Wake Up Rage: MLK Today

The other day I went into my sons’ room trying to wake them up. I found myself singing the chorus from Rage Against the Machine‘s song Wake Up. The lyrics discuss racism within the American government and the FBI. A portion of the song is taken from an actual FBI memo in which its director J. Edgar Hoover suggests targets for the suppression of the black nationalist movement. The song makes references to prominent African-American figures targeted by the government such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and goes as far as saying that the government arranged their assassinations.

 

In memory of Martin Luther King Jr. I offer you to listen to this song and read the lyrics.

Rage Against the Machine sing:

‘Cause all these punks
Got bullets in their heads
Departments of police, the judges, the feds
Networks at work, keepin’ people calm
You know they went after King
When he spoke out on Vietnam
He turned the power to the have-nots
And then came the shot

It is clear that the assassination of King was a wake up call. While there are still large forces of racism a live in this country, on this holiday we need to also remember the King who “spoke out on Vietnam”. Now more than ever we are living in a time when we are turning the power away from the have-nots.

What will be our generation’s wake up call? I sincerely hope that it does not take a shot.

Advertisements

Almond Prequel: On the Collapse of Empire

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we read about the plagues. Aaron’s encounter with Pharoah’s magicians is an interesting prequel to the plagues. There we read:

Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did in like manner with their secret arts. For they cast down every man his staff, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staves.(Exodus 7:10-12)

What is the significance of it being Aaron’s staff and not Moshe’s? What is the meaning of this prequel to the plagues?

Later in the book of Numbers we read that Aaron’s staff blooms into an almond branch (Numbers 17: 23). The almond tree is thought to grow very quickly. In the Talmud Yerushalmi, we learn that the rabbis thought that it took 21 days from the first bloom of the almond tree until it bore fruit (TJ Taanit 4:7). This period of 21 days corresponds to the time between the breaching of the wall in Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Thus, there is a connection between the collapse of the Second Commonwealth and the almond tree.

With all of this in mind, what was the significance of Aaron’s interface with Pharaoh? Not only was his staff going to eat up the staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians, the Israelites were going to grow quickly, and Aaron was also giving them notice of the upcoming collapse of the Egyptian empire. It seems that nothing lasts forever, especially empires.

As I have quoted a couple of times before, in a 2012 appearance in New Hampshire  former Supreme Court Justice David Souter made some striking and prescient remarks about the dangers of “civic ignorance”. This video has been circulating and worth seeing:

 I was most struck when he said:
I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’… That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.
Civics is important. We need to know who is responsible and then we can demand performance from those people. If we are ignorant of civics, we are at risk of peril. This is not a risk from the outside, but the inside.
As we learned in last week’s Torah portion the new King of Egypt did not remember Yosef and enslaved the people out of fear. There we read:
Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.( Exodus 1:10)
Is it possible to understand this in light of Justice Souter’s insight? Was there really a reason for Egypt to fear their enemies, let alone that the Israelites would join them? Maybe this tyrant only became king because he enslaved the Israelites.  Like Augustus and Trump, with little regard for democratic norms and political institutions, this new King came forward seeking power, assuring the public that he’ll solve their problems, exploiting fears and civic ignorance. As we see with the plagues, the destruction of Egypt is not because the Israelites joined a foreign invasion, rather the process of the plagues Egypt was destroyed from the inside out. Aaron presents his almond staff to express how Egypt will collapse. It is a cautionary tale. 

Awake,Arise, Abram Orlow: A Prescient Poem from 1918

I am named for my father’s father Abram Orlow. To a great degree he is a mystery to me. This is what I do know. He was born May 3, 1900 and died April 30, 1950. He was born in Poltava, a town that I have visited during my stay in the FSU. His family emigrated from northern Ukraine to Philadelphia when he was young. His first language was Yiddish, but he seemed to do fine in English. He went to University of Pennsylvania where he later was a political science professor. The story goes that he was the first Jewish professor at Wharton.

 

Image result for abram orlow

Abram and my grandmother Lena had two sons. My father James Joseph and his younger brother David. Abram, Lena, and my father were all immigration lawyers. In fact in 1948 Abram was the Second President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Interestingly Lena went on to be the president of AILA in 1954 and twenty years later  my father was president of that organization the year I, Avram Orlow, was born. My father was younger than Yadid when his father died, so there is just not that many people I have ever met who knew much about him.

Years ago I found a poem that he wrote which was published  January 11, 2018 in The Jewish World. Seeing that is has been 100 years it seemed fitting to share the work of  person for whom I am named. Like my grandfather, Abram Orlow, I am a Zionist. To me the modern State of Israel is central to my Jewish and human identity. As hard as it is to imagine what the world looked like a 100 years ago, it is harder for me to imagine a world before Israel existed. Reading this poem I am filled with wonder. What do we make of the romantic call for a reprisal of the Hasmomean military victory from the pen of an 18-year-old? How did he balance his fierce nationalism with a universal appeal to flock to this yet to be realized Zionist “standard”. He is simultaneously asking Palestine to be born so we can be like ever other nations and also be exceptional and a model to the nations. I have no idea if my grandfather ever stepped foot in the land of Israel. What was Palestine to an immigrant from the Ukraine who would go on to spend his career as an immigration lawyer in “Goluth“?

Reading this poem I find myself looking back to look forward to look back again. Abram’s poem for the ” Jewish Homeland” is prescient. We are still striving to fully realize the Zionist ideal.  We are still struggling with Diaspora identity in “Goluth”.  We are still coming to terms with the challenge of wielding the power of the Maccabees. We are still trying to fuse our commitments to particularism with our universalism. And all the while I have not done much to demystify the person for whom I am namesake, but I hope you have found it interesting nonetheless.

Of Herders, Gardeners, and Builders: The Gift of Shabbat

A few weeks ago in Parshat Vayeshev we read of Yosef’s dreams in which he dreams about how his family’s stars and bundles of wheat bow to his. While the brothers are clearly angered by the idea of their having to bow to their little brother, is that enough to make them want to enslave or even kill their brother? Rabbi Riskin interprets that the dream of the wheat was really  Yosef’s  prediction of the transition from the nomadic shepherd way of life to the settled farmer lifestyle. It was not that their bundle of wheat needed to bow to his, it was that their lives of sheep herding needed to bow to his call for an agricultural wheat based society. In his dream Yosef was calling for a radical technological innovation. Yosef was saying that his brothers needed to put their childish things away and evolve.  They went after Yosef because he was calling for an end of life as they knew it.  And sure enough that is exactly what happened. Shift happens.

I was thinking about it this week as we start the book of Shmot. Here we read:

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Yosef. And he said to his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Yisrael are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when a war befalls us, they also join themselves with our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’ Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pitom and Raamses. ( Exodus 1:8-11)

When they were literally the children of Yisrael they were shepherds. Despite the difficulties surrounding it Yosef forces them to settle down and become wheat farmers. This is the very thing that saves them and the world from the 7 year famine. A new king takes over Egypt who does not recall the great deeds of Yosef. In his fear of the nation of Yisrael the new king enslaves them. I cannot even imagine the transition from being free to becoming a slave. It is also noteworthy they also needed to transition from being an extended family to becoming a nation. They also needed to transition from being farmers to builders. This is a lot of transition from being shepherds, to farmers, to builders.

In our Torah portion as we see the emergence of Yisrael as a nation, it is easy to wax poetic about the days of our being simple farmers in the land of Canaan. This reminds me a of a stirring quote from Paulo Coelho. He wrote:

In life, a person can take one of two attitudes: to build or to plant. The builders might take years over their tasks, but one day, they finish what they’re doing. Then they find that they’re hemmed in by their own walls. Life loses its meaning when the building stops. Then there are those who plant. They endure storms and all the vicissitudes of the seasons, and they rarely rest. But unlike a building, a garden never stops growing. And while it requires the gardener’s constant attention, it also allows life for the gardener to be a great adventure. Gardeners always recognize each other, because they know that in the history of each plant lies the growth of the whole World. (Brida)

In the context of this quote it is easy to imagine the people of Yisrael in a double slavery. Not only were they slaves to the king of Egypt, they were slaves to being forced to give up gardening for building.

This narrative is the very context for the gift of Shabbat to a group of slaves. And today more than ever we need the gift of Shabbat. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern. (The Sabbath)

Even if we have to become builders, we cannot only be builders. We must reinvest in our lives as gardeners. Shabbat is the time during which we as the Nation of Yisrael invest in the family of Yisrael with our families. With the gift of Shabbat we ensure that we continue to grow. Shabbat Shalom.

 

Camp on the Hill

Our family has been doing a lot of driving over the last few days as we we went to visit my parents in Philadelphia. A number of times during our travels we heard the song Castle on the Hill by Ed Sheeran. The theme of the single surrounds Sheeran’s home town of Framlingham, and he reminisces his life as a teenager. He recounts the place that he grew up in, the cast of characters in this life, and where they are now. The line that stuck with me is “these people raised me and I can’t wait to go home”

As great at it was reminiscing about a home, I realize that this mythic home for me is actually camp. Camp is really my Castle on a Hill. I was recently interviewed for Michelle W. Malkin‘s podcast It’s Who You Know.  In this podcast I shared some of my thoughts on the power of Jewish Camping. I encourage you to listen to it, I did not sound that stupid. And to all of these people who raised me, thank you.

-The podcast- https://itswhoyouknowthepodcast.com/2017/12/10/rabbiaviorlow/ 

 

Unsettled: Yosef, Jews, and Psychology

Dylann Storm Roof  is a mass murderer convicted for perpetrating the Charleston church shooting on June 17, 2015. During a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Roof killed nine people. He later confessed that he committed the shooting in hopes of igniting a race war. According to a handwritten motion he filed during his trial considering whether or not he should be given the death penalty the white supremacist killer said he would not be calling on mental health experts to testify because he doesn’t believe in psychology. Roof wrote separately in a journal, “It is a Jewish invention and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they don’t.” While I understand the pivotal role of people like Freud, Maslow, Erikson, Kohlberg, and Frankl (to name a few) played in the development of the field, what does it even mean to assume that Jews invented psychology?

Image result for freud

 

I was thinking about this question today when reading Miketz, this week’s Torah portion. There we see Yosef who accurately interpreted the dreams of the baker and butler being brought to the Pharaoh to interpret his dreams. As Sigmund Freud wrote in his The Interpretation of Dreams, “Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.” Surely being an interpreter of dreams makes Yosef one of the father of analysis.

As the story continues Pharaoh as a reward for his accurate interpretation he puts Yosef in charge of all of the store houses of  wheat. And then there is a huge famine and Egypt is on top of the world. In a short period Yosef goes from a foreign slave, to being imprisoned, to being the second most important person in Egypt, and then the known world. You can only imagine what was going through Yosef’s mind. He was completely alienated from his early days in Canaan helping the world survive.

This reminds me of a story told over in the West Wing. As Leo’s character shares:

This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.”Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on”Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’

To truly help someone you need to have a deep understanding of their issues.

If not a story  of alienation our national story is clearly one of being unsettled. Maybe there is something common to the story of Yosef, the Jewish people. and all of these notable psychologists. Maybe you yourself have to go through your own analysis, experience of alienation, or being unsettled in order to help someone who fell into a hole. Maybe Dylann Roof was right. Maybe we did invent psychology. Now more than ever the world  is in a hole and people needs help. You’re welcome.

 

 

Humble Hutzpah

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

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

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

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

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


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,385 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: