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.

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?

All You Need is Love

It’s mid-summer and Love Is All Around.

2017 is the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love,” and The Beatles spearheaded the moment in July 1967 with “All You Need is Love.” The song was recorded as Great Britain’s contribution to “Our World,” the first live global television transmission: 400 million people in 25 countries watched John, Paul, George, and Ringo sing:

Nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be

It’s easy

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love

Love is all you need

Love is also in the air because it’s Tu B’Av, the date on the Jewish calendar devoted to love. (And not the rabbis’ kind of love—you know, “God’s love for the people of Israel.” It’s about the good kind.)

Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the month of Av, falls just six days after the bleakest day on the calendar, Tisha B’Av, as if to offer comfort and consolation after that day’s commemoration of tragedy and destruction.

Tu B’Av is unmentioned in the Bible, but appears briefly in the Talmud, Ta’anit 26b and 30b-31a. There we are told:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said:
There were no days as joyous for the people of Israel as the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white clothes—borrowed, so as not to embarrass one who did not have [any of her own]. 

…They would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man! Raise your eyes and see what you are choosing for yourself. Do not set your eyes on [surface] beauty, but rather on [a good] family.

[As it says in the Bible,]
Grace is deceptive, beauty is illusory
But a woman who fears God is to be praised.
And it further says,
Extol her for the fruit of her hands,
And let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:30-31).

So early Israel had a day devoted to frolicking and partnering up, long before your mother’s friend had “someone she wanted you to meet.” Note especially that the Talmud’s description of “a good family” has nothing to do with money or social status. My favorite part of this description is how the young women of Jerusalem would borrow their festive clothes from one another, so that there was no rich or poor on this day, no humiliation or shame for the Cinderella who isn’t invited to the white collar criminals’ ball.

The Talmud goes on to link this day to events that happened in Israel’s past—days when relief from suffering came to a blessed end, and normal life could resume. One Sage says Tu B’Av was the date when it was determined that members of different tribes of Israel could intermarry with one another. Another Rabbi says that it was the day that Israel was permitted to marry members of the tribe of Benjamin, who had been declared off-limits after the intertribal war described in Judges 19-21. And a third opinion says that Tu B’Av was the day when the deaths of the Israelites in the wilderness—the generation that was doomed to die and not enter the Land of Israel—came to an end; a new generation was now established and they could prepare to enter the Land.  (For all five explanations of Tu B’Av, see Ta’anit 30b-31a.)

It is wonderful to simply note that ancient Israel, like so many other cultures, had a day devoted to love. But what is “love” in the Torah, anyway?

Jews have many words for love, just as, so they say, Eskimos have many words for snow. The most common is ahavah, a word that appears frequently as a noun and as a command (“v’ahavta”). But many have wondered: how can the Torah command love?

I think the key is to understand what, exactly, the Bible means by ahavah. We are, after all, commanded to love many things:  God; fellow Israelites; the stranger (= the immigrant, the minority in our society); and most famously, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  What does it mean?

Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that “love” in the Torah is not simply an emotion. Love necessarily entails action:

How can love be commanded? The answer simply is that the verb ‘ahav signifies not only an emotion or attitude, but also deeds… The ger [minority] is “loved” by providing him with food and shelter (Deut. 10:18-19). God is “loved” by observing His commandments (Deut. 11:1, 6:5-6,9) and God, in turn, “loves” Israel by subduing its enemies (Deut. 7:8).  (Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, p.1653).

That is to say: of course love is deeply rooted as an emotional complex of compassion, affection, desire, gratitude, and nurturing. But the Bible’s definition of love demands behavior that stems from those feelings.

All of which makes perfect sense. If someone says they love you, you expect that means something more than simply sending flashes of warmth in your direction; it means you can expect certain kindnesses and acts from that person. When my wife, whom I love, needs something, it is a privilege to put my own will aside and to get her what she lacks. When my children, whom I love, hurt, then I hurt.

Or phrased in the negative—if someone disappears in our time of need, or speaks cruelly behind our back, or simply doesn’t have time for us, we may suspect that person didn’t really love us in the first place.

Of course, we are human beings, and by nature we are imperfect and doomed to disappoint. So we should hasten to add that falling short and forgiveness should be built-in parts of a genuine loving relationship as well. Some of the actions that love demands include what the Torah calls tochecha - critique and correction, in order to help the object of our love be the best that they can be. (This is an important part of what we mean by loving one's country.) We believe in teshuvah, the opportunity to return and repair. The point is, “love” demands both presence and action in addition to deep-seated emotion.

So was Lennon זצ״ל right when he sang, “All You Need is Love”? We need more than that. We need justice. And truth. And the ability to support ourselves in a dignified way. We need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. And God knows we need more peace.

But if “love” is a multidimensional thing that includes feeling and acting on those feelings, maybe Lennon was on to something. If love spurs us to action, maybe Love Is All You Need.

Happy Tu B’Av!

Tisha B'Av, Exile, & The Laws of Physics

Astrophysicists understand principles of physics to become “laws” when they can be reliably applied not only on earth but also universally throughout… well, the universe. For instance, the Second Law of Thermodynamics presumes that objects everywhere have an inclination towards entropy and chaos. And a gravitational principle like centrifugal force, which pulls objects away from their center, is considered reliably true.

I wonder about the universality of these principles in relationships and the human soul. Is “entropy and chaos” our destination? Is there a centrifugal force that pushes us apart? Do our lives automatically incline towards distance and exile?

Stay with me, because Tisha B’Av, the most solemn fast day in the Jewish calendar, is upon us. The 9th day of the month of Av has been a magnet for disaster in Jewish history, encapsulated as the date of destruction of both the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem and the subsequent Jewish exiles from the Land of Israel.

The Sages of Jewish tradition confronted the destruction of the Temple (the Beit HaMikdash) and their exile with radical theology. They spiritualized the message of destruction. And this is a point that I think we lose sight of: what Tisha B’Av really tells us about G-d and human beings.

To understand this, we have to understand what the Beit HaMikdash meant. According to Solomon’s dedication prayer for the Temple (in I Kings 8), worship there had several goals: Someone who was wronged could go to plea for divine justice. Israel sought divine assistance there versus her adversaries. Prayers were offered for relief in times of natural disaster or epidemic. Individuals sought forgiveness for their sins. And it was a place for non-Israelites as well: Solomon asserted that God’s House would be a place for anyone who grasped God’s wonders and wanted to share in celebration of them.

There were other innovations. It was not just a place for reconciliation with God; it was also about reconciling with people. There was a “chamber of secrets”—like something out of Harry Potter—where people would give Tzedakah in secret and others would take in secret, to minimize their loss of dignity (M. Shekalim 6:6). There was also a space in the Temple where a person would return lost objects—not just objects lost in the Temple precincts, but things that belonged to others and had been discovered during the year and throughout the countryside; the Temple was a national lost-and-found (Bava Metzia 28a).

In short, “Anyone who never saw the Beit HaMikdash in its constructed state has never seen a magnificent building” (Sukkah, 51a). And I can’t help but think that by “magnificent” they don’t just mean bean beautiful architecture, but ethical beauty.

The Beit HaMikdash was a place for divine-human intimacy. But that could only be achieved in a place of human-human intimacy, a place where people treated one another with the value, respect, and honor deserving of the Image of God.

In 70 BCE, the Romans destroyed the Temple, burned Jerusalem, and exiled the Jews. The Talmud strove to understand how God could let this happen. And it came to a radical conclusion:

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things: idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed.

However, the Second Temple—a time when people were engaged in Torah study, Mitzvot, and acts of kindness—why was it destroyed? Because of senseless hatred (sinnat hinam).

This teaches us that senseless hatred is worse than idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. (Yoma 9b)

The Talmud, in Gittin 55b-57a, describes various vignettes and a chain of events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem. The most famous of these scenes is the “Story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza,” where a private dispute turns into the public humiliation of a certain man named Bar Kamtza. His humiliation takes place in front of the ambivalent Rabbis, the leaders of the community, who couldn’t care less about his suffering. It culminates with the understanding that “God destroyed God’s house.”

What is the point of all this? And what is so radical about it?  The Talmud is saying that people in those final days of the Beit HaMikdash were already estranged from one another. They couldn’t talk to one another, they publicly embarrassed one another, and ultimately they failed to see the divine in one another. Once a society reaches this low state, where someone would be publicly humiliated and no one would speak in his defense, then the community is already in exile—and its foundations are rotten. 

The Beit HaMikdash is meant to be the antithesis of Exile. So if the people are already exiled from one another, then the Temple is purposeless and empty. Thus God flicks it away; its reason for being had ceased to exist. The Temple wasn’t destroyed as a punishment per se, as if to say, “Because you sinned, I exiled you.” To the contrary, its message is: I, God, was already in exile from you. So I tossed the Temple away like a used candy wrapper.

The question at the heart of Tisha B’Av is: Are we destined to pull away from one another? Is Exile—the place where each of us is ultimately, fundamentally Alone—the natural movement of our lives? 

There is a centrifugal force that moves people apart from one another; it is exacerbated by selfishness, greed, and a failure to find empathy for people whom we know are hurting. More than that: the Talmud condemns as accomplices the bystanders in the Bar Kamtza story, the ones who didn’t humiliate Bar Kamtza but who didn’t do anything to support him. Bystanders to evil are contributors to its effects. If you do nothing in the face of lies and hurt, then you are part of the forces that are pushing exile deeper.

The only way to counteract exile is to apply a countervailing force. (This was the theological premise of early Zionism: don’t passively wait for exile to end, but get to work ending it.) Where there are lies, speak truth. Where a person hurts, provide comfort. Where this is injustice, stand up. And where there is hate, apply love. 

Rav Kook called this countervailing force ahavat hinam, “senseless” or default love, the only possible response to sinat hinam, senseless hate. (Orot HaKodesh, Vol. III, p.324).

The Second Law of Thermodynamics presumes that objects have an inclination towards distance and disorder. But Stephen Hawking, musing on the nature of black holes, notes that this law is not universal: 

The second law of thermodynamics has a rather different status than that of other laws of science, such as Newton’s law of gravity, for example, because it does not hold always, just in the vast majority of cases. (A Brief History of Time, p.130)

In other words, exile isn’t inevitable. And Tisha B’Av is not a black hole of bleakness. It just reminds us that passivity and inertia will pull us further apart from one another, and from our source, unless we act—and act soon.