swept in to liberate the fortress at 5:30.

The Bastille was a symbol of abuses by the monarchy. The news of the successful insurrection at Paris spread throughout France. The Prise de la Bastille – Storming of the Bastille  was the flashpoint of the French Revolution.

Besides tomorrow being the 228th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, I was thinking about this moment when reading Pinchas, this week’s Torah Portion. In preparation for entering into the new land they had a lottery to determine who would get what property. There we read:

Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.  And they stood before Mosche, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying. ‘Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father.’ ( Numbers 27:1-4)

The daughters of Zelophehad nobly presented their case to Mosche. Similar to the case of the Storming of the Bastille, there were very few people impacted by this miscarriage of justice, but it represented something symbolic that needed to corrected. Their resistance could have spelled the end of Mosche’s short rule of law, but instead of being inflexible Mosche found a solution. Throughout history following these lessons Halakha- Jewish law has evolved by fomenting and responding to many revolutions. As leaders we need to be open and listen to all issues regardless of few people might be marginalized by them. Like Mosche we will not survive imprisoned in our fortress. As citizens we need to follow the noble example of the daughters of Zelophehad and persist to resist in the name of justice.


The Painted Bird

In Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak. There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. (Numbers 22:2)

Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  But what is his name? Balak the son of Zippor- Balak the son of Bird. And of course this story of animals fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity. What do we make of all of this “parshamenagerie“? Why does Balak hate the Israelite people?

This animalistic vision of Balak the son of Bird’s hate evokes for me images from the cover of  Jerzy Kosinski‘s  book the Painted Bird.

Image result for painted bird jerzy

In this controversial 1965 novel by Kosinski describes World War II as seen by a boy wandering about small villages scattered around an unspecified country in Eastern Europe. Like the book of Numbers, this book describes the boy’s encounter with peasants engaged in all forms of sexual and social deviance such as incest, bestiality and rape, and in a huge amount of violence – often at the expense of the child. While the book has been said to depict peasants in a derogatory fashion, some argue that it was not a particular social group, but all people, who are viewed as inherently predisposed to cruelty.

The title is drawn from an analogy to human life, described within the book. The boy finds himself in the company of a professional bird catcher. There we read:

One day he trapped a large raven, whose wings he painted red, the breast green, and the tail blue. When a flock of ravens appeared over our hut, Lekh freed the painted bird. As soon as it joined the flock a desperate battle began. The changeling was attacked from all sides. Black, red, green, blue feathers began to drop at our feet. The ravens ran amuck in the skies, and suddenly the painted raven plummeted to the freshly-plowed soil. It was still alive, opening its beak and vainly trying to move its wings. Its eyes had been pecked out, and fresh blood streamed over its painted feathers. It made yet another attempt to flutter up from the sticky earth, but its strength was gone. (Jerzy Kosiński, The Painted Bird)

When the man is particularly upset or bored, he takes one of his captured birds and paints it several colors. Then he watches the bird fly through the air in search of a flock of its kin. When it comes upon them, they see it as an intruder and tear at the bird until it dies, falling from the sky.

Back to Balak, what separated the Israelites from other nations? There was no biological difference. The soul difference was their faith and practice. But if they lost their faith or stopped their practice, what separated the Israelites? There in the story of their Exodus we read:

You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it at twilight.They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it. ( Exodus 12:6-7)

We separated from our neighbors by painting our door posts. The book of Numbers is the story of the nation of Israel wandering in the desert after having been liberated from their slavery in Egypt. Like the Painted Bird, we see the Israelites being sent back to interact with the flock of humanity after having been painted as different and their struggle to keep their faith and practice. While the authorship or authenticity of the book might be suspect, for me the Painted Bird has always been a haunting portrayal of what happens when humanity gives into hate and scorn, we are all but savage animals ripping apart what we perceive as a threat. Sadly we have to ask if  anything has really changed?


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