Archive for the '5.08 Nitzavim / VaYelech' Category

Standing There Today

Recently I have been thinking about the lines between performers and audience. Specifically I was thinking about this when reading  Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with the Lord, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Not with you alone do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before the Lord, your God, And with whoever is not here with us today.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

What does the Torah mean “whoever is not here’? There was clearly an audience to the Torah at Sinai, how could people who are not there connect to the experience. Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

Even if we accept that all of our souls were brought to Sinai and that in some way our souls accepted God’s Torah as binding upon us, how could that acceptance and oath be valid? We certainly have no recollection of ever being present at Sinai and making an oath. So, how are we to understand the Midrash and the Rashi who claim that all of the generations were at Sinai, accepted the Torah, and that it is a binding agreement?

This question gets spelled out graphically in the Gemara in Shabbat. There we learn:

“And they stood under the mount” ( Exodus 19:17)  Rabbi Abdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said: This [literal reading ‘under’] teaches that the Holy One, blessed be God, overturned the mountain upon them like an [inverted] cask, and said to them,’If you accept the Torah, all is well; if not, there shall be your burial.’ Rabbi Aha ben Jacob observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah [It provides a legitamate excuse for non-observance, since it was forcibly imposed in the first place.] Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahashverosh [the King from the Purim story in the book of Esther] , for it is written, “[the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]”( Esther 9:27) [i.e.,] they confirmed what they had accepted long before. ( Shabbat 88a)

The Gemara reframes the acceptance of the additional commandments instituted around the holiday of Purim to be an acceptance of the entirety of the Torah. This is interesting in many ways. The part that interests me today is how it shifts their role. In the Revelation story, God is on stage and we are the audience. In the story of Purim we are not even sure if there is a divine audience, but we are clearly on stage. At Sinai we were the consumers of Torah and then on  Purim we become producers. When Jews choose to participate in Jewish life, we too becomes producers and enjoin ourselves to divine act of revelation. In this way we are really standing there today.

 

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Showing Up as a Prosumers: Standing at Sinai and the Foo Fighters

Recently I have had a number of conversations with people about the aesthetic involved in crafting a wedding. It is noteworthy that in most weddings the committed couple is very much ushered through the event. It often feels that the couple is on stage performing the ritual with the help of a mesader kedushin and we their friends and family are their audience. In many ways it seems that Temple Grandin was the architect of the ritual ensuring that the couple go straight through the experience getting hitched without a hitch.

My suggestion is to ritualized a moment during the ceremony where the tables are turned and the people who come are on stage and the couple is the audience. Surely the guests did not just show up to see the new couple they also came to be seen. There are a number of ways to do this, but this is no doubt a holy moment and a great use of time. If done well every can truly be present at this meaningful moment of creating community, and that moment will last forever.

This idea of showing up and blurring the line between performer and audience was beautifully explored at a now famous Foo Fighters concert. While the design of a concern is that there is a small group performing and a mass of people in the audience. At this concert there were 1000 musicians all playing the Learn to Fly at the same time.  Check out the video:

You can see in their participation the joy of really showing up and being seen. They are true prosumers of culture making something excellent for the sheer love of it. At the end of the video the organizer said it best that the true audience of this 1000 person rock band was actually just the 5 band members of the Food Fighters.

I was thinking about the porous lines between the performers and the audience this week when reading  Parshat Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with Hashem, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaakov. NOT WITH YOU ALONE do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before Hashem, your God, AND WITH WHOEVER IS NOT HERE WITH US TODAY.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

On this  ‘WHOEVER IS NOT HERE‘ Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

What does it mean that we were all there? I hope that we were not just on stage getting married. I like to think that the revelation at Sinai we allowed God to show up, be “seen”,  and be part of the experience. In my mind Sinai was millions of us musicians rocking out “Learn to Fly”.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

– For another piece on prosumers check out Tail of Two Jewries: Some Innovative Lessons From Chris Anderson and Jewish Summer Camp

Getting Past the “How” of Torah: For the Love of Learning

In Nitzavim VaYelech, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the reception of the Torah. There we read:

For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ (Deuteronomy 30:11–13)

Learning should be hard, but not to hard and definitely not out of reach. Here we see learning Torah depicted as some elaborate scavenger hunt. What zeal would we bring to trying to learn Torah if it was in fact hidden in the heaven or on the other side of the ocean?

I was thinking of this when I saw this article on dangerous journeys to school around the world. Here are two pertinent images:

Not in Heaven:

children-going-to-school-around-the-world-25

Beyond the Sea:

children-going-to-school-around-the-world-42

It is inspiring to look at the rest of the images. In the world there are so many barriers to education, but as you can see there is still a hunger to learn and grow.

In our community there are many efforts to make Torah more accessible, but still people feel alienated. What are we missing? Perhaps we have made Torah too accessible? We have lost our zeal. Would we try harder if it was in heaven or across the sea? But I do not think that is all of it.

We fail because we have not done a good job expressing the “why”? Yes I am Hassid of Simon Sinek.  And if you have not seen this TED talk please stop everything and watch it now.

Why is learning valuable? I have my thoughts on this, but for now I just want to put the question out there. In Sinek’s words,

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.

As we prepare for the High Holidays it is interesting to think about your own “why”. And once we figure out our “why” it will not matter if learning Torah is in heaven or across the sea, that is just a “how”.

Our Real Center

In Netzavim Vayeilech, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the commandment of Hakel, the ingathering. Once every 7 years, the entire nation would gather in the Tabernacle and alter in the Temple in a reenactment of the giving of the Torah. This national expression of devotion served as an essential reminder that Torah was at the center of their national experience. Thousands of years later, I believe that it is still critical to maintain Torah at the center of our national consciousness. But what is the Torah that keeps us unified, without subjugating us to one notion or another of uniformity? It is often helpful to explore the intellectual limits of Judaism in an effort to deduce the center. Like the Jewish people the meaning of the Torah is wandering throughout history. I doubt that this will be something that I will be to resolve in this lifetime let alone a short blog post.

It might helping thinking about this question in the context of other aspects of Hakel itselfWhile, they came every 7 years to hear the Torah being read we do not know how well they listened. All we know is that they were asked to show up and they did. While, we in Western thinking often disappear into the world of our heads, we should not forget the importance of being together physically in one place even or especially when we do not agree with each other.

We recently just finished summer camp and next week we will all be together for Rosh HaShanah. It is truly amazing getting together with so many people with whom you have a connection in one place. There is a certain excitement that cannot not be discounted. While, this is amazing we cannot forget the importance of having one place for the Jewish people all the world over.  In the words of Ahad Ha-am, Israel is our “spiritual center” for a cultural and spiritual revival of the Jewish people. While it is important for us all to be grappling with the same Torah, we cannot undervalue the importance of having a geographic epicenter for our people. With things looming in Syria it is impossible for our thoughts not being with our Jewish family in Israel during this time of Year. May we all be in-gathered and inscribed together in the Book of Life.

Just A Game

I wanted to share with you (again) one of my favorite stories said in the name of Maggid of Mezritch.  Once a Rebbe was walking and he saw a young boy crying sitting behind a wall. The Rebbe asked the boy why he was crying. The boy responded that he was playing hide and seek with his friends. The Rebbe said, ” But, that seems like a fun game. Why are you crying?” The boy explained that he was crying because he thought that his friends forgot about him. And hearing  this the Rebbe started crying. They boy asked the Rebbe why he was crying.  The Rebbe responded, ” Now I know how God feels”.

This week, in Vayehlech, this  week’s Torah portion,we read:

17 Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? 18 And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods. ( Deuteronomy 31:17-18)

This is the Bible’s play at theodicy. God is not responsible for bad things happening, he is hiding his face in history as a response to our bad deeds. It is our fault for God being absent. But I think it is more constructive to understand this idea in the context of the Maggid’s storyof a God who is playing hide and seek? Like the Rebbe I am sad to realize how many have given up on the game. God must be lonely. More than sadness thinking about this today makes be feel terrified. I am terrified  by those who forgot it was a game. There is a troubling rise of militant fundamentalism ( in all religions) who are so committed to their ideology that they cannot enjoy the playful nature of living in a world with doubt and wonder. And even worse, they have grown callous to seeing the pain of others. It is disheartening to see that we are living in a world that is painfully divided. Personally I am not invested in your finding God or proving to you that God cannot be found.  I am invested in realizing that the game is worth playing. If for no other reason than in the process of playing we might learn how to play together nicely.

 

2nd Quadrant

As I prepare for Rosh HaShana I have been giving some thought to how I might better use my time this coming  year. I got to thinking about Stephen Covey ‘s Four Quadrants. I have found this concept of a time management matrix for prioritizing very helpful. The system asks you to use of four quadrants to determine the tasks you “need” to do and deciding what should be made a priority. For those who are not familiar with it, here’s a picture and a brief overview.

  • In Quadrant 1 (top left) we have important, urgent items – items that need to be dealt with immediately.
  • In Quadrant 2 (top right) we have important, but not urgent items – items that are important but do not require your immediate attention, and need to be planned for.  This quadrant is highlighted because this is the quadrant that we should focus on for long-term achievement of goals
  • In Quadrant 3 (bottom left) we have urgent, but unimportant items –  items which should be minimized or eliminated. These activities suck a lot of out time.
  • In Quadrant 4 (bottom right) we have unimportant and also not urgent items – items that don’t have to be done anytime soon, perhaps add little to no value and also should be minimized or eliminated.

In Covey’s words we should create habits that put “first things first to achieve effectiveness. Too often decisions are guided by the “clock” of scheduling and not by the “compass” of purpose and values. In Covey’s words, if people want “to live, to love, to learn, and to leave a legacy” they need to move beyond “urgency” . We need to strive to spend more of our time in the Quadrant 2.

So while preparing for the upcoming Jewish and academic years I get to reading the end of Nitzavim, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

15 See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil, 16 in that I command you this day to love the Lord your God, to walk in God’s ways, and to keep God’s commandments and God’s statutes and God’s ordinances; then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God shall bless you in the land when you go in to possess it. 17 But if your heart turn away, and you will not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; 18 I declare to you this day, that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days upon the land, when you pass over the Jordan to go in to possess it. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your seed. (Deuteronomy 30: 15-19)

It is interesting to realize that our lives are on a clock. We have no idea how long we have, but we do know that our time on earth is finite. It is also interesting to realize that the words “good and evil” are charged with meaning in the Bible. I am not sure that there is absolute good and evil after Eden. I would assume that good actually means that something is serving the expressed will of God. So instead of reading this as a simple choice of two paths, I prefer to see our Torah portion in the context of Covey’s Four Quadrants. While we hope to spend the most of our time doing things that are urgent and good, I have to realize that there are many things that take our time and are not mission aligned. I am not sure that they are false gods, but they are clearly a waste of the precious little time I have and de facto bringing me closer to death.

And more importantly, how much of this upcoming year am I going to commit to doing the things that are not urgent, but are good? Spending our time in the 2nd Quadrant  is clearly the divine way. There is much I hope to accomplished in my life, what am I doing to do this year to prioritize my time to achieve it?  May we all be blessed to have a year in the 2nd Quadrant.

Shanah Tova– Have a wonderfully sweet and mission aligned New Year.

 

MI Torah

I always think about how to make Torah relevant to myself, my family, the Jewish people, and the world. Torah is unchanging, but what it means is always evolving. Torah will not survive in a museum behind glass. This idea is well articulated in Nitzavim / VaYelech this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

12 It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’     13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ 14 Rather the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it. (Deuteronomy 30:12-14)

There is no agency. Torah is supposed to be for all of us.  While it seems the plain reading is that to understand that Torah is not just for learning, but rather for action. That seems to sell learning short and worse miss too many students. Torah itself is learned in many ways. Rashi comments that” in your mouth” implies the oral Torah as much as the written Torah, but I still think that is missing the mark. Torah can be learned in many different ways including “in your mouth” (speaking and tasting), “in your heart” (emotional intelligence), and action itself.

Howard Gardner, the renowned developmental psychologist,  believes that there are multiple intelligences.  This graph does a good job breaking out the different ways people learn.

It is true, Torah is not in heaven. It is also true that Torah is not limited to the Beit Midrash or the School. Torah is out there in the world. There is no one else who can bring it to you. It is very near to ourselves and we must figure out for ourselves and help each other realize in ourselves what kind of student we are and our way of discovering Torah.  I am not saying that Torah is innate. We still have to do something to reveal it. Maybe in future posts I will look at the different intelligences individually. For now I can say that there is no one way to learn Torah.

On the recent occasion of  sending Yishama to kindergarten a teacher at the Carmel Academy, my children’s’ school, sent this video to me . Enjoy.

I sincerely hope that I am able help each of my children find his or her own path in Torah and his or her own variety of success in the world. There are many gates to the Torah. I hope to give my children the keys and never be perceived as a gate-keeper. An empowered child will transform our world in ways we have yet to imagine.  As we move to Rosh HaShana I hope that we all reconnect to our inner intelligence and open more gates in the days, weeks, and years to come.


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