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My Heart: A Different Love Song

This year I have been completely absorbed by Yishai Ribo‘s music. Ribo is an Orthodox Israeli singer-songwriter who’s music reaches across the religious divide in Israel and beyond. For me it started with Seder HaAvodah in which he retells the story of the High Priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur in a way that is completely touching and accessible. He has a way of taking tradition and making it relevant today. Ribo does not sacrifice depth to get his message to the masses. I guess it is not shocking that I love his music.

Most recently I have been listening to Lev Sheli- My Heart.Here is a live version he performed with Omer Adam. Enjoy:

There is so much I have to say about the lyrics to this song. I am actually in a process of making another contemporary page of Talmud. I am not done yet, but I just could not resist sharing a thought on this song seeing that we read BeShalach this week. The song starts off:

My heart is split in two

What the maidservant did not perceive by the water

Like a storm from the sea, it throbs

Like Miriam’s timbrel, it beats

And there is no cure in the world

My heart hold hands up

I stumble, can no longer stand on my feet

Just a wreck with no purpose

And the skies are like a wall to me

How shall I pass through the sea on dry ground

Ribo masterfully weaves together language from BeShalach to write a love song. In BeShalach  we learn of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds by Moshe. The Israelites escape from Egyptians by walking through the sea on dry ground with the water on each side of them like walls.  After the miracle we hear the Song of the Sea and then Miriam leads them in her song with timbrels. Reading the lyrics in the context of BeShalach  I have a few questions. Is Lev Sheli a normal love song? Is it a song about someone expressing his/her love for a partner or an aspiration of divine love?

To explore these questions I wanted to share a midrash. There we learn:

A Roman Matron asked Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta, “In how many days did God create the world?” He said, “In six, as it is said, ‘Since six days God made…’ (Exodus 20:11) “And since then,” she asked, “what has God been doing?” “God sits [on the Heavenly Throne] and makes matches: the daughter of this one to that one, the wife [i.e. widow] of this one to that one, the money of this one to that one,” responded R. Yosi. “And for merely this you believe in God!” she said. “Even I can do that. I have many slaves, both male and female. In no time at all, I can match them for marriage.” R. Yosi, “Though this may be an easy thing for you to do, for God it is as difficult as splitting the Sea of Reeds.” Whereupon, Rabbi Yosi took his leave. What did she do? The Matron lined up a thousand male and a thousand female slaves and paired them off before nightfall. The morning after, her estate resembled a battlefield. One slave had his head bashed in, another had lost an eye, while a third hobbled because of a broken leg. She said to them: “What do we have here?” and they each said to her: “I don’t want this one” [with whom you matched me.” Immediately, she summoned R. Yosi and she brought him to her and said: “Your God is not like our god, and your Torah is true, pleasing and praiseworthy. You spoke wisely.” (Genesis Rabbah 68:4)

What has God been doing since the creation of the world? God has been making matches. But how difficult is that? It is as difficult as splitting the Sea of Reeds. Like the Matron we could easily assume that making matches is easy, but we would be wrong.

Ribo is writing about that moment when he realized that he has found his match. That moment is overwhelming. That moment was as rare as splitting the Sea of Reeds. This song is about his divine love for his partner. Lev Sheli, like Song of Songs, celebrates human love giving a holy voice to the lovers yearning. It is no mystery that Ribo is able to have a cross over hit between the religious and secular in that he has a cross over hit from the divine to the human. Now that is a popular love song.  

The Reality of the Cave: Darkness and Empathy

So there I stood, in one of the cool and moist underground caves which typify the Dixie Caverns outside of Roanoke, Virginia; I was in charge of forty teenagers who I had brought there on a trip. Just as we finished the tour of the cave I said to the group, ‘Ok, everyone stand shoulder-to-shoulder up against the wall of the cave.’  Slowly, the kids began to move, and ultimately they stood in a tight line in relative silence.  ‘Face the wall,’ I shouted, and when they did I shined my heavy-duty flashlight toward their backs, casting their shadows against the wall.  ‘Read,’ I said, as I handed Joel Seltzer a small book.  So he read.

Dixie Caverns.jpg

The book I handed him was Plato’s The Republic, and the particular section was the famous Allegory of the Cave.  In it Plato imagines a group of human beings who are made to sit in a dark cave, chained so that they may only look straight ahead of them, staring at the wall.  Behind them is a fire, and men are walking, speaking and carrying objects in front of this fire – casting their shadows upon the opposite wall.  In this situation, Plato explains, a person who was forced to watch these shadows on the wall, and therefore knew of no other reality, would surely come to the conclusion that these dark images were actual beings, with real voices, carrying real objects, and that this world of mere passing shadow was indeed the very epitome of reality.

But then, Plato (through the character of Aristotle) asks us to imagine that one such person was freed from their chains and forced to look around at his true situation; would he not be overwhelmed by such a revelation: the existence of the fire, the reality of the players and the actuality of the objects they were carrying?  Furthermore, if that person were then taken up a rugged ascent and brought out of the cave into the sunlight, would not their understanding of the world be irreparably shattered?  Surely the light of the sun would pain them and, until their eyes adjusted, they would certainly be unable to even look at another human being and see their bodily image as it truly is. Thus, Plato proves, perception truly is reality.

What was I thinking when I was the Rosh Edah, division head, for the eldest campers? Did I think that this group of forty teenagers would remember a single detail of this story? I do not think I thought twice about it. They needed an extraordinary experience that day that they might unpack years later. And my counselors needed to understand that their work at camp was not just about having fun or entertainment. We human beings are sadly chained to our limited perceptions; we stare ahead at the wall, never daring to turn and see the world as it truly is.  We take both darkness and shadow as givens in this world of ours, and over time, we have allowed our eyes to adjust to this unnatural lack of light. Camp could change your perception of the world and free you to think differently.

It has been close to 20 years since I was standing there in that cave, but I was thinking about it this week as we read Parashat Bo, this week’s Torah portion, which continues the narrative of the Exodus of B’nei Yisrael out of the slavery and degradation of Mitzrayim. In Bo, God delivers the final three plagues upon the hardened-heart of Pharaoh, the Egyptian people, and their gods; the plagues of Locusts, Darkness, and the Killing of the First-Born.  While the final plague Makkat B’chorot, the Killing of the First-Born, is no doubt the most devastating, the penultimate plague, hoshekh, or darkness, must have been the most terrifying. There we read:

לֹֽא-רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו, וְלֹא-קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים, וּֽלְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמֽוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם

People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was, but the Children of Israel had light in their dwellings. (Exodus 10:23)

This is a confusing plague.

Years after our experience in Dixie Caverns Joel Selzer who had since become a congregrational Rabbi and eventually the director of the camp that we grew up in shared much of this memory with me in the form of a Dvar Torah. In his Dvar Torah he shared the explanation of hoshekh of the Hasidic master Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter, better known as the Gerrer Rebbe. The Gerrer Rebbe explains this verse to mean that their inability to see one another was in fact both the cause as well the consequence of this plague.  He says that the greatest darkness of all is when a person cannot see the other, when they can not feel the pain of their fellow; and this leads to the terrible result that “no one could get up from where he was,” meaning no one arose to the alleviate the pain of their friend. The plague of hoshekh was and still is a plague of an empathy famine.

This, explains the Gerrer Rebbe, was the true sin of the Egyptians was their inability to see the suffering of the other.  They failed to see the sorrows of their neighbors as the suffered through the first eight plagues; and worse still, they failed to see the humanity of the Israelites who cried out to them bitterly from the hardship of their enslavement.  Thus hoshekh, the darkness, became both the cause and the consequence of these failures.

The truth is that in our modern world, sometimes it feels as though we are sitting in the overwhelming darkness of Plato’s cave.  We stare ahead thinking that the animus, the pessimism and the mistrust that abounds is indeed the very epitome of our reality.  We gaze at these ‘mere shadows’ of our world and we perceive them as though they were truth. Worse still is that we are in danger of falling into the apathetic trap of the Egyptians. We lack empathy for the people around us.  We teeter on the edge of constant complacency, not only do we not see the struggles of our neighbors, but even when we do see them, even when we recognize their pain, we too often shrug our shoulders and proclaim, ‘what can I do?’

Will we ever escape the cave?

*Adapted from a Dvar Torah from Rabbi Joel Seltzer

Openhearted: Lesson in Vulnerability from VaEra

In VaEra, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the plague of hail.  Moshe warns them in advance of the hail. There we read:

This time tomorrow I will rain down a very heavy hail, such as has not been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now. Therefore, order your livestock and everything you have in the open brought under shelter; every man and beast that is found outside, not having been brought indoors, shall perish when the hail comes down upon them!’” Those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared the Lord’s word brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety; but those who paid no regard to the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the open. ( Exodus 9:18-21)

They were warned that the hail was coming and that they needed to move inside to evade the plague. But those ” who paid no regard” would get hurt by the hail. My dear friend and teacher Shalom Orzach pointed out that the language here is critical. “Who paid no regard”-לֹא־שָׂ֛ם לִבּ֖וֹ- lo sam libo-literally means “who do not place their heart”. In many ways we learn that Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. Here we see that Moshe is appealing to their hearts. While it still might be hard, Moshe is asking for them to openhearted. What would it take to be vulnerable and put their hearts out there?

Image result for openhearted

Paying attention assumes that there is a bank of attention, we pay out that commodity, and it is finite. Being vulnerable and open assumes that it is infinite. We all have room to grow in our vulnerability. As  Brené Brown, my vulnerability Rebbe, teaches:

Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path. (Daring Greatly)

We need to pay attention to when we are called to be vulnerable and openhearted. From this place we can free ourselves and others.

Taken: Coaching Moshe to Lead

At the beginning of the book of Shemot we are introduced to Moshe. We will spend the rest of the Torah learning of his character as the person who would liberate his people from Egypt, guide them through the desert, get the Torah at Sinai, and deliver them to the Promised Land. It takes a very defined group of skills to be such a profound leader. What do we learn from his early days that might have prepared him for his leadership?

There seems to be a myriad of elements of his life that led to his leadership. At the start he is a person between two worlds. He is an Israelite being raised in the house of the king. At some point we see his inner life emerge as he is moved to stand up to the taskmaster who was beating the Israelite slave. Out of fear that his intervention will be discovered he escapes Egypt. There he find himself as a shepherd of Yitro. It is in this context that he gets the call to action to be the leader of the Israelite slave rebellion.

Thinking of this moment in the context of his life I got to thinking about the iconic phone scene from Taken by Liam Neeson. Watch this:

He he says:

I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom I can tell you I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you, but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you. —Liam Neeson, Taken

At this moment when Moshe has his phone call he lacks confidence. There we read:

But Moshe said to the Lord, “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.” And the Lord said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? ( Exodus 4:10-11)

I can imagine God echoing Liam Neeson in his talk with Moshe. God would say:

Moshe you have a very particular set of skills. Over your very long career you have acquired  skills that make you a nightmare for people like Pharaoh. Go to Pharaoh and tell him, ” If you let my people go now that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you, but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.”

Moshe had a very particular set of skills. He just needed God to point them out to him. For many of us we cannot see the skills we have acquired. We need someone to point out our unique gifts and how they would best be put to use. God is modelling what it means to be a great mentor or coach. While the skills and gifts are critical, too often the person helping you best put them to use is taken for granted.

Between the Forest and the Tree: Undertaking the Major Task of Culture Change

At the end of 2018, Foundation for Jewish Camp concluded the first cohort of the Hiddur Initiative. Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Maimonides Fund, and The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Hiddur Initiative was a pilot experiment to help eight Jewish overnight summer camps become more effective at delivering Jewish educational experiences to their campers and staff, in ways that align with each camp’s unique Jewish mission. In reflecting on this demonstration project, I realize that Peter Senge, the change management guru, was right when he said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” Two stories from camps about the challenges and opportunities change provides offer insights into the experience of the Hiddur Initiative. Interestingly, both stories are about trees, which model the delicate balance of permanence and growth.

The first story goes that there was a new camp director at his first summer at camp. When he got there he was disturbed to discover a “gum tree” – a tree where all of the campers and staff would put their gum before Shabbat prayer. Feeling that this was gross and unsightly, he had the groundskeeper cut down the tree before the second Shabbat of the summer. Often, when people tell this story, they claim that the director was fired before the tree hit the ground. The tree was a part of their camp culture, and the camp director had broken their trust by cutting it down without consulting anyone from the community who could have helped him understand its significance. While there is a time and place for quick, responsive adjustments or shifts in policies and procedures, we do it at our own peril if we are not conscious and conscientious of the cultural context. In order to bring about change we need to have reverence for tradition.

The second story comes from Helene Drobenare, the longtime director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake. Once, when asked about the secret to her success in leadership, she told a story about a trip up to URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in the winter early in her career. As she tells it, she and Jerry Kaye, the legendary director, were driving around camp and he stopped and made them get out of the car. It was freezing cold and all she could see was a thick forest of trees. Not understanding the significance of this moment, Helene asked Jerry what they were doing. He pulled out an old large map. Jerry said, “Look at this. It is the map of OSRUI from when I took over as the director.” Pointing out where they were standing, he continued, “See right here, this was an open field, but I wanted it to be a forest.” When Jerry retired last year he had been the director at OSRUI for close to half a century, and he’d left a thick forest as part of his legacy.

Between the two stories of two trees we can understand a profound lesson of change management. Camp maintains a depth of culture founded on a utopian sense of tradition. While short term wins are important, there are no shortcuts to changing culture. We can do almost anything we can imagine in a community or an organization as long as we have respect for the tradition we have inherited, have a clear vision for the future, and have the grit, gumption, and patience to see that field become a lush forest.

Laying the Groundwork for Meaningful Change
Each of the eight camps was asked to set goals for change with their Hiddur coaches, who were expert Jewish camp educators, so that, critically, the process was internally motivated. To help create this motivation, Hiddur coaches introduced camp leaders to a deeper use of data so they could see and understand the impact and outcomes their actions were having. As Brian Schreiber, President & CEO of JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, which owns Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC) said:

You can’t build a great Jewish camp without building a great camp and we had to take data seriously to do that. The CSI (Camper Satisfaction Insights) and SSI (Staff Satisfaction Insights) data led to a lot of soul-searching, change and a detailed intense three-year strategic plan for EKC. Hiddur helped us uncover some areas we needed to focus on and pilot programs often are at the edge of the R & D that this field needs. If Hiddur was designed as a catalyst to do more, the pilot achieved its goal at EKC 100%.

By approaching this process with a coach in a strategic, data-informed way, camp leaders felt empowered to make decisions about what should—and should not—be changed.  Creating change, as the evaluation on Hiddur affirms, often is a sensitive and difficult endeavor. But if people see that change is necessary to fulfill the mission, people are more likely to support it. Hiddur gave space for camp leaders to map out where they wanted to keep the fields as they were, what needed to be chopped down, and where they wanted to seed forests.

Camp leaders, for example, whose camps had a stated set of Jewish educational tenets or objectives began Hiddur by reviewing that list to see what was and was not aligned in practice.  How could those stated principles be refreshed and better expressed in action? Returning to those initial intentions created that essential internal motivation among the camp’s stakeholders and cemented the commitment to the process. No one was cutting down any “gum trees”; they were restoring their camp to their core values.  B’nai B’rith (BB) Camp, for example, worked with its Hiddur coach to articulate goals based on their B’nai B’rith brand and culture. Much of the “culture” in this case was already defined; they had a sense of what they wanted to preserve. But they also wanted to increase camp-wide participation in Jewish life. To this end, they created a pre-camp Shabbaton for staff and teen leaders aimed at getting a core group of camp influencers on board and inspired by the Jewish life enhancements. Now, BB Camp Shabbat is led for the first time by a team of home grown song leaders and community educators who have developed tunes, dances and rituals that are unique to their camp.

Independent camps not affiliated with a denomination or movement face a particular challenge—a lack of a built-in framework—when trying to define their “camp culture” of Jewish education. Asking any organization to start with reflection instead of “doing” can be a challenge, but this is what Hiddur asked of its cohort. Only then could coaches and camp leaders together create a path for the camp to identify their brand as a Jewish camp. One independent camp in the initiative reflected:

In 2016 we did not have a framing for Judaism at camp. Hiddur helped us lay out who we are as a Jewish camp, what does it mean to be a Jewish camp, how do we identify to Jewish community as a Jewish camp. Creating our core Jewish values was helpful in how we framed Jewish life at camp. Before, we were making it up as we went along.

Outside Help Moves the Change Process Forward—Slowly
Creating change is an easier process with outside facilitation and help. Since the pull to “do what we have always done” competes with vision and aspirations for improvement, having a coach to provide gentle reminders and a guide back to camps’ own stated goals is a difference-maker. The Hiddur coaches facilitated reflection on and evaluation of the process intermittently, talking through the change, addressing some of the camp leaders’ discomfort, and providing camps a way to “consult the map” along the way. The coaches were able to help these communities define and refine for themselves their own Jewish brand, programming, and messaging.

At the same time, a paramount learning here is that real change takes time. An initiative meant to facilitate change must provide a framework that accounts for this. Rather than ask camps to commit to an unrealistic measurable change over one camp season, Hiddur was a three year program (and even that amount of time proved to be too short to execute and see all of the changes that these camps envisioned). By setting a longer time-horizon, camps could dream big and work slowly at change. While we are confident that we could make the process shorter than three years, there are no shortcuts to culture change. Now, after a year since Hiddur concluded, FJC is eager to bring a tighter version of this model of coaching to more camps.

John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Brian Schreiber from Pittsburgh articulated the unique role of the Hiddur team in this challenging change process: “Three years ago we knew we were good, but not great. We wanted to up the game on Jewish life, but didn’t have the right people or focus to make it happen. Hiddur gave us direction, justification for making change and made us intentional about everything we do when it comes to Jewish life at camp and this entire agency.” With Hiddur, we at FJC are thrilled to see the emergence of wonderful forests of Jewish life at each of these camps. From where we sit, in all of our work we know that we cannot lose sight of the majestic forests for a “gum tree.”

– Read the full evaluation conducted by Rosov Consulting, Beautification and Exploration: Evaluating Three Years of the Hiddur Initiative.

– Reposted from Jim Joseph Foundation 

 

Riddle of the Sphinx: A Thought on Yaakov and Yosef

At the start of  this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, we read “ Yaakov lived in seventeen years in the land of Egypt…“ (Genesis 47:28). On this the Baal HaTorim quoting the Midrash HaGadol picks up on the number seventeen. This number seventeen clearly sets the time that Yaakov lives in the land of Yosef to the time that Yosef his son spent growing up in the house of his father before he was sold into slavery in Egypt. This points out a powerful symmetry between fathers and sons in general and Yaakov and Yosef specifically . The child who was dependent on the parent physically and emotionally for their first stage of his or her life is often forced to reverse roles with their child for the parents’ final stage of life. There is a certain balance in the living out of the Riddle of the Sphinx.

Great Sphinx of Giza - 20080716a.jpg

As the riddle goes, “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?” The answer goes that is a person. As a baby in the morning of a person’s life they crawl on all fours. As an adult in the noon of their life, they walk on two feet. But when they are old, in the evening of their life, they walk with a cane, on three feet. In the first 17 years Yosef was as if on all fours, in the middle Yaakov and Yosef both walk around and make their way in the world on two feet. Upon their reconnection in Egypt we see a wounded Yisrael with his cane living his final 17 years with his Yosef in Egypt.

It is crazy how I can see myself in my children’s different stages. I also see myself evolving into my parents more and more. The experience of the passing of time has proven a rich source of reflection.  I cannot say it is a riddle, but it is surely a mystery.

The Start of the Siege: Yosef and the 10th Tevet

This coming week we commemorate the Tenth of Tevet – Asarah BeTevet. This fast day is observed in mourning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia—an event that began on that date and ultimately culminated in the destruction of the First Temple and the conquest of the Kingdom of Yehudah. In many ways this is the beginning of the long slog to our diaspora that only ended in 1948.

 

Nebuchadnezzar camp outside Jerusalem. Famine in the city.jpg
Nebuchadnezzar camps outside Jerusalem.  Petrus Comestor‘s “Bible Historiale”, 1372

I was thinking about this narrative and this image in the context on the Torah portions we have been reading these last few week’s about Yosef and his diaspora in Egypt. Yosef’s story starts off with an interesting image. There we read:

And it came to pass, when Yosef was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Yosef of his coat, the coat of many colors that was on him; and they took him, and cast him into the pit–and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Yishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spices and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. (Gen. 37: 23-25)

Their little brother comes to see his brothers. They strip him of his clothes,  stick him in pit, and have lunch. Their eating bread at this moment seems to underscore their cruelty.

The compelling element of this image is that Yosef in the pit is similar to the citizens of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar’s siege. Nothing has happened yet, but a long history of diaspora is coming. Noteworthy we deal with this moment by fasting and not sitting around and eating bread. We fast to ensure that we are sensitive to Yosef, the citizens of Jerusalem, and all those in captivity who are insecure as to their future far from home. It is noteworthy that with the recent surge of antisemitism many of us are also sitting in fear.

Eli Wiesel wrote:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

We need to stand up against hate and cannot be neutral or silent. We cannot be like those who sit around and just eat bread. This  Sunday there is an important Solidarity March: No Hate. No Fear. I am very proud that my wife has played such a big role in rolling this out. We need to stand up for ourselves. We need to stand up for all those who live in fear.

– JOIN: https://nyjewi.sh/marchnyc


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