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Blood on Our Hands

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 (Moses) 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!’ Moses 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 this 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 Yosef and his brothers.

Originally, Yosef’s brothers wanted to kill their little brother. Instead, they sell him into slavery. We read that, “They took Yosef’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. Reuven 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 Yosef’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 times.  It rests upon our taking responsibility for our actions as a society. There cannot be a scapegoat; Yosef’s blood is on our hands for generations. We all accept the law for all of us and we all accept responsibility for looking out for people who are marginalized. Even today it is easy for us to hide behind a law, but without DACA innocent people’s lives will be destroyed. To fix this we might need to get my hands dirty.


Privilege Bingo

In Yitro,this week’s Torah portion, we read of Moshe’s reunion with his family and the giving of the Torah. In between these two events, we are privy to the advice which Yitro gives to his son-in-law, Moshe. Moshe was sitting from morning until night listening to the people who had come to seek God (Exodus 18:13-15). Yitro said , “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out- you as well as this people who is with you, for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone” (Exodus 18:17-18). Moshe outlived his entire generation, it was not as if he was going to weaken his strength to sit, govern, or adjudicate law. Maybe Yitro was concerned that people would grow tired or worse bored out of his mind. It is also possible that Yitro was worried that Moshe would grow corrupt without a system of checks and balances in place. If Moshe ruled alone he would become worn out by his own ego.

I often ponder what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said to Dr. Robert Pollack. “If you know someone who says the Throne of God is empty, and lives with that, then you should cling to that person as a good, strong friend. But be careful: almost everyone who says that, has already placed something or someone else on that Throne, usually themselves.” Even if the idea of God is very distant, we can realize the deepest Torah in knowing that none of us are God. Being a religious person in a secular environment makes it easy to slip from seeing oneself as a beneficiary of God’s message to judging everyone who does not live according to your lifestyle.

The greatness of a person is his or her ability to become aware of his or her own privileges and limitations. While Moshe was great in his comprehension of the law, he earned his place in history in his ability to give up that throne. It was only when Moshe got out of that throne that the people were ready to see God sitting in it.

This past year has been a parade of unfortunate events in the world. In light of everything that has happened and is happening I have grown more aware of the myriad of privileges that I enjoy.  I am a cisgendered heterosexual able-bodied tall white man living in the New York area. I am a naturalized citizen and native English speaker ( but some might question that one). I am fortunate to have been blessed with an excellent education and a wonderful family. And on top of all of this and more I am an Orthodox Rabbi. Even before we sit down to play I  have already won the game of Privilege Bingo.

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It is hard for me to not hear Yitro saying, “The thing that you do is not good”. How is my sitting on the throne getting in the way of other people getting to revelation , let alone redemption?



Baby Moana Baby Mosche

Ever morning for the last few months our two -year-old daughter Libi has gotten up and asked to watch Moana. The movie is set on a Polynesian island. The inhabitants worship the goddess Te Fiti, who brought life to the ocean, using a special stone. Maui, the shape-shifting demigod and master of sailing, steals the stone to give humanity the power of creation. However, when he steals the stone Te Fiti disintegrates, and Maui is attacked by Te Kā, a volcanic demon, losing both his magical giant fishhook and the stone to the depths. A millennium later, Moana, daughter of the island’s chief, is chosen by the ocean to return the stone to Te Fiti.  Years later, after Moana has grown older, a blight strikes the island, rotting the coconuts and dwindling the number of fish caught. Most of the movie is her finding Maui and coaxing him into helping her. In the end Moana plays a critical role in manipulating the water helping Maui return the magical stone to Te Fiti.

This was an enjoyable if not formulaic Disney instant classic. What is interesting about Libi’s wanting to see it all the time is that she is only interested in watching the beginning of the movie- or as she says, “Baby Moana, Baby Moana”.

The part that she likes most is when Moana is a curious little girl and goes to see the “scary” beach. There she follows a baby turtle and protects it so the turtle can return unharmed to the ocean. Once there the ocean magically coaxes her to go in by dividing drawing her further and further out until she actually sees the lost stone of Te Fiti. It is clear that baby Moana has an insatiable curiosity and a special connection with the ocean.

Seeing this scene made me think about the connections between baby Moana and baby Mosche. When we first meet Mosche  he saved from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter Batya. She “draws him out of the water” giving him the name Mosche. Like Moana his identity is connected to water. Like Moana, Mosche grows up as royalty and feels a deep need to save his people. Like Moana, the small act of protecting a defenseless animal ( substitute sheep for turtle here) is the sign that this child will grow up to be the savior. Like Moana, in order to save his people Mosche must get them to leave the comforts of the world they know in order to thrive. The most iconic parallel is the images from this scene which we see in reading B’Shalach , this week’s Torah portion. What a powerful image of the water splitting for Mosche and Moana? One could say it is just derivative, or we could enjoy the similarities of these stories pointing to the holiness in the commonality of our humanity.

Bone Breaking: Between Liberation and Apotheosis

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we learn the peculiar commandment not to break any from all of the bones of the Passover sacrifice. We read:

The Lord said to Moshe and Aaron: This is the law of the Passover offering: No foreigner shall eat of it. But any slave a man has bought may eat of it once he has been circumcised. No bound or hired laborer shall eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house: you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house; nor shall you break a bone of it. The whole community of Israel shall offer it.(Exodus 12:43-47).

Clearly this commandment is connected to the general  commandment to remember the miracles of Egypt.  At most basic level we learn who gets to eat of the Passover sacrifice. This action very clearly helps us define the group and who is a part of our nation. But still what is the problem of breaking the bones?

About this the Sefer HaHinuch writes:

…it is not honorable for the sons of kings and the advisers of the land to drag the bones and break them like dogs. It is not a proper thing to do this, except for the impoverished among the people and the starving. And therefore, as we began to become the chosen of all nations, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and in each and every year at that time, it is proper for us to do acts that show in us the great stature which we achieved at that hour. (Sefer HaHinuch 16)

This argument suggests that breaking the bones on any day would be beneath us, but on Passover when we are reenacting our liberation and lounging ( leaning)  as kings, we should not gnaw at bones like slaves.  It seems that there is still more going on with this commandment.

I was thinking about this question a few months ago while reading up on my Norse mythology.  At the time I was preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok . As I learned Thor‘s chariot was pulled by two goats Tanngrisnir ( snarler) and Tanngnjóstr (teeth grinder).

Thor (1910) by Johannes Gehrts

When Thor was hungry, as he had an epic appetite, he would kill and cook the goats. After eating them Thor resurrected them with his hammer and they would be brought back to life the next day. Once while on one of their many adventures Thor and Loki stayed a night at the home of peasant farmers. Thor invited them to share with them his goat meal. Despite Thor’s warning against it, Loki suggests to the son of the farmer that he should taste of the goat marrow because it will make him like a god. Sure enough the mortal follows the suggestion of the trickster and breaks one of the bones to taste of the divine marrow.  When Thor resurrects the goats the next morning, he finds that one of the goats is lame and becomes enraged. As a result, Thor maintains  the farmer’s son and his sister as his servants and join Thor and Loki on their adventures.

While I know that a lamb is not a goat, there is something interesting here between these two narratives. Many believe that the lamb was a god to the Egyptians. The act of sacrificing the Egyptian god was itself an act of defiance and demonstrated the Israelite commitment to leave and not return. In light of this story of  Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, maybe the prohibition of breaking the bones is not that we are like dogs gnawing on bones. Maybe the prohibition is meant to stop us from listening to Loki the trickster. We might mistakenly think that we could become gods and ultimately just become servants. Our tradition is full of commandments that help us preserve the memory of our  exodus from Egypt. I believe this prohibition to breaking the bones of the Passover sacrifice is  to teach us humility. It is to remind us that this is a story of our liberation not our apotheosis.

-Also on Thor: Ragnarok: The Binding : Fenrir and Isaac  and Gog, Magog, & Ragnarök 

Wake Up Rage: MLK Today

The other day I went into my sons’ room trying to wake them up. I found myself singing the chorus from Rage Against the Machine‘s song Wake Up. The lyrics discuss racism within the American government and the FBI. A portion of the song is taken from an actual FBI memo in which its director J. Edgar Hoover suggests targets for the suppression of the black nationalist movement. The song makes references to prominent African-American figures targeted by the government such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and goes as far as saying that the government arranged their assassinations.


In memory of Martin Luther King Jr. I offer you to listen to this song and read the lyrics.

Rage Against the Machine sing:

‘Cause all these punks
Got bullets in their heads
Departments of police, the judges, the feds
Networks at work, keepin’ people calm
You know they went after King
When he spoke out on Vietnam
He turned the power to the have-nots
And then came the shot

It is clear that the assassination of King was a wake up call. While there are still large forces of racism a live in this country, on this holiday we need to also remember the King who “spoke out on Vietnam”. Now more than ever we are living in a time when we are turning the power away from the have-nots.

What will be our generation’s wake up call? I sincerely hope that it does not take a shot.

Almond Prequel: On the Collapse of Empire

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we read about the plagues. Aaron’s encounter with Pharoah’s magicians is an interesting prequel to the plagues. There we read:

Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did in like manner with their secret arts. For they cast down every man his staff, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staves.(Exodus 7:10-12)

What is the significance of it being Aaron’s staff and not Moshe’s? What is the meaning of this prequel to the plagues?

Later in the book of Numbers we read that Aaron’s staff blooms into an almond branch (Numbers 17: 23). The almond tree is thought to grow very quickly. In the Talmud Yerushalmi, we learn that the rabbis thought that it took 21 days from the first bloom of the almond tree until it bore fruit (TJ Taanit 4:7). This period of 21 days corresponds to the time between the breaching of the wall in Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Thus, there is a connection between the collapse of the Second Commonwealth and the almond tree.

With all of this in mind, what was the significance of Aaron’s interface with Pharaoh? Not only was his staff going to eat up the staffs of Pharaoh’s magicians, the Israelites were going to grow quickly, and Aaron was also giving them notice of the upcoming collapse of the Egyptian empire. It seems that nothing lasts forever, especially empires.

As I have quoted a couple of times before, in a 2012 appearance in New Hampshire  former Supreme Court Justice David Souter made some striking and prescient remarks about the dangers of “civic ignorance”. This video has been circulating and worth seeing:

 I was most struck when he said:
I don’t worry about our losing republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some of other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible. And when the problems get bad enough, as they might do, for example, with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’… That is how the Roman republic fell. Augustus became emperor, not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved.
Civics is important. We need to know who is responsible and then we can demand performance from those people. If we are ignorant of civics, we are at risk of peril. This is not a risk from the outside, but the inside.
As we learned in last week’s Torah portion the new King of Egypt did not remember Yosef and enslaved the people out of fear. There we read:
Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.( Exodus 1:10)
Is it possible to understand this in light of Justice Souter’s insight? Was there really a reason for Egypt to fear their enemies, let alone that the Israelites would join them? Maybe this tyrant only became king because he enslaved the Israelites.  Like Augustus and Trump, with little regard for democratic norms and political institutions, this new King came forward seeking power, assuring the public that he’ll solve their problems, exploiting fears and civic ignorance. As we see with the plagues, the destruction of Egypt is not because the Israelites joined a foreign invasion, rather the process of the plagues Egypt was destroyed from the inside out. Aaron presents his almond staff to express how Egypt will collapse. It is a cautionary tale. 

Awake,Arise, Abram Orlow: A Prescient Poem from 1918

I am named for my father’s father Abram Orlow. To a great degree he is a mystery to me. This is what I do know. He was born May 3, 1900 and died April 30, 1950. He was born in Poltava, a town that I have visited 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.


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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. My father was younger than Yadid when his father died, so there is just not that many people I have ever met who knew much about him.

Years ago I found a poem that he wrote which was published  January 11, 2018 in The Jewish World. Seeing that is has been 100 years it seemed fitting to share the work of  person for whom I am named. Like my grandfather, Abram Orlow, I am a Zionist. To me the modern State of Israel is central to my Jewish and human identity. As hard as it is to imagine what the world looked like a 100 years ago, it is harder for me to imagine a world before Israel existed. Reading this poem I am filled with wonder. What do we make of the romantic call for a reprisal of the Hasmomean military victory from the pen of an 18-year-old? How did he balance his fierce nationalism with a universal appeal to flock to this yet to be realized Zionist “standard”. He is simultaneously asking Palestine to be born so we can be like ever other nations and also be exceptional and a model to the nations. I have no idea if my grandfather ever stepped foot in the land of Israel. What was Palestine to an immigrant from the Ukraine who would go on to spend his career as an immigration lawyer in “Goluth“?

Reading this poem I find myself looking back to look forward to look back again. Abram’s poem for the ” Jewish Homeland” is prescient. We are still striving to fully realize the Zionist ideal.  We are still struggling with Diaspora identity in “Goluth”.  We are still coming to terms with the challenge of wielding the power of the Maccabees. We are still trying to fuse our commitments to particularism with our universalism. And all the while I have not done much to demystify the person for whom I am namesake, but I hope you have found it interesting nonetheless.

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