Posts Tagged 'Democracy'

Looking Backward, Looking Forward: A Year of Torah 20/20

Interview with Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson is Director of Rabbinic Training at T’ruah and the editor of Torah 20/20.

Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson: Avi, Torah 20/20 was originally your idea, and you wrote the kickoff edition for Simchat Torah last year. After a full Torah cycle of these divrei Torah, what sticks with you most?

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow: I’ll never forget Joy Ladin’s d’var Torah about how crucial it is to be able to lose gracefully. As we hear the president say explicitly and repeatedly that he may not accept the election results, the peaceful transition of power feels more and more an essential part of our democracy.

LMN: What was the biggest surprise for you over this project?

AKO: While our study was of the five books of Moses, the issues we have dealt with brought to mind for me the prophets rebuking the people’s disregard for each other. It’s possible we should have focused more on the Haftarot; maybe a worthy project for 5781.

LMN: As you prepare for Simchat Torah this year, what’s on your mind?

AKO: In some ways having an aliyah to the Torah on Simchat Torah reminds me of voting. Every adult member of the community stands up and is counted, putting our values at the center of the lives we lead. Finding my place in the text, I kiss it with my tallit and say the blessing. The act of voting can likewise be seen as an intimate personal expression of blessing a candidate for leadership.

LMN: What are you going to miss most about normal Simchat Torah celebrations this year, given the COVID-19 restrictions?

AKO: I will miss the Kol HaNe’arim aliyah. All the children (under bar/bat mitzvah age) would be called up as a group to the Torah to get a collective aliyah. We adults would have already gotten our chance; now a large, sometimes enormous, tallit would be spread over the heads of the children huddled together as the blessing of the Torah would be pronounced. In this the children are very much reminded that they are being protected as children, but at the same time practicing an activity that will mark their joining the adult community.

So too with voting: We model civic activism to our children. We need to find ways to include those who cannot yet vote in the process so their voices are heard.

In a deeper way Kol HaNe’arim evokes a profound midrash discussing the merit of our receiving the Torah. Just as when you take a loan you need a guarantor, here too in this fantastic narrative God wants to know who will underwrite our commitment to keep the Torah. After God rejects our forefathers and prophets as guarantors, the people say:

‘Our children shall be our guarantors.’ To which God replied: ‘Verily these are good guarantors; for their sake I will give it to you.’ Hence it is written: “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings have You founded strength (Psalms 8:3). ’Strength’ refers to the Torah, as it says, “The ETERNAL will give strength unto God’s people (Psalms 29:11). (Midrash Rabbah Song of Songs 1:23)

This midrash paints a picture in which, in the deep past, the merit for which we deserved the Torah was dependent on the future: our children. In much the same way, this election in a few weeks is about our children and the world we will bequeath to them. They are depending on us. Will we risk defaulting on our responsibility to give them a better world?

LMN: Amen! I’m thinking about how this holiday, and this d’var Torah, are like a siyyum, the ritual celebration when we finish studying a Jewish book. In the siyyum, we say formulaically to the book we have just finished: “We will not forget you and you will not forget us.” I hope we won’t forget the Torah we’ve learned through Torah 20/20, but what does it mean for the Torah of democracy not to forget us?

AKO: Democracy and good Torah learning are all about struggle. Rabbi Hama b. Hanina said it well: “Just as a knife can be sharpened only on the side of another, so a disciple of a sage improves only through their partner” (Talmud Ta’anit 7a). It is in this struggle that we can make a more perfect union.

LMN: I like that, though the image of knives makes me nervous, given the fears about violence after Election Day. I might prefer a slightly less violent metaphor found further down the same page of Talmud: “Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Why are Torah matters likened to a tree, as it is stated: “It is a tree of life to them who lay hold upon it” (Proverbs 3:18)? To tell you that just as a small piece of wood can ignite a large piece, so too, minor Torah scholars can sharpen great ones.” This is a big country, but each small one of us can contribute to feeding the fire of democracy so it does not go out.

AKO: Our friends on the West Coast might not appreciate that metaphor right now.

LMN: Fair point. Many of the metaphors for Torah — knives, fire, water — can be dangerous if they get out of control. Which may be true of democracy also: We’re seeing that without close tending, it too can become a dangerous force.

Any final thoughts?

AKO: As we saw in that midrash about guarantors, learning Torah holds real issues between many millennia of generations. The “strength” of the Torah is in its capacity to connect our past and future by being open to the present. For the sake of the children we need to make sure that we guarantee them a brighter future. We need to “turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 3:24), or else our democracy will be destroyed. Just as we have the Torah in the merit of the children, the children will have a state in merit of their elders.

-The kick off piece for Torah 20/20 that I wrote last year Torah 20/20: Looking with Fresh Eyes

Torah 20/20: Looking with Fresh Eyes

As the story goes, was a  baal teshuvah, newly religiously observant person, who started crying in synagogue during the Torah reading.  When the rabbi asked him about this display of emotion, he replied that he just does not understand why Joseph’s brothers could sell him into slavery. This profound empathy moved the rabbi to tears. The next year when they got to Parshat Vayeshev the rabbi was ready and went over to console the crying parishioner during the Torah reading. The following year the rabbi preempted the situation and brought the congregant a tissue. The rabbi was surprised to see that he was not crying or sad, but instead visibly angry. When the rabbi asked the person why he was angry he replied, “I am really annoyed. I used to be sad that his brothers had it out for him, but this time why didn’t Joseph learn his lesson?” 

Every year, the Jewish community reads the entire Torah, our most holy text, on a weekly cycle. With the advent of Simchat Torah we will end this year’s reading of the Torah and start reading it again from the beginning.  It is quoted in the name of Louis Pasteur, “No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. Each year we look at the wisdom in this text like a stranger with fresh eyes, and each year we turn to it for sustenance as we navigate our ever-changing, yet also frequently cyclical, world. The nature of the Torah is that we can revisit it throughout our lives. When we learn Torah we demand relevance from revelation and its meaning evolves. 

As we start again from the beginning, we can look at how Adam and Eve saw things. There we read:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. (Genesis 3:6-7)

Something is peculiar in the language here. If the eating itself caused their eyes to be opened, the Torah would have said that she ate and her eyes were opened and then he ate and his eyes were opened. Instead it says “the eyes of them both were opened” only after they both ate. What do we make of this?

In his genre creating masterpiece, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the way we can influence each other. There he wrote:

…if I smile and you see me and smile in response–even a microsmile that takes no more than several milliseconds–it’s not just you imitating or empathizing with me. It may also be a way that I can pass on my happiness to you. Emotion is contagious.  (The Tipping Point 84-85)

I posit that this is exactly what happened in Eden. Eve ate of the fruit, enjoyed it, and shared it with Adam. When Adam ate, instead of reciprocating with a microsmile, he winced. In so doing he rejected her bid to share something pleasurable. With that wince his eyes made it clear that they did not experience Good and Bad the same way anymore. In that moment, both of their eyes were opened.

Since then the complexity of coming together has grown exponentially. The nature of politics in a democratic society is preserving the tension between our wanting to be the same and struggling with our differences and desire for individuality.  Each of us may have radically different notions of what is tasty or pleasurable, let alone what is Good and Bad for society. From the beginning, this country has been an imperfect but valiant effort “to form a more perfect Union.” 

As we return to Genesis and the Garden of Eden we are all invited to revisit this tension. This cycle of reading the Torah will accompany us through a high-stakes year in America life in 2020. In Torah 20/20, T’ruah is asking rabbis, writers, political leaders, and artists to explore democracy and questions of how to build a just society through the lens of the weekly Torah reading. How might we want to cry or get angry when reading about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers? How does exploring this wisdom impact how we might want to fight human trafficking, systemic racism, or economic disparity? As we look ahead at 2020 we see the value of seeing the world anew with fresh eyes.

 


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