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Rabbi Rant: Freedom Rules!

rabbi rant

Two weeks ago, someone shared with me that, for him, discipline is freedom. He closely watches his diet, works out regularly, studies diligently for grad school…in short, his regimen helps him be the person he wants to be.

A week later, someone else shared with me that freedom means not having any rules. She listens to her body and brain and does what she wants in the moment. To her, freedom is letting go of all the burdensome rules that are imposed on us and that we impose on ourselves.

Rules vs. No Rules

I’m still thinking about these two different perspectives on freedom and where I fall on this rules vs. no rules spectrum.

I know one doesn’t just magically become self-actualized, physically fit, spiritually aware, etc. To be the person you want to be, you have to work hard at it. It’s so obvious and trite that it belongs on a poster with an eagle soaring over a river.

Yet the thought of living a life of rule-following feels constraining, exhausting, and not fun. As adolescent as it sounds, I still associate the word discipline with after-school detention.

The struggle is real

It might seem funny that I’m a rabbi and that I struggle with rules. After all, Judaism is full of rules. The rabbis even make an explicit connection between Jewish law, which was engraved (in Hebrew: charut) on the tablets, and the Hebrew word for freedom (cheirut). “For no person is free unless they are involved in the study of the law.” (Ethics of our Ancestors 6:2)

But Judaism recognizes the limits of rules. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “Rules are generalizations. In actual living, we come upon countless problems for which no general solutions are available. There are many ways of applying a general rule to a concrete situation. There are evil applications of noble rules. Thus the choice of the right way of applying a general rule to a particular situation is “left to the heart,” to the individual, to one’s conscience.” (God in Search of Man, p. 327)

Are we ever free from rules?

We’re currently in the period of the Jewish calendar known as the omer, where we count the days from Passover to Shavuot. I think the wisdom of connecting these two holidays, one celebrating freedom and the other celebrating the Torah, is to remind us that we can be free from slavery but will never be free from rules. As writer David Foster Wallace said:

“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

People who claim to live a life of no rules are either unaware of or in denial about the rules they are following.

The rules we follow reflect our priorities and our values. Paradoxically, choosing to follow certain rules can free us from the need to follow other rules. The Ishbitzer Rebbe, commenting on the verse that the Israelites left Egypt with their “heads held high,” explains:

“They were free, without any fear or worry from any person.”

We choose what to worship. There’s a freedom in choosing which rules to follow, and which ones not to.

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The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Rabbi Rant: There’s a Jewish Holiday This Week

rabbi rant

This Saturday night is Tisha B’Av, a holiday that is less familiar to many American Jews. On Tisha B’Av, we commemorate the major Jewish calamities that happened on this day, most significantly the destruction of the two Temples. The loss of our “religious home” was coupled with the loss of our actual homes. As we read in Lamentations 5:2, “Our heritage has passed to aliens, our homes to strangers.” Tisha B’Av, then, is also a time to think about being away from the places, people and feelings we associate with home.

I recently got back from a three-week vacation to Tanzania, so, naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot about traveling and being away from home. The Sfat Emet, a late-19th-century chassidic rabbi in Poland, says that humans are called “travelers” because we “need to always travel from one level to the next level.” Journeys, he says, disrupt our sense of rest and complacency, compelling us to grow.

I don’t take many vacations, certainly not for three weeks at a time, so this past month, I decided it was time to push myself to travel. It was certainly a disruption from my comfortable life here – I climbed Kilimanjaro, “safari-ed” in the Serengeti, and explored Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar. These experiences helped me grow in powerful ways that I’m still processing and trying to understand.

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But being “on the go” doesn’t necessarily lead to growth. Traveling can easily become aimless wandering. That’s why, according to the Sfat Emet, we need to balance our “journeys” with our “encampments,” just like the ancient Israelites in the desert. Life is about vacillating between states of rest and restlessness.

Each of us tends to prefer one state over the other. Some yearn to wander, associating it with freedom, the opposite of being “tied down.” Others yearn to feel more grounded, associating wandering with God’s curse to Cain after he kills his brother – “You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” (Genesis 4:12). This may be a grass-is-greener situation – those who seek to wander often feel stuck, and those who seek to set down roots often feel lost. But I think all of us have both voices within ourselves.

Perhaps, then, Tisha B’Av is a day to confront the downsides of journeying and to make a little space for the part of ourselves that longs for a greater sense of home.

Even Cain, cursed to ceaselessly wander, ultimately settles down, in the land of Nod. Rashi, the famous French commentator on the Torah, explains the apparent contradiction: “Nod is a city of wandering exiles.”

DC can sometimes feel like Nod – a transient city full of wanderers and world travelers. We push off getting our DC license or registering to vote in DC, telling ourselves we’ll only be here for a year or two. We live here, but it’s not home.

Although we may not permanently settle in DC, our lives don’t need to be completely unsettled. Tisha B’Av can be an opportunity to ask ourselves:

  • How can we incorporate more of a sense of stability into our lives?
  • Where have we avoided making commitments, fooling ourselves into thinking we can be just as invested without that commitment?
  • How can we feel more at home, not just in DC but within ourselves?

Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning.  There is sadness and pain in confronting the ways we’ve wandered too much or too far. But Yom Kippur is just two months away, calling us to return to ourselves, to return home.

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The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Jewish Improv Workshop

Learn improv for FREE with Rabbi Aaron Potek as he leads a 3-week workshop on his 2 favorite things: Judaism and improv.
Improv and Judaism can be seen either as a fringe hobby or a way of life. In this three-week-long workshop, we’ll attempt to unpack some wisdom behind both improv and Judaism, with a focus on where these two philosophies intersect. The workshop will integrate Jewish texts and improv exercises. Participants will come away with new perspectives on Judaism, fun improv games, and a “spiritual” practices to incorporate into their daily interactions. No prior experience with a background knowledge of improv or Judaism required.

APPLY NOW

What: Jewish Improv Workshop
WhenTuesdays from 7-9 pm, May 15, 22, and 29
WhoDC-area Jewish young adults
Where: GatherDC’s Townhouse – 1817 M St
Cost: Free
Questions: Email Mollie Sharfman at MollieS@GatherDC.org
DEADLINE TO APPLY: Friday, May 4th at 5 pm 

 

About Rabbi Aaron Potek
Aaron Potek was born and raised in Saint Louis Park, MN and graduated from the University of Michigan School of Engineering. After receiving rabbinical ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, NY, he served as the campus rabbi at Northwestern University. Aaron currently works with Jewish 20’s and 30’s as the Community Rabbi for GatherDC in Washington, DC. He has studied improv at UCB in NY, iO in Chicago, and WIT in DC. He currently performs with Keegan Hines on the two-person team “Double Stuff”

Community Gone Missing

community

The line I hear most when getting coffee with Jewish 20s and 30s around the city is: “I want to get more involved in the Jewish community.”

Let’s set aside, for now, the disquieting reality that “the Jewish community” doesn’t exist. Our organization’s name, Gather the Jews, might fuel this misconception by implying that there is a central place where ALL the Jews gather – spoiler alert: there isn’t. (If you’re interested in reading more about a variety of issues related to “the Jewish community,” check out the most recent issue of Sh’ma Now, for which I wrote the introductory essay.) And let’s also shelve the questions of what “getting involved” in a Jewish community looks like and why that is so important to Jews.

Before we can have those important conversations, we first need to address a more basic issue that is not unique to being Jewish: We have lost the concept of community. So what is a community? I’ve heard the word used to describe people at a concert, a yoga class, a local coffee shop, and fellow commuters on the Metro. When it is used to describe any gathering of people, it loses its meaning and we lose the aspiration to belong to one.

Parker Palmer, the Quaker elder and activist, recently shared: “I went to Washington, D.C. and became a community organizer working on issues of racial justice. Five years later, I realized that I was trying to lead people towards something that I had never really experienced for myself, namely community.”

What components are critical to help create an authentic community? I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts, but here are four criteria of mine:

1) A community is more than a feeling – you need to actually communicate with each other, learn about each other holistically, and know what is going on in each others’ lives. That you recognize the same 15 people at your spin class each week is not enough.

2) A community is not limited to a particular time. Of course communities can dissolve, but they don’t form instantly and shouldn’t have a pre-set expiration date. Something that happens once or twice – like High Holiday services – constitutes only an isolated experience or program and is not the basis for an ongoing community.

3) A community is also not limited to a particular place. There needs to be a way for people within the community to encounter each other regularly, and a particular location can help facilitate that. But a community cannot be defined by any one place. Sorry, Birthright bus, but if you don’t stay connected after returning to the States, then that community has ceased to exist.

4) A community is more than a group of friends – it brings people together for a larger purpose. That purpose can be artistic, political, or intellectual (to name a few) but it must be more than social.

Few of us, if any, have experienced a community that meets all of these criteria. These types of communities are hard to find and difficult to build. But our tendency to put the label community on any gathering of people might reflect a desire to belong to something deeper. And acknowledging this need might provide us with the motivation to start exploring ways to fulfill it.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

You’ve Disturbed My Pretty Universe

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I love when worlds, or in this case universes, collide. Steve Harvey’s Miss Universe mix-up this week strangely parallels another timely mix-up – from this week’s Torah reading. As the book of Genesis comes to a close, Joseph brings his two sons to their grandfather Jacob (renamed Israel) to be blessed. Joseph’s assumption, the assumption throughout the book of Genesis, is that the firstborn deserves the “greater” blessing by nature of his being born first. And so Joseph brings his oldest son Manasseh to Jacob’s right side, the “greater” side, and his younger son Ephraim to Jacob’s left. Yet what unfolds is surprising to both Joseph and the reader:

But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger, and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn. (Genesis 48:13)

Instead of blessing the oldest with his right hand, signifying the greater blessing, Jacob instead crosses his arms so that his right hand is upon the youngest. What is Jacob trying to teach Joseph, and us, through this choice?

I believe it is a very subversive message. A major theme of Genesis is that of chosenness and rejection, a theme that begins with Cain killing Abel because Cain’s offering was not accepted. In Steinbeck’s East of Eden, one character concludes from this story: “I think everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind. I think that if rejection could be amputated, the human would not be what he is” (p. 329).

To choose is also to reject. Even when it’s not as explicit as taking off someone’s crown to put it on someone else, it’s often experienced that way. As Jerry Seinfeld says about being second-place: “Congratulations, you almost won. Of all the losers, you came in first of that group. You’re the number one loser.” Being rejected is painful, especially when you expected to be chosen.

So how can we mitigate this pain? One way is to try to “amputate” rejection by getting rid of the very act of choosing. I’m not sure how realistic this option is, and I think a world without any choosing is also a world without ambition, accomplishment and recognition.

Jacob offers an alternative approach. Instead of refusing to choose, he challenges the connection between chosenness and greatness. By switching his hands, he transforms this selection process into a confusing and seemingly arbitrary one. Who is being chosen – the one on Jacob’s right side, or the one under Jacob’s right hand? And having just met both Manasseh and Ephraim, what criteria is Jacob using for his choice? This lack of clarity brings to focus the subjective nature of many choices.

As it says later on in the Torah, “God did not set love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people – for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). Choice is less about the chosen than the chooser. Appreciating this undermines the inaccurate and often unfair conclusions made about people who are and are not chosen.