"Disability" Redux

[I wrote this piece about disabilities about seven years ago, when I was learning how to confront my hearing loss. Since then my hearing as deteriorated, and it impacts every class I teach and every interaction I have. As you may imagine, it’s terribly frustrating. I felt like returning to this essay, to see how I still feel about the sentiments I wrote in 2012. And I’ll have more to say about this subject in the weeks ahead, so it seems like a timely revisit.

Instead of just reposting the piece, I’ve added some contemporary glosses by a noted scholar. (Not the same ‘noted scholar’ who commented on Woody Allen’s legendary Hasidic tales, but perhaps descended from him.)]

 

Disability

The angel wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket…
The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip…
Jacob arrived  
שָׁלֵם [whole] at the city of Shechem.
(Genesis 32:26, 32; 33:18)

All of us are damaged in some way; it’s a fundamental part of being human. Also human is the way in which we confront our brokenness; the gracefulness with which accept our imperfections.

[GLOSS: When I originally wrote this, some of my readers objected to the word ‘brokenness’ as being harsh and implying a value-judgment. There’s a stream of thought among disabled communities that one should “embrace” her or his disability. But “brokenness” is precisely what I mean. When I consider what has become of my hearing, “broken” and in need of “fixing” is exactly how I feel about it.]

My personal disability is rather awkward because it plays itself out so publicly in my life – in the classroom, in meetings (in Buber’s sense of the word), in our sanctuary, and even across a hospital bed. I started losing my hearing a few years ago, at exactly the same age when my father began to lose his. It began to impact my effectiveness in my work. I would get frustrated, angry at myself. I even had a moment of “bottoming out”, to use the language of addiction and recovery, when I sat in the front row for a lecture of which I heard practically nothing. It rocked me deeply.

[GLOSS: What I thought was “bottoming out” was just the beginning. It’s become commonplace for me to attend a crowded party and not be able to hear a thing, or stubbornly go to concerts and strain to recognize songs that I know really well.]

For a short while I felt sorry for myself. Then I started visiting audiologists and figuring out how I was going to move forward. Hearing aids help, although to my chagrin and frustration they have remained “aids” and have never given me 100% of the hearing I’ve desired. This was particularly frustrating, because of all our cherished senses, hearing is especially precious to me. You who know me know that for me listening to music is one of life’s deepest pleasures. The diminishment of that pleasure is a serious heartbreak. 

[GLOSS: That observation was important. I still can’t really explain why contact lenses give me 20/20 vision, but hearing aids don’t deliver “20/20 hearing”, so to speak. Family and friends of hearing-impaired people need to understand that.

All of us have fears that awaken us in the middle of the night, when the day’s distractions have dissolved away. Lately mine is the prospect of what my hearing loss will be like when I’m 50, or 60, or beyond. Will I move from “hearing-impaired” to full-fledged deafness? Will I be able to function at my job? Those are real fears I carry in my soul, with some degree of anguish.

But these days those fears don’t slow me down. Quite to the contrary. I’ve become more and more comfortable with saying to students in my classroom, “This is what I’m working to overcome. This is my disability. What’s yours?”

[GLOSS: Some days I feel the early optimism of this piece fading. But I have never been shy about announcing that I’m hearing impaired. It’s become quite standard for me to open a class or launch a speech with a disclaimer about my disability. Not in a self-pitying way… just to clue people in.]

In fact, I find an enormous amount of strength coming forth from our tradition. Personal prayer has become far more intense since I’ve come to grips with my disability. The morning prayers, for instance, contain a remarkable passage that reflects on the body’s delicateness: “You have made the human body filled with tiny holes and orifices… If one of them were opened when it should be closed, or closed when it should be opened, we wouldn’t be able to stand before You for even a moment.” When I reflect that my hearing loss stems from the ossification of the miniscule bones in the inner ear, I share the wonder of the siddur’s poet. It’s a daily miracle how much works so well!

[GLOSS: Still true. And yet… I look at the birchot ha-shachar, the daily blessings of awe that are found early on in the Jewish siddur. We bless G-d for being pokeach ivrim, “the One who gives sight to people who are blind,” which of course is meant as a spiritual metaphor. Why doesn’t it say mashmiya chershim, “the One who causes deaf people to hear”? Especially since “to hear” – as in the Shema Yisrael – is such a crucial metaphor in the Jewish prayerbook? I’ll write more about this soon, but I’m curious if you have an insight about this.]

In the Torah, many of our ancestors carried some sort of brokenness. Isaac was blind; so too, perhaps, was Leah. Jacob’s leg was wrenched in his wrestling with the angel; perhaps he limped for the rest of his life. Most famously, Moses stood before G-d at the burning bush and said, in essence, “Why would you choose me to speak before Pharaoh?  After all, my lips…” The Torah is enigmatic about Moses’s shortcoming: Did he stutter?  Did he have a disabled palate? Or was he merely terrified of public speaking? It matters—but not as much as G-d’s response to him, which is, in essence, “I don’t make mistakes. I’ve called you to do a job, to speak truth to the power that is Pharaoh. And if you trust Me, then when the time comes we’ll find the words, together.”

[GLOSS: A partial list of disabled people from Jewish tradition (note the surprising absence of deaf characters):
Isaac – blind
Leah – “weak eyes”
Jacob – walked with a limp
Moses – speech impeded
Samson – blind
Ahiya the prophet – blind
Rabbi Yosef (Nedarim 41a) – blind
Rabbi Sheshet (Berachot 58a) – blind
Levi (Ta’anit 21a) – could not walk
The Maggid of Mezeritch – walked with a limp
R. Simcha Bunem of Peshischa – blind
… I know there’s so many more. How many can you add to this list?]

I have no delusions (trust me) of being a Jacob or Moses or Isaac or Leah. But I study their life-stories and try to learn their lessons. Isaac found the words to bless his children. Leah went on to find love and, if you believe the midrash, she also found her sister. Jacob, even with his limp, is still called shalem, “whole” – a poignant reminder that these finite bodies are mere containers for the infinity in our souls. And Moses, G-d’s servant and partner, spoke through damaged lips the words, “Let my people go.” He even found the strength and confidence to lead a people through the wilderness.

I imagine that each of them felt sorry for themselves when they first confronted their disabilities. Maybe their communities supported them in their struggles (maybe they didn’t). But eventually, each of them found a way back to Life; to saying: This is Who I Am. No longer will it hold me back, but I’ll offer myself, anew, in all my brokenness, to do what I was designed to do all along. In faith and tradition and the love of others, I will find my strength.

This is my brokenness. What’s yours?

[GLOSS: Corny ending, perhaps. But something cool has happened over the years: when I talk about my disability, I’ve found that students of all ages have opened up. Some have come to me and said, “I’ve been faking it for years; I’m going to make an appointment with an audiologist.” Even more gratifying are those whose hearing is fine, but who make the connections to their learning disability, or whatever. Here’s to each of us sharing our own vulnerabilities, so that “maybe more can come out of their hiding places” (to borrow a line from a Danny Siegel poem).

Are We Ever Allowed to Make Holocaust Comparisons?

Wherever you stand on today’s hysteria about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of the phrases “concentration camps” and “Never Again” in regard to the mass detentions of immigrant children on the U.S. border probably has been predetermined by your politics.

That is to say, liberals will come to her defense, saying that we face a horrible moral situation and we need language that sparks people to action. Conservatives will decry her, saying her rhetoric cheapens the legacy of the Holocaust. Everyone will retreat to their previously drawn lines.

I don’t want to be guilty of that, so before making one or two points, I want to come clean: I am generally on the political left, but I think it is possible and necessary to be critical of leaders with whom you are sympathetic. The antisemitic blindspot of the left is an outrage, and people who care about the climate change, racism, LGBTQ issues, economic justice, and reining in unfettered corporations had better wake up quickly before the Democratic party slides into full-blown Corbynism. Which would be a disaster for everyone.

So let’s try to back off of how we feel about the messenger, and soberly ask: Was AOC wrong to use those terms? I would make a few points:

First: Being specific in our language is very important, especially when it comes to the Shoah. “Concentration camps” are not the same as “death camps”—and during the Shoah there were both. To quote Deborah Dwork, a preeminent contemporary scholar of the Shoah:

Initially, the Nazis established concentration camps to incarcerated Communists, Socialists, asocials, or other who did not fit into the national community. Their primary purpose was to “teach” these Germans what they needed to know to return to society. Jews, by definition, could never belong to the national community… The many Jews among these political prisoners were therefore treated worse and assigned to the most difficult and dangerous labor details.[1]

These concentration camps were limitless in their brutality, and of course enormous numbers of Jews died there. But they are not identical with the death camps—Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Belzec, Chelmno; each name seared into our consciousness—where the singular goal was to use all the technology available to annihilate enormous numbers of Jews as efficiently, and as brutally, as possible.

There have been concentration camps before and since the Shoah. Totalitarian regimes have “concentrated” groups of people into “camps” many times in our awful history. Auschwitz, however, is something different. (See the map below.)

Second:  Is the Shoah a singular event? I believe it is. That’s why I prefer the Hebrew shoah, “cataclysm”, to the English holocaust. This language preserves the Jewish ownership of our history, and it reminds us that while others were persecuted by the Nazis, the Jews were uniquely targeted. Furthermore, there’s something unsettling about the origins of the word holocaust, with its connections to biblical burnt-offerings. As if to say: there was something “sacrificial” about the murders, which of course there wasn’t.

Likewise for genocide, a word that needed to be coined because no linguistic precedent existed for the crimes that the Nazis committed against the Jews. “Genocide” is not a synonym for “murder,” even “mass murder,” and it should not be used as such. But still: There have been other genocides, some attempted and some fulfilled, in the past three-quarters of a century, and we need to identify them as such.

Third:  So, are we ever allowed to make comparisons to the Shoah? We’ve become so accustomed to calling our enemies “Nazis.” (I’ve done it.) Perhaps there is solace in knowing that the nastiest word we can come up with for the scummiest people is “Nazi”—isn’t it an acknowledgment of the evil of the Shoah if that’s the most extreme word we can think of?

But we should usually avoid using that language. Thoughtful people with diametrically different points of view from our own are not “worse than Hitler.”  But still…

Do we really believe that we should never make Shoah analogies? If so, what was the point of all that education, all those Holocaust Museums, all those Yom HaShoah commemorations? I thought the point was: Learn from history. Recognize the signs of creeping fascism in order to cut it off. Don’t let another human being be dehumanized to the point where they are treated like vermin.

I thought that’s what “Never again” meant: “Never again” to us—that’s why we needed Zionism; “Never again” to anyone—that’s why we needed a human rights movement.

Through our Shoah education, Jewish strength has become a Mitzvah (here in the sense of “commandment”). So, too, has Jewish empathy for others’ victimization.

We’ve properly used the Einsatzgruppen analogy when considering the annihilation of the Darfuris. We’ve correctly called the Rwandan devastation a “genocide.” When Arabic textbooks in Palestine and elsewhere show caricatures of hook-nosed Jews grubbing money and drinking blood, we say, We know where we’ve seen this before, and we call it out.

And I, for one, make the connection between those faces on the U.S. border—concentrated as they are into camps—and the faces of Jewish children in Germany during World War II.

So my take on AOC’s comments?    

The humanitarian disaster taking place on the U.S. border is a stain on our country. The Trump administration’s family separation policies diminish our moral authority everywhere. The failure of the other parts of the government to react is a disgrace, although we should appreciate the moral voices on both the right and the left that have spoken out.

If AOC had called it “Auschwitz,” she should be condemned. If she had called it “genocide,” it would be an abhorrent abuse of language. But she didn’t. She called it a “concentration camp” and she said “Never again.” I agree with her on both counts.

[1] Deborah Dwork & Robert Jan van Pelt, Holocaust: A History, 2002, p.356.

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,  https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org

From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org

A Story on an Airplane (for Shavuot)

I was on a flight from Boston to Newark.  I was wearing a kippah—I mention that because it’s germane to this story. Sometimes I wear a baseball cap when I travel, but this time, for some reason, I left it behind.

The plane was full and I was stuck in the middle seat of the emergency row (I hate the middle seat, but I love the emergency row). I figured during the short hop to Jersey I could keep my head down in the Gabriel Allon thriller I’d bought in the airport, and before I would know it, we’d have arrived.

The plane took off uneventfully, and I was at the point in the novel where the Israeli superspy was called out of retirement to save the world again when there was a tap on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw the flight attendant, a tall, delicate woman in her young thirties. Why was she noodging me?

“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you learned, or merely observant?”

Huh? What kind of question is that?

“Are you learned, or merely observant?”

I mumbled something about not being sure I was either, but trying to be both. (There’s a Hasidic story about Rebbe Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz, who was once approached by a cop who asked, “Who do you work for and what are you doing here?” The rebbe, taken aback by the hidden spiritual implications of the question, asked the man if he would agree to follow him around asking that question all day—as a reminder! I wasn’t so glib, so I simply responded:) “What are you really trying to ask me?”

She said she had a question about Judaism. She asked, “Is it true that if I’m Jewish, I have to quit my job with the airline?”

Now, I’m in the middle seat, and we’re all flying cattle class anyway, so this truly bizarre question is taking place over the lap of at least one other passenger in very close quarters. I told her that as far as I knew, there was nothing in the Torah or Talmud that prohibited one from being a flight attendant for American Airlines. She thanked me and continued up the aisle.

For the next few minutes, I found it difficult to care about whether or not Gabriel Allon would set aside his paintbrushes to command the Mossad, so I got up and went to the galley at the front of the cabin, where she was alone. I asked her to explain a little more.

“My fiancé is Jewish,” she said, “and I’m not. I’m studying for conversion with a Chabad rabbi in Los Angeles. He told me that not only must a Jew keep kosher, but it is prohibited for a Jew to serve non-kosher food to another Jew, even inadvertently. So he said if I became Jewish, I’d have to quit my job, because part of my duties includes serving food to passengers.” She was obviously emotionally torn up about this prospect.

I’m not judgmental about others’ Jewish choices, but this woman really needed someone to talk to. So I listened. She said, “You know, this process has been so hard. My fiancé isn’t Orthodox, but we wanted to do this with a Chabad rabbi because… you know… we wanted to do it right.” (My bowels twisted and I bit my lip, but said nothing.)

But it became clear that this teacher was abusing his student. She said, “A few weeks back, my fiancé and I decided to make a real Shabbat evening experience, the whole thing—services, dinner, just being together and not doing any work. We went to the local Conservative synagogue—it was closest—and we just had the most incredible time, singing the prayers and joining in with a Jewish community. I couldn’t wait to tell my rabbi. When I saw him a few days later, I told him all about it and how wonderful it was. He said to me, ‘You went to a Conservative synagogue? I just added four more months onto your studies.’”

Her eyes welled up, and my heart broke a little for her. I said, “I want you to know, there are many kinds of rabbis and many ways of being Jewish.” She nodded, thanked me for listening, and we had to return to our seats.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and about this L.A. rabbi who was beating her up emotionally. I felt awful, because she’s supposed to be falling in love with Judaism and everything Jewish, yet here she is, guilt-ridden and hurt and filled with ambivalence. And I thought about that question, “Are you learned or merely observant?”, and how she asked me simply because I was wearing a kippah this time.

The flight ended, she was making the connection to LA and home, and of course we’d never see each other again. So I figured I would make a final gesture. As we started that disembarking ritual—“…bye now, b’bye, good-bye, bye now…”—I slipped my business card into her hand. “Listen,” I said, “I know a couple of really good rabbis in L.A.”

I don’t know what became of her, or if she became a Jew, and what kind of spiritual life she might have discovered for herself. But I hope she found her way Home.

And I think of Ruth the Moabite, who thousands of years ago clung to her mother-in-law Naomi and said, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G-d, my G-d.” I wonder sometimes, if Ruth were navigating our Jewish world today, whether or not she would ever make it inside the gates. Thank G-d she did, and we celebrate her legacy, and those who made a journey like hers, this week. She, too, made it Home.

 

The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot, which begins on Saturday night, June 8.

Marking Yom HaShoah in 2019

This is the text of the letter I sent out to the Babson College community today,
on the eve of Yom HaShoah:

Thursday is Yom HaShoah, the annual day in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the annihilation of European Jewry during World War II. Seventy-four years after the liberation of Auschwitz and the defeat of the Nazis, it is a time for sober reflection about what the legacy of the Holocaust means to us who are now three and four generations removed from it.

In truth, all Jews today carry within them the legacy of the SHOAH (the Jewish term for the events called “the Holocaust”), although each carries it in a different way. Many Jews have branches on their family trees that simply break off. Others grew up with memories passed down from grandparents and great-grandparents about survival in the most miraculous, or most horrific, of circumstances. Others simply know the stories, and have a vague sense of responsibility because of the legacy of this painful history. It is part of us, forever.

Yom HaShoah seems especially resonant this year. Surveys of Americans tell us dispiriting news. Two-thirds of millenials (and 41% of all Americans) do not know what Auschwitz was; 22% of them never heard of the Holocaust (or aren’t sure if they have). The remaining survivors of the death camps are elderly today; in a few years, there will be no living eyewitnesses to the crimes of the Nazis and their enablers.

And the emerging trends of hate, violence, and white supremacy are on our minds this year. The murderous attack at the Chabad synagogue of Poway, California last week - six months after the massacre of Jews on a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh - in the name of white nationalism conjures up great horror among us on this Yom HaShoah.

This week, the ADL released its annual study of antisemitism in America. In 2018, it recorded 1,879 antisemitic incidents in the United States, including the bloodiest in American history (the assault in Pittsburgh). This number is the third-highest annual number that the ADL has ever recorded. This is why many Jews, young and old, are asking questions we've never asked in our lifetimes:  How safe are we here, really? 

What is there to say or do? I think the answer from Jewish tradition is twofold. There is a famous saying by the great sage Hillel from over 2,000 years ago (it would be a cliché if it weren’t so perfectly accurate):  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

If I am not for myself”— this is why Jews take the legacy of the Shoah so personally. Jewish survival, and its transmission to the next generation, is an absolute obligation for us; the Shoah makes that message only more profound. This is part of what the State of Israel means to us: There is a refuge; a safe place (recalling that the whole world, including America, turned its backs on many victims of the Nazis); and, not insignificantly, a Jewish army to defend itself. The Shoah isn’t the reason Israel exists (its roots extend far earlier than the War), but it does explain the passion with which its supporters will defend it.

In other words, this response to the Shoah is: AM YISRAEL CHAIThe Jewish People lives. And every Jew has a responsibility to make it so. 

But if I am only for myself”— That “but” is crucial. The Shoah didn’t start with death camps; it began with the increasing dehumanization of Jews, and propaganda that gradually eroded rights and liberties to the point where we were turned into something less-than-fully-human. Denial of rights leads to oppression. And that leads to neighbors abandoning and attacking neighbors; which led to genocide. It was systematic, it was thoughtfully planned, and it was almost successful.

This idea, too, seems particularly profound in 2019. The massacres of Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand remain a fresh wound. As does the assault on Christians in Sri Lanka. And the burning of three black churches in Louisiana last month. Just to cite the three most notorious, and most recent, examples of the current rise of hateful violence. 

In other words, the other commanding voice of the Shoah is to stand up against the dehumanization of anyone, anywhere. To say to every tyrant: “Not on our watch.” To know and understand our neighbors - and to defend and protect them.

That is what is at stake in the memory of the Shoah. That is what we mean when we say “Never Again.”

We're Doing the 10 Plagues All Wrong—Part Two

The Maggid section of the Haggadah—the lengthiest part of the seder, the section which retells the story of the Exodus—culminates with the description of the so-called “Ten Plagues.” As I wrote earlier, the idea of the “plagues” is misunderstood, and that has led to a lot of misguided creativity around this part of the seder.

None of that is to say that there aren’t powerful and important lessons regarding the ritual here. In some ways, this is one of the most provocative sections of the entire seder.

When we reach this passage, every community that I’ve encountered has a similar sort of ritual. Upon reciting the name of each  “plague,” a drop of wine is removed from each of our cups. (Many also remove drops of wine before the 10 Plagues: 3 drops at the verse from Joel 3:3  “...Blood [דָם] and fire [אֵשׁ] and pillars of smoke [וְתִימֲרוֹת עָשַׁן]”; and 3 times at the acronym for the Plagues [דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב], for a total of 16 drops.)

There are variations about how this removal takes place. Many people use their fingers, taking out wine from their glass drop by drop. Perhaps this custom alludes to the יד חזקה / yad chazakah / the “mighty hand” with which G-d redeemed the Israelites (see Exodus 6:1, 13:9; and especially Deuteronomy 26:8, which the Haggadah is citing, as well as Deut. 34:12, the last verse of the Torah).  Other people tip their glasses, spilling drops one at a time. Some use a utensil to remove the drops.

But the most important thing is to be clear about what this ritual means.

A kiddush cup full of wine is a symbol of joy and celebration. To reduce the wine in our glass symbolizes reducing our joy.

Why do we do this? The 15th Century commentator Don Yitzhak Abarbanel said that our joy is not complete as we recall the suffering of the Egyptians as we made our way to freedom. He quotes Proverbs 24:17:  “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice...”

That is a breathtaking statement.  Recall that when we read “Egyptians” in the text, what we’re saying is:  Nazis. Inquisitors. Hamas. Baby-killers, as the midrash makes clear. The most bloodthirsty oppressors that have slimed their way onto the stage of human history. 

And yet, when we consider the victories that gave us our freedom, we recognize that our enemies suffered, too.

It recalls as astounding passage from the Talmud that tells how the angels wished to rejoice at the moment of the Splitting of the Sea, but G-d silenced them:

שאין הקדוש ברוך הוא שמח במפלתן של רשעים. דאמר ר' שמואל בר נחמן אמר ר' יונתן... באותה שעה בקשו מלאכי השרת לומר שירה לפני הקב"ה אמר להן הקב"ה מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה לפני.

The Holy and Blessed One does not rejoice at the fall of the wicked.
Thus Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:... At that  moment [when the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea,] the ministering angels intended to sing before the Holy and Blessed One.
The Holy One said, “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you would sing before me?!”

This is an astonishing idea. Our tradition is demanding that, at the moment of deliverance from suffering, we set aside any sort of triumphalism. Instead, we are called upon to recognize the very human-ness of our enemy.

To be sure, these passages do not apologize for our victory. We don’t regret that we were brought out of Egypt, just as we don’t regret the integrity and passion and ferociousness with which we’ve fought any just war in history. Evil must be vanquished, sometimes only through greater force.  

What the tradition does assert is that we can’t allow ourselves to dehumanize our enemies. They, too, are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. They suffered when their water turned to blood, their fields were devoured by locusts, and their firstborn lay dead in their beds. They suffered when we fought back in the ghettos and the trenches, and when they and their children died on the battlefields. 

Enemies are real, but perhaps recognizing each other’s inherent humanity is a cautious step towards a world with... well, a bit fewer enemies. 

Can we live up to this standard that our tradition sets? I’m not saying I can, not yet. The desire for justice... which sometimes is indistinguishable from the desire for vengeance against those who have hurt us... is just too strong. But that’s what makes this spiritual challenge so compelling—our highest values are what we should reach for, not what we already comfortably accept.  

This is the ritual of the drops at the Ten Plagues.  It’s radical and challenging, and it deserves a moment of meditation and reflection before we tip our cups.  



We're Doing the Ten Plagues All Wrong—Part One

I collect Haggadahs. I love them; I think the Haggadah is the quintessential Jewish religious text. Not only because it tells the story of how we became a people, but also because there are Haggadot customized for every Jewish family and community. That’s why there are so many hundreds of them out there.

Pride of place in my Haggadah collection goes not to rare volumes or collector’s editions. Instead, I prefer photocopied and homemade texts that families have shared with me over the years, taking the traditional order, texts, and rituals and making the story their own. After all, personalizing the story is the key injunction of this festival: “In every generation, we must view ourselves as if we, personally, came out of Egypt” (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5). We write ourselves into the continually unfolding story, respectfully inscribing the latest chapter that builds on what came before.

At the culmination of the Maggid section of the Haggadah—the part that tells the story of the Exodus—is a description of the עשר מכות/Esser Makkot, known colloquially as the Ten Plagues. And judging by the Haggadot in my collection, as well as all the creative seder material that fills my inbox at this time of the year, we’ve been doing it all wrong.

Racism. Climate change. Islamophobia… Countless Haggadot and seder-leaders over the years have invited guests to list “10 modern plagues” that afflict our world.

Homophobia. Rape culture. Surging antisemitism… there is no shortage of plagues in our world, and we’re often called by well-meaning people today to elaborate on them at the seder.

Family-separation policies for immigrants. The ubiquity of screens. Allowing rich people to set our communal agenda. Suburban complacency… I can do it, too. I’m sure you have your own list.

But if we think about it, these lists really don’t work at this part of the seder. It’s not that these things aren’t important—they are, and each contributes to a form of “enslavement” that we all yearn to be free from.

The problem is, that’s not what the מכות עשר / Esser Makkot / “Ten Plagues” are all about. 

Makkot are not “plagues.” They are “strikes”, as in military strikes against an aggressive enemy. That is precisely the image that the Torah presents in the Exodus story: G-d is waging a battle against Pharaoh in order to achieve the liberation of the Israelite slaves. At the burning bush, G-d tells Moses:

וְשָׁלַחְתִּ֤י אֶת־יָדִי֙ וְהִכֵּיתִ֣י אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּכֹל֙ נִפְלְאֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה בְּקִרְבּ֑וֹ
וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵ֖ן יְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶֽם׃
I will stretch out My hand and strike [v’hikeiti – the same root as makkot]  Egypt with
various wonders which I will work upon them; after that he shall let you go.
(Exodus 3:20)

This process unfolds over a series of 10 strikes against Egypt, each one a tool towards bringing about freedom: blood, frogs, lice, etc…

When the Torah recalls the Exodus, it refers to these events as “signs” and “wonders”. In Deuteronomy 34:11, they are called אותות (“signs”) and מופתים (“portents”); these words are used again in Psalms 78 and 105. They are divinely attributed miracles that directly brought about the release of the people from bondage.

The “Ten Plagues” are the tools of liberation. They are not lingering calamities from which the world suffers, like racism, environmental cataclysm, or ignorance. They are not called “plagues.”

The Torah has words for “plague”: נגע / nega’ and מגפה / magefah. Nega’ usually appears in the context of leprosy, the scale-disease that was a particularly horrible trauma in the Bible. (Later, a whole tractate of the Mishna on this theme would be called Nega’im.) Magefah is used usually in the context of massive deaths after the Israelites sin as a community (see, for example, Numbers 14:7, 25:8-9, 26:1; and 1 Samuel 4:17). But neither term, nega’ nor magefah, conjures up God’s battle with Pharaoh.

There is one exception (because there’s always an exception). In Exodus 11:1, just prior to the מכת הבכורות / the strike against the first-born of Egypt, G-d tells Moses:

…ע֣וֹד נֶ֤גַע אֶחָד֙ אָבִ֤יא עַל־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְעַל־מִצְרַ֔יִם…
“I will bring but one more plague [nega’] upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt…” 

Here is the one appearance of the word “plague” in the entire saga. Why does this word appear here, and only here?

Perhaps that Tenth Strike is different. After all, scholars have pointed out that the Esser Makkot occurred in three triads; there is a literary symmetry in the clusters of three, and the Tenth stands outside of the pattern. Perhaps the severity of the 10th Strike is so intense that even G-d realizes that this is the “nuclear option.” Maybe it’s simply the exception that proves the rule, since nowhere else in biblical or rabbinical literature these events are called “plagues.”

So it’s just a little too lazy to score political points by asking, “What are 10 modern plagues…?” We have more than our share of them, it is true. But there is a cognitive dissonance in linking the today’s blights with wondrous moments in the past that directly led to our freedom.

The seder saga inspires other, more appropriate and difficult questions: What “miraculous” things have contributed to our freedom – individually, as a family, and as a people? What wondrous events in our past directly made it possible for us to be here today? And how do we appropriately express our wonder, awe, and gratitude?

Good Enough

Had G-d brought us out of Egypt
But not parted the Sea for us – Dayenu!
Had G-d parted the Sea for us
But not brought us through on dry land – Dayenu!
Had G-d brought us near to Mount Sinai
But not given us the Torah – Dayenu!

 Here’s a conversation starter for a dry seder:  Does anyone really believe the words to this song?

            I mean, we’ve been singing Dayenu a long time – probably since the era of the Geonim (650-1075 CE). Even families that have abridged the seder to a significant degree still consider this song essential. But consider the words as they appear on the page, and the message is less than obvious. Do we really believe that “It Would Be Good Enough for Us” (for that is the meaning of Dayenu) if G-d had redeemed us from slavery and then left us to starve in the desert? If the Sea had parted and the story ended there? If we had not been allowed to coalesce into a people, and had ultimately gone the way of the Amorites, Hittites, Canaanites, Babylonians, and others who long ago folded into history’s abyss?

            Of course it wouldn’t have been “good enough.”  Any break in any link of the chain of those miraculous events would have signified the end of the Jewish people, and there wouldn’t be anyone around to sing Dayenu to G-d. How could that possibly be “good enough”? So maybe this passage has more to it than meets the eye?

            Dayenu is placed nearly halfway through the seder, after most of the storytelling has taken place and just after the recitation of the Ten Plagues. We have already recounted the brutality of slavery. We have begun to comprehend all the many miracles – and the miracles upon miracles, according to Rabbis Yossi Ha-G’lili, Eliezer, and Akiva in the Haggadah – that have brought us here today, to this moment. Soon we’ll be feasting. But first we sing this song.

            The themes of what it means to be a slave and what it means to be free are placed before us.  And there’s a trap. We might reach this point in the seder, say to ourselves that slavery is a thing of the past, and we’re done with it. Let’s eat.

            But slavery is not a thing of the past.  Those who delude themselves into thinking they’re the most free just might find themselves in chains more restrictive than ever.  Just consider:

·      One in three Americans are chronically overworked;

·      54% of Americans have felt “overwhelmed” at work in the past month;

·      21% of overworked Americans exhibit symptoms of clinical depression.[1]

Do you see? A girl who starves herself “just to lose a few more pounds” is still enslaved. A family that feels compelled to make a Bar Mitzvah party that much bigger or more lavish because that’s the style is enslaved. A teenager who accommodates sleep deprivation just to get fifty more points on the cursed SATs is still enslaved. Uniquely, Americanly enslaved.

            What’s the way out of this trap?  Only this: the person who knows how to say Dayenu—what I have is, indeed, truly enough for me—is the person who is really free. I can stop the endless pursuit of acquiring, competing, accumulating more. In fact, I can do a better job at giving some of it away.

            Of course, there are plenty around us who are truly, desperately in need. This lesson can’t be applied outwards toward our neighbors, telling them they should be satisfied with whatever they have (as in the words of the miser in a classic Chasidic story, “If I can subsist on bread, they can surely subsist on stones!”) It only works when directed within.

            That’s why we sing Dayenu in our seder. Only the person who can look at his life and say, “What I have is truly what I need,” knows the taste of liberation; everything else is delusion.

 


[1] Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much, Families and Work Institute, 2005, http://familiesandwork.org/press/overworkinamericarelease.html#overwork

A Torah of Kindness

For Rabbi Larry Raphael, and His Torah of Kindness

I’m writing too many eulogies for teachers of mine these days. But when I heard that Larry Raphael had died on Sunday, I wanted to put some thoughts into writing, for he was truly special.

Larry was a dean at HUC-JIR when I arrived at the New York campus in the early ‘90s. He published a few anthologies of Jewish mystery writing (his great passion), and it was fun to talk books with him. He taught professional development classes to rabbinical students, but those are not the lessons that I most cherish from him. There are two that I want to share here.

The first is that Larry was the constant champion of the school’s soup kitchen, which I ran for a few years, each week feeding about 200 people who came in off the city streets and into our school. Yet the soup kitchen was not universally embraced by the administration or the students at the time; it was big disruption to the operations of the building on Monday afternoons. But Larry worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure that it was funded and that it thrived. He regularly came to join in the cooking and serving. And he was personally supportive of me, helping me navigate the grant money, for instance.

The soup kitchen really was his baby for many years. It endures today, thanks in part to the strong foundation he laid when he was an administrator at the College.

The second thing for which I’m grateful to Larry is more intensely personal.

Did you ever have the feeling of not being sure if you belonged? The sensation that wherever you were, everyone except you seemed to know exactly where they were supposed to be going and what they were supposed to be doing? I can remember feeling that way at distinct moments when I was a kid in elementary school, sort of perpetually when I was in high school, and many other times since then. I used to think I was the only one who ever felt that way, but I’ve come to learn that I’m not alone.

Well, I sure felt like that the day I interviewed at HUC in New York – “what in the world am I doing here?” I was a senior at Colgate getting a degree in philosophy and religion, not the most pragmatic of majors. I made the decision to go to rabbinical school. There was no Plan B. So I applied and showed up one winter morning at One West 4th Street for my interview.

I walked into the building and sat in the common area with another prospective student. She didn’t seem nervous at all; she seemed right at home. We made small talk. Then another prospective student came into the room. And the two of them—well, their eyes just lit up. “J, is that you?” “D, is that you? I haven’t seen you since…!” And they fell into each other’s arms, two reunited old friends from Jewish summer camp who were now all set to become colleagues together.

As for me, I just sat there with a growing sense of imposter syndrome. I didn’t go to Reform summer camps, I didn’t like NFTY, and I sure wasn’t feeling like this impending interview was a big family reunion. Why would they accept me and not these two, who were obviously “naturals”? In my mind, I started figuring my options in fast food or in the gas-pumping industry.

And then Larry, the Dean of Students, came out and sat beside me. He made the perfect kind of small talk: he asked me about the musicians I liked (I exhaled, “Coltrane!”) and the books I was reading (I had Borowitz’s Renewing the Covenant with me). He put me at ease. More important, he made me feel like I was qualified and deserved to be there, at just the moment that my self-confidence was dissipating. Larry had a gentleness, inherent kindness, and good humor that were so precious to me that day and many times afterwards. I’ll never forget it.

In recent years, those old bad feelings have occasionally returned with renewed fervor. And I’ve wished I had a Larry Raphael nearby for some self-esteem booster shots. Once in a while, an email would arrive from him out of the blue, usually after I’d published an essay or Dvar Torah someplace and he’d want to let me know that he’d read it and liked it. Those notes meant a lot.

Look, I fear that in our world these days, celebrating a person’s kindness may seem banal. I want to be clear: there is nothing banal about being a kind person. It is irreplaceable. I’ve met brilliant academics, dazzling rabbis, and forceful advocates for social justice who were not personally kind people; who lack warmth, or compassion, or a sense that they care about you as an individual. And frankly—it mitigates their success in other realms. Their lack of personal kindness is a character flaw, and while we’re all imperfect creations, somehow their work is less admirable, less whole, because of this missing piece.

Not so with Larry. He consummately lived the Mishnah’s urgent prodding:  וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת / “receive every person with a cheerful countenance”.  There’s a Torah of kindness that emanates from certain kind souls, and he was one of them. May his memory be a blessing.

Od Kahane Chai?: A Poison Weed in Israel

In the months after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ז״ל was assassinated, there was a well-publicized soul-searching among the Israeli right wing. There seemed to be a serious heshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul, about group responsibility for nurturing hate. To what extent did extremist rhetoric (i.e., posters of Rabin wearing a keffiyeh, calling your opponents Nazis, etc.) foster violence? What did a murdered prime minister say about Israeli democracy, and how could pressure-cooker politics be conducted in a civil way?

If it wasn’t already obvious, any self-reflection from that time is ancient history. If there was any doubt that Benjamin Netanyahu is the coarsest sort of politician—one who has no lines he’s unwilling to cross if it serves his political interests—than surely that doubt has evaporated. All decent lovers of Israel should be united this week in expressing our revulsion of the most recent news out of Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, it emerged that the right-wing Bayit Yehudi (“Jewish Home”) political party would join forces and merge with the uber-right Otzma Yehudit party. By all accounts, Rafi Peretz, the leader of the right-wing Bayit Yehudi, was opposed to merging with these most extremist and violent elements—until Netanyahu mounted a desperate and cynical campaign to bring about the union. Bibi even cancelled a meeting with Vladimir Putin in order to make sure this deal among fanatics went through.

Otzma Yehudit is the successor to Kach and Kahane Chai (“Kahane lives!”), the banned political parties of the racist demagogue Meir Kahane (yimach sh’mo, may his memory be blotted out). Its leaders are devoted followers of Kahane, who embraced violent and terrorist tactics until his existence on this earth was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in New York in 1990.

If Likud retains its power in the April elections, Bibi has promised Bayit Yehudi two seats in his next cabinet. If this union is allowed to proceed to its conclusion, the most fanatical and racist fringe of Israel will be empowered and granted legitimacy. Its leadership—potential cabinet members—would include:

·      Baruch Marzel, one of Kahane’s top aides, and a public celebrant of Baruch Goldstein (yimach sh’mo), who murdered 29 Muslims at prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994.

·      Itamar Ben Gvir, who, just prior to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s murder in 1995, displayed the stolen Cadillac hood ornament from Rabin’s car on national TV and spewed, “Just as we got to this symbol, we can get to Rabin.”

·      Benzi Gopstein, leader of the violence-inciting, fanatical Lehava movement that attacks Jews and Arabs on the streets of Israel in order to prevent the mingling of races and cultures.

The United States considers the Kahanist organizations to be linked with terror. The overwhelming majority of Israelis consider this radical fringe to be abhorrent, perverted, and frankly dangerous to the Zionist endeavor. Their predecessors were banned from legitimate political discourse—and they should be as well.

Together, Kahane and Goldstein are surely the two biggest purveyors of hillul hashem, the desecration of G-d’s name, than any other Jews since Shabbatai Tzvi.

Now, if Bibi has his way, their loyal disciples are one step closer to being just another voice around the table of Jewish opinion—a voice with potential legislative power at that.

We expect other organizations and political parties to condemn and expunge incitement and bigotry from within their ranks. (See: Democrats who condone Farrakhan; Republicans who wink and nod at white supremacy; Women’s March leaders who demonize Israel; the British Labour Party.)  We should demand the same from the Knesset.

 American Jews simply must speak out. Jewish organizations, if they have any integrity, must declare that this is beyond the pale. I’d suggest:

·       A moratorium on any members of Netanyahu’s Likud, and of course the Bayit Yehudi party, from being invited guests or speakers at American Jewish events (AIPAC?) until a retraction is made;

·       A full-throated condemnation of this from every American Jewish organization;

·       Individual Jews should contact their local Israeli consulates and their Federation presidents, demanding that they convey our revulsion to Jerusalem.

This is not the Israel we love, defend, and teach about. We celebrate Israel as the culmination of the dreams of millennia, an open and diverse culture reared by the great leaders in the Zionist pantheon. No, this is a שֹׁ֛רֶשׁ פֹּרֶ֥ה רֹ֖אשׁ וְלַעֲנָֽה (Deut. 29:17); a poison weed, one that previous administrations had striven to uproot. To see its toxic shoots again—this time with the legitimation of the Prime Minister—is dismaying, and we must commit this day to calling it out.

Remembering Al Vorspan, My Teacher and Hero

My teacher, friend, and hero Al Vorspan has died. I suppose I knew this day would come—it was 10 years ago when I first heard him say, “I’m so old that I don’t even buy green bananas anymore”—but it’s hard to believe we live in a world that Al no longer inhabits.

By the way, if that seems irreverent, I feel okay using that line about the bananas, because Al was one of the funniest people on the planet. He was also one of the most righteous, and humor + righteousness is a powerful combination. (Consider the alternatives: Humor without righteousness can be terribly cruel. Righteousness without humor can be stultifyingly pretentious.)

Others will eulogize him more fully than I, but the arc of his career includes essentially being the preeminent voice of Judaism and social justice throughout the second half of the 20th century. He was a committed Zionist and a passionate fighter against antisemitism. He was director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, a builder of the Religious Action Center in DC, a leader in the civil rights and nuclear freeze movements, and zealous fighter for human rights. He sat in a jail cell in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964 with sixteen rabbis, brought south to protest segregation at the behest of Martin Luther King. He taught rabbinical students at HUC the history of the Jewish involvement in the Great Causes of the century, in a class that basically consisted of Al and Rabbi Jerry Davidson telling their stories from the trenches. (I fear I still owe them a paper.) He authored textbooks, sourcebooks on Jewish social justice, and at least four collections of humor. He also was a hysterically failed candidate for Congress, the wellspring of some of his best stories.  

His name should be thundered from the mountaintops as one of the Great Jews of Our Time.

In 2007, I was at the Consultation on Conscience, the Reform movement’s bi-annual political action conference in Washington, and grabbing 30 minutes alone with Al was always one of the reasons I attended. We decided to sit together for the next session, to be addressed by a certain ex-Governor who was running as a Republican candidate for President. (I remember exactly who it was, but that weasel doesn’t deserve to have his name in the same essay where I’m remembering a tzaddik like Al.)

This guy—a not terribly sophisticated conservative, unprepared by his aides, addressing a progressive Jewish organization—gave a speech that was a comedy of errors. I remember when he told us his qualifications to be President:  I served many years as Governor, before going into business and making some money… which is something I understand you people know a little something about. (Paging Ilhan Omar!!!)  Al turned to me, and his jaw was on the floor.

Al’s face was getting redder and redder as this guy lumbered through his policy initiatives, including clearing his state’s welfare rolls, shackling labor unions, etc. But then he got to Jewish issues, and he wanted this group to know that he was a supporter in the fight against antisemitism. He was a longtime friend of the ADL. Except that he didn’t say “ADL.” He kept saying, over and over, “…JDL… JDL…JDL.”  The first time might be excused as a slip; the third showed this guy didn’t have a clue about Jewish organizations. (The JDL was the radical, violent organization run by the late and unlamented Meir Kahane. The ADL, of course, is quite different; it’s one of the premier civil rights and interfaith bridge-building organizations in our system.)

Well, Al Vorspan, the voice of Jewish social justice, just about had steam blowing out of his earholes. After the speech, one of the governor’s flacks came to the podium and informed us that the governor didn’t mean any of the things that he had just spent twenty minutes telling us. It was a comedy—and I was so glad to share this moment with Al. We laughed and groaned about it for years afterwards.

A few years back, I invited Al to speak in my community on the 40th yartzeit of Martin Luther King. He agreed readily, and said, “What do you want me to accomplish?” I told him: “Al, I think that too many people simply don’t know the stories from the era. Tell them the stories.” Which he did, brilliantly.

The other thing that I think people forget is why we’re supposed to do the work of social justice. Al would send us back to the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and he wrote at least two textbooks on their messages. At a time when the “prophetic voice” has been emptied of all but its hoariest clichés, it would be a good idea to launch a study of the Prophets in Al’s honor. (I was distressed to hear that some Reform synagogues are getting rid of the Shabbat Haftarah reading, because their bar mitzvah kids just couldn’t “connect” to the words. What a relinquishing of one of the most crucial Jewish literary gifts to the world!)

Around three thousand years ago, a religious phenomenon—prophecy—arose in the Ancient Near East. Prophets had a direct line to G-d, and delivered the divine message to an audience that often didn’t want to receive it. The prophets gave equilibrium to a religious world of priestly worship and legal adherence. Together, the interaction of law, ritual, and prophecy shaped ancient Israel.

My teachers warned us that there wasn’t one singular prophetic message—they had a lot of truths to speak to lots of powerful figureheads. But one common feature was: the prophets insisted that a religious life of legal conformity emptied of human and divine concerns was worse than hollow; it was hypocrisy.  So a crucial part of the message of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Amos, etc., is to behave according to the spirit as well as the letter of G-d’s law. If you believe that G-d has one Divine Image in the world—namely, other human beings—you had better act accordingly, by protecting the rights and integrity and inherent dignity of other people.

In our tradition, prophecy came to an end around 2300 years ago. And understandably so: it was a messy institution. But since then, we have wrestled to bring the message of these figures—who would hold our feet to the fire and make sure we lived according to the values we purported to hold—to fruition.  Al Vorspan was the great exemplar of this voice for our time. His name should be remembered, and told to the next generation. In that way, it will remain a blessing.

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