Monday, November 30, 2009

Michael Steinhardt on Jewish Innovations and the Organized Jewish World

While I have mixed feelings about what Michael Steinhardt has to say on one level, on another, I completely agree with his argument. The source of my concern comes from the praise of birthrightIsrael as THE success he claims it to be. Nonetheless, his argument is compelling for the need to find a new way to do business in our world. The absence of any suggestion as to how is obvious but it does not negate the accuracy of his claim. It is for us, those who work in the field, to find new, smart ways to touch the souls of Jews around the world in meaningful ways. I invite your comments and meaningful suggestions after you watch Michael Steinhardt!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Struggle - Toledot 2009

"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."

Groucho Marks

This is one of my favorite quotations of all time. With these few words, Groucho summarizes some of the truths of the human condition: we are inconsistent, we develop, we change; we live in tension between competing values, expectations, demands; and sometimes, we are pained by the contradictory opinions and beliefs that we hold at the same time, struggling to decide which ones we should follow, strengthen, or abandon at any given moment. At times, it hurts to live in two very different ideas - we don't know what to do, we look for answers. We cry out for help and for the ease of consistency, probably knowing that it will never come. And sometimes we just give up.

The struggling of two boys in the womb, Jacob and Esau, is so painful to Rivka that she goes to either "inquire of God," "demand of God," or "supplicate to God" to try and understand why this is happening to her. These two beings compete inside their mother, literally trying to crush one another. The classic midrash on this verse explains that the movement and struggle would get particularly intense whenever Rivka would pass either a Beit Midrash - a House of Study - or a place of Idol Worship. In the first case, Jacob would try to get out of the womb to go and study Torah while in the second case, Esau would try to rush out to get access to the place of idol worship. How could two so very different children exist inside one womb? In this midrash, which influences many of the commentaries that follow, there is a clear "good choice" and a clear "good son" and a clear "bad choice" and a clear "bad son."

Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezhovski, the Slonimer Rebbe, in the spirit of the midrash I just mentioned, understands the word "sons" in this verse to represent thoughts, specifically good and evil thoughts, pure thoughts and abominable thoughts. The pain that Rivka feels, in the eyes of the Slonimer Rebbe, grows out of the existence of both inclinations, thoughts, inside her. She is a righteous woman - how can she tolerate impure thoughts within her and how can they coexist with goodness? In such a narrative understanding, there must be a clear winner, the good must prevail, and not just for the short term but for the transmission of the blessing and the future fulfillment of Divine promises.

In the world in which we live, however, things are almost never black and white. At best, they are varying shades of gray and we constantly struggle with competing values: environmentalism and convenience; egalitarianism and critical mass; eco-kashrut and expense; universalism and particularism. And when the principles come into conflict, it is just painful, almost paralyzing because we want to do the right thing or we want to do what is best for us even if the consequences of that choice will negatively impact another. What I find more and more often, however, is that the internal struggles are not about good and bad but about competing principles and values where there is no clear good or right but nuances and trade-offs. That is not to say that there are not things that are clearly "bad." There are. But the next time you find yourself being critical of a choice that you know someone made, try to understand the internal competition and pain the other person went through in coming to that decision. You might just learn that it is not as simple or as clear as you thought.

And when the tensions and challenges of living with different principles becomes to great, we scream out "Why me?" While there may be little comfort in the answer that it is not just you, God's answer to Rivka implies that this is normal, that we do live with internal contradictions, that we struggle with ourselves - and that as long as we stay the course and engage honestly in our thinking, then we will make the right decision, the good will triumph, and we will grow as a result.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parashat Toldot 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Parashat Toldot - Senior Sermon Notes from Rafi Lehmann z"l

The following words of Torah were to be shared this week by our friend and teacher Rafi Lehmann, zikhrono livrakha, who tragically died so recently. Even in his absence he continues to teach us Torah. May we all learn from his example. Thank you to Rafi's father, Rabbi Allen Lehmann for sharing Rafi's words with us.

Growing up in Florida, even the biggest hill in my hometown of Gainesville seemed quite insignificant in hindsight. It was a late summer morning in Northern Jerusalem, and I had just arrived the day before on a group flight with forty plus university students from all over the North American continent. We were up early with the sun after being awoken by the crow of a nearby rooster. I was living in the French Hill neighborhood in student dormitories at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Feeling a little bit jetlagged a few of the other newcomers and I began our trek to campus to get ourselves registered for Summer Ulpan and became better acquainted with what I would soon regard as the big scary monster of Israeli bureaucracy.

Gradually, as a group, we climbed up the Churchill Boulevard, a World War I cemetery on our left and a pristine, glistening view of Jerusalem on the right—it was really quite distracting. Once arriving on the campus we walked to the Rothberg International School building and began the registration experience. By the time we finished it was lunchtime and asked the folks in the Rothberg building if they had any recommendations for lunch. Without missing a beat, we were directed to the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria—a cafeteria-style eatery with all kinds of a la carte Israeli specialties. A group of a dozen American students that arrived on the group flight the day before sat together in the corner of the dining hall. The food was good and rather filling, we happened to see the representative from the New York office that escorted us on the group flight having a cup of coffee with a friend, we bid her a pleasant afternoon and we were on our way to set up our campus emails.

It was there when it happened. An earth shattering noise that sent car alarms blaring. After a bit of confusion, it soon became clear that the noise was an explosion and about an hour later I was informed that the bombing occurred in the very cafeteria in which I stood only ten minutes earlier.


I don’t share this story with you out of a heartfelt desire to gain sympathy for a difficult experience that I went through, rather upon first reading this week’s parashah, Parashat Toledot, a particular piece of its narrative stuck out for me and it’s a thought that I remember exclaiming to myself that afternoon at Hebrew University. Very early on in the parashah, we encounter Rivka Emeinu in the midst of what could only be characterized as a difficult pregnancy. Genesis 25:22 reads, “V’yitrotzatzu habanim b’kirba”—“And the children struggled together inside of her.”—she was having twins. Now, this is interesting and certainly chomer l’drush-as Rashi would even say in so many words- in and of itself. But I’m more interested in the second half of the verse. The text goes on, “va’tomer, im kayn, LAMAH ZEH ANOKHI?!”—“If it is so, why me?” Why is this happening to me? The 12th century biblical exegete, Avraham ibn Ezra, understood this to be a question asked by Rebecca and being addressed to other women—if they had experienced similar travails while pregnant themselves, and their answer is a resounding no. Ibn Ezra taught that Rebecca’s response should be read as follows: “If pregnancy is generally experienced differently than the way that It is occurring to me, why is my pregnancy different?” (hey’rayon m’shuneh)

Ibn Ezra, without question exposes us to a very contextual, p’shat, text-based reading of the verse. But I want to approach this question that Rebecca is asking from a different perspective altogether. I’m not convinced that Rebecca’s question is purely a scientific one—far from it. Rather, Rebecca’s question strikes at the very core of her being, her very existence. In the Zohar, from the section entitled “Midrash Ha’Ne’elam” we learn that Rebecca’s question should be understood to mean, “lamah nivrayti?” or “Why was I created?”

“Why is this happening to me?” is one of life’s questions that many of us ask ourselves during trying times. It almost never has associated with it an easy answer. However, when asking such profound, deeply existential questions, it is rarely the “answers” that prove to be the most revelatory—at times, merely getting to the source, the heart of the question proves to be truly transformative and perhaps even “life-changing.” It could boil down to the question of what is my purpose, my motivation, my very role in this seemingly complex web of a universe in which I find myself.

I find Rebecca’s next move in the saga to be meaningful and quite instructive and it has helped me on my own life journey. The Torah teaches us that immediately following the matriarch’s deep question of “Why me?!”, the text goes on with “Vataylekh l’drosh et Adonai”—“And she went to go seek guidance from God.” At this difficult, and self-definitional time, after having asked the all-important question, Rebecca seeks out God, the Source of Life, in order to better understand her purpose, perhaps even to seek out support from the one called “El Rachum v’Hanun.” Again, it is important to emphasize that she is not necessarily in search of answers, justifications, or a rationale for her excruciating situation.

It is exactly those trying moments when we yearn for proximity to the Force in the universe that we understand to be larger than ourselves. There is a desire to transform the chaotic, unintelligible present with an ordered discernable future.

That extremely difficult summer afternoon, and the days, weeks, and months that followed it led me to be a “doresh haShem”—a seeker, in an unquestionably deeper manner than I had experienced before that moment. In a sense, that “drishah” took place much more within than “without.” I have to admit, initially on an emotional level, I wanted answers—who was responsible? How could this happen? What could motivate a human being to be capable of such blatant hatred of the “other” to the extent that a heinous act like this was even possible!? Once the initial emotional, and even a bit exasperated response calmed a bit, it became an opportunity for heshbon nefesh and a genuine chance to reflect quite personally and confront life’s big questions: “what’s my purpose,” “what’s the very nature of my existence”… “LAMAH ZEH ANOKHI?”—The likes of which we so instructively observe Rivka pursuing in our parashah.

Master of the Universe, help us to embrace opportunities to reflect upon and better understand what it is that gives our lives purpose, direction, and a seep sense of meaning. While we will almost certainly encounter “birth pangs” in the process, grant us the strength and courage to prevent them from becoming stumbling blocks on our respective journeys.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Welcoming and Comforting - Parashat Vayera

My intention this week was to write exclusively about the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim - welcoming guests - as the key to the future of successful Jewish institutions. The last twenty-four hours, however, have shifted my attention from hachnassat orchim to halvayat hamet - the mitzvah of burying the dead. In the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a, we are taught that among all the mitzvot:

These are the actions whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principle remains intact for her or him in The World to Come, and they are: Honoring your parents; acts of lovingkindness; early attendance at the house of study for shaharit and ma’ariv; showing hospitality to guests; visiting the sick; providing for the bride; escorting the dead; absorption in prayer; bringing peace between two people; and the study of Torah is equivalent to all of them...

The Talmud focuses on a variety of mitzvot and uses investment language to describe the benefits that fall to the person who performs them. When the Talmud talks about enjoying “the fruits in this world” and the “principle remaining intact in the World to Come,” the imagery is as if we are building an investment fund made up of our actions, our doing mitzvot, the interest from which we benefit today while retaining the principle, letting it grow, so that we can benefit from it in The World to Come. Think of it like an Olam Ha’Bah (World to Come) Roth IRA.

While there is an implication that some may perform these mitzvot precisely to build up there Other Worldly credits, either inflating their own personal stock or offsetting other less than worthy deeds, I don’t think the Talmud is actually talking to them. Rather, the Talmud is describing the character of a person who is constantly and intentionally working to make this World a better place. They do so not in order to gain reward at all, as described in Pirke Avot, but because they are called to do it, to repair this World in both joyous and difficult moments: Welcoming guests, showing hospitality, making another feel comfortable, at home, in what could be an otherwise uncomfortable situation - being a stranger in a community; Escorting the dead, part of Hesed shel Emet - the ultimate in true compassion for it cannot be repaid - includes the act of burial and the act of comforting mourners at the most difficult of times. Those engaged in these acts on a regular basis never seek out recognition, nor are they motivated by it. They do it because it should be done.

The world of Jewish institutions and organizations must focus anew, in a near zealous way, on the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim - showing hospitality and welcoming guests. As people seek to connect, there is a chance to welcome them, to make them feel a part, to show them the warmth and love of communities devoted to Torah. We need to take an honest inventory of how we are doing in our performance of this crucial mitzvah. Those who do it well will not only survive these challenging times but will thrive into the future. Those who do not will limp along with what they have but will slowly disappear as they fail to attract newcomers. Without doing welcoming well, we cannot inspire people with our incredible visions or ideas. They don’t stick around long enough to hear what we have to say because our first message is, unintentionally, “We are not interested.” Thinking about the summer, we need to challenge ourselves to do the same honest inventory I am talking about, to examine how we are doing at welcoming new campers, new staff members, and the myriad of visitors, from potential camper parents to families of campers and staff members, to Jewish professionals from throughout the region. We have to be open to learning, to adapting, and to improving on what we do. And not just because we want to be around and thriving in the future but because it is the right thing to do.

Listening to NPR this morning while dropping the girls off at school, the reports of the mass murder at Fort Hood in Texas were chilling. One reporter noted that it is often the case that we learn much about the murderer immediately but that we may wait at length to learn about the victims, if we ever learn more than their names at all. How do we participate in halvayat hamet - in escorting the dead - when we live so far away? What can we do to be nihum aveilim - to comfort those who mourn? There will be names and addresses soon and we can contact people and extend our words of comfort to those that do not know us. And there are many other ways to comfort those who are struggling with understanding how something like this happens in this world while they grieve the loss of loved ones.

One other way we can acknowledge the loss of these brave soldiers, those who were preparing to head off to Iraq and Afghanistan, is to acknowledge those soldiers we see who were not attacked at Fort Hood but who walk through our airports and communities everyday. If the Psalmist is correct - “Lo HaMeitim Y’Hallelu Yah” that it is not “the dead who sing Halleluyah,” then we can extend comfort to those who continue to serve in this World. Rather than focusing on outrage at the perpetrator, deserving though he is, supporting the victims and the soldiers serving in the US military is not only the ultimate in protest but it is a form of eternal and truthful Hessed. I will be in the airport again on Wednesday, heading to Kansas City for recruitment meetings, and am certain that I will see many soldiers making their ways either home or back to base and deployment. What will I do to support them and show some comfort to them?

Many communities have proclaimed this Shabbat one in which to focus on Hachnassat Orchim in the spirit of Abraham, who in this week’s parashah demonstrates why he and Sarah are the consummate performers of hachnassat orchim. There are excellent resources available from The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning in Washington DC about this crucial mitzvah and they can be accessed at . While we rejoice this Shabbat and try to match the level of excellence in welcoming guests that Sarah and Abraham display, we must also be reflective about the implications of yesterday’s tragedy in Fort Hood and find ways to participate in the comforting of distant mourners. In focusing on both of these mitzvot, we all help move this world a bit closer to becoming The World to Come, where nobody will feel like a stranger and where mass, senseless murders will be replaced with ever increasing and abounding Love.

Shabbat Shalom.