Climb Every Mountain

...They entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain.
— Exodus 19:2

We are a few days away from Shavuot, marking the re-giving of the Torah and our reliving of this holy event. We tend to focus on words - the sacred words we received and have passed on for generations. And yet, in any close reading of the biblical texts of Sinai, words were actually less significant to the ancient Israelites than the setting itself: the mountain surrounded by desert, the smoke, thunder and thick clouds. The special effects shaped the day.

Reading the above verse casually, one might think that the choice of location for the giving of the Ten Commandments was basically a function of the scenery. The ancient Israelites came into a wilderness, picked a nice spot in front of mountain and set up camp there. The Rashbam, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, medieval commentator and grandson of the exegete Rashi, reminds us that this was no accident but the very spot indicated much earlier in Exodus. Moses asked God what to say when the people would question his judgment in Egypt: "I will be with you; that shall be your sign that I was who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain" (3:12). They did not merely land at a special place; this place was predetermined while the Israelites were still slaves in Egypt.

 In other words: location, location, location.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen famously wrote: "What are men to rocks and mountains?" The way you create awe and reverence is to deliver your most dramatic remarks in the most dramatic of places. The combination will result in unforgettable impact.

While we as a people have not climbed every mountain, mountains certainly make dramatic appearances in the Hebrew Bible. Moses stayed on top of a mountain for forty days and nights preparing himself to bring the Ten Commandments to his people. The giving of the Ten Commandments takes place on a mountain, an event we celebrate and relive every year at Shavuot. The curses and blessings of Deuteronomy were given on two mountain tops. Jotham in Judges 9 challenges the people's choice of ruler on top of a mountain ,and Elijah invites the idol worshipping priests on top of a mountain to contest their powers.

Of the mountains mentioned, here are a few of the most famous in the Bible: Horeb, Seir, Gilboa, Hermon, Moriah, Hor, Pisgah, Ebal, Ephraim, Carmel, Gerizim, Sedom, and Tabor. From Mount Zion to the Mount of Olives and then the Judean Mountains, these high protrusions into the sky suggest power and domination, aspiration and mystical heights while producing in those who admire them an acute sense of humility and the fragility of human life. Because mountains offer a sense of touching eternity, a 16th century code of Jewish law recommends that people not pray on mountain tops lest they become swept up in the sense of their own dominance. Prayer is always best accomplished through a sense of our smallness. 

Because Sinai was supposed to be imprinted into the conscious DNA of the Jewish people, the event had to be as memorable as possible. Words alone cannot create that. Background counts. Noise counts. Preparation counts. Fear counts. Love counts. Anticipation counts. All of these elements contributed to the imprint. Today, we mistakenly think that study alone will help us return to Sinai, but it was not words alone that characterized the original event. It was words in conjunction with nature, and not just any aspect of nature but its most dramatic elements. "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity" wrote john Muir in Our National Parks.

This Shabbat, the day that leans into Shavuot, we begin reading the book of Numbers - our account of the wilderness years. Between the middle of Exodus and the beginning of Numbers, we realize that to celebrate Shavuot properly, our task is not only to study inside but also to stand outside in awe of the natural universe and to marvel at how nature draws us to God and to embrace higher personal aspirations. 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Shavuot.

Art Attack

You shall not make a graven image...
— Exodus 20:4

This week the conceptual artist Chris Burden died at 69. This may not be news to you, but in many ways, he revolutionized art as we know it by being among the first to use his body as a piece of art.  Burden was shot, dropped, kicked down stairs, starved and electrocuted himself for the sake of his art. In his obituary in The New York Times, Burden's contribution is described this way: "Where traditional artists had long depicted images on canvas, he became the canvas - and a highly distressed canvas at that."

Perhaps it was Burden who served as the inspiration for the strangest novel I read this year - or possibly ever, The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. It depicts a family - a couple and two children - who live as works of art, posing and staging bizarre and often dangerous performances in malls and supermarkets to unsuspecting onlookers. They test the limits of performance and of the meaning of family if every moment offers the possibility of being an object of curiosity. Needless to say, this lifestyle was a bit of a strain on the children. "'Great art is difficult,'" Caleb [the Fang son] said. After a few moments, he said, 'But I don't understand why it has to be so difficult sometimes.'" 

Since we are soon to read the Ten Commandments on Shavuot, I thought I would focus on the second commandment, the prohibition of idol worship that has largely shaped Judaism's complex relationship with visual art:

"You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand [generations] of those who love me and keep my commandments," [Exodus 20:3-6].

Most of the Ten Commandments are pithy and straightforward. Not killing and not bearing false witness seem to require little explanation. Yet our second commandment is lengthy and cumbersome. We are mandated not only to refrain from the worship of an image but the very creation of one. This led writer Cynthia Ozick to the conclusion that this commandment alone put the kibosh on Jewish art: "Where is the Jewish Michelangelo, the Jewish Rembrandt, the Jewish Rodin? He has never come into being. Why?" She ponders why Jews have been influential in so many fields but not in the arena of the visual arts. She boils it down to the second commandment.

This is a gross oversimplification of the commandment and of the history of the relationship between Jews and art. Several chapters after the commandments were revealed at Sinai were Jews told to create a portable sanctuary in the wilderness led by chief artisan Bezalel. This building was to be a spiritual and aesthetically pleasing centerpiece for the ancient Israelite journey home. Aesthetics and their interplay with worship are again important in the building of the First and Second Temples. The problem identified in the biblical text is not making any art but in limiting God to a visual image or even worse, believing that a human being can craft a divine being. That crosses the line into transgressive behavior.

Some scholars believe that it wasn't the second commandment that obstructed Jewish involvement in the plastic arts but a long history of persecution and exile. In other words, it was not theological but practical. Without a country and an autonomous governing structure, it is hard to patronize the arts and help them flourish. The uprooted nature of Jewish life in the Diaspora may have gotten in the way of investing in the beauty of one's surroundings. It's the difference between putting up art in a rental home where you may not be allowed to make any marks on a wall or decorating a permanent home.

Those interested in the subject may want to read Vivian Mann's book, Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts, Richard Cohen's book Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe or Kalman Bland's book, The Artless Jew among many others. These scholars, from different vantage points, flesh out the conversation on what our real rather than perceived notions are about art and the Jews.

It's hard to say how personal performance art is regarded in light of the second commandment. What happens when you become the graven image you are not supposed to worship? If conceptual art of this kind is made to encourage adoration or fixation, it may be a problem. If it is designed to disturb or provoke, it may be fine from a Jewish legal standpoint but lead to the question that became the title of a Tolstoy book of non-fiction: What is art?

Shabbat Shalom

Police State

You shall appoint judges and police officers at all your gates that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.
— Deutoronomy 16:18

The number of incidents involving police violence and then subsequent public protest in the past many months has been heartbreaking. In New York and Baltimore, Ferguson and North Charleston tensions are high. Only last week the violence traveled to Israel as thousands of Ethiopian Israelis protested unfair treatment by police following the video-taping of a police officer caught on security camera beating a uniformed Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in the city of Holon for no apparent reason. In a New York Times column this past week, Guy Ben Porat, an associate professor at Ben-Gurion University who has spent years researching how Israeli police manage different sectors of society, concluded that many Ethiopian-Israelis, especially males, see themselves the victims of over-policing and racial profiling.

There is the response of justice: who committed what crime, and what is the fairest way to adjudicate the problem? There is the response of pain: what are the underlying racial tensions and assumptions about authority that live underneath the brutality on both sides that must be named? And then there is the response of the spirit: how do we go about healing the immense fracture of trust that has taken place to shift perceptions, to change in visible ways the treatment of victims on both sides and to quell the anarchy that is rocking pockets of the world?

If you look at the verse above from Deuteronomy 16:18 you find a commitment - even before we entered the land of Israel - to prepare a judiciary and to create a body of officials to enforce the laws. The German nineteenth century commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, emphasizes two aspects of this commandment: the commitment to have judges and police all over and that this be the appointment of the entire nation. Everyone must be committed to the system for it to take effect. In his words, " it is a question of making it a duty for the nation to appoint judges for the first time throughout the whole land...The representatives of the whole united nation are to appoint judges and executive officers throughout the land and in making these appointments be guided solely by the purpose that justice and true justice only becomes achieved through these appointments." We all have to commit and accept authority or else there will be a breakdown in governance. 

Interestingly, the next verse states: 'You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality..." One modern commentator writes that this entire passage is directed not at judges but at every member of a community who must not only ensure that an objective governance structure is in place but that we not judge our judges and officials unfairly, making negative assumptions about those in power who have given their lives to public service.

Last week's riots in Baltimore - which resulted in looting and the destruction of many homes and stores, dozens of cars and public buildings - also could have damaged something much more fundamental: that the belief in authority and the belief in humanity can coincide - even if they do so in a healthy tension. Nothing was healthy about what happened, and we have every reason to believe that unless a real diagnosis is made and named, this problem of police brutality and the resultant anarchy will persist.

In the verse above, we are commanded to place judges in every gate - gates that the Lord, our God gave us. In other words, at every point where people can enter and exit, the vulnerable spaces, we must strengthen a commitment to law and bolster a sense of order. But what happens when it is no longer the places that are vulnerable, but the people who man those places? Good people will not enter public service when they have to fear continuously for their lives. What happens to the collective psyche of people who feel vulnerable not because of their acts but because of their color? 

God gave us those gates. We don't own them. God merely trusted us as stewards of those gates, and we have broken the partnership by not being trustworthy stewards and protecting and enshrining justice. It's time to clean up.

Shabbat Shalom

When the Earth Shakes

The earth is utterly broken; the earth is split apart, the earth is violently shaken.
— Isaiah 24:19

Every day, the radio and newspapers dish out more despair. The mounting death toll in Nepal is shattering; the crushing reality of people trapped under collapsed buildings and towns shaken to their foundations cannot be ignored and can have serious theological repercussions. Where is God in all this rubble? 

Natural disasters were not uncommon in the ancient world. Sacred texts often captured the wonder and fear that storms, hurricanes and earthquakes created. Isaiah's earth was violently shaken. Isaiah observed that, "the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of His fierce anger" (13:13). Job understandably regarded earthquakes as God's anger: "He who removes mountains, and they know it not, when he overturns them in anger, who shakes the earth out of its place and its pillars tremble" (9:5-6). This same view is shared in psalms: "Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the mountains trembled and quaked because He was angry"(18:7). 

We find ourselves slightly off-balance when reading these verses, as if we are ourselves reeling and rocking slightly. The world's pain is our pain. In the ancient world, weather was never just weather. Rain felt like God's tears. The earth quaking felt like God's wrath. 

What are we to make of all of this destruction at God's hand?           

This question is further enhanced elsewhere in the book of Psalms: "You have made the land to quake; You have torn it open: repair its breaches, for it totters. You have shown your people desperate times..." (60:2-3). God, if you destroy, You must also repair. If You force people into desperation, then you must create solace and comfort for them through the reconstruction effort. 

But this assumes that it is indeed God's anger at us that creates disasters. You will often hear clergy spouting such views, sadly assuming that they know the exact reason a terrible natural disaster occurred. If God is angry at anything, I would argue, it is at human apathy, at creating a manmade world that is not thoughtful of nature. It is as if God said to us, "You are my partners in creation, and your job was to steward your planet. You have disappointed me. You must keep us your side of this covenant."

 Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his forthcoming Nine Essential Things I've Learned about Life asks how we can find the willpower to face great challenges and answers:

I find God not in the test that life imposes on us but in the ability of ordinary people to rise to the challenge, to find within themselves qualities of soul, qualities of courage they did not know they had until the day they needed them. God does not send the problem, the illness, the accident, the hurricane, and God does not take them away...Rather, God sends us the strength and determination of which we did not believe ourselves capable, so that we can deal with, or live with, problems that no one can make go away.

Thinking of determination and strength, I happened to be with Ruth Messinger, head of the American Jewish World Service, when the tremors in Nepal were still taking lives. At the special event we attended, she was clearly preoccupied and quickly took a sheet out of her bag with information on Nepal: "There's going to be a huge Jewish response, Erica. You'll see." She said it confidently. There was no question that we as a people would come to the rescue in some way. She expressed her absolute faith in our people to go outside of ourselves and give until it hurts because someone else is hurting.

As we go into Shabbat - our day of rest - let us feel that we at least reached out to our human family across the globe and eased the pain and amplified the hope. To donate online, click onto to their earthquake relief fund. Start helping so others may start healing.

Shabbat Shalom

Trust Twice

Personally, I am brimming with the belief that God will not abandon His people and that our national existence in this Holy Land is secure.
— Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstien

This week, as we ran the gamut of Jewish feeling from Holocaust Remembrance Day to Israel's Independence Day, a towering scholar in Israel passed away at 81. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein co-headed one of the finest academies of Jewish study in the world - Yeshivat Har Etzion - and he stood for a sophisticated type of commitment to tradition that was nuanced and complex. His lectures  - for those who could fully understand them - were filled with quotes from world literature, philosophy, rabbinic texts and Jewish modern and ancient thought. He was an elegant spokesman for religious Zionism and commitment to Israeli military service and the winner of the prestigious Israel Prize, the State's highest honor. In his memory, we will study one of his teachings.

In a stunning article called "Trust in God" in his book By His Light, Rav Aharon - as he was fondly called - offers us two notions of faith or "bitachon" in Hebrew. One level of trust "is expressed by the certainty that God stands at your side and will assist you." This is, in his words, an approach that is fundamentally optimistic - "saturated with faith and hopeful expectation for the future." This type of faith gives those on the battlefield the energy to soldier on, those trapped in the darkness of  a concentration camp the belief that redemption will come. Ani Ma'amin - I believe with a perfect faith... 

But this is not the only faith that can sustain an individual in crisis, since optimism may prove to be naïve or unfounded. When circumstances sour, the person with this type of faith alone will lose all trust in God and others. This second type of trust "does not attempt to scatter the clouds of misfortune, try to raise expectations, or strive to whitewash a dark future." It is a trust grounded in realism; "it expresses a steadfast commitment - even if the outcome will be bad..." This can be a challenge for modern human beings, nourished on empowerment and high self-esteem. It is spiritually demanding: "This approach does not claim that God will remain at our side; rather, it asks us to remain at His side." 

Rav Aharon marshals sources to demonstrate both kinds of trust and then relates it to sacrifices made to build our people and the State of Israel after the ashes. He writes that the first kind of trust is "endangered by our continuous accomplishments." He believes that religious Zionism as understood and taught by the State was successful at filling us with certain values: redemption, hope and expectation, "but neglected to teach the values of loving trust, of cleaving to God without hesitation under all circumstances. We did not fortify our children or ourselves concerning the possibility of crises..."

Even though so many in Israel made and continue to make personal sacrifices for our homeland, it was done "riding a wave of optimism, that all would work out because the process of redemption was unfolding." It is here that Rav Aharon inserted the quote above. He was not giving up, God forbid, on the importance of personal faith. It was a faith in the eternity of the people and land of Israel that he would never abandon. He was, instead, offering a more mature complementary approach to faith, "to trust during suffering" and to realize that this kind of deeper trust, when coupled with faith and love, may be the most trust that ultimately shaped and will shape our people.  

Above many a Torah ark is a verse from Psalms, "I have placed God before me always"(16:8) - what Rav Aharon called "God's constant overarching presence."  The word "always" implies not only when it serves our needs or confirms our beliefs, but even when life flies in the face of them. Rav Aharon taught generations of students to understand and deepen God's holy presence through rigorous study, through commitment to the army and through the modern State of Israel that we celebrated this week. He challenges us still to see and to say this verse as we ask ourselves: is God before me always?

May his memory be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom

Good Enough

You shall do that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord...
— Deuteronomy 6:18

This week I spoke with someone on the phone who asked me several questions about Sabbath observance. He told me he found it interesting but was raised as a Catholic and is now lapsed. "I don't really believe in any religion. I don't have a faith. I raise my kids with one principle." Naturally I was curious and asked him to share his singular distilled value. "It's simple: don't be a jerk." I couldn't help it. "John, if you don't mind my saying, that's quite a low bar."

His principle was not entirely unexpected. I frequently hear that there is no reason to keep strict adherence to any rigid set of laws. "I'm a good person. Isn't that enough?" Naturally the minute someone advertises his or her own goodness, I am instantly suspect.

Who defines goodness anyway? Often it's a mask for an arbitrary determination of moral stasis. Good is wherever I am and whatever I am doing. The Hebrew Bible has some choice words for this kind of ethical anarchy: "You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes..." (Deuteronomy 12:8). The Book of Judges ends with a civil war and a description of what happens when there is no leadership: "In those days Israel had no king so everyone did as he saw fit." (Judges 21:25). When every person has his or her own prescription for goodness it often means that there is no reigning expectation of what constitutes that unique combination of compassion, kindness and justice that goodness is. It becomes descriptive of where you are rather than aspirational of where you might one day be if you work hard on it.

John's principle reminded me of something I first read decades ago that was fundamental to my own thoughts about traditional observance. In their seminal work, The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin also challenged those who think being good is good enough without necessarily defining goodness:

When asked to define a good person, these people answer ‘someone who doesn’t hurt anybody.’ We are convinced that most people define a good person as one who does not hurt anyone. This definition is as wrong, however, as it is popular. A person whose conduct consists of not hurting anyone is not good; such a person is merely not bad. To be a good person is the active pursuit of good.
— Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin. The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism

Simply not being a jerk is not asking enough of what humanity is capable of achieving with intention and moral energy. This week we've been given a little lift in this effort. David Brooks' new book The Road to Character is finally out. There he writes that "we live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to achieve an inner life." Life has often taught us to be overconfident about moral character and unprepared for what really matters. It would be better to say, "I don't know what goodness is" than to label ourselves as instantly good and then always suffer the deficiency.

Telushkin and Prager remind us: "You do not have to do something bad in order to do bad; you only have to do nothing. This is why Judaism consists of so many positive laws of goodness." We have to teach ourselves to refrain from gossip, to visit the sick, to attend to the poor, to mourn with those who are grieving, to sacrifice for charity.

Maybe you're good. If you assigned yourself that label, make sure you've earned it. There is plenty of literature by atheists who are trying in earnest to work out a shared moral code without God. But if that is not you, then ask yourself  - when it comes to a tough and enduring moral compass, are you really good enough?

Shabbat Shalom

Seeking and Finding

Seek the Lord while He may be found; call on Him while he is near.
— Isaiah 55:6

Still haven’t found what you’re looking for? Neither has anyone from the band U2, but it shouldn’t stop us from seeking. After all, it’s called fishing, not catching. The orientation in the spiritual realm is process rather than outcome. There is value simply in looking for transcendence. Perhaps the activity of searching for higher ground will bring us closer by virtue of the exploration, the rooting out and naming of longings and yearnings.

 A modern Israeli commentary suggests that this verse from Isaiah was a signal to those who were in exile and near its end to call out to God to achieve redmeption; according to prophetic tradition the exiles had reached a time to seek out God. The opening verses of this chapter in Isaiah read: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters...Give ear and come to me, hear Me that your soul may live…” The senses are amplified in these verses. The chapter is filled with a sense of movement, of aspiration turned heavenward. The mouth and ears are instruments we use to find that which we seek, particularly when we recognize how barren our spiritual lives may be.

Isaiah implies that one must search for God in places where the divine spirit exists naturally. We cannot surround ourselves exclusively with materialistic desires and acquisitions and expect that God will materialize. We must actively put ourselves in places that nourish the heart, mind and spirit. But sometimes we find God in the oddest of places, where we least expect to be touched, moved and inspired, shifting our understanding of seeking to looking where we believe God may be least present. The Kotzker Rebbe famously asked where God is found and responded that God is found in the place where we let God in. We hold the keys.

 Others understand that God is not situated in a particular place but that our relationship can be located anywhere God is sought after in this world.  In the search would be the finding, following another verse from Deuteronomy: “And if from there you seek the Lord, your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul” (4:29). Use all that you have in the process of seeking, and it will yield surprising results.

I found a lovely Hasidic tale in a book my friend Saul gave me. It’s an anthology of Hasidic teachings, fable sand legends that his grandfather, the scholar Louis Newman collected and organized topically. Here’s the Torah of seeking according to the Apelier Rebbe.  

“The Apelier Rabbi made the following comment on the verse (I Chronicles 16:10): ‘Let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord:’ ‘When one seeks a certain object, he feels no gladness in his heart until his quest is successful. But when one seeks after the Lord, the very act of seeking Him rejoices the heart of the seeker,’” [Siach Sarfei Kodesh v.48].

 We lose things all the time. So it’s frustrating when we have trouble finding them. Our search is only successful if there is an actual result. But when it comes to God, we aren’t looking for a particular “object” so the seeking itself can be filled with joy.

Rabbi Newman (1893-1972), in his introduction, shares the impetus for many of these teachings about Hasidic traditions. “Their interest in joy, laughter, gaiety, the song, the dance and the cup of cheer may have been a compensation for the gloom and rigor of much of life as they witnessed it round about; their insistence upon enthusiasm and enkindlement in worship, and upon sincerity in conduct and observance may have been a foil for the tepid and formalistic traits of much Jewish observance in their neighborhood…”

When it comes to spirituality, how is your neighborhood? Today, many spiritual seekers need not travel far to achieve the enlightenment within. And yet, even so, many Jews believe that Judaism is not particularly spiritual and seek value frameworks in other faiths or no faith because there is not enough God talk. We have more resources, texts and places to study Judaism than ever before but spiritual wisdom is largely assumed to exist outside of conventional Jewish organizational life.

When we seek, we may not need to find, but let’s not assume that we cannot find the religious solace and challenge with our own faith transition. There is pleasure in the search.

Shabbat Shalom


Sit back and Relax

All women of our time are considered to be esteemed...
— R. Moses Isserles, Orah Hayyim 472:4

Heard this week from a stewardess on a Southwest flight at the end of her initial announcements: “So ladies and gentlemen, sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. Or, if you don’t want to, lean forward and be tense.”

I thought of her words in relation to the Passover Seder where we are commanded to lean at various intervals while we eat to show that we are royalty of sorts. Leaning while dining in the ancient world was aristocratic.

Alberto Angela, in his book A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome, has a detailed description of wealthy Romans at a banquet. These meals often lasted 6-8 hours. If you were a member of the aristocracy, you may have been invited to such an event 2-3 times a week. They ate lying on low coaches on the floor, “propped up on their elbow resting on a pillow. They hold onto their plates with their left hand, while the right is used to bring food to the mouth. The dinner companions lie next to one another, shoeless, with their bare feet washed.” Washing the feet of guests was the job of slaves when guests arrived.

Angela asks if this posture was not uncomfortable and difficult for digestion and mentions research that suggests it was indeed helpful for digestion. He concludes that upper-class Romans were used to such dining. “For them, it’s a sign of elegance and superiority, a general rule of etiquette to be followed rigorously at official or important banquets.” Initially wives sat down on chairs next to their husbands who were leaning.

This last fun fact makes it’s way to the Talmud. In BT Pesahim [108a], the Talmudic tract that deals with the laws and prohibitions of Passover, questions whether or not women should lean at the table. “A woman participating [in the Seder] with her husband is not required to recline." However, if she is a woman of esteem, she is required to recline. If it is a sign of freedom, women who have to make and serve the meal do not experience this emotion. Women of the time may have felt under duress for the duration of the Seder making sure that all the men were properly fed and all the ritual parts of the meal were tended to by someone. 

Women who were held in high esteem do recline; to be an esteemed woman meant different things to different rabbinic commentators. Some saw this as an aspect of family status, wealth, personal scholarly achievement, or a woman who did have a husband and, therefore, had more independence. She didn’t have to answer to anyone at the meal.

Women are commanded to eat matza, drink four cups of wine and refrain from leavened products on Passover [BT Pesahim 43b]. Various rabbinic commentaries discuss the parts of the Seder that women must be present for if they have to leave the table for some reason. 

By the time the sixteenth century rolled around, Rabbi Moses Isserles of Cracow questioned this view in the Talmud: “All women of our time,” he claimed, “are considered to be esteemed.” As it turns out, many women even then did not recline out of habit. Rabbi Isserles extended a pass to them because of an early legalist who suggested that no one reclines today because it is a not a sign of affluence for men or women. In other words, we have kept the ancient posture but thrown the furniture away. Some people today do conduct the story part of the evening in the living room on the floor, where reclining is more natural.

Most families still have the custom to recline at the Seder as a nod to tradition and perhaps as an attempt to recreate the emotional freedom of old. The slave sits stooped on a bench, eats a small meal quickly and returns to his tasks. The free person can afford to take his or her time and luxuriate in the food and the company.

Passover is not free from tension for many men and women today. There is a lot of preparation and anxiety that takes away the feelings of inner freedom that we are commanded to experience this season. By the time the hosts of a Seder get to the meal, they may find their faces in the soup. But it’s time to follow what the airlines have told us all along.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight!

Shabbat Shalom and a Joyous Passover

Revisiting History and Memory

What does this mean to you?...
— Exodus 13:14

Remember the aggravation of a he said/she said dialogue when you're in an argument? Well, The Wall Street Journal says you're not alone. Elizabeth Bernstein in her article "Honey, You Never Said..." shares fascinating research on how it is that couples recall events or commitments very differently from each other. Who's right? We all want to know, but we will probably never know because there is no right. "Fights often begin with two versions of events. People tend to remember the arguments they lost."

To illustrate, Bernstein opens with a disagreement between a couple. Both agree that after compromising, Carrie told her husband Joe that he could get the arcade machine he wanted. But when he went to pick it up, he purchased two. Carrie was surprised. They hadn't talked about it. Joe claims they did. Isn't it a simple fact? No, it isn't. "How can two people have different memories of the same event? It starts with the way each person perceives the event in the first place - and how they encoded that memory," concludes psychologist Dr. Michael Ross.  

It turns out that women seem to remember more about relationship issues and their memories of them are "more vivid and detailed," possibly because women report being more emotional at the time of the argument. But before we develop a gender superiority complex, this does not mean that their memories were more accurate. You usually remember the most recent version of your story. Feelings can also change, manipulate and shape memory, especially negative ones. 

In other words, there is not one version of every story. Best to focus on the emotions associated with the argument than fight over recall, says Professor Andrew Christensen in Reconcilable Differences. This can be liberating, especially when it comes to happy facts and memories. 

We are getting ready to share our national narrative with family and friends around the Seder table. That story is dependent on memory, even if it's not first-hand. We are mandated to tell the story and relive history from four different biblical verses representing different ways that people seek out their history: either they ask, it is triggered or it is told to them: 

 Exodus 12:26-27:

 "And when your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians but saved you houses.'"  

Exodus 13:8:

"And you shall explain to your son on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.'"  

Exodus 13:14

"And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, 'What does this mean to you?' you shall say to him, 'It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.'"  

Deuteronomy 6:20

"When in time your children ask you, 'What do the decrees, laws and rules mean that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?' you shall say to your children, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.'"  

These verses form the spinal cord for the famous Four Sons portion of the Haggada. The sages of old could not understand why the Torah, with its economy of language, would include four verses to get you to share the exodus with the next generation. Their conclusion: there are four different learners, and each needs to know the story. If so, then we have to be generous story-tellers with the capacity for differentiated learning at the table.

But perhaps this isn't the only reasonable interpretation of these multiple commands to do the same thing. You can have one child who remembers a story four different ways depending on the vantage point and the situation. We are often called upon to share differing versions of what we experienced. This is why being a witness is a sacred job. You cannot limit the way the imagination weaves together facts.

What you can do is tell a story with lots of positive energy and - as the quote above suggests - in a way that amplifies mood and meaning so that the memory will last longer and be more transformative. "What does this mean to you?" suggests the personal relevance of the story to everyone who hears it. We tell the same story in different ways all of the time. We may eventually settle on a consistent narrative and then adapt the core aspects to an audience; the audience also change the story. Our Haggadah presses us to read more deeply into the exodus and its meanings that will subsequently allow myriad other stories to unfold. 

What does it all mean to you?

Shabbat Shalom

The Beginning of Time

This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you
— Exodus 12:2

There is finally a crack in the universe. The first signs of spring are appearing after a harsh winter, and the world feels on the tip of its annual renewal. This time is always reminiscent of the verses from Song of Songs, "Look! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come..." (2:11-12). The earth is in transition, and our first biblical instruction is to look because it would be a crying shame if we missed the first signs of spring's newness and the sense of hopefulness and relief that spring brings. Now, in the poem "Footsteps of Spring," we begin to feel what Haim Nahman Bialik wrote, "A different wind is blowing through the world."

This Shabbat we welcome the new Hebrew month of Nissan, with permission to say a blessing only rendered in this Hebrew month upon seeing a blossoming fruit tree: "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has withheld nothing from His world, but has created in it beautiful creatures and trees for human beings to enjoy." This is the after-effect of looking, of paying careful attention to what is happening to the physical landscape. We cannot help but bless it. 

If we look at the book of Exodus, as we should in this month of preparation for Passover, we find a mandate to pay attention to Nissan for a different reason. As stated above, the opening of Exodus 12 asks us to declare it the beginning of time for us even though we've had a sense of time for centuries. The month of Aviv -"Spring"- is biblically referred to as "when the ears of barley ripen," so the calendar is attuned and marked by agricultural developments, but there is more to it than that. The Jews of the ancient world were surrounded by those with their own calendars and ended up using Babylonian names for Hebrew months during their first exile. Scholars debate what the months were called before this exile, but one thing is clear: you cannot have your freedom without owning your time.

The medieval Spanish exegete Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra states this outright. Before this moment, the Jews had followed the solar calendar of the polytheists around them. The request to follow a lunar calendar must have represented a huge psychic shift in the way they regarded time, only one of the seismic changes they were asked to make as they left Egypt. This request is slipped into chapter 12 before the instructions to roast a paschal lamb and prepare themselves for the major exit that become known as the exodus. It is as if following directions was not enough; they had plenty of experience as slaves of having their lives ordered: the details of the sacrifice were likely not very different in specificity to other tasks and jobs they encountered in daily slave life. But as slaves their time was never their own. It is for this reason that slaves were exempt in rabbinic law from any time bound commandments. If you don't own your time, you cannot give it away or sanctify it.

The writer Eva Hoffman, in a small and challenging book called Time, writes about the cultural influences on our perceptions of time. She was born in Poland and noted that Slavic time is much more leisurely than American time, for example. People were more willing in the Europe of her youth to wait on long lines, to expect tasks to take a long time and to enjoy time with friends without being ever-vigilant about time wasted. When she moved to America, she was deeply struck by the way time had a different structure even though the clock ticked away the same on one side of the ocean and the other. "...everyone suffered the stress of not doing enough, or the possibility of doing more, or at least feeling good and guilty about it." People were more strict and competitive about time and less likely to respond to a spontaneous break. American efficiency and productivity come at a price of enjoyment.

If freedom requires the ownership and control of time, then the ultimate leave-taking from Egypt would require that we do more than change the clock. We must shift our cultural approach to time; it's a different take on "Jewish" time.

This is a month where we can challenge our own perceptions of time: who owns our time, how do we manage it and are we so task-oriented that we fail to enjoy the time we have? Nissan offers us the freedom challenge, today no less than long ago.

 Shabbat Shalom and Happy Rosh Hodesh!

A Hearing Problem

They have ears but cannot hear
— Psalms 135:17

Are you overly-aware of the ambient noise in a confined space? Does the crunching of someone else’s popcorn at a movie theater ruin the movie for you or the sound of sniffling become so distracting you cannot pay attention in a meeting? Join the club. My friend Rebecca directed me to a New York Times article about misophonia – hatred of sound - a hearing condition described as acute irritation when hearing certain noises. Dr. Barron Lerner in “Please Stop Making that Noise” shares his own frustration at sounds that make him absolutely crazy and drive him to distraction. A 2013 study identified the noises that irritate misaphones most: lip smacking, swallowing, pen clicking, typing, breathing and other nostril noises.

Lerner observes that for him one of the greatest irritants as a sufferer is what he calls the “incredulity factor.” It is hard for him to believe that other people are not as irritated as he is by the same sounds. It is as if they simply cannot hear these noises when, in fact, they were not registering them as significant or distracting. Friends and relatives would get frustrated that Lerner was paying too close attention to sounds they easily tuned out.

This dissonance made me think of the biblical expression above that appears in a number of places, both in the singular and plural: “They have ears but cannot hear…” We tend to interpret this verse as not listening to what one is told to do: the sin of unresponsiveness. But perhaps this can also refer to the fact that some people hear what others do not. There are those who are acutely aware of the sounds of injustice. Others don’t hear the cry. There are mothers who hear the sound of their own children crying but are impervious to the whimper of someone else’s child. Our selective hearing never ceases to amaze.

We find one example of this in Jewish law as it relates to prayer. Maimonides in the fifth chapter of his Laws of Prayer creates a list of eight acts people should do to prepare for moments of supplication and contemplation. One is “controlling one’s voice.” Maimonides explains: “A person should not raise his voice during his silent prayer [the Amida] nor should he pray silently. Rather, he should enunciate the words with his lips, whispering so that he can hear himself. He should not make his voice heard to others unless he is sick or distracted. In such instances, he is permitted [to be audible] except when praying with others lest they be disturbed by his voice.”

I must confess to being a shul misaphone. I appreciate that it is difficult to strike a balance between praying so that you can hear yourself – an exercise in amplifying intention and concentration – and making so much “noise” that it gets I the way of the prayer space of others. Often people who articulate each word out loud are regarded as particularly pious, except by those of us who regard this behavior as spiritually selfish. Prayer hogs – ironic, I know - chant with the Torah reader, pray loudly and hum tunes with the cantor or hazan. Misaphones unite.

We live in community, which means we have to tolerate the conversation, opinions, noises, smells and behaviors of others. This is a challenge for misaphones who hear what others ignore. What’s the solution? The Talmud [BT Ketubot 5b] asks a few questions about human anatomy that have to do with our ears. In the spiritual rather than anatomical view, why is it that an earlobe is shaped to fit inside an ear perfectly and why do the tips of fingers fit so easily into the ear? It’s so that these two parts of the body can be used to close up the ear from gossip, tale-bearing and harmful speech.

And yet, even so, we do not walk around with our lobes or fingers in our ears. We would look odd. Perhaps this passage of Talmud is offering us a metaphor that we must teach ourselves to close our ears much the way we teach ourselves to close our eyes so that we can live with others whose noises would otherwise disturb us.

And then – when tolerance for others runs low – there are always noise cancelling headphones.

Shabbat Shalom

Long Live the Queen

Vashti refused to come...
— Esther 1:12

True story: we once had a neighbor who had a dog named Vashti. One day, I stopped him on the street and asked him why he gave the dog that name. "It's simple. The dog refused to listen."

Vashti gets a lot of heat. She seems to be vilified everywhere. Even bad dogs carry her name. In Talmudic aggada, she is accused of making a party with immoral intent, told to come to her husband's party wearing only a crown, and refuses on the grounds that she's covered in leprous pimples or had grown a tail [BT Megilla 12a-b]. Her refusal had little to do with modesty but a lack of humility. As royalty herself, she refused to listen to her husband's demand and tried to put him in his place as someone beneath her in class and station: "You used to be the stable boy in my father's house, and you used to bring naked harlots before you. Now that you have ascended the throne, you still have not changed your habits." The same Talmudic pages accuse her of taking Jewish women to serve her, asking them to parade before her without clothing and then work for her on Shabbat. Because of this, tradition says that she was executed on Shabbat. 

The midrashic collection, the Yalkut Shimoni contends that she denied Ahashverosh permission to rebuild the Temple. This seems far-fetched to derive from the little bit of text we have about Vashti in the Book of Esther but in midrashic tradition, Vashti is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed Solomon's Temple and the daughter of King Belshazzar from the book of Daniel who drank out of Temple goblets at parties. The idea was to weave these characters together to demonstrate a pattern of anti-Jewish behavior in the family DNA.

Much later, in the 16th century when a spate of commentaries on Esther surfaced, Jews of the diaspora used the text to question their relationship with royalty in the century following the Inquisition. We're not at all surprised to find readings that equate Ferdinand with Ahashverosh and Isabella with Vashti. For Jews who were converted, burned at the stake or exiled, there was a certain comfort in believing that fate could change and that irrational decrees by the king may one day be overturned in their favor.

This all seems quite unfair to poor Vashti, who ultimately takes a hit for Persia and is banished from the book if not actually executed. She simply disappears from its verses and is replaced with one verse sharing the king's sober remorse. If we do a close reading of the verses, Vashti seems modest, humble and appropriately defensive of her propriety. If anything, the king's anger seems misplaced, an anger that subsided when the impact of alcohol left him and he could see his own behavior more clearly.

"Queen Vashti also gave a banquet for the women in the royal palace of King Ahashverosh. On the seventh day, when King Ahashversoh was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him--Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carcas-- to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. But when the attendants delivered the king's command, Queen Vashti refused to come. Then the king became furious and burned with anger."

Vashti was asked to be an object on display and refused. It was beneath her, princess or not. The reason, according to some later scholars, that Vashti takes such a hammering is that Jews had to blame someone for the indignities and injustices they experienced at the hand of royalty. Because Jews of the medieval period often enjoyed a special relationship to the king as servi camerae who paid taxes and enjoyed protection, the relationship between the monarch and the Jews could not be tarnished, even when it contradicted reality. In such instances, it was a lot safer to blame the queen.

I offer another reading based on Esther as comedy rather than tragedy. Throughout history, men know what to do with beautiful women. They do not know what to do with powerful women. The fact that the King must consult his advisors about a private marital spat that then gets "tweeted" out to the whole kingdom to re-establish the security of the husband in every household shows just how comedic this scene is. The midrash had to make her ugly in order for us not to like her. Insecure men suffer at the hands of very secure women. But perhaps one day, in a gender-blind society, influence and kindness will trump both power and beauty.

Happy Purim and Shabbat Shalom!

Long Term Memory

For behold I create a new heavens and a new earth. And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.
— Isaiah 65:17

This week, once again, I forgot where I was parked. I shaved at least twenty minutes off a productive life looking for my car. Those of you who are also guilty of this memory offense, please write and console me. Tell me I am not alone. What really gets to me is how my memory works when it's working. Why is it I can remember obscure things in books that I read years ago but cannot remember where I put my glasses an hour ago? Why can I remember what someone was wearing to an event but have no idea who spoke at the lecture or what they said?

I did remember an excellent article from a New York Times Book Review from 2010 on the value of reading books when you can't remember them at all. I just couldn't remember anything it said. And I have written about it before. That is why people like me thrive on search engines. I usually remember just enough to find what I need. And I did. In a wonderful article called "The Plot Escapes Me," James Collins describes the memory of reading a book - like where he was or what he felt about it - while not remembering anything about its contents. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people cannot recall the title or author or even the existence of a book they read a month ago, much less its contents." 

Collins spoke to a professor of child development who assured him that there was value to his reading habits even if he could not remember plots, place names or characters because books impact our reservoir of knowledge and shape our brains even if the details are long gone.

I thought about this in relation to a piece of Talmud I came across in Daf Yomi, the daily Talmud cycle, this week. It was a passage among many on testimony. Giving testimony legalizes memory. It can determine the fate and future of another person or many, and this particular passage made a remarkable claim:

With regard to testimony - until sixty years have passed, it is remembered, and if more than sixty years have passed, it is not remembered. That is not so. There, it is where it was not imposed upon him. However, here it was imposed on him so he remembers his testimony even after a greater period of time.[BT Ketubot 20b].

Astonishing. I guess long-term memory was better two thousand year ago if our sages could have a debate about whether or not events were memorable 60 years earlier  - or more, if a memory was "imposed" upon another person. I suppose an imposition would be if that person was specifically tasked or self-tasked with remembering an event so that he or she could be a witness to history or trauma or particular joy. According to this view, when someone tells us not to forget what we've seen, it adds an extra layer of responsibility or weightiness to our eyes and ears. If music and fragrance sit in our long-term memory boxes then perhaps other information can get stored there as well. Philip Roth, however, claims that not only do we forget things that matter. Sometimes we forget things that matter too much. Maybe the pressure of some memories has a release valve and escapes into the ether of Lethe. An act or event disappears into oblivion because we cannot afford to keep it.

The quote above from Isaiah explains another reason memory leaves us: "For behold I create a new heavens and a new earth. And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind." Sometimes in the sediment of memory, we add a new layer that wipes out the old one. A new heaven and a new earth surpass the old world and its assumptions so we move on and can no longer remember things another way. I did not grow up with computers, but I cannot imagine a life without them now. I did not have a cellphone until I was in my thirties. How did we communicate? I had no GPS. How did I get anywhere? For two thousand years, we had no homeland. Now we cannot envision a world without one. When a new universe replaces and enhances an old one, we tend to forget life before it.

And one day - in a new heaven and a new earth -  I will never forget where I parked my car.

Shabbat Shalom

Snow and Chocolate

Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue. The fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
— Song Of Songs 4:11

Snow and chocolate. Now I have your attention. This week, a lot of the North East is covered in snow and after the initial appeal of its silence and beauty, it seems that it's put a lot of people in a bad mood. Digging out cars, wading in slush, recouping financial losses and occupying bored children and their parents can be trying, even for the most patient. This week, the world also lost a chocolate king: Mr. Michele Ferrero. The maker of Nutella and lots of well-known confectionary delights from Ferrero Rocher chocolates to Kinder Eggs, Ferrero died in his home in Monte Carlo at age 89. He was one of Italy's wealthiest men, and he made products that put people in a good mood. The message this week: fight snow with chocolate.

The human desire for sweetness is well-documented in the Hebrew Bible and usually associated with honey, the natural sweetener most common in the ancient Near East. The verse above from Song of Songs describes the lips of a lover as dropping sweetness as the honeycomb. On the face of it, the text is describing the potency and magic of a romantic kiss following the seduction of taste with the magnetic pull of fragrance. The sages of old reinterpreted the first part of the verse to refer to the study of Torah, which is like "milk and honey" under the tongue, and the second - the smell of clothing - as mitzvot related to clothing: tzitzit, tallit, the clothing of the priestly class.

A brief tour of verses from Proverbs and Psalms associates sweetness with Torah study, kindness and wisdom:

“The wise in heart are called prudent, and the sweetness of the lips increases learning,”
— Proverbs 16:21
Kind words are like honey, sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.
— Proverbs 16:24
My child, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.
— Proverbs 24:13
If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it out,
— Proverbs 25:16
How sweet are Your words to my taste. Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth.
— Psalms 119:103

These verses all suggest that language that is sweet will reach across the abyss of distance and create intimacy if eaten in moderation. If wisdom is associated with sweetness, it will have greater reach and impact. Just think of a harsh or particularly cruel teacher and how learning shriveled in his or her classroom. Sweetness expands our capacity for knowledge, kindness and self-discovery. Bitterness diminishes us and it diminishes learning. We don't often remember the specific lessons we learned from someone or the conversations, but the general emotional associations of sweetness or bitterness linger and leave a particular taste in our mouths long after distinct memories have faded.

According to The New York Times obituary of Michele Ferrero, Nutella was created during wartime rations. Because cocoa was hard to get and expensive, Ferrero's father - who owned a pastry shop - used hazelnuts and a cocoa blend to produce a less expensive but still very sweet spread. In 1964, his son rebranded the product as Nutella. A commemorative Nutella stamp was issued last year in Italy to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

The Ferrero family took the bitterness of war and offered us a product with lingering associations of sweetness. To amplify the importance of sweet associations, we have a very old custom that when children study Hebrew texts for the first time, we put honey on the letters that they lick off the page. The idea is that at the very germinating of literacy, a child associates Jewish learning with that which is sweet.

In the book of Judges, Samson killed a lion and later saw a honeycomb in its carcass. He created a riddle out of the experience: "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." [14:14]. Although it was a visual enigma, it was also offering a message to live with riddles, like the contradiction of something strong bringing forth sweetness. It's a worthy aspiration. Now close your eyes for a moment and think of a learning experience of strength and sweetness and a person who is strong and sweet. What ingredients combined to create that lingering association? Consider the lingering associations others - children, parents, colleagues -  have with your words, your actions and your wisdom.

Bitter or sweet?

Shabbat Shalom

He/She Politics

A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.
— Deut. 22:5

This past week’s New York Times education supplement carried an article on gender politics in university, specifically on what is being called the third gender, an ambiguous place that is not male or female. The author presents the identity conundrum: “For years, writers and academics have argued that gender identity is not a male/female binary but a continuum along which any individual may fall, depending on a variety of factors, including anatomy, chromosomes, hormones and feelings. But the dichotomy is so deeply embedded in our culture that even the most radical activists had been focused mainly on expanding the definitions of the two pre-existing categories.”

For those who belittle this conversation and think it is irrelevant, visit Facebook and have a look at the gender terms you can choose to describe yourself. As of today, there are 58 of them. Most of us are used to going to the doctor’s office and checking off male or female in the category of gender. But those forms are fast changing and adapting to a different reality. On updated forms “sex” today refers to the biological formation of chromosomes, hormones, reproductive capacity, gonads and external anatomy. “Gender” refers to the way one feels about one’s personal sense of masculinity or femininity. Gender activists will make the case that there are many choices on that spectrum. What many of us only considered a one-box choice suddenly became a line that we marked somewhere that seemed to apply to our small and specific sense of self in the wider universe.

This is not a new conversation. The Talmud discusses several legal cases involving those with both sexual organs and those with unclear biological gender features. These terms, however, are not about gender feelings but about scientific categorization for the sake of determining particular Jewish responsibilities within the law. The biblical verse above gets to the more subjective issues of gender – this new sliding scale of self-identity – because it talks about external coverings and behaviors apart from biological destiny.

Medieval commentators range in their understanding of what is prohibited when it comes to cross-dressing. Most believe that the problem is not in wearing clothing of the opposite sex but in doing so in order to disguise oneself for the purpose of sexual co-mingling or promiscuity. A man dresses like a woman in order to gain entrance into a women’s locker room. The problem is the lie and the behaviors that follow from this lie. It’s not the clothes. Others argue that the verse points to something more subtle, a behavior associated with pagan rites and magic or some kind of sexual deviance. Some translate “kli gever” not as male clothing but as male objects and suggest that this prohibits a woman from carrying a gun, for example. We’ve moved far afield, from clothing to the combat zone. This would also apply in the reverse. Behaviors and implements associated with women – like make-up – are forbidden to men.

We are on a pretty slippery slope here because as we know, over time, men stopped wearing earrings (then started again) and long tunics and women started wearing business suits. Fashions change. Perhaps this is why many medieval writers saw this verse in terms of an illicit behavior rather than a superficial matter of covering.

One could say that the verse itself acknowledges that gender identity can easily become blurred and, therefore, must be affirmed by engaging in practices and dress that cement one’s identity. The verse is strong. God abhors these behaviors. How do we explain this judgmental and harsh language?

Basic identity questions can force us into states of such great confusion that they become destabilizing. We don’t know who we are, and we don’t see ourselves fitting in with the accepted categories we’ve been offered. We don’t find it easy to check off a box. One of the reasons for the multiplicity of gender terms now is a result of people failing to find any one category as sufficiently descriptive of who they are and what they feel about themselves.

I think God was on to something in terms as asking us to make that choice and affirm it in dress and behavior. When you are unsure of who you are it can be excruciatingly painful to form relationships with others, with God and arguably - most importantly -  with self. Maybe it’s too generous a reading, but I think what God detests is our failure to name ourselves. It can lead to self-hate and hate of others.

This may be too modern a reading for some or not modern enough for others. Either way, it’s time to take the conversation on religion and gender identity seriously. It’s an extremely hard conversation. That doesn’t mean we can avoid it.

Shabbat Shalom

Jewish Body Language

As water reflects a face, so too a person’s heart reflects another.
— Proverbs 27:19

Remember the etiology of the narcissus flower? Narcissus, a very attractive Greek hunter, fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and drowned, leaving us with the name of a beautiful flower and a term in psychology for those overly self-absorbed: narcissism.

We find a different reading of water's reflective powers in the book of Proverbs from the verse above. Instead of reflecting ourselves, we find that an image speaks back to us that should make us sensitive to others.

In the Talmud [BT Yevamot 117a], one scholar understands this verse as a plea to the emotions and one to the intellect. The Talmud is discussing whether or not a mother-in-law can provide testimony to support her daughter-in-law in the case of a husband presumed dead that would permit the daughter-in-law to re-marry. The rabbis debated the question of self-interest and possibility of emotional pettiness in this relationship and cited this verse in Proverbs as support. Namely, the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is often fraught with tension. The daughter-in-law picks up on negative signals from the mother-in-law and then those feelings are returned, just like water reflects the face of one who looks at it, citing our verse in Proverbs.

If one person has strong, negative body language towards another, the feeling is likely to become mutual. Sometimes we don't realize the way our faces talk. When someone grimaces or rolls his eyes at something another person says, everyone in the room picks up on it. No words are needed to pick up on the insult. Daniel Goleman, the pioneer of emotional intelligence studies, along with his co-writers in Primal Leadership, presents research about the body language of leaders. Even when they don't speak, people are busy reading their faces and posture to determine if they feel good or bad about a presentation or an idea. "Leaders manage meaning for the group," they contend, even and sometimes especially, when they don't speak.

Weaker chimpanzees, researchers tell us, will smile at a stronger chimpanzee to show that it is vulnerable and not hostile. Studies also show that people who are good at interpreting body language will watch the mouth and not the eyes since it seems to reveal the most about what someone is thinking.

Rabbi Yehuda, however, interprets the verse differently as referring to an intellectual experience: the more Torah one studies, the more Torah he understands. Rashi, the eleventh century French commentator, writes that if a teacher shows a positive countenance to his student, it is more likely for that student to become a scholar himself. Without the teacher's non-verbal encouragement, Rashi contends that the student will never become a scholar. This places a strong educational and moral responsibility on the shoulders of teachers. Be careful about what your body language says to those studying with you

Clearly, we pick up and respond to the emotions we receive. This is likely the reason that Ethics of the Fathers [1:15] recommends we greet every person with a "beautiful face" because that face or look will be returned to us.

This week, we closed the study of Tractate Yevamot in the Talmud's daily cycle. It was a very long tractate and to honor its completion, I shared the teaching above and would like to share one more that held particular meaning for me.

The Talmud records a drowning incident of the famous scholar Rabbi Akiva. When asked how he survived, he said he grabbed hold of a "daf" - a plank of the ship's wood and held on to it for safety. It carried him to shore [BT Yevamot 121a]. Rabbi Meir Shapiro  of Lublin, the founder of the Daf Yomi program - the daily study cycle that takes 7 ½ years to complete - based a sermon on this story to encourage people to study the Talmud based on the wordplay for plank - called a daf . Just as Rabbi Akiva held on to a "daf" and it saved him, so can the regular study of Talmud save us. I know that it has personally served as a wonderful anchor and daily discipline for me and others, especially in an ever-changing world.

We all need to find that which spiritually grounds us as we get tossed about. We find that in the people who reflect warmth and love to us. We find it in community. We find it in study. But we only find what grounds us spiritually if we're looking for it.

Shabbat Shalom

A Special Seventy

Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time.
How long can we go on being angry?
— Elie Wiesel

"In my childhood, I did not expect much from human beings. But I expected everything from You," Elie Wiesel writes in a prayer to God. Over the years, through the darkest of suffering, Wiesel confesses his anger at God, at writing harsh words against God and wondering what was worse: God's silence or God's absence. Over time, Wiesel questions if he has been fair to put so much expectation on God's shoulders and so little on his fellow human beings, "...Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven. It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men." Wiesel ends his powerful prayer by requesting renewed intimacy with God. It is time to make up.

Wiesel's prayer is contained in a potent small book of essays, 70 Days for 70 Years, created for exactly this season. This week we started the project, a collaborative effort of England's United Synagogue and other organizations to provide a book with 70 essays to mark the 70 years it has been since the Holocaust. In 1985, 40 years after its liberation, a man named Rabbi Shapira went to a commemorative event at Thereisenstadt Concentration Camp. Rabbi Shapira worried, as an orphan of the Holocaust, how his own family in the future would hold on to these dark and formative memories. He asked Yad Vashem for 30 names of children who died in the war to give to 30 children in his town to perpetuate their memories more personally. 

In 1995, 50 years after liberation, Rabbi Andrew Shaw gave 5,000 English students 5000 names of those who died in the Shoah and asked that they study in their memory for 50 days. These are small acts we do to redeem those who died; they live on in our memory, our learning and in our acts of kindness. It's an inspiring global Jewish project, and you can get involved and take your next steps to living memory. It's just one click away.

Avner Shalev, chairmen of Yad Vashem, opens his remarks in the book with this line from David Berger, originally from Poland, who was shot and died in Vilna in 1941. "I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger." David had a keen sense of his mortality and the danger that lurked everywhere about him. This is the kind of sentiment we expect from someone old and wise, who had lived fully and had much to share. But David Berger was only 22 when he died. He had so much more to do on this planet. He left us one wish: that someone remember that he once existed.

Seventy is a special number is Jewish tradition. Seventy people, we read in Exodus 1, went down to Egypt and became our fledging Jewish nation. Later, Moses gathered 70 elders to assist him with the running our the Israelite community. There were seventy men in the Sanhedrin, our great ancient court, and we have a tradition that there are 70 faces of interpretation. In the Talmud we speak of 70 languages as the plethora of languages spoken in the universe. On Sukkot we offer 70 sacrifices on behalf of all the nations. We like to think of seventy as a number of true globalism. 

As a global Jewish community, there could not be a better time to reflect on Jewish suffering and pain; the world is larger than ever and sometimes more frightening than ever. We sometimes forget about the alarming rhetoric that stirred the pot of anti-Jewish hatred then, even though the world offers up its reminders from time to time. Perhaps we can take on Elie Wiesel's approach - using this time to renew old relationships through earning every day for these 70 days in honor of the people we've become in these remarkable 70 years since then. 

And maybe through this daily study and reflection, we can strengthen our relationship to faith and God as a way of redeeming the darkness. "Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time."

Shabbat Shalom

When Will the Facts Change?

A prisoner cannot free himself from jail
— BT Brakhot 5b

The Talmud celebrates the healing powers of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai. He would visit the sick, discuss the illness and suffering with the patient, and then hold out his hand to raise the other person from his pain. Then he himself got sick, and R. Hanina raised R. Yohanan out of his illness. Why, the Talmud asks, could the gifted healer R. Yohanan not heal himself? "Because the prisoner cannot free himself from prison." There are certain situations we find ourselves in that trap and obstruct us, physically and spiritually. We make think we can function independently in all matters, but sometimes we realize just how necessary others are in relieving our pain, opening our horizons and freeing ourselves from the shackle of negative or limiting thoughts. 

This famous Talmudic expression has traveled far beyond its original context. It has been used to show how "un-free" we become when we put ourselves in situations that actively compromise our integrity or our goodness. We put ourselves in the prison of desire, addiction, seduction, or lies and then we cannot release ourselves. We have become the prison, and we do not have the keys. Sometimes, if we have really damaged our emotional or moral compass, we don't even realize we're in prison. Free will seems like it belongs to someone else, as if it were something we once owned but lost.

What can we do about it? The international photo-journalist Dewitt Jones believes that creativity and problem-solving come when we can relieve ourselves of old behaviors that lock us into stagnation: "Our patterns, too long unquestioned, become our prisons. Break the pattern! And see the scene before you with new eyes." Don't let the pattern become the prison. 

In medieval religious philosophy, many regarded the body as the prison of the soul. While the soul aims for meaning, transcendence and eternity, the body it is trapped in feeds itself on material and short-term desires. Jones tells us that our routine behaviors can function as prisons for us. We lock ourselves in our assumptions, our opinions and our long-held views of life, and we fail to see that we are no longer as free as we once were. Our eyes, Jones believes, can help us break this cycle if we give permission for our eyes to see the same situation differently. 

I thought a lot about this Talmudic expression when I read a recent review of Tony Judt's posthumously published essays, When the Facts Change. Judt was an English born critic who worked on kibbutz and had an early love for Israel that changed into an almost maddening anger at its perceived injustices. Samuel Moyn writes in The New York Times Sunday Book Review that Judt was better at posing vexing problems to Israel than finding solutions. But Moyn dismisses problem-solving as the role of an intellectual. The "proper role" of an intellectual, he argues, is to offer up and analyze problems "early and exigently before a wide public."

Really? The smartest in society should not content themselves with critique and leave the solutions to politicians and policy makers. Public intellectuals should help us get out of our prisons instead of locking us in for longer with detached observations alone. Tony Judt wrote a response to the criticism that he contradicted himself. "When the facts change, I change myself. What do you do?" he replied.

Judt changed his mind because when the facts changed, he allowed himself to be released from the prison of former views. Sometimes, however, the facts do not change. What then? Sometimes the expectation of learned helplessness becomes its own prison. In recent weeks, many of us feel that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have become the new norm, an old/new prison for us. Old because we've been in the thick of it for so long. New because every time we face a new terrorist attack or painful criticism, it seems to surprise us but it shouldn't. I worry that we have stepped deep into this prison. We cannot get ourselves out, and sometimes we don't even see the prison walls anymore.

Name your pattern. Name your prison. Consider how long have you been trapped behind its bars. According to the Talmud, you will not be able to let yourself out. You'll need help. Who will you allow in to help? It's time.

Shabbat Shalom

Hugs R Us

...he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.
— Genesis 33:4

Did you see the article in last week's Wall Street Journal on hugging? I had no idea that hugging had become such big business. For about a dollar a minute, you can be professionally hugged, cuddled, tickled or spooned. Some cuddlers make up to $80 an hour ,and if you have the Cuddlr App, you can find your own hugger. Of course, there are some boundaries lest anyone get the wrong idea. Many professional cuddlers have rules about showering and brushing teeth before a visit, but if you smell sweet and control yourself, it seems that if you're 'out of touch,' you're in luck.

Thousands of customers across the country are booking appointments with professional cuddlers in at least 16 states.
— Wall Street Journal, Jan 8, 2015

The article and subsequent online discussion around it raises the important issue of the human need for touch and affection. Medical and consumer research tells us you are likely to have a better experience in a doctor's office, store or restaurant if you have even been lightly patted or touched. Most people unconsciously register this as an act of concern and compassion. You're more likely to get better tips, be less likely to be called in a medical malpractice case and more likely to get a compliment for your service.

There are a few famous biblical hugs worth mentioning at this juncture. Disclaimer: none of them involved any financial transaction.

Hug Number One

Jacob and Esau reunite after a long separation and with a lot of anxiety expended preparing for the meeting. It not only went more smoothly than expected, it surfaced deep emotions for both sides, as we read in Genesis 33:4 - "Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept." There are negative rabbinic readings of this reunion, but the text plainly read is unmistakable. This hug was a real emotional embrace.

Hug Number Two

Here we look at another brotherly reunion in Genesis, one previously defined by rivalry and danger. Joseph reunites with his brothers who suspect him of revenge. They stand in quiet disbelief while Joseph reveals himself and says that he has come to terms with their difficult relationship and forgiven them. He sees his younger brother. He has ached for Benjamin, and we as readers cannot wait to see them unite with each other, as Genesis 45:14-15 record: "Then he [Joseph] threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him."

Hug Number Three

This famous female, platonic hug was preferred to a kiss. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law when parting, but Ruth held on with affection and admiration to the woman who taught her so much. As Naomi mentions how she feels punished by God and isolated - a woman who lost everything - the women weep: "At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her. 'Look,' said Naomi, 'your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.' But Ruth replied, 'Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.' When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her" Ruth 1:14-18 takes us to a moment of loss and hope communicated powerfully by the simple act of an embrace.

As we read about these non-professional cuddlers, we see three reasons that you could never pay for such a physical transaction: 1) each embrace was not about mere physical touch but about the acceptance of the other - in each case a non-obvious recipient of the embrace. The hug was the Bible's way of telling us that a significant fracture was on its way to healing. 2) Each embrace was followed by conversation. The hug came first but was immediately followed or pre-empted by talk, explanation or revelation. 3) Each hug signified the beginning of a new stage of relationship where the past was not forgotten but was put to the side to give space for a new relationship to emerge.

You can pay for a touch. But you cannot put a price on intimacy, and intimacy is not something you can buy. You have to earn it.

Your hugs may be worth up to $80 an hour. So find those worth hugging in your life who you'd never charge and show them through touch and talk how much you value them in your life. Hold that hug just a little bit longer than usual because... well, because you can.

Shabbat Shalom

Groaning and Moaning

And God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites and God took notice of them
— Exodus 2:25-25

God took notice, a verse in this week’s Torah reading tells us. What does it mean to take notice, especially to notice something or someone others fail to notice? Andy Warhol once said, “I always notice flowers.” Well, Andy, flowers are almost always noticeable. We are drawn to look at that which brings us pleasure, not that which brings us pain, especially inanimate objects of beauty which don’t challenge our sensibilities. We turn away from that which disturbs us because once we catch a glimpse of it, we can no longer pretend that we do not see it. The visual intake creates obligation.  On a verse in Proverbs, “What brightens the eye gladdens the heart...” (15:30), Rashi observes that what brightens the heart is natural phenomena - lakes and mountains, a gorgeous landscape. It lifts us up and carries us to happy places. Not so with trauma. We look away from the homeless woman on the street because if we do not notice her, she does not exist. The eye can be very selfish.

And it is not only God who takes notice here. In Exodus 2, Moses looks at that which others turn away from: a rotten and cruel taskmaster, an Israelite fight, a group of innocent shepherdesses being harassed. To take notice is to pay attention, to focus, to give one’s full mind and heart to something. It took almost two chapters of Exodus for God to respond to the pain of the Israelites under Pharaoh’s harsh and demonic rule. According to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, God only pays attention to the Israelites’ cry when they actually moan. In the first chapter of Exodus, when forced labor is introduced and Pharaoh makes an edict about the male children, the Israelites withhold their pain saying nothing. There is no protest, no outcry, no advocacy, no prayer.

Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that redemption rests with a word. I cannot help you if you do not express your pain and your need. But the moment you do, I have a responsibility to you that I cannot deny. Only when Moses was introduced into the story in chapter two do the people then cry out to God, and God notices them. Rabbi Soloveithcik contends that only once a redeemer was introduced into the story could the people stop withholding their pain and cry out because there was someone to hear it. It is a very basic building block of our humanity and leadership. Help people express pain and they will be one step closer to redeeming their suffering.

This week I heard Dr. Mona Fishbane speak powerfully about the verse quoted above. Citing the Hasidic scholar Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, she drew my attention to all of the verbs used in the verse: to hear, to remember, to look and to notice. All of these verbs create a trajectory of compassion. She cited Sue Johnson, a leading couples therapist, who writes that, “Most [couple] fights are really protests over emotional disconnection. Underneath all the distress, partners are asking each other: Can I count on you, depend on you? Are you there for me?...Do I matter to you?....The anger, the criticism, the demands are really cries to their lovers, calls to stir their heart.”

After suffering, people ask the same question of God that they ask in their most intimate and important relationships. Do you notice me? Am I important to you? How would I know that?

We redeem others first by noticing - noticing that something has changed in their life situation or their disposition, their attitude or their looks, their interests or their needs. Sometimes we make the mistake of assuming we know everything about another person. We don’t have to notice anything new. But people are active, dynamic beings living in a constantly changing and evolving universe. Perhaps we don’t want to notice because it will exact a cost upon us. Our noticing obliges us to pay closer attention, to be more responsible, to engage in greater empathy.

God and Moses are teaching us to pay attention, to look at that which is not easy to look at and to redeem the pain of others because we paid attention.

What will you notice differently because you are paying greater attention?

Shabbat Shalom