Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Becoming Pesach


Friends and Family,

As Passover approaches, I am contemplating the awesome responsibility which freedom affords us. As G-d parted the sea, he invited the Israelites to leave a world of emptiness, and partner with him in creating a world of ideas and ideals. As they entered an ostensibly open desert, the future was a blank page; the story was theirs to write. Through their actions, their commitments, and their relationships they were able to ultimately leave an empty desert, and enter a land flowing of milk and honey. In each and every generation, it is our commitment to renew and reinvigorate this question: how can we create a world of ideas and ideals? How can we realize a world without slavery? How can we cultivate a society that encourages everyone to leave Egypt?

This past January I was given the amazing opportunity to travel to El Salvador with the American Jewish World Service. AJWS is an amazing organization that helps fund local non-profits in the developing world. AJWS works to support those in the developing world who have identified their own Egypt, and proposed a clear and defined path towards their promised land.  The organization I spent 10 days working with saw the need to diversify crops, and create a more sustainable farming experience. AJWS has helped them realized this dream, and I know, with our help, it can do the same for so many more. 

In this light, I invite you to join me in supporting AJWS. Lilla Watso, a famous Australian social activist, once said, "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel often taught that, indeed, our very liberation hinges on the liberation of all of humanity; there is no freedom unless there is complete freedom. Join me as we help this world escape from Egypt, and realize a more G-d fearing, loving, and complete world. 

Any amount is very welcome and appreciated; it is simple and should take no more than a minute to give. Please feel free to share this opportunity with others.

Thank you for much!

With great love and admiration, and wishing you a zissen (sweet) pesach,

Jordan David Soffer

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Through the Cracks We Can See the Light


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

Experiencing the Omer

        What an exciting time it is in the Jewish calendar! In the span of just three weeks Jews throughout the globe have reaffirmed our freedom with the holiday of Pesah, we have celebrated renewal Rosh Hodesh Iyar, and we danced through the streets of Yerushalayim on Yom Haaztmaut, as we marked 64 years of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisroel. Simultaneously, however,  we revisited nightmares of the Holocaust on Yom Shoah, and recalled the soliders lost defending this country on Yom Hazikaron. These are, without a doubt, two of the most depressing and trying moments of the Jewish year. There is a tension, an uncomfortable coexistence of two seemingly divergent depictions of the collective Jewish reality; are we amidst a time of unparalleled bereavement or are realizing the reinvigoration of a once hidden joy?

         On the one hand we mourn the 24,000 talmidim (students) of Rabbi Akiva, killed for a failure to respect each other. On the other hand, we bear witness a wave of blue and white flags flood the streets of Yerushalayim, marking 45 years since our capital’s liberation. The omer, it seems, is a confused and complex time.

         Really, however, it is a period of managing these dichotomies in our life. It is an opportunity to reflect, and to challenge ourselves to live life to its fullest, embracing both the opportune and the appalling. The first stage of achievement is ambition, the forerunner of anticipation is often anxiety, and the precursor to rebuilding is, unfortunately, destruction. We fail if view each of these different times as separate, isolated experiences; only when view them all in the context of holiness and see them all as crucial strands in the Supreme tapestry, can we really feel ourselves standing at Har Sinai, experiencing Hashem’s revelation.  

         This is a tension echoed by Hizkuni (a 13th century, French commentator) in his commentary on this weeks parsha, Acharei mot- kedoshim. Throughout kedoshim there are references to Aseret Hadibrot, each with a nuanced difference. L’dugmah (for example),  Hashem referrs to himself as Ani (I) instead of Anochi (the venerable I), and the commandments for Shabbat and kibbud av ve’em (respecting one's parents) are said in the passive rather than in the imperative. Hizkuni suggests that the reason for this is , בה לפי שכל הדברות כללות because all of the commandments are included in it. In other words, every experience that we have in life will be complex, and the key is to allow ourselves to experience it all.

      In one of my favorite teachings, the Mikhilta d’rabbi Yishmael on Parshat yitro (which was taught to me by Rabbi Ethan Tucker), we find the famous words.זכור ושמור,  שניהם נאמרו בדיבור אחד " (Remember and keep--the two different phrases used in the different recounting of the Ten Commandments--both of them were said in one utterance).Here, though, it is clearly not speaking about Ta’aseh and lo ta’aseh (positive and negative) mitzvahs. His other examples, show that what we are actually concerned about are two mitzvoth that seem mutually exclusive. That is to say, if I accept the paradigm of Shabbat fully as a day of zachor, elements of shamor are impossible, while if I accept it fully as a day of shamor, zachor is unachievable. The objective, it seems, is to somehow simultaneously accept both narratives, and realize that what initially seems to be an impossible tension, morphs into a rich, and fuller reality.

        Over this omer period, my kavana is to experience both elements, each individually, yet also as a unit, together. To allow the power of both realities to permeate my being, and to experience the time in the fullest of ways. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Let its Memory be for a Blessing

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

Hello, To Whom am I Praying?

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

To Learn and to Teach

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.

In the first Midrash we wonder why G-d, when instructing Avraham, says, קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק. "Take now your son, your only one, who you love, take Isaac." Would simply saying "take Isaac" not suffice? The Midrash suggests that Avraham was so excited to do as Hashem commanded that he wanted to take both his sons!
(Imagine this interaction--G-d: Take your son, Avraham: I have two sons!, G-d: Your only one, Avraham: They are both their mothers only one!, G-d: The one you love, Avraham: I love them both, G-d: Isaac, Avraham: Oh). G-d had to keep narrowing it down, so that Avraham would only take one.

Another difficult Midrash asks why, after being commanded, it says: וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר "and Avraham got up early in the morning (to prepare for the Sacrifice)." Could it not have simply said "And Avraham got up?" Rather, the Midrash teaches us, that Avraham got up very early, because he was so excited to perform Hashem's will.

While at first these interpretations seem extremely difficult to understand (and I must admit, I still do not feel fully comfortable with them), I think their rationale is rooted in a belief (as articulated in yet a third Midrash) that G-d will only test those in whom He trusts. Hashem will only challenge those who He knows can pass. Just as a great coach will only push his player as far as the coach believes the player can go, so too G-d will only push Avraham as far as He knows Avraham can go.

Sometimes, however, people fail their tests so miserably, that this position becomes difficult to believe. Unfortunately, this week, we bared witness to the most heinous sports scandal of my lifetime. Numerous individuals stood idly by, as a monster used his position of power to rape innocent children. I can not, and do not want to, fathom the disgusting nature of the raper; his evil is far too great for me to even speculate. But, what I can discuss are the "innocent bystanders" who failed their test in such a remarkable way.

Too many people knew what was going on, and did nothing to stop it. The Talmud, in Masechet Brachot, teaches us the the Wicked, in their lifetime, are called dead; the righteous, in their death, are called living. It seems to me that this is not merely a nice saying; it is an accurate portrayal of the nature of evil. The wicked, in their lifetime, do nothing to stop evil from perpetuating--while they are technically alive, they are as good as dead. The righteous leave legacies of decency that inspire generations--while their bodies are dead, it is as if they are still alive.

Avraham Avinu, in inspiring so much good in the world is still alive. Whenever we chant "Od Avinu Chai" our forefather is still alive, we are affirming the good that he has inspired us all to do. May we all be inspired to such greatness; to a level of devotion and to a love of justice that empowers generations. May we see the day that wickedness disappears, and that righteousness prevails. May we learn our lessons, both good and bad, from what comes before us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Russel vs. Chamberlain

Wilt Chamberlain? There is not doubt that he was great. But, Bill Russel? He's the best that ever was.

In sports, greatness cannot be measured in simple statistics--if that were possible, Chamberlain would easily be the greatest player in NBA history. But, as any sports fan knows, there is so much more. You must consider competition, era, teammates, and, potentially most of all, championships. Chamberlain was incredible for his generation, but Russel's greatness transcends time.

In last weeks parsha, Parshat Noach, Noach was described as אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו, a wholehearted righteous man in his generation. This description seems to suggest that while Noach wasn't necessarily a tzadik by objective standards, compared to dor hamabul (the morally perverted generation destroyed in the flood) he was exemplary. This description stands in stark contrast to Avraham, who first appears in this weeks parsha, Lech Lacha. Avraham seems to be righteous by any standard. He stood on high moral ground, and lived with amazing moral clarity.

While Noach was chosen as a world was erased, Avraham was chosen as a nation was born. Noach was a faithful follower, while Avraham was an empowered leader. Noach listened obediently; Avraham fought courageously. The Zohar points out that Avraham, in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, negotiated with G-d in order to prevent the destruction of innocent civilians. Noach, in the famous story of the flood, chose not to plea on the world's behalf, choosing instead to diligently listen to the word of G-d. This is not meant to detract from Noach's greatness--he was certainly still a fine role model. In truth, both he and Avraham represent different paths of leadership--each path necessary in its own time.

RaMBaN (Nachmanodies) famously taught מעשה אבות סימן לבנים the actions of our patriarchs are a siman (sign) to future generations. My teacher, Rabbi Alex Israel, presented three potential paradigms for understanding this word siman: 1) If we want to be honest to what the Ramban initially meant, this comes to teach us "historical determinism." What happened to our patriarchs determines what will happen in the future. While this may be difficult for 21st century minds to relate to, for the mystically inclined RaMBaN it made complete sense. 2) History is bound to repeat itself. While the anecdotes of our patriarchs do not determine our lives, the situations they encounter are inevitably going to arise again. To me, this is a nice middle ground, but such a brilliant innovation. 3) We are meant to see our lives in the stories of our ancestors.

The third paradigm, in many ways, articulates my understanding of Jewish education's objective. Jews often spend hours arguing over who wrote the Torah, and it's historical validity. Does it have many authors, only 4, maybe 2, or was it only Hashem? Did the stories actually happen? Could the world have really been created in 7 days? Is a sea parting really possible?

While these questions are important, and are certainly interesting, at the end of the day the answer doesn't need to matter. One doesn't need to feel disenfranchised simply because they can't believe in the historical validity of these claims. While I am not suggesting that these stories didn't happen, I am arguing that even if they didn't, that doesn't need to change our connection to this wonderfully rich faith.

Whether or not a flood took place and a man named Noach built a big ship and was the only human survivor is not the ikar (essence) of the story. If a man named Avram was ever thrown into a fiery furnace, left Terach's home to go to an area that is modern day Israel, eventually had his name changed to Avraham and we are all his direct descendants simply is not the foundation of our peoplehood. The foundation of our peoplehood is that we tirelessly seeking to have their lessons of hospitality (hachnasat orchim), faith in G-d (yirah), and courage, constantly infuse our very beings.

From Noach we learn to obey; from Avraham we learn to lead. When we can hear both of these messages simultaneously whispered into our two ears we will find ourselves growing tremendously. Let us always remember that our heritage is rooted in shared values, and our stories succeed most strongly when we allow these stories to articulate those ideals.

Shabbat Shalom