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The Sound of Deep Empathy: Thoughts on the Rise of Antisemitism and the Sound of the Shofar

In getting ready for Rosh HaShanah I have been giving some thought to the strange year which was 5779. From the shouting in synagogues to demagoguery in the White House is has been a tough year. One thing that stands out this year is a rise is antisemitism domestically and abroad. From political antisemitism like Corbyn’s Labour Party and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to the physical violence we saw in Pittsburgh and Poway as Jewish people we find ourselves being hated by the left, the right, all over the world. From Cohen to Kushner and Adam Schiff to Volodymyr Zelensky we are in the thick of much of our current crisis. While no one knows how this will all go, it does not take the Vilna Gaon to realize that this will not ends well for us. Given the current context it is hard to imagine the scenario in which we will not be blamed.

Since the advent of Elul I have been thinking about this resurgence of antisemitism in the context of the daily blowing of the shofar? All of these blasts are leading us to Rosh HaShanah which is filled with the blowing the Shofar. And why do we blow Shofar on Rosh HaShanah? On one level we could see that Rosh HaShanah is the trumpets announcing God’s coronation. Is Rosh HaShanah just another expression of nationalism? How is our celebration of our King with shofar blasts categorically different from any other jingoism? Is it so different from China’s celebration of 70 years of communism with all of the tanks and missiles on display?

In fact there are a number of different reasons given for blowing shofar on Rosh HaShanah. One of the more interesting reasons comes from a discussion in Gemara of Rosh HaShanah where the Rabbis were trying to determine the length of time a shofar blast should last. The Mishnah suggest  that a terua should be equal to the length of three whimpers. There we learn:

Isn’t it taught in a baraita that the length of a terua is equal to the length of three shevarim, i.e., broken blasts, which presumably are longer than whimpers? Abaye said: In this matter, the tanna’im certainly disagree. Although the first baraita can be reconciled with the mishna, this second baraita clearly reflects a dispute. As it is written: “It is a day of sounding [terua] the shofar to you”(Numbers 29:1), and we translate this verse in Aramaic as: It is a day of yevava to you. And to define a yevava, the Gemara quotes a verse that is written about the mother of Sisera: “Through the window she looked forth and wailed [vateyabev], the mother of Sisera” (Judges 5:28). One Sage, the tanna of the baraita, holds that this means moanings, broken sighs, as in the blasts called shevarim. And one Sage, the tanna of the mishna, holds that it means whimpers, as in the short blasts called teruot. (Rosh HaShanah 33b)

Simply to quote Numbers and say we blow shofar on Rosh HaShanah because it is the day of blowing shofar is tautology and does not add much insight. In comparison it is interesting to make the connection to the wailing of  Sisera’s mother. As we learn in the book of Judges, Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. After the prophetess Deborah persuaded Barak to face Sisera in battle, they, with an Israelite force of ten thousand, defeated him at the Battle of Mount Tabor. After losing the battle, Sisera fled to a settlement where he was received by Yael. She brought him into her tent with apparent hospitality and gave him milk. Yael promised to hide Sisera and covered him with a rug; but after he fell asleep, she drove a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet, her blow being so forceful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. After this we read:

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, Behind the lattice she whined: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”  (Judge 5:28)

It is strange enough that the Bible depicts this general’s mother there at the window watching her son die, but it seems even more peculiar that we evoke the sound of the mother of our enemy on Rosh HaShanah. Why?

Image result for empathy

While it is easy to relate with our family, community memberd, or those who are like us, it can hard to empathize with those that are different from us. Hearing to the voice of the mother of an antisemite in the sound of the shofar can help us build a profound foundation of empathy. We can never forget that every child regardless of what they turn into or do started life with a parent who loved them. So yes we need to call our and confront antisemitism in any form and from any source, but even with this vigilance we cannot forget that even Sisera had a mother who deserves our empathy. If we can hear that voice we can build on that love. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” We will not uproot antisemitism with more hedonistic hatred or nihilistic nationalism. The sound of the shofar is an invitation for us to cut through the darkness and build on the light of empathy. On Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Judgement, we must work hard and unearth ahavat chinam, a love without cause.  We need to construct a foundation of universal and deep empathy upon which we can build a better world. If we can do this we will be judged favorably in 5780.

Shanah Tova. Maybe all be blessed to do our part to build a foundation of universal and deep empathy.

Yahrzeit for 9/11

The 23rd of Elul is the 18th Yahrzeit of 9/11. Where were you when you heard about the Twin Towers being hit? Where were you when you realized we were under attack? These are moments we will never forget. This series of four coordinated terrorist attacks killed 2,977 people and changed the world as we  knew it. For many of us, 9/11 is formative to the people we are today.

We are two professionals, partners, and parents jointly committed to strengthening institutions of Jewish Life. Adina has spent much of her career working in Jewish Federations on behalf of synagogues and more recently day schools and strengthening the pipeline of professionals in Jewish communal organizations, Avi has spent his career working at a national umbrella on behalf of camps and on a college campus. As we recall that inauspicious day, each of us found ourselves taking solace in institutions. When the plane hit the first tower, Avi was in the basement of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Adina had just come out of the subway on her way to HUC cantorial school after the second tower was hit, catching a horrifying glimpse of the first tower crumbling. While both of us had already chosen paths of  Jewish communal life to make an impact, in the days that followed 9/11 we were inspired by the heroes who were driven to fix this broken world and we recommitted ourselves to doing our part through our sacred communal service. 

We pause today to take stock of who we are as individuals, the blessings of our family and our community, and what we have become as a nation. Looking back 18 years we shutter to realize that this year the 9/11 babies born after this fateful day will go to college. The junior counselors in our camps who will be looking after our children were born into this new reality. Like our own kids, this generation will only know a post 9/11 world. 

As we think about what will become of the legacy of the institutions of Jewish life that we inherited, we must note the poignancy that to this next generation, 9/11 is their legacy. On a visceral level this generation will have a radically different orientation to brick and mortar buildings, to the value of community, and to the causes that matter.  We must recognize that 9/11 represents a radical paradigm shift, especially for a generation for whom active shooter drills are the norm and the daily effects of global warming remind them of the fragility of their future. They are a generation living with existential and physical angst; where will they seek comfort? As we learn in Psalms 121:1, “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence shall my help come?” Our daily work is informed by the need to radically rethink our institutions, so that the next generation continues to find comfort, be motivated and inspired by Jewish life. 

 

Cantor Adina H. Frydman is the Executive Director of Community Resources at UJA-Federation of New York. Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the Vice President of Innovation and Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Together, they are the proud parents of four children born after 9/11.

* reposted from ejewishphilanthropy.com

Little Birdy: Emunah and Protecting Our Children

Today in the 13th of Elul. It is the Hebrew birthday of our daughter Emunah. Today she is 10 years old. I marvel to see the young woman that is growing up in front of our eyes. We were particularly moved to see how much she changed after a month at camp this summer. Emunah is becoming a better little sister to her two brothers and a nurturing big sister to Libi. She is curious, caring, loving,and resilient.  Here is a picture of her from when our little angel was just one:

Her birthday marks my writing this blog for 10 years. I take pause today to think ahead to what the next stage of parenting Emunah will look like for us.

In thinking about this I think about Ki Tetzei , this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. When you build a new house, make a fence around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof. (Deuteronomy 22:6-8

First there is a law about sending away the mother bird from her nest before taking her eggs. Then we are mandated to build a fence around the roof of our houses. This juxtaposition brings interesting things to light. We see the mother bird defending her nest and then we are instructed to be like the bird and make a safer nest on our roofs to defend our young.

Once we make that connection and empathize with the mother bird, we are left asking ourselves a number of questions. How could we ever take the egg or young from the mother bird in the first place? What does it mean for us as parents toward our children?  Are we the problem or the solution to the child’s development? Are we the aggressor who is taking the eggs or the builder of fences there to protect our child? If we externalized the aggressor and focus on the risks in the world, how do we best prepare the child for this dangerous world? Are we victims to the whim of men our children might meet on the path or are we builder of fences to keep them locked up and safe? Of is there another model? One thing is clear that parenting is filled with many questions and not that many answers.

Happy Birthday Emunah. Thank you Adina for bringing this miracle into the world and partnering in parenting her. We will do what we can to raise our little birdy.  And here is to another 10 years of writing.

Worthy Reward: The Trading of Mitzvot

At the start of Parshat Eikev, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the benefits of keeping the commandments. There we read:

וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב-And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your fathers (Deuteronomy 7:12)

The simple reading of this is that obedience will be rewarded by God. But, what is the reward?

On this passage from our Torah portion Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev comments:

It is an accepted principle that the “so-‎called” reward that God grants us for performing the ‎commandments of the Torah is the least of all the pleasures that ‎we will experience. The major pleasure is the satisfaction we ‎derive from having been able to give the Creator a feeling of ‎satisfaction that God created mankind, and that at least part of ‎mankind, Israel, has seen fit to acknowledge this. This is what the ‎‎Mishna in Avot 4:2 meant when the author states that ‎שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה the true reward for performing the commandments is the ‎commandment itself. When we reflect on the significance of the ‎performance of the commandment we will realize that having ‎performed it was an unparalleled pleasure. Even the reward that ‎God has “saved up” for us in the hereafter pales into insignificance ‎when compared to the satisfaction of having been able to provide ‎‎God with pleasure.‎ This is what Moshe had in mind when he described the ‎‎mitzvah performance with the word ‎עקב‎ in our verse above. ‎This word, meaning “heel,” when used elsewhere in Scripture, is ‎used by Moshe to describe the minute part of the pleasure that ‎God’s “reward” provides for us when we compare it with the ‎pleasure we provided for ourselves by having been the ‎instrument to please the Creator.‎ (Kedushat Levi, Deuteronomy, Eikev 1)

In this sense the Kedushat Levi  is saying that the reward for our obedience is that God gets the reward . He also offers this idea that the essence of this “heel” of עקב is that the true reward for performing the commandments is the ‎commandment itself. Neither seems to be accessible rewards to me.

These words שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה are featured in this amazing music video by Mordechai Shapiro:

Besides being a crazy catchy song and having the video be filmed at camp ( Morasha), I love this video because it takes the notion of שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה in a little different direction. It is not just that your doing a mitzvah is its own reward, or as the Mishna in Avot says, Mitzah Goreret Mitzvah, that it will lead to your doing more mitzvot. Rather, the video explores a paying-it-forward notion. In this sense the reward of your doing a mitzvah is that it will lead to someone else’s doing a mitzvah.

I was thinking about this idea of Mitzah Goreret Mitzvah being a notion of paying-it-forward recently when talking with my colleague Jonah Wagan. He showed up to work complaining about Chabad Shaliach asking him again to put on Tfilin. I asked him if he objected to this practice. Jonah replied that he did not mind it, it was just that the interaction felt yucky. In conversation we explored the idea of what might change if he could enter into the interaction as an equal. So the next time he was asked to do this mitzvah with a Chabad Shaliach he resolved to offer the Shaliach the opportunity to do a Mitvah that was meaningful to him with him. Now Jonah is thrilled to do this mitzvah of putting on Tfilin as he does the mitzvah of raising money from the Shaliach for EschelMitzah Goreret Mitzvah; they trade mitvot. In so doing they enjoin each other to do more for the world.

I would encourage each of us to explore putting on Tfilin, supporting the holy work of  Eschel, or what ever might be your signature mitzvah. And then I think we should think about trading them with each other. If you join me in doing my mitzvah I will gladly join you in doing your mitzvah. In this trading mitzvot framework the “heel” of עקב  it the first step in a collaborative journey of equals to create a common path ( read here the literal meaning of the word Halachah) and fix the world. Now that seems like is a worthy reward.

 

Taking Liberty with Lady Liberty

Today’s Cartoon from the New York Times Magazine by Peter Kuper reminds me of this post I wrote a month ago: 

Seen This One Before: The Border Crisis, the Three Weeks, and My Father with a cartoon from October 1946. Here is from today:

This is from 73 years ago:

Sadly the more things change the more they stay the same. Enough already with the effort to Make America Great Again, first we need to work for a society that is profoundly good. Let’s learn to walk before we try to run.

Afflicted Women: ReReading Lamentations Today as a Man

On Tisha B’Av we remember the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. It is a time of mourning for our exile from our political, spiritual, and ancestral homeland. On Tisha B’Av we spend a day collectively reflecting on the plight of our ancestors—who suffered at the hands of their oppressors. But only spending time reconnecting with our own long history of persecution, we are missing a profound lesson of the day. We also reconnect to these memories so that we can empathize with others who are experiencing pain and suffering. 
To these ends we will sit on Saturday night and Sunday morning and read Lamentations. There we will read:
Our fathers sinned and are no more; And we must bear their guilt.
Slaves are ruling over us, With none to rescue us from them.
We get our bread at the peril of our lives, Because of the sword of the wilderness.
Our skin glows like an oven, With the fever of famine.
They have afflicted women in Zion, Maidens in the towns of Judah. ( Lamentations 5:7-11)
In this time of darkness, we experienced pain, suffering, and degradation. In his explanation of “violated women in Zion” the Ibn Ezra says, “all sex that is against her will is called ‘affliction.'” It seems that ultimate expression of declaring the line between “us” and “them” is that they raped our daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives. While sex aught to be an expression of intimacy, love, and closeness, here it is violent, a means of subjugation and objectification, and represents a deep division.
I have been thinking about this the last two weeks as we have seen the unfolding of the case Israeli teenagers falsely accused of rape being released from a Cypriot jail returning to a heroes welcome back at home. In her compelling analysis of this case Chen Sror Artzi wrote:
But the culture of rape, which has been around for millennia, does not skip anyone. The story of what happened in Cyprus is just a distilled version of a rotten culture, in which consent is deemed to be the yardstick, not desire or active willingness. (The Lesson We Should All Learn from the Cyprus Affair, Ynet)
Artzi is correct, that this rape culture has existed long before it was even reported here in Lamentations. One of the challenges is our black and white thinking. Even if it was consensual and not rape, it does not mean that these teens were right.  It is not just two options of right or wrong. And we need to stop just thinking about us and them.
How can we immerse ourselves in Lamentations and Tisha B’Av and not look deep inside and recognize that our boys did wrong? While it was not rape, what they did was clearly not love or an expression of closeness. Sharing that video was clear objectification. Our giving them a heroes welcome  represented a deep division.  Surely this young degraded British woman did something wrong by accusing them of rape, but she too is someone’s  daughter or sister. She was not raped, but she was surely afflicted. She too demands our empathy.
As a man, father of daughters and sons, husband, son, and human being I feel compelled to do more. But what can I do?

As men, it’s time to say clearly that we do not condone any sex — or any other behavior — that humiliates women, whether it’s consensual or not. As men, it’s time to teach our boys that a higher moral law must guide our conduct. That we are watching. As a community of men, we must take full responsibility for individual acts of violence against women and for a culture that systemically abuses and takes advantage of women.

Consensual. Irrelevant. A loophole. When it comes to our behavior as men, what another might accept — or what we might get away with in secret or under the law — does not absolve participation. It’s a short slide down a moral ladder from gang sexual humiliation of a woman to becoming the next Jeffery Epstein.

Where are the men? Where are the men who — at the airport — would have clopped those boys on the head and told them that they are a moral disgrace and a disappointment to true masculinity? Where are the men who stand for integrity and accountability, the men who would have required each of these boys to do acts of community service and to learn about healthy sexuality?

The global ManKind Project has launched a campaign in response to the #MeToo movement called #IamResponsible. ( Times of Israel)

As a man reading Lamentations I must wrestle with these “sins of the father”. We do not need to be enslaved by toxic masculinity. If we want to see change we must commit to breaking this chain afflicting all women in our society. Solovy offers us the ManKind Project pledge:

As men, we are committed to individual and collective evolution, we take responsibility for creating the society we want to live in and share for the generations to come. We are responsible for the GOLD and the SHADOW of masculinity, for the gentleness, fierce caring, and protection, AND for the abuse, violence, and domination. We are responsible as creators and as role models. We are responsible as victims and as perpetrators. We recognize the pervasive systemic factors that promote abuse of power and teach harmful gender roles to both boys and girls.

This year when reading Lamentations I will have to interpret it anew in the context of this Cyprus Affair, Jeffery Epstein case, and the larger #Metoo movement. There is nothing to celebrate this Tisha B’Av. When I think about the “women in Zion, Maidens in the towns of Judah” and all women who have been afflicted I will meditate on the words of Rabbi A.J. Heschel when he said, “In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.” 

Eulogy for James Joseph Orlow z”l

My father James Joseph Orlow z”l passed away on August 23rd,  the 12th of Elul 5778. I had the honor of delivering a graveside Hesped, eulogy,  for him. Seeing that today we did his unveiling it seemed appropriate to share the eulogy today.  I truly appreciate all of the love and support that I have received from my family, friends, colleagues and community members this past 11 months. There is do doubt that this loss will be a weight I will carry for the rest of my life, but with your support it is not at heavy. 

 

As the baby of this large clan and my father’s son “the Rabbi”. I “get to” have to go last and say what has not yet been said.

Named for my father’s father Abram Orlow who died when my dad was just a boy, I always has many questions about the the shoes I was supposed to try to fill. And to be frank reflecting back on my father’s life, my Pa was also a bit of a mystery to me. My dad was a puzzle. This was not shocking for someone that was a member of Mensa, loved a complicated law case, or could win Trivial Pursuit in one turn. Pa always liked a good puzzle.

It was not always easy for me to get him. He was at once self defined as irreligious and yet I have so many memories of him spiritually sitting in his chair reading the Bible. He was a sort of modern-day tormented Rav Nachman.

I have spent a lot of time in the last 44 years trying to figure out the puzzle of my Pa. Since his passing it has been meaningful for us to get together as a family to put the pieces back together- A bit of a jigsaw.

Who was James Joseph Orlow- Yakov Yosef ben Avraham V’Leah z”l?

As the baby brother coming home I can relate to the character of Yosef in the Torah portion of VaYeshev. There we read:  

Eleh Toldot Yakov Yosef ben Sheva Esreh Shana…

These are the generations of Yakov, Yosef was 17… when he went to taddle of his siblings. (Bereishit 37:2)

Interestingly the Torah never actually outlines the generations of Yakov.

And no, I am not here to share a tell-all about my siblings.

But I wanted to share one story. When I was around 17 like Yosef and clearly taller than my brothers. They would often joke that the milkman was also tall.

Seemling on this point Rashi, the premier medieval biblical commentator, provides an alternative reading of VaYeshev. Instead of  reading it as “Eleh Toldot Yakov- These are the generations of Yakov”. Instead he reads it as, “ Eleh Toldot Yakov Yosef- These are the generations of Yakov Yosef “- my dad’s name. Rashi quoting the midrash said:

Yosef’s facial features bore a striking resemblance to those of Yakov. Further whatever happened to Yakov happened Yosef. ( Rashi on Bereishit 37:2)

The puzzle of my father was a puzzle of looking in the mirror. My interest in Halacha and those alienated by it was to emulate his devotion to immigration law. My desire to learn Torah was a reflection of his constant brimming with pithy wisdom. For many of us he was a fount of wisdom. A life filled with my father’s Perkei Avot:

Found in his wallet on Friday was a fortune cookie, “Life is like a dogsled team. If you ain’t the lead dog the scenery never changes.”

Profound work Ethic- “ The harder you work the luckier you get”

“Love what you do and you will never work a day in your life”

Marry up- do not be afraid of a strong and smart woman like your mother. Or as he like to say, “ Don’t marry a woman who is pretty but stupid, because your children will think like her and look like you, you ugly bastard.”- Luckily with Mom and my wife Adina we got both brilliant and beautiful life partners.

Let people share their own good news, “Don’t rain on my parade or I will piss on your’s.” – And look around Dad, it is such nice weather today.

Theodicy- “ We live in a world in which no good deed goes unpunished”

Always be intellectually interested and interesting. One of my earliest memories was giving a mini Dvar Torah  as a rider to his  Dvar Torah in the Chavurah- library minyan. Or later his pushing me regarding the rigor of going to yeshiva in Israel. “Always be curious and confident.”

His favorite belt buckle reads “ Dazzle them with your brilliance or baffle them with your bullshit.”

And there was the profound reflections in actions that often spoke loader than words. Build things (including community) with your hands:

Chop your own wood

The tree house for Beth Hillel Beth El Preschool

The Aaron for the Chavorah

My Shtender

The porch add-on for the cabin in the Poconos

Endless projects in the Berkshires

His deep love of Sukkot.

For him the the Sukkah was never the Aninai HaKavod, he was into the Sukkah Mamash.

Family First- From sailing trips, time at the beach, Poconos, and Bershires

Shabbat Meals, Holiday Meals, so many family meals from clients to St. Michaels.

Eleh Toldot Yakov Yosef

When I look in the mirror I see my father (not the milkman)

Eleh Toldot Yakov Yosef

When I look in the mirror I see a puzzle

Eleh Toldot Yakov Yosef

When I look in the mirror I see the man I am striving to become

Eleh Toldot Yakov Yosef

When I look around I see the generations of Yakov Yosef  

James Joseph’s highest joy was his 14 grandchildren. They will carry his legacy.

As we place Pa into his final resting place. We help him finish the puzzle- putting it all together:

Profound Wisdom and Curiousity

Deep connection to community

Family First

Thank you all, family and friends.

Special thank you to Doda Rachel who has played a critical role in the lives of my parents. We all owe you a profound debt of gratitude.

Finally James Joseph Orlow Yakov Yosef ben Avraham v’Leah

We lay you in your final resting place; a life well lived and a puzzle complete.

 

Other posts in memory of my father James Joseph Orlow z”l


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