Promised Assembly: On Suburbia

At the start of Vayakel Pekudai, this week’s double portion we read, “ Moshe called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that the Lord commanded to do” (Exodus 35:1). What does it mean to “assemble”?

We take it for granted, but for these recently emancipated slaves this coming together must have been a very powerful experience. In this context of communing, convening, and communicating they were giving the gift of Shabbat. For people who’s value is tied to their productivity for their masters the very institution of Shabbat must have been radical. For them then, and for us now, the experience of Shabbat itself creates the context for the communing, convening, and communicating. But for many of us this benefits of assembling allude us. In the words of Robert Putnam, religion and communal life are on the decline and we are all bowling alone. But why?

As we learn in the Mishnah (and in the classic song Yo Ya), “Mishnah Makom Mishnah Mazel– You change your place you change your luck”. One is left assuming that if changing the venue would have been enough for the slaves to assemble it would have done the same for the previous generation as they liberated themselves from the peril of city life and moved to the suburbs. When we started to leave urban centers across America we came together, collected the necessary resources, and formed communities. Many of these new synagogues were conceived of as new Tabernacles build in the wilderness as people escaped the city life. But has the reality of suburbia lived up to the promise?

In thinking about this question I think about the work of James Howard Kunstler. In his book The Geography of Nowhere, he traces America’s evolution from a nation of Main Streets and coherent communities to a land where every place is like no place in particular, where the cities are dead zones and the countryside is a wasteland of cartoon architecture and parking lots. Kunstler depicts our nation’s evolution from the Pilgrim settlements to the modern auto suburb in all its ghastliness. The Geography of Nowhere tallies up the huge economic, social, and spiritual costs that America is paying for its car-crazed lifestyle. It is also a wake-up call for citizens to reinvent the places where we live and work, to build communities that are once again worthy of our affection. Kunstler proposes that by reviving civic art and civic life, we will rediscover public virtue and a new vision of the common good.

Kunstler gives a related Ted talk that I just love:

“The future will require us to build better places,” Kunstler says, “or the future will belong to other people in other societies.” Beyond his assorbic tone, he is speaking the truth. As he says, “We’re going to need to get back this body of methodology and principle and skill in order to re-learn how to compose meaningful places, places that are integral, that allow — that are living organisms in the sense that they contain all the organs of our civic life and our communal life, deployed in an integral fashion.”

In some ways the Israelites in the desert lived the promise of suburbia assembling, coming together, and making meaning. And for us this has become a MESSH nightmare. The project of the Promised Land is also suffering from some of the same consequences of suburbia that Kunstler discusses. Israel is more divided then ever. Israel’s left and right have nothing in common and there is also a growing divide between Israel and diaspora. We have nothing common and no share vision of what is worth fighting for. As Kunstler said, “We are sleepwalking into the future. We’re not ready for what’s coming at us. So I urge you all to do what you can.”

What can we learn from the Israelite assembling to repair our communities all over the world?


A Purim Study: On Judaism, Jews, and Jewishness

When people find out that I am a Rabbi I often find myself in deep religious conversations with people, especially non-Jews. While being religious is part of being, it is far from the totality of my Jewish identity.

There is an important idea attributed to Dr. Michael Rosenak, Israeli philosopher of Jewish education, who makes an important distinction between Judaism, Jews, and Jewishness. Judaism is our religion. This one comes in many flavors and sizes. A Jew a member of the Jewish people. We too come in all flavors and sizes. And finally there is Jewishness. This is the culture of belonging to this global people. Our Jewishness gives voice to our sensibilities, interpretive lenses, and our languages. Clearly we are all of these, but when I get sucked into this vortex of religious discourse I often have to explain to other religious people how my being a Jew and my Jewishness is no less a part of my/ our being.

I was thinking about it today on Purim as we say Al HaNissim which quotes the Megilah:

Accordingly, written instructions were dispatched by couriers to all the king’s provinces לְהַשְׁמִ֡יד לַהֲרֹ֣ג וּלְאַבֵּ֣ד to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—and to plunder their possessions.

Esther 3:13

We get it Haman wanted to kill the Jews. Why do we need these three different words?

L’hashmid– to destroy often refers to religious persecutions. On the surface this would seem to be an attack on Judaism. In our history these efforts of forced apostasy were heroically resisted, brought the people to die “al kiddush HaShem,” for the sanctification of the Name. These religious Jews would rather die then give up their religion. This is best known from the time of Chanukah.

L’harog– to massacre. This is classic genicide. There is nothing that Jews can do to stop being Jews. We have seen this far too often in Jewish History. Juxtaposed Chanukah, this is what we see in Purim, Passover, and the Holocaust.

L’abad-to exterminate or to be lost. This seems to be an interesting one. What do we learn from this that we did not already from the previous two acts of violence against our people?

This language seems to be foreshadowing the role of Esther in the saga. When Mordechai hears of this plot to kill the Jews he reaches out to Esther as the queen to help. There we read:

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: 14

While Mordechai and the Jews need Esther’s help, Mordechai is confident that they will be saved with or without her help. In many ways he frames the request of her as a favor to her. If she opts out of helping she will be lost to the Jewish people. She will lose her Jewishness. This is accented by use of the same work “lost” in her response:

“Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; וְכַאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָבַ֖דְתִּי אָבָֽדְתִּי and if I am to perish, I shall perish!”

Esther 4: 16

Esther was the Queen and risks her safety be revealing her hidden identity as a Jew. If she is lost, she will be lost. She is not depicted as a religious Jew and she is not just saying that she might be killed as a Jew. In this statement she is saying that she does not want to lose her Jewishness.

In many ways our coming together to fast in support of Esther is our people coming together as Jews despite our differences of Judaism or Jewishness. So too in celebrating this holiday today we are expressing our unity without a mandate for conformity.

Purim Sameakh-

Common Knowledge: A Riddle and a Thought on Tetzave

I have always loved a good riddle. I assume it came from my playful nature, the struggle to get the solution, or the joy of cracking it. There is a whole string of deduction/logic riddles that I really like that are based on what is Common Knowledge.

My favorite one is the Blue-Eyed Islander of Brown eyes people. Here is the simplest version I could find:

Spoiler Alert: #2 figures out his hat is red by combining what he knows, that #3 is yellow, with #1’s delayed response, because #1 must see a yellow and a red hat. I think there is much to be learned from the rest of our lives in the space between what know, what know we know, what we know other people know, and what we know that other people do not know.

I was thinking of this idea this week when reading Titzaveh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about the High Priest’s tzitza golden plate worn on the forehead. There we read:

Make a plate (tzitz) of pure gold, and engrave on it as on a seal, “Holy to God.” Place it upon a blue thread, so that it will be on the turban; it shall be opposite the front of the turban. It will be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron will absolve the guilt of the holy things which the children of Israel sanctify, all of their holy offerings; it shall be on his forehead constantly, for their acceptance before God.

Exodus 28:36–38

Why would this bear the inscription “Holy to God”? I believe in a profound way this creates Public Knowledge that the Priest is holy. This also creates an interesting question in the assembled people’s Common Knowledge. In what ways were they all “Holy to God”?

This gives a whole new context for what we think we know as we go into Purim, a holiday full of customs, costumes, and hats. That which is hidden might itself be very revealing. We all need to ask ourselves in what ways are we all “Holy to God”?

Shift Happens: Beyond Crying in on an Ottoman

We recently became beneficiaries of a lovely sectional sofa. It forms a lovely “U” shape and it left us thinking that maybe we should find an ottoman to go in the middle. Because I am a curious person that got me thinking, why is this piece of furniture is named after the Turkish Empire?

The ottoman traces its roots to furnishing practices in the Ottoman Empire, where it was the central piece of residential seating, generally designed as a low wooden platform intended to be piled with cushions. It was first designed as sectional furniture that wrapped around three walls of a room, before evolving into smaller versions that fit into the corner of a room or circular padded seats surrounding a column or pole in a public room. The ottoman was eventually brought to Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century and named after its place of origin. It is also thought to have this name as the piece of furniture in the room just as the Ottoman Empire was centrally located.

These ideas came together for me recently in a scary way with two of earthquakes in Turkey and Syrian. Looking at the map we see that the Anatolian Plate is a continental tectonic plate that is separated from the Eurasian plate and the Arabian plate by the North Anatolian Fault and the East Anatolian Fault respectively. Most of the country of Turkey is located on the Anatolian plate. Most significant earthquakes in the region have historically occurred along the northern fault, such as the 1939 Erzincan earthquake. The devastating 2023 Turkey–Syria earthquake occurred along the active East Anatolian fault at a strike slip fault where the Arabian plate is sliding past the Anatolian plate horizontally.

Looking at how so many tectonic plates come together in Turkey we see how in so many ways this is a the center of the world.

This got me thinking about what the ancients experiences of earthquakes. We see in the Gemara:

Rav Ketina was once walking along the road when he came to the entrance of the house of a necromancer and an earthquake rumbled. He said: Does this necromancer know what is this earthquake? The necromancer raised his voice and said: Ketina, Ketina, why would I not know? Certainly this earthquake occurred because when the Holy One, Blessed be God, remembers God’s children who are suffering among the nations of the world, God sheds two tears into the great sea. The sound of their reverberation is heard from one end of the earth to the other. And that is an earthquake. Rav Ketina said: The necromancer is a liar and his statements are lies. If so, it would necessitate an earthquake followed by another earthquake, one for each tear. The Gemara comments: That is not so, as it indeed causes an earthquake followed by another earthquake; and the fact that Rav Ketina did not admit that the necromancer was correct was so that everyone would not mistakenly follow him.

Berakhot 59a-b

In light of this Gemara the pairing of the two earthquakes in Turkey is haunting. In the context of the original situation this might have been related to ancient intuition regarding earthquakes and aftershocks. On the level of polemics it might have been that Rav Ketina knew that the necromancer was right, but did not want to admit that in public. On a theological level this presents a challenging theodicy. How is it possible that an all powerful God be benevolent? What do we do when bad things happen to good people? God’s tears are not enough.

On a deeper level one would have to understand that the mere existence of tectonic plates speak to the literal broken nature of the world. This reminds me of one of my favorite lessons by Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He said,” If you see what needs to be repaired and know how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to perfect. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly, then it is you yourself that needs repair.” This is to say we cannot sit at home crying on our ottomans and just watch the tragedy in Turkey. Clearly the world is broken and this is our invitation to get out there and help fix it.

Painfully Parve: The Moral Challenge of Adiaphorous

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion we learn about many laws. Some of them deal with kashrut, food taboos. One of the laws states, ” You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.” (Exodus 22:30) Clearly eating without thinking about the experience of the animal is to be like an animal. Our holiness is connected to our being conscious consumers.

Another law states, “The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”(Exodus 23:19) At first glance it might seem that this prohibition falls in line with other taboos in Judaism of mixing things, I think that is an over simplification. Just as in the previous case, this is an argument for conscious moral living. Cooking a kid in it’s mother milk is an obvious case of cruelty. Not doing mixing milk and meat is not moral stance, but an occasion to be mindful in life and to strive not to be cruel.

This also creates categories of trief (not kosher), milk, meat, and “parve”. Pronounced PAH-riv or pahr-veh, “parve” is a Yiddish (and by extension, Hebrew) term for something that is neither meat nor dairy. Examples would be water, eggs, fish, and anything that is plant-derived, such as fruit, nuts and veggies. Thus, a cookie labeled as “parve” can be eaten together with cream-laden coffee, or after a steak dinner. Since meat and dairy utensils are also kept separate, dishes that are used for neither meat nor dairy are also known as “parve.” The origin of this word is unknowm. Perhaps it is from Middle High German bar (“bare, naked”), from Proto-Germanic bazaz (“bare, naked”), from Proto-Indo-European bosós, from bos- (“bare, barefoot”), and thus cognate with English bare. Or perhaps from a West Slavic source such as Czech párový (“occurring in pairs”), because it is something that can be paired with either meat or milk.

In a more general context, being “parve” can also mean being neutral, unremarkable, or lacking in distinctive qualities or characteristics. To be “painfully parve” would mean to be frustratingly neutral or unremarkable in a way that causes discomfort or dissatisfaction. This could refer to a person, an experience, or anything that is perceived as being uninteresting or bland. It suggests a sense of disappointment or a desire for more excitement or stimulation.

Similarly I just learned a new vocabular work, adiaphorous. Based on the ancient Greek “ἀδιάφορος” (“adiáphoros”), meaning “indifferent.” The idea of adiaphorous concepts is associated with the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, who split human life into categories of good, bad, and indifferent. The term for “indifferent” was “adiaphora,” and they used it to describe activities that were neither essentially good nor essentially bad. An early example of something adiaphorous is the pursuit of fame, which is neither bad in nature, nor necessarily a good thing. Stoics believed adiaphorous actions were decided as good or bad by the way one carried them out.

There is something painfully parve about moral indifference. I am interested in Jewish law being an expression of our values. When it come to food there is no problem being parve, but in life we need to pick teams. Being adiaphorous is trief. As Elie Wiesel wisely said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

Systems Fail: Accountability and Our Trash Heap

When I look around at the world I see many problems and issues. It is easy to become despondent as the world continues to go from bad to worse. What could we possibly do to make things better of this burning trash heap of a planet? It all seems out of control. And even if we think there is someone in control we jump to blame. Just to name a few of our issues:

  1. Climate Change: One of the major problems on our planet is linked to the global temperatures that are continuously rising. By 2100, studies show that there is a 50% likelihood of facing global warming that is higher than 3.5 degrees Celsius and a 10% probability of witnessing warming higher than 4.7 degrees Celsius (relative to temperatures registered between 1850 and 1900). This would result in more severe shifts in weather patterns, food and resource shortages, and the more rapid spread of diseases.
  2. Wars and Military Conflicts: There is a war in Ukraine. Russia one of the world powers will do everything to keep Ukraine out of the EU. This could easily escalate to a 3rd World War. This is just one region. Beyond any bloodshed or hardship in any of these war-torn regions, there is a huge issue caused for and by the refugees of war.
  3. Water Contamination and Shortage: 2.1 billion people in countries undergoing urbanization have inaccessibility to clean drinking water as a result of pollution, poverty and poor management of resources.
  4. The Relationship between Education and Child Labor: Despite a surge in funding for some countries and increasing attention through social media, education continues to be a luxury around the globe. Reasons include gender preferences and poverty, and child labor — the use of children in industry. According to UNICEF, 150 million children participate in laborious activities dangerous to their health.
  5. Violence: Violence is a global issue that exists in all shapes and sizes. Violence can be done towards a particular group like women or LGBTQ+ members, or it is an act that can be a result of a mentally disturbed mind. There is also violence in response to economic stress. All these varying forms of violence lead to attention on the safety and prevention of such acts. Despite COVID pushing #metoo out of the news, we still have not dealt with these abuses of power.
  6. Poverty: 1.3 billion people have difficulty obtaining food and shelter, regardless of the availability of homeless shelters and organizations.
  7. Inequality: According to a Global Wealth Report, 44 percent of global net worth is held by only 0.7 percent of adults. In a society where there’s a large gap between the rich and the poor, life expectancy tends to be shorter and mental illness and obesity rates are 2 to 4 times higher. In terms of social relationships, inequality on a larger level introduces more violence and crime.
  8. Terrorism: Terrorism like the bombing incidents of the last few years continue to claim the lives of innocents. It is a threat to the peace, security and stability of the world, so terrorism prevention methods have been implemented to illustrate what is wrong and should be/could be done to uphold justice.
  9. Child Marriages: One in five girls are married before the age of 18, and child marriages prevent children from becoming educated, can lead to severe health consequences and increased risk of violence.
  10. Food: By 2050, the world would need to find food for approximately nine billion people as cost of production for food will rise in response to the increased amount of individuals.
  11. Human Rights Violation: There are many place in the world where people do not live free. One example is how the China’s Uyghur Genocide.
  12. Global Health Issues: While we might feel that we are done with COVID- 19, what is coming next?
  13. Gun Violence: There is a huge problem in America around access and use of guns. We have become knumb to the regularity of mass shootings.

Individually I believe we have the power to fix each of these issues. But looking at this litany of crap in this sh!t storm of our lives today it is overwhelmed. When I dig deeper I am left seeing a theme to our issues. We just lack accountability. We could fix all of these things, we just do not have a culture of accountability to make it happen.

Here I quote my Accountability Rebbe Diana Bloom when she says, “ People do not fail, systems fail.”

Instead of running to blame people or just throwing up my hands in despair , I want to ask what systems we could put into place to make sure we working on solutions and making the world better.

I was thinking about this idea this week when reading Yitro, this week’s Torah portion. Here we see Moshe sitting from morning until night adjudicating cases. His father-in-law Yitro advises Moshe to appoint a hierarchy of magistrates and judges to assist him in the task of governing and administering justice to the people. We all need systems to be effective. Moshe himself needed a system to make sure that they could have a just civilization.

This story of having a judiciary system itself is the story that immediately precedes the give of the Torah. In many ways it seems that the Torah and the halacha we learn in it is what our wisdom tradition offers the world as a system of accountability. While you might not see this in modern Israel, but a separate judiciary system is critical to our culture. As we read about the giving of the Torah we should thing about what systems we can put in place to make sure we are doing our part to save this burning trash heap of a planet.

The Dreaming Tree: A Reflection on Tu B’Shvat and Time

Louis Pasteur wisely said, “No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. This seems accurate in that our experience of ourselves is perplexing. It also rings true in that our experience of time is often beyond our grasp.

I was thinking about this today is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the trees. This is a holiday that signals the start of spring in Israel. This is supposed to coincide with the budding of the first almond blossoms. While our frosty lunar based solar mash-up calendar might not totally align to the coming of spring, it is interesting to see how looking at trees shift our experience of time itself.

We all have that experience as children of counting the rings of a tree stump and being told that each ring represents another year of the tree’s lives. Like us the tree grows a little every year and it is hard to perceive. Shifting our focus to tree’s today push us to understand our perception of time.

I was thinking about this idea this morning when I woke up seeing The Dreaming Tree by Dave Matthews. What can I say he was the music of my teens? Here take a listen for Tu B’Shvat:

On a simple level it is a song about change, about the course of life, it’s about the world and it’s dangers when you are no longer a child with no worries, and about people who lose their sense of imagination as they grow old. There are a lot of things we take for granted in our lives, such as our childhood. In the song he says:

Below it he would sit
For hours at a time
Now progress takes away
What forever took to find

And now he’s falling hard
And feels the falling dark
How he longs to be
Beneath his dreaming tree

Some people treasure the things that are important in life, while other people take those same things for granted, not realizing what is truly valuable. The bystander didn’t really care about the tree it had no significance to him, but the old man treasured it for it reminded him of so many memories for him. The Dreaming Tree represents “a moment froze in time”. On today, Tu B’Shvat, we pause to see how trees help us experience time slower and in turn helps us treasure what matters most.

Take Heart: Learning from Worthy Rivals

Over the past few Torah portions we have returned time and again to the troupe of Pharaoh’s heart being hardened. There are many different explanations as for why this is the case. Regardless due to the sheer number of references to it happening, it cannot be dismissed as trivial. But why is it important?

And in Beshalach, this week’s Torah portion the Israelites are finally let go. You would think that enough would be enough, but no we still learn that God is not done hardening Pharaoh’s heart. There we read:

The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he chased after the sons of Israel as the sons of Israel were going out boldly.

Exodus 14:8

So, what do we learning from all of this heart hardening stuff?

In many ways Pharaoh represent the architype in our history, hell bent on the death of the Jews. But in many ways we are missing the lesson. To anyone who knows me knows that I am big chassid of Simon Sinek.

In the Infinite Game, his new book, he wrote:

Traditional competition forces us to take on an attitude of winning. A Worthy Rival inspires us to take on an attitude of improvement. The former focuses our attention on the outcome, the latter focuses our attention on process. That simple shift in perspective immediately changes how we see our own businesses. It is the focus on process and constant improvement that helps reveal new skills and boosts resilience. An excessive focus on beating our competition not only gets exhausting over time, it can actually stifle innovation.

The Infinite Game

What might we learn from Pharaoh if we see him as a worthy competitor? One thing is being determined. While there are a few different languages we use in the Torah to talk about Pharaoh’s heart hardening, the most common is Hazak. We see the same language used for Joshua when he is charged with the impossible task of replacing Moshe as the leader. There we read:

Hazak- Be strong and resolute, for you shall apportion to this people the land that I swore to their fathers to assign to them. But you must be very Hazak- strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the Teaching that My servant Moshe enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful. “I charge you: Hazak- Be strong and resolute; do not be terrified or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:5-9

In an interesting way we see their charge to Joshua is to be like the worthy rival of Pharaoh. Today more than ever we surround ourselves with people who share our convictions and vilify those we disagree with. In this divided political climate we need to have the strength to be asking ourselves what we can learn from our worthy rivals.

Letter to Our Son: A Thought on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Each year, Young Judaea Year Course asks parents of participants to write a letter to their child to read before their trip to Poland. He went a few months ago. Today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I am sharing the letter my wife and I wrote to our son.

Dear Yadid

It feels like just yesterday we were holding you in our arms in an apartment in Manhattan. Before any of your siblings were born. And long before you became the man you are becoming. It is hard to believe that you, our bachor –– first born, are off in Israel for your gap year. Where did the time go? Just yesterday, we were telling you bedtime stories about our adventures in Israel, and now you are there on your own coming-of-age pilgrimage in the Promised Land.

Amid this exploration of Jewish life in the Jewish homeland, you are going to Poland to visit a place where many Jews lived, and to the death camps where many Jews died. It can sometimes be overwhelming to come face to face with the experience of evil. We want to give you permission to feel whatever it is that you are feeling, even if your instinct is to not let your guard down because you will likely be playing your usual role of caring for others who are breaking down. You should allow yourself to be in the moment and to process what you are seeing and how it informs your view of yourself, your community, and of humanity.

Mami and I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of six million Jews and five million additional human beings until we held you as a baby. In our hands was infinite potential. It was only when we understood our responsibility to one life in a real way that we could imagine the real cosmic pain of killing 11 million people. Each of those people also had mothers or fathers who held them. And as you consider the magnitude of such a genocide on humanity, remember that this targeted, systematic, and calculated near-annihilation of a specific group, namely, our people, is what makes the Shoah particularly horrific.

In going to Poland, we hope that you come to contemplate a basic human flaw — that we all must contend with the evil in the world and the reality that we are either perpetrating it or not doing nearly enough to stop it. As we learned in Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” We must be witness to the existence of evil to remind ourselves to do everything we can to fight it. 

But still, that is not the whole reason for going. As Jews, we do not go to fetishize death. While our people have been hunted, we are not prey. As Jews, we celebrate life; despite or maybe because of all the horrors we have experienced in life, we know how to laugh and get the most out of life. We go to Poland to remind ourselves what life is worth living for. The long history of antisemitism is as old as the day is long.

Open your heart to the pain of others and open your mind to Jewish practice. Living a Jewish life is a whimsical act in being counter cultural. Open your hands to Jewish life and you will take flight, and nothing will get in your way. Our sending you on a pilgrimage to Poland is not because of our desire to imprison you in the shackles of Judaism’s victimhood, but to help you realize this precious tradition you have inherited. You are the keeper of the faith. The future is in your hands.

Let this unspeakable tragedy and manifestation of gross injustice further fuel your commitment to right the wrongs in this world to be a rodef tzedek — pursuer of justice. From the moment we held you in our hands, we realized the infinite potential you have. You will have many choices to make throughout your life and all will be an expression of who you are as an individual, as an inheritor of a deep legacy and tradition, and as a citizen of the world. We hope that your choices are personally meaningful, universally relevant, and distinctively Jewish.

Aba and Mami

-My wife posted this today in the Times of Israel

Between Toil and Work: Meaning Making in Our Effort

commercial from the Dutch mail-order pharmacy Doc Morris has left the internet in tears by showing the reason behind a grandfather’s drive to get in shape for Christmas with his family. What would inspired this elderly man to take on this bizzare fitness regimen with a rusty old kettlebell? Everyone thought he has gone crazy. Why would he be exercising at his age? And why these exercises? It seemed pointless until the end. It is worth a watch:

Watching this I got thinking about the end of Shmot, last week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites are enslaved to Pharaoh working tireless in his building projects. Moshe shows up to liberate them from their back breaking work. He asks Pharaoh to let them go three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to God, lest God fall upon them with pestilence or the sword. Pharaoh asked them why they caused the people to rest from their work, and commanded that the taskmasters lay heavier work on them and no longer give them straw to make brick but force them to go and gather straw for themselves to make the same quota of bricks. (Exodus 5: 4-11) The people scattered to gather straw, and the taskmasters beat the Israelite officers, asking why they had not fulfilled the quota of brick production as before.

The Israelites cried to Pharaoh, asking why he dealt so harshly with his servants, but he said that they were idle if they had time to ask to go and sacrifice to God. So the officers met Moshe and Aaron as they came from meeting Pharaoh and accused them of making the Israelites to be abhorrent to Pharaoh. There we read, “May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” (Exodus 5:21) Why are they yelling at Moshe? He was there to liberate them?

Now that Moshe has fomented a revolution- Pharaoh removed the resources needed for the slaved to do their work. Without the straw they needed they are left making crappy bricks. Even as slaves they had a job to do work. Even if they were not valued as human beings, they were the builders of great building. The could take pride in the quality of their work. The hatred to Moshe is because they could not longer see any value of their effort. Slavery was awful, but at the least the had value in their work. Without the needed resources their work was now just toil.

But was that the case? We see later as the Israelites were crossing the Red Sea a different image. They were marching through the mud as the Egyptians were coming for them in their chariots. We know that they water consumed the Egyptians, but how did the Israelited know how to walk across the mud?

All of those years building bricks, even if it was not yielding high quality bricks prepared them for this moment. It was not toil, it was training in how to use their legs to walk through mud. Just as this in the Song of the Sea Moshe says, “In Your great triumph You break Your opponents; You send forth Your fury, it consumes them like straw.” ( Exodus 15: 7) The slaves were no longer “loathsome to Pharaoh” due to their lack of straw to do quality work. What was perceived as pointless toil who lost hope in their own value redeemed their years of servitude. It is not just that they were liberated as people, their effort itself was redeemed. Like the grandfather in the commercial, what was seen as useless toil was actually very holy work of using our to time meaningfully. It is quoted in the name of Bobby Darin, “It isn’t true that you live only once. You only die once. You live lots of times if you know how.” May we all find meaning in our work and live every day with pride, purpose, and dignity.

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