Faith Minus Vulnerability

In Eikev, this week’s Torah portion we read:

The graven images of their gods shall you burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or the gold that is on them, nor take it unto yourself, lest you be snared therein; for it is an abomination to the Lord your God.And you shalt not bring an abomination into your house, and be accursed like unto it; you shalt utterly detest it, and you shall utterly abhor it; for it is a devoted thing. (Deuteronomy 7:25-26)

What do we make of the use of the word”abomination” in the context of idolatry?  In the Talmud Rabbi Yohanan in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai noted the word “abomination” in common in both our portion and in Proverbs which says:

Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord; my hand upon it! he shall not be unpunished(Proverbs 16:5)

They deduced from the common use of the same word “abomination” that people who are haughty of spirit are as though they worshiped idols (Sotah 4b).

I was thinking about this in the context of the work of Brené Brown. In her brilliant discussion of vulnerability she writes:

Faith minus vulnerability and mystery equals extremism. If you’ve got all the answers, then don’t call what you do ‘faith.’
Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai are on to something – there is a certain abomination of being too haughty and close minded to be vulnerable. The secret of whole-hearted living is to break the idols in our lives and be open to the mystery of the unknown, the Unknowable, and even yet to be known self. These are only revealed through the hard work and practice of humility.

Not Being There #nevertrump

One of my favorite books Being There by Jerzy Kosinski. In this 1970 novel  the writer explores a satirical view of the absurd reality of America’s media culture. It is the story of Chance the gardener, a man with few distinctive qualities. To Chance the whole world was a garden, but others mistake this simpleton’s description of an actual garden for an extended metaphor about the economy. Chance emerges from nowhere and suddenly becomes the heir to the throne of a Wall Street tycoon and a presidential policy adviser. His simple and straightforward responses to popular concerns are praised as visionary despite the fact that no one actually understands what he is really saying. The book was turned into a famous movie with Peter Sellers.

Today in the context of the Donald Trump’s presidential campaign Kosinski’s words seem prescient. For example Trump said that he would build a wall along the border between Mexico and the U.S. to curb illegal immigration — and has vowed that Mexico would foot the bill. Trump said, “It’s gonna be a great wall. This will be a wall with a big, very beautiful door because we want the legals to come back into the country.” When Trump “speaks from the heart” you cannot be sure if he is being literal or metaphoric. We are left thinking that Trump is either a simpleton way out of his element who is not fit to be the president or an evil narcissist who should just never be allowed to have any more power. In either case we need to look in the mirror and ask how he got to be a candidate for the most powerful office in the world. What is the nature of our media driven culture that would allow the rise of Chance?

Doomsday Machine: Matot Masai and Voting Against Trump

In Matot- Masai, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the horribly disturbing genocide of the Midianites. How can we understand Biblical justice  regarding the war against Midian particularly?  After the war the boys and women were brought back as prisoners of war. Moshe was upset with the soldiers and orders them to kill the boys and the women who are not virgins. Today we would call that a war crime. All the commentaries I have seen give answers I find troubling to some degree.

I am not sure that there is an answer, by searching for some shred of meaning in this horribly meaningless mass killing got me thinking about their situation wandering in the desert and their sense of fear. They were a group of landless and vulnerable refugees. Maybe killing the Midianites sent a clear message to all of the neighbors. Maybe it was some sort of deterrent. Do not mess with us.

This reminds of the scene near the end of Dr. Strangelove. A rogue missile was deployed at Russia and they are trying to stop a full out nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove says,” Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, EH?” Ambassador de Sadesky replies,”It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.”  It is clear that Moshe had this power as the leader, but just because he could do this does not mean that he should have. Ultimately genocide begets genocide, violence begets violence, and hate begets hate.

Sadly it seems that Trump has not yet got that message. As Joe Scarborough reported recently, “Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump. And three times [Trump] asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked at one point if we had them why can’t we use them.” This is troubling to say the least. This is no secret. If we have questions about Moshe’s leadership, I have none about Trump. Trump is unfit to govern or lead and he should not have his finger on the nuclear codes. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yes people are afraid and feel lost, but the answer is not hate, violence, and it certainly is not Donald Trump. Love Trumps Hate. Enough complaining lets get out the vote. Stop Trump.

Good Life: Death and Chukkat

In Chukkat, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the bizarre rite of the para adumma– red heifer.  It was a cow brought to the priests as a sacrifice, and its ashes were used for the ritual purification of Ṭum’at HaMet (“the impurity of the dead”), that is, an Israelite who had come into contact with a corpse. It does seems strange that some how the ash of one dead animal would deal with their fear of having come into contact with a dead body. The notion of a para adumma seems out of step with our lives. How do we make sense of this in the 21st Century?

I was thinking about this question when reading Atul Gawande’s  Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. In his bestselling book, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Here he examines its ultimate limitations and failures – in his own practices as well as others’ – as life draws to a close. And he discovers how we can do better. He follows a hospice nurse on her rounds, a geriatrician in his clinic, and reformers turning nursing homes upside down. There he writes:

Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.

In today’s day we have removed death from our lives. Even doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients’ anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them. And we the families go along with all of it.

So while it is crazy to imagine how the para adumma removed the impurity of death from the Israelites lives, it seems even crazier that we have feebly tried to removed death itself from our modern lives. We might not find ourselves going to the Priest for a consult, but we should find people who show us how to have the hard conversations about death before it is too late. Gawande writes:

Our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end.

 

Black Lives Matter: Korach in Words And Actions

The most recent rash of police violence against black men in this country has touched off a wave of violence against police. There is no excuse for violence in any case, but I have to say that I am particularly outraged by the police. Dealing with difficult situations is their job. I am not saying that it is an easy job, but that is what they signed up for when joining the police force and taking an oath to serve and protect. Mind you, if it was not for cell phones we would not even know about these situations. It is only recently that every citizen has a device to keep an eye on the police who were supposed to be keeping an eye on us. Its makes you think about how deep the history of violence has been beyond the people killed by police this year.

And for us as a society not admitting that there are profound and deep issues around race in this country makes fixing these problems intractable. Confronting or avoiding the history of racism in this country seems to be played out in the tired volley between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”. You do not need to be against police to want to see them do their jobs and ensure that black men are not targeted.

I was reminded of these dueling slogans when reading Korach, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Now Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up in face of Moshe, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown; and they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aaron, and said unto them: ‘You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’ ( Numbers 16:1-3)

What does it mean when Korach says,”all the congregation are holy”? On this Rashi quotes Midrash Tanchuma to say that, “All of them heard [the] words [of the commandments] at Sinai from the mouth of the Almighty.” On the surface Korach is arguing that everyone should share power because they are all equal. While his words are noble, his actions are not. In reality he shows up with his posse to demand power for himself.

Like Korach, when people say “All Lives Matter” their language of equality is but a thin vale. While Korach was trying to get power for himself, people who say “All Lives Matter” are trying to preserve a racist status quo and keep power for themselves. If that was not the case the “All Lives Matter Movement” would be leading the protests against the police. Were not Alton Sterling and Philando Castile also people? Did their lives not matter?

So lets just say “Black Lives Matter”. It does not mean that their lives are the only things that matter, but it gives voice to the fact that we need to change our racist system. I do believe that words matter too, but in the end we will be judged on our actions. I am afraid that if we do not deal with these issues the violence will swallow us whole.

In Our Own Sight : A New Vision of Jewish Camp

As parents, we want to see our kids succeed in all facets of life – whether that is getting into a certain college, establishing themselves in a career of their choice, or empowering them to compete in the global marketplace. In many ways, our children’s success is the “promised land.”

Camp_0327

In Shelach, this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are waiting to enter the actual Promised Land. Before entering, God instructs them to send a representative from each of the twelve tribes to check it out. Two spies came back with glowing reports, but the other ten spies told stories of gloom and doom. What would cause the spies to experience the Promised Land so differently? They were given the same information before leaving, and they reported on the same land and people. We read:

‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.’ (Numbers 13:31-33)

How we experience life is so often a result of how we see ourselves. It seems that the only difference between our spies was their self-image.

How do we help our children get to the “promised land” of success? We have to stop preparing the way for the child and do the hard work of preparing the child for the way. Instead of just helping the child build up a robust resume, we need to offer them the chance to develop and foster leadership, grit, collaboration, creativity, tenacity, resilience, and a strong self-image.

And, you know what? Summers at Jewish camp encourage the growth of all of these things. Away from our watchful eyes, our campers and staff increase their independence, friendship, confidence, responsibility, and teamwork, along with a sense of peoplehood, community, and heritage. At Jewish camp, they learn 21st century skills and become mensches with strong character.

Here the “promised land” is more than just academic and career-oriented success. It means nurturing social and emotional intelligences, critical-thinking, and problem-solving abilities. It means a new generation that not only “does well” but “does good.” The “promised land” of today is a generation that values self-awareness, self-actualization, and a strong self-image.

Inspired by the life skills that camp has nurtured in generations of campers, we’re highlighting 21st Century Skills for a summer blog series. We’ll be featuring personal stories from camp alumni and professionals across the field exemplifying how Jewish camp provided the ideal environment to become the best version of themselves.

This is the first in a new blog series developed by Foundation for Jewish Camp reposted from eJP 

Full of It: Rethinking the Second Amendment

As I sit down to write this blog post our country in embroiled in a debate about public safety since the horrific shooting in Orlando. At some level it is an honest debate regarding the Second Amendment, and at another it is calling into question our being complicit with the NRA’s control of our government. When ratified into Law the Second Amendment read:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

It is clear that this virtue of self-defense is baked into the core of the American psyche. Even beyond the grip of the NRA, it is clear that we are in a cultural deadlock on the issue of Gun Control. How did we get there?

I was thinking about this question when reading  BeHalotecha, this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites wandering in the desert. Sick of the tofu bland Manna day after day they complained saying that wanting meat to eat. (Numbers 11:4) In turn to deal with their kvetching Moshe asks God to give them meat to eat. God concedes and gives in to desires. There we read:

You shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you; because that you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have troubled God with weeping, saying: Why, now, came we forth out of Egypt?’ ( Numbers 11:19-20)

This gives new ( or old) meaning to cutting off your noses to spite your face. The Israelites kvetched so much that they got the meat they wanted, but it came in such volume that it was literally coming out of their noses.  The Israelites needed to grow up and understand how setting limits would be good for their own health and happiness.

While I deeply respect this drive for self-defense and to defend our families, but I think we need to consider that adding some commonsense limits to the Second Amendment would save lives. I have to say that this blind commitment to “security” is killing us and those who think otherwise are full of it.

 


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