January 2009


“And you will tell you child on that day saying, ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt.'” (Ex. 13:8) This verse from Parshat Bo has become better-known as part of the Passover Seder. Near the conclusion of the Maggid section of the Seder, we hold up the matzah and point to it and recount that we eat the matzah “because of this that God did for me when I left Egypt.”

This is a powerful moment, one that endures in the memory of a child who grows up with it. Why?

In his commentary called the Torah Temima, the early twentieth century scholar Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein observes that this is one of several verses in the Torah involving the word “zeh,” or “this,” which are understood to involve pointing. Earlier in the parsha (Ex. 12:2) God tells Moses and Aaron, “Hachodesh hazeh yihyeh lachem rosh chodashim,” “This month shall be for you the first of the months.” The midrash explains that at that moment God, as it were, pointed to the new moon, since Moses had trouble seeing it. Rabbi Epstein finds other instances in the Torah and Rabbinic legend where the word “zeh” is linked to a moment of pointing.

In all these cases, the pointing becomes an act of symbol interpretation. The moon becomes a symbol for renewal, the matzah becomes a symbol for the enduring truth of the Exodus. By pointing and saying, “See this thing? This thing tells me something,” we do something fundamental to our humanity: We imbue objects with meaning. The philosopher Jean Piaget would say that symbol interpretation of this kind is a key developmental task on a child’s road to maturity. By returning to the matzah every year, we go back to that powerful moment in our own childhoods, when the world was still an enchanted place. We rekindle our childlike sense of wonder and our simple sense of faith.

From the same verse the ancient Rabbis also derived the precept that “in every generation, every person is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt,” since the verse says that this is “because of what God did for me when I left Egypt.” I like to say that my work is often about complicating the simple, and simplifying the complicated. Our Egypts can be complicated places. Perhaps, the Torah tells us, to leave Egypt we have to re-enter childhood.

Shabbat shalom.

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Today was one of the great days in my work life. There was nothing particularly profound about it, but when I think about the reasons I felt called to do the work that I do, today pretty much hit all of them.

This morning I did a Q&A via webcam with a class at Duke University, taught by a recently-acquired friend, Prof. Alma Blount. The class is part of the Hart Leadership Program at Duke, and the 25 students are critically and self-reflectively examining the topic of “boundary crossing”. For this week they read Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s To Heal a Fractured World, and Alma asked if I would talk with the class about the book and the ideas in it. I was totally in my element, talking about everything from Gaza to theology to religion and secularism in higher education in society. Great teaching moments involve a great text and speaking from the heart, and here I experienced both. And that was all before 10:30.

I then met with our Director of Engagement, Andrea Jacobs, for our weekly Torah study session. We have been closely reading Genesis 1 with Rashi’s commentary. As we sat in Linz & Vail coffee shop and talked about the tiny but powerful grammatical issues that Rashi spins into profound ideas about humanity and our place in the universe, I again felt an alignment between what the world–and Andrea–needed from me, and what I felt most powerful doing.

I next met with a professor, Elie Rekhess, to talk about how to improve Israel education on campus–from both a curricular and co-curricular perspective. Elie is a mature scholar and a doer, someone who understands that the education at a university does not end, or perhaps even primarily happen, inside the classroom. We agreed to start a little think tank to do some strategic planning.

Next I met with Samantha Rollins, a student who went on Birthright this winter and wrote about it in the student magazine North by Northwestern. This might have been my best first meeting with a student. It lasted 25 minutes. I got her details and then, possessed by something, I wasted no time getting to the Big Questions: “Samantha, what good do you do in the world?” and then “Where do you feel at home?” And finally, after those two, I ended by asking her “Samantha, what are you going to do right now to do good?” She decided to call her sister and say hello.

Finally, right after that meeting, I met with a student leader going through a crisis of confidence and direction. She had just bombed an Econ midterm, and she knew it. She also knew that she wasn’t making enough time for herself, to find quiet spaces, to nurture her soul. So I asked questions to help her identify the choices she had before her and what she might have to say no to in order to say yes to herself. And, most important, I recognized her. I said something like, “At the end of your life, no one is going to remember your Econ midterm. But they will remember the fact that you are a tremendous ba’alat chesed, a loving and kind person, who always has as hug and a smile and says hello. They will remember that you helped transform Hillel into a welcoming and caring place. And they will remember that when they think of the beautiful people in their life, they think of you.”

I entered the rabbinate because I wanted to be able to help people find meaning in their lives through commitment to Torah study and observance. I wanted to do good in the world. And I was called to work on a campus because I could help young adults find the language and concepts to do good in the world by living their lives in dialogue with the story of the Jewish people. Today was not unique–I have many days like this, days where I combine formal teaching with coaching and mentoring. But today was one where I profoundly sensed that I was doing God’s work. I feel blessed for the opportunity, and grateful for the people for whom I can make a difference.

Everyone should have a day like this.

One of the key moral dilemmas in Parshat Vaera (Ex. 6:2-9:35) is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Though Pharaoh hardens his own heart at first, ultimately God is the one who causes his heart to be hardened. Many commentators have dealt the this problem, namely how could God have hardened Pharaoh’s heart? How could God take away Pharaoh’s choice?

One answer perhaps comes through a teaching of the Sefat Emet about the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, which was taught to me by Rabbi Michael Balinsky. The Sefat Emet carefully reads the language of the story, and concludes that God actually took away Joseph’s free choice in that encounter, such that Joseph did not have to hesitate at the moment of temptation but rather fled the scene. Though the Sefat Emet probably goes a bit farther than me, I would argue that what he means for us is that there are moments when the choice before us is so clear that our will and that of God are aligned, there is no distance. In the case of Pharaoh, however, just the opposite is true: his heart has become so hardened that he no longer can make his own choices, and he continually chooses to do wrong.

The Hebrew phrase for the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart stems from the root K-B-D, kaved, which means heavy or weighty. In other contexts it connotes honor, because of the weightiness of ceremony or station. Avivah Zornberg, in her book Exodus: The Particulars of Rapture, writes that Pharaoh is the “king of heaviness, whose heart continually grows heavier,” and who therefore becomes ever more oppressive even as he is punished. He simply can’t stop his heart.

Contrast this with King Solomon, about whom I wrote a few months ago. As a young boy who just assumed the throne, Solomon asks for a lev shomeah, a listening heart. Solomon seeks a heart that is open, not closed; loving, not hating; listening, not shutting out the world. In this he is the polar opposite of Pharaoh.

Much has been made this week of our new president’s language about openness and listening and transparency. And I myself, in the post referenced above, have hoped that he can be something of a King Solomon. (This is not meant to imply, by the way, that the previous president should be compared to Pharaoh.) As we enter a world of manifold problems and challenges, of Gordian knots all around, the contrast between Pharaoh and Solomon reminds us that the beginning of finding wisdom and making the world better begins with opening our hearts to the voice of holiness within one another and ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.

On Saturday night my wife and I went to see the new movie ‘Defiance.’ The movie is about the Bielski Partisans, a group of Jews who lived in the woods from 1942-1945 while running from and fighting against the Nazis. Natalie had been looking forward to this event for a long time, as her father’s family were Partisans (not in the Bielski brigade), and the movie thus brought to life many of the stories of her grandparents. 

As I tried to figure out my own reaction to the movie, a few things came to mind. First of all, it’s a very well-done film. As Natalie described it, “It’s a Holocaust movie, but it’s an action Holocaust movie.” There is definitely some Hollywood license-taking (the actors are too good-looking, their teeth are too perfect, and the big scene at the end is entirely predictable). But that’s what you have to do to sell tickets. Most people seem to agree that the events as portrayed are pretty accurate. And the long stretches of Russian and Ukranian spoken by the actors are very impressive-sounding. (Though some of them had a hard time correctly pronouncing the name Chaya.)

It was impossible watching this movie not to think about the current situation in Israel. I was taken back to one of the most moving experiences of my life, the swearing in ceremony for a group of new IDF officers. As they marched in formation to the sounds of a military band, I couldn’t help but think, “How would the world have been different if these guys had been around 60 years ago?” Well, the movie shows you that some people did in fact fight back. And it certainly evokes a strong sense that has been captured in the saying evidently being used in Israel to describe the just-concluded war on Hamas: “Ba’al habayit hishtagea,” “The homeowner has gone nuts.” In plain English we would summarize this sentiment as “Don’t mess with us.” Watching the Bielski brothers, one has a strong urge to give them an ‘amen.’

Yet it goes deeper than that. The central moral drama of the film takes place between Tuvia, the older brother played by Daniel Craig, and Zusia, played by Liev Schreiber. I’m not spoiling anything with this: At the beginning of the film, the Bielski parents are killed pogrom-style by the local police. Upon learning the perp’s identity, Tuvia sneaks into his house and kills him along with two henchmen at point-blank range. When he returns, Zusia asks him, “How was it, killing them?” And Tuvia, clearly shaken, tells him to shut up. 

This sets up the tension between the brothers that will endure throughout the movie: Tuvia wants to limit the use of force and focus on saving and preserving life; Zusia wants to fight back and blow up Nazi tanks and soldiers. As a result of his reluctance to employ violence–both against the Nazis and against unruly troops in his own unit–Tuvia is continually challenged and forced to run. His brother’s indictment rings out: “You are not willing to do what must be done.” 

I have brought it up time and again, but it bears repeating: This tension, of not wanting to be killed and also not wanting to kill others, is a fundamental Jewish tension, borne out most poetically in Rashi’s comment on Jacob’s encounter with Esau. I’m not huge on Jewish particularism, but I know of no other tradition in which this dilemma receives as much weight and force as my own. Tuvia is right of course; one cannot allow oneself to be an animal just because one is hunted as an animal. But Zusia is also right: there is a time for war and a time for peace, and wartime morality is different from that of peacetime. As the Talmud would say: Teiku, there is no answer.

I am particularly interested in how my friends from pacifist traditions will respond to this movie. What is the right thing to do when one is under merciless attack?

There are a lot of miracles in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, which we begin reading this week with Parshat Shemot. There are of course the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Sea, the provision of manna. But there are two miracles that really ground the entire narrative: the miracle of the burning bush, and the miracle of Pharaoh’s daughter.

The burning bush is an obvious miracle: though it burned, “the bush was not consumed.” There is obvious symbolism in the miracle: that God’s promise was not extinguished in the midst of slavery in Egypt; that the human spirit of the Israelites was not extinguished either. Yet the greatest miracle of the story, it seems to me, is that Moses noticed: ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ (Ex. 3:3) What would have happened if Moses hadn’t noticed? The rest of the story may not have happened.

Yet Moses’ entire life was rooted in another act of noticing and acting, that of Pharaoh’s daughter: “The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him.” (Ex. 2:5-6) The pity of Pharaoh’s daughter in this scene is remarkable, as her father had declared that any Hebrew baby boy was to be killed. Yet her sense of pity overtook her. (Rashi comments that upon opening the basket she beheld the Divine presence. Perhaps that presence is most acutely felt in beholding a crying and helpless child.) Had she not acted in this way, we have to wonder how the story would have been different.

Though Exodus is an epic adventure of grand acts, national politics, and divine warfare, it ultimately finds its deepest expression in the small but miraculous acts of ordinary people doing ordinary, yet extraordinary, things. And in particular, the miracles of the Exodus–the overturning of an entire world order based on ‘might makes right’–find their roots in the miracle of the human capacity, our capacity, to notice and to act.

Shabbat shalom.

I received this email today from the president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, Daniel Polisar. People have sometimes told me I’m eloquent. I’ve got nothing on this. It’s beautiful, and it sums up all the reasons Israelis should be proud of their children.

An excerpt:

As I left to return home before the start of the Sabbath, I understood the answer to the question I had been asked by a young woman 6,000 miles away. Yes, on the tactical level it can be a handicap to love life when your opponent loves death. But in the end, it is that love of life that will enable us to prevail. We will defeat those who love death, because we love life so much that we Israelis—from teenage girls to senior officers in wartime—know how to give comfort to those who have lost a loved one, and to say, “We are with you.” Our love of life enables us to confront tragedy, and emerge with the pride and resolve, the hope and the faith, that Dalia showed.

We love life so much that we educate our children to love life, though surrounded by enemies who hope, pray, and work for our deaths. It is this love of life that enabled the Jews to return to our homeland and rebuild a state after 2,000 years, and it is the sense of mission stemming from this love that will sustain the Zionist dream long into the future. We love life so much that we refuse to have our sense of morality dulled by enemies who seek to force us to kill women and children in order to defend our families. Though our principles limit the IDF’s effectiveness, they provide us with intangibles that more than compensate—the confidence and the strength to pursue our aims secure in the knowledge we are acting justly, and the unity that comes from a society acting in accordance with its most cherished values. And yes, let no one err, we will win because we love life so much we are willing to brave death, if necessary, to ensure that our people can lead free lives in the country we have established against all odds. In the end, it is this love of life that will enable us to prevail—not only in the war in Gaza, but in all the challenges we face in the years and generations to come.

Last week the newly-elected president of Northwestern University, Dr. Morton O. Schapiro, was on campus for a visit. Morty is a first-rate scholar and, more important, a mensch. I have a good feeling that he will bring some significant new ideas to the university.

When he took the stage, I was struck by the fact that while the audience clapped, they (we) did not stand. Perhaps it’s just the yeshiva student in me, but I have been disciplined such that when the head of your institution walks in the room, you stand up. There’s a great West Wing episode about this. Watch:

This quarter I’m taking a course on ritual theory, and today we were discussing academic gatherings of this sort and analyzing them as rituals. And I found myself asking, Why did no one stand up? There was frankly a lack of ritual in the introduction of the new president. He didn’t give a prepared address (though is impromptu comments were very good). There was no music or ceremony. And Morty is a simple guy–he goes by Morty, for crying out loud–so I’d imagine he’d say he wouldn’t want any ceremony.

But I think we forget something important about the power of ritual, the necessity for ritual, in moments like this. Ritual has been defined all kinds of ways, but one thing we know about it is that in creating ritual space, we create meaningful space. We create space and time in which we can be intentional, when we can act out our aspirations and sense of purpose. In moments of ritual, we bind together community in a sense of common mission.

That sense has been lacking at Northwestern for a long time, as it has at many other universities. (Though it’s only lacking on the official level. All the major events and activities that claim students’ attention outside the classroom at NU–Greek life, Theater, Dance Marathon–are steeped in ritual.) If we are going to rebuild a sense of community, I believe we have to begin by reclaiming ritual. And here’s a simple way to start: When the president of the university walks in the room, stand up.

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