Friday, April 7, 2017

Why “Been There, Done That” Has No Place at the Seder*

*I will be sharing an expanded version of this Dvar Torah on the 7th Day of Pesach at the Pearlstone Retreat Center.

It seems that they have it all--smarts, wisdom and understanding.  In Sefer Devarim (1:13), when Moshe can’t do it alone, he is told to take  אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים, וִידֻעִים, “men of wisdom, understanding and knowledge” to help out.  People with all of that on their side have the goods to make a just society.

Furthermore, when God wanted to appoint artists to design the mishkan, these characteristics were also enough.  We are told that God commanded to take Betsalel, because he was filled with  בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת wisdom, understanding, and knowledge.” (Exodus 31:3)

These types of people are ones that already know the ways of Hashem, know the purpose of mitzvot, and also know what is going to come in the next pasuk.  (Avudraham). Their attendance at the Seder could possible be a disaster.  I could just see trying to tell these people the story of Pesach.  I could just imagine asking one of them to recite “Avadim Hayinu” and their “been there done that” facial expressions.  Yet, the Haggadah tells us: 

וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח.
And even if we were all sages, all discerning, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, it would be a commandment upon us to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. And anyone who adds [and spends extra time] in telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, behold he is praiseworthy.

While there is often a value on reviewing texts, here it seems that there is much more going on. What is it about the Pesach story, that it is the only one that we are commanded not only to tell, but to describe in great detail, even if we know the Hagaddah and the mitzvot like the back of our hands?  A few possible answers:

First, even with knowledge, kavod doesn’t come easy. The Machzor Vitry (Simhah ben Samuel of Vitry 1105) tells us that when we retell the story, we gain more כבוד המקום , honor for God. Getting toward true honor is a challenge.  Honor is not achieved solely by learning, it is achieved through humility, through understanding the limits of human capacity and our place in the world.  Recounting the story of Egypt and the describing of God’s powers leads to humility, to the understanding of our limitations and God’s limitlessness.  Even the brightest and most knowledgable need to find more ways to give honor and learn about God’s power.  

Second, even with understanding, compassion and empathy are not guaranteed.   Wisdom and knowledge often dwell too much in the head.  Even if one knows all the verses and laws, when one reads the story and tells it, they must do so not as an intellectual exercise, but it must be done with the goal of truly internalizing the cries of the slaves.  Seeing oneself as one left mitzrayim, or even as one who crossed the sea, cannot be done with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge alone.  It is only achieved when one works to go beyond the texts and to listen to stories of oppression and suffering. Allowing oneself to  go beyond the head and straight into the heart is critical for compassion and empathy.  

Finally, Rabbi Sacks tells us that we still tell the story because “each year adds its own insights and interpretations…..and since the present always changes, there is always a new...facet of the story.”    Each year, even if we know the facts,  our life facts change. Our personal experiences have changed.  Even if we are not different people intellectually, we are different people in heart and spirit than we were last year.  At Pesach, we must ask ourselves how we are different and what that newness brings to the our relationship to the Pesach narrative.  

This year, as we sit down, books in hand, at our seder tables, let’s bring not just our heads, but our hearts and souls.  In this way, we will be able not only to fulfill the commandment of סיפור יציאת מצרים telling the story, but we will be more humble, more compassionate and truly better, more מְשֻׁבָּח praiseworthy versions of ourselves.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Shabbat Zachor 2017-Doubt that Freezes and Doubt that Frees

This year, sadly, there is no shortage of thoughts that come to mind when I think of Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat where we remember our enemy, Amalek.  In a world of increasing hate crimes and finger pointing, the importance of calling out evil is very much alive..  

Yet, for some reason, it is a gematria related to the word Amalek that has me thinking most.  The numerical of the word עמלק which is 240, is the same numerical value as the word ספק, the word for doubt.  It is doubt that we must obliterate this Shabbat.  

R. Steinsaltz, writes in his book   Change and Renewal, that just like the physical enemy of Amalek that threatened the existence of our people, doubt threatens us individually in a different way.  “Amalek seeks to encourage and perpetuate doubt and thus attempts to halt any effort to deal with doubt and resolve it.”  In this way, the evil is the existence of “permanent skepticism.” (pp. 200-201)   Getting rid of doubt and putting it aside is critical to our productivity.

When the Metzudat David commentary on Mishle, said  that there is no joy in the world better than clarifying and eradicating doubt,   אין בעולם שמחה כהתרת הספקות , he was commenting on the verse from Proverbs 15:30 that discusses the importance of clarity of מאור עינים. 

Certainly doubt prevents our ability to move forward.   If I constantly doubt my religious conclusions, my political commitments or my personal life decisions, I may never move ahead and achieve clarity and joy.  Living with constant doubt can shackle and paralyze us. 

Yet, there is something about casting doubt off to the side that does not sit right.  It seems that we need doubt and that it is a natural and critical element to a life of growth and contemplation.  Rabbi Norman Lamm agrees.  In his famous article entitled, “Faith and Doubt,” he points out the need for doubt in our religious lives.  “Faith and doubt are not in essential contradiction to each other… The truth which cognitive faith affirms is not given to us for the process of mere assent; it is the prize for which we must engage in a fierce intellectual struggle.  Doubt, so conceived, becomes not an impediment, but a goad to reinvestigate and deepen faith.  Out of the agony of a faith which must constantly wrestle with doubt may emerge a faith of far greater vision, scope and attainment.” (Rabbi Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt, p.16)  

Religious faith becomes stronger, when doubt lives.  I would also argue that in this political climate, it is important, even as we stand strong, that we let doubt enter our consciousness.  We should listen to points of view other than our own, as they can help us to reexamine our assumptions and emerge stronger, more nuanced, more empathic and more clear.  Sometimes living with doubt can sharpen us and enhance the quality of our action.  

This weekend, as we prepare for Purim, let us all work to eradicate the doubt that leads to destruction, doubt that makes our souls and minds freeze.

But, at the same time, let’s remember, that in just four weeks, we will sit around the Seder table, asking questions, planting seeds of constructive doubt, doubt that pushes to clarify,embracing not a doubt that freezes us, but a doubt that actually frees us.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Approaching the Bar and Moving it as We Go

It was the season of the High Holidays a few years ago.  After many days of reciting slichot, the special prayers for forgiveness, someone turned to me and paraphrased the famous line from “Love Story” and asked, “I know love is not never having to say I’m sorry, but do I always have to say I’m sorry?”  

The truth is that, even months and months after the High Holidays, we Jews are in a perpetual state of asking for forgiveness and working toward repentance.  Three times daily, we praise God for being open to our change by reciting the bracha of הרוצה בתשובה  and three times daily, we ask for forgiveness when we say סלח לנו .  

How is it that 6 times a day, we cannot get it right?  How can it be that behaving the way we should is so elusive that we have to mention it so often throughout the day?  

The first and most common answer is that no matter how hard we try, we will never hit the standard we want and that God wants from us.  This approach is grounded in the assumption that we, at our core as humans, are fallible and imperfect creatures.  No matter how hard we try, we will never be as compassionate as we want to be, we will never be as generous as we want to be and we will never be as loving as we want to be.  Because of how we are wired,  we do not have the capacity to always reach the bar that we set for ourselves.  Our prayers remind us of how far we need to go to reach our best selves. This is a model of self improvement that has us constantly working toward moving our character forward closer to the set bar.

Yet, Chovot HaLevavot shows us that there is another way to look at the issue of teshuva.  Rabbeinu Bahya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda, who wrote the book almost 1000 years ago, explains that there are מצוות השכל, commandments for intellectual growth.  He says that there is no limit to this acquisition of knowledge.  Because of the dynamic of these mitzvot, people would fill their entire days with teshuva.  It was not a desire for teshuva that arose from their hearts, it rather arose from their heads because it was through study, every day they would learn more about God and about their requirements in their lives.  Due to the strong capacity of the intellect, every day they would realize how much more needed to be done to live a life of holiness.   This is a different model of self improvement, it is not about us taking our fallible selves and trying to move our actions closer to a bar, it is about tapping in to our intellectual gifts to learn more about just how high the bar should be. When we do that, we actually are moving the standard higher and higher that we set for ourselves.  When we see that new standard, the rules change of how far we need to go to hit our goals.

This may be why our tradition puts a teshuva and self improvement bug in our ears all day long.  It is because we constantly need to work to be our best and also constantly redefine what the best can be.

A worthy chase indeed.  

Friday, January 13, 2017

Making our Private School Bubbles Broader Public Squares

I have often heard from teachers, students and parents that Jewish Day School is a “bubble.”  On the one hand, this term is used affectionately in that the bubble is a safe, warm space, with shared values and a shared outlook--a space where we gain strength as a school community.  

But the bubble is also seen by many as dangerous.  It can be a place that perpetuates insularity and can lead to narrow and skewed views.  So much so that students often talk about becoming free and leaving the bubble.

And certainly we need to move beyond our bubbles, or, as some have called them, our silos.  We need to understand that “it’s important to resist the temptation to surround ourselves almost exclusively with like-minded people, those who reinforce our pre-existing views and biases.”(Commentary, “Living in Ideological Silos”)  

The place where we need to go is into more public spaces.  Places where, as Parker Palmer points out, “our relations with each other have a chance to become more pleasant, more strong and more durable.” 

Sadly, in this ever growing world of digital commerce and conversation, we are spending less and less time in the public sphere. And, according to Palmer, the school and the classroom are fertile grounds where this dynamic of public discourse can take place.  It is in school where, “every subject, rightly understood, has the potential to shed light on the question of ….How can I connect with something larger than my own ego?”  True educational inquiry forces us to think beyond our private bubbles.  

Even our private Day School bubbles, if looked at differently, can also become sacred places for us to think beyond ourselves and our opinions.  

Most typically, Jewish Day Schools channel this energy through interscholastic partnerships and programs.  Whether they promote religious, racial, socioeconomic or any other type of conversation, incredibly powerful programs that leave the grounds of the school help broaden the lens of students and faculty alike. They allow cross pollination and provide different, unusual stories. They create a public space that is a “great good place that is vital to democracy.”  

But we should not feel that engaging outside of our bubbles is the only place where we can expand our lenses.  If we dig deeper, there is much work to be done even within our own walls.  Our silo is not as insular as we may think.  So often, we make false assumptions and believe that every Day School parent and child, while having some differences are really not that different.  We do not think of our our schoolmates as “diverse.”  Yet, there is so much diversity work to be done even within the bubble of the Day School.

To expose this diversity in our own halls, schools must spend time creating safe spaces to hear the stories that have brought people to their particular school communities.  When we take a moment to hear these stories, we realize that we can expand horizons in our own backyard.    

In 2017, when we feel that some part of our outlook is challenged or if an attitude does not sync with ours, we can close our minds like never before.  We can unfriend, tune out and never see others and simply not engage.  We can put others in far off categories whose opinions mean nothing to us. When we do that, according to Palmer, we have “killed them off” and committed the what he calls the spiritual equivalent of murder by rendering them utterly irrelevant in our lives.`

As parents, teachers and students, we need to find more ways to make every voice relevant.  Even the private, Jewish, Day School bubble is a space to listen, grow and empathize--beyond the walls and within them, now as much as ever.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Yaakov, Chanukah and the Myth of Smoothness

Each and every year, we read the story of Yosef during the time of Chanukkah.  And while lessons of Chanukkah and Yosef can complement one another, this year, I cannot stop thinking about Yaakov and Chanukkah.  

Of course, Chanukkah celebrates the rededication our permanent home the חנוכת המזבח.  But, as we know, there are other ways that over the centuries we have explained the meaning of the name of this chag.  One way is that the name is broken up into two words, חנו כה -- they rested on the 25th.  After a long struggle with the Syrian Greeks, who challenged their religious and political identity, , the Macabees rested on the 25th of Kislev.   They rested in order to take time to celebrate their victory and their momentum -- the beginnings of a new chapter of their political life, of the world order they envisioned was about to begin..

And just like the Macabees, Yaakov, also sits  וישב יעקב .  After long personal struggles,with Esav, with his wives, with his father in-law and with his children, Yaakov sits.  Following an up and down  business life, he finally achieves success and can rest.  .   Rashi famously tells us בקש     
 יעקב לשב בשלוה Yaakov just wanted to rest and take in the beginnings of a new life, one of tranquility, a life where he can watch his family grow into Am Yisrael smoothly and  successfully.

But sadly, just when the achievement of personal, national, economic and political goals seemed in the hands of Yaakov and the Macabbees, life spun toward chaos.  

Soonafter the Chanukkah story, infighting among the Jews becomes the norm and the Romans begin to gain power. Within a century of this dawn of a new era the  Jews are defeated and the Temple is destroyed.  The momentum of the Macabees is stalled.  So much for the resting.  

This happens for Yaakov as well, while he wants tranquility, there is no rest.  His sons begin their struggles and the worse times for his family are ahead.  Yosef shares his dreams and the brothers plot to kill Yosef, eventually selling him to slavery, breaking up the family. The dream of a new reality for Yaakov is halted. So much for tranquility. 

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz points out a powerful principle.  It is one that is unfortunate, but so true.    צדיקים אין  להם  מנוחה. There is no rest for tsadikim.  The story of the Macabees and the story of Yaakov show us that just when we think that we are on a path toward our dreams coming true, something comes along that makes us realize that there will always be struggles, detractors from the dream and  barriers in our way.  

As we usher in Chanukah, in this very, very scary world, let’s keep this lesson in mind.  As we all want to be tsadikim, we realize along with the life of the righteous comes a life that complicated and never fully smooth.  Whether we like it or not, in this world, we are not created for rest and tranquility.  We are created, rather,  to keep on moving forward with the passion of love, giving and the knowledge of what is right, knowing all along that there will never be one clear road to paradise.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Drive to be Thanked

Yesterday, I had the chance to learn with my friends at the Riverdale Senior Center, Kinneret Day School’s across the hall neighbors.  I came there wanting to get insight from the wiser generation about thank you notes.  Why is it that some people, and often older people, get so upset and even insulted when they do not receive a thank you note?  I have often seen people get emotional when they do not receive something in the mail, and wanted my new friends to help me understand why. 

We bounced around a few possibilities:
1-Educational-”Kids have got to learn to say thank you.”  As parents and educators, we all know that we are trying to raise appreciative people.  When someone receives, they must thank.  It is basic human decency to show appreciation and the thank you note is a clear indicator of this הכרת הטוב  hakarat ha tov, recognizing the good. 

2-Functional-One of our participants told me that his mother used to call the thank you note the “bread and butter” note.  You have to send it in order to get bread and butter next time.  In other words, by thanking others, we are lined up next time to have our needs.  Those who give will receive positive reinforcement and want to give again.

But after exploring a bit more, we realized that being thanked is an important feeling that goes beyond an educational and functional feeling.  There is a basic human need met when receiving the thank you note.  It is the need that all of us have, the need to matter.

When we give a gift or do a favor, we are going beyond ourselves and showing that others matter to us.  A  thank you is an acknowledgment that the giver is valued and treasured by the receiver.  When I give an Amazon card to a bar mitzvah boy, among many other things, the thank you note says to me, “That gift showed me that I matter to you.  I just wanted you to know, that you matter to me as well.”

Interestingly, I would claim that God wants this as well.  The Midrash in Vayikra Rabba 9:7
 ויקרא רבה ט:ז tells us that at the end of days, at the times of Mashiach, all of our individual sacrifices will be cancelled. God will no longer need us to offer sacrifices for guilt or for sin, but God will want one sacrifice--the Korban Todah the sacrifice that symbolizes thanks.  Additionally, the Midrash goes on to tell us that God also will not need our tefilot.  There will be no need to share prayers of praise or of requests-- but there will be a need for one thing--prayers of hoda’ah הודאה prayers of thanks. 

In this way, the Midrash echoes the feeling that my learning friends shared with me.  Maybe after all is said and done, God just wants to know that we, the receivers, want to be in relationship with God.  In a way, in order for the Divine to be complete, God needs us to articulate that we appreciate the gifts we depend on 24/7.. 

When we thank, we show others and we show God that they are part of this web of giving and of needs, that make up the fabric of our being.

So, as we sit to our Thanksgiving tables, let’s certainly exercise our muscles of thanking, but let's remember that our thanks are so powerful for the givers, because it tells those we are thanking, “Thank you for giving to me and showing that I mean so much to you, just know how much you mean to me as well.”

Friday, October 21, 2016

King Shlomo, Constant Change and the Mistaken Sarcasm of Urinetown - A Reflection on Shabbat Chol HaMoed

As a theater dad, I have spent many Sundays at shows over the life of my children.  And while there were many shows that were familiar, the one that was least familiar, but most enjoyable was Urinetown. This hilarious social commentary about politics, power and life is one of the funniest shows I have ever seen.  

One of the greatest exchanges is after someone takes a glass of water and then she is told that “The glass of water's inside you,....because we are all rivers.”  The ensemble then goes on sing operatically and sarcastically that we are all rivers. ‘You are the river, I am the river He is the river, she is too.”  (To listen to this song, click  here)

This song always made me laugh, but over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about rivers. And maybe rivers are really inside of us.

Way back in the summer, was our first allusion to a river.  We mourned the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash we sang about rivers. (Psalms 137:1)
א  עַל נַהֲרוֹת, בָּבֶל--שָׁם יָשַׁבְנוּ, גַּם-בָּכִינוּ:    בְּזָכְרֵנוּ, אֶת-צִיּוֹן.
1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

Just a few weeks ago, we sat by the flowing waters or streams and rivers with our families and friends hoping that the flow of the waters would remove our sins.  As we read at Tashlich from Micha Chapter 7. 

יט  יָשׁוּב יְרַחֲמֵנוּ, יִכְבֹּשׁ עֲו‍ֹנֹתֵינוּ; וְתַשְׁלִיךְ בִּמְצֻלוֹת יָם, כָּל חַטֹּאותָם.
19 He will again have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.

Rivers and bodies of water seem to be places we go, when we want to reflect on the passing of time and on our lives, our good, our misfortunes and our mistakes.  

This past week, I had the honor of listening to Rabbi Dov Lerea speak about the message of change that is the message of Sukkot.  Sukkot, he said, teaches us about the impermanence of all of our lives.  As is echoed by Rabbi Steinsaltz, “Status quo can back up a claim or serve as evidence in any discussion, but it affords no certainty that the existing state will continue” (Change and Renewal p. 101)  All of our selves are constantly changing--our work, our relationships.  

In this way, life is a river.  In her incredible book, Broken Open, Elizatbeth Lesser writes, “Life is always changing; we are always changing. We live in a river of change and a river of change lives within us…...From year to year, every one of our cells is replaced...who we were yesterday is not who are are today.”  And “every day we’re given a choice; We can relax and float in the direction that the water flows or we can swim hard against it….feeling rankled and tired as we tread water.”  (p. 237)
While we should be confident to not always go with the flow, Sukkot tells us that change is more normal than status quo. We are “much more like a river than anything frozen in time and space.”

This Shabbat of Sukkot we will read Kohelet where King Shlomo’s famously says (1:9), 
ט  מַה-שֶּׁהָיָה, הוּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶה, וּמַה-שֶּׁנַּעֲשָׂה, הוּא שֶׁיֵּעָשֶׂה; וְאֵין כָּל-חָדָשׁ, תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
9 That which hath been is that which shall be, and that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.
But there is something new.  It is us.  

Let’s remember that under the sun of our Sukkot, we are new.  We, our world, our loved ones and our communities are always evolving.  

While that can be scary, if we remember that we are rivers, we can use God’s love to keep us afloat, appreciate the surroundings of our lives and engage with and embrace the changes that are constantly happening all around us.