Thursday, September 11, 2008

Relaunch for the Holidays




The Watering Hole is currently relaxing on the beaches of Tel Aviv reflecting upon this last year in preparation for the new year and Rosh HaShana.

The Site and commentary will relaunch with the start of the New Year.

Have an idea that you would like to see with the site? Have a reflection on this last year? We are currently recruiting new writers, ideas and more!

Give us a shout: wateringholetorah[at]gmail.com

Relaunch for Rosh Hashana with Genesis 21:1-34, Numbers 29:1-6.






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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

God is a Treehugger

-- Dr. Dreidel reporting
Last week's reading, Behar, told us to give our land a break every seven years.

Basically, for every six years that we work the land for crops we give the land a year to cool off, regroup and enjoy.

What does the land do for that seventh year? Do the corn stalks and trees get together to drink wine and eat challah?

I interviewed the trees in my back yard but unfortunately they had no comment.

I tried to reach out to the ents of Middle Earth, but alas I was unable to locate the ents or their wives.

The Lorax, who has been retired for years, and was on vacation in the Sahara Desert when I rang. Although his answering machine left a number for his son, the new lord of the trees.

Jr. was quite busy down in Africa, South America and Charlotte, N.C., where trees are flying off the shelves.

I'm not sure the last time that we remembered to take a year off for the trees. Could you imagine what would happen in America if everyone had to give the land a break?

What about the air and our water?

Often on the Internet I find chain emails about boycotting pumping gas for a day, or staying home for work. Even if 100,000 people responded and boycotted or stayed home, that would barely be a blip.

The fact is giving the land a break is just not in our nature. Everyone I know hardly gives themselves a rest, which is supposed to happen once a week.

In order to truly rest we need to turn off our cell phones, unplug our stereos, shutdown our laptops, and tune out.

That is a lot of things to do. And its hard to get away from so many things. With our constant blackberry-ing it's easy to forget to rest and I don't mean passing out on the couch watching sportcenter again.

I say let's get out there and rest. Maybe we can start an online chain mail.

It was remarked that "You can't stop the problems of mass consumerism with more consumerism."

I don't want to go into that, but it suggests that what the world needs now is not more of the same, but rather some good old fashioned rest, respite and 40 winks.

Same goes for the air, the land and the Lorax.




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Friday, March 28, 2008

One and Done

I have always liked to think of Judaism as a ladder, with a goal of always moving up. Each of the commandments is a step on the ladder meaning the ladder is very tall. But the point wasn't to be at the top of the ladder -- or in the middle or at the bottom -- just being on the ladder is what was important.

Its a good thing that Judaism is more like this than like the NCAA Tournament. The Ten Commandments would likely be the No. 1 - No. 4 Seeds. The rest of the commandments, like Kashrut, rituals of sacrifice and doing it on Shabbat, those would be the rest of the seeds. It would be pretty interesting and fun to see the current Mitzvah seedings.

Maybe this week, when Governor Spitzer was forced to resign after being busted paying for an "escort," Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery would bring home a high seed. The commandments would have to duke it out.

The only problem is that if it was tournament-style instead of ladder-style it's "one-and-done." Win and move on, but sin and go home.

In the Parsha this week, Shmini, Aaron's two sons are helping their dad with the rituals. They decide to light an extra fire and are immediately killed on the spot. There was no loser bracket for them, no NIT tournament.

Later, Moses tells Aaron its not good to drink while on the job. So for this week, I'd imagine that would rule the Mitzvah power rankings.

Don't drink on the job. Similar to "don't shit where you eat." Important rules to know. Sometimes difficult to follow. But in our world at least, Governor Spitzer, Britney Spears, you and I, we all get second chances. Even Jerry Springer was able to reconfigure his life.

So for my final thought for the day, don't be intimidated by all the commandments, laws, stipulations and rabbinical debates found in Judaism. The beauty of it is that you win and go on, or lose and try again. It is said the righteous man gets knocked down eight times. But the important thing is that he gets up.

Apply to more than one grad school. Make a plan B. Ask out another girl (or boy).

And as the sages said, "Keep on Truckin."



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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Vayikra: There Will Be Blood


At the conclusion of Exodus, we found the Israelites wandering through the Sinai with their newly-built Tabernacle. So far, it's been a tough ride out of Egypt, and the follies and tribulations of our desert ancestors are well documented in the annals of history. Having moved past the disaster of the Golden Calf, we begin the book of Leviticus - Vayikra - with the hope that things will get a little brighter.

Over the course of the next five chapters however, we learn that the beautiful Tabernacle was built to function as an altar to spill the blood of animals and sacrifice them to God. These sacrifices were instituted so the Israelites could atone for their sins. Not exactly a cheery portion this week.

It seems like Vayikra is obsessed with blood:
In fact, the word blood is mentioned at least 25 times in these five chapters. This Parsha raises some tough questions about ancient Judaism as well as the nature of God. Why is the Torah so concerned with spilling the blood of animals? Were the ancient Israelites a primitive, bloodthirsty people who cared nothing about living things? Why does God need blood to grant atonement?

Over the centuries, non-Jews have pointed to this Parsha to say that Judaism is not a religion based on morals and intellect, but on uneducated rituals. Indeed, it is very difficult -- if not impossible -- for our civilized, modern minds to understand the significance of animal sacrifices. Spirituality should be the key to reaching God, and the physical world should be bypassed completely to achieve salvation ... right?

Not for Jews. Holiness in Judaism means that the physical and spiritual join together; a bond between humankind and God. In the Torah, a place was consecrated as sacred only if something happened there between man on Earth and God in Heaven. We have to remember that we are human beings with human urges and human emotions, and we should not repress our humanness. The Torah understood this, at least in the most basic of ways, by emphasizing blood throughout this Parsha.

We simply cannot ignore the physical aspect of Jewish life and tradition. Despite the emotions and basic human needs that drive us and our behavior, it's blood that is running through our veins, and blood that keeps us alive and sustains us. When the Israelites saw the blood of the animals they were sacrificing, they were immediately reminded of their own mortality. These sacrifices were sin offerings, so instead of being punished with their own blood (except in cases of murder or other serious violations of the law), a person would sacrifice an animal to God. The twist comes in knowing that God does not need these sacrifices; they were more for the person who committed the sin to realize that they are still human.

We are not just body and not just soul, but a united being composed of both. Although Judaism has (thankfully) evolved beyond animal sacrifices, the physical human aspect of our religion is today just as important as the spiritual. We afflict our bodies on Yom Kippur, we can choose what to eat or not eat based on Jewish law, and we are commanded to pay attention to the body's needs. This Parsha reminds us that although it's not alright to sin before God, it's alright to be human. Lucky for us, we don't know how to be anything else.



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Friday, February 29, 2008

Vayakhel: An Exercise in Subtle Juxtaposition


There's really no good way to follow up The Brooklyn Boy's last post because it was so hella good, especially since I was at the NC Hillel Statewide where he first unearthed his penchant for rhymin' d'vars (and I was one of the enthusiastic minions; or was it minyans?). Well done, sir.

I'm not sure if you've ever read through this Parsha (Vayakhel; Exodus 35:1 - 38:20), but it's what I would call ... laborious. It starts off with Moses reminding the Jewish people, fresh off of the Golden Calf disaster, that God has commanded them to observe Shabbat or they will be put to death:
And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: 'These are the words which HaShem hath commanded, that ye should do them. Six day shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to HaShem; whosoever doeth any therein shall be put to death. Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day. (Exodus 35:1-3)
Makes you wonder at which point in Jewish history they stopped putting people to death for not observing Shabbat ...

Then, suddenly, verse after verse for the next three chapters -- more than 100 verses total -- the Torah offers a step-by-step blueprint about how to build the Tabernacle, or Mishkan, the physical center for the ancient Jewish religion in the desert, all the way down to the details of the lengths and colors of the curtains, and the number of bars of acacia wood on each side. No one ever said the Torah read like a novel.

The stark juxtaposition of God's decree about the Jews observing Shabbat being paired with the description of how to build the Tabernacle is striking, and also intentional. If you read through the verses following the decree, it describes in detail the different tasks of how the Mishkan is to be built, and even who God thinks should build it. These tasks involve mundane activities like sewing, casting metals and cooking: all acts that involve the creation of something. And it's no small coincidence that these are the very acts that are forbidden on Shabbat.

The Tabernacle was built to give the Jewish people a physical "dwelling" place for God's presence. Centuries later, after the Israelites had conquered Canaan and established Jerusalem as their capital, the Mishkan was housed in the Temple, which would be the central place of ancient Jewish worship until its most recent destruction in 70 CE.

So here's the reason for the text's juxtaposition. During the workweek, the ancient Jews had a physical structure accompanying them in the desert to remind them of God's presence. Through the various "creative" activities described in the Parsha, they were given the task of actually building the Tabernacle, making those once-ordinary tasks holy.

Why then, on Shabbat, are those very same acts of creation forbidden? It's because on Shabbat, God rested from his creation of the Universe. Everything that it took to build God's desert house was halted on Shabbat in the Israelites' best effort to emulate God. We don't necessarily need to be around a structure that houses the Divine Presence because, on Shabbat, we are immersed in it. Different from the ancient sacrifices and rituals that could only be conducted near the Tabernacle or at the Temple in Jerusalem, Shabbat can be observed anywhere on Earth, and that's what makes it beautiful. Shabbat is the one time during the week where we as Jews can focus our spiritual energy and not create, but just be.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not going to be self-righteous here. I definitely create on Shabbat in the classical sense, as I'm sure many of us do. I'm a child of modern America, I work for a computer company and do weekend work sometimes, I play drums in two bands, and I love taking long Saturday morning drives.

Does this detract from my Shabbat experience? Maybe, if you're thinking solely on a traditionally Jewish level. I guess I don't need to do all of those things. But even if I stopped "creating" and unplugged, put the sticks down, and simply walked around the southern part of Heaven for a day, I don't think it would make a big difference for my personal experience. It's great to try every once in a while, and I have before. But for me, Shabbat is about the re-creation of the self, and working on bringing a sense of peace back to ourselves and to our broken world. And I say thank God for that.



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Friday, February 22, 2008

Ki Tisa -- High (In)Fidelity

This was first performed for 200 people at a Statewide Shabbat at NC Hillel, and caught the attention of a Rabbi who said it would really benefit bar mitzvah students if I did this for every portion in the Five Books, which indirectly led to the foundation of this site. Crazy. Also, I spit it at the "Twelve Tribes" Open Mic at National Poetry Slam 2007, where it went over like gangbusters. Enjoy.








All I ask is your attention as I command it,
Use spoken word and put pen to page
To outline for y'all a critical stage
In Jewish history and I won't be vague

I'll unravel the mystery locked in the Parsha
This week, Ki Tisa relates the state of Jews at Sinai
Who got confused when they looked at the sky
And could not comprehend what they could not see
So they committed an act of infidelity
And created a calf that repped visibly
A notion of God they could understand
And they did all of this
under Aaron's command

Because he conciliated while Moses terminated
Said, "I'll be back"
and 40 days deliberated in a conversation with God
who at the end said something odd:
He saw the calf, said, "You don't know the half
Of what your people are doing at the foot of the path.
They're really not fooling me with their charade.
I'm 'bout to regulate
cuz I just got played."

Moses said, "Hold up ...

It ain't the right thing to do
You love these people try not to undo
The work of the Exodus and give rise to
Undue attitudes about a God who rescued his people only to off 'em
And turned the whole desert into one sandy coffin."

So Moses bounced — to see for himself
What his people had done with their material wealth.
He got so mad he shattered the tablets
Ground up the calf and let all of them have it
Aaron got frantic and tried to lie his way out
By telling Moses the calf came about all on its own
But Moses saw through that, knew he should atone
For the sins of the people who should turn to stone
Like Lot's wife -- the REEE-MIIIX!!
And the Levites believed it
So they stepped forward toward God
And had to carry out a terrible job
See, 3,000 people lost their lives that day
Because they almost undermined the whole Jewish faith

And lessons were learned by all parties involved:
The people needed to see that all idols aren't God
And the man upstairs needed to be fair
And not expect people to believe in the air

So stop ...

... and take a look at what surrounds you at the moment
And don't just do it now, do it any time you can control it
Every person and thing, please try to own it
Because God's in all of that
now take that thought and hone it into tangible form
So you don't have to dance by a calf to keep warm.


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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Leaping Into February and March

Doc Driedel thought it might be a good idea to widen the audience of my (roughly) monthly calls for contributors beyond the scope of the e-mail list. Check below for the info, and email me if you're interested.

Since my job has been whupping my butt for the better part of three weeks -- including swallowing this whole weekend -- you got two whole weeks with 100 percent less harassment. Here's what's been going on at the Hole:
  • We were linked by the Union for Reform Judaism's Shabbat Blog, which recommended us as one of three sites to visit "to fulfill the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, the study of Torah." You are not writing in a vacuum -- people are reading; we average more than 70 hits per week, have 7 feed subscriptions and 17 fans on Facebook.
  • We took our first guest post from a board-certified Rabbi. (Thanks, "Rabbi V"!)
  • We caught knowledge from repeat contributors "Dropping the Baum," "Dr. Driedel," "Flower," "The Tar Heeb" and also yer favorite Brooklyn Boy. The "Baum Drop" analyzed Moses' demand that Pharoah "Let My People Bo." The Tar Heeb wondered about "The World Without Us," while Flower took a look at "The Laws of Love," and I decided Moses and Aaron originated the roles MJ and Scottie Pippen would fill many thousands of years later.

    But a special shout out goes to the good doctor, whose search for "The Leaders in Our Lives" took us through a brave, thoughtful tribute to a friend whose journey ended too early. Thanks for sharing, good sir.

    That post accomplishes everything we strive for here at the Hole, and proves that the text is merely a jumping off point for larger issues -- not something those of you on the fence should worry about being bogged down by should you choose to contribute.
  • Also, we missed a week because a writer dropped out late and I was too pre-occupied to cover. We've done a great job getting up one post nearly every week since our relaunch in October -- Yeah, it's like that. Seriously stellar job. All of you. -- but this is why I'd like to get to a point where there's more than one post per portion.Again, it's a numbers game. One contribution from every person means no one writes more than once every two months or so.

    I don't want to lose the momentum we've built. We've got something unique here, one that fills an unaccounted-for niche. Let's make the magic happen.
  • One great idea from my buddy Johnny Poo was the posting of bar/bat mitzvah speeches when the respective portion comes up. If you can turn yours up, that would be an easy way to get involved. Remember, the alias system is there not only to free you from expectations, but also save you from potential embarrassment. And believe you me, I have been looking for mine since he floated the idea. Luckily, I've got until Deuteronomy, ha.
Here's the upcoming schedule:

February

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35; Deadline: Feb. 20)
--Me, with a spoken word joint about the Golden Calf
NOTE: Ten Commandments also covered here, if anyone wants to tackle that last second, ha.

Vayakehl (Ex. 35:1-38:20; Deadline: Feb. 27)
Community donation of materials, and construction of the Holy Tabernacle and related furnishings

March

Pekudei (Ex. 38:21–40:38; Deadline: March 5)
Creation of the Priestly Vestements, the blessing of new priests and the Jews set off on their

Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1–5:26; Deadline: March 12)
Rules for acceptable offerings and how to absolve sins (Don't stop snitching!)

Tzav (Lev. 6:1–8:36; Deadline: March 19)
Rituals for offerings, commandment against eating animal fat, consecration of the Tabernacle and the priests

Shimini (Lev. 9:1–11:47; Deadline: March 26)
Sacrifice on behalf of the people, the rebellion of Aaron's sons, the rules of Kashrut (Kosher law)

April

Tazria (Lev. 12:1–13:59; Deadline: Apr. 2)
Purification rituals and how to deal with medical afflictions



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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Shrinking the Self (Tetzaveh)

So while this project started -- and will continue to be -- alternative commentary for and from 20-somethings, we're not going to turn down a more ... mature voice when they have a relevant contribution. One such voice is that a mentor of mine, Rabbi V, who presided over my temple during this Brooklyn Boy's formative high school years, and a wee bit before that.

She's socially active, interesting and -- most importantly -- encouraging. She's the one who got me to understand that thinking is everything, and while the text certainly is holy, it should serve as the foundation for that greatest of Jewish traditions: Debate. Wrestle with the important issues until they make sense to you. Not agreeing is okay, but have a basis for your position. That said, here's her take on Parsha
Tetzaveh:

Imagine how incredible Aaron, the High Priest, looked decked out in jewels of every color, golden armor, jingly bells on his hem and a zany headdress -- what a contrast to the burnt umber, barren landscape of the Sinai desert! Now imagine how sweltering he would have been in that outfit. Although we know the names of these cohanim -- Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar, the institution of the priesthood pretty much obliterates their personalities. The office consumes the individual. Their clothing almost literally swallows them.

This could be a drag for the cohanim as individuals: In Parashat Shemini in Leviticus 10, Nadav and Avihu attempt to defy the rules and just be themselves. As a result, God hurls a giant fireball at them and they die instantly. But it was of great benefit to the Jews. The loss of human personality through these garments allowed the priests to be seen as celebrities. However, they were not celebrities for themselves or by their own merit -- they were celebrities because they represented all the people.

The clothing was a key to how the priests were celebrities for the people. Obviously, the bright colors were conspicuous, so when the cohanim stood before the masses, even from far away there would be no mistaking the guy in the golden breastplate. The clothing was highly symbolic. On each shoulder, Aaron wore a lapis lazuli stone on which the names of each of the twelve tribes were engraved. So all the regular people felt that they were integral to the rituals Aaron performed. Aaron, the High Priest, metaphorically carried the people on his shoulders. Having the name of their tribe on his garments was like having your sporting team or alma mater on the hat or jersey of the President. You feel validated. Less like a chump for belonging to the smallest tribe or rooting for the Cubs.

The gemstones on the breastplate had a similar function. Twelve dazzling jewels, each representing a tribe, shone from the silver breastplate during the rituals. Every tribe, and thus every member of the twelve tribes was included. When you looked at the Cohen Gadol, you knew he alone was the High Priest, but you got the sense that he was your man and that you were important in everything he did.

That the individual men who were cohanim had to check their personal identity at the door when they got into their garments meant the priests had to do some serious tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is a Hebrew term meaning shrinking oneself to allow others to grow in importance. Kabbalistic theology of the creation of the universe uses the term tzimtzum to describe how God once filled the universe, but shrank to a tiny point to allow space for the stuff of the universe to fit. Then God radiated the divine self into matter.

The cohanim also had to shrink themselves to some degree – to lose their personalities in order to leave space for all the people to gain a sense of participation and ownership of the rituals. The clothes helped the cohanim cloak their own authority, and as a result they became paradoxically more powerful because the masses bought into the new rituals instead of rejecting them and the priests as elitists know-it-alls. In a 1944 utopian piece called “After The War” novelist and essayist Henry Miller wrote that in a new era humans will realize that they can no longer hoard power: “His aim will not be to possess power, but to radiate it.” This may have been God’s goal for the priests in designing these outfits -- to radiate power outward and let all the people own some piece of power.

Last week, millions of voters went to the polls in the primary elections and caucuses to use their power of citizenship. The phenomenon of Barack Obama has been exciting to see, and interesting in light of the way that the cohanim radiated power. Obama has not tried to build a cult of personality, though he is personally popular. Instead his mode is a little bit of tzimtzum. He talks about the power of the people to make change, not just his own abilities. After Super Duper Tuesday, he spoke, saying, "We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek… We are the hope." Obama’s strength in connecting to and energizing an electorate comes not from possessing power, but in radiating it.

In the January 28, 2008 issue of the New Yorker, George Packer wrote about the differences between the celebrity of Hillary Clinton and of Barack Obama. The Obama celebrity is less personal, and more about his capacity to inspire others -- to make people believe they have power to make change. In the article, former Secretary of Labor (under Bill Clinton), Robert Reich defines the power of political inspiration as "the legitimizing of social movements and social change, the empowering of all sorts of people and groups to act as remarkable change agents."

One of the reasons that voters who really want change in this country (from cynicism to optimism at the very least) gravitate to Obama is because his candidacy suggests that we all hold a stake in change and all have the power to make change. Obama is not just running on a ticket of policy change, but on change in the process. He is running on the belief that regular Americans should not feel voiceless and excluded from democracy – elbowed out by powerful corporations or by Washington insiders.

One of the reasons the priesthood in the desert was embraced by the Israelites is that the ordinary people felt included in this radical new way of worshiping One God. The clothing of the priests assured them that the men in power were getting very little for themselves (mostly a lot of sweat, ashes and ram’s blood) and that the people as a whole were getting a lot. Tzimtzum may just be the only way to make lasting change. A person in power can fall, but a movement with a wide base can outlast the individual – even if the individual enjoys celebrity status.




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Friday, February 01, 2008

Big News!

We caught a link today from the Union for Reform Judaism's Shabbat Blog, which recommended us as one of three sites that expound upon the weekly Torah portion. They also included their own Reform Voices of Torah along with writer Stone Goodman, who produces topical prose and poetry.

Good look, URJ. And thanks to all the writers for producing such quality content week after week. You impress me anew every time. Onward and upward!



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Mishpatim: The Laws of Love


In the weeks before Valentine’s Day (I know, I know -- St. Valentine, not a Jew) and in contemplating my upcoming engagement, I’ve been thinking more and more about relationships, about love, and rules we follow for how we treat each other. Did you know that there is an increase in domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday?

According to a study done by Indiana University, an average of 244 additional cases of domestic violence occur on Super Sunday. Even at times when the emphasis should be on love, people revert to the raw emotion of anger, and its spawn, violence. Throughout this Parsha I read words traditionally translated as referring to violence, here offered as guidance when someone wrongs you and how to get even. We find the often quoted “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound, a bruise for a bruise.” (Exodus 21:24-25). We also see continual references to women as property, and even wives are only promised “sustenance," "clothing," and "marital relations." I won’t be one to argue with these three necessities, but what about "respect," "safety," and "honesty"? Perhaps I’m reading the words of the Parsha too closely, but perhaps we should all rethink what sustenance really means -- don’t we need love to survive?

Also woven throughout Mishpatim -- just like life’s hardships -- are continual references and illusions to how to conduct respectful and loving relationships.

Unfortunately, there are no set-in-stone rules for love, and certainly not as many as the ordinances set out in Parsha Mishpatim. In this Parsha you read laws spanning agriculture, theft, carnal indiscretions, and holidays. But G-d also sets forth rules similar to guidelines for healthy relationships. Partners should learn:

  • Give and take
    If you take your neighbor's garment as security, until sunset you shall return it to him” (Ex. 22:25)
  • Empathy
    “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9)
  • Loyalty
    “You shall not prostrate yourself before their gods, and you shall not worship them, and you shall not follow their practices.” (Ex. 23:24)

Maybe I’m consumed by the fires of love right now, but the last portion of Mishpatim (in which Moses ascends Mount Sinai and interacts with G-d), sounds strangely familiar to my own experiences with mortal love, in that sometimes reality is clouded, and love is brilliant and consuming:

And Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. And the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days, and He called to Moses on the seventh day from within the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire atop the mountain, before the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses came within the cloud, and he went up to the mountain, and Moses was upon the mountain forty days and forty nights.” (Ex. 24:15-18)

So in the spirit of the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and G-d’s ordinances, love each other by following the rules of fairness and honesty, and know that it’s okay to become consumed by love. Good luck and ... play ball!




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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Yitro - Finding the Leaders in our lives

Dave Burnett painting a bomb shelter in northern Israel, Dec 2006.

Great leadership follows three key principles:
  1. Know Yourself.
  2. Know the value of servant leadership.
  3. Know your values and do not deviate from them.
One leader that certainly heeded these rules was Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the greatest leaders and orators of all time, King became the spiritual leader of the United States during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. When he spoke, King tied current events with biblical imagery, often using it in new ways -- and Jewish ways, as well.

But did people follow King only for his speeches? No, sir. King led with his heart, and people respected him for that. They saw that he understood his own powers and limitations. He led by example, being arrested several times for refusing to back down in peaceful protest. And no matter what, King never deviated, even until the end. In his final speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated, King recommitted himself and his mission to action through non-violence.

In his final speech King states:
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

In this speech, King draws a direct parallel between himself and Moses, the leader of the Hebrews, the one who went to the Mountaintop and looked out into the Promised Land. What did Moses see? How did it relate to what King saw?

Moses was one of King's heroes.

And the two had a lot in common, especially in terms of the tenets laid out above:

1. Moses knew himself.
Unlike King, Moses was not a great orator. Therefore, Moses kept his bro Aaron with him at all times. Aaron was the great communicator; Moses was the visionary. Without each, it would be a stretch to believe that the Hebrews would have made it to the promised land.

2. Moses knew the value of servant leadership.
The people did not just follow Moses blindly. They saw the work he put in. They saw that Moses was willing to submit himself to the Lord and no other. No body worked harder. This is the Michael Jordan rule:
I never took a day off. If I took a day off, then Scottie was going to take a day off. And then Horace. The next thing you know, the whole scope of what we’re trying to do is being weakened. I never took a shortcut, and I never wanted anyone else to take a shortcut. If that meant someone interpreted me as a tyrant, I’m pretty sure they’re appreciative now.
Michael Jordan worked the hardest. He set the example, and his teammates followed him. Moses was the Michael Jordan of the ancient Hebrews and he got them to the Promised Land.

3. Moses stayed true to his values.
He stayed true to God, even when he felt he was being pushed, put in uncomfortable positions and even when he was told he would never be able to enter the Promised Land.

Moses did not do it all by himself. He had Aaron, his "Scottie." He also had plenty of other helpers, other role players. One of these was his father-in-law Yitro. In the Parsha bearing his name, Yitro shows up to greet the triumphant Moses.
SCENE
YITRO
Hey Moses, so yeah ... I always thought you were a great guy a real wonderful new addition to our family. I have brought my daughter, your wife, to be with you.

MOSES
(aside)
Uhhhh ... yeah, sure. Now you want me as your son-in-law. All I had to do was part the Red Sea and lead thousands to freedom. Your daughter is great, but seriously -- you need me to move water for your approval?

(to YITRO)
Thanks, pop.
END SCENE
Yitro decides to spend a day with the Hebrews and observes Moses in action. Moses, the one that split the Red Sea. And after one day of observation, he immediately has advice for his son-in-law.

At the time, Moses was spending a large part of his day amongst the people, hearing their problems, teaching the Law, and passing judgment. Yitro felt like Moses was taking too much time to do this, and advised Moses to divide the people up by finding upstanding men to act as judges. Yitro felt Moses would be burned out if he kept up at the same pace every day.

Now, Moses was not only a visionary, but also a great listener and a follower. Should he have taken Yitro's advice? It is true that Moses was busy, but what about what Moses's teacher and guide (Comissioner G-O-D) wanted? Was God sending a message to Moses through Yitro? Was this a test?

A day or so later, Moses is charged with gathering the Hebrews together and getting them ready for the coming of the Lord, the moment when God reveals himself to the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai. Then Moses goes up to the Mountaintop to receive the Ten Commandments.

This is a heavy burden for anyone to handle, even Moses.

King handled a heavy load as well. But the two had vision. They had purpose. They had a love of life. They also both died before seeing their visions fulfilled.

Life doesn't always turn out the way that we want. Children die everyday. Great leaders are shot down at the podium. Millions of Jews perished needlessly in the Holocaust.

I just spent time in Lublin, Poland where I learned about Rabbi Meir Shapiro. Rabbi Shapiro was another great leader, one who pushed his physical and mental limits to benefit the Jewish people. He taught, he served in government, he revolutionized the way Jews across the world related to each other through study. And he died at a very young age (in his 40s).

Why was his life taken so early? Rabbi Shapiro died in the shadow of the Holocaust. Did he die so that he would not have to suffer? Wouldn't his leadership be needed to inspire his people to get through hard times? These questions remained unanswered. But the riddle remains.

Death is a riddle.

Recently, a peer of mine, Dave Burnett, passed away while hiking in Jordan.

Dave was an amazing friend and passionate leader. Rarely have I seen one so full of life. Where Moses led with vision and King led with communication, Dave led with spirit.

Dave was always surrounded with people. We were drawn to him. To be in Dave's presence was infectious. While together, you knew you would have fun and for a while be as full of life as he was.

Just like all great leaders, Dave knew himself, knew how to be a servant leader and knew his values. He did not deviate from these principals.

Sometimes a candle that burns brightest also burns the quickest. It is a shame that his wick did not last longer, but the light that he provided will shine on for a long time.

Dave was on his journey to the Mountaintop. He wanted to combine his love of his country, Australia, with his love of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide. Dave had a vision. And as we just celebrated the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. on his day, and as we read about Moses in Parsha Yitro and elsewhere in the Torah, so too must we celebrate the lives of other leaders in our lives.

Moses and King are prevalent images in our minds, but they are not attainable. Our friends and the leaders in our everyday lives are the ones that we can touch. The ones that make leadership real for us.

By knowing Dave, working with him, talking to him and having him in my life, I can truly say that I am better able to connect to the meaning of leadership, to my heroes and to Judaism.

Thank you Dave. You will be missed.



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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Beshalach: The World Without Us

Imagine you are Pharaoh; ruler over the most powerful civilization on Earth. You have enslaved the Israelites for hundreds and hundreds of years. No heavy lifting is involved. Life is pretty good. But then one day, instead of waking up to the laborious groans of the collective slave population, you instead cough on the collective dust left in the wake of the Israelites flying the coup.

That’s right, this is the granddaddy of them all (no, not the Rose Bowl). Parsha Beshalach describes the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, the whole nine yards. When first daydreaming about this Parsha, one cannot help but reenact the infamous scene from the Ten Commandments with Moses (played by Charlton Heston) leading the Israelites to the Red Sea, while Ramses (Yul Brynner) is trying to figure out what happened and leads his troops to stop them. At this point, I consciously stopped my clich├ęd daydream and began to ponder this Parsha from Pharaoh’s point of view.

Don’t get me wrong, slavery is a bad gig and no one should condone it, but assuming it’s a viable alternative to stock one’s labor force, instantly losing it in its entirely could have some pretty catastrophic consequences on one’s economy and the overall morale of your people. Who would build the pyramids now?

When the Israelites fled Egypt, it was like someone turned off the lights, turned them back on again and everyone had vanished, leaving most of their possessions to live on without them. The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, assumes a similar premise: At the blink of an eye, the entire human race simply disappears from the Earth. No trace of the human form is detectable. All human bodies have simply vanished.

Setting up this premise, Weisman dives into his non-fiction hypothetical by explaining the main legacy that the human race’s collective will bestowed upon the Earth – its infrastructure. Covering topics as varying as the extinction of species to the structural flaws of the NYC Subway System, Weisman extrapolates how long it will take before humans’ imprint in these realms disappears, if ever. Weisman even cites the Egyptian pyramids’ ability to entomb their contents (due to lack of direct sunlight, moisture, and oxygen) when trying to explain why plastics will never decompose: “Our waste dumps are somewhat like that. Plastic buried where there’s little water, sun, or oxygen will stay intact a long time.”

Like the reading of this week's Parsha prolonging the legacy of ancient Egypt, the choices we make have a profound effect on the future of both the Earth and mankind. Are you a Pharoah or Moses?



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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Let My People Bo


Don't know what it is, but I'm not feeling particularly witty today, so this is going to be a brief Baum-drop. Maybe it's new the 6 a.m. workout routine. Or maybe the fact that I'm currently doing the majority of this post at work.

A quick recap: It is at this point of our narrative where things have gotten downright unpleasant for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. They've gone through seven fairly gross plagues, Pharaoh's heart has been constantly hardened and softened by God, and the land smells like dead frogs ... not quite harsh enough payback for 400 years of oppression and humiliation, but in the words of Ol' Blue Eyes, the best is yet to come. Moses and Aaron (or apparently MJ and Scottie Pippen. Man, I wish I saved my conversation with The Brooklyn Boy about basketball players and their biblical counterparts) have implored Pharaoh several times to let the people of Israel go so that they can serve God, and have been turned down. Hold onto this thought.

Now comes Parsha, Bo: Locusts, darkness and death of the firstborn. Not sure if you have ever lived in DC when the cicadas invade, but it's straight nasty to walk on dead bugs, and I can't even imagine what Egypt was like when the locusts came to town. Actually, I'd like to keep that thought confined to my imagination, because you couldn't pay me enough money to sit through The Reaping.

Then comes the darkness, which is both a practical and metaphorical punishment. The Torah and ancient Judaism seem to be cut and dry about where they stand on darkness: Light good, darkness bad. God created light and saw that it was good. The authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls were preparing for a war between the Sons of Darkness and the Sons of Light. The ancient Jews understood the significance of the plague of darkness; in complete darkness, physical and spiritual, not only can't you see, but you cannot see. Word.

The next two chapters highlight the Passover story, several commandments and the death of the firstborn for all Egyptians. This is real important in the history of the Jewish people, but I'm going to save that exegesis for when we get there in April.

You know the powerful spiritual by now, Let My People Go. But the song leaves out a crucial part -- God told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let his people go so that they can serve God. Yes, the Israelites had been brutally enslaved by the Egyptians for centuries, yes, God heard the cries of his oppressed people, yes, God has a beautiful way of setting free the captives ... but the one condition for freedom was for the lives of the Israelites to serve a purpose. What good is freedom if it doesn't mean anything to the free? Why not just be slaves?

I'm not going to get all Pit Preacher on you and claim to know exactly what God likes or wants, but if I had to take a guess, I think living a life of purpose and meaning qualifies as serving God in a positive way. Relationships between people matter, and so does a positive relationship with your surrounding environment. May 2008 be a year in which you can discover or strengthen your life's purpose, and know that it can change (and that's OK) as often as this 20-something has changed careers. If at some point this year you come to foolishly believe that you are contributing little to this broken world, remember that a smile, a kind word, and some compassion toward your fellow people makes waves, and you're actually helping to save the world from itself.

Damn, that was kitschy. Happy New Year.



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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Pursuing Perseverance (Vaera)


There's an old sports cliche, widely attributed to Hall of Fame baseball manager Sparky Anderson that goes, "If you have good players and if you keep them in the right frame of mind, then the manager is a success." Knowing the outcome of the story of Exodus, it's clear the G-O-D proved this truism by getting the Chosen People out of bondage, despite obstacles that would force a duo with weaker constitutions than Moses and Aaron to set down their staffs. (I'll spare you kids the lectures about Mo and Double-A debuting the roles MJ and Scottie would fill in the '90s. ... And the one about Moses not understanding no one is more important than the system, thus forcing the G(M) to rebuild on the fly around rising Biblical star Joshua.)

Okay, I lied about the first one -- it's relevant this week. Check the breakdown of Vaera:

Moses initially gets shot down by the people in his initial attempt at rallying them, so crushed are their souls by years of bondage. (See: wide-eyed Mike joining the Bulls.) So Moses expresses concern about his ability to lead, and God says he's on it, reminding Mo that Double-A has the ability to orate that the lead dog lacks. (See: Scottie got complementary game.) Finally convinced his boy is of right mind to do the damn thing, the G(M)OD sicks Mo and Double-A on the Bad Boys, at which point Pharaoh repeatedly lays the smack down. (See: The Pistons beating the Bulls many times.)

Strip away all else, and Vaera is a portion about perseverance. Moses (and Aaron!) spends the whole time trying to split a heart of stone like it's the Liberty Bell, hoping justice streams out upon the people of Israel. He marches out plague after plague, going through blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils and hail. And seven times is teased with the taste of freedom for his people, but as God forewarns (Exodus 7:3), Pharaoh's heart stiffens and the Jews remain enslaved (7:13; 8:11, 15, 28; 9:7, 12). The final insult of the portion comes when Pharaoh finally concedes due to the hail (9:28), but takes it back AGAIN when Mo puts the kibosh on the wacky weather. (9:34-35)

At portion's end, the Jews were THIS CLOSE. But not there yet. And they've been rejected seven times. Our boy kept going back time after time because he believed in the system, that what he was doing would work. Moses questioned the system, but found a way to work within it, and kept slugging away. Something inside is telling him, "Coach knows what's up. This will be successful. And we almost got out that time! So close. Just wait 'til next plague!" We know Mo is rewarded three crazy MFing plagues later, but what's his motivation at the time? Why keep at this? It's clearly futile!

What it comes down to is this: Perseverance lasts as long as a goal matters to you. Because the second it doesn't matter as much, you're going to try a little less hard to achieve it, and be a little less successful. This often means taking chances that other people might find difficult. But one has to recognize when the cost has begun to weigh more than the benefit. You can live your 20s on a pittance while writing the Great American Novel I've thus far neglected to and still come out on top, but if you swing your 30s on a leaky pipe dream, you're gonna end up broke, wet and alone.*

Honestly, you can't always know if you're making the right decision at the time. All you can do is follow your instincts, and try to really listen to and build upon any criticism thrown your way. It took Jonathan Larson seven years -- and a lot of lessons in compromise -- to bring the Broadway musical RENT to production. Here's a quote from the book:
There were a lot of struggles between Jonathan and Jim [Nicola, artistic director] and us at the workshop. He took this project to other theaters, and they started it and dropped it because he was difficult to deal with. Jim was really great in teaching him how to be patient and how to collaborate. Jonathan just didn't trust us and needed us to say in writing that "you will produce my play by such and such a date." Jim said, "No, we'll see how it goes and keep working until it's ready to be produced."
--Martha Banta, assistant director at NYTW
Larson never lived to see RENT succeed, but his perseverance and learned ability to work within the system instead of against it drove that success. Broadway hasn't been the same since. It's a tale first told on the record 5,000 years ago, when Moses died without entering the Promised Land, only leading the Jewish people there. The student had become the master.

Never stop learning.

Always question where you're going.

I'll try to meet you there one day.


*I'm not grounding that paragraph in personal examples, because I feel like I've used them before (moving to Oneonta) or they're too raw, and not proper for the space. Let's pretend I did, k? Word.



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