A Calf and COVID-19

Image result for golden calf torah

The parshah for this week comes at a time when illness, anxiety, and doubt are clouding the minds of most. The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 has begun its spread in the United States, and in our very own state. It has even touched our town. Parshah Ki Tisa contains what I would consider one of the most famous descriptions of mass hysteria and panic that we have on record today. Moses ascended Mount Sinai and “…delayed to come down from the mount” (Exodus 32:1). According to Hertz, The Rabbis have often claimed that Moses told the people Israel that he would be atop Mount Sinai for forty days. In actuality, Moses meant that he would descend from Sinai after spending the entirety of 40 days on the mount. On that fortieth day, the people of Israel became collectively alarmed. Their leader Moses, who was to guide them, was assumed dead or missing. Without Moses to forge the path, the people became anxiety-ridden, and in what appeared to be panic, demanded that a tangible god be made evident. Aaron was left in charge of the people Israel in Moses’ absence, and was put in a difficult situation. 

“‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us.” (Exodus 32:1) said the Israelites to Aaron. According to Torah, Aaron was the person who actually took the gold of the people and sculpted it into the infamous Golden Calf, which the Israelites began to worship. If one is to read the Torah in a cursory manner, it might seem as if Aaron, such an honorable man, was strangely complicit in this idolatrous act. According to Midrash Aggadah, and a closer look at the Torah’s text, Aaron was likely looking to halt this idol-building by the Israelites. Aaron said to the people “‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me’” (Exodus 32:2). Aggadah says that Aaron thought this request would go unheeded, as people were likely to balk at the idea of giving up the gold in their own ears. To Aaron’s amazement, the people responded to his request for gold expeditiously and in large amounts. The people literally broke the golden rings that were in their ears to provide Aaron with material for idol-building.Talmudic Rabbi Jeremiah said that upon his receipt of the gold from the Israeli people, and prior to building the golden calf, Aaron turned toward G-d and said, “..it is against my will that I am about to do this.” According to The Rabbis, the fickle nature of humankind was on display here. The same people who gave their gold and silver to the Sanctuary were so quick to give this same material for idolatrous reasons. All of this occurred just weeks after G-d told the people “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image” (Exodus 20:4). 

Yes, Moses does eventually descend from Sinai, becomes very angry, breaks the tablets in his hands, and absolutely destroys the golden calf. At this point in the Parshah for the week, we might be compelled to ask why. Why did the Israelites so quickly turn anxiety and fear into full-blown panic and hysterical dancing at a bovine sculpture? If we look at this issue in the context of today’s COVID-19 pandemic, there is a psychology that underlies this type of behavior. Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, claims that buying many things during a time of crisis gives people some sense of control. If you have been paying any attention to the news, you are likely aware that it is close to impossible in some places to find toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and antibacterial cleaners. People want to feel that they have some control in what seems like an unpredictable world. Moses had led the people of Israel out of the horrors of Egypt, and many had likely hung on his word with bated breath. When he behaved in an unexpected manner, people “panic-bought” a golden calf. Yes, the money all went to Aaron, not to Target or Costco, but the psychology is similar. Throw your money at something to ease your anxiety. If I am stocked up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, perhaps I will be OK and make it through these very uncertain times. If I throw all of my gold at the building of an idol, I will have something tangible to pray to, and my anxiety will reduce. 

If we can take anything away from this discussion, we must remember that Moses returned to the people of Israel, and G-d was always there. What kind of damage do we do when in a panic? Yes, the reality of a pandemic is very scary, as is the idea that our consistent “Moses” has disappeared. We all tend to seek comfort in tangibility. Sometimes we buy toilet paper, and sometimes we buy a golden calf to dance around. We must remember that times have been uncertain before, and G-d has never left. Aaron says “Unto Thee I lift up my eyes, O Thou that art enthroned in the heavens” (Ps. 123:1). Mishkan T’filah tells us on page 57 that, “when anxiety makes us tremble…we look inward for the answer to our prayers. There may we find You…” 
During this uncertain time, I would like to say: “Baruch atah Adonai, asher b’yado nefesh kol chai v’ruach kol b’sar ish” Praised are you, Adonai, whose hands hold the soul of every living creature. Also, the Talmud tells us, “Whoever makes light of the washing of his hands will be uprooted from the world” (Sot. 4b). So, remember to wash those hands, keep panic at bay, and remember that building a golden calf in panic will not resolve our anxieties. Look upward and inward for peace.

Shalom

-Joshua

Hineini! “Here I am!”

So, I know it has been a minute since I have posted on here, but as you can see from the above family picture, we have a new little lady on the way, and life has been a bit hectic. However, I have been writing some Divrei Torah that I would like to share. These upcoming posts might be a bit more formal and “academic” than some of my former posts, but this is where I am at on my journey right now, so I appreciate the readership!

The first post will be from Parshah Beshalach, which was the Parshah only a couple of weeks ago. I will then post some thoughts on Parshah Yitro (last week’s portion), and then go from there.

I have received some feedback about the wish to contact me. If you wish to reach out, please feel free to e-mail me at joshgraymusic@gmail.com and I will answer you as soon as possible. Any thoughts, comments, or suggestions for topics are welcome.

I have missed all of you very much, and I look forward to getting back to sharing with you.

“In our very own Reform Siddur, Mishkan T’Filah, page 39 tells us, “That the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.” What is the promise that the Jewish people have sojourned through countless wildernesses, both literal and figurative, for? Is it simply the literal nation of Israel, or could it also be the promise of better moments; todays and tomorrows, if we strive to live our lives with a bit of hope and song in our hearts? We are called to remember the tribulations and sacrifices of those who came before us, and to enjoy the beautiful song-filled moments as they occur.

In this week’s Parshah, Beshalach, G-d has finally led the Israelites out of Egypt, beginning the long trek toward the promised land of Canaan. G-d did not direct the children of Israel to take the easiest and most direct route, however. Instead of passing directly through the land of the Philistines, the Israelites were instructed by G-d to wander toward the Red Sea and through the wilderness. According to Hertz’s commentary, if the people of Israel had passed through the land of the Philistines, they could have arrived in Canaan in only 11 days. As many of us know, the roundabout way took 40 years; with many of these years being quite trying.

The Jewish people have historically been tried and tested, but we have always survived and endured. Even after years of enslavement, Torah tells us that, “The children of Israel went out with a high hand” (Ex. 14:8). In other words, The Jews left Egypt after centuries of enslavement with an aura of fearless confidence in spite of less-than-desirable circumstances. The Jews were delivered from Egypt, and guided along an indirect path, even finding themselves between a charging army of 600 chariots, and a vast Sea of Reeds. While many people were questioning G-d while standing at the shore of the sea, “Moses stretched forth his hand…” (Ex. 14:27) and the Jews crossed on dry land.

The Jews crossed the Sea and immediately sang with joy the “Song at the Red Sea,” or “The Song.” We still sing part of that song, “Mi Chamochah,” on every Erev Shabbat to this day, which ends with the phrase “Adonai Yimloch L’olam Vaed,” or “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.” According to the Sefer Ha-Aggadah, and Rabbi Meir specifically, every child of Israel sang The Song after crossing, including the fetuses that were still in their mother’s wombs. Even those who were not yet born were able to sense the Divine Presence of the moment. It is vital that we take time to sing the joy that is in our hearts, as song can be so powerful, and can often convey what the spoken word struggles to communicate. In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva claims that the controversial scriptural book “Song of Songs,” authored by King Solomon, is the “holy of holies.” Singing and rejoicing enriches moments.

It is also important that we remember that the victory of Israel was not complete, due to the suffering that the Egyptians endured. A medieval rabbi reminds us that during the Pesach Seder, when a drop of wine is removed from the cup at the mention of each plague, we are reminding the People Israel that our own cup of joy cannot be entirely full while others suffer (Hertz, p. 270). It is our responsibility as modern Jews to remember the role of the Egyptians. Beshalach teaches us how G-d showed His nature by sheltering the righteous Israelites and destroying the unrighteous Egyptians. G-d used the hardened heart of the Pharaoh to show the world that a righteous G-d indeed exists.

When the Jews continued to journey into the wilderness, thirst and hunger eventually set in, and many still questioned G-d’s will, even after witnessing the miracle at the Red Sea. After deliverance from Egypt, an oceanic miracle of vast proportions, and a song of utmost joy, the work was still not done—just as the journey of the Jew is never complete. We are a people who must rely on resilience, and embrace taking on new challenges, often avoiding the easiest and most direct path. The destination is often the journey, and we can remember to sing when we feel joy, but never take pleasure in the suffering of others. We can strive to live our own lives with an eye toward improving the future of our world and people, while never forgetting our past, and those who came before us. The path will not always be smooth and clear, but the path, no matter how unsteady, is our promise as Jews. As our own Mishkan T’Filah reminds us, “The Exodus lasted a moment, a moment enduring forever. What happened once upon a time happens all the time” (Mishkan T’Filah, p. 45).  

May we all be blessed to sing and rejoice when the heart calls for it, remember with solemnity and respect when we must, and continue wandering through the wilderness of our modern world with a sense of purpose, and a “high hand” of fearless confidence that is all our own.”

Shalom,

Joshua

A Moment Ago

27 January 1945
27 January 2020

This did not happen 7 decades and 5 years ago.
This happened yesterday.

No.
This happened a moment ago.

6 million of us.
Not them.
Us.
6 million of our children.
Children who were born prior to us.
Our children because we care for them.
We care for their legacy.
We cannot let their memories fade with half a breath.

How can one forget the horrors of a moment ago?

6 million children.
Children of ours and His or Hers.
6 million flames extinguished by evil fire.
Never slowly burning.
Blown out wildly by beasts.

It happened here.
It did not happen there.
Our children wept, scratched, clawed, gasped for final breaths.
Our children died.

How can we move on?
Forget?
Forgive, even?

This did not happen 7 decades and 5 years ago.
This happened behind my heel.
Where my steps just were.

This was now.

The tears cannot dry.
The scars cannot heal.
The flowers cannot bloom.
The sun cannot rise.

The source of water still flows freely.
The wounds are fresh from today.
A child’s clothes cover the flower beds.
It is still night.

This happened a moment ago.

A Beard Discussion

I have a beard right now. So, facial hair always becomes a big deal for me. For some reason, whenever I begin to grow anything that starts to resemble a beard, a myriad of emotions and opinions get involved. My wife tends to like when I have a beard, and would also prefer that I grow my hair as long as it was when I was in my 20’s. She would like to see me adorned with a beard and a “man bun.” My mother claims that my face is too nice to be covered up with a beard, and that it is just a bad idea in general. She does like it when my hair is “longer” though…but not too long…but not short. Also, some facial hair is OK, but just not too much…She can explain. Honestly, sometimes I just forget to shave, and the beard begins to happen, and then I see how long I can go before the itchiness and commentary begins to become too troublesome. I think that a lot of the strong emotions tied to my facial hair stem from the fact that I suddenly began to grow a beard at the age of 27. As soon as my son was born under traumatic circumstances (that more serious post will surely come at some point), I gained the ability to grow a beard. I was literally aged overnight. But, I digress.

Like all things on this blog, let’s look at this Jewishly:

According to Leviticus 19:27: “You shall not round off the corners on your head, or destroy the corners of your beard.” 

It seems that many observant Jewish men have avoided shaving due to the interpretation of this line from Torah, and many let their beards grow long and free. Apparently, the scholarly Talmudic Rabbis also considered beards to be very beautiful on men, and there actually exists a list of rabbis whose beauty is comparable to the (bearded) Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I learned that there was a very physically attractive rabbi, Rabbi Yochanan, who was excluded from this chic list due to the simple fact that he did not have a beard! 

This beardly conversation extends beyond Judaism as well. Let’s turn our attention to 11-year-old Grace Bedell. In 1860, future president Abraham Lincoln’s face was as smooth as mine was when I was a teen. Grace wrote Lincoln a letter letting him know that he needed some “whiskers,” as his face was “too thin,” and “all the ladies like whiskers.” She assured Lincoln that he would certainly be elected president were he to simply grow a beard. Miss Bedell’s words did not go unheeded by future president Lincoln, who wrote her back within four days, and then proceeded to begin growing out those trademark whiskers. The rest, as they say, is history. Was Grace Bedell ultimately responsible for the election of a president who is now famous for his beard? Well, she obviously didn’t hurt his chances. 

I read a bit about Kabbalistic Rabbi Issac Luria, more widely known as Ari. It has been said that he considered the facial hair to be so holy that he was reluctant to even touch his own face for fear of some hairs falling out of his own beard. That is certainly some dedication to a holy beard. 

My beard is currently at a level of thickness and length that it has not achieved in quite some time, and perhaps there is some level of semi-conscious Jewishness to my shaving ambivalence. 

It seems to me, based on my quick research, that if I continue to let the facial hair run free, the worst case scenarios that could befall me would be: (1) I become a world leader, or (2) I do not exclude myself from a place on a Talmudic list of beautiful rabbis. 

I’ll go with Leviticus and Grace for now. 

Shabbat Shalom if I don’t see you.

-Joshua

Marching Together

Current Read: (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump

This evening I had the wonderful opportunity to be involved in an extremely important community event. Our Temple-Synagogue Religious School was part of robust programming for a community-wide celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., given that Monday is officially Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United states. This event was held at a local church, and we had a handful of students and teachers from our religious school present. The kids did some readings that talked about the similarities in treatment and oppression that have plagued both the Jewish and African American communities over time, and I was proud to assist with the singing of Hineih Mah Tov and Oseh Shalom. While many of the event’s speakers approached the subject matter from various Christian perspectives, it felt (and still feels) extremely important that even a small Jewish voice was present at the event during this chilly afternoon. 

As I have been reading about in Jonathan Weisman’s latest book (the link is above), there exists a strong historical connection between Jews and African Americans in terms of the civil rights movement in the American south. When one thinks of the horrors of the Ku Klux Klan, the horrific treatment, intimidation and violence against African Americans directly arises in the consciousness of the majority, and for good reason. Did you also know that Rabbi Ira Sanders took the stand in Little Rock, Arkansas to combat legislation that promoted segregation? Rabbis and Jewish civil rights allies were harassed, beaten, and attacked for their opposition to segregation and discrimination. Weisman’s book discusses the beating of Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld during a march in Hattiesburg, and the Klan bombing of Rabbi Perry Nusbaum’s Jackson, Mississippi synagogue in 1967 (his house was also subsequently bombed). What many Jews might recall as the strongest connection between the African American and Jewish communities during the 1960’s is the image, mental or otherwise, of Martin Luther King Jr. joining arms with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as they famously marched from Selma to Montgomery. 

It is important that classically oppressed people have each others’ backs; and today’s event felt like an important local step to ensure that community connections are made, and that we, as Jews, do not become so insular as to disconnect from the rest of the world due to our unique type of historical suffering. Jonathan Weisman does claim that most anti-Semitism does not get to “…flourish out in the open”, and “When anti-Semitism flares, it is usually inflamed by people who don’t know Jews all that well, if at all.” It seems that Weisman’s view of anti-Semitism is that it can be stealthy, until it is too late. Jews are generally viewed as the strange “other”. The “other” that cannot always be so easily identifiable in a physical sense by those who are eager to spew hatred and vitriol against a group of people. The Jew becomes a strange idea to many, and one of the only methods to combat this type of singular ignorance is to be seen and heard.

Yes, to be a Jew is to embrace some practices that are different from society’s idea of the norm. It is easy to find an hour or so of commonality with people of all colors when at the end of the day, everyone is praying to the same Jesus Christ. Jews do not share this religious similitude with people who might differ in skin tone, but convene in prayer. This simply means that we must find the human congruity that exists within all of us, regardless of color, creed, or any other possible difference. Jews do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, but we do believe in the repairing of the world, or Tikkun Olam. How can we repair the world if we cannot build beautiful and fruitful relationships with those who might not think just like us, but who cry like us, laugh like us, and hope like us. We all feel loss, love, disappointment, shame, and exaltation. If we thank Adonai or Jesus in a moment of bliss, how truly different are we as a people? 

I believe that Abraham Joshua Heschel and so many other Jewish leaders and thinkers like him marched with African Americans for justice and peace because to see any group oppressed is to see a world of oppression. In Judaism, if one life is diminished, so is the entire world. So yes, Our strange-seeming Hebrew songs and our different views on Messiah (Mashiach) might seem a bit foreign to some. But, our goal should not be to exist in a world that is colorblind. We can admit to noticing our differences of color, creed, and many other attributes. It is OK to see our disparities. We must not feign naivete. What is important is that we celebrate our differences in a way that enriches our kinship, and creates a beautiful potpourri of perspectives and worldviews. 

Whatever lens you see the world through can be resplendent and joyful, as long as it is one of respect and inclusiveness. I hope that our religious school students’ brief moments on the stage during the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration will spark at least one person to deepen their curious compassion regarding the Jewish people and our unique experiences. 

When all of the talk of fighting oppression, social injustice and discrimination becomes overwhelming and like a seemingly insurmountable task to bear, it seems we can all take the following advice of Martin Luther King Jr.:

“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” 

May we all find the great things that seem small in our own lives, and make a commitment to engaging in them with a full heart, and remembering the advice of our own Mishkan T’filah:

“There is no way to get from here to there, except by joining hands, marching together.”

March we have, and continue to march we will.

Shalom,

Joshua

One King Away

This week we have moved on in our Torah reading cycle to the Book of Exodus, or Shemot. This parshah is particularly resonant in one of its earliest messages. The Book of Genesis tells us of Jacob and his sons, and how Joseph became one of the most powerful people in all of Egypt, even though he was a Jew. Upon the conclusion of Genesis, it almost seems as if the Jewish people should possibly let their guards down and be comfortable. Joseph died at the ripe old age of 110, and was even buried in Egypt. Generations of Joseph’s family remained in Egypt and lived out their days. It seems that this Jewish family was fully assimilated and accepted.

Fast forward to Shemot, and a glance at just how quickly the tables can turn against the Jewish people. The Torah tells us of a new King who arose over Egypt who knew not Joseph. This new King decided that there were far too many Jews in the land of Egypt, saw them as a potential threat to the kingdom, eventually enslaved them, and forced them into lives of oppressive labor. The King became so paranoid regarding the Jewish people that he demanded that all newborn male Jewish babies be killed via drowning in the Nile. This story eventually leads us to Moses and his journey. 

Does this ancient turn of events not ring just as true in modern times as it did during the time of Torah? Jews can assimilate, live comfortable and even highly successful lives, but there always exists the possibility that the dominant culture will turn toward scapegoating, violence, and even genocide when it comes to the Jews. All it took in Shemot was one King of Egypt and a willing populace. The King became wary of the Jewish people, he blamed the Jewish people, and he enslaved and killed the Jewish people. Adolph Hitler was wary of the Jewish people, he blamed the Jewish people, and he enslaved and killed the Jewish people. Once it happened in the Torah, and most recently (on a grand scale at least) it happened in Nazi Germany. One instance was thousands of years ago, the other, mere decades. 

Even when the storms of prejudice and hatred toward the Jews seem to be at bay (they are not right now), we must never allow anyone to forget how swiftly the tides of society can turn to darkness. The Jews of Egypt were numerous and successful for a time; as were the Jews of Europe. One leader who expresses mistrust, aggression and hatred can, and has, changed the course of Jewish history. We cannot teach The Holocaust “too much” or be “too focused” on Jewish suffering as we educate our children. We as Jews simply cannot afford to become complacent or entirely comfortable. As I have written before, and as the Mishkan T’filah tells us: “…wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt.” 

Is it over the top to figuratively sleep with one eye open as a people? I do not believe so. History and Torah seem to teach us that we should be accepting of the stranger, as we were once strangers, or perhaps always are, save Israel. The Torah also seems to give us fair warning; signalling to us the potential consequences of nonchalance. Joseph was alive to see the children of three generations of Ephraim in Egypt, and again, one King was all that was required to drastically alter the narrative. 

The Jews of Egypt. The Jews of Europe. Looking back through history you can find so many more cases that I will not list comprehensively. If you are interested, look up what else happened on the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. It has nothing to do with Columbus, and everything to do with the expulsion of the Jewish people. 

What do we take away from the Torah and from history? History is doomed to repeat itself unless we remain steadfast in our mission to prevent anyone from ever forgetting the horrors that have occurred across eras.The Jew is always living on the edge of assimilated society, and must remain friendly and welcoming, but vigilant. Always be teaching and be taught, and remember that any anti-Semitic moment, be it seemingly small or large, is momentous. We simply cannot afford to “let it slide” as a people. The slope is too slippery, and the repercussions far too dire. Be kind, but remain aware.

We are always one King away from one who knew not Joseph. 

Shalom,

Joshua

Sorry to Kvetch

I do make a conscious effort to keep this blog as positive as possible, but let’s face it–sometimes we all need to kvetch a bit. As sleep seems to elude me on this particular night, I recently found myself scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed. By nature of my interests (Jewish thought, study, practice, etc.) I have a myriad of Jewish websites and organizations whose posts flood my feed. I have noticed a trend that I do find a bit disturbing, and I am not calling it universal. Perhaps what I am witnessing is just a case of synchronicity, but I am beginning to doubt that. 

While the majority of periodicals, websites, and writings that concern Judaism are thoughtful, educational, and often inspirational, there do seem to be many exceptions. I am going to target some millennials now, and I am absolutely allowed to do this due to the fact that I am considered to be a part of this group. The vast majority of the articles and posts that I see on many pages (I won’t name them here) that are meant to appeal to millennials and Gen-Z are…well…cringeworthy. If I see another article with the variation of the titles, “10 signs that you’re a Jew in New York City” or “25 Reasons Why Bagels in Williamsburg Should Have Mustaches” (OK, I made that one up. But, it’s really not that far off), I might have to blow into a shofar or something. 

Don’t get me wrong. Anyone who knows me is aware of my lively sense of humor, and my willingness to find the fun and lightness in all things possible. I am however, starting to get a bit worried. I read numerous articles around the holidays wherein young Jewish writers referred to themselves as “grinchy” and “scroogey”, and then went on to write about secondhand shopping, and navigating how to date people who work on Wall Street, as legitimate activities of Judaism. Yikes. 

As a Jew who happens to be a millennial, these facts worry me on a couple of different levels. Are younger Jews so void of Jewish education and interest that a “Jewish” website or periodical featuring The demographic of interest has been relegated to promoting material that is reminiscent of some reality TV Jewish-Kardashian type of schlock? I know that when I write a post, I want it to be thoughtful and attempt to at least touch upon some Torah, or Jewish teachings, thoughts, and ideas. Also, if one is truly a practicing, educated, or well-informed Jew, we should know that being called a “grinch” or “scrooge” is anti-Semitic in that it implies a Jew’s lack of Christian practice as a hostile act. We should be bothered by being labeled as such, and we should absolutely avoid using it in reference to ourselves! 

I do believe that much of these issues harken back to the religious non-affiliation of the young Jew in America. When Jewish places of worship and study do not interest and draw in the millennial or Gen-Z Jew, we are left with generations of Jewish people whose Jewish identities are relegated to their memories of summer camp, their favorite Jewish delicatessens, and witnessing how their parents observe Judaism. Many young Jews seem to be identifying largely in a cultural sense that lacks any sort of profound practice or affiliation. If one does not daven, read Torah, study Hebrew, or engage with Jewish texts, what remains appears to be some idea of Judaism as it exists in the minds of those who view Jews as archetypal cultural caricatures eating bagels and deli, while also possessing strange attitudes about Christmas.

Perhaps much of the material that is out there is a reflection of the times that we live in. Easy reads and instant gratification rule the day. It is obviously much simpler to read a list of “25 things every Jewish 20-something needs to know about J Date” (or something) than to delve into an article that deals with a topic that tackles Jewish perspectives on current issues with a Torah-based backdrop.

I recognize that we, as Jews in the Diaspora, are constantly walking the line between assimilation into dominant culture versus maintaining healthy Jewish identities. When I see the promotion of trivial cultural writings on popular mainstream Jewish sites that employ the usage of anti-Semitic tropes, I worry. I am not intending to be judgmental, but only aspiring to maintain Jewish interest, study, and engagement that recognizes the robust and bountiful beauty of spiritual life and knowledge that is Judaism. 

I sincerely hope that the millennial and Gen-Z Jews of America will find their way to a Judaism that is deep and meaningful as I have been able to. I feel it is my responsibility as a member of the demographic to let my fellow young Jews know that it is OK to feel moved to pray, to study, to read. If we do not lift one another up to see the rich profundity of Judaism, we will be stuck with more lists about the best everything bagel in Bushwick in place of thoughtful discussion on pressing Jewish issues. We must move into the future as educated, enthusiastic Jewish people if we are to continue thriving. 

And thrive we must!

Thank you for letting me kvetch a bit.

Shalom,

Joshua

“Go!”

I have been spending a lot of time lately thinking about what it means to be brave. When we are children, being brave and bold can start with sliding down the big slide on the playground for the first time, or finally taking that dive into the deep end of the pool during a sweltering summer day. Sometimes we walk over to a new face we did not previously know, and that figment becomes a fast friend. Being brave is tangible and often immediate when we are young and eager. 

If we are lucky enough, we inevitably grow up a bit. Responsibilities, routines, and other facts of adult life can bog down the thrill that comes with being brave and bold. When one is tied to a desk for 40 hours in a week, it is often difficult to match the sensation of riding your bike down that big hill you were always warned about by the old people when you were 10. 

While pondering bravery and boldness as an adult, I immediately found my mind wandering to parshah Lech-Lecha (which is not the Torah portion for this week). I thought of how G-d told Abram (later to be Abraham) to leave his father’s house, and go to a land that He would show him. Abram, his wife Sarai (later Sarah), and nephew Lot, picked up and left on a new and unknowable journey. Lech-Lecha can be translated to “go” or “leave.” G-d told Abram to make a change, and Abram listened. One of the more impressive details of the parshah is that Abram was not a spring chicken by any stretch when he made this massive life change. He was 75-years-old. Abram displayed a tremendous amount of bravery and boldness at an advanced age. 

How one interprets the message of this Torah portion is largely dependent upon how one interprets Torah in a more macro sense. Did Abram hear the literal voice of G-d, or was G-d the urge or push that lived inside of Abram at this time in his life? Was he answering a Divine call to action from within himself?

Don’t we all have a little voice inside of us that guides us through decisions–whether they be daily minutiae or larger life-changers? Abram’s willingness to heed the call can inspire us as adults to maintain that thrilling bravery that can sometimes vanish in tandem with our own perceptions of youth. It is never too late to change your life. Are you happy doing what you are doing? Have you always wanted to try something–travel somewhere–do something–be something? There are so many roadblocks that we can create, and there certainly always exist a sundry of reasons not to try something. We might not all change from Abram to Abraham (“The Father of Many Nations”), but regret is much worse than failure. It is certainly better to try and fail than never to try at all. 

If you take one thing from this short post, I wish it to be this: I hope you will listen to the divinity or spark–the eternal light that lives inside of you. Heed the call of your own soul. It is simply never too late to be everything that you have ever dreamed of and more. 

In other words, be brave–Lech-Lecha!

Shalom,

Joshua

Connection by Disconnecting

My brothers often make fun of me for being a bad millennial. They ask me why I even have an iPhone, and comment on the fact that I would likely be well-served by an old school style flip phone. “You use the ESPN app, the Internet and some Jewish apps.” This is true. I have one sibling who can literally build computers for fun, and another who can expertly navigate complex musical recording software. I sometimes use the flashlight feature on my phone to find something in the dark or to see if my throat is red when sore.

While I am not technologically illiterate, I think that I do spend more time trying to find the beauty in things that are becoming obsolete as opposed to updating my tech. For example, I refuse to buy a kindle. I read a lot, but I don’t think I will ever be able to replace the smell and feel of one new book in my hand with an electronic device that stores thousands of them. There is something magical about holding a book, as there is something divine about reading from the Torah. 

Those of my generation still remember what it was like to grow up without technology. Most of my younger days were lived without a computer. When our home got its first computer, it was in my parents’ room, and was a fairly nebulous white machine to my puerile mind. I did not have a cell phone until I was in the 10th grade, and the phone I did have was that old clunky Nokia that had no texting ability (texting did not exist yet). I mostly kept that device in my backpack, and really did not have much use for it. During my even younger days, if I wanted to play with a friend, it actually required either calling their house on a telephone, or…going to their house in person and ringing the doorbell. *Gasp* I am glad that I can use technology, but I am also truly thankful that I got to experience childhood without the sundry of screens that dominate today.

While a schul is a great place to become connected, I am finding that much of its beauty lies in its ability to profoundly enhance my propensity to disconnect. The Shabbat Siddur discusses retreating from the flight of time, and pausing for a while to listen to the rain. When I am at Temple, I find that I am simply able to exhale in a manner that is different from exhalation anywhere else. I can release the stress and tension that comes along with a world that is so connected that privacy and mystery are mostly a thing of the past to now be reflected upon. The Temple is a window into a time when we listened to each other speak–in person. When the Rabbi gives his Drashah, or leads a prayer, we, as congregants, live at once singularly and connectedly. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or any other avenue of social media cannot replicate the tangible energy that dances so freely in a physical space. How can you ever get a feel for a room full of people if you never entirely immerse yourself in one? 

I believe that there is much to be gained by sitting with others–by oneself. In Judaism, we honor the past and those who lived there. This is not to say that I am naively looking into the past with rose-colored glasses. The past is not some idyllic Pleasantville in which the milkman waved hello as he strolled by in his white getup. Let’s be honest–most people have some sort of dairy allergy. Also, as Jews and other marginalized groups know all too well, the past was not without its trials, tribulations, injustices, and traumas. But, this does not mean that we cannot pull positivity and meaning from an imperfect place. There was something charming about a time when we passed hand-written notes and did not mindlessly click “like.” There was a mindfulness to living without constant connection. You kind of had to work for it. 

The schul is my link to a time–perhaps aggrandized by my mind–in which connection happened in a consequential manner. There are no phones, no computers, and no updates during a service. There is a bridge…a bridge to the ancients, and a bridge to my own personal antiquity. 

So, maybe my brothers are right. I might be lacking when it comes to many forms of technological savviness (I think I get along just fine), but I am happy to experience the stillness and quietude that allow me to breathe life into my connection with a perception and place that exist outside of the walls of time.

Shalom,

Joshua

What Can We Do?

“What can we do?”

 the Rabbi asked us to reflect upon these words during his drashah. Outside of the Temple, a New York State Trooper patrolled between the two local schuls, ensuring that the soft targets that are our houses of worship would not be welcoming to those whose intentions were troublesome or worse. 

I have written much about the scourge of anti-Semitism, and how its rise in the United States and the world is more than a bit unsettling. I will not spend another post rattling off statistics or talking about the latest incident of violence against Jews. Instead, I want to reflect and then act upon the Rabbi’s question. What can I do to make a difference? 

Firstly, I will be proud of my Judaism. When we start hiding or becoming too insular, anti-Semitism does not go away. We simply put our heads in the sand while the dust storm ravages the land that exists above our chosen momentary level of consciousness. 

I will have conversations with those whose views differ from my own. If I do not agree with you, and you do not agree with me, I still hope we can have a beautifully human conversation. The world is filled to the brim with disparateness, but only by having those uncomfortable conversations, and sometimes embracing the harsh silences sprinkled throughout, can we see one another as multidimensional and fully human. 

I will tell you if you are a part of the problem, and I hope you will hold me to the same standard. When our synagogues need arming, the little things can not slide. Any language or actions that degrade, dehumanize, or serve to imbrute Jews or any other marginalized group will not be accepted as part of the composition of my conversations and experiences.

I will educate, even as I learn more. I was watching a short YouTube documentary about a non-Jewish man who spent the day alongside a Hasidic Rabbi in their shared neighborhood in Brooklyn. They lived life in a parallel fashion alongside one another, but had never communicated before. At the end of their shared day, both men came to the conclusion that it truly is difficult to hate someone whom you get to know. I will be a part of the educational “getting to know you” process as much as possible. If someone asks me a question about Jews, Jewish people, Jewish practices etc., I will try to answer. If I don’t know, I will admit that, and then proceed to find out. Education is as incredibly rich for the educator as it is for the learner. Please ask questions, and I will sincerely try to answer them, even from my lay position. Education is the nemesis of ignorance.

Finally, I will fight through fear, uncertainty, and pain. No matter what efforts are taken, anti-Semitism will not just fade away or suddenly cease as a hail storm. This does not mean that we cannot pick up the pieces. Although it might seem at times to be a Sisyphean task, Jews have never been a people who are prone to giving in or giving up. Even as horrors occur and the pieces continue to fall around me, I will do what I can to pick some up; at least in some small way. 

Moses and the people of Israel stood at the vastness of the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army fast approaching. The people could have easily been dissuaded and overcome by the tremendous obstacle that lay before them. Even with the sea at his feet, Moses did not slump over in defeat, or collapse prostrate to the sandy earth. No, Moses did just the opposite. He stood up, tall and majestic, lifted his arms up over his head, parted the Red Sea, and led the People Israel across to continue their journey. What met the people on the other side was not an oasis, or final destination to be settled. More traveling and work was to be done.

How many seas must we, as Jews or allies, part in order to continue to sojourn?

As many as it takes. 

Shalom,

Joshua