Monthly Archives: January 2018

Of Flying Machines and the Currents of the Mind

I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. Written in the author’s smooth and seamless prose the book chronicles the Master’s life by delving into the notebooks that Leonardo kept constantly by his side. As you might expect from one of the greatest artists in human history the notebooks are filled with sketches of everything from landscapes to human faces and hands. What is surprising, however, is the material that is not art related – the geometry problems, records of cadaver dissections, proposed architectural projects, to-do lists, and studies of the flow of liquids, among many other things.  Isaacson magically unlocks Da Vinci’s mind, using the pages of his notebooks as a window into the thought processes of one of the most remarkable people to have ever lived.

What you see through that window is a person of astonishing observational power, tremendous talent, deep complexity, and perhaps more than anything else unmatched curiosity. Leonardo was filled with contradictions. He could be obsessively focused on a current project, yet he often lost interest in what he was working on, leaving many commissions unfinished. He was unquestionably one of the great artists of all time, producing multiple masterpieces, yet through long stretches of his life he refused to pick up a paint brush.  He was fascinated by science and physics, but he commonly made mistakes in his mathematical calculations. He was interested in large scale big picture challenges like changing the course of rivers or building the ideal city, yet he described in detail the way the wings of a dragonfly moved. In seeing what we all see Leonardo sensed in the world a profound mystery and beauty, and he spent his life observing and unlocking it.

And he intuitively sensed the interconnectedness of all things.  That the blood flow in the heart has something to do with the way water swirls and eddies, that the way the eye perceives light is part and parcel of how a painting should be shaded, that physical motion unlocks inner emotion, and the list goes on and on.  It is no mistake that during his ‘dissection’ period, on a page of his notebooks where he recorded detailed drawings of the dozens of muscles and nerves under the skin around the human mouth, there is a soft sketch of faintly smiling lips that would later appear on the Mona Lisa.  Leonardo perceived the world as a vast and beautiful tapestry where each individual thread is needed to make up the whole.  Most of us in life focus on one or the other, the threads or the tapestry, but Leonardo was able to see both simultaneously.

Last but not least, Isaacson’s Leonardo biography is filled with a deep sense of the very best of what makes us human.  That is something that can be easy to forget, especially during dark and trying times when the baser side of human nature is too visible too often.  This book was a joy to read, and best of all it pulses with hope, faith, curiosity, wonder, insight, intellect, and humanity.  In other words, what we all need, and what our world needs, more and more.

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Filed under books, history, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

The Farthest Shore

Published in 1972, The Farthest Shore  is  the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s beloved Earthsea trilogy.  It tells the tale of the Archmage Ged’s final quest and his efforts to restore balance, order, and magic to a breaking world. I still remember to this day reading the last pages of this novel on a cold winter night in Upstate New York, and like with any great book feeling a sense of sadness that the story had ended and the characters I was so invested in would begin to retreat into the mists of time and memory.

Ursula Le Guin died this week at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most beloved and respected fantasy and science fiction authors of all time.  In her clear but haunting prose she pushed the boundaries of our minds, challenging us to reimagine ideas like the power of language and gender identity, and to rethink what defines a hero, what constitutes courage, and what it means to seek balance in life and the world.

Le Guin lived a long and full life. She was a feminist and a mother and wife, a learned scholar and an author of children’s books, a lover of myth and fantasy who knew intuitively that the greatest quests are those in which we seek our true selves. She created worlds that were at the same time exotic and eerily familiar and characters that were filled with hope and courage and doubt and fear, characters who often failed, but who continued to fight for what they believed in. She reminded us that truth is often illusive and ambiguous but that we must seek it nonetheless.

The old saying is that you read the newspaper to find out what happened yesterday but you read great fiction to find out what always happens.  I would add that great fiction also reminds us of what should happen, of who we should strive to be and of what role we should hope to play in the world.  We are all, each of us in our own way, on a quest to the farthest shore.  For a time Ursula K. Le Guin was one of our great guides, helping us to find the way through darkness and to perceive the great light that is in the world.

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Filed under loss, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, Uncategorized, winter reading

Transmitting Tradition

This appeared in today’s (1/19) Baltimore Jewish Times –

A central concern of Jewish life has always been the transmission of the tradition from one generation to the next.  This is clear from the Torah’s narratives about the patriarchs and matriarchs, and their struggle, in each generation, to bring children into the world.  The Torah seems to be telling us that the creation of a next generation of Jews, that group that will carry Judaism’s torch into the future, is enormously difficult.  And yet it is the central mission of the Jewish people, for without that next generation the covenant between God and Israel will be broken.

That same challenge was still on the table in the time of Moses, some four hundred years after Sarah and Abraham lived.  At the beginning of Parshat Bo Moses and Pharaoh engage in a series of negotiations about when and how the Israelites might leave Egypt.  Pharaoh has been pushed to the breaking point by the first plagues, and he is ready to give some ground.  “Go, worship the Lord your God!,” he says to Moses and Aaron.  But then he asks an interesting question, almost as an after thought.  “Who are the ones to go?”  Moses’ response is clear:  “We will all go, young and old, our sons and daughters…!”  And suddenly Pharaoh pulls back from his promise.  “You must be crazy if you think I am going to let the children go with you!”  (Exodus 10:8-11, with my own paraphrase translation).

So it seems the real struggle of the Exodus is not about freedom alone.  It is also about continuity, about whether a next generation of Jews will be included in the Exodus moment.  Pharaoh has no trouble letting the Israelite men go, because he knows without their children the ideals of freedom and common dignity they espouse will die out in the wilderness.  But he also knows that if the Israelite children leave Egypt with the adults there is a chance that Judaism and its ideals will be around for a long time, something Pharaoh finds threatening and unacceptable.

Of course we know the end of the story.  As the plagues rain down Pharaoh is forced to acquiesce, and the Israelites leave Egypt en masse, men, women, and children.  In this way Moses averts yet another crises in Jewish continuity.  There will be a next generation of Jews in the wilderness to learn the laws from Moses, to remember the history of the Exodus, and then, when their time comes, to transmit the richness of our tradition to their own children and grandchildren.  Our challenge, from one generation to the next, is to make sure that process of transmission continues.

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The King’s Speech

You may know that Rabbi Saroken and I spent a good part of the week at the Pearlstone Center in Westminster at the annual Rabbinic Training Institute.  Every January some 70 Conservative rabbis from around the country gather to study, talk, pray, eat, even drink a little bit – and of course sing karaoke.  I will simply say after the Wednesday night session, if you haven’t seen a bunch of rabbis singing karaoke than you haven’t really lived!

One of the morning text classes I took was a Bible class that focused on characters in the text who struggle with disabilities.  The idea behind the course was that if we can see disabilities in some of our biblical heroes than our communities and synagogues will be more open and welcoming to people in the disabled community.  With close textual reading our teacher, Dr. Ora Prouser, showed us how Esau could be seen as a person struggling with ADHD.  Jacob, Esau’s brother, lives most of his life with a significant limp.  And perhaps most famously of all, we poured through texts describing Moses, thinking about the disability that he struggled with throughout his life, which is?  Yes, his speech.  Although the text is unclear as to what exactly Moses’ problem is – it has been suggested that perhaps he stuttered, or had a severe speech impediment –  it is absolutely clear that Moses had trouble talking.

There are multiple occasions where Moses reminds God of his difficulty with speaking, one of them in this morning’s Torah portion.  When God tells Moses to bring a message to Pharaoh, Moses responds by saying “אני ערל שפתים ואיך ישמע אלי פרעה – I am of impeded speech, how will Pharaoh hear me?!”  Almost implying that his speech is unintelligible.  God at first seems to pay no heed, but the truth is if you look a bit closer God seems to agree – how do we know this?  God says to Moses “OK, I’ll speak to you, you speak to Aaron, your brother, and then Aaron will be the one to speak to Pharaoh and the people.”  We can presume that Aaron, being Moses’ brother, can understand him, just as a parent of a child learning to speak can understand what the child is saying even thought to everyone else it sounds like gibberish.

I always knew about these passages, and the truth is most people, if you ask them, will be familiar with the idea that Moses has trouble speaking.  But what I had never really thought about before was that Moses carried this struggle throughout his life.  If you take out conversations that Moses has with God, which are already something different, and if you take out the book of Deuteronomy, which is also a book that is distinct in the Torah, and if you just look at the Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, you’ll find a Moses who struggles to speak.  There are a few short speeches here and there, but for the most part Moses speaks in short spurts, a few words at a time, and by and large seems to speak as little as possible.

You may be thinking of the movie The King’s Speech, which tells the story of King George VI.  I don’t want to get into all of the palace intrigue, and the abdication of the throne by the older brother, but if you know the story you know that when King George came to the throne he had a terrible stuttering problem.  The movie follows his efforts to defeat that difficulty, and with the help of a speech therapist he is ultimately able to address his people, both on the radio and in person, with moving words during some of Britain’s darkest days, helping them maintain faith and hope for a better future.

The parallels between our Torah narrative and Moses, and the story about the King are clear.  Both are the leaders of their people, both have deep misgivings about whether they are suited to the roles they have been called to, and of course, both struggle with their ability to speak.  But there is one distinct difference.  The King overcomes his speech difficulties, but Moses never does.  Imagine the pressure he felt walking in to Pharaoh’s throne room knowing how hard it would be to get his words out properly.  Or the humiliation he might have felt having to whisper God’s laws into Aaron’s ear, who would then proclaim them to the people.  But despite this challenge, Moses persists and, if you’ll excuse the expression, carries on.  He never again brings up the fact that it is hard for him to properly speak.  He goes about his business, using Aaron when he needs to, sometimes speaking for himself when there is no other recourse.  Despite his difficulty with speech, he is able to lead his people to freedom.

Now I have a sense  – mostly from my own work – of how difficult it can be to speak properly, even when you DON’T have a speech impediment.  As a leader, your words carry real weight, and what you say makes a difference.  People want to hear from you, they want to know what is on your mind, what you think about issue x,y, or z.  The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope.  The wrong words can have the opposite effect – they can break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or large scale, into a country.

Judaism was always sensitive to the power of words.  It is no accident that God creates the universe at the beginning of the Torah by using words.  That is an illustration of the power of words to create and bring goodness into the world.  But our tradition was well aware that the opposite side of the coin is also true, and that words can destroy, damage and hurt.  I imagine most of us are familiar with the concept of לשון הרע, commonly translated as gossip, but literally meaning ‘evil speech.’  This concept is considered so important in Jewish thought that the Chafetz Hayim, one of the great rabbis of the 19th century, wrote an entire book about the subject that he called שמירת הלשון, the Guarding of Language.

But this morning I would like to bring to your attention another Jewish concept about proper speech, less well known than לשון הרע , a concept called לשון נקי, which literally translated would mean ‘clean language.’  It is a simple and straight forward idea – when we speak, we should strive to elevate our language, to speak to our fellow human beings – or to speak about them – in the same way we might try to speak to or about God.  And that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse, or yell, when we rant and rave, we diminish others, but even more so we diminish ourselves.

That is a lesson we should all remember, in every interaction we have, whether with friends or family, whether at work or standing in line at the food store, whether we are a rabbi, an accountant, a teacher, whether Moses or the King of England, or even the President of the United States.  Hateful words, especially from leaders, will build a hateful world.  But clean language – לשון נקי – elevated language – will help us all to rise.  God willing in the months ahead we will figure out a way to leave the hate behind, and to rise together to build a more hopeful, peaceful, tolerant world for all.

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