Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Thursday, December 20, 2012
The breadth of terror cannot be deciphered through a gruesome body count, nor can it be encapsulated by a detailed recounting of a given calamity. The quintessential experience of terror occurs as its eerie message gradually permeates, and subtly haunts, countless bystanders who are ostensibly disconnected from the original assault. The aspiration of terror is not confined to a particular moment; rather, it is realized by the inevitable cultivation of a pervasive, and effectively inconsolable, anxiety. Twenty children and six adults were brutally massacred, yet no number is able to capture the extent and the comprehensiveness of our pain. As Judaism proudly affirms the infinite dignity of each and every individual, “26” seems to be a woefully inadequate description of the loss. Those “26” were not the only ones killed a week ago; a real part of every American was irretrievably lost. Each of us who experienced this tragedy, on whatever level or from whatever distance, is eternally tainted.
There is an important Jewish concept that מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, our patriarchs’ experience did not exist in isolation; it is, rather, a premonition for future generations. My undergraduate thesis adviser, Professor Daniel Pekarsky, suggested that this concept should be foremost in our vision of Jewish education; we can, indeed we must, contemplate our own existence through the legends of our predecessors.
This perspective becomes jarringly relevant as we contemplate our position in the yearly Torah reading cycle. In a remarkable tale, Jacob’s sons have recently descended to Egypt, hoping to fetch food amidst a difficult famine. Unbeknownst to them, the viceroy, the very minister responsible for allocating food, is their estranged brother, Joseph. Joseph, deliberately declining to reveal his true identity, tactfully conceives of a series of mini-plots that will ultimately delay their mission. It will, he figures, provide him with the opportunity to detain his maternal brother, Benjamin, while simultaneously attaining information regarding his father, Jacob. As we approach the climax, Joseph instructs his servants to plant his prized goblet in Benjamin’s sack, and, as a punishment for Benjamin’s alleged betrayal, Joseph insists that Benjamin remain with him as a slave, while the brothers are free to return home.
Judah, in a display of great courage, frantically pleads with Joseph. וְעַתָּה, כְּבֹאִי אֶל- עַבְדְּךָ אָבִיו, וְהַנַּעַר, אֵינֶנּוּ אִתָּנוּ; וְנַפְשׁוֹ, קְשׁוּרָה בְנַפְשׁ וְהָיָה כִּרְאוֹתוֹ כִּי-אֵין הַנַּעַר—וָמֵת . “Now when I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us, since his soul is bound up with the boy’s soul; it will transpire, when he sees that the boy is not with us, that he will die.” In this impressive sign of parental love, Judah insists that the thought of losing another son will be so unbearable that his father will surely die. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a19th century German scholar, comments that, “as soon as [Jacob] sees that the lad is not there, he will die on the spot. We shall not have time to explain the matter to him, and try to make him see the matter in a less serious light.” In other words, the unimaginable pains of child loss would undoubtedly debilitate any loving father. The loss of a child, in a certain sense, accelerates, or may even perpetuate, the fatality of a parent.
By means of his love the father becomes part and parcel of his son. Onkelos, a second century rabbi renowned for his generally precise Aramaic translation of the Torah, offers an insightful interpretation of the words “his soul is bound up with the boy’s soul.” Rather than using the expected Aramaic term for “bound up” (ק,ט,ר), Onkelos verbosely suggests that Benjamin’s soul is “beloved to [Jacob] as his own soul.” Any pain inflicted on Benjamin is simultaneously inflicted on his father. By enslaving Benjamin, Judah suggests the Joseph is concurrently enslaving a piece of Jacob, and a real part of Jacob will be irretrievably lost.
The core of Judah’s message is clear: the consequences of Joseph’s actions will not be confined to those directly affected by his verdicts. These decisions will have extensive ramifications that will go beyond the limits of any perceived reality. The pain will not just affect those that immediately surround him, but will continuously spread, as it strangles an array of hopes and dreams. Such is the power of tragedy.
As we contemplate the pain of a loss, I pray that we have the strength to appreciate the potency of our love. The “26” lives lost took with them a piece of each of us. Parents are now trepid as they send their kids to school; students now cringe as they climb onto the once hallowed yellow school bus. This mass murder stole our serenity and kidnapped our resilience, as it shook our optimism and faith in humanity. It created a schism, and irreconcilably warped our apparently naive vision of the world. There is no way to heal this schism, no magic potion to reincarnate those lost, and no plausible plan to reinvigorate our passion. Yet, we must move forward. Like Judah, we must stand up for love, and tirelessly defend human dignity. We must always be there for each other, for, at the end of the day, all of our souls are inextricably tied.
Friday, April 27, 2012
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
This week we begin the book of Shemot. What is fascinating about how most students learn this narrative is that before even reading the text for the first time, they have already been taught the outcome. Inevitably, the tragedy of Jewish enslavement seems less severe, because the student understands slavery is the first step towards redemption. The Torah intentionally devotes little time to the hundreds of years of Israelite enslavement--by chapter 14, the Israelites are already crossing the sea. Yet, it devotes more than three and a half books to the mere 40 years in the desert. The way that the story is told forces the reader to see the pains of slavery as the first step towards deliverance.
Today is a difficult day for our Jewish community. An institution that for years has nourished mentschlekite (integrity) and yiddishkite (Jewish being) in young students has closed its doors, for a variety of unfortunate reasons. At the end of this year, Jewish children will no longer be blessed with the gift of study at Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School. The school that was a staple of Jewish living and Jewish learning for so many, unfortunately, is no more.
When I heard this news, though not surprised, I was terribly saddened, and nearly brought to tears. It felt as though I was losing a piece of my childhood. But, I quickly realized that the real tragedy is not a building shutting its doors. The real tragedy, rather, will be if the morals that Gittelman so wonderfully cultivated became cheapened.
A well known teaching from Mishlei (proverbs) suggests that if you teach a child according to his way, he will never depart from it. The commentators disagree about the word “his.” Should it, in fact, be read “His”? The first reading teaches that each child is special, and nourishing that uniqueness will ensure faithfulness to his identity. The second suggests that to keep a child true to his identity, a child must be taught in G-d’s ways.
The beauty of RGHDS was that it never understood there to be a choice between these two models; rather, it saw both as nonnegotiable elements of a strong Jewish education. Each child was given personal attention and love, while simultaneously being challenged to think as a community—to imagine how to repair the world in Hashem’s image. From our adolescence we were taught to love both man and G-d; to respect both the transcendent and the imminent. To paraphrase Pirkei Avot, Talmud Torah (education) was married to derekh eretz (strong character).
It is a shame that such a remarkable institution is closing down, but the real shanda (shame) will be if we neglect its messages. The Gemarah, in Berachot, teaches that the righteous never die, and I have often suggested that this is because their impact lives on for generations. Such is the case with institutions as well; its legacy must never burn out.
A famous Israeli folksong, Mah Evarech, depicts an angel deliberating on how to bless an unborn child. At the end of this beautiful song the songwriter cries: “the child is now an angel; if only G-d had blessed this child with life, these blessings would not have been in vain” The childs blessings seem useless without a body to house them. We have been given the blessings, and now it is our task to actualize them; it is our duty to be the body. Redemption from Egypt blossomed out of years of servitude, and a rebuilt and reinvigorated Jewish community can emerge from this time of difficulty. Moshe alone could not take the Jews out of Egypt; it took the participation of each Jew, packing their own bags, and heading on their own journey. Journeys entail a collective participation, so let us all work diligently to ensure that our heartbreak ends as positively as the Israelites—with Torah, once again, being given to the children of Israel.
Friday, November 18, 2011
One of my favorite parts of camp is the Learner’s Minyan every Shabbat morning. In addition to the special community that we build, it also affords us a zman kavua (set time) to really struggle with fundamental questions about prayer. This summer, each week we discussed a different question regarding our relationship with prayer. We dealt with issues of changing liturgy, the need (or lack thereof) to understand the words, codified vs. spontaneous prayer, and many other difficult paradigms. This week, while reading through the parsha, I was reminded of one of my favorite discussions.
One week, I posed the following questions: when we request something from Hashem, what do our expectation? Do we expect an answer? Do we supposed that He will intercede? Do we even believe He listens (or cares)? Or maybe, we just need to vent a little, and "prayer" is a great outlet. Are we actually just speaking to ourselves? Is prayer more for me, or more for G-d?
In this weeks parsha, Parshat Chayei Sarah, we see two formulations of prayer. In the famous story of Eliezer returning to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife for Isaac, Eliezer describes his preparation for this search with the words “לדבר אל ליבי” speaking to his heart. While contextually it seems to be describing him praying, it is a very strange phrasing. When we see the famous scene of Hannah praying, for example, the TaNaKh uses the word תתפלל, which means to pray. Here it seems as though Eliezer is merely talking to himself; the words, however, are directed at G-d.
This model of prayer seems to be one in which prayer is necessitated by our selves; though prayer does not necessarily affect G-d, it affects us, and that is the ikar (essence). Rabbi Julius Greenstone writes “Prayer does not affect G-d, but ourselves […] G-d needs none of our praises and supplications, but we feel impelled to pour out our hearts to Him and by doing this we come to be in greater harmony with our spiritual selves and with G-d.” Greenstone, importantly, notes that even this model of prayer strengthens our relationship with the Almighty, even though the prayer is not completely selfless.
Later in the Parsha, however, we have a new archetype for prayer. It says that Isaac went out to the field לשוח. While the meaning of the word is unclear, both Rashi and the Gmarah understand it to be prayer. Isaac seems to be in conversation with G-d; a conversation in which he expects a response. This notion, while drastically different from the prayer of Eliezer, fits nicely with our daily plea for G-d to hear our voices and accept favorably our prayers. If we understand prayer in this manner, prayer is for G-d and will potentially even warrant a response.
Somehow I believe that both of these seemingly contradictory models of prayer exist simultaneously. While I initially thought to suggest that every time that we pray with a new kavanah, we fall into a different category, I’m not sure I believe that. I think that each prayer, in itself, is both for us and for G-d. It is completely selfish, and completely selfless. It is both heavenly and worldly. It is local and universal.
Truth be told, I’m not yet convinced that I fully appreciate how this paradigm works. Does prayer exist in this way, or is prayer something different all together. I’d love to hear thoughts! Shabbat shalom!
Thursday, November 10, 2011
This week, in Parshat Vayeirah, we read one of the most famous, and most troubling, stories in the TaNaKh. G-d calls out to Avraham, commanding him to sacrifice his only son. As if that were not difficult enough, in two separate Midrashim we learn about how eager Avraham was to fulfill this strange mission.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Wilt Chamberlain? There is not doubt that he was great. But, Bill Russel? He's the best that ever was.