Archive for the '1.01 Bereishit' Category

User-Centered Design: Ignoring the Terms and Conditions

In the Gemara in Avodah Zara there is an interesting discussion about some mythic time right before the revelation of the Torah. There we read:

Rabbi Ḥanina bar Pappa taught, and some say that it was Rabbi Simlai who taught: In the future, the Holy One, Blessed be God, will bring a Torah scroll and place it in God’s lap and say: Anyone who engaged in its study should come and take his reward. ( Avodah Zara 2a)

In this time different nations of world come forward for the option to accept the Torah. From Rome, to Persia, to Edom, in each case they are presented with a Torah that has a rule that they cannot follow and they do not accept the Torah. Finally., Na’aseh V’nishma, the Jews come and accept the Torah sight unseen.  This idea of people accepting rules without their understanding the consiquences is not a new thing.

We see this with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I simply love this image I saw last year on social media:

While there is no rabbinic evidence that it was an apple, it is facinating to understand that our accepting the Torah as we see in Avodah Zara is itself a return to Eden.

It is also facinating to realize that Apple itself was designed to be used before being understood. I remember fondly when our family got the original Apple Macintosh personal computer. Its beige case consisted of a monitor and came with a keyboard and mouse. A handle built into the top of the case made it easier for the computer to be lifted and carried. It was famously designed to be taken out of the box and used right away before reading the instructions.

Image result for macintosh with handle

Apple’s user-centered design invites you to use it before you understand the rules of how to use it. This gives us another read of the Eden story. It was not a fall from grace, but a classic “unboxing“. Fortune favors the bold who just jump in and start playing before understanding. This reading of eating the forbidden fruit and our Gemara makes us question the benefits of reading the directions, terms, or conditions first.

Imitatio Dei: Becoming A Role Model

My son Yadid volunteered to give a Dvar Torah at a Bnai Akiva Simchaton this Holiday. He wrote this lovely piece on what he is looking forward to in terms of becoming a counselor and role model. Here is what he wrote:

Every year, we read the entire Torah, on a weekly cycle. Now we end this year’s reading of the Torah and start reading it again from the beginning.  Louis Pasteur wisely said, “No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. Each year we look at the wisdom in this text like a stranger with fresh eyes, and each year we turn to it for sustenance as we navigate our ever-changing world. The nature of the Torah is that we can constantly revisit it but it will always produce a new insight for us. 

John Wooden, the once great American basketball coach said, “Being a role model is the most powerful form of education.”

In the Gemara in Sotah 14a Rabbi Samlai taught: With regard to the Torah, its beginning is an act of kindness and its end is an act of kindness. Its beginning is an act of kindness, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). And its end is an act of kindness, as it is written: “And he (Moshe) was buried in the valley in the land of Moav.” (Deuteronomy 34:6). 

How would John Wooden read this Gemara? God is clearly educating us about the value of acts of kindness, by being our role model. I see three lessons from God about being a role model here that we can learn:

    1. Be present with the people 
    2. Look after their physical needs – Moshe’s Burial last week
    3. look after their psychological need- Clothing Adam and Eve so they would not be embarrassed- this week

Can everyone turn to the person next to you and discuss a role model you have had this past summer at Machal ( program for the eldest campers) and what they taught you. [ leave some time for discussion]

When I think about this question, what did my role model teach me; I think about Yonah Shafner, my boy and counselor for the last four summers at camp. Like we learned from God in Sotah:

    1. Yonah was  present with us, the campers Explain
    2. He looked after our physical needs by Woke us up at 3 am to feed us egg rolls 
    3. He looked after our social needs and minded the group dynamic- explain

Just as we go back to reading the beginning of the Torah again, when we go back to camp, we will begin again as tzevet (staff members). Though it will be the same place, we must take up new perspectives in order to help our campers learn and grow the same way we have in the past: 

    1. As much as we might want to go back to camp to be with our friends, we have to remember to spend time with our campers
    2. We have to  look after the physical needs of our campers
    3. We must attend to the social dynamics in our bunks

The infinitely wise sage, Eeyore said- “A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.” 

Eeyore looking sad in 'The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh'Oh Bother…

We all have had amazing, transformative role models in our time as campers, but that time is coming to an end, and it’s time for us to suit up and become the role models we all had. Albert Einstein said, “Setting an example is not the main means of influencing others; it is the only means.” It is obvious that it is our burden, our obligation, our responsibility to be the role models for our future campers. As we think about the campers we will impact, we should consider reaching out to our past role models, and thanking them. 

Chag Sameach, and thank you.

 

Torah 20/20: Looking with Fresh Eyes

As the story goes, was a  baal teshuvah, newly religiously observant person, who started crying in synagogue during the Torah reading.  When the rabbi asked him about this display of emotion, he replied that he just does not understand why Joseph’s brothers could sell him into slavery. This profound empathy moved the rabbi to tears. The next year when they got to Parshat Vayeshev the rabbi was ready and went over to console the crying parishioner during the Torah reading. The following year the rabbi preempted the situation and brought the congregant a tissue. The rabbi was surprised to see that he was not crying or sad, but instead visibly angry. When the rabbi asked the person why he was angry he replied, “I am really annoyed. I used to be sad that his brothers had it out for him, but this time why didn’t Joseph learn his lesson?” 

Every year, the Jewish community reads the entire Torah, our most holy text, on a weekly cycle. With the advent of Simchat Torah we will end this year’s reading of the Torah and start reading it again from the beginning.  It is quoted in the name of Louis Pasteur, “No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. Each year we look at the wisdom in this text like a stranger with fresh eyes, and each year we turn to it for sustenance as we navigate our ever-changing, yet also frequently cyclical, world. The nature of the Torah is that we can revisit it throughout our lives. When we learn Torah we demand relevance from revelation and its meaning evolves. 

As we start again from the beginning, we can look at how Adam and Eve saw things. There we read:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. (Genesis 3:6-7)

Something is peculiar in the language here. If the eating itself caused their eyes to be opened, the Torah would have said that she ate and her eyes were opened and then he ate and his eyes were opened. Instead it says “the eyes of them both were opened” only after they both ate. What do we make of this?

In his genre creating masterpiece, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the way we can influence each other. There he wrote:

…if I smile and you see me and smile in response–even a microsmile that takes no more than several milliseconds–it’s not just you imitating or empathizing with me. It may also be a way that I can pass on my happiness to you. Emotion is contagious.  (The Tipping Point 84-85)

I posit that this is exactly what happened in Eden. Eve ate of the fruit, enjoyed it, and shared it with Adam. When Adam ate, instead of reciprocating with a microsmile, he winced. In so doing he rejected her bid to share something pleasurable. With that wince his eyes made it clear that they did not experience Good and Bad the same way anymore. In that moment, both of their eyes were opened.

Since then the complexity of coming together has grown exponentially. The nature of politics in a democratic society is preserving the tension between our wanting to be the same and struggling with our differences and desire for individuality.  Each of us may have radically different notions of what is tasty or pleasurable, let alone what is Good and Bad for society. From the beginning, this country has been an imperfect but valiant effort “to form a more perfect Union.” 

As we return to Genesis and the Garden of Eden we are all invited to revisit this tension. This cycle of reading the Torah will accompany us through a high-stakes year in America life in 2020. In Torah 20/20, T’ruah is asking rabbis, writers, political leaders, and artists to explore democracy and questions of how to build a just society through the lens of the weekly Torah reading. How might we want to cry or get angry when reading about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers? How does exploring this wisdom impact how we might want to fight human trafficking, systemic racism, or economic disparity? As we look ahead at 2020 we see the value of seeing the world anew with fresh eyes.

 

Men Hiding: Genesis, Purim, and Kavanuagh

We just made it through the holiday season and the next holiday is Hanukkah on the distant horizon weeks from now on December 2-10. This is why it is particularly weird that I woke up this morning thinking about Purim which is not until March 20, 2019. It was less strange seeing that we are reading Parshat Bereishit this week. In one of my favorite passages in the Talmud the Rabbis mix the stories of Purim with earlier narratives in the Torah. There we learn:

From where in the Torah, [do I know] Haman? “Is it from (hamin) this tree” (Genesis 3:11). From where in the Torah, [do I know] Esther? “And I will surely hide (astir)” (Deuteronomy 32:18).  Where is Mordecai mentioned in the Torah?… As is written “Flowing myrrh” (Exodus 30:23), which the Targum renders as “Mira Dachia“. ( Chullin 139b)

There is clearly some fun word play going on here, but why is it important that Haman is prefigured in the story of the Garden of Eden? What is that context? There in Genesis we read:
The Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of (hamin) the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” The man said, “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” ( Genesis 3:9-12)

The scene is set. Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge and God is coming to inquire as to what they did. God asks Adam two questions:

  1. Who told you that you were naked?
  2. Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?

We see in Adam’s answer that he ignores the first question ( subject of other writing) and only answers the second question by way of blaming Eve if not God for his eating that which was forbidden. In some mystical way Haman is prefigured in the Torah as the allure of not taking responsibility for what Adam himself did and hanging the blame of others. Just as the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is removed from the tree at the start of our narrative, Haman is returned to the gallows he created for Mordecai at the end of the Megilah. There we see humanity is redeemed when Esther, who is hidden, reveals herself. She is the Eve who Mordecai and the rest of her people are proud to follow.

While these parallel images do frame the Eden and Purim stories, what I find most compelling today is the story of men not taking responsibility for their actions and blaming women. In all of the proceedings for Judge Kavanaugh for the open seat on the Supreme Court he has yet to take responsibility for anything he might have done consciously or unconsciously.  Regardless if Kavanaugh gets the seat or not, this whole situation has cast violence against women up against “being fair to men” that seems to be eerily prefigured by the Megilah. There King Ahasuerus orders Queen Vashti to come before the king wearing only her a royal crown, to display her beauty to the people and the officials. Upon her refusal he was incensed and did not know what to do so he turned to his advisers. There we read:

Thereupon Memucan declared in the presence of the king and the ministers: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation! “If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus. And let Your Majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she. Then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast though it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike.” (Esther 1: 16-20)

In our tragic version of the Megilah we make Dr. Chistine Blasey Ford show up to display her vulnerability to the peoples and the officials on national TV and still question the victim. Hiding behind a sham of an FBI report the advisers and the King are claiming that any concession to veracity Dr Ford’s accusations would lead to “no end of scorn and provocation” and be very bad do men. In a new low for the President and the country Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford at a rally in Mississippi, casting doubt on her testimony about her alleged sexual assault.

I for one want to thank Dr Ford, our modern-day Vashti, for elegantly, gracefully, and humbly showing up to show us that our elected officials of naked behind their crowns of power. This is a moment for us to reflect and redefine who has power in our kingdom. We need to be bigger than Haman, Adam, Memucan, or our modern-day King Ahasuerus and his officials. Power and gender need not be a zero sum game. And most urgently we see in the Garden of Eden as today, men cannot hide behind a woman. Men need to learn how to accept responsibility for their actions without blaming women. Truly that will be the only way we will uproot scorn and provocation from across the kingdom. Image result for senate confirmation dr ford

 

 

The Garden of Gratitude

Last Shabbat, being Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot,  we read Kohelet and this coming Shabbat, being the Shabbat after Simchat Torah, we will be starting to reread the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. How do we go from Kohelet to Genesis?

Kohelet is written from the perspective of Solomon. Like Siddhartha, Solomon was the king and had everything, but he gave it up to find a life a meaning.There we read:

I said in my heart: ‘Come now, I will try you with mirth, and enjoy pleasure’; and, behold, this also was vanity.  I said of laughter: ‘It is mad’; and of mirth: ‘What does it accomplish?’ I searched in my heart how to pamper my flesh with wine, and, my heart conducting itself with wisdom, how yet to lay hold on folly, till I might see which it was best for the sons of men that they should do under the heaven the few days of their life.  I made me great works; I built me houses; I planted me vineyards; I made me gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit. (Kohelet 2:1-5)

Solomon has everything, but he realizes that is it not enough. You can even see here in his trying to plant every kind of fruit that he is trying to recreate Eden itself with the trees of Life and Knowledge of Good and Evil.  There is a profound parallel here between Solomon ( Kohelet) and Adam.  As we read in Genesis

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may eat freely, but of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ ( Genesis 2: 16-17)

Why was the fruit of every tree except for this one not enough? This speaks to a profound truth to the human condition. If only we could conquer our inner need to have more, we might be happy with what we have.  In this time of year as we returned to nature in the Sukkah we tried in different ways to return to Eden. In the past I wrote about how the act of bringing together the four species on Sukkot itself is an act of putting the fruit of the tree of knowledge back on the  tree. But maybe that itself is missing the point.

Would returning to Eden and access to all of the trees itself be vanity of vanities? This year I want to focus on being grateful for all of the great things I  have in my life without wanting more.  I am truly blessed and I strive to be content. How will I tend my garden of gratitude?

Limitless: Möbius Torah 2.0

I love rereading Parshat Bereshit, this week’s Torah portion, anew every year. My one issue is that it really needs months to really get through all of the issues and themes brought up. But alas I wanted to share one thought of many. Here we read:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.’ (Genesis 2:16-17)

In the Garden of Eden, the man had no limits, except for not eating from the  tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It seems that our nature to strive to be  limitless, but it is this very innate drive that brings death.

The definition of our  humanity is our being limited by our mortality. What are the implications of  for our morality? How do limits, both mortal and moral, help us create meaning in our lives?

Similar to what Shalom Orzach and I did when we created  Möbius Torah: The Media and Message of Torah and Teshuva we were inspired by McLuhan’s  “The medium is the message“ of the Möbius medium and the advent of the Book of Genesis.  This inspired our creation of Limitless: Möbius Torah 2.0 which explores some ideas in the Divine infinitude and our human limits.

To make a Möbius Torah please:

  1. Print this page our on Ledger (11×17) sized paper. This will ensure it is big enough to read.
  2. Cut out the table on the sheet.
  3. Fold along the dotted line with the writing facing outwards.
  4. Bend Paper  into a circular shaped cuff.
  5. Tape the ends to create a möbius strip as in this picture.Image result for mobius strip
  6. As you learn it turn it and turn it again because there is no beginning and no end to learning Torah.
  7. Alternatively you can just learn the text without the arts and crafts project, but that would not be as much fun.

With Möbius Torah we hope to create a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message the Torah is perceived. Please print this out and enjoy. It has been a pleasure playing with Shalom in the bringing you this Torah. As always I would love your input and ideas for other ways to make revelation relevant, engaging,  and more accessible. So please do be in touch.

Naming the Naming Project: A Deep Look at Adam and the Human Project

With the Holidays behind us, we are back in the Garden of Eden with our annual rebooting of the Torah reading. It really feels like we are starting our year again from the beginning. We are again introduced to Adam.  I am struck every year how familiar and yet how completely other-ly his character seems.  Who was Adam?

Here in Beresheit, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

And God Almighty formed from the earth every beast of the field and every fowl of the heavens, and God brought [it] to man to see what he would call it, and whatever the man called each living thing, that was its name. And man named all the cattle and the fowl of the heavens and all the beasts of the field.: (Genesis 2:19-20)

Adam named all of God’s creatures. But is that who he is? It is clear that none of us can be minimized or limited to a job description. But this work is not simply giving names to things. In this work he needed to define his relationship with them ( Yevamot 63a). In giving them names he also had to determine their relationship to each other. What are categories of animal life? To name God’s creations he needed to create language and an entire taxonomy of creation. This means that for Adam to do his job he really needed to come to a deep understanding of the world around him.

It seems that our job and our identity as human beings is still to make sense of the world around us. It is interesting to realize that in so many ways we are still striving to create a language to make order of the chaos of our experience of the world.

In terms of Adam’s initial job he have maps that classifies the animal world.

Besides the incredible history of cartography of the world around us we are also running to map the world inside us in the Human Genome Project.

 

Similarly we strive to organize our understanding of the chemical world:

 

This Periodic Table inspired this Tiffany Shlain’s periodic table of character traits.

SOC_Periodic_Poster_small.png

In tern this inspired my own Making Mensches Periodic Table, which eventually turned into this:

I like to think of this work as the genome project of the soul.

But we are just getting started. There are those who look to map our experience of flavor:

 

Figure 2

And even smell:

There has been similar work to understand music. This has been popularized by Pandora.  Similarly I recently discovered the Art Genome Project which is an amazing effort to classificy the characteristics that connect artists, artworks, architecture, and design objects across history. And there is Scott McCloud‘s brilliant categorization of comic art:

And even efforts of map out the history of philosophy:

And this is just the tip of the iceberg of all of our naming projects. It seems Adam’s job is hard-wired into who we are as human beings. We just need to name it that in a very deep way Adam is who we are striving to become.


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