On Originalism: Mourning Rabbi Halivni z”l

This last week has been a real doozy when it comes to the Supreme Court. Between the landmark decisions in expanding gun rights, eliminating the protection of abortion rights, seeming delusion of the division between church and state, limiting the role of the EPA, and now states’ roles in Federal election reform, I am dizzy. It is challenging to keep up with it all. It feels that the world is changing too fast and not for the better. It is unlikely that we have seen the end of this socially right leaning super majority on the court. What is driving all of these changes? It seems to be part of their conservative political/social agenda, but their claim it is part of their legal philosophy of Originalism. I am not sure they have much credibility, but what does that even mean?

Originalism is a type of judicial interpretation of a constitution (especially the US Constitution) that aims to follow how it would have been understood or was intended to be understood at the time it was written. It is founded on the belief that a text should be interpreted in a way consistent with how it would have been understood or was intended to be understood at the time it was written. They assert that all statements in the Constitution must be interpreted based on the original understanding “at the time it was adopted”. This concept views the Constitution as stable from the time of enactment and that the meaning of its contents can be changed only by the steps set out in Article Five. This notion stands in contrast to the concept of the Living Constitution, which asserts that the Constitution should be interpreted based on the context of current times and political identities, even if such interpretation is different from the original interpretations of the document.

This concern of their judicial interpretation came into focus a couple of days ago with the news of the passing of Rabbi David Weiss Halivni z’l. Born in 1927, Halivni was raised in Sighet, Romania, by his mother and his maternal grandfather, Isaiah Weiss, a prominent rabbinic scholar. Recognized as a talmudic prodigy (ilui), Halivni was ordained before reaching the age of 17. When they were occupied by the Germans, the family was confined to the ghetto of Sighet, and then deported to Auschwitz, Halivni being transferred to forced labor in Silesia. The sole survivor of his family, Halivni was liberated from the concentration camp of Ebensee, in Upper Austria, in May 1945, and came to the U.S. in 1947. Through the coincidence of a relative of Saul Lieberman being employed in the Bronx orphanage where Halivni was, he soon met that scholar, and so was taken under the wing of the leading academician in the field of rabbinic literature. Following undergraduate studies at Brooklyn College, in tandem with residence in the Yeshivat Rav Chaim Berlin, and graduate study at New York University, Halivni pursued a doctorate of Hebrew letters under Lieberman at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he joined the faculty as professor of Talmud and Rabbinics.

Through his magnum opus Mekorot u-Mesorot -Sources and Traditions, Halivni developed a source-critical approach to the Talmud, aiming to uncover earlier, variant readings and textual substrates altered in transmission. This methodology and aspects of Halivni’s personality, provided a basis for characters and for a paradigm of critical talmudic study dramatized in the first two novels of Chaim Potok . In the mid-1980s, Halivni left the Seminary for a professorship at Columbia University and also participated in the founding of the Institute of Traditional Judaism. He also became the Mara D’Atra at KOE, a prayer community on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I had the fortune to learn from him while at Columbia, pray with him at KOE, and later while studying to be a Rabbi at YCT to be the intern at Ramath Orah where he was a congregant.

Many people, who were much closer to him and his work, have written some amazing tributes to him. I am sure that much more will be said about this luminary, but for now I wanted to focus on the subject of his undergraduate course. It was based on his book, Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis (1991)

From the days of Plato, the problem of the efficacy and adequacy of the written word as a vehicle of communication has challenged us, yet the mystery of how best to achieve clarity and exactitude of written expression has never been solved. The most repercussive instance of this universal problem has been the exegesis of the law embodied in Hebrew scripture. Peshat & Derash is the first book to trace the Jewish interpretative enterprise from a historical perspective. Applying his vast knowledge of Rabbinic materials to the long history of Jewish exegesis of both Bible and Talmud, Halivni investigated the tension that has often existed between the plain sense of the divine text (peshat) and its creative, Rabbinic interpretations (derash).

The first level is peshat, taking the text at face value, in context . This doesn’t quite mean “literal”, because we of course take into account idioms, metaphors, personification, etc. The peshat is the message that the originalauthor intended to get across to the original audience. This is compared to derash, the way the rabbis of the Mishnah, Midrash and Talmuds – interpreted the text.  In derash we ask why the text is phrased the way that it is. Rabbinical literary techniques plumb the depths of the text to find new meaning, or may bring out lessons that may not have been intended by the original authors. It gets interesting in the discussions by the Rabbis which reveal that, in some cases, they felt that derash was discovering the original meaning of the text, while in other discussions they clearly understood derash as filling-in-the-blanks – creating new meaning. For example Rashi, the famous commentator, often accepted much derash as literally and historically true, aka peshat. But commentators like Rashbam, Abraham Ibn Ezra disagreed with Rashi.

All of this is to say that it is clear that one cannot understand Torah properly and adequately if one lacks the requisite tools to decode, read, and interpret the text. Halivni’s efforts were to provide those tools. Halivni also addressed the theological implications of the deviation of derash from peshat and explores the differences between the ideological extremes. The religious right denies that Judaism has a history. The religious left claims that history is all that Judaism has.

Halivni’s comprehensive and critical narration of the history and repercussions of Rabbinic exegesis is of interest to students of scriptural traditions, hermeneutics, and legal texts. Of all week’s the absence of his nuanced and deeply grounded approach to legal text is palpable. Halivni had a profound and important response to Originalism.

Much ink has been spilled in the attempt to define the peshat and derash of the Constitution. It could happen that in a given debate, everyone could agree that one of the proposed interpretations is a peshat one, while the other interpretation is a derash one, and yet disagree with one another as to which one is which! In fact, a well-known aphorism contends that “My interpretation represents the peshat, while yours represents derash.” One can clearly be an Originalist and maintain an orthodoxy to the nature of the law without having to conform the institutional chauvinism, bigotry, racism, or homophobia that was the original meaning of the Constitution.

My fear with SCOTUS is that they do not listen to the words of Rabbi Tzaddok. He taught:

Do not act as a counselor-at-law (when serving as a judge). Do not make the Torah a crown to magnify yourself with, or a spade with which to dig.

Avot 4:5

The judges have become tools of the political profess as compared to scholars who use tools, like those Rabbi Halivni z”l tried to teach, to make sense of the law and justice in the land.

Maybe Rav David Weiss Halivini’s memory be for a blessing.

A Shabbat Thought For Camp Post Roe v Wade

Note to Camp Director: I offer you this message which you might adopt/adapt/share with you staff this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom. Welcome back to camp. I pause at this moment of our coming together in this place we love with the people we love at a time we love to give space to what some of us might be feeling at this moment. 

For so many of us, camp is special because when we come here we get to explore our best selves. Here we try on new elements of who each of us might be or are becoming. Camp is not just a location, time of the year, or even a group of people. Camp is an educational philosophy. Camp is a way of thinking about how we might self actualize and, in the process, help our campers do the same. Camp is a home away from home. Camp is a bubble away from all of that stuff out there. For many of us camp is the Shabbat of our year. 

I pause at this moment to recognize that many of us feel at risk. We find ourselves amidst the storm of COVID, political upheaval in Israel, rising racism and anti-Semitism, gun violence, war in Ukraine, and shifting of who makes laws about our bodies at home. Today, June 24th, the US Supreme Court overruled the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case. To many of us this ruling seems like a trespass of people’s personal and religious rights to have agency over their own bodies. This may feel scary. While this may or might not directly impact you or people you love, this ruling represents a challenge to our sacred Jewish obligation to prioritize the life and health of the pregnant person. What could our camp’s role be in supporting our community members who may feel existentially threatened? What role does our community play in helping people regain personal agency and their capacity to self-actualize?

I find some comfort in the words from the chorus to Yom Shabbaton – The Sabbath Day, a song traditionally sung on Shabbat. Written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075–1141), this poem describes the complete rest and peace of Shabbat. As we sing:

Yonah matz’ah vo manoach v’sham yanuchu y’giei choach.

The dove does find her rest, and there rest those whose strength is spent.

The dove that rested on the Shabbat day is instantly identifiable as Noah’s dove. Sent from the ark to check if the flood had receded, the tired dove found rest on the dry land (Genesis 8:12). Hidden amidst the chaos of a world that is destructive and painful, Shabbat is a small island poking out from the vast and threatening sea. While the world stands shattered and torn, this small perch for the dove is the first glimmer of hope for all of us. 

But it is hard to have hope, when we are feeling grief and loss. One quote that speaks to this feeling comes from Martin Prechtel’s The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise. He writes:

Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.

Before we run ahead to meet the demands of the day — and we will —  let’s reflect on this praise for what we may miss. We might miss ideas and ideals of our country’s “more perfect union”. We might be missing the feeling of autonomy and agency. We also might be missing the feeling we have of self-actualization. For many of us this is something that we discovered here at camp. In this moment of grief I want to take a moment to praise, honor, and love our camp community as a home.

In seeing how many people feel unsafe right now, I find hope right here right now with you. In our coming together to make Shabbat at our camp we can find respite from the storm out there. Together we need to make camp for ourselves, each other, and our campers. From that perch, our community will start to rebuild our broken world. In this way, Shabbat will provide us Shalom– peace. Welcome back home. Shabbat Shalom.

Note to Camp Director: Thank you for everything that you do for our community. If we can be helpful  in anyway do not hesitate to be in touch avi@jewishcamp.org Also please share any resources that you might have so we can share it with the field. We are curating content for camps here.

If you or your staff need immediate mental health supports beyond your community’s capacity, for any reason, here are some resources to share:

  • Text “HOME” to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line
  • Text “START” to 678-678 for The Trevor Project LGBTQ support center
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free, confidential 24/7 support

Blessing of Emunah: Reflections of Faith, Fidelity, & Trust for Emunah’s Bat Mitzvah

Over the years people have asked me what we named our eldest daughter. After they hear the name, Emunah, they usually ask me what that means. I know the simple answer would be ‘faith’, but that does not exactly speak to our intention. While I am a Rabbi, faith has not been something that comes easily to me and not a name that I not necessarily wish upon our daughter. I found this quote by Martin Buber in his book Two Types of Faith that seems to get a little closer. Buber writes:

This ‘existential’ characteristic of Emunah is not sufficiently expressed in the translation ‘faith’, although the verb often does mean to believe לְהַאֲמִין (to believe someone, to believe a thing). It must further be noticed that the conception includes the two aspects of a reciprocity of permanence: the active, ‘fidelity’, and the receptive, ’trust’. If we wish to do justice to the intention of the spirit of the language which is so expressed, then we ought not to understand ’trust’ merely in a psychical [soulful] sense, as we do not with ’fidelity’. The soul is as fundamentally concerned in the one as in the other, but is decisive for both that the disposition of the soul should become an attitude of life. Both, fidelity and trust, exist in the actual realm of relationship between two persons. Only in the full actuality of such a relationship can one be both loyal and trusting.

(Two Types of Faith 28-29)

In this way, Emunah is less theological, philosophical, or axiomatic and more relational. 

Seeing that my name is Avram, I always yearned for that “Hey” of God to complete me. Belief might not come naturally,  but I feel that Buber’s ‘relational faith’ is one that I can strive for and work on. In so many ways, you,  Emunah, are my “Hey”. Thank you Emunah. Thank you for the person you are, the person you are becoming, and the person you make me want to be. 

In our founding Emunah narrative, God took Avram outside in the dessert and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them”, “So shall your offspring be.” By design this is an impossible task. No one could count all of those starts. But Avram did it anyway:

וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן And he put his trust in God,who reckoned it to his merit.

(Genesis 15:5-6)

Emunah- While we still hope that you continue to develop a deep relationship with God, we are more interested in your deeds than your creed. 

In the spirit of Buber, your Mami and I strive to model for you healthy and open relationships with each other, our family, our community, and the world. We love you and bless you with all of these deep relationships in your life. You are emerging as someone who is thoughtful, caring, and “both loyal and trusting”. May you be blessed like Avraham Avinu in being worthy of trust. There is nothing you cannot accomplish when you step out and cast your eyes to heaven. This will be reckoned to you for merit. We expect great things from you.

Mazel Tov – Emunah

Other posts I have written about Emi over the years:

  1. Dear Child to Me: On Emunah and this Blog
  2. Little Birdy: Emunah and Protecting Our Children
  3. 7 Years of Emunah: Reflections on Faith and Fidelity
  4. Emunah Second Birthday
  5. Our Type of Emunah
  6. Our Blessing for Emunah
  7. Fearless: On Emunah’s Bat Mitvah and being a Nazir

What the Eye Sees: Manoah, Noah, and Emunah

In Parshat Naso we learn about the case of the Nazir, and I am excited to learn more about that from Emunah. In the Haftarah we learn about Shimshon, who was a warrior leader, a biblical Judge Dredd, and apropos our Torah portion a nazir. He is a bit of a tragic superhero with extraordinary strength and a sad ending. It seems fitting that the haftarah is told like a classic Marvel origin story.

Here we are introduced to Manoah and his wife (sadly unnamed in the text). They were childless, but an angel appeared to Manoah’s wife and told her that she would give birth to a son. The child was to be dedicated from the womb as a Nazir, which entailed restrictions on drinking alcohol, coming into contact with the dead, and not cutting his hair. The woman told her husband, “A man of God came to me”. Manoah was incredulous, prayed and the angel returned to instruct the both of them that their son would be a nazir and they named him Shimshon.

This got me thinking about this guy Manoah. Who is this character? What is his significance in this story? It also got me looking at the connection between Manoah and Noah. Manoah was the father of the judge, general, leader, and savior of his generation. Noah saved the world by building an ark to perpetuate life through the flood. Linguistically their names are connected:

  • Manoah (מנוח) is “a place of rest”
  • Noah (נוח) is “ being comfortable”

Their two names comes together with the story of Noah and the dove:

וְלֹֽא־מָצְאָה֩ הַיּוֹנָ֨ה מָנ֜וֹחַ לְכַף־רַגְלָ֗הּ וַתָּ֤שׇׁב אֵלָיו֙ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֔ה כִּי־מַ֖יִם עַל־פְּנֵ֣י כׇל־הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָדוֹ֙ וַיִּקָּחֶ֔הָ וַיָּבֵ֥א אֹתָ֛הּ אֵלָ֖יו אֶל־הַתֵּבָֽה׃

But the dove could not find מָנ֜וֹחַ- a resting place for its foot, and returned to him to the ark, for there was water over all the earth. So putting out his hand, he [Noah] took it into the ark with him. (Genesis 8:9)

Their names are linked but not the same. It is interesting here that Noah, the man of rest could not find Manoah, a place to rest. This place of rest eluded him. And later even when the dove finds a place to rest and brings back an olive branch, Noah stays in the ark. Even when presented with evidence that the coast is literally clear his place of rest is still hidden from him. Noah needed to be told to leave the ark.


צֵ֖א מִן־הַתֵּבָ֑ה אַתָּ֕ה וְאִשְׁתְּךָ֛ וּבָנֶ֥יךָ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנֶ֖יךָ אִתָּֽךְ׃

God said- “Come out of the ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons’ wives.”

While for some, faith could be that much needed resting spot amidst a storm, to others faith can blind us to the opportunities which are right in front of us. Like Noah, Manoah did not believe his wife when she told him that they were going to have a child. He did not believe the blessing the angel brought her. Harry Houdini said, “What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.” But in the cases of Manoah, Noah, and many of us “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” Why are we limited to see what we expect to see?

I would like to take the liberty of illustrating this point with a special story about our child, Emunah:

It was Passover Yom Tov and we were at the Olsons. Emunah was 2 years old. She was a big girl and wanted to wear big girl underpants like her big brothers. We were mortified when she peed all over their floor. But Adina and I are experienced parents at this point. This is our 3rd kid. We’ve got this. So we clean her up, clean the floor, and put another pair of underpants on her. And you can see this one coming in slow motion….yes #2.

So now we are in it. There is a reason that diapers open up the way they do as a clam. Seeing that it is Yom Tov there is no way to cut off her soiled underpants. There is just no easy war to get them off of her and we do not know what to do. Adina whisks her off to the bathroom and we are screaming. Get this, get that, we are so sorry, etc.

You’ve got to see the scene. I come into their bathroom wielding wipes. Adina is trying to get her underpants off and contain the mess. Emi is contorted head down and with a leg in the air or on the edge of the toilet. We are screaming at each other and Emi says “ Mami… And we both go silent.

We have all been there. There is that moment when the child absorbs all of the energy around them and just channels it back at you. In that moment Adina and I looked at each other and braced ourselves for Emi to start to cry uncontrollably. A hot mess. This is what we expected to see.

There is our Emunah… “Look Mami- I am doing Yoga

Shanti- Ah serenity. It would have been understandable or even expected for her to cry in fear, embarrassment, or just matching our energy, but there you were Emunah at 2 years old doing Downward Dog. You pushed and continue to push us to see the world from different perspectives.

Emunah- It is wonderful to pause at this moment and see how much you have grown over the last decade. Unlike Manoah and Noah you are restless without a resting place. Emunah, you have never been about blind faith. Emunah, you have a gift to see what others do not. Emunah, you see things in your own way. Emunah, your creativity abounds- your mind is prepared to comprehend anything.

I am always reminded that no matter how bad things ever get, even if we feel that our lives are a hot mess, if we are not complacent, do not “rest”, we can shift our perspective, “do some yoga”, and things will start to look up.

Thank you Emunah. Shabbat Shalom. Namaste

Cheers to the Memories: Emunah’s Bat Mitzvah Speech

Shabbat Shalom

Here’s to the ones that we got
Cheers to the wish you were here, but you’re not
‘Cause the drinks bring back all the memories
Of everything we’ve been through
Toast to the ones here today
Toast to the ones that we lost on the way
‘Cause the drinks bring back all the memories
And the memories bring back, memories bring back you

Memories

“Cause the drinks bring back all the memories
And the memories bring back, memories bring back you”

Not the Levine you thought I would quote in my Bat Mitzvah speech, but Maroon 5’s lyrics gives us a deep question to consider, “Why do “drinks bring back” memories?

This question brings us to the Gemara in Sotah regarding my Torah Reading. There we learn:

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said “ Why are the parshiot of Nazir and Sotah right next to each other?

What is the connection between the case of the Nazir, who has sworn off wine and getting their haircut, and the case of the man who accused his wife of cheating on him and the ordeal that followed in the Temple?

Rebbe goes on to answer his question- if you saw the case of Sotah in her disgrace you too would swear yourself off of wine.

( Sotah 2a)

And why does Rebbe only identify the Nazir by their abstaining from drinking and the prohabition of coming into contact with the dead or hair cutting? Why does the case of the Sotah lead to the case of the Nazir?

In preparation for this talk my dad made me watch a bunch of videos. In one of them, Dr. Brené Brown talks about the difference between Empathy & Sympathy.

In her description, Sympathy is when we acknowledge someone’s situation. As compared to Empathy, being when we put ourselves into another person’s shoes. Sympathy might be easier but it drives disconnection. Empathy is hard work, but it fuels connection

Brown quotes the research of Theresa Wiseman who outlined the 4 critical elements of Empathy:
1- Perspective Taking: the ability to take the perspective of the other person
2- Staying out of Judgment-This is hard for many of us
3- Recognizing Emotion in other people
4- Communicating what those emotions are

Using Brené Brown’s framework of thinking, I reread my parsha. One question I had was how people show sympathy to the Sotah? People show Sympathy to the Sotah by recognizing what has happened between her and her husband.

Another recurring question I had was, how people show empathy to the Sotah? What would it mean to put yourself in the shoes of the Sotah? Going back to the teaching of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, it seems clear that becoming a Nazir is an act of empathy.

How does the Nazir show Empathy to the Sotah? According to the Rebbe, the Nazir shows empathy by not drinking wine. What does this mean?

What do you say when you see this?

  • The Optimist says: The glass is half full
  • The Pessimist says: The glass is half empty
  • The Realist says: The glass is too big
  • The Nazir says: I am done with drinking

According to Maroon 5, “the drinks bring back all the memories”. By giving up alcohol the Nazir is also giving up the memories of connection. It is sympathy to see the Sotah and her husband quarrel and have distrust. It is empathy to take upon yourself the life of a nazir and also give up the capacity to make connections. In this way according to Rebbe, if you saw them disconnecting, you too would feel compelled to disconnect. Just as the Sotah is suffering from disgrace, indignity, isolation, and disconnection from her husband, community, and God, the Nazir shows empathy by disconnecting from society and memories of connecting

I could imagine if I were living at the time of the Temple when they were doing a Sotah case I too would reflect on Theresa Wiseman’s 4 points on empathy:

  1. I think about how this couple is feeling. How might they both be holding some truth in their own perspective?
  2. As hard as it might be, I would stay out of judgment. In all cases of couples, there is always her perspective, his perspective, and the ever elusive truth.
  3. I would recognize the deep shame, distrust, anxiety they both experience in having their dirty laundry aired in public
  4. How would I communicate what those emotions are? It seems that the logical choice is to become a Nazir.

Today, while we do not have a Temple (or a shul) or the institution of Nazirut, we still have deep discord between partners. So how might we show couples empathy? How might we communicate to the couple what those emotions are?

I would say to them, ” I see that you tried to build a life together, and it seems that it did not work out. Communication is hard for you two. I can see that you have a lot of frustration and distrust. I can only imagine that you have a lot of dreams that did not come to fruition. I want to be here for you and with you.”

In the end we should all strive to show up, to show empathy, and to connect with those we care about. Thank you all.

Fearless: On Emunah’s Bat Mitvah and being a Nazir

In memory of our friend Sheryl Grossman z”l and in preparation for Emunah’s Bat Mitzvah I learned the mishnayot of Sotah and Nazir. It seemed fitting as they both appear prominently in Naso, Emunah’s Torah portion. There in Nazir we conclude the mishna with an interesting and unusual aggadic statement about the nazir. There we learn:

Samuel the prophet was a nazir, in accordance with the statement of Rabbi Nehorai, as it was stated that when Hannah, his mother, prayed for a son, she vowed: “And no mora shall come upon his head” (I Samuel 1:11). How is it derived that mora is an expression of being a nazir? It is stated with regard to Samson: “And no razor [mora] shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a nazir to God” (Judges 13:5), and it is stated: “And no mora,” with regard to Samuel. Just as the term mora” that is stated with regard to Samson means that he was a nazir, so too the term mora” that is stated with regard to Samuel indicates that he was a nazir. Rabbi Yosei said: But doesn’t the word mora mean nothing other than the fear of flesh and blood? The word should be read as though it were written with an alef, and not a heh, so that it means fear. Rabbi Nehorai said to him: But isn’t it already stated: “And Samuel said: How can I go; if Saul hears it he will kill me” (I Samuel 16:2). This verse indicates that there was fear of flesh and blood upon Samuel. Consequently, the term mora must be understood in accordance with its plain meaning of a razor. If so, Samuel was indeed a nazir.

Mishnah Nazir 9:5

When we read about the nazir, it seems like a theoretical construct, but was this ever something that people did IRL? When we think about person who was actually a nazir most of us jump to Shimshon, about whom we read about in the Haftarah, or Rav David Cohen, known as “Rav Ha-Nazir,” a disciple of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. But, few jump to Samuel. But when we stop to think about them both, it makes sense. The parallels in their origin stories are striking. Both Manoah’s wife and Hannah had difficulty conceiving children. When each of them found that they would be blessed with a child they learned that this child would be a leader and live a life apart from the community. For Samuel in the Temple. And for Shimshon and, according to Rabbi Nehorai, also Samuel as a nazir, not drinking alcohol, not coming into contact with the dead, and not cutting their hair.

This mishna is also interesting in that the distinguishing feature of being a nazir is their hair and not their not drinking or coming into contact with the dead. It is telling in that we associate people less with their experience, how they identify, or even their behavior, and more so with how they are identifiable. Their hair is the signature element of being a nazir.

When I think about this mishnah in the context of Emunah’s becoming a Bat Mitzvah, three things come to mind. The first is how central hair is to the idealities of the Emunah and the nazir. Here is a picture of her from when our little angel was just one with her golden locks:

The second is how Rabbi Yosei’s opinion hangs on a misreading of the word mora. He claims that the word should be read as though it were written with an alef, and not a heh, so that it means fear. Even if it is ultimately rejected, it is seriously entertained. Emunah and I share a bond in that we both have dyslexia. While it can be challenging, I believe that if it is treated seriously this creative reading will open up a worlds of creativity.

The third issue that is compelling regarding the mishna is how we prove Rabbi Yosei wrong. It turns out that Samuel had fear of King Saul who would be upset with him looking for a new king in David. With this Rabbi Nehorai proves that Samuel was actually a nazir. From the earliest age Emunah has been fearless. I recall when they were younger they went to the doctor for some medication. There only had two nasal doses and the rest were shots. Without hesitation Emunah rolled up her sleeve to take the shot, while her older brothers squirmed.

My blessing for Emunah is that she continue to read creatively like Rabbi Yosei, argue respectfully like Rabbi Nehorai, and unlike Samuel continue to be fearless. Emunah is no nazir, but on this occasion of her becoming a Bat Mitzah she is on her way to becoming a wonderful woman.

Mazel Tov- Emunah

Other posts I have written about Emi over the years:

  1. Dear Child to Me: On Emunah and this Blog
  2. Little Birdy: Emunah and Protecting Our Children
  3. 7 Years of Emunah: Reflections on Faith and Fidelity
  4. Emunah Second Birthday
  5. Our Type of Emunah
  6. Our Blessing for Emunah

Work Ethic

In Bamidbar, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

…Thus shall you do for them, so they shall live and not die; when they approach the Holy of
Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come and assign them, every man to his work and to his burden. But
they shall come and look as the holy is inserted, lest they die.

(Numbers 4:17-20)

In the time of the Tabernacle, Aaron and the priests coordinated the community to contribute meaningful gifts and offerings in the spirit of maintaining the integrity of the community. Though the high priests
had a lot of responsibility, without delegating and empowering other people to participate, they would not have been able to function. Both the Hobbit and Harry Potter celebrate the importance of the everyday person in accomplishing big tasks. Best articulated by the wisdom of the seniors in the community, Gandalf says, “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay;”

Albus Dumbledore says, “Perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.” In this holy work of Jewish education, we may sometimes feel like the everyday person who is
fighting for power, and we may sometimes be the high priest who is given all of the authority.
Through our work, how are we involved in the most important parts of camp? How do we let
other people glimpse our goals and processes so they can be a part of the work we do?
What are the goals of where you work? What are your goals where you work? What more can we do to motivate people to step up? Responsibility without power can be crazy-making. I need to accomplish something I’m not equipped for. What power do you already have to accomplish your goals? Can you articulate these goals?

Fire, Water, & Wilderness: Acquiring Mental Health

As the old joke goes:

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

This joke brings to light the significance of immersive experiences. When we come at things head-on we might try to avoid them, but camp allows us to come at things side-ways.

I was thinking about this when reading Bamidbar, this week’s Torah portion. This week we start reading the book of Numbers- Bamidbar, Hebrew for “In the Wilderness”. Like every other year I find myself pondering the Midrash where we learn, ” There are three ways to acquire Torah, with fire, with water, and with wilderness.” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:1). With Shavuot only a day away you might expect us to say that the the way to acquire Torah is revelation of Torah at Sinai or learning Torah. It is interesting in that this midrash is depicting fire, water, and wilderness as alternatives to this formal or direct instruction. The midrash could be understood to mean that we acquire Torah through passion (fire), immersion (water), and through a long trek in unknown land (the wilderness), all modalities of experiential and indirect instruction.

For decades this has validated my understanding of camps and travel experiences as the best ways to acquire Torah. But with the advent of COVID-19, a war in Ukraine, gun violence, and the mental health crisis that these issues has brought to light, we find ourselves in a new unknown land. In this new situation we are all struggling with issues of uncertainty, anxiety, and too much isolation. How are we acquiring Torah in this new wilderness?

Darwin Falls Wilderness - Wikipedia

This is why I am excited about summer 2022. We are about to send our youth off to be campers or counselors at summer camp. We need to look past the campfire ( fire), lake or pool (water), or hiking trip (wilderness) of camp to make meaning where we are. All these explain how we might use camp to help our youth acquire Torah through indirect instruction, but how might we help them with their mental emotional spiritual and social health ( MESSH) needs?

I want to offer a subversive thought, maybe in this context might direct instruction regarding Torah learning would do the trick? Overt Torah learning could be the means to an end of getting to discuss what is most important. It is a Trojan Horse that gets past people’s guards to open up and to engage deeply with things that matter. And in turn, having tended to these MESSH needs, our deeper emotional connections can also bring us back to Torah. The camp setting allows this cycle of human connection, personal growth, Torah and Judaism.

Along with my friend noted psychologist Dr. Betsy Stone and some colleagues at Foundation for Jewish Camp we put together a MESSH Torah resource for camp leaders for this summer. In a camp context leaders have the opportunity to speak to their staff members and to their campers all the time. What will they say? How might they authentically support their community? What strengths might they draw upon to do this holy work? How can they elevate their strengths, so that they are using their superpowers, rather than focusing on deficits?

Our intention with this packet is to create a space of overlap between our two fields: Judaism and psychology. How does psychological thought intersect with Jewish ideas? How might we use Judaism to support personal growth? What does the wisdom of our tradition have to teach us about the very real struggles we face today?

In the immersive experience (water) of camp they will explore their passion (fire), and reconnect with nature (wilderness). As we find ourselves in this new wilderness, we should use the Torah we have acquired to support our MESSH needs. To acquire Torah we need fire, water, and wilderness. To acquire MESSH we need Torah.

This is a draft. We recognize that it is far from complete. It is part of an interactive and iterative process to provide deep, accessible, and relevant resources for the field. Please give us your feedback and other content you would like to see us put into these notes for next year. avi@jewishcamp.org

Embodied Jewish Practice

At the start of Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

If you walk in My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. ( Leviticus 26:3-4)

It seems clear enough that the Torah instructing us to keep the rules. What is the difference between a חוק and a מצוה? What is the differences between walking and observing them? What are the differences between laws and commandments?

Sforno explains this:

laws- chukkot are like Royal decrees, something person has to be guided by if he expects his endeavors in life to prosper. The Hebrew expression describing the fact that one abides by them is called הליכה, “walking.”…The thrust of our verse then is as follows: “if you will conduct yourselves in accordance with the practical part of My Torah, i.e. the performance of commandments requiring deeds, and you will study these laws in order to understand their purpose and in order to give meaning to your performance of these laws, you will accomplish that you will deserve the description of being a creature which reflects “God’s image.” ( Sforno on Levitius 26:3)

Traditionally the difference between a חוק and a מצוה is that a חק is irrational, while the מצוה is rational.  חק can also mean something else. It could also come from the word חקק, which means to engrave, to be embedded.  (v. ויקרא רבה לה:ה) 

The חקים are those things, those aspects of the tradition that are embedded within us.  They are the things that we do because those who came before us did them – they are the lessons and the morals and the customs that are passed down from generation to generation, and create an imperative. In our walking in these aspects of religious life we forge ahead with them engraved within us. This represents an embodied notion of Jewish life.

As we prepare for Shavuot, this resonates with our experience of Sinai. Na’aseh V’Nishmah, in the doing we will come to understand. So maybe a מצוה is the rational, but the חוק is the embodied. In keeping these laws we walk the walk of הלכה- embodied Jewish practice.

Beyond Mountains: Behar and Paul Farmer

This week’s Torah portion, Behar , starts:

God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Or in other words, why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  I think there is yet another even simpler question that can be asked. What is the significance of talking about Shmitah on a mountain?

This question reminds me of a classic story of the mythic town of Chelm. There we read:

Once upon a time, in the little village of Chelm, the people decided that they needed a new cemetery.  The population of the city had expanded, people had begun to build larger homes, and the need to find a new location for the townspeople’s eternal resting place.  They looked, and looked, and could not find a suitable location.  They called a meeting of the wise people of the town and for seven days, debated the issue.

At the end of the seven days, the people reached a conclusion: they would move them out and that was on the southern side of the city and utilize the space created by moving the mountain as the new cemetery. This of course, raised a new question for the people: how does one move a mountain?  They debated the issue for another seven days.  Finally, the wise man of Chelm came up with an idea. “we will all rise, all men of the town as one – united in spirit and body – and together we will move the mountain.” The townspeople quickly accepted this “wise” advice. Quickly, all able bodied men – young and old, rushed to the mountain on the southern side of the city.

A crowd quickly gathered and surrounded the mountain.  The men pushed and shoved and leaned and tried as hard as they could, but they could not move the mountain. 10 minutes went by, allowing the participants to catch their breath before they strenuously tried again.  Again, they pushed and strained and shoved but could not move the mountain.  At this point, the menfolk of Chelm were drenched in sweat and beginning to get uncomfortable.  The men removed their shirts, depositing them on the side, in preparation for their next try. As all the men struggled, a group of petty thieves watched the men in earnest.  They quickly came with small carts and as the men of Chelm  strained to move the mountain, the thieves stole all the shirts and quickly disappeared from the town.

After an hour of straining, one of the wise men discovered that his shirt was missing.  Soon, all the men discovered that their shirts were missing.  They began to wonder what was going on.  The wise man of Chelm surmised the answer. “We must have been successful” he told them. “We must have moved the mountain so far that we cannot even see the place where we left our shirts.” Upon hearing the explanation, the people began to applaud, cheer and even break out into dance over their success.

( As retold by Rabbi Shabsi HaKohein Yudelovitch)

They were foolish to think that losing their jackets were a sign of their success, but they were not foolish in looking for a metric for success.  Where in Chelm they were looking for room for their cemetery in Behar through the institution of shmittah we are looking to create room for the underprivileged and economically marginalized parts of our society. But still I ask, why is this message delivered at a mountain?

When I think about the unending issue of addressing the needs of the poor I think about Dr Paul Farmer z’l. Farmer, who tragically passed away this year, heroicly worked to bring health care to rural Haiti. In is the award-winning book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Tracy Kidder he described Farmer as “the man who would cure the world”. There he writes:

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.

Mountains Beyond Mountains)

The book’s title comes from a Haitian proverb, which is usually translated as: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” According to Farmer, a better translation is: “Beyond mountains there are mountains.” The phrase expresses something fundamental about the spirit and the scale and the difficulty of Farmer’s work. The Haitian proverb, by the way, is also a pretty accurate description of the topography of a lot of Haiti.

To return to Rashi’s  question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” What we learn from Farmer in terms of health care is the same as in terms of access to food and other issues of poverty, beyond this mountain there are more mountains. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, ” It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” ( Avot 2:16) Shmitah is an approach to dealing with poverty. The revelation of need in society is an opportunity to enact Torah in this world and therefore its own revelation like that at Mount Sinai. This is similar to Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levi when he said “ Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horev (Sinai)” ( Avot 6:2) This is to say that beyond this mountain ( Sinai) there are more mountains. May Dr. Paul Farmer’s memory be for a blessing.


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

Join 233 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: