Friday, August 26, 2016

Parent's Prayer Before College

For those who may be driving a son or daughter to college for the first time, perhaps you will find this creative prayer meaningful and helpful for that moment of letting go:

Adonai Eloheinu, Lord our God, keep my son/daughter safe as they learn more about the world, themselves, and I hope their Jewish inheritance, at college. Open their hearts to different people and their minds to new ideas. Let them acquire wisdom and skills to navigate life’s challenges and struggles without my prodding and help. Indeed, let them grow more independent. Restrain me from texting too often but let them remain certain I am always available to listen, advise and most of all offer words of love and comfort. Even though my sheltered embrace is now distant from their daily lives let them find protection in Your eternal care. Blessed are You, Adonai, who listens to prayer.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Ekev and God's Wealth

As we march through the portions of Deuteronomy, amidst the promises of reward and the threats of punishment in Moses’ lengthy warnings to the Israelites, we discover these words: “Remember it is the Lord your God who gives you the strength to make wealth…” (Deuteronomy 9:18)

The religious perspective insists that the foods we eat and the successes we earn are not our own but are instead owed to God. Even though I believe each of us deserves a measure of praise for our own successes I wonder how our world might be improved if we were to adopt this philosophy.

If my success is not my own, if my wealth is not because of my own strengths, intelligence and skills, then perhaps I am more willing to share with others and give to my community. I am less inclined to hold this wealth in my own hands because it is not owed to the work of my hands. Everything is a gift. Everything is blessing from God.

And that is the goal of the society the Torah wishes to create. It is about fashioning a sense of “our.” Its theory is that in order to do so, in order to train the soul to share, we must replace “It is mine.” with “It is because of God.”

If everything belongs to God, if the food I eat, if the successes I attain, are because of God then it becomes easier for me to share. Community can only be sustained by sharing.

That is the Torah’s goal. A holy community can only succeed because of God’s strength.

Friday, August 19, 2016

What Old School Perspective Can Teach

What Old School Perspective Can Teach the Age of the Smartphone

Here is the theory: the people closest to us are actually growing more distant and the events farthest from our homes feel much too near. Two illustrations:

A recent phone conversation with my daughter.

“I heard from your uncle that you and your cousin had a lengthy conversation.”

“Yes. We texted for a while about her summer at camp.”

“I thought your uncle said you spoke.”

“Abba, for my generation texting is talking.”

You could almost hear as well, “You’re so old!”

I manage to text, inbox and even tweet. Still I wonder how these technological advances might hurt our relationships with each other and our world....

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Vaetchanan and Swimming Medals

Olympic swimmers break records every year.  Their skills are extraordinary.  Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky amaze.  Swimmers improve their times at every Olympics. 

The first medalist in Olympic swimming, in modern history, was Alfred Hajos-Guttmann.  And who was Hajos-Guttman?  A Jew.  In fact he was a Hungarian Jew.  He earned two gold medals at the 1896 games in Athens.  He won the 100-Meter and 1200-Meter Freestyle.  His time for the 100-Meter was 1:22.2.  By the way, this year’s winner touched the wall at 47.58.

Granted Hajos-Guttman did not swim in a 50-Meter state of the art pool but instead in the cool waters of the Mediterranean in which there were the occasional 12-foot swells.  There is a big difference between swimming in a pool and an ocean!  Even more noteworthy Hajos-Guttman also earned titles in Hungary’s national competitions in running, hurdles, discus and soccer.  Later he coached Hungary’s national soccer team. 

And when he returned to the 1924 Olympics he competed not in sports but the arts.  Apparently back then it was not just about sports, and sportsmanship (although there have been both stirring and disturbing examples of this during these summer games), but other disciplines.  Hajos-Guttman earned top honors in architecture. 

And so I’m just saying.  Maybe it really did begin with a Jewish achievement.

And why did Hajos-Guttman take up swimming?  At the age of thirteen his father drowned in the Danube.  It was not so much about the medals but instead about saving life.  In fact he changed his name to Hajos, which means sailor in Hungarian.

The Talmud teaches that parents are obligated to teach their children Torah and a craft.  To not teach them a craft is likened to teaching them to steal.  And some say to teach them to swim too.  Why?  Because their lives might depend on it. (Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 56b)  And Rabbi Moskowitz adds: To teach them to ride a bike.  Why?  Their enjoyment might depend on it.

The Torah reminds us: “And you shall teach them to your children. (Deuteronomy 6)

No one can swim as fast as Phelps or Ledecky but everyone needs to know how to swim.  And it all started with Alfred Hajos-Guttman, the Jew who took up swimming for no other reason than his life might depend on it. 

It’s really not about the medals.

Addendum: I would like to acknowledge Abby Sher and her recent article in Jewniverse: The First Swimmer to Win Olympic Gold Was This HungarianJew.  Sher pointed me in the direction of Hajos-Guttman’s achievements.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Devarim and the Weight of Words

Sometimes language offers hints of meaning. Other times it creates challenges to progress.

The Hebrew language provides many examples. Let us examine two. The Hebrew word for woman: isha is the same exact word for wife. There are different words for a young woman but not an adult woman. The language suggests that once a woman reaches adulthood her fulfillment can only be found in marriage to a man. The word for husband, by the way, is the same as that for owner: baal.

Such are the limitations of an ancient language as it confronts modernity. Hebrew is unable to recognize that a woman can find fulfillment not only in marriage but also as a rabbi (Go Susie!), prime minister (three cheers for Golda!), or even president. A woman can find meaning and fulfillment in a myriad of different ways. Her choices should be as endless as those for a man. She, like a man, should only be limited by intelligence, talents and devotion. (Go Shira and Ari!)

She does not serve a husband. Instead, like men and all human beings, she has the potential to serve the world. She can better the world by not only bringing forth life and forming a loving and holy partnership with another, but by working to improve our broken world. That is the obligation of every human being—both men and women.

On the other hand, there are times when language reminds us of ancient teachings that still resonate with modern meaning.

In Hebrew the word for word: devar is the same as that for thing. A word has weight. It is not ephemeral. It can heal. A word can also harm. A word is a thing. It is as if a word is an object that can be held in our hands. A word is not cheap. This is one of Judaism’s most profound lessons and something that our holy language reminds us of again and again.

In addition the word is born in the desert wilderness: midbar. This word shares the same root as devar. It is there that God revealed the word: devarim. It is there that we were taught about the weight of our words. It is also there that we gained a hint of the power of speech because it is there that God’s word thundered from Mount Sinai.

We must therefore measure the weight of our words. Otherwise we might find ourselves alone, and without the community that nurtures us. We might find ourselves adrift in a desert wilderness.

“These are the words that Moses addressed to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan….” (Deuteronomy 1)

It is the word that can still bring healing to our broken world.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mattot or Masei and Fraying Threads

Diaspora Jewry and Israel are out of sync. In fact we have been reading different Torah portions.

Since the concluding Shabbat of Pesach Israeli Jews have been reading the portion ahead of that in the diaspora. Let me explain. In Israel, Pesach is celebrated for seven days. In the diaspora for eight days. The reason for this is ancient. Millennia ago when the rabbis delineated the calendar they determined that the months and their holidays would be determined in the physical, and later spiritual, center of the Jewish world: Jerusalem. Worried that the message might take too long to communicate from Jerusalem to distant communities they instituted a second holiday day for those living outside of the land of Israel. And thus in the diaspora a one day holiday becomes two days and a seven day holiday becomes eight.

This year, in Israel, the first day of Pesach fell on Saturday and the seventh on Friday. There on the Shabbat following the conclusion of the holiday they moved on to the weekly portion and read Achrei Mot. We on the other hand read the portion assigned to the second Shabbat of Passover. We did not return to the portion of the week until the following Shabbat. We have been behind Israel ever since. Finally this week we arrive at the double portion Mattot-Masei with which we conclude the Book of Numbers. In Israel they read our double portion over two weeks.

Now the entire Jewish world is back on the same page.

Still this rare circumstance has caused me to ponder the growing distance between Israel and the diaspora, most especially among our youth....