From Entitlement to Enlightenment: The Plague of Living Beyond Our Means

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we build toward the climax of the exodus from Egypt with the last of the ten plagues. There we read:

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his friend and every woman of her friend, jewels of silver and jewels of gold.”(Exodus 11: 2).

Why would God have the Israelite slaves take resources from the Egyptians? From one side we see this as completion of what was foreshadowed by and promised to Avraham in his sojourning in Egypt. From another side we see this as giving them the resources that they would need to build the tabernacle in the desert. On an even simpler level we can see this as some form of restitution for their lives of servitude. But why does have them “asking” for it?

The ninth of the Ten Plagues to be visited on Egypt was the plague of Darkness. There we read:

No person could see his brother, nor could any person rise from his place, for three days; but for the children of Israel, there was light in all their dwellings.”(Exodus 10:23)

What were the Children of Israel doing while the Egyptians languished in the darkness? Here the Midrash answers that the darkness provided an opportunity for the Israelites to circulate in Egyptian homes to determine the location of the valuables that they would later borrow. When Jews later asked to borrow these items, Egyptians could not deny owning them because the Jews would point to where they were hidden. (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 14:4)

Today it feels that we are all similarly in the dark when it comes to the rising cost of Jewish living. How might we move forward?It seems paralyzing thinking paying for our children to have excellent Jewish experiences. While we have no trouble talking about those in our community who wealthy or poor, for a vast majority of us that are in the middle class it seems there is nothing to say. In many respects it seems that the middle class of committed Jews are plagued by shame and silence.

I do not think we can assume that any of us deserve Jewish life being given to us. There is no doubt that we will be struggling for years because of the unintended consequences of major philanthropists giving away large ticket Jewish experiences for free. In some ways the future of Jewish life is being held ransom to “free” Jewish life.

How might we switch from this entitlement to enlightenment?

In many ways it seems that we are creating amazing experiences to attract people to Jewish life that people who are committed to Jewish life cannot afford. We are adding many bells an whistles that price the middle class out of being consumers. As a thought experiment I wanted to suggestion an approach inspired by the Midrash quoted above. What would it look like to do an accounting of what we can all afford ( our gold) and only build experiences based on that? We would not have it all ( the tabernacle) , but we would be liberated to live within our means.

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Guns, Germs, and Torah: Diamond and VaEra

One of my favorite writers is Jared Diamond. I find his unique vantage point of anthropology and history sheds such interesting understanding our human condition. I think I have read every book he has written.I was introduced to his writing through his Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.Image result for guns germs and steel quote domesticated animals

The book attempts to explain why Eurasian and North African civilizations have survived and conquered others. Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate primarily in environmental differences. There he wrote:

Thanks to this availability of suitable wild mammals and plants, early peoples of the Fertile Crescent could quickly assemble a potent and balanced biological package for intensive food production. That package comprised three cereals, as the main carbohydrate sources; four pulses, with 20—25 percent protein, and four domestic animals, as the main protein sources, supplemented by the generous protein content of wheat; and flax as a source of fiber and oil (termed linseed oil: flax seeds are about 40 percent oil). Eventually, thousands of years after the beginnings of animal domestication and food production, the animals also began to be used for milk, wool, plowing, and transport. Thus, the crops and animals of the Fertile Crescent’s first farmers came to meet humanity’s basic economic needs: carbohydrate, protein, fat, clothing, traction, and transport. (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies)

I was thinking about the importance of domestic animals in human history when reading about the fifth plague in VaEra, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

The Lord said to Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let My people go to worship Me.
For if you refuse to let them go, and continue to hold them, then the hand of the Lord will strike your livestock in the fields—the horses, the asses, the camels, the cattle, and the sheep—with a very severe pestilence. But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of the Egyptians, so that nothing shall die of all that belongs to the Israelites. The Lord has fixed the time: tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land.’” And the Lord did so the next day: all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not a beast died. (Exodus 9:1–6)

Here we see the central role that domesticated animals play in the life of their society.

The story of Yosef is the story of the emergence of Egypt as a wheat super power in the Fertile Crescent. The fifth plague is the story of the reorganizing of the power of the Fertile Crescent around domestic animals. Ultimately this led to their Israelites liberation from slavery and Egypt’s collapse at Red Sea ( read transportation here).

For Diamond the critical components for advancing as a society are having carbohydrates, proteins, fats, clothing, traction, and transport. It seems that the Torah supports this hypothesis. The only difference seems to be that our society also demands a purpose in order to advance. The Israelites are not liberated to just be free from servitude, but our civilization it driven by our purpose of being free to get the Torah Sinai in order to serve God.  In this context it seems that Diamond gives us a whole new read to Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s teaching, ” If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour. ” (Avot 3:17)

A Ploce to Call Home

In this week’s Torah portion Moshe meets God and God instructed him to return to Egypt to free the Israelites. At this point Moshe asks God what seems to be a logical question.  What should I call you? And then God replies in an enigmatic way. There we read:

Moshe said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moshe, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” God continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’”( Exodus 3:13-14)

So what does “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” mean? We tend to translate it as “I am that I am”. So what does that mean? “I am that I am” is a ploce, the repetition of a word or phrase to gain special emphasis or to indicate an extension of meaning. 

In digging deeper into this question I found myself exploring the word ploce. The uncommon English rhetorical term ploce comes via Late Latin plocē from Greek plokḗ, a noun with many meanings: “twining, twisting, braid; complication (of a dramatic plot); construction (of a syllogism); web, web of deceit; (in biology) histological structure; (in rhetoric) repetition of the same word in close succession in a slightly different sense or for emphasis” (e.g., “A man should act like a man”). Greek plokḗ comes from the verb plékein “to weave, braid, twine,” from the Proto-Indo-European root plek-plok-, source of Latin plicāre “to fold, bend, roll, twine” and the combining form -plex, used in forming numerals (equivalent to English -fold). The Proto-Indo-European neuter nounploksom becomes flahsam in Germanic and flax in English. In Slavic (Polish),plek- forms the verb pleść “to plait, weave.”

The name of God that will redeem the Israelites from Egypt is manifold. This repetition seems to imply that the God of the Torah is a God of being, but limited to the land of Egypt. Where HaMakom – God’s name being the place might be limited, they will be redeemed by the God of the ploce of being. The Ploce will help them find a new place to call home.

“PAINTING OVER” BARRIERS TO JEWISH CAMP

As a person committed to social justice and accessibility, I often think about the ways in which we can be more welcoming and inclusive of people with disabilities. As a Rabbi and Jewish communal professional my work tends to focus on what we can do as a Jewish community to live up to these ideals. I recently had a profound and unexpected moment of reflection, however, in a seemingly unlikely place: the parking lot of a Target. I came across the following image, and was so struck by it that I had to stop and take a picture.

This image shows a new icon signifying that the parking spot is reserved for people with disabilities, painted over an older version of the same icon. Though there are only slight differences between the two images, I found the changes – and what they signify about people with disabilities – worthy of reflection.

The older image is the current International Symbol of Access, depicting a stick figure sitting passively in a wheel chair. The new image – from the *Accessible Icon Project – also portrays a stick figure in a wheel chair, but so much more as well. We see that the figure’s head is forward, to indicate the forward motion of the person through space. The arm angle is pointing backward to suggest the dynamic mobility of a chair user. Depicting the body in motion indicates that the figure is navigating the world. Even the wheels look like they are moving.

Quite simply: the first image shows us a person sitting in a wheelchair. The second image shows us someone living their life, while using the wheelchair as a tool. The person in the second image has places to go and people to see. The wheelchair (signifying disability) is an important part of the image, but it doesn’t define it – or the human figure in it. The fact that the new image is painted over the old makes it even more powerful – it almost looks as if the figure is actively breaking free from the old image of passivity, refusing to be bound by the preconceived notions of others.

Judaism teaches us that we are all equal regardless of background, faith, gender identity, sexuality, culture, ethnicity, or level of ability. Each of us needs to play an active role in treating each other with dignity, compassion, and love. We know this. It is a cornerstone of our Jewish identity. And yet, when it comes to Jewish people with disabilities, are we doing enough to provide equal access to Jewish communal life? Despite our best intentions, are we sometimes guilty of viewing Jewish people with disabilities as passively adjacent to – but not active members of – our communities? If so, how can we “paint over” this older way of thinking to create more accessible communities in which we can meaningfully engage more Jewish people with disabilities?

In reflecting on these questions, I came to the following question which seems to contain them all: What is my responsibility to my fellow Jew? The Gemara in Sanhedrin has an answer, claiming “Kulan Areivim Zeh B’Zeh– All of Israel are each others guarantors.”(Sanhedrin 27b) To prove this the Gemara cites Leviticus:

They will stumble, each man over his brother as if from before a sword, but there is no pursuer; you will not have the power to withstand your foes (Leviticus 26:37)

I cannot read this without thinking of all of the times that we “stumble” as a community because we are not being “guarantors” of one another by ensuring that Jewish people with disabilities are active participants in Jewish communal life. It is only when we recognize that we all are active divine agents in our community that we can move forward without stumbling, strengthened by everyone’s innate value.

At Foundation for Jewish Camp, we take accessibility and inclusion seriously. The experience of attending Jewish camp is an important milestone for so many young Jewish people, and I’m proud of our consistent efforts to increase accessibility for Jewish campers and staff with disabilities. So many Jewish camps are doing incredible work around inclusivity. And with the recent creation of the Yashar Initiative (generously funded by a $12 million grant from The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation), we’ll be able to partner with day and overnight camps to further increase accessibility for campers and staff with disabilities, as well as provide essential trainings for staff. We hope this support will significantly increase the number of campers and staff with disabilities who are able to participate in Jewish camp.

We know there’s still much work to be done regarding inclusion at Jewish camp, and we refuse to be passive. We will not stumble. We are committed to actively moving forward, breaking free from the status quo, and doing our part to create a more welcoming and accessible Jewish camp experience. I invite all Jewish communal professionals and institutions to join us in “painting over” any barriers to Jewish communal life. Let’s actively work together to create a more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant Jewish world, Zeh B’Zeh.

*Check out the 99% Invisible Podcast for more information on this topic.

-cross posted with FJC’s Blog

Framing the Narrative: Lakoff and the 10th of Tevet

As of late I have been taken with George Lakoff’s writing. Recently I read his The Political Mind. There he discusses the nexus between brain science, linguistics, and politics. There he writes:

One of the things cognitive science teaches us is that when people define their very identity by a worldview, or a narrative, or a mode of thought, they are unlikely to change-for the simple reason that it is physically part of their brain, and so many other aspects of their brain structure would also have to change; that change is highly unlikely. ( The Political Mind p.45)

Or simply put, when people get set in their thought patterns they are unlikely to change them. In this way the frame of the debate is the debate.

I was thinking about this today Asarah B’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet which commemorates when Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, began the siege of Jerusalem (588 BCE). 18 months later, on the 17th of Tammuz his troops broke through the city walls. The siege ended with the destruction of the Temple three weeks later, on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), the end of the first Kingdoms and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon. The Tenth of Tevet is thus considered to be the beginning of the end of the Jewish world as it was known during the First Temple period.

While anything that points to Tisha B’Av gets us thinking about one of my favorite topics being camp, I actually am much more interested in the ideas around what it means to be besieged. Seeing that the conclusion of this story is the end of Jewish sovereignty on Tisha B’Av, what is the significance to of starting with our people being pent-up, confined, and the subject of other people’s aggression. The end of our autonomy started with shutting us in and limiting our mobility. This day marks the shift in narrative from us writing our own story to us being the subjects on other empires’ stories.

To bring us back to George Lakoff, “Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well-meaning friends.” (How to Frame Yourself: A Framing Memo for Occupy Wall Street by George Lakoff, http://www.huffingtonpost.com. October 19, 2011.) Today Asarah B’Tevet is a sad day.

The Hard Work and Luck of Our Expedition: Today in History

Norwegian Roald Amundsen, born in Borge, near Oslo, in 1872, was one of the great figures in polar exploration. In 1897, he was first mate on a Belgian expedition that was the first ever to winter in the Antarctic. In 1903, he guided the 47-ton sloop Gjöa through the Northwest Passage and around the Canadian coast, the first navigator to accomplish the treacherous journey. Amundsen planned to be the first man to the North Pole, and he was about to embark in 1909 when he learned that the American Robert Peary had achieved the feat.

Image result for roald amundsen

Amundsen completed his preparations and in June 1910 sailed instead for Antarctica, where the English explorer Robert F. Scott was also headed with the aim of reaching the South Pole. In early 1911, Amundsen sailed his ship into Antarctica’s Bay of Whales and set up base camp 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott. In October, both explorers set off–Amundsen using sleigh dogs, and Scott employing Siberian motor sledges, Siberian ponies, and dogs. On December 14, 1911, 107 years ago today, Amundsen’s expedition won the race to the Pole and returned safely to base camp in late January.

Scott’s expedition was less fortunate. The motor sleds broke down, the ponies had to be shot, and the dog teams were sent back as Scott and four companions continued on foot. On January 18, 1912, they reached the pole only to find that Amundsen had preceded them by over a month. Weather on the return journey was exceptionally bad–two members perished–and a storm later trapped Scott and the other two survivors in their tent only 11 miles from their base camp. Scott’s frozen body was found later that year.

What made Amundsen succeed and Scott fail has been the subject of much analysis. I learned about them in Jim Collins’ Great By Choice. Collins points out the importance of the 20 Mile March. No matter what happened Amundsen and his team would always aim to do 20 miles every day, no more and no less. In comparison Scott and his team would not go certain days if the conditions were too tough and go too far if the conditions were good. Amundsen’s rigor and discipline ensured his success.

I think a lot about the Amundsen’s rigor and discipline when I think about our collective resilience throughout Jewish history. What has helped this small tribe of people survive let alone thrive against the harsh terrain of hardship, conquest and plagues of history?

There are surly many answers but for me one of them comes this week’s Torah portion. Here we see Yosef confront his brothers. There we read:

Then Yosef said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Yosef, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.
It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling.
God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” ( Genesis 45:4-7)

Yosef could have been stuck being in isolation or in anger of his brothers who sold him into slavery. Instead he decided to see it as God’s plan for him. He was “supposed to be in Egypt” in order to save them. That is a nice explanation for their behavior, but not his. Yosef worked really hard every day in Egypt to get to his position. My parents used to tell me all the time when I was young, ” The Harder you work, the luckier you get.” The Jewish people, like Amundsen, have had to work pretty hard throughout our expedition through history and we are pretty lucky.

-borrowed from Today in History 

 

Higher Level: Chanuka, Light, Reconciliation, and Unity

The other night Yishama and I were driving back from his basketball game at night. We were on our way home to light candles for Chanuka. I asked him what he was learning in school. He shared with me that he was learning the machloket in Shabbat between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel as for how we should light the Chanuka candles. There we read:

Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Hanukkah [demands] one light for a man and his household; and those who will beautify the mitzvah [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and those who really will go all out and beautify the mitzvah,-Beit Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced; but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. (Shabbat 21b)

Yishama recalled the principle that we follow Hillel to increase candles because we should elevate to a higher level in matters of sanctity and not decreased.  Amidst this dark time it is hard to understand the rationale for Beit Shammai?

Image result for menorah first night

Beit Shammai’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the bulls of the festival of Sukkot: Thirteen were sacrificed on the first day and each succeeding day one fewer was sacrificed (Numbers 29:12–31). On simple level the Maccabees missed Sukkot during their war and rebooted the holiday when they could. This left us with a holiday with Sukkot‘s footprint in the middle of winter. But I think that there is a deeper level still to this.

Too often we choose to remember Chanuka as a story of the small Jewish soldiers defeating the much larger Greek army. It seems closer to the facts that the unrest was actually a civil war between Jews who were aligned to the Temple tradition and Jews who had aligned to the Greeks. The miracle of the Chanuka lights is not just that the small army beat the larger one, or that a small amount of oil lasted for 8 days, but that we could reconcile a civil war. In light of this reading of history I think that Beit Shammai’s tradition makes a whole lot of sense. Yes, Beit Hillel is right that it is dark out, but as the holiday moves on we move from 8 groups or factions to one group. By the end of Beit Shammai’s Chanuka we are left with a real vision of unity.

I think about the significance of Beit Shammai’s message at this moment in history while we find ourselves embroiled in fierce political discord and irreconcilable cultural difference in our Jewish and American communities. If by the end of Beit Shammai’s celebration we reunified our community, surely even Beit Hillel would agree that we would have elevated to a higher level in matters of sanctity and not decreased.


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