The Beginning and End of War: A Thought on Lech Lecha

My Opa always used to say, ” Never start a fight, but always end it.” We are not a nation of warriors, but we should never shirk our responsibility to stand for justice. There is no doubt that was the life of Alfred Katz z”l. We see a similar lesson from Avram in Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion.There we see a coalition of kings joined together to fight another group of kings.  There we read:

Now, when King Amraphel of Shinar, King Arioch of Ellasar, King Chedorlaomer of Elam, and King Tidal of Goiim made war on King Bera of Sodom, King Birsha of Gomorrah, King Shinab of Admah, King Shemeber of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar, all the latter joined forces at the Valley of Siddim, now the Dead Sea. ( Genesis 14:1-3)

A fugitive brought the news to Avram, who mustered 318 supporters, and pursued the invaders north. Avram and his servants defeated them at night, chased them north of Damascus, and brought back all the people and possessions, including Lot and his possessions. When Avram returned, the king of Sodom came out to meet him and offered him all of the booty. Avram replied:

“I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Avram rich.’ (Genesis 14: 22-23)

While Avram did not start the first war, he did end it.

It is reported in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that the first use of a word in the Torah holds it essential meaning. With the war between the kings we have the first use of the word milchamah and the invention of war. From its inception the problem of war is the desire and restitution of property. War is born our of the realities and the perceptions of scarcity.

If this is the start of war, where does it end? How might we live out the prophecy of Isaiah? There are instructed:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruninghooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

Like Avram and Alfred we need to “Never start a fight, but always end it .” To do this we need to ensure that everyone has what they need to survive. We also need to ensure that we fight the culture of scarcity. To truly end war we need to cultivate a culture of abundance. When we do that we will shift from just surviving to truly thriving.

Another blog on this lesson from my Opa

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The Nature of Human Nature : Noah and Positive Psychology

As I have written about in the past at the start of the summer I had the pleasure of going to the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) conference in Fort Worth Texas. IPEN aims to bring together teachers, students, parents, higher education, charities, companies and governments to promote Positive Education. The objective of Positive Education is not only to improve students’ well-being but also their academic performance. Positive Education is the programmatic/educational cousin of Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is a branch of psychology that complements the traditional focus on pathology with the study of human strengths and virtues and the factors that contribute to a full and meaningful life. There at the conference I got to hear Dr. Martin Seligman , the father of Positive Psychology, explain the history of how the shift from focusing on pathology to building on strengths and how that opened up a whole scientific study of human flourishing.

At the conference I learned about a ton of compelling research proving the success of this work and many interesting strategies that people are employing to support their students’ flourishing. Hearing Seligman, I was moved thinking about how much of the shift from a pathology to strength based approach is actually determined by your fundamental understanding of the human condition. Our primary myth of who we are as people might itself set limits to our imagination and capacity to flourish and be successful. Since that time I have been giving a lot of thought to the stories we decide to tell that might help us flourish.

I was thinking about this shift this week when reading Noach, this week’s Torah portion. There after God flood Noah makes a sacrefice to God and in response God describes humanity. There we read:

The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to God’s self: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21).

While the result of not destroying the world is a good thing, what do we make of God’s assessment of human nature? The idea that we are evil from our youth implies a certain pathology of the human condition. When we are operating from this place of pathology our future is engraved and fixed in stone. How else might we understand our Torah portion?

On a related note in regard to the creation of human beings God remarks that we have become divine in nature. There we read, “Behold, man has become one of Us” (Gen. 3:22). When exploring this idea the Midrash says:

Scripture states elsewhere in allusion to this verse: Behold, this only have I found, that God made humanity upright (Eccles. 7:29); that is, the Holy One, blessed be God, who is called righteous and upright, created humanity in God’s own image so that humans might be upright and righteous like God. However, if you should ask: Why did God create the evil inclination, concerning which it is written: The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21)?, you say thereby: Since humanity is evil, who can make humanity good? The Holy One, blessed be God, contends: You make him evil! Why is it that a child of five, six, seven, eight, or nine years of age does not sin, but only after he reaches the age of ten and upward does the evil inclination begin to develop in him? (Midrash Tanchuma, Bereshit 7:1)

This Midrash boldly seems to invert the idea from Noach as to the nature of humanities evil nature. According to this Midrash Human beings are actually born good and it is only later in life that they succumb to the evil inclination and sin. At the same time as a person grows in their practice they can build on our strengths and in so doing become truly free from sin. While fear of sin might be a good deterrent from destruction, we need a foundation of goodness upon which to build thriving lives.  Despite what others say about us or even what we say about ourselves we need to curate a positive understanding of the nature of human nature to help humanity thrive and manifest our divinity.

– Another blog post on Positive Psychology.

Men Hiding: Genesis, Purim, and Kavanuagh

We just made it through the holiday season and the next holiday is Hanukkah on the distant horizon weeks from now on December 2-10. This is why it is particularly weird that I woke up this morning thinking about Purim which is not until March 20, 2019. It was less strange seeing that we are reading Parshat Bereishit this week. In one of my favorite passages in the Talmud the Rabbis mix the stories of Purim with earlier narratives in the Torah. There we learn:

From where in the Torah, [do I know] Haman? “Is it from (hamin) this tree” (Genesis 3:11). From where in the Torah, [do I know] Esther? “And I will surely hide (astir)” (Deuteronomy 32:18).  Where is Mordecai mentioned in the Torah?… As is written “Flowing myrrh” (Exodus 30:23), which the Targum renders as “Mira Dachia“. ( Chullin 139b)

There is clearly some fun word play going on here, but why is it important that Haman is prefigured in the story of the Garden of Eden? What is that context? There in Genesis we read:
The Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of (hamin) the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” The man said, “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” ( Genesis 3:9-12)

The scene is set. Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge and God is coming to inquire as to what they did. God asks Adam two questions:

  1. Who told you that you were naked?
  2. Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?

We see in Adam’s answer that he ignores the first question ( subject of other writing) and only answers the second question by way of blaming Eve if not God for his eating that which was forbidden. In some mystical way Haman is prefigured in the Torah as the allure of not taking responsibility for what Adam himself did and hanging the blame of others. Just as the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is removed from the tree at the start of our narrative, Haman is returned to the gallows he created for Mordecai at the end of the Megilah. There we see humanity is redeemed when Esther, who is hidden, reveals herself. She is the Eve who Mordecai and the rest of her people are proud to follow.

While these parallel images do frame the Eden and Purim stories, what I find most compelling today is the story of men not taking responsibility for their actions and blaming women. In all of the proceedings for Judge Kavanaugh for the open seat on the Supreme Court he has yet to take responsibility for anything he might have done consciously or unconsciously.  Regardless if Kavanaugh gets the seat or not, this whole situation has cast violence against women up against “being fair to men” that seems to be eerily prefigured by the Megilah. There King Ahasuerus orders Queen Vashti to come before the king wearing only her a royal crown, to display her beauty to the people and the officials. Upon her refusal he was incensed and did not know what to do so he turned to his advisers. There we read:

Thereupon Memucan declared in the presence of the king and the ministers: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation! “If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus. And let Your Majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she. Then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast though it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike.” (Esther 1: 16-20)

In our tragic version of the Megilah we make Dr. Chistine Blasey Ford show up to display her vulnerability to the peoples and the officials on national TV and still question the victim. Hiding behind a sham of an FBI report the advisers and the King are claiming that any concession to veracity Dr Ford’s accusations would lead to “no end of scorn and provocation” and be very bad do men. In a new low for the President and the country Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford at a rally in Mississippi, casting doubt on her testimony about her alleged sexual assault.

I for one want to thank Dr Ford, our modern-day Vashti, for elegantly, gracefully, and humbly showing up to show us that our elected officials of naked behind their crowns of power. This is a moment for us to reflect and redefine who has power in our kingdom. We need to be bigger than Haman, Adam, Memucan, or our modern-day King Ahasuerus and his officials. Power and gender need not be a zero sum game. And most urgently we see in the Garden of Eden as today, men cannot hide behind a woman. Men need to learn how to accept responsibility for their actions without blaming women. Truly that will be the only way we will uproot scorn and provocation from across the kingdom. Image result for senate confirmation dr ford

 

 

Remembering My Father on Sukkot

Everyone warned me that the High Holidays would be hard this year after the recent passing of my father, but in truth, it was just not the case – until now.

As a Jewish camp alum and professional, I typically associate the Sukkah with camp. Camp – like a Sukkah – is temporary, but the brevity of our time there endows it with a special sense of holiness. Camp is an intentional community we create with our own hands, yet it is a mystical and meaningful place that transcends the physical space in which it’s located.

My father did not especially connect with the High Holidays. He was not a religious Jew in any conventional way, but he was a deeply spiritual person. And while he was a genius and spent an extraordinary amount of his time and energy in his formidable mind, he loved to build things with his hands.

Some of my favorite memories of my father are of his building things. For him, building a Sukkah made more sense than the more abstract Jewish rituals.  This Sukkot, I pause to contemplate anew the nature of the Sukkah, in memory of my father.

When we think of a Sukkah, we often think of a hut covered in branches. While a Sukkah is a tangible physical structure formed by human hands, it is also connects us to experiences we can’t see or touch in a traditional sense: the history of our people, and our metaphysical relationship with God. It’s a lovely paradox that by entering the enclosed space of the Sukkah, we connect to something outside of ourselves. We’re supposed to cover the Sukkah with branches so we can still see the stars, which can be viewed as a reminder that we can always find light in the world, so long as we don’t close ourselves off from it.

While the Sukkah allows us to enter our historical and religious memories, it is also a place we build to spend time with our families. My father found deep spiritual fulfillment in creating a space for his family to meet and be together. He was not just building a physical structure; he was building family connections and cherished memories. When I enter a Sukkah, I not only bring the historical memories of the Jewish people with me, but my personal memories of my family as well. When I enter a Sukkah, I can’t help but think of my father and all the joyful times we shared within its walls. He is there with me.

My mourning has intensified this Sukkot.  I find comfort, however, in the nature of the Sukkah itself. A Sukkah is made up of tangible materials that come from the earth, but it also connects us with the mysteries of heaven and the treasured memories of our communal and personal past. And even in the absence of the earthly structure, the light shines on.

May the Memory of James Joseph Orlow z’l

reposted from FJC Blog

Siyum Mishna for James Joseph Orlow z”l

As part of mourning process for the passing of my father I arranged a group of people to learn the entire Mishnah in his memory.  While Shloshim technically came to an end on Rosh HaShannah, over Sukkot we will mark 30 days since his passing. I wanted to thank all of the people around the world who joined in this noble cause of lifting up his neshama, soul, during this period of time. A full list of the people who joined in this learning project can be found here. Thank you, this effort means the world to me and my family.

During Shiva many people in their community remarked how they really got to know my parents at their Shabbat and Holiday table. While my mother gets all of the credit for inviting the people and cooking the food, my father sure enjoyed himself. While my father was a genius in his field of study, he never let his lack of knowledge hold him back from getting into a rich argument.  As part of this siyum of Mishna in his memory  I got to learn Perkei Avot with Yishama. There we learned:

 יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹעֶזֶר אִישׁ צְרֵדָה אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ בֵית וַעַד לַחֲכָמִים, וֶהֱוֵי מִתְאַבֵּק בַּעֲפַר רַגְלֵיהֶם, וֶהֱוֵי שׁוֹתֶה בְצָמָא אֶת דִּבְרֵיהֶם

Yose ben Yoezer says, “May your house be a meeting-house for Sages, become dirty in the dust of their feet and drink their words thirstily.” (Avot 1:4)

In many regards this captured my father at his best at the head of the table filled with sages. Like his namesake Yaakov who wrestled with the angel, my father enjoyed getting dirty in the dust of their feet ( Genesis 32:25). While he was always thirsty to learn more, like Yaakov he never this these guest get away so easily. At these salons everyone had a voice and everyone needed to defend their point of view. My father always taught us to be curious and confident. We should learn from everyone and know that each of us had a seat and a voice at the table.

Orlow Family Passover Seder mid 1980’s

Thank you again to all those who joined in this Siyum Mishna in the memory of Yaakov Yosef ben Avraham v’Leah.

May the memory of James Joseph Orlow z”l be for a blessing.

Sukkot Gets Real

Everyone warned me that the High Holidays would be hard after the recent passing of my father, but in truth, it was just not the case. My father did not especially connect with these holidays. He was not a religious Jew in any conventional way. He did not grow up with much Jewish ritual in his life. At the same time, he was a deeply spiritual person. He spent close to 60  years of his life immersed in the study and practice of law, but I do not think he connected to the idea of a court on high in which we would be judged. Almost his entire career and life was committed to immigrants to this country, but in many ways in the place of the synagogue he himself was an alien.

While my dad was a genius and spent an extraordinary amount of his time and energy in his formidable mind, he loved to build things with his hands. When it comes to my mourning process, there is a big part of me that is expecting the shoe to drop on Sukkot. Some of my favorite memories of my father are of his building things. For him, building a Sukkah made more sense than the more abstract Jewish rituals.  This Sukkot, I pause to contemplate the nature of the Sukkah, in memory of my father.

The Talmud records a difference of opinion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva regarding the nature of a Sukkah. Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the Sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The Sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b) Did either Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva think that when they entered into a Sukkah in their own era that they were actually sitting in the imagined reference point? Either way you cut it the Sukkah is a symbol. Does this symbol represent a metaphor to the Divine presence or does it represent something akin to what we were using in the desert?

Clearly these two Rabbis would eat in each other’s Sukkot, so what are they disagreeing about? At one level we could understand the disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva to be one of understanding what it means to be Jewish. Is being Jewish a religion ( “clouds of glory”) or a nationality (real booths they used post Exodus in the desert)? The Sukkah is a tangible and real structure formed by human hands. And at the same time it is it a spiritual space that connects us to God. The Sukkah can be a symbol of our experience as a people in a physical and historic way, while simultaneously offering  a religious manifestation of our metaphysical relationship with God.

While at first glance I think that my father might agree with Rabbi Akiva, I truly believe that he connected to Rabbi Eliezer as well. He found  deep spiritual fulfillment in creating a space for his family to meet and be together. While, the Sukkah is immersive metaphor we get to really enter our national and religious memories, it is also the place we build to hold family memories. 

I’m reminded of the many ways in which camp is like a Sukkah, an  immersive metaphor we get to really enter. Camp is a community we create with our own hands, yet it is a mystical and meaningful place that transcends the physical space in which it’s located. Like a Sukkah, camp is temporary, but the brevity of our time there endows it with a special sense of holiness all year-long. Additionally, while a Sukkah is an enclosed dwelling made up of four walls to keep us safe, we are supposed to cover it with branches to ensure that we can still see the stars above. Camp also functions this way: while it takes place in a specific space and time and is safe and secure, the lessons we learn and the friends we make transcend these limitations, providing a light that shines through the year – and for the rest of our lives. For many of us camp friends are really like family. 

For me I expect that my mourning will get real during Sukkot.  I find comfort, however, in the nature of the Sukkah itself. A Sukkah is all at once a metaphor for the tangible, mystical, and familial. 

James Joseph Orlow z’l and Libi Frydman Orlow his 14th grandchild

 

Cookie Thief: Meilah and the Blessing of Yom Kippur

As part of mourning process for the passing of my father I arranged a group of people to learn the entire Mishnah in his memory.  Yes, there are a few masechtot left if you want to grab one before Sukkot. Among other masechtot that I learned I got to learn Meilah.  This masechet deals with the laws concerning the trespass-offering and the reparation which must be made by one who has used and enjoyed a consecrated thing (Leviticus 15-16). Or in other words what does it mean to lift/steal from God?

I was thinking about this recently when my shul’s rabbi shared the The Cookie Thief by Valerie Cox. The poem reads:

A woman was waiting at an airport one night, with several long hours before her flight. She hunted for a book in the airport shops, bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book but happened to see, that the man sitting beside her, as bold as could be. . .grabbed a cookie or two from the bag in between, which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene.

So she munched the cookies and watched the clock, as the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock. She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by, thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice, I would blacken his eye.”

With each cookie she took, he took one too, when only one was left, she wondered what he would do. With a smile on his face, and a nervous laugh, he took the last cookie and broke it in half.

He offered her half, as he ate the other, she snatched it from him and thought… oooh, brother. This guy has some nerve and he’s also rude, why he didn’t even show any gratitude!

She had never known when she had been so galled, and sighed with relief when her flight was called. She gathered her belongings and headed to the gate, refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.

She boarded the plane, and sank in her seat, then she sought her book, which was almost complete. As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise, there was her bag of cookies, in front of her eyes.

If mine are here, she moaned in despair, the others were his, and he tried to share. Too late to apologize, she realized with grief, that she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.

Like the thief we are all very quick to see ourselves as the victims and we often overlook all that we have done wrong to others. Interestingly, after the Temple was destroyed and the idea of trespass of consecrated offerings was irrelevant, the Rabbis borrowed from this idea to explore how we might create meaning in our daily lives. We learn in the Gemara:

The Sages taught in a ToseftaOne is forbidden to derive benefit from this world, which is the property of God, without reciting a blessing beforehand. And anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he is guilty of Meilah– misuse of a consecrated object. (Berachot 35a)

Interestingly with this Rabbinic conception, without an expression of gratitude in the form of a blessing we are all cookie thieves.

I was thinking about all of this as we prepare to enter into Yom Kippur. This holy day is meant to repair our relationship with God for all of the cookies we have taken in the year, but it does nothing to repair the relationships we have ruptured between ourselves by acting poorly or judging each other unfairly.  May we all be blessed with much gratitude, many blessings, and a commensurate amount of cookies in 5779.

Gmar Chatima Tova


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