Avoiding Chaos - Mishkan Part 2

As I wrote in a previous piece, I believe that the Mishkan represents a constantly deconstructed and reconstructed story, approach, framing of a situation, or narrative about one's life. It is an apt metaphor for the way in which a person's life can coalesce around a particular theme, or issue, or relationship, or trait, or heuristic, for a certain period of time, and then at some point (often unexpectedly) that theme, or issue, or relationship or trait no longer sufficiently frames or explains that person's life. It is, all of a sudden, a story built of empty words. At such a time, a person could continue to insist that that theme, or issue, or relationship continues to explain what's going on, and that person could double down and try to force it to retain its relevance. This can be compared to someone who insists on worshiping Hashem in the place where the Mishkan used to be, though it has since moved on.

Instead of fixating, there is a skill in learning how to allow that story to unravel, to lose its cohesion, for the sake of a greater cohesion.

But that period in-between, before the next story takes hold, is risky – so risky that, for some people, the possibility of rebirth, rejuvenation, reinvigoration, a new and inspired sense of direction, an updated sense of self, etc. are simply not worth the risk. Outside of the old story is chaotic and unknown, and therefore order is worth clinging to, regardless of how stale or self-defeating it might be.

So, to truly open up into a new story is first to open up into chaos and the unknown. Though we will discuss later how we can preemptively scaffold an experience with a story in order to give it form and direction, that is but one among several approaches to this process. What I want to discuss here is the high-level skill of joyfully and courageously engaging with the chaos/unknown with the intention of allowing an unanticipated new story to emerge and take hold.

Shaul's story stands as a fantastic example of the lack of this ability. From the end of the story, we know the beginning – Shaul was unable or unwilling to stand his ground in the face of the desires of his people. Certainly that character flaw existed from the beginning, and we see intimations of that throughout the story (Shmuel 1 10:27; 13:11; 14:45, etc.) We can easily say, looking back, that Shaul was probably operating within the story of “I have to be kingly the way the people want me to be kingly” and he should have been working within the story of “I have to be kingly the way God wants me to be kingly.” If only he'd known that, he could have engaged with the very scary, chaotic question of how to be king like God wants.


Well, actually he did know. Shmuel told him, way back at the beginning. In Shmuel 1 13:14, after Shaul caved to the needs of the people and prematurely brought an offering that Shmuel had told him to wait on, Shmuel then tells him:

וְעַתָּה מַמְלַכְתְּךָ לֹא תָקוּם בִּקֵּשׁ יְדֹוָד לוֹ אִישׁ כִּלְבָבוֹ וַיְצַוֵּהוּ יְדֹוָד לְנָגִיד עַל עַמּוֹ כִּי לֹא שָׁמַרְתָּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר צִוְּךָ יְדֹוָד:

And now, your kingship will not last. God has sought a man after His own heart, and God has commanded him as a leader of His people, for you have not kept what God commanded you.

Like Shaul, we are rarely without clues. Looking back, we can see that we've fixated on certain stories the whole time, and herculean efforts to get our attention to some other story we should be focusing on, some other way of looking at things, we have simply plowed ahead, and ignored those clues.

And of course we ignore them! It is dangerous not to! After all, we may ask ourselves “Who would I be if I wasn't playing x part in y story!” And the answer to that question is just too scary.

So, we harp: “I haven't gotten married yet because I just haven't met enough people” instead of “I haven't really figured out what I'm looking for in a partner yet, and I am sure that is coming through when I go out with people.” “This job isn't working out because I'm not good enough at it,” instead of “I have to stop being afraid of looking for a new job.”

We, of course, are afforded the choice of remaining fixed on those stories. My suggestion is that no such choice was afforded with the Mishkan. Its constant deconstruction and reconstruction of the Mishkan brought with it an automatic collapse of whatever story we had going on at the time, whatever way we had of explaining what was happening to us and why, or what its all about. All of that would be taken apart as the Mishkan was taken apart, and then we'd be in that liminal space between stories until the cloud stopped and started to slowly build the new story again.



The story of the Mishkan - Mishkan Part 1

I have written in the past about Shaul and his stories. Shaul is somehow so convinced that he has fulfilled Gd's command concerning the annihilation of Amalek that he simply refuses to compute the reality that he has not.

(יג) וַיָּבֹא שְׁמוּאֵל אֶל שָׁאוּל וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ שָׁאוּל בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה לַידֹוָד הֲקִימֹתִי אֶת דְּבַר יְדֹוָד: (יד) וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל וּמֶה קוֹל הַצֹּאן הַזֶּה בְּאָזְנָי וְקוֹל הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי שֹׁמֵעַ:

And Shmuel came to Shaul and Shaul said to him: “Blessed are you to God! I have fulfilled the word of God!” And Shmuel said to him, “And what is that sound of sheep that is in my ears? And that sound of cattle that I hear?”


(יח) וַיִּשְׁלָחֲךָ יְדֹוָד בְּדָרֶךְ וַיֹּאמֶר לֵךְ וְהַחֲרַמְתָּה אֶת הַחַטָּאִים אֶת עֲמָלֵק וְנִלְחַמְתָּ בוֹ עַד כַּלּוֹתָם אֹתָם: (יט) וְלָמָּה לֹא שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקוֹל יְדֹוָד וַתַּעַט אֶל הַשָּׁלָל וַתַּעַשׂ הָרַע בְּעֵינֵי יְדֹוָד: (כ) וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל אֶל שְׁמוּאֵל אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתִּי בְּקוֹל יְדֹוָד וָאֵלֵךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלָחַנִי יְדֹוָד וָאָבִיא אֶת אֲגַג מֶלֶךְ עֲמָלֵק וְאֶת עֲמָלֵק הֶחֱרַמְתִּי:

And God sent you on the way and He said to you, 'And you shall destroy those sinners, Amalek, and you shall battle with him until they are utterly decimated.' And why did you not listen to the voice of God, and you inclined toward the spoils, and did evil in the eyes of God?” And Shaul said to Shmuel, “I have in fact listened to the voice of God, and I walked in the way that God sent me, and I have brought Agag the King of Amalek, and I have vanquished Amalek.”

I wouldn't say that Shaul is an anomaly here. I think that we all get caught up in the stories we tell about our lives. The diffrence would be whether we can let go of those stories when they prove to be false, or incomplete, or inadequate. At such times, we should let the old story fall away to whatever extent possible, and then reconstruct a better story that holds more truth, promises more connection, gives us the greatest amount of impetus and room to grow, etc.

I equate the deconstruction and reconstrution of a story with the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Mishkan in the wilderness. When the Mishkan was in its state of construction, the people could engage in worship and sacrifice. The relationship to the Divine became localized and, to an extent, concretized. Based upon ideas we will explore later, each location in which the Mishkan was reconstructed was a place in which the people – as a whole, or as individuals, or both – had to navigate through some issue. In that sense, God, as the backdrop of that work, was accessed and accessible in a specific way. When the Mishkan was in its state of deconstruction, that accessibility and localization and specificity was elusive. At such times, one might have been expected to digest the inspiration and information of the last iteration, free it of its specific trappings, and consider its wider implications. It would have to become more conceptual or abstract in order to be useful in another iterations

Maybe it ended when it got too literal, when people felt they had control of the narrative. The infinite had become finite. The story-within-a-story had become the entirety. There was no more meta. Everything was immanent. Perhaps there is some correlation between when that happened and when the cloud lifted, the Mishkan was dissembled, the story was deconstructed, and the process would begin again, informed by the last iteration but not defined by it.

Shaul got stuck in his story. There was no other iteration, no next chapter in his life. No teshuva, no reflection. It is not surprising that he spend so much of the remainder of his life trying to eliminate David, as if David was to blame for the breakdown of his process of growth. 

Creating maximaly jarring prayer encounters

I am surprised (and not surprised) that we do not see more people in our houses of prayer standing and trembling, having taken three steps back to begin the silent prayer and then suddenly gripped with seizures of realization that they are about to speak before the Holy One, Blessed is He, face to face, that they are about to take one step into the holy city, another into the palace, and another in the throne room itself, that they are about to expose their thoughts and hopes and dreams (and flaws and errors) to the One Who knows, to the All-Capable. Would you not be hesitant, if not completely paralyzed??

And yet, this is the trade-off of expecting and formulating regular, everyday prayer. Perhaps it could not have been expected that most people would be able to engage with regular prayer and maintain that level of intensity and awareness. It is inherently and deeply disruptive. It throws every aspect of ourselves and the lives we live into question. The rhythm of a life that engages seriously with regular prayer is one in which the veil between us and our God is repeatedly - endlessly - torn aside and restored, torn aside and restored. How is one to manage? How can we ramp up sufficiently to acknowledge and engage with the greatest level of intensity that we can manage, and then ramp down enough to engage with the world we live in without being overly distracted, or even disillusioned?

In this piece, we will deal with the question of ramping up - specifically how, within the amidah itself, we can bring ourselves to the fullest possible realization of the magnitude of the moment as early as possible within the amidah, so that most if not all of our encounter with the Divine will be dynamic, intense, real, impacting, personal, inspiring, challenging, and honest.


The beauty and smoothness of the phrase “God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, God of Ya’akov” threatens to hide the utterly frightening truth that hides underneath. This is a blunt statement of Who it is we are talking to, and the God to Whom we are talking could possibly be considered to be nice and kind, but there is just so much more, and once we start to engage with more layers of the reality of God, the experience of encounter can be deeply unsettling - not to mention inspiring, encouraging, and invigorating. When we are able to focus on these words and their implications, we broaden our thinking beyond the illusion of a small God to whom we offer much flattery and little of ourselves. For that paltry deity we substitute the God Who surrounds us, calls us forth into being, inspires us, challenges us, accompanies us, cares for us.

Each component of the phrase “God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, God of Ya’akov” can re-alert us to those other layers.

אלהי יעקב כו'. לשון אלהים הוא כולל כל כחות אלהים ובכל א' מאבות היה בו כח אלהי מיוחד

“The God of Ya’akov” - the word ‘Elo-kim’ includes all the Divine capacities, and within each of the Patriarchs there was a unique Divine power



So, Who is the God of Avraham? 

Avraham’s first encounter with this God (Bereishit 12:1) is a challenge to embark on a great adventure. It is a call away from home and its comforts toward a future that is unknown, but also saturated with potential. 

When I invoke the God of Avraham, I am invoking the God Who calls me to adventure as well, Who calls me away from the comfortable life I think I want toward the potentials I might not otherwise engage with.

Avraham continues to encounter this God, albeit unpredictably - communications arrive and then disappear like fireflies. This is not a God Who provides the regular and predicable support of an ongoing instructional narrative. Rather, there are moments of clarity surrounded by periods of uncertainty. “Am I still going the right way?”

The next time Avraham encounters this God (12:7) there is a promise - “I will give this land to your children.” That is certainly enough to keep Avraham going. He builds an altar. 

Then, brutal silence amidst a famine (12:10). What is Avraham to do? If he gets guidance from that God, we don’t know about it. He makes a decision. Maybe it is a good one. Maybe it is not. He has to live with it and deal with the consequences. Is that God still with him?

He goes down to Egypt, and Sarah his wife is taken into Pharaoh’s harem. Maybe it was the wrong choice. And yet, “God struck Pharaoh with great plagues, and also his house, on account of Sarai, the wife of Avram” (12:17). Even if it was a bad choice, God is there to support him and ensure that matters don’t spin out of control. 

Soon thereafter, another difficult decision: Avram’s nephew, Lot, is mishandling his now-abundant possessions, and it is not going well. Avram decides to split from him. Did he make the right choice? Is he still in God’s favor? “God said to Avram, after Lot had split from him, ‘Lift up your eyes and see from the place where you stand, north, south, east, and west. The land that you see, I will give it to you and your children, forever. I will make your seed like the dust of the earth such that, even if a person could count the dust of the earth, then he could your children. Get up, walk the length and width of the land, for I have given it to you.”

The God of Avraham is a God who makes promises that seem like they could never come true. Since at that point Avraham was childless and old, it must have seemed impossible that he would have any children, let alone more than the dust of the earth.

And then, as God is again silent, Avram is called upon to fight a war, offering no specific guidance. Avram does what he must, according to his values and instincts. His values include loyalty to his nephew, as well as an unwillingness to profit from the war. Only when the war is over does God appear to him again. Rashi (15:1) says God wanted to reassure him that he had not exhausted his merits in that war. God assures him that his future reward - children, the land - stands. Avram has doubts - he has no children, only his trusted servant. God assures him again that he will have children from his own loins. Taking him outside (Rashi indicates that he took him outside of his astrology, as Avram pointed to the constellations and insisted that they indicated he would not have any children) God tells him that his children would be more numerous than the stars. Avram believes him, but still harbors doubts - “How do I know that I will inherit it?” (Many wonder at his question - after all, he believed God just two verses ago! Some propose that he wondered how his children would merit to keep the land of Israel and to remain in God’s good graces, even if they are in exile.)  God has Avram make certain sacrifices and then casts a deep sleep upon him. He informs Avram that his children will be slaves, and will then go free and inherit the land. 

In chapter 17, Avram is told by God to circumcise himself. God says, “Walk before me, and be tamim!” This is understand as the ability to walk before Hashem, unlike Noach, who walked with Hashem (see Rashi on Gen. 6:9). Avraham (with his new name) is expected to be able to navigate the spaces in which God has not made clear to him what to do. 

Soon thereafter, the command of the Akeidah. This God continues to challenge, again forcing Avraham to abandon everything he knows and expects and to follow after this God. 

Clues about the God of Avraham continue in this way until the end: moments of clarity, sparse instructions about how to be, and promises of a fulfilling future interspersed within long bouts of silence in which Avraham must find his own way. 

And this is the God we pray to when we pray to the God of Avraham: God Who calls us toward our future and the adventures that will inevitably ensue, Who gives us guidance and also requires us to figure things out on our own (and increasingly trusts us to do so), Who binds us in covenant and demands everything of us, and also promises to give us everything in return, Who asks the impossible and then shows that it is possible.


Who is the God of Yitzhak?

Yitzhak’s relationship with God begins when he is bound to the altar by his father. He is subject to a command that was not given to him, that he cannot understand. In important ways, he is a function of someone else’s destiny and someone else’s story. 

His task, it seems, is opposite of his father’s: do not go forth, do not embark on adventure, do not go seeking your destiny. Rather, all of that is already in motion. Allow it to happen to you. The people around you - your father, your father’s servant, your wife, your sons - will be the ones who play an active role in the fulfillment of your destiny. 

The God of Yitzhak also speaks to him infrequently (this is a theme - the God to Whom we pray does not often communicate). The first time (26:2) is to tell him not to go the wrong way - “Do not go down to Egypt. Dwell in the land that I have indicated to you. Live in this land, and I will be with you and bless you, for I have given these lands to you and your children, and I will fulfill My promise that I made to Avraham your father. And I will increase your seed like the stars of the sky, and I will give your offspring these lands, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring, because Avraham listened to my voice and kept my commandments and laws and Torahs…”

The God of Yitzhak indeed blesses Yitzhak - his wealth increases beyond the measure of his actions. His servants find abundant water. Yitzhak has the power of blessing. And, he is blind. His ability to give blessing depends upon the positioning of the person or people who seek to receive it. There is a gap between what happens through Yitzhak and what Yitzhak chooses to do. 

Who is the God of Yitzhak? The God of Yitzhak requires very little input from us, once we are bound to Him. The God of Yitzhak puts all things in motion and ensures that we are moving forward. We have very little to contribute.

So, when we pray to God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, we are praying to God Who, on one hand, requires great effort from us, Who tests us, Who requires that we make decisions in hard circumstances and take risks and believe and commit, and on the other hand requires almost nothing of us, Who cares for us and ensures our growth and success even when we are powerless to accomplish such things on our own.


Who is the God of Ya’akov?

The God of Ya’akov first speaks to him from the top of a ladder, in a dream. This is indeed the God of his father and grandfather, and he will indeed inherit this land. The people of the world will indeed be blessed by his children, and he will indeed be protected. But there are some words that imply contingency - “I will not abandon you until I have fulfilled what I have spoken to you.” Ya’akov responds in kind: “If God is with me… and protects me… then Hashem will be my God.”

God’s subsequent protection does not shield Ya’akov from the challenges he faces - in the house of Lavan, with the rape of DInah, with the acrimony among his sons, the sale of Yoseph. His life seems harder even than Avraham’s. And yet, Ya’akov does tell Lavan, “These twenty years, I served you in your home, fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your sheep, and you switched by wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Avraham and the Fear of Yitzhak hadn’t been inclined toward me, you would have sent me forth empty-handed.” Ya’akov feels that God is, in fact, with him. 

Ya’akov’s life is marked by hardship after hardship, like his grandfather’s. But he is shown that those are not separate from his relationship to God. “God said to him, ‘Your name Ya’akov - your name shall no longer be called Ya’akov, but rather Yisrael shall be your name.’ And He called him Yisrael.” And we know from the account of his wrestling with the angel that Yisrael implies that “you have striven with God and men, and you have proven capable.” 

Ya’akov’s God sounds like Avraham’s God: challenge after challenge, marked by sparse communication. What is the difference between them? The Gemarra Pesachim 88a writes:

אמר רבי אלעזר מאי דכתיב והלכו עמים רבים ואמרו לכו ונעלה אל הר ה' אל בית אלהי יעקב וגו' אלהי יעקב ולא אלהי אברהם ויצחק אלא לא כאברהם שכתוב בו הר שנאמר אשר יאמר היום בהר ה' יראה ולא כיצחק שכתוב בו שדה שנאמר ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה אלא כיעקב שקראו בית שנאמר ויקרא את שם המקום ההוא בית אל

Rabbi Elazar said, what does the verse mean that says ‘And the many nations will go and say, “Let us walk and go up to the mountain of God, to the house of the God of Ya’akov”’? The God of Ya’akov and not the God of Avraham and Yitzhak? Specifically not like Avraham about whom the word ‘mountain’ is used, as is written, ‘as people will not say, God is seen on the mountain,’ and not like Yitzhak, for by Yitzhak the word ‘field’ is used, as is written, ‘and Yitzhak went out to converse in the field,’ but rather like Ya’akov, who called [the place] a house, as is written, ‘and he called the name of that place the House of God.’

The difference between the God of Avraham and the God of Ya’akov is one of accessibility. Despite the lack of communication, Ya’akov concludes that God is near to him, that there is constant relationship. 

So, the element introduces when we invoke the God of Ya’akov is not about the mission or the communication. It is about proximity, closeness, a sense of home, of not being alone in the world. Of being with

So, in conclusion, when we invoke the God of Avraham, God of Yitzhak, the God of Ya’akov, we are calling out to the God who calls out to us in adventure, the God who sees when we do not and moves us toward our destiny (whether we know it or not) and the God whom we feel is with us as navigate. 


If I can become conscious of all of those elements of my relationship with the Divine, that would be quite the beginning of a prayer-encounter! If it is in fact meant to be personalized, which I suspect it is, then each of us can inhabit those elements in ways that are maximally impacting and alive for us.

The Rav and Rebbe Nachman on Tefillah

I have always wondered what it was like to pray with Rav Soloveitchik - primarily, and with some degree of confusion - because I have davened in many Modern Orthodox institutions in which the service felt somewhat distant from the cutting edge of encounter that I believe was articulated in Rav Soloveitchik’s writings and persona. 

So I found this article about the differences between the Koren Soloveitchik Siddur and the Rav’s own nusach/practice/hashkafa to be quite interesting. 

Let me say here that I am in no way qualified - nor do I at all intend - to address Yaakov Jaffe’s claims about how the Rav prayed, and whether this Siddur is a useful window into what the Rav would want us to know about prayer. Rather, I am accepting the claims of this article wholesale and focusing my attention on what may have been a minor point to the author but is very alive for me as an issue. Jaffe writes: 

R. Soloveitchik helped convey the feeling of surrender towards God and Halakhah precisely through a series of differences between his liturgy and the conventional one, with the differences all pointing in the direction of withdrawal and recoil. The one offering prayers before God must be nearly passive or mute, constantly unable to even formulate certain prayers. It is an approach to prayer that carries intense caution, even fear, lest the wrong words be put forth, Heaven Forbid. And so, as much as we think about the prayers we do say, we are also constantly reminded of all the prayers we cannot utter. Permission is needed to be able to pray, and prayer without permission borders on heresy. Or, in the words of the Koren Soloveitchik Siddur (120):

Mortal man, puny and insignificant, must first ask permission before engaging in a dialogue with the Infinite. Man needs a license, a matir…. An acknowledgment of His grandeur—an introduction with serves as the matir, the humble request for license which allows us to proceed to the gates of prayer.


Some of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s customs are grounded in a lack of “license” or “right” to pray, unless certain preconditions and introductory prayers have been invoked first.

Some prayers are omitted because they were created in the modern period, and carry the hubris of creativity, unbecoming of the humble, defeated penitent.

Other prayers are omitted because they are too anthropomorphic in nature, or describe the Creator on the same level as human beings and not as significantly greater and beyond.

At other times, prayers must be removed from the Siddur because we cannot offer a prayer at the wrong time in the service, or the wrong day of the week, so we recognize withdrawal by confessing that we cannot offer this particular prayer at this particular time.

We accept defeat by not repeating verses in the service, and not reciting mystical prayers or catechisms. We humbly pray what we can bring ourselves to say, but nothing more. 

What I find particularly intriguing here is, for lack of a better word, the monolithic nature of prayer that is being attributed to the Rav. The way that Jaffe lays it out, the Rav’s approach to prayer was singular and absolute: prayer is a function of surrender, withdrawal, recoil, defeat. “Prayer is rendered with caution, even fear, lest the wrong words be put forth, Heaven Forbid.” “The one offering prayers before God must be nearly passive or mute, constantly unable to even formulate certain prayers.” “Permission is needed to be able to pray, and prayer without permission borders on heresy."

Again I write what I am about to write with the caveat that I am not wading into the debate of whether or not this is an accurate appraisal of the Rav’s take on prayer. And I have no doubt that the Rav’s approach is based upon seamless and accurate readings of countless texts, with the Rav’s incredible genius for assembling those texts into a cohesive view. But when I read this article, I think of something Rebbe Nachman wrote:

כִּי יֵשׁ דָּרֵי מַעְלָה וְיֵשׁ דָּרֵי מַטָּה, דְּהַיְנוּ עוֹלָם הָעֶלְיוֹן וְעוֹלָם הַתַּחְתּוֹן, בְּחִינַת שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, וְצָרִיךְ הַצַּדִּיק לְהַרְאוֹת לְדָרֵי מַעְלָה, שֶׁאֵינָם יוֹדְעִים כְּלָל בִּידִיעָתוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ, שֶׁזֶּה בְּחִינַת הַשָֹֹּגָה שֶׁל מָה, בְּחִינַת: 'מֶה חָמִית מַה פִּשְׁפַּשְׁתְּ', בְּחִינַת: אַיֵּה מְקוֹם כְּבוֹדוֹ וּלְהֶפֶךְ: צָרִיךְ לְהַרְאוֹת לְדָרֵי מַטָּה, שֶׁאַדְּרַבָּא, מְלֹא כָּל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ (יְשַׁעְיָה ו). כִּי יֵשׁ שׁוֹכְנֵי עָפָר, שֶׁהֵם בְּנֵי - אָדָם הַמּוּנָחִים בַּמַּדְרֵגָה הַתַּחְתּוֹנָה, וְנִדְמֶה לָהֶם שֶׁהֵם רְחוֹקִים מְאֹד מִמֶּנּוּ יִתְבָּרַךְ, וְצָרִיךְ הַצַּדִּיק לְעוֹרְרָם וְלַהֲקִיצָם, בִּבְחִינַת (שָׁם כ"ו): "הָקִיצוּ וְרַנְּנוּ שֹׁכְנֵי עָפָר". וּלְגַלּוֹת לָהֶם שֶׁה' עִמָּם, וְהֵם סְמוּכִים - אֵלָיו יִתְבָּרַךְ, כִּי "מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ". וּלְחַזְּקָם וּלְעוֹרְרָם, שֶׁלֹּא יִהְיוּ מְיָאֲשִׁין עַצְמָן, חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, כִּי עֲדַיִן הֵם אֵצֶל הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ וּקְרוֹבִים - אֵלָיו, כִּי "מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ”
“For there are those who dwell below, and those who dwell above (darei malah) - meaning, the upper world and the lower world, an aspect of heaven and earth. And the righteous one must show those who dwell above that they know nothing of the knowledge of God, and this is the aspect of ‘what?’, from the concept (in the Tikunei Zohar), ‘What have you actually seen? What have you searched out?’, a function of ‘Where is the place of His Glory?’ And, the opposite: the righteous one needs to show those who dwell below that, the opposite! The world is full of His Glory. For there are those who dwell below, who are people who are situated at the lowest level, and it seems to them that they are very far from Him, may He be blessed, and the righteous one must awaken them and rouse them, in the sense of ‘wake up and shout, you who dwell in the dust,’ and to reveal to them that Hashem is with them, and they are in proximity to Him, because ’the world is full of His Glory,’ and to encourage them and to rouse them, such that they not despair, God forbid, for they are still near God and close to Him, for ‘the world is full of His Glory.’

I do not know if it is fair or reasonable or accurate to map the Rav into Rebbe Nachman’s configuration, but assuming it is OK to do so, the Rav is davening like Rebbe Nachman’s darei malah - one who dwells above. On this map, the one who dwells above moves and grows through realizing that, really, he knows nothing at all. He is, as it were, grasping in the dark for some foothold, some place where he can stand in relation to the Divine.

But for Rebbe Nachman, in this particular framework, there is another position from which to pray - those who feel so far from God that they are in danger of giving up on relationship with Him must be shown that, in fact, they are very close to God. I believe this means that there is no barrier to prayer, no need (or place) for the kind of clamoring in the dark that the Rav describes. 

In this sense, the Rav’s view of prayer addresses only one particular kind of pray-er, and in that sense, as Jaffe correctly, points out, the Koren siddur is really not a Soloveitchik siddur. But what I find useful for my own purposes is the acknowledgment that there are different kinds of pray-ers (and therefore different kinds of siddurim). 

And a question I have - and I surrender, withdraw, and admit defeat when bringing this question to bear on the Rav himself, who seemed to be eternally darei malah on this point - is around how we are different kinds of pray-ers at different times. Sometimes we are darei malah - we are so close that we need to remember how far we are. And sometimes (I imagine this is pretty common for most of us) we are darei mata - dwelling below, lost, out of contact, wondering what it is we are even doing by opening a prayer book because it feels futile, it feels like no one is listening (and, possibly, no one is even praying). At such points, the Rav’s warnings about the true status of “Mortal man, puny and insignificant” are only counterproductive. Rather than engender awe, they engender despair. And, in Rebbe Nachman’s telling, it is actually inaccurate in that it only articulates one approach to prayer. At such times, a different sort of prayer is needed. Maybe the Koren Siddur, if it does not articulate the Rav’s own view, could theoretically be useful at those moments. 

On the point of having access to a varied tool box containing different modes of prayer, I offer this passage from Gemarra Berachot:

מעשה בתלמיד אחד שירד לפני התיבה בפני רבי אליעזר והיה מאריך יותר מדאי אמרו לו תלמידיו רבינו כמה ארכן הוא זה אמר להם כלום מאריך יותר ממשה רבינו דכתיב ביה את ארבעים היום ואת ארבעים הלילה וגו' שוב מעשה בתלמיד אחד שירד לפני התיבה בפני רבי אליעזר והיה מקצר יותר מדאי אמרו לו תלמידיו כמה קצרן הוא זה אמר להם כלום מקצר יותר ממשה רבינו דכתיב אל נא רפא נא לה
“There is a an occurrence when a certain student who descended before the ark (to lead prayers) before Rabbi Eliezer, and he prayed at excessive length. Rabbi Eliezer’s students said to him, “Rebbe! What a lengthy pray-er this one is!” He answered them “He is not praying any longer than Moshe our teacher, about whom it is written, ‘For those 40 days and nights…’ Later, there was an occurrence of a certain student who descended before the ark (to lead prayer before Rabbi Eliezer, and he prayed very succinctly. His students said to him “What a short pray-er this one is!” He said to them, “No shorter than Moshe our teacher, about whom we are told (that he prayed) ‘Please, God, heal her, please.’”

Innovation - why you may be doing it wrong

Originally published on EJewishPhilanthropy.com 2/26/17 

Innovation is a buzz word of late in our community. I keep hearing the argument that innovation is a “prerequisite” for Jewish programming, especially when the end users are the elusive post-college/pre-marriage crowd. But I suspect that the voices clamoring for innovative programs don’t fully understand the nature of this powerful tool, and when to apply it.

A new program or initiative doesn’t need to be edgy – unless it does. And if it does, then a surefire process must be in place whereby the right person is found, the right conversations are convened, the right backing is in place and the right message conveyed. And that’s where innovation comes in. Innovation in how we build and populate our programs is the key to success – how we operate, not just what we offer.

When we bring our demand for innovation to bear on how the essential conversations before, during, and after a specific program take place rather than only or primarily on the program itself, we have already succeeded. Just these kinds of conversations took place in December at the Katz Innovation Summit at Hillel International’s General Assembly.

The talented professionals at Hillel’s Office of Innovation and Penn Hillel used their best thinking to create an environment in which creative thinkers could put their heads together in an innovative way and have the kinds of conversations that bring success.

Just about every minute of the summit was curated, and this alone is innovative. We’ve all sat through so many meetings in which the task was to march through the printed agenda. How much attention is spent creating an environment in which people’s best thinking will emerge? How much focus is there on ensuring that everyone is relaxed and up-to-date enough to truly contribute? These are functions of curation, not agenda. It takes awareness, courage, versatility, good will, patience, creativity and so much more to curate an encounter rather than simply plan a meeting.

Let me provide an example. As soon as the first session began and we were broken up into groups, our first activity was to make a list of everything that holds us back from implementing our best ideas in the workplace – without knowing why we were doing it. Even within the five allotted minutes of that conversation, one could sense a shift from external factors – phones, interruptions, other staff members – to internal ones – fear of failure, limited creativity, exhaustion.

And then, once we had made the list, we were told to set aside everything on that list for the next activity: imagining the Hillel of the future.

Permission to imagine without fear is not always granted in the nonprofit space. And when we are having important conversations, we need to be able to do so without anxiety.

Temporarily free of our obstacles, we did the work of starting to imagine the Hillel of the future. And much of our vision was, in fact, “externally innovative” – funding structures, mobile classrooms, specialized and well-trained professionals, specialized personalized modular programming. But we also realized that we wanted an old sage sitting in one of our rooms, because people in every generation, regardless of how hip they are, want a cup of hot cocoa and someone wise to talk to now and then, and that will never change.

When I hear a program or approach described as “innovative,” I assume that word is shorthand for an event that will inevitably be and feel contrived. But the most innovative programs do not need to be described as innovative, because they simply work. All the innovation happened behind closed doors to get the right people in the field, in the right framework, with the right backing.

Bo - Where are the adults?!

There is an oft-given homily from this week’s Torah reading that goes as follows: Pharaoh is about to relent and let the Israelites leave Egypt to serve God in the wilderness. He calls for Moses and Aaron and asks: “Who, exactly, would be going to serve your God in the wilderness?” Moses answers, “All of us! Our elders and our youth, men and women, sons and daughters.” Pharaoh believes he sees the farce: “You don’t really need all those people to do your worship! Let just the men go! Those are the only people who are needed in order to perform this worship!”

This conversation is often presented as a juxtaposition between the Egyptian form of worship as the domain of just the men, or maybe the priestly class, and the Israelite form of God-service as a family affair, requiring young and old, priests and laymen, etc. And. But. 

This is not untrue: Judaism, practiced properly, is a family affair. Even within those denominations whose public rituals are entirely led by men, public rituals are not nearly the entirety of God-service. There is so much more: there are meals with questions and answers, there are rituals to be performed at home that everyone can participate in, Sukkahs to build, Purim costumes to coordinate, mishloach manot to deliver, etc. etc. 

Yes. And. Is it possible that Judaism, as it is practiced among many, is too focused on children, at the expense of the adults’ experience? And is it possible that the adults are all too happy to focus their families’ religious practice on Tot Shabbats and Purim Carnivals and the like because they never learned/don’t know/forgot how to make religious practice meaningful and fully engaging for themselves? Is it possible that Judaism itself has become childish for so many people because Jewish adults don’t know how to access the tools needed to update their religious orientation (and this is quite an update for some people - kinda like going from DOS to High Sierra)?

It may well be that I am particularly sensitive at this time of year with 40 days to go until Purim, an adult holiday if there ever was one. Yes, Purim features costumes and schpiels and all sorts of functions and activities that may well appeal to the child in all of us. But really it is a vision quest in disguise, and vision quests are hard, and gut-wrenching (often literally), and require courage and vision and leaving, and friends and fire and trust and truth and faith, and maybe it would just be easier to drive the kids to the Purim Carnival, no?

Shemot - Sometimes, text describes reality

Learning Torah can be dangerous to our well-being. It can cause serious damage to our self-esteem. That would happen particularly when we read something that, in a certain way, inspires us, but ultimately leaves us feeling bad about ourselves because we are not on that level.

The truth is that there are a multitude of such gaps in Jewish liturgy, literature, mysticism, etc. When a “technology” (to use R’ Zalman’s word) is presented and no attention is given to explain how that technology is to be used (and the expectations that should go along with it) it can run amok and leave people feeling hurt, empty, and disillusioned.

Prayer is a common locus for such misunderstanding and pain. One might believe that, once he or she has prayed, then results will follow. (The talmud does deal with that by communicating that iyun tefillin - literally, looking deeply into prayer, figuratively “depending upon one’s prayer, that it will be heard” (Rashi) - evokes a reminder of a person’s sin; “heard” here seems to mean “heard, accepted”.) 

The language of prayer can lead one to big questions: If God “heals the sick”, then why isn’t She healing Aunt Gertrude? Did I do something wrong? Did she? If God opens the eyes of the blind, why are there so many blind people? Is God paying attention? 

This can lead down a rabbi-hole of complex questions, and can lead to serious crises of faith. I understand (not well enough, but at least in name) that prayer is not necessarily determinative of reality, and that, just because we pray for something, doesn’t mean it will automatically happen, and there are many factors, etc. etc. But my point is that we are forced into certain apologetics about prayer because the language of the liturgy lends itself to expectations that therefore require disabusing. And those apologetics are sometimes exist on a slippery slope of reasoning that will require further damage control down the line.

For example, one way (and this is not Rebbe Nachman’s way, BTW) is that we say prayer doesn’t really change the world - it changes us. Now, aside from the very obvious critique that this sounds an awful lot like Reconstructionist Judaism (a point I will BH come back to), one of the big questions on this point is, well, if this is supposed to change me, why should I be using words that I either don’t understand or don’t identify with? If these prayers don’t capture my actual concerns, why should I prayer them? And if understanding is not essential in order to transform me, does that mean they are magical?

All that to say, when a text comes along and tells it like it is, it is such a relief. Suddenly, you feel you’re back in the saddle, like the Torah does in fact reflect and describe (and therefore is allowed to proscribe) your relationship to reality. I found such a passage on this week’s parsha in the Torah Sheleimah (I know I’ve already harped on what an essential text this is. But I mean it). The Torah says, “And it was, over those many days, the King of Egypt died, and the children of Israel groaned from their toil, and they cried out, and their crying-out rose up to God because of their toil. And God heard their wailing….” The Midrash (Tanhuma Ha’azinu 4) says, on this verse:

“…to teach you that the Holy One, Blessed is He, Blessed is His Name, - sometimes He is seen, and sometimes He is not seen; sometimes He hears, and sometimes He does not wish to hear; sometimes He answers, and sometimes He does not answer; sometimes He is sought-after (meaning, allows Himself to be found, after searching? ed.), sometimes He is not sought-after; sometimes He is found, sometimes He is not found; sometimes He is close, and sometimes He is not close.”

Thank you! Thank you for stating the clearly! Even if the reasons why God “chooses” to not hear, or not be found, or not be close would remain a complete mystery, I find this infinitely more satisfying than telling me God is always near (Hashem is here! Hashem is there! Hashem is truly everywhere! Up! Up!) and then leaving me to wonder what exactly I am doing wrong such that I cannot find a connection where I am, which, if I had a partner-in-dialogue with whom to figure that out, I’d love to have that conversation! But if it is just me bouncing my questions off of my neuroses, that’s not going to get far enough to be definitive...

(Also, there is some work that has to be done to figure out whether and how this reconciles with Rebbe Nachman LM I:6:3. Another time.)

Vayechi - Royal Dainties!?

My primary concern, as is evidenced by my publishing record to date, is about how people move through experience, continue to grow, and figure out their place, position, options and possibilities in relationship to God, Torah, ideas, themselves, each other, modernity and culture. 

At the same time, I am unaccustomed to actually putting my thoughts to paper in a more serial fashio, with the intend that my 'idea' will be perceived noth through my ability ot articulate it in one fell swoop but rather my ability to express pieces of it over time. So, this is new for me. 

But I suspect it is important - at least for me - to document my forrays into parsha, holidays, and other sundries that catch my eye, and I will begin now, after this brief caveat: as is well-known, one cannot set out to alternadox. As such, I am deeply committed to not distorting my thoughts and wriitngs with the intention of it being alternadox. I'm just gonna do my thing, and what will be will be.

So, Vayechi. I am particularly interested in the blessings that Ya'akov gives to his sons - specifically, the fact that some sons get a long, descriptive blessing, and other sons get, like 5 words. To wit (translations from Sefaria.org, which is a kick-ass website that is only gretting better and better. And it is even more kick-ass since they got access to the entire freaking Steinsaltz Talmud in translation):

Yehudah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, have you grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, like the king of beasts—who dare rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; so that tribute shall come to him and the homage of peoples be his. He tethers his ass to a vine, His ass’s foal to a choice vine; He washes his garment in wine, His robe in blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine; His teeth are whiter than milk.

Asher’s bread shall be rich, And he shall yield royal dainties.

Royal dainties!!? Yehudah is a lion, king of beasts, who dare rouse him. He's got a sceptor and a ruler's staff. He washes his robe in blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine. And Asher makes cookies. What are we supposed to do with that?

And yet, as Rav M.M. Kasher brings in Torah Sheleimah (which is an incredible resource that alerts us to just how varied, deep, and sometimes totally bizarre midrashim can be) Genesis Chapter 49 note 394 from the Tanhuma, "Perhaps you want to infer that one of the brothers was greater than the other [like, maybe you think the one who is compared to a lion is more important than the baker - ed.] we see that it says "He blessed them" - that they were all equal." 

It is tempting not to see them as equal, the lion and the baker. I would think that most people would prefer being a lion to being a baker, but it's just not true. In my decidedly anachronistic view, isn't it quite possible that Asher was going to get some out-sized blessing, like "Asher is the elephant who stomped around a lot and made a lot of noise and was really big," and was in fact quite relieved to get the exact blessing that fit his insides: He was a provider of food and nourishment. He was more than comfortable behind the scenes, cooking. 

The concept is enhanced by another Midrash - this one form Bereishit Rabbah Chapter 97: "Since Ya'akov split the land up for them, and gave Yehudah land that yields barley and gave Naftali a land that yields wheat, still yet they were all included in the blessings, such that they would eat from each other's yield, which is what the Torah means when it says, "Each according to his blessing he blessed them." And in another version of the Midrash, Rebbe Elazar adds, "We learn that they suckled/were nourished from one another."

Lions have to eat, no? And bakers need lions, right? Maybe to protect them, and eat their stuff, and maybe even give them purpose sometimes.

Inasmuch (inasmuch as the word inasmuch is a word worth using forthwith) as this section of the Torah is applicable to you and I and today, I hear this very personally. I may have spent too much of my life thus far trying to be a lion (and failing) while there are some royal dainties that need baking. It is ta'avah, a lust, to want to be big, a leader. Leadership is not accomplished by people trying to be leaders. It is accomplished by people doing their thing, with integrity. I think what's-his-name said something like "did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?" Do we need lead roles? Maybe we just need to try to find our thing and do it up and let the larger picture emerge as holding both of us. And thankfully Ya'akov had that larger vision. Ostensibly, each son-tribe had a place in that vision, and if they each did their thing, as well as provided access to each other to be nourished by that thing, then they could move forward together. Or, they could resent each other, clamor for leadership roles, ignore their own talents and gifts, etc.

In respectful dialogue with Mordecai Kaplan

I find Kaplan's approach, concerns, questions, demands, empowerments of and respect for the Jewish people to be nothing short of inspiring. In fact, I think that Reconstructionism should be the starting point for non-Orthodox Jews (and some Orthodox one's, too) in their search for an authentic and compelling Jewish life. Here I engage with some of his ideas (mine are the indented bullet points).

These are from an essay entitled “Mordecai Kaplan: His Interpretation of Judaism" by Emanuel S. Goldsmith:

    •    Religion could not exist apart from the total life and culture of a people and that economics, politics, an other environmental influences are crucial in the development and maintenance of a religion

    ◦    I think Kaplan would agree that there is something consistent and unchanging about the religion that manifests in different eras, and that therefore the different manifestations of that religion are cohesive with one another

    •    The challenges of America and the “adventure of freedom” it offered its diverse peoples presented a particularly exciting challenge to Mordecai Kaplan in the development of his interpretation of the Jewish heritage

    ◦    I agree that the American experience has offered a unique opportunity for the development of modern Jewishness. I wonder whether Kaplan would rejoice in the choice many have made to strongly de-prioritize Jewish choices in the face of other choices - not all of them about universal human morality

    •    “The point of departure in religious life is the contemporary scene and present day religious experience rather than the dictates of authority and the religious experience of past generations”

    ◦    This is certainly the lived reality, and therefore the starting point, though there is room to wish it were otherwise. We could have hoped that people would have started with a conception of Eternal Israel and made decisions from that place while also being very alert to and responsive to the “contemporary scene and present day religious experience.” While Kaplan’s thinking here very much applies in the realpolitik sense, we may also mourn the many missteps taken by institutional Judaism over the last 100 years and try to avoid them in future. 

    •    “Religious modernists are eclectic, selecting out of the garnered treasures of their forebears only those which they see as relevant and significant for their community’s life today. Only those aspects of tradition which can be reconciled with what they regard as true and valid in their general world view and approach to life will be incorporated into their religious conceptions. For them, it is modernity, despite its flaws and failings, that it is the judge and test of tradition, rather than the reverse.”

    ◦    Again, this is of course true a postiori. But we shouldn’t simply accept that some of those treasures have been and will be abandoned, simply because they have been poorly explained, demonstrated, and/or exemplified. There is still effort to be made to show how other aspects of tradition “can be reconciled with what they regard as true and valid in their general world view and approach to life will be incorporated into their religious conceptions.” 

    ◦    I understand that, in the lived reality of today, modernity is the judge of tradition and not the reverse. But this is not something we ought to take sitting down. There is great value in the effort to reclaim those discarded treasures and re-present them a modern idiom and context for further evaluation. 

    •    “Judaism is more than a specific philosophy of life; it is the ongoing life of a people intent upon keeping alive for the highest conceivable purpose, despite changes in a general climate of opinion.”

    ◦    Who can argue with that? 

    •    The main function of Judaism as an evolving religious civilization is “to involve the individual in the social and spiritual heritage of a historic society and to commit him to the transmission of that heritage… It expects its adherents to identify themselves with all the generations of their forebears who created the tradition and lived by it. Self-involvement in the social and spiritual heritage , and commitment to transmit it, are bound to transform the vicarious experience of the reality of God into a personal experience.”

    ◦    Kaplan’s demand that individuals participate in the transmission of heritage is both obvious and harrowing. Clearly people need to be invested and committed in order to transmit anything of substance. But how much space is there for the individual to interpret and personalize Judaism to the point where they feel good about transmitting it? Where is the push-back that tells the person they may well be wrong? This is a dialogue, right? 

    •    “For us Jews, there can be no higher purpose than that of exemplifying the art of so living individually and collectively as to contribute to the intellectual, moral, and spiritual progress of mankind. The type of religion which we Jews as a people, and which mankind as a whole, urgently needs as a means to survival has to consist, or take the form of, moral responsibility in action. 

    •    The purpose of Jewish existence, for Kaplan, was not that Jews survive as a relic of the past but that they take the old biblical idea of humanity’s being created in the likeness of God and pull it to human life, that they try to make themselves, in A.D. Gordon’s brilliant expansion of a biblical; phrase, “A people in the image of God.” Kaplan always stressed that individuals with a sense of moral responsibility were not enough. If humanity is to survive, the total group must order its life in accord with responsibility.”

    ◦    Yes! And this is such a far cry away from how many Jewish groups are functioning today. i think the idea that what we’re doing here is essentially working for our own, individual “place in the world to come” alleviates us from responsibility as a group to  have and reach collective goals. Individual piety is not irreconcilable with collective insensitivity, and even collective cruelty.

    •    “God is the Power, Force, Process, Dimension, or Energy by means of which people are motivated to exercise their rights, pursue their responsibilities, and strive to be at peace with themselves, with nature, and with other people. 

    ◦    Never say “God is.” What follows is inevitably a diminution. Obviously, if you don’t believe in a God, then go for it. But in my understanding God “is” also the Commander, the Creator, the Challenger, the Consoler, the Other, etc. etc. etc. 

    •    “For a religious tradition to become part of a our personal experience nowadays, it has to possess the authenticity we associate with scientific fact. It has to convey the kind of literal meaning which we can integrate into our normal experience.”

    ◦    I think we have done this far too little, but it is also not the entire story. Yes, we want it to be so real, so obvious, so essential that people immediately identify with and act according to its dictates. But there is another dimension of religious tradition that involves myths and dreaming, stories and messages from another world that surprise us, stir us, and force us to reconfigure ourselves even as we respond. 

    •    “Judaism [is[ not merely a system of religious beliefs and practices, but [is] the sum of all those manifestations of the Jewish people’s will to live creatively.”

    ◦    Is there a limit to this?

    •    “To choose to remain a Jew is a three-dimensional affair. It involves choosing to belong to the Jewish people, to believe in Jewish religion, and to practice the Jewish way of life.”

    ◦    I’d love to know what the distinction is, for Kaplan, between religion and way of life. But, yes. 

    •    “Judaism will henceforth have to be compatible with the inevitable variety of human minds.”

    ◦    Sure, but human minds can change too, no? Isn’t there also a charge that humans open their minds and listen to the ideas of past and present manifestations of Judaism, and evolve accordingly? I fear that Kaplan has too high an esteem for people - he seems to assume that we have all arrived at our current positions on things because we’ve thought them through and are clear, whereas I see that people are often simply lazy, bigoted, small-minded, fearful of not fitting in, etc. And I include myself in that, and I mean it in the nicest way. How are these reconciled? 

Best Practices

Best Practices: I’ve been loving the ‘best practices’ section that is now included in the RCA’s emails. For example, an anonymous (?) member of the RCA posted as follows:

“When I prepare a derasha or a shiur, I often think of four target audience members. remembering that not all of my congregants are married with children, or are male, I think of how my comments and examples will resonate with each of them. For example, I may consider a middle-aged married father, a widow/er, a divorced single-parent mother, and twenty-something single. This helps to sensitize me to how my presentation is being received and helps to diversify my examples and applications.”


What I love about these is that they are almost always in response to something that happened. I imagine that, for the above anonymously submitted best practice, that person got burned because they gave a teaching that assumed everyone was married, or Torah-educated, or gender-binary, or could afford food, or the like. Hopefully someone pushed back, and this teacher realized just how diverse our communities are - and how we create painful in-group out-group dynamics by giving divrei Torah for specific groups of people, who then get to chat loudly about them at kiddush, while people who were excluded are not afforded such a pleasure.

I would assume that many of us have developed our own Best Practices and are not even aware of them. We have simply hacked the situations we are in to the best of our abilities because we have had to, and now here we are. Someone observing might be mystified by what we have set in place, while we are simply satisfied that we are able to continue to accomplish whatever goal it was we set out to accomplish, despite the limitations presented by the world we actually live in, or because of the “bugs” (read: features) of our own personalities. 

So I am sure I have developed my own best practices, but I would be hard-pressed to name them until they come up. If I notice them and I think they are worthwhile, I will be presenting them here. 

Ah! Got one! It’s called “who cares?” It looks something like this: Whenever you read or are exposed to something in Torah or Jewish literature, it is wise to conclude your reading or exposure with the simple phrase, “Who cares?” Meaning, why does this matter? How does this change anything?

I simply do not think that most of us can afford to subject ourselves and others to divrei Torah that are not relevant. Each time an inapplicable homily is delivered, somewhere in the listener/reader’s mind a synapse is created that says, “The Torah is abstract. It is not about real life. It doesn’t address my problems or teach me how to live.” When that synapse is reinforced enough times, that person will come to assume that Torah is something you do for giggles, as an exercise, when you have nothing better to do, but if you need to be exposed to something that will actually change your life, you look elsewhere. 

Pema Chodron is an example that comes up often in our family as someone whose writing is always directly applicable, as opposed to many Torah books we may read, which require one or more additional steps to get to relevance. My wife often asks why Torah books don’t go directly to the question that matters. It seems like we always have to start with a mahloket between Rashi and the Ramban about some minutia in the parsha and maybe at the last stage is something applicable. 

Granted, one of the completely legitimate responses to “who cares?” is “I am glad that the Torah remains cohesive. One could think that there are so many different voices in Torah that at some point it becomes a long series of distinct religious paths, so I am glad to see that many of them dovetail together and represent different options of action or interpretation within a common pool.” I just wouldn’t assume, in light of the anonymous “best practice” I brought above, that everyone also has the same taste for “Torah as Resolution of Itself” as opposed to “Torah as actionable in the life I live.”

So, now that I’ve said all that, who cares??!?? I’d answer that as follows: I want people to always come away from my writings with the perspective that Torah matters, and that it should matter, and if it doesn’t matter, something is wrong. It is a Tree of Life, not a Tree of Knowledge. 


I have to admit I once asked this out loud when I was at someone’s Shabbes table, when someone gave a devar Torah that was somewhat erudite but, it seemed to me, inapplicable to a real-life situation. I remember the giver of the devar Torah being somewhat put off by the question (making him the first and last person I have ever offended). And I also remember that, once we all calmed down and re-holstered our pistols, we had a very interesting conversation about this very topic of Torah mattering, and also that the giver was able to express why that particular devar Torah mattered to him. 

The moral of the story is, don’t be nice all the time. Ask - tactfully - “So, how does this apply to my life?” and see where it goes.

One man gathers what another man spills

I am in the habit of reading one letter from the book “Alim L’terufah” everyday. A short preamble about that:

My friend Rabbi Ariel Burger (who also generously provided these drawings and paintings) introduced me to the practice of ‘mini-sedarim’ - that is, reading some non-zero amount from a particular array of books every day. I wasn’t really paying attention to my friend Rabbi Ariel Burger’s mini-sedarim practice until he started finishing books. And I thought to myself, “I would like to have read some whole books!But I don’t think I have the sitzfleisch to hunker down and read large swaths of such books. Perhaps mini-sedarim is the way for me!!” So I am in the process of carefully choosing which books I’d like to read a bit of every day so that, down the line, I will have read those books. 


I strongly recommend this practice. It could be anything - Tanankh, Psalms, classic texts like Kuzari and Maharal. Chassidic texts like Tanya and Likutei Moharan. Modern English texts like the works of David Hartman, or Heschel, or Mordecai Kaplan. Future texts. 

I have, thus far, chosen three texts: the daily portion of the weekly parsha, Rav Kook’s letters, and Rebbe Natan of Breslov’s letters, as collected in the aforementioned book, “Alim L’terufah.” 

Why letters? At the risk of harping on a point, I see letters as one of the most useful forms for articulating real Torah. Here is a moment in which someone is asked not only what the Torah says, but how it applies in this exact situation. The respondent is pressed to respond to a real person in real time. What emerges is a useful guide for how Jewish ideas are lived in the real world. 


Why Rebbe Natan’s letters? Rebbe Natan stands as a bridge (not the only bridge, but an essential one) between us out here in the grind and the Torah of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. As my friend Rabbi Josh Bolton said, “I sometimes feel like Rebbe Nachman’s Torah is fire and too hot to approach.” It is therefore priceless that his primary student, Rebbe Natan, would convey how this fire-Torah applies to real life, particularly to the life of his son, Rebbe Yitzhak. That said:



Often, in Rebbe Natan’s letters, he claims that he really has nothing to say. For example, in letter 96:

My precious, beloved son. I have no words right now to write anything to you. Also, my mind is not clear. Just the same, I have done as you asked to write, at the very least, a letter of greeting. And I have already written to you, and what can I add, my son?

So, this is going to be a disappointing letter, right? He continues:

May Hashem illuminate your eyes to find true guidance, according to the day and the hour, through which to be encouraged. And the main thing is to make one’s self happy all the time about the greatness of Hashem’s salvation and His astounding wonders, such that we have merited to not be in opposition to such holy books (as Rebbe Nachman’s), which are beyond valuing… and let these matters not ever become old in your eyes. And the truth is, anyone with a Jewish heart and who is looking toward the truth will see that they are in fact new every time, because every day they are made completely new.

Rebbe Natan then goes on to explain the line from the liturgy, “And in His benevolence, He renews every day the works of creation (ma’asei bereishit),” by means of the approach in the Tikkunei Zohar of playing with the different combinations of the letters of bereishit, including “rosh bayit” - literally, head of the house, a reference to the zadik of the generation. Thus, says Rebbe Natan, the work of the rosh bayit is also renewed every day! 

Less interesting to me than this fascinating idea of a work of literature being renewed or reinvigorated (though that is pretty damned interesting) is the reality that Rebbe Natan really thought he had nothing left to say, and then he comes out with this gem.

I wonder, were he to look back on this letter, if he would think that he hadn’t really said much, or if he would think that, at the end of the day, he did offer something new to the conversation. I’d like to assume the former - that he was actually disappointed that he couldn’t offer something worthwhile in this letter.

My interest is how what one person knows so deeply that it is no longer new, or even noticeable, to them, can be entirely mind-blowing and essential to other people. So much of what would be useful Torah is never articulated because the person who holds it isn’t even necessarily aware of it as Torah, so they never bother to say it. It has simply become a part of their “system”. 

I can only speak for myself, but so many of the questions I have revolve around method, approach, system. I am far less interested in a vort - a sort of one-off homily about something or other  - than I am in the articulation of a practice, alongside direct guidance for how that practice works in real time. 

And as such, it becomes a lot more necessary to speak about how we do what we do. An essential example would be to talk about formal prayer - tefillah. I’ll leave that for another time. In the meantime, though, might I suggest that we all be more open to those conversations around how we do what we do, and open up the possibility of speaking about things that seem obvious to us but might be useful guidance for others?



One of my favorite “jokes”: A Jewish guy is driving through downtown, looking for a parking spot. After failing for some time to find one, he says, “OK, God. If you hook me up with a parking spot, I’ll give $50 to charity.” He continues searching, but fails to find a spot. “OK, God, fine. I’ll start keeping Shabbat.” No parking spot. “Ok, fine! If you hook me up with a parking spot I’ll stop eating - - - oh, never mind. There’s one.”


Hopefully you can conjure and articulate a narrative or framework about your life in which things make sense. A framework helps us understand why we are doing something, what we can expect for ourselves, what we can expect the results will be, what challenges are likely to come up, how we might overcome them, etc. A framework lends a sense of order to all the components of a particular set of factors. 

For example, you might hate your job, but you remind yourself that going to work everyday allows you to provide for your family, and that allows you to get over the aggravation of going to work. In this framework, every misery is mitigated by the benefits of your family having food or shelter, or the possibility that your kids will be better educated and more successful than you. 

It gets trickier when we’re talking about religious life and religious acts. Convincing frameworks are harder to come by because it is far more difficult to speak about anticipated results of religious acts. But this difficulty doesn’t make it less necessary - just harder to come by. After all, iff I don’t have a framework in which to understand, say, prayer, then it stops making sense, and then I either stop doing it, stop thinking about it, or stop believing I can actually invest myself in it. And none of those are very satisfying answers. So my framework might not be hermetically sealed, but it’s got to offer me at least some context. 







“If you look carefully at my lips… you'll realize that I'm actually saying something else.”


                                    The Naked Lunch

Enter Purim. On Purim we are acknowledging chaos, and even cultivating it. We are acknowledging that our framework neither frames nor works. The story we’ve been telling ourselves about what is going on is simply not accurate. 

Alas. We are in fact quite capable of building and dwelling in alternate universes. It allows us to ignore the inconvenient truths that threaten to intrude from the edges. We get to block other people’s needs out. We get to pretend we are doing our jobs - like Shaul, who tells Shmuel, “Blessed are you to Hashem! I have done what Hashem told me!” As Shaul continues to delude himself - “I have listened to the voice of Hashem, and I have walked in the way that Hashem sent me!” - as he is declaring his perfect adherence to Hashem’s will, King Agag of Amalek is alive, and Purim is born.

On Purim, if we look carefully, we will see that we are actually living in chaos, that our frameworks are more prophylactic than conduit, that our stories are more delusion than description. Maybe we’ll see that our love is self-love, that our service is self-service.

But this is the day. We scramble the signal and for one holy stretch of time we go out of our minds and perhaps - perhaps! - we can learn about a frame that is not-frame.