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Work Ethic

In Bamidbar, this week’s Torah portion, we read:

…Thus shall you do for them, so they shall live and not die; when they approach the Holy of
Holies, Aaron and his sons shall come and assign them, every man to his work and to his burden. But
they shall come and look as the holy is inserted, lest they die.

(Numbers 4:17-20)

In the time of the Tabernacle, Aaron and the priests coordinated the community to contribute meaningful gifts and offerings in the spirit of maintaining the integrity of the community. Though the high priests
had a lot of responsibility, without delegating and empowering other people to participate, they would not have been able to function. Both the Hobbit and Harry Potter celebrate the importance of the everyday person in accomplishing big tasks. Best articulated by the wisdom of the seniors in the community, Gandalf says, “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay;”

Albus Dumbledore says, “Perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.” In this holy work of Jewish education, we may sometimes feel like the everyday person who is
fighting for power, and we may sometimes be the high priest who is given all of the authority.
Through our work, how are we involved in the most important parts of camp? How do we let
other people glimpse our goals and processes so they can be a part of the work we do?
What are the goals of where you work? What are your goals where you work? What more can we do to motivate people to step up? Responsibility without power can be crazy-making. I need to accomplish something I’m not equipped for. What power do you already have to accomplish your goals? Can you articulate these goals?

Beyond Mountains: Behar and Paul Farmer

This week’s Torah portion, Behar , starts:

God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Or in other words, why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  I think there is yet another even simpler question that can be asked. What is the significance of talking about Shmitah on a mountain?

This question reminds me of a classic story of the mythic town of Chelm. There we read:

Once upon a time, in the little village of Chelm, the people decided that they needed a new cemetery.  The population of the city had expanded, people had begun to build larger homes, and the need to find a new location for the townspeople’s eternal resting place.  They looked, and looked, and could not find a suitable location.  They called a meeting of the wise people of the town and for seven days, debated the issue.

At the end of the seven days, the people reached a conclusion: they would move them out and that was on the southern side of the city and utilize the space created by moving the mountain as the new cemetery. This of course, raised a new question for the people: how does one move a mountain?  They debated the issue for another seven days.  Finally, the wise man of Chelm came up with an idea. “we will all rise, all men of the town as one – united in spirit and body – and together we will move the mountain.” The townspeople quickly accepted this “wise” advice. Quickly, all able bodied men – young and old, rushed to the mountain on the southern side of the city.

A crowd quickly gathered and surrounded the mountain.  The men pushed and shoved and leaned and tried as hard as they could, but they could not move the mountain. 10 minutes went by, allowing the participants to catch their breath before they strenuously tried again.  Again, they pushed and strained and shoved but could not move the mountain.  At this point, the menfolk of Chelm were drenched in sweat and beginning to get uncomfortable.  The men removed their shirts, depositing them on the side, in preparation for their next try. As all the men struggled, a group of petty thieves watched the men in earnest.  They quickly came with small carts and as the men of Chelm  strained to move the mountain, the thieves stole all the shirts and quickly disappeared from the town.

After an hour of straining, one of the wise men discovered that his shirt was missing.  Soon, all the men discovered that their shirts were missing.  They began to wonder what was going on.  The wise man of Chelm surmised the answer. “We must have been successful” he told them. “We must have moved the mountain so far that we cannot even see the place where we left our shirts.” Upon hearing the explanation, the people began to applaud, cheer and even break out into dance over their success.

( As retold by Rabbi Shabsi HaKohein Yudelovitch)

They were foolish to think that losing their jackets were a sign of their success, but they were not foolish in looking for a metric for success.  Where in Chelm they were looking for room for their cemetery in Behar through the institution of shmittah we are looking to create room for the underprivileged and economically marginalized parts of our society. But still I ask, why is this message delivered at a mountain?

When I think about the unending issue of addressing the needs of the poor I think about Dr Paul Farmer z’l. Farmer, who tragically passed away this year, heroicly worked to bring health care to rural Haiti. In is the award-winning book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Tracy Kidder he described Farmer as “the man who would cure the world”. There he writes:

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.

Mountains Beyond Mountains)

The book’s title comes from a Haitian proverb, which is usually translated as: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” According to Farmer, a better translation is: “Beyond mountains there are mountains.” The phrase expresses something fundamental about the spirit and the scale and the difficulty of Farmer’s work. The Haitian proverb, by the way, is also a pretty accurate description of the topography of a lot of Haiti.

To return to Rashi’s  question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” What we learn from Farmer in terms of health care is the same as in terms of access to food and other issues of poverty, beyond this mountain there are more mountains. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, ” It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” ( Avot 2:16) Shmitah is an approach to dealing with poverty. The revelation of need in society is an opportunity to enact Torah in this world and therefore its own revelation like that at Mount Sinai. This is similar to Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levi when he said “ Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horev (Sinai)” ( Avot 6:2) This is to say that beyond this mountain ( Sinai) there are more mountains. May Dr. Paul Farmer’s memory be for a blessing.

Mysterious Letter: Abram Orlow’s Yahrzeit

Tomorrow is the 72th Yahrzeit of Abram Orlow z’l. He is important to me, but alas I know very little about him. My paternal grandfather passed away when my father was younger than Yishama. It always seemed a little mysterious to be the namesake for something with whom I have no connection.

This is what I do know. He was born May 3, 1900 and died April 30, 1950. He was born in Poltava, Ukraine, a region of the world that has been top of mind. I had the fortune of visiting there during my stay in the FSU. His family emigrated from northern Ukraine to Philadelphia when he was young. His first language was Yiddish, but he seemed to do fine in English. He went to University of Pennsylvania where he later was a political science professor. The story goes that he was the first Jewish professor at Wharton.

Image result for abram orlow

Abram and my grandmother Lena had two sons. My father James Joseph and his younger brother David. Abram, Lena, and my father were all immigration lawyers. In fact in 1948 Abram was the Second President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Interestingly Lena went on to be the president of AILA in 1954 and twenty years later my father was president of that organization the year I, Avram Orlow, was born. 

A few month ago I got a mysterious Facebook message from on Laurence Tauber. He was reaching out after having gone through their father’s papers. There he found an amazing letter from Abram. When he looked him up online he found about about Abram Laurence found a post that I published in 2018. I republished a poem that Abram wrote  January 11, 2018. Here is the letter:

Rabbi Kirschenzweig was a survivor of Buchenwald. Abram was working to get him sanctuary here in this country.  

There are still many mysteries here. But now I know a little bit more. Abram Orlow was a mensch. May your memory be for a blessing. Thank you Laurence Tauber.

Dealing with Damocles

I few days before Passover I got a call from Yadid in the middle of the day. I was in the middle of a meeting, but it felt ominous so I picked it up. He was in a car accident. He hydroplaned on the Cross Country driving home from his last final. I had a pit in my stomach at the thought of his being hurt and I felt like I might vomit. He was worried to tell me because he totaled the car. I was thrilled to hear that he walked away from it unharmed and no one else was hurt. As they say, any issue that you can fix with money is not really broken. But the feeling in the my stomach lingered.

Clearly the Taanit Bechorot, the Fast of the Firstborn, and the 10th plague at the Seder sat differently for Yadid and us this year. And as nice and sumptuous as the Sederim were I have to admit that his near death experience put a pall on the holiday.

I was reminded of the story of  the sword of Damocles. According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat on the king’s throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Though having much fortune, Dionysius wanted to make sure that he would be steadfast and vigilant against dangers that might try to overtake him. With risk looming overhead the food lost its taste. Damocles begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

Don’t get me wrong, my brother’s corn beef was delicious, but I was much more aware of the fragility of life. Yadid’s experience put me in touch with the miracle of being alive. And even if we think we are free, life might be held together by a horse’s hair.

With the close of Passover I thought I could get past it, but then we had Yom HaShoah yesterday. If I felt so horrible about possibly losing my son, how does one begin to articulate the loss of 6 millions sons and daughters?

I was thinking about these things when reading the start of Achrai Mot, 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?

“After death” we should not opt for a return to normal, rather we should choose to live a life with meaning. I know that this is the harder choice. There is so much desire to go back to normal. To go back to the way things were before we saw the sword dangling overhead. One of Finland’s most popular writers V.A. Koskeniemi wrote:

Man <sic> is not free in life unless he is free from the fear of death too. We can certainly not be rid of it by not thinking of death, but on the contrary only by becoming accustomed to it, by learning to be at home in it. Thus we snatch from it its greatest advantage over us, its strangeness. In preparing ourselves for death, we prepare ourselves for freedom, and only he who has learned to die is free from life’s slavery…

There is no turning back. There is only the freedom to cherish every moment we have, the people in our lives, the work we get to do, and the meaning we get to make.

-related piece The Sword of Damocles: Rosh HaShana and Parenting Today

Sheryl Grossman z”l: Opening the Doors

This past Sunday Sheryl Grossman z”l passed away. BD”E. Even though she was only 4-foot-3, in my eyes she was a giant. She was a force of nature advocating for people with disabilities in Jewish community and in the larger world. I was honored to meet and become friends with her in St Louis during my years as the Hillel Rabbi at WashU. Like so many other people who connected with Sheryl, I have many cherished memories of our debates. Something I have been carrying with me all of these years is Sheryl’s story how the Jewish camp that she went to stopped accommodating her needs. Despite or because of everything and everyone pushing her aside, Sheryl was a model of faith and action. She belonged in the community and represented us so well to the larger world. Her belief opened the community for others. She made us better. In her absence we all have more work to do.

In pondering her memory I am reminded about the story of the deposition of Rabban Gamaliel. After he was kicked out they removed the guard. There we learn:

A Tanna taught: On that day the doorkeeper was removed and permission was given to the students to enter. For Rabban Gamaliel had issued a proclamation [saying] “No student whose inside is not as his outside may enter the Bet ha-Midrash”. On that day many benches were added. Rabbi Yohanan said: There is a difference of opinion on this matter between Abba Yosef ben Dosetai and the Rabbis. One says that four hundred benches were added, and the other says seven hundred. Rabban Gamaliel became depressed and said: Perhaps, God forbid, I withheld Torah from Israel!  

Berakhot 28a

One could have a whole conversation how the guard during Rabban Gamaliel’s time might be able to discern which potential student’s inside were not as his outside, but I will leave that for another time. For now I want to understand Rabban Gamaliel’s sentiment at the end. Why was he depressed? What did it mean that he withheld Torah from Israel?

The simple meaning would be that Rabban Gamaliel saw with the removal of the doorkeeper there were more people in the Bet Midrash. There might have been a disagreement as for the number of benches needed, but Rabban Gamaliel was saddened to see the number of people who could have been learning from him. But alas, they did no come in due to the barrier he set up. He was depressed that more people did not learn from him when he was in charge. Another way to read this is not about quantity, but rather of quality. The guard’s job was to judge people on their outsides. When they removed that barrier more people had access to Torah. This fundamentally changed the nature of the Torah that was being learned in the Bet Midrash. A Torah that does not speak with and for the full diversity of learners is itself an incomplete Torah. Rabban Gamaliel became depressed because this accessible and universally relevant Torah was withheld from Israel!  

Sheryl Grossman z”l was a inspired and inspiring person of faith and action. She spent her life removing the doorkeepers, bringing in more benches, building ramps and elevators, bringing sign language interpreters, making sure the text was available in large font, etc. She worked tirelessly to make sure that the richness of an assessible Torah would not be withheld from Israel and the world!

May her memory be for a blessing and inspire us all to realized her vision. If you would be interested in learning Mishna in her memory please join in here.

– Links to related post on JDAIM,

Like a Reed: We Need Agility for Creativity

It is hard to be be creative when your world is falling a part. But in so many ways this is the story of Passover. In many ways when we think about creative breakthroughs we focus on the paradigm shifting moments like the splitting of the Red Sea, but for me I find a lot more inspiration from a different, more subtle, image by the water. I am very moved by the image of Miriam standing in the bulrushes. There we read:

When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?”

Exodus 2: 3-7

It is noteworthy that it is Miriam, Moshe’s sister, and not Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, who is waiting in the bulrushes. Miriam has an idea as to what might happen. She put that idea into the world. When she saw Batya come forward she jumped in and improvised and got her mother in to care for her brother.

People often talk about necessity being the mother of invention, but I believe it is the ability to take a risk and be creative that is actually the sister of invention. Miriam had an idea and then she shifted on the fly to meet the changing needs. If she were too committed to her plan it would have broken like a cedar. Indeed Miriam is not just standing among the reeds, but as a reed.

To be creative we do not need to split the Red Sea, we just need to put ideas out there with confidence without knowing how our offering will be received. We need to let go of our rigidity. If we are too close to ideas we will not be agile enough to allow the idea to morph and flex. To be creative we need to be flexible like a reed. As we learn in the Talmud, “A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar.” (Ta’anit 20a-b)

Antiquated Honor: The Mishna and a Slap

I do not watch TV and I certainly do not watch the Oscars. But even me, living under my rock, has heard about what happened this year. While presenting at the Academy Awards, comedian Chris Rock made a joke at the expense of actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. Evidently she has Alopecia. A few seconds later her husband, actor Will Smith enters the screen walking straight toward Rock who is laughing nervously. As Smith reaches Rock, he slaps him fully across the face and walks away.

There is so much going on here with so many people adding in their commentary. Why does his wife need Will Smith’s defending? What is going on with toxic and fragile masculinity? Is there any bounds for humor? What is the role of the audience, producers, and larger society? I do not think that I have much to add here that has not been said. The only thing I wanted to offer is a Mishna.

In the Mishnah in Bava Kama, collected by the 2nd Century quoting scholars from the 1st Century, we learn:

If he slapped him he must pay 200 zuz. If with the back of his hand, he must pay him 400 zuz. If he tore at his ear, plucked out his hair, spat at him and his spit touched him, or pulled his cloak from off him, or loosed a woman’s hair in the street, he must pay 400 zuz. This is the general rule: all is in accordance with the person’s honor…

It once happened that a man unloosed a woman’s hair in the street and she came before Rabbi Akiva and he condemned him to pay her 400 zuz. He said, “Rabbi, give me time”. And he gave him time. He caught her standing at the entrance to her courtyard, and he broke a jug of one issar’s worth of oil in front of her. She unloosed her hair and scooped up the oil in her hand and laid her hand on her head. He had set up witnesses up against her and he came before Rabbi Akiva and said to him, “Rabbi, should I give one such as this 400 zuz?” He answered, “You have said nothing.” If a man injures himself, even though he has no right to do so, is not liable. But others who injure him are liable.

Bava Kama 8:6

At first I am drawn into the Mishna’s distinction between a regular slap and a back of the hand slap. It is amazing to realize that this idea of how you slap someone itself would carry a certain meaning. Is the aim to hurt or to dishonor? Injury is evaluated at 200 zuz, but embarrassment and denigration is evaluated at 400 zuz. Wow, who knew the bitch slap existed in antiquity?

But the Mishna goes on and in a surprising way. The Mishna as a genre is not known for its narratives. There we tell a story about a man who embarrasses a woman in public by uncovering her head. As the story goes on the perpetrator defends his activity by demonstrating that she did the same to herself. Rabbi Akiva disputes his claim. Just because someone can do something bad to themselves does not give anyone license to embarrass them in public. Jewish law takes publicly embarrassing another person very seriously and penalizes such a person with a stiff financial penalty. Indeed according to Jewish tradition one who publicly embarrasses another is akin to a murderer.

There are many pertinent lessons from this Mishna. Violence is violence and it is not excused. The court has a unique role in punishing the perpetrator. There is an assumption that there are universal baseline of respect and honor due to everyone, regardless of what they do. Just because some does not press charges, it does not excuse the behavior.

This is interesting in that is surfaces our strange relationship to celebrity. We assume that people who choose to put themselves in the public eye allow us to treat them differently. The game of fame seems to come with some shame. We can only hope that this event gives us a chance to reflect and that that this moment might be a cultural inflexion point. Yes as some point we all need to be more open to humor AND we can never forget every “person’s honor”. This Mishna presents a certain idea of civil society and tort law in antiquity, but the idea of honor is far from antiquated.

Hidden Identities: Esther, Sharansky, and Us

With the advent of Adar Sheni we say,” Mi Sh’Nichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha– as soon as Adar has entered, we increase in happiness.” (Taanit 29a) It is hard to really get into the happy mood right now. It is impossible not be be appalled by violence in Ukraine, horrified by the enormity of this refugee crises, and terrified by the prospects of World War III.

With Adar comes Purim and with Purim comes Esther. There in her eponymous book we are introduced to her, “And [Mordechai] had raised Hadassah, she is Esther . . .”(Esther 2:7) Why did she have two names?

The name Hadassah is derived from the Hebrew word hadas הדס , a myrtle tree from the Myrtaceae family. The myrtle has a pleasant fragrance. The Talmud explains why Queen Esther was also called Hadassah:

Why was she called Hadassah? Because the righteous are called myrtles. As it states (Zechariah 1:8), “And he was standing among the myrtles [the righteous prophets Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah].”

Megillah 13a

The sages in the Midrash take this one step further:

Just as a myrtle has a sweet smell and a bitter taste, so too Esther was good and listened (“sweet”) to the righteous Mordechai, and was adverse (“bitter”) to the wicked Haman.

Esther Rabbah 6:5.

According to Kabbalah, each of her names corresponds to a different spiritual level. The name Hadassah represents righteousness. As such, it corresponds to a heavenly sphere representing God’s infinitude. The name Esther -אסתר is derived from the Hebrew word hester-הסתר, which means “hiddenness,” and corresponds to a spiritual plane representing hidden Godliness (Deuteronomy 20:19). Interestingly, she is referred to by both names—seemingly opposites. How do we understand these identities? Why is the book called Megilat Esther and not Megilat Hadassah?

I was thinking about these questions recently when reading this amazing story about Nathan Sharansky. He was speaking this past week at the Sheva Brachot of Yossi and Chana Dickstien’s wedding. Yossi lost both his parents and brother, to a terrorist attack when he was just seven years old). Sharansky shared the following to those at the Simcha:

When I grew up in Ukraine in the city of Donetsk, there were people of various nationalities living there. Their ID certificates had the word ‘Russian’, ‘Ukraine’, ‘Georgian’, ‘Kozaki”, it wasn’t that important and there wasn’t much of a difference. One thing was important – if it had the word ‘Jewish’ written on it, that would be as if you had some disease. We knew nothing about Judaism, except antisemitism and hatred towards us.  That’s why no one tried to replace the word ‘Russian’ or the word ‘Ukraine’, in order to get accepted to the university.  But if it you had the word ‘Jewish’ on your ID papers and you could manage to change that, your chance of getting accepted was so much higher. I was reminded of this while watching this week how thousands of people are standing at the borders, trying to escape the tragedy in Ukraine. They stand there day and night, and there’s only one word today that can help them get out: “Jewish”. If you are a Jew – there are Jews outside who care for you, there is someone on the other side of the border looking for you, your chance of getting out is so much higher. The world I knew has been turned upside down. When I was a child ‘Jewish’ was an extraordinary bad word, no one was jealous of us! Today at the border of Ukraine, ‘Jewish’ is an extraordinary word for good, it describes people who have somewhere to go and there’s an entire nation – their family, waiting for them outside.

Sharansky and Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, 19 September 2000

This resonates with something the Elie Wiesel. wrote in Jews of Silence in 1965 when he wrote, “In Russia they hated the Jews because they were not Russian enough, and in the other Soviet states they hated the Jews because they were too Russian.”( from memory so might not be precise) Our identities have always made us feel different or scorned, but this seems to be a new moment of safety and pride.

Reading Sharansky’s quote, I cried seeing how this is really a time when, like Purim, it is nahafochu– things are topsy-turvy. What was once a hidden identity and even shame, was overturned to become a source of pride or even salvation. How do we think about Esther’s and Sharansky’s hidden Jewish identities? In the Jews of Silence Wiesel wrote, “What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.” How will we show up with our hidden identities to meet this moment? Like the Megilah being called after Esther, it is our choice if we come out like Hadassah to do the right thing.

Ukrainian Torah: The Kedushas HaLevi on Avram

Last week on Facebook Rabba Leah Sarna wisely asked, “What Ukrainian Torah will you be teaching?” I know that it is complicated for us as Jews to related to this question. While there is a rich history of Jews in the Ukraine, it has been far from all possitive, and relatively few Jews there understood themselves to be Ukrainian. That said, Zelenskyy, their heroic President, is one of us.

So I let the question marinate for a moment. This circumstances of Russia’s war on Ukraine got me thinking about the War of Nine Kings which is described in the Torah in Genesis 14:1–17. The Torah explains that the Battle of Siddim occurred between four Mesopotamian armies and five cities of the Jordan plain. According to the biblical account, the Elamite King Chedorlaomer subdued the tribes and cities surrounding the Jordan River plain. After 13 years, four kings of the cities of the Jordan plain revolted against Chedorlaomer’s rule. In response, Chedorlaomer and three other kings started a campaign against King Bera of Sodom and four other allied kings.

Avram intervened to save him cousin Lot who was caught up in in the middle of the war. There we read:

They seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Avram’s brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom. A fugitive brought the news to Avram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Avram’s allies. When Avram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.

Genesis 14:11-14

In his eponymous book the Kedushas Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (Levi Yitzchok Derbarmdiger) (1740–1809) shared his thoughts on Avram’s heroic activity. It it relevant to me the Berditchev is in the Ukraine.

There he wrote:

“when Avram heard that his kinsman had ‎been taken captive,”(Genesis 14:14) When the Torah continues and speaks ‎about Avram taking with him 318 men in his pursuit of ‎Chedorlaomer and his armies as far north as the tribal territory of ‎Dan (in the future), the number 318 is not accidental, but ‎represents the numerical value of the word ‎שיח -to speak‎, another word for ‎דבור -to speak‎, suggesting that Avram defeated these armies by means of ‎uttering the holy name of God. ‎The word ‎דבור ‏‎ also means ‎הנהגה- leadership; the word ‎שיח=318‏‎ ‎also occurs in the sense of ‎השפלה- humiliation, i.e. Avram ‎humiliated these boastful kings. The word occurs in Proverbs ‎‎23:27 in that sense, i.e. ‎שוחה עמוקה זונה‎, “a harlot is a deep pit.” ‎‎

Kedushat Levi on Genesis 14:14

So how does Avram seek to save Lot? According to the Kedushas Levi there might have been any of four ways, but all of them are rooted in this number 318 having the gematria value of an act of speaking. The four ways are:

  1. Saying ineffable name of God. This is an allusion to when ‎Moshe killed the Egyptian in Exodus 2:13, an act referred to in ‎Exodus 2:14 as having been accomplished by a אומר- saying a word.
  2. Avram acted was through his leadership.
  3. Shaming Chedorlaomer.
  4. Something ambiguous regarding a harlot being as a deep שוחה- pit.

It is noteworthy that the holy Berdichever was a Hasidic master and Jewish leader who was also known as the “Sneiguron Shel Yisroel”-defense attorney” for the Jewish people, because he would intercede on their behalf before God. Known for his compassion for every Jew, he was one of the most beloved leaders of Eastern European Jewry. He very much saw his own role as someone who would use his words like Avram for his brethren.

So what do we make of the Berdichever’s reading? When Avram sees Lot in danger he intervenes. His mode of attack is actually with words and not soldiers. There are four ways:

  1. Through the revelation of God’s name.
  2. Through diplomacy and leaderships
  3. Through shame
  4. This whole thing with the harlot is still not clear to me.

Clearly this story the War of Nine Kings is relevant to what we are seeing as the Russian attack on Ukraine. There is merit to look to Avram for guidance as we determine what we should do in response. We are all appalled by this violence, horrified by the enormity of this refugee crises, of AND terrified by the prospects of World War III.

So what do we make of this four-fold Ukrainian Torah of the “Sneiguron Shel Yisroel”-defense attorney” for the Jewish people at this moment:

  1. Through the revelation of God’s name- While it is easy to imagine that this crisis is just about NATO, East vs West, or Putin’s power game at home, it is critical to reframe things. This is actually a religious war between Russian Orthodoxy and the West. For Putin this is a crusade for the  “spiritual security”  of their historical “Third Rome” concept. Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, explained in early 2019, “Ukraine is not on the periphery of our church. We call Kiev ‘the mother of all Russian cities.’ For us Kiev is what Jerusalem is for many. Russian Orthodoxy began there, so under no circumstances can we abandon this historical and spiritual relationship. The whole unity of our Local Church is based on these spiritual ties.” Even if you say that Avram used words to combat Chedorlaomer, words can kill. Words of being rational will not end a crusade. We might need to fight religious war with religious rhetoric. It did not help when Pompeo hailed it as a “historic achievement for Ukraine” which represented America’s “strong support for religious freedom.” We are playing into the story of the East being the infidels in this Russian Orthodox crusade (for more on this see this compelling article.)
  2. Through diplomacy and leaderships. NATO like Avram needs to step up to lead with sanctions and political impact to support Ukraine and fight this Russian invasion.
  3. Through Shame- Unlike absurd Kremlin propaganda lines about “Ukrainian Nazis” perpetrating  “genocide” against Russians, we need to get the truth out there. That said, we should be worried about shaming Putin any more than he is already embarrassing himself. If he cannot leave with his pride, many more people will die.
  4. So when it comes to this harlot, I think about the old joke. There man says to a woman, “Would you sleep with me for one million dollars?”. The woman says sure. The man replies, “How about for ten dollars?”. The woman replies, ” What? Do you take me for a common whore?” The man retorts, “We’ve already established that. All we’re doing now is negotiating the price.” Why would she care about being called a whore? Once we sell ourselves, the price is just a detail. Words are just words, at some point we are only judged on our actions. While the Kedushas Levi imagines that Avram intervened with his 318 men means with his words, at some level Avram acted and brought in his army to end the war and save Lot. At some point words are not enough and we will need to actually intervene.

So when we think about the Ukrainian Torah, think about the ways we can try to intervene, end this war, and save lives.

Putin is No Stalin: Like a Bird in a Cage

When I graduated college I went to live in Minsk Belarus to work as the youth director for the Jewish community. I like to think that I did a fair amount of teaching during that time, but upon reflection I realize that I learned much much more. I learned skills, a language, a lot about myself, and new perspective as I learned another culture. What was the culture of the former Soviet Union?

I have reflected on this part of my life as Belarus is joining Russia in attacking the Ukraine. Under the Soviet, they were all neighbors. And now they are killing each other. And we are inching closer to the brink of a 3rd World War. So again I am left thinking what do we know about the culture of the former Soviet Union? Upon reflection I recall a story that I heard during my time in Minsk. As it goes:

When Josef Stalin was on his deathbed he called in two likely successors, to test which one of the two had a better knack for ruling the country. He ordered two birds to be brought in and presented one bird to each of the two candidates. The first one grabbed the bird, but was so afraid that the bird could free himself from his grip and fly away that he squeezed his hand very hard, and when he opened his palm, the bird was dead. Seeing the disapproving look on Stalin’s face and being afraid to repeat his rival’s mistake, the second candidate loosened his grip so much that the bird freed himself and flew away. Stalin looked at both of them scornfully. “Bring me a bird!” he ordered. They did. Stalin took the bird by its legs and slowly, one by one, he plucked all the feathers from the bird’s little body.  Then he opened his palm. The bird was laying there naked, shivering, helpless. Stalin looked at him, smiled gently and said, “You see… and he is even thankful for the human warmth coming out of my palm.”

There are many reasons that Russia is invading the Ukraine (e.g. politics, religion, ego, economy, etc.) Beyond the rationale, it is clear that Putin expected to pluck the feathers and hold a thankful Ukraine in him palm.

Putin is no Stalin even if he wants to be because Ukraine will not be a play the part of the bird. For now they are refusing to be caged. Let’s hope for peace and soon. I have trouble imaging Putin calling it quits quietly.

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