Monday, June 27, 2011

The People Are Revolting… or are they???

So, as we are in the season of Sefer BeMidbar, we have to ask what is going on here. We are in the midst of reading these stories about the rebellion of the people of Israel regarding the manna that they are eating and their stated desire to go back to Mitzrayim. Then there is the story of Miriam, Aaron and Moshe with its many lessons about Lashon HaRa – that use of language that gets us into big trouble. This lesson is further amplified
by the experience of the Meraglim – the scouts that were sent to Canaan/Eretz Yisrael to find out the “lay of the land,” if you will, and then report back. As we know this did not go so well either. Then of course there is Korach, the rebellion that ended up by being swallowed by the earth, so to speak.

It is not lost on this Jewish Educator that we hit these stories as the school year ends, summer begins and people might be thought to REBEL against the rhythm of their lives. So, what lessons do we extrapolate from these stories. We could say it’s not a good thing to rebel against or fight G-d. That’s an easy enough lesson, to be sure. However, maybe it’s a bit too easy and quick.

There is a wonderful text in Baba Metzia (59b) in which Rabbi Eliezer is in conflict with the majority of the Rabbis and calls on several phenomena to prove that he is right regarding the Kashrut of Achnai’s oven. Many of you may be familiar with the story. First he calls on a carob tree to move to prove he is right. The tree moves but we are taught that one cannot prove that an argument is correct based on this. Then he indicates that if the water changes the direction of its flow, this will prove him correct. This too happens but is deemed insufficient to make his argument. The story continues with the argument between the Rabbis and Rabbi Eliezer, as he asks for the Bat Kol, the voice of G-d to prove his argument. The story ends with the teaching that no such proof or any other is needed to prove any argument as the Torah is here on earth and should be used. The “punch line” as I like to call it goes like this, “G-d says, Ha! My children have outsmarted me! My children have outsmarted me!”

Without going into the content of this sugya (this part of the discussion in the Gemara) suffice it to say that I am not sure that rebellion within the context of our reality is a bad thing (even if it is directed against G-d?!). We generally think of rebellion as upsetting the system. However, as we have seen in our world, rebellions are often needed to retain a sense of balance and set ourselves back on a constructive course.

I love the notion that the Yetzer HaRa, usually referred to as the “bad inclination” is also the creative energy within us. Also in the Gemara, we learn that when there was a desire to destroy the Yetzer HaRa, G-d warned that without this creative energy that responds to our reality when something is missing or awry, there would be no products of creativity to be found, not even an egg, as the Talmudic text teaches.

Our creative energy is what spurs us on to be better and to inspire others to improve as well, hopefully bettering our world as we go along. Maybe this is what is going on in BaMidbar along with the discontent and the pushing of limits and all else that is found here. This is not to say that within this desire, there may be missteps and we have to be accountable for them. Look at the lessons we extrapolate from here –

• In the story of the siblings, Moshe shows compassion, we learn the unintentional negative results from inappropriate use of language – Avak Lashon HaRa, and our leaders are real people with real problems and conflicts.

• In the story of the Manna, we learn that people have a hard time adjusting to
change, even a good change like moving from slavery to freedom. We also learn the value of the adage, “If something is truly worthwhile, it will not be completed in one generation.” These were freed slaves and this is not the same as free people who have to begin an entirely new entity and chapter of history. Besides that, we are not immortal as we learned long ago on the first pages of the Torah.

• The Meraglim/scouts teach us about communal panic and remembering what your
mission is and to stay the course of action. Further, we learn that we have to look past challenges in order to move forward. Ramban makes the point that these scouts were human beings doing what human beings do and should not be the recipients of our full force of anger, or that of G-d either.

• Korach teaches us that there are always many sides to the story and that it is important to realize that our perspective may not be the same as yours.

Were there painful consequences in these situations? Was there in fact wrongdoing? Many of us would agree that of course this was the case. That being said, let us look at these narratives in terms of the human condition – we are all flawed human beings doing the best we can, whether Korach or Moshe, Miriam or the Meraglim, you or me. While there are clearly exceptions to this generalization, I think most of us would agree that it is through rebellion, through creative energy, through challenging the norm or the expected situation that some of our greatest strides have been made.

Rebellion, Revolutions and Creative Energy – these too were and are part of G-d’s plan, I believe. The trick is to use them well -- this is for me an important lesson of the years of desert life we read about in BaMidbar.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I am so sad ...

I am so sad ….

Disclaimer: I know that there are many thriving and healthy Jewish institutions all around but …

I just recently heard that a wonderful Jewish Day School (Rambam) in Baltimore is closing the end of this year. In recent years, other day schools (including two others I have been aware of most recently) have been closing, in more than a few cases, schools with which I had worked as a consultant some years ago. Other schools are having their backs broken by the mortgage on their show place buildings and administrators who are getting the types of salaries that we find in the private sector business world while the teachers are still earning way too little for doing increasingly more and more work. I am sad about this.

I also just read that a well loved Modern Orthodox Rabbi in Baltimore is leaving his congregation because he feels that he cannot grow the community any more as he explains that finding Modern Orthodox Jews in the increasingly black hat Greater Baltimore area is like looking for a needle in a haystack. This is certainly a dynamic felt in more than a few communities, thus widening the rift between the very observant and the not-so-much ritualistically observant though involved in so many other ways groupings. Those of us in this widening center of Modern Orthodox – Observant Conservative – Committed within any denomination Jews are finding ourselves out in the cold even with the coming summer. I am sad about this too.

We, that is our family, belong to a shul that we joined almost eleven years ago when we felt a bit like being “run out of town” from our former community (though we maintain many warm and caring friendships there, with people we truly love) and were assured that “we will never be a black hat shul.” Yet, many people in our present community are concerned about just that. I, in fact, was recently informed by a self identified “Modern Orthodox” leader in this shul community that it is against Halacha for a woman to speak in public giving announcements, a Dvar Torah or read Tefillah L’Medinat Yisrael (not even read anyway here, another problem for another time) during services. Imagine that, after all these years, this is totally new to me in my non-Yeshivish observant and committed Jewish upbringing and world. I am sad about this too.

I am most probably shortly leaving the world of Jewish Education (or at least many aspect of it) because I feel ethically compromised by too much of what I see. We have lost our barometer of who we are. We are not the fancy and exclusive private schools but when our Jewish Day Schools see themselves as being such, well… that is why our fourth child is not in Jewish Day School but in our amazing public school with my continued home schooling in Limudei Kodesh. So, now, I fear that after all these years, are we going backwards about 40 years to when it was Orthodox Yeshiva or something else (that is public or private school), without the Jewish Day School phenomenon as we know it? We blame the economy, which is clearly a factor, but let’s be honest – this is way too easy and there is something much more insidious going on here. We have lost our way. We are not doing values based education in these schools in some instances and kids are not even feeling safe physically; and this is not to even discuss what is (or is not) happening academically in too many, though thankfully not all, cases. I am sad about this too.

I am told by a very good friend and others that Jewish Day Schools are booming in the south and the west. I have not heard about these closing and this is a good thing. I know many Modern Orthodox Rabbis that are doing quite well in places in which new communities are sprouting up. Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Yeshivat Chovevei Torah is putting out a new brand of Orthodox Rabbi. Funny, this new brand is what I REMEMBER SO WELL from my youth. This new brand is not unlike Rabbi Landau who will be taking leave of his congregation in Baltimore. Yet, these Rabbis who are this “new brand” do not find positions so easily.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once said at a lecture I attended some years ago as he opened his presentation: Congratulations American Jewry, you are catching up to Israel. You are becoming more black or white and this is not the way to go.

I fear he may be right about our larger Jewish community in too many ways and this too makes me sad!