Humble Hutzpah

At the end of VaYeshev, this week’s Torah portion, we see our hero Yosef meeting Pharaoh’s butler and baker in prison. One night, the butler and the baker each had dreams. Finding them sad, Yosef asks them the cause, and they told him that it was because no one could interpret their dreams. Acknowledging that interpretations belong to God, Yosef asks them to tell him their dreams. In the butler’s dream the butler saw a vine with three branches blossom and bring forth grapes, which he took and pressed into Pharaoh’s cup, which he gave to Pharaoh. Yosef interprets that within three days; Pharaoh would lift up the butler’s head and restore him to his office, where he would give Pharaoh his cup just as he used to do. When the baker sees that the interpretation of the butler’s dream was good, he shares his dream. He saw three baskets of white bread on his head, and the birds ate them out of the basket. Yosef interprets that within three days Pharaoh would lift up the baker’s head and hang him on a tree, and the birds would eat his flesh.

What is the meaning of these dreams? Why is one dream good and other so bad? For years I took Yosef’s words at face value to be the answer. “Do not interpretations belong to God?” How could we ever know how to interpret the dreams? But recently I got to thinking, what are the respective roles that the butler and the baker play in their own dreams? The butler is active in pressing the grapes where the baker is passive in having the birds eat the bread.

The reality is that Yosef’s question is the question. “Do not interpretations belong to God?” Well it seems that the real answer is yes and no. Yes – God alone knows the future. And no – despite that is is only for God to do Yosef goes on to interpret the dreams. Yosef models for them what it means to be an active agent in realizing your dreams. We cannot be passive in sculpting our future. We need to partner with God and other people to realize our highest dreams.

This week marked the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington for Soviet Jewry. I remember it well as a moment when we all came together to play an active role in shaping the future of our brethren caught behind the Iron Curtain. Hind sight is 20/20, who knew that years later I would spend close to two years living in Minsk working with the Jewish community in the FSU. On the anniversary of this march I ponder what  will be a similar  moment for our children. What will be a moment when they and we as a community move from being passive bakers to being active butlers to shape our future?

And as we prepare for Chanukah I take pause. Chanukah was a brutal civil war which the Rabbis masterfully reshaped into a holiday of light and divine miracles. We cannot forget what Yosef said and did. If it was just in our hands, our hands would be rather blood stained. We need to follow what Yosef modeled. We need to remember to have humility. It is all in God’s hands. And at the same time we need to have the hutzpah ( holy hubris) to act in the world. Like Yosef we need to find the balance of a humble hutzpah to realize our dreams.


Wrestling with Race: Another Look at VaYishlach

As we will see in VaYishlach, this week’s Torah portion, Yakov splits his family and live stock into shnei machanot– two camps- as a defensive measure in preparation for confronting his long estranged brother Esav. Under the cover of darkness Jacob sends the two camps over the river and then returns back over the river. As we all know too well. There is where he faces an angel by himself and wrestles till day break. There we read:

Vayivater Yakov Livado vaYe’avek Ish imo ad  olot haShachar. And Yakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. (Genesis 32:25)

Rashi explains that the verb vaYe’avek is connected to the word avak– dust. As to say that they wrestled and got all dusty.

As well as we know the story of Yakov wrestling with the angel, we often forget where it all happened. As we learned in VaYetzei, last week’s Torah portion, this happened in  Machanaim. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov resolved to return home. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov split his family into two Machanot– camps. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov realized the value of small things (See Rashi ad loc). It was there in Machanaim that Yakov wrestled with the angel. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov stopped running or could not run any more ( see hip injury). It was there in Machanaim that Yakov realized who he was. It was there in Machanaim his name was changed from Yakov to Yisrael.

We are so focused on his name and our name being Yisrael that we overlook the plain meaning of the text. This story of Yakov’s  travel to Machanaim  is in the context of his reconciliation with his estranged brother Esav. Before the Rabbis get to him, Esav seems like a really good guy who got manipulated out of his role as eldest and chosen child. While we repaint Esav as bad,  we forget that it was Yakov who was in the wrong. Is it possible that the name of this place being duel encampment has nothing to do with his strategic splitting of his wives and children in preparation for dealing with a hostile sybling, but instead of rift that existed between Yakov and his brother Esav? It was there is Machanaim that Yakov realized the work he needed to do to make peace with his brother. It was here that he stopped running from his own role in hurting his brother. It was there in Machanaim that Yakov did the work he needed to do to reconcile his relationship with Esav.

I was thinking about this moment of reconciliation between two brothers recently while reading The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In this memoir he explores his relationship with his father and his own process of becoming a conscious black man in America. Reading how Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up made we realize how  unconscious I was to my own privilege growing up white in the suburbs. There is just so much that I have taken for granted. Reading this book I got the sense of how deep our history of racism is in this country. The cataclysmic impact of the evils of one people being enslaving another is not born out of the course of a lifetime, but generations.What will it take for white people to show up, own the wrong that has been done, stop running away from our history,  and start to work toward reconciliation?

When we figure out how to include the marginalized elements of our family who we have wronged we too become Yisrael at Machanaim . There is much work to be donw, but the place of inclusion is surely Machaneh Elokim– God’s camp.



Bar Mitzvah Bucket List

What does it mean to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? As parents how often do we allow ourselves to ask this question? Far too often we see ourselves as consumers of the synagogue industrial complex who produce these experiences for our child. Even if we do ask this question, what is the possibility that our tween is asking that it means to become a Jewish adult? It is tragic to realize that our children are lead through these experience as if it was designed by Temple Grandin. The entire enterprise of synagogue education is leading them as painlessly as possible to this alter with no sacrifice. What would it take for us to stop being consumers and to empower our children to be producers of their own experience of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

While I am happy consumer of synagogue life, I was not satisfied handing over the entirety of this sacred process to someone else. To that ends Adina and I instituted a process of creating a “Bar Mitzvah Bucket List” with Yadid in the years moving toward the event. This is a list of things that all three of us agree the child will accomplish before or during the year of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. I was thinking about this again when Yishama’s school brought together the 6th graders to help us the parents prepare for all of Bnei Mitzvah in the next two years.

As we learn in Proverbs:

 חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ –Initiate a child according to his path so when he grows old, he will not turn away from it. ( Proverbs  22:6)

It is critical that we find a way to surface what grabs the child. Have we asked them? It is also important for us to find a way to share what think is the core to coming a Jewish adult in a way that is in conversation with their wants and desires. In partnership with our youth we need to make something that is rigorous and relevant. We need to empower our youth to be authentic authors of our collective narrative.

I have found that this process is a means of determining our highest values without getting lost in philosophical discourse with a 11 year old. I find that even when sharing this idea with parents, they too want me to bring this idea out of the clouds into the world of practicality. To this ends I wanted to share with you some examples from Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah Bucket List. Beyond reading Torah and giving a Dvar Torah we added things like:

  • Build something out of wood
  • Learn how to chop wood
  • Cook the family Shabbat dinner from soup to soup nuts
  • Make the Shabbat accoutrement  from kiddush cups to challah cover
  • Learn a masechet of Gemara – It was great having him Yadid do a siyum at his Bar Mitzvah
  • Interview a list of people we all agree on as to what it means to them to become a Jewish adult 
  • Hike a section of the Appalachian Trail and get a pen knife- This still needs to happen. 
  • Shul hop, it was good for him to learn how different kinds of Jews pray

This is a projection of what the three of us think it means to live as a Jewish adult. As you could see we did not accomplish everyhthing on the list, but it was amazing to transform being “Bar Mitzvahed” into a life long effort to becoming a Jewish adult. Now have a starting point to prepare for Yishama’s Bar Mitvah, I would welcome some practical suggestions at this point as well.

– Look at related piece on the 300 and Bnai Mitzvah

Pitting Against

In Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to Yitzhak’s two children Esau and Jacob. While we know that Avraham’s line will continue in Yitzhak and not Yishmael, why didn’t Yakov and Esav both share the mantel of the future people instead of it just going to Yakov’s children? We read,

“And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Isaac loved Esav, because he did eat of his venison; and Rivka loved Yakov.” (Genesis 25:27-28)

It is clear from the start that Yitzhak and Rebekah do not share an equal love for their children. From the start, they were in competition for their parents’ love. Yakov and Esav spend years and years in competition and struggle with each other, but it seems pretty clear that they are just living out the conflict between Yitzhak and Rivka.

I had the fortune to reread this part of the Torah with my friend and teacher Jon Adam Ross (JAR) as part of his  inHEIRitance Project.  At the time JAR was preparing to do a play inspired by Rivka in Charleston in 2015. This is a community struggling with a deep history of slavery and racism. In this context it was compelling to rethink the contrast between Yakov the tent dweller and Esav the hunter. In the context of Charleston Yakov and Esav were recast as the house slave and the field slave. It is clear that the tension between them was to keep our eyes off the oppression of the slave master.  There is a long history of pitting marginalized people against each other rather than dealing with the root cause of injustice. Why couldn’t Yitzhak and Rivka just deal with rift in their relationship? It would have saved their children a world of pain. Why do we accept this politics of  diversion of  pitting marginalized people against each other from the current administration?



We All Stood Together: Rivka and Revelation

This weekend the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel is celebrating its 30th year. It is crazy to think that I did this program 27 years ago this summer. One of my memories from that summer was when Merle Feld a poet taught some of her poetry to the group. On of the poem’s “We All Stood Together” I still remember vividly. There in Jerusalem at the age of 15 we read:

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me
It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one of my friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
And then
As time passes
the particulars
the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I’m left with is
the feeling
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
my brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he’s got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
sparks flying

I was thinking about this poem specifically this Shabbat as we read Chaye Sarah, this week’s Torah portion. There we find Rivka giving water to Eliezer’s camels. There we read:

And the man was astonished at her, standing silent, [waiting] to know whether the Lord had caused his way to prosper or not. Now it came about, when the camels had finished drinking, [that] the man took a golden nose ring, weighing half [a shekel], and two bracelets for her hands, weighing ten gold [shekels]. ( Genesis 24:21-22)

Why did he give her braclets? And why two of them? And why specify ten units of gold? On these points Rashi said:

and two braceletsAn allusion to the two Tablets paired together. — [Gen. Rabbah (60:6), Targum Jonathan]

weighing ten goldAn allusion to the Ten Commandments [inscribed] on them. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:6]

This moment at the well was a moment when Rivka herself modeled for us the overlooked role of women at Sinai. This moment happened through acts of righteousness, but sadly the female contribution to revelation has been hidden in broad daylight. This images of Rivka and  Merle Feld  fill me with gratitude for the gifts of female voices to the world of Torah.


Bob’s Your Uncle

A few months ago I was watching a show with Yadid and one of the characters said, “…And Bob’s your uncle”.  We were dumbstruck. What does this expression mean? As it turns out this an expression of unknown origin, that means “and there it is” or “and there you have it.” It is commonly used in England. Typically, someone says it to conclude a set of simple instructions or when a result is reached. For example: “left over right; right over left, and Bob’s your uncle – a reef knot.” The meaning is similar to that of the French expression “et voilà!”

I was thinking about this expression yesterday as it was the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.  The Balfour Declaration was a single paragraph in a letter dated November 2, 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It read:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The text of the letter was published in the press one week later, on November 9, 1917. The Balfour Declaration was later incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine. The issuance of the declaration had many long-lasting consequences.

Portrait of Arthur Balfour (1892)

But what does any of this have to do with our mystery expression? As it turns out A. J. Langguth and others have suggested that the expression “…And Bob’s your uncle” arose after Conservative Prime Minister Robert “Bob” Cecil appointed his nephew Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887, an act which was apparently both surprising and unpopular. In this sense, the expression also carried a hint of sarcastic envy or resentment, rather like “it’s who you know, not what you know” that gets results.

So Lord Balfour write his declaration, David Ben-Gurion declares Statehood, the Israeli army fights countless wars, and Bob’s your uncle we are blessed with the modern State of Israel.



Where the Sidewalk Ends

What is the nature of beginnings? Seneca said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”  The start of something new means that something else ends, but does it also mean that eventually the very thing you are starting will eventually end with something else’s beginning? I was thinking about this when reading the start of Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. There we  read:

The Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you. And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” ( Genesis 12:1-3)

This is the start of the Jewish project, but what is the end of that project? While many people throughout history have tried to answer that question for us, for now I rather keep in a lighter note. When talking with my friend Shalom Orzach recently he connected this charge to Avram to go out with Shel Silverstein’s poem Where the Sidewalk Ends. There we read:

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

Image result for where the sidewalk ends
It is true that cosmology points us to eschatology, but it can be playful and it does not have to be so darn gloomy. Regardless, we can all enjoy the adventure. It is always refreshing to read Lech Lecha and reconnect with our beginning and reassess if we are going in the right direction.

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