Herd,Happiness, and Hakafot

Hakafot on Sukkot bring happiness. In this ritual we encircle the bimah while holding the Four species on each of the seven days of the holiday. On Simchat Torah, the custom is to take the Torah scrolls out of the Ark and to encircle the bima and throughout the synagogue with great joy, singing, and dancing.

This circular movement is a symbol of perfection and unity, and communal cooperation. According to the story told in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites walked around the city of Jericho once a day for a week and seven times on the seventh day, with the priests leading the way, carrying the Ark of the Covenant each time. On the seventh day, the people blew the  shofar and shouted, causing the walls to fall and allowing them to enter the city. In the Temple period, when they wanted to add area to the Temple Mount, they first encircled the desired area and only after added land to the Temple Mount. Clearly this ritual finds analogous behavior in our Muslim’s circumambulation around the Kaaba Stone.

This might give us the historical context of the hakafot, is there any inner meaning to the custom? I had not given this much thought until I saw this extraordinary footage from a drone of a reindeer cyclone from above:

If you are a young, old, or weak reindeer, you will find yourself at the heart of the herd and it offers you protection. If you are strong you are on the outside protecting the weak. The herd provides you purpose. As Dr Daniel Dennet said in one of my favorite TED Talks” The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” In their circular movement all of reindeer find their happiness in that they can dedicate their life to the safety of the herd.

We see the same thing when it comes to hakafot. Our circling as a community centers the needs of the community at the heart of our herd.

I would think we feel the same way about getting vaccinated. This is the very idea of the strong supporting the weak and creating a cyclone effect of herd immunity. It seems on this level getting vaccinated would give our lives religious purpose.

Zero-Based Budgeting and Avinu Malkeynu

For many of us who actually work off a budget, be if for profit, for not-for-profit or personal we just roll over one year’s budget from the last. Developed by Peter Pyhrr in the 1970s, Zero-based budgeting (ZBB) is a method of budgeting in which all expenses must be justified and approved for each new period. ZBB starts from a “zero base” at the beginning of every budget period, analyzing needs and costs of every function within an organization and allocating funds accordingly, regardless of how much money has previously been budgeted to any given line item.

zero_based_budget_process_ppt_example_file_Slide01

There are positives to ZBB:

  1. Accuracy: This type of budgeting helps companies to evaluate every department to ensure they are appropriately funded.
  2. Efficiency: It helps judge the actual needs by focusing on current numbers rather than the momentum of previous budgets.
  3. Reduced waste: It can remove redundant spending by re-examining potentially unnecessary expenditures.
  4. Coordination and Communication: It allows for better communication within departments by involving employees in decision-making and budget prioritization.

There are also drawbacks of ZBB:

  1. Bureaucracy: Creating ZBB within a company can take enormous amounts of time, effort, and analysis that would require extra staff. This could cause the process to be counterproductive in cutting costs.
  2. Bloat: In using ZBB, managers can skew proposed budgets to characterize expenditures on pet projects as vital activities, inventing a “necessity” for them.
  3. Intangible Justifications: This type of budgeting requires departments to justify their budget, which can be difficult on many levels. Departments such as advertising and marketing have to justify expenses they may or may not use in the next year due to the fluctuation of the market. This could cost them profits in the future due to not being able to justify a certain amount.
  4. Managerial Time: ZBB comes at the cost of time and training for managers. This means spending significantly more time every period on the budget.
  5. Slower Response Time: Due to the amount of time and training is required to do ZBB, managerial staff could be less likely to revise the budget in response to a changing market. This means that it will take longer for a company to move money into departments that need it the most at the time. ZBB could potentially leave gaps in a company because the budget might not react to departments’ sudden needs

Performance measures are a key component of the ZBB process. At the core, ZBB requires quality measures that can be used to analyze the impact of alternative funding scenarios on program operations and outcomes. Without quality measures ZBB simply will not work because decisions cannot be ranked or evaluated. Traditionally, a ZBB analysis focused on three types of measures:

  1. effectiveness,
  2. efficiency, and
  3. workload for each decision unit.

I was thinking about this yesterday near the end of Yom Kippur when singing the end of Avinu Malkeynu. There we say:

ah-vee-noo mahl-kay-noo chah-nay-noo vah-ahh-nay-noo kee ayn bah-noo mah-ahh-seem ahh-say eeh-mah-noo tzih-dah-kah vah-cheh-sed vih-hoe-shee-ay-noo- Our Father, Our King! favor us and answer us for we have no good deeds; deal with us charitably and kindly with us

Every other time I said this it came off as a child pleading to their Father to save them. Yes we know we are crap and have done nothing good, but since you love us as a parent loves a child you will save us. But here during Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur after a day in which we have already repented and we have done teshuva I got to thinking about what this means. Maybe after the slate has been cleaned from year of sin, it has also been cleared from any good we have done. We too have to go through a ZBB for our lives. For better and for worse nothing will roll over from last year.

So let’s get to work and make 5782 everything we want it to be. Here is to a year filled with health, happiness, effectiveness, efficiency, and good decisions.

Reb Asher the Dairyman: Will We Hear Him This Year?

For various reasons I recently found myself reading Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s In My Father’s Court recently. I just love his depiction of the old world and his story telling. Each of the stories helps to paint a different aspect of Singer’s early life growing up the son of a Hassidic Rebbe and Rebeitzen. His family had moved from the country into Warsaw. In the stories we see Singer himself exploring the world beyond his own.

Isaac Bashevis Singer

There is one story there I can not get out of my mind. The title of the story Reb Asher the Dairyman already had me thinking I could reconnect with Shalom Aleichem‘s Tevye. But this is a different story. Reb Asher was tall, broad, strong, with a black beard, large eyes, and “the voice of a lion”. He volunteered in Singer’s Father’s makeshift High Holiday minyan as the Hazzan. Singer also tells how Reb Asher takes him under his wing to bring him to the train to see more of the outside world. It is clear that Reb Asher is a friend of the family.

There we read:

One year, at the close of the Day of Atonement, this same Asher, our friend and benefactor, saved our very lives. It happened in this manner. After the day-long fast, we had eaten the repast. Later a number of Jews gathered in our house to dance and rejoice. My father had already put up the first beam of the Sukkah. Late that night we had at last fallen asleep. Since benches and pews has been set up in the bedroom, and the entire house was in disorder, each of us slept wherever he could find a spot. But one thing we has forgotten- to extinguish the candles that were still burning on some of the pews. Late that night Asher had to drive to the railroad station to pick up milk. He passed our house and noticed that it was unusually bright. This was not the glow of candles, or of a lamp, but rather the glare of a great fire. Asher realized that our house must be burning. He rang the bell at the gate, but janitor did not rush to open it. He too was asleep. Then Asher set to ringing the bell and beating on the door with such furor that at las the Gentile awoke and opened the gate. Asher raced up the stairs and knocked on our door, but no one answered. Then Asher the mighty hurled his broad shoulders against the door and forced it open. Bursting into the house, he found the entire family asleep while all around, benches, prayer stands, prayer books, and holiday prayer books were aflame. He began to call our in his booming cantorial voice and finally roused us, and then he tore off our quilts and set to smothering the conflagration.

In My Father’s Court (166-167)

In some way we see Singer depicting Asher reliving the Midrash of Avram discovering God when stopping to investigate a castle that is has it’s lights on and/or is engulfed in fire. But in another way this story from the old world seems prescient in describing our moment in history today. Just like the Singer family we have fallen asleep and the world is burning. Be it global warming and its forest fires, political fervor, raging racism, or this evolving Covid-19 plague, our reality feels like it burning to the ground. How do we deal with trauma? How might we address the underlying root causes?

As we prepare for Yom Kippur I pause to think about the voice of the Hazan. Will I allow myself to get lost in the nostalgia? Will his voice lull us to sleep with a false sense of comfort? Or, will the booming “voice of the lion” wake us? We will only be saved when we face the issues burning all around us. As we prepare to stand in God’s Court during Yom Kippur we should all be blessed to be saved by our friend Reb Asher on his way to the railroad station to pick up the milk.

Tzom Rabin

On November 4th, 1995 at 21:30,  at Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv at the end of a rally in support of the Oslo Accords assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. I pause to remember the man he was and his importance to the Jewish people. In President Bill Clinton’s eulogy for Rabin he wrote, “Yitzhak Rabin lived the history of Israel. Throughout every trial and triumph, the struggle for independence, the wars for survival, the pursuit of peace and all he served on the front lines, this son of David and of Solomon, took up arms to defend Israel’s freedom and lay down his life to secure Israel’s future.” As I look back on the past 26 years since his death I think about how much has changed and how much as stayed the same.

Israel's Yitzhak Rabin assassinated at peace rally - archive, 1995 | Middle  East and North Africa | The Guardian

There are clearly growing generational gaps between the Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and the Gen Zers. We have not even begun to understand the impact of the recent political and environmental shifts let alone the effect of Covid-19 on this next generation.

Just as my father knew exactly where he was when Kennedy was shot, I know exactly where I was when Rabin was shot. And for our four children Rabin will be as distant as Kennedy is to me. Despite the distance of time, I hope that our children learn from Rabin that contributing to the world as a responsible citizen does not happen despite their Jewish identity, but actually can be lived out more fully through their Jewish identity. Rabin’s assassination teaches us how violence is senseless. And I want Rabin’s memory to be for what he did and tried to do, not what was done to him.

I was thinking about this yesterday in trying help my children understand the significance of Tzom Gedalia.  Gedalia was the governor of Yehudah. His assassination by a fellow Jew ended Jewish autonomy following the destruction of the First Temple.  Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” When will we learn?

A Majestic Light: Shanah Tova

In trying to prepare for Rosh HaShanah I find myself swept into the surge of amazing popular Israel rock. Most recently I have been listening to Shemesh- Sun by Hanan Ben Ari. Completely worth Listening to before Rosh HaShanah.

Beside the amazing and mysterious sound of Shemesh the lyrics are the perfect thing to get into Malchuyot- God’s Coronation Day. He sings:

I find myself longing. Seeking an answer. See me, give me Your hand. I am one who’s willing to change. Come and light up my days. With a Or Yafe Ganuz-beautiful, hidden light for almost a million generations. And then I shall be like a sun to the world. I shall be like a bird, wandering across space. You, You shall be my King forevermore. I thank Thee for the path You’ve sworn unto me

Shemesh- Hanan Ben Ari

I too find myself longing. It is hard to finding meaning in the world these days. Ben Ari is asking us to reach out and be open to the Or Ganuz hidden light. Rav Nachman teaches ” Anyone who wants to experience a taste of the Or HaGanuz (Hidden Light)—i.e., the mysteries of the Torah that will be revealed in the Future—must elevate the aspect of fear to its source.” ( Likutei Moharan 15:1:2 ) This reminds me of the oft quoted poem Our Deepest Fear
By Marianne Williamson. She writes:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.
We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us;
It's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.

When we are open to the Or Ganuz we become the sun that lights the room. In allowing ourselves to self-actualize we make room for God, the King, to do the same. The majestic light of Rosh HaShanah inspires us to live up to our potential. We just need to be open to the experience. May you have a Shana Tova U’Metukah- a good and sweet New Year full of light.

Dear Child to Me: On Emunah and this Blog

I remind each of my children all of the time, ” I love them the most of all…just like their three siblings.” This year as I have been feebly trying to prepare for the High Holidays during Elul. One thing that had helped is that I have found myself singing again and again to different covers of Deveykus‘s Haben Yakir Li. The lyrics are taken from a section of Jeremiah that we read on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. There we read:

Truly, Efraim is a dear child to Me,
A child  in whom I delight!
Whenever I speak of him,
My thoughts would dwell on him still.
That is why My heart yearns for him;
I will receive him back in love
—declares the LORD.

Jeremiah 31:20

For me it expresses an extraordinary expression of God’s anthropopathic love of Israel. Here is one version with some nice violin:

There is some ambiguity about the text when it says ” Whenever I speak of him“. Is it when I speak to him, about him, or even against him? Rashi explores the meaning of “whenever I speak of him” and comments:

Every time that I speak of him. And the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah (2:3) explains: It is enough My speech (דַּי דִבּוּרִי) with which I endowed him, that I taught him My Torah, for Me to have mercy on him.

Rashi on Jeremiah 31:20

This is an interesting thought. It is as if God recalls learning with Efraim and that reminds God how much God loves him.

This parental love through learning reminded me of a Rashi from Parshat Vayigash. Yosef, Efraim’s father, reveals his identity to his brothers. Finding out that their father is still alive he sends agalot– wagons to bring Yaakov to Egypt. There Rashi comments:

By sending the wagons (agalot), Yosef sent him a sign. What was the (topic) they had studied before he (Yosef) left? The topic of the egla arufa -beheaded heifer (see Shoftim). Thus the text states, “when he saw the agalot which Yosef sent,” and not which Pharoh sent.

Rashi on Bereishit 45:27

There is something deep about parent’s love of a child. Even though he was told that Yosef died years earlier, once he saw these agalot Yaakov just knew that Yosef was alive due to the learning that they shared before Yosef’s abduction. This love gets even deeper when it comes in the context of their learning Torah together. This is a love that never could believe that Yosef is truly dead. This is also a love that wants to allow Efraim’s return regardless of his misdeeds.

I was thinking about this parental love in the context of learning while studying with Emunah in preparation for Bat Mitzah this coming spring. It feels special, just like the learning I do with her three siblings. They are all dear to me.

On another level I was thinking about Emunah when sharing this Torah thought with you through this blog. I started this practice of writing a weekly blog when she was born. Emunah and this blog* recently turned 12.

*For those following along at home this is my 756th blog post.

Fruit of Liberation

At the start of Parshat Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the Bikkurim offerings given in the Temple. There we read:

Bikkurim: First Fruits - Torah Insights - Parshah

While I am interested in the nature of the Temple ritual of giving these first fruit, I am even more interested that this Mitzvah is described to them while they were still in the wilderness. What would this message have meant to a nation of slaves who have never been in this land?

While they were slaves they had nothing. They did not own their time and it is not clear what kind of possessions they had. This is a powerful shift of mindset from one of scarcity to one of abundance. They were being asked to imagine a time when they would have what to offer and donate.

That being said it is still really hard to imagine conquering and building a country. It is easier to imagine the time when they will have settled down and you have their first fruit. Imaging that moment of expressing gratitude and making a small gift of fruit itself must have been liberating.

There is profound brilliance of the Rabbis to make these passages of Bikkurim the backbone of of the Passover Seder. For millennia we have been carrying on a conversation about liberation. The shift from scarcity to abundance is critical. But this itself might not be possible. People need smaller incremental wins to see progress and imagine a new reality.

It would have been too much for anyone to just say they had liberation for it to be true. We all need small baskets of progress that help us reflect on the fruit of our liberation.

When We ‘Go Out’: Reflecting on Afghanistan

In Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, we look at what happens when we go out to war. There we read, ” Ki Tetzei -When you go out to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives.” (Deuteronomy 21:10) Inevitably one things to another and more bad things come to pass. In the Midrash we see:

“When you go out to war [against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive].”(Deut. 21:10:) Our masters have taught , “[One] good deed/commandment brings about [another] good deed/commandment, and [one] transgression brings about [another] transgression.” (Avot 4:2) “And when you see among the captives a woman of pretty form [whom you desire to take for a wife. And you shall bring her into your house,] where she shall shave her head and do her nails,”(Deut. 21:11-12:) so that she will not find favor in his eyes…

Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Teitzei 1:1

This midrash explains the flow of the Torah portion. Going to war leads to taking a war captive as a wife. This in turn leads to a man having two wives, one loved more than the other, which leads to having “a defiant and rebellious son.” Just a good deed leads to another good deed a bad deed leads to more bad things happening. Nothing good will come from going to war.

This language of Ki Tetzei – going out got me thinking about the similar language we see at the start of Vayetze, when Yaakov went out. There we read, ” Yaakov left Beer-Sheva, and set out for Haran.” ( Genesis 28:10). On this Rashi opines:

AND YAAKOV WENT OUT—It need have written simply “And Yaakov went to Haran’’; why then does it mention his departure from Beersheba? But it intends to tell us that the departure of a righteous person from his city makes an impression. As long as a righteous man is in his city he is its glory and splendor and beauty; when he leaves it, there depart also its glory, its splendor and its beauty. This, too, is the meaning of (Ruth 1:7) “And she went forth out of the place”, stated in reference to Naomi and Ruth (Genesis Rabbah 68:6).

Rashi on Genesis 28:10

I was thinking about this recently with American’s ‘going out’ of Afghanistan.

US exit from Afghanistan - The Frontier Post

Everyone is quick to criticize Biden for leaving Afghanistan at all or for leaving too quickly. Both are interesting in this context as it paints the United States with a false sense of righteousness. It is as if Kabul like Beer-Sheva is hurting because Yaakov left her.

I was thinking about this when reading a great piece written by my old friend Daniel Silverberg recently in the Atlantic. There he writes:

Biden faced a set of bad options. He ultimately made the difficult but necessary choice to preserve American lives. That decision will have devastating consequences for Afghanistan, and we will learn more in the coming days regarding how the administration might have executed its plans better. But as I saw for myself in 2017, and as many others had also observed, the government we supported never truly controlled the country it governed. Biden did not decide to withdraw so much as he chose to acknowledge a long-festering reality, one accelerated by the previous administration’s withdrawal announcement.

The Atlantic

To be clear there are horrible things happening in Afghanistan that should not be happening. Regardless of why we are in this situation we must do our part to help people currently in pain. And I am not sure anyone really knows why we ‘went out’ for this war in the first place. As see see in our Torah portion, bad deeds lead to more bad deeds. War is horrible and will only lead to more bad things. I am sure in the weeks and months to follow people will explore how this exit was mismanaged. For this Biden’s administration is responsible. But we should not pretend that we are so righteous in being there in the first place. It is hard to place the blame for that on the Biden administration. Many others are responsibility for our ‘going out’ to this war 20 years ago.

Breaks Over: Preparing for the Fall Transition

This summer has been transformative for our children. After months of masks and social isolation they just needed camp. And now I am worried about the confluence of the resurgence of the Delta varient and their headed back to school. How will we rally them to get back into Covid restrictions after a summer of freedom?

I was thinking about this and I was reminded of a joke that my father used to say. As my dad would tell it, a man dies and goes to hell. There he is given three choices of how to spend eternity. In room one, it’s the classic version, the evil-doers being engulfed by fire and brimstone. In room two, people are buried up to their necks in poop. In room three, people are standing around knee-deep in excrement, drinking coffee. The man chooses option three. He is excited to join the group and he gets a big cup of coffee. While it is clearly not heaven, it is not that bad. He is feeling pretty good about his decision. Just as he takes his first sip there is an announcement over a loudspeaker: “Attention! Coffee break is over! Back on your heads!”

Today is my father’s 3rd Yahrzeit. I miss him, his wit, and his ability to get to the heart of the matter. This will be a difficult fall for our children, but it was a great coffee break.

Beyond Just Right and Left: On the Authority of Law

We learn in  Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, the basic elements of the justice system. There we read:

You shall act in accordance with the instructions given you and the ruling handed down to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.

Deuteronomy 17:11

While we need to believe in the Torah, the Torah itself is asking us to follow the interpretation of the Judges. The rule of law is not limited to the given word, but rather predicated by following the Judges interpretation of the law. This idea continues from the Judges to the Rabbis as they become the interpreters of the law. This idea is echoed in one of three wonderful story about a non-Jew who wants to convert with a condition. There we read:

There was an incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai. The gentile said to Shammai: How many Torahs do you have? He said to him: Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The gentile said to him: With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah. Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. The same gentile came before Hillel, who converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: You see that it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.

Shabbat 31a

The would-be convert wants to accept the Torah but not the Rabbis’ interpretation. While Shammai is not having it at all, Hillel is willing to play. Just as in our Torah portion one would have to accept left as right and right as left, Hillel is pushing him to accept Alef as Taf and Taf as Alef. In this context the convert realizes that it is a package deal. To have access to the written Torah he will also need to trust the Rabbis and accept their interpretation for better and for worse. To become a Jew is predicated by accepting Rabbinic Authority. We see in the would-be convert a character that I often find in myself. I think I know what is right and what is wrong and I am not willing to trust an external authority. I often get stuck there. I have a feeling I am not the only one who gets stuck in this place.

This is profoundly similar to the Avraham’s situation at the Akedah, binding of his son Yitzhak. God told him to sacrifice his beloved son. Just as Avraham is about to go through with it an Angel tell him not to do it. Is this message the truth or just an interpretation. Should he go through with it? What is he to do? There we read:

When Avraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.

Genesis 22:13
Genesis 22 vers 13. De ram op de berg Moria. | Genesis bible, Bible  pictures, Biblical art

Avraham did not know which authority to follow. He did not turn his head to “either to the right or to the left “. He lifts his head and he sees a ram caught in the thicket. In the ram he sees himself. Will he go to the right or to the left or will he lift his head and see another path through the situation? We all get stuck between A and B. We do not always find a way to back up, analyze, and make a plan C. To live a life within the law we cannot deviate from the path. The path itself demands that we trust our Rabbis AND think for ourselves.


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