Openhearted: Lesson in Vulnerability from VaEra

In VaEra, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the plague of hail.  Moshe warns them in advance of the hail. There we read:

This time tomorrow I will rain down a very heavy hail, such as has not been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. Therefore, order your livestock and everything you have in the open brought under shelter; every man and beast that is found outside, not having been brought indoors, shall perish when the hail comes down upon them!’” Those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared the Lord’s word brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety; but those who paid no regard to the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the open. ( Exodus 9:18-21)

They were warned that the hail was coming and that they needed to move inside to evade the plague. But those ” who paid no regard” would get hurt by the hail. My dear friend and teacher Shalom Orzach pointed out that the language here is critical. “Who paid no regard”-לֹא־שָׂ֛ם לִבּ֖וֹ- lo sam libo-literally means “who do not place their heart”. In many ways we learn that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. Here we see that Moshe is appealing to their hearts. While it still might be hard, Moshe is asking for them to openhearted. What would it take to be vulnerable and put their hearts out there?

Image result for openhearted

Paying attention assumes that there is a bank of attention, we pay out that commodity, and it is finite. Being vulnerable and open assumes that it is infinite. We all have room to grow in our vulnerability. As  Brené Brown, my vulnerability Rebbe, teaches:

Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path. (Daring Greatly)

We need to pay attention to when we are called to be vulnerable and openhearted. From this place we can free ourselves and others.

Taken: Coaching Moshe to Lead

At the beginning of the book of Shemot we are introduced to Moshe. We will spend the rest of the Torah learning of his character as the person who would liberate his people from Egypt, guide them through the desert, get the Torah at Sinai, and deliver them to the Promised Land. It takes a very defined group of skills to be such a profound leader. What do we learn from his early days that might have prepared him for his leadership?

There seems to be a myriad of elements of his life that led to his leadership. At the start he is a person between two worlds. He is an Israelite being raised in the house of the king. At some point we see his inner life emerge as he is moved to stand up to the taskmaster who was beating the Israelite slave. Out of fear that his intervention will be discovered he escapes Egypt. There he find himself as a shepherd of Yitro. It is in this context that he gets the call to action to be the leader of the Israelite slave rebellion.

Thinking of this moment in the context of his life I got to thinking about the iconic phone scene from Taken by Liam Neeson. Watch this:

He he says:

I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom I can tell you I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you, but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you. —Liam Neeson, Taken

At this moment when Moshe has his phone call he lacks confidence. There we read:

But Moshe said to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” And the Lord said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? ( Exodus 4:10-11)

I can imagine God echoing Liam Neeson in his talk with Moshe. God would say:

Moshe you have a very particular set of skills. Over your very long career you have acquired  skills that make you a nightmare for people like Pharaoh. Go to Pharaoh and tell him, ” If you let my people go now that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you, but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.”

Moshe had a very particular set of skills. He just needed God to point them out to him. For many of us we cannot see the skills we have acquired. We need someone to point out our unique gifts and how they would best be put to use. God is modelling what it means to be a great mentor or coach. While the skills and gifts are critical, too often the person helping you best put them to use is taken for granted.

Between the Forest and the Tree: Undertaking the Major Task of Culture Change

At the end of 2018, Foundation for Jewish Camp concluded the first cohort of the Hiddur Initiative. Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Maimonides Fund, and The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Hiddur Initiative was a pilot experiment to help eight Jewish overnight summer camps become more effective at delivering Jewish educational experiences to their campers and staff, in ways that align with each camp’s unique Jewish mission. In reflecting on this demonstration project, I realize that Peter Senge, the change management guru, was right when he said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” Two stories from camps about the challenges and opportunities change provides offer insights into the experience of the Hiddur Initiative. Interestingly, both stories are about trees, which model the delicate balance of permanence and growth.

The first story goes that there was a new camp director at his first summer at camp. When he got there he was disturbed to discover a “gum tree” – a tree where all of the campers and staff would put their gum before Shabbat prayer. Feeling that this was gross and unsightly, he had the groundskeeper cut down the tree before the second Shabbat of the summer. Often, when people tell this story, they claim that the director was fired before the tree hit the ground. The tree was a part of their camp culture, and the camp director had broken their trust by cutting it down without consulting anyone from the community who could have helped him understand its significance. While there is a time and place for quick, responsive adjustments or shifts in policies and procedures, we do it at our own peril if we are not conscious and conscientious of the cultural context. In order to bring about change we need to have reverence for tradition.

The second story comes from Helene Drobenare, the longtime director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake. Once, when asked about the secret to her success in leadership, she told a story about a trip up to URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in the winter early in her career. As she tells it, she and Jerry Kaye, the legendary director, were driving around camp and he stopped and made them get out of the car. It was freezing cold and all she could see was a thick forest of trees. Not understanding the significance of this moment, Helene asked Jerry what they were doing. He pulled out an old large map. Jerry said, “Look at this. It is the map of OSRUI from when I took over as the director.” Pointing out where they were standing, he continued, “See right here, this was an open field, but I wanted it to be a forest.” When Jerry retired last year he had been the director at OSRUI for close to half a century, and he’d left a thick forest as part of his legacy.

Between the two stories of two trees we can understand a profound lesson of change management. Camp maintains a depth of culture founded on a utopian sense of tradition. While short term wins are important, there are no shortcuts to changing culture. We can do almost anything we can imagine in a community or an organization as long as we have respect for the tradition we have inherited, have a clear vision for the future, and have the grit, gumption, and patience to see that field become a lush forest.

Laying the Groundwork for Meaningful Change
Each of the eight camps was asked to set goals for change with their Hiddur coaches, who were expert Jewish camp educators, so that, critically, the process was internally motivated. To help create this motivation, Hiddur coaches introduced camp leaders to a deeper use of data so they could see and understand the impact and outcomes their actions were having. As Brian Schreiber, President & CEO of JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, which owns Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC) said:

You can’t build a great Jewish camp without building a great camp and we had to take data seriously to do that. The CSI (Camper Satisfaction Insights) and SSI (Staff Satisfaction Insights) data led to a lot of soul-searching, change and a detailed intense three-year strategic plan for EKC. Hiddur helped us uncover some areas we needed to focus on and pilot programs often are at the edge of the R & D that this field needs. If Hiddur was designed as a catalyst to do more, the pilot achieved its goal at EKC 100%.

By approaching this process with a coach in a strategic, data-informed way, camp leaders felt empowered to make decisions about what should—and should not—be changed.  Creating change, as the evaluation on Hiddur affirms, often is a sensitive and difficult endeavor. But if people see that change is necessary to fulfill the mission, people are more likely to support it. Hiddur gave space for camp leaders to map out where they wanted to keep the fields as they were, what needed to be chopped down, and where they wanted to seed forests.

Camp leaders, for example, whose camps had a stated set of Jewish educational tenets or objectives began Hiddur by reviewing that list to see what was and was not aligned in practice.  How could those stated principles be refreshed and better expressed in action? Returning to those initial intentions created that essential internal motivation among the camp’s stakeholders and cemented the commitment to the process. No one was cutting down any “gum trees”; they were restoring their camp to their core values.  B’nai B’rith (BB) Camp, for example, worked with its Hiddur coach to articulate goals based on their B’nai B’rith brand and culture. Much of the “culture” in this case was already defined; they had a sense of what they wanted to preserve. But they also wanted to increase camp-wide participation in Jewish life. To this end, they created a pre-camp Shabbaton for staff and teen leaders aimed at getting a core group of camp influencers on board and inspired by the Jewish life enhancements. Now, BB Camp Shabbat is led for the first time by a team of home grown song leaders and community educators who have developed tunes, dances and rituals that are unique to their camp.

Independent camps not affiliated with a denomination or movement face a particular challenge—a lack of a built-in framework—when trying to define their “camp culture” of Jewish education. Asking any organization to start with reflection instead of “doing” can be a challenge, but this is what Hiddur asked of its cohort. Only then could coaches and camp leaders together create a path for the camp to identify their brand as a Jewish camp. One independent camp in the initiative reflected:

In 2016 we did not have a framing for Judaism at camp. Hiddur helped us lay out who we are as a Jewish camp, what does it mean to be a Jewish camp, how do we identify to Jewish community as a Jewish camp. Creating our core Jewish values was helpful in how we framed Jewish life at camp. Before, we were making it up as we went along.

Outside Help Moves the Change Process Forward—Slowly
Creating change is an easier process with outside facilitation and help. Since the pull to “do what we have always done” competes with vision and aspirations for improvement, having a coach to provide gentle reminders and a guide back to camps’ own stated goals is a difference-maker. The Hiddur coaches facilitated reflection on and evaluation of the process intermittently, talking through the change, addressing some of the camp leaders’ discomfort, and providing camps a way to “consult the map” along the way. The coaches were able to help these communities define and refine for themselves their own Jewish brand, programming, and messaging.

At the same time, a paramount learning here is that real change takes time. An initiative meant to facilitate change must provide a framework that accounts for this. Rather than ask camps to commit to an unrealistic measurable change over one camp season, Hiddur was a three year program (and even that amount of time proved to be too short to execute and see all of the changes that these camps envisioned). By setting a longer time-horizon, camps could dream big and work slowly at change. While we are confident that we could make the process shorter than three years, there are no shortcuts to culture change. Now, after a year since Hiddur concluded, FJC is eager to bring a tighter version of this model of coaching to more camps.

John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Brian Schreiber from Pittsburgh articulated the unique role of the Hiddur team in this challenging change process: “Three years ago we knew we were good, but not great. We wanted to up the game on Jewish life, but didn’t have the right people or focus to make it happen. Hiddur gave us direction, justification for making change and made us intentional about everything we do when it comes to Jewish life at camp and this entire agency.” With Hiddur, we at FJC are thrilled to see the emergence of wonderful forests of Jewish life at each of these camps. From where we sit, in all of our work we know that we cannot lose sight of the majestic forests for a “gum tree.”

– Read the full evaluation conducted by Rosov Consulting, Beautification and Exploration: Evaluating Three Years of the Hiddur Initiative.

– Reposted from Jim Joseph Foundation 

 

Riddle of the Sphinx: A Thought on Yaakov and Yosef

At the start of  this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, we read “ Yaakov lived in seventeen years in the land of Egypt…“ (Genesis 47:28). On this the Baal HaTorim quoting the Midrash HaGadol picks up on the number seventeen. This number seventeen clearly sets the time that Yaakov lives in the land of Yosef to the time that Yosef his son spent growing up in the house of his father before he was sold into slavery in Egypt. This points out a powerful symmetry between fathers and sons in general and Yaakov and Yosef specifically . The child who was dependent on the parent physically and emotionally for their first stage of his or her life is often forced to reverse roles with their child for the parents’ final stage of life. There is a certain balance in the living out of the Riddle of the Sphinx.

Great Sphinx of Giza - 20080716a.jpg

As the riddle goes, “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?” The answer goes that is a person. As a baby in the morning of a person’s life they crawl on all fours. As an adult in the noon of their life, they walk on two feet. But when they are old, in the evening of their life, they walk with a cane, on three feet. In the first 17 years Yosef was as if on all fours, in the middle Yaakov and Yosef both walk around and make their way in the world on two feet. Upon their reconnection in Egypt we see a wounded Yisrael with his cane living his final 17 years with his Yosef in Egypt.

It is crazy how I can see myself in my children’s different stages. I also see myself evolving into my parents more and more. The experience of the passing of time has proven a rich source of reflection.  I cannot say it is a riddle, but it is surely a mystery.

The Start of the Siege: Yosef and the 10th Tevet

This coming week we commemorate the Tenth of Tevet – Asarah BeTevet. This fast day is observed in mourning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia—an event that began on that date and ultimately culminated in the destruction of the First Temple and the conquest of the Kingdom of Yehudah. In many ways this is the beginning of the long slog to our diaspora that only ended in 1948.

 

Nebuchadnezzar camp outside Jerusalem. Famine in the city.jpg
Nebuchadnezzar camps outside Jerusalem.  Petrus Comestor‘s “Bible Historiale”, 1372

I was thinking about this narrative and this image in the context on the Torah portions we have been reading these last few week’s about Yosef and his diaspora in Egypt. Yosef’s story starts off with an interesting image. There we read:

And it came to pass, when Yosef was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Yosef of his coat, the coat of many colors that was on him; and they took him, and cast him into the pit–and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Yishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spices and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. (Gen. 37: 23-25)

Their little brother comes to see his brothers. They strip him of his clothes,  stick him in pit, and have lunch. Their eating bread at this moment seems to underscore their cruelty.

The compelling element of this image is that Yosef in the pit is similar to the citizens of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar’s siege. Nothing has happened yet, but a long history of diaspora is coming. Noteworthy we deal with this moment by fasting and not sitting around and eating bread. We fast to ensure that we are sensitive to Yosef, the citizens of Jerusalem, and all those in captivity who are insecure as to their future far from home. It is noteworthy that with the recent surge of antisemitism many of us are also sitting in fear.

Eli Wiesel wrote:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

We need to stand up against hate and cannot be neutral or silent. We cannot be like those who sit around and just eat bread. This  Sunday there is an important Solidarity March: No Hate. No Fear. I am very proud that my wife has played such a big role in rolling this out. We need to stand up for ourselves. We need to stand up for all those who live in fear.

– JOIN: https://nyjewi.sh/marchnyc

Who’s Dream is it Any Way

Last year when reading Miketz, this week’s Torah portion, I explored the Jewish history in psychology. There we see Yosef who accurately interpreted the dreams of the baker and butler being brought to the Pharaoh to interpret his dreams. As Sigmund Freud wrote in his The Interpretation of Dreams, “Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.” Surely being an interpreter of dreams makes Yosef the father of analysis.

After  Pharaoh recounts his two dreams we read:

And Yosef said to Pharaoh: ‘The dream of Pharaoh is one; what God is about to do God has declared to Pharaoh. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one. And the seven lean and ill-favored cows that came up after them are seven years, and also the seven empty ears blasted with the east wind; they shall be seven years of famine. That is the thing which I spoke to Pharaoh: what God is about to do God has shown to Pharaoh. ( Genesis 41: 25- 28)

Yosef had a gift to interpret subtle facts and a desire to share that vision even if it did not make sense to others.  Yosef’s theory would  be tested to ensure that the experience matched the conclusions ( or minimally he bought himself 7 years to live). The most interesting part for me is his claim that is all “one dream”. In the process Yosef casts his lot with Egypt. Might this vision of it all being “one dream” have gone too far? 

Recently I reread Mama and the Meaning of Life by Irvin Yalom with my son Yishama. Yalom is also another Jewish psychotherapist and gifted writer who probes into the mysteries of the therapeutic encounter drawn from his own clinical experience.  The first story there is a richly rewarding, almost illicit glimpse into the therapist’s heart and mind, Momma and the Meaning of Life illuminates the unique potential of every human relationship.There he tells an amazing story of his recurring dream of his childhood with his mother. Spoiler alert , at the end of the story we read, “‘Your dream?’ That’s what I want to say to you. That’s the mistake, Oyvin- your thinking I was in your dream. That dream was not your dream, Sonny. It was my dream. Mother get to have dreams too. ” (Momma and the Meaning of Life 13)

We assume that Yalom’s dream is his own, but in fact it is his dream of his mother’s dream. So too might we assume that this “one dream” was actually just Pharaoh’s. This image of Yosef cast him getting too close to his patient and enmeshed with his client.  For analysis to be productive it cannot all be “one dream”. 

Yoselfie

The Yosef we see in our Torah portion resonates with today’s teens. He is pretty into himself and curates his public image. 

It is so nice to see who he proves to be at his moment of temptation. There we read:

One such day, he came into the house to do his work. None of the household being there inside, she caught hold of him by his garment and said, “Lie with me!” But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. (Genesis 39:11- 12)

Simply he walks away from Potiphar’s wife. But why? On this portion the Gemara learns:

At that moment his father’s image [deyokeno] came and appeared to him in the screen. The image said to him: Yosef, the names of your brothers are destined to be written on the stones of the ephod, and you are to be included among them. Do you desire your name to be erased from among them, and to be called an associate [ro’eh] of promiscuous women? As it is written: “But he who keeps company with harlots wastes his riches” (Proverbs 29:3), as he loses his honor, which is more valuable than wealth. (Sotah 36b) 

The simple reading is that at the moment when he was tested he passed by a mirror/ window and saw his reflection. Instead of just seeing his own image he saw how much he looked like his father. His father challenged him to find his place amidst his brethren. 

So too we are asking our teens if they just see themselves in the screens of their smart phones. What would it look like for them to see their parents generation let alone the role they might play in their nation? We need to trust that our teens like Yosef will not get get lost taking “Yoselfies”. 


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