Leonard Bernstein practicing the art of teaching.

My blog passed 50,000 lifetime hits this week. (The word ‘hits’ is a little problematic. Let’s call them visits.) So before I begin, thanks to everyone who has read my posts over the past several years to enable me to reach this milestone.

When I first started this blog, one of my favorite philosophers to quote from was Vladimir Jankelevitch. But our reading habits, like our writing habits, change over time, and I haven’t quoted from Jankelevitch in a while. One of my favorite quotes of his, which I’ve used before, has to do with repetition: “To recreate… is to create, just as to re-make is to make, to begin again to begin–the second time being as initial as the first, the recapitulation as initial as the exposition… Hearing again, playing again, become modes whereby to discover, interminably, new relationships or subtle correspondences, beauty kept secret or hidden intentions.

It shouldn’t be surprising that these lines are heavily underlined and commented-upon in my edition of Jankelevitch’s book Music and the Ineffable (p. 24). In the nearly ten years since I first read them, they have, fittingly, provided me with a beautiful way of expressing how it is that we learn Torah. We read the same Torah every year, and one could easily say, “Okay, I’ve read that book. What’s next?” But that’s not what we do. We read and re-read and re-read again, and we do so with a different approach than mastering the text. This is not a text to be mastered. This is a text we allow to master us. Not in the way of a slave (though we do call ourselves “ovdei Hashem,” God’s servants), but in the way that learning takes place between a master and a disciple: through a mutual, respectful, rich learning relationship. And more: in meeting the text again time after time, we come back to it altered by our own experience. Our reading is not fixed from year to year–it changes and grows. We are different every time we meet the Torah, and in the meeting between ourselves and the text, the Torah is renewed.

Repetition is perhaps the most striking feature of parashat Vayakhel-Pikudei. Word-for-word, it seems, the parasha recapitulates the earlier material in the parashot of Terumah and Tetzaveh, this time in Moses’s voice rather than God’s. Part of the message of this meticulous repetition is that this work is eternal, that this is not simply a statement about the work of building the tabernacle, but really it’s a statement about the work of life itself. The work of building the Mishkan is to be a metaphor for all of our labor: it should be voluntary, it should be willful, it should be purposeful, it should not be exploitative. Just as Shabbat functions to make the work of the Mishkan meaningful, so too for our own lives: by keeping Shabbat, we frame our labor of the six days of the workweek. The repetition here serves to cement this point.

But there’s also a message that spending time on the enduring, not simply on the new, is a valuable, even an essential activity. We come back to our families, we come back to our communities, we come back to Torah, and we rediscover one another–we’ve stayed the same, but we’ve also changed. The message here, as my rebbe in conducting Larry Livingston taught me years ago, is the value of a craft: Life should be something we work at for a long time, slowly getting better, slowly becoming a master. Mastery, the main ingredient of which is wisdom, doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time. But it also doesn’t happen in isolation, it happens in community. It happens through regular renewal, which comes through conversation and reflection around a great and eternal thing–in our case the Torah and Jewish ritual, the centerpieces of the Mishkan.

There are subtle changes in this week’s parasha from its predecessors. One of them comes in chapter 35, verse 34: “And he has given both him [Bezalel, the master builder of the Mishkan] and Oholiav son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others.” This verse was not present in the previous account, thus its inclusion here seems even more significant. One could read the preceding verses of chapter 35 as suggesting that the talented people among the Israelites simply put their talents to work and created all the items necessary for the Mishkan. But verse 34 suggests that Bezalel and Ohaliav not only created and supervised the building, they also taught. They helped people to learn, to develop their talents, and to find their place in the work of building the community. If only the talented were allowed to make things, many “whose heart moved them” would be left on the sidelines.

The capacity to teach, which itself must be taught and cultivated through mastery and craft and repetition, is an indispensable element for the community-building project that is the Mishkan.

Shabbat shalom.

A tense dynamic haunts the relationship of Abraham and Sarah. They have a deep emotional struggle over Sarah’s inability to bear children, the birth of Ishmael by Sarah’s handmaid Hagar, and the status of Isaac vis-à-vis Ishmael once Isaac is born. But the first moment when we sense something is up comes early on in their story:

And it came to pass that when they approached Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “Now I know that you are a beautiful woman. And when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ They will slay me and let you live. Please, say you are my sister, so that good will come to me on your account, and I may live because of you.” (Gen. 12:11-13)

One reading of this passage is that Abraham simply fails to stick up for his wife. He allows Sarah to be taken into Pharaoh’s house, just as he will allow her to be taken by Avimelech in next week’s parasha. While he is right to be worried about the possibility of his own death at the hands of the Egyptians, his request to Sarah is of dubious moral standing. No wonder she has complex feelings about Hagar (the Egyptian, whom it seems may have come to their household only after this sojourn in Egypt), and a challenging relationship with her husband!

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, offers a few readings of this passage. “Until now,” he says, “Abraham did not recognize her, out of her modesty. But now the situation led him to recognize her.” In this, Rashi’s first reading, something fundamentally changes in the relationship of Abraham and Sarah at this moment: for the first time, Abraham sees Sarah as physically beautiful. The danger of the situation, for his own life and for hers, leads Abraham to a new realization about his wife. His perspective is changed, and he sees the world differently.

Rashi goes on to quote a second reading of the Midrash, which understands the passage to mean that, whereas most people look disheveled after a long journey, Sarah retained her beauty. Here the emphasis is not on transformation, but rather continuity: Sarah was unchanged. She was the same person entering Egypt as she had been all along the journey. “Now I know,” the linchpin of the possible interpretations here, is understood as Ramban understands it: “I know now, just as I have always known” (see Ramban on this passage).

What’s so wonderful is that the Midrash, and Rashi, bring both of these interpretive possibilities. The relationship of Abraham and Sarah, like all marriages, is a complex one, not easily understood by anyone outside, and often a mystery to the participants themselves. What can seem obvious and enduring one moment—“You have always been beautiful”—can become a revelation in the next: “I can see your beauty now, which I have never seen before.”

And of course this paradox of knowledge, understanding and recognition, extends beyond marriages or relationships. It informs our entire life. Plato said that education is the process of uncovering what one’s soul already knows to be true. Learning is simply an act of memory. And yet we also know that learning is discovery, the thrill of insight, the excitement of knowing what we never knew before.

The journey of Abraham and Sarah, a journey to the land of Israel and to the idea of Israel, is marked by this paradox, of discovering what is bold and new, and of recovering what is radically old. Their journey is our journey as well.

Shabbat shalom.




In the opening verses of the Torah portion of Vayikra, we find this line (verse 3), translated in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society edition as:

If his offering be a burnt-offering of the herd, he shall offer it a male without blemish; he shall bring it to the door of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD.
The JPS here translates the phrase lirtzono, which literally means “according to his will,” to refer to the will of God: In presenting this offering, it is important to follow the instructions so that God will accept it.

This one word, lirtzono, has been the subject of debate among the commentators, and others offer a strikingly different interpretation. Rashi, following the Sifra, tells us that the verse comes to teach as follows:

“He shall bring it” teaches that we force him [to bring an offering]. You might have thought that this means even when it’s against his will. Therefore the Torah states: “Lirtzono,” “According to his will.” How so? We force him until he says, ‘I will it.’
Here the subject of lirtzono is the bringer of the sacrifice, not God. Fair enough. But what Rashi points us to is a more profound issue involved in the act of divine service: If we are to serve God with our own wills, what do we do when our will is not aligned with God’s?

For Rashi, the options–or perhaps the solution–includes forcing ourselves, or others, to want to serve God. This may sound extreme, and no doubt it can be taken in that direction. But it can also be taken in directions that more palatable to our sensibilities, such as in the case of a recalcitrant husband who refuses to give his wife a get, or religious bill of divorce. According to Jewish law, a get must also be given freely. So Maimonides states that a Jewish court can force a man who refuses to give his wife a get, and he quotes precisely this teaching: “We force him until he says, ‘I will it.'”

How does Maimonides justify this? “We do not say someone’s will is violated unless it is for something which one is not obligated to do by the Torah… But one whose evil inclination has overtaken him so that he has transgressed a commandment, and who is compelled by others to do that the Torah obligates him to do… this is not the violation of his will. Rather, he violated himself with evil thoughts.” (Laws of Divorce 2:20)

In the world and society in which we live, nothing is more sacrosanct than the notion of individual will. That is one of the fundamental contributions of modernity, particularly as it has been elaborated in the American context. The result is what the Jewish scholars Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen described as “the sovereign self,” in their 2000 book The Jew Within. We do what we do because we want to do it, because “it works for us,” in the words of Rabbi Brad Hisrchfield of CLAL. We are the arbiters of our own truths, religious and otherwise.

The problem comes, however, in the fact that we cannot always trust ourselves to know or do what is right–whether the yardstick we use is our own health and satisfaction, or whether it is the service of God. In fact, as Rashi and Maimonides remind us, sometimes we need others–our friends, our community, the law–to force us to do what is right. More frequently, it is not a question of force. It is more subtle, a question of influence and education, both conscious and unconscious. The Torah, as Rashi and Rambam both remind us, is built on a vision of individuals living in community, and living with a greater sense of context, purpose, and service than their own fulfillment. That is the basic idea of korban, sacrifice, that forms the substance of Parshat Vayikra.

Shabbat Shalom.

My kids and I recently watched ‘The Prince of Egypt,’ Jeffrey Katzenberg’s animated take on the Exodus story. And while I liked the movie a lot, there was one major misconception that I found problematic: the movie made the Exodus story all about freedom.

Granted, freedom is a key piece of the story. We refer to Passover as “z’man heruteinu,” the time of our liberation. Self-determination is an important value. As the movie portrays it, the thing that is wrong is the notion that human beings are enslaved. In a moving episode, Moses asks Pharaoh (his erstwhile brother, in this telling anyway), What do you see when you look out on all your building projects? Pharaoh sees an empire; Moses sees it built on the backs of slaves. The insight is thus to see all human beings as created equally in God’s image, which leads to the notion that all human beings must be free to make their own choices.

But in its modern telling, of which ‘The Prince of Egypt’ is now a canonical instrument, the valence of the word ‘freedom’ has obscured a fundamental question: freedom for what? Katzenberg’s movie focuses on the plagues and the splitting of the sea, and gives about 30 seconds at the end to an image of Moses going to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, all the while keeping the focus on Moses. The story thus becomes, “Moses was a prince of Egypt who led his people, the Hebrews, out of slavery, and became a lawgiver,” as though the last part is a throwaway line.

But of course the law is equally as important as the freedom. Freedom from another’s rule by itself is not enough; freedom must directed towards a purpose. In the case of the Exodus story, this theme is clear from the outset. God tells Moses to bring the people to the mountain. Moses repeatedly tells Pharaoh in God’s name to “send forth my people” (a more literal translation of “let my people go”) “so that they may serve me.” The children of Israel go from avadim, servants, of Pharaoh to being avadim, servants, of God. The story isn’t about losing the status of eved, servant; the story is about changing the master to whom service is rendered. This is why we connect the holidays Passover and Shavuot–z’man heruteinu and z’man matan torateinu, the time of our liberation and the time of the giving of our Torah–with the counting of the Omer. You can’t have one without the other.

For at least the last 50 years, and perhaps longer, Americans have focused on the ‘freedom from’ of the Exodus story, but have forgotten the ‘freedom for’ aspect. Nowhere is this phenomenon as pronounced as in our institutions of higher education. We rightly emphasize critical thinking and a doubting approach to authority. But our academic culture has largely lost the second, crucial step: after asking “what is false?” we must also ask “what is true?” The service of Pharaoh is false, the service of God is true. What does it mean to serve God? That is the biggest question of them all. In the words of Hillel: Go and learn.

About a year ago, my older son Jonah called out to me to come into his room. “I can’t sleep,” he said. “Can you tell me a story?” Now storytelling is one of the lacunae in my repertoire. That is to say, I’m good at telling stories when I have stories to tell; but I don’t have a good repository of stories from which to draw. So, on the spot, I went to my strength: “How about the story of Jacob from the Bible,” I said.

Jonah ate it up. Of course, he was generally familiar with these stories before. But this led to a new bedtime ritual: after Natalie read him his ‘regular’ story, I would come in and read him a story from one of the many children’s Bibles we have at home. We’ll set aside the point that most Bible stories are not really suitable for children, as they’re about violence and betrayal and things like that. As Plato cautioned, children who are not capable of understanding allegory really shouldn’t be exposed to stories that demand allegorical interpretation.

Be that as it may, we continued to read Bible stories nightly, working our way through the Torah, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Esther, Ruth, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah. When we had gone through these stories several times, we started reading children’s midrashim–legends that build off of the stories in the Bible. And when we ran out of those, I started using Bialik’s Sefer Ha-Aggadah, or Book of Legends. But that requires a lot of sifting.

So last week I realized we could do something else. “How about the Mishnah?” I asked him. (For an explanation of the Mishnah, click here.) We began with Bava Metziah, a section of the Mishnah that deals with lost objects and movable property in general. Of course, studying Mishnah with a 6-year old requires translating terms into ones they can understand. “If two men find a garment and both lay claim to it” becomes, “If you and your best friend Avi were walking down the street and found a Darth Vader action figure at the same time, and you both grabbed it, how would you decide who it belongs to?”

In general Jonah has really been able to get it. “They’re like math problems,” he says. “Only harder, and the answer isn’t always as clear.” Yes, he gets it.

This morning we were studying a mishnah in the second chapter of Bava Metziah. What happens, asks the Mishnah, when you find a lost animal? You need to announce that you have it, and try to return it to its owner. But in the meantime, it requires feeding, which will cost you money. So can you use the animal productively in order to make money with which to feed it, or not? (Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva disagree on this point.) Related to this, the Mishnah teaches that when you find a book (which were scrolls in those days), you have read from it at least once every thirty days. But you may not intentionally use it for study, and you may not read it with someone else.

I tried to help Jonah understand the subtlety the Mishnah was conveying. “It’s not your object,” I said. “But you have to take care of it as though it were.” There is great philosophical material here, stuff that people like Levinas and my other intellectual fodder write about a lot: What are our obligations to one another, and how are those expressed in the responsibilities outlined in the Mishnah? I couldn’t mention Levinas, but these are also things a 6-year old can grasp if framed correctly.

I wasn’t quite sure he got it, until 10 minutes later, well after we had stopped reading together, when out of nowhere he said, “Abba, it’s kind of like if you find a child, or if someone’s parents died and you took care of them. You’d have to treat him as your own son, right?” Levinas was smiling.

You know that something is happening in the world when Bob Herbert and David Brooks write virtually the same words in the NYT (on the same page!).

Brooks reviews a new magazine, National Affairs, and praises it for occupying the middle ground (the “bloody crossroads”). But inevitably, he says, the magazine will have to deal with how government can inculcate altruistic personal behavior:

Can the state do anything to effectively promote virtuous behavior? Because when you get into the core problems, whether in Washington, California or on Wall Street, you keep seeing the same moral deficiencies: self-indulgence, irresponsibility and imprudence.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the op-ed page, we find this from Bob Herbert:

We’ve forgotten many of the fundamentals: how to live within our means, the benefits of shared sacrifice, the responsibilities that go with citizenship, the importance of a well-rounded education and tolerance.

It must be Elul. Here’s to doing better this year.

My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dov Linzer, offered this dvar Torah, which I think is particularly fitting for this week, which marks graduation at Northwestern.

In his instructions to the spies, Moses includes a potentially problematic phrase. In addition to the general strategic evaluation of the land, Moses asks them to make an evaluative judgment, namely to see “whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad.” (Num. 13:19) The medieval commentators generally explain this as part of the military evaluation. But, Rabbi Linzer argues, it in fact paves the way for the central difference between Caleb and Joshua and the rest of the spies. While the despondent spies emphasize only the strategic challenges, Caleb and Joshua included in their report the very words of goodness that Moses sought: “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land.” (Num. 14:7)

I find this observation an approrpriate one for Commencement because the story here is essentially about how we approach knowledge. It is no stretch to say that the spies become a paradigm for our engagement with the world–they interact with new phenomena and make judgments about them. The larger group of spies is unable to see the goodness in the land, or, by extrapolation, in the world. Perhaps more accurately, goodness for them would only come after the empirical facts are dealt with, if it ever comes at all; a moral orientation comes second, not first. Caleb and Joshua, however, approach their discovery with a sense that goodness is there, not in a way that blinds them to the facts, but in a way that sustains their covenantal relationship between the land and the people of Israel.

The Torah is thus instructive about our search for knowledge, which is life itself. In order for life to be meaningful, in order for us to avoid the pitfalls of the relativistic void in which there is no truth except the one each person makes up for him or herself, we have to engage the world with the notion that goodness is possible, that truth is there to be found if only we will look for it.