How Passover Led To The World’s First Humanities Lecture

In keeping my new weekly tradition (and not getting too mad at myself for skipping a couple of weeks), I listened to the Torah portion from Passover and have attempted to apply the teachings from it to modern life. Skip to the bottom for a Too Long; Didn’t Read synopsis. 

Library Walk in NYC, Midtown

Plaque from the “Library Walk” in NYC, Midtown

The Jewish people received the Ten Commandments and entered Israel only after enduring years of slavery and humiliation at the hands of the Egyptians, followed by an exodus through the desert. By receiving the Ten Commandments (i.e. the first written laws), they were invited to a higher plane of spiritual existence.

God used Egypt as a cautionary example of how not to live – incest, debasement and cruelty were the norm. We’re introduced to the concept of the “Other,” as the Jews were instructed to not be like the Egyptians, and were given a set of principles to define a brand new nation. We’re also introduced to the concept of conscientious living.

A modern-day parallel can be drawn between the Jewish people receiving the Ten Commandments and college students receiving a liberal arts education.

An article in this month’s Harvard Magazine titled “Toward Cultural Citizenship” explores the decline in humanities concentrations among college students, and why this is detrimental to an individual’s participation in society. Harvard’s Dean of Arts and Humanities, Diana Sorenson, describes culture as “a dense conversation through time” – and the pleasure one experiences from participating in this conversation. The economic recession has led many students away from the humanities in favor of more strategic, career-focused concentrations.

I myself deliberated for three months during my undergraduate sophomore year between choosing the business school versus a liberal arts major, interviewing essentially everyone who crossed my path about their opinion on the matter. (This was pre-crash of 2008, so there was a little less pressure back then.) Ultimately I decided to become a better citizen of the world; I chose a double major in Anthropology and Comparative Literature – and never looked back.

The gift of knowledge has been valued in Judaism, as a path toward a more spiritual life. It can be argued that the Torah helps us live more “successful” lives, as well, through its lessons regarding humanity, relationships and even health. Today, students of the humanities are offered an even broader course on ways to live. The Jews who received the Torah had never heard of Descartes, Freud, Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. (Interestingly, in some form, all of what those leaders have recommended can be extrapolated from the Ten Commandments.)

TL; DR

Receiving the Torah from Mount Sinai was like the earliest humanities lecture. Abandoning the Ten Commandments in favor of the golden calf is akin to today’s college students foregoing an education in history, psychology, anthropology and sociology in favor of business and economics.

Passover is one of the most important, sacred holidays in the Jewish calendar. It’s actually kinda “meta” how the retelling of “the story” each year is part of the story; if Passover didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have a story to tell.

 

What The Torah Says About Branding & Social Entrepreneurialism

Welcome to week 2 of my new exercise: applying the weekly teachings of the Torah to modern life, branding/marketing and, occasionally, the Middle East Conflict. The Torah is considered the “blueprint of Creation”; I believe it’s also a wireframe for today’s global and digital society. 

lighthouse

Last week’s portion, Metzora, teaches that it’s always possible for someone who has become spiritually “impure” by committing an act of wrongdoing, to be forgiven. Someone who distances himself from his community (or from God) is offered an opportunity to turn the situation around by attaching oneself to the Torah, which acts like a spiritual lighthouse guiding lost souls away from the abyss. Those who choose to climb out of the darkness are rewarded for the effort – but it does require an effort. Forgiveness doesn’t come instantly, but requires remorse, sacrifice and willingness to undergo a process.

 

Relation to Social Change: The Ability to Turn Things Around 

Whoever said there’s no such thing as second chances hasn’t read this Torah portion. Every single day is a chance to turn it all around; a chance for “salvation to sprout.” This is an extremely empowering concept on an individual level; we are allowed to make mistakes and by recognizing those mistakes, we have the power to transform a negative into a positive.

Consider the implications of this on a macro level: entire groups of people may be forgiven and large-scale social change can take place. For social entrepreneurs, this belief is sometimes taken for granted; it’s pretty reassuring to see it referenced in scripture dating back centuries.

The organization Seeds of Peace incorporates this concept into its conflict-resolution efforts. Their approach to peace relies on the connection of people, as opposed to governments. By establishing connections and creating relationships amongst groups who are otherwise divided by hate, Seeds of Peace keeps hope alive by believing it’s never too late to change the conversation. It’s extremely difficult to retain this perspective, especially if you’re living in an area of conflict. But those committed to enacting real change and in bringing peace, the possibility of TRANSFORMATION is of utmost importance.

 

Relation to Branding: The Value of Humility 

Humility = the truth; if you humble yourself, there’s no need to be humiliated by others. The modern trend in branding in which companies and organizations make themselves fully transparent to their users in order to build trust, takes this teaching quite seriously.

Companies like Everlane, with its tagline of “Radical Transparency”, The Honest Company and Innocent all place a value on authenticity and accountability, which translates directly into real business value via consumer loyalty. These brands essentially “humble themselves” and forge an emotional connection with the consumer, establishing a relationship built on trust.

 

The Value of Work, Patience and Appreciating the Process

Change doesn’t happen overnight, and forgiveness isn’t rewarded to those who simply admit to their wrongdoing. It requires remorse and appreciation for what has been committed. I can’t help but make a comparison to the Catholic concept of Confession as an absolution of sin. The path toward forgiveness in the Torah is more rugged, and seems to require more of a personal investment and sacrifice in order for the sin to be truly absolved. The constant struggle for self-improvement and a kind of moral “rugged individualism” is endorsed here. Here, we see an overlap in Jewish and American values. Great opportunities exist, but they require hard work and perseverance.

What The Torah and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides Teach Us About Humanity

Spirituality

My brother being spiritual in Israel.

In an effort to expand my podcast library, I scrolled past the Religion category and out of curiosity tapped on the Weekly Parsha Podcast by Rabbi Ari Goldwag. I listened to a description of the Original Man as a spiritual being, possessing both male and female aspects. I came across this podcast literally one day after finishing Middlesex, a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides about a hermaphrodite.

Coincidence? Probably. But it got me thinking about how interesting it could be to find coincidences in each week’s Torah portion, and use them as a way to attain a deeper level of understanding about the world. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I’m a big fan of close reading, literary analysis and contemplation – so am going to give this a shot as a weekly exercise and see where it takes me.

G-d Created Us Both “Before and After”

It seems like Jews were meant to be literary majors. At the core of the Jewish religion lies an appreciation for thoughtful analysis and discussion. Nothing is taken at face-value; it is dissected and explored, and those dissections and explorations are then dissected and explored. Rabbis from hundreds of years ago are referenced, their particular interpretations are analyzed and discussed. The result is a line of dialogue that has survived the centuries, due to its persistent relevance and immunity to the passage of time. The methods used by people used to cope with the world then, can be applied to how we cope with our modern world. Deep, right?

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“she will conceive”), discusses conception, birth and the period of impurity following a birth. A particularly intriguing phrase is offered in the the Midrash (writings that explain the teachings of the Torah) “G-d fashioned us both later and earlier.” In the most literal sense, the “later” and “earlier” here refer to two chronological points in time: conception and birth. Yet another interpretation discusses the concept of the original state of man as he was created by G-d in a spiritual sense. According to religious interpretation, the original human being possessed both male and female aspects. Originally, we were all unified and connected; later we split off into different sexes and distinct entities.

In this model, the “conception of humanity” occurred as follows:

EARLY : united, all-encompassing, transcendent, original, spiritual; male and female as aspects

LATER : divided, separated, physical, reality; male and female as distinct entities

Hermaphroditism: The Original State of Man?

Hermaphrodites, you could say, represent that original type of human being, which is not divided but is instead a composite of the two sexes. Modern Western society regards it as a fascinating and difficult condition, because it is so entirely foreign to the way most of us view the world and rely on our gender as one of the most powerful if not the most powerful aspect of our identity. I’m a woman, I’m an American, I’m a creative, I’m an employee, I’m white, I’m Jewish, etc. etc. Being female is the only one of these traits that stares at me in the mirror and impacts my relationships with others daily.

Middlesex offers a stunning lens into what life is like for someone of this nature, who doesn’t even know the name of her condition until toward the end of the book. The protagonist (and the reader) views the world through both a sort of gender-free lens, experiencing feelings as they come and not imposing a gendered identity upon everything.

 

TL;DR

As it is wont to do, the Torah offers much existential food-for-thought. It could be teaching us to remember that we humans were originally united as one transcendent being. In the physical world of reality, we’re all separate and distinct from one another. Yet in the spiritual world, we’re all parts of a greater, all-encompassing whole. This concept is pretty popular in modern culture; Lauren Hill’s Everything is Everything comes to mind, as does Aaron Hurst’s new book, The Purpose Economy, and the expression “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

This model of humanity as both “Later” (divided, different, unique) and “Earlier” (united, unified, coherent), proffered by the Torah, is an extremely compelling and sustaining way to view the world.

Also, I kinda like this. 🙂

$100 Million in Life Advice

Today I learned some valuable life advice tonight at a celebration in honor of Wix’ IPO, at their NY office. Lots of the original employees from the Israeli office were there. I wound up smoking on the roof with a bunch of the senior developers (felt just like old times) and one of them gave me some really legit advice on leading a balanced life:

  1. Find something you don’t despise doing and aren’t morally opposed to. This can be your job. Or, you can work at a gas station.
  2. Set strict limits on how much of your time/energy is devoted to work (sorry Joe, my manager, if you’re reading this-slash-obviously you’re reading this you love me hello hi I’m coming in late as usual) but make the most of that time and work smartly and quickly.
  3. Work on art projects with other people. It will force you to complete things, is a valuable learning experience and can be extremely rewarding.
  4. Do small, hassle-free things you enjoy during wait times, at work, etc.  like 5-minute sketches

This came from someone with 30 years of development experience (or maybe 12, one or the other). OK sleep time bye.

Any Of Us Could Be Kindred Spirits

I witnessed something so strange and powerful the other day on an evening walk with my dog before going to bed. The experience has stuck in my head for a few days. This happens sometimes – I’ll encounter something that feels bigger than me, and unless I write it down it nags at the back of my head. Like it’s not supposed to stay within me but is meant to be shared. (So thank you, whoever is reading this.)

It was September 11th, and I had been out all day working at an event in honor of September 11th, at the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald – a company which lost 2/3 of its employees in 9/11. I got home after a long day out, picked up my dog and met some friends for dinner. On our way home, we passed by a church where I saw a couple of people were sitting on the stairs with sleeping bags and clothes and crates and crap. As my dog and I approached, a seated man started cooing over Betsy.

My immediate reaction was to ignore it and keep walking, but then looked at the man and for some reason changed my mind. I thought to myself “He’s not dangerous; I don’t know anything about this person or why he’s on the street. If petting my dog makes him happy, why not let him?”

Betsy went up to him as if she knew him, and he greeted her warmly, exclaiming: “I haven’t seen you in a week! How have you been!?” I can’t explain why but I got the chills. We were on a block we don’t normally walk down; there was no way this man had actually seen my dog a week earlier; she wasn’t even staying with me in the city that much recently. And he definitely hadn’t seen her more than once or I would have remembered the interaction. He was looking directly into her face, as if he was recognizing something deeper inside her. I felt like he wasn’t actually speaking to Betsy, my dog – but to her spirit.

As we started to walk away he said to me “They’re the best, aren’t they?” To which I replied, “Yup!”

The fact that he first spoke directly to my dog as though they knew each other — and then to me as though they’ve never met before — seemed to confirm what I had already concluded. He identified with some aspect of my loving, affectionate, judgment-free animal, who nuzzled up to him and didn’t make him feel dirty or different. He seemed to be addressing the presence of love and kindness that he recognized within her; it saddened me to think he hadn’t seen that in a week.

A poetic way to end the day on September 11th.

Comparing Tragedies May Be Fruitless…Or Opportunity for Perspective

Comparing tragedies is taboo. But this is my blog. And the point of my blog is to examine aspects of life in NY after having lived in Israel for a bit. And this week’s tragedy feels like one of those aspects worth examining.

In the past month:

  1. Israel and Gaza were at war
  2. Hurricane Sandy blew through NY and NJ
  3. Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting

I can’t help but view these events in light of one another.

Hurricane Sandy was a natural disaster that more or less couldn’t have been avoided. The other two are man-made. And as complicated as the Middle East Conflict is – at least it has a story. There are reasons why people on both sides feel so strongly about the situation, whether justified or not.

Friday’s shooting has no defense or explanation. Not a single aspect of it. Friends of mine who are teachers (including my mom) are going to their jobs tomorrow, and will have to have some form of conversation with their students about the event.

I’m looking forward to hearing about it, because I think there can be an opportunity here for one of two conversations: one of healing, understanding, and peace – or one of anger, negativity and hostility. There’s no such thing as revenge or retaliation to be had. We need our teachers and legislators to be PEACE proponents here. We need strong leadership with a proactive agenda that seeks to understand and help – as opposed to blame and punish.

Having metal detectors installed in schools seems to be a band-aid, and a slippery one at that. Israelis are used to security measures at public places; I stopped noticing the guards at shopping malls and restaurants after awhile. I don’t want metal detectors to become so commonplace that they’re accepted as a fixture in our public spaces. The problem is larger than that, and requires a more sustainable solution.

NY Silent Peace Walk

NY Peace Walk

I went on a silent walk for peace last week.

It was organized as a demonstration to show support for Israeli-Palestinian solidarity. Designed with Buddhist principals, there was to be no shouting, no posters. Just walking and peace. About 500 people showed up, and after some introductory remarks by event organizers and peace leaders, we walked in a single file around Central Park for almost 2 hours. We were given white sashes to wear over our raincoats. The walk concluded inside the park where we split into small groups for discussion.

I met other like-minded people, which felt surprisingly more rewarding than I would have thought. I don’t go to things like this just to meet people who already agree with what I feel; I don’t really know strongly how I feel about certain things, but when you meet people who affirm certain notions you have but aren’t yet sure how to express them – it’s a actually a really beautiful thing.

NY Peace Walk

The experience was powerful in a number of ways for me personally. One of which involved me deciding to stay involved with the organization that coordinated the walk. It was also very meditative, and I enjoyed the deliberate pace at which we were walking and the deep reflection it lent itself to.

Coincidentally, the date of the walk, October 7 2012, happened to fall on the date of Simchat Torah – the final day of Sukkot, traditionally celebrated by circling the Torah 7 times. We happened to be walking around Central Park on a holiday that’s celebrated in pretty much the same motion . . .

NY Peace Walk