September 2011

Moses’s final words to the Israelites reverberate with the drumbeat of a keyword, hayom, today. The opening verses of Nitzavim center around the idea of hayom:

“You stand today, all of you, before the LORD your God… that you may enter into the covenant… which the LORD your God is making with you today, in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your God, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here today.” (Deut. 29:10-14)

Hayom appears a total of 16 times in this double-parasha, which represents over one-fifth of the 74 mentions of the word in Deuteronomy. By comparison, the other four books of the Torah combined mention hayom a total of 61 times. If Deuteronomy is significant for its unusually high concentration of hayom within the Torah, Nitzavim-Veyelech is particularly distinguished.

Midrash Tanhuma offers one interpretation of hayom in this parasha: “Just as today is sometimes dark and sometimes light, so too for you: even though it may be dark now, in the future the Holy One will shine an everlasting light, as the verse states, ‘And God will be for you an everlasting light’ (Isaiah 60:19–which was from last week’s haftarah). And when will this be? When you are united as one…” (Tanhuma Nitzavim 4). The Midrash’s understanding of hayom here focuses on the transience of a single day: this too shall pass. Whatever darkness, whatever suffering we may have today will ultimately be superseded by the everlasting light of God. Not, the Midrash argues, on account of grace, but rather when the Jewish people find a way to be unified.

Another understanding of hayom is that offered by various midrashim throughout Deuteronomy: What does the Torah mean when it states, “And the words that which I command you today shall be on your hearts?” (Deut. 6:6–from the Shema) That every day you must see yourself as standing at Sinai being commanded anew. Or, in other traditions, that every day a voice goes forth from Sinai again. Here the emphasis is not on the transience of today, but on the newness and preciousness of today. The point is not to hold on and get to tomorrow, but to recognize that every day has the potential to be just as transformative as the moment of Revelation at Sinai.

Hayom is one of the watchwords for the High Holidays. The traditional Musaf ends with a prayer whose refrain is hayom, recited seven times (eight in some editions). Hayom harat olam, today is the birthday of the world, we say on Rosh Hashanah. Ki bayom hazeh yichaper aleichem, For today you shall be atoned, we say on Yom Kippur.

When we say these lines we can experience both approaches: Today can be a day we get through, a day to endure until a brighter day comes. But today can, simultaneously, be a day of transformation, renewal and change–as dramatic and meaningful as the day the Torah was given. This is the paradoxical nature of living in time: it is, as Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, the dimension we cannot control, but it is precisely the dimension that makes us human. We know that this moment will end, that this day will end–and that is exactly what makes it possible for the moment or the day to be meaningful.

Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Ki Tavo begins to bring us to the end of the book of Deuteronomy, and with it the Five Books of Moses. Where in last week’s parasha, Ki Teitzei, we found a portion stuffed with laws–much like Parshat Misphatim or Parshat Kedoshim–in this week’s reading we find a transition to the final chapters of Deuteronomy, in which Moses will exhort the people one final time.

Ki Tavo caps the legal sections of Deuteronomy with the blessing and (much longer) curse that will accrue to the people if they fulfill, or fail to fulfill, the commandments. This portion is always read before Rosh Hashanah, and can be thematically linked with one reading of the High Holidays: we must examine our deeds and do teshuva in order to earn the blessing and avoid the curse. This is a transactional view: I do for God, and God does for me. The problem with it is that, as soon as one experiences the reality that good deeds are not always rewarded, and even worse that bad things happen to good people, it becomes unsustainable: I did everything right, and still God didn’t take care of me. So I’m giving up on God and Torah.

But there are other approaches. The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) recounts the story of Elisha ben Abuya, the famous apostate who left Judaism after witnessing a young boy die while falling from a ladder after his father asked him to climb it, send away a mother bird, and retrieve the eggs from its nest. Both the mitzvot the boy performed–honoring his father and sending away the mother bird–come with the assurance that they will lead to “lengthening of days,” according to the Torah. How then could the boy tragically die? The Talmud offers the response that reward and punishment don’t happen in this world–s’char v’onesh b’hai alma leika–but rather happen in the next.

This approach essentially says that the transactional understanding of our relationship with God isn’t fully adequate, but is essentially right: the reward and punishment happens in the next world, rather than this one. And that may work for many people as we approach the High Holidays.

Another approach is that of the Hasidim of the 18th and 19th centuries. In particular, I want to draw our attention to one comment of the Gerer Rebbe, the author of the Sefas Emes. This is one of his comments on the parasha from 5652 (1892), which begins with a midrashic analogy of Torah and water:

The notion here is that there are waters one can pass through, which are likened to the simple matters of the Torah; these come up to a person’s belly or his neck. But there are also deep waters which have no end, which are called sailing waters–only one who knows how to sail can pass through them. Such a person is one who can diminish himself and become light above the water; it is one who can make himself as if he were lifeless, [totally dependent] upon the Torah, and then he can enter into these deep waters.

All are worthy of the power of Torah, which teaches how to enter into the depths of the abyss. For just as one cannot learn to sail except by going on the water, so too the Torah teaches how to nullify oneself and to ascend to enter into its inner parts. This is what is meant by “Listen, O listen” (Deut. 28:1: v’haya im shamoa tishma): there is no end to the rooms of Torah.

This is a different approach than the contractual one. It is richer, thicker. The Sefas Emes, here as in so many places, understands human nature in its simplicity and its complexity. Our relationship is as easy and complicated as our relationship with ourselves. The key is our posture towards the world. For the Sefas Emes, as for the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl or the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas a century later, the world is not about me: it is about God (in the case of the Sefas Emes), or the needs of the other (in the case of Frankl and Levinas). The process of self-abnegation, or bittul, is essential. In order to go into the deeper possibilities of Torah and of life, we have to get over ourselves–we have to be able to float on the water. And being able to float, as any swimmer knows, is what enables us to swim.

As we wade through Elul and approach Rosh Hashanah, I find this kind of orientation much more helpful and resonant than the contractual orientation. Certain questions are unanswerable, at least in the language we normally use. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why am I not being rewarded for my good deeds? As we all know, the world is a more complicated place than that. But it is also a simpler place. The question isn’t so much about contracts, as about learning to float and learning to swim.

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

~ Denise Levertov (1923-1997), “The Avowal”

Shabbat shalom.


Do not see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying and ignore it; rather, be sure to return it to its owner. If he does not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it until he comes looking for it. Then give it back. Do the same if you find his donkey or his cloak or anything else he has lost. Do not ignore it. (Deut. 22:1-3)

The Talmud offers several important comments on this passage from Parshat Ki Tetzei, which elaborate the ethical issues involved in returning lost objects. While it seems simple on the surface, complexity lies just beneath. What happens, for instance, if the person who comes looking for the lost object is actually lying–he doesn’t really own it? Thus the Talmud understands the phrase ad drosh akhicha, until he comes looking for it, to mean: do not return it until you examine him to ascertain whether he really is the owner of the object, or whether he is pretending.

And what happens if the process of returning the object will create serious problems: Does a kohein, who is prohibited from entering a cemetery, need to enter the cemetery so for the sake of returning a lost object? Does a dignified elder have to get sweaty and dirty and stoop below his station in order to return an object to its owner? (The Talmud answers no in both cases, based on the repetition of “Do not see” and “do not ignore” in the first clause.) And what if the owner keeps losing the object, and you keep returning it to him? How long does this pattern need to continue? The repetition of hashev tishivem, you shall surely return it, is understood to mean that if you return it, and he loses it, and you return it again and he loses it again, you are obligated to continue returning “even a hundred times.” (All of this discussion takes place in Bava Metzia 30a-b.)

Returning lost objects happens on the level of gashmiut, the practical and physical realities of life. But it can also be understood on the level of ruchniyut, the  psychological and spiritual realm, as well. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) offers a rich reading of this passage in this direction:

Know that one must travel to the tzaddik to seek that which one has lost.

For before a person comes into the world, they are taught and shown everything that they need to create and labor and achieve in this world. And once they are out in this world, it is all forgotten from them, as our Rabbis teach (Babylonian Talmud Niddah 30b). And this forgetting is the lost object, just as our Rabbis called the person who forgets “someone who has lost,” as they say, “Quick to hear—quick to lose” (Pirkei Avot 5).

One must return and seek his or her lost object. The lost object is with the tzaddik, because the tzaddik searches for his own lost object until he finds it, and after he finds it, he returns and searches for the lost objects of others until he finds their losses, until he finds the lost objects of the entire world. Therefore, one must come to the wise person to seek, and to recognize, one’s lost object, and to receive it again from him.

But the tzaddik does not return the lost object to its owner until he examines whether or not they are a liar or deceiver, as it is written in the Talmud about the verse “until they come looking for it, then give it back” – “until you examine your brother to know that he is not cheating.” (Likkutei Moharan I:188–My thanks to friend and colleague Rabbi Mishael Zion for introducing me to this text.)

Rebbe Nachman uncovers another layer of meaning in these verses. When the Torah speaks of lost objects, it does not only mean the physical lost object–it can also mean things that are missing from our souls. In this reading, the mitzvah of returning a lost object to a person is to be understood not only as returning their garment or their animal, but returning part of them to themselves–a part they lost when they were born. This is the function of the tzaddik for Rebbe Nachman: to help the person recover the part of themselves that they have lost. Like the custodian of the lost object in the plain sense of the verses, the tzaddik must inquire, investigate, and uncover whether the person is really the owner of the lost object–that is, he must help the one who has lost to know what it is he has lost, and whether what he seeks is really what he needs. He has to determine–and help the seeker to determine–what it is he truly seeks.

In reading the ethically-focused Talmud and the spiritually-focused Rebbe Nachman, we might be tempted to see them as separate teachings: one focuses on the physical, the other on the spiritual; one seems to be the plain meaning of the text, the other a creative reading. But the two are really deeply linked. Our relationship with things is a function of how we relate to the world–to ourselves, to others, to creation, to the Creator. Ownership, of course, is not real: it is a fiction we weave and enforce by the consensus of law. What we do when we return a lost object is really the same as when we help a friend find a lost part of their soul: repairing a tear in the fabric of the world.

As we move through Elul and approach Rosh Hashanah, this teaching reminds us that teshuva, returning, happens on all levels. As we return the parts of ourselves we have lost, we must also help one another find our lost objects and become whole again.

Shabbat shalom.

Over Shabbat Natalie (my wife) and I got into a long conversation with good friends who are active in the world of Jewish philanthropy and education. The conversation turned to Natalie’s work at the iCenter on the iChallenge incubator for innovative ideas in Jewish education on Chicago. Among the ideas she talked about were: not abandoning, but rather rethinking, supplementary education; extending camp into the school year and building a year-round camp approach to Jewish education; developing games and other educational frameworks different from traditional classroom experiences; and many others.

Natalie has specific examples of synagogues, camps, and independent entities in Chicago and around the country that are trying these and other new approaches. All of them are characterized by many of the things the iCenter includes in its Aleph-Bet of Israel Education, which are clearly applicable more broadly to Jewish education in general: most importantly that it is learner-centered, immersive, integrated, and experiential. the Aleph-Bet is likely to become a big thing in the next year or so: it strikes a chord, and lays out in one place many of the principles that more creative educators have been employing for a long time.

Philosophically, this approach to experiential education is not an innovation at all. It is chiefly a return to the ideas of John Dewey, whose work was eclipsed in the last fifty years by approaches that focused more on schools and curriculum. But creative, innovative educators have known and employed Dewey’s ideas for a long time, and it seems that Dewey’s stock has gone up as institutions have shown their limitations. Simply put, when you make Jewish life more about the survival of Jewish institutions than about the flourishing of Jewish life, your institutions will become irrelevant.

So now, instead of the synagogue school that meets after a long day in regular school, creative Jewish educators are thinking about play-oriented approaches to education. Principles from camp can be brought into Hebrew school (and day school, for that matter): playing games, making cheers, using arts and crafts, and ultimately changing the very setting and environment in which Jewish education takes place. Camp can actually become a center we build around, with summer camp not a stand-alone experience, but the linchpin in a year-round approach to Jewish learning that also involves smaller doses of camp.

As we talked about all this, an analog came to mind, which also came to be in the days of Dewey: Scouting. Read the previous paragraph and think about how Scouting employs all these elements. Camp is the central organizing principle for Scouting, and troop meetings employ all the elements we’re talking about here. Regular camp experiences, learning-by-doing, learner-centered approaches and attractive reward systems for learning (think merit badges): Baden-Powell figured all this out at precisely the same time Dewey was writing.

Both Dewey and Baden-Powell were responding to massive changes in their world. Scouting, like Dewey’s progressive education, was a response to an industrialized, urbanized world where education had become oriented around mechanical metaphors: schools, when children went to them, would take the raw materials (students), run them through a value-adding process, and produce outputs. This left too many children behind. So they both proposed something very different: starting with the learner at the center, preparing the student to respond well in a changing world. (Louis Menand has written about this extensively in his work on pragmatism, though I don’t know if he includes Scouting in this. He should.)

I have my own critiques of Scouting, principally that, like too many Jewish institutions, became too focused on institutional self-preservation and not on living out its educational mission. (Yes, Scouting’s approach to dealing with homosexuality and God is much more about institutional interests–namely the Church of Latter-Day Saints–than its educational mission.) But, like most successful movements, it is rooted in key enduring ideas and values. While the experience of most Jewish educators does not overlap with Scouting (because of the socio-economic segregation that describes so much of our lives today), those of us involved in trying to renew Jewish education would be wise to look at its model and learn from it.