Jon Stewart–and Moses–on Bulls**t

I watched Jon Stewart on The Daily Show for the last time last night. And while the show began with a different host and will continue under a different host, it is hard to imagine it without Stewart behind the desk.

Stewart, during his 16 year run on the “fake news” show on Comedy Central, turned a cable television comedy show into a fixture of political commentary. An entire generation came of age watching him and his presentation of the news. And while I was already politically aware by the time he came on the air, and while I did not watch him as religiously as some (and did not, as some have reported to, use him as my sole source of news), I always appreciated his commentary and humor. (And the fact that he often identified himself as Jewish, and tinged his comedy with Jewish references and phrases, didn’t hurt.)

He would oftentimes deflect this status granted to him as an important political commentator, noting he was just a comedian. But it is hard to deny the impact he had on our political discourse; satire is one of the most serious forms of commentary.

from Comedy Central
from Comedy Central

For me, some of his most hard hitting forms of commentary would come when he would juxtapose video clips of people saying two different things at two different times, or saying one thing while they act differently. In these moments, he would not even need to say a word, but simply offer a knowing look.

His last broadcast was mostly a celebration of his tenure, as he welcomed back many of his on-screen talent from the past 16 years (some of whose careers were started on The Daily Show), celebrated all those who worked behind the scenes to put on the program and finished off with a musical set by Bruce Springsteen.

During his last broadcast he did turn serious for a few minutes, and offered a last bit of straight commentary. It was, in many ways, a meta-commentary on what he has been doing for the past 16 years and a final message to his viewers as they face life without him. And, as usual for cable TV in general and Jon Stewart in particular, it was tinged with obscenities:

Bullshit is everywhere…There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been infused with bullshit…there is the more pernicious bullshit, your premeditated, institutional bullshit designed to obscure and distract. It comes in three flavors. First, making bad things sound like good things…The second way, hiding the bad things under mountains of bullshit…And finally, it’s the bullshit of infinite possibility…we can’t do anything because we don’t yet know everything…So I say to you tonight friends, the best defense against bullshit, is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.

Don’t just accept what is told to you by those in power, says Stewart. We have a tendency as people to deflect and obfuscate, and we should be on the lookout for this. In our society things aren’t always what they seem, or what we say they are. We have to be mindful that there are other forces at work that we need to recognize.

In our weekly Torah reading, we are in the Book of Deuteronomy, parashat Ekev. The book is a long speech by Moses who is charging the Israelites as they prepare to enter into the Promised Land. Moses, who has led the people up from slavery, will not be entering into the land with them—he is destined to die on the eastern side of the Jordan River. He is therefore compelled to make sure that the Israelites know what they need to know to be successful in the next stage of their journey. The oration that is Deuteronomy is part history-telling, part rule-reminding, part pep-talk and part warning.

In chapter 8, Moses issues this warning and charge to his followers as he prepared to exit the stage:

Take care lest you forget Adonai your God and fail to keep the commandments, rules, and laws, which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God — who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your ancestors had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end —and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is Adonai your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant made on oath with your ancestors, as is still the case.

What Moses is saying, in other (Stewart-esque) words, when you get to the land and you prosper and you think you did it all by yourself—that’s bullshit.

We do have the tendency to obscure and distract, and not just others, but ourselves. When we arrive at a particular high point on our journey, we may tend to forget that we made it to where we are not despite the challenges of the past but because of them. And when we succeed, we may tend to forget that there are other forces at work—conditions, privileges, people, good fortune –at work to help us along, in addition to our own talents and persistence.

Moses’ final call is both a plea to the Israelites not to forget their history and their God, and to face their future with a measure of humility. It is a plea to us as well: we need to not forget from whence we came, that we are a part of something greater than ourselves and to have our own measure of humility as we move forward in life.

To do otherwise doesn’t pass the smell test.

The Mission Does Not Take Care of Itself

This is the season of graduation.

Last week I was honored to attend the graduation ceremony of my rabbinical school, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, as a board member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Ozi had his graduation exercises from middle school earlier today before all the eighth graders went off to Wild Waves. And this coming week I will have my own graduation ceremony.

This past year I was fortunate to study at the University of Washington School of Professional and Continuing Education, where I participated in the Certificate in Nonprofit Management program. From September through June I went up to Seattle every Wednesday to study with close to 30 other students all working to learn more about the nonprofit sector. My last class was last week, and this coming Wednesday is the graduation ceremony for all the certificate programs. And while it is optional, I do plan to go because, well, I like ritual.

The learning was wide ranging, and I did learn a tremendous amount. I learned about budgets and legal issues. I learned about leadership roles and supervision. I learned about overused words and fundraising appeals.

On the last day of class, our instructors asked us to take a moment and write one thought, one idea, one takeaway from the class. When confronted with this type of exercise I either come up with something right away or a draw a blank. This time, luckily, it was the former, and I went up to the white board and wrote:

the mission

In last week’s Torah portion, Behaalotcha, there was a poignant moment. The Israelites, after a long sojourn at the foot of Mount Sinai, are preparing to begin their journey to the Promised Land. A lot has changed: the group of former slaves liberated from Egypt have become a full-fledged community. They received the Torah and laws, organized themselves into tribes and hierarchies, build the Tabernacle, established norms and rituals and a cohesive communal identity. This transformed group is now ready to move forward on their journey.

As they are about to do so, Jethro makes an appearance. Remember Jethro? He is Moses’s father-in-law who welcomed in Moses when he fled Egypt the first time, before he returned to liberate the Israelites. But what was even more significant is when Jethro then showed up after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea to provide some practical advice on how Moses should run the community:

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”  Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable people who fear God, who are trustworthy and spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this — and God so commands you — you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.” (Exodus 18:13-23)

And now, as the Israelites are about to depart, Moses turns to Jethro and says, “We are setting out for the place of which God has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for God has promised to be generous to Israel.” (Numbers 10:25) Jethro, however, declines and says, “I will not go but will return to my native land.”

This is a significant exchange, considering the role Jethro played in the development of the Israelites. Moses remembers the important role Jethro and his advice played in the life of the Israelites. Moses through his leadership out of Egypt and as the receiver of the law on Sinai represents the mission of the Israelites. What Jethro represents therefore is the need to impose practical advice and structure in order for the Israelites to fulfill their mission.

After the Israelites left Egypt, the idea of freedom, the idea of a new home, the idea of Torah, is not enough. In order to make the transition, the Israelites needed a new norm to help hold them together and make those ideas a reality.

In other words, the mission will not take care of itself.

Through taking this class at UW, I feel I actually deepened my work as a rabbi. For how can I implement the mission and vision of building sacred community, of creating opportunities for personal transformation, of having a base from which to do the work of tikkun olam and social justice, without the practical guidance and structure of the synagogue to support me? Our synagogue mission, my rabbinic mission, will not take care of itself. We need a strong institution and structure to support it. This takes personal effort as well as practical knowledge.

This is why I am grateful the Temple Beth Hatfiloh Board supported me in pursuing this education. In order to help facilitate our development as an organization—for synagogues are a form of nonprofit organization—we agreed that it would be helpful if I increase my knowledge and broaden my skill set. This way I can help the Board in fulfilling our congregation’s mission.

And while education programs come to a close, and we have graduation ceremonies, we must remember that learning and guidance is on-going.

Moses recognizes this too. After Jethro announces his departure, Moses pleads with him to stay—the need for practical guidance in fulfilling one’s mission is not finite. The Israelites will need both Moses and Jethro. So too with us. While we need to be clear on our missions, we also need to be clear on the means to attain that mission. We too will always need both Moses and Jethro.

Shabbat Morning Quarterback: My Take on the Seahawks Loss

“The thing you are doing is not good.”

These are the words spoken by Jethro to his son-in-law Moses in this week’s Torah portion. The Israelites are settling into their new life since leaving Egypt and adjusting to being a newly freed community. Moses is adjudicating all of the disputes of the Israelites, who line up all day and all night to present their grievances. This prompts Jethro’s response, who advises Moses to set up a more efficient court system.

“The thing you are doing is not good.” These words are a variation of what has been repeated all week, after the stunning loss of the Seattle Seahawks in the Superbowl. In the final seconds of a thrilling game, the Seahawks found themselves down by four points with the ball on the Patriots one yard line. A touchdown would win the game. On second down, quarterback Russell Wilson dropped back to pass, and the Patriots intercepted. The game was over with a heartbreaking loss after being so close to victory.superbowl

What made the loss that much painful is the choice to throw the ball in the first place. The Seahawks have one of the best running backs in the NFL, Marshawn Lynch, known as “Beast Mode.” Lynch, who can barrel forward bringing defenders with him. Lynch, whose strength and skill is seemingly made for this type of play. Why did the coaches decide to throw the ball instead of just running it into the end zone?

Since the game I have read way too much commentary and analysis on the play. Some are calling it the worst call in Superbowl history. Others analyze the thought process and understand why a passing play might have been appropriate. One of the more interesting articles analyzed the call in relation to game theory. But in any event, whether it was a bad call, or a bad execution or both—the Seahawks came very close to winning a second Superbowl and blew it in the end.

Not long before the Superbowl, I came back from a retreat with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, as part of my 18-month Clergy Leadership Program. It was an amazing experience of prayer, song, meditation, yoga and study. And now, as I am back from retreat, I continue learning with a weekly hevruta (study partner).

[I should say that my hevruta is a rabbi in the Boston area, and he showed up to our weekly Skype session this week wearing a Patriots jersey. Sigh.]

The theme of our study is an examination of middot (character traits) that we are meant to focus on and inculcate within ourselves. The practice is to make us better people, and thus better leaders. The study is drawn from Jewish texts, mostly from the Hasidic tradition, but we also read a wonderful article by the contemporary spiritual writer Parker Palmer.

In that article, Leading from Within, Palmer identifies 5 “shadows”—or negative traits—that affect leaders today. One is—in a beautiful phrase—“functional atheism.” That is, the belief that responsibility rests solely with me as an individual. Our IJS teachers have presented us with five middot that are meant to balance the shadows. The middah that my hevruta and I studied this week that is meant to “counter” that shadow is bitachon, or trust.

Why trust? As I understand it, it is because when we live under the shadow of functional atheism, we operate under the assumption that we are the only one that matters. That whatever we do or don’t do is the sum total of everything, that it all begins and ends with us. But this is misguided, it is an ego response. Having trust—in God, in the greater system, in each other—allows us to understand that it isn’t all about us, but that we are part of a larger whole that works in ways that sometimes we can not fully understand. Having trust allows us to see beyond ourselves, and understand that nothing can be reduced to one thing, one act, one person, one choice.

So here is my Superbowl analysis: No game can be defined by one call, one play. In sports, we tend to need a “goat,” someone to blame when things go wrong. But that is the wrong response. The game could have been different at many different times. The Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw an end zone interception which could have been a touchdown. There are other plays that could have turned out differently, other choices that would have had different results. Just because they didn’t happen at the end of the game doesn’t mean they didn’t have an effect on the outcome.

That last play didn’t lose the game any more than it would have won it if it was successful. The Seahawks unfortunately lost because of everything that happened on that field. And heartbreaking as the loss was, we can have trust that a team is not just defined by one play or one game.

And there is always next season.

The Significant Anonymous

As a rabbi, people often ask me who my favorite character from the Torah is.

Well, actually, no one has ever asked me that. But I will answer anyway. And while it is hard to choose, my vote for one of my favorite characters is the mysterious man in the Joseph story.

Who, you may ask?

Let me say at the onset that I am fudging a bit. Our weekly Torah reading this week is Shemot, the beginning of the Exodus story: the birth of Moses, his coming of age, his flight to Midian after killing an Egyptian task master, his call at the burning bush, etc. Now a major motion picture—again. We just finished reading the Joseph story, which comes at the end of Genesis. So this is a reflection backwards not forward. (Though our monthly Temple Beth Hatfiloh Torah study group will be beginning the Joseph story this Saturday.)

Ok, back to the mystery man. The outline of the Joseph story is perhaps familiar to us. Jacob had 12 sons with four wives. His favorite is Joseph, the first born son of his favorite wife Rachel. He shows him favor and gets him a fancy coat, which does not endear him to his brothers. Joseph also has the gift of dream interpretation, and has a series of dreams that tell him he will one day be raised above his brothers. In the spirit of honesty (or foolishness) he tells them of his dreams.

One day, Joseph is sent to find his brothers who are herding their sheep. When he is approaching, the brothers make a plan to kill him, and they take him and throw him in a pit. A caravan of traders pass by, and the brothers change their plans—they haul him out of the pit and sell him into slavery instead. They do tell their father that he was killed by an animal, and brandish his torn and bloody coat as “evidence.”

Joseph is taken to Egypt where he is first a servant and then a prisoner after being falsely accused of assault. And through a series of steps involving dreams of the Pharaoh, Joseph is given a high position in the government overseeing food collection and distribution. When famine hits, his brothers leave Canaan for Egypt in search of food, only to be reunited with Joseph. This then sets up the Exodus story, as Jacob (also known as Israel) and the rest of his family move down to Egypt. The saga of the Israelites begins.

So where was the mystery man? There is an interesting detail in the story. When Joseph is sent to find his brothers prior to them selling him into slavery, the Torah tells us:

One time, when his brothers had gone to pasture their father’s flock at Shechem, Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “I am ready.” And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron. When he reached Shechem, a man came upon him wandering in the fields. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” He answered, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are pasturing?” The man said, “They have gone from here, for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.” So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. (Genesis 37:12-18)

Joseph arrives at Shechem where he believes his brothers are, but they had moved on to Dothan. But, there would have been no way for Joseph to know this. If the man had not been there, Joseph would not have known to go on to Dothan, where his brothers would seize him and sell him into slavery. Therefore, it is this mystery man “wandering scarecrowin the field” who sets in motion the course of action that results in Joseph being sold and sent to Egypt, meeting the Pharaoh and rising to authority, and the Israelites moving to Egypt. This man is one of the most important in all of Torah.

Who was he? Some commentators say he is just a man, some other commentators say he is an angel.

But regardless of who he was, we can all recognize him. We can all recognize that we have people like this in our lives: anonymous people who have made an impact on our life’s journey, people whose names we don’t know but whose guidance and influence have been huge. We may have understood their impact in the moment. Or our interactions with them may have seemed insignificant at the time, but become significant much later. Or we were not ready to hear what they had to say in the moment, but their words resonate after the fact. But in any event, we would not be who we are without them.

We may be on our way to Shechem, but really need to be in Dothan, but we may not have made the journey ourselves. We needed someone to show us the way.

As we travel life’s path, there are those who seem significant to us, and those who seem insignificant. But ultimately everyone is significant because they make us who we are. Think for yourself who you saw “wandering in the fields” of your journey and who set you on a new course, or helped you along the way, or shared words that helped sustain you. Their names may be known to you, or they may not. In any event, offer up some words of gratitude for them for making you who you are. (I personally have been thinking recently about the doctors and nurses and EMTs who have helped me through my health challenges, many of whom I do not know.)

Which does take us to this week’s portion: when we are introduced to Moses at the beginning of Exodus, the Torah first introduces us to Moses’s parents. But the text does not tell us their names, only “a man of the house of Levi” and “his wife.” This allows Moses’s arrival to be that much more dramatic. But it also tells us that significance lies not in the fact of who one is, but what one does.

And sometimes, the seemingly minor engagement with an anonymous person can change everything.