I haven't posted a Tov! update for a while, but a few new episodes are out the past month and one of them is keyed to Purim which begins tonight. Listen right here or on YouTube (it's just audio), or check out the episode page with the audio and full show notes. Or just subscribe on any of your favorite podcast apps. Simchat Purim, wishing everyone a joyous and meaningful Purim celebration!
This is the D'var Torah I gave a year ago in our Torah reading cycle, March 20, 2021. It was by the Torah reading calendar the first reading of the second year of pandemic restrictions. I read it now and so much of how I'm reflecting is the same.
When we last checked in at the mishkan (the portable desert sanctuary), it was one year to the day after the first instructions had been given, way back in Egypt, for the meal of the night before the day of leaving. The last night of slavery, the night of the last and deadliest plague. Now one year later, next to Mt. Sinai, the people saw all these things they had brought in, repurposed and shown off in a new light. Colors and textures, gold and silver and wood, fabrics and skins – all this raw material, they saw what all of it had been fashioned into, and they watched as Moshe brought every piece into the center of the camp and assembled them into a whole. Something from all of them, their unity and their individualities represented by their gifts, in one place in one structure.
And then, on that one year anniversary, there was a moment. It was more than an instant – look in the Torah scroll, there is a wide white space to the end of the line, right after the Torah says Moshe finished the work. Just like the words from God’s first finishing, the pause between the end of Creation and the start of Shabbat, looking at the whole thing and saying tov m’od, very good.
And after that pause, who knows how long, a cloud suddenly engulfed the mishkan. It was a cloud of Shechinah, of God’s intense presence, the most-present, right-there presence of the Divine. And it was a cloud. And no one could see into the cloud. Not even Moshe. Not even when the Torah says the cloud encompassed the mishkan every day and a pillar of fire by night to lead the people ahead in their travels. Cloudy, with a chance of Torah. That was the first anniversary.
And again the Torah leaves a space. This time it’s a white space a few lines wide, between the end of Exodus and the start of Leviticus. Time to take a breath, maybe, after months of shlepping? A restful Shabbat? Who after all could wrap their head around such a year as they had had?
Now this week. There’s the mishkan, still there, brand new, and the cloud of guiding is still wrapped around this thing made up of the contributions of all of us, in the center drawing everyone’s attention, and it’s still obscure through a cloud – but now there’s a voice calling out, trying to be heard. What is it saying?
What do you think it would be saying, at the start of the thirteenth month in the midbar (wildnerness)? I have to tell you that the Torah this week has been pushing me around, pushing back on me, because a week ago I had an idea about what I wanted to say today. I told you I’d be talking about some of what I see ahead of us, in the time after the first year of the pandemic. But the Torah has been saying to me: You realize it’s still cloudy, even around this mishkan that is supposed to be guiding us ahead.
The Torah has been pinning me to the first word of the parasha, specifically the letter at the end of the first word. Vayikra means “God called”, but the last letter, the alef, is written small, like a superscript. It’s both higher than the other letters, calling attention to itself, and also smaller, like -- is it really there? Alef is the first letter of the alphabet, of course, and it’s the first letter and the first sound of the Ten Commandments, it’s the alef of Anochi – I am.
One year later, in the desert, the Anochi, the I am, is not completely there, and it wants to be there, and also it’s all that is there. “I am not completely there, I’m not myself” – that’s something we could all be saying today. “I am all that’s here, I’ve been here for a year with no one but myself” – that’s also something we could all be saying. The capital-Alef Anochi, the Divine – also not always seeming like it’s here, and also realizing that we might not believe it’s been here the whole time. That is why the letter is small but also hanging down from the direction of heaven.
The commentaries say that even Moshe wasn’t sure what was calling out of the cloud that he knew from experience was the place where Divine instructions come from. Even Moshe wasn’t fully ready to be an Alef, an Anochi – to be an I, an agent, a divine emissary. Even Moshe didn’t believe that the midbar, the desert, could be a place of calling and guidance. Eventually he did – the midrashim notice that the same Hebrew letters spell midbar and m’dabber, desert and speaking – only when someone realizes they are as exposed as the desert can they hear the Torah, the guiding they need.
What I wanted the Torah to do in this parasha is to tell me that God gave Moshe one Shabbat off, and then helped him to see through the cloud into the mishkan, so God and Moshe could pick up where they had left off, which was God teaching Moshe the ins and outs of the Ten Commandments in more detail. That’s what I think I want to be talking about nowadays: what are the ethical challenges ahead of us in the coming months, while we are in this midbar that is definitely not the promised land, but is on the way there, and is an interesting and revealing place for us to live for a while.
But no, strangely there are no ethics for chapters and chapters in the Torah, and no travel either. It’s 18 chapters and six more weekly parashiyot until we get to ethics. There’s no travel, but there is movement. It’s the motion of korban – of people coming in closer, walking into the center, toward the cloud, with their offerings. Toward the cloudy place, with offerings occasioned by basic emotions – wellbeing, gratitude, guilt. Getting out and coming toward, to eat a sacred meal with a Kohen, to cleanse themselves of something, to burn up something completely and leave it behind.
Why is that how the Torah starts year two after Egypt? And I, the rabbi and teacher, push back and says maybe they could learn the ethics first, so they’ll know what it means to be whole and to be wrong or right. Let God talk about the offerings to bring in response to that.
And the Torah says back: Maybe no Jon? How about first we work on enlarging the alef – on helping people come back into themselves, to becoming an I, an agent, who understand ourselves acting and not just buffeted by the forces beyond them. The midrash says this about the alef in the word Vayikra: if it gets so small that it disappears, you’re left with the word vayikker, which means not “God called” but “it just happened”. The only reality is being blown around by the desert winds. I get that. In some sense we’re just starting to feel like we’re wrestling back some control of our lives, and we’re looking toward a time when not everything will be defined by the pandemic or in terms of it. A time still in the midbar, but on the move.
We’ll get to know ourselves again, the Torah says to me, by experiencing fire and gratitude, and guilt and wellbeing, experience them as our own, as mine, as Anochi. And when you have one of those primary emotions, come closer to someone or to some thing. Wonder if that can lead you toward something or someone, even if it’s just out for a walk toward whatever seems sacred or special, whatever makes you feel like a mensch again, and walk back to your personal place. And do that again for a while. We’re not going to be moving forward in the same direction all together just yet.
In year one, the Torah says we built the mishkan out of inanimate objects, representing ourselves through static things, frozen things. In year two, what we see in the middle of the camp is different. We bring on our own schedules, and we bring what’s alive – the offerings were meat and flour, animals and growing grain – representing ourselves through living things, things that move, as we are beginning to move.
For a while, the Torah says here in Leviticus, moving is just getting used to back and forth. It’s not one direction, from alone to together, from isolated to the Divine. It’s back and forth. Vayikra doesn’t command offerings from everyone on the same schedule. Yes, there’s some paying attention to right and wrong; sometimes you have to bring something in because of that. But mostly, we’re guided by ourselves, we know when to try moving. Closer and back out. The cloud and the fire are in the center and draw our eyes even when we’re still alone, to help us remember that there is something common even on the days we don’t bring anything. Do it like this for a while, move in your own directions, says the Torah for eighteen chapters, and then we’ll get back to ethics, and then we’ll try moving on together.
I accept this as half the truth. I’m impatient for us to become Anochi again – to feel like people, to feel like the ones who hear divine teachings and respond and act them out.
This wasn’t the D’var Torah I was expecting to give today. Torah’s like that; it’s learning to be not just Anochi=who I think I am, but what I think the Divine might be telling me to say when that’s different from where I started.
There is a mishkan, calling out teachings as the second year starts. It knows that it’s in a cloud but it knows we will eventually make out its sounds. And we are here, alefs -- feeling some days small and silent, some days larger and more divine. We are here, moving not forward together just yet, but every day each of us back and forth with korbanot (closeness-offerings), experimenting in our own ways with closeness, to one thing at a time, to one another -- and eventually closer to the Torah of this new year in the desert.
I testified at two committees of the New Hampshire legislature on bills to change or repeal our new "divisive concepts" law -- Senate Judiciary and House Education. I said essentially the same things at both hearings. Here it is, video and my written statement (they are the same).
Mr. Chairman and Honored Representatives: Thank you for your service and for this opportunity to address you. I am Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett. I live and work in Nashua, and I am the father of three children who are students and grads of our Nashua public schools. I myself have been a high school teacher of American history and literature, and I currently serve on our state’s Commission for Holocaust and Genocide Education. I come to speak to you in strong support of HB 1576.
This country saved the life of my family and my wife’s family, from the tyranny of the czar and the genocide of Hitler. I am a proud American and a religious person who says a blessing over freedom whenever I vote – and on voting days and occasions like today, I wear those commitments together on my body, above my head. I feel that my own group’s history obligates me in gratitude to be a civic leader in this country, and I carry responsibilities as a member of both a religious minority and the white majority.
Earlier in my career I had the opportunity to create from scratch a course for juniors about America in place of the usual AP history and literature out of that sense of obligation. I was working at a private Jewish high school, and together with a colleague, we set out to give our students interdisciplinary tools to look at American history and culture, and to look at themselves as critical citizens -- connected critics, to use the terminology of the political philosopher Michael Walzer. Perhaps this was natural for us as Jews, a group of whom so many have lived the “American Dream” and a group so often the targets of violence and discrimination even in this country. But what we did in that school was to prototype a concept with application far beyond our specific group and private school setting.
I am proud that the alums of that course have become those connected and critical citizens – doing work in everything from our national defense and intelligence, to representing the underrepresented before our Supreme Court. Facing all of our story as a nation, in an honest and questioning spirit, only fueled their engagement and their intense dedication to our country, their resilience to keep working on problems especially in times of crisis from 9/11 through now.
How will we motivate our public school students to locate themselves as creators of a more perfect union? How is it possible to draw lessons about the dynamics between one’s ideals and group pressure, if you don’t learn about three-fifths compromise and sit in shame and embarrassment, as well as understanding of political strategy? How is it possible for our students to learn about the inner challenges of actual leadership, what it’s like to sit where you sit where we hope they will one day -- unless they can probe Thomas Jefferson in both his idealism and his cowardice? Why bother reading Thoreau if we don’t allow students to take seriously his indictments of the nation and even of his own friends? How can we study Twain without asking whether he was lampooning the racism of his time or swept up in it?
Sometimes as teachers we have to make sure that a perspective that was or is in our history, that is so opposite of what a patriot teachr like me would ever want to entertain or say out loud, is made vivid and alive in class so students know what’s at stake – slaveholder, or Stalinist -- so it can be addressed in the safe and trusting container of our classrooms.
If the creators of divisive concepts laws such at the existing one are concerned about America lapsing into an unpatriotic socialism – well it is the hallmark of socialist dictatorships to write laws that hide their implications behind innocent sounding words, in order to sow doubt about whether you or someone else is breaking the law, and to create a situation where an official or another citizen can take legal action against you or just threaten to do so. Which is exactly what is happening in New Hampshire and elsewhere with such laws.
Members of my Jewish community have lived under such laws in our lifetimes in other lands, and that’s why they came here. I have had conversations with people running for school board or attending meetings – they are at my kid’s school, in my American neighborhood -- and there is never any actual incident of a teacher declaring that someone is “inherently racist” or that America is. There is only “I have heard of a few times”; “no, I can’t tell you the name of a school” and “I’m just trying to make sure it doesn’t happen here.” That is what the current law is, and it sure doesn’t sound like the American Constitution to me.
If that is not how you intended the current law, then consider my remarks to be teacher comments on an essay whose thesis was confusing and needs a rewrite. If you are serious about education for a proud and patriotic American citizenship, not just for diversity but for a difficult unity -- and I hope that you are, then show you are serious, by getting engaged with the fine work of our social studies leaders and our civic education thinkers. Pump more substantive standards into our system and invest in the resources and training for our educators around critical citizenship and a true patriotism. And in the meantime, get these words out of our current laws and pass HB 1576. Thank you for your time and I am happy to respond to any questions.
Posted at 09:19 AM in #integratingamerica, 9/11, Antisemitism, Books, Community Relations, Current Affairs, Education, Equality, Ethics, Freedom, History, Holocaust, Hope, Immigration, Inclusion, Interfaith Dialogue, Jewish Education, Justice, Leadership, Study, Taking Sides, Teacher-Student Relationship, Tikkun Olam, Tzedek, USA, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
I wrote and posted this a few years ago about this week's Torah reading -- one of my favorite things I've written. Hardly original, but still good!
On “The Good Place” Chapter 7 is the classic lying episode, and on the podcast Rebecca Rosenthal and I jump off from the Talmud’s analysis of white lies to talk about truth and relationships, how and when we tell people important truths, and how truth emerges between people not just by telling.
(Also the Klingon death ritual....)
The new episode is published!!! Listen and read the show notes here!
Rabbi Dan Ross and I co-host once again. On “The Good Place”, Eleanor tries both to keep and not keep her promises to Michael — and on the podcast, Dan and I trade stories of dog-watching gone wrong and explore why promising is such a big, Yom-Kippur-level matter in Judaism. (That's Dan below!)
Leslie and I experimented with the readings for a short opening unit on how to study America. I advocated the first year for excerpts from the political philosopher Michael Walzer's Interpretation and Social Criticism. Walzer articulated the idea of the "connected critic", someone who was inside a society enough to be committed to its people and its narrative and its articulated values, and able to criticize in the name of those values and out of shared commitment. It's when Rev. King said that his dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream", even as he called out America. For Walzer, the alternative is the disconnected critic who might not care enough about fellow citizens and/or who speaks a language entirely foreign to the society the critic hopes to change or improve. Another alternative of course is someone so identified with things as is that they cannot criticize at all.
I wanted our students to see themselves as connected critics of America. It was a bit easier to articulate for American Jewish students, for whom inside-outside is already set up.
"Connected critic" is always a position of built-in tension. It's a challenge to nurture your own connection and your critical outlook. Particularly when you are just learning about your own history, and the history of your own society.
In the past few years, the "connected critic" view of founding American ideals has been called into question, and I am hoping for a way to vindicate it nonetheless. Does Thomas Jefferson's slaveholding mean that "created equal.... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are bankrupt? I accept the challenge of those who answer yes. I have to consider the alternative, and/or come up with an account of the citizen as connected critic that does not whitewash anything.
That's Rabbi Sari Laufer, my partner for Chapter 5 of Tov!
"To Measure or Not to Measure" -- on “The Good Place” Eleanor is excited when she is polite for the first time without thinking, Tahani’s philanthropy doesn't score enough points with her parents or the algorithm, and Chidi doesn’t find pleasure in doing the most good. So on the podcast Jon has his first stomach ache and Sari Laufer (new rabbi on the team) helps us think more about where measuring goodness does and doesn’t make sense. Oh, and where intellectual vs. sensual pleasure fits in!
Check it out here or wherever you get podcasts!