Brothers Above All

In Toldot, this past week’s Torah portion, we read  the story of Rivka who after struggling to conceive is blessed with twins. During her turbulent pregnancy she sought out God. There she learned:

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. ( Genesis 25:23)

JANUARY 11- DAILY READING THROUGH THE ONE YEAR BIBLE -Genesis 24:52-26:16;  Matthew 8:18-34; Psalm 10:1-15; Proverbs 3:7-8

In explaining “shall be separated from your bowels” Rashi writes:

As soon as they leave your body they will take each a different course — one to his wicked ways, the other to his plain life (Genesis 5:27)

And sure enough soon after the twins are born this happens.  Esav is born first and close at his heel is Yaakov. It is noteworthy that Yaakov’s name comes from holding on to his brother’s foot. Esav the older one is favored by Yitzhak while the younger son Yaakov is Rivka’s favorite. This tension is a throw back to Cain and Abel. While this does not end with one brother killing the other, it is not a model of fraternity. Where is the love between brothers?

What can we learn from this tension for our times? George Lakoff says that political messaging is all about framing. Once your concede to your opponents’ frame for the debate you have lost the debate.

A good example of this is taxes. When Republicans add the word “relief” to the word “tax”, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction. And the person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy. This is a frame. And as soon as the Democrats are using “tax relief” they are shooting themselves in the foot.

That is what framing is about. Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.

Yaakov will always be living in reference to his brother ( or more specifically his brother’s heel), until he reframes the debate with changing his name. He is not limited to playing second fiddle to his brother when is renamed and reframed as Yisrael, the hero wrestling with God.

From “lock her up”, to “fake-news”, to “Kong Flu”, to questioning the very essence of fair and free elections, we have so much work to do to repair our society after Trump’s reframing of our modern partisan politics. We need to put the good of the country above the good of the party. The most critical reframing is to remember that at the start we are all siblings above all.

Test of Character: Camel and Champ

How do you know when you meet the one? In Chaye Sara, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about Abraham’s servant Eliezer’s mission to find a mate for Yitzhak. Laden with gifts, Eliezer goes to Charan. At the village well, Eliezer asks God for a sign. When the maidens come to the well, he will ask for some water to drink; the woman who will offer to give his camels to drink as well shall be the one destined for his master’s son. It seems as if the discovery of Rivka is a miracle. But was it?

We have to realize that the gifts Eliezer brought along to make the process smoother might have been the heart of the challenge. He needed to find a test that would ensure the the would-be-mate was not coming just for the gifts. Incentives can have an adverse impact on the desired outcomes. So the test itself had to prove motive commitment beyond fleeting avarice.

On this point I recall my first Shabbat as a Hillel Rabbi on campus. We had a huge Shabbat dinner for the first year students and their parents. In an wonderfully awkward interaction a father leaned over to tell his son to look around to find a mate. When the embarrassed son rebuffed his father’s urging, the father leaned back to impart some wisdom. He said in a loud voice, ” You know son, when you marry for money- it does not mean you do not need to work for it. ”

Eliezer needed to make sure that Yitzhak’s future wife was in it for the right reasons. So how did Eliezer know that this test would prove who was supposed to be the mate of choice?

The legendary UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Rivka was a person of character. Being nice to the stranger might come with reward, but who was going to notice that she was nice to the camels? Wooden also said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” The camel having just treked through the desert represents the voiceless in need. Rivka in her essence was more concerned with her character than her reputation.

All of this comes to explain why Eliezer would be interested in her, but why she would be interested? She was never into it for the riches, her motives were to be a good person. Abraham’s project of Judaism is a movement of character refinement. Rivka proves her commitment to this mission.

When I reflect on Rivka’s passing the test with the camel I have hope in Champ. Biden will be the first President who has a rescue dog in the White House. In the last four years we have learned that avarice and unchecked power is blinding. When it comes to character in leadership, it is not an important thing, it is everything.

A Woman of Valor

When I graduated college I went to Minsk, Belarus to run youth services for the Jewish community there. Besides my work with the young Jews I also had regular contact with a group of elder men who made up the daily minyan. I vividly remember one day when one of these old men named Feyvel came up to me after services with a black and white photo of a young woman. He started to tell me that this was his wife. She had passed away. When I asked him to tell me what he missed most about her he responded that she was an Eshet Ḥayilwoman of valor. I started to go through Proverbs 31.

Traditionally Eshet Ḥayil is sung on Friday night. It praises the good wife who is the definition of the ideal woman in the nation of Israel. She is ‘an industrious housewife, a shrewd businesswoman, an enterprising trader, a generous benefactor (verse 20) and a wise teacher (verse 26). This “Woman of Valor” has been described as the personification of wisdom.

The word חיל (Ḥayil) appears in verses 10 and 29 of the passage, thought as the summary of the good woman’s character. Traditionally it has been translated “virtuous” or “noble”. Some scholars have suggested that it rather means “forceful”, “mighty”, or “valiant”, because this word is almost exclusively used in the Bible with reference to warfare. Which is funny because as it turned out Feyvel wanted to clarify want to clarify that she was not just an Eshet Ḥayil– but also an Eshet Ḥayal– his wife was a soldier. At that moment I noticed that his wife was dressed in uniform.

Soviet women in World War II - Wikipedia

Today is Veteran’s Day– we pause to give respect for the people of valor who serve our communities to protect our ideals.

From Your Parents’ Homes: Migration and the Future of Jewish Life

The Roman philosopher Seneca (and the 1990s band Semisonic) said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” 

The start of something new means that something else ends and eventually, the very thing you are starting, will end with something else’s beginning. We are thinking about this as we prepare to read Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion:

The Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

It might seem straightforward, but of course, Avram’s journey is circuitous. When he arrived in the Promised Land there was a famine, so he moved on to Egypt. Egypt proved to be threatening to Avram’s wife Sarai, so they went back to Canaan. What kind of faith, gumption, grit, and stamina did it take for him to start over (and over) again? What needed to end in Avram’s life for this new project of Jewish life to get started? Was Avram exceptional in his ability to keep moving – even to start his journey in the first place – or is this something we can access today?

As a country, we are on the move. We have started to see a huge population shift in light of the ecological crises burning and flooding where people live. And a recent Pew study reports that in response to COVID-19, 52% of Americans between 18 and 29 years of age are now living with their parents – just when most young adults in this country would be setting off from their parents’ homes on their own journey. The last time we saw numbers like this was during the Great Depression. 

Like Avram, we are searching for a home that feels safe and secure. And this project is only getting more challenging. An astounding 50 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic. This doesn’t include the millions who have finished collecting benefits, given up looking for a job, or have reluctantly taken a position far below their prior compensation level just to make ends meet. When it is safe to travel again, where will they move in search of work? When they are able to leave their parents’ homes, where will they journey? 

As individuals we might connect to Avram’s story from Lech Lecha, but as a society, this large-scale domestic migration is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath. Set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, this classic story focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work. The Joads set out for California seeking jobs, land, dignity, security, and a future. There Steinbeck writes, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” 

As Jews, this question drives us to craft practices that serve as regular reminders of where we come from and to whom or what we are responsible. Like a mobile hotspot, rituals allow us to connect our past to our future while on the move. Rituals like Shabbat, or reciting a blessing before eating, or tucking our kids in at night, are designed to help us be conscious of timely and timeless moments. Critically, most of these rituals pack light and are shared – deepening our connection to others. When Avram was encamped – even temporarily – he and Sarai opened their tent welcoming others to join them on their journey. They literally put stakes in the ground in order to open the door to others. Even when we are on the go, we can ground ourselves and others by welcoming them into our ritual space.  

It’s no surprise that we’ve seen a rise in Jewish engagement during the pandemic. For the majority of people still working, their homes have become their offices and even their sanctuaries. Through our screens we have discovered new ways of connecting to a larger world-wide Jewish community. We’ve heard countless stories of people streaming multiple services throughout the High Holidays – journeying across time zones to find the right fit. Rather than being part of a singular, geographically-bound community, we are discovering that we can connect on a different level. While we might be sheltering in place in one location, we have been able to join Jewish life almost everywhere. With a growth in home-based ritual – like Shabbat dinner, Sukkah building, as well as celebrations like b’nai mitzvah and weddings happening in backyards and living rooms – American Jews have empowered themselves by inviting others to join them as never before. 

We do not know what the future holds, but eventually we may find a vaccine and this period of social distancing will come to an end. Many of these 18 to 29 year olds will again leave their parents’ homes. But with that end, what will begin for them? It is hard to imagine that things will return to “normal,” and even if they could, do they want to? Can we intentionally end long-held assumptions about what it means to be a part of “the community” in order to liberate our institutions? 

How do we support those who find themselves, like Avram and the Joads, leaving home, uprooted, dealing with ecological threats, redefining relationships with parents, and reckoning with whom they want to be? What can we do to support them in their journey to find security, happiness, meaning, and purpose?

And how can we factor these questions into our planning and thinking for the Jewish future? How might our organizations – especially those designed for larger community gatherings – anticipate and even encourage multiple forms of community connection? Is it possible that Digital Judaism is here to stay? How do we prioritize the human, psychological, and spiritual needs of the traveler alongside the institution? 

It might seem like too many questions to confront as we are wrapped up in our current existential crises, but we need to look ahead during this period of migration. With Lech Lecha, we renew our commitment to continuing the journey Avram started. What will it look like for this generation to leave their parents’ homes? What is the future of Jewish engagement? We cannot afford to ignore these questions. 

Please be our guest and join us as we explore these questions in a zoom conversation about Migration and the Future of Jewish Life – Thursday, November 12th from 1:00-2:15pm ET and RSVP here

-from eJewish Philanthropy. Written with Aliza Kline who is the Co-Founder and CEO of OneTable. She has devoted her career to re-imagining Jewish ritual open to the full diversity of the community and applying a user-centered design approach to gain empathy, understand and overcome barriers to deep and enduring Jewish practice.

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


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