In honor of tonight’s Major League All-Star Game (hashtag #ASG), Jonah, Micah and I are proud to present the second-annual Biblical All-Star team (#BAS). Remember, BAS team members have to have a strong rationale for their place in the field and in the lineup. Here goes:

1. Jacob (CF). Yaakov Avinu makes this year’s team once again in the leadoff position, owing mostly to his ability to get on base and steal (Gen. 27). Jacob is also a solid center fielder, with a strong arm that can roll boulders off of wells (Gen. 29:10).

2. Abraham (3B). Avraham gets the nod in the second slot this year because of his uncanny ability to make the sacrifice bunt (Gen. 22). The third baseman needs particularly quick feet in order to handle the hot shots down the line, and Abraham has proven running ability (Gen. 18:2).

3. Aaron (SS). The power of the lineup for this year’s team begins with Aharon, who hit Egypt with his staff (i.e. bat). Aaron starts at short due to his outstanding ability to cover the gap (Num. 17:13).

4. Samson (LF). Cleanup goes to the strongest man in the Bible, whose arm will also serve him well in left. Shimshon is particularly excited to be playing the Philistine All-Stars this year.

5. Moses (2B). Moshe’s strong bat is legendary of course, and hitting behind Samson will keep the Philistines from pitching around him. Why is he at second? He is part of the dynamic duo that made so many dramatic double-plays on the Egyptians in their rookie season (Ex. 6:26-27).

6. David (P). David gets the nod to start for this year’s BAS team, because of his low ERA and outstanding pitch location, as demonstrated against the former Philistine All-Star, Goliath (1 Sam. 17:49).

7. Nachshon (C). Most famous for his bravery in the World Series game at the Red Sea against the Egyptians, Nachshon gets the start at catcher in tonight’s game. He is also a strong leader for the rest of the team (Num. 7:12), and will work well with his great-great-great grandson on the mound (Ruth 4:20).

8. Saul (1B). A tall first-baseman is a big plus, since he can catch balls thrown over his head. Saul fills this position nicely (1 Sam. 9:2).

9. Sara (RF). Sara brings vast experience to her position, based on her 127 years in the Biblical league (and we wanted the team to be co-ed).

Relief pitchers: Aaron and Hur, who were so important in the Biblical team’s victory over the Amalekites (Ex. 17:12).

Closing pitcher: Joshua.

Manager: Judah (Gen. 49:10: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah.”)

Base coach: Rebecca, who is outstanding at stealing the other team’s signals (Gen. 27:5).

 

Good luck in tonight’s game to all the Major League All-Stars!

 

 

 

Leadership theorists Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky have introduced the phrase “looking from the balcony” into a lot of conversations among people I work with. (They have been the go-to leadership thinkers for the Wexner Foundation for many years.) When we step on the balcony and look at our situation, we get a different perspective. We stop the tape and examine what’s going on with a wider view.

One of the marvelous things about Parshat Balak is the way it transports us as readers outside the story of the children of Israel and onto the balcony. “Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites,” begins the parasha (Num. 22:2). Immediately we are struck by the fact that it is not Moses or God speaking, it is not an event in the life of the people. The whole story is literally told from the balcony—from the high places overlooking the Israelite encampment. And what Balaam sees is ultimately a beautiful thing: “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Num. 24:5).

Yet aside from the recent military victories they have been achieving in the preceding chapters, the narrative of the people has not been exemplary. Immediately after the story of Balak and Balaam, the narrative returns to yet another example of the people sinning, with the story of Zimri, Kozbi, and Pinchas. The parasha seems designed to highlight the gap between the way Balaam sees the people and the way the people see themselves. Balaam sees a people capable of greatness, a blessed people with a noble calling based on God’s taking them out of Egypt. But the people themselves are blind to this, and repeatedly see only what is right in front of them: a lack of food or water, the sexual temptations of Midian. In the case of the spies, they saw themselves as grasshoppers about to take on giants. The gap between what Balaam sees and what the people see is striking.

According to the plain text, Balaam is not the nefarious character that later Rabbinic interpretation will make him out to be. Balaam’s repeated insistence that he can only do the word of God seems intended to remind later readers, the descendents of the Israelites, that they too must seek to discern and live God’s word. The haftarah for Parshat Balak makes this point, drawing a parallel between the words of Balaam’s donkey and the words of God to the Jewish people: “My people, what wrong have I done you?” (Micah 6:3)  parallels the donkey’s plaintive cry, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?” (Num. 22:28). Balaam cannot see, just as the Israelites cannot see.

On Sunday we observe the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, ushering in a period of intensifying mourning that concludes with Tisha b’Av in three weeks. This is meant to be a period of introspection, of standing on the balcony and looking at ourselves as individuals and as a people, seeing that which is right in front of us from a larger perspective. As the concluding lines of the haftarah remind us: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you; To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Such words are  not meant to exempt us from performing mitzvot; rather they are meant to help us remember that the details of our lives answers to larger questions. Balaam, along with Micah, helps us remember what those larger questions are.

Shabbat shalom.

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.

I want to focus this week on a couple of midrashim from Midrash Tanhuma. The first (Yitro 11) offers this understanding, which is found in several other places in Rabbinic literature: “‘And God spoke all these words saying: I am the Lord.’ Rabbi Yitzhak said: Even that which the prophets would prophesy in the future, all of it was received from [the moment of] Mount Sinai. How do we know this? From the verse, ‘I am making this covenant with its oath not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those who are not here today (Deut. 29:14-15).”

Rabbi Yitzhak claims that everything that later prophets would say was in some way uttered or revealed during the revelation at Mount Sinai. The words of Samuel or Isaiah or Amos or Zechariah were uttered at Sinai. Which is to say that the power of their prophecy derived from the Sinai revelation. Or, the insight of God that they understood in their own time had its roots in the God’s appearance to Israel at Sinai. In witty fashion, the prooftext he uses for this claim itself comes from a moment demonstrably after the Sinai revelation: 40 years later when Moses is taking his leave of the people. And yet, according to Rabbi Yitzhak, Moses’s words then are likewise an elaboration of the Sinai moment.

This is a challenging idea for us to understand. We tend to think in historical terms, which means that we understand moments to be separate: two moments cannot really be linked. What happened at Sinai happened then; what Moses said 40 years later, or what Isaiah said centuries after that, cannot really be the same thing. But Rabbi Yitzhak insists that they can. His understanding of history is different than ours. As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The midrash (Yitro 12) goes on to make a related, more comprehensive claim about the moment of Revelation:

“And God said all these words”–All at one moment. ‘I bring death and give life,’ at one moment. ‘I punish and heal,’ at one moment. ‘I answer the woman on the birthstool, the ones on the seas, the wanderers in the desert, the ones locked in prison; the one in the east and the one in the west, the one in the north and the one in the south; I fashion light and create darkness, make peace and create evil,’ all of these at one moment…’ “What is the meaning of what is written above this passage, that “Mount Sinai was covered with smoke?” (Ex. 19:18) Perhaps it was because of God’s glory. But the Torah comes to teach that it is was because God descended upon the mountain in fire. For the Torah is entirely fire–from fire it was given, and in fire it is completed. Just as the nature of fire is such that if a person comes too close to it he is burned, and if he is too far from it he becomes cold, so with Torah: a person must come near the light of its scholars to warm himself.”

Like Rabbi Yitzhak’s earlier assertion, the Midrash here goes even further in articulating that the essence of the moment of Sinai was paradox. Sinai was the moment of profound unity, not only in history, but in all human experience. It is the taproot of prayer, as the Midrash suggests by referring to God’s ability to answer the prayers of people in far-flung places all at the same time. And it is the moment when those present had some insight into the parts of life and the universe that are beyond our ability to explain: the presence of good and evil, the mysteries of light and darkness. As we say every Friday night, Sinai was the moment when language itself was transcended: “Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad,” ‘Keep’ and ‘Remember’ [the Sabbath day; cf. the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts of the 10 Commandments] were uttered in one word.

Rabbi Yitzhak claims that all prophecy has its roots in this moment. But other thinkers, most prominently in Hasidus, go further. “And these words which I [anochi] command you today [hayom]” (Deut. 6:6) means that Anochi, the same Anochi as in the first word of the Ten Commandments, speaks to us every day. Every day can be Sinai, not only for the prophets, but for us–we who were not at Sinai, but who, according to the Midrash, really were.

Sinai then is not something far off, something remote and separate from us. It is something we can experience every day, if we learn to stop and listen and look for it.

Shabbat shalom.

Years ago I spent Shabbat at an orthodox yeshiva near Ashkelon, along the southern coast of Israel. The yeshiva was affiliated with Kibbutz Hadati, the religious kibbutz movement (a bit unusual, as most kibbutzim had their roots in labor Zionism, a distinctly secular movement). The singing at the yeshiva was wonderful throughout Shabbat—serious and rich, beautiful and harmonious. It was what I had come to know and expect from the musical ouvre of religious Zionism.

When it came time for havdalah on Saturday night, the students at the yeshiva (all young men) gathered in a circle to sing songs of farewell to Shabbat. And then they did the havdalah ceremony itself. And up rose the familiar tunes of, of all people, Debbie Friedman (sing along if you know it): “Yai dai, dai-dai-dai-dai dai dai dai, dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai dai dai, dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai daidai , dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai.” The melody soared, the bachurim (yeshiva students) embraced and swayed, and havdalah went on for a good long time, a last, longing embrace of Shabbat.

Later that night I was talking with one of the students. I asked him (in Hebrew) if he knew that the melody was written by an American Reform woman song leader. “No,” he said. “But what does that matter? It’s beautiful.”

I have found myself going back to this story over the weekend, as news spread on Friday of Debbie Friedman’s critical illness and then her death. I didn’t know Debbie, and as I didn’t grow up in the Reform movement, I haven’t been as inside her music as many of my friends and colleagues who did. But, remarkably, Debbie’s music has transcended denominational lines. At the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the Orthodox synagogue where I interned during rabbinical school, Rabbi Avi Weiss leads the kahal (congregation) in singing Debbie’s Mi she-Berach as they pray for healing. At the Jewish Baccalaurate Ceremony we have held for years at Northwestern, Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein of the Tannenbaum Chabad House and I join everyone in singing Debbie’s Lechi-Lach. And as my story from Israel demonstrates, Debbie’s havdalah tune is universal.

Debbie Friedman’s music brought people together. It opened a whole new world of liturgical possibilities for a generation. The Reform movement, and American Judaism, are richer for it. May her memory be for a blessing.

As all this was unfolding, of course, I was trying to digest the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The first word I got of the Tuscon shooting was from, of all places, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which sent out an email bulletin just after Shabbat, saying that Giffords, the first Jewish representative from Arizona, had been shot. We still have many questions: Was this solely the work of a very sick soul, or did the political climate have something to do with it? How did such a mentally unstable person acquire a semi-automatic weapon? And many others.

But for the moment, I find myself sitting with the contrast: On the one hand, a woman whose music transcends lines of division and denomination, whose byword is blessing and whose songs sing of healing; on the other, a crazy man’s hate-filled violence, whose acts have robbed families of loved ones and the public of courageous servants.

At school on Friday my son Jonah’s teachers said that Debbie was sick. Over Shabbat he couldn’t stop singing “Miriam’s Song,” Debbie’s composition about the singing of Miriam and the women of Israel after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21). It seems that Debbie held on long enough that the Torah portion we read during the week of her death is that very portion, Beshallach, which recounts the Israelites’ journey through the sea.

The Israelites’ task on the other side of the sea, which will become their eternal mission, is to weave together a sacred community in which God can live. The exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, all the lofty narratives and events of Jewish history, ultimately find their expression in the building of the Tabernacle: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham,” “Build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The shooting in Tucson is a reminder to us of how far we can stray from that vision, and a calling to do teshuva, to return to care, concern, empathy and civil disagreement. The life and music of Debbie Friedman show us what it can be to weave together such a community, to sing together, to pray together, to find healing and renewal.

The story of Genesis is the story of brothers. Specifically, it is the story of the struggle of successive generations to recognize one another as brothers—people who are same and different, common and unique. Beginning with Cain and Abel, and continuing with Shem, Ham and Yapheth, Abraham and Nachor, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, the sons of Leah and the sons of Rachel—all of these relationships and the stories that surround them prompt us to ask: how can brothers live together?

Parshat Lech-Lecha marks a pivotal moment in this narrative. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is taken captive during a war, and Abraham organizes a militia to rescue him, which ultimately results in the defeat of the kidnapping kings’ armies and victory for the opposing side. Abraham here engages in a bold and risky maneuver, bearing arms for the sake of his nephew. His decision to do so, to put his life on the line on behalf of someone who is not his own son but the son of his brother, is a turning point. The Torah draws our attention to it in its account: “And Abram heard that his brother had been captured” (Gen. 14:14). Lot is not literally his brother—the text should have read, “the son of his brother.” Yet Abraham hears—either through his own volition or through the force of his persona—that his brother has been captured. And he immediately springs to action, acting out of a sense of duty.

It is immediately after this incident (ch. 15) that God appears to Abraham to establish a covenant with him. That covenant will provide security to Abraham’s descendents by creating bonds between members of the covenant. But it will simultaneously challenge all of Abraham’s descendents with profound questions: Who is your brother? To whom are we obligated? For whom would we risk our physical well-being? For whom would we sacrifice? Who is welcome in our land? With whom will we share it? The covenant seems to spring from Abraham’s recognition of Lot as his brother, as one towards whom he has a duty—and it raises the rich questions of membership and obligation that animate so much of Jewish life today.

This past week many of us watched as the Chilean miners were rescued. The entire story was moving. The country spared no expense to undertake a risky operation. The president put his prestige and reputation at stake. And the entire country seemed to become a family in the process. In many ways, the story of Chile and the miners reminds us of the story of Abraham and the captive Lot. From where did the sense of duty to rescue them come? Somehow, the president and the people of Chile heard not that anonymous people were trapped, but that their brothers were captives. And in hearing that their brothers needed help, they took great risks on their behalf.

The story of Abraham and Lot reminds us that the roots of the covenant lie in the consciousness of fellowship, the consciousness of brotherhood. To be a member of the covenant is fundamentally less a question of creed or doctrine than one of family and peoplehood. Do we see other Jews as our people, as those on whose behalf we would risk our money, our time, our prestige, our lives? That is the challenge of the covenant, the challenge that Abraham bequeathed to us all.

Shabbat shalom.

There’s a compelling piece in this morning’s eJewishPhilanthropy about the sad reality of how little Jews think of their rabbis. The writer, Adir Glick, refers to a survey by the Elijah Interfaith Institute (no link provided, unfortunately) that shows that Jews have the lowest opinion of their religious leadership among all world religions. Glick links this to Jews’ rejection of their own religious life and embrace of others, such as Buddhism.

What struck me the most in reading the article, however, was the way in which Glick contrasted rabbinic or religious leadership with secular leadership within the Jewish community: “Religious leaders are more than simply teachers, community organizers, or professors – they are spiritual shepherds,” he writes. He relates that at a conference in Israel he once saw “how a Burmese Buddhist monk stayed up late every night to teach Burmese foreign workers, who came from across Israel to sit on the grass and listen. I call this selflessness and dedication religious leadership.”

A little further on in the article, Glick asks, “where can we turn for spiritual and moral leadership, if not to our rabbis? Religious education is more than an academic pursuit.” [Emphasis added.]

Jews, according to Glick, have too-easily embraced the notion that our leaders are simply human. When we allow ourselves to have loftier conceptions of our leadership, we inevitably wind up being disappointed. For Glick, the recent story of Rabbi Mordechai Elon is proof of this. But the list could include any number of rabbis who have committed criminal acts, or, on a much lesser scale, simply let down their flocks by failing to be everything they wanted them to be. (more…)