August 2011

Invoking the Yiddish word haimish (or heymish), which translates to “homey” (in the non-ghetto meaning of the word) David Brooks describes a phenomenon familiar to many of us: “Often, as we spend more on something, what we gain in privacy and elegance we lose in spontaneous sociability.” He terms this “crossing the haimish line.”

Brooks describes a family vacation to Africa, and contrasts his family’s stays in simpler settings with those in more luxurious accommodations: the simpler camps featured communal dinners, unplanned activities, and the stuff that makes life interesting. The luxury places, which catered more to individual and family tastes, lacked the color and memorable qualities of the more rustic environments.

Brooks generalizes this phenomenon, invoking–get ready, Jews–Hillel and Chabad to prove his point: “I once visited a university that had a large, lavishly financed Hillel House to serve as a Jewish center on campus. But the students told me they preferred the Chabad House nearby, which was run by the orthodox Lubavitchers. At the Chabad house, the sofas were tattered and the rooms cramped, but, the students said, it was more haimish.” Spot on, Brooks.

[Brooks slams Hillel a little too hard here, even though I don’t think he intends to. I think he would agree with Hillel President Wayne Firestone and board chair Tom Blumberg, who wrote in a response: “the real take away from Brooks’ article is that “haimishness” isn’t about a building; It’s about the warmth, openness and inclusiveness of the people who live, work, and play there. The most haimish – and effective – groups build meaningful relationships, and no organization has a monopoly on that.”]

Over the summer with the Bronfman Youth Fellows, I taught a course entitled “Where is home?” As regular blog readers will know, this is pretty much the biggest of the Big Questions, in my mind. All roads seem to lead to it. So we explored a variety of Jewish texts–Talmudic, legal, philosophical, meditative–as well as a poem or two, all of which offered perspective on the question of home. I hope to write a longer article based on this course, but Brooks’s column about heymishness prompts me to offer a couple of observations from the course this summer.

In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides delimits those spaces which require a mezuzah (the words of Torah affixed to beitecha, ‘your houses,’ and sha’arecha, ‘your gates.’ The main factors in determining if a space needs a mezuzah are: a) whether it is permanent; and b) whether it is dignified. Thus a sukkah, which is not permanent, does not require a mezuzah; neither does a bathroom, which is not dignified.

The undignified part is intuitive. The permanent part, as the fellows and I repeatedly found, is harder to define (though the halakha adopts the standard of 30 days as the amount of time one has to affix a mezuzah; nevertheless, 30 days is a minimum standard, and does not necessarily connote long-term permanence). Particularly in our day and age, when we move so frequently, what defines permanence in a home?

Jean Amery, a mid-twentieth century thinker and survivor of Auschwitz, reflects on this in an essay entitled, “How much home does a person need?” Amery writes: “Perhaps I am not speaking only for my already declining generation of those around fifty when I say that we are accustomed to living with things that tell us stories. We need a house of which we know who lived in it before us, a piece of furniture in whose small irregularities we recognize the craftsman who worked on it.” For Amery, home is bound up with the phenomenon of recognition: we are at home where we can recognize and understand, and where we can be recognized and understood. It is a place of stories.

Achieving that kind of richness is not something that happens quickly. As Amery presciently observed, the mobility of modern society, its fixation on the self-authoring self unencumbered by tradition, runs counter to this kind of heymishness. But as Brooks points out, we deceive ourselves when we forget about our desire for memory: “When we’re shopping for a vacation we’re primarily thinking about Where. The travel companies offer brochures showing private beaches and phenomenal sights. But when you come back from vacation, you primarily treasure the memories of Who — the people you met from faraway places, and the lives you came in contact with.” That is, we remember stories, not things.

Maimonides concludes his Laws of Mezuzah by telling us that whenever a person takes note of the mezuzah on his doorpost as he enters and leaves home,  he will “awake from his sleep and his obsession with the vanities of time, and recognize that there is nothing which lasts for eternity except the knowledge of the Creator of the world.” The mezuzah exists in a paradoxical relationship with itself: only a space that is permanent requires a mezuzah, and yet the point of the mezuzah is precisely to remind us that what we think of as permanent is not in fact so. Home, a mezuzah-demanding space, is a dynamic place: firm enough to give us a sense of permanence, but open and elastic enough to regularly be infused by new stories.

In this sense, home is not necessarily just one place. As Brooks observes, we can–and often do–encounter heymishness precisely when we are away from home: on vacation, on a college campus. As Natalie and I found during my years at Northwestern Hillel, the most profound experience we could offer our students was often the least exotic to us: welcoming them into our home, enabling them to share a meal, inviting them to play with our children. We frequently develop our own idea of home when we leave it, and we experience home most profoundly when we invite guests in.

One last thought: In his 2008 book The Home We Build Together, Jonathan Sacks contrasts the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the wilderness with the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Whereas the Mishkan was made from voluntary contributions, the Temple was built by conscripted labor and high taxes. One led to the development of a nation, the other was immediately followed by the rupture of Israel into two kingdoms. I have always viewed this as an obvious but nonetheless radical point by Sacks: the Mishkan, which becomes our metaphor for life, work and Shabbat, is in many ways a preferable model to the Temple. The Temple offers a sense of permanence, the security we seek in building institutions. But it comes at a price: the price of spontaneity, the price of feeling connected to community, the price of heymishness.

Home, the root of heymishness, is thus a paradoxical concept: providing just enough security and comfort to enable us to make ourselves vulnerable, to learn, to be renewed. That is what Brooks experienced on his safari. It is at the heart of Jewish life. And it something our world desperately needs to rediscover.

At about the midpoint of Parshat Ekev, Moses recounts the episode of the Golden Calf and his subsequent re-ascending of Sinai: “At that time, God said to me, ‘Carve yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain, and make yourself an ark of wood. And I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first ones that you broke. And you will put them in the ark. And I made an ark of acacia, and I carved two stone tablets like the first, and I went up the mountain with the tablets in my hand. And He wrote on the tablets like the writing on the first ones, the The Commandments that God spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of assembly. And God gave them to me. And I turned and went down from the mountain, and I put the tablets in the ark I had made, and they were there just as God commanded.'” (Deut. 10:1-5).

This account immediately poses some challenges when compared with the account of the same events in Exodus. Rashi points us to one: According to one view (Rashi’s), work on the Mishkan didn’t begin until after Moses had come down from the mountain. So how is it possible that Moses built the ark before he went up, since the ark is part–the centerpiece!–of the Mishkan? Answer: There were two arks, one that went out to war and one that stayed in the camp. This was the latter.

Ramban, unsurprisingly, disagrees: “This is a sole opinion. Throughout the Talmud, the Rabbis’ consensus view was consistent: There was one ark. The second tablets and the remnants of the first tablets were both put into the ark… This ark that Moses made: when Bezalel made his ark (the one that would enter the Mishkan), Moses buried his ark, according to the law regarding holy objects.”

Fascinating: Both commentators see an issue in the text, namely the apparent existence of two arks, and they come to strikingly different conclusions. Rashi argues for the existence of two arks, a view which, among other things, emphasizes that that which is holy cannot go out to war–death being the antithesis of the Holy of Holies. Ramban likewise maintains that the ark could not go out to war, but he goes a different route, saying that there was never a second ark. The ark mentioned here by Moses is a temporary ark, but bears a continuity of relationship with the ark that would ultimately be created by Bezalel and put in the Holy of Holies. “For Moses was commanded to build the Mishkan from the beginning [of his time on Mt. Sinai], and building the ark was the first commandment [in the building process]… For this was the entire purpose of the Mishkan, to enable God to sit on the cherubs.”

A striking feature of this early ark is its simplicity: it is not gilded, as the later ark would be. It is a plain box–much like the coffin in a traditional Jewish burial. And in this it seems to highlight one of the larger themes of Parshat Ekev: the humility and simplicity at the heart of a life of the service of God. Throughout the parsha, Moses exhorts the people to listen to God, to love God, and to serve God simply and humbly. In particular, he highlights the paradox of physicality: our existence in, and attraction to, the material world on the one hand, and the potential of the material world to trap and enslave us on the other.

You shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD (Deut. 8:2-3).

This same theme is evoked time and again in the parsha: we are to live in the material world and transcend it at the same time. While this paradox propels the episodes of the Golden Calf and the spies, which receive extensive treatment in the parsha, our most constant reminder of it is in our eating. Thus the parsha contains the commandment to bless God when we eat: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:10). The next line reminds us of why: “Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today.”

It is too easy to forget, to be lulled into the sense that all this is all there is, and that we have full control over it. Moses reminds the people, again and again, that in order to become all that they (we) can be, we must embrace the materials of the world, and live with them simply, humbly, and with a greater sense of awareness and gratitude.

Shabbat shalom.



One of the keywords of the Torah portion of Va’etchanan is shema, listen. Famously, of course, this is the parasha of the prayer known as the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). But shema appears many other times in the parasha as well:

“Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you.” (4:1)

“Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (4:6)

“Then the LORD spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice.” (4:12)

And, in its most concentrated presentation: “When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, all the leaders of your tribes and your elders came to me. 24 And you said, “The LORD our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire. Today we have seen that a person can live even if God speaks with them. 25 But now, why should we die? This great fire will consume us, and we will die if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer. 26 For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? 27 Go near and listen to all that the LORD our God says. Then tell us whatever the LORD our God tells you. We will listen and obey.” (5:23-27)

This emphasis on hearing is counterpoised with the strong emphasis against idolatry of not only this parasha, but of Deuteronomy in general–idolatry, which is most acutely manifested in the visual sense: “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, 17 or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, 18 or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. 19 And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the LORD your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.” (4:15-19)

All of which prompts us to reflect on listening, and what makes it distinct from sight. To be sure, listening can be just as susceptible to idolatry as sight: Words can themselves become static forms, taking on the fixity and seeming permanence of a visual idol. Thus Rashi’s famous statement on the last line of the Torah: “God said, ‘Yishar kochacha,’ well done, for breaking the tablets.'” (Rashi Deut. 34:12) Moses demonstrated that even the words of the Ten Commandments themselves must be living, not set in stone. The powers of speech and listening retain an elasticity, a dynamism and power of change, that sight, with its feeling of greater permanence, lacks.

This informs the commandment to parents at the Passover seder: “In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?” 21 tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 Before our eyes the LORD sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. 23 But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors.” (Deut. 6:20-23) Here the parent is to engage the child’s sense of hearing, while appealing to the power of the sense of sight. That is, the parent evokes in the child a sense of visual memory–a powerful, striking memory. But ultimately the parent does not present the child with a picture, but rather with words. It is up to the child to interpret and re-member the memory in his or her own uniqueness.

Maggid, the central story-telling section of the Seder, is preceded by Yachatz, the breaking of the middle matzah. Ouankin observes: “That breaking is an invitation to the reader to enter the text to say his own word there. That is why the following part is called Maggid, ‘he tells,’ rather than simply ‘the account.’ The reader of the Haggadah is not merely the keeper of the text, but also its co-author. The reader is not the dazzled or bored spectator of a story made elsewhere, with which he or she has only a distant relationship. The text speaks to us, about us, and about our own history.”

Education begins with education. “The embarrassed cannot learn, and the haughty cannot teach,” said Hillel. To listen requires humility, a willingness to be broken, to forgo the false security of permanence and idolatry. Listening is not simply the copying of one person’s meaning into the heart of another–that is an impossible task. Rather, the challenge and the enchantment of human communication is precisely that we must put together the meaning of the words of another, even of God, in good faith and true listening. Shema Yisrael.

Shabbat shalom.

One of the striking features of the Book of Deuteronomy is the very fact of Moses’s speech: Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe, “These are the words that Moses spoke” (Deut. 1:1). What makes this striking is that Moses describes himself early on in Exodus as precisely not a man of words: lo ish devarim anochi, “I am not a man of words” (Ex. 4:10). Yet here we have an entire book of Moses’s words.

This leads us to ask: Are these really Moses’s words? What does the Torah mean by saying that they are his? The Sifrei, a midrashic collection on Deuteronomy, is sensitive to this. In virtually every instance where Moses introduces his remarks with the preface, “And I told you, saying,” the Sifrei comments, “I did not speak it of my own accord; rather it came from the mouth of God.” Perhaps the Sifrei means that God spoke through Moses. Or perhaps it means that the words Moses spoke were given to him by God. Or maybe it means that Moses thought of the words, and that God agreed with them. At the heart of the matter is the question: How do we know when God is speaking?

The midrash contains numerous reflections on the moment of revelation, many of which focus on the paradoxical nature of revelation: God speaks to the Israelites at once, and everyone hears the voice appropriate to them. “Here is how the Voice reached Israel: each according to his capacity to hear. The elderly heard according to their capacity, the young men according to theirs, the adolescents according to theirs, the children according to theirs, etc.” (Tanhuma 25). The Talmud interprets the verse, “Moses spoke and God answered him in a voice” to mean that God spoke to Moses in Moses’s own voice (Berachot 45a). All of which is helpful, but also confusing: How do we know when the voice we’re hearing is our own, and when it is the voice of God?

Since I landed in America from Israel on Wednesday morning, I have been helping to lead the training for our first cohort of AskBigQuestions fellows. In a few weeks, a total of 13 Hillel professionals will supervise 60 undergraduate fellows working on 13 campuses across North America as they convene diverse groups of people for conversations that matter. Later in the fall we will roll out a nationwide campaign to bring ABQ conversations to colleges and universities all over the continent.

The training has been exceptional. Our facilitators, Yarrow Durbin and Karen Ehrlichman of the Center for Courage and Renewal, have masterfully led this diverse group in developing our habits and skills of listening, creating space for diversity, and managing the reality and potential of paradox. The supervisors and fellows are learning how conversations about life’s big questions can build community, develop trust, and deepen connections among diverse groups of people.

At the heart of the work are some phenomenally difficult questions: How do we truly listen? How can a diverse group all share a sense of belonging? How do we speak our own personal truths while acknowledging that larger truths can exist?

Go back to the midrash: These are not new questions. As I told the fellows when we began, what we’re doing with AskBigQuestions is radically old. We are, to borrow a phrase, pouring old wine in new casks. We are doing what the Torah has invited and challenged us to do for 3,000 years: to create a home for one another, and to create a home for God in the world.

When Moses speaks, God talks through him. A question for us is: Can we listen to the voice of God in others and in ourselves?

Shabbat shalom.