More Jewish than Shalom

Today I decided, on a whim, to open up the Talmud and see what’s on tap for daf yomi (“the daily Talmud reading”). I came upon an interesting passage (Hagigah 10a). It reads:

אמר רב כיון שיוצא אדם מדבר הלכה לדבר מקרא שוב אין לו שלום

Which translates into something like:

“Rav said: When a person moves from the study of halachah to the study of Torah he finds no shalom (peace).”

Which got me thinking:

Halachah represents certainty. It represents the moment when debate gives way to law. It represents the fullness of rabbinic understanding on a given topic and is the distillation of this fullness of understanding into a legal code.

Shalom means peace, but it also means fullness, completion, and perfection. A person who studies halachah and lives his life in perfect accord with it can truly be said to live a life of “shalom.” Such a person, if he or she actually existed, would be living perfectly and completely within the Jewish tradition. Rather than striving for shalom his task would be to ensure that the shalom that he had achieved remain perfectly intact for all time.

Halachah offers the promise of shalom and with it the possibility of wholeness, certainty, and fulfillment.

But what about Torah study? Shouldn’t the study of Torah also offer the promise of (or potential for) shalom? After all, Jewish tradition says of the Torah, “All its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace.” At first Rav’s statement, that Torah study and shalom don’t go hand in hand, seems absurd. But I think he’s right.

Torah study represents the never ending quest for insight and understanding. Struggle, incomplete understanding, doubt, and unrest– this is the stuff of Torah study. It’s what makes Torah study fun!

 The Torah doesn’t spell out exactly how a person should act, or even what the 613 mitzvot actually are. Instead, the Torah and Tanach present us with a world riddled with flaws, imperfections, ruptures, lack of closure, and more messiness than most of us know what to do with. Those who study Torah are perpetually confronted with the complexity of human beings living alongside one another and in relation to God.

Halachah is Judaism’s most comprehensive attempt to answer the question of what to do with our Torah and with our lived experience. When we prioritize Torah study over the study and observance of halachah we are prioritizing struggle over tranquility, brokenness over wholeness, and embracing a world where there is no absolute and unbreakable shalom.

I’ve remarked on more than one occasion that there’s nothing “more Jewish” than our pursuit of shalom. I’ve often called attention to the fact that our siddur has multiple prayers for shalom and that no prayer service is complete unless we’ve offered at least two different prayers for shalom.

However Rav’s teaching is making me question whether there isn’t something more Jewish than shalom?

I think the answer is yes. To be a Jew is to take seriously both halachah and Torah in the way that I’m describing them here. To be a Jew is to entertain the idea that there is a perfect, holistic, whole, wholesome, way to live in the world– a shalom of halachah. To be a Jew is also to know that our most sacred text, our Torah, perpetually reminds us that alongside shalom, and perhaps on the path to shalom, is a life of grappling, questioning, probing, yearning, and struggling.

Leadership at the Water’s Edge

When the fleeing Israelites reached the shores of the Red Sea they found themselves trapped between the vast waters and the Egyptian army. According to midrash one Israelite, Nachson ben Aminadav, had the faith and courage to step into the raging sea when all the rest were paralyzed by fear and uncertainty. Rather than waiting for a miracle, Nachshon dove in. He forced the issue and, in part because of him, the waters split and revealed a path to freedom and liberation.

Torah is overflowing with examples of different types of leaders and modalities of leadership. Here are a few lessons communal leaders can learn from the example of Nachson ben Aminadav.

Good leaders…

  1. lead when leadership is needed
  2. are emotionally intelligent and understand the needs, fears, hopes, and feelings of their communities
  3. set a personal example
  4. embrace change
  5. are willing to take risks
  6. bring others with them
  7. have faith in themselves, others, and the bigger picture
  8. are able to be decisive when decisiveness is called for
  9. leave a legacy and inspire others
  10. look to the future with optimism and hope

Lech Lecha– a unique perspective

The following D’var Torah was prepared by Todd Williamson, a member of The Davis Academy faculty. It was shared at one of our weekly Middle School tefilah services in honor of a student that is becoming bat mitzvah this Shabbat and is published here with his permission. Todd has asked me to note that he did not write this D’var Torah expecting that it would be “published” on a blog and therefore did not include citations. He notes that Bruce Feiler’s work on Abraham was very influential in his thinking along with many additional resources.

In addition to being a wonderful D’var Torah in its own right, this post demonstrates part of the unique potential within a Jewish Day School such as The Davis Academy. Consider the following: a D’var Torah lovingly and thoughtfully prepared by a non-Jewish faculty member, presented in front of several hundred early adolescent Jewish kids– an exchange of ideas characterized by great thoughtfulness, tolerance, and pluralism. Some critics argue that Jewish day schools are not diverse. I’d be eager to hear about other Jewish organizations where it would be commonplace for profound words of Torah to be shared by someone of a different faith. The exchange of ideas, the diversity of life experience, and the sharing of Torah that this guest post reflects is truly unique. Todd can be followed on Twitter @Bookman30022. When Todd isn’t writing Divrei Torah he is immersed in technology, teaching, and literature. 

 

Lech Lecha:  Genesis 12: 1: 17-27

God instructs Abram to leave his father’s house and set off to the “Promised land” G_d will reveal to him.  G_d promises Abram that this land will be set aside for him and his descendants and that Abram will be the father of a great nation.  Abram, Sarai and Lot(Abram’s nephew)  travel to Canaan.

A famine in Canaan forces Abram to seek provisions in Egypt where Abram declares Sarai to be his sister, not his wife.  Abram and his family receive good fortune, while Pharaoh receives plagues.  Pharaoh realizes Abram’s deception and sends Abram, his wife and their possessions out of Egypt.

Abram and Lot separate and live separate lives and soon Lot is taken away as a hostage in a tribal war.  Abram and his men free Lot from his captors and G_d reappears to Abram and promises progeny and land.  Abram confirms G_d’s covenant and then G_d fortells the Israelite bondage in Egypt.  During this time Sarai gives her handmaid, Hagar, to Abram and she bears Abram a son, Ishmael.

G_d once again repeats his covenant to Abram, but requires all males to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant.  Upon this sign, G_d changes Abram and Sarai names to Abraham and Sarah.

Thousands of years ago Abram was called by G_d, just like you are being called to the Torah this Shabbat.  You are a direct lineage to Abraham:  a memory you should be proud to share with our ancestor.   One thing we can certainly learn from Abraham is that G_d listens when we as humans yearn, or cry out for his guidance.  God hears Abraham’s plea for help, but we first must believe G_d.  Abraham does not believe in God, he believes God.  This is a huge difference, so I’ll say it again:  Abraham does not believe in God, he believes God and thus fulfills the covenant promised to him and his descendants, which leads to the original Kehillah of Jews on Earth

Could you follow in Abraham’s footsteps, could you have the faith he had to leave his father’s home and follow G_d’s instructions?  Despite being a believer, I’m not sure if I could…so perhaps I don’t really have the gift of faith: I certainly know I don’t have the faith Abraham had, but I don’t have to:  Abraham had faith for all of us.

The story of Lech Lecha beckons us, as humans and as Jews, to take risks and travel into the unknown in pursuit of our true purposes in life. It encourages us to listen to our intuitions, to pay attention to the inner voice that more often directs our heart than our head. It teaches us that we may have to leave what we know and move away from areas of comfort, in order to develop our potential.  One day, years down the road, you too, like Abraham will leave your father’s home: which invariably will bring you closer to your family you just left behind. Like Abraham, if we hear the call, we must remember to put our faith in that inner voice that guides us along the way and trust in our strength, ability, creativity and talents that when we make the journey, we too, may find our own personal “promised land” and that you personally will become the wonderful, brilliant and beautiful young lady you are destined to become.

G-d promised Abraham, and in turn promised us, that, if we become leaders and initiators, our initial efforts will never be forgotten.  Have faith and believe G-d and you too, just like Abraham will always be remembered as a blessing!

On behalf of the students, faculty and staff of The Davis Academy, we wish you Mazel Tov.

The Most Important Question

“Because there is no ‘I’, then ‘He’ (God) is not, and all the more so ‘You’ are not.” – Rav Kook Orot HaKodesh

This quote from Rav Kook is part of his commentary on Genesis 3- the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve hear God’s voice and try to hide among the trees. God asks, “Ayeka?” (“Where are you?”) and Adam responds, “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, I hid myself.”

During my brief stint as a hospital chaplain I spent many days knocking on hospital doors to see if patients wanted to visit either for conversation, prayer, or simply to have someone sit with them and be present. It’s a scary thing to initiate conversation with a total stranger, not knowing if they are terminally ill, have a broken bone, or are awaiting a life changing diagnosis. My mentor offered the following framework for thinking about our work: Know who you are, know who the other person is, and consider in what ways God may be present.

Whether as hospital chaplains, teachers, or simply as relational beings we must do all that we can to know our “I.” Creating time for reflection, knowing how we’re doing, and “where we are at” increases the likelihood that we can meet others in ways that allow them to be more fully who they are.

Who doesn’t want to be the kind of person that brings out the fullness of others? Knowing the abundant gifts, stories, experiences, wisdom, and humanity that exists in every person, who wouldn’t want to access that richness and help elicit it?

We’ve all spent time with people who have helped us feel fully present. At these times we feel like we have something unique to share with the world. Rav Kook suggests that in order to be this kind of person for others we must know our own “I.”

The casualty of not knowing our own “I” isn’t only that we live in exile from the core of our being, in and of itself diminishing the richness of the world around us. We shut out others and we shut out God.

What’s true of walking into a hospital room is true of walking into a classroom and even walking into a Starbucks. We might not be able to control all the conditions and circumstances of our lives, but we can make sure that we engage deeply with our own “I” and remain closely connected with the core of our being.

One way of staying connected is by asking “Ayeka?” “Where am I?” This question is truly a gift from God.

Torah in the Desert- Shavuot

Of all the places on earth that God could have chosen for giving the Torah our ancestors, why did God choose to give the Torah in the barren wilderness of the Sinai desert? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the giving of the Torah to have taken place in Jerusalem? Or anywhere else in Eretz Yisrael for that matter? Why, davka, did God choose to give the Torah in the desert?

The Desert
Hazal asked this very question and they came up with many explanations. As it turns out they believed that the desert was the ideal place for God to give the Torah. Through midrash Hazal teach us that if the Torah had been given in Eretz Yisrael it would have been disastrous. If it was given in the land of the tribe of Dan, then the leaders of Dan would say: The Torah belongs to us. If it was given in the land of the tribe of Reuven then they would say the same. In fact, if it was given anywhere in Eretz Yisrael our ancestors would have said that the Torah was meant for Jews and Jews alone. God gave the Torah in the desert so that all humanity and all creation would know that Torah is for everyone. While it was given to the Israelites, the messages and teachings of Torah are meant for all humanity.
At The Davis Academy we teach our children and our families that the Torah is for everyone. We unroll the Torah scroll for Simchat Torah and all of our parents and children sit inside. We learn how to write letters in the Torah scroll with a sofer, and all of our students learn to chant from the Torah. Our teachers help each child make their own personal connection to Torah, finding the relevance of her ancient words in our modern times. At The Davis Academy we teach that the Torah can be a lifelong eitz chayyim and source of inspiration whether you want to be a scientist, an artist, a fireman, an astronaut, a rabbi, or a lawyer. At The Davis Academy we teach that the Torah’s wisdom is meant for all of us.

The Face of God, Other, and Self: A Purim Reflection

“When You hid Your face, I was terrified.”

— Psalm 30:8

“The presence of the face is precisely the very possibility of understanding one another.”

 –Emmanuel Levinas, 1952

            Purim is once again at hand. In addition to the costume pageants, carnivals, school dance, school-wide scavenger hunt, and frozen yogurt cart, Purim also has a serious side. Consider the idea of Hester Panim (literally “Hidden Face”). Hester Panim refers to the fact that there is no explicit reference to God in the Megillah. It raises the theologically challenging idea that there have been times in Jewish history when God has hidden God’s face, or maybe even looked the other way. 

            The Jewish-French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, has an interesting take on Hester Panim and on the idea of the “face” in general. Levinas believed that seeing the face of another human being was always a transformational experience. Once we’ve looked into the eyes of another person, noticed the creases of their brow, and the slight asymmetry of their features, we immediately find ourselves ethically (and infinitely) obligated to them.  The face, more than anything, conveys both the uniqueness and the universality of what it means to be human.

           Through the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor), Purim reminds us of our ethical obligation to see the many faces that comprise our community. On the other hand, Hester Panim reminds us of what happens when we hide from ourselves and others, when we look the other way, and when we mask our humanity. As we put on our Purim masks let’s take a moment to look in the mirror. As we see ourselves reflected in that image, so too may we see our shared humanity reflected in the faces of those who surround us. When we truly see our face and the face of the Other, we counteract the terrifying notion that God may, at times, be looking the other way.

Holy Ground

The opening pages of the book of Exodus, which Jews worldwide are reading this week, recall the mystical moment when Moses encounters the Burning Bush. Among the many details conveyed in the passage is the following:

God said to Moses, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” 


As I go about my days at The Davis Academy I am blessed to work with many amazing people of all ages. One of my colleagues, our 8th grade Jewish Studies teacher, has a spiritual practice that I truly admire: Whenever a student shares in a way that creates a feeling of holiness in the classroom, my colleague removes his shoes. This simple gesture acknowledges that mundane physical space can be transformed into sacred space through acts of sharing, connection, and vulnerability.

Imagine if we all removed our shoes whenever we felt that one of our students, children, friends, loved ones, or colleagues had either spoken or acted with kedusha (holiness). If we took this idea seriously many of us might end up spending most of the day in our socks– not a terrible prospect! Surely it would deepen our appreciation of the immeasurable enrichment that exists when sharing our lives with others.

Recently I received an email from a parent. Another colleague had asked this parent to reflect on the question of diversity at a Jewish day school. The question was prompted by the recognition that many prospective parents question whether Jewish day schools can have true diversity and prepare children to live in our blessedly diverse world. Her response, which I quote below, left me contemplating my socks:


         On the subject of diversity: every child is unique!  This uniqueness is not established by skin color, religious beliefs or by clothing, but by what comes from inside them.  Originally this was something that was said to me regarding uniforms. How can the kids express who they are if they all dress the same? Realizing that kids at Davis learn how to express themselves by words and actions, and cannot depend on an article of clothing to do so was very enlightening!  Most people/children seek out others like themselves when forming relationships.  At Davis, my children have found friends that are like them because of similarities in personality, not the fact that they are the same in a sea of external differences or diversity… If anyone is hesitant [to send their children to Davis] because of diversity or focus on religion, I would say then that is exactly why they should send their children.  Where diversity is something the children create from within, without losing what connects them to each other, it prepares them for whatever challenges- academic or social- they may eventually encounter.  


Each of us is daily inundated with emails, phone calls, and conversations; we’re participants in an endless social process. Hopefully amidst the ever flowing current of communication that washes over us, we can all pause to acknowledge the moments when we receive something truly special and holy. Attuning ourselves to these daily glimpses of sacred light might even make our favorite pair of shoes last a little longer. 


Shabbat Shalom! 

 

Love Your Neighbor

This week’s Torah portion contains the oft-recited verse, “V’ahavta l’reacha camocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). Not bad as far as Leviticus goes! During tefillah with our kindergarteners I asked them who their neighbor was? As usual hands went straight up and I started calling on children:

“The person who lives next door to me.”
“The person on my street.”
“Mr. Raymond my neighbor.”

But it wasn’t long before they arrived at a deeper understanding of the concept of “neighbor”:

“The person sitting next to me.”
“Someone who is close to your heart.”

And then most profound:

“God, because God is all around us.”

I was reminded of our recent 7th grade trip to Washington DC. Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall spread out before us, we read the words spoken by Rabbi Joachim Prinz who spoke these words in his speech at the March on Washington in 1963:

“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”

I’m no longer surprised (and haven’t been for some time now) that I probably (dare I say definitely) learn more from the children I teach than they learn from me. To what can the matter be compared? To the following parable told by the Maggid of Dubno, an 18th century rabbi and teacher (retold by Rabbi David Wolpe in his book Floating Takes Faith):

“Once a father traveled for miles with his son to reach a castle. Whenever they encountered a river or mountain, the father lifted his son on his shoulders and carried him. Finally they came to the castle, but its gate was shut, and there were only narrow windows along the sides. The father said, “my son, up until now I have carried you. Now the only way we can reach our destination is if you will climb through the windows and open the gate for me from within.”

It occurs to me that if “neighbor” is indeed a moral concept, so too are “father” and “son.”

Reading Torah for the First Time

On Thursday morning one of our 5th grade classes gathered in my office for a moment of reflection. After months of preparation the time had finally come for them to chant from the Torah for the first time. All their classmates and parents were waiting in the library where the Torah Reading Service was going to be held. With guitar in hand I asked the students to take a deep breath and spend a moment opening their hearts. Then we talked about The Davis Academy journey– how every day has the potential to be full of amazing and life changing experiences. But along the journey there are moments of holiness, sometimes little and sometimes big, sometimes planned and sometimes not. The 5th grade Torah Service is such a moment. Each child shared a memory from class– lots of smiles and laughs, lots of “oh yeahs…” A few of the students got a little choked up. I did as well.
We marched quietly from my office to just outside the library. From there we watched the last few students and parents shuffling in. Once everyone was settled inside I, along with the students who were leading, marched into the library singing “Am Yisrael Hai” (“The Jewish People Lives”). In the presence of our community, gathered for the sacred and joyous mitzvah of reading and studying Torah, it was hard not to feel the most profound sense of hope that these children not only embrace Jewish tradition but will build a viable and vibrant Jewish world for future generations.

A typical Friday for a Jewish Day School

First Friday of 09. During Kabbalat Shabbat Rabbi Peter Berg from the Temple charmed our children, transforming them into crying babies, snoring grandparents, lowing cows, doodling rosters, and quacking ducks. Message: let us bless the noise that tells us we are home. We made sure to think of Israel today by singing Kahol v’lavan, Hatikvah and also offering the traditional prayer Avinu sh’bashamayim (Mishkan T’filah, p. 113). We also did “Can you shake it better than a fifth grader during the micamocha.” The answer appears to be: ehhh.

Tefillah was funky at the middle school today. Science fair has taken over the gym! While it would have been nice to have had Kabbalat Shabbat there (to reflect on the false dichotomy between science and religion) we decided to split into grades. During tefillah Mr. Kudlats and I opened a dialogue on Israel with the 8th grade since we’re headed there in May. After reading an interesting article from the New York Times about the Israel Consulate’s attempts to do media coverage of the war via the web service “Twitter” (which allows positings up to 140 chrctrs) we made sure to leave time to welcome Shabbat by lighting candles, blessing juice, and sharing Challah. One face of Shabbat is setting aside our worldly concerns to embrace something eternal: joy, shalom, family, rest, Shabbat. The contrast between our Israel discussion and our Shabbat singing was a bit abrupt, but necessarily so as our students had a lot to say.

This Shabbat we finish reading the book of Bereishit. It seems like only yesterday that we celebrated Simchat Torah by unrolling our Torah scrolls and surrounding our students in the sacred words of Jewish tradition. In this week’s parsha, a dying Jacob blesses his children with the following words, “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day– The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm– Bless the lads…”(Genesis 48:15-16). My prayer this Shabbat is that God protect the citizens of Israel, all the innocent civilians of that sad and troubled region, and all of us. May this Shabbat be full of peace, rest, and joy.