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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.

Defiling the Pure: 1/6/21 In Light of Chanukah

Like many others I am surprised by how not surprised I was by the abhorrent events that transpired at the Capitol on January 6th. We all knew that Trump was never going to abdicate his throne easily. He orchestrated a seditious mob to use their white privilege to stop electoral process. They were not successful in having a coup, but they got much further that most of us could ever imagine. While they were defiling the hallowed halls of democracy it seemed that the experiment of this republic had come to an end. The assault on our government was not just just due to these terrorist or a “wannabe tin-pot dictator scared of losing power” (Thank you Senator Tammy Duckworth), but also the inept or complicit law enforcement.

A Bucks County Trump supporter posted about a 1776-style revolution during  Capitol riot. Then, he

Amidst chaos we strive to make sense of our reality. Sadly we as Jews have a long history of dealing with hatred in its many forms. I found myself this mourning stirred by Rambam’s unique language describing the historical events that lead to the institution of the holiday of Chanukah. There we read:

…they entered the Temple and broke through it, defiling the things that were pure. The people of Israel were sorely distressed by their enemies, who oppressed them ruthlessly until the God of our ancestors took pity, saved and rescued them from the hands of the tyrants. The Hasmonean great priests won victories, defeating the Syrian Greeks and saving Israel from their power. They set up a king from among the priests and Israel’s kingdom was restored for a period of more than two centuries, until the destruction of the second Temple. (Laws of Chanukah 3:1)

While I have to dilution that the Capitol is pure, the images still ring true. What is most telling is the in response to throwing off tyranny, they victorious priest run to have a king.

In a 2012 appearance in New Hampshire  former Supreme Court Justice David Souter made some striking and prescient remarks about the dangers of “civic ignorance”. This video has been circulating and worth seeing:

I was most struck when he said:

I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’… That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.

We still do not know who was responsible for what transpired on January 6th. It was a total break down. In cleaning up, people need to held accountable. It is clear that our media is part of the reason that there are so many people who are ignorant of civics and distrustful of facts. Democracy is fragile and we are in peril. This is not a risk from the outside, but the inside. Like Augustus, with little regard for democratic norms and political institutions, others will come like Donald Trump seeking power, assuring the public that they will solve our problems. Exploiting the distrust of the media, fears and civic ignorance we have paved the way for another despot to come.

As the Hasmoneans had to do after the Greeks, we have a lot of work to do to clean up what has been defiled. But if there is anything else that can be learned for Democracy from Chanukah, it is the Rabbinic movement of the the Menorah in the Temple to the Chanukiah in the home. While the Capitol represents our democracy, it is not the limit of that ideal. As Churchill wisely said:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.… (House of Commons, 11 November 1947)

For our democracy to survive civics and decency needs to thrive in our homes. The power of democracy cannot come from without, but it needs to come from within. It comes from every citizen taking responsibility for themselves, their families, their communities, and the collective. The light from our homes keeps tyranny at bay.

Not What It Seems: 2020 In Review

As 2020 comes to an end it seems like we need to reflect on this last year. I have really enjoyed a much needed break, but even being much better rested I am not sure I have the needed intestinal fortitude needed to really review this year. It was not what any of us expected or where hoping for. A cursory look back on 2020 reminds me of something my dad used to say, ” So, otherwise Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” It was a tough year for all of us regarding from the Covid-19, the teetering medical system, all things Trump and election, economic collapse, the myriad of racial issues in this country that came to light, not having seen my mother in way way too long, and social isolation in general. It was just a very difficult year.

And the same time I really count my blessings this year. While we did get sick, it was really very mild. While It has been month and month since my kids have seen my mother, they now talk to her every day. While my work feel very different than expected, it is still important and challenging. While I miss our community, we feel taken care of my those who looked after our needs when we were sick. Upon reflection the biggest blessing from an otherwise terrible year has been my ability to be present for my family this past year. I would not trade that time for anything.

When reflecting on 2020 I keep on coming back to one of my favorite stories. Here is a version:

There was once a great man. He used to study at night, and sometimes he got a famous visitor—once he was visited by Elijah the Prophet. “Come,” said the prophet ” I want to see whether your neighbors are hospitable. Together we will disguise ourselves as beggars. But no matter what happens, I want you to observe without asking me any questions or seeking any explanations.” And so it came to pass. They left and came to a very poor hovel, hardly worthy of human occupation. They knocked and found that a poor farmer and his wife lived there together with a cow, their only possession, which provided their meager livelihood: they sold milk in the next village, and drank what was left. It kept them from starving. The farmer couple was poor but very friendly, and ushered the two “beggars” in. They let them sleep on their best straw (they had no beds), and they shared a slice of hard bread and a cracked bowl of milk from their cow with them. They entertained the guests with friendly conversation until they went to sleep. In middle of the night the pious man noticed that Elijah had slipped away to overhear Elijah prayer for the death of their cow. The next morning they woke up to a terrible scream. The farmer’s wife had gone to milk the cow, had found the animal stretched out on the floor, stiff and dead. “How will we live?” she wailed. “Now we will die, too!” While befuddled and curious the man did not question Elijah. They had to leave their hosts sobbing. That evening they came into a village and they found a nice house made of brick: servants were bustling about, and they were told that the wealthy owner of this nice house was preparing a party and the host turned them away. And so, the man and Elijah went to sleep with an empty stomach. The man awoke the next day to see Elijah praying by the wall of the wealthy man. And just like that a miracle happened and a crack within in the wall was repaired. At this point the man could not take it anymore and demanded to know why Elijah needed to punish the righteous and reward the wicked. Elijah said to him, “There is more to things than what meets the eye . . .When we were sleeping in the poor couple’s hut, I heard the angel of death, who had come to take the life of the farmer’s wife. I pleaded with him and I convinced him to take the cow in her stead. And of the miser?” In the wall was hidden a jar with gold coins he did not deserve. Do you have any more questions?” “No,” said the man. “Now I understand that this world is not what it seems to be to us, and we can only trust that justice will be done. Thank you for taking me on your trip . . .” And with this Elijah disappeared. (Adapted from Chabad.org)

When thinking about this story and the myriad of blessings I have in my life, I realize that this last year could have been a lot worse. Hope that 2021 is a year of healing and repair, we need it. We have a lot of work to do to put all of the lessons of 2020 into action to make 2021 a real blessing for everyone.

Forest Service looks to move dead cow on Sopris trail | PostIndependent.com

A Public Health Issue: On Margarine, Masks, and Maris Ayin

A weight has been lifted with the circulation of a viable COVID-19 vaccine. Hopefully with this panacea and more vaccines on the way, we can see the light at the end of this long tunnel. While this is incredibly good news, we are still months away from any real salvation from this plague. 

I was excited to see that the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America put out a statement earlier this week outlining their guidance regarding a Covid-19 vaccine. Based on the guidance of Rabbis Hershel Schachter, Mordechai Willig, and Dovid Cohen, they wrote:

Halacha obligates us to care for our own health and to protect others from harm and illness. In addition, Halacha directs us to defer to the consensus of medical experts in determining and prescribing appropriate medical responses to both treating and preventing illness.

There has long been an almost uniform consensus among leading medical experts that vaccines are an effective and responsible manner of protecting life and advancing health. 

Similarly Rabbi Avi Weiss published a piece in the New York Post articulating the clear Torah obligation to preserve  life. Under advisement of your personal health care provider there is a mandate to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available. But there still remains the question as to what we need to do during this  in-between period when some but not everyone has been vaccinated. After we get vaccinated, what is our mandate before the public health officials telling us that the coast is clear?

There is an interesting chapter in halachic history that might help us reflect on our current situation. In 1860’s France, with the rising popularity and cost of butter, Napoleon III made a contest offering a considerable prize to anyone who could create a satisfactory butter substitute. In 1869, chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries won the prize with his invention of “oleomargarine”, now known worldwide as margarine. Serving a parve butter-like substance at a meat meal set off a halachic problem of Maris Ayin. It is prohibited to act in a way which strictly speaking is permitted according to halacha, but nevertheless give onlookers the impression that we are doing something forbidden. Or for us now, even if someone got a newly invented vaccine are they still obligated to wear a mask and maintain CDC social distancing rules? 

Unilever seeks buyer for its butter substitutes division

The original case for Maris Ayin comes from a Mishnah discussing the appropriate attire of the priests in the Temple- lest they even seem to be doing any impropriety. There we learn:

For it is one’s duty to seem be free of blame before others as before God, as it is said: “And you shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel” (Numbers 32:22) ( Shekalim 3:2)

In other words, although an observer has an obligation to judge others favorably, nevertheless we still have an obligation not to do things that might raise an observer’s suspicions. 

One of the more famous applications of Maris Ayin applies to cooking and/or eating  meat in pareve almond milk. To the onlooker it appears to be a forbidden mixture of meat and milk. The simple solution to this mix up is to place almonds down to show to all that there is no actual prohibition occurring. Based on this idea, at the outset when people served margarine at a meat meal they would put the container on the table to signal that it was actually parve. We would not want anyone to believe that it was actually butter. But when did this practice stop? We clearly do not do this anymore. 

When dealing with issues of Maris Ayin Rabbi Yonason Eibeshutz extrapolated a general halachic rule that any time that the questionable object (or action) becomes commonplace, Maris Ayin no longer applies, as it will no longer arouse suspicion (Kreisi U’Pleisi Y”D 87, 8). The example he gives is if in a place where cooking in almond milk is the norm, then accordingly it would not be necessary to place almonds next to the pot, as the average onlooker would simply assume that one is cooking in pareve almond milk, and not real milk. In the case of a COVID-19 vaccination, Rabbi Eibeshutz ruling is fascinating in that something being commonplace would practically coincide with our achieving herd immunity. This is to say that we will all need to keep on our masks on until none of us need them. Our obligation is not not limited to getting the vaccination. When it comes to wearing a mask and Maris Ayin, it  is an expression of physical and spiritual public health.

A Light in the Darkness: A Self-less Chanuka

Every year for Chanuka we review the machloket in the Gemara in Shabbat between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel as for how we should light the candles. There we read:

Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Hanukkah [demands] one light for a man and his household; and those who will beautify the mitzvah [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and those who really will go all out and beautify the mitzvah,-Beit Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced; but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. (Shabbat 21b)

We follow Hillel to increase candles because we should elevate to a higher level in matters of sanctity and not decreased.  Amidst this dark time it is hard to understand the rationale for Beit Shammai?

Beit Shammai’s opinion is that the number of lights corresponds to the bulls of the festival of Sukkot: Thirteen were sacrificed on the first day and each succeeding day one fewer was sacrificed (Numbers 29:12–31). On simple level the Maccabees missed Sukkot during their war and rebooted the holiday when they could. This left us with a holiday with Sukkot‘s footprint in the middle of winter. But I think that there is a deeper level still to this.

Too often we choose to remember Chanuka as a story of the small Jewish soldiers defeating the much larger Greek army. It seems closer to the facts that the unrest was actually a civil war between Jews who were aligned to the Temple tradition and Jews who had aligned to the Greeks. The miracle of the Chanuka lights is not just that the small army beat the larger one, or that a small amount of oil lasted for 8 days, but that we could reconcile a civil war. In light of this reading of history I think that Beit Shammai’s tradition makes a whole lot of sense. Yes, Beit Hillel is right that it is dark out, but as the holiday moves on we move from 8 groups or factions to one group. By the end of Beit Shammai’s Chanuka we are left with a real vision of unity.

I think about the significance of Beit Shammai’s message at this moment in history while we find ourselves embroiled in fierce political discord and irreconcilable cultural difference in our Jewish and American communities. If by the end of Beit Shammai’s celebration we reunified our community, surely even Beit Hillel would agree that we would have elevated to a higher level in matters of sanctity and not decreased.

This year amidst Covid- 19 restrictions this holiday amidst the darkness takes on additional meaning. Being socially distant reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Franz Kafka. Once questioned about his Jewish identity he said, ” What do I have in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself.” How do we make meaning for ourselves during this Chanuka?

This Chanuka makes me rethink the great story about out philtrum, or medial cleft, under the nose. As the story goes:


Rabbi Simlai expounded: What does an embryo resemble when it is in its mother’s uterus? A folded writing scroll….A light burns above its head and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other(Niddah 30b)

Long before civil wars, we could see the world without us or our needs in it. The wisdom is that amidst the darkness we can be selfless. Can we recall a time before we got hit in the face? Imagine a time when we just saw the world as it was without us in it. This is the foundation for building back better.

The Light Shines in the Darkness – Friends of Justice

Test of Character: Camel and Champ

How do you know when you meet the one? In Chaye Sara, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about Abraham’s servant Eliezer’s mission to find a mate for Yitzhak. Laden with gifts, Eliezer goes to Charan. At the village well, Eliezer asks God for a sign. When the maidens come to the well, he will ask for some water to drink; the woman who will offer to give his camels to drink as well shall be the one destined for his master’s son. It seems as if the discovery of Rivka is a miracle. But was it?

We have to realize that the gifts Eliezer brought along to make the process smoother might have been the heart of the challenge. He needed to find a test that would ensure the the would-be-mate was not coming just for the gifts. Incentives can have an adverse impact on the desired outcomes. So the test itself had to prove motive commitment beyond fleeting avarice.

On this point I recall my first Shabbat as a Hillel Rabbi on campus. We had a huge Shabbat dinner for the first year students and their parents. In an wonderfully awkward interaction a father leaned over to tell his son to look around to find a mate. When the embarrassed son rebuffed his father’s urging, the father leaned back to impart some wisdom. He said in a loud voice, ” You know son, when you marry for money- it does not mean you do not need to work for it. ”

Eliezer needed to make sure that Yitzhak’s future wife was in it for the right reasons. So how did Eliezer know that this test would prove who was supposed to be the mate of choice?

The legendary UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Rivka was a person of character. Being nice to the stranger might come with reward, but who was going to notice that she was nice to the camels? Wooden also said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” The camel having just treked through the desert represents the voiceless in need. Rivka in her essence was more concerned with her character than her reputation.

All of this comes to explain why Eliezer would be interested in her, but why she would be interested? She was never into it for the riches, her motives were to be a good person. Abraham’s project of Judaism is a movement of character refinement. Rivka proves her commitment to this mission.

When I reflect on Rivka’s passing the test with the camel I have hope in Champ. Biden will be the first President who has a rescue dog in the White House. In the last four years we have learned that avarice and unchecked power is blinding. When it comes to character in leadership, it is not an important thing, it is everything.

A Woman of Valor

When I graduated college I went to Minsk, Belarus to run youth services for the Jewish community there. Besides my work with the young Jews I also had regular contact with a group of elder men who made up the daily minyan. I vividly remember one day when one of these old men named Feyvel came up to me after services with a black and white photo of a young woman. He started to tell me that this was his wife. She had passed away. When I asked him to tell me what he missed most about her he responded that she was an Eshet Ḥayilwoman of valor. I started to go through Proverbs 31.

Traditionally Eshet Ḥayil is sung on Friday night. It praises the good wife who is the definition of the ideal woman in the nation of Israel. She is ‘an industrious housewife, a shrewd businesswoman, an enterprising trader, a generous benefactor (verse 20) and a wise teacher (verse 26). This “Woman of Valor” has been described as the personification of wisdom.

The word חיל (Ḥayil) appears in verses 10 and 29 of the passage, thought as the summary of the good woman’s character. Traditionally it has been translated “virtuous” or “noble”. Some scholars have suggested that it rather means “forceful”, “mighty”, or “valiant”, because this word is almost exclusively used in the Bible with reference to warfare. Which is funny because as it turned out Feyvel wanted to clarify want to clarify that she was not just an Eshet Ḥayil– but also an Eshet Ḥayal– his wife was a soldier. At that moment I noticed that his wife was dressed in uniform.

Soviet women in World War II - Wikipedia

Today is Veteran’s Day– we pause to give respect for the people of valor who serve our communities to protect our ideals.

Donald the Great: The Truth About MAGA

This past Sunday I had to take one of our children to urgent care down town to get a PCR Covid-19 test for school. As we were walking out there was a large motorcade of Trump supporters driving, screaming, and honking through White Plains. They were all wearing their red hats and their cars were covered with pro-Trump signs. Those hats did not say “Make America Great Again” anymore, but “Keep America Great”. Their loud and abrasive actions rattled my kid. This show of support for Trump only gave the people on the street a reason to express their disinterest in a second Trump term. Their parade seemed like less of an effort to support this campaign and more of ugly display of (hopefully fleeting) power. This got me thinking about their fetishization of “greatness”. What is so great about Donald Trump?

In exploring this “greatness” I found interesting parallels between Donald Trump and Herod the Great. Herod was an Edomite born in Judaea with connections to the Jewish community. He ascended to become a Roman client king of Judea. The history of his legacy has polarized opinion, as he is known for his colossal building projects throughout Judea, including his renovation of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the expansion of the Temple Mount towards its north, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima, the fortress at Masada, and Herodium. And on the other side Herod was responsible for the death of many people. Thousands of subjects who died in his brutal campaign to claim a country they believed he had no right to rule. He had many rabbis and their students executed for tearing down the Roman eagle that was desecrating the Temple gate. He also had 45 members of the Sanhedrin murdered. Herod appears in the Christian Gospel of Matthew as the ruler of Judea who orders the Massacre of the Innocents at the time of the birth of Jesus. Herod had many wives and many children. Herod had hundreds of family and staff whom he had suspected of plotting against him killed.

And ultimately Herod lay dying in his opulent palace. He had been seriously ill for a long time. From the description in Josephus’ writings, Herod had gangrene, severe itching, convulsions, and ulcers. His feet were covered with tumors, and he had constant fevers. The stadium was filled with loved ones and important people from around his land who were to be killed at the moment of his death. So so sad.

Report: No One Wants to Live in Trump's Decrepit, Tainted Tower | Vanity  Fair

Like Herod, Trump has his name on a huge number of colossal buildings. He also has many wives and many children. He also appears to plays a bit role in some Christians’ theology. I am still not sure why it is positive.

Like Herod, Trump’s administration is packed with an endless supply of palace intrigue. Trump lives in fear that his allies will turn against him to remove him from power. How many has he fired?

Due to his horrible administration, neglect, and misinformation Trump is responsible for over 220,000 innocent people dying from Covid-19. It is clear that having a family connection to Jews does not mean you cannot be responsible for horrible acts of anti-Semitism. The violence due to racial tension seems to make more sense in the time of Herod than our own. There are not good people on both sides of this one.

Like Herod’s killing of the Sanhedrin, Trump is poised to destroy the high court of the land. He will do what ever he has to to stay in power. In the end Trump is less the president of the American people than a client king of Russia.

I still do not know how this story will end, but Trump’s administration sure seems malignant, gangrenous, and scary. So so sad. And what ever it will be, it’s surely not so “great”.

Looking Backward, Looking Forward: A Year of Torah 20/20

Interview with Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson is Director of Rabbinic Training at T’ruah and the editor of Torah 20/20.

Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson: Avi, Torah 20/20 was originally your idea, and you wrote the kickoff edition for Simchat Torah last year. After a full Torah cycle of these divrei Torah, what sticks with you most?

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow: I’ll never forget Joy Ladin’s d’var Torah about how crucial it is to be able to lose gracefully. As we hear the president say explicitly and repeatedly that he may not accept the election results, the peaceful transition of power feels more and more an essential part of our democracy.

LMN: What was the biggest surprise for you over this project?

AKO: While our study was of the five books of Moses, the issues we have dealt with brought to mind for me the prophets rebuking the people’s disregard for each other. It’s possible we should have focused more on the Haftarot; maybe a worthy project for 5781.

LMN: As you prepare for Simchat Torah this year, what’s on your mind?

AKO: In some ways having an aliyah to the Torah on Simchat Torah reminds me of voting. Every adult member of the community stands up and is counted, putting our values at the center of the lives we lead. Finding my place in the text, I kiss it with my tallit and say the blessing. The act of voting can likewise be seen as an intimate personal expression of blessing a candidate for leadership.

LMN: What are you going to miss most about normal Simchat Torah celebrations this year, given the COVID-19 restrictions?

AKO: I will miss the Kol HaNe’arim aliyah. All the children (under bar/bat mitzvah age) would be called up as a group to the Torah to get a collective aliyah. We adults would have already gotten our chance; now a large, sometimes enormous, tallit would be spread over the heads of the children huddled together as the blessing of the Torah would be pronounced. In this the children are very much reminded that they are being protected as children, but at the same time practicing an activity that will mark their joining the adult community.

So too with voting: We model civic activism to our children. We need to find ways to include those who cannot yet vote in the process so their voices are heard.

In a deeper way Kol HaNe’arim evokes a profound midrash discussing the merit of our receiving the Torah. Just as when you take a loan you need a guarantor, here too in this fantastic narrative God wants to know who will underwrite our commitment to keep the Torah. After God rejects our forefathers and prophets as guarantors, the people say:

‘Our children shall be our guarantors.’ To which God replied: ‘Verily these are good guarantors; for their sake I will give it to you.’ Hence it is written: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings have You founded strength (Psalms 8:3). ’Strength’ refers to the Torah, as it says, “The ETERNAL will give strength unto God’s people (Psalms 29:11). (Midrash Rabbah Song of Songs 1:23)

This midrash paints a picture in which, in the deep past, the merit for which we deserved the Torah was dependent on the future: our children. In much the same way, this election in a few weeks is about our children and the world we will bequeath to them. They are depending on us. Will we risk defaulting on our responsibility to give them a better world?

LMN: Amen! I’m thinking about how this holiday, and this d’var Torah, are like a siyyum, the ritual celebration when we finish studying a Jewish book. In the siyyum, we say formulaically to the book we have just finished: “We will not forget you and you will not forget us.” I hope we won’t forget the Torah we’ve learned through Torah 20/20, but what does it mean for the Torah of democracy not to forget us?

AKO: Democracy and good Torah learning are all about struggle. Rabbi Hama b. Hanina said it well: “Just as a knife can be sharpened only on the side of another, so a disciple of a sage improves only through their partner” (Talmud Ta’anit 7a). It is in this struggle that we can make a more perfect union.

LMN: I like that, though the image of knives makes me nervous, given the fears about violence after Election Day. I might prefer a slightly less violent metaphor found further down the same page of Talmud: “Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Why are Torah matters likened to a tree, as it is stated: “It is a tree of life to them who lay hold upon it” (Proverbs 3:18)? To tell you that just as a small piece of wood can ignite a large piece, so too, minor Torah scholars can sharpen great ones.” This is a big country, but each small one of us can contribute to feeding the fire of democracy so it does not go out.

AKO: Our friends on the West Coast might not appreciate that metaphor right now.

LMN: Fair point. Many of the metaphors for Torah — knives, fire, water — can be dangerous if they get out of control. Which may be true of democracy also: We’re seeing that without close tending, it too can become a dangerous force.

Any final thoughts?

AKO: As we saw in that midrash about guarantors, learning Torah holds real issues between many millennia of generations. The “strength” of the Torah is in its capacity to connect our past and future by being open to the present. For the sake of the children we need to make sure that we guarantee them a brighter future. We need to “turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 3:24), or else our democracy will be destroyed. Just as we have the Torah in the merit of the children, the children will have a state in merit of their elders.

-The kick off piece for Torah 20/20 that I wrote last year Torah 20/20: Looking with Fresh Eyes

Essential Numbers

During the Democratic National Convention Rabbi Michael Beals shared a great story about Vice President Biden. In 2006 the friends and family of Sylvia Greenhouse showed up to honor the life of the 84-year-old congregant of Congregation of Beth Shalom. Rabbi Beals who led the service recounts that Joe Biden joined them.“He just showed up, unannounced,” said Beals.“You would not expect to see a U.S. senator there.” Here is another video that recounts the event that he shared at the DNC. It is worth watching this short video:

Beals recounts how Biden showed up at the service to honor Greenhouse’s memory. She had been a longtime Biden supporter, contributing $18 to each of his Senate races going back to 1972. The number 18 is a symbolic number in Judaism corresponding to the Hebrew word for “life.” This great story got me thinking about what is in a number?

I have always joked when it comes to numbers and giving tzedaka– people should be encouraged to give Mavet מוות-  death which has a symbolic number in Judaism corresponding to 452. The would increase each contribution by over 2500%. 

Then I saw this imagine and I realized that there are a lot of numbers that have meaning in our lives.

When it comes to numbers, this is so true. This year be it 2020 or 5780 have been rough and will be remembered. And still today the number 9/11 sticks out even more as a particularly painful number. 

I pause today to realize that numbers are important to us because they are symbolic. Be it a humble gift of 18 dollars or a horrific memory of 19 years later 9/11,  there is something clear about these numbers the reveal something true about their essence. After 5780 is over the next big number we will be looking for is 11/3/2020. As a nation it seems that our essence will be revealed with that number as well.


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