Posts Tagged 'Torah'

Starting the Year Right: Lessons from Simchat Torah

Just when you thought that we were finished with the holiday season, there is more. Tonight we celebrate Shmini Atzeret and then on Thursday night we start Simchat Torah. In Israel these two holidays are celebrated on the same day. In many ways Shmini Atzeret is a completion of the Sukkot holiday. But what is Simchat Torah? I have always understood it to be the day that we celebrate the completion of the liturgical reading of the Torah. Why do we start reading the Torah right after Sukkot on Simchat Torah instead of another time like  Rosh HaShanah , the Jewish New Year, or even Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah?

Sukkot is a time in which we surround ourselves with nature and bask in our being dependent on God. Even before we get to all of the rich symbols of Sukkot we see that the experience is challenging us to live in an Eden-like environment. I think that Simchat Torah is less about finishing reading the Torah then a perfectly timed re-reading of the Torah. Coming on the heels of Sukkot, a holiday in which we were able to easily achieve the will of God, we read the story of Adam and Eve again. This time, maybe we will have learned the lesson.  Instead of starting off the year with the negative reinforcement of getting kicked out of Eden, we start the year off right dwelling in the Sukkah of God. As we have been saying since the advent of Elul,

One thing I ask of the Lord, that I seek- that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit God’s Temple every morning. ( Psalms 27:4)

In this light we see that Shmini Atzeret is a very holy time in which we leave Eden on our own terms. We are not kicked out, instead we leave the Sukkah determined to make the world a better place. We should all be blessed with a year of learning lessons the first time around, giving people we love positive encouragement to succeed, and finding our own ways to make the world a better place.

Falling in Love

He was bubbling over with excitement. He had heard so much about this place. This was his first time away from home. And somehow he knew that his life was going to be different after coming here. While he knew that he was going to miss his family, he was excited to make new friends, and yes he was excited to possibly meet a special someone. As they arrived he could not stay in his seat.

I am sure that this story rings true for you if you remember going to camp for the first time. All of the excitement, all of those expectations of what that summer has in store. As the bus lurched forward you felt yourself opening up to the people on the bus. You were hardly able to sit in your seat as the bus pulled off the main road and you saw that first sign for your camp. You had never been there before, but as you pulled in you knew that you were home.

While this is my story of going to camp for the first time, this definitely echoes what I heard from my eldest son after his first summer at camp, or at least what I got out of him. Similarly, the story of Rebecca that we read in last week’s Torah portion says:

Then Rebecca and her maids got ready and mounted their camels and went back with the man. So the servant took Rebecca and left. Now Isaac had come from Be’er Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. And Rebecca lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she fell off the camel. (Genesis 24:61- 64)

Rebecca was that first happy camper coming “home.” She fell in love at first sight. Just as I fell in love as a camper. It was not with a person – those crushes and relationships came and went. It was not with that place, even though it will endure in my memory as a place filled with kiddusha, holiness.  I fell in love with who I was at camp.

Many years ago my camp supervisor mailed me the following story:

Once there was a Rebbe who had a Yeshiva. His son studied in the Yeshiva. One day the son took off the afternoon to go walking in the forest. The father said nothing. But over time the son took to taking off every afternoon to walk in the forest. At this point the father realized that he needed to confront his son. The Rebbe said to his son, “I hear that you are walking in the forest every afternoon. Why are you doing this?” The son replied that he was looking for God. The Rebbe was puzzled and asked, “Did I not teach you that God is the same everywhere?” The son replied, “Abba, I know that God is the same everywhere, but I am not.”

When and where in my life was I more open to being all of whom I aspired to become? It was when I got off that bus for the first time, and it was at camp.

While I love the place and I love that time in my life, I realize that I owe a lot to my counselors. More than what I saw in them as role models, it was what my role models saw in me when I tumbled off that bus. They shared with me a glimpse of the person that I am still working on becoming. And that is why I fell in love with camp.

– Reposted from the Canteen

Afraid of the Dark

Like many other people in the Tri-State area my family has had a tough week with Hurricane Sandy. We are thankful that we are all healthy and that we did not have any significant damage from the storm. Recently we got our power back and were able to return to our home and just in time for the most recent snow storm. There are many people who are displaced or living in the cold without power. And there are some who have sustained serious damages to their homes. In the moment it was hard to reflect on the experience.

This past Shabbat I went to California and got out of the grips of Sandy. While I hated leaving my family I had to go for work. I participated in a wonderful Shabbaton with a group of Assistant Camp directors. During my trip back I had the pleasure of trading stories about our children with Aaron Cantor the Associate Director for Camp Seneca Lake. There is one sweet story that he shared with me that helped me process part of my experience of Sandy.

As he explained, this past year he took his 5 year-old daughter Lily to synagogue for Yom Kipper services. When they were there Aaron pointed out the Ner Tamid in front of the ark. He explained to her that there is always a light on near the Torah.  Lily replied, “Is the Torah scared of the dark, is it a night-light?”

What a great story? I have been taught that the synagogue is a small temple, so this ever-burning light is there just as a fire burned in the Tabernacle. As we read:

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring you pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamp to burn always. In the tabernacle of the congregation without the veil, which is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall order it from evening to morning before the Lord: it shall be a statute for ever unto their generations on the behalf of the children of Israel.( Exodus 27:20-21)

But what is the value of having this ever-burning light? Lily’s story taught me a great lesson. Lily has an amazing sense of empathy. The Torah needed a night-light, because we all need a night-light. We are all afraid of the dark and not just little kids. The idea is that the community should always have a night-light whether in the Tabernacle of a synagogue.

Sandy has taught me a number of things. Sandy reminded me the value of having friends and a community. We need to invest in those relationships in the good times so that they are in place for the hard times. We need to support community institutions with our time, talent, wisdom, and money. I am also reminded that despite the advancement of technology in our civilization, we still live and die at the whim of nature. Control is just an illusion.  And Lily’s story taught be that being in the dark, whether without power, information, friends, or community, is just plain scary. So yes, we all need a night-light. In many respects, empathy is the light of the Torah itself.

Standing This Day

At the beginning of this week’s double portion, Nitzavim- VeYelech, we read:

9 You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, 10 your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water… 13 Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath;   14 but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day.  (Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

If it happened at all, revelation happened thousands of years ago at Sinai. What does it mean that this day there was revelation with the people who were not even there? Rashi cites the Midrash Tanchuma to explain that this is the source for the tradition that all Jews, from all generations, stood at Sinai. We were all there to embrace the special relationship with each other and the holy Other at that moment of Revelation.

We at the Foundation for Jewish Camp are ideologically pluralistic. We celebrate that we all experienced that moment differently but still enjoy the notion that we were all there. This memory itself fosters Jewish unity and empowers individuals to increased Jewish knowledge on their own terms. The diversity of camps we work with speaks to the diversity of needs of the families in our community. While each camp thinks it is completely unique, when they meet a camp person from another camp they realize how much they actually have in common. From the camp director to first time camper, from the maintenance staff to the veteran counselor, every summer we are blessed to reconvene these holy Jewish communities at camp. Even if geographically they are all over North America and ideologically they are all doing their part in building the larger Jewish community. But why limit it to just those days of summer?

It seems fitting on this Shabbat, in which we recall being together at Sinai, we think about the Global Day of Jewish Learning. Last year the Global Day of Jewish Learning was conceived to mark the completion of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s monumental translation on the Talmud. The inaugural event was a huge success reaching every corner of the Jewish world with 600 events in 400 communities in 48 countries. If you are interested in reconnecting to this moment when we were all together at Sinai think about getting your camp community together during the off season to hold or join a Global Day of Jewish Learning event on November 13th. Check out their website and be in touch with us if we can help.

– As seen on Foundation for Jewish Camp Blog

 

Problem Solving

A recent report by Daniel H Pink revealed that employees are faster and more creative when solving other people’s problems. Evidently people are more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of others than for themselves In his article we read:

Over the years, social scientists have found that abstract thinking leads to greater creativity. That means that if we care about innovation we need to be more abstract and therefore more distant. But in our businesses and our lives, we often do the opposite. We intensify our focus rather than widen our view. We draw closer rather than step back.

There are a number of implications for this in terms of how we run our businesses and our lives. Obviously we need to find more diverse and interesting thought partners to help us to problem solving in our lives.

In Pinchas, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the seeming intractable issue of the Daughters of Zelophehad. Their father died in the desert leaving no male heirs. What are his daughters to do in terms of his inheritance? They bring their claim to Moses who in turn brings the matter to God. God is the most Other and the best at problem solving. In this sense God is the ultimate consultant or in this case Consultant. But where does that leave us in a world in which it is hard to relate to a personal God?

I think we can see an interesting model in this story itself. At the beginning of resolving the inheritance crisis we read:

1 Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah. ( Numbers 27:1)

Rashi draws our attention to the fact that they record them lineage all the way back to Joseph. Why not just stop with Manasseh? Rashi assumes that it is to teach us of their righteousness. As compared to the rest of the tribes, saying that the daughters of Zelophehad were of Joseph is to say that their investment in the land was in memory of Joseph who longed for his land or that they were one more generation removed from the land. Either way I think it is to teach us Daniel Pink’s message.

Pink teaches us that when partners aren’t an option, you need to establish distance for yourself. Create some psychological space between you and your project by imagining you’re doing it for someone else or contemplating what advice you’d give to another person in your predicament. Whether it was their ability to work in the name of Joseph or the distance they can place between themselves and the issue, the daughters of Zelophehad teach us how to be better problem solvers. Thank you.

The Lydda Way

Periodically I find myself doing research on different areas of halacha. Usually my learning follows the course of a specific  halachic issue in response to someone’s query, but recently it has gone in a totally different direction. It started with a student of mine from Wash U who is contemplating making Aliyah. This person wanted to explore the obligation to return to the Land. Amidst my research I discovered that in the time of Ezra the inhabitants of Lod where one of the few who returned after the Babylonian captivity( Ezra 2:33). Not knowing much about Lod besides Ben Gurion International Airport I decided to dig a little deeper.

In 43 CE, Cassius, the Roman governor of Syria, sold the inhabitants of Lod into slavery. During the First Jewish–Roman War, the Roman proconsul of Syria, Cestius Gallus, razed the town on his way to Jerusalem in 66 CE. It was occupied by Emperor Vespasian in 68 CE.

During the Kitos War, the Roman army laid siege to Lod, then called Lydda, where the rebel Jews had gathered under the leadership of Julian and Pappus. The distress became so great that the patriarch Rabban Gamaliel II, who was shut up there and died soon afterwards, permitted fasting even on Ḥanukkah. Other rabbis condemned this measure. Lydda was next taken and many of the Jews were executed; the “slain of Lydda” are often mentioned in words of reverential praise in the Talmud. Over Lydda’s history it’s inhabitants have consistently shown tremendous self sacrifice. It seems that there is a Shitah, an approach, developed in Lydda that is unique. Not matter it be war or aliyah they have always been about self sacrifice.

To that ends I have been working on a lithograph on my research of the way of learning in Lydda. It seems appropriate to name my work the Loda Shitah. If this is well received I will turn my attention to more geographic studies. The next obvious place would be Afula. So stay tuned for my Afula Shitah.

Chag Purim Sameakh

A Gooder Dream

In the Torah reading a couple of weeks ago we learned of the two dream of Joseph’s youth. One was a dream of the sheaves of wheat bowing to one. The other was of the stars and the moon bowing to one star. It was clearly experienced by all as the run away ego of spoiled child. How could they the elder brothers bow to this pisher?

Dreams continue to play a central role in Joseph’s life. By interpreting the dreams of the butcher and wine steward correctly he eventually gets the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s two dreams. Interpreting these correctly leads to saving the known world from 7 years of famine. It was at this time that Joseph reunites with his brothers who have come to Egypt looking for food. They clearly have no idea that the stand in front of their brother Joseph. It seems that we are forced to sit through a long drama of Joseph wanting to live out his two dreams and have them all bow to him.

In Shmot, this week’s Torah portion, we are introduced to Moses. When is born and before he is named we learn “Ki Tov hu- because he was good” (Exodus 2:2) On this Rashi comments that the goodness referred to when he was born the entire house becoming filled with light. Rashi was referencing  Sotah12a which assumes that Moses Hebrew name was something like Tuv or Tuvia. There the Talmud plays with the reference of Moses being tov– good – with the idea expressed in creation “And God saw the light that was tov- good” (Genesis 1:4).  Moses potential was depicted as  unlimited so he was depicted as a primordial supernova, our rising star.

It seems that Moses and Joseph are very similar. Both saved their people from physical peril.  Joseph from the famine and Moses from slavery. But unlike Joseph, Moses went on to give the people the Torah at Sinai and bring them to ( if not into) the Land of Israel. It is clear that Joseph and his brothers did act out the dream of the wheat, they came to him to get food and be saved from the famine. But is it not possible that Joseph misinterpreted his second dream? This second dream might have been referring to all of the tribes bowing to Moses, the light of both a physical and metaphysical redemption.

The New Testament depicts Jesus saying “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4:4) It seems that  Rabbi Eliezer the son of Azariah is in conversation with this idea when he said, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour” (Avot 3:21).  Neither just the physical or just the spiritual redemption are sufficient, both are critical and necessary. While Joseph provided the flour ( dream of the wheat), Moses provided the flour( matzoh) and the Torah ( revelation). And in this sense Moses was truly tov- good. Or maybe we are all just still struggling to live out the dream of living with the physical and spiritual redemption in the Land. That is a wonderful dream. As my four-year-old son Yishama says, “Wouldn’t that be gooder?”

More on Woodcutters and Water Carriers

Last week marked our daughter Emunah’s first birthday and my first year anniversary of writing this blog. At the start of last week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim VaYelech we read,

9You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 10your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodcutter to water carrier (Deuteronomy  29:9-10)

Every Jew was included in the renewal of the covenant, regardless of his or her socio-economic situation or the variety of his or her religious/ritual commitment. But, what can we learn from the Torah’s specifying from the woodcutter to the water carrier?

The Bible seems to be telling a story of a dynamic tension between these two vocations. Last year I explored how Adam and Eve might be understood metaphorically as the woodcutter and the water carrier. This year I wanted to suggest two more readings.

Soon after we celebrate Rosh HaShanah we will celebrate Simchat Torah and reboot our yearly cycle of Torah reading.  And then just after the creation of the world, we will turn our attention to Noah and his generation. While there are many stories in the Bible in which people are looking for water, in the time of Noah that is not their issue. God sent a flood to expunge the world of the poor behavior of the sinners of Noah’s generation. Noah saved humanity from the peril of too much water by following God’s direction to make and ark of gopher wood (Genesis 6:14) In this context we can see that the people acting like animals were the water carriers and Noah in hewing the wood for the ark was the woodcutter. This is to say that in last week’s Torah portion we were inviting everyone from the savior ( Noah)  to the sinner ( the people who caused the flood). We learn that no one has the monopoly on access to Torah.

For today’s readers the story of the flood seems like a Disney movie, but have evolved so much since biblical times. We think we are in control and that we have conquered nature. But it is obvious from the recent flooding  in Pakistan and Katrina here in America that this is far from the case. As much as we try we cannot transcend nature. Even Noah the person who survived the flood by becoming the woodcutter did not know when to leave the ark he built. There we read,
The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth.( Genesis 8:11)
There is a sweet irony in that we almost went extinct in acting like animals in becoming the water carriers and it was an animal that became a woodcutter and saved Noah and his family.  In this sense the invitation of the woodcutter to the water carrier  is a reminder of the famous words of Rabbi Simcha Bunam. He said,
Every person should have two pockets. In one, [there should be a note that says] bishvili nivra ha’olam, ‘for my sake was the world created.’ In the second, [there should be a note that says] anokhi afar va’efer, ‘I am dust and ashes.’
It seems that control itself might be illusory. I hope that Emunah has another wonderful year perfecting her walking and learning how to navigate her “two pockets”.

Falling into Success

Blog Imagine of Lincoln

Lost job in 1832.
Defeated for state legislature in 1832.
Failed in business in 1833.
Elected to state legislature in 1834.
Sweetheart died in 1835.
Had nervous breakdown in 1836.
Defeated for Speaker in 1838.
Defeated for nomination for Congress in 1843.
Elected to Congress in 1846.
Lost renomination in 1848.
Rejected for land officer in 1849.
Defeated for U.S. Senate in 1854.
Defeated for nomination for Vice President in 1856.
Again defeated for U.S. Senate in 1858.
Elected President in 1860.

–         Abraham Lincoln

The difference between failing and falling is getting back up. It is clear that Lincoln had many set backs, but that did not dissuade him from seeking the highest position of power. Despite all of these failures, he is seen by most as a tremendous success.

This seems to be in counter distinction to the person of Moses. He successfully liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, received the Torah at Sinai, and led his people on a 40-year journey through the desert. Yet, despite his impressive resume it seems that Moses failed to accomplish his ultimate mission of bringing the people into the Promised Land. As we read in this week’s portion, HaAzinu, Moses will not get to lead the people into the land of Israel, because he trespassed against God among the Children of Israel at the waters of Meribat-Kadesh( Deuteronomy 32:51).

If I were Lincoln, I cannot imagine not having grown averse to taking risks after having failed so many times. So too, amidst all the success of Moses, he could have stopped and become complacent and declared himself a success long before he would have been confronted by failure. While both of them were very accomplished, looking at Lincoln and Moses side by side I have to ask are we more afraid of failing or of actually succeeding?

On Yom Kippur we will spend a lot of time thinking about our failures, but I think we should allow ourselves to be challenged by Moses’s drive to success after succeeding.  I think this challenge is captured in the poem by Marianne Williamson, “Our Greatest Fear”:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give
other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

Both Lincoln and Moses liberated us from slavery. While some of us need to learn from Lincoln how to recover from failure, it would serve us all well to emulate Moses and push ourselves even higher. Yes continuing to push ourselves to the limit will necessarily mean ultimately falling short, but that is hardly failure.  As we start this New Year, it is important to not just focus on our failures. We should all take a moment and set a mission for the coming year.  Having a clear vision of what success looks like makes all of the challenges and distractions along the way seem less relevant. I am sure that we will not succeed at everything, but with some determination we might just fall into success.

Of Woodcutters & Water Carriers

On the eve of the High Holidays I have to admit that I am excited. I know that during this time more Jews will reconnect to each other, their Judaism, and their inner selves than at any other time of the year. Regardless of where they are the rest of the year, they know that they are welcome back to the synagogue during the High Holidays. While one could bemoan their estrangement from the religious life as well as from the entire Jewish community the rest of the year, I choose to bask in the simple pleasure of their company at this time. I strive to live in the national myth of meeting up with my fellow pilgrims on our way up to Jerusalem to bring our festival sacrifices. The High Holidays are a time when every Jew feels a calling to come back to the Jewish community.

I like the idea of this sort of open invite. This idea of inclusion finds resonance in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim. We read, “You are standing today, all of you…from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.” (Deut 29:9-10) Every Jew was included in the renewal of the covenant, regardless of his or her socio-economic situation or the variety of his or her religious/ritual commitment. But, what can we learn from the Torah’s specifying the woodcutter and the water carrier?

Without falling into some Augustinian ditch, I wanted to offer one of many answers to the framing of our collective mythology in these terms. When Adam and Eve took from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil they established themselves as the first people to cut from a tree (Genesis 3:6). The consequence of which was that for the rest of time we would have to work the land to get food. As we see in the second passage of the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 11:13- 21), Gcd limits rain as a means of regulating our behavior.  If Adam and Eve were the woodcutters, by following Gcd’s will the Israelites became the water carriers. The problem created by that first chopping of wood would not simply be solved by working the land. We also needed water to face the challenge of survival.

Even if we do not agree with the reward and punishment theology inherent in the Sh’ma, I find it meaningful that we, all of us across time, are part of a collective. Regardless of how many times we show up, all of us need to own the problem and work toward the solution. As we gear up for the High Holidays, I look forward to basking in the myth of our collective and to also taking responsibility for the past and the future. We cannot just look back and try to wash away an “original sin”. We all sin all the time. What trees has our generation cut down? Will a future generation figure out how they will bring the water? Our environmental issues today are not so original.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Shabbat Shalom.


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