Archive for the '1.03 Lech Lecha' Category

Ukrainian Torah: The Kedushas HaLevi on Avram

Last week on Facebook Rabba Leah Sarna wisely asked, “What Ukrainian Torah will you be teaching?” I know that it is complicated for us as Jews to related to this question. While there is a rich history of Jews in the Ukraine, it has been far from all possitive, and relatively few Jews there understood themselves to be Ukrainian. That said, Zelenskyy, their heroic President, is one of us.

So I let the question marinate for a moment. This circumstances of Russia’s war on Ukraine got me thinking about the War of Nine Kings which is described in the Torah in Genesis 14:1–17. The Torah explains that the Battle of Siddim occurred between four Mesopotamian armies and five cities of the Jordan plain. According to the biblical account, the Elamite King Chedorlaomer subdued the tribes and cities surrounding the Jordan River plain. After 13 years, four kings of the cities of the Jordan plain revolted against Chedorlaomer’s rule. In response, Chedorlaomer and three other kings started a campaign against King Bera of Sodom and four other allied kings.

Avram intervened to save him cousin Lot who was caught up in in the middle of the war. There we read:

They seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Avram’s brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom. A fugitive brought the news to Avram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Avram’s allies. When Avram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.

Genesis 14:11-14

In his eponymous book the Kedushas Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (Levi Yitzchok Derbarmdiger) (1740–1809) shared his thoughts on Avram’s heroic activity. It it relevant to me the Berditchev is in the Ukraine.

There he wrote:

“when Avram heard that his kinsman had ‎been taken captive,”(Genesis 14:14) When the Torah continues and speaks ‎about Avram taking with him 318 men in his pursuit of ‎Chedorlaomer and his armies as far north as the tribal territory of ‎Dan (in the future), the number 318 is not accidental, but ‎represents the numerical value of the word ‎שיח -to speak‎, another word for ‎דבור -to speak‎, suggesting that Avram defeated these armies by means of ‎uttering the holy name of God. ‎The word ‎דבור ‏‎ also means ‎הנהגה- leadership; the word ‎שיח=318‏‎ ‎also occurs in the sense of ‎השפלה- humiliation, i.e. Avram ‎humiliated these boastful kings. The word occurs in Proverbs ‎‎23:27 in that sense, i.e. ‎שוחה עמוקה זונה‎, “a harlot is a deep pit.” ‎‎

Kedushat Levi on Genesis 14:14

So how does Avram seek to save Lot? According to the Kedushas Levi there might have been any of four ways, but all of them are rooted in this number 318 having the gematria value of an act of speaking. The four ways are:

  1. Saying ineffable name of God. This is an allusion to when ‎Moshe killed the Egyptian in Exodus 2:13, an act referred to in ‎Exodus 2:14 as having been accomplished by a אומר- saying a word.
  2. Avram acted was through his leadership.
  3. Shaming Chedorlaomer.
  4. Something ambiguous regarding a harlot being as a deep שוחה- pit.

It is noteworthy that the holy Berdichever was a Hasidic master and Jewish leader who was also known as the “Sneiguron Shel Yisroel”-defense attorney” for the Jewish people, because he would intercede on their behalf before God. Known for his compassion for every Jew, he was one of the most beloved leaders of Eastern European Jewry. He very much saw his own role as someone who would use his words like Avram for his brethren.

So what do we make of the Berdichever’s reading? When Avram sees Lot in danger he intervenes. His mode of attack is actually with words and not soldiers. There are four ways:

  1. Through the revelation of God’s name.
  2. Through diplomacy and leaderships
  3. Through shame
  4. This whole thing with the harlot is still not clear to me.

Clearly this story the War of Nine Kings is relevant to what we are seeing as the Russian attack on Ukraine. There is merit to look to Avram for guidance as we determine what we should do in response. We are all appalled by this violence, horrified by the enormity of this refugee crises, of AND terrified by the prospects of World War III.

So what do we make of this four-fold Ukrainian Torah of the “Sneiguron Shel Yisroel”-defense attorney” for the Jewish people at this moment:

  1. Through the revelation of God’s name- While it is easy to imagine that this crisis is just about NATO, East vs West, or Putin’s power game at home, it is critical to reframe things. This is actually a religious war between Russian Orthodoxy and the West. For Putin this is a crusade for the  “spiritual security”  of their historical “Third Rome” concept. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, explained in early 2019, “Ukraine is not on the periphery of our church. We call Kiev ‘the mother of all Russian cities.’ For us Kiev is what Jerusalem is for many. Russian Orthodoxy began there, so under no circumstances can we abandon this historical and spiritual relationship. The whole unity of our Local Church is based on these spiritual ties.” Even if you say that Avram used words to combat Chedorlaomer, words can kill. Words of being rational will not end a crusade. We might need to fight religious war with religious rhetoric. It did not help when Pompeo hailed it as a “historic achievement for Ukraine” which represented America’s “strong support for religious freedom.” We are playing into the story of the East being the infidels in this Russian Orthodox crusade (for more on this see this compelling article.)
  2. Through diplomacy and leaderships. NATO like Avram needs to step up to lead with sanctions and political impact to support Ukraine and fight this Russian invasion.
  3. Through Shame- Unlike absurd Kremlin propaganda lines about “Ukrainian Nazis” perpetrating  “genocide” against Russians, we need to get the truth out there. That said, we should be worried about shaming Putin any more than he is already embarrassing himself. If he cannot leave with his pride, many more people will die.
  4. So when it comes to this harlot, I think about the old joke. There man says to a woman, “Would you sleep with me for one million dollars?”. The woman says sure. The man replies, “How about for ten dollars?”. The woman replies, ” What? Do you take me for a common whore?” The man retorts, “We’ve already established that. All we’re doing now is negotiating the price.” Why would she care about being called a whore? Once we sell ourselves, the price is just a detail. Words are just words, at some point we are only judged on our actions. While the Kedushas Levi imagines that Avram intervened with his 318 men means with his words, at some level Avram acted and brought in his army to end the war and save Lot. At some point words are not enough and we will need to actually intervene.

So when we think about the Ukrainian Torah, think about the ways we can try to intervene, end this war, and save lives.

Lessons from the Second City: Rethinking Rebuilding

-written with Stefan Teodosic

On October 8, 1871, a fire broke out in Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn on the southwest side of Chicago, Illinois. It soon spread to envelop the entire city. Lasting until the 10th, the fire burned through the heart of Chicago, killing 300 people, and leaving one-third of the city’s population homeless. 150 years ago, while the embers were still smoldering, they started the process of rebuilding Chicago. The destruction was devastating, but it’s the rebuilding of the city that has drawn our attention today. While some rushed to rebuild Chicago the way it had been, others set out to realize a new vision for what Chicago could become. The “Great Rebuilding” was a bold effort to construct a new urban center. 

Michigan Avenue bridge relief in Chicago. The relief called Regeneration depicts workers rebuilding Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; Shutterstock.

Their vision for a new Chicago would include new architecture. The Windy City built skyscrapers with steel and terra cotta. They changed major systems including laying the city out in a grid and making trash alleys to improve their waste removal. They also took care to protect themselves against future fires. To this end, they passed new laws requiring new buildings to be constructed with fireproof masonry and sprinkler systems and people to purchase fire insurance. They also opened an academy to train firemen. 

Accomplishing these things required alignment amongst organizations and partnerships between government, companies, investors and philanthropists. In short order, boosters needed to communicate this opportunity with all stakeholders, including citizens, to move forward on these fresh, transformational ideas for a safer, nicer and more resilient Second City. This new metropolis would become the home to big businesses, innovative buildings and a new style of architecture. 

It has been 150 years, but where is the Jewish community today? We have been dealing with COVID-19 and its variants for over 19 months. Having just finished the holidays, we look forward to the work ahead of us in 5782. In many ways the embers are still smoldering. Are we going to rebuild our community the way it was, or are we going to set out a grand revision for our communities’ “Great Rebuilding”? What lessons can we learn from Chicago?

Just as they did, we have to rise up and meet the moment, make sustainable change and lay the foundation for the future. We must co-create an intentional process to assess the damage, see what should be salvaged, and bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to do an intentional, thoughtful, transformational visioning process. We need to see the blessing in the crisis and not just recreate what we had. Like the boosters that led the rebuilding after the Chicago fire, we need to tell a new story. We need to move beyond the trappings of tradition for its own sake, embrace this opportunity together to identify shared outcomes, and figure out our priorities, strategies and the resources we will need to achieve this vision. We need to create ownership and buy-in at all levels of the community and create partnerships within and across sectors. This coalition of the willing will have to align and seize the opportunity with passion and a unified sense of purpose. 

Just saying it does not make it easy. To do this we will need to be courageous, vulnerable, open and trust divergent perspectives. We will need to explore possibilities for our future with childlike curiosity along with well-tempered discipline to pursue this new venture. And even when we can articulate a shared vision, we will need to follow a methodical change management process. We will need to continue to measure our success and failures against agreed upon outputs and outcomes. And like the fire academy, we must teach the next generation so they are prepared for the next trauma no matter what it might be. We need resiliency in this chaotic world where the only constant is instability. 

While Chicago focused on its buildings, we need to evolve our organizational architecture. How will we rethink our finances, human resources, technology, marketing and communications, governance and training of our professionals and board members? How will we rebuild our communities while prioritizing the mental, emotional, social and spiritual health of individuals? Just as Chicago redrew the lines of how the city was organized, we too need to open up lines of communication and collaboration between different sectors of engagement and education (overnight and day camps, youth groups, schools, congregations etc ), critical mass builders (JFNA, Movements, North American intermediaries like FJC, Prizmah, Hillel, Moishe House etc), funders (philanthropists and local Federations), government and other partners in the Jewish communal ecosystem in North America, Israel and around the world.

We happen to be two Jewish camp guys at heart. While we are always working to add value in our own spaces, we know we each have a limited perspective. If there ever was a time to look beyond ourselves, our assumptions, our individual communities and our own sector – to listen to a diversity of ideas, priorities, experiences and perspectives and share how our work and vision may intersect and impact each other in the broader communal field – it’s now. It is imperative that we lean in and listen to the needs of the Jewish people, not just Jewish institutions. We need to adopt a truly inclusive approach, based in a posture of abundance. We will not be successful if we start with scarcity and judge people based on a current or past level of participation or engagement. All of our voices and our data have to be in this process. If not we could build something thoughtful and intentional, that flat out misses the mark. 

This past Shabbat we read Lech Lecha, in which Avraham and Sarah strike out to innovate and build a new nation. Similarly, this is our chance to do a grand re-envisioning and to imagine a new way to organize and explore Jewish life. Survival is not enough. Rebuilding the way it was or just adapting it is not enough. As we emerge from COVID, we have the opportunity to learn from the Second City, disrupt the status quo, and build a better, more resilient community for the future. What will our community look like in a year? In 10? In 150? 

The two of us may be starting this conversation, but we are hoping that you will continue it. Whether you show up as a Jewish communal professional, an individual community member or a lay leader, your unique voice is integral to weaving the rich tapestry of the Jewish life of tomorrow. If you are interested, please add your voice to this conversation. How might we rebuild Jewish life anew? Introduce yourself, share your thoughts, and identify how you’d like to take part in this process here. We would love to be in conversation. 

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow (he,him) is the vice president of innovation and education at Foundation for Jewish Camp. He can be reached at avi@jewishcamp.org 

Stefan Teodosic (he,him) was a longtime Jewish camp director/executive director and is the founder of Maverick Soul Consulting, based in Chicago. Maverick Soul provides a trusted, collaborative teammate with corporate experience and a nonprofit soul in the areas of vision, strategic planning and change management. He can be reached at Stefan@mavericksoulconsulting.com  

Reposted from eJp

Start of the Mission

Any story are defined by their beginning. This idea is put forward by Rashi in his first commentary on the Torah. There on Genesis 1:1 he wrote:

Rabbi Isaac said: The Torah which is the Law book of Israel should have commenced with the verse, “This month shall be unto you the first of the months”(Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment given to Israel. What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? Because of the thought expressed in the text (Psalms 111:6) “He declared to God’s people the strength of God’s works (i.e. He gave an account of the work of Creation), in order that God might give them the heritage of the nations.” For should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be God; God created it and gave it to whom God pleased. When God willed God gave it to them, and when God willed God took it from them and gave it to us” (Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187).

Rashi on Genesis 1:1

Why not just start with our story of us as a nation? Rashi’s answer is that the creation story gives us a claim to the land of Israel. But like most things the question is better than the answer. I would offer that a stronger answer might have been that this singular origin story creates a common context for the beginning of our story as humanity. This start forms the ethical foundation for our society ( see: Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). No one is better or more important than anyone else because we all come from the same beginning. By starting with our common biological origin we all live in the context of a story where despite or because of our differences we have moral obligations to each other.

But, we read Bereirshit a few weeks ago. Why am I bringing this question up now when we read Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion?

Here at the start the story of the first Jewish family. There we read:

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. I will bless those who bless you.And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth. Shall bless themselves by you.” Avram went forth as the LORD had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

Genesis 12:1-4

Why doesn’t Rashi ask his question here? Again we could have started our collective story with “This month shall be unto you the first of the months”(Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment given to Israel. You can claim the same answer that this is the proof of God promising to give Avraham and us the Promised Land. But, I would argue that just as Adam and Eve gave us a common biological origin, Avram and Sarai give us a common ideological origin. By starting our national story with Lech Lecha, our ideological origin story, we all live in the context of a story where despite or because of our ideological differences we are bound to each other. Even if it does not always seem like the case we are all on the same mission. Though we might debate and fight, we are all beneficiaries of their project. No one is better or more important than anyone else because we all trace the idea of Judaism back to this moment when Avram set out to ” make a great nation”. Lech Lecha literally and figuratively gives birth to Judaism as a movement.

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.

Start With Why: On Noah, Avraham, and 10th Grade

My son Yadid was asked to give a D’var Torah at his 10th grade Shabbaton. I love how he really thought about the best message for his peers. What does it mean to be in 10th grade? I love how deep and inspiring he is. I love that he is exploring his passions. Enjoy:

In the beginning of this week’s torah portion, Noah is described as a tzadik, perfect in his generations; Ish Tzadik Tamim Haya B’Doratav. Why does the Torah write, in his generations- B’Doratav ?

Rashi answers this question saying that in comparison with his own generation Noah was accounted righteous, but if he had lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been nobody of significance. So I had to ask, WHY is Avraham the model Tzadik and WHY is Noah sub par? 

I recently saw a Ted talk by Simon Sinek, that helped me answer that question. He drew this chart to answer his own question, WHY are some leaders able to inspire, while others aren’t? And he explained it in the following way:

The Golden Circle

Every single person, every single organization knows WHAT they do. 100 percent 

Some know HOW they do it 

But very, very few people, or organizations know WHY they do what they do. What is your purpose, what’s your cause, what’s your belief? 

He explained that most people communicate from the outside in, starting with the what, and ending with the WHY. We should be doing things in reverse, like Apple. As Simek says:

They begin by saying everything we do, we believe in changing the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers, want to buy one? There’s nothing that makes Apple structurally better than any other company, their competitors are all equally qualified to make these products. In fact DELL tried this. They released an mp3 player. they make perfectly designed, quality products and nobody bought one. We can’t even imagine buying a MP3 player from DELL, WHY would you buy a MP3 player from a computer company, But we do it every day. People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it. The goal is not to do business with everyone who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe. 

So if Simon Sinek were to answer the question, WHY is Avraham the model Tzadik and WHY is Noah sub par? 

Noah is told to build an ark, that is the WHAT. He is given instructions, that is is the HOW. It is only after this that God even informs him of God’s plan to destroy the world. The WHY is to save the animals and humanity from the flood, but it comes after the WHAT and HOW. As we will see next week, Avraham starts with WHY. Lech Lecha– go to yourself, become your authentic self. HOW? Journey from your home of origin. WHAT? Build a great nation. Sinek would most likely say that Noah was like DELL. He went from the outside, in- WHAT, HOW, WHY whereas Avraham is like Apple- going from the inside out, WHY then HOW, then WHAT.

In preparing this Dvar Torah I thought to myself, what do all of us have in common, we are all in 10th grade. Last year 9th Grade was about orienting to high school. Next year is about the SATs and ACTs. And 12th grade is about college and Israel. But what is 10th??? It could be nothing, just a WHAT- going to class. This year could easily pass us by. Or, if we take advantage, 10th grade could be, no, should be the year we find our WHY!

I have been struggling to find my WHY, but after my dad pressured, day after day, I think I’m getting closer. My WHY is that I want to inspire people, my HOW is developing my public speaking skills, and my WHAT often is me talking with people, chilling, and right now, my WHAT is this Dvar Torah. Now I hope to inspire you to move beyond Noah, beyond the WHAT and HOW perspective, and think like Avraham, starting with WHY! 

Some of you might look at me asking “I don’t have my WHY, so what should I do?” My suggestion for you is to try one on! You might be worried that you will try out a WHY and realize it’s not for you, but as we learn from the sage, Rick Sanchez, from Rick and Morty, “It’s about the journey, not the destination” In the pursuit of our WHY’s, we will learn how to live passionately, inspiring others. 

Mark Twain said, “the two most important days in your life are when you are born and when you find out WHY.” so I ask of us, all of us, What is our WHY!??!   Thank you, and good shabbas. 

I am so proud of his guy. Clearly our family are Sinek Hassidim. Here are other pieces I have written over the years on his Torah:

The Beginning and End of War: A Thought on Lech Lecha

My Opa always used to say, ” Never start a fight, but always end it.” We are not a nation of warriors, but we should never shirk our responsibility to stand for justice. There is no doubt that was the life of Alfred Katz z”l. We see a similar lesson from Avram in Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion.There we see a coalition of kings joined together to fight another group of kings.  There we read:

Now, when King Amraphel of Shinar, King Arioch of Ellasar, King Chedorlaomer of Elam, and King Tidal of Goiim made war on King Bera of Sodom, King Birsha of Gomorrah, King Shinab of Admah, King Shemeber of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar, all the latter joined forces at the Valley of Siddim, now the Dead Sea. ( Genesis 14:1-3)

A fugitive brought the news to Avram, who mustered 318 supporters, and pursued the invaders north. Avram and his servants defeated them at night, chased them north of Damascus, and brought back all the people and possessions, including Lot and his possessions. When Avram returned, the king of Sodom came out to meet him and offered him all of the booty. Avram replied:

“I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Avram rich.’ (Genesis 14: 22-23)

While Avram did not start the first war, he did end it.

It is reported in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that the first use of a word in the Torah holds it essential meaning. With the war between the kings we have the first use of the word milchamah and the invention of war. From its inception the problem of war is the desire and restitution of property. War is born our of the realities and the perceptions of scarcity.

If this is the start of war, where does it end? How might we live out the prophecy of Isaiah? There are instructed:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, And their spears into pruninghooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

Like Avram and Alfred we need to “Never start a fight, but always end it .” To do this we need to ensure that everyone has what they need to survive. We also need to ensure that we fight the culture of scarcity. To truly end war we need to cultivate a culture of abundance. When we do that we will shift from just surviving to truly thriving.

Another blog on this lesson from my Opa

Where the Sidewalk Ends

What is the nature of beginnings? Seneca said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”  The start of something new means that something else ends, but does it also mean that eventually the very thing you are starting will eventually end with something else’s beginning? I was thinking about this when reading the start of Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. There we  read:

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. I will bless those who bless you. And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” ( Genesis 12:1-3)

This is the start of the Jewish project, but what is the end of that project? While many people throughout history have tried to answer that question for us, for now I rather keep in a lighter note. When talking with my friend Shalom Orzach recently he connected this charge to Avram to go out with Shel Silverstein’s poem Where the Sidewalk Ends. There we read:

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

Image result for where the sidewalk ends
It is true that cosmology points us to eschatology, but it can be playful and it does not have to be so darn gloomy. Regardless, we can all enjoy the adventure. It is always refreshing to read Lech Lecha and reconnect with our beginning and reassess if we are going in the right direction.

How Great are Commandments?

Despite only being eleven years old, Yadid decided to fast this year on Yom Kippur. Being that he is not yet a Bar Mitzvah (13 years old) he had no obligation to do so. We were clear with him that if he ever wanted to eat or drink he should stop fasting. At the end of the break Adina, Yadid, Libi and I were headed back to synagogue for Mincha. At this point Yadid asked, ” Is it harder for people who do not see themselves to be obligated to keep mitzvot to fast on Yom Kippur? I mean since I know I can eat it makes it even harder for me not to eat.”

At the time Yadid’s question makes me think about  Lech Lecha, this weeks portion. Here our nation’s journey begins with God instructing Avram (soon to become Avraham) to leave his birthplace and set out to start a new people in a new land. What a novel concept? A people collected by common belief as opposed to an accident of birth place. But if we were paying attention to the end of  Noah, last week’s portion, we would have seen that the destination for Avram’s travel was not new at all. Terach, Avram’s father, had set out with his family toward the land of Canaan, but never got there. While it seems that Avram was more successful than his father in terms of getting to the land of Canaan, as we see later in the this Torah portion in Avram’s travels to Egypt he was equally unsuccessful as his father in terms of staying in Canaan. How are we to compare the Avram’s divine quest with Terach’s life journey?

In the Gemara in Kidushin 31a (in a totally different context) we learn that,  “Greater is the one who is commanded and does then the one who is not commanded and does”. This sentiment can be explained with a basic understanding of the human need to combat authority. It  is more meritorious to overcome our need to rebuff authority and comply than to just do something for its own sake. It is interesting to ponder the opposite of this adage. How would you compare one who is commanded and does not comply to the one who is not commanded and does not comply? The first one is testing the limits of authority, but still might be in a relationship with the authority. The later is just not doing anything at all.

Surely Terach’s intentions were good, but we do not know them. At first Avram is successful in following God’s direction to go to the land of Canaan, but soon after he gets there he does not stay. But still he aspires to go and does eventually comply and settle in the land of Canaan. In many ways we are all still beneficiaries of this aspiration and this relationship. Beyond the scope of going to Israel, we all fail to fulfill God’s commandments, but with clear expectations it is possible for us to try again and succeed.

Yadid’s question was special in that it came with a certain openness. I hope Yadid maintains this openness for many years beyond his becoming a bar mitzvah. There is still more depth of the question, but alas even thinking about it makes me hungry.

– Borrowed from older post

 

Atlas and the High Priest Shrugged : Caring about and Carrying the Jewish Future

A number of months  ago when we were reading parshat Tetzaveh we read about the sacred clothes made for Aaron and his sons who are going to be the priests. It says that these vestments provide them glory and splendor (Exodus 28:1). It is clear that there are many layers of meaning behind all of the layers of the clothing of the priest, but this week I want to focus in on the Ephod. There we read:

And they shall make the Ephod of gold, of blue, and purple, scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of the skilful workman. It shall have two shoulder-pieces joined to the two ends thereof, that it may be joined together. And the skilfully woven band, which is upon it, wherewith to gird it on, shall be like the work thereof and of the same piece: of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen. And you shall take two onyx stones, and grave on them the names of the children of Israel: six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the six that remain on the other stone, according to their birth. With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, you shall engrave the two stones, according to the names of the children of Israel; you shall make them to be inclosed in settings of gold. And you shall put the two stones upon the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, to be stones of as a remembrance for the children of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for a memorial.  (Exodus 28:6- 12)

I have a pretty good imagination as to what the Ephod looked like, but what is the meaning of the two shoulders memorials? For whom is this a memorial? Quoting the Midrash  on this Rashi comments:

“As a remembrance”  So that the Holy One Blessed be God should see the names of the Tribes written before God’s self and give thought to their righteousness.  ( Shmot Rabbah 38:8)

The shoulder gems are not for the High Priest, but rather for God. But, why does God need these? Does God need a cheat sheet to remember our righteousness? What is the purpose of these memorials? And why on the shoulders?

These questions made me think about the story of Heracles and Atlas. As one of his Twelve Labors  Heracles had to fetch some of the golden apples which grow in Hera’s garden, tended by Atlas’ daughters, the Hesperides, and guarded by the dragon Ladon. Heracles went to Atlas and offered to hold up the heavens while Atlas got the apples from his daughters. Upon his return with the apples, however, Atlas attempted to trick Heracles into carrying the sky permanently by offering to deliver the apples himself, as anyone who purposely took the burden must carry it forever, or until someone else took it away. Heracles, suspecting Atlas did not intend to return, pretended to agree to Atlas’ offer, asking only that Atlas take the sky again for a few minutes so Heracles could rearrange his cloak as padding on his shoulders. When Atlas set down the apples and took the heavens upon his shoulders again, Heracles took the apples and ran away.

What does it mean to carry the weight of the world? It does not seem to be an honor, but rather a horribly onerous task. In light of this we see the severity of the role of the High Priest. He is carrying the weight of the Jewish world on his shoulders. But, why are we revisiting Tetzaveh now?

This week in Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion, we meet Avraham when the project of the Jewish people was in it incubation stage. Avraham questions God: “What can you give me, I am childless?” God answers by promising Avraham that he will have children. God directs Avraham outside and asks him to look up and count the stars, saying “Thus will be your descendants” ( Genesis 15:2-5). Avraham is alone in his relationship with God. Like Atlas he bears the weight of the world. God’s answer to Avraham is that we will be as many as the stars in the sky. We each have our own role to play in the future of the Jewish people. Who will bear the weight of the Jewish people? Will it be the High Priest or each and every descendent of Avraham?

We have seen how power can make those who are burdened with its weight crumble. While we clearly need better oversight over our leaders, another approach is to insist that each of us carry our weight. If we do not run off after the apples, but stay and are willing to hold up our end of the bargain Avraham has no reason to fear.  It seems as if we are currently caught in some sort of complex prisoner’s dilemma in which we are all Hercules trying to dupe someone else into carrying the weight of the sky. Surely Avraham’s project will only work if we all do our part in carrying and caring about the Jewish future.
– For another take on Atlas see here.

 

 

Seeing the Smoke

When the fumata bianca, white smoke, goes out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel it announces that the convening of the College of Cardinals has made their selection. The people looking on in the Vatican cheer at the election of a new Pope. Seeing that I am not Catholic I could only imagine my elation at that moment, before this past Sunday.

This past Sunday I had the pleasure of going to the installation of Rabbi Asher Lopatin as the new head of  Yeshivat Chovevei Torah,my Alma mater. Rav Asher is going to be a wonderful replacement for Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of YCT. It was a wonderful event that brought out an amazing group of people. While there was some sadness that there was no one there from Yeshiva University or other factions to the right, there was an amazing showing from leadership on the left. This was emblemized by the roundtable discussion featuring Rabbi David Ellenson, Dr. Arnold Eisen , Rabbi Arthur Green, and  Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson before the formal installation. It was uplifting seeing so many luminaries from all over the Jewish world join a very young Orthodox Seminary in welcoming in their new leader. It was a singular moment in celebrating the unity of the Jewish people.

At some moment in there I got scared thinking that we had indeed sent out the fumata bianca, but maybe there was no out there cheering us on. Maybe everyone who cares about the unity of the Jewish people were already there in that room.  Still wading through the aftermath of the Pew Study, I could not help but fear for our sustainability. While I loved so many people in that room, I could not help but fear that we might be alone in our joy? What does the future look like?

I was thinking about this when reading Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn about the beginning of Avraham’s journey. We read,

God said to Avram,  “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)

And with these words Monotheism is off and running. It seems that so much happened in this short directive. What awakened in Avram the awareness of God? What ever it was it seems significant in that it changed the course of history?

In the Midrash Rabbi Isaac compares Avram’s thinking to that of a man who was traveling (Genesis Rabbah 39:1). While going from place to place he sees a building in flames. The man wonders whether it was possible that the building could lack a person to look after it. At that moment, the owner of the building appeared and said that he owned the building. This is similarly to Avram questioning whether it is conceivable that the world could exist without a Guide to look after it. At that moment, God told Avram that God is the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe. This is what the Torah records in the words ” Lech Lecha- Go for yourself”

This metaphor is deep. Avram could have spent his life looking back over his shoulder to Haran. Instead he is out there engaging the world around him. Recognizing the world that he is coming into he seeks an explanation of order. God responds to that  openness, empathy, and curiosity by telling him to move into the future- ” Lech Lecha- Go for yourself”. And on another level it is interesting to realize that we all want to be discovered and recognized, even God.

Like Avram, YCT could spend its days looking over its right and left shoulders and waiting to be recognized. Instead I think we need to be out there doing the holy work of engaging the world around us. The values of openness, empathy, and curiosity have become the hallmark of YCT. Rav Asher is a master of lovingly disagreeing with the other parts of our family. We need to stay uncompromising in keeping the vision of the unity of the Jewish people as our guiding light. And we need to be out there helping other people follow Avram’s example.


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