Judaism - Torah

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?”

Judaism - Torah

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”

Judaism - Torah

“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!””

Judaism - Torah

“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?””

Judaism - Torah

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”

Judaism - Torah

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.

Judaism - Torah

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.

Silence.

Continue reading “A Corrective in Silence”