Dear Brandeis community,
During our time together in Israel, Lori Starr, Executive Director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), invited me to share a d'var Torah as part of the CJM's board retreat this morning. So I wanted to share what I wrote for that d’var, because I think it will be relevant and of interest to all of us here at Brandeis.
The d'var concerns itself with the future—with the ways in which we do the work of imagining new worlds, and what we can learn about that work from Tzav, this week's parashah (portion). As I was writing the d'var though, I found myself thinking about our celebration this weekend, the Moonlight Masquerade, and in particular about our honorees Ardath Kirchner and Neal Biskar.
I am astounded by the commitment Ardath and Neal have made to our community, by devoting their work lives to our children, across generations. Education is the work of the future—as is the work Moses and Aaron do in this week’s parashah, as Rashi reminds us (more on that below)—and Neal and Ardath have made the future their focus across four decades of our school's history. I hope you will all join me in honoring that focus and that dedication, by contributing to our Fund-A-Need, the Biskar/Kirchner Teacher Growth and Innovation Fund
. This fund will continue Ardath and Neal's work of paying it forward, by setting other teachers up for careers of impactful work for and with our children.
Here’s to a weekend of celebrating the past and the future, my friends!
D'var Torah - Tzav
Good morning, and Purim sameach! I am thrilled to be here with you today, as you prepare yourselves for a day of study and work, thinking about this beautiful and important institution that you collectively steward. I was honored to be asked by Lori and by Wendy to share a d'var Torah with you, as part of that preparation. We had the good fortune of having a d’var from Rabbi Batshir Torchio at the Brandeis Board retreat, on the Torah portion Shoftim, in which she offered some thoughts about leadership and justice, words that have stayed with me and many other board members throughout this year. I'm not a rabbi, but I hope I can offer you something similarly useful for the work that is ahead.
In preparing for this morning, I went back to Rabbi Batshir's d'var and found a lovely resonance there that I had not remembered. In her opening about Shoftim, she shared this as an aside:
I actually love all of Torah—and perhaps even more those parashot or sections that contain the unappetizing gristle of animal sacrifice, and nauseating, punctilious laws assigned to skin diseases, swarming creeping things, mold, and how to gut a heifer—those sections of Torah (like Vayikra, the opening of Leviticus) that make many a student recoil and gag when they discover it is their bar or bat mitzvah Torah portion.
Vayikra, of course, was last week's portion—and while I did not recoil and gag when Wendy reached out about doing a d’var this week, we are squarely in the opening of Leviticus, in the unappetizing gristle of sacrifices and offerings. And so I have the good fortune of getting to learn again with the Rabbi, about finding what there is to love in a parashah such as this one. (Spoiler alert: there is a lot to love!)
This week's parashah is called Tzav, which means "command." These opening chapters of Leviticus consist of Moses relaying to Aaron the laws of the priesthood and sanctuary rituals. There are fascinating subplots about leadership transitions, and Moses’s anxiety about helping his brother step into this new, more prominent role (I highly recommend Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's commentary on the portion, "On Not Trying to Be What You Are Not"). But what I want to talk with you about today is the future, and what we can learn about the future from this parashah.
One of the fun things about preparing a d'var is that you have the opportunity to read not just the Torah portion itself, but also the many many commentaries that rabbis have made on the Torah over the millennia. (Chabad.org offers an excellent online resource for finding many of those commentaries in a single place.) I was struck by a commentary from Rashi, the great medieval rabbi, about the title of this portion:
And G‑d spoke to Moses, saying: Command Aaron and his son...this is the law of the ascending offering...(Leviticus 6:1-2). The expression tzav ("command") implies an urging for now and for future generations.
-Torat Kohanim; Rashi
An urging for now and for future generations. How fascinating. It makes sense, of course: this is not the kind of command I level at my daughters about brushing their teeth or cleaning their room (you can tell that by virtue of the fact that this command seems to have an effect on its audience), but a command about creating systems and structures that will endure. Tzav's gristle of priestly detail is the work of relevance, of translating the sacred for Moses and Aaron’s biblical contemporaries. The fact that we are sitting here now discussing these words in 2016 suggests that there was something to that work.
I want to point out something else that I find fascinating here, a question I asked myself in looking at Rashi’s commentary. Why, in offering this understanding of "tzav," did he quote all the way to "the law of the ascending offering"? It’s an odd place to end—halfway through the second verse of Leviticus 6. I had a great poetry professor in college who used to describe these moments of asking why as "a place to scratch," that you have to find (in any text) a place to scratch, so that you can start uncovering its layers.
One answer might be that Rashi includes the ascending offering as a way of pointing to the systems and structures contained in this command, as I mentioned. But I have another theory. Olah, the Hebrew word for this offering, means "that which goes up in smoke," (which explains why it is sometimes translated as the "burnt offering,"), and is a form of the verb alah, to cause to ascend.
I'd like to suggest a little somatic exercise here. If you could all close your eyes, and get settled for a moment in your body. Imagine yourself sitting in front of a campfire or bonfire or fire pit, anywhere that you might sit by a fire in the open air. As you are sitting in front of that fire, perhaps with friends or relatives, you hear the logs crackle and pop, and you watch some of the sparks leap off the fire, and get caught up in the swirl of smoke, and you watch the sparks and the smoke as they weave up above the fire, then above your head, then above the trees, watching as they dissipate into stars.
OK—now come back to this moment, to where we are here this morning. We’ve watched something ascend, looking up into an imagined sky. Some of the rabbinical commentators have argued that the ascending offering is so called because it is an offering related to thinking, to the thoughts that rise to our minds. I would offer this additional understanding, then: if olah speaks of the ascension of thoughts, it speaks as well about imagination, about the possibilities our minds can create. We look up to the sky and we wonder. That space of ascension is the space of possibility, of hope, of the future.
Now, I did not intend to consult Fast Company as a source text for this morning's d’var, but I have to share something from an article about Lyft and Uber that I read there recently. (Full disclosure: I took Uber here this morning.) The article describes Lyft’s long play in the shared ride space. Here's the quote that stood out to me:
"We didn't get into this to replace taxis," says [Lyft President John] Zimmer. "That's just a $12 billion market in the U.S. We want to create an alternative to car ownership, which is a $2.15 trillion market in the U.S. alone," adding up the annual costs of buying, maintaining, and insuring vehicles. "It's totally inefficient. The typical car is used for 4% of the day and usually by one person. So that's 1% utilization of the second-highest household expense in the country."
What I was struck by here is the presence of future generations in this work—that the questions they are asking themselves are not about how I might get from my house to the CJM on a Thursday morning, but rather how our children's children might think about transportation, and the relationships between people and the things they own. They are peering into the stars and wondering about the world our children will live in—which is work that certainly resonates with your work, with our work at Brandeis, and no doubt with many of our lives as human beings.
Recently, I had the great good fortune of going on a trip to Israel with Lori and a number of other executive directors and board leaders, as part of a community building mission organized by the Jewish Community Federation and Varda Rabin. On that trip we were lucky to get to meet with many people working on another kind of long play—working toward building a pluralistic and multicultural civil society, planting the seeds of a just peace for future generations. We came face to face with their challenges: people living in separate towns and neighborhoods based on their religious or ethnic identity, attending different schools (there are four entirely separate state-funded public school systems, for secular Jews, religious Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Arabs), and with limited opportunity to interact with each other in public spaces or the workplace. Add to that the backdrop and history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, present for us in visceral ways during a particularly violent week, and, well, as many of the people we met with said, it’s complicated. In that context, it was particularly inspiring to see the work of community organizers, politicians, artists, teachers, and more, who were attempting to build bridges, to do the hard work of looking up and imagining a different world.
I brought Robert Alter's beautiful new edition of Yehuda Amichai's poems with me to Israel, as a way to help myself understand the country. In considering this work of imagination, I wanted to share with you the end of a poem of his from that collection, called "A Child is Something Else Again," translated by the Bay Area’s own Chana Bloch:
A child is vengeance.
A child is a missile into the coming generations.
I launched him: I'm still trembling.
A child is something else again: on a rainy spring day
glimpsing the Garden of Eden through the fence,
kissing him in his sleep,
hearing footsteps in the wet pine needles.
A child delivers you from death.
Child, Garden, Rain, Fate.
The whole poem is worth reading—but I wanted to bring it here for its urging for the future—the child as vengeance, the child as deliverance. The question the poem asks us of what future we imagine for our children, what we create for them, what we ask from them, what we hope. What is the command. What ascends.
The first sentence of your mission statement reads: "The CJM makes the diversity of the Jewish experience relevant for a twenty-first century audience." Relevance is so important in the work of culture and education—translating the sacred, our traditions, and of course the challenges of our world—and it comes to us from the Latin relevare, which shares the same root as elevate and means to raise up. And so I would invite you, in the spirit of Tzav, to remember the future as you consider the contemporary: to ask yourselves always, what are we raising up, what possibilities are present, what wishes are spiraling into our imagined skies.
I am so grateful that the CJM has such thoughtful leadership as Lori, and that you are all here to steward this powerful institution. I am so grateful as well to get to begin the morning with you—I look forward to many more opportunities to share thinking.