Posts Tagged 'Sinai'

Privilege Bingo

In Yitro,this week’s Torah portion, we read of Moshe’s reunion with his family and the giving of the Torah. In between these two events, we are privy to the advice which Yitro gives to his son-in-law, Moshe. Moshe was sitting from morning until night listening to the people who had come to seek God (Exodus 18:13-15). Yitro said , “The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out- you as well as this people who is with you, for this matter is too hard for you, you will not be able to do it alone” (Exodus 18:17-18). Moshe outlived his entire generation, it was not as if he was going to weaken his strength to sit, govern, or adjudicate law. Maybe Yitro was concerned that people would grow tired or worse bored out of his mind. It is also possible that Yitro was worried that Moshe would grow corrupt without a system of checks and balances in place. If Moshe ruled alone he would become worn out by his own ego.

I often ponder what Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said to Dr. Robert Pollack. “If you know someone who says the Throne of God is empty, and lives with that, then you should cling to that person as a good, strong friend. But be careful: almost everyone who says that, has already placed something or someone else on that Throne, usually themselves.” Even if the idea of God is very distant, we can realize the deepest Torah in knowing that none of us are God. Being a religious person in a secular environment makes it easy to slip from seeing oneself as a beneficiary of God’s message to judging everyone who does not live according to your lifestyle.

The greatness of a person is his or her ability to become aware of his or her own privileges and limitations. While Moshe was great in his comprehension of the law, he earned his place in history in his ability to give up that throne. It was only when Moshe got out of that throne that the people were ready to see God sitting in it.

This past year has been a parade of unfortunate events in the world. In light of everything that has happened and is happening I have grown more aware of the myriad of privileges that I enjoy.  I am a cisgendered heterosexual able-bodied tall white man living in the New York area. I am a naturalized citizen and native English speaker ( but some might question that one). I am fortunate to have been blessed with an excellent education and a wonderful family. And on top of all of this and more I am an Orthodox Rabbi. Even before we sit down to play I  have already won the game of Privilege Bingo.

Image result for Privilege Bingo

It is hard for me to not hear Yitro saying, “The thing that you do is not good”. How is my sitting on the throne getting in the way of other people getting to revelation , let alone redemption?

 

 

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Showing Up as a Prosumers: Standing at Sinai and the Foo Fighters

Recently I have had a number of conversations with people about the aesthetic involved in crafting a wedding. It is noteworthy that in most weddings the committed couple is very much ushered through the event. It often feels that the couple is on stage performing the ritual with the help of a mesader kedushin and we their friends and family are their audience. In many ways it seems that Temple Grandin was the architect of the ritual ensuring that the couple go straight through the experience getting hitched without a hitch.

My suggestion is to ritualized a moment during the ceremony where the tables are turned and the people who come are on stage and the couple is the audience. Surely the guests did not just show up to see the new couple they also came to be seen. There are a number of ways to do this, but this is no doubt a holy moment and a great use of time. If done well every can truly be present at this meaningful moment of creating community, and that moment will last forever.

This idea of showing up and blurring the line between performer and audience was beautifully explored at a now famous Foo Fighters concert. While the design of a concern is that there is a small group performing and a mass of people in the audience. At this concert there were 1000 musicians all playing the Learn to Fly at the same time.  Check out the video:

You can see in their participation the joy of really showing up and being seen. They are true prosumers of culture making something excellent for the sheer love of it. At the end of the video the organizer said it best that the true audience of this 1000 person rock band was actually just the 5 band members of the Food Fighters.

I was thinking about the porous lines between the performers and the audience this week when reading  Parshat Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with Hashem, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaakov. NOT WITH YOU ALONE do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before Hashem, your God, AND WITH WHOEVER IS NOT HERE WITH US TODAY.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

On this  ‘WHOEVER IS NOT HERE‘ Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

What does it mean that we were all there? I hope that we were not just on stage getting married. I like to think that the revelation at Sinai we allowed God to show up, be “seen”,  and be part of the experience. In my mind Sinai was millions of us musicians rocking out “Learn to Fly”.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova

– For another piece on prosumers check out Tail of Two Jewries: Some Innovative Lessons From Chris Anderson and Jewish Summer Camp

Mountains Beyond Mountain

This week’s Torah portion, Behar , starts,

God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Or in other words, why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  I think there is yet another even simpler question that can be asked. What is the significance of this happening at a mountain.

This question reminds me of a classic story of the mythic town of Chelm. There we read:

Once upon a time, in the little village of Chelm, the people decided that they needed a new cemetery.  The population of the city had expanded, people had begun to build larger homes, and the need to find a new location for the townspeople’s eternal resting place.  They looked, and looked, and could not find a suitable location.  They called a meeting of the wise people of the town and for seven days, debated the issue.

At the end of the seven days, the people reached a conclusion: they would move them out and that was on the southern side of the city and utilize the space created by moving the mountain as the new cemetery. This of course, raised a new question for the people: how does one move a mountain?  They debated the issue for another seven days.  Finally, the wise man of Chelm came up with an idea. “we will all rise, all men of the town as one – united in spirit and body – and together we will move the mountain.” The townspeople quickly accepted this “wise” advice. Quickly, all able bodied men – young and old, rushed to the mountain on the southern side of the city.

A crowd quickly gathered and surrounded the mountain.  The men pushed and shoved and leaned and tried as hard as they could, but they could not move the mountain. 10 minutes went by, allowing the participants to catch their breath before they strenuously tried again.  Again, they pushed and strained and shoved but could not move the mountain.  At this point, the menfolk of Chelm were drenched in sweat and beginning to get uncomfortable.  The men removed their shirts, depositing them on the side, in preparation for their next try. As all the men struggled, a group of petty thieves watched the men in earnest.  They quickly came with small carts and as the men of Chelm  strained to move the mountain, the thieves stole all the shirts and quickly disappeared from the town.

After an hour of straining, one of the wise men discovered that his shirt was missing.  Soon, all the men discovered that their shirts were missing.  They began to wonder what was going on.  The wise man of Chelm surmised the answer. “We must have been successful” he told them. “We must have moved the mountain so far that we cannot even see the place where we left our shirts.” Upon hearing the explanation, the people began to applaud, cheer and even break out into dance over their success.( As retold by Rabbi Shabsi HaKohein Yudelovitch)

They were foolish to think that losing their jackets were a sign of their success, but they were not foolish in looking for a metric for success.  Where in Chelm they were looking for room for their cemetery in Behar through the institution of shmittah we are looking to create room for the underprivileged and economically marginalized parts of our society. But still I ask, why is this message delivered at a mountain?

When I think about the unending issue of addressing the needs of the poor I think about the heroic effort of Dr Paul Farmer in bringing health care to rural Haiti. In is the award-winning book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Tracy Kidder he described Farmer as “the man who would cure the world”. There he writes:

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.( Mountains Beyond Mountains)

The book’s title comes from a Haitian proverb, which is usually translated as: “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” According to Farmer, a better translation is: “Beyond mountains there are mountains.” The phrase expresses something fundamental about the spirit and the scale and the difficulty of Farmer’s work. The Haitian proverb, by the way, is also a pretty accurate description of the topography of a lot of Haiti.

To return to Rashi’s  question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” What we learn from Farmer in terms of health care is the same as in terms of access to food and other issues of poverty, beyond this mountain there are more mountains. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, ” It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” ( Avot 2:16) Shmitah is an approach to dealing with poverty. The revelation of need in society is an opportunity to enact Torah in this world and therefore its own revelation like that at Mount Sinai. This is similar to Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levi when he said “ Every day, an echo resounds from Mount Horev (Sinai)” ( Avot 6:2) This is to say that beyond this mountain ( Sinai) there are more mountains.

 

 

Taking Torah This Day

In the fourth aliyah of Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read how Moses and the elders charged the people to set up large stones on Mount Ebal, coat them with plaster, and to inscribe on them all the words of the Torah as soon as they cross the Jordan River. There they are to build an altar to God made of stones on which no iron tool had struck, and they were to offer on it offerings to God and rejoice. At the end of the aliyah we read:

And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this law very plainly. And Moses and the priests the Levites spoke to all Israel, saying: ‘Keep silence, and hear, O Israel; this day you have become people to the Lord your God. You shall therefore listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do God’s commandments and God’s statutes, which I command you this day.’ ( Deuteronomy 27: 8-10)

On this Rabbi Yehudah asked what is meant by  “this day” ( Berachot 63b).  Was it on that day that the Torah was given to Israel; was that day not at the end of the 40 years of the wandering in the Wilderness? Rabbi Yehudah explained that the words “this day” served to teach that every day the Torah is as beloved to those who study it as on the day when God gave it at Sinai. But why at this moment are we reminded of the revelation at Sinai?

When my brother was in medical school he shared with me how they were teaching him to become a doctor. He said, ” To learn a procedure we would see one, do one, and teach one.” Different people will learn at different stages. For some people if they see something they will learn it right away. For  others they need to practice it to master it. And everyone will have mastered the procedure if they are able to teach someone else how to do the procedure. It has stayed with me throughout the years that this is probably true in the case of all learning.

It was one thing for the nation to see revelation at Sinai. Making these stone pillars was enacting a commandment of the Torah. On another level making these pillars was a national expression of our teaching the Torah to the world. While we might have been given the Torah at Sinai, it was only when we entered into the land and built these pillars that we took the Torah. Rabbi Yehudah was right. Every day the Torah is as beloved to those who study it as on the day when the nation of Israel took the Torah of Israel  in the land.

Redeemable Building

Why did we merit redemption from Egypt? It would seem that it was foretold to Abraham that they would be redeemed.  But there are still a number of Midrashim  that explore how the  Israelites own merits redemption. Many of the reasons seem to be around their retaining particular mitzvot and symbols of Jewish identity.  Rav Huna said in the name of Bar-Kappara (Midrash Vayikra Rabba 32:5) that we did not change our names or our language, we did not speak lashon ha-ra, and everyone observed the laws of arayot (forbidden relationships). And yet another midrash (Midrash Lekach Tov on Parshat Va’eira) explores if we were redeemed because we retains  distinctive clothing. Most of these cases seems to have to do with with their words/names. How do words create the precondition to redemption?

I think this is interesting when we juxtapose it with the story of the generation of the Tower of Babel. They wanted to make a great name for themselves and they all spoke one language. For some reason similar behaviors were met with very different outcomes. For this generation after Noah, they were met with destruction of their life work, confounding of their common language, and dispersal throughout the world. For the Israelites it also spoke to the end of their labor of building, but Egypt still has those landmarks. We still have our names, language, and we still have one homeland.

We move from Exodus from Egypt in this week’s Torah portion to next week’s Torah portion when we will be standing as Sinai as “one nation with one heart”. In this week’s Torah portion as we are leaving Pharaoh is in hot pursuit. We read, ” Egypt was journeying after them” (Exodus 14:10) On this Rashi comments that this verb ‘was journeying’ is in singular because they were with “one heart as one man”.   The comparison is robust. Common purpose and unity seems redeemable and not uniformity. We are never really building buildings, we are always trying to build communities. We build community with the words we use. It is in these communities that names have meaning. Community is where many of us will find enduring meaning and maybe even our own redemption.

– I am sorry that a draft of this got posted by accident.


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