So Popular: On Lavan and Ye

I saw it reported this week that Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, appeared on Alex Jones’ InfoWars show to speak about his recent remarks and said, “people in high school didn’t know what antisemitism meant until I made it popular.” Wow, just wow.

The spike in acts of hate speech and even hate crime against Jews over the last few years has made me ask the question about origin of Antisemitism. Why is there such a long history of people hating us? Where did that all start? Was it really Ye who made it popular or is he just late to the party?

In Vayetze, this week’s Torah portion, we meet Lavan the OB Anti-Semite for the second time. Jacob shows up and he is on the run from his brother. Jacob falls in love with Lavan’s younger daughter Rachel. Lavan makes Jacob work for 7 years for her but then tricks him into marrying her sister Leah instead. When Jacob confront Lavan he says:“It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.” (Genesis 29:26)

Why would local customs override such an agreement? Again we see something interesting in the Or HaChaim. On this he comments:

Actually, Laban argued that the local inhabitants had protested what he had agreed to. Inasmuch as the inhabitants were the majority and he was only a single individual, he Laban, had to bow to their wishes. This is why he spoke about במקומנו, “in our place.”

Or HaChaim on Genesis 29:26

Lavan Rivka’s sister and Jacob’s uncle. How is this place our place and not also Jacob’s place. Here we see Lavan reminding Jacob that he did not belong there. He was a stranger in a strange land. This is why the Passover Hagadah holds up Lavan as the paradigm of antisemitsm

What do we learn from this? Ye is late to the party and being a semite does not mean you can not be an Anti-Semite. We should be liberated to experience empathy of the “other”. We need to remember that even if we do not agree or get along, from its origins, we are still family and we should strive to understand each other.

Advertisement

Remembering the Holocaust: Revisiting Zechariah

The holidays are behind us, we just celebrated Thanksgiving and Rosh Hodesh Kislev on Thursday and we are in the clear until the 25th when we celebrate Chanukah. Yesterday was the 4th of Kislev and it passed without mention or fanfare. But It was an important day in the book of Zechariah.

Zechariah’s prophecies took place during the reign of Darius the Great and were contemporary with Haggai in a post-exilic world after the fall of Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE. Zechariah is specific about dating his writing (520–518 BC).There we read:

In the fourth year of King Darius, on the fourth day of the ninth month, Kislev, the word of the Lord came to Zechariah—when Bethel-sharezer and Regem-melech and his men sent-to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to address this inquiry to the priests of the House of the Lord and to the prophets: “Shall I weep and practice abstinence in the fifth month, as I have been doing all these years?” Thereupon the word of the Lord of Hosts came to me: Say to all the people of the land and to the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth and seventh months all these seventy years, did you fast for my benefit? And when you eat and drink, who but you does the eating, and who but you does the drinking?

Zechariah 7:1- 6

After the destruction of the First Temple they commemorated that event with a yearly fast ( see 2 Kings 25:8). At the time in Zechariah they were almost done rebuilding the Second Temple after 70 years of exile and the people did not know what to do. They came to Zechariah because they wanted to know what to do with this commemoration.

Their question seems sincere. The response seems rather harsh. Instead of appreciating the earnest nature of this inquiry to stop the fast God tell Zechariah to criticize them for the lack of intention of this fast in the first place. It seems that God is doubting their motivation. They eat for their own interests and they fast for their own interests. Why should this involve God at all?

While we are not there yet, not so far in the future , we too will have a 4th of Kislev reckoning. In our era it is not the destruction of the Temple but rather the destruction of European Jewry that has occupied our collective consciousness. We will need to make sense of our commemoration of the Holocaust. We are getting close to 75 years of a State of Israel. There are preciously few survivors left. What will we do with our rituals and educational program for remembering the Holocaust in the future? What were our intentions for these behaviors? Can we stop what we started?

There is not simple answer to these questions, but I want to end where we began with Zechariah. Not much is known about Zechariah’s life other than what may be inferred from the book. It has been speculated that his grandfather Iddo was the head of a priestly family who returned with Zerubbabel and that Zechariah may have been a priest as well as a prophet. In this he bridged both realities. We also know that his name Zechariah means “God remembered.”

As we consider how we will preserve the memory of the Holocaust we might need a generation that bridges that divide like Zechariah himself. We also need to do some soul searching. Is the preservation of this memory for us and or for God. Like his prophecy maybe some clarity about the intention of the remembering will guide the way.

YODO: The Blessing of Living Lots of Times

You cannot go anywhere without seeing YOLO. It seems to be to motto of this era. “YOLO” is an acronym for “you only live once”. It is along the same lines as the Latin carpe diem -‘seize the day’. It is a call to live life to its fullest extent, even embracing behavior which carries inherent risk. But is this true?

To this sentiment Bobby Darin replied, “It isn’t true that you live only once. You only die once. You live lots of times, if you know how.” In many ways living a meaningful life is not the drive to be risky, but the result of it. When we come into contact with our own mortality we are often forced to make sense of our lives. It is in these moments that we must learn how to actually live.

I was thinking about this when reading Toldot, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about Isaac getting old and going blind. We read:

When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” He answered, “Here I am.” And he said, “I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die. Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.”

Genesis 27:1-4

What is the impetus for Isaac giving his son a blessing? It seems to be a consciousness of his age, ability, and mortality. Isaac wants to give his son a blessing before he dies. But it makes you wonder, does anyone know when they are going die?

In Perkei Avot Rebbe Eliezer teaches “Repent one day before your death” (Avot 2:15).The Talmud explains that his real meaning was that a person should be in a process of Tshuva (repentance) every day, since he never knows which will be the day they will die (Shabbat 153a). I like to think that if this is true about Tshuva, it should also be true about blessings. We should bless the people we love one day before we die. Surely living a life of blessing the people you love is a way of living “lots of times”

Have a wonderfully blessed Thanksgiving weekend together with your family and friends.

Questions that Flow: Eliezer on Pedagogy

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described “Flow” as the optimal place where we are behaving within our abilities while also being challenging enough to maintain our interest (See below graph). When people are in flow, they are completely immersed and engaged in one task, enjoying it to the point that they lose track of time. In other words, when people are in flow they do not realize that they are learning because they are having fun. Engaging Jewish educational settings are first and foremost safe spaces, and therefore they are the ideal places to encourage the sort of “productive discomfort” that emerges from feeling appropriately
challenged. For most teachers the default form of challenging the student is a question, quiz, test, paper, or project. It is aspirational these activities push the student to grow.

While many of these activities are used as evaluation, in the regular run of a class teachers often use questions to engage and involve students. This seems pretty obvious, but I have to admit it often misses the mark. One of my pet peeves is when a teacher asks a question under the guise of an invitation to participate, but the question is a closed question. It is some sort of trivia question because the educator only has one answer in mine. They will either guest it right and support the teacher’s arguement or present them an awkward response. If the answer is “Well that is an approach” or “that is not what I was looking for” why did the teacher ask the question. While someone might get the question right and feels good, others will get it wrong and feel anxious, worried, bored, or apathetic. Regardless, education that is solely driven toward data acquisition often misses getting or keeping students in flow.

If we are going to ask questions to engage them in class they need to be open questions that challenge their skill and get the students and the teacher in flow. I know for myself one of the best metrics of success in my teaching is that I learned something new in the lesson. That means I need to ask questions that evoke flow and do not trivialize the lesson.

I was thinking of this dynamic when reading Chayei Sarah, this week’s Torah portion. There we see Eliezer testing potential mates for his master’s son Yitzhak. There we read:

And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham’s house, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townspeople come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder. The maiden was very beautiful—a virgin, no man having known her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. The servant ran toward her and said, “Please, let me sip a little water from your jar.” “Drink, my lord,” she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink. When she had let him drink his fill, she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.” Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.

Genesis 24:12-21

Rebekah did not just “pass the test” she instructed Eliezer as to the standard of care. I think it is interesting how Eliezer believes that this test will be an evaluation. But the test is set up in a way that was not just right or wrong. Rebekah answered the challenge in her own way. His resolution that she is the right match for Yitzhak is not that she “got it right”, but that she did it her own way.

As an educators we want our students to be in flow. Are these question, quiz, test, and papers engaging? We learn from Eliezer that there can be right and wrong ways to respond to the challenges, but are there also ways to express themselves.

*Check out a set of principles, practices, and tools that supports inventive thinking in children ages 3-11 which can be found at “A Framework for Inspiring Inventiveness” 

Sacks ‘n Slacks: Back Pocket Wisdom of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l

I wanted to do something to mark the second yahrzeit of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l. He was an unmatched intellect who had a huge impact of Jewish life and world. How do we get another generation to engage with his wisdom? While I know it does not do justice to the depths of his thinking, but I wanted to literally put his wisdom in their back pocket. So I share with you a draft of Sacks ‘n Slacks: Back Pocket Wisdom of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l. Yes, I know this is childish and I would like to offer it to children. Print it out and enjoy. Here is how you fold it.

To join the global conversation in memory of Rabbi Sacks go to his website

May the memory of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l be for a blessing. In learning his wisdom we enter into the conversation and his impact is sustained.

Over the years I have made a few of these back pocket resources. Here is the form of one of these Back Pocket Booklets. If you have ideas for this or other volumes of back pocket Jewish wisdom please be in touch avi@jewishcamp.org

This Trial: Ribo on the Akeydah

The nadir of VaYerah, this week’s Torah portion, the Torah, and Humanity is when Avraham is asked to sacrifice his child. It is hard to imagine anything worse. There is nothing I love more than my children. I would do anything to protect them, it is hard to imagine hurting them, let alone killing any of them. This request for sacrifice is understood to be the 10th and hardest of Avraham’s Nisyonot– trials. It is hard to relate to this test. How do I make sense of it?

I was thinking of these Nisyonot when listening to Ishai Ribo’s Nisayon Hazeh– this trial. I just love it. Enjoy:

Ribo sings:

This trial/challenge is not quite so simple it just seems naïve, landing on me heavily this challenge still does not fade. I require some help, to little much (very much) forgiveness.

I can only assume that the severity, if not the absurdity, of this trial required Avraham to ask for some help and even forgiveness. That part of the story is painfully missing. In many ways I would to place Winnifred Crane Wygal’s Serenity Prayer into Avraham’s mouth. He wrote:

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.

Similarly at the end of the song Ribo sings:

And give me the wisdom to understand it all because only you are able to give me the wisdom to change, to improve, to repair.

The zenith of these trial’s is Avraham’s capacity to know what he could not change and live with the consequences. I hope that none of us have to contend with trials or ordeals like this in our lives. But we all can learn to ask for the wisdom and serenity to do better. We all need to change, improve, and repair ourselves and the world.

A Laughing Nation: The Secret of Our Immortality

My son Yadid is in Israel for a gap year after High School. As part of Year Course, the program he is on, they will be traveling to Poland in a couple of weeks. In preparing him for this trip I shared with him a longer version of one of my favorite jokes. The joke goes:

An old Jew man dies and goes to Heaven. He asks if God wants to hear a Holocaust joke. God agrees and the man tells the joke. God says, “That wasn’t funny. It was offensive.” The Jew pauses and replies “I guess you had to be there.”

The profound nature of this joke is not just a challenge of theodicy, it is also an expression of our deep sense of group. We, the Jewish people are in the “in-group” and God is on the outside. What is it about our people? We make it normal to take the feeling of pain and transform it into humor if not actual joy.

I often think about this when I see a non-Jew experience a traditional Jewish wedding for the first time. More often than not, they are just blown away by the depth and layers of joy at the event. In response I point out the breaking of the glass. Everyone knows this is the sound of Jewish wedding, but few know the source.

Our breaking of the glass is meant as a fulfilment of the verse, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten; let my tongue stick to my palate if I do not mention you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my highest joy” (Tehillim 137:5-6). So a wedding is one of those moments of “highest joy”, but we did not always live up to this idea. The Talmud relates that Mar, the son of Ravina, made a wedding for his son. When he saw that the rabbis “were becoming too joyful,” he took “a valuable cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them, and they became sad.” To demonstrate that this was not a silly idea, the Gemara immediately follows by telling us that “Rav Ashi made a wedding for his son and saw the Sages, were excessively joyous. He brought a cup of white glass and broke it before them, and they became sad”. (Brachot 30b-31a) The breaking of the glass is a reminder to keep the destuction of Jerusalem above this moment of “highest joy”.

Much harm and pain has befallen our people since we lost Jerusalem. We measure that collective pain out measure for measure with our collective joy. We take this moment to cry for the 6 million and they join us in dancing at our weddings. What a big wedding party? Now that is highest joy.

The speaks to the joy, but what about our sense of humor? I was thinking about this when reading Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. It is interesting in that much of the story allows us to focus on the perspective of Avraham, but what about Sarah?

Sarah left their home for a Promised Land only to find a famine. They carry on to Egypt where she is pimped out to Pharaoh. They finally leave heading back to Canaan. But this time Avraham has a handmaid. And insult to injury Hagar give her husband a son. At this point she is an old woman. Her years of giving birth to a child are long past and they are told that she will give birth to a son. This seems so absurd- it can only be understood as a cruel joke. There we read:

And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her. Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?”

Genesis 17:15-17

They do not get angry, alas they laugh. And just like that Yitzhak gets his name from laughter. “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Yitzhak, and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come.” ( Genesis 17:19) Alas the first person born of two Jewish parents was born from pain, suffering, and shame, but was known for laughter.

Now that is Jewish. It makes your think that our “everlasting covenant” itself is connected to our collective sense of humor. This reminds me of that famous quote by Mark Twain on the Jewish people. He wrote:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

Mark Twain ,September 1897

Our history is a sad and absurd. Looking back one could only choose to laugh or cry. The secret of our immortality is our choice to laugh again and again. We find humor in pain and transform it into joy. With each joke we reknit our experience of peoplehood. Together share the weight of sadness and glee of real joy. If you do not get it, well… You had to be there.

The Right Dove: A Study in Empathy

A few weeks ago, at Mincha on the afternoon of Yom Kippur we read the book of Yonah. There we saw a recalcitrant prophet unwilling to carry out God’s bidding. He was directed to speak truth to the power of Nineveh. Yadda yadda yadda…he was being vomited by whale. Finding himself back on dry land he is called a second time to prophesize to the people of Nineveh. This time he carries out the task, walking across the large city proclaiming, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Yonah 3:4) I was always troubled by what happened next. There we read:

Now Yonah had left the city and found a place east of the city. He made a booth there and sat under it in the shade, until he should see what happened to the city.

Yonah 4:5

Maybe Yonah wanted to leave the city out of fear of what would happen when it was overthrown. But, then why did stick around to see what would transpire? It just seems cruel or at least insensitive. It is as if he were child watching ants getting burned by the sun being focused by a divine magnifying glass. What is the nature of Yonah’s character?

I was thinking about Yonah this week when reading Noah, this week’s Torah portion. Here we see that the world has been overthrown and Noah is trying to figure out when to leave the ark and return to the world. At first, he sends out a Raven, but it was to no avail. While the rain has finally stopped the water had not receded. And then he sends out a dove. That does not work either. There we read:

He waited another seven days, and again sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth. He waited still another seven days and sent the dove forth; and it did not return to him any more.

Genesis 8:10-12

So the dove came back and saved Noah, what is the connection with the story of Yonah? Well it turns out that Yonah- the name of the prophet means dove. One dove is sent by God to get them to leave their evil ways out of fear of destruction. After delivering the message he sits out to see if they will pass or fail this test. The other dove is sent by Noah who has seen the world destroyed to help him determine when he can re-enter the world. This dove could have just made it life on dry land, but instead returns to invite Noah and the rest of the Ark to join them.

The difference between these two doves reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from The West Wing. The context hardly matters:


Leo McGarry’s character says:

This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

West Wing

Like the doctor and the priest, Yonah the prophet is the classic consultant. He told the people of Ninevah what was wrong as if tossing down a script or prayer and then sat on the side to watch. The dove is very different. The dove shows Noah how to get out of the hole. He knows how to get out of the ark and live in the world. As if to say, “Yeah, but I’ve been out here before, and I know the way.”

This makes me pause and reread the story of the dove in a new way. Why did the dove carry the proof of land in its mouth and not in its talon? Just like the friend in Leo McGarry’s story, it is not about what you say that is important, it only matters what you do. Noah needed proof of land to leave the ark. The way out was not through words, but the doves actions of bringing back the olive branch in its bill. The world is sustained by empathy- our capacity to jump into hole.

The Genesis of a Fixed Mindset

One of the first stories told in the Genesis narrative is the killing of Abel. Sadly this is a story we have had to retell and relive in every generation. What is this primordial drive to kill each other?

As the story goes Adam and Eve, who were recently kicked out of Eden, had two boys. Abel became a shepherd and Cain became a farmer. They both were moved to bring offerings to God. Cain brought the fruit of his labor and Abel brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. God accepts Abel’s offering, but rejects Cain’s. There we read:

Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And God said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, And why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right- Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.”

Genesis 4: 5-7

As we know Cain does not heed God’s warning and lures his brother to the field where he kills him. I am curious to explore God’s warning to Cain and to all of us.

What is this “longing”? Rashi comments saying

The longing of sin; it refers to the evil inclination. This is continually longing and desiring to make you sin.

Rashi on Genesis 4:7

From this you might deduce that Cain and all of us have to follow our evil inclination, are prone to rage, and fated to commit fratricide. But that is not the whole story. Rashi goes on to explain the notion that God instructs Cain that if he wants to he can master it. Quoting the Gemara he says

If you desire to, you can gain the victory over it (Kiddushin 30b).

Rashi on Genesis 4:7

It is true that God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s but that is not a critique on the person of Cain. I would like to share a reading aligned with Rashi’s reading. It was as if God was coaching Cain is saying, “In 10 tries you could win 9, but Abel won this one. Get our there and try again. Learn from your failure and your will do better next time.”

This reading of the story of Cain reminds me of  Dr. Carol Dweck‘s Mindset. It is a wonderful book in which she uses her research in psychology to outlines two typological mindsets. Mindsets are beliefs  about yourself and your most basic qualities. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life? People with a Fixed Mindset believe that their traits are just given. People with a Growth Mindset, on the other hand, see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Below you can see a great graphic explanation of these two mindsets. Dr. Dweck argues that having a Growth Mindset is the secret to being successful in everything including sports, parenting, business, school, teaching, coaching, and relationships.

A toddler falls many times while learning to walk. That falling is not failing, it is just part of learning how to walk. This is the Growth Mindset at work. But why and when we we learn this Fixed Mindset?

Above in Rashi’s reading of this story God is pleading with Cain to have a Growth Mindset. The evil inclination is having a Fixed Mindset. Sadly Cain was threatened by the success of of brother Abel. He was depressed because he saw his efforts as fruitless. Cain could not see that it was just his sacrifice was not accepted, he himself was rejected. He saw himself as a reject. God was urging him to shift to a Growth Mindset and be inspired by his brother’s success, accept criticism, and build on this the next time he made an offering. Beyond the story of Cain and Abel being the first story of one man killing his brother, it is the tragedy of the genesis of the Fixed Mindset.

-See other articles on Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset:

Rebundling Jewish Life: Emergence, Imagination, and Sukkot

We have all experienced a lot of darkness over the last 3 years. Since the original CDC advisements for social isolation, I have been thinking about the famous story of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai ( the Rashbi). The iconic story of the Rashbi and his son in the cave is a poignant frame to help us reflect on our protracted period of social distancing due to Covid and the subsequent emergence from isolation . (Shabbat 33b-34a)

At the start of this story, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is debating the merits of the Roman Empire with Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose. When the Rashbi’s harsh critique of Rome gets reported to the authorities, he is condemned to death. He goes on the lamb with his son Rabbi Elazar. At first, they hide in the Beit Midrash, but then they find shelter in a miraculous cave with a carob tree and brook. With their physical needs of safety and nourishment taken care of, the Rashbi and and his son spend the next 12 years immersed in prayer and study. After 12 years in isolation, Elijah comes to tell them that the emperor died and it is safe to leave the cave.

As we contemplate, what life might look like after Covid, the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar needs a closer analysis. The story continues:

They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai said: These people abandon eternal life of Torah study and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance. The Gemara relates that every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave. They again went and sat there for twelve months. They said: The judgment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts for twelve months. Surely their sin was atoned in that time. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Emerge from your cave. They emerged. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar: My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah.( Shabbat 33b)

For the Rashbi and his son, after spending 12 years in isolation the transition to society was not easy. It is hard to imagine that our reemergence after more than 12 months will go any smoother. Similar to the Rashbi and his son, as we come out of our caves we all have to reconcile the divergence of practices around Covid. Do we all mask or gather? We will not be keep the same standards. Do we understand that the process will be iterative? Will be get stuck being judgmental? Will we burn up our relationships as we reemerge?

What is our role with our children or students? We will both want to act out. As adults we need to give them limits. We also need to help them fail as they mediate this experience of reemergence. This story helps us communicate that this is not new. We will need to rethink how we discipline out children. We also need to understand that “time-outs” might not be so effective.

Their story of reemergence continues:

As the sun was setting on Shabbat eve, they saw an elderly man who was holding two bundles of myrtle branches and running at twilight. They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: “Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: “Protect the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease and they were no longer as upset that people were not engaged in Torah study..  (Shabbat 33b)

What about this man’s behavior that placates them? In a simple way he was able to wed together the life of learning (in the cave) and the real world ( plowing and sowing). The old man was able to show his understanding of the two versions of the commandment of Shabbat in a embodied practice. On a deeper level he was able to help the Rashbi and his son reemerge from society. What did they want to remember and protect from their life in the cave and their lives in the real world?

As we get ready for Sukkot I think about the bundles of myrtle in a new light. There are a number of different midrashim explaining the species we bring together to celebrate the holiday. One midrash goes:

“The fruit of a beautiful tree” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this citron (etrog), which has taste and has smell, so too Israel has among them people that have Torah and have good deeds. “The branches of a date palm” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this date, which has taste and has no smell, so too Israel has among them those that have Torah but do not have good deeds. “And a branch of a braided tree (a myrtle)” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this myrtle, which has smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them those that have good deeds but do not have Torah. “And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds.

Vayikra Rabah 30:12

It is clear that the Rashbi and his son scorned hypocrisy. It the context of this midrash his carrying the bundles of myrtle he is saying that “like this myrtle, which has smell and has no taste”, so too he knows that he has good deeds but does not have Torah. On the simple level they could appreciate his honesty. On another level they might have tempered their world view and realized that it takes all types. Just as we take all four species together on Sukkot, we take all four types to make the Jewish people. On a deeper level you could even see the man’s carrying the bundles as a critique of their lives living and learning the cave for all of that time. The Rashbi and his son were no etrogim, rather, just like the branches of date palm, “which has taste and has no smell”, so too they had Torah but do not have good deeds. What had they done for anyone else during their years in isolation? They took ease in the world in that they realized that they too had room to grow and improve.

As we emerge from our isolation we all need to be more open to other perspectives. It is very easy to get stuck in the way we do things as the only authentic way of living. We learn from Sukkot, we all bring something needed to the table. It is clear that we will need to use our imagination and rebundle what Jewish life looks like post Covid.


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

Join 240 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: