Posts Tagged 'Memory'

Memory Ark

What does it mean to lose your home?

Unfortunately millions of people face this reality after an earthquake rocked Mexico, and hurricanes ravaged Houston, Puerto Rico, Caribbean Islands, and southern Florida this past month. This week, the wild fires in North California have ravaged 5,700 houses and more than 213,000 acres. My heart goes out to the URJ Camp Newman family in Sonoma County, California, whose camp was destroyed in the fires. Millions have been left homeless in the wake of these natural disasters.

In this week’s Torah portion we learn of the devastation of the Flood and of the rainbow of rebuilding thereafter. God sends a flood to cover earth, taking with it families, homes, animals and habitats. After Noah does all that is asked of him, the animals are on the ark and the world is under water, we read:

And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged; the fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained.  (Genesis 8:1-2)

“God remembered” implies that God forgot Noah and all of creation while destroying the world. I think this part of the story plays on the human fear of being forgotten, the human need to be remembered, to know that we matter. Flood and fires have taken houses and buildings, but what about the memories of those homes? Where do they live?

It was with pride that we saw this human spirit thrive during the hurricane in Texas, when URJ Greene Family Camp and Camp Young Judaea Texas stepped up, opening their space to homeless, displaced families in need, even opening a day camp in Houston. Like Noah, they found a way to use their camp as an ark to help people that they needed shelter.

With the most recent news of the horrific fire that took URJ Camp Newman, we immediately saw the outpouring of support from the camp community. Alumni reminisced on Facebook, and shared photos. California campers from different movements started crowd-funding campaigns for their URJ friends. URJ Camp Newman’s year-round programming has been rescheduled to be hosted at local synagogues. For so many, Jewish camp is a second home, a sanctuary that helps us find shelter, comfort and spirit. The spirit of camp, the feeling of family and home reach far beyond the physical buildings they gather in.  The difference is that a home is a house with memories. God remembered Noah, and Noah had to remember the world. What is the ark for their memories?

The primary urgency is to find a place for Newman to run their program until they can rebuild their camp.   Like Noah they will need to rebuild society post destruction. In all of this I do not want to forget memory. In addition to the existing social media I think there is a great opportunity to create a website for Newman to store their collective memories in a more organized way. What would it look like to click on a map of camp and reconnect to the layers and generations of memories there? As a community, we cannot undo the damage of natural disasters but we can help keep the memories of these homes alive. Our support goes out to Newman community. If you want to support this project building them a memory ark please be in touch.

 

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Worth Reviewing

This week we start reading the Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah.  At the start of Devarim, this week’s Torah portion and  we read:

These are the words which Mosche spoke unto all Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Arabah, over against Suf, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab. It is eleven days journey from Horev unto Kadesh-barnea by the way of mount Seir. And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Mosche spoke unto the children of Israel, according unto all that the Lord had given him in commandment unto them; ( Deuteronomy 1:1-3)

The entire book of Deuteronomy is a retrospective of what happened to the Israelite people in the previous 40 years. Deuteronomy, the name of the book in English itself, literally means “second law”. The whole book is a repeating of the stories we have learned about in the previous three books of the Torah. It must be important if it is worth saying twice. As we start this book it is interesting to reflect on what is worth reviewing?

I was thinking about this recently when I ran into a colleague in the Non-For Profit Jewish world in Penn Station late at night on my home from a visiting camps. My colleague was leaving New York after a conference here in the city and had some time to kill before his train. We took this chance meeting as a chance to catch up. Both of us live our lives as observant Jews working for the larger Jewish community. It is interesting in that neither of us grew up that way. In this context it seemed completely natural when he asked me to share my story. He wanted to know how my Jewish journey got me to where I am today.

The first story that came to mind was a memory I have from 1993 when I was a student at Yeshivat HaMivtar. Every Wednesday Rabbi Dovid Ebner would give a Mussar class after lunch. It was the highlight of my week. Rabbi Ebner has a vast knowledge of the Jewish canon and the human soul. In the tapestries of his talks he was able to weave together strands from all over the Bayt Midrash into a stunning and inspiring works of art. Still to this day I feel that his profound truths impact me. While I do not recall the larger topic he was speaking on during the day in question I fondly recall one class. He often brought quotes from a wide diversity of Traditional Jewish sources, but that day Rabbi Ebner said, “The other day I was doing hazara on Catcher in the Rye.” Hazara is the traditional practice of relearning canonical works that are worth reviewing. I remember that moment so well. Rabbi Ebner invited me into the Bayt Midrash in a way I had not felt in the past. I did not have to give up other libraries to show up and be present. The opposite was true. I actually felt and still feel a profound sense of obligation to the entire library of the human experience. Why couldn’t J. D. Salinger be in conversation with the Rambam? If they could both be there, maybe I also should be there. That was the moment that I recall metaphorically pushing all of my chips into the middle of the table. I was all-in for a Modern Orthodoxy that saw that truth regardless of its origin or artistic expression was worthy of review.

We are what is worth prioritize to review. In the process we create memory and meaning. With our starting the book of Deuteronomy I pause to reflect what is worth our review?

 

 

Curating Memories

Memory is a powerful thing; it is central to our identity. However, it is interesting that our memory often has only a limited connection with the actual history of an event. This is brought to light through the words of Kodachrome, by Simon and Garfunkel. The lyrics read,

If you took all the girls I knew when I was single
Brought ’em all together for one night
I know they’d never match my sweet imagination
Everything looks better in black and white

The way in which we frame a memory colors it. In this song, memory removed all the pigment of blemishes.

It is interesting to reflect on the nature of color and memory in light of Terumah, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read about the Tabernacle in its entire splendor. It was gold, turquoise, purple, scarlet, and more. Every year we read about the building of the tabernacle. We are forced to recall its beauty while none of us has ever seen it. In the Mishnah when discussing the construction of the Temple, there are a number of disagreements. This is striking in as much as there was an actual Temple. Why would there be a disagreement about a physical reality? The answer must be in the importance of memory over history.

I think about this all the time as my children are getting older. What kind of memories are we all curating. I write this as we prepare to go on a family trip. In my preparations I went out and bought the three older children disposable cameras for them to start curating their own memories. Looking out at the future of their lives it is touching to think about what memories will they keep in the Holy of Holies. What will become the foundations of their personality, faith, and practice? The question for all of us is, how do we balance a reverence for the past, relevance of the presence, and sense of mission for the future?

Creating Memory – 9/11 for Another Generation

This week we commemorated the anniversary of 9/11. This was a transformational day for me personally. A the time of the event I was learning in yeshivah and living in Manhattan. There are so many memories I have from that time it is hard to imagine communicating them to someone who has not experienced it. I was shocked to realize that all of the Bnai Mitvah from now on were not even alive when 9/11 happened. I pause  to ask, how will we communicate the nature and gravity of this event to the next generation?

I was thinking about this when reading Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about the ritual of Bikkurim, bringing the first fruit on Shavuot to the Temple. About this we read:

And you shall come to the priest that shall be in those days, and say to him: ‘I profess this day unto the Lord your God, that I am come unto the land which the Lord swore unto our fathers to give us.’ And the priest shall take the basket out of thy hand, and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. And you shall speak and say before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.  ( Deuteronom7 26:3-8 )

The generation who entered the land of Israel did not have first hand experience of the slavery and redemption in Egypt. This ritual was a means for this next generation to preserve a memory they never had. It is interesting that this ritual had a script. We learn later that in order to make the script more accessible the priest would say it and the person coming would repeat it.

We have a crises in being Jewish today. How will we share our memories with the next generation? I think we can point out a few things from the ritual of Bikkurim. Like the priest repeating the words,  we need to find ways to make it more accessible to more people. We need to build this difficult memory into something festive and not let the next generation get stuck in the gloom We also need to find the balance between the script that they need to say and the innovation. The next generation needs to find a way to breathe their own imagination into the ritual in order create their own memories around the ritual.

The script from this Bikkurim ritual is the foundation for the Hagadah. The Hagadah is the model of balance between tradition and innovation in order to keep memories vital throughout history.  In every generation we are to see ourselves as having been redeemed from slavery in our own Egypt. I would venture to say it is the most rewritten book in history. In order to get my children to connect to Jewish History  or even 9/11 I need to give them the space to explore what these events mean to them in their lives without the full burden of my understanding of history and what it means to me in my life. Rituals help preserve a dynamic tension between tradition and innovation. Without this tension we will break the chain linking our past to our future and our future to our past.

Kodachrome

Memory is a powerful thing; it is central to our identity. However, it is interesting that our memory often has only a limited connection with the actual history of an event. This is brought to light through the words of Kodachrome, by Simon and Garfunkel. The lyrics read,

If you took all the girls I knew when I was single
Brought ’em all together for one night
I know they’d never match my sweet imagination
Everything looks better in black and white

The way in which we frame a memory colors it. In this song, memory removed all the pigment of blemishes.

It is interesting to reflect on the nature of color and memory in light of Terumah, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read about the Tabernacle in its entire splendor. It was gold, turquoise, purple, scarlet, and more. Every year we read about the building of the tabernacle. We are forced to recall its beauty while none of us has ever seen it. In the Mishnah when discussing the construction of the Temple, there are a number of disagreements. This is striking in as much as there was an actual Temple. The Temple was not just in color and 3D, it was real.  Why would there be a disagreement about a physical reality? Like everything else Jewish, the question is better than the answer. One answer must be in the importance of memory over history.

The question for us is how do we balance a reverence for the past and present, relevance of facts and feelings, and sense of mission for the future? In this new world in which history is being “documented” like never before (as evident by the proliferation of blogs like this one), we need to approach memory with an open heart and open eyes. How we will be remembered will not be aided by any rose-colored glasses.

Out of the Basket Thinking

In parshat BeShalach as the people are leaving Egypt, the Torah reports,

But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.  And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had emphatically sworn the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely take notice of you; and you shall carry up my bones away hence with you.’ (Exodus 13: 18-19)

It is not clear if Moses is keeping the promise for its own sake or as a means to ensure their exodus from Egypt.  While Moses has led the people out of their life (or death) of slavery in Egypt, we know that he still needs to get them out of the crisis. They are about to be caught between the bank of the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s chariots. It is interesting to note that their being “noticed” by God seems to be connected to their salvation.

This seems to resonate with the salvation of Noah in the ark.  There in parshat Noah we read,

And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged; (Genesis 8:1)

Noah was saved because God warned him to build an ark, but ultimately his salvation only happened when God “remembered” him and decided to end the flood.  The same is true for the Israelites. While safely averting the life of slavery in Egypt they would have died at the Red Sea if Moses had not “remembered” Joseph. When there was no water Joseph was the one who got them out of the bind by saving the sons of Jacob, similarly Moses is using the bones of Joseph to help them out at the Red Sea.

This “remembering” Joseph gives more depth to the Israelites’ statement in response to seeing Pharaoh’s chariots approaching.  There we read,

And they said to Moses: ‘Because there were no graves in Egypt, you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? (Exodus 14: 11)

Yes, at a certain level the Israelites are doing what they do best, Kvetching. And yes, on a rhetorical level they are communicating to Moses that they do not want to die for “naught”. They have lost faith in the plan of escape and they are telling the leader that they are not happy. But on another level they are telling Moses their doubt that “remembering Joseph” is the best plan. That is to say, it is not just that there are graves in Egypt in which they could have been happily buried, but that Joseph himself was happily buried there.

In his address at the General Assembly, Jerry Silverman, the  CEO of Jewish Federations of North America quoted Leslie Wexner in saying, “What got us here will not get us there”. It is interesting to reflect on this idea in light of the people’s kvetching. Jerry made his mark in camping ( and will make his mark in the Federation world) by driving us to be the best at customer service. So, even if the people are being short sighted, it is important to take their complaining seriously. While the Israelites are able to cross the Red Sea, the model of leadership that gets them to that point, represented by the person of Joseph, is not what will get them over the next crisis. This Moses will have to figure out.

 

So in response to their outcry Moses tries to allay their fears. The Torah says,

And Moses said unto the people: ‘Fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which God will work for you today; for whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall see them again no more forever.  The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace.’  Then the Lord said to Moses: ‘Why do you cry to Me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward. And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground. (Exodus 14: 13- 16)

While Moses is trying to motivate the people to stick with the plan, God interrupts to motivate Moses to enact a plan.  Although the people have doubt in the plan, it seems that God is responding to Moses himself that the old plan is just not going to work. As if to say, ‘You used to look to me to make it happen, but this time it is all you. Stop the Kvetching’. So, what was Moses getting stuck on?

 

To look at this question I want to return to the story of Noah. Noah brought about salvation by making an ark of gopher wood (Genesis 6:14) and getting his nuclear family and the animals on board.  For Moses, his personal salvation was very similar to Noah and his family.  Moses was going to die at the hands of the Egyptians. The Torah says,

And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch; and she put the child therein, and laid it in the flags by the river’s brink. (Exodus 2:3)

Just like Noah in the ark, Moses is saved from sure death by a basket. It is important to set up a system for solving problems, and making sure that you get the right people on the bus ( or ark) to execute the plan. But Moses is just like one of the animals on Noah’s ark; he is but an object in the story of his own salvation.  When it comes time for the salvation at the foot of the Red Sea, it is not just about calling the right play and putting the right squad on the floor ( I am sorry basketball is my default metephor).  The Israelites needed to grow up and stop the kvetching. It is also clear that Moses needed to lead the people so that they would move themselves forward (add Nachshon and stir).  They could no longer be objects in the story of their own salvation. What worked for Noah, Joseph, and Moses individually was not going to work for the Israelites as a collective. The Israelites needed some out-of-the-basket thinking.  Moses needed to think past the limits of himself and the assumptions of his people. Or in the words of Michael Jordan, “If you accept the expectations of others, especially negative ones, then you never will change the outcome.”

As we look forward to the next period of our history, I am confident that the challenge that stands before us is truly an opportunity for us to re-imagine our role in global salvation. However, we are going to hell in a hand basket if we limit ourselves to doing business as usual. Leslie Wexner was right, what got us here is not going to get us there. We too need some out-of-the-basket thinking.


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