Archive for the '8.4.4 Passover to Shavuot' Category

FOMO and the Question of Pesach Sheni

On the first anniversary of Passover — one year after the Exodus from Egypt  — the people were instructed to offer the Paschal Lamb sacrifice as they did in Egypt. This  plan did not work out for everyone. Since some of the people were doing the holy work of dealing with the dead they had come into contact with human corpses, were ritually impure, and could not participate in this rite. As we read:

Appearing that same day before Moshe and Aaron, those men said to them, “Unclean  by reason of a corpse, why must we be denied from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” (Numbers 9:6-7)

Moshe asked them to wait while he asked God for the answer for their query. God’s response is Pesach Sheni. This Friday is the day when those that were left out of the communal experience of Passover are invited back for a do-over. 

We jump from their question right to God’s answer: these Israelites were allowed to offer the Paschal Lamb sacrifice a month later. What the story doesn’t explore, however, are what motivated them to approach Moshe and Aaron with their question in the first place. What were their emotions while waiting for an answer? Surely, it must have been painful for them to be denied this central communal experience. These Israelites were “essential workers” who were caring for their community. They were being excluded and clearly yearned to be part of the group.  It could be argued that this was the original case of FOMO  (fear of missing out).

Experiencing 'Data Fomo'? - Appsee - Medium

The theme of “yearning” has always been poignant to me, and seems to take on particular resonance this year. Many of our children feel this sense of yearning right now after hearing that their camp will not or might not run this summer. And even though we know that someday this pandemic will pass and we can return, it doesn’t mitigate the sense of loss we are experiencing in this moment.

When my father passed away, I read many books on grief and loss. One quote that has stuck with me comes from Martin Prechtel’s The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise. He writes: 

Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.

Before we run ahead to meet the demands of the day — and we will —  let’s reflect on this praise for what our children miss. Our campers and staff members who will be stuck at home feel homeless without camp. 

In a poem about Israel, Yehuda HaLevi, the 12th Century Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher, wrote, “ My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west”. Similarly our teens who were going to go to Israel- long for a homeland thousand of miles away where they have never been. They are  yearning to be part of Jewish Life.  This crisis has been unsettling, but the tribute being paid to the places we call home is a foundation upon which to build. We will figure out  our do-over to reconvene as a community, but today on the answer of Pesach Sheni let’s honor the question. Let’s honor our children’s yearning. 

-cross-posted at FJC Blog

Terrible Things Without Empathy: Yom HaShoah in the Year of COVID- 19

Recently my colleague Teri shared this children’s story by Eve Bunting. Here is the story:

The clearing in the woods was home to the small forest creatures. The birds and squirrels shared the trees. The rabbits and porcupines shared the shade beneath the trees and the frogs and fish shared the cool brown waters of the forest pond. Until the day the Terrible Things came. Little Rabbit saw their terrible shadows before he saw them. They stopped at the edge of the clearing and their shadows blotted out the sun. “We don’t have feathers,” the frogs said. “Nor we,” said the squirrels. “Nor we,” said the porcupines. “Nor we,” said the rabbits. The little fish leaped from the water to show the shine of their scales, but the birds twittered nervously in the tops of the trees. Feathers! They rose in the air, then screamed away into the blue of the sky. But the Terrible Things had brought their terrible nets, and they flung them high and caught the birds and carried them away. The other forest creatures talked nervously among themselves. “Those birds were always noisy,” the squirrels said. “There’s more room in the trees now,” the squirrels said. “Why did the Terrible Things want the birds?” asked Little Rabbit. “What’s wrong with feathers?” “We mustn’t ask,” Big Rabbit said. “The Terrible Things don’t need a reason. Just be glad it wasn’t us they wanted.” Now there were no birds to sing in the clearing. But life went on almost as before. Until the day the Terrible Things came back. “We have no tails,” the frogs said. “Nor do we. Not real tails,” the porcupines said. The little fish jumped from the water to show the smooth shine of their finned tails and the rabbits turned their rumps so the Terrible Terrible Things could see for themselves. “Our tails are round and furry,” they said. “By no means are they bushy.” The squirrels chattered their fear and ran high into the treetops. But the Terrible Things swung their terrible nets higher than the squirrels could run and wider than the squirrels could leap and they caught them all and carried them away. “Those squirrels were greedy,” Big Rabbit said. “Always storing away things for themselves. Never sharing.” “But why did the Terrible Things take them away?” Little Rabbit asked. “Do the Terrible Things want the clearing or themselves?” “No. They have their own place,” Big Rabbit said. “But the Terrible Things don’t need a reason. Just mind your own business, Little Rabbit. We don’t want them to get mad at us.” Now there were no birds to sing or squirrels to chatter in the trees. But life in the clearing went on almost as before. Until the day the Terrible Things came again. Little Rabbit heard the rumble of their terrible voices. “We have come for every creature that swims,” the Terrible Things thundered. “Oh, we can’t swim,” the rabbits said quickly. “And we can’t swim,” the porcupines said. The frogs dived deep in the forest pool and ripples spiraled like corkscrews on the dark brown water. The little fish darted this way and that in streaks of silver. But the Terrible Things threw their terrible nets down into the depths and they dragged up the dripping frogs and the shimmering fish and carried them away. “Why did the Terrible Things take them?” Little Rabbit asked. “What did the frogs and fish do to them?” “Probably nothing,” Big Rabbit said. “But the Terrible Things don’t need a reason. Many creatures dislike frogs. Lumpy slimy things. And fish are so cold and unfriendly. They never talk to any of us.” Now there were no birds to sing, no squirrels to chatter, no frogs to croak, no fish to play in the forest pool. A nervous silence filled the clearing. But life went on almost as usual. Until the day the Terrible Things came back. Little Rabbit smelled their terrible smell before they came into sight. The rabbits and the porcupines looked all around, everywhere, except at each other. “We have come for every creature that sprouts quills,” the Terrible Things thundered. The rabbits stopped quivering. “We don’t have quills,” they said, fluffing their soft, white fur. The porcupines bristled with all their strength. But the Terrible Things covered them with their terrible nets, and the porcupines hung in them like flies in a spider’s web as the Terrible Things carried them away. “Those porcupines always were bad tempered,” Big Rabbit said shakily. “Prickly, sticky things!” This time Little Rabbit didn’t ask why. By now he knew that the Terrible Things didn’t need a reason. The Terrible Things had gone, but the smell still filled the clearing. “I liked it better when there were all kinds of creatures in our clearing,” he said. “And I think we should move. What if the Terrible Things come back?” “Nonsense,” said Big Rabbit. “Why should we move? This has always been our home. And the Terrible Things won’t come back. We are White Rabbits. It couldn’t happen to us.” As day followed day Little Rabbit thought Big Rabbit must be right. Until the day the Terrible Things came back. Little Rabbit saw the terrible gleam of their terrible eyes through the forest darkness. And he smelled the terrible smell. “We have come for any creature that is white,” the Terrible Things thundered. “There are no white creatures here but us,” Bit Rabbit said. “We have come for you,” the Terrible Things said. The rabbits scampered in every direction. “Help!” they cried. “Somebody help!” But there was no one left to help. And the big, circling nets dropped over them, and the Terrible Things carried them away. All but Little Rabbit, who was little enough to hide in a pile of rocks by the pond and smart enough to stay so still that the Terrible Things thought he was a rock himself. When they had all gone, Little Rabbit crept into the middle of the empty clearing. “I should have tried to help the other rabbits,” he thought. “If only we creatures had stuck together, it could have been different.” Sadly, Little Rabbit left the clearing He’d go tell other forest creatures about the Terrible Things. He hoped someone would listen.

This story Terrible Things is a wonderful allegory of the Holocaust which is clearly based on the classic by Martin Niemöller. He famously wrote:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

In both forms of this story- we hear the clarion call for empathy and to stand up for people who are not like us. Image result for empathy

Much of education resolves around identity formation which often runs up against our capacity to empathize with those that are different from us.

With Yom HaShoa being today, I pause to contemplate the lessons of the Holocaust in the time of COVID-19. What does “Never Again” mean today?  So yes we need to call out and confront antisemitism in any form, but even with this vigilance we cannot forget everyone deserves our empathy. The universal nature of COVID-19 reminds us all to care for others. Our ignoring people who were suffering with this plague early on has literally put more people at risk. If we can relate to others  and stay home we can flatten the curve and build on that love. One of the lessons of Yom HaShoa is a demand for deep empathy.

No Need to Ask: On Love, Spring, Vulnerability, and the Splitting of the Sea

This year I have been completely absorbed by Yishai Ribo‘s music. Ribo is an Orthodox Israeli singer-songwriter who’s music reaches across the religious divide in Israel and beyond. For me it started with Seder HaAvodah in which he retells the story of the High Priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur in a way that is completely touching and accessible. He has a way of taking tradition and making it relevant today. Most recently he released Keter Melukha, a stunning study of his life through this year of COVID-19 in light the Jewish calendar. Ribo does not sacrifice depth to get his message to the masses. I guess it is not shocking that I love his music.

In preparation for the last days of Passover I have been listening to Lev Sheli- My Heart. Here is a live version he performed recently under COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. Enjoy:

There is so much I have to say about the lyrics to this song. I am actually in a process of making another contemporary page of TalmudI am not done yet, but I just could not resist sharing a thought on this song for Passover. The song starts off:

My heart is split in two

What the maidservant did not perceive by the water

Like a storm from the sea, it throbs

Like Miriam’s timbrel, it beats

And there is no cure in the world

My heart hold hands up

I stumble, can no longer stand on my feet

Just a wreck with no purpose

And the skies are like a wall to me

How shall I pass through the sea on dry ground

Ribo masterfully weaves together the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea and a love song. On Passover we escaped from Egyptians by walking through the sea on dry ground with the water on each side of us like walls.  After the miracle we hear the Song of the Sea and then Miriam leads them in her song with timbrels. Reading the lyrics in the context of Passover I have a few questions. Is Lev Sheli a normal love song? Is it a song about someone expressing his/her love for a partner or an aspiration of divine love?

To explore these questions I wanted to share a Mekhilta that Rashi points to in his commentary on the Song of there Sea in his explanation of the words “This is my God, and I will glorify God and I will extol God.” (Exodus 15:2). We we learn in the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael: 

Rabbi Eliezer says: Whence is it derived that a maid-servant beheld at the Red Sea what was not beheld by Ezekiel and the other prophets, of whom it is written (Hoshea 12:11) “And to the prophets I appeared (in various) guises,” and (Ezekiel 1:1) “The heavens opened and I saw visions of God”? An analogy: A king of flesh and blood comes to a province, a circle of guards around him, warriors at his right and at his left, armies before him and behind him — and all asking “Who is the king?” For he is flesh and blood as they are. But when the Holy One was revealed at the sea, there was no need for anyone to ask “Who is the King?” For when they saw God, they knew God, and they all opened and said “This is my God, and I will extol God (“ve’anvehu,” lit.: “I will ‘host’ Him”)!”(Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 15:2:2). 

Unlike the prophecy of Ezekiel that needed interpretation, what the maidservant perceived needed no framing. And yet Ribo’s love is beyond, “What the maidservant did not perceive by the water”. This love is so profound that he is open like the sea that is split open. This love is painfully obvious that everyone. When you see them in love there is really “no need for anyone to ask”.

As Brené Brown, my Vulnerability Rebbe, writes:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

Ribo is writing about vulnerability of being in love. Unmitigated love is an overwhelming and transformational experience. The holiday of Passover invites us to leave the darkness, hibernation, and solitude of winter to pursue the infinite light of spring. On Passover we own our story and lay our heart open to love again. Lev Sheli, like Song of Songs, which we also read on Passover, celebrates human love giving a holy voice to the lovers yearning. It is no mystery that Ribo is able to have a cross over hit between the religious and secular in that he has a cross over hit from the divine to the human. Now that is a popular love song.

-see earlier post on this long:  My Heart: A Different Love Song

-see other posts on Brené Brown and vulnerability:

 

Cinderella Story: Liberation from COVID-19

Hodesh Tov. With the advent of Nissan many of us have Passover on the mind. I am sure we all are looking forward to a new month, new fortune, and getting one step closer to liberation from COVID-19. With this is mind I was excited today when I saw Dictionary.com’s word of the day. (Yes, I am a devotee of getting to learn a new word everyday. It is no daf yomi, but I like growing on the daily.)So today’s word is Cinderella which is a person or thing that achieves unexpected or sudden success or recognition, especially after obscurity, neglect, or misery. As I learned on Dictionary.com:

Cinderella is a partial translation of French Cendrillon “Little ashes,” from Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre “Cinderella or the Little Glass slipper” (1697). The story of Cinderella is ancient: The Greek geographer and historian Strabo tells the earliest recorded version of the folk tale in his Rhodopis (written between 7 b.c. and a.d. 24), the name of a Greek slave girl who married the King of Egypt. The first modern European version of the folk tale appears in Lo cunto de li cunti “The Tale of Tales” (also known as the Pentamerone), the collection of fairy tales written in Neapolitan dialect by the Neapolitan poet and fairy tale collector Giambattista Basile (1566-1632), from whom Charles Perrault and the German folklorists and philologists the Brothers Grimm later adapted material. Cinderella entered English in the 19th century.

The familiar plot of Disney’s Cinderella revolves around a girl deprived of her rightful station in the family by her horrible stepmother and stepsisters. Forced into a life of domestic servitude, she is given the cruel nickname “Cinderella” as she is forced to tend the cinder from the fireplace. She accepts the help of her fairy godmother who transforms Cinderella so that she can attend the royal ball and attract the attention of the handsome prince. But, the spell will only work until the first stroke of midnight. While at the party Cinderella loses track of the time and must flee the castle before she blows her cover. In her haste, she loses one of her glass slippers, which the prince finds. He declares that he will only marry the girl whose petite foot fits into the slipper. Cinderella’s stepsisters conspire to win the princes’s hand for one of themselves, but in the end, Cinderella arrives and proves her identity by fitting into the slipper.

It seems that the story of Cinderella is very similar to the story of Passover. We were lowly slaves in Egypt and then out of nowhere Moses comes in as the fairy godmother to invite us to the big ball  ( insert 3 day holiday here). Pharaoh and his court play the role of the stepmother and stepsisters afflicting the Israelites with back-breaking work.  We were not prepared for this moment and at the first strike of midnight we had to run off (insert Matzah here). It is interesting how we commemorate this anxiety every year by mandating that we finish eating the Afikoman by midnight.

At this point in the yearly narrative, we have had our first encounter but still longing to rejoin God who is playing the role of the prince. While Cinderella was counting down to be discovered by the prince, the Jewish people are counting “up” to Shavuot. We are reminded that we are but slaves and we are on the march to complete freedom. It is understandable that we might get lost in the excitement of being asked to elope with God, but we are not yet secure that we will be discovered and ever escape our slavery. We are waiting for God to return to see if the slipper fits (slip on Torah here).

COVID-19 is a reminder that no matter our station, wealth, or class we are but human. Nissan and the word of the day are reminders that even a dirty human can ascend to great things. Ah, you got to love stories with happy endings. I hope that this COVID-19 story ends well and soon.

Changing the Narrative :Transgender Day of Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Each year on November 20th people around the world gather to mark and honor the memory of the transgender people whose lives have been taken in acts of anti-transgender violence. We memorialize those murdered and draw attention to the violence endured by transgender people. This is not me. It is hard to relate to this or anything else beyond my own life experience. As a cisgender heterosexual Ashkenazic white Orthodox Jewish man I connect to this day through the lens of  Yom HaShoah. Where Yom HaShoah marks on the calendar the senseless violence toward Jews for being different, we take time on this date to bring attention to violence towards transgender folk for being different. But this got me thinking, what else can be learned from Yom HaShoah for Transgender Day of Remembrance?
It is notable that we commemorate Yom HaShoah on the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising not on Tisha B’Av. This is a choice to change the narrative. Instead of it being a story of Jews being lambs lead to slaughter, we tell the story of a people who nobly fought back. This does not hide the horror or moral depravity of the perpetrators, but it changes how we see ourselves. We are not victims.
I was thinking about this recently when I watched this amazing video by Everlast. Please take a moment and watch this powerful short video”Be First” about Patricio Manuel the first professional male boxer who is transgender:

There Patricio Manuel says:

Unfortunately when you deviate from the norms that society has constructed,  you have to fight for that identity and you have to really make it yourself. I think a lot of people in boxing, who I talk to, they would come to me and say, “You could have been, you know, one of the greatest, you know, a world champions, and you would throw it all away to be yourself.” And I tell them that is how bad I felt living that lie. 
He clearly articulates the importance of living his true self. No one throws away the chance to be the best unless they need to do it. It is just that important. Patricio Manuel goes on to tell his uplifting story of his first victory as a professional male boxer. He is a total bad ass. 
Today we need to take the time and be honest about the horrors society has perpetrated and continues to perpetrate against transgender people. And at the same time we cannot limit our imaginations of transgender people to the role of history’s victims. Patricio Manuel, like Mordechaj Anielewicz before him, is heroically fighting to live his true authentic self.  On Transgender Day of Remembrance it is not enough to remember what we are fighting against. We need to remind ourselves what we are fighting for.  If we are willing to fight the good fight we can change the narrative. As Mr. Manuel said so well, “Living in your truth is going to hurt, but it’s worth it.”
Keshet has compiled some resources to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance: 
  • The TDOR Guide with readings, text studies, personal stories, calls to action and more.
  • This reading and list of resources about the history of Transgender Day of Remembrance.
  • A printable sign, reminding everyone that Trans Jews Belong in your community.
  • A list of the 22 trans people whose names we know who were murdered in 2019 due to anti-trans hatred can be found here.

Love Your Brother: Interdependence on Independence Day

This is a very busy time of year. Last week we had Yom HaShoah and today we commemorated Yom HaZikaron and tonight we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut. To end off this cycle of anguish and exhilaration, this Shabbat we read Kedoshim. There we read:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your brother. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18)

While the Golden Rule is supposed to be a guideline for all of society, amidst this week we cannot help but understand it in the unique national context of brethren. This week I saw a tear-jerking video on the tension between brothers that you should watch:

This gets to the foundation of our being brethren, but did we need to learn it from Adolf Hitler? And what will our understanding of who we are as a nation be when there are no more survivors in our midst to remind us?

If we did not learn this lesson from our Torah portion, we could also have learned it from any number of other places  in our tradition. I just found an interesting take on this Golden Rules by the Kav HaYashar,  Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover  a 18th Century teacher of Mussar. He wrote:

It is written, “And you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The Sages have remarked that this verse is a fundamental principle of the Torah (Toras Kohanim, Parashas Kedoshim 4). And there is no greater display of love than the mandatory rebuking of one’s Jewish brother if he sees in him some unseemly matter, that is, a sin or transgression. For the souls of all Israel are intimately connected to one another. (Kav HaYashar 5:1)

How can we be in a deep relationship with people who act differently without being so “judge-itive”? The nature of caring about people is caring about how they act. In a profound way our actions reflect on each other. This intimate connection should also be measured by how much we respect each other’s choices. This is the challenge for every family, nation, and our world today. This starts with how we model the bounds of respect with our siblings and children. We should be blessed to not need Hitler for this.

Yom HaAtzmaut is Israel’s Independence Day and a day for us  to celebrate our interdependence as a Jewish People. Chag Sameakh

Sweet Sweet Candy: A Thought for Yom HaShoah

Recently I was talking with my dear friend Rabbi Seth Braunstein about our synagogue’s Women’s Prayer group. They were having an issue in that the children were demanding to have a Candy Lady there, just as we have Chaim,our beloved Candy Man, in the regular service. The question was if the new Candy Lady should get the candy from Chaim Ezra. Why would Chaim Ezra pay for their candy?

Image result for dum dum lollipops

In thinking about this question I reflected back to a blog I posted back in 2011. There I wrote:

Our 7-year-old son, Yadid, recently went to the dentist who informed us that he has three cavities. My first response to the news was to cut the volume of candy in his diet. But how can I deprive him the experience of getting that lollipop from the “candy man” in our synagogue on Shabbat? The “candy man” is Chaim Ezra.  He is a saintly elderly man who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the forest.

My wife and I have chosen to not tell our children about the Holocaust until they are older. Too often our community has chosen to teach the Holocaust as an expedient educational route.  It takes a lot less time to teach someone how Jews died then how to live Jewishly.  My wife and I choose not to teach the latter partly because we don’t see the added value of educating our young children about anti-Semitism.  Why would I want my children to know anything accept for the sweetness of Jewish life?

For someone like Chaim Ezra who has tasted the bitterness of true hatred in his life, I cannot imagine denying him the joy of bringing joy to the next generation. We live in a time of tremendous freedom. While the Holocaust will always be in our memory, as the years pass there will fewer and fewer survivors. I often worry that our youngest, Emunah, might not have memories of knowing a survivor.

In commemoration of Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Remembrance day, I encourage everyone to introduce their children to a survivor and find a new way to make Jewish life sweet. And it can never hurt to brush. ( Saidtomyself.com April 29, 2011)

Eight years later we all feel blessed to have Chaim Ezra in our lives. It seems like just yesterday, but that 7 year old is now 15. And instead of my insecurity about Emunah having a relationship with him, Libi has taken her place as our youngest. I do get special joy of bringing her to synagogue to get a lollipop from the Candy Man. And as I reflect on today being Yom HaShoah, I look back at this post and ask myself, “How naïve was I?” From Pittsburgh to Poway and from Christchurch to Sri Lanka, we are regularly discussing Antisemitism and other acts of terrorism that have become the new normal. As sad as I am for our society and my children to witness the reemergence of this hatred and heightened levels of terrorism in our world, I have a different level of sadness for Chaim Ezra. While no one should experience such hatred in their lives, knowing what Chaim Ezra has gone through it is excruciating that he has to do it again. Were all of those times we said, “Never Again”, just platitudes?

We commemorate Yom HaShoah on the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We choose to create memory around our fighting back. At this moment I feel particularly moved by the words of Rabbi Yisroel  Goldstein the Rabbi of Chabad of Poway. He said, “I guarantee you, we will not be intimidated or deterred by terror. Terror will not win.” We need to dig in deep and do the real work of making sure that hate and terror never beat out our love and devotion. While we need to teach about the Holocaust and Antisemitism, we cannot allow terror to fool us into taking the expedient educational route.  In his eulogy for Lori Gilbert-Kaye Rabbi Goldstein quoted the Rebbe and said, “Victims live in the past, but survivors live in the future.”  While we need to reinvest in safety and security in our community, we cannot cower in fear or let that investment replace investing in the joy of living Jewishly.

With that I return to the question that Rav Seth shared with me. Why would this Holocaust survivor want to pay for all of the candy? As it turns out, Chaim Ezra pays for the candy with money he gets from German reparations.

A month and a half ago on Purim we read about our salvation from another genocide in the Persian Empire. There we we read on Purim: 
As the days when the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month that was reversed for them Mi’Yagon l’Simcha – from grief to joy and from mourning to a festive day-to make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:22)
There is a special profound feeling that comes from a reversal of sadness into happiness. Chaim Ezra and all of our survivors deserve this kind of sweetness in their lives. We all have a lot of work to do to ensure that we can reverse all of the grief of this last year into joy. We need this for ourselves and our children. And I still think it could not hurt to brush.

Sharing the Cookies: Joy of a Nation

I feel tremendous gratitude to part of the Schusterman Fellowship. I am honored to be a part of such a remarkable cohort. In preparation for the first session of the program each of us was asked to describe our Jewish story in 3-5 vignettes from our lives. In preparing to share my Jewish narrative with my peers I recalled what must be one of my earliest memories.

I must have been in Kindergarten. I remember going in the required blue pants and white shirt. I also have a vague memory of some construction paper thing on my head. My local Jewish Day school went to a nearby Jewish old age home on Yom HaAtzmaut to sing for them.  After we finished singing two older women with thick German accents  singled me out of the crowd and pulled me aside. They told me how they were friends with my Oma, herself a German immigrant. And just like that they handed me two big bags of home-made cookies. While so many details have washed away over the years I can recall it as just yesterday the joy of sharing those cookies with my classmates on the bus.

These two women were strangers in a strange land, but they made me feel special and at home by connecting with me. Since that day I feel a responsibility to share the experience of belonging with my fellow Jews. As part of the Schusterman Fellowship I also have the good fortune of having regular meetings with a personal coach. In conversation with him I got to realized that in retrospect that experience really defines the work that I have been striving to do in the Jewish communities in Belarus, Washington University in St. Louis, and camps across North America for over 25 years.

Recently I went to suburban Philadelphia to visit my mother for Mother’s day.  When I came, having no idea I had been thinking about this story, my mother shared that she recently found picture that I might life.

I was blown away. There I am on the right with my blue pants, white shirt,  and construction paper thing on my head celebrating Israel at 30. All of these years later I recognize the significance of having a State of Israel. With a rebirth of our national homeland we would never really be alone again. Instead of a life of paranoia fearing what might be coming for us living as strangers in a strange lands, Israel would always be there to have our backs. In many ways my life’s work is helping people experience pronoia, the sense that people are conspiring to help them, by joyfully sharing the cookies.

A Week of Perseverance: The Omer and the Resistance

This week was a big week for us filled with some of our nation’s the highest of the highs and lowest of the lows. Off the heals of Yom HaShoah last week, this week was packed with Yom haZikaron followed by Yom Haztamaut. While we have spent most of history in diaspora we never lost our hope to return to Israel. Our national strength and fortitude was forged in our march from slavery in Egypt to receive the Torah at Sinai. During this time we are also counting the Omer as we count the time from Passover to Shavuot. In a short period of 49 days our ancestors were transformed from a disembodied slaves to a nation standing before the Creator ready to receive the Torah.

The Kabbalists projected on to this journey of 7 weeks a whole program of traveling through a 7 by 7 grid of the different valences of experiencing the sephirot, emanations of the Divine. It seems fitting that today the 25th day of the Omer at the culmination of this week commemorating the recent survival and flourishing of the Jewish people we take notice of the moment of being Netzach ShebeNetzach, perseverance in the valence of perseverance. Today is the day in which we celebrate our steadfastness in doing something despite the difficulty or delay in achieving success.

Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, writes a lot of grit. You should check out her Ted Talk:

Professor Duckworth wrote:

…grit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to dust ourselves off after rejection and disappointment, and learn to tell the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned quickly and higher-level goals that demand more tenacity. The maturation story is that we develop the capacity for long-term passion and perseverance as we get older.( Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success)

This reminds me of how we see ourselves in the Hatikvah :

Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost: To be a free people in our land

We are truly a gritty and ancient people with a youthful soul. It is clear we have the capacity to endure much more than we can imagine, and to prevail under the most trying of circumstances. Today more than ever the world needs our grit to help in persistence in the resistance. We need to persevere, this will take some time.

-More on Netzach

Calendar and Convenience

For some of us today has been spent gearing up for the final days of the Passover Holiday starting tonight. Having had Seder Monday and Tuesday night last week and then Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Pesach it has been a very busy week . For someone like myself who enjoys a lack of structure and is trying to lose some weight, it has been hard week filled with ritual eating.  Juxtaposed my traditional observance of the the rhythm of the Jewish calendar there has been an increasing number of people moving their observance of the Passover Seder to a time of mutual convenience. Recently I saw this phenomenon of moving the Jewish calendar to make sense in the lives of North American Jews being pointed out in Judaism Unbound, one of my favor Podcasts, in an episode by Vanessa Ochs, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. Professor Ochs points out that it does not work for her, but it is clearly working for the practitioners. What is ritual if not to make meaning for the practitioners?

I was thinking about this shift in practice when looking at the Torah’s description of this time of the year. There we read:

And you shall count to you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; ( Leviticus 23:15)

During this time of the year we are told to count seven complete weeks of the Omer. Traditionally this means from the second day of Passover until Shavuot. But if you look in the text it actually says that we should count “from the morrow after the day of rest.” The Rabbis determined that “Shabbat” here means a day of rest and refers to the first day of Passover. According to this calculation, Shavuot will fall on the day of the week after that of the first day of Passover (e.g., if Passover starts on a Thursday, Shavuot will begin on a Friday).

Karaites differ in their understanding of “morrow after the Sabbath”. Karaites interpret the Sabbath to be the first weekly Sabbath that falls during Passover. As a result, the Karaite Shavuot is always on a Sunday, although the actual Hebrew date varies. Could one reread the Rabbinic interpretation that “Shabbat” here refers to the first day of Passover in reverse? What if Passover Seder was the Shabbat closest to Passover? That would make everything a lot easier.

I doubt that the current trend to move Passover to be at a time of convenience is remotely connected to any of these readings, I assume they are just doing what is convenient.  Just as I look at the Karaites with some skepticism, it is curious to imagine how future generations if not today’s generation might read the Rabbinic stringency around the Jewish calendar. I can admit a sadness that the Jewish people might separate as we have from the Karaites in the past. If we are out of sync with ourselves in not keeping a single Jewish calendar will we still be one people? But what is Jewish ritual if it has lost his meaning to a vast majority of Jews. When thinking about recreating relevant Jewish ritual Rabbi Levi Lauer‘s adage comes to mind. He wisely said, ” Comfort is not a Jewish Value.” Is convenience a Jewish Value?


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