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Juneteenth: When We Got the Message

One of my favorite mishnayot in Perkei Avot starts:

Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi said: every day a bat kol (a heavenly voice) goes forth from Mount Horev (Sinai)… ( Avot 6:2)

Surely Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi believed that there was an event of transmission of the Torah at Sinai. If it was a singular event, what did he mean? Is it the a same message going out from the Mount Horev daily or does that message change? If it does changes did he think that that revelation at Sinai was incomplete?  What are the implications of a daily progressive notion of revelation?

This idea seems to be connected to the teaching of Ben Bag Bag who taught:

Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein. And look into it; And become gray and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it. (Avot 5:22)

There was an event of revelation which is immutable and there is an additional mandate to help that message go forth and be turned into something that is relevant.  This work is not reserved for one period in our lives.  This is a daily practice that is year-round and life-long. While the Torah might have gone out at Sinai centuries ago, it is our work to make sure it is heard every day.

I was thinking about this on Thursday when President Joe Biden signed into law legislation establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a US federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The holiday is the first federal holiday established since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983 and becomes at least the eleventh federal holiday recognized by the US federal government. The US Office of Personnel Management announced Thursday that most federal employees will observe the holiday today on Friday since Juneteenth falls on a Saturday this year. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas, in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Only a handful of states currently observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday. (CNN)

17 Ideas for Teaching Juneteenth in the Classroom - WeAreTeachers

While that day was a revelation of a truth that we are all free and equal, it is clear that our society is still not living up to this promise of treating people equally. It has been 156 years and there is still much work for us to do every day to ensure that we are all living up to this truth. We can be happy that Juneteenth is a federal holiday and know that there still so much work to be done. What do we need to turn and turn again in our society to uproot systemic racism? what do we need to do to reform our police force that targets people of color? We still have so much work for do to deal with bias at every level of our society.

I am not sure what we need to do, but I know that we need to do more. I do want to offer one insight from Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi. In the same mishna he taught:

And it says, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not harut [‘graven’] but herut [ ‘freedom’].( Avot 6:2)

Even when it is written in the law – harut that we are all free, there is still a lot of work to do to make sure we are actually all free- herut . We cannot hide behind the law, we need to do the daily work of making sure that we are living up to our aspiration and that all of us are safe and free. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

This new occasion of Juneteenth reminds us that the revelation of freedom is incomplete until we all treat each other with respect and dignity.

-last year’s post on Juneteenth: Between Revelation and Relevance

Some great sources on the day I got from my colleague Rabbi Stacy Rigler:

RESOURCE LIST:

Read

Listen

Watch

We Need to Vent: Holding Complexity and Shelach

We all know what a Venn diagram is, but what is a Vent diagram? A Venn diagram is a widely-used image style that shows the logical relation between sets, popularized by John Venn in the 1880s. While that was helpful in math class, that is not what is most interesting to me. A Vent diagram as an image of the overlap of two statements that appear to be true and appear to be contradictory. You do not label the overlapping middle.  This is a collaborative social media and art project started by educator Elana Eisen-Markowitz and artist Rachel Schragis, two queer white Jews in Brooklyn in our 30s.   

As they write on their website:

Making vent diagrams as a practice helps us recognize and reckon with contradictions and keep imagining and acting from the intersections and overlaps. Venting is an emotional release, an outlet for our anger, frustration, despair — and as a vent enables stale, suffocating air to flow out, it allows new fresh air to cycle in and through. We’re trying to make “vents” in both senses of the word: tiny windows for building unity and power, emotional releases of stale binary thinking in order to open up a trickle of fresh ideas and air.

Here are some vent diagrams about vent diagrams… or, vents that best describe what this project is and why we’re doing it:

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I would encourage you to check out their sight for other examples. A good vent draws out a tension that we don’t have language for because that non-binary overlap isn’t really part of our public discourse yet.  

I was thinking about Vent diagrams this week while reading Shelach, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn that Moshe sends twelve spies to the land of Canaan. Forty days later they return, carrying a huge cluster of grapes, a pomegranate and a fig, to report on a lush and bountiful land. But ten of the spies warn that the inhabitants of the land are giants and warriors “more powerful than we”; only Caleb and Joshua insist that the land can be conquered, as God has commanded. Why did the spies give a bad report?

I think they needed to vent. These ten spies were not able to “recognize and reckon with contradictions”. Inspired by Elana Eisen-Markowitz and Rachel Schragis I made a Vent diagram for Shelach:

 

Like these ten spies many of us find ourselves navigating the complexity of two opposing truths. We all need to find a way to vent like Joshua and Caleb.

Nazir and Love: Beyond the Victory March

In Naso, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the laws of becoming a Nazir. The Nazir is someone who  takes a vow to “consecrate” or “separate” themselves. This vow means that they need to abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins, and eating or drinking any substance that contains any trace of grapes. It also means that they are going to refrain from cutting their hair. The final aspect of this vow is that they cannot become ritually impure by contact with corpses or graves, even those of family members. Why would anyone want to do this?

One answer given is that the laws of Nazir come right after the laws of the Sotah. This is not a case of a woman who is known to have actually committed adultery, but rather one whose behavior makes her suspect of having done so. Her faithfulness to her husband must therefore be established before the marriage relationship can be resumed. This starts with the husband expressing his suspicion that his wife had an improper relationship with another man. In this context he warns her not to be alone with that individual. If the woman disregards this warning and proceeds to seclude herself with the other man, she becomes a Sotah, forbidden to live with her husband unless she agrees to be tested with the “bitter waters.” The woman is warned that if she has indeed committed adultery, the “bitter waters” will kill her; if, however, she has not actually been unfaithful, the drinking of these waters exonerates her completely. In fact, the Torah promises that, having subjected herself to this ordeal, her marriage will now be even more rewarding and fruitful than before her “going astray.”

What is wrong with their relationship that you need this entire ordeal? The Torah goes right from these laws to a discussion of our law of the Nazir. One interpretation is that anyone who might see this play out would be driven to become a Nazir. But that seems to only get to the surface level. What else is going on here?

Lucas Cranach d. Ä. - Samson's Fight with the Lion - WGA05717.jpg

It is not at all surprising that the haftarah coupled with this Torah portion is the origin story of Shimshon, the most famous Nazir in the Bible. Shimshon is not a normal Nazir in that he has superhuman strength. He also not a particularly good Nazir in that he appears to break his vows, by touching a dead body (Judges 14:8–9) and drinking wine (he holds a “drinking party”, in Judges 14:10). 

What is not covered in the origin story is the tragic end of his life. His immense strength to aid him against his enemies and allow him to perform superhuman feats came from his hair. There we read:

He said to her, “No razor has ever touched my head, for I have been a nazirite to God since I was in my mother’s womb. If my hair were cut, my strength would leave me and I should become as weak as an ordinary man.” (Judges 16:17)

Shimshon was betrayed by his lover Delilah, who used the secret of the origin of his strength against him. She ordered a servant to cut his hair while he was sleeping and turned him over to his Philistine enemies.

I got thinking about all of this when recalling the spellbinding lyrics of Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujah. He sings:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Here Cohen seamlessly remixes allusions to King David’s lust for Batsheva, Shimshon’s succumbing to Delilah, and a contemporary lover. Maybe this gives us some insight into the connection of the suspicious lover in the Sotah case and the drive for self destruction in the Shimson and the case of the Nazir. If we see love as something to be won, it can also be something to be lost. In that version of love, there will always be causalities, people getting hurt, and people’s needs not being met. As Cohen so eloquently comments ” love is not some kind of victory march”. Love makes us do crazy things. A lesson of the Nazir is that we need to move beyond transaction to relationship if we hope to sing the song of Hallelujah.

Encampment, BaMidbar, and Building Back Better

At the start of BaMidbar, this week’s Torah portion, we read of the desert encampment of Israel. There we read:

When the Israelites set up camp, each tribe will be assigned its own area. The tribal divisions will camp beneath their family banners on all four sides of the Tabernacle, but at some distance from it.  ( Numbers 2:2)

The Desert Tabernacle: Collection of the Tabernacle Illustrations | Exodus  bible, Bible knowledge, Bible scriptures

I want to think about the need for the “distance” , but first I want to explore the meaning of the banners. According to Rav Hirsch the banner   דגל is related to דקל, which is a tree that can be seen all around.  Rav Hirsch also explains the phrase תמרות עשן similarly – like a תמר tree (דקל), that can be witnessed in all directions (and from all perspectives). Their banner was their signature stand out trait. They needed to maintain distance so that they could witness and appreciate each others stand out traits.

This seems like a wonderful model for pluralism for our community. We should strive to come together with people who you are different from us and make sure that we give each other  space to witness and appreciate our differences. This year with Covid and others are immersed in a war- this idea of needing “distance” takes on new meaning. The act of war means that no “distance” is enough to foster civility. In a different way Covid showed us even with civility, we needed our pods and other divisions to stay safe.

As we sit hear and pray for peace in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza and we start to imagine some emergence from Covid restrictions it is helpful to focus on this image of the tribes. Maybe this will provide us a healthy and safe frame for building back better .

Being Enough: Rashbi, Lag B’Omer, and Covid

According to tradition Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, marks the death of the Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai). For this reason thousands go to Har Meron every year to commemorate his yahrzeit. Sadly last night, after what seems to be a collapse of a ramp and a stampede of people, over one hundred people were injured and at least 45 died at Har Meron. Even before this horrible tragedy I have been thinking about the Rashbi and this moment in history. The iconic story of the Rashbi and his son in the Talmud is a poignant frame to help us reflect on our protracted period of social distancing due to Covid and the prospects of emergence from isolation . (Shabbat 33b-34a)

At the start of this story, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is debating the merits of the Roman Empire with Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose. When the Rashbi’s harsh critique of Rome gets reported to the authorities, he is condemned to death. He goes on the lamb with his son Rabbi Elazar. At first, they hide in the Beit Midrash, but then they find shelter in a miraculous cave with a carob tree and brook. With their physical needs of safety and nourishment taken care of, the Rashbi and and his son spend the next 12 years immersed in prayer and study. After 12 years in isolation, Elijah comes to tell them that the emperor died and it is safe to leave the cave.

As we contemplate, what life might look like after Covid, the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar needs a closer analysis. The story continues:

They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai said: These people abandon eternal life of Torah study and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance. The Gemara relates that every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave. They again went and sat there for twelve months. They said: The judgment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts for twelve months. Surely their sin was atoned in that time. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Emerge from your cave. They emerged. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar: My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah.( Shabbat 33b)

For the Rashbi and his son, after spending 12 years in isolation the transition to society was not easy. It is hard to imagine that our reemergence after more than 12 months will go any smoother. Similar to the Rashbi and his son, as we come out of our caves we all have to reconcile the divergence of practices around Covid. Do we all mask or gather? We will not be keep the same standards. Do we understand that the process will be iterative? Will be get stuck being judgmental? Will we burn up our relationships as we reemerge?

What is our role with our children or students? We will both want to act out. As adults we need to give them limits. We also need to help them fail as they mediate this experience of reemergence. This story helps us communicate that this is not new. We will need to rethink how we discipline out children. We also need to understand that “time-outs” might not be so effective.

Their story of reemergence continues:

As the sun was setting on Shabbat eve, they saw an elderly man who was holding two bundles of myrtle branches and running at twilight. They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: “Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: “Protect the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease and they were no longer as upset that people were not engaged in Torah study..  (Shabbat 33b)

What about this man’s behavior that placates them? In a simple way he was able to wed together the life of learning (in the cave) and the real world ( plowing and sowing). The old man was able to show his understanding of the two versions of the commandment of Shabbat in a embodied practice. On a deeper level he was able to help the Rashbi and his son reemerge from society. What did they want to remember and protect from their life in the cave and their lives in the real world?

Covid has been and continues to be horrible. Many have died. In turn this has left so many to mourn them. Still more have been hurt physically, emotionally, and economically by this plague. For almost all of us social distancing measures have been difficult if not just annoying.

And for some of us, this time in isolation has itself been a blessing if not a miracle. Yes, balancing work and the kids has been challenging, but it has not been all bad. While we might feel guilty saying it, we might have enjoyed our time in the cave with our family/pod. Similarly, I might complain about the monotony of carobs for dinner again, but I love the time I save in not worrying about my wardrobe or commuting.

Focusing on what is worth remembering and protecting allows us to express the wisdom of the Rashbi. We have and are enough. We maintain an isolation because we have shame that we are not enough. Brené Brown teaches that a pervasive sense of shame makes many of us—particularly in America—feel unworthy of human connection. Why do we experience this shame? Because in this perfectionistic culture, most of us believe we’re “not good enough…not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough” to be worthy of love. So we can’t afford to let our guard down, become vulnerable, because letting others see us as we really are would mean we’d be rejected out of hand. Better to avoid emotional risk, avoid vulnerability, and numb ourselves to any pain we can’t escape, even if we ran away to a magical cave. 

We will only by happy with our re-emergence when have a renewed sense that we are enough.

After Death: Working for a Renaissance

This week marked the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. This is far from justice, but does give us a glimmer of accountability. This week also marked two weeks since my second vaccination. I am filled with gratitude and feel very blessed. This is my first glimpse of what life will look like post-Covid.

I was thinking about these things when reading the start of Achrai Mot- Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion. Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. (Leviticus 16:1-2)

What does life look like after death? After the death of his sons Aaron is instructed how he should show up for work. After something cataclysmic, how or can things go back to normal?

Looking back into history we see that after the Spanish Flu of 1918 things went back to normal. According to one article :

The Spanish flu virus was persistent and wiped out a huge proportion of the globe during its deadliest second wave in the autumn of 1918. A third wave came in the winter of 1919, however by summer of that year, very few cases were reported. Science journalist Laura Spinney has fervently researched the Spanish flu and analysed how it was concluded. She reasons that every pandemic is shaped like a bell curve as the pathogen runs out of susceptible hosts, therefore the Spanish flu ran its natural course. There could be a similar pattern for the current pandemic. So, what have we learnt from the 1918 pandemic? That preventative measures – however difficult and limiting – do make a difference in slowing the spread of disease. That no matter how developed a health care system can be, there will still be problems. Yet positively, we can see that pandemics do all come to an end. As 100 years ago, the nation basked in a euphoric ‘roaring’ 20s, we too will experience our own roaring 2020s.  ( Microbiology Society)

I keep asking myself will life post Covid look like the roaring ’20s or will we seek out another model? After the Black Death we had the Renaissance. That sure seems better. Is that a choice we can make?

Similarly, now that we have started the process of holding law enforcement accountable, will we do the hard work of making sure that we have a justice system that is just? There needs to be one system of justice for all us. People of color should not live in fear. What kind of work do we need to do to overhaul our justice system?

“After death” we should not opt for a return to normal, rather we should choose a renaissance of art, culture, medicine, and justice. I know that this is the harder choice. There is so much desire to go back to normal. The choice of a renaissance would mean a lot of work and we are all so tired of it all. A lesson taken from this Torah portion is that even “after the death” of his sons Aaron was told to go back to work. We should not take a beat to reflect, but we need to keep our eye on the prize. “After death” we need to work for a better life and not be satisfied with normal. In the words of Randy Pausch, ” Don’t complain just work harder.”

Complaining At Work Quotes. QuotesGram

Defining the Problem: Be a Part of It

One of favorite quotes by Albert Einstein is:

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.

We need to define the problem before you trying to solve it. This approach always saves time and energy, regardless of whether the issue is big, small, complicated or complex. And the time and energy saved increases with the number of people involved.

I got thinking about this in the context of reading Tazriah – Metzorah, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn the laws of tumah v’taharah, ritual impurity and purity. In particular we learn about Tzaraat (often mistranslated as “leprosy”). It is a supra-natural plague, which can afflict people as well as garments or homes. If white or pink patches appear on a person’s skin (dark pink or dark green in garments or homes), a kohen is summoned. There we read:

When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affection on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous affection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him unclean. ( Leviticus 13:2-3)

What is the significance of the priest pronouncement? Time after time we need the priest to share his judgement of the situation. It seems weird. Either the person has the affliction or not, what is the relevance of the diagnosis?

In Kol Dodi Dofek on this notion of “pronouncing” , Rav Soloveitchik writes:

We know well how to ‎criticize, to look ‎for blemishes and to express opinions as self-styled experts. One thing, however, ‎escapes us, and ‎that is that the priest who pronounces defilement must leave the encampment to ‎be with the ‎afflicted sufferer so as to purify him. “And the priest shall leave the encampment … ‎and the priest ‎shall command” (Leviticus 14:3–4). ( Kol Dodi Dofek)

It is easy to find fault in things and be critical of people. It is profound to think that in our commitment to understand a problem we need experience deep empathy. In having to pronounce the problem the priest commits to being part of the solution.

Bertrand Russell said,

The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

It is important to realize that the lesson of the priests’ leadership is that they cannot be cold and distant thinkers. This model of leadership assumes that the solution needs empathy and support and not just thinking. We need to identify our own role in the problem and the solution to get to any change. That might take more than 5 minutes.

Passover: A Love Song

Over the last couple of years I have been completely absorbed by Yishai Ribo‘s music. Ribo is an Orthodox Israeli singer-songwriter who’s music reaches across the religious divide in Israel and beyond. For me it started with Seder HaAvodah in which he retells the story of the High Priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur in a way that is completely touching and accessible. He has a way of taking tradition and making it relevant today. Ribo does not sacrifice depth to get his message to the masses. It is not shocking that I love his music.

I still love listening to Lev Sheli- My Heart. Here is a live version he performed with Omer Adam. Enjoy:

There is so much I have to say about the lyrics and music of this song. It seems appropriate on the occasion of the last days of Passover to share some more reflection of this song. In the middle of the song he sings:

My heart is split in two

Half of it is guilty, and half of it is for the sake of Heaven

Like a storm from the sea, it pounds

Like Miriam’s timbrel, it beats

And there is no cure in the world for the heart

Ribo masterfully weaves together language from BeShalach about the splitting of the Sea of Reeds to write a love song. The Israelites escape from Egyptians by walking through the sea on dry ground.  After this miracle the people sing the Song of the Sea and then Miriam leads them in her song with timbrels. Reading the lyrics in the context of Passover makes me ask a few questions. Is Lev Sheli a normal love song? Is it a song about someone expressing his/her love for a partner or an aspiration of divine love?

To explore these questions I wanted to share a Mishnah from Yadaim. There we learn about what is and is not in the canon of the Bible. Contact with a scroll of something in the canon would make your hands impure. There we learn:

Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai said, “I have a received tradition from the mouths of seventy-two elders, on the day they inducted Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria into his seat [as head] at the Academy, that The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes render the hands impure.” Rabbi Akiva said, “Mercy forbid! No one in Israel ever disputed that The Song of Songs renders the hands impure, since nothing in the entire world is worthy but for that day on which The Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Scriptures are holy, but The Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies! And if they did dispute, there was only a dispute regarding Ecclesiastes.” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5)

There was disagreement if Song of Songs was in the canon. Rabbi Akiva dismisses that debate. While some might think that Song of Songs is lascivious and a debase depiction of erotic love, Rabbi Akiva believes that it is the most holy.

Ribo’s Lev Sheli, like Song of Songs, celebrates human love giving a holy voice to the lovers yearning. In Lev Sheli Ribo describes that moment when he realizes that he has found his match. That moment is overwhelming. That moment was as rare as splitting the Sea of Reeds. Like Lev Sheli, Song of Songs is a love song associated with Passover. For Ribo and Rabbi Akiva human love is by nature half guilty and half for the sake of Heaven. Like Lev Sheli, Song of Songs also blurs the line between expressing love for one’s partner and an aspiration of divine love.

It is no mystery that Ribo is able to have a cross over hit between the religious and secular in that he has a cross over hit from the divine to the human. Now that is a popular love song. You might even say that Lev Sheli is a song of songs.  

Trust and Money: Harari on Giving to the Mishkan

In Yuval Harari‘s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind he surveys the history of humankind from the evolution evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century. In this compelling book he explores the origin, features, and principles behind money, during hunter-gathering stage and then agricultural revolution. Indeed, money is an essential driving force for many phenomena in human society, it is necessarily to understand the role of it in order to make sense of our history.

In the hunter-gatherer era, the daily life need was satisfied by self producing and sharing through an economy of favors and obligations. This small scale barter economy was basically self sufficient and independent. However the sharing depended on obligation to give back the favors later on. This nature of reciprocity did not work when the scale of economy grew bigger along with the development of cities and kingdoms. Simply because the trust only worked on a scale of single neighborhoods.

During the agricultural revolution they realized that they should specialize and focus on producing goods, i.e. a lower cost and higher quality than others, in order to maximize what they can get. The more complex trading among people require a medium to ease the process of exchange. This gave rise to the concept of money.

According to Harari, money has two main uses, (1) medium of exchange; and (2) medium to store wealth. “Money is not coin and banknotes.” (pp.197), “Money is thus a universal medium of exchange that enables people to convert almost everything into almost anything else” (pp. 199). From this perspective, again, the concept of money is an imagined order, and does not physically exist. “… it is a psychological construct.” (pp.201). Money is a universal convertible construct that we use as a medium of exchange. It is the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised.

In God We Trust' Biblical Origin & Meaning of Motto on Money

I was thinking about Harari’s explanation of money when reading Vayakhel-Pekudei, this week’s Torah portion. Near the start we read that the Israelites donate the required materials in abundance for the Mishkan and accruement. There is says:

Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to the Lord, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants—gold objects of all kinds. And everyone who had in his possession blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, and dolphin skins, brought them; everyone who would make gifts of silver or copper brought them as gifts for the Lord; and everyone who had in his possession acacia wood for any work of the service brought that. And all the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen. And all the women who excelled in that skill spun the goats’ hair. And the chieftains brought lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece; and spices and oil for lighting, for the anointing oil, and for the aromatic incense. Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the Lord, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. (Exodus 35:22–29)

Why did they give so freely? The simple reading is that the Israelites were moved in their hearts. The overflow of donations was an expression of their gratitude for being liberated from bondage. I wanted to offer other readings in the context of Harari’s understanding of money. It is possible that these things had no value to them in the desert? They were open to parting with medium which were no longer convertible. Another understanding might be that their experience of slavery made them distrustful of the universal mutual trust of money. There in the desert they could revert to a barter economy based on the trust of a neighborhood. While we have, ” In God We Trust” on our currency, for them in the desert this community who actually trusted in God did not need currency.

Money is so close to us in the 21st century, it affects our daily lives, from womb to tomb. Almost everything can be measured by money, but it is by design a neutral construct. It affects how we plan for our own life and family at personal level, and how we plan for our companies, communities, cities, and countries. We need to ask ourselves, do we decide the way we use money? When we think about the future of humankind, we must ask in what do we trust?

What’s With the Blood

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays. At the end of this long list of things to do and not do, we read, “He (Moshe) took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, ‘Everything that God has said, we will do and we will understand!’ Moshe took the blood and threw it upon the people…” (Exodus 24:7-8). I find this image to be striking. On one level, I am taken in by the national devotion to this newly minted law. The image all of them taking upon themselves this body of law is just awe-inspiring. I have to admit that my memory of this moment seems to be a bit cleaner then the Torah records. What is the story with all of the blood?
An answer that I wanted to share this week is connected to the beginning of the portion. The first commandment in the litany is, “If you buy a Jewish bondsman…” (Exodus 21:2). How could it be that they were just released from the bonds of slavery and they are now given a law about subjugating our brethren to slavery? I think the image of their receiving the Torah covered in blood and the regression of former slaves now taking slaves comes into focus through the lens of the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Originally, Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill their little brother. Instead, they sell him into slavery. We read that, “They took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a young goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood.”(Genesis 37:31) The brothers did not want to kill him and have his blood on their hands. Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him!” (Genesis 37: 22).
In the case of Joseph’s brothers, we all can understand their jealousy. In our portion, we understand the slaves’ desires to be masters. In our lives, we understand that there is an underclass. But, we cannot confuse this understanding for an excuse. We know that we need laws for when we do not act well. The law might not be the ideal; it might just try to curb of our base desires. This is not enough; we need to strive for more. We are all mutually responsible for each other however; this social contract can get a bit messy at moments. It rests upon our taking responsibility for our actions as a society. There cannot be a scapegoat; Joseph’s blood is on our hands. As Rabbj Abraham Heschel said:

morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.

And yes I might need to get my hands dirty.


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