Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, February 9, 2023
In This Moment: Super Bowl Pick - Hint: Both teams are in this week's Torah portion!
In This Moment
The headline reads
"Disaster in Turkey and Syria....
...It can also happen to us."
And indeed, the earthquake was felt as far away as Tel Aviv.
One of the ongoing pleasures of my rabbinate has been working with adults considering becoming Jews by Choice. As thrilling as it is to see Judaism through the eyes of someone just discovering its wonders, even more thrilling is the chance to see Judaism through the eyes of that person's significant other, whose memories are complicated by all the adolescent angst surrounding B-Mitzvah and Hebrew School. Though those experiences are generally positive (especially if they grew up here!) they are incomplete. How much of the world did you understand when you were in 7th grade? So almost every conversion student for me is a twofer, and often a chance to reconnect with someone I haven't seen since they left for college years ago.
It so happens that I am now working with several candidates for conversion. Typically, one of the requirements of this process, which usually takes at least a year, is an Introduction to Judaism class. Several good ones are available in NYC and a few more locally; plus, in this Zoom era, the choices have multiplied online. But most of these classes, online or off, cost hundreds of dollars.
With that in mind, and as a service to our community, I have decided to offer a quick, ten-session Judaism 101 course on Zoom this spring, modeled after many such courses I've taught here in the past, and to open it up to anyone who wants. So if you are Jewish-curious, Jewish-adjacent or simply Jewish, wherever you live, near or far, this is the class for you.
Although we could charge a premium price, I'm going to offer this class free of charge so that there will be no barriers to participation. I do not feel comfortable accepting money when it comes to conversion, and there is no overhead or ancillary cost aside from my time. I'm also aware that when an educational opportunity is given away for free it diminishes its value - and often the commitment to regular attendance. So there is going to be a cost. Since part of learning about Judaism is actually experiencing Jewish values-in-action, there will be an expectation that each student will donate an unspecified multiple of chai (18) to the tzedakkah of their choice. That will be the price of admission, and it will be on the honor system.
Since there are no barriers to full participation, I'm hoping that each participant will indeed fully participate. Bring your questions, anything from "Why do bad things happen to good people" to "How do you play dreidel?"
It's hard for me to pick this year, knowing that the Brady era is truly over. It's also hard when one of the fan bases does theTomahawk Chop, which Native American groups consider racist. And they also repeat endlessly achant made-up by college marching bands to mimic indigenous peoples' war cries. The closest historical source for the chant is the cartoon,“Pow Wow the Indian Boy,” which I am ashamed to have enjoyed during my childhood. It was a regular feature on the children’s showCaptain Kangaroo. I recall singing along to it as a kid, while cupping my hands to my mouth.
Let's for a moment picture how we would respond if the moccasin were on the other foot. Imagine a team called the Shylocks, with payis and a yarmulke on their horned helmets (think Minnesota's Viking horns - since it is common knowledge that Jews have horns). Every time the team scores a touchdown, the fans toss pennies in the air and make an exaggerated shofar sound (mocking the shofar has really been done at antisemitic rallies- see the Mastriano photo below) while rubbing their chins like a rabbi in contemplation. We would call the ADL pretty quickly, I think.
Anyway, I digress.
Here is the case for Philly:
In the Bible, the eagle is referenced over 20 times. In most cases, this majestic bird is seen as a warrior, swooping down on its prey (see Deuteronomy 28:49, Job 9:26 and Jeremiah 48:40, for a few examples). The eagle is also seen as unclean and detestable (Leviticus 11:13), maternal and protective (Deuteronomy 32:11 and, most famously, and in this week's portion, Exodus 19:4), youthful (Psalms 103:5), bald (Micah 1:16) and mysterious (Proverbs 30:19).
The Talmud emphasizes the eagle’s speed and agility, and its spread wings have come to symbolize arms outstretched in prayer. The Hebrew word for eagle is “Nesher,” which has also been an honorary title for a great person. Maimonides was called “ha-Nesher Hagadol,” the “Great Eagle.”
There are lots of words for "chief" in Jewish sources, all of them more politically correct than the Kansas City team's name. The most common are "Rosh" (head) and "Sar," (chief officer).
Amazingly, eagles and chiefs BOTH appear in this week's portion, Yitro.
Two verses are most revealing:
Ex. 19:4: "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me."
Ex. 18:21, also in this week's portion, says this:
"You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who 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."
Both of these verses are central to the narrative. One speaks of Moses' need to delegate leadership, a recommendation made by his father in law Jethro. The other leads up to the climactic moment when the Ten Commandments were to be given at Mt. Sinai.
What are these references trying to tell us?
The "chief" passage seems to be indicating that K.C., like Moses, will do better if they share the burden - and the football. If Mahomes hands off to his running backs more often than expected and, when he throws, spreads the ball around to all his receivers, he'll thrive.
For Philly, the message is clearly, "Fly, Eagles, Fly." Take to the air, early and often.
For both teams, the strategies being suggested by the Torah are counterintuitive. The Chiefs like to pass first and the Eagles are known to be an excellent running team, who would presumably want to shorten the game with long, plodding drives.
But Chiefs gotta run and Birds gotta fly. I don't necessarily agree, but that's what I'm seeing in the text.
There you have it. The courageous eagle, willing to make the supreme sacrifice to protect its young, able to fend off arrows to reach its destination. And God looks on and says, "That's how I felt when I rescued the Children of Israel from Egypt."
The eagle - and God - must have had an impenetrable offensive line to fend off all those blitzing attackers.
The eagle is a role model...but the chieftains in chapter 18 are too - "capable, trustworthy, spurning ill-gotten gains." Rashi suggests there that "capable" means wealthy, so they can't be bribed. All well and good, but perhaps the Chiefs embarrassment of riches, especially at quarterback, will not serve them well on this field of battle. It should be said, though, that both teams have won Super Bowls in the last half decade.
It should be mentioned that just as with the chieftains in our parasha, arrows mentioned in our sources have, of course, nothing to do with Native American stereotypes. Sometimes an arrow is just an arrow.
And sometimes it is not. Among the many arrowheads archaeologists have unearthed in Israel, the one pictured here might be the most historically and emotionally significant. It was found in a Jerusalem home in the the upper city, just across from the ancient temple. An aristocratic Jewish family lived there at the time of the Roman destruction in the year 70 CE. It's known as the Burnt House because it was destroyed at the same time the temple was burning. This spear was found just beyond the reach of a skeletal hand - the hand of a woman who might have reaching for a weapon that would allow her to defend herself. But all was lost. The Romans, whose symbol was the eagle, vanquished our people using those weapons of choice, spears and arrows. Without protection under God's wing, the woman was unable to fend off those arrows - and protect her loved ones.
Eagles can be divine messengers or symbols of an evil empire. We've seen both throughout history. Ben Franklin had no great love for the eagle, calling it "a bird of bad moral character” that “does not get his living honestly” because it steals food from the fishing hawk and is “too lazy to fish for himself.”
Yes, fish gotta swim... but birds gotta fly!
I've seen enough. Eagles will fly to victory by a field goal. But next year, the team with the payis will win!
And maybe then we'll exchange that annoying Tomahawk Chop for some good old fashioned Philadelphia razzing.
Here is the earlier report: Coalition bill would ban mixed prayer anywhere at Western Wall, nix egalitarian plaza - The government is expediting a law imposing sweeping new restrictions on freedom of worship at the Western Wall, banning egalitarian, mixed-gender prayer at a section of the holy site where it is now allowed, criminalizing the activity of the Women of the Wall prayer rights group, and banning visitors from wearing attire deemed immodest. The legislation, which penalizes offenders with a six-month prison term or a NIS 10,000 ($2,900) fine, drew fierce and widespread condemnation Thursday. The law, which had been mentioned in coalition agreements in general terms, was added at the last moment to the agenda of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s Sunday meeting, with Hebrew media reporting that Shas party leader Aryeh Deri wants the bill to pass its preliminary reading in the plenum over the next few days.
The quest to replace Park East Synagogue’s 92-year-old rabbi is not going smoothly (Jewish Week) - More than a year after the influential Park East Synagogue fired its popular assistant rabbi, a candidate to succeed its long-serving rabbi, Arthur Schneier, delivered an hour-long lecture to a crowd of 100 people on Sunday evening, including members of the search committee. Following Rabbi Yitzchok Schochet’s talk, however, the event devolved into a verbal sparring match, with accusations of prejudice and “cancel culture.” Jacob Henry reports on what went down
Burt Bachrach dies at 94 - When Bacharach spoke of his Jewishness, he often downplayed it, noting how his family weren’t the type to go to shul and that his childhood playmates were mostly Catholic, and sometimes antisemitic. In his 2013 memoir, Anyone Who Has a Heart, he wrote of his early days, “I was Jewish but I didn’t want anybody to know about it. I already had enough problems without having to also admit I was Jewish.”
This Sunday, our B'nai Mitzvah class will participate in the annual World Wide Wrap, sponsored by our Men's Club and the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs nationally. They will learn about tefillin (phylacteries). Of course, tefillin are not just a guy thing. Here are several instructional materials that have just been produced by Women's League.
The handmade parchment in the photo below was designed to be placed in one of the tefillin's boxes. BUT... it has a huge scribal error. Below you will find the answer to last week's challenge. The circled words were repeated and are out of order.