Talmud Starter Kit!

If you’re new to learning Talmud, it can be a bit disorienting to just start reading. Whether you’re thinking of joining Daf Yomi (it’s not too late!) or just want to immerse yourself in some rabbinic wisdom, the Talmud is both the on-ramp, and can also be an incredibly challenging road-block for beginners: the narrative is meandering, it has unique methods of argumentation, and is filled with obscure and arcane terminology.

As Shulem Deen poetically notes:

We have to grapple with ways of thinking that are so far from our own, and still find the resonant chords; make sense of a logical system whose premises are archaic and confounding and dogmatic, but still see its elegance; imagine a world in which life’s mysteries and uncertainties are nearly unimaginable to our modern minds, and still see, in those who lived with them, the same human impulses as ours.

So on the one hand, you should feel empowered to pick up the Talmud and go – it’s our heritage, after all! On the other hand, you want to be primed to glean as much as you can.

Why not start by diving in with this quick article: How to participate in the longest-running Jewish book club (even if you can’t read Hebrew) – which answers questions like these:

  • Do I need to be religious — or Jewish — to study Talmud?
  • Can I study Talmud even if I have little or no Hebrew background?
  • What version of the Talmud do you recommend I use, and where can I find it?
  • What resources and study aides are most helpful?
  • How do you keep track of everything you learn?

To get you started after that, here are some introductory and supportive materials that I’ve found to be helpful. I endorse them all. These all mostly assume that you’re starting Talmud study as a beginner, and reading the text in English translation. You don’t have to go in order, you can pick up an introductory book and listen to the podcasts together.

I. Where to Start?

1: Understanding The History of Jewish Texts and How They Work

41vJDuDoa+L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The Talmud is built upon an earlier text – the Mishnah – which itself is the early rabbis’ discussion on how to actualize the even earlier laws of the Torah. It’s hard to understand one without the other, so pick up the book Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts, by Barry W. Holtz, which will help you out with the history, context, content, and methodology of these texts, and more.

2: Who Were the Rabbis, and What did They Do?

the-evolution-of-torah-a-history-of-O04SoKa8MXy-bv2FSNLh3wy.1400x1400.jpgThe Jewish Theological Seminary has a fantastic new short podcast series – The Evolution of Torah: A History of Rabbinic Literature. I highly recommend these five podcast episodes as a launching point for your journey into the Talmud. They are an easily-digestible, but comprehensive introduction that answer such questions as: What led to the emergence of the group of scholars and teachers we call the Rabbis? What motivated them and what did they value?  How did the Babylonian Talmud become the most influential book in the Jewish world? 

3: Dive Into the Sea of Rabbinic Literature

51RsGVxK5jL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIf you’re ready to go deeper into how the Talmud itself functions, pick up the classic Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, by Hermann L. Strack and Gunter Stemberger – it’s a dense, but good academic introduction to the Talmud. Stemberger discusses the historical framework, the basic principles of rabbinic literature and hermeneutics, and the most important Rabbis.

4: Understand the Features of the Talmud

412NPDDCiYL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_This is still my go-to when I come across an obscure concept or argumentation theory. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s Reference Guide to the Talmud is an indispensable resource for students of all levels. This edition is fully revised, and clearly and concisely explains the Talmud’s fundamental structure, concepts, terminology, assumptions, and inner logic. It provides essential historical and biographical information, and includes appendixes, a key to abbreviations, and a comprehensive index.

5: Looking for Something More Personal?

513YbB8WAgL._SX286_BO1,204,203,200_Barry Scott Wimpheimer’s new The Talmud: A Biography provides “a concise biography of this quintessential work of rabbinic Judaism [that] takes readers form the Talmud’s prehistory in biblical and second-temple Judaism to its present-day use as a source of religious ideology… He describes the books origins and structure, its centrality to Jewish law, its mixed reception history, and its golden renaissance in modernity.” (from the book jacket). I found the book to be a bit overly-technical in its approach to dissecting the Talmud, but it’s a great, shorter introductory text that also introduces readers to a lot of other contemporary literature on the Talmud.

6: Want an Online Class?

Coursera has a 4-session online course run in partnership with Northwestern University – The Talmud: A Methodological Introduction. It’s taught by Barry Wimpheimer (author of The Talmud: A Biography), and this would be a natural way to continue some of your learning.


II. Read the Talmud!

Which Edition?

noe_brakhot_talmud_english_koren_eng_gold_removed_2_2_600xIf you’re planning to study in English, there are a few translations available, but I don’t think you can do any better than the recently-completed Koren Noé edition, which is based on Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s monumental Hebrew edition of the Bavli. You can get it in print individually by masekhet (tractate/volume), or as a complete series (it will set you back a pretty penny, but it’s a beautiful addition to any Jewish library).

The other leading English option available is from Artscroll, but I don’t think it compares to the Koren in terms of accessibility, commentary, user-friendly design, and scholarship. There’s an ongoing “Artscroll vs. Koren” debate, but in my opinion, it’s been handily won (perhaps not yet in sales, but certainly in beauty, grandeur, and integrity) by Koren.

Head’s up: in the Koren Noé / Steinsaltz editions, the Hebrew/Aramaic and English text is broken up and punctuated into into smaller chunks by argumentative unit. This is different from a standard print edition of the Talmud that doesn’t have similar punctuation or section breaks, but it makes it much easier to follow the internal logic.

Print or Digital?

I don’t think you can compare studying the text with a book in your hand to using a screen – there’s something about the traditional way of encountering the text on the page, with all the marginalia, centuries of added wisdom, and the ability to add your own notes in as you go. But, hey, it’s 2020! If you’re not up to shelling out $1,000, Koren also offers the ability to purchase PDFs of the same beautiful printed text.

Thanks to Sefaria (an online library of Jewish texts and easily my most-used website/app as a rabbi), the entire Koren English translation of the Talmud is available online for free. Don’t underestimate the significance of this fact – it’s truly a momentous landmark in the entire history of Jewish education. Don’t take my word for it, check out what The Washington Post had to say.

Using Sefaria

A few helpful notes on using Sefaria to study Talmud:

You can find the text of the Talmud here. Or, if you’re doing Daf Yomi, you can scroll down on the main page and link directly to today’s daf:Screen Shot 2020-01-06 at 11.21.38 AM.png

The text appears differently than in a standard printed Talmud – rather than laid out page by page, you’re going to get a continual stream of the text, with subheadings telling you when you cross a corresponding printed page.

Like the Koren English print edition, the Hebrew/English text on Sefaria is broken up into smaller chunks by argumentative unit. The bold text is the literal/idiomatic translation of the Aramaic/Hebrew, while the unbolded text rounds out the sentences with additional context and commentary from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. Aramaic is notoriously terse, so these additions are very helpful.

Most importantly, if you click on the text itself, you’ll bring up the Resources menu, where you can find links to later commentaries and other texts that make use of the passage:

Screen Shot 2020-01-06 at 11.35.44 AM.png

Other helpful hints: if you click the title of the daf (e.g. Bereakhot 3a in the screenshot below), you can jump to other pages throughout the Talmud. If you click the small in the top right, you can change the layout and display options.
Screen Shot 2020-01-06 at 11.27.37 AM.png


III. Daf Yomi Podcasts

These are my two go-to podcasts for catching up on Daf Yomi and adding to my own learning, but there are dozens out there. Just know that you’re almost always getting the Gemara filtered through a particular religious worldview – so do your research and choose wisely! Download these ones on iTunes, or your favourite podcasting app (I’m a big fan of Castro and Overcast).

55-Minute Daf Yomi with Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Rabbi Herzfeld does a great job of distilling the ikar – the central ideas of each daf – into a 5-minute podcast. He asks a few bigger thematic questions, so we can grapple with the relevance of what we’ve just learned. You also get to hear his reading and translating of the talmudic text in the traditional lyrical, almost song-like way of helping memorize the words. While there’s a lot of jargon and insider language (legal terminology, names, later commentaries) in this podcast, it’s easily digestible, and if you’re okay with looking up any concepts you want to know more about, this is a great way to keep up with the pace.

Daf Yomi for Women (Not just for women!)
daf-yomi-for-women-דף-יומי-לנשים-english-DOwlr7Z03bh.1400x1400From Michelle Cohen Farber and Hadran, the only organization dedicated exclusively to inspiring and enabling Jewish women across the world to learn Talmud. You can read about them in this great New York Times profile on the women-driven revolution in education. This is a longer podcast (usually ~45 minutes), quite fast-paced, that goes more in depth into each daf. If you have the time, and are also willing to look up any new concepts that aren’t defined, it’s a great way to hear the voices around the table. The first episode for this cycle also includes a great introduction to the Talmud, and is a good place for beginners to start.


IV. What’s Next?

Check out my own Instagram account Daily Talmud (shameless plug!), dedicated to Daf Yomi and follow along with the wisdom of the Talmud.

Screen Shot 2020-01-06 at 12.15.22 PM.png

We are blessed that this is the golden age of new books and learning about the Talmud’s place in our lives – both spiritual and academic. Here are just a few of my favourites that are good for beginners:

Author and NYU Professor Jeffrey Rubenstein has a number of books teaching about the amazing stories (aggadah) from the Talmud. Two ones I wholeheartedly recommend are: The Land of Truth: Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings and Stories of the Babylonian Talmud.

Rabbi Benay Lappe’s TedX and ELI talks on how “every religion comes into being to create meaning, and meaning comes by way of a “master story,” like Torah. But every master story will eventually…crash.” Rabbi Lappe’s wisdom here provides a great entry point into understanding how it was that something like the Talmud could even come into being.

If All the Seas Were Ink: This is a really beautiful memoir written by Ilana Kurshan, who tracks her experience of doing daf yomi, exactly as she was going through a divorce and thought her life was falling apart. From the introduction: “A deeply accessible and personal guided tour of the Talmud, shedding new light on its stories and offering insights into its arguments―both for those already familiar with the text and for those who have never encountered it.

In his text, Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud, Moulie Vidas suggests that the redactors of the Babylonian Talmud had an overarching message that they desperately wanted to convey. He probes the multivalent text to search for what it is that they urgently wanted us to feel. A beautiful and penetrating academic, yet spiritual, search into the text.

Shulem Deen’s Why Talmud is the Way To Be Jewish Without Judaism offers a provocative and intimate look into the experience of studying Talmud every day. One salient piece of advice Deen has bestowed upon me is to be weary of the liberal tendency to “reduce the vast body of our traditional literature to proverbs and aphorisms unearthed from deep within, so deep that their context is often unknown, their original meanings replaced with a vapid overlay of modern sensibilities, fashionably recasting ancient rabbis…” As Deen notes, “We do this with good intentions,” but “with profound ignorance.” It’s a humility-inspiring text.

The Tal­mud of Rela­tion­ships, Vol­ume 1 & 2: Enter the Tal­mu­dic study house with inno­v­a­tive teacher Rab­bi Amy Schein­er­man and con­tin­ue the Jew­ish val­ues – based con­ver­sa­tions that began two thou­sand years ago. The Tal­mud of Rela­tion­ships, shows how the ancient Jew­ish texts of Tal­mud can facil­i­tate mod­ern rela­tion­ship-build­ing, asking such question as: How can I tame my ego? How might I con­trol my anger? How might I expe­ri­ence the spir­i­tu­al­i­ty of sex­u­al inti­ma­cy? How can I bestow appro­pri­ate hon­or on a dif­fi­cult par­ent? How might I accept my own suf­fer­ing and the suf­fer­ing of those whom I love? How can I lead oth­ers with author­i­ty and kind­ness? How can I strength­en my self-con­trol? How can I bal­ance work and fam­i­ly? How can I get along with dif­fi­cult cowork­ers? How can I best relate to peo­ple in need? (From the Publisher)

Antisemitism is not one thing

Friends, casual Facebook acquaintances, rabbis I trust, journalists I trust, journalists I trust less… it seems that everyone in my orbit (or, more accurately, everyone in whose orbit I am) has something heartfelt or smart or critical to say about the abominable scourge of violent antisemitic attacks that is beating down on us.

Which is really to say that, at least from my perspective, it’s not actually everyone, since said orbit is mostly Jewish. And it’s not actually everyone, since we are also growing weary at how this news frequently falls on ears not willing to listen.

A month ago, after Sixth & I was hit by a swastika daubing, we wrote that at least we don’t have to worry about silence anymore in the wake of these attacks. But after this past month, I’m not so sure that’s the silver lining to look for. And I’m not so sure it’s actually true.

It’s true, there are articles in the New York Times and The Washington Post. It’s true that there are message of deeply felt sympathy and support. So it’s not that there’s a technical silence that follows these attacks. But it seems to me that much of the noise we’re hearing seems to be more talking at (or reporting on) the problem, than talking about ending it. Or listening directly to the voices of those being hit again and again.

Who are the actual voices we should be listening to in this bitter conversation that none of us even asked or wanted to be having in the first place?

  • Is it the mainstream media news reports?
  • Is it the Jewish chattering class?
  • Is it the blogosphere?
  • Is it the Twitter-verse? (God forbid)

I’m wondering, because  those trusted and smart friends and rabbis and journalists – they all already seem to have this figured out. They have captured the fear, sadness, terror, and pain of this moment in their articulate words – using letters and mental-capacity they certainly would surely have preferred to devote to topics less macabre.

I’m reading most of this commentary from ground-zero in New York City, where I’m in the midst of attending a four-night run of Phish concerts. Which is to say that it can be disorienting to be in the middle of listening to a lengthy jam, when all of a sudden a reminder of what’s going on slips into your mind and you have to ask yourself: “is it okay that I’m just grooving here in Madison Square Garden, while mere minutes away in Brooklyn, people wonder if it’s safe to walk the streets of their neighbourhoods?” News of the machete-attack in Monsey reached me right before the encore of a blistering first-night. My mind raced back and forth: “Is it okay that I’m revelling at a concert, while others are quite literally cowering in fear?”

So what I can offer is only this, from my own perspective at this very specific moment in time and space. Please forgive the digression into a (not-so) separate conversation:

Many people (some of those same friends, rabbis, and journalists) write-off Phish as a bizarre, hippie, campy cult group. This write-off comes from the fact that Phish – musically speaking – are so hard to pin-down. We humans like simplicity. We like to be able to name and label things, so that we can better understand them. Phish – the music and their fans – are very hard to label. You think they’re one thing, but then they go and do something that’s not that singular thing (which invariably, and by-definition, happens at every single show). So you get disoriented and confused. Hence the stereotyping and playful hatred. But if you think that Phish is just one thing, you’re not paying attention.

Now while ignorance of Phish’s depth is an excusable and forgivable mistake, it strikes me this is the same kind of phenomenon that is happening right now in many of the responses to these antisemitic attacks. And that is a place where ignorance is not excusable.

  • If you think these attacks are just about the rise of white supremacy, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks are just about the other side of intersectionality, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks are just the fault of the left’s nurturing of and intransigence on antisemitism, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks are just the fault of the right’s nurturing of and intransigence on antisemitism, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks are just the fault of the current occupant of the White House, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks are just the fault of a lack of security, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks are just the fault of too much policing, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks are just the fault of mental illness, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks are just the fault of the media for not talking about antisemitism enough, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks are just the fault of the media for talking too much about and sensationalizing antisemitism, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks are just the fault of anti-Zionists, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks are just the fault of Zionists, you’re not paying attention.


  • If you think these attacks can just be remedied with intellectual or academic discourse, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks can just be remedied with more inward-spirituality and focus on light and hope, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks can just be remedied with more security, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks can just be remedied with less policing, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks can just be remedied via intersectionality, you’re not paying attention.
  • If you think these attacks can just be remedied by hunkering down and building walls, you’re not paying attention.

Which is all to say…

Antisemitism is not one thing. It is a hydra. And like all hydras, we want to pin it down – confine it to one thing, to make it easier to understand and blame and kill.

But that act of reducing it actually makes it harder to eradicate.

So much of the writing and commentary in this moment is trying to fit this new (but really, same-old) antisemitism into a single narrative. Because that makes it easier to understand. It’s all Trump’s responsibility. It’s all Israel’s responsibility. It’s all the American Jewish Establishment’s responsibility.

This just misses the wider tapestry.

Antisemitism is not one thing.

I wish it wasn’t a thing at all, but while it is a thing, I want to remember that it’s more than one thing.

We depend on the borrowed light of others

With gratitude to Rabbi David Ingber and Rabbi David Jaffe for their original teachings and helping me think through some of the ideas in this drash for Chanukah.

Update: I just read a teaching from the Talmud, shared by R’ Jonathan Sacks similar to my drash here. It’s definitely worth taking a peek at. Here’s an excerpt:

“There’s a fascinating argument in the Talmud. Can you take one Chanukah light to light another? Usually, of course, we take an extra light, the shamash, and use it to light all the candles. But suppose we don’t have one. Can we light the first candle and then use it to light the others?

Two great sages of the third century, Rav and Shmuel, disagreed. Rav said No. Shmuel said Yes. Normally we have a rule that when Rav and Shmuel disagree, the law follows Rav. There are only three exceptions and this is one.” [Read more].

There is a story [1] back from the time when legends and fairytales weren’t just stories for children at bedtime, but were grand narratives that we told to help each other learn more about ourselves and our place in the universe:

In the very beginning of space and time, back before the creation of any life on earth, there was the sun and the moon.

The sun shined during the day, and the moon shined during the night. But at this moment in time, the night was just as bright as day. Everything would have gone on like this, even to this day, if the Moon had just done as she was told and not become jealous of the Sun.

You see, the moon complained that it wasn’t fair that there should be two luminaries of equal size. The moon was jealous that the sun got to shine during the day. She said to God: “I, too, want my light to be the light of the sun.”

How often do we look around at others and the world and feel inadequate?

How often are we blinded by the brightness of others,
and wish that we could be just as radiant?

How often do we think, maybe, that we alone have the right vision,
and the right power?

How often do we want to be like the sun?

So the moon said to God: “Make me like the sun, so that only I will shine for the heavens and earth!”

The story ends with God punishing the moon because of her jealousy… so that it wouldn’t get to shine its own light anymore, but would have to reflect the light of the sun.

It’s sadly poetic.

We can imagine our ancestors, gazing up at the heavens, wondering why it was that there were these two distinct sources of light – each with her own temperaments and feelings.

One warm, one cool.

One steady and consistent-daily, and one who went through phases, sometimes fully absent.

And so they told this clever story.

And perhaps we can imagine our ancestors, then gazing back at themselves, wondering what it was that made each of us unique and distinct from each other, each with our own temperaments and personalities.

And so they told this clever – this sensitive, human, story.

See, the error of the moon was not actually that it was jealous.

The moon’s mistake was that it was unappreciative of its own beauty and power – a heavenly personality, created just for it, by God!Continue reading “We depend on the borrowed light of others”

What does “OK Boomer” say about us?

This is a time of year when so many of us are intensely aware of family dynamics, and of all the little stories we tell ourselves about our families.

Maybe you’ve been self-conscious about how no family could ever be as crazy as yours. Maybe you’ve experiencing feelings of loss and estrangement. Perhaps it’s a time of joy and bonding across generations. Or this is could just simply be a quiet time. But together.

I have always loved how the Torah is obsessed with family dynamics and stories about how we relate to others. And right at the beginning of our parsha begins this week there’s a pretty simple word: toldot

V’eleh toldot Yitzchak ben Avraham.

These are the toldot – the “generations” of Isaac, son of Abraham.

It’s used to describe a generational shift in our Torah’s narrative – from the stories about Abraham and Sarah and their children to the stories about Isaac and Rebecca and their children.

Toldot is a common enough word that appears throughout the Torah over and over again. It’s usually translated as “generations,” and is mostly unremarkable. Rarely do any of our wise commentators make a point of stopping and saying something about it.

But when the rabbis come across this word, toldot, in this place in the Torah, they pause. There’s an acknowledgement of mystery. This toldot does not mean what you think it means. The English translation doesn’t suffice.

Does toldot really mean, as one group imagines (see Sforno ad loc.), “the events of the life of Isaac”? Or does it mean, as another group imagines (see Rashi ad loc.), “the children of Isaac”?

We’re here at this pivot point in the Torah, as we transition from the story of one generation to the story of the next. And it’s precisely here in this moment of change, that our tradition is asking us to pause and peer beneath the surface.

What are toldot?

If it means “the events of the life of Isaac, son of Abraham,” then the Torah wants us to zoom in on one person and the life of his generation.

If it means “the children of Isaac, son of Abraham,” then the Torah is inviting us to take a wider perspective, looking at relationships across generations.

Is it about one generation, or is it about generations?

I was struck reading the Torah this week that this tiny shift in understanding the meaning of this otherwise common word, not only shapes the narrative that will follow, but can also give us two radically different ways of understanding what it means to relate to those of different generations.

Do we understand ourselves primarily by the identity of our own generation? Or do we zoom out, and consider our relationship across time and space? Are we part of one generation, or multiple, coexisting generations?

I was thinking about this particularly in light of a new catchphrase and meme that’s been picking up steam. Maybe you’ve heard it? Maybe you said it (or thought it) at your Thanksgiving Table? It’s being used as a retort to dismiss and mock the seemingly outdated, condescending attitudes of older people, particularly baby boomers?Continue reading “What does “OK Boomer” say about us?”

Doing the Clumsy Dance of Opening our Hearts to Others

Thoughts for Yom Kippur 5780

When he last checked in with the world, Paul Salopek was walking near West Bengal, India with some coal miners. They described themselves to him as: “Very hard people, [doing] very hard work.”

Paul is taking a walk. A very long walk. He started walking 2,200 days ago, and in that time, he has walked nearly 6,700 miles.

Paul’s a journalist for National Geographic, and he decided to retrace the steps of the first human ancestors who migrated across the earth, all the while telling the stories of the people he meets along the way. It’s called The Out of Eden Walk.

The total journey is about twenty-one thousand miles – or thirty million steps – on foot, from the starting line in a place called Herto Bouri, Ethiopia until he gets to Tierra del Fuego, a Chilean archipelago off the southernmost tip of South America.

He thought it would take six or seven years total for the walk. But that was six years ago, and he’s not even halfway finished.

Every one hundred miles, Paul captures a 365 degree panorama, tapes the ambient audio, and records an interview with the nearest human being. These all go up on his website, for the rest of us to learn from.

[It] has altered the way I experience life on the planet,” he teaches. “If you walk through these communities, it lessens those barriers, those obstacles to true communication. You arrive on foot, literally at eye level with the people that you’re meeting… Your boots are planted on the same earth. You’re dirty, you’re sweaty, you stink. You’re burned by the same sun. You’ve got the same dust on your shoulders – and there’s a much easier access into their lives and what they say to you when you slow down and have a chai [tea] with them.”

Paul is learning in the sand dunes of Saudi Arabia and the 75-million-year-old Ethiopian highlands a truth about most of our lives today:

How the barriers we put up between us are largely unnatural and mostly unnecessary. And that the more fundamental truth about our lives is that “the boundaries between stories are permeable. One story bleeds into another, because human life bleeds into each other.”

This is not a truth to be gleaned only by walking for fourteen years. It’s also a truth that Pablo Neruda landed upon, tossed about by his turbulent world nearly fifty years earlier:

There is no insurmountable solitude,” he said during his Nobel acceptance speech. “All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.”

We figure out who we are, and we share it with others. And, God-willing, we emerge from solitude into the clumsy dance of a lifetime of togetherness.

How are we doing at this clumsy dance, right now?Continue reading “Doing the Clumsy Dance of Opening our Hearts to Others”

“How many adventures this person must have experienced!”

Thoughts for Kol Nidre 5780

Think about the oldest person who held you when you were a baby. In what year were they born?

Now think about the youngest member of your extended family. When were they born

For me, that’s my great-grandmother, Angèle Lambert, who met me when I was 11-months old, on a trip to Victoria, British Columbia. 97 at the time, she was born in 1887. The youngest member of my family right now is my cousin Molly, just over a year old.

If you consider the life spans of the oldest and the youngest people from your life today, and you imagine a robust life for the youngest, you get a period through the past, present, and into the future of approximately 200 years.

“You were held and touched, and you will touch the lives, of people that cover a 200-year present,” teaches the Quaker sociologist and peace researcher, Elise Boulding. She encouraged us to remember: our actions have long-reverberating impacts – both forward into the future, and also backward onto those who came before us.

We’re getting better – we really are – at thinking about our forward impact. Just consider the place of Greta Thunberg as a modern-day prophet.

But I wonder where we’re at with the other direction. How are we doing with those who came before us?

“Gauge a country’s prosperity by its treatment of the aged,” offered Reb Nachman.

Continue reading ““How many adventures this person must have experienced!””

“How can we know this, and still succumb to the illusion of separateness?”

Thoughts for Rosh Hashanah 5780

In the winter of 1968, the spacecraft Apollo 8 spent six days, three hours, and forty-two seconds orbiting the moon. It was the first time in history that humans left low-earth orbit,  the first time we escaped the gravitational influence of our planet, and the highest and farthest humans ever travelled away from home.

Ironic then, that it was during this distant journey that some of the most profound innermost truths about our own humanity were learned.

On December 24 of that year, just after 10:30 am, Apollo 8 and its three-astronaut crew – Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders – are finishing their fourth orbit around the moon. They’re in the midst of a navigational computation, when all of a sudden Anders interrupts the manoeuvre. He says:

Oh my God, look at that picture over there!
There’s the Earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!”

For the first time in human history, the crew witnessed an “Earthrise” –  seeing the entire planet with their own eyes. In the audio recordings of their communications, you can hear the shutter of a camera start clicking furiously.

Borman is startled:

Hey, don’t take that [picture], it’s not scheduled!”

But William Anders rushes Jim Lovell to quickly give him more colour film.

Hurry. Quick!
Just grab me a colour – colour exterior.
Hurry up! You got it?
Anything! Quick!”

Lovell is searching, but he can see out the window, too:

Oh man, that’s great.”

Their picture of the blue earth against the inky blackness of space has been called the most influential photograph ever taken.Continue reading ““How can we know this, and still succumb to the illusion of separateness?””

Shabbat as a Strike

A number of years ago on Facebook, a friend shared a post that… really, really bothered me.

It wasn’t political or hostile or antagonistic at all. It simply said:

“I think that the entire world would become better if more people lit shabbas candles every week.”

It struck me as the kind of post from someone who has that kind of theology where if you just follow the rules perfectly, and just pray hard enough, then everything will be okay.

Now – I’m a pretty spiritual person, and I believe that there’s deep meaning and relevance to be found in mitzvot– in the entire system of Jewish ritual and commandments. And I happen to love lighting candles to bring in shabbat.

But believing that – “poof!” if only you lit shabbas candles, then perhaps magically the world would get better… it honestly felt to me as the wrong kind of Jewish practice: superstitious, and not well-adapted for the world in which we live.

I admit that I came at this Facebook post with a lot of judgment.

And I want to admit now that I was wrong.Continue reading “Shabbat as a Strike”

Beautiful Tents: Shabbat Balak

In thinking about this week’s Torah, and what’s going on in the world, here’s what I’m not going to talk about:

  • Immigration policy
  • Whether it’s okay to call detention centres “Concentration Camps”
  • Whether it’s okay to tell those with whom you vehemently disagree to “go back to where you came from”

What I am going to do is tell a story:

There’s a king; a powerful king of a mountainous land.

And this king – his name is Balak – becomes frightened.

He’s frightened because there is a group of people who are getting closer and closer to his country, and he is afraid that they will overwhelm his land.

He’s worried that there are too many of them; that they will be a drain on natural resources; that they will encroach on his people’s property.

He’s not just afraid; he’s disgusted by them.

So he uses his kingly power – his bully pulpit – and summons a magician; a prophet; someone who can use the power of word to accomplish radical things.

The king asks this magician to do just that: to incite against these people – these foreigners – to drive them away.

But the magician also is afraid, and senses that this is not proper.

The king uses his great power and wealth to entice the magician to side with him.

The magician is torn: does he side with his higher beliefs, or does he take advantage of the great opportunities afforded him.

And – because this is a story from the Torah – the magician speaks with God – a representative, or the wellspring of these higher values.

And God emphatically declares: whatever that king may tell you to do, do not do it. Only listen to me. When he tells you to spew words of curses and hatred, only speak what I offer you.

The king implores the magician to curse the people – let’s call them, “the Children of Israel.”

But every time that the magician opens his mouth, the only words that emerge are sweet words of blessing.

The message of hatred and fear against a transient group is overpowered by a divine message of blessing.


A foreign magician – close to the upper echelons of power, wealth, and influence – sides with the marginalized; the wandering refugees; the freedom-searchers.

I told you I wasn’t going to talk about immigration or detention centres, or “going back to where you came from.”

Instead, I want to ask a theological question: Why does the king Balak and the magician Bilam – both non Jewish, both outside Israelite society – why do they benefit from God’s prophecy?

To put it another way: why does God intervene and speak with Bilam and change what happens? It could just as easily transpired that Bilam cursed Israel as Balak had wished – and then after the fact, they were punished.

Instead, whenever Bilam opens his mouth to curse Israel, God makes it so that blessings come out. Why? Why should they benefit from God’s presence?

Our teacher, Rashi – the medieval French commentator – offers a profound answer: So that nobody anywhere could ever use as an excuse: “I didn’t know the rules. If only I had known them, I would have been better.”

The idea here is that there are certain foundational ideas that you don’t get to avoid – whether you’re in or you’re out; whether you have power, or you don’t.

You can’t claim “we don’t play by those rules.” There are certain rules; certain core principles that apply to everyone.

And it’s interesting that Rashi pinpoints this particular story as conveying that idea. It’s not really a story about idolatry. Or Shabbat. Or Kashrut. Or Circumcision. Or any of the parts of the Torah that you might think we’re really supposed to focus on.

Instead, we have a story about someone in a position of power and his relationship to those not in power: those in a transient community; those just trying to get from one place to another in peace.

And the Torah says: this is the moment when you need to remember: nobody gets a pass; there’s not such thing as: “I didn’t know the rules.” The Torah conveys a vision of how the world is meant to be through a story about non-Israelites.

In the midst of stories of the Israelites wanderings through the desert, where Moses and Aaron and their families and tribes are the protagonists, the Torah takes a detour to tell a story that focuses on Balak, the evil ruler, and Bilam, the magician. The Israelites are passive players in this story – they are the “Other” lurking in the background. On the fringes; on the outside.

Now: a word of caution: It’s too easy to read this story and see it as advocating immigrant rights and an open-door policy. It’s too easy to cherry pick readings from the Torah as advocating specific public policies.

That’s not what I’m trying to do.

Because you can do that just as easily for more liberal perspectives as you can for more conservative ones; the Torah is not a modern political policy.

But you can’t escape the fact that the Torah has something very loudly to say here.

The Torah seems to be very weary of those who would use their political and military power; their wealth; and their bully-pulpit propaganda to disparage – or at worse, to harm – those outsiders.

The story ends with Bilaam – the prophet sent to curse the Israelites – instead offering them blessings.

Ma Tovu Ohalekha Ya’akov; Mishkenotecha Yisrael,” he says.

How beautiful are your tents – the places where you live, children of Israel

Words so powerful, that even though they are the words of a foreign magician, they are taken from him and used in the morning prayer service said every day.

The story ends with blessing and beauty and recognition of the other.

It doesn’t resolve King Balak’s wishes by advocating a particular policy.

It doesn’t take a political stance.

It doesn’t advocate protectionism and it doesn’t really condemn xenophobia.

That’s not what the Torah wants us to know.

Instead, the Torah wants us to recognize a very simple message:

The places where people are just trying to live – even when transient; even when on the fringes of society – they can be beautiful. They require at the very least our attention, no matter how deep – and perhaps how understandable – our fears may be.

These places where people are just trying to live – what they demand must of all is our attention and care and blessings – not our curses.

A Corrective in Silence

I find it hard to escape the idea that the world could be a lot better these days if people were quieter.

Less angry debates carried out not to further knowledge, but to quash dissenting opinions.

Fewer 👏 clapping 👏 emojis 👏 to 👏 punctuate 👏 ALL-CAPS 👏 declarations 👏 on 👏 Twitter.

Less political grandstanding.

Fewer feverish rallies.

More silence: to think, to process, to reflect, to learn.

And so, I locked my Twitter account last night. Had my partner change my password, and told her keep it from me.


Continue reading “A Corrective in Silence”