Preppers and Ki Tavo

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo we read,

And it shall be, when you come in unto the land which the Lord your God has given you for an inheritance, and possess it, and dwell therein;  that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you shall bring in from your land that the Lord your God has given you…(Deuteronomy 26:1-2)

On the eve of finishing their 40-year journey in the desert and actually starting their real lives, being a people in a land, Moshe instructs the people to give of their first fruits. They will just have received the land from God, and they will have to turn around and give away the fruit of their labor. What is the meaning of this gift?

On one level it is through the process of gift giving which we can come to recognize the myriad of gifts that we have received to get us to that point. On another level we have to try to imagine what the Israelites were experiencing when they learned this commandment in the desert.

Contemplating this I got to thinking about the “preppers” movement. There survivalists actively prepare for emergencies, including possible disruptions in social or political order, on scales from local to international. The emphasis is on self-reliance, stockpiling supplies, and gaining survival knowledge and skills. Survivalists often acquire emergency medical and self-defense training, stockpile food and water, prepare to become self-sufficient, and build structures such as survival retreats or underground shelters that may help them survive a catastrophe.

As the aphorism goes, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” These “preppers” are getting ready for the worst.

After surviving in the desert for 40 years on their daily stockpile of Manna we have to imagine the Israelites were craving some fresh produce. These “preppers” would have deeply appreciated access to land to cultivate in this new land. And the first fruit would have seemed like a real gift.


Little Birdy: Emunah and Protecting Our Children

Today in the 13th of Elul. It is the Hebrew birthday of our daughter Emunah. Today she is 10 years old. I marvel to see the young woman that is growing up in front of our eyes. We were particularly moved to see how much she changed after a month at camp this summer. Emunah is becoming a better little sister to her two brothers and a nurturing big sister to Libi. She is curious, caring, loving,and resilient.  Here is a picture of her from when our little angel was just one:

Her birthday marks my writing this blog for 10 years. I take pause today to think ahead to what the next stage of parenting Emunah will look like for us.

In thinking about this I think about Ki Tetzei , this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. When you build a new house, make a fence around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof. (Deuteronomy 22:6-8

First there is a law about sending away the mother bird from her nest before taking her eggs. Then we are mandated to build a fence around the roof of our houses. This juxtaposition brings interesting things to light. We see the mother bird defending her nest and then we are instructed to be like the bird and make a safer nest on our roofs to defend our young.

Once we make that connection and empathize with the mother bird, we are left asking ourselves a number of questions. How could we ever take the egg or young from the mother bird in the first place? What does it mean for us as parents toward our children?  Are we the problem or the solution to the child’s development? Are we the aggressor who is taking the eggs or the builder of fences there to protect our child? If we externalized the aggressor and focus on the risks in the world, how do we best prepare the child for this dangerous world? Are we victims to the whim of men our children might meet on the path or are we builder of fences to keep them locked up and safe? Of is there another model? One thing is clear that parenting is filled with many questions and not that many answers.

Happy Birthday Emunah. Thank you Adina for bringing this miracle into the world and partnering in parenting her. We will do what we can to raise our little birdy.  And here is to another 10 years of writing.

Free Press: The Menschen at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

We learn in  Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, the basic elements of what the Torah says about giving testimony. There we read:

One witness shall not arise against a man for any sin or guilt that he may commit; according to two witnesses or according to three witnesses a matter shall stand.(Deuteronomy 19:15)

Thus, two witnesses provide conclusive proof of reality, but one witness does not. With two or three witnesses we can enter something into the public record.

I was thinking about this today when reading this particularly moving piece in the JTA article on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As reported there, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette donated the $15,000 they won for their Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the deadly anti-Semitic shooting to the Tree of Life synagogue. On Aug. 29, in the Post-Gazette newsroom, Executive Editor Keith Burris presented a $15,000 check to Rabbi Jeffrey Myers and Samuel Schachner, president of the congregation. As reported by Cnaan Liphzhiz

“We feel bound to you and your congregations – by memory and duty,” Burris said in a speech. “And we offer you, in humility, our service – as scribes and witnesses.”


What a menschy thing to do? What a profound thing to say? In a time when people are disregarding the press as “Fake News”, it is important to recall the critical role a free press plays in preserving  a democratic society. The news is our  public record. Burris is right, the members of the press need to be  our “scribes and witnesses”. Without the humble service of a free press our society would not have justice and we would not maintain our freedom.


Taking Responsibility: Emmett Till and Egel Arufa

A the end of Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the Egel Arufa, the heifer.  There we read:

1If, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known,2your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. 3The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; 4and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an everflowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. 5The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of the Lord, and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. 6Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. 7And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of bloodguilt.9Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 21: 1- 9)

It is untenable in the Torah for a murder happen without fault. The ritual of the Egel Arufa, the heifer, is an effort to reconcile  society’s responsibility for that murder. It has profound implications in modern society in which we are at once more interconnected than ever online and more isolated than ever in our cubicles.

This year when reading about the Egel Arufa my attention went to the wadi. What is the significance of the sacrifice of this heifer being on a wadi “which is not tilled or sown”?  What is the meaning of the location being untouched?

I was thinking about this recently when listening to an NPR program on Emmett Till. Emmett Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955) was a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States. The Till case lives on in our national memory for all of the reasons that we have the ritual of the Egel Arufa in our Torah portion. No one has truly taken responsibility for the death of this young black child. Till posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. The legacy of this case has become symbolic for all of the thousands of people who have been killed in this country due to systemic racism.

The Till case was back in the news recently when fraternity brothers of Kappa Alpha Order, an organization that glorifies the Confederate South, at the University of Mississippi posed with guns at the bullet-pocked marker of the sign by the river where Till’s body was found.

Three college students posed in front of the Emmett Till memorial sign in Tallahatchie County, Miss. Instagram/Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Instagram/Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

The symmetry was too poignant to not point out. They wanted wanted to uproot Tills memory by shooting at the sign. While they have been suspended from the fraternity, still no one ever stood on the “non tilled” wadi to take responsibility for the death that happened 64 years ago.

So, why does this ritual of the Egel Arufa need to be done on land “which is not tilled or sown”? Rashi comments on this that the land is hard. It sounds like we needed to do this ritual on bedrock. We needed to strip everything else away, take responsibilty for a death, and from there we will have a sound foundation to rebuild society. It is clear from the case of Till in America, that we have never truly done the work of getting down to the “not tilled or sown” foundation of racism in this country. Until we get to the bottom of this injustice will fester. Until we do this “hard” work and take responisilbity for what has happened we will never build a just society.

-for another reading of the Egel Arufa check out this blog post on Apocalypse Now

Expanding the Bubble of Camp: Yadid’s Dvar on Brothers

My son Yadid just finished his last summer as a camper at Camp Stone. He had a wonderful summer. To keep the magic going he is attending a Bnai Akiva Shabbaton this weekend. I was pleasantly surprised that he volunteered to give a Dvar Torah Thursday tonight. In reading this I realize that camp is truly a wonderful bubble in which we image our Utopian visions for the world. These bubbles do not need to pop, but rather we need to work to expand them to impact the entire world.  With his permission I share his Dvar from last night with you:

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”

Our world is filled with global crises such as; Climate Change, Sexism, Racism, Poverty, Wars, just to name a few. But as a privileged White, Male, Middle Class, Jew, living in the east coast of America, I don’t feel at risk of perishing, I am not directly impacted by most of these crises. So I must ask myself, What can I do? How can I help? What does it mean for us to live together as brothers?

In Re’eh, this week’s parsha, Moshe tells B’nai Yisrael about some commandments discussing things such as property, slaves, and idolatry. One of these commandments is that, “the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying, “You shalt surely open [Patoaḥ tiftaḥ] your hand unto your poor and needy brother, in your land.’” ( Deuteronomy 15:11)

In discussion of this verse we learn in the Gemara in Baba Metzia 

One might have derived that we only have the obligation to give charity to the poor residents of one’s city. From where is the obligation to give charity to the poor residents of another city derived? The verse states: “Patoaḥ tiftaḥ,”  [a doubling of language] to teach that you must give charity to the poor in any case.  (Bava Metzia 31b )

In many ways when I really open myself to those in need, they become my brothers

This doubling of language in our parsha teaches us that we need to reach beyond our cities to meet the needs of those who are less fortunate.

The wise sage, Winnie the Pooh once said, “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

I just got back from an amazing summer in Machal at Camp Stone. ( Represent). All of our moshavot are bubbles, utopian visions of the way the world could be. Machal is about expanding that bubble because our community left camp all week, only returning on Shabbat, the best part of camp. The motto of our Eidah this summer was, “ What can I do? How can I help?” This statement felt most relevant when during our trip to Algonquin a tree fell on my friend’s leg and everyone present did a different task to help the kid get help as soon as possible. Unrelated to any of our relationships to him before this accident, in the process of helping him, we all got closer, dare I say… Brothers. Reflecting on camp, I ask myself, how can this motto, “What can I do? How can I help? be applied to problems in our world.

I know camp is very important to all of us here because it has given each of us a glimpse into what the future might look like. The question for all of us is, what can each of us, as individuals, and all of us, as a movement, do to bring that vision into reality. For the “residents of one’s city”, or anywhere.

As I started this with MLK, I also want to end with him. He said:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

If we are truly open to this week’s parsha we realize that Reverend King is right. In opening up to all those in need, leaving our bubbles, going to their part of the forest, We realize that we are all brothers, united “in a single garment of destiny”

Chodesh Tov and I know it is a bit early but Shabbat Shalom.

Yadid is growing up. I could not love him more or be prouder of the person he is becoming. I am excited to see his growing impact on the world.

Worthy Reward: The Trading of Mitzvot

At the start of Parshat Eikev, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the benefits of keeping the commandments. There we read:

וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב-And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your fathers (Deuteronomy 7:12)

The simple reading of this is that obedience will be rewarded by God. But, what is the reward?

On this passage from our Torah portion Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev comments:

It is an accepted principle that the “so-‎called” reward that God grants us for performing the ‎commandments of the Torah is the least of all the pleasures that ‎we will experience. The major pleasure is the satisfaction we ‎derive from having been able to give the Creator a feeling of ‎satisfaction that God created mankind, and that at least part of ‎mankind, Israel, has seen fit to acknowledge this. This is what the ‎‎Mishna in Avot 4:2 meant when the author states that ‎שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה the true reward for performing the commandments is the ‎commandment itself. When we reflect on the significance of the ‎performance of the commandment we will realize that having ‎performed it was an unparalleled pleasure. Even the reward that ‎God has “saved up” for us in the hereafter pales into insignificance ‎when compared to the satisfaction of having been able to provide ‎‎God with pleasure.‎ This is what Moshe had in mind when he described the ‎‎mitzvah performance with the word ‎עקב‎ in our verse above. ‎This word, meaning “heel,” when used elsewhere in Scripture, is ‎used by Moshe to describe the minute part of the pleasure that ‎God’s “reward” provides for us when we compare it with the ‎pleasure we provided for ourselves by having been the ‎instrument to please the Creator.‎ (Kedushat Levi, Deuteronomy, Eikev 1)

In this sense the Kedushat Levi  is saying that the reward for our obedience is that God gets the reward . He also offers this idea that the essence of this “heel” of עקב is that the true reward for performing the commandments is the ‎commandment itself. Neither seems to be accessible rewards to me.

These words שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה are featured in this amazing music video by Mordechai Shapiro:

Besides being a crazy catchy song and having the video be filmed at camp ( Morasha), I love this video because it takes the notion of שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה in a little different direction. It is not just that your doing a mitzvah is its own reward, or as the Mishna in Avot says, Mitzah Goreret Mitzvah, that it will lead to your doing more mitzvot. Rather, the video explores a paying-it-forward notion. In this sense the reward of your doing a mitzvah is that it will lead to someone else’s doing a mitzvah.

I was thinking about this idea of Mitzah Goreret Mitzvah being a notion of paying-it-forward recently when talking with my colleague Jonah Wagan. He showed up to work complaining about Chabad Shaliach asking him again to put on Tfilin. I asked him if he objected to this practice. Jonah replied that he did not mind it, it was just that the interaction felt yucky. In conversation we explored the idea of what might change if he could enter into the interaction as an equal. So the next time he was asked to do this mitzvah with a Chabad Shaliach he resolved to offer the Shaliach the opportunity to do a Mitvah that was meaningful to him with him. Now Jonah is thrilled to do this mitzvah of putting on Tfilin as he does the mitzvah of raising money from the Shaliach for EschelMitzah Goreret Mitzvah; they trade mitvot. In so doing they enjoin each other to do more for the world.

I would encourage each of us to explore putting on Tfilin, supporting the holy work of  Eschel, or what ever might be your signature mitzvah. And then I think we should think about trading them with each other. If you join me in doing my mitzvah I will gladly join you in doing your mitzvah. In this trading mitzvot framework the “heel” of עקב  it the first step in a collaborative journey of equals to create a common path ( read here the literal meaning of the word Halachah) and fix the world. Now that seems like is a worthy reward.


Bystander Effect: Tu B’Av and Kitty Genovese

Today we celebrate Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which is one of the happiest days of the year. But what are we celebrating? The Gemara shares six historical events that happened on this day.  The second one shared is particularly interesting to me. There we read:

Rabba Bar Bar Chana said in the name of Rav Yochanan: The Tribe of Benjamin was allowed to remarry into K’hal Yisroel after the incident of Pilegesh B’Givah. This occurred on the 15th and signified once again the unity of Israel. (Bava Basra 121a-b and Taanit 30b-31a)

But what is the incident of Pilegesh B’Givah? 

In Judges 19, a Levite’s pilegesh, concubine, leaves him to return home to Bethlehem. After four months, her husband visits her father’s home and attempts to persuade her to return with him. On the fifth day, the concubine leaves with this Levite man. They travel together to Givah, looking for a place to spend the night. An old man sees her and the Levite hanging out in the square. He invites them to spend the night at his home. While there, the perverse men of the city pound on the door requesting the old man to bring out the Levite in order to have sex with him. When the old man offers his virgin daughter and the concubine instead, they refuse. The Levite then forces his concubine into the hands of the mob. She is beaten and raped throughout the night. In the morning, the concubine is found by the Levite on the doorstep of the old man’s house. He tells her to get up and when there is no reply, he places her on the back of his donkey and travels home. Upon arrival, he takes a knife and cuts the concubine’s body into twelve pieces, sending the parts out through the land of Israel. The outraged tribes of Israel sought justice and asked for the miscreants to be delivered for judgment. The Benjamites refused, so the tribes then sought vengeance, and in the subsequent war.

It is noteworthy that when the Levite finds the pilegesh in the morning, it is unclear whether she is dead, as there is no reply. Even though the story is centered around a woman, she never speaks and is nameless. Her life and death are defined by the voices of men around her. It is evident that the victimized woman has no voice. In this context, there is an eerie echo of this case and the case of Kitty Genovese.

In the early hours of March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed outside the apartment building across the street from where she lived in an apartment in Queens. Two weeks after the murder, The New York Times published an article claiming that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, but none of them called the police or came to her aid. The incident prompted inquiries into what became known as the bystander effect or “Genovese syndrome”, and the murder became a staple of American psychology textbooks.

The bystander effect is a social psychological claim that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help. Several factors contribute to the bystander effect, including ambiguitygroup cohesiveness, and diffusion of responsibility that reinforces mutual denial of a situation’s severity. In the cases of Kitty Genovese and Pilegesh B’Givah we see this bystander effect. Sending her parts around the country served as a wakeup call to the entire nation. In the words of Rabbi A.J. Heschel when he said, “In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.” Tu B’Av needs to be a day in which we commit to hearing everyone’s voice, no one should be silenced. It is also a day of reconciliation with the tribe of Benjamin. To this ends, we experience true joy because we all take responsibility.


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