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Siyum Mishna for James Joseph Orlow z”l

As part of mourning process for the passing of my father I arranged a group of people to learn the entire Mishnah in his memory.  While Shloshim technically came to an end on Rosh HaShannah, over Sukkot we will mark 30 days since his passing. I wanted to thank all of the people around the world who joined in this noble cause of lifting up his neshama, soul, during this period of time. A full list of the people who joined in this learning project can be found here. Thank you, this effort means the world to me and my family.

During Shiva many people in their community remarked how they really got to know my parents at their Shabbat and Holiday table. While my mother gets all of the credit for inviting the people and cooking the food, my father sure enjoyed himself. While my father was a genius in his field of study, he never let his lack of knowledge hold him back from getting into a rich argument.  As part of this siyum of Mishna in his memory  I got to learn Perkei Avot with Yishama. There we learned:

 יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹעֶזֶר אִישׁ צְרֵדָה אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ בֵית וַעַד לַחֲכָמִים, וֶהֱוֵי מִתְאַבֵּק בַּעֲפַר רַגְלֵיהֶם, וֶהֱוֵי שׁוֹתֶה בְצָמָא אֶת דִּבְרֵיהֶם

Yose ben Yoezer says, “May your house be a meeting-house for Sages, become dirty in the dust of their feet and drink their words thirstily.” (Avot 1:4)

In many regards this captured my father at his best at the head of the table filled with sages. Like his namesake Yaakov who wrestled with the angel, my father enjoyed getting dirty in the dust of their feet ( Genesis 32:25). While he was always thirsty to learn more, like Yaakov he never this these guest get away so easily. At these salons everyone had a voice and everyone needed to defend their point of view. My father always taught us to be curious and confident. We should learn from everyone and know that each of us had a seat and a voice at the table.

Orlow Family Passover Seder mid 1980’s

Thank you again to all those who joined in this Siyum Mishna in the memory of Yaakov Yosef ben Avraham v’Leah.

May the memory of James Joseph Orlow z”l be for a blessing.

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Sukkot Gets Real

Everyone warned me that the High Holidays would be hard after the recent passing of my father, but in truth, it was just not the case. My father did not especially connect with these holidays. He was not a religious Jew in any conventional way. He did not grow up with much Jewish ritual in his life. At the same time, he was a deeply spiritual person. He spent close to 60  years of his life immersed in the study and practice of law, but I do not think he connected to the idea of a court on high in which we would be judged. Almost his entire career and life was committed to immigrants to this country, but in many ways in the place of the synagogue he himself was an alien.

While my dad was a genius and spent an extraordinary amount of his time and energy in his formidable mind, he loved to build things with his hands. When it comes to my mourning process, there is a big part of me that is expecting the shoe to drop on Sukkot. Some of my favorite memories of my father are of his building things. For him, building a Sukkah made more sense than the more abstract Jewish rituals.  This Sukkot, I pause to contemplate the nature of the Sukkah, in memory of my father.

The Talmud records a difference of opinion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva regarding the nature of a Sukkah. Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the Sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The Sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b) Did either Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva think that when they entered into a Sukkah in their own era that they were actually sitting in the imagined reference point? Either way you cut it the Sukkah is a symbol. Does this symbol represent a metaphor to the Divine presence or does it represent something akin to what we were using in the desert?

Clearly these two Rabbis would eat in each other’s Sukkot, so what are they disagreeing about? At one level we could understand the disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva to be one of understanding what it means to be Jewish. Is being Jewish a religion ( “clouds of glory”) or a nationality (real booths they used post Exodus in the desert)? The Sukkah is a tangible and real structure formed by human hands. And at the same time it is it a spiritual space that connects us to God. The Sukkah can be a symbol of our experience as a people in a physical and historic way, while simultaneously offering  a religious manifestation of our metaphysical relationship with God.

While at first glance I think that my father might agree with Rabbi Akiva, I truly believe that he connected to Rabbi Eliezer as well. He found  deep spiritual fulfillment in creating a space for his family to meet and be together. While, the Sukkah is immersive metaphor we get to really enter our national and religious memories, it is also the place we build to hold family memories. 

I’m reminded of the many ways in which camp is like a Sukkah, an  immersive metaphor we get to really enter. Camp is a community we create with our own hands, yet it is a mystical and meaningful place that transcends the physical space in which it’s located. Like a Sukkah, camp is temporary, but the brevity of our time there endows it with a special sense of holiness all year-long. Additionally, while a Sukkah is an enclosed dwelling made up of four walls to keep us safe, we are supposed to cover it with branches to ensure that we can still see the stars above. Camp also functions this way: while it takes place in a specific space and time and is safe and secure, the lessons we learn and the friends we make transcend these limitations, providing a light that shines through the year – and for the rest of our lives. For many of us camp friends are really like family. 

For me I expect that my mourning will get real during Sukkot.  I find comfort, however, in the nature of the Sukkah itself. A Sukkah is all at once a metaphor for the tangible, mystical, and familial. 

James Joseph Orlow z’l and Libi Frydman Orlow his 14th grandchild

 

Cookie Thief: Meilah and the Blessing of Yom Kippur

As part of mourning process for the passing of my father I arranged a group of people to learn the entire Mishnah in his memory.  Yes, there are a few masechtot left if you want to grab one before Sukkot. Among other masechtot that I learned I got to learn Meilah.  This masechet deals with the laws concerning the trespass-offering and the reparation which must be made by one who has used and enjoyed a consecrated thing (Leviticus 15-16). Or in other words what does it mean to lift/steal from God?

I was thinking about this recently when my shul’s rabbi shared the The Cookie Thief by Valerie Cox. The poem reads:

A woman was waiting at an airport one night, with several long hours before her flight. She hunted for a book in the airport shops, bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book but happened to see, that the man sitting beside her, as bold as could be. . .grabbed a cookie or two from the bag in between, which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene.

So she munched the cookies and watched the clock, as the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock. She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by, thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice, I would blacken his eye.”

With each cookie she took, he took one too, when only one was left, she wondered what he would do. With a smile on his face, and a nervous laugh, he took the last cookie and broke it in half.

He offered her half, as he ate the other, she snatched it from him and thought… oooh, brother. This guy has some nerve and he’s also rude, why he didn’t even show any gratitude!

She had never known when she had been so galled, and sighed with relief when her flight was called. She gathered her belongings and headed to the gate, refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.

She boarded the plane, and sank in her seat, then she sought her book, which was almost complete. As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise, there was her bag of cookies, in front of her eyes.

If mine are here, she moaned in despair, the others were his, and he tried to share. Too late to apologize, she realized with grief, that she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.

Like the thief we are all very quick to see ourselves as the victims and we often overlook all that we have done wrong to others. Interestingly, after the Temple was destroyed and the idea of trespass of consecrated offerings was irrelevant, the Rabbis borrowed from this idea to explore how we might create meaning in our daily lives. We learn in the Gemara:

The Sages taught in a ToseftaOne is forbidden to derive benefit from this world, which is the property of God, without reciting a blessing beforehand. And anyone who derives benefit from this world without a blessing, it is as if he is guilty of Meilah– misuse of a consecrated object. (Berachot 35a)

Interestingly with this Rabbinic conception, without an expression of gratitude in the form of a blessing we are all cookie thieves.

I was thinking about all of this as we prepare to enter into Yom Kippur. This holy day is meant to repair our relationship with God for all of the cookies we have taken in the year, but it does nothing to repair the relationships we have ruptured between ourselves by acting poorly or judging each other unfairly.  May we all be blessed with much gratitude, many blessings, and a commensurate amount of cookies in 5779.

Gmar Chatima Tova

Return and Be Found: Thoughts on Shabbat Shuva

As we journey from the Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur we stop along the way at Shabbat Shuva. During these Ten Days of Awe we are asked to contemplate Teshuva. On this special Shabbat we might even have some time to contemplate what would it take for us to return. What is special about this time of year. What is special about Shabbat during this time of Teshuva? We learn in the Talmud:

As it is taught in a baraita: All are judged on Rosh HaShana, and their sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur; this is the statement of Rabbi Meir. (Rosh HaShana 16a)

It was reported about the same Rabbi Meir about his teacher Aḥer, Elisha Ben Abuya ,who was an apostate. There we learn:

The Sages taught: There was once an incident involving Aḥer, who was riding on a horse on Shabbat, and Rabbi Meir was walking behind him to learn Torah from him. After a while, Aḥer said to him: Meir, turn back, for I have already estimated and measured according to the steps of my horse that the Shabbat boundary ends here,and you may therefore venture no further. Rabbi Meir said to him: You, too, return to the correct path. He said to him: But have I not already told you that I have already heard behind the dividing curtain: “Return, rebellious children,” apart from Aḥer? ( Chagigah 15a )

It is possible that the exception of Aḥer not being able to return is there to prove the rule that the rest of us are actually invited to return. It is also possible that the Shabbat in reference in the Gemara in Chagigah was Shabbat Shuva. It is possible that for Rabbi Meir on this Shabbat between  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, even Aḥer’s sentence was not sealed.

As we read in this Haftarah from this week:

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God; for you have stumbled in your iniquity. Take with you words, and return to the Lord; say to God: ‘Forgive all iniquity, and accept that which is good; so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips. Asshur shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; neither will we call any more the work of our hands our gods; for in You the fatherless finds mercy.'( Hosea 14:2-4)

In this holy period of the Ten Days God and humanity are both asked to be vulnerable and accessible. On Shabbat we achieve deeper level of having time to actually be available. This is a special Shabbat during which we are all invited back.

This reminds me of one of my favorite Hassidic stories.  The story goes that a Rebbe is walking and sees a little boy standing by a wall crying. The Rebbe asks the boy why he is crying. The boy replies that he was playing Hide and Seek with his friends and he thinks that his friends forgot about him. At this point the Rebbe starts crying and the boys asks him why the Rebbe is crying. The Rebbe responds, ” Now I understand how God feels “.

Image result for hide and seek

It seems for that on Shabbat Shuva we are invited to end the game of Hide and Seek. Humanity and God allow each other to return and be found.

A Mother’s Cry: The Sound of the Shofar

We have been blowing Shofar since the advent of Elul, and on Monday we will have a ton of Shofar blasts. Why do we blow Shofar on Rosh HaShanah? There are a number of reasons. One of the more interesting one comes from a discussion in Gemara of Rosh HaShanah where the Rabbis were trying to determine the length of time a shofar blast should last. The Mishnah suggest  that a terua should be equal to the length of three whimpers. There we learn:

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

To quote Numbers and say we blow shofar on Rosh HaShanah because it is the day of blowing shofar is simply a tautology. In comparison it is interesting to make the connection to the wailing of  Sisera’s mother. As we learn in the book of Judges, Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. After the prophetess Deborah persuaded Barak to face Sisera in battle, they, with an Israelite force of ten thousand, defeated him at the Battle of Mount Tabor. After losing the battle, Sisera fled to a settlement where he was received by Yael. She brought him into her tent with apparent hospitality and gave him milk. Yael promised to hide Sisera and covered him with a rug; but after he fell asleep, she drove a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet, her blow being so forceful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. After this we read:

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

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

In my mind if Rosh HaShanah is the Day of Judgement, the sound of the mother of an enemy’s general is the foundation of our empathy and possibly God’s lenient judgement.  Every child regardless of what they do has a parent who loves them. If we can hear that voice we can build on that love. If it works for the enemy, how much more so for the friend or family member?

I pause this year to consider the mental health and substance abuse crises affecting our communities. These are issues that we either do not talk about or talk about as if we are at war with an enemy. There are people struggling with mental health issues or drugs in our communities and they are surely not our enemy. They are people we need to empathize with and help. It has been an honor to help the Blue Dove Foundation this year with their effort to encourage Synagogues and their Rabbi’s to strongly consider Quieting the Silence (aka. #QUIETINGTHESILENCE) and discussing the struggles of mental health and substance abuse taking place in our communities. Education and dialogue will further the conversation and help eradicate the shame and stigma.

The Jewish High Holidays, is a perfect place to start. With your assistance during the high holidays, using the information provided here, we hope that Jewish Communities will:

  • Start a community wide conversation during the Jewish High Holidays.
  • Have an open and honest conversations about the challenges we are facing as a community related to mental health and/or substance abuse.
  • Learn about trainings and educational opportunities in the upcoming year.
  • Learn about available resources as well as organizations available to assist with mental health and substance abuse struggles.
  • Be introduced to ways individuals can get involved.

These tools and resources are meant to help you include this very important topic in your words and thoughts during the upcoming Jewish High Holidays. If you have any questions or if you have something you’d like to contribute to the resources, please send to info@thebluedovefoundation.org

If we can connect to the wailing of Sisera’s Mother in the blast of the Shofar, we might be able to connect to other voices of pain and suffering in our community that we might not be hearing. And if we can do that we might even be able to connect to quieting the silence around talking about mental health and/or substance abuse in our community (#QUIETINGTHESILENCE). Let’s make some noise. Shanah Tova U’Metuka.

 

One of Us: Heathens

Two years ago my kids and I could not get in the car and listen to the radio without listening to the song Heathens by 21 Pilots Just like Desposito, Heathens was all the rage. I must warn you before you listen to it that this song is a bit of an earworm. Please just remember that you have been warned.

 

 

The song plays with the idea of being an insider or an outsider to this group of a misfit group of heathens. But what is a heathen? A heathen is a person who does not belong to a widely held religion. Today people feel like they are outsiders to faith and are in turn skeptical of people who want to join them. As the song goes:

Why’d you come, you knew you should have stayed
I tried to warn you just to stay away
And now they’re outside ready to bust
It looks like you might be one of us

The song tells the story of an outsider to a group of outsiders and how that person becomes an insider.

This reminds me of three successive stories told in the Talmud of three heathens who come before Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shamai ( Shabbat 31a). Each of them hoped to join the Jewish people, but came with a unique stipulation. In each case Shamai pushes them away and Hillel finds a way to meet them where they are. With Hillel’s help they join the Jewish people. In the process they relented on their stipulation and they were transformed. The outsider becomes an insider of this group of outsiders. In someone way, at least by this story being shared in the Talmud, we as a people were also changed by their joining us. This leaves me with the question in these three stories as with the song Heathens, were the outsiders accommodated or included?

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

If there be found in your midst, within any of thy gates which the Lord your God gives you, man or woman, that does that which is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing God’s covenant, and has gone and served other gods, and worshiped them, or the sun, or the moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have commanded not; and it be told you, and you hear it, then shalt you inquire diligently, and, behold, if it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel; then you shall bring forth that man or that woman, who have done this evil thing, unto your gates, even the man or the woman; and you shall stone them with stones, that they die.( Deuteronomy 17:2- 5)

These are some harsh words for the heathen. They are supposed to be excluded in the most severe way, being stoned to death. Do we still want to maintain such a harsh disposition to the “heathens” in our midst? Maybe we should be more like Hillel and strive to meet people where they are. I appreciate the fear of Shamai, we are a group of outsiders to history. We have a lot at risk of losing our identity by compromise in any way shape or form. At the same time I feel that we have what to gain from real mutual engagement with people different than ourselves. I do not think that Hillel was just accommodating, if we actually include these outsiders we might just realize that they “might be one of us.”

Disgust for Hypocrisy

At the start of the Torah portion Behar, Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Or as we say now, what does that got to do with the price of tea in China? Similarly in  Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion we see an interesting juxtaposition. We read that a false prophet, or one who entices others to worship idols, should be put to death. It seems logical to go from that topic to an adjacent discussions of how an idolatrous city must be destroyed and the idolatrous practice of tattooing. Then we take a big jump to identifying signs for kosher animals and fish, and the list of non-kosher birds ( which was already discussed in  Leviticus 11). There we read:

You are the children of the Lord your God: you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people to the Lord your God, and the Lord had chosen you to be God’s own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth. You shall not eat any abominable thing. ( Deuteronomy 14:1-3)

While the laws of staying away from idolatry and keeping kosher have nothing to do with each other by keeping them we are keeping a holiness code. On a simple level they are both ways we have to live as a chosen people.

Another approach would be to claim that they are some how the same. It is surely possible that eating other forbidden animals had been part of ancient idolatrous practices. In this reading these laws of Kashrut are just a continuation of this holiness code instructing to not do idolatrous practices.

Today I would like to explore yet a third approach. Is it possible that while these law are completely separate, but their juxtaposition is there to teach us something else? To do this I want to start off with the case of the false prophet. While it seems bad to entices others to worship idols, it does seem barbaric to kill them for it. The person simply arrives on the scene with all of his/her signs and wonders. We need to remove them from the community with “extreme prejudice“.

Now I want to jump to the end, what does it mean to eat something? In the context of the holiness code there is a sense that we are integrating the kosher animal into our bodies. We are rejecting the non-kosher animals from our bodies. The worst of the case are animals that similar to the false prophet which arrive on the scene with all of their signs. The Midrash draws a comparison between the Roman empire and the pig:

Just as the pig sticks out its hooves when it is resting, as if to say “I am kosher,” so did the Romans put on a show of justice to mask their avarice and corruption. ( Bereishit Rabbah 65:1)

The juxtaposition of these two areas of law surface an addition lesson as for our disgust for hypocrisy.

 


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