Memory Ark

What does it mean to lose your home?

Unfortunately millions of people face this reality after an earthquake rocked Mexico, and hurricanes ravaged Houston, Puerto Rico, Caribbean Islands, and southern Florida this past month. This week, the wild fires in North California have ravaged 5,700 houses and more than 213,000 acres. My heart goes out to the URJ Camp Newman family in Sonoma County, California, whose camp was destroyed in the fires. Millions have been left homeless in the wake of these natural disasters.

In this week’s Torah portion we learn of the devastation of the Flood and of the rainbow of rebuilding thereafter. God sends a flood to cover earth, taking with it families, homes, animals and habitats. After Noah does all that is asked of him, the animals are on the ark and the world is under water, we read:

And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged; the fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained.  (Genesis 8:1-2)

“God remembered” implies that God forgot Noah and all of creation while destroying the world. I think this part of the story plays on the human fear of being forgotten, the human need to be remembered, to know that we matter. Flood and fires have taken houses and buildings, but what about the memories of those homes? Where do they live?

It was with pride that we saw this human spirit thrive during the hurricane in Texas, when URJ Greene Family Camp and Camp Young Judaea Texas stepped up, opening their space to homeless, displaced families in need, even opening a day camp in Houston. Like Noah, they found a way to use their camp as an ark to help people that they needed shelter.

With the most recent news of the horrific fire that took URJ Camp Newman, we immediately saw the outpouring of support from the camp community. Alumni reminisced on Facebook, and shared photos. California campers from different movements started crowd-funding campaigns for their URJ friends. URJ Camp Newman’s year-round programming has been rescheduled to be hosted at local synagogues. For so many, Jewish camp is a second home, a sanctuary that helps us find shelter, comfort and spirit. The spirit of camp, the feeling of family and home reach far beyond the physical buildings they gather in.  The difference is that a home is a house with memories. God remembered Noah, and Noah had to remember the world. What is the ark for their memories?

The primary urgency is to find a place for Newman to run their program until they can rebuild their camp.   Like Noah they will need to rebuild society post destruction. In all of this I do not want to forget memory. In addition to the existing social media I think there is a great opportunity to create a website for Newman to store their collective memories in a more organized way. What would it look like to click on a map of camp and reconnect to the layers and generations of memories there? As a community, we cannot undo the damage of natural disasters but we can help keep the memories of these homes alive. Our support goes out to Newman community. If you want to support this project building them a memory ark please be in touch.

 

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The Garden of Gratitude

Last Shabbat, being Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot,  we read Kohelet and this coming Shabbat, being the Shabbat after Simchat Torah, we will be starting to reread the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. How do we go from Kohelet to Genesis?

Kohelet is written from the perspective of Solomon. Like Siddhartha, Solomon was the king and had everything, but he gave it up to find a life a meaning.There we read:

I said in my heart: ‘Come now, I will try you with mirth, and enjoy pleasure’; and, behold, this also was vanity.  I said of laughter: ‘It is mad’; and of mirth: ‘What does it accomplish?’ I searched in my heart how to pamper my flesh with wine, and, my heart conducting itself with wisdom, how yet to lay hold on folly, till I might see which it was best for the sons of men that they should do under the heaven the few days of their life.  I made me great works; I built me houses; I planted me vineyards; I made me gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit. (Kohelet 2:1-5)

Solomon has everything, but he realizes that is it not enough. You can even see here in his trying to plant every kind of fruit that he is trying to recreate Eden itself with the trees of Life and Knowledge of Good and Evil.  There is a profound parallel here between Solomon ( Kohelet) and Adam.  As we read in Genesis

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may eat freely, but of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ ( Genesis 2: 16-17)

Why was the fruit of every tree except for this one not enough? This speaks to a profound truth to the human condition. If only we could conquer our inner need to have more, we might be happy with what we have.  In this time of year as we returned to nature in the Sukkah we tried in different ways to return to Eden. In the past I wrote about how the act of bringing together the four species on Sukkot itself is an act of putting the fruit of the tree of knowledge back on the  tree. But maybe that itself is missing the point.

Would returning to Eden and access to all of the trees itself be vanity of vanities? This year I want to focus on being grateful for all of the great things I  have in my life without wanting more.  I am truly blessed and I strive to be content. How will I tend my garden of gratitude?

Gog, Magog, & Ragnarök 

Tonight we start the holiday of Sukkot. This year the way the calendar falls out we go right from two days of Yom Tov into Shabbat. The Haftarah we read on Shabbat ( which is the same one we read on Chol Ha-Moed Pesach) is the story of Gog u-Magog from the book of Yechezkel. Here we read about a prophesied enemy nation of God’s people. This prophecy is meant to be fulfilled at the approach of what is called the “end of days“, but not necessarily the end of the world. Jewish eschatology viewed Gog u-Magog as enemies to be defeated by the Messiah, which will usher in the age of the Messiah. Magog was one of the nations according to Genesis descended from Yafet son of Noah (Genesis 10:2). What is the connection between this fanciful prophetic vision of the end of days and the Sukkot?

I was thinking about this question recently while reading up on my Norse mythology.  As I previously mentioned  I have been preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok which is coming out in theaters soon. In Norse mythologyRagnarök is a series of future events, including a great battle, foretold to ultimately result in the death of a number of major figures (including the gods OdinThorTýrFreyrHeimdallr, and Loki), the occurrence of various natural disasters, and the subsequent submersion of the world in water. Afterward, the world will resurface anew and fertile, the surviving and returning gods will meet, and the world will be repopulated by two human survivors. Ragnarök is an important event in Norse mythology, and has been the subject of scholarly discourse, theory throughout the history, and a movie that I hope lives up to the hype.

There are some very interesting connections between these two myths that talk about an end of days war that will reboot the system. It is noteworthy that at the end of Sukkot we move into Simchat Torah in which we we celebrate the end and the restarting of the liturgical reading of the Torah. Like  Ragnarök, after violence and complexity of the war of Gog u-Magog we will reboot our narrative and also start the story of the world with the simplicity of two human survivors. Maybe we read Gog u-Magog  to prepare for our return to Eden. What is it about the human condition that needs to experience such violence before we are ready for the messianic vision of rebirth.

-For more Norse Mythology and Torah see Binding: Fenrir and Isaac

 

Shabbat Shabbatot

It seems strange to have Yom Kippur on Shabbat. It feels like I am missing out on Shabbat this week. In so many ways it is central to my personal sanity and family’s sense of sanctity and rhythm.  My friend Zev just posted this on Facebook:

The great Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was very calm when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat and explained why it was so. It is known we are commanded as not to write on Shabbat, that it is a desecration of the holy Shabbat! Just for saving a life one is allowed to write. And therefore G-d can only write us in for a year of life as writing is only permitted for saving lives but for no other exception. We will surely be blessed and inscribed and sealed for a great year filled with all good both physically and spiritually!

Living my whole life within a structure of Jewish law is the normal of my existence. One of the most wonderful unintended consequences of raising children within a legal system is that we as parents are not the originators of all the rules of the household. They have to keep Shabbat because it is the law, not just because Abba said so. Nothing gives me more pleasure then when my children challenge me to keep these rules. There is an order bigger then any one of us in which we find out place. This means that I can be an authority, but not an authoritarian. Similarly it is an amazing idea to project the idea that G-d also has to keep the laws of Yom Kippur  and Shabbat. In so many levels this imagination brings be comfort and sense of order. May we all be blessed to have meaningful Shabbat Shabbatot.

Gmar Chatima Tova

The Binding: Fenrir and Isaac

On the Second day of Rosh HaShana we read arguably the most central texts to Jewish life, the story of the test of Avraham. As we read God commands Avraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. Isaac is bound and placed on the altar, and Avraham raises the knife to slaughter his son. A voice from heaven calls to stop him, saying that it was a test; a ram, caught in the undergrowth by its horns, is offered in Isaac’s place.

The Bible doesn’t specify how old Isaac was at the time of event. One clue to his age is when Isaac notices wood and fire but, seeing no animal, asks Avraham about it (Genesis 22:7). This implies that Isaac is at least old enough to know what the proper sacrificial process is and perceptive enough to ask his father about it. From the chronology of Sarah’s life we learn that the oldest he could have been was  36 or 37 when he was offered as a sacrifice (Sanhedrin 89b and Genesis Rabbah 56:8). So, Isaac was certainly not an older man when he was to be offered as a sacrifice, but neither was he a toddler. Probably the most useful clue to how old Isaac was their climb up the mountain.  Isaac is the one carrying the large pile of wood (Genesis 22:6). This fact tells us Isaac wasn’t a small child when he was to be sacrificed; he was at least a healthy teenager.

What is invested in the age of Isaac? If he was strong enough to carry the wood up the mountain, then he was probably physically and mentally strong enough to resist being sacrificed. The fact that Isaac allowed himself to be bound and placed on the altar shows that Isaac continued to trust his father.

I was thinking about this question recently while reading up on my Norse mythology.  And yes I was preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok which is coming out in theaters soon. I read the story of Fenrir  the monstrous wolf  who is foretold to kill the god Odin during the events of Ragnarök. As the story goes Odin foresees that Fenrir will kill him so he gets the gods to capture him in hopes of saving himself. The gods plan is to control Fenrir to preempt his destroying the world by binding him in chains. Like a virile teenager Fenrir enjoys the challenge and is happy to prove his growing strength in breaking their chains. Eventually they produce Gleipnir, a magical slender unbreakable silken strip. Even though he wants to prove his strength Fenrir is no fool and does not trust them. He concedes to be bound as long as one of them will place their hand in his mouth. Everyone refused to place their hand in Fenrir’s mouth until Týr put out his right hand and placed it into the wolf’s jaws. They bind him and like the wolf from Peter and the Wolf the more Fenrir kicked, Gleipnir caught tightly, and the more Fenrir struggled, the stronger the band grew. At this, everyone laughed, except Týr, who there lost his right hand.

Why does Fenrir want to be bound to prove his strength? Fenrir is driven by pride and glory. Like a teen Fenrir needs to test his limits to understand himself. This growing power is exactly what the other gods fear in him and leads to his tragic capture. Ultimately he is limited by his drive for success. And while the gods do this for self-protection, it is not without a price.

Coming back to this test of Avraham the story of Fenrir is a fascinating foil. First of all it is not ever called the test of Avraham, but rather the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. If in fact he is not a young lad at the time of his binding, it is easy to see him as a teen. What is Isaac proving by carrying the wood, let alone being complicit his binding, getting on the alter, and almost sacrifice? Isaac is seeking to push his limits and understand the limits of his own body and his relationship with his father.  And what does the binding of a 37-year-old man mean?  Like Fenrir does Isaac have something to prove? We never see Avraham and Isaac interact again after the Akedah. Might their relationship be severed like  Týr’s right hand?

Coming back to Rosh HaShana the story of Fenrir is also a fascinating foil. What drives us to success? Might these traits that help us grow and strive for more also limit our success? In what ways are we heroic or tragic in proving we can deal with being bound?  May we all find a way to be unbound this coming year. Shana Tova.

 

 

Standing There Today

Recently I have been thinking about the lines between performers and audience. Specifically I was thinking about this when reading  Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with the Lord, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Not with you alone do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before the Lord, your God, And with whoever is not here with us today.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

What does the Torah mean “whoever is not here’? There was clearly an audience to the Torah at Sinai, how could people who are not there connect to the experience. Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

Even if we accept that all of our souls were brought to Sinai and that in some way our souls accepted God’s Torah as binding upon us, how could that acceptance and oath be valid? We certainly have no recollection of ever being present at Sinai and making an oath. So, how are we to understand the Midrash and the Rashi who claim that all of the generations were at Sinai, accepted the Torah, and that it is a binding agreement?

This question gets spelled out graphically in the Gemara in Shabbat. There we learn:

“And they stood under the mount” ( Exodus 19:17)  Rabbi Abdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said: This [literal reading ‘under’] teaches that the Holy One, blessed be God, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them,’If you accept the Torah, all is well; if not, there shall be your burial.’ Rabbi Aha ben Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah [It provides a legitamate excuse for non-observance, since it was forcibly imposed in the first place.] Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahashverosh [the King from the Purim story in the book of Esther] , for it is written, “[the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]”( Esther 9:27) [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before. ( Shabbat 88a)

The Gemara reframes the acceptance of the additional commandments instituted around the holiday of Purim to be an acceptance of the entirety of the Torah. This is interesting in many ways. The part that interests me today is how it shifts their role. In the Revelation story, God is on stage and we are the audience. In the story of Purim we are not even sure if there is a divine audience, but we are clearly on stage. At Sinai we were the consumers of Torah and then on  Purim we become producers. When Jews choose to participate in Jewish life, we too becomes producers and enjoin ourselves to divine act of revelation. In this way we are really standing there today.

 

10,000 Hours or 40 Years

At the end of  Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

And Moshe called all of Israel and said to them, “You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land; the great trials which your very eyes beheld and those great signs and wonders. Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear. I led you through the desert for forty years [during which time] your garments did not wear out from upon you, nor did your shoes wear out from upon your feet. ( Deuteronomy 29: 1-4)

With all of the signs, wonders, and miracles that this generation saw how come it took them forty years to truly understand what God had done for them?

In reference to this passage the Gemara teaches:

 Yet Moses indicated this to the Israelites only after forty years had passed, as it is said, And I have led you forty years in the
wilderness . . . but the Lord has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see and ears to hear, unto this day.Said Raba: From this you can learn that it may take one forty years to know the mind of one’s master. (Avodah Zarah 5b)

Does it take forty years to really grok the wisdom of your master?

This reminded me of 10,000 Hours by Mackelmore & Ryan Lewis  in which he references Malcolm Gladwell‘s concept from his book Outliers that suggests that true mastery take 10,000 hours of work.

In their song they sing:

This is my world, this is my arena
The TV told me something different I didn’t believe it
I stand here in front of you today all because of an idea
I could be who I wanted if I could see my potential
And I know that one day I’mma be him

 Maybe the real idea being expressed in the Gemara in Avodah Zarah is not that it take forty years for you to understand your master, but it takes forty years for you to really get mastery over yourself. It takes a serious amount of effort, determination, and work for people to become the people that they aspire to be. Similarly our our Torah portion is saying that everyone is enslaved by their past and they need a serious amount of time, be it forty years or 10,000 hours to free yourself to be yourself. This is powerful message for Elul as we all consider doing Teshuva and investing in ourselves becomes our best selves.

 


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