Archive for the '2 The Book of Exodus' Category

The Plural of Ross: The Art of Education

In parshat Terumah  we learn about Betzalel the chief artisan of the Tabernacle and all of its accoutrements. He was said to be highly gifted as a workman, showing great skill and originality in engraving precious metals and stones and in wood-carving. He was also a master-workman, having many apprentices under him whom he instructed in the arts. There we read:

And Moshe said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehudah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to work in every kind of designer’s craft and to give directions.  He and Oholiab son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan have been endowed with the skill to do any work—of the carver, the designer, the embroiderer in blue, purple, crimson yarns, and in fine linen, and of the weaver—as workers in all crafts and as makers of designs.(Exodus 35:30–35)

Betzalel was not a consultant or a trained artist brought in by the contractor to do this work. Like the rest of the people building the Tabernacle with him, he was a recently escaped slave. I can only imagine what it meant to be in the company of such a natural master artist. What did it mean to work for him if you were not a master artist?  

Thinking of Betzalel makes me think of Bob Ross the American painter, art instructor, and television host. Ross was the creator and host of The Joy of Painting, an instructional television program that aired from 1983 to 1994 on PBS. Ross went from being a public television personality in the 1980s and 1990s to being an Internet celebrity in the 21st century, becoming popular with fans on YouTube, Twitch, and many other websites many years after his death.

It was one thing to be a master artist. It is another to lead non-artist step by step to create the Tabernacle. Being able to both is really extraordinary.

In my last 12 years working at the Foundation for Jewish Camp I have been blessed to meet some extraordinary Jewish educators. Thinking about Bob Ross, makes me think another Ross. Jon Adam Ross  has spent nearly 20 years making art with religious communities around the country as an actor, playwright, and teaching artist. Jon was a Spielberg Fellow in Jewish Theater Education with the Foundation for Jewish Camp and has spent many years on our Cornerstone Faculty. In 2015 Jon received a Fellowship from the Covenant Foundation to create the In[heir]itance Project.

As an actor, Jon has performed his solo shows in over 90 cities around the globe. Beyond his skill at performance, Jon is a master educator. It is uncanny how he draws people into theater, narrative, and self-discovery. Step by step he can take non-thespians and empower them to perform.

Like Betzelal before them, Bob and Jon Adam Ross give us a sense of divine spirit involved in being to ” give directions.” Being educators is another media of their artistic expression. 

Revelation of Universal Design

Sally was excited to go to camp as a new camper. At the same time, she was anxious to see how it would work in light of her being deaf. She was hopeful that it would not be a problem because she knew how to read lips. Sadly, some things just did not work for her. Evening programs that were held outside were alienating. She could never really trust the blindfolded trust-walk. At night with her bunkmates in their cabin she was left out of conversations happening in the shadows. Camp was supposed to be a place where she could belong, but that was not her experience. While she knew it was not her peers’ intention, she felt less than; she surely did not feel like she belonged. 

There are echoes of this feeling among the Israelites when Moshe tried to free them from slavery. In an effort to win their emancipation, Moshe went to Pharaoh to ask if the Israelites could go on a holiday outing. Instead of granting the Israelites a celebration in the wilderness, Pharaoh increased the burden upon them by maintaining their quota of brick production while cutting their supply of straw. Frustrated by their increased work load the Israelites complained to Moshe and Aaron. They said, “May God look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants” (Exodus 5:21). Prior to this decree they were slaves, but they could at least take pride in the fruit of their labor. It seems that the last straw was not the lack of straw, but the degradation of working all the time and not being productive. They thought that they smelled worthless. They felt less than; they did not feel like they belonged.  

We are left wondering why the Israelites perceived that the Egyptians saw their odor? This blending of sight and smell indicates a deep insight into their perceived lack of value. They were embarrassed that the shoddy quality of their work reflected some lesser quality of their being. We see a similar synthesis of senses in last week’s Torah portion, Yitro. At Sinai they saw the sound of thunder (Exodus 20:15). In Egypt their odor was exposed, at Sinai the sublime beauty of God was revealed. 

What did not work for the slaves making shoddy bricks and did not work for Sally at camp might offer us a deep understanding of the nature of revelation. When we feel excluded, we are embarrassed, and we feel that we do not belong. When we look past the content of revelation to the modality, we see a profound call for Univeral Design. Universal Design is the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors. The synesthesia at Sinai was designed to be inclusive without diminishing the experience for anyone. While Sally might not have been able to hear the sound of thunder, she would have been able to see it. If someone could neither see or hear they could have felt the vibrations. Universal Design is not a synonym for compliance with accessible design standards, rather the aesthetic of synesthesia at Sinai is a standard of beauty, spirituality, and communication to all.  

In describing the Israelite’s experience at Sinai in Deuteronomy it says, “those who stand here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with them who is not here with us this day”. (Deuteronomy 29:13-14) What does this mean if revelation at Sinai happened thousands of years ago? What does it mean that this day there was revelation with the people who were not even there? Rashi cites the Midrash Tanchuma to explain that this is the source for the tradition that all Jews, from all generations, stood at Sinai. We were all there to experience revelation.  

Every soul is unique, every Jew has their place at Sinai, and everyone belongs in our community. By adapting Universal Design strategies, we can make sure that everyone has an extraordinary experience. As we celebrate JDAIM, Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month, we need to reconnect to the lesson from the synesthesia at Sinai. As we learn from Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: every day a heavenly voice of revelation goes out from Sinai (Avot 6:2). Designing with every soul in mind is not easy, but we get to work on it every day. No one should feel less than, or left in the dark. 

– Links to other posts on synesthesia

I am Me: Modeling Authenticity

In Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, we get the Ten Commandments. In simple terms it seems that the commandment are directives as to what we should or should not do. For this reason that first commandment seems complicated. There we read, “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2) This seems more like a PSA than a law. Most interpret this as a negative precept “not to entertain the idea that there is any god but the Eternal.” ( Rambam Minyan Mitzvot) Clearly the belief in God is foundational to the Bible and I know that they believed in other gods in Egypt, but I have trouble imagining that this was first message that God wanted to give this band of recently liberated slaves. If this is the case,, what is the true meaning of this commandment?

At the simplest level in this first commandment God is identifying God’s self to the Israelites. As if God is saying, “I am Me”. In this context, it is less of a injunction against believing in other gods and more of God showing up as God’s authentic self. It resonates with the words of Polonius when he said:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee! (Hamlet, Act-1, Scene-III)

To these slaves who have been told who they are and who they are supposed to be this is a powerful message. God is modelling what it means to be free. Show up as who you want to be. As Brené Brown says:

Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.

That must have felt liberating. This ideating set a foundation of authenticity upon which to build the rest of the commandments, Torah, and Jewish life.

I have been thinking about this recently during the entire Bernie Meme experience after the inauguration. Most people might have been offended by being the butt of all of these jokes, but not Bernie. He is the model of authenticity. Bernie knows exactly who he is. He was right on brand. Not only was Bernie not offended, he used the moment to get attention for the causes he believes in and the meme to sell merchandise which earned over $1.8 Million for Vermont charities he supports.

Image
Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!

On another level there might be deep connection between being true to yourself and the prohibition to believe in other gods. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” If God knows who God is and we know who we are, everything else is already taken.

The Art of War: Rethinking Our Political Pickle and the Parsha

Like everyone else, I have been replaying the terrorist attacks of January 6th over and over in mind. How did this come to be? What were they thinking?

Seeing that it was an act of war, in thinking about this I got to rereading the Art of War by Sun Tzu. There in the chapter on maneuvering he wrote:

Do not interfere with an army that is returning home. When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard. ( Art of War 7:35-36)

The Sun Tzu attack theory, the Russian and Chinese hybrid strategy

Reading this not not excuse the actions of these terrorist, but it does help me better understand them. I appreciate that they felt cornered and that they did not have a choice. I also see how for the faction there that we white nationalist, they feel that the new diverse administration is an impediment to their “returning home”. They have a mythical belief that America was a white country. Make America Great Again is their battle cry. I can understand this feeling, but can I sympathize with it?

As we see in B’Shalach, this week’s Torah portion, we see that soon after allowing the children of Israel to depart from Egypt, Pharaoh chases after them to force their return. The Israelites find themselves surrounded. They are trapped between Pharaoh’s armies and the sea. Instead to trying to fight the Egyptian army, Moshe is instructed to raise his staff over the water. A this moment the sea splits to allow the Israelites to pass through evading the pursuing Egyptians. The lesson is that despite the feeling of being cornered, there is always a plan C. We just need to be creative.

I can strive to understand and even sympathize with the insurrectionists, but that does not preclude my need to stand up against them and what they stand for with all of my might. They need to believe that there is a way out. This does not mean that the enemy is allowed to escape. They all need to be held accountable for their actions. The object, as Tu Mu, 9th Century poet, puts it, is “to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair. After that, you may crush him.” But we need to do that in the courts. Adopting military or pugilistic language will only fuel their imagination that they are cornered making them more viscous. While it might seem like we need a miracle, we need to pause and think about creative ways through the pickle we find ourselves.

Good Riddance

At the start of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, we hear God instructing Moshe to go to visit Pharaoh to warn him of the plague of locusts. It is curious that God does not tell him to go, rather, to come to Pharaoh. We read, “God said to Moshe, ’Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst.’” (Exodus 10:1). It is even more confusing for Moshe who grew up in the house of Pharaoh assuming the Pharaoh himself was a god. What does it mean that God might be with Pharaoh?

This question gets even more complicated next week in Beshalach. There we see that it is Pharaoh who sent the Israelites from Egypt and God that did not allow them to take the most direct route to the Promised Land. Is it possible that Pharaoh has the power to release the Israelites and God is the obstruction?

It is clear that God is everywhere, and that Pharaoh is not a god. But it is still challenging to think that God stands with evil or next week God gets in the way of a clear path toward justice. It would have been much easier for Moshe to exact the plagues against Pharaoh, his court, and all of Egypt without having to be reminded that God is to be found in evil people. Even if Pharaoh is evil he can be a source of redemption. We are all created in the image of God. Evil when confronting injustice we must be reminded of the divine potential of the oppressor.

Moshe loyally follows God’s directions, but that does not absolve him from having to navigate his own moral compass. Yes, we need to find a way to speak truth to power. In life’s journey, we can never forget our sense of direction. If we forget this, we will not know if we are coming or going.

Pictures Show Donald Trump Leaving the White House for the Final Time As  President

Like many others I am relieved and even thrilled that we had a peaceful transition of power and Trump is gone. In the spirit of this lesson we contemplate the good in saying, “Good Riddance”. He is no righteous person, but still he deserves a blessing. I am reminded of something my Oma used to say, ” Gehe mit Gott, aber geh! – Go with God, but please do go”.

Merit of Female Leadership: Exodus and Our Generation

Recently I have found myself listening to to Kings & Queens by Ava Max. Yes it is pop, but I do think it has a powerful messages here about female leadership. Give it a listen:

But why have I been thinking about this song? Yes, I am also excited for Vice President Harris’s inauguration. There is also the line “Disobey me, then baby, it’s off with your head” is taken from the 1865 book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by the Queen of Hearts . This is resonating for me with Pelosi‘s handing Trump his second impeachment. And how much do we owe Stacey Abrams for getting Georgia to give the Democrats the Senate.

In light of the insurrection in DC this song took on new meaning after the I heard U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) speech on January 6th. A combat veteran of the Iraq War, Duckworth served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot. In 2004, after her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by Iraqi insurgents, she suffered severe combat wounds, which caused her to lose both of her legs and some mobility in her right arm. She was the first female double amputee from the war. Despite her grievous injuries, she sought and obtained a medical waiver that allowed her to continue serving in the Illinois Army National Guard until she retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2014. Standing in the Senate floor in front of her “Law and Order” Republican colleagues she said:

I earned my wounds, proudly fighting in a war I did not support, on the orders of a president that I did not vote for – because I believed in, and still believe in, the values of our nation… I regret that I have no rucksack to pack for my country, no Black Hawk to pilot, nor am I asking for any grand gesture to my Republican colleagues. All that I’m asking of you is to reflect on the oath that you have sworn, the damages done to our union today, and the sacrifices that have given so much to this nation.

Hearing the depth of what she was saying I found myself singing the line from Kings & Queens when she sings:

And you might think I’m weak without a sword
But if I had one, it’d be bigger than yours

In the Torah portions we read around now we read about the lives of the Israelites in slavery and their exodus from Egypt. We learn in the Talmud:

In the merit of the righteous women who were in that generation, [the children of] Israel were redeemed from Egypt. (Sotah 11b)

Again it is clear that redemption will come from the merit of the righteous women female leaders of our generation. Thank you.

Assembling Big and Small

As we come to the close of the book of Exodus with Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei we come together to  assemble. At the start of this week’s Torah portion we learn:

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל  

Moshe then assembled the whole Israelite community… (Exodus 35:1)

On a related note Rav Nachman of Breslov the 18th Century Chasidic Master taught:

The essence of Teshuva– return is in the month of Elul because it is during these days of favor, when Moshe ascended Mt Sinai to receive the second set of Tablets and opened an yet-charted path in which to go. Now, the path which Moshe made is this: Moshe bound himself with even the smallest Jew, and gave of himself for them, as it is written, “But if not, please blot me out!” (Exodus 32:32). This is also the meaning of: “And Moshe assembled…” (Exodus 35:1)—that Moshe would gather, unite and bind himself with all of Israel, even with the smallest of the least. This is the meaning of “They have entirely withdrawn; together” (Psalms 53:4). Even when I see a Jew who has totally withdrawn from God, I nevertheless need us to be “together”—I must unite and bind with him, just as Moshe did. (Likutei Moharan, Part II 82:3:1)

I was thinking about this Torah from Rav Nachman this last week.  This last week was supposed to be FJC’s Leader’s Assembly. In this biennial conference we bring together 800 Jewish camp professionals, lay leaders, and supporters of the field of Jewish summer camp Sunday- Tuesday in Baltimore. In addition I was planning to spend last Shabbat with over 40 camp directors from outside of North America.  Alas with the onset of COVID-19 – this did not happen. A week prior we called it off and then within 48 hours the team turned it around and produced an amazing virtual conference.

It was an amazing experience to get together with that many people in the cloud when so many of us were quarantined at home. The FJC team did an amazing job helping the field of Jewish camp chart a new path to assemble and connect with each other. While we know that the coming weeks and months we find ourselves in uncharted territories, together we must keep our eyes on the future of the field, its continued growth and the important, life-long community that camps build. Despite the mandate for social distancing we know that we still need to assemble.

Amidst these tumultuous times it is clear to me that camp leadership are acting as Moshe did giving of themselves and doing whatever it takes to draw our community together no matter the barriers or challenges.  Like the days of Elul- in coming to Jewish camp we return to a utopian vision of the world and do Teshuva to return to better versions of ourselves. Camp is the opposite of social distancing. Camp is the place of belonging. From the smallest camper to our teens, to new staff members, to year round professionals, to their families, to board members, to all of our supporters Jewish camp brings them “together”. It is at camp that any Jew big or small can connect to Jewish Life, develop a passion for Israel, feel like a part of a vibrant Jewish community, or even discover God.

This Leaders Assembly was proof that people really just wanted to assemble. I am in awe of these leaders’ capacity to give of themselves. Right now the world needs Jewish camp more than ever. We all seek belonging and they are playing a critical role. Together we need to “unite and bind” us and assemble all of Israel.

Biblical Proportion: Making Meaning in Difficult Times

In these troubling times we find ourselves amidst a plague, governmental incompetence, and political unrest of biblical proportions. I find it hard not to connect to this week’s Jewish calendar and Torah portion in visceral ways. First we have the odds game with COVID-19 and the lots drawn on Purim sealing our fate as people. My family’s lack of patience waiting at home to leave voluntary quarantine and the Israelites’ impatience as Moshe to come down from Mt.Sinai. Moshe himself spending 40 days up on Mt. Sinai and the endless hours in the Zoom Cloud. In thinking about Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion, I am struck by  the interaction between God and Moshe after the GCI (Golden Calf Incident). 

While Moshe is up on Mt. Sinai getting the Ten Commandments the people are below sinning with the Golden Calf. Moshe comes down from Mt. Sinai and deals with his people.  And then we  read,

31 And Moshe returned unto the Lord, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. 32 Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray of You, out of Your book which You have written.’ 33 And the Lord said unto Moshe: ‘Whosoever has sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book. (Exodus 32: 31-33)

If God does not keep God’s promise to the Israelites, Moshe asks to be erased. While Avraham confronted God at his destruction of Sodom, Moshe pulls off the ultimate Keyser Söze. As imperfect as they are, Moshe puts himself on the line and casts his lot with the people of Israel. One compelling reading is the Moshe breaks the fourth wall sharing with us the reader his consciousness of being the protagonist of our story ( see Stranger Than Fiction). 

Another understanding of this is that Moshe was opting into a life of meaning with his people and with there narrative. As Viktor Frankl said, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.” Moshe is modeling for us what it means to opt into a life of meaning and allowing his narrative and our collective narrative to be one. In so doing, Moshe is the model for living a life of biblical proportion. Like Moshe, we can read ourselves into the narrative we can share our suffering and add meaning to our lives. 

image1.jpeg

Eventually COVID-19 will pass and we will leave this quarantine. The next time I see a person wearing a mask I will just think of Moshe  descending Mt Sinai with his radiant face having to cover his face with a veil(Exodus 34:33). I cannot be the only one living a life of biblical proportion.

Heroic Breastplate

There is so much heaviness in the world right now. I really just wanted to think about something positive and protective. In Tetzave this week’s Torah portion God instructed Moshe to make sacral vestments for Aaron: a breastpiece (the Hoshen), the Ephod, a robe, a gold frontlet inscribed “holy to the Lord,” a fringed tunic, a headdress, a sash, and linen breeches. The Hoshen is particularly ornate with its rows of stones. There we read:

Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes. (Exodus 28: 17-21)

This sacred breastplate was worn by the High Priest. It has a number of names. It is called the efod, the Hoshen Mishpat- the breastplate of judgment, and the Urim and Thummim. With all of its splendor and their names engraved, this was clearly a central symbol of unity of the Israelite Tribes.

I was thinking about this image a few month ago when we brought in Isaac and Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik to do a workshop for a group of assistant camp directors. Their work had us bring together pop culture, comic books, art and Torah study to make out our own Paper Midrash. It was a  sophisticated text study through a unique art practice, leveraging contemporary narratives from comic books, movies and other pop culture to inspire new insights into traditional texts.

In their workshop I let my mind go and explored my own understanding of leadership in light of comic book heroes and this vision of the High Priest from this week’s Torah portion. I came up with this:

 

 

In my breastplate the stones themselves where made out of the breastplates of 12 different comic book heroes. It is interesting to realize that they all wear their identity on their chest for all to see. The bottom of this is Kavod, the honor and respect, that is the foundation of all leadership. If you do not lead from that place  you are no superhero. It seems that now more then ever we need unity, protection, leaders who put themselves out there and a renewed foundation of respect.

Cultural Gifts of the Heart: Encounter and Terumah

As Torah portions go, this is a big week. In Terumah we start getting the blue print for the Tabernacle. There is a clear plan for what will be built and made, but that is not where they start off this large-scale project. Rather, they start off with themselves. As we read:

‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering.( Exodus 25:2)

While their gifts are going to fit into a very clear and focused plan, their gifts were not all the same. The gifts were not of the same value, but all valuable becasue they were from the heart. At the center of our national narrative is a collaborative non-profit project that celebrates the diverse offerings of every individual while working toward a common goal. And about this project God says:

And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

The text does not say “make this building so that I can dwell in it“- the Tabernacle, but rather in “them”. When building the Tabernacle we were building a place for God to be with us.

Image result for encounter israel

I was thinking about it this week while I was in Israel on Encounter. It is am amazing program that seeks to grow the Jewish community’s capacity to contribute to a durable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which all parties live with respect, recognition, and rights. One theme that emerged from the myriad of lessons that I learned this week is the need to divide the seemlingly intractable political and security issues of the conflict from the cultural and human elements. Had the conflict preempted my ability or interest to see Palestinians as a people with a unique a rich culture? Did this two dimensional image of Palestinians bar my ability to see them as anything other then enemies?

While there is no clear blue print for building a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the one thing that is clear is that the Deal of the Century is not the answer. Nothing unilateral will work. Before we get to solutions that will cost a lot of money or bloodshed we need to do something that costs us nothing. We need to pay each other respect. Nothing will work if it does not allow for all of the different voices in the conflict to be heard and respected.

Encounter was filled with experiences of Palestinian education, arts, and culture which transformed me. I am not saying that this shift will erase the conflict, but I know that erasing Palestinian culture does nothing good for anyone. When we are open to what our neighbors contribute to our larger society, we start to see each others as people and it has the potential to sactify the world. In contributing to the larger society we see our national worth. In appreciating each other’s contributions we learn to respect for each other as nations. We do not need to get lost in who gave more or less, we just need to see, enjoy, and respect the gifts of the heart. When we give and receive these gifts of culture we can make room for each other and even God in our lives.


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