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Perfect Selfless Gift

In Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Mosche striking the rock to get water. There we read:

“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” Mosche took the rod from before the Lord, as God had commanded him. Mosche and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Mosche raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Mosche and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:8-12)

Mosche has given of all of his blood sweat and tears to liberate his people, but in the end will not be given the satisfaction of joining them to complete the mission of entering the Promised Land. And why is this the case?

It seems from hear it is because he did not follow God’s instructions to the letter. Instead of talking to the Rock he hit it. On another level Mosche is excluded because there is a greater lesson to be taught to the Israelite people as to the value of talking over jumping to the physical violence of hitting. But, maybe there is yet another reason Mosche cannot join them on this final journey.

I was thinking about this part of the Torah recently when I saw this amazing video of Mandy Harvey and her tryout for America’s Got Talent. If you have not yet seen it, you must. Check it out:

Her performance is inspiring. What does it mean to see yourself as an aspiring singer and then losing your hearing?  Yes she attributed her ability to her muscle memory, ability to feel the rhythm through her feet, and the use of a tuner. None of those techniques account for her strength in character. How do you bounce back from that? She is  truly impressive. As she sings about in the song, the only barrier was herself getting in the way. And the performance itself was amazing. What does it feel like to share a gift with millions of people without being able to experience it yourself? It seems like the most perfect selfless gift.


Mandy Harvey is a fascinating foil to Mosche in our Torah portion. Like Mandy Harvey being deaf being a reason that she did not want to sing, Mosche has a stutter that was preventing him from taking a leadership role. We read :

“Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” ( Exodus 4:10)

Like Mandy Harvey, Mosche perseveres beyond physical limitations and leads his people out of Egypt. Here in Chukat Mosche is being asked again to lead and get water from the Rock. This time he is asked not to strike the rock, but rather to use his voice. This is the core of his insecurity as a leader. Using his voice is a challenge to his leadership. Instead of stuttering in front of his people he hits the rock. The consequence of this that he will not be able to join them when they go into the Land. But maybe it is not a punishment. Like Mandy Harvey standing there giving a gift of her performance without being able to experience it herself, maybe Mosche needs to give a similarly selfless gift of having the people complete the mission without him joining them in the Land.

Black Lives Really Do Matter: Korach in Words And Actions

Last year I wrote about the rash of police violence which touched off a wave of violence against police. There was and is no excuse for violence in any case, but I have to say that I was and still am particularly outraged by the police. Dealing with difficult situations is their job. I am not saying that it is an easy job, but that is what they signed up for when joining the police force and taking an oath to serve and protect. Mind you, if it was not for cell phones we would not even know about these situations. It is only recently that every citizen has a device to keep an eye on the police who were supposed to be keeping an eye on us. Its makes you think about how deep the history of violence has been beyond the people killed by police this year.

And for us as a society not admitting that there are profound and deep issues around race in this country makes fixing these problems intractable. Confronting or avoiding the history of racism in this country seems to be played out in the tired volley between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”. You do not need to be against police to want to see them do their jobs and ensure that black men are not targeted.

I was reminded of these dueling slogans when reading Korach, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Now Korach, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, with Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men; and they rose up in face of Moshe, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty men; they were princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown; and they assembled themselves together against Moshe and against Aaron, and said unto them: ‘You take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’ ( Numbers 16:1-3)

What does it mean when Korach says,”all the congregation are holy”? On this Rashi quotes Midrash Tanchuma to say that, “All of them heard [the] words [of the commandments] at Sinai from the mouth of the Almighty.” On the surface Korach is arguing that everyone should share power because they are all equal. While his words are noble, his actions are not. In reality he shows up with his posse to demand power for himself.

Like Korach, when people say “All Lives Matter” their language of equality is but a thin veil. While Korach was trying to get power for himself, people who say “All Lives Matter” are trying to preserve a racist status quo and keep power for themselves. If that was not the case the “All Lives Matter Movement” would be leading the protests against the police. Were not Alton Sterling and Philando Castile also people? Did their lives not matter?

The most recent verdict in the case of police violence against black men in this country is deeply disturbing. Noah Trevor gave a very moving summary of the implications of this devastating verdict. Please watch it here:

So lets just say “Black Lives Matter”. It does not mean that their lives are the only things that matter, but it gives voice to the fact that we need to change our racist system. I do believe that words matter too, but in the end we will be judged on our actions. I am afraid that if we do not deal with these issues the violence will swallow us whole.

Making Matzah Balls

I was just in the kitchen when Yishama our 11 year old walked in proclaiming that he is bored. I suggested that he go play basketball. He said, ” Well, if you or my brother would join me I would go.” I responded, ” Well the matzah balls will not make themselves.” Yishama smiled and then said, ” Well, maybe if a Daddy Matzah Ball loves a Mommy Matzah Ball…”

Image result for matzah balls cartoon

There is a profound lesson here. You will never be bored if you have a rich imagination that anything is possible. Shabbat Shalom.

Biblical Slander: Trump and Comey

In Behalotecha, this week’s Torah portion,  we read about the time when Aaron and Miriam slander Moses for taking a Kushite wife. There we read:

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Kushite woman!” They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moshe? Has He not spoken through us as well?” The Lord heard it. Now Moshe was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth. Suddenly the Lord called to Moshe, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting.” So the three of them went out. The Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, “Aaron and Miriam!” The two of them came forward; and God said, “Hear these My words: When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moshe; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moshe!” Still incensed with them, the Lord departed. As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales!  (Numbers 12:1-10)

While there is plenty to explore here about the issues of race and belonging, for now I am now more interested in the consequences of slandering someone. It seems that Miriam is afflicted with Tzaraat because of her speaking poorly about Moshe. Are there supposed to be such serious consequences for talking about people?

Related there is an excellent story:

Once there was a person who had said awful things about someone. Realizing that he had done something terrible, he went to his rabbi and asked, “Rabbi, what can I do?” The rabbi thought a bit and told the man to bring her a feather pillow. The man brought the pillow, and the rabbi told him to go outside, rip the pillow open, and shake out the feathers. The man did just that. And sure enough as he shuck out the feathers a wind came and spread them everywhere. The man came back to his rabbi and asked what to do next. The rabbi responded, “Now go back outside and pick up all the feathers.” The man looks startled and said, “How can I do that? After the wind, I
don’t even know where they are.” The rabbi said, “Exactly. Just like your words. Once they’re out, it’s impossible to get them back”

This story teaches us that we need to take our words very seriously because it is impossible to recover them once they are in public.

I was thinking about all of this the other day listening to James Comey testimony. From his opening remarks, the fired FBI director made clear he believes President Trump was not truthful when he stated he fired Comey because the FBI was in disarray and poorly led. “Those were lies, plain and simple,” Comey said, adding that Trump “chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI” in those remarks. Here are the highlights of his testimony:

From Comey’s testimony it is clear that he feels slandered by the President. We are all waiting to hear those tapes. It seems impossible for Trump’s administration to recover all of those feathers. It is hard to imagine how the President might get out of this misuse of his power and his words unscathed.  Maybe the orange hue of his skin is itself Tzaraat.

To borrow the line from Moshe about Miriam for our great country, “O God, pray heal her!” (Numbers 12:13)


Raise Your Hands: A Sure Blessing

Over the holiday we did the Priestly blessing in synagogue that Adina and I give our children. This blessing that we say every Shabbat and Holiday at home comes from Naso, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying: On this wise you shall bless the children of Israel; you shall say to them: The Lord bless you, and keep you. The Lord make God’s face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up God’s countenance upon you, and give you peace. ( Numbers 6:22-26)

While I usually focus on the intimacy of touching my children while giving them a blessing, this week at synagogue I got to thinking about the nature of  the priests having their arms held up to bless us.

Immediately my head flashed to the iconic Sure Deodorant Raise Your Hand commercials from the 198o’s.

They were encouraging people to buy their project so they could raise their arms and be sure that they would be showing signs of perspiration. But with the image of the Statue of Liberty mixed into the commercial the idea of certitude and conviction got mixed into the virtue of buying their product.  Be that from a priest to the nation or from a parent to a child, what are we sure about when we give someone a blessing ?

We are clearly not sure if God’s face will shine upon them. We have no idea if God will be gracious or lift up God’s face to them. And we have no idea if they will live a life of  peace. Within today’s complexity we cannot even say with surety if there is a God. All we can say is that we are sure that we want to communicate blessing. When it comes to my community and my children I desperately want to share any blessing I have to give.  About that I am sure.

Sharing the Cookies: Joy of a Nation

I feel tremendous gratitude to part of the Schusterman Fellowship. I am honored to be a part of such a remarkable cohort. In preparation for the first session of the program each of us was asked to describe our Jewish story in 3-5 vignettes from our lives. In preparing to share my Jewish narrative with my peers I recalled what must be one of my earliest memories.

I must have been in Kindergarten. I remember going in the required blue pants and white shirt. I also have a vague memory of some construction paper thing on my head. My local Jewish Day school went to a nearby Jewish old age home on Yom HaAtzmaut to sing for them.  After we finished singing two older women with thick German accents  singled me out of the crowd and pulled me aside. They told me how they were friends with my Oma, herself a German immigrant. And just like that they handed me two big bags of home-made cookies. While so many details have washed away over the years I can recall it as just yesterday the joy of sharing those cookies with my classmates on the bus.

These two women were strangers in a strange land, but they made me feel special and at home by connecting with me. Since that day I feel a responsibility to share the experience of belonging with my fellow Jews. As part of the Schusterman Fellowship I also have the good fortune of having regular meetings with a personal coach. In conversation with him I got to realized that in retrospect that experience really defines the work that I have been striving to do in the Jewish communities in Belarus, Washington University in St. Louis, and camps across North America for over 25 years.

Recently I went to suburban Philadelphia to visit my mother for Mother’s day.  When I came, having no idea I had been thinking about this story, my mother shared that she recently found picture that I might life.

I was blown away. There I am on the right with my blue pants, white shirt,  and construction paper thing on my head celebrating Israel at 30. All of these years later I recognize the significance of having a State of Israel. With a rebirth of our national homeland we would never really be alone again. Instead of a life of paranoia fearing what might be coming for us living as strangers in a strange lands, Israel would always be there to have our backs. In many ways my life’s work is helping people experience pronoia, the sense that people are conspiring to help them, by joyfully sharing the cookies.

Unplugging to Connect

– This week my colleague Kate O’Brien wrote a great in eJewishPhilanthropy sharing our work . Enjoy.


As the world races by at the speed of technology, it becomes harder to live into moments of joy and beauty, or even of sadness and longing. With nothing to ground us, we miss out on opportunities to form meaningful memories that will sustain us over time. Jewish wisdom has a response to the urgency of human existence – slow daily counting. Since the second night of Passover, Jews have been counting the Omer (sefirat ha-omer). Each evening, we number the days from Passover and the exodus through the sea to Shavuot and the arrival at the foot of the mountain. Jewish mystical tradition aligns each week and each day of the Omer with aspects of the Divine, which speak to our relationships with God and our neighbors. This week’s Divine attribute is Yesod: creating a bond. Today’s count of the Omer, Day 36, challenges us to reflect on the Chesed Yesod – the loving-kindness of bonding. This day teaches us to extricate ourselves from the external bondage of slavery and to reach for the internal bonds of friendship and the promise of covenant. Bonds of friendship let us know that who we are – what we think and feel – is important. As we count the Omer, we reflect that it is our friends who make us feel that we count.

Among the many issues with which we struggle today is the ability to develop authentic friendships. We cannot blame Facebook alone for transforming “friend” into a verb that means “to form a generally superfluous connection mediated though a screen.” Children and young adults exert far more effort interfacing in real time, but seldom in real relationships. The consequence is that we are raising a generation plagued by emotional illiteracy. The crisis of impersonal communications has arrested our ability to create strong connections. Perhaps this day of the Omer is begging us to slow down just a bit to remember how special that sacred bond of friendship can be to children and adults alike.

Based on research – and nearly two decades of experience – the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) has found that camp is where Jewish youth establish enduring friendships, connect with role models, and create lasting memories. At camp, we unplug in order to connect. If the experience of Jewish summer camp is about anything, it is about putting screens aside to bond in friendship through shared experiences. That could mean bunkmates cheering you on as you put your head underwater for the first time, or the spirit of the Maccabiah team who keeps fighting from behind, or a Shabbat with hundreds of campers, dressed in white, chanting ancient melodies with a special camp twist. It might also be the bonding between a counselor and her campers or between a unit head and his staff. And how do camps facilitate this environment? By eliminating the screens, bringing campers together face-to-face, and explicitly valuing the bonds of friendship. We know that camp friendships are often lifelong because of the intensity and the intentionality of the in-person interactions.

Feeling big feelings and growing emotionally are essential parts of Jewish summer camp. So is making core memories. While camp may be an ideal educational framework in which to cultivate emotional intelligence, it is all of our jobs to help nurture our youth through experiences that will help them grow physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. These experiences are the building blocks of character. Building on the success of the Making Mensches: A Periodic Table and inspired by the animated film, Inside Out (Disney, 2015), FJC has created the Inside Out package of resources for camps, children, and camp families. Made possible by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, the purpose of this project is to help our youth learn to identify, understand, and express their feelings in order to make room for lasting friendships and core memories. FJC’s toolbox includes imaginative, printable posters that explore the links among feelings and between Jewish wisdom and basic emotions. All educators and parents can use experiential lesson plans to help youth to recognize their feelings, to articulate what they are experiencing, and to make good behavior decisions. These tools can be used in the moment, as a regular check-in, or even as a pre-Shabbat activity to help people move into a sacred time with full awareness.

When we speak the language of feelings, we expand our capacity for friendship. If we can build these experiences in intentional ways, we may well have lasting lessons, as well as lasting memories to build lives that matter. Just as there are many ways to manifest the counting of the Omer to deepen our lives, there are many ways we can use our power to help raise a generation that is responsive to and responsible for the world around us.

FJC is excited to share these and other materials with the field. We invite your feedback and stories about the ways in which you use them. Your insights will help us as we continue to develop and refine the array of resources we offer.

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