Tag Archives: Yitro

The Sound of the Aleph: Remembering the Challenger

29 Jan
Remember the Challenger

Remember the Challenger

Many of us who have been in Israel in the spring are familiar with the peculiar transition Israeli society undergoes from Yom HaZikaron, a somber day to remember Israel’s fallen soldiers, to Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day that is always an exuberant celebration. There is nothing like this transition that encapsulates the story of the Jewish people. This week I was reminded of a sequence of events thirty years that was the exact opposite. Exultant joy turned into intense national mourning.


Thirty years ago, I was a high school student in Chicago. The victory of the Chicago Bears in Superbowl XX for their first (and still only) Superbowl championship was a momentous and joyous occasion for everyone in the city. That was January 26, 1986. The next day, a typically frigid January day, a boisterous rally  celebrated the Bears as players hoisted the Superbowl trophy in Daley Plaza in front of the giant Picasso sculpture. Then, tragedy struck, and joy turned to sorrow.


The next day, January 28, was the 25th Space Shuttle mission.  Seven astronauts were on board the Challenger orbiter. They included Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher who had answered President Reagan’s call to be the first school teacher space who is now memorialized by the middle school in our neighborhood bearing her name. The crew also included Judith Resnick, the first Jew in space. She had a traditional Conservative upbringing in Akron, OH. Since I served eight years as a rabbi in nearby Cleveland, I can attest that her loss on the Challenger is still felt profoundly by the Jewish community in Northeast Ohio. This week, we also recall the other crew members: Gregory Jarvis; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka.


This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, contains an interstellar, “other worldly” experience: the Israelites encounter God at Mt. Sinai and receive Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments. The text tells us that their senses were so overloaded they did not want to encounter God directly. They wanted Moses to be their emissary and communicate with God on their behalf. It’s like with the astronauts only a select few who pass the numerous physical and psychological tests are deemed fit to leave the confines of the earth. And then, as we learned from Challenger and later Columbia, sometimes even these extraordinary people don’t make it.


Amidst all the thunder and lightning at Sinai, the rabbis wonder what the Israelites actually heard at Sinai before their senses shut down. Some say they heard God proclaim all ten utterances. Others say that God spoke only the first two, declared in the divine ”Anochi,” “I,” and that Moses added the remaining eight in which God is referred to in the third person. One Hasidic master taught that the Israelites heard only the first letter of the first word (the alef in anokhi). Alef is a silent letter, yet from this letter, the Israelites intuitively understood the rest (Menachem Mendel of Rymanov).


In recalling the seven Challenger astronauts we recall seven lives whom most of us knew only from a distance. And yet, we all intuitively discern the profound level of loss of these outstanding individuals.


In returning to Judy Resnick, rabbinic colleagues of mine were reminiscing online about her Jewish legacy. Rabbi Reuven Hammer, former President of the Rabbinical Assembly who served for several years as rabbi of Beth El in Akron, Ohio, remembers Judy who came to shul regularly as a youngster. Though her career brought her away from active religious involvement as an adult, she held her roots and heritage close to her heart. It was recalled that shortly before her first launch in 1984 she was in Akron and paid a visit to Rabbi Abe Feffer , then serving as rabbi of Beth El. She asked him to recite tefillot with her in the chapel as part of her preparations for the launch. In his eulogy after her death, Rabbi Feffer addressed the feeling he had heard voiced by some people that Resnick was “somewhat distant from our people.” He said, “Frankly, when a young American astronaut still calls her father ‘Abba’ and her grandmother ‘Bubbie,’ that astronaut is not too far from our people.


Most of us probably didn’t know Judy Resnick, and yet we did. It was like the Israelites hearing an aleph at Mount Sinai. We got it.


In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, another Conservative rabbi, Kenneth Berger of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Tampa, mused on what the astronauts themselves might have been thinking in their final moments. How did they contemplate the aleph? He gave a prescient sermon the following Yom Kippur that became a viral sensation long before the Internet entered our lives. In the sermon titled “Five Minutes to Live,” Rabbi Berger reflected on the seven astronauts on Challenger who perished earlier that year. Evidence was found that the astronauts did not die in the explosion but when the capsule impacted the ocean waters. Rabbi Berger said, “For perhaps as much as five minutes, the astronauts were alive and conscious and yet knew that death was certain.”


Rabbi Berger then asked his congregation to consider the question: “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?” He challenged his congregation to live their lives as though they had five minutes left. Not in a cynical way by saying, “What’s the point?” But in a spiritual way; a way that will help us channel our direction. He spoke about serving God in those five minutes and expressing our love for our loved ones.

Less than three years later, in July 1989, Rabbi Berger was with his wife and two of his children on United Airlines flight 232 to Philadelphia. After the engines failed, the flight was forced to make an emergency landing.

In the crash landing 185 out of 285 passengers were killed, including Rabbi Berger and his wife, Aviva, while their children survived. During those moments as the plane was descending rapidly to an uncertain fate, I imagine that Rabbi Berger thought about his own sermon.

The aleph in Hebrew makes no sound, and yet when we listen intently to it, it contains all the wisdom we need to live as a decent human being. It is a silent sound that says it all. The aleph introduces the Ten Commandments and stands for the values of our tradition that are so precious. The aleph challenges us to live our lives as if we had five minutes to live. As we remember the astronauts who died 30 years ago, let us honor their legacy by living our lives as if we had only five minutes to live and fill each moment with goodness and kindness. May the memory of the astronauts be for a blessing.

Why I wrote “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi”

6 Feb
JTS hosted a panel discussion on "Keeping Faith in Rabbis," Feb. 2, 2015. L to R, Rabbi Ed Bernstein, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Barbara Wiston, Jay Wiston, Carolyn Kantor, Rabbi Danielle Upbin

JTS hosted a panel discussion on “Keeping Faith in Rabbis,” Feb. 2, 2015 at Temple Torat Emet in Boynton Beach. L to R, Rabbi Ed Bernstein, Rabbi Hayim Herring, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Barbara Wiston, Jay Wiston, Carolyn Kantor, Rabbi Danielle Upbin

The following is adapted from remarks I delivered February 2, 2015, during a JTS panel discussion on the book Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher. A podcast of panel discussion is available here.

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, ties in well with what I attempt to accomplish in my essay, “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate” in the book Keeping Faith in Rabbis. Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law, finds Moses overwhelmed in his job. He is mired in the minutiae of day-to-day problems, he’s at risk of burn-out and he’s neglecting his own family. We already know that Moses has worked hard to overcome his own poor self-assessment of himself in taking on the mantle of leadership. God let Aaron serve as Moses’s spokesman, but eventually Moses gains confidence and asserts himself and speaks in his own right. Yitro knows Moses. He knows that he’s trying to do the right thing. He may also know that Moses’s harshest critic is himself, a common trait among introverts. From afar, Yitro can see the bigger picture and steps in to offer Moses some guidance to streamline his work load with the help of others. Moses is able to use the tools offered by Yitro so that he is able to grow as a leader.

Self-Awareness and personal growth are at the heart of my essay: “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate.” You may be interested to know that not everyone at Temple Torat Emet agrees with that assertion. (How could we be Jewish if that weren’t the case?) In fact, a few weeks ago, a lady who regularly comes to my Talmud class and was among the first to buy the book came up to me after services a few days later and said, “Rabbi, I disagree with you,” she said. I was bracing myself for the critique. She said: “You are NOT an introvert! I see you mingling with people in synagogue all the time.”

I was tempted to regurgitate the main points of my essay; then I caught myself and thought why throw a wet blanket on a well-intentioned compliment. I just said thank you. Let me take this opportunity to share why I wrote this essay and what I hope is the biggest take aways for our community. In short, here are the basics: 1) I am an introvert 2) I accept that 3) There are no “cookie cutter rabbis”–every rabbi brings different strengths to the table, and in our era we need all hands on deck and 4) Whatever our personality traits, each one of us is best served when we seize opportunities to grow.

Now for some backstory:

Exactly 20 years ago, an article appeared in the CCAR Journal titled “Dog Rabbis and Cat Rabbis.” The author, Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbock, asserted that dog rabbis–or extroverts–are better suited for the pulpit rabbinate than introverts (“cat rabbis”). Cohn-Sherbock described himself as a “cat rabbi” who struggled in several pulpit positions early in his career then shifted to academia where he has flourished for several decades. In assessing his pulpit woes, he writes: “I tried and tried and tried–yet over and over again I failed to satisfy the demands of my congregation. I fell into every trap. I just couldn’t be the friendly, enthusiastic, sympathetic, and attentive pastor that my congregation wanted.”
He describes his journey to congregations on multiple continents. “I shriveled up inside when I had to act as master of ceremonies. I dreaded bar mitzvahs. I loathed weddings. I detested kissing each lady ‘good Shabbos.'”

Now, I empathize with Cohn-Sherbok’s agony in the pulpit, yet he makes assumptions and generalizations that are neither realistic nor helpful in providing guidance to current and aspiring rabbis in the 21st Century.

In the two decades since Cohn-Sherbok’s article appeared, psychological and social science literature has exploded with groundbreaking research on personality traits. Susan Cain’s best seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking synthesizes the scientific literature and argues for a fresh look at the significant role that introverts played in history and can continue to play with greater awareness and sensitivity throughout society. I argue that the Jewish community will benefit from looking anew at the strengths of introverted rabbis.

I learned from Cain’s work that the basic difference between introverts and extroverts is how each processes and reacts to stimuli. Introverts are wired to reflect and inspect, extroverts are wired to react and respond. These traits are hard-wired from birth. Our American society has evolved towards favoring high octane, high volume, highly stimulating people and environments. Just think of the pyrotechnics of last night’s Superbowl Halftime Show. Yet, many people, perhaps as many as half of us, get exhausted when we’re exposed to high levels of stimuli over a period of time. It’s not good or bad, it’s just that evolution has endowed us with different mechanisms for survival in our world.

Anyone who enters the rabbinate does so, I assume, because of a deep sense of personal mission towards serving God and the Jewish people. Certainly, I did. Extroverts and Introverts alike both bring natural gifts to bear in their rabbinates. As an introverted rabbi, I used to envy extroverts for their natural ability to schmooze and light up a room. I was misguided by the dog rabbi-cat rabbi dichotomy, and I was frustrated with myself. I got stuck in a position of envy of something that I was not. Over time, I came to a position of acceptance of who I am and the essential gifts I bring to the table that I believe serve me well in the rabbinate. Once I got unstuck from the mindset of “Woe unto me that I’m not x,” I embraced a mindset of growth (The term “mindset” I derive from Susan Dweck’s masterful work by that name). With that mindset, I am more open to Susan Cain’s metaphor of a rubber band, whereby I can stretch myself beyond my comfort zone in order to fulfill my mission. Some rabbis are personally nourished by exposure to large amounts of people in a social setting. For me, when I schmooze with people at Kiddush, as was noticed by my Talmud student, I do so with the mindset that forging relationships with my congregants is part of my mission of serving as a rabbi. Therefore, I make sure I have the right tools in my toolkit to fulfill my mission.

To come back to Parashat Yitro, when Moses felt stuck, he reframed and retooled. Moses teaches us that self-reflection and growth are essential qualities for leadership, and they are great tools for life in general. Every rabbi, Seminary and synagogue should embrace the growth mindset for the sake of serving God and the Jewish people. When we accomplish this, we have lots of reason to keep faith in rabbis.

#TieBlog #Yitro #TenCommandments

17 Jan
The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments

Parashat Yitro tells of the Israelites’ encounter with God at Mt. Sinai. It is not enough for the people to have obtained physical freedom from slavery. They need spiritual freedom that is framed by a system of law. The Ten Commandments provide this basic framework that is essential for a society rooted in law.