Let Our Own Light Shine: On Horns and Masks

The Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli is not easy to find. But a rich reward awaits those who navigate the back alleyways of Rome, enter its main chapel and stand before Michelangelo’s incomparable Moshe. In the heart of the Catholic world, the greatest Jewish prophet and teacher. His arms are cut, his beard is regal, and…

Are those actually horns on Moshe’s head? Yup. Perched on top of Moshe’s virile body are two unmistakable protrusions from his forehead. Why?

In Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion, we see the Golden Calf Incident. After the GCI Moshe shatters the first set of tablets. Moshe hangs out with God for 40 days and nights. When he descends with the second tablets it says:

So Moshe came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moshe came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Covenant, lo yada ki karan or panav b’dabro ito — he did not know that the skin of his face was radiant/had become horned for having spoken with God. Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moshe’s face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moshe spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he instructed them concerning all that the Lord had imparted to him on Mount Sinai. And when Moshe had finished speaking with them, he put a mask over his face. Whenever Moshe went in before the Lord to speak with God, he would leave the veil off until he came out; and when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see how radiant the skin of Moshe’s face was. Moshe would then put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with God. (Exodus 34:29-35)

The word karan is the crux of the matter. Does this refer to horns or shining rays? The Vulgate, clearly chose “horns” to describe the change in Moshe’ face. It is more accurately “emitting light.” These horns incepted the pernicious and stubborn stereotypes of all Jews having horns. Jews are human beings, but our unique ways of dressing and head coverings have helped perpetual the grotesque and hateful nonsense.

I was thinking about this when looking at the end of this quote as well. What do we make of the mask? Moshe needed to cover his face to deal with their inability to deal with his diving glow. This reminds me of Marianne Williamson’s poem Our Deepest Fear. She writes:

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.

If we were comfortable with other people shining could we put an end to jealousy and hatred? What would it look like if everyone could remove their masks and let their own light shine?

But until Covid is over- Please do keep your mask on.

Once and Forever: Purim and Yom Kippur

I recently reconnected with a dear friend who shared a deep Torah from the Aish Kodesh on Purim. He teaches:

We read in the Tikkunei Zohar that Purim is like Yom Kippur. This is hinted-at in the way that on Yom Kippur, one must fast and do teshuvah (repentance / return) not only if one feels like it, but whether or not one wants to do it. This is an enduring decree from the Holy One of Blessing. Rejoicing on Purim is similar. One is obligated to rejoice on Purim, not only if one is happy in oneself, or is in a situation where it’s easy to feel joy. On the contrary: even if one is in a low place and completely broken-hearted, body and spirit laid low, it’s still an obligation to seek out whatever tiny spark of joy is possible, and welcome that spark into the heart. On both of these holy days, there’s a flow from on high to us here below. Just as Yom Kippur itself atones for us, even if our teshuvah feels inadequate, just so on Purim. Even if a person isn’t feeling joyful the way one’s supposed to, and therefore one’s service of God doesn’t feel whole, even in that case the salvation and joy of Purim will flow — and that potential is open to us even now.- The Piazeczyner aka The Aish Kodesh, Purim 1940

R’ Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira z”l was exploring how one might experience joy despite living through the worst acts of human cruelty during Holocaust. But I do believe that there are other lessons learned from the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur.

On Purim we read the book of Esther, and one of the most poignant moments in it is when Mordechai beseeches Esther to intercede with Ahashverosh for her people. There we read:

Mordecai had this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” ( Esther 4: 13-14)

Mordechai wants to convince her to put herself at risk and come out of the closet with her hidden identity to save her people. But instead of arguing that we really need her and that our existence is held in the balance, he claims that if she does not act for her people our salvation will come from somewhere else, and she will be the one lost from our communal memory. It seems like some ancient reverse psychology. And it works- she saves her people.

It is fascinating when you compare Esther response to a human call to duty with Yonah‘s running from God’s call to prophesies to the people of Nineveh that we read on Yom Kippur. Instead of doing his job, Yonah runs away. What learn from this juxtaposition?

To offer one answer this question I want to share with you the chorus from Ahat Uletamid, by Ishay Ribo. I just love his music. He seems to have all of the right words, tunes, and emotions. I would offer you to listen to the whole song:

The chorus goes:

And I wish to do as Your will, as You wish Really and truly, once and forever With no screens, with no masks, without wanting to please Really and truly, once and forever

Like no other time this Covid Purim I am experiencing a desire to live without screens or masks. Ribo is articulating the commitment to be like Esther and not Yonah and answering the call when needed. On Purim and Yom Kippur we strive to live as our true selves. If we want to live fully and authentically we cannot stay hidden.

The Plural of Ross: The Art of Education

In parshat Terumah  we learn about Betzalel the chief artisan of the Tabernacle and all of its accoutrements. He was said to be highly gifted as a workman, showing great skill and originality in engraving precious metals and stones and in wood-carving. He was also a master-workman, having many apprentices under him whom he instructed in the arts. There we read:

And Moshe said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehudah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to work in every kind of designer’s craft and to give directions.  He and Oholiab son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan have been endowed with the skill to do any work—of the carver, the designer, the embroiderer in blue, purple, crimson yarns, and in fine linen, and of the weaver—as workers in all crafts and as makers of designs.(Exodus 35:30–35)

Betzalel was not a consultant or a trained artist brought in by the contractor to do this work. Like the rest of the people building the Tabernacle with him, he was a recently escaped slave. I can only imagine what it meant to be in the company of such a natural master artist. What did it mean to work for him if you were not a master artist?  

Thinking of Betzalel makes me think of Bob Ross the American painter, art instructor, and television host. Ross was the creator and host of The Joy of Painting, an instructional television program that aired from 1983 to 1994 on PBS. Ross went from being a public television personality in the 1980s and 1990s to being an Internet celebrity in the 21st century, becoming popular with fans on YouTube, Twitch, and many other websites many years after his death.

It was one thing to be a master artist. It is another to lead non-artist step by step to create the Tabernacle. Being able to both is really extraordinary.

In my last 12 years working at the Foundation for Jewish Camp I have been blessed to meet some extraordinary Jewish educators. Thinking about Bob Ross, makes me think another Ross. Jon Adam Ross  has spent nearly 20 years making art with religious communities around the country as an actor, playwright, and teaching artist. Jon was a Spielberg Fellow in Jewish Theater Education with the Foundation for Jewish Camp and has spent many years on our Cornerstone Faculty. In 2015 Jon received a Fellowship from the Covenant Foundation to create the In[heir]itance Project.

As an actor, Jon has performed his solo shows in over 90 cities around the globe. Beyond his skill at performance, Jon is a master educator. It is uncanny how he draws people into theater, narrative, and self-discovery. Step by step he can take non-thespians and empower them to perform.

Like Betzelal before them, Bob and Jon Adam Ross give us a sense of divine spirit involved in being to ” give directions.” Being educators is another media of their artistic expression. 

What’s With the Blood

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays. At the end of this long list of things to do and not do, we read, “He (Moshe) took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, ‘Everything that God has said, we will do and we will understand!’ Moshe took the blood and threw it upon the people…” (Exodus 24:7-8). I find this image to be striking. On one level, I am taken in by the national devotion to this newly minted law. The image all of them taking upon themselves this body of law is just awe-inspiring. I have to admit that my memory of this moment seems to be a bit cleaner then the Torah records. What is the story with all of the blood?
An answer that I wanted to share this week is connected to the beginning of the portion. The first commandment in the litany is, “If you buy a Jewish bondsman…” (Exodus 21:2). How could it be that they were just released from the bonds of slavery and they are now given a law about subjugating our brethren to slavery? I think the image of their receiving the Torah covered in blood and the regression of former slaves now taking slaves comes into focus through the lens of the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Originally, Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill their little brother. Instead, they sell him into slavery. We read that, “They took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a young goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood.”(Genesis 37:31) The brothers did not want to kill him and have his blood on their hands. Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him!” (Genesis 37: 22).
In the case of Joseph’s brothers, we all can understand their jealousy. In our portion, we understand the slaves’ desires to be masters. In our lives, we understand that there is an underclass. But, we cannot confuse this understanding for an excuse. We know that we need laws for when we do not act well. The law might not be the ideal; it might just try to curb of our base desires. This is not enough; we need to strive for more. We are all mutually responsible for each other however; this social contract can get a bit messy at moments. It rests upon our taking responsibility for our actions as a society. There cannot be a scapegoat; Joseph’s blood is on our hands. As Rabbj Abraham Heschel said:

morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

And yes I might need to get my hands dirty.

Revelation of Universal Design

Sally was excited to go to camp as a new camper. At the same time, she was anxious to see how it would work in light of her being deaf. She was hopeful that it would not be a problem because she knew how to read lips. Sadly, some things just did not work for her. Evening programs that were held outside were alienating. She could never really trust the blindfolded trust-walk. At night with her bunkmates in their cabin she was left out of conversations happening in the shadows. Camp was supposed to be a place where she could belong, but that was not her experience. While she knew it was not her peers’ intention, she felt less than; she surely did not feel like she belonged. 

There are echoes of this feeling among the Israelites when Moshe tried to free them from slavery. In an effort to win their emancipation, Moshe went to Pharaoh to ask if the Israelites could go on a holiday outing. Instead of granting the Israelites a celebration in the wilderness, Pharaoh increased the burden upon them by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load the Israelites complained to Moshe and Aaron. They said, “May God look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. It seems that the last straw was not the lack of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive. They thought that they smelled worthless. They felt less than; they did not feel like they belonged.  

We are left wondering why the Israelites perceived that the Egyptians saw their odor? This blending of sight and smell indicates a deep insight into their perceived lack of value. They were embarrassed that the shoddy quality of their work reflected some lesser quality of their being. We see a similar synthesis of senses in last week’s Torah portion, Yitro. At Sinai they saw the sound of thunder (Exodus 20:15). In Egypt their odor was exposed, at Sinai the sublime beauty of God was revealed. 

What did not work for the slaves making shoddy bricks and did not work for Sally at camp might offer us a deep understanding of the nature of revelation. When we feel excluded, we are embarrassed, and we feel that we do not belong. When we look past the content of revelation to the modality, we see a profound call for Univeral Design. Universal Design is the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors. The synesthesia at Sinai was designed to be inclusive without diminishing the experience for anyone. While Sally might not have been able to hear the sound of thunder, she would have been able to see it. If someone could neither see or hear they could have felt the vibrations. Universal Design is not a synonym for compliance with accessible design standards, rather the aesthetic of synesthesia at Sinai is a standard of beauty, spirituality, and communication to all.  

In describing the Israelite’s experience at Sinai in Deuteronomy it says, “those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with them who is not here with us this day”. (Deuteronomy 29:13-14) What does this mean if revelation at Sinai happened thousands of years ago? What does it mean that this day there was revelation with the people who were not even there? Rashi cites the Midrash Tanchuma to explain that this is the source for the tradition that all Jews, from all generations, stood at Sinai. We were all there to experience revelation.  

Every soul is unique, every Jew has their place at Sinai, and everyone belongs in our community. By adapting Universal Design strategies, we can make sure that everyone has an extraordinary experience. As we celebrate JDAIM, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, we need to reconnect to the lesson from the synesthesia at Sinai. As we learn from Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: every day a heavenly voice of revelation goes out from Sinai (Avot 6:2). Designing with every soul in mind is not easy, but we get to work on it every day. No one should feel less than, or left in the dark. 

– Links to other posts on synesthesia

I am Me: Modeling Authenticity

In Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, we get the Ten Commandments. In simple terms it seems that the commandment are directives as to what we should or should not do. For this reason that first commandment seems complicated. There we read, “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2) This seems more like a PSA than a law. Most interpret this as a negative precept “not to entertain the idea that there is any god but the Eternal.” ( Rambam Minyan Mitzvot) Clearly the belief in God is foundational to the Bible and I know that they believed in other gods in Egypt, but I have trouble imagining that this was first message that God wanted to give this band of recently liberated slaves. If this is the case,, what is the true meaning of this commandment?

At the simplest level in this first commandment God is identifying God’s self to the Israelites. As if God is saying, “I am Me”. In this context, it is less of a injunction against believing in other gods and more of God showing up as God’s authentic self. It resonates with the words of Polonius when he said:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee! (Hamlet, Act-1, Scene-III)

To these slaves who have been told who they are and who they are supposed to be this is a powerful message. God is modelling what it means to be free. Show up as who you want to be. As Brené Brown says:

Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.

That must have felt liberating. This ideating set a foundation of authenticity upon which to build the rest of the commandments, Torah, and Jewish life.

I have been thinking about this recently during the entire Bernie Meme experience after the inauguration. Most people might have been offended by being the butt of all of these jokes, but not Bernie. He is the model of authenticity. Bernie knows exactly who he is. He was right on brand. Not only was Bernie not offended, he used the moment to get attention for the causes he believes in and the meme to sell merchandise which earned over $1.8 Million for Vermont charities he supports.

Image
Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!

On another level there might be deep connection between being true to yourself and the prohibition to believe in other gods. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” If God knows who God is and we know who we are, everything else is already taken.

The Art of War: Rethinking Our Political Pickle and the Parsha

Like everyone else, I have been replaying the terrorist attacks of January 6th over and over in mind. How did this come to be? What were they thinking?

Seeing that it was an act of war, in thinking about this I got to rereading the Art of War by Sun Tzu. There in the chapter on maneuvering he wrote:

Do not interfere with an army that is returning home. When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard. ( Art of War 7:35-36)

The Sun Tzu attack theory, the Russian and Chinese hybrid strategy

Reading this not not excuse the actions of these terrorist, but it does help me better understand them. I appreciate that they felt cornered and that they did not have a choice. I also see how for the faction there that we white nationalist, they feel that the new diverse administration is an impediment to their “returning home”. They have a mythical belief that America was a white country. Make America Great Again is their battle cry. I can understand this feeling, but can I sympathize with it?

As we see in B’Shalach, this week’s Torah portion, we see that soon after allowing the children of Israel to depart from Egypt, Pharaoh chases after them to force their return. The Israelites find themselves surrounded. They are trapped between Pharaoh’s armies and the sea. Instead to trying to fight the Egyptian army, Moshe is instructed to raise his staff over the water. A this moment the sea splits to allow the Israelites to pass through evading the pursuing Egyptians. The lesson is that despite the feeling of being cornered, there is always a plan C. We just need to be creative.

I can strive to understand and even sympathize with the insurrectionists, but that does not preclude my need to stand up against them and what they stand for with all of my might. They need to believe that there is a way out. This does not mean that the enemy is allowed to escape. They all need to be held accountable for their actions. The object, as Tu Mu, 9th Century poet, puts it, is “to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair. After that, you may crush him.” But we need to do that in the courts. Adopting military or pugilistic language will only fuel their imagination that they are cornered making them more viscous. While it might seem like we need a miracle, we need to pause and think about creative ways through the pickle we find ourselves.

Tu B’Shvat Time: Turning the Corner

I am sure that I am not alone in my experience of time being distorted during Covid and the Trump Administration. I have the peculiar feeling that a day lasts a week, but in retrospect a week passes in what feels like a day. I often have had the feeling we are stuck in an endless road trip. I find myself peering out the window looking for road signs. I am waiting to see any indication that we are getting closer to the off ramp from this highway. And did I mention I have to pee?

Colorado Changes 420 Mile Marker Sign to Ward Off Heists

With vaccines in circulation, it seems that we might turn the corner on Covid-19 at some point. Since the shockingly peaceful transfer of power on Inauguration day, it feels these Bernie Memes are road signs indicating that we are almost there.

With the advent of Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the Trees, we get our first glimpse of spring. We see the end of the school year and the start of the camp season are on the horizon.  In the Chasidic community, there is a custom where some pickle or candy their etrog (citron) from Sukkot and eat it on Tu B’Shvat. The Bnei Yissaschar, 19th Century Chassidic master, shares an interesting lesson. He teaches:  

On Tu B’Shevat one should pray for a beautiful, perfect, kosher etrog at the time it is needed for the mitzva. This is the day when the sap rises in the trees according to the merits of each member of Israel, and how good and pleasant it is that one pray on this day, the foundational moment of new growth. (Shevat, Discourse 2:2

We should plan in Sukkot for Tu B’Shvat and pray on Tu B’Shvat for an etrog for Sukkot. If we plan and pray we will be rewarded with sweetness and beauty.  There is splendor in this practice that is inviting us to be intention with our time year-round. What an important lesson to awaken us from the malaise of our Covid stupor. That itself seems to be something important to learn for our current situation. This attunement is a Covid-Keeper- something I would like to keep long after Covid is vanquished.

Have a wonderful time on Tu B’Shvat- Shana Tova 

Good Riddance

At the start of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, we hear God instructing Moshe to go to visit Pharaoh to warn him of the plague of locusts. It is curious that God does not tell him to go, rather, to come to Pharaoh. We read, “God said to Moshe, ’Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst.’” (Exodus 10:1). It is even more confusing for Moshe who grew up in the house of Pharaoh assuming the Pharaoh himself was a god. What does it mean that God might be with Pharaoh?

This question gets even more complicated next week in Beshalach. There we see that it is Pharaoh who sent the Israelites from Egypt and God that did not allow them to take the most direct route to the Promised Land. Is it possible that Pharaoh has the power to release the Israelites and God is the obstruction?

It is clear that God is everywhere, and that Pharaoh is not a god. But it is still challenging to think that God stands with evil or next week God gets in the way of a clear path toward justice. It would have been much easier for Moshe to exact the plagues against Pharaoh, his court, and all of Egypt without having to be reminded that God is to be found in evil people. Even if Pharaoh is evil he can be a source of redemption. We are all created in the image of God. Evil when confronting injustice we must be reminded of the divine potential of the oppressor.

Moshe loyally follows God’s directions, but that does not absolve him from having to navigate his own moral compass. Yes, we need to find a way to speak truth to power. In life’s journey, we can never forget our sense of direction. If we forget this, we will not know if we are coming or going.

Pictures Show Donald Trump Leaving the White House for the Final Time As  President

Like many others I am relieved and even thrilled that we had a peaceful transition of power and Trump is gone. In the spirit of this lesson we contemplate the good in saying, “Good Riddance”. He is no righteous person, but still he deserves a blessing. I am reminded of something my Oma used to say, ” Gehe mit Gott, aber geh! – Go with God, but please do go”.

Speech Impediments: Words of Justice

Today Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration, reading her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. If you have not listened to it you should:

“The Hill We Climb” reads, in part:

The loss we carry

A sea we must wade

We braved the belly of the beast

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace

And the norms and notions of what just is

Isn’t always justice

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it

Somehow we do it

Some how we have weather and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished

On a day filled with tons of anticipation, anxiety, and emotion, her hopeful poetry won the day. A reluctant prophet, like Jonah, her vision of justice asked us to join her in our needed repentance and rebuilding.

Reading more about Gorman I learned that like Biden, she had a speech impediment as a child. Biden had a stutter; Gorman had difficulty pronouncing certain sounds. She told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that her speech impediment was one reason she was drawn to poetry at a young age. As I have explored in the past, there might be a connection between Biden’s stutter and his long career in public life. Regardless of the nature or cause, a speech impediment is highly stigmatized disability. It is easy to imagine them both silenced due to their speech impediments. Through this lens we see that Biden and Gorman have tremendous courage to step up and speak to and for this nation. What is the nature of this courage?

When Moshe is called to be God’s messenger, he resists saying, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). From this the Rabbis concluded that Moshe had a stutter.  Rashi  explains k’vad peh, “heavy of mouth,” and k’vad lashon, “heavy of tongue,” by which Moshe describes himself, as stuttering. Rashi translated it into medieval French word balbus, stuttering or stammering (from which comes the modern French verb balbutier, to stutter).

In Shoftim we read about the establishment of the court system and the most famous quote:

Tzedek Tzedek-Justice, justice shalt you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:20)

Why the repeating word, “Justice”? Most commonly it translated to assume that it is emphatic. As to say, “Justice you will surely pursue”. But, I think this reading overlooks the speaker. As we know, Moshe had a speech impediment. This is the text recording his stammer.

If this is true, why does the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print at this moment? Maybe it has something to do with the pursuit of justice itself. Biden’s leadership is founded on his empathy born out of personal hardships. Gorman’s poetry is born out of her working on pronouncing certain sounds correctly. We all know bullies prey on people who are different or weak. To truly pursue justice we need to connect to our own experiences of being marginalized. Biden, Gorman, and Moshe share the experience of overcoming the challenge of communicating which is the root of their pursuit of justice.  Their courage is founded on a profound strength of leadership founded on vulnerability.

We should never make fun of people just because they are different than us. We can disagree, but there is a never a reason to be a bully. We must always strive to understand each other, especially those we do not understand. To work for justice we need to have empathy for those who are experiencing hardship and those that are silenced.  Justice we shall surely pursue. We cannot just accept the status quo. Inspired by the remarkable words of Gorman, Biden, and Moshe we all need to come together to do it and play our part in making process in this unfinished nation.

-Also see Stammering Justice

-Also see Revisiting Stammering Justice

-Also the Stuttering Club: Empathy and Leadership


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