Respecting the OGs: Eikev, Lewis, and Aunt Ellen

In Eikev, this week’s Torah portion we recall the making and re-making of the Tablets of Stone, the incident of the Golden Calf, and Aaron’s death. There we read:

From Beeroth-bene-jaakan the Israelites marched to Moserah. Aaron died there and was buried there; and his son Eleazar became priest in his stead. (Deuteronomy 10:6)

Riffing off of the tragic death of Aaron the Midrash explores the context of this loss. There read:

R. Yudan said: For what reason is the death of Aaron (Deut. 10:6) being so near the breaking of the tablets (Deut. 9:17)? To teach that the death of the righteous is as grievous to the Holy One as the breaking of the tablets. ( Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Achrei Mot 10:1)

There is a rich reading in the text here in as much as the second set of Tablets replaced the first just as Eleazar replaces Aaron in the same breath of his passing. And in both cases the second copy only makes us realize the unique and special quality of the original.  While we can try to replace what is lost, the act of replacement make us miss them even more. Aaron is the original and Eleazar will never completely fill the void left.

I was thinking about this idea this week with the recent passing of two very different people. The first is Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis z”l and second is my great aunt Ellen Katz z”l.

John Lewis was the youngest of the “Big Six” leaders who organized the legendary 1963 March on Washington. He fulfilled many critical roles in the civil rights movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation in the United States and served in Congress for 17 terms.

John Lewis and the March on Washington speech he never gave - Vox

Aunt Ellen was my Oma’s sister-in-law. Born and raised in Germany she left Europe during WWII on a HIAS Kindertransport by herself at the age of 12. Her father had come to America at the start of the war in an effort to get the money and paperwork needed to bring over the family. Tragically her 16 year old sister, mother, and grandmother all died in Auschwitz.  Ellen lived her teen years in modest living situation with her father. Eventually she was set up on a date with Ernie, my beloved great Uncle. Three weeks later they were engaged. Together they made a great life for themselves, their two sons, 5 grandchildren, and 5 great grandchildren. For Ellen family was everything.

While their lives very different, John Lewis and Ellen Katz both lived full, authentic, and noble lives. They were OGs and as we learn in the Midrash they can never really be replaced. But in giving there memories their dur respect we remind ourselves what is good, what is worth fighting for, and what is holy.

Tu B’Av and End of Summer: 22 for 2 Club

It is safe to say that I am into Jewish summer camp. Between my 7 summers as a camper, 8 summers on staff member in that camp, 2 years as a Shaliach in Minsk running camps there, and 12 years at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, I have spent close to 30 summers at camp. I think it is safe to say that I am in the “10 for 2” club. I work all year for the summer. With that in mind, this summer with all of the Covid camp closings was particularly hard for me.

I was thinking about this today as we celebrate Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av. This is supposed to be one of the happiest days of the year. But what are we celebrating? The Gemara shares six historical happy events that happened on this day.  One of those is particularly interesting to me now. There we read:

Rabba and Rav Yosef both say: The fifteenth of Av is the day when they stop cutting wood for the arrangement of wood on the altar. It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Eliezer the Great says: Once the fifteenth of Av came, the force of the sun would weaken, and from this date they would not cut additional wood for the arrangement, because wood cut from then on would not dry properly and would be unfit for use in the Temple. Rav Menashe said: And the people called the fifteenth of Av: The day of the breaking of the sickle, as they did not need the lumbering tools until the following year. (Bava Basra 121a-b)

Egyptian Inventons | Sutori

In this sense Tu B’Av is celebrating the begining of the end of the summer. Most years of my life this has been a sad time of the year, but this year I am actually very happy for this horrible summer to be over.

As we put the summer away, what does the fall have in store for us? What will  school and the High Holidays look like with Covid-19? I am not alone in wanting a vacine so we can rebound quickly from Covid. As much as we are instructed to break the sickle and put the heat of the summer behind us, I know that I am not the only one yearning for the start of summer 2021. I am looking forward to putting that sickle back together to go back into the forest and get back to work. This living “22 for 2” is hard, but for many the first day of camp next year will actually be the happiest day of the year.

-another piece on Tu B’Av- Bystander Effect: Tu B’Av and Kitty Genovese

Unconscionable : On Capital Punishment, Law, and Identity

The Shema is a Jewish statement of creed that serves as a centerpiece of the morning, evening, and pre-bed prayer services. After the Shema we see the VaAhavta which spells out some of the central practices of this faith statement. I was thinking about these statements in that they are both found in Va’etchanan, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.Take to heart these instructions with which I מְצַוְּךָ֛- charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

The charge – מְצַוְּךָ֛ is to keep the Mitzvot– Commandments. In this sense traditionally Jewish identity is defined as how we live our live by these laws. This is interesting in juxtaposition to Christian’s identity which often is defined around love and not law. For Judaism our commitment to law is our expression of our love. 

I was thinking about this idea of identity recently when watching an extraordinary TED talk by Byran Stevenson. It really is a must watch:

The topic of how we need to talk about an injustice is very compelling. For me the most brilliant part of his talk is how he framed the conversation about the legal system in America around the idea of identity.

Once Stevenson was giving a lecture in Germany about the death penalty. There he said:

It was fascinating because one of the scholars stood up after the presentation and said, “Well you know it’s deeply troubling to hear what you’re talking about.” He said, “We don’t have the death penalty in Germany. And of course, we can never have the death penalty in Germany.” And the room got very quiet, and this woman said, “There’s no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings. It would be unconscionable for us to, in an intentional and deliberate way, set about executing people.” And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn’t bear it. It would be unconscionable.

In America we clearly disassociate ourselves from the law. It is unconscionable how these laws are radically unjust to people of color.  And for many of us who are not subject to this discrimination we have the luxury of being unconscious about the impact of this legal system. Our laws should manifest our attempt to bring about justice in the world. What would it look like if we identified ourselves by our laws? It seems that our laws are mostly punitive. What would our laws look like if they were framed as an expression of love?

These questions come to a head when we discuss capital punishment. About this Stevenson says:

In many ways, we’ve been taught to think that the real question is, do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed? And that’s a very sensible question. But there’s another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not, do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill?

Our faith in law needs to be an identity that is wrapped up in seeing the infinite worth of every human being. It is unconscionable to abide a law that falls short of recognizing this fact. In each and everyone of us is an element of the divine. We need to express our love to God by how we write and live out our legal system.

Tisha B’Av and Social Distancing

I have many memories of painfully sitting on the floor at camp during Eicha reading, but alas those are sweet memories in that they remind me of being in community. This year during Covid-19 I read Eicha and think about Tisha B’Av differently. What is the meaning of Tisha B’Av without community? There at the start of Eicha we read:

How does the city sit alone, that was full of people! How has she become as a widow! She who was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!  She weeps sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; she has none to comfort her among all her lovers; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Yehudah is gone into exile because of affliction, and because of great servitude; she dwells among the nations, she finds no rest; all her pursuers overtook her within the straits. (Lamentations 1:1-3)

For five months we have been sheltering in place and like Jerusalem. It is interesting to reflect on how this theme of sitting alone runs throughout this fast day. Is it possible that the whole experience of Tisha B’Av is itself touches on this idea of social isolation?

We should start to answer this question by looking at the Seudah HaMafseket– the “separating meal” eaten before the fast. The ritual is orchestrated in a very careful way. In Shulchan Aruch we learn:

There are those who are careful to not sit in groups of three to eat the pre-fast meal, so that they are not obligated in a Zimun (for grace after the meal), rather everyone sits alone and makes grace to themselves. (Sh”A O’H 552:8)

We enter into the holiday eating by ourselves in isolation. We maintain this solitude throughout the day. As we see in the Shulchan Aruch:

You do not ask for peace (greet) of your fellow on the 9th of Av, and if commoners who do not know give peace (say hello), you respond to them in a hushed tone and heavy disposition. (Sh”A O’H 554:20)

There is clearly an experience of Tisha B’Av that is founded on our solitude. But why?

The image of the city sitting alone that we saw at the start of Eicha is revisited later in the book. There we read:

Let him sit alone and keep silence, because God has laid it upon him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope. (Lamentation 3:28-29)

Here amidst all of the darkness and sadness of Eicha we see a rare glimmer of hope. It seems having to sit in silence and isolation is a means to salvation. This idea is hauntingly similar the CDC’s Advise to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19. Being responsible and practicing social distancing we will stem the spreading of this plague and be our salvation. Until we find a vaccine that is our only hope. 

Social Distancing Is Hard, But The Alternative Is Much Worse ...

-See text sheet on the topic Tisha B’Av in a Time of Isolation

 

Shabbat Hazon- A Vision Between Two Trees

Peter Senge, the change management guru, was right when he said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” Two stories from camps about the challenges and opportunities change provides offer insights into how change might work. Interestingly, both stories are about trees, which model the delicate balance of permanence and growth.
A Tale of Two Trees: Why We Are All Asking the Wrong Question ...

The first story goes that there was a new camp director at his first summer at camp. When he got there he was disturbed to discover a “gum tree” – a tree where all of the campers and staff would put their gum before Shabbat prayer. Feeling that this was gross and unsightly, he had the groundskeeper cut down the tree before the second Shabbat of the summer. Often, when people tell this story, they claim that the director was fired before the tree hit the ground. The tree was a part of their camp culture, and the camp director had broken their trust by cutting it down without consulting anyone from the community who could have helped him understand its significance. While there is a time and place for quick, responsive adjustments or shifts in policies and procedures, we do it at our own peril if we are not conscious and conscientious of the cultural context. In order to bring about change we need to have reverence for tradition.

The second story comes from Helene Drobenare, the longtime director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake. Once, when asked about the secret to her success in leadership, she told a story about a trip up to URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in the winter early in her career. As she tells it, she and Jerry Kaye, the legendary director, were driving around camp and he stopped and made them get out of the car. It was freezing cold and all she could see was a thick forest of trees. Not understanding the significance of this moment, Helene asked Jerry what they were doing. He pulled out an old large map. Jerry said, “Look at this. It is the map of OSRUI from when I took over as the director.” Pointing out where they were standing, he continued, “See right here, this was an open field, but I wanted it to be a forest.” When Jerry retired last year he had been the director at OSRUI for close to half a century, and he’d left a thick forest as part of his legacy.

Between the two stories of two trees we can understand a profound lesson of change management. Camp maintains a depth of culture founded on a utopian sense of tradition. While short term wins are important, there are no shortcuts to changing culture. We can do almost anything we can imagine in a community or an organization as long as we have respect for the tradition we have inherited, have a clear vision for the future, and have the grit, gumption, and patience to see that field become a lush forest.

I was thinking about these stories and the centrality of having a clear vision in preparaton for this shabbat. The shabbat immediately preceding the Tisha B’Av which commenorates the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem is named Shabbat Hazon -the Shabbat of vision. The name comes from the start of the Haftarah we read this shabbat. After recounting heinous transgressions, the prophetic reading in  Isaiah 1:1-27 offers the hope of reconciliation, which will come when the people “cease to do evil, learn to do good.” On the eve of Tisha B’Av we see the changes in our future, both the good and bad and those done to us and by us. Our vision for the future will help us navigate these pivotal moments between these two stories of two trees. John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”  From where we sit, we know that we cannot lose sight of the majestic forests for a “gum tree.”

Aquiring Meaning: Shabbat in the Wilderness

As the old joke goes:

A congregational Rabbi invites a young to cogregant to the synagogue for Havdalah. It is going to be a special Camp Shabbat. They are going to do the special camp tunes that the happy camper came to enjoy at their summers at Jewish summer camp. Despite all of the arguments the camper is just not interested in joining. When pressed by the Rabbi, the young person says, “It will just not be the same without the lake”.

It is challenging to get campers to connect to Jewish life after a summer at Jewish camp. How much harder is it going to be after months of being stuck at home on our screens and a summer without a summer of campfires, lakes, hikes, or immmersive experiences?

I was thinking about this when reading Matot- Masai, this week’s Torah portion. This week we end reading the book of Numbers- Bamidbar, Hebrew for “In the Wilderness”. Like every other year I find myself pondering the Midrash where we learn, ” There are three ways to acquire Torah, with fire, with water, and with wilderness.” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:1). The midrash could be understood to mean that we acquire Torah through passion (fire), immersion (water), and through a long trek in unknown land (the wilderness). For decades this has validated my understanding of camps and travel experiences as the best ways to acquire Torah. But with the advent of COVID-19 and many camps not being able to open up this summer, we find ourselves in a new unknown land. In this new situation we are all sheltering in place spending hours connected to our computer screens. How are we acquiring Torah in this new wilderness?

Darwin Falls Wilderness - Wikipedia

For this I come back to the start with the Havdalah joke. I think we need to find ways of investing in Shabbat to help us create meaning during these difficult days. I take sollace in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world. (The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man)

It was never about the space of camp. We need to look past the campfire ( fire), lake (water), or hiking( wilderness) of camp to make meaning where we are. Shabbat is a time for us to explore our passion for the people in our lives (fire). If we keep it special, Shabbat can be a 26 hour immersive experience (water). It is also a time we get to rest and reflect on the long trek  of our week (the wilderness). If we invest in Shabbat we will acquire meaning in our lives, especially in these dark days.

Yehoshua and the Peaceful Transfer of Power: A Thought on Pinchas

In Pinchas, this week’s Torah portion, we see Moshe starting the process of transferring leadership to Yehoshua. There we read:

And the Lord answered Moshe, “Single out Yehoshua son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey.” ( Numbers 27:18-20)

Yehoshua’s assent to power is a clear juxtaposition to Pinchas who the Torah portion is names. Pinchas took power in his own hands when killing Zimri and Cozbi at the end of last week’s Torah portion. In comparison Yehoshua is eased into his role by Moshe. God instruct Moshe to invest in him his authority so that the people will start seeing him in the role of successor. It is hard to imagine trying to fill those shoes.

In thinking about I was reminded of part of this wonderful video that highlights the importance of being the first follower. Please watch:

As we see here, the leader needs to confer authority on the first follower as equals to start a movement. Moshe is clearly the leader of the Israelite people, but would it have been a movement that has lasted to today if it was not for that first follower?

Most of history has been plagued by violent transfers of leadership marked by Pinchas-like acts of aggression. One could even say that the health of a society can be measured by the peaceful transfer of power. Like Yehoshua John Adams, a remarkable political philosopher, served as the second President of the United States (1797-1801), after serving as the first Vice President under President George Washington. Our first president, George Washington chose not to try to be elected for a third term. Power is alluring. It take a huge strength to make room for others to grow into leadership, but ultimately it is for the best.

-See another post on followership and Nachshon here

 

Veggie Burgers: A Thought Experiment for the 17th of Tammuz

I wanted to share a thought exercise with you:

Think about a time you felt deeply connected to a community,cohort, or group. Why? What about the event or experience helped you feel connected?What were the elements or dynamics that made you feel like you belonged? Was it a large or small group experience? Did you have a long or short history with the other people in the group? Was it in your home or far away? Was it a place of comfort or did it push you beyond your comfort zone?

Think about a time in the last four months when  Covid-19 got real. What is the first time you missed out on an event or experience of connection? How did that feel? For me that moment was when we did not have Passover Seder with the extended family. That was the moment when I realized that something was broken and it was not going to be fixed any time soon.

Throughout the course of Jewish history Jerusalem has been our national connection hub. It is where we go to connect with our people, our history, and our God. Today was the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day in commemoration of the breaching of the wall that led to the destruction of 2nd temple in Jerusalem. This was the begining of the end. With the 17th of Tammuz we start the three weeks that reach its nadir with Tisha B’Av. Like this thought exercise it is a day to remember the moment when it got real.

While we will eventually get past Covid-19, our society is currently broken. The virtual world that many of us are working, learning, and living in seems to fall short. We do not know how to connect. Like the Rabbis before us who moved from Jerusalem to Yavneh, we need to explore new ways to connect meaningfully and create community. Instead of focusing on how we used to connect and commune and getting stuck, we need to examine why we connect and commune. We might not be able to do it the same way, but we might be able to meet our needs with new techniques. Who know’s we might even keep some of these new ways in our lives after Covid-19 has passed. Virtual gatherings will never be a substitute for in-person gatherings, but it might be enough. As I have been saying, ” Veggie burgers are not real burgers, but with the right fixins they are both delicious and nutritious.”

21 Delicious Veggie Burger Recipes | Cooking Light

Don’t Be an Ass: Chukat Balak and this Moment in History

In Chukat-Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak. There we read:

And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. ( Numbers 22:2)

Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  But what is his name? Balak the son of Zippor- Balak the son of Bird. And of course this story of animals fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity. What do we make of all of this “parsha menagerie“?

To understand this we need to focus in on the story of the Bilaam’s donkey. In the story the donkey understood the Angel’s presence while Bilaam just did not understand. And Bilaam a prophet of God not only missed the Angel, but in the process also revealed his own ugly side by striking the donkey. The donkey is able to perceive the divine in ways that Bilaam is not initially able to perceive the divine in the Israelites. What happens to us when we do not see the divine in each other?

Balaam, the Ass, and the Irony of the LORD – naSlovensko

Well it seems that we are in the situation we are in this moment in history. This is the moment when people are not observing social distancing because it is perceived as more of an infringement of their rights than a protection of the vulnerable. It the pervasive and unchecked violence of police against black and brown people. It is the rising levels of antisemitism. We do not need perfection, but we must do better. We do not need to be angels, but we need to strive to see the divine in each and every person we come across in our path. If I do not, I am just being an ass. Don’t be an ass.

Black Lives Matter and Korach: Swallowed Whole by Racism

There is no excuse for one person to hurt let alone kill another, but I have to say that I am particularly outraged by police violence. 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 so many citizens have devices 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 police violence has been.

And for us as a society not admitting that there are profound and deep issues around race is a problem. Seeing how this is compounded by issues about policing 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”, “All Lives Matter”. and “Blue Lives Matter”. You do not need to be against police to want to see them do their jobs and make sure that black and brown men and women are not being targeted.

I have been reminded of these dueling slogans for too many years 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 veil. 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 all of the Black people killed by the police in America also people? Did their lives not matter? Do you even remeber their names

I cannot imagine that the people who say “All Lives Matter” actually think that they are racists. It is too easy for us all to point our fingers at the bad apples in the police force or the leaders like Korach’s who overtly misuse their power. What is our responsibility? I often find myself going back to the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he wrote:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. ( Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963)

If we do nothing to dismantle the system of oppression we are part of the problem. As a white person I must accept my responsibility that other people are being hurt to maintain a status quo to support my life. 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. Sadly I have been writing the same blog post on Korach since 2016. When will be learn? Let’s choose to be on the right side of history. I am afraid that if we do not deal with these issues the violence will swallow us whole like Korach.

2017 version of this blog 

2016 version of this blog


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