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Essential Numbers

During the Democratic National Convention Rabbi Michael Beals shared a great story about Vice President Biden. In 2006 the friends and family of Sylvia Greenhouse showed up to honor the life of the 84-year-old congregant of Congregation of Beth Shalom. Rabbi Beals who led the service recounts that Joe Biden joined them.“He just showed up, unannounced,” said Beals.“You would not expect to see a U.S. senator there.” Here is another video that recounts the event that he shared at the DNC. It is worth watching this short video:

Beals recounts how Biden showed up at the service to honor Greenhouse’s memory. She had been a longtime Biden supporter, contributing $18 to each of his Senate races going back to 1972. The number 18 is a symbolic number in Judaism corresponding to the Hebrew word for “life.” This great story got me thinking about what is in a number?

I have always joked when it comes to numbers and giving tzedaka– people should be encouraged to give Mavet מוות-  death which has a symbolic number in Judaism corresponding to 452. The would increase each contribution by over 2500%. 

Then I saw this imagine and I realized that there are a lot of numbers that have meaning in our lives.

When it comes to numbers, this is so true. This year be it 2020 or 5780 have been rough and will be remembered. And still today the number 9/11 sticks out even more as a particularly painful number. 

I pause today to realize that numbers are important to us because they are symbolic. Be it a humble gift of 18 dollars or a horrific memory of 19 years later 9/11,  there is something clear about these numbers the reveal something true about their essence. After 5780 is over the next big number we will be looking for is 11/3/2020. As a nation it seems that our essence will be revealed with that number as well.

Death and Taxes

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in a letter:

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

I was thinking about this quote recently in as much as the current administration is testing the very permanence of our Constitution and our republic.

Death and tax hikes | Nevada Policy Research Institute

I was also thinking about in the context of Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion. There we discuss the obligation to give tithes, our form of taxes. And we read:

When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield—in the third year, the year of the tithe—and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before the Lord your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments:I have not eaten of it while in mourning, I have not cleared out any of it while I was unclean, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done just as You commanded me. (Deuteronomy 26: 12-14)

It is curious. Why is it not enough to pay your taxes? You also need to make a public declaration.

In the Torah giving tithes is not just a civil obligation. Paying your taxes is a public and even a religious experience. While giving taxes might be inevitable, it is also an honor. We should proud of our ability to participate in a just society, support the needy, and the institutions of state.

When we think about taxes we should think of the words if President Kennedy. He said, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” It is all too clear that for our current President it is all about what the country can do for him. And it is of note that he has still yet to share his tax returns. It is clear that he has no honor or respect for anything other than himself, let alone religion. For Trump we might be able to add to Franklin’s adage on death and taxes. In the end it is certain that history will not be kind to him.

Stubborn and Rebellious Son: The Fear of Fascism

In Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the strange case of the Stubborn and Rebellious Son. There we read:

18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them; 19 then his father and his mother shall lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; 20 and they shall say unto the elders of his city: ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he does not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.’ 21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die; so you shall put away the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear. (Deutoronomy 21:18-21)

There are many peculiar elements of this case. One aspect that stands out if the extra language around the voice of the father and the the voice of the mother. What is the significance of their voices?

On this topic the Talmud comments. There we read:

Rabbi Yehudah said: If his mother is not like his father in voice, appearance and stature, he does not become a rebellious son. Why so? — The Torah said, he will not obey our voice, and since they must be alike in voice, they must be also in appearance and stature. With whom does the following Baraisa agree: There never has been a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’,  and never will be. Why then was the law written? That you may study it and receive reward… Rabbi Yonatan said: ‘I saw him and sat on his grave’. (Sanhedrin 71a)

This seems to be the tipping point of their imagination of case ever being a real case. But, why is the unification of their voices the straw that broke the camel’s back?

In some ways this singular voice resonates with the story of the Tower of Babel. There we read:

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.— And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” ( Genesis 11:1-4)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (Vienna) - Google Art Project.jpg

They all had the same language and for this their tower was toppled? Like the Stubborn and Rebellious Son they are judged on their ends. Both stories show the Torah’s fear of fascism. The diversity of humanity is the source of our richness. If we silence people and demand a uniformity of voices we are doomed. We need to stand watch at this critical moment in history to safeguard our democracy from falling like a Tower and our education system creating stubborn and rebellious children.

Playing in the Field

In Hasidic thinking, the days of Elul are a time when “The King is in the field.” Gaining an audience with the King during Tishrei is a whole to-do. We must travel to the capital city, arrange an appointment, and then get permission to enter the palace. It may be days or weeks before we are finally allowed to enter. And even then, when we do finally get to see the King, the audience is likely to be short and very formal. Lost among the throngs of people, it is hard to imagine it being a deeply personal interaction. Since very few of us actually live in the capital city, the royal surroundings we experience during the High Holidays make us feel out-of-place. By the time we get there, we might have even forgotten why we came to seek the audience of the King in the first place. It hardly seems like a good plan for a meaningful experience.

According to Rabbi Schneur Zalman (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe), during Elul “Anyone who desires is granted permission and can approach the King and greet the King. The King received them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all” (Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b). The King’s arrival is heralded by the shofar blown throughout Elul. Here in the field, the formality is transformed into familiarity. 

I am reminded of one of my favorite Hassidic stories. 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, “My friends and I were playing hide and seek and I think they forgot about me.” At this point the Rebbe starts crying and the boy asks, why the Rebbe is crying. The Rebbe responds, “Now I understand how God feels.”

Leveling the Playing Fields So Everyone Can Play

People around the world are crying, isolated, anxious, and suffering. We are missing a lightness of being.  Months of social distancing make me fear that we have forgotten how to seek, let alone play. God has been cooped up in the palace for the past 11 months. With the advent of Elul it is time for all of us to come out and play. 

-written for Gabe Miner’s Days of Awww which can be found on instagram or facebook

Stuttering Club: Empathy and Leadership

As I have explored in the paststuttering, also known as stammering, is most commonly associated with involuntary sound repetition, but it also encompasses the abnormal hesitation, blocks,  or pausing before speech. Stuttering is generally not a problem with the physical production of speech sounds or putting thoughts into words. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, stuttering does not affect and has no bearing on intelligence. Apart from their speech impairment, people who stutter are normal. Anxiety, low confidence, nervousness, and stress therefore do not cause stuttering, although they are very often the result of living with a highly stigmatized disability.

Although the exact etiology of stuttering is unknown, both genetics and neurophysiology are thought to contribute. A variety of hypotheses and theories suggests multiple factors contributing to stuttering. Here I want to forward two theories as to the cause of stuttering. There is evidence that stuttering is more common in children who also have concomitant speech, language, learning or motor difficulties. Auditory processing deficits have also been proposed as a cause of stuttering. The evidence for this is that stuttering is less prevalent in deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and stuttering may be improved when auditory feedback is altered. Although there are many treatments and speech therapy techniques available that may help increase fluency in some stutterers, there is essentially no “cure” for the disorder at present.

I was thinking about this last night when watching the Democratic National Convention. There thirteen-year-old Brayden Harrington  spoke to millions of people tuning into the convention. In February Brayden met Vice President Joe Biden at a rally in New Hampshire. When Biden, a fellow stutterer, learned about Brayden’s speech difficulties at the rally, he invited him backstage. There, Biden showed him the speech he had just delivered and the annotations he used to signal when to breathe, and gave him advice and exercises for overcoming his stutter. Watch this video:

“It was really amazing to hear that someone like me became vice-president. He told me about a book of poems by Yeats he would read out loud to practice,” Brayden said. “He showed me how he marks his addresses to make them easier to say out loud. So I did the same thing today. And now I’m here talking to you today about the future, about our future.” As Dan Rather described, Brayden’s speech as “pure, unvarnished courage.”

In Brayden’s address, the teenager said that “without Joe Biden I wouldn’t be talking to you today,” and that during their first meeting, Biden had told him they were “members of the same club”. This amazing story of courage of thirteen-year-old conquering his fear and talking to millions of people made me think of another very important leader in history who is part of that club- Moshe.

When Moshe is called to be God’s messenger, he resists saying, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). From this the Rabbis concluded that Moshe had a stutter.  Rashi  explains k’vad peh, “heavy of mouth,” and k’vad lashon, “heavy of tongue,” by which Moshe describes himself, as stuttering. Rashi translated it into medieval French word balbus, stuttering or stammering (from which comes the modern French verb balbutier, to stutter).

This issue is particularly interesting to me this week due to Brayden’s story and the timely reading of Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about the establishment of the court system and the most famous quote:

Tzedek Tzedek-Justice, justice shalt you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:20)

Why the repeating word, “Justice”? Most commonly it translated to assume that it is emphatic. As to say, “Justice you will surely pursue”. But, I think this reading overlooks the speaker. As we know, Moshe was a member of the club and had a stutter, and this is the text recording his stammer.

If this is true, why does the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print at this moment? Maybe it has something to do with the pursuit of justice itself. In the past I have explored other ideas , but this week Brayden’s story inspired a different reading. As we heard in his story and many other’s shared at the DNC, Biden’s leadership is founded on his empathy born out of personal hardships. We all know bullies prey on people who are different or weak. To truly pursue justice we need to connect to our own experiences of being marginalized. Like Moshe before him, Biden’s commitment to pursue justice is founded on his own experience of stuttering.  There is a profound strength of leadership founded on vulnerability.

We should never make fun of people just because they are different than us. To work for justice we need to have empathy for those who are experiencing hardship.  Let’s surely vote out the bully on November 3rd.

-Also see Stammering Justice

-Also see Revisiting Stammering Justice

 

Just Judges: Shoftim and Kamala

Last week Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate. Soon after President Trump attacked Harris for being “extraordinarily nasty” to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings. It is true, Harris did aggressively question Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct allegations during the justice’s heated 2018 confirmation hearings. In her line of questioning she also touched on abortion laws and Trump’s reaction to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Trump said, “She was extraordinarily nasty to Kavanaugh, Judge Kavanaugh, now Justice Kavanaugh. She was nasty to a level that was just a horrible thing the way she was, the way she treated now-Justice Kavanaugh. And I won’t forget that soon.” I am curious why Trump thinks her line of questioning of Judge Kavanaugh was a bad thing.

Brett Kavanaugh Struggles To Answer Kamala Harris' 'Simple ...

I was thinking about this in the context of him proudly holding a Bible.

The Bible is not a prop': Religious leaders, lawmakers outraged ...

Has Trump ever read the it? It is not just a prop, something to bring into class for show-and-tell, or a weapon to brandish.

I do not bring it up not just because Kamala Harris’s nomination was an important moment in our country’s history or that this week is the DNC, but because this week we read Shoftim, this week’s Torah reading. And yes the Torah, Five books of Moses, is in that Bible in the President’s hands.

Here in Shoftim Moses instructs the people of Israel to appoint judges and law enforcement officers in every city. There we read:

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not set up a ashera– idolatrous tree —any kind of pole beside the altar of the Lord your God that you may make—or erect a stone pillar; for such the Lord your God detests. (Deuteronomy 16:18-22)

The Bible takes the appointment of judges and the human process of pursuing justice very seriously. But what do we make of the juxtaposition of the idea of creating a justice system to this ashera tree by the alter?

To answer this question we go to the Rabbis of the Talmud. There we learn:

Reish Lakish says: With regard to anyone who appoints over the community a judge who is not fit, it is as though he plants a tree used as part of idolatrous rites [ashera] among the Jewish people, as it is stated: “You shall make judges and officers for yourself” (Deuteronomy 16:18), and juxtaposed to it, it is written: “You shall not plant yourself an ashera of any kind of tree” (Deuteronomy 16:21). By implication, appointing unfit judges is akin to planting a tree for idolatry. (Sanhedrin 7b)

In Jewish thought the pursuit of justice and selection of good judges is central to our religious expression.

Why complain about Kamala Harris? As a former prosecutor she was doing her job and doing it well. She was faithfully fulfilling her mandate from the Bible to grill of Kavanaugh.

The Trump administration wants to hide behind a book. Those who support him because of the Bible are no different than Trump himself. What is the difference between devotion to a book made of wood and never opened and planting the ashera tree? They are all idol worshipers.

I wanted to invite all of the God-fearing Trump supporters to break from Trump’s doctrine of bullying and realize the religious importance of law. We must uproot the idolatry in our midst. Kamala Harris has proven that she will make sure that we have the right judges. We need to vote for Biden and Kamala. They will get our country back on track.

Seeing the Choice: Re’eh and 2020 Election

The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less is a 2004 book by American psychologist Barry Schwartz. In the book, Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. He writes:

Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically. (The Paradox of Choice)

On some level we suffer from having too much choice. There is no doubt to me that this is part of the peril of democracy. Our elections demand that we make choices. Throughout history we have been tempted by strongmen who horde power for themselves with the promise that they will make the right choices for us.

I got to thinking about this in the context of the start of Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you shall hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day;and the curse, if you shall not hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside, out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known. ( Deuteronomy 11: 26-28)

The Torah is asking us to see the impact of all of our choices. Sight is central to the human conception of causality. Before us are always choices to be made between blessings or curses. At the same time we are empowered to make choices and we are held responsible for the consequences of these choices. The Torah does not leave open the possibility of a pareve , neutral, choice. We are being asked to have the vision to realize the consequences of all of our choices. We are forced to get past the analysis paralysis. We need to live and be happy with our choices.

I was thinking about this idea of choice this week with Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate. This is a historic moment to have a woman of color on the ticket. In the context of our Torah portion it is striking to realize the role that sight plays in our perception of race.

Biden and Harris Make First Appearance as Running Mates as Trump ...Donald Trump and Mike Pence: Tensions at the top

Now that we know who is running we need to make a choice. On one level we need to make sure that we all have access to the polls. Democracy will only work when we all get to make that choice in the act of voting. Trump’s profound narcissism makes me afraid that we will not see a peaceful transfer of power when he is done his presidency. We cannot stand idly and tolerate Trump’s various efforts to suppress voting.

On a deeper level we need to choose to not outsource our lives to tyrants or religious fanatics who are anti-Choice. Their offer is to trade autonomy and freedom for psychological well being is a lie. Under the Trump Pence administration we have seen a dramatic reduction or autonomy and freedom and a skyrocketing rate of Mental Health issues.  This does not seem to be a good choice.

May the choice me make on November 3rd be for a blessing.

-also on choices :Slow Choices

#rabbisforbiden

Respecting the OGs: Eikev, Lewis, and Aunt Ellen

In Eikev, this week’s Torah portion we recall the making and re-making of the Tablets of Stone, the incident of the Golden Calf, and Aaron’s death. There we read:

From Beeroth-bene-jaakan the Israelites marched to Moserah. Aaron died there and was buried there; and his son Eleazar became priest in his stead. (Deuteronomy 10:6)

Riffing off of the tragic death of Aaron the Midrash explores the context of this loss. There read:

R. Yudan said: For what reason is the death of Aaron (Deut. 10:6) being so near the breaking of the tablets (Deut. 9:17)? To teach that the death of the righteous is as grievous to the Holy One as the breaking of the tablets. ( Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Achrei Mot 10:1)

There is a rich reading in the text here in as much as the second set of Tablets replaced the first just as Eleazar replaces Aaron in the same breath of his passing. And in both cases the second copy only makes us realize the unique and special quality of the original.  While we can try to replace what is lost, the act of replacement make us miss them even more. Aaron is the original and Eleazar will never completely fill the void left.

I was thinking about this idea this week with the recent passing of two very different people. The first is Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis z”l and second is my great aunt Ellen Katz z”l.

John Lewis was the youngest of the “Big Six” leaders who organized the legendary 1963 March on Washington. He fulfilled many critical roles in the civil rights movement and its actions to end legalized racial segregation in the United States and served in Congress for 17 terms.

John Lewis and the March on Washington speech he never gave - Vox

Aunt Ellen was my Oma’s sister-in-law. Born and raised in Germany she left Europe during WWII on a HIAS Kindertransport by herself at the age of 12. Her father had come to America at the start of the war in an effort to get the money and paperwork needed to bring over the family. Tragically her 16 year old sister, mother, and grandmother all died in Auschwitz.  Ellen lived her teen years in modest living situation with her father. Eventually she was set up on a date with Ernie, my beloved great Uncle. Three weeks later they were engaged. Together they made a great life for themselves, their two sons, 5 grandchildren, and 5 great grandchildren. For Ellen family was everything.

While their lives very different, John Lewis and Ellen Katz both lived full, authentic, and noble lives. They were OGs and as we learn in the Midrash they can never really be replaced. But in giving there memories their dur respect we remind ourselves what is good, what is worth fighting for, and what is holy.

Tu B’Av and End of Summer: 22 for 2 Club

It is safe to say that I am into Jewish summer camp. Between my 7 summers as a camper, 8 summers on staff member in that camp, 2 years as a Shaliach in Minsk running camps there, and 12 years at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, I have spent close to 30 summers at camp. I think it is safe to say that I am in the “10 for 2” club. I work all year for the summer. With that in mind, this summer with all of the Covid camp closings was particularly hard for me.

I was thinking about this today as we celebrate Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av. This is supposed to be one of the happiest days of the year. But what are we celebrating? The Gemara shares six historical happy events that happened on this day.  One of those is particularly interesting to me now. There we read:

Rabba and Rav Yosef both say: The fifteenth of Av is the day when they stop cutting wood for the arrangement of wood on the altar. It is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Eliezer the Great says: Once the fifteenth of Av came, the force of the sun would weaken, and from this date they would not cut additional wood for the arrangement, because wood cut from then on would not dry properly and would be unfit for use in the Temple. Rav Menashe said: And the people called the fifteenth of Av: The day of the breaking of the sickle, as they did not need the lumbering tools until the following year. (Bava Basra 121a-b)

Egyptian Inventons | Sutori

In this sense Tu B’Av is celebrating the begining of the end of the summer. Most years of my life this has been a sad time of the year, but this year I am actually very happy for this horrible summer to be over.

As we put the summer away, what does the fall have in store for us? What will  school and the High Holidays look like with Covid-19? I am not alone in wanting a vacine so we can rebound quickly from Covid. As much as we are instructed to break the sickle and put the heat of the summer behind us, I know that I am not the only one yearning for the start of summer 2021. I am looking forward to putting that sickle back together to go back into the forest and get back to work. This living “22 for 2” is hard, but for many the first day of camp next year will actually be the happiest day of the year.

-another piece on Tu B’Av- Bystander Effect: Tu B’Av and Kitty Genovese

Unconscionable : On Capital Punishment, Law, and Identity

The Shema is a Jewish statement of creed that serves as a centerpiece of the morning, evening, and pre-bed prayer services. After the Shema we see the VaAhavta which spells out some of the central practices of this faith statement. I was thinking about these statements in that they are both found in Va’etchanan, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.Take to heart these instructions with which I מְצַוְּךָ֛- charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

The charge – מְצַוְּךָ֛ is to keep the Mitzvot– Commandments. In this sense traditionally Jewish identity is defined as how we live our live by these laws. This is interesting in juxtaposition to Christian’s identity which often is defined around love and not law. For Judaism our commitment to law is our expression of our love. 

I was thinking about this idea of identity recently when watching an extraordinary TED talk by Byran Stevenson. It really is a must watch:

The topic of how we need to talk about an injustice is very compelling. For me the most brilliant part of his talk is how he framed the conversation about the legal system in America around the idea of identity.

Once Stevenson was giving a lecture in Germany about the death penalty. There he said:

It was fascinating because one of the scholars stood up after the presentation and said, “Well you know it’s deeply troubling to hear what you’re talking about.” He said, “We don’t have the death penalty in Germany. And of course, we can never have the death penalty in Germany.” And the room got very quiet, and this woman said, “There’s no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings. It would be unconscionable for us to, in an intentional and deliberate way, set about executing people.” And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn’t bear it. It would be unconscionable.

In America we clearly disassociate ourselves from the law. It is unconscionable how these laws are radically unjust to people of color.  And for many of us who are not subject to this discrimination we have the luxury of being unconscious about the impact of this legal system. Our laws should manifest our attempt to bring about justice in the world. What would it look like if we identified ourselves by our laws? It seems that our laws are mostly punitive. What would our laws look like if they were framed as an expression of love?

These questions come to a head when we discuss capital punishment. About this Stevenson says:

In many ways, we’ve been taught to think that the real question is, do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed? And that’s a very sensible question. But there’s another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not, do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill?

Our faith in law needs to be an identity that is wrapped up in seeing the infinite worth of every human being. It is unconscionable to abide a law that falls short of recognizing this fact. In each and everyone of us is an element of the divine. We need to express our love to God by how we write and live out our legal system.


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