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My Defining Moment

We read in Tazria Metzoria, this week’s Torah portion, that when a person is afflicted with tzaraat they must dwell alone outside of the camp until they are healed. Tzaraat is commonly translated at leprosy but was actually a scaly affection of the skin with some discoloration. It was not contagious, but rather is seems to have been a symptom of an inner spiritual disorder.  Why is dwelling outside of the camp so transformative?

I was thinking about this recently when reading a paper that my Yishama had to write. His assignment was to explore a defining moment in his life to date. This is what he wrote and the drawing that accompanied it:

Before I went to sleep-away camp I wasn’t independent or responsible. I was not responsible because I didn’t ask for any responsibility. I wasn’t as productive at school because I didn’t have a sense of how important school was. I relied on my parents and au pair a lot because I didn’t have to be independent or responsible.

The summer I went to sleep-away camp changed my life. At sleep-away camp I was introduced to many kinds of people. The environment at camp was different because there were all kinds of people and different ways of living, which helped open me up to new foods and lifestyles. When I came home from camp my parents were surprised by how much I had changed and matured.

After I came home from sleep-away camp, I was more independent, responsible, and didn’t rely on other people as much. When I came home from camp my parents trusted me enough to let me do a lot of things I had not been allowed to do before I went to camp, such as staying home alone and making my own plans. When I came back from camp I was more productive in class because I knew the value of education.  Meeting some of my new friends at camp showed me how much they valued education and they inspired me to keep learning more – just like they do. Going to sleep-away camp opened my eyes to the world around me and the person I aspire to be.

For Yishama leaving home and going to camp helped his grow in his confidence and sense of responsibility. Coming into contact with all kinds of people and different ways of living helped Yishama open up. When he returned from a summer at Camp Stone he was transformed spiritually. I can only assume leaving camp was as transformative to the ancient Israelites. And in both cases I assume when they came back they needed a really good shower.

One Dance Remix


Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, starts on the eighth day, following the seven days of their inauguration of the Tabernacle. Connected to this theme we see in the Haftarah the image of King David dancing and whirling around with all his might as they brought the Ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the City of David to inaugurate its new location. While he was rejoicing his wife Michal was disgusted by what she perceived to be David’s completely demeaning to the office of the King.

There we read:

David went home to greet his household. And Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today — exposing himself today in the sight of the slave girls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself!” David answered Michal, “It was before the Lord who chose me instead of your father and all his family and appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel! I will dance before the Lord and dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem; but among the slave girls that you speak of I will be honored.” ( II Samuel  6:20-22)
Michal was discussed with David and claims that be embarrassed himself. In return David lashed out at her rubbing her father’s down fall in her face. At the core of their disagreement is a discussion as to what is the proper conduct.

For Michal people need to dress and act appropriately to that might actually manifest greatness. For David he saw himself as but a small creature with the opportunity to celebrate God. How was this beneath him?

I was thinking about this recently when listening to Noey from Maccabeats King David Remix of Drake‘s One Dance.  As you will see below at the start of this video they quote our Haftarah.  Check it out:

Noey takes Drakes trivial but sensual song about a guy picking up a girl up in bar and transforms it into a meaningful song about David’s pleading to have one dance before God. I love the move from banal sexuality to divine intimacy. Clearly Michal was listening to Drake’s original and not Noey’s remix.

Calendar and Convenience

For some of us today has been spent gearing up for the final days of the Passover Holiday starting tonight. Having had Seder Monday and Tuesday night last week and then Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Pesach it has been a very busy week . For someone like myself who enjoys a lack of structure and is trying to lose some weight, it has been hard week filled with ritual eating.  Juxtaposed my traditional observance of the the rhythm of the Jewish calendar there has been an increasing number of people moving their observance of the Passover Seder to a time of mutual convenience. Recently I saw this phenomenon of moving the Jewish calendar to make sense in the lives of North American Jews being pointed out in Judaism Unbound, one of my favor Podcasts, in an episode by Vanessa Ochs, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. Professor Ochs points out that it does not work for her, but it is clearly working for the practitioners. What is ritual if not to make meaning for the practitioners?

I was thinking about this shift in practice when looking at the Torah’s description of this time of the year. There we read:

And you shall count to you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; ( Leviticus 23:15)

During this time of the year we are told to count seven complete weeks of the Omer. Traditionally this means from the second day of Passover until Shavuot. But if you look in the text it actually says that we should count “from the morrow after the day of rest.” The Rabbis determined that “Shabbat” here means a day of rest and refers to the first day of Passover. According to this calculation, Shavuot will fall on the day of the week after that of the first day of Passover (e.g., if Passover starts on a Thursday, Shavuot will begin on a Friday).

Karaites differ in their understanding of “morrow after the Sabbath”. Karaites interpret the Sabbath to be the first weekly Sabbath that falls during Passover. As a result, the Karaite Shavuot is always on a Sunday, although the actual Hebrew date varies. Could one reread the Rabbinic interpretation that “Shabbat” here refers to the first day of Passover in reverse? What if Passover Seder was the Shabbat closest to Passover? That would make everything a lot easier.

I doubt that the current trend to move Passover to be at a time of convenience is remotely connected to any of these readings, I assume they are just doing what is convenient.  Just as I look at the Karaites with some skepticism, it is curious to imagine how future generations if not today’s generation might read the Rabbinic stringency around the Jewish calendar. I can admit a sadness that the Jewish people might separate as we have from the Karaites in the past. If we are out of sync with ourselves in not keeping a single Jewish calendar will we still be one people? But what is Jewish ritual if it has lost his meaning to a vast majority of Jews. When thinking about recreating relevant Jewish ritual Rabbi Levi Lauer‘s adage comes to mind. He wisely said, ” Comfort is not a Jewish Value.” Is convenience a Jewish Value?

The Beaker of Privilege: A New Seder Ritual

For the last number of years my brother has been hosting Passover Seder at his home in Newton Massachusetts. His friend Jonny Garlick has joined us each of those years for seder. Jonny is a Professor of Oral Pathology at Tufts, absolutely fascinating, and an amazing educator.  It is a joy having a creative scientists that brings so much to the table. A few year’s ago he brought man-made tissue to the seder. As we passed it around and played with it we explored the flexibility and durability of our skin as compared to the rigidity and fragility of Matzah.

Having a hands on discussion seems to be the heart of the educational platform of the seder. Of course the seder is all about questions, but it is also all about staging a reenactment. If we have not experienced ourselves having been liberated from Egypt we will not have fulfilled the mitzvah of telling the Passover story.

So when Jonny showed up last year I was not surprised to see that he brought a bag with him to the seder. At first it seemed rather simple as he pulled two beakers out of his bags. In one of them there was purified water that his students had made for him. In the other was something much darker. Then he proceeded to explain how he got his students to facilitate the water coming out of the pipes in Flint Michigan. Jonny explained the horrible health impact of drinking water with all of this metal and other nasty stuff in it. Passing around this beaker all of us young and old had a discussion of what would we do if this kind of water was coming out of our facets. Would we stand for it? What kind of privilege do we take for granted that this is our response? What is the nature of slavery that you do not even feel empowered to advocate for yourself? What was the role of water in the life and liberation of Mosche and the Israelite people?

Jonny was really on to something here. If done correctly the Passover seder can be the best of experiential Jewish education. How do we make the seder relevant today for people of all ages? Should we have a beaker of dirty water on our seder table this year again? Maybe something else? What will we bring to the Seder this year that will make this night different then all other nights?


Let My People…Wait, What?

Of all of the thousands of things Moshe says in the Torah, his most line famous by far is, “Let my people go.” But when we look at the actual text of Exodus and read what Moshe says to Pharaoh, it surprising and complex:

Afterward Moshe and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel:

‘Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness’… The God of the Hebrews has manifested Himself to us. Let us go, we pray, a distance of three days into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God…” (Exodus 5:1-3 )

Three days?! Why would Moshe ask for a three day holiday instead of liberation from slavery?  Besides being an easier pill for Pharaoh to swallow, what could he have been thinking?

Have you ever tried something new, only to discover that you didn’t realize the full potential of what you were missing?  Though I doubt the Israelites were enjoying their lives as slaves, it’s the only life they had ever known. No one but Moshe knew anything about a life of freedom. Before the Israelites had their first taste of actual freedom, Moshe understood the importance of helping them imagine what their new life would be like. Experiencing the juxtaposition of slavery and freedom would make it perfectly clear – their new life would be a utopia.

Anyone who has ever spent time at Jewish camp knows this to be true. Camp is truly a utopia – a place of ideal perfection. Camp is where many of us experience freedom on our own for the first time. After each summer, we return back to reality and wonder what life would be if we could spend every day of the year at camp with our friends laughing, singing, and dancing. But in reality, camp would not feel like the utopia it is if it were not for the ten other regular months of the year.

Jewish camp gave me that first taste of the way my life could be. This Passover, when I ask myself how am I doing at being the Moshe in my life, I think of how I can grant the gifts of camp – of freedom and discovery. This Passover, let’s all be grateful for the utopias we have in our lives.

– Also posted on

Liberation from Domestication: Harari and Passover

The Men of the Great Assembly said three things:

Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence around the Torah.(Avot 1:1)

What does it mean to create a fence around the Torah? I was thinking about this in the context of all of the laborious preparations and limitations that we observe on the holiday or Passover. There are so many

In the Torah we read:

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day, and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them; only what every person is to eat, that alone may be prepared for you. You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time. In the first month, from the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days. For whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a citizen of the country. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your settlements you shall eat unleavened bread. ( Exodus 12:15-20)

There seems to be a choice between cutting ourselves off from leavened bread or cutting ourselves off from the nation. To preserve our connection it makes sense to be extra stringent and put up fences.

This yearly activity of getting on the Atkins diet makes me rethink my relationship with wheat. Yes bread is the staff of life, but it is also part of the reason that I look like I am 4 months pregnant. Recently I was thinking about our relationship with wheat while reading Yuval Noah Harari‘s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari surveys the history of humankind from the evolution of archaic human species in the Stone Age up to the twenty-first century. There Harari explores our relationship with wheat. On this he writes:

The body of Homo sapiens had not evolved for such tasks. It was adapted to climbing apple trees and running after gazelles, not to clearing rocks and carrying water buckets. Human spines, knees, necks and arches paid the price. Studies of ancient skeletons indicate that the transition to agriculture brought about a plethora of ailments, such as slipped discs, arthritis and hernias. Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields. This completely changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens. (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind)

I share this image to help us reexamine the taste of Matzah on Passover. Is this the image of liberation? On Passover we are acutely aware of the fence around the Torah. But, every time I look at a fence, a door, or a gate I ask myself, what are we keeping out and what are we keeping in. Maybe the whole process of removing leaven products from our domiciles is to liberate us from the slavery of wheat.  There is no going back to the hunter gatherer lifestyles, but at least we get to recline at the Seder, stretch out our backs, and reevaluate our relationship with wheat once a year.


Making a Tea Party

– Article in response to The Great (Fake) Debate: How Should We Think About the Outcomes of Jewish Education? by Dr. Jon A Levisohn and Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress on tension between content and process in Jewish Education 


In considering the desired outcomes of Jewish education, I recall a classic debate from my time in yeshiva: What makes tea sweet? Is it the sugar or the stirring? In the context of this discussion, we can ask the same question: What is more important? Is it the Jewish content (the sugar) or the process of developing Jewish identity (the stirring)?

Clearly the arguments of Abraham and Sarah written by Drs. Jon A. Levisohn and Jeffrey S. Kress are hyperbolic. But, the optimal design of Jewish educational experiences is contingent on where an educator weighs in on this continuum. Based on my traditional educational background, Sarah’s perspective rings true. But my tenure working in Jewish camps and on college campuses with Hillel has developed my appreciation for Abraham’s perspective. That said, before I weigh in on where I fall on this sugar/stirring continuum, there is an even more salient question: Do people even want tea?

Outside of the context of true tea lovers, how is the construct of Jewish developmental outcomes any more or less artificial than a possibly outdated and irrelevant canon of Jewish content/practice? To play out the metaphor further, because I am rather old-fashioned when it comes to my enjoyment of high tea, the student side of me does not have many complaints. As a Jewish educator, however, I realize that my personal preferences are irrelevant. If we genuinely are interested in opening up the market, we will need to be flexible on both sides of this equation. I suggest that we are challenged today to explore our various beliefs around what constitutes Jewish content and to blur the lines of traditional Jewish identity markers.

To this point, revelation is not limited to something that might or might not have happened long ago at Sinai; it is something that is happening in the learning experience itself today. As we learn from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi:

Every day a heavenly voice goes forth from Mount Horev and makes proclamation . . . And it says, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not harut (graven) but herut (freedom). For there is no free man but one that occupies himself with the study of the Torah. (Avot 6:2)

Textual learning is therefore integrated in and is a manifestation of the relationships in our lives. In this context, all learners can access and feel ownership over Jewish text. The Torah is not static, fixed, or engraved in stone, but, rather, free to evolve with us if we commit ourselves to its study.

In my experience, people often describe successful Jewish educational experiences as “life changing.” Like Abraham, the focus of this education is its relevance, personal transformation, and individual growth. Whereas the course of study in formal educational environments often follows the text, the opposite often happens in experiential education. For Sarah, text plays the role of reacting to, commenting on, and transforming the students’ narratives. As the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said, “It is learning in reverse order, a learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life, but the other way around: from life . . . back to the Torah.” My prescription then, or recipe, is that the educator needs to trust the educational process. Like the two teams who excavated Hezekiah’s Tunnel, starting at each end of the tunnel and then meeting in the middle, experiential educators must negotiate the tension between reacting to students’ revelations and forcing them to reach the canon of “big ideas.” That is to say, the educator needs to maintain the trust of the students and fidelity with the tradition; constantly negotiating the two.

I find that students’ experiences of this dynamic tension are often their first proper tea. But there is still much work to reimagining the canon of Jewish practices and content. The Abraham in this fake debate and the Abraham we encounter in the Bible are both asking us to be iconoclastic and break free of our preconceptions of authentic Jewish content.

The Men of the Great Assembly said, “Be cautious in judgment. Establish many students. And make a safety fence around the Torah” (Avot 1:1). I see the value of maintaining a fence around the Torah for the students we have now. But what about for the students we may lose due to the perception of Torah’s irrelevance to their lives? Are we willing to break through these fences to bring in new students? It is incumbent upon us to investigate whether we are willing and able to imagine an education where Judaism actually speaks to Jews.

The decision has important implications for all of us who devote ourselves to preparing and consuming a proper spot of tea. A shift away from the primacy of revelation to the accessibility of a Torah of relevance might put stress on our assumptions that we are “one people with one Torah.” At the same time, throwing off the tyranny of classical Judaism may allow more Jews today to take an active role in making Jewish life meaningful. We might even call it a tea party.


– from JTSA’s  Gleanings: A Dialogue on Jewish Education on Outcomes of Jewish Education

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