Friday, March 26, 2010

V’higad’ta l’vincha – the original social network theory

A few of my friends and colleagues have been conducting a great project, called Tweet the Exodus. Assigned to represent various characters or groups from the Exodus from Egypt, they have been using Twitter to tell the story in preparation for this year’s celebration of Passover (beginning this coming Monday evening, March 29). It’s been a fun, enjoyable and witty program to follow. And, it’s received great attention, even being covered in the Wall Street Journal and on NPR’s Morning Edition. I am delighted and proud that these friends are doing such interesting work (you can follow the remaining process via Twitter @TweetTheExodus).

Some have praised this effort as a great innovation: that is, applying social network media as a tool for transmitting tradition in a new or creative manner. I actually see this a bit differently. I would suggest that Tweet the Exodus is a continuation: the use of new media to tell the tale of the Exodus is an extension of what’s been pedagogical intent of celebrating Passover all along. The Torah states v’higad’ta l’vincha – “you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” From the outset, we are commanded to personalize and contextualize the Passover story. It has great meaning to us – not merely historically – yet rather individually. It is up to us to recognize the significance of the power of liberation, and what it means in our own lives. We further its importance as we continue to convey the message to every next generation.

In this way, Passover itself is the original social network theory. From admitting “my father was a fugitive Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5) to the Talmudic invention of the Four Questions (BT Pesahim 115b); from opening the door for Elijah to the addition of an orange on the Seder plate: Passover is the instance par excellence of our sacred midrashic endeavor. To incorporate new elements, to create new traditions, to recast and reinvent parts of the tradition – in order to fulfill the mitzvah of making Passover real, while connecting genuinely with others.

It is no coincidence that Passover – with its great multi-media Seder (every one of our physical and emotional senses are engaged) – is easily the most widely-observed holiday for American Jews. Sure, we could argue that this is because it is truly a home-based celebration (and certainly it’s easier to handle being with our crazy relatives than to manage the baggage of attending synagogue, especially for those most precariously connected to formal Jewish life). More so, I deeply believe it is because of the potent theme (freedom demands our empathy for the condition of others) which is delivered in such a powerful, multivalent way.

Approaching Passover has been enhanced by the creative people behind Tweet the Exodus. May we each find new and renewing ways to declare the spiritual promise of the holiday: this year we are here, next year in Jerusalem; this year we are all bondsmen, next year may all Tweet free!

Chag sameyach – wishing you a spirited, engaging, uplifting Passover!

(and, follow me @jazzrabbi too)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

March Madness - seasons change (and so do I?)

Some simple thoughts on the time of year: It's March Madness. For some, it means college basketball tournaments (and figuring out your bracketology :). For others, the mad dash to "get ready" for Passover...whatever that means (as I learned a long time ago, the various holidays don't "come early" or "come late", it's rather that we're never quite prepared for them - and perhaps that's one of the strengths and gifts of holiday observance - that in the end, we have to be willing to give up a little control and roll with the flow of time). And, for all of us, this March Madness signifies the changing of season from winter toward spring: the return of warmer weather (especially beloved by those of us who have been blasted by ice and snow), fixing up the yard and outside of our homes, and even the idea of cleaning out/organizing the garage (okay - my spouse's daily prayer). From the NCAA tourney to Passover to the garage to our spirits - it's all about "spring cleaning"...
So - what's YOUR March Madness? How do you welcome spring? What's your favorite (or funniest) Passover memory? And more so, to what do you look forward most as the season changes? Would love to know...

Friday, March 12, 2010

I hate to fly, but...

I just got home last night after a attending a wonderful convention (CCAR 2010, San Francisco). My travel was hampered on both the flight TO the event, and returning: I was certainly thrilled to spend an unwarranted 6 hour layover in Detroit en route to California. Thankfully, I was able to enjoy a nice lunch and read a fun (if preposterous) new book titled Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (I kid you not). And then, on the return trip, my short flight from CVG (as I was reminded by friends, the “Holy City” – likely due to Graeter’s and Skyline) to SBN was riddled with non-stop turbulence – like spending a half hour inside a milkshake machine.

Still, all in all, it was a terrific week, perhaps in spite of the lousy travel, and maybe even because of it. How so? We all know that sometimes (more like lots of the time) we have to endure challenges and difficulties in order to experience the enjoyable and meaningful stuff of life. Zillions of examples might come to mind: working hard to train for a favorite athletic event; the seemingly unrewarding practice in music, art, or whatever your activity of choice; and surely, how often we feel that we waste so much time in “unrelated” coursework when pursuing our educational goals.

At one of our sessions, we were taught of the importance (not merely the necessity) of all the regular, mundane, even challenging and distasteful things we do so that we can get to the more significant items on our agenda. In speaking with our entire gathering about the classic phrases “I-It” and “I-Thou”, Rabbi David Ellenson (passionate and articulate teacher, president of HUC-JIR) reminded us of Buber’s insight – that in all relationships, we tend to move from the first (“I-It” is when we view something/someone as an object, an “it”) toward the second (when we recognize people for their intrinsic and undeniable value, as a “someone”, or “Thou”). And of course, some things, like schedules and meetings, office supplies, utilities, etc.) by definition remain in the realm of “it”. It is necessary to handle all these seemingly trivial, unimportant matters with great care, efficiency and diligence, as this “low hanging fruit” is like a support system for the juicier, meaningful, important parts of our agenda – and that is, of course, dealing with people: spending time with our loved ones and friends, reminiscing about wonderful times, and creating new memories together.

This idea is very Jewish to me. As Rabbi Ellenson spoke, I could only think of the classic Rabbinic teaching eyn kemach, eyn torah – “without sustenance, there is no Torah.” Usually these words describe the balance between funding and what it provides – the teaching, education, programming and activities that a community conducts. Here, I see this phrase reminding us of the necessary relationship between the mundane and boring things I’ve described, and how they allow us to maintain our continued work cultivating the important relationships in our lives. It was another “aha” moment for me…

So, I do hate to fly – but it was totally worth it – for the learning I took away from our convention; for the time to catch up with colleagues and friends, old and new; and especially for the sacred chance to see a couple dear friends, totally unexpectedly, for far too long. In the end, a long delay and a bumpy ride can erase and mend 25 years. Can’t wait for my next flight…

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Looking forward, looking back - CCAR 2010

I’m starting to gear up to go to San Francisco for the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). One of my favorite yearly outings is this opportunity to spend several days with a range of my Reform rabbinical colleagues – updating one another on trends in Jewish life, engaging together in study with leading scholars, hearing from a variety of interesting and important public figures…and mostly, the wonderful (and too seldom) chance to catch up with long-time dear friends in person.

(I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to attend this convention more years than not during my years in the rabbinate.)

And now – as I think of what to pack (heck – SF’s gotta be warmer than South Bend!), and take care of the many different things I need to finish up before leaving – I wonder as I always do: what will be the “feel” of the convention this year? In my experience, it’s usually been a very upbeat gathering – participants joining together for that periodically-needed “recharge” of their batteries – we all conduct very busy, sometimes exhausting, professional lives, and sometimes neglect our personal needs. Every CCAR has its flavor – due to what’s going on in the world, the Reform movement, and in popular culture. And this year will of course be no different, especially for our ongoing concern about the economy, health care, and the ever present tension between “tradition” and “change” that animates our conversations about nearly everything in life.

Right now, I’m not even certain who among my friends and colleagues will be attending (OK, I’ve heard from some). I’m looking forward to connecting with them – as well as meeting up with some new ones too. For my ordination classmates, it’s a somewhat of a kick in the pants, as we approach our 15th anniversary (sure, we celebrate the longevity of those who’ve been out in the field longer, even much longer; and now 15 years is nothing to take for granted).

For everyone going to SF – I hope your travel is easy, your airline connections smooth, and that we are blessed with a great experience – to laugh, learn, love and enjoy. N’siya tova – safe journeys!