Time to Exit the Mob

Image result for insurrection

As I was reading Parsha Mishpatim this week, I found myself doing so amidst the chaos and noise of the second impeachment trial of the former President. I hope that by this point in time that we are all familiar with the events of January the 6th, and the terrifying precedent that they set for the politicalization of violence moving forward. With the echoes of insurrection still fresh in my head and literally in my ear, I began to read “v’eilah ha-mishpatim,” or, “Now these are the ordinances…” (Ex. 21:1). This particular parsha is sandwiched directly between the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, and the events surrounding the Golden Calf that are to follow. This parshah goes on to relay 53 of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah, and shows us that the Torah is not just a document that explains religious life; but it is also concerned with the civil, the criminal, and just about all aspects of the human experience that one can think of. The Torah is comprehensive, and Mishpatim is where we seem to get our first real glimpse of its broad scope. 

While studying, I was struck by the beginning of chapter 23, particularly verses 1 and 2: “Thou shalt not utter a false report; put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice.” Rashi makes it clear that the verse about uttering a false report can be interpreted as engaging in or believing “lashon harah,” which is translated to evil speech. More on Rashi in a moment. Let us think a bit more about the commandment, “thou shalt not utter a false report…” I am reminded of phrases such as, “stop the steal,” or “the election was rigged,” among many others. How many false reports have we heard uttered across our airwaves, on social media, and anywhere else where information is shared? There has been so much false reporting that, for some, it has become difficult to differentiate falsehoods from truths. When facts become political playthings, where are we even to begin formulating our opinions? 

Our “leaders” need to step up and lead. I do not put the word “leaders” in quotation marks to be contentious or sarcastic, but to highlight the fact that many of those who have been elected to lead their constituents have failed to do so with any modicum of integrity. Let us look at the second verse of Exodus, chapter 23: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice.” I have to admit that I was most impacted by the portion, “…follow a multitude to do evil.” According to Hertz, this verse is simply telling us not to allow ourselves to be blindly led by a large group for the purpose of evil. What happened on January the 6th? Were the insurrectionists not blindly following the orders of one man in order to do evil, and to attempt to follow through with the perversion of justice in the form of overturning the results of an election? 

Now that the impeachment trial is underway, let us turn again toward Rashi’s interpretation, as it is all the more timely. Rashi believes that a judge has an obligation to make his true opinion (based on facts and evidence) be known, even if that means going against the majority. Did the former President of the United States not incite this multitude to engage in evil acts that led directly to the deaths of 7 people (including the two Capitol Police officers who died by suicide in the proceeding days)? The judges in this impeachment trial are the Senators of the United States of America. Experts and all who are tuned into the proceedings are sure that all of the GOP Senators will vote along party lines, and the former President will not be convicted, which could have a devastating long-term impact. I ask these Senators to consider Rashi’s commentary. Will your judgment be based on what you know to be true, or will you simply follow the multitude blindly? The horrifying reality of what happened that day was literally in front of their faces, and it is up to them to choose blindness or truth. 

Leviticus 19:14 tells us: “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” This prohibition can be taken at face value, as we should not put in place physical barriers that would inhibit the movement of, or endanger one, who is visually impaired. This commandment also tells us not to intentionally give bad or faulty information to one who is lacking proper understanding in a given situation. It is clear that the former President and all of his enablers placed a large stumbling block in the direct path of many who so blindly followed his every word and tweet. 

Again, it is time for our leaders to properly lead, and to set an example for those who have been damaged by the stumbling blocks of a broken demagogue. When the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, it was given for all of us: for the House of Jacob and the Children of Israel. Speaking of children, what will they read about in their history books? Will they read of a country whose leadership decided that lies so damaging that they led directly to insurrection and death, are acceptable? Will they be able to read of a single soul who faced instead of followed a multitude? 

May we all be blessed with the sight to leap over stumbling blocks, make the unpopular decisions, and find our way back to truth. For in the lies and deceit there is only pain and hurt, but in the truth exists kedusha (holiness). 



Time to be Aaron

Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: We are called to speak for the weak, for  the...

Tension is certainly palpable in the air of our nation. We are still collectively shell shocked due to the insurrection that took place at the Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 6th. Our democracy, and the values that we as Americans hold so dear, were under siege in front of our very eyes. I have recently been reading the book of Judges, and these last few weeks of the outgoing “leader” seem akin to Samson’s last moments; a blind, injured and violent flailing by a powerful force who aims to tear everything down as he falls. Confederate flags, “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE” (6 million wasn’t enough) tee shirts were proudly displayed in the halls of the Capitol. Lives lost so senselessly that day add insult to the injury that is the raging pandemic we call COVID-19. Those who study extremism fear that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. 

What do we do?

I tend to turn to Torah, as I am constantly reminded that “what happened once upon a time happens all the time.” The parshah that we have just completed reading is “Vaeira,” wherein we are told of the first seven plagues that Egypt suffers. Before G-d ever sends the plagues to Egypt, we are introduced to a leader in Moses who is nothing if not ambivalent. While one of the many wonderful traits that Moses possesses is his humility, it is safe to say that he seems to be experiencing what we today might call “Imposter Syndrome.” According to psychologists, Imposter syndrome (IS) refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. To put it bluntly, someone with Imposter Syndrome feels like they are riding the wave of some kind of fluke success. In the case of Moses, he goes so far as to question why G-d would even choose someone like him to free the people of Israel from bondage. Moses famously tells G-d that he is slow of speech and of tongue. “Why would the people of Israel listen to me,” he asks. When Moses’ requests only anger the people of Israel, he is convinced that he is doing more harm than good. G-d is quick to tell Moses to speak directly to Pharaoh and convince the Egyptian sovereign to famously, “let my people go.” Moses again questions G-d in terms of whether or not he is the right person for this job. Why would G-d send a poor public speaker to speak for G-d? Moses even tells G-d that he has “uncircumcised lips” (Ex. 6:12). Moses has difficulty speaking due to a stutter (if one follows the Rashi commentary), but his words and responsibility are of gargantuan importance. 

There is someone in this story who often flies under the radar. Let us not forget Aaron. God has Aaron meet Moses on his way from Midian to Egypt in order to essentially serve as Moses’ mouthpiece. G-d will deliver the message to Moses, Moses to Aaron, and Aaron will be the orator. 

A leader who must overcome a stutter to lead the people out of dark and difficult times. Does this sound at all familiar and relevant to our contemporary lives? While I am by no means suggesting that we are placing Moses in the oval office, our responsibility as good citizens will be as Aaron’s. We must deliver and reiterate the messages of healing, equity and decency that our new leader will offer. In a country which has been morally (not mortally) wounded by the past four years, we have a responsibility to meet our elected leader halfway between Midian and Egypt (or perhaps Wilmington and Washington) and support the kindness that we are counting on his administration to represent. Judaism is a religion of action, and we will need an abundance of gemilut hasadim (acts of loving-kindness) in the weeks, months, and years to come. If we do not take the necessary actions to restore a sense of shalom to our fractured nation, the prognosis will be dire. If we are not the messengers of good, who will be? Remember, when G-d created the world He said many times: “Vayar Elohim ki tov.” G-d saw that His Creation was good. We have been, at our core, created to be good.

As we see and hear symbols and chants of ignorance and hatred so unsightly and deafening, it can be difficult to remember that we are writing our own story. I like to think of the Torah as alive, and all of us as part of its living and breathing dialogue. What will we write next? Perhaps we should begin with the basics. Let us be as Aaron, and amplify the voice of the one who stutters decency and kindness back into the collective conscience of our nation. We must communicate the message with our actions and intentions. Only then will we allow G-d to find His way through the noise of cruelty and deception in order to deliver His pure love clearly into our world. 

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., may we all heed his words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”



Before Bereishit: My Own Midrash

shechinah | Morning Meditations

Shechinah had already sent Her spark Chava to tend a garden; a beautiful success of collaboration and cooperation. It was not so easy to grow anything from tohu vavohu, but the loving and nurturing femininity of the duo had resulted in great progress. Shechinah knew that perfection required constant perfecting, so She designed a grand challenge. 

“Chava, we will start again from tohu vavohu, but this challenge will be uncomfortable and strenuous.” 

“I am ready, Shechinah.” replied Chava. 

Shechinah created a new Garden; one which would enable the Divine Source to continue perfecting, with some special focus on pain, suffering, and nonsense. There would also be beautiful lessons, and moments of wonder and joy sprinkled about! 

“What nonsense?” said Chava. “You will see,” replied Shechinah. “Now go Chava. You will enter the new Garden, but wear this suit.” 

Chava quickly found herself in the new Garden holding a suit called “ha-Adam.” She put it on. Chava instantly realized that this costume was unfamiliar. The body felt large and unwieldy. She used all of her might to control the large limbs and belly; piloting from her seat next to ha-Adam’s heart. This Adam was wild. 

“I cannot contain ha-Adam anymore, Shechinah! It is too untame. It desires chaos!” Shechinah answered, “I will cause a deep sleep to fall upon ha-Adam, and you will be freed from the suit. It will stand on its own as you shall.” 

The sleep fell upon ha-Adam, and Chava burst forth from its ribs, relieved, but with sore arms and legs from containing this cumbersome costume of flesh and primal flailing. 

“What is the challenge, Shechina?” asked Chava.

“Ha-Adam is man. As you can tell, man is difficult to reign in. Man is physically strong, but very prone to yetzer ha-ra and growling. You will exit the Garden with man, and I will go with you. Man will believe that his physical strength makes him powerful. He will believe himself a ruler. He will fancy himself a conqueror, a head of both nations and homes. Man will believe this nonsense to be true”

“What will woman do?” said a puzzled Chava.

Shechinah replied, “Woman will wield awesome power, but man will not see this. I will leave hints! Hints that will appear so obvious to you, but will elude man. Woman will create universes within her, as I create universes. She will literally wear creation as a sign on her belly. Woman will build life inside of her, bear the pain of creation, and this will all happen physically. Woman will also nurture many sparks, and tend to souls as man struggles in corporality. Woman will maintain intelligence and create ideas even if she does not physically build life.”

“This power will make it too obvious! Man will see and know!” exclaimed Chava. 

“Remember the nonsense I talked of? The pain and the suffering?” Replied Shechinah. “Man will still believe his superiority. He will rule nations via violence until another more violent man will come and replace him. All the while, woman will bide her time; learning ultimate patience and true power. Woman will sometimes struggle to remember her awesome power amidst man’s confident delusion and strong limbs.” 

“How will the challenge end?” asked Chava.

Shechinah replied, “You will know when ha-Adam is inside of your ribs; when you fuse. When he realizes that power is not his power, but that it resides in tandem with the energy that has been alongside him all along. This will take some doing, but we must challenge ourselves. Remember, bridging perceived polarities perfects us, Chava.” 

Chava smiled and sighed as she took her final step out of the garden with ha-Adam by her side. 

“Here we go.”

Teshuvah and Tears: Cry Like Joseph

Shedding tears has health and emotional benefits for men too
Copyright Laurin Rinder 2015

As we approach the end of the book of Genesis or Bereishit, we become entrenched in the story of Joseph. We learn of his seventeen-year-old arrogance, his interpretation of dreams (and his socially tone deaf manner of conveying them), his father Jacob’s favoritism, his brothers’ betrayal, and his eventual enslavement and rise to power in Egypt. In this week’s parshah, Vayigash, we begin with Judah approaching his younger brother and offering to be taken prisoner in place of the youngest brother, Benjamin, who has been accused (actually, framed) of stealing Joseph’s goblet. It is especially noteworthy that Judah is making such a gesture due to the fact that in Genesis 37:26-27, it is Judah who proposes the selling of Joseph as a slave. Many scholars and commentators have focused on Judah’s turnaround as a main lesson of the parshah, and it is certainly a shift in character that should not be ignored. In fact, Judah is the first example in the Torah of someone who has achieved “teshuvah gemurah,” or perfect repentance, as he is presented with the opportunity to make a nearly identical choice (to allow another to be enslaved or not), and he goes in the opposite, and more righteous direction (R. Jonathan Sacks zt”l). As many of us know, Judah provides us with our name as “Jews,” quite literally speaking.

While Judah’s notable teshuvah is one of the many lessons that one might glean from Vayigash, what struck me was Joseph’s reaction to Judah’s gesture of righteousness. “Now Joseph could not restrain himself in the presence of all who stood before him, so he called out, ‘Remove everyone from before me!’ Thus no one remained with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. He cried in a loud voice. Egypt heard, and Pharaoh’s household heard” (Gen. 45:1-2). Joseph proceeds to quickly reveal his true identity to his brothers, and then immediately asks of his father’s welfare: “Ani Yosef haod avi chai–I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” (Gen. 45:3). Remember, at this time, Joseph is a young man who has not only earned a meteoric rise to power in Egypt, but is so respected by the Pharaoh that he actually defers much of the economic decision-making to Joseph alone. 

Joseph tries his hardest to maintain a solid poker face when he sees his brothers for the first time in many years. He decides to test their character, to gauge their loyalty, and to see whether or not they have changed. Joseph has all of the bells and whistles of power and dominance relative to his brothers; but the text tells me that what we see in Joseph is a son and a brother filled to the brim with anxiety, fear, and trauma. Why does Joseph decide to test his brothers using Benjamin? Is it because Benjamin is the youngest, as Joseph was when his brothers sold him? Perhaps. Or is it because Benjamin is also the son of Rachel? I believe this is plausible. Joseph and Benjamin are the only two sons of Rachel, Jacob’s first and most true love. Now, does Joseph see his brothers’ choice as a chance for a repetition of history with an alternative outcome? Judah, who proposed selling Rachel’s only son, now is prepared to sacrifice his own freedom for Rachel’s “only” son. Joseph is so moved by his brother’s words, that he cannot help but break down. What breaks down with Joseph? Any airs that have been put on, of course. The royal clothing and decorum, the responsibility of power in a foreign land, the ability to decide who lives or dies, or who is free or not free. Joseph tells everyone to leave the room except for his brothers when his emotions overcome him. Why?

At our core, we want to be accepted and loved. At the end of the day we want to be where we feel like home is. Joseph can acquire endless wealth and material prowess, but where does his heart live? Not in Egypt, but in the land Canaan with his family. Joseph wails so loudly that it can be heard throughout Egypt. 

The mighty economist of Egypt is still at his center, the young boy being sold by his own brothers, and forced to make his own way without his one living parent. We can only stuff pain and suffering down inside of ourselves for so long without the lid eventually bursting off of the boiling pot. Joseph’s trauma has been festering within him for many years, and Judah is the catalyst that finally releases his pent up emotional life. Joseph is a vivid and frequent dreamer, which makes me wonder if he also had nightmares related to the traumas he endured at a young age. A midrash which explains the nightmares that create Joseph’s wail is surely called for! One does not simply come out of the other end of such experiences unscathed. Joseph’s cry is one that still reverberates for many today. My mind immediately jumps to Holocaust survivors and their children, the victims of childhood abuse and sexual trauma, the victims of human trafficking etc. The list could surely go on. 

Yes, teshuvah is a beautiful thing, and the correction of wrongdoing is righteous. Good on Judah. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with financial success and the building of a prominent career. Good on Joseph. It is important to remember however, that true meaning is at the soul level. Our souls cannot be free to achieve their fullest potentialities while they are steeped in unresolved trauma and emotional pain. No amount of money, power, or material possessions can veil the fact that we must tend the wounds inside of ourselves in order to climb the rungs toward Divinity. We must release the cry of Joseph in order to empty the poison and make room for joy. 

May we all be blessed to heal from our wounds, remove the garments of pharaohs, and cry for the sake of our souls.



Could You Divide A Frozen Sea?

Specific and Oneness!. To be explicit, defined, and in unity… | by  Adediwura Adedamola Samuel | Medium

Snow falls in the Diaspora.
Is each flake truly unique?
The shattered shards of creation settle together.
The droplets become the sea.
The sparks return to One.

This snow laden Diaspora.
The view is magic– but are we too disparate?
Does He watch the 613 from the 518, or the frenzied 212?
Akiva dances into mind, but he is distant.
“Sh’ma Yisrael…” as he left the tangible.
He ruled Rome as he settled into One.
Did he ever see the snow?

The last blade of green fades into whiteness.
O! To be inching up a ladder in Luz or Bethel…
Do you hear brakhot traveling up through the flakes?
An icy ladder crunchy with salt is treacherous to climb.
Could You divide a frozen sea?
The ground feels cold for Ezekiel’s bones to emerge for listening.

The Chanukiah candles emanate a glint of heat.
It warms my arm.
Diaspora distance, not distance at all.
Remove your snowshoes.
Wherever you stand is Holy ground.
Home is HaMakom.

Akiva dances in the snow.

Holidays, Holiness, and Patience: Lessons From Jacob

Jacob's Dream | Baruch Maayan
Baruch Maayan

Many will meet over the coming weekend and subsequent weeks for Thanksgiving and the various winter holidays in America. This year, in its all too familiar and unprecedented fashion, has come complete with a caveat. We are being advised to hunker down; avoid large gatherings, and celebrate only with immediate family members whom we are already exposed to regularly. During a time when everyone is longing for the light at the end of the tunnel, many of us feel as if the tunnel has become too much to bear. Even with multiple vaccines seemingly fast approaching, the end of this collective nightmare feels to many like it might never come. 

Luckily, we have the Torah to glean lessons and insights from. This week’s parsha is Vayeitzei, which has much to do with Jacob’s journey from Beer-sheba to his uncle Laban’s house in Haran, and all of the activity that unfolds therein. I would like to take a look at the beginning of the parsha for a moment, for I think that we can discover a message there that might resonate with all of us. In Genesis 28:11, it is written of Jacob: “He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set.” Many believe “the place” to be Mount Moriah, which would be the future site of the Holy Temple, and Jacob’s exact resting place would be the location of the Holy of Holies. When Jacob falls asleep he goes on to have his famous dream wherein, “…a ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward; and behold! Angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Gen. 28:12). Soon thereafter, God speaks directly to Jacob, and assures him that the covenant that was originally made with Abraham will continue to be upheld via Jacob and his lineage. God simply tells Jacob, “I am with thee.” 

Other than the obvious awesomeness of such a “panim-el-panim” encounter with God, Jacob’s experience stands out. Jacob is stricken with pure awe as he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16). Jacob again shows his sense of excitement and wonder as he utters a phrase that has become so dear to my own heart: “Mah-nora ha-makom hazeh!”, or “How full of awe is this place!” in verse 17. Jacob is finding the holy in the liminality; he is standing at a threshold, and is nothing if not in between. Remember that Jacob saw angels ascending and descending the ladder in his dream. What to make of this? While there are a sundry of interpretations available, one of my favorites is sprinkled with a touch of the numerology of Gematria. There is a Midrash which compares the Hebrew words “Sinai” and the word for ladder, “Sulam.” The numerical values of Sinai and Sulam are identical, both at 130. This Midrash claims that the angels are representative of Moses and Aaron. God was at the top of the ladder, as he was present to give the Torah at the top of Mount Sinai. The Torah, which is taught by sages a la Moses and Aaron, is the ladder that we use to bridge the gap from heaven to earth. 

There is certainly a lot to unpack here, and this is only the first snippet of the parsha! Let us examine. Jacob came to rest in “the place.” He only halted there because the sun had set and he required a place to rest his head for the night. This “place” likely appeared rather ordinary. Jacob was in between his flight from Esau’s wrath and his new experiences in Haran. He was not at a sacred or religious site. While his head was on a rock in the space between, God appeared to him and showed him the awesomeness that can exist in any “place” and at any time. This Thanksgiving and following might feel to us like a rock underneath our heads. We are uncomfortable. We are more alone than we are used to being, and used to feeling. Are we truly solitary, or are we living in the moment wherein our eyes are about to be opened wide letting a flood of beautiful and Holy light in? 

Jacob’s experience teaches us something else that we might do well to keep in mind over these holidays: the art of patience. When Jacob arrives in Haran, he meets Laban’s youngest daughter, Rachel. He loves Rachel so much that he is willing to wait for her. Laban asks Jacob to serve him for seven years before he will allow him to marry Rachel. What follows is perhaps one of the most beautifully romantic verses in the Torah: “And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her” (Gen. 29:20). Many of you know that Jacob was subsequently duped by Laban into marrying his elder daughter Leah, and actually served Laban another seven years for Rachel. Even so, Jacob’s love for Rachel did not seem to spark in him impulsivity and short-term thinking. He loved her, so he waited patiently.

If we truly want to show love to our families, friends and all those whom we hold dear this Thanksgiving and following, we might take a lesson in patience from Jacob. He loved Rachel, so he waited patiently. We love our people, so we would be wise to think and act similarly. We know this is not the year for large gatherings, tight embraces, and close conversations. We are being told to wait. This year, to wait is to love fiercely. 

While we are biding our time, may we all be blessed to find “the place” where we are. The Divine is with us where we happen to be, and the time and space in between is as holy as anywhere that is labeled as sacred. Our time with loved ones is sacred, so let us honor it with patient waiting. The ladder between heaven and earth is around us always if we are willing to gaze openly at our angels. I pray that the moment we are all able to be together again seems as Jacob’s years waiting for Rachel: but a few days.

May you all have a healthy and blessed Thanksgiving.



Too Many Funerals

Jewish survivors walk behind a wagon of coffins during a funeral procession  through the snow covered streets of Czestochowa. - Collections Search -  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

It has been a bit difficult to write lately. Perhaps it has simply been cumbersome to attempt to focus on anything at all. While my last tidbit was delivered primarily in reference to the highly contentious presidential election, there was an apolitical monster running rampant through the world; caring not for democrats or republicans, but only for suitable hosts. When I was writing posts related to COVID-19 so many months ago, I had hoped that the subject would become obsolete, and that the novel coronavirus would lose its novelty. Unfortunately, the opposite is true, as we have now seen 194,000 cases in one day in the United States, 11 million total cases, and over 245,000 deaths. 

Our Torah study has been interrupted. Our sages, whom we know revered the study of Torah above almost all things, tell us that the study of Torah can be interrupted in order to attend a funeral procession. The Talmud informs us that Rabbi Judah bar Ilai would cease his Torah analysis and review to attend a funeral procession, with the caveat that the procession not contain “enough people.” According to Rav, “enough people” would be six thousand people and six thousand trumpeters. Many others said that “enough people” would be the amount it would take to form an uninterrupted line from the city to the gravesite (B. Ket 17a). Judging by the math of Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, twelve-thousand people would be the sufficient amount to attend a funeral procession. This seems like a rather large number, but what do we know of numbers anymore? 

Some people read the Torah and are initially taken aback regarding some of the numbers. How outrageous and ridiculous some might say! Let us look at this past week’s parshah to tie some of those numbers into our discussion. We recently read about Chayeii Sarah, or the Life of Sarah. Sarah is said to have died when she was 127 years-old. Abraham, who also passes in the portion, is about 175 years of age at the time of his death. How do we account for this? Rabbi David Rosenfeld explains that God originally gave human beings long spans of life in order to gain sufficient time to inch closer to perfection. Rabbi Rosenfeld goes on to assert the fact that God subsequently saw the sins of humankind become more prevalent, and shortened the human lifespan in order to make us all aware of our mortality. Perhaps if we know we are close to death, we will examine our behavior more thoroughly. Some people simply believe that the ages of many in the Torah were meant to be hyperbolic; perhaps utilized simply to symbolize a very long life. Whatever the purpose of the highly advanced ages, the contemporary reader often struggles to take the numbers seriously and literally. 

This is one of those many moments wherein the Torah becomes so beautiful and relevant. Abraham; dead at 175. Absurd! From March 1st to April 4th, the United states originally reported about 8,000 COVID-19 deaths (we have since learned that the number was much higher). I remember my wife and I hunkering down in our isolation along with our newborn baby and five-year-old, worried about what the next day would bring. Fast forward only 7 or so months later, and our country alone is at approximately 250,000 deaths from this virus. 250,000 certainly seemed like an absolutely absurd(!) number only 7 months ago, and now we simply want the exponential growth to stop. 8,000 feels like a blip. The ages of our patriarchs and matriarchs can teach us, if nothing else, never to scoff at the numbers. What seems impossible to our very human understanding can prove to be far too possible in the blink of an eye. 

What can we take away from all of this? We need to find a way to continue studying Torah. We need to find a way to stop the interruptions with the devastating need for funeral processions. If we do not act quickly and rightly, the numbers, which are already trending in a catastrophic direction, will continue to rage ferociously out of control. Rabbi Yohanan concluded that the people of Israel are like the olive. Why? Because the olive does not produce oil unless it is crushed. Rabbi Yohanan said that the Israelites required affliction to return to the right way (B. Men 35b). Have we all not been afflicted enough? Have we not learned the importance of wearing masks, socially distancing, and at this point, perhaps just staying home? How much crushing do we need in order to yield oil? Surely, we must meet God along this path, for our relationship is bidirectional. 

The Mishkan T’Filah says, “You meant Torah for me: did you mean the struggle for me, too?” Perhaps we are meant to be like Jacob becoming Israel, after having wrestled (or struggled) with a divine being? Are we ready to transform into Israel, or are we still searching for the right way? I pray that our struggles with truth and righteousness begin to come to a healthy cessation in terms of COVID-19. If we politicize, minimize, or turn away as Jonah originally did, we will lose time with Torah. We will be as Rabbi Judah bar Ilai; busy attending far too many funeral processions.

Right now, the numbers are not in our favor. But, as we have learned, action can change ourselves, and change the world. I pray that our noses are soon back in Torah uninterrupted, and that we are able to utilize the oil of our affliction for the betterment of this world. Please stay safe and healthy.



Our Nation’s Soul

Why the electoral map is even better for Joe Biden than it looks -  CNNPolitics

Well, here we are. Many of us have spent close to the past week in a state of acute exhaustion. We have been refreshing the pages of our chosen news websites and television stations, wondering where “the count” currently stood. Whatever your particular political leanings happen to be, I do not think that there can be much doubt that something far greater than politics stood at the center of the United States of America during this election cycle. We stood on the border of light, and we wondered as the Mishkan T’Filah wonders; Where shall our hearts turn?

We seem to have our answer, and it is important that people take the time to celebrate. There is no denying the fact that we all could use a reason to rejoice during such troubling times. So many who opposed the elected candidate do not feel this joy, and we will still find our country deeply polarized. It is now that I bring forward the words of Rabbi Eleazar, which can be found in the Talmud:

“When the Holy One assigns high rank to a man, He assigns it to his children and his children’s children unto the end of all generations. But if that man becomes arrogant, the Holy One brings him low” (B. Meg 13b). 

If we look at Rabbi Eleazar’s excerpt at face-value, we can simply attribute his words to the discussion of royal bloodlines. A king makes a king makes a king ad nauseum.What I see is a call for responsibility from our leaders; a responsibility not only to the people that the leader is serving, but to legacy, the future, and to the Divine spark within all things. After all, does arrogance historically exclude one from being king? There have certainly been arrogant kings, and they remained in power for quite some time. Rabbi Eleazar seems to be indicating that the responsibility to justice and righteousness of a ruler cannot be ignored–at least not for long. 

Let us look at the state of affairs in our own country. Our newly minted President-elect has been chosen by God. Yes, by God, because I believe that we all contain the fragments that collectively compose God. We have chosen a leader with the trust that he will use his power with an eye toward Tikkun Olam, and a drastic betterment for the future of this world. Climate change, racial inequality, women’s reproductive rights, the rights of the LGBTQ community; all of these issues and many more hang in the balance. Not only will our new leader make a lasting impact that will attach itself to his own name, but also the name of his children, and to all of those who used their power to give him his. We hope for a leader who shows caring and humility.  

We have seen how the flipside of this works in terms of leadership. We can now begin clearing our national throat of the unholiness and arrogance that has been poorly posing as leadership. Rabbi Eleazar said of an arrogant leader that, “…the Holy One brings him low.” This has just played out before our very eyes. The Talmud tells us, “When the shepherd is lost, so are the sheep” (PRE 42; B. BK 52a). A few years ago our country chose a shepherd who not only seemed to be lost, but quick to anger and erratic. We lost too many sheep along the way, as the arrogance of the shepherd uncovered a heart as hardened as a pharaoh’s. Now the Divinity that lives inside of the people has spoken, and it has brought him down. If he will ever see the error of his own ways, and find his way to some form of teshuvah is yet to be determined. 

We can only move forward with a new leadership, and hope that we can find some hints of Moses. The Moses who took Yitro’s advice in Exodus and appointed “…capable men out of all Israel, and appointed them heads over the people” (Ex. 18:25). This is likely a good place to talk about the “capable men” portion of that verse. We have our first woman Vice President, and it is long past high time for this to have occurred. We need good women and men helping to lead our country. A diverse and inclusive cabinet is a promise that must be kept in order to maintain the proper perspective that will truly represent the breadth of this land. Exodus 19:14 says, “And Moses went down from the mount unto the people.” The Talmud asserts that Moses went directly to the people, not to his own house to deal with his own affairs, as he always had the best interest of those whom he was serving at heart. As our nation heals, we certainly crave a leader who will tend to the issues of the people first and foremost, as we have just suffered through one who is truly more concerned with his own affairs than anything else. 

I would like to begin concluding with another bit from Rabbi Eleazar, who clearly was very interested in the subject of leadership. The great Rabbi said, “Any leader who guides a community gently will merit guiding it in the world-to-come” (B Sanh 92a). I hope we are on our way to a gentle leader, who will demonstrate compassion, and an overtly kind character. I have hope (I have been using the word “tikvah” much lately) that our new leader will prove to be the humble and gentle leader that would have made Rabbi Eleazar, and will make all of us, proud. 

Let us end with the Shehecheyanu Blessing, which is generally recited when something is done for the first time in a given year. It is also recited before the eating of “first fruits,” which feels so appropriate given the brand new beginning that many feel has commenced today. May the next chapter of this country bear so much fruit for all of us. May we all come together, heal, and restore the neshamah of our nation. 

.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.”



These Three Things

Alexander The Great Kneels Before Shimon HaTzaddik

There are often times when I am reading or studying a Jewish text, and I want to share it all with you. Obviously, that is not realistic, as Judah HaNasi already redacted the Mishnah, so there is no need for me to jot that down again. Also, I don’t think you would stick around to read such volume in one sitting. On this particular day, at this particular moment, I happen to be reading the Pirkei Avot section of the Mishnah. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), is probably the most cited section of the Mishnah, and has many famous quotations. One of those prominent bits struck me in an interesting way as I was reading tonight. 

Pirkei Avot 1:2 gives us a quotation from Shimon HaTzaddik (Shimon the “just” or “righteous”). But first, a bit of a detour. Rabbi Marc Angel’s commentary gives us an interesting anecdote about an exchange between Shimon HaTzaddik and Alexander the Great. Apparently, as the latter was making his way through Eretz Yisrael, Alexander the Great met HaTzaddik and was thoroughly impressed with what Angel refers to as Shimon HaTzaddik’s “spiritual demeanor.” Alexander proceeded to demand that a statue of himself be placed in the Temple; because what better way to honor a sage’s spiritual competence than by commissioning a statue of yourself? I mean, we’ve all done it, right? No? Well, I digress. After ever-so-tactfully explaining to Alexander that statues are not allowed in the Temple, HaTzaddik does something rather smart. He tells Alexander that while he cannot accommodate his statue request, what he can do is have all the children of priests be named Alexander for a year. Better to appease Alexander than to simply tell him “no,” I presume. So, if you know any Jewish people named Alexander, and have thought, that sounds rather Hellenistic, now you know why!

Now, back to Pirkei Avot 1:2. While I usually don’t put the actual Hebrew in my posts, I am feeling a change for tonight. I will put both the Hebrew and I will transliterate for those who do not read:

עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

“Al sh’losha d’varim haolam omeid, al hatorah v’al haavodah v’al g’milut chasadim”

“On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on Divine worship, and on acts of loving-kindness.” 

These three things that Shimon HaTzaddik has so concisely and profoundly offered us seem to touch every aspect of life in one way or another. When we study and embrace Torah, we are bettering ourselves. We are expanding our minds, learning to open ourselves up to novel ideas, and honing the discipline of our own intellectual inner life. When we worship the Divine, we are fostering a relationship with a force greater than ourselves. We can exit our own minds, and enter into infinite and eternity. When in the act of worship or prayer, we might strive to leave our physical bodies aside for a moment, and look at the human experience from an elevated vantage point. Worship brings us out of any inkling of bookishness and opens our souls to the possibility of being filled with the warm radiance of Divinity. Through “g’milut chasadim,” or acts of loving-kindness, we are able to turn our attention to our relationships with others. Acts of kindness, no matter how perceptually large or small, are all gargantuan. Without human-to-human interaction and application of study and worship, we could become hermetic; and what is knowledge and Divine inspiration without including and serving our fellow humans? The Torah and God are not meant to be kept secret. How can we share with the world? 

Let us reflect for a moment. According to Shimon HaTzaddik of the Mishnah, the world is kept upright through Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindness. Perhaps you do not read the Torah, worship the Divine, or consciously partake in acts of righteousness. Perhaps it is a good time to ask ourselves some questions. What do you do to feed your mind, and your intellect? Do you challenge yourself with simple reads, or have you tried pacing your way through that more intense piece? Do you take the easier classes that you are less interested in than the classes that might stimulate your mind and interests more effectively? Do you feel challenged enough to gain a sense of accomplishment? Perhaps it is time to find your Torah. I know that not everyone attends Shabbat services weekly, or even at all. Do you have a method of connecting with a power that is far greater than yourself? Do you sense a higher purpose to your life? Have you seen the holiness in the apparently mundane lately? Perhaps it is time to find your soul’s fuel. Finally, what have you done for others? Do you serve others, and not take the time to recognize your own service? Do you spend all of your time studying or worshipping, and lose touch with the world of the living and suffering? Perhaps it is time to directly connect with the people with whom you share your world. 

May we all be blessed to find our Torah, our soul’s nutrition, and the service of loving-kindness within ourselves. If we can work to balance these three aspects of ourselves, perhaps the world will follow suit, and begin to operate more evenly and effectively. If we all search for our versions of these three things, what beautiful equilibrium we could bring to this world. 

In the meantime, no statues, Alex!



Morning Anxiety? A Jewish Suggestion

Why do I wake up with anxiety? How to reduce morning anxiety or stress -  Insider

We are living during a time when a vast majority of people are experiencing extremely high levels of anxiety. We worry about COVID-19, we worry about the results and aftermath of the elections, we worry about the safety of our children and the state of schools. The list could go on ad nauseam. There is simply no escaping the fact that 2020 (or 5780 and beginning of 5781) has been an anxiety-ridden year. If you are a person who already grappled with the sometimes-relentless clutches of anxiety, this past year has probably done nothing but exacerbate feelings of doom, fear, and dread. 

Many of you can empathize with the feeling of waking up with your heart pounding out of your chest, hypervigilant, overly alert, and panicked for no particular reason. I count myself as one of those who is prone to waking up in this abrupt and disturbing manner. What a way to start the day, right? How can you wake up on the right (or even wrong) side of the bed when it feels as if anxiety has sprung you straight out of it? Anxiety is the alarm that wakes us, and it does not do so with kid gloves on.

What can be done? I can only share what has been working for me, and perhaps something similar might be of benefit to you. Enter the Modeh Ani. I make a conscious decision to recite this blessing every morning as soon as my eyes open. When I feel that anxiety and fear start to rear its ugly head, I immediately begin chanting or simple recitation:

מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ רוח חַי וְקַיָּם שֶהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ

Modeh ah-nee lifanecha, Ru-ach chai v’kayam, she-hechezarta bee nishma-tee b’chemlah rabbah emunatecha.

“I gratefully acknowledge Your Face; Spirit lives and endures;

You return my soul to me with compassion; How great is your faith in me.”

This translation comes to us via Shefa Gold. I find particularly meaningful the change to “Ru-ach” from its original “Melech.” Ru-ach, meaning “Spirit,” leaves this blessing open to more interpretation than the more narrow “Melech,” which translates to King, and seems a bit limiting and gendered. It makes sense that we would thank the Divine for returning our souls to us, as it is customary to recite the “Hashkiveinu” in the evening. When we recite The Hashkiveinu, we request that God allow us to lie down in a state of peace and wake up with our souls restored to us. I try to look at the Modeh Ani as a direct extension of our evening plea. We ask at night, and say thank you for having our request fulfilled in the morning. 

What is this of our souls being returned to our bodies? Where did my soul go?! Oy Vey! Kabbalah and the Talmud give us some beautiful answers. According to Kabbalistic thought, God (who Heschel always reminds us is longing for human contact) cannot stand to be away from us for too long. When we sleep, at least a part of our soul ascends to the heavens, where our spirits attain a nest egg of nourishment for the next day. We return to our physical bodies with a spiritual thirst quenched just a bit more from our nightly journey. The Talmud tells us that sleep is actually 1/60 of death. Our souls depart from our bodies during sleep, but return upon waking. When we finally die, our souls simply do not return.

We express our thanks to the Divine not only for having given us the gift of another day, but also for having spiritually nourished us during our sleeping ascension to more Divine closeness. Perhaps you are thinking, “When I wake up, I definitely do not feel like I have just ascended, attained any sort of closeness with God, and then returned.” When we awaken full of fear and anxiety, we are back in our earthly bodies, which can often feel anything but perfect and restored. The last line of the blessing, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ “rabbah emunatecha” actually comes to us via Megillat Eicha, which is more widely known in the English-speaking world as the Book of Lamentations. For anyone at all familiar, this is neither a pleasant nor happy book, in that it deals with the theological crisis surrounding the aftermath of the First Temple’s destruction in 586 BCE. “How great is your faith in me.” We get such an uplifting bit from a book that is anything but. 

What to make of this? Even when we feel down, tired, drained, like we need to lament, or simply cannot get out of bed, perhaps we can take some time to be thankful for just being alive. The 100 mitzvot per day can wait for a breath or two. Sometimes just being present in the moment is enough. When our eyes open, we have our first gift of the day. Since I have begun to chant the Modeh Ani, it has actually brought me a sense of calm that I had a lot of trouble experiencing upon waking prior. Many people try to begin their day with mindfulness or gratitude practice. Perhaps this is just another way of doing so, but in a specifically Jewish manner. 

If you are struggling, give the Modeh Ani a chance, and if it does not work for you, keep trying until something does. Waking up with Divinity is such an amazing way to begin a good day. Even when we don’t immediately feel it, God and His gifts are there. It is our job to seek them, just as the Divine seeks us. Perhaps we can meet in the middle. May your mornings be calm, and your days long and full of light and wonder.