Posts Tagged 'Dump Trump'

Donald the Great: The Truth About MAGA

This past Sunday I had to take one of our children to urgent care down town to get a PCR Covid-19 test for school. As we were walking out there was a large motorcade of Trump supporters driving, screaming, and honking through White Plains. They were all wearing their red hats and their cars were covered with pro-Trump signs. Those hats did not say “Make America Great Again” anymore, but “Keep America Great”. Their loud and abrasive actions rattled my kid. This show of support for Trump only gave the people on the street a reason to express their disinterest in a second Trump term. Their parade seemed like less of an effort to support this campaign and more of ugly display of (hopefully fleeting) power. This got me thinking about their fetishization of “greatness”. What is so great about Donald Trump?

In exploring this “greatness” I found interesting parallels between Donald Trump and Herod the Great. Herod was an Edomite born in Judaea with connections to the Jewish community. He ascended to become a Roman client king of Judea. The history of his legacy has polarized opinion, as he is known for his colossal building projects throughout Judea, including his renovation of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the expansion of the Temple Mount towards its north, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima, the fortress at Masada, and Herodium. And on the other side Herod was responsible for the death of many people. Thousands of subjects who died in his brutal campaign to claim a country they believed he had no right to rule. He had many rabbis and their students executed for tearing down the Roman eagle that was desecrating the Temple gate. He also had 45 members of the Sanhedrin murdered. Herod appears in the Christian Gospel of Matthew as the ruler of Judea who orders the Massacre of the Innocents at the time of the birth of Jesus. Herod had many wives and many children. Herod had hundreds of family and staff whom he had suspected of plotting against him killed.

And ultimately Herod lay dying in his opulent palace. He had been seriously ill for a long time. From the description in Josephus’ writings, Herod had gangrene, severe itching, convulsions, and ulcers. His feet were covered with tumors, and he had constant fevers. The stadium was filled with loved ones and important people from around his land who were to be killed at the moment of his death. So so sad.

Report: No One Wants to Live in Trump's Decrepit, Tainted Tower | Vanity  Fair

Like Herod, Trump has his name on a huge number of colossal buildings. He also has many wives and many children. He also appears to plays a bit role in some Christians’ theology. I am still not sure why it is positive.

Like Herod, Trump’s administration is packed with an endless supply of palace intrigue. Trump lives in fear that his allies will turn against him to remove him from power. How many has he fired?

Due to his horrible administration, neglect, and misinformation Trump is responsible for over 220,000 innocent people dying from Covid-19. It is clear that having a family connection to Jews does not mean you cannot be responsible for horrible acts of anti-Semitism. The violence due to racial tension seems to make more sense in the time of Herod than our own. There are not good people on both sides of this one.

Like Herod’s killing of the Sanhedrin, Trump is poised to destroy the high court of the land. He will do what ever he has to to stay in power. In the end Trump is less the president of the American people than a client king of Russia.

I still do not know how this story will end, but Trump’s administration sure seems malignant, gangrenous, and scary. So so sad. And what ever it will be, it’s surely not so “great”.

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.

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

 

The Failure of Democracy

In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read of many commandments. The list includes owning slaves, manslaughter, property law, loans, the Sabbath, and the holidays.  Amidst this litany of commandments we read:

You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute -after the majority must one incline —nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute. (Exodus 23:2-3)

Simply put it is suggesting that justice cannot be political. The adjudication of what it right or wrong cannot be defined by what is popular. The law to follow the majority is the birthplace of democracy.

This principle comes into play in the story of Tanor Shel Aknai. The story starts with a debate over the halakhic status of a new type of oven but ends with a crazy disagreement of the nature of law and authority. Rabbi Eliezer standing by himself uses miracles and even a Bat Kol to prove his side of the debate. The Rabbis hold their ground saying that God does not have authority over the Torah after giving it to humanity and the law must follow the majority. Check out this video from Godcast z”l on the story:

There in the Gemara we learn:

Said Rabbi Yeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Bat Kol, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, “After the majority must one incline”.( Exodus 23:2) (Baba Meitzia 59b)

This means that we need to follow the majority and overlook the divine will expressed in miracles. The power and authority sits with those who debate within the walls of the yeshiva. We literally silence the divine voice to make room for the voice of the human majority.

This reminds me of a story that my brother Daniel shared with me. He was an avid rower in college and even coached. A while back he sent me the following joke:

Yeshiva University decided to field a rowing team. Unfortunately, they lose race after race. Even though they practice and practice for hours every day, they never manage to come in any better than dead last.

Finally, the team decides to send Morris Fishbein, its captain, to spy on Harvard, the perennial championship team. So Morris schlepps off to Cambridge, Mass. , and hides in the bushes next to the Charles River, where he carefully watches the Harvard team at its daily practice.

After a week, Morris returns to Yeshiva. “Well, I figured out their secret,” he announces.
“What? Tell us! Tell us!” his teammates shout.
“We should have only one guy yelling. The other eight should row.” 

Who is rowing and who is leading? Too often we think we are leading by screaming and not just rowing. Successful rowing is by definition not a democracy.

These stories have a strange relevance to this moment in our politics. For right now we see the Democratic candidates all screaming at each other and no one is driving the boat toward the finish line. We are at a scary moment in our democracy where an impeached president is going unchecked. This is leading him to continue to behave as if his voice is divinely ordained, he necessarily in the right, and should win every debate. With Russian meddling in the news again many fear that they will pervert the voting process again. People do not trust that their vote represents their voice. How might we go “after the majority” if we do not trust our capacity to hear their voice? This is the failure of democracy.

As Churchill wisely said:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.… (House of Commons, 11 November 1947)

Let’s just try to scream a little less.

– For more on this story of the Tanor Shel Aknai- check out this source sheet

Holding Leaders Accountable: Words Matter

In Matot Masai, this week’s Torah portion, Moshe teaches the leaders of the tribes of Israel the laws governing the annulment of vows. I understanding the need these laws. We all make commitments that we cannot keep. As the saying goes, “A fellow who says he has never told a lie has just told one.” There in the parsha we read:

Moshe spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the Lord has commanded: If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips. ( Numbers 30:2-3)

While there is plenty one could say about the challenges of setting additional limitations for oneself, I am more interested in the value of words to create commitment and to set up a system of accountability. While all of Israel was told “do not render a false oath in My name and thereby desecrate it”(Leviticus 19,12), why does the leadership get a special communication here?

Rashi’s answer to this is simple. He write:

This does not mean that he spoke only to the princes of the children of Israel and not to the people also, but that he showed respect to the princes by teaching them first and that afterwards he taught the children of Israel. ( Rashi on Numbers 30:2)

It seems by design politicians tell people what they need to get into power. It is hard not to see that our leaders always need additional instruction when it comes to over-promising and under-delivering. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian writer and outspoken critic of the Soviet Union , said, “In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.” Here in the United States under our current alternative-facts administration we see that lying has again become a pillar of the State. Is this message in our Torah portion really about showing “respect to the princes”?

Our leaders need to know that words do matter. They routinely make oaths, create obligations, and make pledges, that other people need to pay for with their effort, money, or even their lives. Maybe the”respect to the princes” is that our leaders need to know that we are listening and watching. Our leaders need to know that ultimately they will be held accountable for their words, their deeds, and their leadership.


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