Pied Piper: Yosef and Our Children

In 1283, while the town of Hamelin was suffering from a rat infestation, a pied piper appeared, claiming to be a rat-catcher. He promised the mayor a solution to their problem with the rats. The mayor, in turn, promised to pay him for the removal of the rats (according to some versions of the story, the promised sum was 1,000 guilders). The piper accepted and played his pipe to lure the rats into the Weser River, where they all drowned.

Despite the piper’s success, the mayor reneged on his promise and refused to pay him the full sum (reputedly reduced to a sum of 50 guilders) even going so far as to blame the piper for bringing the rats himself in an extortion attempt. Enraged, the piper stormed out of the town, vowing to return later to take revenge. On Saint John and Paul‘s day, while the adults were in church, the piper returned dressed in green like a hunter and playing his pipe. In so doing, he attracted the town’s children. One hundred and thirty children followed him out of town and into a cave, killing them. Depending on the version, at most three children remained behind: one was lame and could not follow quickly enough, the second was deaf and therefore could not hear the music, and the last was blind and therefore unable to see where he was going. These three informed the villagers of what had happened when they came out from church.

Other versions relate that the Pied Piper led the children to the top of Koppelberg Hill, where he took them to a beautiful land,or a place called Koppenberg Mountain, or Transylvania, or that he made them walk into the Weser as he did with the rats, and they all drowned. Some versions state that the Piper returned the children after payment, or that he returned the children after the villagers paid several times the original amount of gold. (All taken from Wikipedia)

The notion of the “pied piper” comes from this legend called “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Colloquially when we say Pied Piper we mean someone who is gifted at leading children. It is interesting that something so negative could become so positive. From this story we also have the expression that it is “time to pay the piper”- to mean we have to pay our debts.

Various iterations of this tale appeared in the writings of The Brothers Grimm and Robert Browning. What is most interesting to me how we all ignore the meaning of the piper being pied. He came wearing a multicolored (pied) coat.

I was thinking about this in the context of Vayashev, this week’s Torah portion. There we read of Yakov giving Yosef, his chosen son, a pied jacket. We also see the brother’s discussing the benefit of selling their brother into captivity. Ultimately they need to pay Yosef his due. Yosef, like the pied piper, leads the children of Israel away to Egypt.

I Am Lonely: Mental Health and Covid

Rereading the opening of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik‘s The Lonely Man of Faith is haunting. There we read:

The nature of the dilemma can be stated in a three-word sentence. I am lonely. Let me emphasize, however, that by stating “I am lonely” I do not intend to convey to you the impression that I am alone. I, thank God, do enjoy the love and friendship of many. I meet people, talk, preach, argue, reason; I am surrounded by comrades and acquaintances. And yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly. I am lonely because at times I feel rejected and thrust away by everybody, not excluding my most intimate friends, and the words of the Psalmist, “My father and my mother have forsaken me,” ring quite often in my ears like the plaintive cooing of the turtledove. It is a strange, alas, absurd experience engendering sharp, enervating pain as well as a stimulating, cathartic feeling. I despair because I am lonely and, hence, feel frustrated.

The Lonely Man of Faith

In the rest of his book the Rav goes on to explore the problem of sustaining faith in a predominately secular world. The Rav interprets this disparity as a purposeful paradox essential to human nature. We are perennially torn between powerful secular concerns and the need, no less real, for spiritual fulfillment. True faith, therefore, is not easy, nor was it ever meant to be. All the philosophy not withstanding, his opening words seem prescient to our current experiences.

What does it mean today to say, “I am lonely”? His writing, ” It takes on new meaning in the context of the mental health crises that have come to the surface during Covid 19. We need to mediate on those three words.

According to an New York Times article a few years ago it appears that loneliness is more deadly that smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  We are living during a pandemic of loneliness. It is worth reading that article. While the Rav might have been thinking about philosophy, we need to deal with stark reality that we are lonely and it is hurting us. What can we do?

I was thinking about this this week when reading Vayishlach, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Yaakov’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Yaakov.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Yaakov, but Israel, for you have striven with divine and human beings and have prevailed.”

Genesis 32: 24-30

There is much for us to learn in this story. For one, we have to see the experience of being alone and loneliness are real. This story shows that this experience which could easily be dismissed as a psychological state of being is not only real, but that it can easily manifest in physical damage. Only when we realize the gravity of the state of feeling alone can we wrestle with that fact. And finally, for now, even if we prevail in this struggle it does not mean that we are done being alone. There is a problem in our society and there is no quick fix. We all just need to continue to wrestle with it.

Original Pods

As we emerge from Covid I have been thinking about the long term psychological impact of what did to survive this medical ordeal. One of the more interesting thing we did was to pod. The practice of podding involves one or more households getting together in-person regularly at each other’s homes for small educational groups with agreed-upon measures to try and manage COVID-19 exposure risks. Pods are mostly considered for elementary-age children to preserve social benefits and mitigate risk.

I was thinking about podding this week when reading the end of Vayeitzei, this week’s Torah portion. Yaakov is on his way to reconnect with his estranged brother Esav. There we read: When he saw them, Yaakov said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Machanayim.”  (Genesis 32:2)

The commentators note that the correct grammatical form of multiple camps is machanot, rather than machanayim, and wonder what we can learn from this differing conjugation in the text. Rashi explains that Yaakov uses the word machanayim to signify two different types of camps, one outside the land of Israel and one within it. Others believe it references a “pair of connected camps.”

This foreshadows what we will see in next week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Yaakov was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.

Genesis 32:8-9

So why two camps? In many ways Yaakov was trying to move forward and mitigate his exposure to risk in confronting his brother. In the end his fear of Esav was misguided. It turned out there was no physical risks. It is interesting to see how this division into two camps might have seeded the division between his children and eventually the tribes. Similar to the long term impact of Covid- while podding might save us physically, we need to keep our eye on the our psychological wellbeing.

Limits of Time: Kislev and Happiness

With advent of Kislev I am more aware that winter is coming. It is getting darker and darker earlier and earlier. This reminded me of an extraordinary Gemara. there we read:

When Adam the first man saw that the day was progressively diminishing, as the days become shorter from the autumnal equinox until the winter solstice, he did not yet know that this is a normal phenomenon, and therefore he said: Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven, as it is written: “And to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19). He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer. Once he saw that the season of Tevet, i.e., the winter solstice, had arrived, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world. He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year, and these eight days of his celebration, as days of festivities. He, Adam, established these festivals for the sake of Heaven, but they, the gentiles of later generations, established them for the sake of idol worship.

Avodah Zarah 8a
Nautical Dusk by Vitling on Amazon Music - Amazon.com

What would it mean to live a life in which you really believed that the entire world and the sun in sky revolved around your actions? While it seems to be the definition of being omphalocentric, it also makes you live with profound sense of purpose.

While none of us could think that the entire world was there to respond to our good deeds or our sins, many of us approach the world with a profound sense of entitlement. Why do we think that we deserve more sun light? To quote Oliver Twist, what do we deserve “MORE?”.

Ben Zoma taught:

Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot, as it is said: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper” (Psalms 128:2) “You shall be happy” in this world, “and you shall prosper” in the world to come.

Avot 4:1

If we always want more we will never be happy. In many ways we are all in the dark regarding what would actually bring us joy. Maybe we only enjoy what we have when we think we might not keep it for ever. The limits of time seems to be a punishment, but might actually be a blessing.

Equally Good Time

At the beginning of Chaye Sarah, this week’s Torah portion, we learn of Sarah’s passing away. We read:

And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan, and Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her.( Genesis 23:1-2)

It seems strange that the text does not just say that Sarah was 127 when she died. On this Rashi quotes the Midrash which says:

The reason that the word “years” was written after every digit is to tell you that every digit is to be expounded upon individually: when she was one hundred years old, she was like a twenty-year-old regarding sin. Just as a twenty-year-old has not sinned, because she is not liable to punishment, so too when she was one hundred years old, she was without sin. And when she was twenty, she was like a seven-year-old as regards to beauty. (Genesis Rabbah 58:1)

Reaching the end of life makes one reflect about all of life’s stages.

This Midrash reminds me of 7 Years Old by Lukas Graham. Check out the video:

It is worth a reading all the lyrics of this song with the Midrash in mind. But for now I wanted to focus on:

Soon I’ll be 60 years old, will I think the world is cold
Or will I have a lot of children who can warm me
Soon I’ll be 60 years old

Once I was seven years old, my mama told me
Go make yourself some friends or you’ll be lonely
Once I was seven years old

With the passing of time we cycle through our ages, stages, wishes, and aspirations. The wisdom of our elders is that they see the lives that they have lived in hindsight. The beauty of our youth is that we do not know how much we will mess up along the way. It is noteworthy in the song that at the beginning and end of life we are motivated to not be alone. We should approach life with the childlike curiosity of a 7 year-old, the energy and purpose of a 20 year-old, and the well-tempered discipline and wisdom of an 100 year-old. Rashi also comments on the years of the life of Sarah, “All of them equally good.” We should all be blessed to live every stage of life equally full of good deeds and better company.

Tent of Understanding and Patience

How do we respond to existential crisis? I would assume that no two people would respond exactly the same way to the same situation. And I would also assume that the same person would respond differently to different crises.

I was thinking about this question when reading the start of Vayera, this week’s Torah portion. Avraham and Sarah were promised a great nation, and there she finds herself old, menopausal, and childless. We see God looking after Avraham in his tent. Avraham sees three strangers traveling in the desert. He runs to invite them in and host them. Avraham and Sarah meet their needs and go way beyond that. I can only imagine the anguish of Sarah’s life. She thought her life was about having and caring for a child and now she is schvitching getting food ready for these strangers. As it turns out, these travelers were actually angels sent to bring messages. One of these messages is that Sarah was going to have a child. Her response is to laugh. There we read:

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?”

Genesis 18:12

She laughs because it seems absurd that she should be able to have a child. The humor of the situation reveals her patience in light of God’s tardiness in delivering on God’s promise.

It is fascinating to compare Sarah’s response to Lot’s daughters behavior at the end of the Torah portion. Like Sarah they are faced with what they perceive as existential crisis. Their town had been destroyed, mother turned to a pillar of salt, and they find shelter in a cave. There we read:

Lot went up from Zoar and settled in the hill country with his two daughters, for he was afraid to dwell in Zoar; and he and his two daughters lived in a cave. And the older one said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night they made their father drink wine, and the older one went in and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. The next day the older one said to the younger, “See, I lay with Father last night; let us make him drink wine tonight also, and you go and lie with him, that we may maintain life through our father.” That night also they made their father drink wine, and the younger one went and lay with him; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. Thus the two daughters of Lot came to be with child by their father.

Genesis 19:18-36

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman wrote, “We are prone to blame decision makers for good decisions that worked out badly and to give them too little credit for successful moves that appear obvious only after the fact.” Lot’s daughters do something horrible, but from their perspective you could appreciate their motivations. They assume that the entire world has been destroyed and they want to save it. How should we judge them for their actions?

Even if I am understanding of their perception, I would say it was horrible. Not only because it was unethical and gross, but because their stance toward time. It seems that no time passes and they are working on a solution to the problem of populating the world. While their issues and Sarah’s are similar, their perception of time is very different. Sarah is patient and Lot’s daughters are impatient and impetuous. It is particularly fascinating to visualize the juxtaposition between Sarah’s tent and Lot’s Daughter cave. How to we react to crises? Do we run to caves or take our time in tents? Do we jump to the wrong conclusion or do we wait too long?

Arabian Desert Tent Images, Stock Photos & Vectors | Shutterstock

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell wrote, “The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” How do we get out of the case and position ourselves in tents of understanding?

Lessons from the Second City: Rethinking Rebuilding

-written with Stefan Teodosic

On October 8, 1871, a fire broke out in Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn on the southwest side of Chicago, Illinois. It soon spread to envelop the entire city. Lasting until the 10th, the fire burned through the heart of Chicago, killing 300 people, and leaving one-third of the city’s population homeless. 150 years ago, while the embers were still smoldering, they started the process of rebuilding Chicago. The destruction was devastating, but it’s the rebuilding of the city that has drawn our attention today. While some rushed to rebuild Chicago the way it had been, others set out to realize a new vision for what Chicago could become. The “Great Rebuilding” was a bold effort to construct a new urban center. 

Michigan Avenue bridge relief in Chicago. The relief called Regeneration depicts workers rebuilding Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; Shutterstock.

Their vision for a new Chicago would include new architecture. The Windy City built skyscrapers with steel and terra cotta. They changed major systems including laying the city out in a grid and making trash alleys to improve their waste removal. They also took care to protect themselves against future fires. To this end, they passed new laws requiring new buildings to be constructed with fireproof masonry and sprinkler systems and people to purchase fire insurance. They also opened an academy to train firemen. 

Accomplishing these things required alignment amongst organizations and partnerships between government, companies, investors and philanthropists. In short order, boosters needed to communicate this opportunity with all stakeholders, including citizens, to move forward on these fresh, transformational ideas for a safer, nicer and more resilient Second City. This new metropolis would become the home to big businesses, innovative buildings and a new style of architecture. 

It has been 150 years, but where is the Jewish community today? We have been dealing with COVID-19 and its variants for over 19 months. Having just finished the holidays, we look forward to the work ahead of us in 5782. In many ways the embers are still smoldering. Are we going to rebuild our community the way it was, or are we going to set out a grand revision for our communities’ “Great Rebuilding”? What lessons can we learn from Chicago?

Just as they did, we have to rise up and meet the moment, make sustainable change and lay the foundation for the future. We must co-create an intentional process to assess the damage, see what should be salvaged, and bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to do an intentional, thoughtful, transformational visioning process. We need to see the blessing in the crisis and not just recreate what we had. Like the boosters that led the rebuilding after the Chicago fire, we need to tell a new story. We need to move beyond the trappings of tradition for its own sake, embrace this opportunity together to identify shared outcomes, and figure out our priorities, strategies and the resources we will need to achieve this vision. We need to create ownership and buy-in at all levels of the community and create partnerships within and across sectors. This coalition of the willing will have to align and seize the opportunity with passion and a unified sense of purpose. 

Just saying it does not make it easy. To do this we will need to be courageous, vulnerable, open and trust divergent perspectives. We will need to explore possibilities for our future with childlike curiosity along with well-tempered discipline to pursue this new venture. And even when we can articulate a shared vision, we will need to follow a methodical change management process. We will need to continue to measure our success and failures against agreed upon outputs and outcomes. And like the fire academy, we must teach the next generation so they are prepared for the next trauma no matter what it might be. We need resiliency in this chaotic world where the only constant is instability. 

While Chicago focused on its buildings, we need to evolve our organizational architecture. How will we rethink our finances, human resources, technology, marketing and communications, governance and training of our professionals and board members? How will we rebuild our communities while prioritizing the mental, emotional, social and spiritual health of individuals? Just as Chicago redrew the lines of how the city was organized, we too need to open up lines of communication and collaboration between different sectors of engagement and education (overnight and day camps, youth groups, schools, congregations etc ), critical mass builders (JFNA, Movements, North American intermediaries like FJC, Prizmah, Hillel, Moishe House etc), funders (philanthropists and local Federations), government and other partners in the Jewish communal ecosystem in North America, Israel and around the world.

We happen to be two Jewish camp guys at heart. While we are always working to add value in our own spaces, we know we each have a limited perspective. If there ever was a time to look beyond ourselves, our assumptions, our individual communities and our own sector – to listen to a diversity of ideas, priorities, experiences and perspectives and share how our work and vision may intersect and impact each other in the broader communal field – it’s now. It is imperative that we lean in and listen to the needs of the Jewish people, not just Jewish institutions. We need to adopt a truly inclusive approach, based in a posture of abundance. We will not be successful if we start with scarcity and judge people based on a current or past level of participation or engagement. All of our voices and our data have to be in this process. If not we could build something thoughtful and intentional, that flat out misses the mark. 

This past Shabbat we read Lech Lecha, in which Avraham and Sarah strike out to innovate and build a new nation. Similarly, this is our chance to do a grand re-envisioning and to imagine a new way to organize and explore Jewish life. Survival is not enough. Rebuilding the way it was or just adapting it is not enough. As we emerge from COVID, we have the opportunity to learn from the Second City, disrupt the status quo, and build a better, more resilient community for the future. What will our community look like in a year? In 10? In 150? 

The two of us may be starting this conversation, but we are hoping that you will continue it. Whether you show up as a Jewish communal professional, an individual community member or a lay leader, your unique voice is integral to weaving the rich tapestry of the Jewish life of tomorrow. If you are interested, please add your voice to this conversation. How might we rebuild Jewish life anew? Introduce yourself, share your thoughts, and identify how you’d like to take part in this process here. We would love to be in conversation. 

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow (he,him) is the vice president of innovation and education at Foundation for Jewish Camp. He can be reached at avi@jewishcamp.org 

Stefan Teodosic (he,him) was a longtime Jewish camp director/executive director and is the founder of Maverick Soul Consulting, based in Chicago. Maverick Soul provides a trusted, collaborative teammate with corporate experience and a nonprofit soul in the areas of vision, strategic planning and change management. He can be reached at Stefan@mavericksoulconsulting.com  

Reposted from eJp

Start of the Mission

Any story are defined by their beginning. This idea is put forward by Rashi in his first commentary on the Torah. There on Genesis 1:1 he wrote:

Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse, “This month shall be unto you the first of the months”(Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to God’s people the strength of God’s works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that God might give them the heritage of the nations.” For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be God; God created it and gave it to whom God pleased. When God willed God gave it to them, and when God willed God took it from them and gave it to us” (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187).

Rashi on Genesis 1:1

Why not just start with our story of us as a nation? Rashi’s answer is that the creation story gives us a claim to the land of Israel. But like most things the question is better than the answer. I would offer that a stronger answer might have been that this singular origin story creates a common context for the beginning of our story as humanity. This start forms the ethical foundation for our society ( see: Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). No one is better or more important than anyone else because we all come from the same beginning. By starting with our common biological origin we all live in the context of a story where despite or because of our differences we have moral obligations to each other.

But, we read Bereirshit a few weeks ago. Why am I bringing this question up now when we read Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion?

Here at the start the story of the first Jewish family. There we read:

The LORD said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you.And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth. Shall bless themselves by you.” Avram went forth as the LORD had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

Genesis 12:1-4

Why doesn’t Rashi ask his question here? Again we could have started our collective story with “This month shall be unto you the first of the months”(Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment given to Israel. You can claim the same answer that this is the proof of God promising to give Avraham and us the Promised Land. But, I would argue that just as Adam and Eve gave us a common biological origin, Avram and Sarai give us a common ideological origin. By starting our national story with Lech Lecha, our ideological origin story, we all live in the context of a story where despite or because of our ideological differences we are bound to each other. Even if it does not always seem like the case we are all on the same mission. Though we might debate and fight, we are all beneficiaries of their project. No one is better or more important than anyone else because we all trace the idea of Judaism back to this moment when Avram set out to ” make a great nation”. Lech Lecha literally and figuratively gives birth to Judaism as a movement.

Babel on the Hill: We All Need an Audience

Zoom-fatigue is real. I need people. These screen and zoom boxes are not cutting it.

This reminds me of a troubling story told in the name of the Besht:

There was a king who loved music but his real passion was the violin. A fiddler was brought to him to play and one particular melody captivated him. He instructed the musician to play this melody several times a day. After a time the musician grew weary of the tune and found it hard to play it with the same passion as before. To rekindle the fiddler’s love for his favorite melody, the king was advised to summons a new audience every day. Strangers were brought into his palace who had never heard the melody.
This arrangement seemed to work. A new audience stirred the fiddler to play with enthusiasm again until there was no one left to invite. What to do?
It was decided to blind the musician so that he never see a human form again. He then sat before the king and whenever the king sought to hear his favorite tune he would simply say “Here comes someone new, One who has never heard you play before!”
And musician would play his tune with the greatest joy.

I will come back to violence another time. But it is clear that we need an audience. It is really hard to perform without one. I was thinking about this when reading John Winthrop’s, oft quoted homily, City on a Hill from 1630. He wrote: 

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

John Winthrop
Searching for the City on a Hill: Tracing the Roots of America's Metaphor

It is interesting that Winthrop and subsequently America has cast an imagination that the whole world is watching as they build this city perched on a hill. Our civilization is the stage and the world is our audience. It speaks to this basic need to be seen. And yes we will fail, but in having an audience we will always strive to become better.

I was considering all of this when thinking about the failure of the Tower of Babel. There we read:

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.— And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

Genesis 11:1-4

I offer for your consideration that they failed in building their Tower on a hill as an exemplary civilization precisely for the reason that ” everyone on earth” was involved in the project. They were all on stage. In not having audience they lacked motivation, inspiration, or accountability.

The First Luftmensch

Some times I get lost in thought. On more then one occasion I have been called a luftmensch. I realize that at times I come off as aloof. A luftmensch is an impractical contemplative person. This is an airy appellation taken from Yiddish which breaks down into “luft” (a Germanic root meaning “air” that is in the the name of Germany’s airlines and also related to the English words “loft” and “lofty”) plus mentsh, meaning “human being.”

Ferienstart in Hessen: Lufthansa empfiehlt rechtzeitige Anreise zum  Flughafen - Lufthansa Group

I was thinking of this when reading Bereishit, this week’s Torah portion. The Torah is short on words. Amidst a whole list of “begot”ings and ages one line stands out. There we read, “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him.” ( Genesis 5:24) Enoch walked with God with his head in the clouds. Many interpret his being “no more” that he left the world as Elijah without dying. Never having lived on the ground there is no attributed years of his life.

This reminds me of a nugget of wisdom that my friend Jay Frankel shared. He said, ” As employers, we are always worried about our employees who might quit and leave. We should be more worried about the ones who quit and stay.” While the luftmensch might lead a life blissfully untethered by our quotidian existence, they also have resigned themselves to have no impact on the world.

In many ways Enoch is the foil for Yaakov. He starts out as a luftmensch, sitting in his tent as his brother is out in the field ( Genesis 25:27). But later we see him evolve. Most poignantly we see him have a dream of angels ascending and descending. There we read, “He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its head reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.” ( Genesis 28:12) One way to read this is that this ladder is Yaakov himself. His “head” was still in the sky, but now his feet were firmly rooted in the ground.

In many ways the project of humanity is to live with the tension of our being animals and being divine. We need to always be reaching for the heavens AND be deeply rooted in this world. We cannot resign ourselves to either or. Me must be both. To be a mensch is to strive to live up to our full potential.


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