Monday, April 26, 2010

Back to the Gemara and Lessons about why and how we learn Torah

Back to the Gemara and Lessons about why and how we learn Torah

In my ongoing Gemara learning with my son, Brian, we are approaching the end of 8a of Berachot. This week we learned the following text:

And Rabbi Chiya bar Ami said in the name of Ulla, Greater is he who derives benefit from his own labor and efforts (while showing awe for G-d) than the one who shows awe for G-d (and does not labor on his own but depends on others for sustenance). (translated from the text on Berachot 8a)

At this point, as often happens in the Gemara, Rabbi Chiya quotes texts from Tanach to amplify the point just presented. The two texts that are quoted both come to us from Tehilim, the Book of Psalms:

About the one who has great awe for G-d and does not depend on his own labor for sustenance, we read in Tehilim 112.1 that

א הַֽלְלוּיָ֨הּ ׀ אַשְׁרֵי־אִ֭ישׁ יָרֵ֣א אֶת־יְהֹוָ֑ה בְּ֝מִצְוֹתָ֗יו חָ֘פֵ֥ץ מְאֹֽד:

Happy is the person who has awe for G-d and wants greatly (to do) G-d’s commandments.

About the one who derives benefit from his own labor and efforts while showing awe for G-d (this is understood as always being part of the equation in such texts and omission is not due to lack of presence, but the fact that this awe is a given), we read in Tehilim 128.2 that

ב יְגִ֣יעַ כַּ֭פֶּיךָ כִּ֣י תֹאכֵ֑ל אַ֝שְׁרֶ֗יךָ וְט֣וֹב לָֽךְ:

You shall eat from (enjoy) the efforts (fruits) of your hands (labor); you will be happy and it will go well for you.

The text of the Gemara now shows that Rabbi Chiya points to the fact that in both cases people are happy (note the root for happiness: aleph – shin – reish), but only when one works and then depends upon and derives what he needs from this labor, do we add the blessing that “it will go well for you.” The notion is presented that the happiness will come in this world, in Olam HaZeh, while the “good” that will be his reward comes in Olam HaBa. This second blessing does not appear for the one who only depends on G-d, but does not provide for his family and himself.

Clearly this runs counter to the well known joke of an intended son-in-law who comes to his future father-in-law before the wedding. He has already indicated that his plans are to learn full time in Kollel and he does not intend to work at a profession. The father-in-law-to-be is appropriately concerned and asks him, “So, how will you pay for your home?” The young man quickly replies to this, “G-d will provide.” The father-in-law then continues to ask, “What about the food that you need to eat?” Once again, the young scholar answers, “G-d will provide.” “How will you educate your children?” persists the father-in-law with his line of questioning. Again, the same response, “G-d will provide.” This goes on for some time with the father-in-law questioning and the intended son-in-law continuing to pronounce his simple response. After the conversation the father-in-law-to-be goes to see his wife. “So, how did the conversation go,” she asks. “Great,” replies her husband, “The young man thinks I am G-d.”

This is not an empty joke based upon a theoretical situation but reflects the truth for many families in many of our communities. I distinctly remember years ago when I heard a D’var Torah by one of the Rabbaim in our community who insisted that we are responsible for the education of every child and once we finish paying for our own children, those who are paying ARE OBLIGATED to pay for the other children in the community whose families cannot (will not?! because of their choices) do so. I was extremely offended by the implications that we all understood. Namely, for those who study full time, I and the other professionals are supposed to join that father-in-law and provide. What does doing so deny my children for whom I take COMPLETE FINANCIAL responsibility and work hard to make sure that they have what they need? More importantly, what would doing so TEACH my children about not relying on their own skills and capacity to support and take care of themselves?

Now, true many will charge that the teaching cited above is Aggadic material (the stories we tell) and therefore is not weighted as much as Halachic (legal) material. In this framework, this story has little if any standing to support my case for not buying the “support our Kollel families” mentality. However, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches us that the stories we tell as part of our Jewish foundational texts are not only as important as the laws we teach but more so in that they give us a sense of the application of the laws by real people in real times. In other words, for Sacks, these stories are not devoid of Halacha but rather the activation of their practice and applications in our lives.

One does not have to go far to understand this. Remember that the Tanaim and Amoraim had professions in addition to their reputation as learners of text. They were water carriers, hewers of wood, teachers, doctors, and contributed to society as well as supported themselves and their families by a variety of means. Why is this NOT the example followed in too many (though clearly not all!) corridors of Jewish learning communities today?

Now, we return to our text at hand from Berachot 8a. The message is clear. We are to study Torah, have awe of G-d, AND understand that the best way to actualize and put these things and teachings into practice is precisely by being involved in a worldly occupation. Shimeon Bar Yochai learned this lesson when he emerged from the cave in which he was for so long and misunderstood what he saw when he observed people preparing for Shabbat by dealing with their crops and produce. As a result of not understanding that this is the way of the world and actualizing Torah in the world – namely to be involved in the world in practical ways – he was sent by G-d back into his cave. Perhaps this is the problem – too many in our communities have willfully created their own caves and refuse to be part of worldly pursuits.

It is at this point that the text of Berachot 8a comes to teach us that we have to take responsibility for ourselves. We have to provide for our families and the wellbeing of those for whom we are responsible as well as learn and show that we have awe of G-d. In fact, by taking responsibilities we ARE SHOWING our awe for G-d by taking care of ourselves and others created by G-d to whom we are directly accountable.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Revisiting the Story of Nadav and Avihu

This past week, we read the Parsha of Shmini in the book of VaYikra. In it occurs the most disturbing and perplexing situation involving Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who offer something strange to G-d and are then consumed. As the text reports:

א וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַֽ֠הֲרֹ֠ן נָדָ֨ב וַֽאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהוָֹה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם: ב וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֹ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֹֽה: ג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַֽהֲרֹ֗ן הוּא֩ אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָֹ֤ה ׀ לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַֽהֲרֹֽן:

Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took their fire pans, put fire in them, and placed incense on it; and they brought these before G-d, with a strange fire which G-d did not command them to bring. Fire came forth from G-d and consumed them and they died before G-d. Moshe said to Aaron, “This is what G-d meant when G-d said, “Through those near to me I show myself holy, and before all of the people I will have glory.” Aaron was silent.

So many of the classical commentators talk about the sin or the misdeed of Nadav and Avihu and indicate that this fire from G-d is punishment for bringing something as an offering to G-d that was not commanded. What is most curious is that this story occurs after we have read for many chapters about exactly how and what we were to offer to G-d on a variety of different occasions and for different reasons. Further, after this brief but critical departure, we will go back to laws of purity, discipline and boundaries, namely those involved with the practices of Kashrut, structuring the eating patterns for the entire nation. Rashi and Ramban both explain that this offering of a strange fire was the cause for the death of Nadav and Avihu and to be sure, this is the conventional reading of the text.

In learning this recently with my son and daughter, we discussed an alternative possibility. Nadav and Avihu were leaders in their own right, good people to be sure by any measurement. Clearly, the commentators are deeply troubled by what is seen here as a misguided action for which they (as well as Aaron, their mourning father) are punished in the most extreme way, through death by fire as a response to the fire they offered.

What was their motivation? Why would these two good people commit such a heinous deed? Or, perhaps, something else entirely is going on here. What if this offering was as a result of their zealous desire to please G-d? What if in their excitement and passion, they “made up” this offering in a moment of inspiration and desire not unlike those felt by brilliant poets and songwriters, dramatists, artists, and others whose moments of intense insight result in strokes of genius, figuratively and literally? If this was what happened, now how do we read this event and extrapolate important and meaningful lessons from it?

On one hand, I made the point during our study that this one text would serve as a clear directive against creative prayer. Yet, while many members of our community may love this idea before we run too fast with it, remember that so much of our structured and disciplined Tefillah scripts were in fact the result of such inspiration and genius. So, that does not seem to completely work as a reading to me.

Maybe, just maybe, there is another message here. A message of boundaries and discipline and remembering that too much of anything is not always the way to go. We observe that Judaism continually teaches us the value of moderation and boundaries. We pray but are also to study. We study and we are also to work in a livelihood. We work to support our families, and we are also supposed to contribute to the larger community. We spend time improving and refining ourselves and we are also to concern ourselves with the well being of others and be an active participant in the larger community. We are truly the ultimate multi-taskers, we Jews are!

To multi-task, one cannot become too wrapped up in any one aspect of one’s life. That is why we do not have Jewish monks, nuns or ascetics of any type. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, we value the sage more than the saint; that is to say, we are to improve ourselves while we refine society and as part of that effort, as opposed to living in isolation and “far away from that maddening crowd.” Perhaps this is the lesson of Nadav and Avihu. Offering sacrifices to G-d was not simply and singularly about the single minded devotion to G-d, but rather involved following all instructions, observing the limits and boundaries that each person in the community had to respect, and acknowledging that ultimately we serve G-d by the totality of all of our various actions and involvements, not by a single stroke or inspiration of genius.

I love the lesson of solar eclipses; it is a spiritual lesson that is very relevant here. We are not to look at the naked sun because we will become “blinded by the light,” as the song goes. This can happen with any single-minded effort in our lives if we are not careful. The very thing that draws us to it, be it the light of the sun, the love of our soul mate, the passion we have for an activity, or our desire to be one with G-d and G-d’s desires for us, can ultimately destroy us if we approach this object of our affections with disregard for boundaries and the discipline that will protect us throughout our strivings.

I think that Nadav and Avihu can come to teach us this lesson as well. Strange fires are those that can come from within us if we do not observe the protective covering that discipline, rules and boundaries provide us just as dark glasses and protective coverings will prevent blindness when the sun, which we may crave, is so exposed. Perhaps the lesson is that we have to temper our excitement and our passion, no matter how noble the motivation may be. Otherwise, we too may be consumed by the light that is way too bright, as were Nadav and Avihu.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Okay, so I have been thinking about this Jewish Education problem and...

Okay, so I have been thinking about this Jewish Education problem and …

I learned a very long time ago that to state a problem is not enough. One must think about and propose some ideas to fix what is wrong so that we can move on. Therefore, I must provide at least some initial thinking regarding the issues I discussed in my last blog entry, though clearly I could write tomes on this topic. Now, before I begin, remember my philosophy that we will never fix in five minutes... or five days … or five months what took decades to evolve, or devolve, as the case may be. That being said, we all know that the only constant in our lives is change. Our communities change, our priorities change, the very context of our teaching changes, and so forth…. And of course, we change.

So, our educational institutions must change as well, and herein lies part of the problem. Years ago I was consulting with a large congregational school and had helped them reconceptualize and ultimately rewrite their curriculum and trained their teachers to incorporate the new strategies and pedagogic style into their teaching. At one of the last meetings when everyone was so pleased with the work we had collectively done, one of the congregational leaders stood up and said, “I don’t understand why we had to go through this process. This was done forty years ago or so and we had a perfectly good course of studies from then.” Needless to say, there was a collective audible gasp in the room for all of the obvious reasons.

Thus, here we sit, understanding and accepting that we will never come up with the PERFECT and TIMELESS solution and magic formula for Jewish education or any program in which past, present and future conflate in different and variant ways in different places and spaces. Rather, we should strive for the contextually appropriate model and insure that it works within our present reality. That being said, I will revisit a few of the problems indicated in my previous writing and suggest approaches that we may want to and more importantly, need to consider.

1. Dreaming and visioning of educational planning and goals were the stuff of which Jewish Education in the Eighties and into the Nineties prided itself. Today, often people feel that we have ceased dreaming and visioning to the degree we should. Concerns about testing results, covering required material (which grows exponentially as time passes), what is fiscally responsible and making sure that we “hold onto our customers,” as one colleague put it (?!), overrun our initial understanding of our roles as educators. THIS ROLE NEEDS TO BE RECLAIMED. When I work with communities as a consultant, educator or educational leader, I always focus on my role as facilitator and gatherer. What do I mean by that? As we work together, there are three general outcomes – building a sense of community ownership of the program and school on which we are working; the work product, be it a curriculum, actual school entity, new mission statement and goal structure, or whatever; and the acquisition of the tools necessary to go through and replicate the process we have just engaged in as the community continues to change and grow. As I often explain, I have parented four children. Our youngest is a fourteen year old young man who is growing by the week. We are buying new wardrobes monthly, not because the clothes from before are now bad or he, G-d forbid, is bad; but rather these good clothes and this great child just do not fit together any more. So, we use our well honed skills of shopping to rectify the situation. This is actually analogous in many ways to how we need to look at “the what and the how” of our educational system, consistently holding ourselves accountable to the foundational elements while stretching, putting in new parts and the like as needed.

2. In hiring Heads of School, many communities have not distinguished whether
they are looking for a COO/CEO or an Educational Director.
This often leads to confusion in terms of the expectations of the person being entrusted with the running of the school on the part of all involved. It is a reality that we are not in the same fiscal situation we were in twenty or thirty years ago. Our demands for our institutions are greater and the available dollars are harder to find (though I would contend that more are out there than we think and that how they are used is sometimes problematic). Nonetheless, to sacrifice the quality of the product so that we are fiscally responsible is actually being institutionally, communally, and yes, fiscally irresponsible. I am amazed at how communities tout their brand new beautiful facilities and state of the art technology and then don’t have enough money to pay faculty, make individual classes larger and larger, and the like which is counterintuitive to how we must regard the education of our children, with so many different needs and learning differences. It appears that the problem is further exacerbated by the many advertisements for Heads of School that begin with fiscal skills as the first skill set. THIS PROBLEM MUST BE ADDRESSED as wonderful educators are sitting and languishing while, frankly, the wrong people are too often in these top positions, earning much higher salaries than these institutions can afford, adding yet another obstacle to putting dollars where they are most needed. Communities MUST distinguish their legitimate needs for HEAD ADMINISTRATORS from their increasingly profound need for VISIONARY EDUCATORS. As communities that used to work together to insure that both types of support were provided are now torn and make forced choices, the educators are the ones that are relegated to being expendable. WE DEPARATELY NEED VISIONARY EDUCATORS AS HEADS OF OUR INSTITUTIONS AND THESE SPECIAL PEOPLE NEED to be able to work on educational viability and growth.

3. To whom and what are we comparing our Jewish day schools? Who is our
target population?
To be sure, there is a long and changing history of Jewish
Day School options and programs in our lives. As a child, I remember when you
either went to an Orthodox single sexed program or public school supplemented by a religious education within the movement in which you were raised, including those of us who were Orthodox. Now, we boast our many day schools and affiliations. I noted in my consulting in the eighties and nineties that every small Jewish community had a day school. Recently so many of these schools and others have closed their doors. To be sure, demographics have played havoc with our Jewish communities. However, when I hear many community members and even community leadership, up to and including area Federations, speak of their Jewish day schools as analogous to fancy private schools, I am profoundly confused. This was NOT the choice my family was making when we worked hard to provide the resources for our first three children to attend Jewish Day School. At this point, this is among the many reasons our fourth child is NOT in Jewish Day School and instead attends our wonderful public school district and is home schooled in Jewish Studies. Further, looking at the widely differentiated scale of what day school tuition is in various communities indicates that this equation of affordability of Jewish Day School education for those who are not looking for FANCY PRIVATE SCHOOLING is even more of a profound problem in some of our Jewish areas in this country. If Jewish Day Schools were to provide a substantial and meaningful dual curriculum and infuse students with the notion of living in an American Jewish laboratory, how much of our board meetings and decision making time is allocated to these issues – these goals, this vision?

There is so much more to discuss, but this is enough to begin with for now. How sad it is to watch the demise of so much that has been built, hoped for and created through the years. I do sincerely hope that the future will greet us with brighter days and possibilities.