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!
On “The Good Place” Michael tries to guide Chidi and Janet toward new things, but it’s Eleanor who finds unexpected inspiration because of Tahani. So on the podcast, Jon Spira-Savett and Audrey Marcus Berkman explore reincarnation Jewish-style and who the teacher you need turns out to be.
Posted at 08:45 AM in Calendar, Education, Elul, Ethics, Foregiveness, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Spirituality, Study, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Torah, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
If you're a fan of "The Good Place" and at all connected to Jews or Judaism, try out my new podcast that I'm creating with a bunch of colleagues!
Tov! is on all the major podcast platforms, and it will be a fun and interesting way to explore some Jewish texts and ideas. Check out the website for episodes and show notes, or search for it in your app and try it out!
It's launching right as we begin Elul, the month in the Jewish calendar leading to Rosh Hashanah. This is the time of year when we're all Eleanor Shellstrop, trying to improve our lives as though everything is in the balance.
Posted at 11:06 AM in Calendar, Education, Ethics, Foregiveness, Gossip, Harry Potter, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Lashon Hara, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Study, Talmud, Television, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Tzedakah, Web/Tech, Weblogs, Yamim Noraim, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
These were my words of Torah at the start of Temple Beth Abraham's annual congregational meeting on June 15, 2021. Though they refer specifically to that occasion in places, I think the Torah here is apt for all of us as we reflect on the past fifteen months and the transitions we in, each in our own way. I shared a version of this as a Shabbat D'var Torah the prior weekend.
It was taught among our early rabbis:
Rabban Gamliel said:
One time I was going on a ship, and I saw another ship broken apart
And I was in pain because of a brilliant sage who was on it
– and who was it: Rabbi Akiva.
But when I went up onto dry land, he sat and discussed in front of me a matter of Jewish law, halacha.
I said to him: My son, who lifted you up from the sea?
He said to me: a plank [from a ship] happened to come to me, and every single wave that came over me, I nodded my head toward it.
This story from the Talmud is a Jewish version and elaboration of the saying that we’re not all the same boat but we are all in the same storm.
Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva experience a storm in very different ways. Rabban Gamliel was on a ship that was safe, even though it was tossed around, seeing other ships that are wrecked, and knowing some people have been lost, and some Torah in particular gone.
Rabbi Akiva was thrown from his ship, and the way he sees it, it’s only by fortune that he finds a plank to hold on to. He says that he nodded his head toward each wave as it came. Some interpret this to mean that he lowered his head, so the wave wouldn’t throw him off his board. Some say he nodded, to acknowledge the wave and its power much greater than any he had – a power to harm him or to bring him ultimately to the shore.
Rabban Gamliel is the one who tells the story. Rabbi Akiva, he says, starts discussing points of Jewish law, which is presumably what the two of them used to do on dry land before. But Rabban Gamliel stops him, and asks to hear his story. I think Rabban Gamliel was worried about his friend and student. Because Rabbi Akiva hadn’t been one just to sit and discuss the rules on their surface. He had been one of the most creative sages, an activist, a spiritual master -- and Rabban Gamliel fears that Akiva is not all there.
It’s a hard thing to ask after a storm, when someone seems to want to go back to business as before and pick up what you used to do together. It’s hard because when Gamliel says who saved you, Akiva says: It’s not a who. I got lucky. This plank came. He doesn’t say whether he thinks it was God. He tells a story of having to bow his head low and relives that.
There might be some resentment between the two rabbis, let’s be honest. Why did you have an easier time through the storm? Why did you worry about me and my ship from afar and not come by to help lift me up?
And yet Rabban Gamliel gets Rabbi Akiva to make a kind of Freudian slip in Hebrew. Akiva calls the plank of the broken ship a daf, which also means a page. A page in a book, a book of Torah, a folio of Talmud; a page in the story of a life; a page of our history together as Jews. A page came to me and saved me, and from that page I could turn toward the enormous wave and nod. Rabban Gamliel helps Rabbi Akiva perhaps begin to see that the story of the storm is not the only story. It’s not even the only storm. It’s certainly not the only trial in Akiva’s life, this Rabban Gamliel knows, and together perhaps they can start to tell a story of how each in their way arrived at the shore, and where that story fits into the dapim, the pages and planks that build the story of both their lives, and of their common life.
We have all been in a storm, and I’ll speak for myself, some days I feel like I’m walking onto the shore and other days I feel like I am still in the storm. I talk to people among you each day, who report being on a ship or a plank or on the shore. From the ship I have been fortunate to be on – a ship of my own family, a ship of community and colleagueship among local pastors and national rabbis – I have seen other ships broken apart, and not all of those ships left planks for people to hold onto. We in our Temple community have lost – people have died this past year and not only because of the pandemic. We have lost 5 people at least in our congregational families to COVID-19, and about ten percent of our households have had at least one person sick, and at least ten percent of our households have experienced the loss of a job or income since a year ago March. And so many other losses, of stability and friendship and connection and wellbeing.
Our ships and our planks and our pages – what you had, what you found, what you held onto or made into something, what you remembered as a source of hope -- so many of these the past fifteen months. And there have been waves aplenty, not only of disease but around national leadership and equality in our land. I see the waves that Rabbi Akiva nodded at, as representing his realization that in a storm you see what the truly profound forces are, what is deep and powerful. Or maybe you get a glimpse, you feel it – and you talk when you get back to land.
For us as a community, it’s important to realize that people experienced this storm differently, and also that plenty have not reached the shore yet. Let’s be generous with each other – don’t make assumptions, about where someone else is at, whether they are ready to come out or come here or give a handshake or a hug. We will continue to be a hybrid congregation, and work hard at doing that well. There are conversations to have about halacha, about matters of law and behavior; and there are the joys of conversations we so want to resume, with the people here we have missed. But somewhere too is the conversation that Rabban Gamliel invited Rabbi Akiva to have – about what you experienced, what was hard, what you learned, what gives you hope. It’s not healthy to leave those behind. It’s not what Sages do, to skip that entirely – and I look out and see so many wise people here. So I hope we each get the Rabban Gamliel we need, who will listen to our story, and for someone else who was Akiva this year, you might yourself be Gamliel.
The purpose of our community and our institution is to be the ship and the shore, and even the plank and the page, through times that are stormy and God willing less so. Tonight we look at the ship’s sturdy hull and soaring sails, and chart voyages and landfalls that lay ahead. May they be good and safe and joyful, for you and for all of us together.
I just finished the first version of a new page on my site, which I'm calling simply "USA". It has sources and mostly my own reflections about American politics, racial justice, anti-Semitism, and political leadership. I will be updating it with the best links I want people to know about, and anything good I generate as well.
It feels healing particularly today to look back on things I have written, said, and done out of my faith in this country and its politics. Rather than focus only on today's troubles, I am trying to be drawn toward MLK Day.
This is the Dvar Torah I gave on Saturday, December 19, 2020. It was the Shabbat immediately following Chanukkah.
Today is what I call the ninth day of Chanukkah. What do we see after we have finished lighting a full chanukkiah? Do we keep an afterimage, do we see in our mind’s eye the next candle, or do we see only what’s not there?
This is the question of Pharaoh’s dreams in today’s parasha.
I want to give credit to our congregant Mara Friedman, who taught some amazing Torah at the start of the week to the Ritual Committee and made some observations that have been bouncing in my mind all week. Mara noticed a few things about the story that begins with Pharaoh’s dreams about cows and grain, and his search for an interpreter that leads him to Yosef and to Yosef’s proposals for Egypt. And she pointed out where some parallels are or might be to today.
The parasha begins with two vivid dreams told from the perspective of inside Pharaoh’s head. In one, there are seven beautiful and healthy cows -- and then seven thin and gaunt cows rise up from the Nile and eat the first ones. In the second dream, Pharoah sees seven beautiful and healthy ears of grain, and then seven skinny ones sprout up behind them and swallow them up.
Mara drew the comparison between Pharaoh’s situation and ours: a society that is prosperous looking at a period of shortage, for some period of time -- for us a shortage of medicine or medical supplies or vaccines, among other shortages and economic hardships.
Mara observed that Pharaoh surely knew what these dreams meant, but for some reason he couldn’t complete the thoughts in his mind or express them out loud in front of his advisers.
She noted that Pharaoh was willing to turn outside his usual group of advisors and listen to someone very different -- an immigrant she said, and I would add an immigrant detained in prison.
She wondered what it was about Yosef that got Pharaoh to listen to him. Where did Yosef’s credibility come from?
And the point that particularly struck me -- Mara noted that the solution Yosef proposed for the upcoming famine did more than just feed Egypt as it had been fed before. It went a step beyond and provided food even for people from other lands, like Canaan where Yosef’s own family was in danger of starving.
I want to build on Mara’s insights and questions, to suggest some 9th day of Chanukkah, Shabbat thoughts for we should approach the months that are coming.
There is a phrase I have been hearing a lot lately: back to normal. Now that the vaccines are getting approved, and manufacturing and distribution is ramping up, when will we be back to normal. That framing is bothering me, and I think Pharaoh and Yosef are there too and have a response for that.
What’s bothering me is that when things were normal here early in 2020, normal wasn’t good enough. Yosef won over Pharaoh was because Yosef didn’t just clarify the subject of Pharaoh’s dreams. As Mara said, Pharoah didn’t need that. Yosef outlined a plan that would get Egypt through the famine in a way that would leave them better than they were before. Not just better off, but a better nation.
Yosef said to Pharaoh: You have a land of plenty, and you should view it that way even when you are thinking about a particularly challenging year or seven difficult years. If you organize with trust in that fact, the plenty will still be there for the years when the Nile is not full to overflowing for crops and graizing. And the famine years won’t just be holding the line, but they will also be years with good in them too. As Mara obsered, during the famine Yosef wasn’t hunkering down and just feeding Egpytians; he could feed people from beyond as well.
That’s what Pharaoh deep down wanted to hear. He had been stuck seeing only the darkness after the night of eight candles. I think Pharaoh had had other dreams during previous nights, dreams where seven beautiful cows were just the start and they were multiplying, dreams where seven ears of grain were seeding more and more fields and feeding more people -- and when those dreams stopped is when Pharoah became afraid.
Anyone could see that Pharaoh was worried about the upcoming shortages. Yosef was graced by God with the ability to see that Pharaoh’s fundamental dreams about his realm were on the line. Back to normal wasn’t going to be enough. Pharaoh’s existing group of advisors were trapped in normal. Pharaoh was like a god -- this was the relatively good Pharaoh we’re talking about -- and it must have been hard for him to show himself worried and frustrated. But thank God for his cupbearer, who saw Pharaoh take that risk and met him there, recalling his own time in Pharaoh’s doghouse as a prisoner of state and mentioning that he had met this Hebrew in prison who could help them forward.
Yosef was the master of dreams. Ba’al ha-chalomot. Obviously, there were things we wish he had known when he was young and dreamed of glory -- and Yosef for sure did want to seize this moment for his glory. But in the moment, he knew that dreaming itself and talking about dreams was part of the practical need of the moment. Yosef knew that the only thing harder than getting through a famine, would be getting through it with self-doubt and without national self-confidence, without a vision of something more than the missing food.
I’ll speak for myself -- my work of operating the synagogue during the pandemic has included wearying and worrying work and also rewarding and energizing work. The hardest work for my own soul has been the time, on average once a month and sometimes more, when a group of us spends an hour or two discussing plexiglass, or formatting all the new forms and spreadsheets that are required to keep track of things that we used to just see and know without effort. This is absolutely necessary, and it’s not inherently difficult, but the weeks when it feels like it’s all I am doing are hard weeks.
My work is easier when we are reaching beyond just the extra steps it takes to do what used to be easy. When we’re talking about going the extra mile to call people we haven’t seen, and then doing that, for instance. It’s actually more work, objectively harder, but it’s lighter and it’s better even so, and it makes the next thing easier even while the pandemic continues.
Yosef and Pharaoh clicked in a shared realization that working at better than normal would actually be easier than working at back to normal.
When things were normal in early 2020, it wasn’t good enough. If you’ve been working for tikkun olam, you didn’t think the normal of last January was good enough. If you’ve been wondering about isolation in our society and people left out even within our shul, last winter wasn’t good enough. No one engaged in any way in the election campaigns a year ago and through our New Hampshire primary thought normal was good enough. If you believe that as part of the shul’s mission there should be more Torah in the world as a wisdom for the age we live in, back to normal wouldn’t be enough.
Normal isn’t enough. But it is a lot, and Yosef said: Let’s use what we have in normal times to make the time after the famine better than normal. Let’s even starting doing some of those things during the famine. It will still be a famine and that will be incredibly hard, and even when things start to ease up the transition back will be stressful. Yosef figured out that it would be important even during a famine to feed new people, and in the same spirit we have found ways to nourish new people, and even nourish ourselves in new ways while we struggle with what is short and what is missing. There are storehouses of grain. There are animals that generate and feed and extend our own power, even now.
When we are able in the future to gather, to sing, to have the casual joys of Kiddush together, it will build on what was and it will be better than it was. When we have restored the basic resources and gatherings so we can take care of more people and work on justice issues, those will build on what was and be better than what was. It will take some work now and in the coming months, to nourish even more and to plan for how we will nourish and be nourished “after”, whenever after is. Just aiming for back to normal would be all kinds of work, and hard work. If we’re going to work that hard, let’s use the same energy for better than normal, and then the work can even be light and energizing.
Today we read in the Torah of the morning after Pharaoh’s dreams of seven disappearing cows and grains. Today is the 9th day of Chanukkah, the day after, and like one time in ten the day following Chanukkah is Shabbat, a day both to rest and to taste the World to Come. Keep the afterimage of the shining, blazing chanukkiah. Let’s try to see nine lights today. Let’s see ourselves as those lights ready to light more, and that lighting will be so much easier than letting it be dark and having to starting with just one sometime later on. Let’s dream together of back to better than normal.
I have only a couple of Chanukkah sermons, and in fact you heard a version of this just a few months ago at Rosh Hashanah. I want to talk about hope, through the lens of Chanukkah. I think we can learn about hope from the dreidel – nun נ, gimel ג, hay ה, shin ש.
The definition of hope that comes closest to the matter for me is from Czech playwright and dissident and eventually president Vaclav Havel: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” The Talmud says that when we arrive at the entrance to the World to Come, we will be asked a series of questions about how we lived, and then the last question will be: “Tzipita liyshua? Did you have hope that there would be redemption for yourself, for the world?” Before you knew how your story on earth ended, before you knew the state of the world when you left it, did you hope?
So, the dreidel. On the surface -- on its four surfaces -- the dreidel seems like the very essence of randomness, the opposite even of hope. You can hold it by something firm, it comes together here on one point, but those don’t last. As soon as you put it in play, it’s just all uncertainty. Nun, Gimel, Hay, or Shin? But I have come to see each letter and each possible landing as a different kind of hope.
When you play dreidel someone brings the M&Ms, stakes the pot in the middle, and gives some to everyone. When you spin, if you land on Gimel you get everything in the pot. Hay, you take half. Nun, nothing happens. Shin, you put something in.
Look deeper into each outcome, and there’s a type of hope corresponding to each outcome. Gimelhope, Hay hope, Nun hope, Shin hope.
Gimel stands for the word gadol, meaning large. Gimel is when you win all the M&Ms in the middle.Gimel hope is going for broke, hoping and praying for everything. The final definitive cure from an illness. Life or the world exactly as it is supposed to be. And not just praying but getting what you pray for.
My all-time favorite Gimel story comes from Rabbi Sharon Brous, who read it from New York Times columnist Nick Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn. The two were living in China in 1990 and met a young village girl named Dai. Dai Manju was a terrific student who had to walk four miles to school every day. Tuition at her elementary school was an unaffordable $13 per year, and her parents certainly would not be able to pay the additional $4 a year it would cost for junior high.
Kristof wrote about Dai Manju and people began to donate money, as you would expect – that’s not the Gimel -- and one donation came through for $10,000! Not just enough for her tuition, but for a lot of tuitions, and enough to build another school. And that’s not even the Gimel. When Kristof checked in again, he found out when the bank was converting the large donation from dollars to yuan, and they dropped a decimal point. The donation was only supposed to be $100.00! But rather than take back the money, the bank just stood by its own transfer and made the difference their own donation.
Ten years later, Dai Manju had finished high school and trained to become an accountant. She was contemplating starting her own enterprise. Every home in her village had electricity. The readers, the dropped decimal point, and all the other kids made ripples on one family, the village, and beyond. So much Gimel!
In dreidel, the odds of a Gimel are just one in four. In the real world, even less. But each Gimel keeps us going. Gimel is when the world as it is suddenly crosses with the world that we know is supposed to be, and that ideal world is real. If there weren’t Gimel in the world, we could hardly live at all.
When the dreidel lands on Hay, you take half the pot. Hay hope is for something partial. It's remission from cancer; it’s a good day during the months after a concussion. It’s a big issue win on the local level.
I feel fortunate to live in communities with a lot of Hay. I see people rallying to each other within our congregation all the time, every single week, at times of illness or loss, at times of loneliness, and it’s not everything but it’s more than something. I feel fortunate to live in an area where we have energetic leaders, in office and as volunteers, who are trying to make our city a welcoming community through culture and the library and business and government. I see young people with idealism, finding something to do in politics or service and impatiently asking what can they do next, how can they make a bigger difference because they don’t feel they’re doing enough, that it’s Hay but not yet Gimel.
I see how people hunger for Hay stories, stories of healing and resilience for a time – and I see how much people who live in other places love to know about the partial, hopeful stories of this shul or this state. When Gimel seems too much to hope for, unattainable or just not possible to believe, what people really need is Hay.
Nun is when you get nothing. This is actually the Hebrew letter in the game that stands for nes or miracle. How can nothing be a miracle, much less hope?
When I first talked about this a few years ago I mentioned the Israeli leader Shimon Peres z”l, who was in one view the biggest nothing in Israeli politics and history. He was the loser of more elections than anyone else ever, and he was the champion of the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians that did not achieve peace. There was a lot of Nun, nothing, at the end of the defining initiatives of his career.
Yet Shimon Peres, even in his 90s, refused to give up his conviction that one day his visions would come true. Half a century before Peres had been the builder of Israel's first energy revolution, in nuclear power. As an elder statesman, he rolled up his sleeves with young innovators and entrepreneurs to help launch the newest phase of Israel's green energy revolution. Shimon Peres lived by these words of Rabbi Donniel Hartman: “It is not in our hands alone to actualize our dreams. It is in our hands to ensure that these dreams remain alive.” Nun today means Hay or even Gimel sometime later.
The hardest of the four sides of the dreidel to call hope is Shin -- you lose, you put something back. Shin in Hebrew stands for sham, which means "there", over somewhere else. It seems like the opposite of hope – but it's not. Shin hope is a kind of hope, that comes as we leap the distance between what we pray for and what is, when they are in fact so far from each other.
I told the story a few years ago about a call I got from our congregant Sandi McCurdy one spring day a few years ago, telling me she’d like to chant a Haftarah at the end of July, the one from her Bat Mitzvah. Sandi used to chant frequently for us, but at the time she was dying from cancer. The previous phone call I’d had with her had been about some bad test results she had received. I wondered if she was really saying “If I’m still alive I’m going to chant the Haftarah.” Neither of us said that out loud.
And indeed Sandi didn’t quite make it. She went into hospice a week before her Haftarah, and she died two days before that Shabbat. Friends were in her room all that week, making plans for how they could chant to Sandi or even have her chant a little bit from her bed. That Shabbat right after Sandi died, when her synagogue friends could have been just too tired or grief-stricken, they came here to services and one of them chanted Sandi’s special Haftarah.
Everything about those weeks was hope with a Shin. In the hospice I asked Sandi where she found the strength to keep going and to hope. She taught me President Havel’s answer in her own words – she said she loved her shuls, here and Temple Israel, and being close to the Torah, and the people who were in her life because of the shuls, and her small family. She looked at me like: no big deal. Planning to chant the Haftarah was what she was putting into the pot, that was her Shin, how she expressed hope and lived it. Hard as it was, all her friends and all of us have what Sandi put in.
The story of Chanukhah comes entirely from Shin. The cruse of oil that lasted miraculously first had to be given away as a Shin. At a time when others were despairing, someone made a beautiful container with a special seal of the kohanim, and hid it where the enemy wouldn’t see it. Whoever did so believed one day that someone would be in a position to find the oil – maybe not in the same lifetime, but eventually. Instead of despairing, that kohen played a Shin. They put something in, for later; they put in hope for someone else.
Nun, Gimel, Hay, Shin. Hope for the biggest things; hope for partial healing and partial justice. Hoping for others or the future; and just hoping when you can't even give any good reason for doing so.
We come here on Shabbat because this is where the M&Ms are stored. We come with however much we have in a given week, and the Torah gives us some more. Maybe you or I walk out with more or maybe we give some; for sure there is someone who leaves our Shabbat gathering with more. Shul is where we come with an absolute guarantee of Gimel in that that tens of people just in this one community will use their lips to say words of peace, love, generosity, and justice. After a week that maybe was a week of Shin, of having, of spending or losing hope, we come here to tell the Gimel andHay. I’d like to think the talk at lunch today about Jewish-Black relations will be about hope in all four dimensions– we’ll hear some Hay and hopefully some Gimel, but we’ll take the harder parts in as Nun and Shin.
Hope in itself doesn't guarantee healing or Tikkun Olam. But when we hope together, when we bring together our Nuns, Gimels, Hays, and Shins, we help each other live more hopefully, on the inside and toward others.
Not everyone can hope in a Gimel way right now, or in the weeks to come. Yet I hope you can find at least one of the others paths of hope – a Hay, a Shin, a Nun. And most of all, I hope we all recognize the ways we are the cruse of oil, the M&Ms, storehouses of hope for each other in the community and for the world outside.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach -- Happy Chanukkah.