Do As I Say: On Role Models And Rainbows

It has happened more than once, I am mortified that one of my children is acting out and screaming and I want to communicate to them that this behavior is unacceptable. But instead of calmly telling them, I find myself losing my poop and screaming. Realizing the disconnect is simultaneously humbling and humorous. We all have these experiences as parents. Our intentions are good, but they just do not line up with our behaviors. “Do as I say, not what I do” never works. Our children learn from our example.

I was thinking about the idea of role modeling this week when reading Noah, this week’s Torah portion. After the flood Noah finally comes out of the ark and God gives him some directions. There we read:

But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man! Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed; For in His image Did God make man. (Genesis 9:5-6)

God tells Noah that the penalty for murder is the death penalty. Overlooking the fact that the Torah does not spell out that killing is a prohibited until Exodus, what are the implications of the court’s of the state doing the reckoning? Like a parent trying to quiet a child by screaming, how can the state stop someone from killing with the death penalty? Is this effective?

I was thinking about this idea of capital punishment 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 capital punishment around identity.

Once Stevenson was giving a lecture in Germany about the death penalty. About this 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?

Is the law given to Noah punitive or an act of love? It is unconscionable for the state to kill someone for killing. It just does not work.

This is even more complicated by the fact that God instructs Noah about the death penalty after God just destroyed the world. God just committed mass genocide and God is tell us not to kill. Are we supposed to learn from God’s instruction or God’s behavior?

It is easy to dismiss this on theological terms because God is exceptional as , well, God. That said, there is still a question of its efficacy. Despite knowing the consequence of murder human beings killing each other has been a leitmotif of our history. How might we change this behavior and end murder?

One way to think about it might be in terms of the humbled parent. Is it possible that in saying this law to Noah God has a similar realization which is humbling? Right after communicating these rules God says:

I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you—birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well—all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. ( Genesis 9:9- 11)

God goes on to establish the rainbow as a symbol of God’s promise that God will not destroy us again. There we read:

When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth. (Genesis 9: 16)

As much as we might take the rainbow as a sign for us, it seems more like a reminder for God. The rainbow actually serves as a mnemonic for God to remember to be a better role model. From this we learn that we can all strive to do better and live as examples.

-See another piece on Stevenson

Donald the Great: The Truth About MAGA

This past Sunday I had to take one of our children to urgent care down town to get a PCR Covid-19 test for school. As we were walking out there was a large motorcade of Trump supporters driving, screaming, and honking through White Plains. They were all wearing their red hats and their cars were covered with pro-Trump signs. Those hats did not say “Make America Great Again” anymore, but “Keep America Great”. Their loud and abrasive actions rattled my kid. This show of support for Trump only gave the people on the street a reason to express their disinterest in a second Trump term. Their parade seemed like less of an effort to support this campaign and more of ugly display of (hopefully fleeting) power. This got me thinking about their fetishization of “greatness”. What is so great about Donald Trump?

In exploring this “greatness” I found interesting parallels between Donald Trump and Herod the Great. Herod was an Edomite born in Judaea with connections to the Jewish community. He ascended to become a Roman client king of Judea. The history of his legacy has polarized opinion, as he is known for his colossal building projects throughout Judea, including his renovation of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the expansion of the Temple Mount towards its north, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima, the fortress at Masada, and Herodium. And on the other side Herod was responsible for the death of many people. Thousands of subjects who died in his brutal campaign to claim a country they believed he had no right to rule. He had many rabbis and their students executed for tearing down the Roman eagle that was desecrating the Temple gate. He also had 45 members of the Sanhedrin murdered. Herod appears in the Christian Gospel of Matthew as the ruler of Judea who orders the Massacre of the Innocents at the time of the birth of Jesus. Herod had many wives and many children. Herod had hundreds of family and staff whom he had suspected of plotting against him killed.

And ultimately Herod lay dying in his opulent palace. He had been seriously ill for a long time. From the description in Josephus’ writings, Herod had gangrene, severe itching, convulsions, and ulcers. His feet were covered with tumors, and he had constant fevers. The stadium was filled with loved ones and important people from around his land who were to be killed at the moment of his death. So so sad.

Report: No One Wants to Live in Trump's Decrepit, Tainted Tower | Vanity  Fair

Like Herod, Trump has his name on a huge number of colossal buildings. He also has many wives and many children. He also appears to plays a bit role in some Christians’ theology. I am still not sure why it is positive.

Like Herod, Trump’s administration is packed with an endless supply of palace intrigue. Trump lives in fear that his allies will turn against him to remove him from power. How many has he fired?

Due to his horrible administration, neglect, and misinformation Trump is responsible for over 220,000 innocent people dying from Covid-19. It is clear that having a family connection to Jews does not mean you cannot be responsible for horrible acts of anti-Semitism. The violence due to racial tension seems to make more sense in the time of Herod than our own. There are not good people on both sides of this one.

Like Herod’s killing of the Sanhedrin, Trump is poised to destroy the high court of the land. He will do what ever he has to to stay in power. In the end Trump is less the president of the American people than a client king of Russia.

I still do not know how this story will end, but Trump’s administration sure seems malignant, gangrenous, and scary. So so sad. And what ever it will be, it’s surely not so “great”.

Redeeming Idle Hands: Luthiery and Tuval-Cain

After the pomp and circumstance of the creation story and Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden we have the devastating story of fratricide. After this the Torah records the generations to follow. This record seems like little more than a pause before the generation of Noah. One could only imagine the shame carried by the decedents of Cain. There we read:

Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other was Zillah. Adah bore Yaval; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds. And the name of his brother was Yuval; he was the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe. As for Zillah, she bore Tuval-cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of Tuval-cain was Naamah. (Genesis 4:19-22)

One could only imagine the burden of knowing that Cain your ancestor did. But for Tuval-cain, how might it impact you to have his name as part of your own? And what is the connection between his name and his profession?

There is an interesting midrash that deals with these questions. We learn:

“Tuval-Cain”: R. Yehoshua of Sakhnin said in the name of R. Levi, “This one sweetened (literally, tuval means spiced) Cain’s sin – Cain would kill, but he did not have with what to kill; but this one ‘forged every cutting instrument of copper and iron.'” (Bereishit Rabbah 23:3)

This midrash assumes that the instruments in question are the tools of war. Is it not also possible that these instruments are related to his half brother Yuval’s “lyre and the pipe”?

I was thinking about this recently when watching this puff piece on CNN. In the story Luthiery, the art of creating stringed instruments, is changing lives in Hindman, Kentucky. It started with a master luthier and a man set on overcoming addictions. It is worth it to watch this segment.

Appalachian School of Luthiery

This is the story shows how creating instruments helped save someone’s life from addiction and depression. It was not hard imaging how craftmanship might have similarly saved Tuval-cain. As the expression goes, “Idle hands do the work of the devil.” It follows that using your hands constructively can be redemptive.

Finding a Voice: Zot HaBracha and Copying the Greats

This week we finished the liturgical reading of the Torah with Zot HaBracha. In this portion we read the last mitzvah recorded in the Torah. There we read:

Now therefore write yourself this song, and teach it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:19)

According to Sefer HaChinuch this 613th commandment is an obligation of writing a Sefer Torah. This got me thinking about my own desire to do more writing. What are the implications that we are all commanded to write a copy of the Torah?

In thinking about this question I got to thinking about a famous line by Woody Allen who said:

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.

Yes I would like to live on in my writing and in my children AND I would also like to live longer. But why the commandment to write a copy of the Torah?

Every time I go to an art museum I see aspiring artists. While walk around to look at the art, she is there to copy the greats.

Adult Art Classes at Tribeca's New York Academy of Art | Tribeca Trib Online

In the process she discovers her own style, aesthetic, and voice. Before she can express her own voice she needs to master the greats.

So here we find ourselves soon after saying, ” who will live and who will die” in the liturgy. Just like the aspiring artist who copies the greats, we are instructed to copy the Good Book. In the process we discover our own voices

Looking Backward, Looking Forward: A Year of Torah 20/20

Interview with Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson is Director of Rabbinic Training at T’ruah and the editor of Torah 20/20.

Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson: Avi, Torah 20/20 was originally your idea, and you wrote the kickoff edition for Simchat Torah last year. After a full Torah cycle of these divrei Torah, what sticks with you most?

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow: I’ll never forget Joy Ladin’s d’var Torah about how crucial it is to be able to lose gracefully. As we hear the president say explicitly and repeatedly that he may not accept the election results, the peaceful transition of power feels more and more an essential part of our democracy.

LMN: What was the biggest surprise for you over this project?

AKO: While our study was of the five books of Moses, the issues we have dealt with brought to mind for me the prophets rebuking the people’s disregard for each other. It’s possible we should have focused more on the Haftarot; maybe a worthy project for 5781.

LMN: As you prepare for Simchat Torah this year, what’s on your mind?

AKO: In some ways having an aliyah to the Torah on Simchat Torah reminds me of voting. Every adult member of the community stands up and is counted, putting our values at the center of the lives we lead. Finding my place in the text, I kiss it with my tallit and say the blessing. The act of voting can likewise be seen as an intimate personal expression of blessing a candidate for leadership.

LMN: What are you going to miss most about normal Simchat Torah celebrations this year, given the COVID-19 restrictions?

AKO: I will miss the Kol HaNe’arim aliyah. All the children (under bar/bat mitzvah age) would be called up as a group to the Torah to get a collective aliyah. We adults would have already gotten our chance; now a large, sometimes enormous, tallit would be spread over the heads of the children huddled together as the blessing of the Torah would be pronounced. In this the children are very much reminded that they are being protected as children, but at the same time practicing an activity that will mark their joining the adult community.

So too with voting: We model civic activism to our children. We need to find ways to include those who cannot yet vote in the process so their voices are heard.

In a deeper way Kol HaNe’arim evokes a profound midrash discussing the merit of our receiving the Torah. Just as when you take a loan you need a guarantor, here too in this fantastic narrative God wants to know who will underwrite our commitment to keep the Torah. After God rejects our forefathers and prophets as guarantors, the people say:

‘Our children shall be our guarantors.’ To which God replied: ‘Verily these are good guarantors; for their sake I will give it to you.’ Hence it is written: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings have You founded strength (Psalms 8:3). ’Strength’ refers to the Torah, as it says, “The ETERNAL will give strength unto God’s people (Psalms 29:11). (Midrash Rabbah Song of Songs 1:23)

This midrash paints a picture in which, in the deep past, the merit for which we deserved the Torah was dependent on the future: our children. In much the same way, this election in a few weeks is about our children and the world we will bequeath to them. They are depending on us. Will we risk defaulting on our responsibility to give them a better world?

LMN: Amen! I’m thinking about how this holiday, and this d’var Torah, are like a siyyum, the ritual celebration when we finish studying a Jewish book. In the siyyum, we say formulaically to the book we have just finished: “We will not forget you and you will not forget us.” I hope we won’t forget the Torah we’ve learned through Torah 20/20, but what does it mean for the Torah of democracy not to forget us?

AKO: Democracy and good Torah learning are all about struggle. Rabbi Hama b. Hanina said it well: “Just as a knife can be sharpened only on the side of another, so a disciple of a sage improves only through their partner” (Talmud Ta’anit 7a). It is in this struggle that we can make a more perfect union.

LMN: I like that, though the image of knives makes me nervous, given the fears about violence after Election Day. I might prefer a slightly less violent metaphor found further down the same page of Talmud: “Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Why are Torah matters likened to a tree, as it is stated: “It is a tree of life to them who lay hold upon it” (Proverbs 3:18)? To tell you that just as a small piece of wood can ignite a large piece, so too, minor Torah scholars can sharpen great ones.” This is a big country, but each small one of us can contribute to feeding the fire of democracy so it does not go out.

AKO: Our friends on the West Coast might not appreciate that metaphor right now.

LMN: Fair point. Many of the metaphors for Torah — knives, fire, water — can be dangerous if they get out of control. Which may be true of democracy also: We’re seeing that without close tending, it too can become a dangerous force.

Any final thoughts?

AKO: As we saw in that midrash about guarantors, learning Torah holds real issues between many millennia of generations. The “strength” of the Torah is in its capacity to connect our past and future by being open to the present. For the sake of the children we need to make sure that we guarantee them a brighter future. We need to “turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 3:24), or else our democracy will be destroyed. Just as we have the Torah in the merit of the children, the children will have a state in merit of their elders.

-The kick off piece for Torah 20/20 that I wrote last year Torah 20/20: Looking with Fresh Eyes

Planning for Success: Project Management and Simchat Torah

Doing what you said you would do, as you said you would do it, when you said you would do it. Period. That is accountability. Many of us expect it in others, but are more understanding when we ourselves fall short. We judge others by their actions while we deem our intentions to be admissible. Though we strive to live up to higher standards, on the path to accountability we are often disappointed. So what can we do to make sure that accountability is attainable and not just aspirational?

Why is it so hard for people to “just” do what they said they would do? Make the call, turn in the work on time, pay back the money they owe, do their part of the project, RSVP, write back, and the list goes on. Why do we fall short? We fail because we do not have effective systems in place. People do not fail, systems fail.

One major area of accountability that lacks effective systems is project management. The first rule of project management is to recognize when we are working on a project and not a task. A task is a single activity done by an individual that can be accomplished in one sitting. A project is a series of tasks that might involve other people. When we treat a project as if it were a task, we either decide we don’t have time to work on it, we skip it, or we work on it every day without having any sense of progress. 

Often our to-do lists are so full that they feel inoperable, and wind up being a list of aspirations that we will never actually accomplish. This can be exhausting and often leads to procrastination, cramming, and missed deadlines. When we recognize we have a project and break it down into constituent elements to be spread out over time, we create opportunities to accomplish a part of the project (a task or tasks) and that completion, however small, creates the energy we need to get us closer to our goal. 

Most of what we want to get done is a project: creating the budget, submitting the grant proposal, writing the program, planning the fundraiser, hosting the dinner party, updating the website, searching for a new job, submitting your expense report, sending the birthday card or gift, planning the simcha, packing for vacation, applying to college, reading the book, writing this article, and the list goes on. Some projects are big, some are small, however, an accomplished life is filled with completed projects. When we misdiagnose the work in front of us as a task rather than a project, we overlook the preexisting condition. It is true that time is scarce and we have too much to do, and still, taking the time to plan things out is not a luxury. Our failing to plan is actually our planning to fail. 

As we move through this season of high holidays surrounded by themes of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness, let us remember that people do not fail, systems fail. When someone around us falls short, let’s ask ourselves, “What system was missing that would help that person succeed?” 

And here is the thing. It is not in Heaven or across the sea. A system of achievement is well within our reach. Jewish wisdom can offer us the path to accountability regardless of whether we believe this wisdom is Divine in origin. Judaism is actually constructed as a system of accountability that can guide us to greater efficiency and productivity. Ultimately these practises can help us bridge the gap between our intentions and actions. We can be trustworthy and accountable to our loved ones, our colleagues, and the larger community. We can accomplish great things.

As we approach Simchat Torah, we would like to offer that the system in place for the annual completion of  the Torah reading cycle is a model of successful project management (from inception, to as promised, on-time completion) that Judaism can offer the world. The yearly Torah reading cycle is a project that has a clear deadline – Simchat Torah. First, agreeing on a clear deadline is one of the crucial steps of successful project management. Each year we have to accomplish the Torah reading cycle,  and we have to figure out how to get it done.

Being accountable to the yearly Torah reading cycle means that procrastination won’t work. We can’t cram a year’s worth of work in, right before the deadline (see Mitzvah of Hakhel – Deuteronomy 31:10-13 here). Starting the cycle after Simchat Torah and hoping it all turns out doesn’t work either. The system for getting through all 54 Torah portions, when we don’t have 54 weeks to read them, means that we need to reverse-engineer the project. This is exactly the way we need to approach any project. We need to start at the end, and work our way back from the deadline so that we are sure we have our timing right. When we approach our projects this way, we can predict some of the obstacles. Where do we miss a Shabbat because there is a holiday? Where do we get an extra month because of a leap year? Where should we double up and work a bit more on the project? The tradition teaches us that in order to begin with enough time and without feeling overwhelmed, we need to know where and when we want to end up, before we start. 

The skill of project management is one that can benefit us in every area of life. It is a system that helps us succeed. From the Jewish project of reading the Torah yearly we learn and can take away these lessons:

  • Projects are just a series of tasks. We don’t do a project, we do tasks, and we only finish that project when we complete its last constituent task.
  • Projects need clear deadlines and a clear vision.   
  • The first step of a project is to make a list of all the tasks necessary to complete the project.
  • Organize all of our steps in chronological order, then work backwards to determine when the final step needs to be done, then the penultimate step, the ante-penultimate step, and so on until we reach our first step, and when we need to start.
  • Review our list searching for potential obstacles and think about possible solutions.  
  • Take the time to celebrate accomplishments.

Right when we finish Deuteronomy for last year we start the project for next year with reading Genesis, “In the beginning.” There we read about the world coming into existence. The creation narrative is the largest project one could imagine – and it starts off by sharing God’s detailed project plan. God could have done it all in one moment. Instead God took six days to do the myriad tasks of making the world in time for Shabbat. It seems that God took the time to make a plan. We are in good company in needing a project plan to accomplish great things. 

From strength to strength, may our 5781 be filled with many meaningful accomplishments.

-from eJewish Philanthropy. Written with Diana Bloom is a consultant, and trainer who is passionate about supporting individuals and organizations to bridge the gap between their intentions and actions. Her humorous, engaging, and straightforward style, along with realistic, actionable tools help others achieve greater accountability in their professional and personal lives. 

-see first article with Diana @ The Curtain of Accountability

Cloud Based Connection

The start of Sukkot marks seven months of Covid- 19 lock down. This gives me pause to think about where we are in history at this moment. For most of us who are not working on the front line of Covid- 19 we are out of harms way at home, but we are still not out of the woods. In some ways I see that we are reliving the time of sukkot in the Torah.  About this time we read:

You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

We are reliving our time in the wilderness having left Egypt but not made it yet to the Promised Land. We are in the space between averting risk and still not being totally free.

The porous structure of the sukkah speaks to our vulnerable state of being during this period of time between unknown and known. The sukkah is both a time and the location for sheltering in place. But what was the original structure of the sukkot? About this we learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b)

Both rabbis assumed that this holiday was to be a time to connect with God, but were the sukkot divine and virtual according to Rabbi Eliezer or real sukkot according to Rabbi Akiva? Both Rabbis celebrated sukkot in real sukkot, so what was the difference?

Our Covid-19 social distancing reality has made us aware that we actually want to connect.   When this started I doubted it possible to connect in a deep way virtually through a computer screen. Being forced to engage with each other through the internet seemed forced and inauthentic. After having to move many in-person conferences online and had more zoom meetings than I can count I can say it works. It might not be what we wanted but it is much more then we expected.

Blue Internet Cloud Icon , Transparent Cartoon, Free Cliparts & Silhouettes  - NetClipart

In this timely and timeless moment of Sukkot we are all vulnerable and open.  The virtual can itself be real if we are open to making the connection. As we shelter in place we realize that we are in a time of sukkot  in which Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva are actually agreeing. The cloud based connection can be a safe alternative to make real connections.

-revisited from Sheltering in Place: COVID-19 as a Time of Sukkot

Basking in the Shade: Some Thoughts on Sefer Yonah, Sukkot, and the Nature of Teshuva

From the start, Yonah evades God’s command to prophesize in Nineveh. When he finally does his job, Yonah seems disappointed by his success. The people do the work of repenting, but where is Yonah? We read:

Now Yonah had left the city and found a place east of the city. He made a sukkah there and sat under it in the shade, until he should see what happened to the city. (Yonah 4:5 )

Yonah thinks or hopes that they will fail and he will experience schadenfreude. Yonah is incredulous that repentance could work.

Celebrating Sukkot: Feast of Tabernacles | Cedars-Sinai

Like Yonah, in a few days we too will find ourselves sitting in a sukkah. We might also conclude that people cannot change. Then, in Kohelet, we will read, “There is nothing new under the sun!” (Kohelet 1:9). After spending all day thinking about our sins, what makes us think that we could be anything other than sinners? 

We learn, “A disorderly sukkah which casts more shade than sunlight is kosher” (Mishnah Sukkah 2:2).  Our lives are messy and it is still true that nothing might change under the sun, but if we can bask in the shade of the sukkah, we might imagine a new reality. 

Albert Einstein said, “ Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” We cannot evade the will of God. We cannot hide in the bottom of a boat or in the gullet of a whale. But under the shade of a Sukkah, we are invited to think past the harsh logic of sin and punishment. We need to find refuge from the relentless sun. We need to open ourselves to the possibility of change. Because imagination is the prerequisite for redemption, and it will take us everywhere.

-From the YCT, IRF, Maharat Machzor Companion – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 5781/2020

The Curtain of Accountability

Yom Kippur is an opportunity for us to reflect on our past and to prepare to do better this coming year. It is an opportunity many of us are yearning for, to restart with design and purpose on our life’s journey. Confronting the myriad issues facing us in 2020, it feels that this is going to be an important Yom Kippur.

In preparation for this day, we recall an important story about four figures who embarked on their own journey into a strange land, trying to ameliorate their perceived inadequacies. It turns out each of them already had everything they were seeking before entering this enchanted world, yet they needed to go on an important journey together, in order to remember. Most would immediately recognize this plot line from the Wizard of Oz. The tin man was always the most empathetic, the lion was full of courage, the scarecrow was brimming with wisdom, and all Dorothy had to do to return to Kansas was click her heels together. (This is also the story of the four who entered Pardes, but that is another article)

As we look out on the current state of affairs, we see a world that desperately needs accountability at every level: personally, professionally, locally, nationally, and globally. Not an accountability as punishment or consequence, as we might see in the prayers or the media. Rather, we seek accountability as a construct and means for personal improvement. Accountability is an intentional process to do what we said we would do, as we said we would do it, when we said we would do it. Now is a chance to look inwards to explore our own personal and individual avenues towards accountability.

When the Temple stood, the apex of the Yom Kippur service was when the High Priest pulled back the curtain in front of the Ark of the Covenant to enter alone into the Holy of Holies to offer a communal atonement sacrifice. Today, we too can pull back the curtain of our most vulnerable internal lives, and remember, or discover, that our tradition is all about accountability and an invitation to do teshuva – return home. As Dorothy said, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!”

The path has been there for us the entire time in the practices and techniques of the wisdom of our tradition. Yom Kippur is not about punishment, but about a chance to reconnect and achieve self-actualization. As we prepare for Yom Kippur, we are inspired by the idea that we can all find our brains, hearts, courage, or even our way home.

And as we set out on this path, we think about who joins us on this journey. Together with our accountability partners we can support each other along the way. Together we can help each other find our strengths, and confront what we are avoiding. None of us needs to settle for thinking about our deficiencies or what we wish we could or would do differently, alone. Along with our fellow travelers we can commit and follow through on moving beyond intentions to actions. How do we show up for our family members, friends, and colleagues as true companions on life’s journey?

The yellow brick road is long and it leads in the right direction. But a well-planned path is not enough. To get to where we want to go, we might think about setting aside time each day to plan for tomorrow, creating time in our calendar to do the things that are due. The step-by-step consistency of doing the work will help us get closer to the Emerald City. Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

In 5781 let’s do what we said we would do, as we said we would do it, when we said we would do it. The road to greater accountability is not always easy. Along the way we will all fall short. The question is not if we fail but how we get back on track. On Yom Kippur, we are invited to be proactive and seek accountability for ourselves, our communities, and the world. When we pull the curtain back we are not disappointed to find that the wizard is a mere mortal, rather, we are inspired when we discover accountability is no further than our own backyard.

-from eJewish Philanthropy. Written with Diana Bloom a consultant, and trainer who is passionate about supporting individuals and organizations to bridge the gap between their intentions and actions. Her humorous, engaging, and straightforward style, along with realistic, actionable tools help others achieve greater accountability in their professional and personal lives. 

 

The Sword of Damocles: Rosh HaShana and Parenting Today

In my preparation for Rosh HaShana I have been reflecting on the two primary narratives we read in the Torah reading for the first and second say of this holiday. The first day we read the story of Hagar and Yishmael going into exile in the desert. The second day we read the binding of Yitzhak. There is deep connection between these two stories of parents dealing with the near death experience of their children. While acting under divine command, interestingly both where caused by Avraham. He sent Hagar and Yishmael out of his house and he brought Yitzhak to Har Moriah to be sacrificed. The differences between these stories is also very interesting. While there is nothing natural about sacrificing you child, Hagar’s experience is natural and common to all parents. Her story reveals the risk that is always there. While we might not think about it all of the time, as parents we spend a lot of energy worrying about the threats our children face on a daily bases. What does it mean to be conscious of the peril our child are in all the time? And what does this awareness have to do with Rosh HaShana?

This reminds me of the story of  the sword of Damocles. According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat on the king’s throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Though having much fortune, Dionysius wanted to make sure that he would be steadfast and vigilant against dangers that might try to overtake him. With risk looming overhead the food lost its taste. Damocles begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

Damocles - Wikipedia

The threat might always be there dangling above our heads, but we just do not see it. It is always ever present, but we need a King Dionysius to point it out to us.

In many ways the sounds of the Shofar serves the same function as Dionysius. In one opinion this sound evokes the wailing of  Sisera’s mother (Rosh HaShanah 33b). As we learn in the book of Judges, Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. After the prophetess Deborah persuaded Barak to face Sisera in battle, they, with an Israelite force of ten thousand, defeated him at the Battle of Mount Tabor. After losing the battle, Sisera fled to a settlement where he was received by Yael. She brought him into her tent with apparent hospitality and gave him milk. Yael promised to hide Sisera and covered him with a rug; but after he fell asleep, she drove a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet, her blow being so forceful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. After this we read:

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, Behind the lattice she whined: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”  (Judge 5:28)

This depiction of Sisera’s mother at the window watching her son die gives us a deeper appreciation for the dread of Hagar. This is what it means to parent. While we do not always think about it, the threat to our children is real, severe, and always ever present.

Reflecting on the myriad issues facing us in 5780, it might seem desirable to return to the world before the concerns and anxieties of this past year entered our consciousness. This might not seem possible, or even desirable. Rosh HaShana is trying to make us aware that we (or worse our children) live under the sword of Damocles. So where do we go from here? How do we move forward?

On Rosh HaShana we say- HaYom HaRa’at Olam– today is the day the world was conceived. In this way God models for us what it means to parent. God is conscious of the threats that we God’s children live all around us. And despite the horrible dangers, Rosh HaShana is a celebration. The sound of the shofar, the cry of Sisera’s mother, the fear of Hagar are all reminders of how vulnerable we all are. It is holiday of profound multi-directional empathy. It should inspire us all to be extra vigilant. Not just for ourselves or our children, we also need to look out for those marginalized by society who are in more obvious peril.

After becoming aware of the sword overhead Damocles loses his taste for the king’s food. To recover from this last year and move forward in 5781 we really need the apples in honey. We cannot pretend that the threads are not real and scary. We just need to remind ourselves that despite the treat of harm, life is worth living because the world is sweet.


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