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Everlasting Relationship: Not Taking God’s Name in Vain

I have a fond memories of college. I went to Columbia College which is known for the Core Curriculum in which the entire school has to take the same battery of classics in Western Literature, Philosophy, Art, and Music. One sharp memory is from the Literature and Humanities Course. The instructor was a super smart graduate student who was getting two PHDs at the same time. He was looking at two writers who were also architects, comparing their writing to their buildings and to each others works. Clearly a big brain person.

After we had read sections of the “Old Testament” the instructor came in and asked the class, ” Who can write God’s name (the Tetragrammaton) on the board?” As I recall I was the only one to raise their hand. At this point he offering me his chalk and asked me, “Will you do it?” I said that I would not do it. A big smile came across his face as the rest of the class was befuddled by what just happened. To push the topic even further he repeated the whole interaction for the class and I played along. He then remarked, ” While I want people to do their reading every week, this week Mr. Orlow has done the unusual thing of actually DOING his reading.”

Of course he was referencing to prohibition from the 10 Commandments to not take God’s name in vain. We had just read book of Exodus where is says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”(Exodus 20:7) I had not just read the book, I was following it. I would not write on the board lest it be erased.

I was thinking about this story this week when reading Emor, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

You shall faithfully observe My commandments: I am the Lord, ולא תחללו You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I the Lord who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I the Lord.

Leviticus 22:31-33

In context on the 10 Commandments using God’s name in vain in the the context of swearing by God’s name. Here is seems to have a broader context. But what does it mean here? What does ” ולא תחללו you shall not prophane” mean? Clearly it is not limited to not writing on a chalk board.

I want to offer a reading of what this means in the context of another use of this word from the beginning of our Torah portion. There we read about the limits of who the Priest is allowed to marry. There we read:

They shall not take a wife that is a whore, וַחֲלָלָה֙ or profane; neither shall they take a woman divorced from her husband: for he is holy unto his God.

Leviticus 21:7

While it is all based on some deeply challenging assumptions of gender and sexuality, the cases of the priest not being able to marry the whore or the divorcee seem pretty clear. I still do not know the case of the “prophane” woman that the Priest cannot marry. Rashi explains:

חללה — This is a woman born from a marriage which is forbidden to the priesthood alone (Kiddushin 77a), e. g., the daughter of a widow and a high priest, or the daughter of a divorced woman [or one released from levirate marriage by the appropriate ceremony (cf. Deuteronomy 25:9)] and an ordinary priest…

Rashi on Leviticus 21:7

According to one of Rashi’s explanations the prophane woman is the child of one of the forbidden relationships with a priest or a woman who has been in another union with another Priest. This is ethically charge to limit the child by the choices of her parents. But, how might this understanding חללה impact our understanding of what it means to prophane God’s name?

The bond between the Jewish People and God is eternal. Tested throughout our rough and tumble history, our connection is very much unbreakable. In many deep ways we imagine this relationship to be a holy marriage. While people might get divorced, we do not have the capacity to break that unique relationship with God. Clearly there are religions that are animated by notions of supersessionism. They want Judaism to be obsolete. They assume that their relationship with God as God’s second wife is predicated by our divorce. Clearly we do not believe that is possible for us as a people, but how might this play out for us as individuals.

A deeper reading of the prohibition of taking God’s name in vain in the context of the the forbidden relationships of the priest unearths something compelling. God is articulating how God wants us to enter into this sacred relationship as a people and as individuals. Regardless what our parents’ relationship or issues with God might have been, we need to approach God under our own terms. We must believe that we can enter into divine relationship with a sense of purity and without any generational baggage. I am not saying will be easy, but we have to have the clarity to do our reading and the conviction to act on it. This is a testimony to our everlasting relationship. The chalk board can be erased, but not our divine relationship.


The Power of Symbols: On Jews, Sikhs, and Dr. Ruth

I have many fond memories from my years learning in Yeshivah. One particularly memorable experience is from when I was studying in Rabbinical School and we had Dr. Ruth Westheimer come and speak to us. She was amazing. She came in and allowed us to submit any question we wanted on 3×5 cards. In so doing, the embarrassing questions on sex and sexuality could be asked anonymously and without shame. It also allowed her to take these cards home with her as she was always looking for material for her next book.

Dr. Ruth won me over right from the start when she came standing 4’7″ with her thick German accent that reminded me of my Oma. She said, “I am a sex symbol… You laugh, but when I walk in you think about sex.” I have been thinking about this a lot as of late. How do we identify ourselves? How to other people identify us? In what ways are we symbols of things to people in their lives. What is the nature of being a living symbol?

I was thinking of all of these questions recently when I went to a conference. I go to conferences all the time, but most all of them are Jewish in one way or another. This was different in that I was one of very few Jews there. I was the only one there who was clearly identifiable as being Jewish. Beyond the beard and Kipah, I also had the conspicuous airplane meals.

In this context I was prepared for the requisite “bageling” from the hand full of Jews there. I can appreciate our desire to connect. One person wanted to connect of his being on the Board of his local Jewish Day School. Another wanted to connect about his Jewish camp experience. But, that was not the surprising part. I know I enjoy these tribal reunions.

I was taken aback by the number of non-Jews who “Auschwitz-ed” themselves to me. I realize I making up a word here, but what do you respond when non-Jews of good character steer the conversation toward the Holocaust. They seemed to just want to speak of the moral outrage or the expression of compassion. This happened a few times, which made me ask of myself a question inspired by Dr. Ruth. When I walk in the room what do they think of? Am I symbol of being a victim?

It is notable that today is not Holocaust Remembrance day. Today we commemorate Yom HaShoah , Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah -יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה, ‘Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day’, on the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. today was the day that Mordechai Anielewicz , who was the leader of the Jewish Fighting Organization led the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; the largest Jewish insurrection during the Second World War. This inspired further rebellions in both ghettos and extermination camps. His character was engraved as a symbol of courage and sacrifice, and to this day his image represents Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. We do not curate our memory around our victimization, but rather, we choose to create memory around our fighting back.

This comes into additional focus in that this Friday marks Vaisakhi, one of the most significant and widely observed annual celebrations for Sikhs, who make up the fifth-largest major world religion. It is noteworthy that there are over 26 million Sikhs in the world and only 15.3 million Jews. Some how we expect people to know about our myriad of holidays and we know little of theirs.

Vaisakhi – sometimes spelled Baisakhi – has long been celebrated as a harvest festival across South Asia and especially in the Punjab region of India, where it is also observed by Hindus. But in Sikhism, the day honors a pivotal moment in the evolution of the religion more than 300 years ago, when the tenth in a line of Gurus — or spiritual leaders — unified Sikhs and formalized many aspects of the faith. In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh Ji chose the harvest festival of Vaisakhi to start what is known as the Khalsa Panth, a community of committed, initiated Sikhs. These Sikhs vow to live by the principles of Sikhism, including remembrance of God, truthful living, service to humanity and standing up against tyranny and injustice. The Khalsa were initiated as warriors with a duty to protect the innocent from religious persecution.

This is clearly represented in the Kirpan one of their 5 “k”s of faith. The Kirpan is an iron blade in different sizes and is only a weapon of defense and religious protection. It is used to serve humanity and to be used against oppression.

The Sikhs like the Jews have experienced much oppression, violence, persecution, and murder throughout history. Both these noble peoples do not want to be seen as victims. Both Vaisakhi and Yom HaShoah are expressions of our respective yearning to be symbols of heroism, justice, and strength. We should not pity them. When we see a Jew or a Sikh walk in the room, do we see the Khalsa Panth or members of Anielewicz’s rebellion?  We are both symbols of honor and valor. This has its own appeal.

In Pursuit of Truth: The Passover Process

I was reading a book recently that quoted Gotthold Ephraim Lessing the 18th Century German philosopher in saying:

The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud.

Accordingly one could postulate that hunt for anything truly important is more valuable than the attainment of that thing.

I was thinking about this in preparation for Passover. The primary objective of the Seder is to verbally recount the Jews’ bitter, oppressive experience as slaves in Egypt, as well as their miraculous deliverance from that country. As we say:

And you shall tell your child in that day, saying, ‘This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came up from Egypt.’

Exodus 13:8

In contrast to the daily mitzvah of remembering the Exodus (see Deuteronomy 15:15), this mitzvah of retelling requires active, detailed participation and discussion. Just as we learned from Lessing, the core Mitzvah it is not enough to be free or remember becoming free, rather, we need to retell and relive the pursuit of freedom. As we say in the Haggadah:

In each and every generation, every Jew must consider that he, himself was personally redeemed from Egypt.

This is rooted in our obligation to relive the experience of the exodus. “A person is obligated to see himself as if he were leaving Egypt.” (Pesachim 116b) In the not enough that we left or that the belief that if we had not left we would still be slaves in Egypt, rather, the commandment is in the leaving. Or as Lessing would say, the core act is the pursuit of freedom.

The Rambam states that a person’s obligation in this area is of such significance that it is not sufficient for a person to simply view himself as one who has personally left Egypt. Rather, he must act as a slave who is currently experiencing the exodus, by engaging in the type of behaviors that symbolize both slavery and freedom (Laws of Chametz and Matzah 7:6). These include the various mitzvot of the seder, such as eating marror and reclining while eating matzah and drinking wine. In addition, we possess numerous customs which are designed to reinforce this concept, including carrying sacks over one’s shoulders, so as to reenact the exodus.

In this way the freedom of Passover is an ongoing, never ending process. Our obligation is to try to achieve our own personal freedom by identifying the servitude of today, and finding ways to overcome it.

This is true on a personal level, but it might also be true on a National and Universal level as well. In many ways this Passover experience stirs the Messianic drive of the Jewish people. This is a profound and powerful element of Jewish life. Far too many of us have ignored the Messianic Project. We have ceded the whole discussion to those who think they have the answer. When it comes to the Messiah I believe that we all have much to learn from Lessing and Seder. The search for the Messiah is much more precious than the possession of that truth. Or to put it in other terms, the Messiah is a much better question than any of its so-called answers.

This Passover- may we all be blessed to experience the pursuit of truth and freedom.

There’s Something Bigger than Phil: On the Rule of One Law

In his classic 2000 Year Old Man, Mel Brooks played a character who has lived for 2000 year old man with an old-school Yiddish accent and Carl Reiner interviewed him as the straight man. Her is a short introduction:

In this amazing “interview” they explore the origin of faith:

INTERVIEWER: Did you believe in anything?

OLD MAN: Yes, a guy – Phil. Philip was the leader of our tribe.

INTERVIEWER: What made him the leader?

OLD MAN: Very big, very strong, big beard, big arms, he could just kill you. He could walk on you and you would die.

INTERVIEWER: You revered him?

OLD MAN: We prayed to him. Would you like to hear one of our prayers? “Oh Philip. Please don’t take our eyes out and don’t pinch us and don’t hurt us….Amen.”

INTERVIEWER: How long was his reign?

OLD MAN: Not too long. Because one day, Philip was hit by lightning. And we looked up and said…”There’s something bigger than Phil.”

I love this as a Rabbi, student of religion, and most interesting as a parent. I was thinking about this last Shabbat when Libi, who is 7 years old, asked me a law of Shabbat. Without getting into the details she asked me if X is permissible on Shabbat can she do Y. I love intellectually as it shows he facility and ownership of Jewish law. I also love it because it demonstrates that she understands that there is something bigger than Phil and I am not Phil.

I was I do thinking about that this week reading the start of Tzav, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it.

Leviticus 6:1-2

What do we make of this language of being commanded? For many modern people the notion of command is complicated by the notion that there must be an Commander. But I think that misses the point that this command was not just said to Aaron or from Aaron, but rather there is one command for Aaron and his sons. What do we make of the command being to both the Father and the sons?

This question brings be to one of my favorite ideas by Prof. George Lakoff in which he juxtaposes the intellectual frame of conservative vs liberal thinking through the metaphor parenting styles. Lakoff described conservative voters as being influenced by the “strict father model” as a central metaphor for such a complex phenomenon as the state, and liberal/progressive voters as being influenced by the “nurturant parent model” as the folk psychological metaphor for this complex phenomenon. According to him, an individual’s experience and attitude towards sociopolitical issues is influenced by being framed in linguistic constructions.. He writes:

Deeply embedded in conservative and liberal politics are different models of the family. Conservatism, as we shall see, is based on a Strict Father model, while liberalism is centered around a Nurturant Parent model. These two models of the family give rise to different moral systems and different discourse forms, that is, different choices of words and different modes of reasoning.

In this context God might be the commander, but Aaron along with his sons of equally commanded. I am intrigued at this notion that there is something bigger than Phil, meaning that we have no value of the Strict Father. God might know best, but daddy foes not. This has huge implications for us here today in the United States, Russia, and Israel. No one is above the law; not Trump, Putin, or Bibi. We need to evolve out of the looking for Phil. We need to strive to be nurturing parents equal under the law. And yes this even includes me with Libi regarding the laws of Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom- to all of us equally.

Promised Assembly: On Suburbia

At the start of Vayakel Pekudai, this week’s double portion we read, “ Moshe called the whole community of the children of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that the Lord commanded to do” (Exodus 35:1). What does it mean to “assemble”?

We take it for granted, but for these recently emancipated slaves this coming together must have been a very powerful experience. In this context of communing, convening, and communicating they were giving the gift of Shabbat. For people who’s value is tied to their productivity for their masters the very institution of Shabbat must have been radical. For them then, and for us now, the experience of Shabbat itself creates the context for the communing, convening, and communicating. But for many of us this benefits of assembling allude us. In the words of Robert Putnam, religion and communal life are on the decline and we are all bowling alone. But why?

As we learn in the Mishnah (and in the classic song Yo Ya), “Mishnah Makom Mishnah Mazel– You change your place you change your luck”. One is left assuming that if changing the venue would have been enough for the slaves to assemble it would have done the same for the previous generation as they liberated themselves from the peril of city life and moved to the suburbs. When we started to leave urban centers across America we came together, collected the necessary resources, and formed communities. Many of these new synagogues were conceived of as new Tabernacles build in the wilderness as people escaped the city life. But has the reality of suburbia lived up to the promise?

In thinking about this question I think about the work of James Howard Kunstler. In his book The Geography of Nowhere, he traces America’s evolution from a nation of Main Streets and coherent communities to a land where every place is like no place in particular, where the cities are dead zones and the countryside is a wasteland of cartoon architecture and parking lots. Kunstler depicts our nation’s evolution from the Pilgrim settlements to the modern auto suburb in all its ghastliness. The Geography of Nowhere tallies up the huge economic, social, and spiritual costs that America is paying for its car-crazed lifestyle. It is also a wake-up call for citizens to reinvent the places where we live and work, to build communities that are once again worthy of our affection. Kunstler proposes that by reviving civic art and civic life, we will rediscover public virtue and a new vision of the common good.

Kunstler gives a related Ted talk that I just love:

“The future will require us to build better places,” Kunstler says, “or the future will belong to other people in other societies.” Beyond his assorbic tone, he is speaking the truth. As he says, “We’re going to need to get back this body of methodology and principle and skill in order to re-learn how to compose meaningful places, places that are integral, that allow — that are living organisms in the sense that they contain all the organs of our civic life and our communal life, deployed in an integral fashion.”

In some ways the Israelites in the desert lived the promise of suburbia assembling, coming together, and making meaning. And for us this has become a MESSH nightmare. The project of the Promised Land is also suffering from some of the same consequences of suburbia that Kunstler discusses. Israel is more divided then ever. Israel’s left and right have nothing in common and there is also a growing divide between Israel and diaspora. We have nothing common and no share vision of what is worth fighting for. As Kunstler said, “We are sleepwalking into the future. We’re not ready for what’s coming at us. So I urge you all to do what you can.”

What can we learn from the Israelite assembling to repair our communities all over the world?

A Purim Study: On Judaism, Jews, and Jewishness

When people find out that I am a Rabbi I often find myself in deep religious conversations with people, especially non-Jews. While being religious is part of being, it is far from the totality of my Jewish identity.

There is an important idea attributed to Dr. Michael Rosenak, Israeli philosopher of Jewish education, who makes an important distinction between Judaism, Jews, and Jewishness. Judaism is our religion. This one comes in many flavors and sizes. A Jew a member of the Jewish people. We too come in all flavors and sizes. And finally there is Jewishness. This is the culture of belonging to this global people. Our Jewishness gives voice to our sensibilities, interpretive lenses, and our languages. Clearly we are all of these, but when I get sucked into this vortex of religious discourse I often have to explain to other religious people how my being a Jew and my Jewishness is no less a part of my/ our being.

I was thinking about it today on Purim as we say Al HaNissim which quotes the Megilah:

Accordingly, written instructions were dispatched by couriers to all the king’s provinces לְהַשְׁמִ֡יד לַהֲרֹ֣ג וּלְאַבֵּ֣ד to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—and to plunder their possessions.

Esther 3:13

We get it Haman wanted to kill the Jews. Why do we need these three different words?

L’hashmid– to destroy often refers to religious persecutions. On the surface this would seem to be an attack on Judaism. In our history these efforts of forced apostasy were heroically resisted, brought the people to die “al kiddush HaShem,” for the sanctification of the Name. These religious Jews would rather die then give up their religion. This is best known from the time of Chanukah.

L’harog– to massacre. This is classic genicide. There is nothing that Jews can do to stop being Jews. We have seen this far too often in Jewish History. Juxtaposed Chanukah, this is what we see in Purim, Passover, and the Holocaust.

L’abad-to exterminate or to be lost. This seems to be an interesting one. What do we learn from this that we did not already from the previous two acts of violence against our people?

This language seems to be foreshadowing the role of Esther in the saga. When Mordechai hears of this plot to kill the Jews he reaches out to Esther as the queen to help. There we read:

On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

Esther 4: 14

While Mordechai and the Jews need Esther’s help, Mordechai is confident that they will be saved with or without her help. In many ways he frames the request of her as a favor to her. If she opts out of helping she will be lost to the Jewish people. She will lose her Jewishness. This is accented by use of the same work “lost” in her response:

“Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; וְכַאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָבַ֖דְתִּי אָבָֽדְתִּי and if I am to perish, I shall perish!”

Esther 4: 16

Esther was the Queen and risks her safety be revealing her hidden identity as a Jew. If she is lost, she will be lost. She is not depicted as a religious Jew and she is not just saying that she might be killed as a Jew. In this statement she is saying that she does not want to lose her Jewishness.

In many ways our coming together to fast in support of Esther is our people coming together as Jews despite our differences of Judaism or Jewishness. So too in celebrating this holiday today we are expressing our unity without a mandate for conformity.

Purim Sameakh-

Shift Happens: Beyond Crying in on an Ottoman

We recently became beneficiaries of a lovely sectional sofa. It forms a lovely “U” shape and it left us thinking that maybe we should find an ottoman to go in the middle. Because I am a curious person that got me thinking, why is this piece of furniture is named after the Turkish Empire?

The ottoman traces its roots to furnishing practices in the Ottoman Empire, where it was the central piece of residential seating, generally designed as a low wooden platform intended to be piled with cushions. It was first designed as sectional furniture that wrapped around three walls of a room, before evolving into smaller versions that fit into the corner of a room or circular padded seats surrounding a column or pole in a public room. The ottoman was eventually brought to Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century and named after its place of origin. It is also thought to have this name as the piece of furniture in the room just as the Ottoman Empire was centrally located.

These ideas came together for me recently in a scary way with two of earthquakes in Turkey and Syrian. Looking at the map we see that the Anatolian Plate is a continental tectonic plate that is separated from the Eurasian plate and the Arabian plate by the North Anatolian Fault and the East Anatolian Fault respectively. Most of the country of Turkey is located on the Anatolian plate. Most significant earthquakes in the region have historically occurred along the northern fault, such as the 1939 Erzincan earthquake. The devastating 2023 Turkey–Syria earthquake occurred along the active East Anatolian fault at a strike slip fault where the Arabian plate is sliding past the Anatolian plate horizontally.

Looking at how so many tectonic plates come together in Turkey we see how in so many ways this is a the center of the world.

This got me thinking about what the ancients experiences of earthquakes. We see in the Gemara:

Rav Ketina was once walking along the road when he came to the entrance of the house of a necromancer and an earthquake rumbled. He said: Does this necromancer know what is this earthquake? The necromancer raised his voice and said: Ketina, Ketina, why would I not know? Certainly this earthquake occurred because when the Holy One, Blessed be God, remembers God’s children who are suffering among the nations of the world, God sheds two tears into the great sea. The sound of their reverberation is heard from one end of the earth to the other. And that is an earthquake. Rav Ketina said: The necromancer is a liar and his statements are lies. If so, it would necessitate an earthquake followed by another earthquake, one for each tear. The Gemara comments: That is not so, as it indeed causes an earthquake followed by another earthquake; and the fact that Rav Ketina did not admit that the necromancer was correct was so that everyone would not mistakenly follow him.

Berakhot 59a-b

In light of this Gemara the pairing of the two earthquakes in Turkey is haunting. In the context of the original situation this might have been related to ancient intuition regarding earthquakes and aftershocks. On the level of polemics it might have been that Rav Ketina knew that the necromancer was right, but did not want to admit that in public. On a theological level this presents a challenging theodicy. How is it possible that an all powerful God be benevolent? What do we do when bad things happen to good people? God’s tears are not enough.

On a deeper level one would have to understand that the mere existence of tectonic plates speak to the literal broken nature of the world. This reminds me of one of my favorite lessons by Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson. He said,” If you see what needs to be repaired and know how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to perfect. But if you only see what is wrong and what is ugly, then it is you yourself that needs repair.” This is to say we cannot sit at home crying on our ottomans and just watch the tragedy in Turkey. Clearly the world is broken and this is our invitation to get out there and help fix it.

Painfully Parve: The Moral Challenge of Adiaphorous

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion we learn about many laws. Some of them deal with kashrut, food taboos. One of the laws states, ” You shall be holy people to Me: you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs.” (Exodus 22:30) Clearly eating without thinking about the experience of the animal is to be like an animal. Our holiness is connected to our being conscious consumers.

Another law states, “The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”(Exodus 23:19) At first glance it might seem that this prohibition falls in line with other taboos in Judaism of mixing things, I think that is an over simplification. Just as in the previous case, this is an argument for conscious moral living. Cooking a kid in it’s mother milk is an obvious case of cruelty. Not doing mixing milk and meat is not moral stance, but an occasion to be mindful in life and to strive not to be cruel.

This also creates categories of trief (not kosher), milk, meat, and “parve”. Pronounced PAH-riv or pahr-veh, “parve” is a Yiddish (and by extension, Hebrew) term for something that is neither meat nor dairy. Examples would be water, eggs, fish, and anything that is plant-derived, such as fruit, nuts and veggies. Thus, a cookie labeled as “parve” can be eaten together with cream-laden coffee, or after a steak dinner. Since meat and dairy utensils are also kept separate, dishes that are used for neither meat nor dairy are also known as “parve.” The origin of this word is unknowm. Perhaps it is from Middle High German bar (“bare, naked”), from Proto-Germanic bazaz (“bare, naked”), from Proto-Indo-European bosós, from bos- (“bare, barefoot”), and thus cognate with English bare. Or perhaps from a West Slavic source such as Czech párový (“occurring in pairs”), because it is something that can be paired with either meat or milk.

In a more general context, being “parve” can also mean being neutral, unremarkable, or lacking in distinctive qualities or characteristics. To be “painfully parve” would mean to be frustratingly neutral or unremarkable in a way that causes discomfort or dissatisfaction. This could refer to a person, an experience, or anything that is perceived as being uninteresting or bland. It suggests a sense of disappointment or a desire for more excitement or stimulation.

Similarly I just learned a new vocabular work, adiaphorous. Based on the ancient Greek “ἀδιάφορος” (“adiáphoros”), meaning “indifferent.” The idea of adiaphorous concepts is associated with the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, who split human life into categories of good, bad, and indifferent. The term for “indifferent” was “adiaphora,” and they used it to describe activities that were neither essentially good nor essentially bad. An early example of something adiaphorous is the pursuit of fame, which is neither bad in nature, nor necessarily a good thing. Stoics believed adiaphorous actions were decided as good or bad by the way one carried them out.

There is something painfully parve about moral indifference. I am interested in Jewish law being an expression of our values. When it come to food there is no problem being parve, but in life we need to pick teams. Being adiaphorous is trief. As Elie Wiesel wisely said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

Systems Fail: Accountability and Our Trash Heap

When I look around at the world I see many problems and issues. It is easy to become despondent as the world continues to go from bad to worse. What could we possibly do to make things better of this burning trash heap of a planet? It all seems out of control. And even if we think there is someone in control we jump to blame. Just to name a few of our issues:

  1. Climate Change: One of the major problems on our planet is linked to the global temperatures that are continuously rising. By 2100, studies show that there is a 50% likelihood of facing global warming that is higher than 3.5 degrees Celsius and a 10% probability of witnessing warming higher than 4.7 degrees Celsius (relative to temperatures registered between 1850 and 1900). This would result in more severe shifts in weather patterns, food and resource shortages, and the more rapid spread of diseases.
  2. Wars and Military Conflicts: There is a war in Ukraine. Russia one of the world powers will do everything to keep Ukraine out of the EU. This could easily escalate to a 3rd World War. This is just one region. Beyond any bloodshed or hardship in any of these war-torn regions, there is a huge issue caused for and by the refugees of war.
  3. Water Contamination and Shortage: 2.1 billion people in countries undergoing urbanization have inaccessibility to clean drinking water as a result of pollution, poverty and poor management of resources.
  4. The Relationship between Education and Child Labor: Despite a surge in funding for some countries and increasing attention through social media, education continues to be a luxury around the globe. Reasons include gender preferences and poverty, and child labor — the use of children in industry. According to UNICEF, 150 million children participate in laborious activities dangerous to their health.
  5. Violence: Violence is a global issue that exists in all shapes and sizes. Violence can be done towards a particular group like women or LGBTQ+ members, or it is an act that can be a result of a mentally disturbed mind. There is also violence in response to economic stress. All these varying forms of violence lead to attention on the safety and prevention of such acts. Despite COVID pushing #metoo out of the news, we still have not dealt with these abuses of power.
  6. Poverty: 1.3 billion people have difficulty obtaining food and shelter, regardless of the availability of homeless shelters and organizations.
  7. Inequality: According to a Global Wealth Report, 44 percent of global net worth is held by only 0.7 percent of adults. In a society where there’s a large gap between the rich and the poor, life expectancy tends to be shorter and mental illness and obesity rates are 2 to 4 times higher. In terms of social relationships, inequality on a larger level introduces more violence and crime.
  8. Terrorism: Terrorism like the bombing incidents of the last few years continue to claim the lives of innocents. It is a threat to the peace, security and stability of the world, so terrorism prevention methods have been implemented to illustrate what is wrong and should be/could be done to uphold justice.
  9. Child Marriages: One in five girls are married before the age of 18, and child marriages prevent children from becoming educated, can lead to severe health consequences and increased risk of violence.
  10. Food: By 2050, the world would need to find food for approximately nine billion people as cost of production for food will rise in response to the increased amount of individuals.
  11. Human Rights Violation: There are many place in the world where people do not live free. One example is how the China’s Uyghur Genocide.
  12. Global Health Issues: While we might feel that we are done with COVID- 19, what is coming next?
  13. Gun Violence: There is a huge problem in America around access and use of guns. We have become knumb to the regularity of mass shootings.

Individually I believe we have the power to fix each of these issues. But looking at this litany of crap in this sh!t storm of our lives today it is overwhelmed. When I dig deeper I am left seeing a theme to our issues. We just lack accountability. We could fix all of these things, we just do not have a culture of accountability to make it happen.

Here I quote my Accountability Rebbe Diana Bloom when she says, “ People do not fail, systems fail.”

Instead of running to blame people or just throwing up my hands in despair , I want to ask what systems we could put into place to make sure we working on solutions and making the world better.

I was thinking about this idea this week when reading Yitro, this week’s Torah portion. Here we see Moshe sitting from morning until night adjudicating cases. His father-in-law Yitro advises Moshe to appoint a hierarchy of magistrates and judges to assist him in the task of governing and administering justice to the people. We all need systems to be effective. Moshe himself needed a system to make sure that they could have a just civilization.

This story of having a judiciary system itself is the story that immediately precedes the give of the Torah. In many ways it seems that the Torah and the halacha we learn in it is what our wisdom tradition offers the world as a system of accountability. While you might not see this in modern Israel, but a separate judiciary system is critical to our culture. As we read about the giving of the Torah we should thing about what systems we can put in place to make sure we are doing our part to save this burning trash heap of a planet.

The Dreaming Tree: A Reflection on Tu B’Shvat and Time

Louis Pasteur wisely said, “No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. This seems accurate in that our experience of ourselves is perplexing. It also rings true in that our experience of time is often beyond our grasp.

I was thinking about this today is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the trees. This is a holiday that signals the start of spring in Israel. This is supposed to coincide with the budding of the first almond blossoms. While our frosty lunar based solar mash-up calendar might not totally align to the coming of spring, it is interesting to see how looking at trees shift our experience of time itself.

We all have that experience as children of counting the rings of a tree stump and being told that each ring represents another year of the tree’s lives. Like us the tree grows a little every year and it is hard to perceive. Shifting our focus to tree’s today push us to understand our perception of time.

I was thinking about this idea this morning when I woke up seeing The Dreaming Tree by Dave Matthews. What can I say he was the music of my teens? Here take a listen for Tu B’Shvat:

On a simple level it is a song about change, about the course of life, it’s about the world and it’s dangers when you are no longer a child with no worries, and about people who lose their sense of imagination as they grow old. There are a lot of things we take for granted in our lives, such as our childhood. In the song he says:

Below it he would sit
For hours at a time
Now progress takes away
What forever took to find

And now he’s falling hard
And feels the falling dark
How he longs to be
Beneath his dreaming tree

Some people treasure the things that are important in life, while other people take those same things for granted, not realizing what is truly valuable. The bystander didn’t really care about the tree it had no significance to him, but the old man treasured it for it reminded him of so many memories for him. The Dreaming Tree represents “a moment froze in time”. On today, Tu B’Shvat, we pause to see how trees help us experience time slower and in turn helps us treasure what matters most.

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