Thursday, July 30, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


Most of the apartment is packed, boxes and suitcases gradually filling up with accumulated books and pieces of Armenian pottery and random papers. Moving out becomes an opportunity for selection, for reflection: a year’s worth of history and future priorities sorted out, shelf by shelf. I’ll miss living in Jerusalem, and I’ll miss this little apartment that quickly became a real home. My last day of packing is today – Tisha B’av – the annual fast day in memorial of Jerusalem’s ancient destruction and the (perpetual?) Jewish exile. Perfect. It’s a bit of challenge to be packing up while fasting but it’s no big deal and actually quite a visceral experience, an echo of the question asked by so many of my ancestors as they packed emptying rooms, for mundane or tragic reasons: how do I create memories of a home? What do I choose to remember? Do I really need all this history? (And how do I avoid being charged for overweight luggage?)

I’ll remember, and miss most, the little balcony–quiet at all times, lush with greenery, with the round plastic table my mother got me for my birthday. “You’ll see”, she said, “come spring – it will be an extra – and the nicest – room.” She’s a wise Jerusalemite. I’ve sat here, as I do right now, lots of times- with friends in the cool evenings drinking Arak with fresh mint, but most often alone, throughout the days, fingers on keyboard, coffee fuel, focused on writing. The balcony became my writing space, a bubble of inspiration and effort and frustration and satisfied periods at the end of this or that essay, or chapter, or blog. I’ve ‘written’ in various forms for most of my life - but somehow, sometime this past year, rather early on in the fall, the focus on ‘writing’ has changed. I began observing more of how I write – and why I write – and how I can perfect this craft, this art, further. By spring, I had read some great books on writing, including Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and Michal Chabon’s 'Maps and Legends.’ And also, by spring I had started sitting daily on the balcony, at regular early morning hours, just showing up and doing my damn best to write something and get into the swing of regularity. We all know this, and all writers write about it – the difficult art of just sitting there and committing to the articulation of thoughts in the rigid and fabulous confines of letters, words, punctuation marks. It helped that I had deadlines to meet, and ideas that I wanted to share, and the time (carefully, painfully, carved out) to sit and try – and it helped that I had this peaceful space, this balcony, to help make writing happen.

So of course I want to pack the balcony and take it with me anywhere I go – if only the balcony was as mobile as my laptop! Can I keep up the pace and tempo of writing that I’ve cultivated in Jerusalem and write the same way at my desk back in Manhattan??

Yeah, I know it’s not about the physical balcony. It’s like the story about the Jewish kids who come back from summer camp and refuse to perform Sabbath rituals unless those are conducted by a lake. But the balcony became a symbol – a private – now public – icon of the personal mental place in which I reside as a writer: right there between the innermost private musings and the general public – on the balcony, so to speak, of my life. I want to figure out how to keep ‘sitting on the balcony’ – entering this state of mind, regularly carving out the time and voicing my thoughts in words that enter the public domain, generate conversation. (Why do I need to do that? Well, why do you now read these words? There’s something here about conversation, about dialogue and learning and sharing concepts and symbols and questions that help me make sense of my life and, mysteriously, magically, touch the mind and heart of one, say, you – reading, listening, reacting - moved (hopefully!) in some way to be more present, or attentive, or alive.)

Writing is taken for granted, like walking, like air. But it’s humbling to think of its sacredness, its once-upon-a-time rarity. Texting, like writing, gets the message across, but writing, like slow food, benefits from time and patience. In this week’s Torah tale, Va’etchanan, as Moses reflects on the Sinai years, he delivers several poetic paragraphs that will eventually dominate Jewish liturgy: the S’hma prayer. Within the S’hma is the following instruction to write things down, an instruction aimed at preserving literacy, and ensuring that our multiply exiled people will always have a way to stay grounded:

"And you shall write the words upon the door-posts of your house, and your gates." (Dvarim 6:9)

The ‘words’ mentioned here are these precise words – this very verse. Jewish households to this day are marked on their doorposts with these exact words, written in Hebrew on tiny parchments: in essence, we are nailing the instruction manual of how to be Jewish to our thresholds. (It’s not a bad idea for what to do with instruction manuals. While packing I must have thrown out at least a dozen different manuals, little fold outs of how to assemble and maintain a printer, a water filter, a camera, a phone.)

What strikes me is the insistence on regularity. Say these words daily, see them before you as you enter and exit your home – mark your life with these reminders for better living.

The laptop will be the last to be packed. In a few days I will close it and take a last look around, and kiss the mezuzah on this door, and cross this threshold and say thank you and goodbye little house. But for now, I’m still here, on the balcony, afternoon breeze, still fasting in memory of exiles gone, writing about writing, reminding myself to remember what this has all been about. I’ll pack the words, spoken here, and written, and I’ll inscribe them on the doorpost that leads out to this balcony, and I’ll pack the door handles and the sunsets, and the breeze.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


Henry dies around 2am Jerusalem time. I put the book down, sobbing. It wasn’t unexpected but his loss, nevertheless, is shocking. I go online and look on gchat for A. who is in India, god know what time, and I type ‘Henry just died.’ She immediately replies ‘o honey I’m so sorry. I know how you feel.’ And so on. We chat for about 10 consoling minutes, she in the middle of the monsoon and me in the hot Jerusalem night, grieving an imaginary dead man in Chicago.

It’s weird, we both acknowledge that – but still, we grieve, captivated within the ‘make believe’ drama that good fiction writing can provide. We chat a little longer, candid, open about our own longings and loves and losses. The book ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ – A. gave it to me to read – is fiction – but our reactions and feelings are real – and then what’s reality anyway? Here I am in Jerusalem, a city spun from the pages of sacred books, spinning into violent realities that far exceed all fictions.

In Jerusalem, it seems, all the myths and truths and fictions and faiths clash constantly.

The latest: ultra orthodox riots, hurled rocks and dirty diapers, burnt garbage cans, dozens of arrests. The cause is the recent arrest of a woman who belongs to one of the Ultra Orthodox Anti Zionist sects – she is accused of extreme neglect – starvation - of her three year old son and was recently taken into state custody, while the child was rushed to the hospital. As a result, and as security measures - all welfare stations have been closed to that specific Ultra Orthodox sector. ‘If only the yeshiva boys had air-conditioning in their rooms, they wouldn’t get so angry,’ one of the rabbis said to the press last week, half joking. ‘We don’t believe the police, the government or the media,’ responds another spokesperson for the protestors – ‘we believe that we should take care of our own people and only with God’s guidance.’ It’s a media circus of course with fierce opponents choosing to believe this or that version of this civic brawl, sadly at the expense of a family that is clearly in need of help.

Once again, in the middle of the summer heat, the clash of values and the high cost of beliefs is at the root of trouble that’s been rocking this ancient, tired city of faith for so many generations under an enduring blazing sun. What one does or doesn’t believe here spills to the streets – becomes public policy or burnt plastic. Believing, in Jerusalem, is, somehow, part of the territory – inescapable, volatile. Everybody believes something here, fiercely. Even those who don’t believe – in God, or in Zionism, in a Two State Solution, or in basic human hope – have to have an opinion here – have to believe something. It’s not easy to live by your conviction and belief, taking sides, side by side with everybody else’s side…It’s never been easy, and it isn’t getting any easier. These recent clashes are but a reflection of the widening gap between different sectors in Israeli society, a gap that is redefining, slowly, what Israel is – and what values and beliefs will determine its future. One thing is clear – we’ve never been a people known for consensus, especially when it comes to matters of faith.

A quick check on this week’s Torah tale reveals this reminder, tucked into a brilliant bitter speech - Moses reminds his flock, on the eve of entrance to the Promised Land of how little faith they had in him, and in his vision for their future. The speech is in the first chapter of the fifth and final of the Five Books of Moses. The book, like this week’s portion is called ‘D'varim’ – “Words” or also “Things”, and it consists of the last will, summary, last song, and lots of other things Moses says before he dies. In this speech he reminds his people of the time when they heard the frightening report of the spies – how dangerous and overpopulated Canaan was – and refused to enter the Promised Land. Moses, Ultra Early Zionist, is angry – ‘God carried you through the desert as a father carries his son’- and you refuse to enter the land? He blames it on their faith, or lack thereof: “Yet in this thing you do not believe God’ (D’varim 1:32) He hurls at them – the ‘thing’ meaning – their refusal to enter the land, to believe his vision.

Who were they, all those Hebrews who checked out the spy reports and said – no, thank you – we’re not into taking over a populated region. Or – how about Egypt? They may not have had the faith in the complex Promised Land vision of Moses and Joshua – but what did they believe in? how valid their point of view – even though it is clearly portrayed in this book – and in our history –as the ‘bad’ view. Translated into today’s terms – the Children of Israel that Moses blames for not believing in the Promised Land are not that much different than most world Jews today for whom Israel is maybe a visit but are definitely not moving in any time soon. Or maybe they are even like the Ultra Orthodox Anti Zionist Jerusalem Jews who live here but refuse to recognize the State of Israel as the legitimate sovereign of the Holy Land. They, like those ancient Hebrews, simply stick to a different set of beliefs and values that bleed into our messy reality.

This business of belief gets complicated. That’s why we return to good books, not just the Good Book.

A few months ago A. recommended that I read ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’. She is a dear trusted friend and a smart teacher and writer, so I obeyed, except that I somehow got it wrong and walked out of the airport bookstore with ‘the Memory Keeper’s Daughter’ – which I liked - but made A. laugh real hard when I told her about it and asked her why she wanted me to read it. Just before going back to India, she went and bought me the book she wanted me to read in the first place. I’d been reading it for several weeks, slowly savoring the end - ‘in the last two weeks,’ A. writes, 'I gave myself one page a day.' And now it’s done: Another book on the shelf – a souvenir of a stirring journey, an intellectually and emotionally stimulating metaphor – and really, heartbreaking in a very beautiful way. What made it so powerful? A. and I wonder about, one chat line at a time. ‘it reminded me to believe that love is possible – it gave strength and validity to the belief in love and in the terrible beauty of longing.’

A. & I finish chatting and I slog out and sit on the quiet balcony and think: isn’t the Torah also a book that invites the reader to time travel back and forth between then and now? Isn’t it also a book about yearning, and love and about the courage to – or not to – believe?

I guess that’s what makes a good book great. It’s a lot like life.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Storahtelling Maven Event in Jerusalem
July 25,2009 6pm

Amichai Lau-Lavie and the Israel Storahtelling team present a special Storahtelling for Shabbat Hazon.

Join us as we follow Moses up to the mountain top on his campaign to enter the Promised Land – at all costs. Is it worth the struggle?

This Storahtelling Maven Event will be conducted in Hebrew and followed by a musical Havdala

Mercaz Tarbut Amim
Emek Refaim Jerusalem

click the image to enlarge

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


It’s the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, on another flight to the Middle East. The cabin lights are off, the individual video screens flicker here and there, most passengers are sleeping, but I’m wide awake, and am quietly crying, not sure why.

I call it ‘travel tax’ – the method of pay is physical and emotional.

I’m usually among the sleepers on these overnight voyages, sleeping pill and a scotch as my faithful helpers, but not this time, which is also the first leg of the last round-trip for this year of excessive travel. I’m trying to do the math – is this the eighth or ninth flight back and forth between NY and Israel this year?? Maybe I’m crying because of this constant sense of ‘in between’ – overdue ‘travel tax’. Or maybe and also, I’m crying because of the moving movie I just finished watching: “motorcycle diaries” – the early, defining years of Che Guevara’s life. His reaction to human suffering and injustice, his young, beautiful passion – this is the stuff that makes me cry on planes. (Full disclosure here: I also watched the last 30 minutes of ‘confessions of a shopaholic’ and that too made me weepy – just the true and tried Hollywood recipe for the triumph of the will and the victory of happily ever after… the American-Modern Orthodox gaggle of girls sitting across the aisle noted my selection and reaction with unrestrained giggles.)

And maybe I’m crying because A.’s little feet, in red converse sneakers, are resting on my thighs, while the rest of her little body stretches across the middle seat, with her head tucked into the lap of her mom, snug against the window, both of them now sound asleep. This is the first time this year that I haven’t flown solo – A., S. and I take up a whole row, family style, and we’re traveling together, and somehow, this is enough of a significant change in my travel life to make me pause, and reflect, and reach for a tissue. Traveling together with others – esp. with children - is a very different form of journey.

I turn off the video screen in front of me (even though there are 500 more movie selections) and flip open ye Good Book. This week’s Torah tale marks the end of Ba’midbar - the fourth book of Moses – the book of wilderness – the book of traveling.

It’s a double Torah-portion entitled ‘Matot Maasei’ but it’s read as a cohesive text, mostly comprised of collections of lists, attempting to sum up, add up and finalize all that Israel went through in 40 years of wandering thorough the Sinai desert on their journey home.

48: And they traveled from the mountains of Abarim, and pitched in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.

They camp out at the plains of Moab, by the banks of the Jordan River, overlooking Israel, is their one-before-last stop. One of the lists describes the number of times Israel packed up camp and took off again, picking up where they left off on a seemingly endless travel schedule. They do this no less than 43 times in 40 years. That means that at least once a year they had to pack and go. Talk about 'travel tax.' No wonder our ancestors were so stiff necked and generally grumpy and rebellious, and weepy. Can you imagine growing up and moving homes at least once a year? How did that experience impact the collective identity of our people? How did this early, defining sense of constant travel and moving about influence and mold the Jewish sense of belonging – or not - to any specific geographical location in any significant manner? How has this altered our notion of ‘home’ or even our notion of ‘homeland?’ I know that so much of Jewish history is about persecution and forced travel – but how much of it is actually built in to our collective DNA? Is it possible that our basic operational status is to be the wandering people – all over the place? That we actually thrive on travel – on constant motion and dispersion - in order to exist? That we are simply a people who are very bad at sitting still in one place for more than a year or a couple of centuries at best??

On the way to the airport, I saw a yellow cab with a sign on its roof ‘PLEASE GO AWAY’ – an advertisement for a travel agency. Smart. But it made me sigh. Enough going away.

After a year of Sinai like traveling, I, like my ancestors, have mastered the art of travel, but there’s a part of me, as was perhaps to them – that really wants to call one place only – home. And not go away quite that often. And I know that home is where the heart is, and still…

The children of Israel leave Egypt and then travel and camp, travel and camp, pitch their tents when the pillar of fire stops, and take off again when that light changes, 43 times. Reading this dry travel itinerary in chapter 33 in the middle of this flight to Israel becomes, suddenly, a very moving experience. The same expression repeats verse after verse, like a hypnotic chant, like the wheels of a train: travel, travel, travel… journey, journey, journey… home, home, home….

And maybe what makes the difference between travel as a tiresome duty and travel as a mission of will is the sense of collective – traveling together, as the Hebrews did then, as I’m doing tonight. Maybe that’s part of why the weeping – the sense of how vast the world is – and how vast the real sense of what home can mean, and with whom, and when.

A. wakes up with less than one hour to go before landing in Tel Aviv, and Dora the Explorer is off on adventures that keep us all occupied till we get All smiles, night time weeping over, we look outside the window at the sunny morning, and the captain announces: shalom and welcome home.

Til next time.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Storahtelling to merge … but with who?
by Jacob Berkman

Storahtelling, the theatrical group that takes biblical stories and turns them into avante garde and sometimes risqué performance pieces, will be merging with an as-yet-to-be named organization.
I’ll have more in the next week or so when the group makes its full plans public.

But this week, the organization vacated its midtown Manhattan offices and put its stuff in storage until it formally joins the mystery group that is located downtown.

Storahtelling, which has been one of the most successful and well-regarded of the new generation of Jewish organization, along with J-Dub Records and Heeb Magazine, will downsize in order to grow, its founder and executive director Amichai Lau-Lavie told The Fundermentalist Tuesday.

“This was a reaction to everything going on,” he said, referring to the recession. “We are tactically thinking globally about what we can do.”

In recent years, the organization has been working on becoming an organization focused on creating innovative Jewish curriculum and teaching methodologies, and this merger will hopefully allow it to do so by finding a place where it can regularly perform instead of traveling constantly, while working on its teaching practices.

“We are focusing on having one stable headquarters where we perform consistently,” Lau-Lavie said. “We are saving office costs by finding a partner. We will work smarter together and we are modeling what we think is a sustainable way of doing grass roots outreach.”

The organization, which has roughly a $600,000 budget, laid off two staff members.

Look for an “Adapting to the Recession” piece about this when I find out more in the next few days.

click here
to view the article

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


The 4th of July fireworks over the Hudson River were fantastic. Crowded among the hundreds of thousands on the West Side Highway of Manhattan, we ooh and ahh and then make our way among the crowds to drink beers on a quiet roof and talk politics. One of us, the only born and bred American, sighs: ‘it’s so nice to finally celebrate the United States knowing that the leadership is in good hands.’ The Israelis among us sigh. Netanyahu’s 100 days of grace at the helm of Israel’s government were noted with great pomp, doubt and scrutiny just the day before. An Iranian born artist takes a sip of her beer, rolls her eyes and asks to please change the subject. A friend from Honduras concurs. The conversation veers off the political and goes off to discuss leaders in own lives – who are the people in our work and family situations who step up as leaders? How have they become these leaders? And what makes a good leader anyway?

I think of my brother B., a smart and sensitive rabbi who has slowly built a steady position as one of the more central and sane voices of orthodox Jewry in Jerusalem and throughout Israel- and beyond. His leadership model is a combination of honest care for the well-being of the other, inborn charisma, and the ability to truly listen. He’s also a great teacher, quite handsome and looks great on TV. Nowadays he is busy in the backstage of a political headache – having been asked to serve on the committee that will choose Jerusalem’s new Ashkenazi chief rabbi. One of the candidates is our cousin, an ultra orthodox rabbi whose main credentials include pedigree – he was born into a rabbinic dynasty - and having a long impressive white beard. He is otherwise not a Zionist, not a great speaker and not a representative of the greater Israeli society. Family loyalty aside, this is an ideological issue for my brother – and on a larger scale – for Israel as a whole - what will be the public face of Jerusalem’s Jewish leadership? Who will step up among the new generations of religious authorities in the 21st century? Some want change – the type of change we can believe in. But many prefer the old models – a long beard and black coat and not too much rocking of the boat. When it comes to leadership – people are forever torn between the yearning for the familiar and the courage to think outside the box.

I think of the conversation I had a few days earlier with several cantors of the Reform movement. We’re sitting in a bar in a Chicago hotel, at a late night conversation during the annual American Conference of Cantors – where I am a guest speaker. The cantors, privately, discuss their own leadership challenges. In the modern day synagogue, the cantor is not what it used to be. Large booming voices and religious authority is often replaced with a guitar and a desperate need to attract the ever shiftless and wandering congregants. “It’s not exactly like we’re competing with American Idol" one of them says sadly – "but it’s not like we’re not.”

A day after the rooftop post-fireworks conversation, I go online to read the Bible (check out this brand new site codex sinaiticus – the oldest written Bible in the world) to study this week’s installment of the Torah – and I discover that it’s all about styles of leadership and the transition of leaders. There are, in fact, four types of new leaders in this text, called ‘Pinchas’ – named for one of those emerging leaders.

Pinchas, let's call him Type A, is the son of the priestly elite, and he is what we would call today a ‘fundamentalist with a short fuse’. He rises to power as a violent protector of the purity of Israel, killing a couple of publicly copulating people – a Hebrew leader and a pagan princess. Like generals who rise up to become presidents – Pinchas represents the type of leader who comes from the people – not chosen, but firmly embraced – the sometimes problematic popular vote (think Lieberman, or Palin).

Then there’s Elazar, Type B, the new High Priest, who stepped in just a few chapters ago to replace Aaron, his deceased father. This is a dynastic model. We don’t know how good Elazar is at doing his job as the spiritual leader of the Hebrew people – like all monarchies and dynasties (think Bush, Kennedy, or the Gahndi’s) he is simply born into the role. It seems that this type of leadership is not that common anymore, or at least not as easily supported.

Then there’s the real interesting model – Type C - the leaders of justice. Right after the inheritance laws detailing who gets what real estate in the Promised Land – a delegation of sisters steps up to challenge and change the system. The five early feminists are Noa, Milka, Tirza, Hogla and Machla – the sole heiresses of one Zelophachad, of the tribes of Joseph. Their claim for a fair share of land is heard by Moses and agreed to by God, who amends the inheritance laws in the favor of all women. Their leadership model offers the hope of legal reform and the courage of ordinary people to step up and change the system. Modern day example abound – from the Suffragettes to environmental and human rights grassroots activists.

And then there’s Joshua, son of Noon, Type D, who this week gets the official endorsement and steps into the mighty shoes of Moses.

Moses, planning ahead, knows that the stiff necked Hebrews need someone strong in charge. He approaches God with clear guidelines for a successor: “Let there be one who can lead them when they depart, and lead them when they enter, and let them not be as a herd of sheep that has no shepherd.” (Numbers. 27:17)

The job description is curious – it really sounds like Moses wants a glorified babysitter - take them out, bring them in, feed them on time. God obliges, but ads another important dimension of leadership that is added to the mix – the most crucial ingredient in the making of the leader: inspiration. Moses is instructed to hand over the leadership to a person who is ‘infused with spirit’ – one who is both inspired and inspiring.

One of the Midrashic commentaries writes ‘let the leader have a strong spirit so that he can handle the strong spirits of all others in the community.’

Moses places his hands on the head of Joshua Ben Noon, the man who somehow rises to power, following years of devoted civic service as Moses’ aid. He isn’t dead yet, Moses, but already in his lifetime he has clearly indicated that the inspired tradition of leadership will go on. Unlike Aaron, Moses is not handing the reigns to his children or nephews. This central leadership role is, at least officially, a matter of merit.

I’m flying back to Israel today, for a few weeks of wrapping up an intensive year in Jerusalem. Not sure where the drama of Jerusalem rabbinate is at these days but I’m pretty sure it’s just about to get bigger (stay tuned). Between meritocracy and aristocracy, chrismal and corruption – new and interesting leaders are bound to emerge. Or maybe the models aren’t new – the ones discussed here are the basic blueprint, and all we get are fascinating new faces, in each new generation. I only hope that the ones who get to lead us to yet better days are indeed truly inspired by the spirit of that which is most sacred and are able to lead us, as smart shepherds do, to the safety and security we all deserve. My money is on Type C. Let the ladies lead.

(And one more thing makes me really happy when it comes to new leaders – ladies AND gentlemen. I am thinking of the amazing people who’ve joined me in the last decade to make Storahtelling happen and change the lives of so many people for the better. I am constantly in awe of these inspired and inspiring artists and educators and funders and thinkers who have come together as a collective of shepherds making new meaning of our inherited stories for new generations. Like the rabbis of Jerusalem and the cantors of the Reform movement - these leaders are busy reshaping the map of what Jewish life is all about, re-charting the paths will lead us home. In the past week we’ve moved offices, finished our tenth year of operations, and got busy planning the next decade and beyond. O Storah leaders – a toast of thanks to thee.)

Thursday, July 02, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


It’s odd, but I feel badly for the Madoffs. Aren’t they, in some way, also victims of the sins of their father? Bernie’s sentence of 150 years behind bars will likely mean that he will die in prison, but as he himself declared in court – his legacy will outlive his mortality – and his family name will be forever associated with disgrace and the sins of excess. I was sitting in JFK airport on my way to Chicago when CNN announced the verdict. People in the terminal clapped. A woman sitting next to me exclaimed “not good enough! That sinner should burn in hell before he is sent to prison on tax payers’ money.”

I walked away.

I hate this word – ‘sinner’ – no matter the context, it just rubs me wrong way (maybe because I’ve been labeled as such by more than one righteous homophobe?) – But walking through the airport, watching the ripples of reactions to the verdict, I thought about it some more. When does a crime become a sin? And when does someone who committed a crime become labeled ‘sinner’ – and is it revocable? Are some sins worthy of forgiveness while others never worthy of atonement? Is it about size of harm or is it about intention? When is the bad guy really 100% the bad guy??

Don’t get me wrong – I have no sympathy for the man himself. His scheme toppled many organizations and destroyed the lives of countless families. My own organization, Storahtelling, relying on generous funding from foundations and individuals for about 60% of our annual budget, is suffering badly because of Bernie. We’re trying to make the best of a bad situation, like so many others – but honestly, and I’m not a violent man – given the chance – I’d feel really good about punching him hard. But I still hesitate to name him a sinner. And it’s not just semantics. Who am I to cast the first stone? And still, in this case, maybe, when evil intent and ethical misconduct is so blatantly obvious and admitted – maybe ‘sinner’ is just right? (and let’s not forget Governor Sanford, yet another of the fallen lustful, or even Michael Jackson, RIP, whose records may be platinum but police record is far from golden – are they too sinners? Or just folks who messed up?)

The delicacies of sinful behavior are popular biblical stuff, and this week’s Torah episode, Balak, is a lot about messing up. Named for the King of the Moabite people who hires a soothsayer to curse the people of Israel, this narrative is really about the transformation of the one-eyed soothsayer – Balaam. The king, as leaders will, is turning to religious leaders for political gain, and he wants Balaam to put a spell on Israel. At first Balaam resists the royal commission but is finally convinced (by God, in a dream) to agree, and to travel to where the Hebrews are camping, and there, using his magical powers, proclaim their doom. (It’s important to remember that words can kill – think critics of theaters or movies or restaurants or new fashion collections or new public policies.) Balaam’s journey is described in great detail, introducing one of the more colorful animals in the Bible (evoked, millennia later, in the movie ‘Shrek’) – the talking donkey. As Balaam, riding the so-far-mute mule, travels along, an angel appears on the road, wielding a sword, attempting to stop the prophet’s mission. For all his spiritual powers, Balaam is oblivious. But the donkey is not – she (it’s a she-ass) sees the terrifying angel and recoils in fear. Balaam hits the animal, hard, three times, before she opens her mouth and addresses him, in perfect Hebrew, explaining the situation. Only then does Balaam get what’s going on, his eyes opening to the supernatural reality of this unnatural condition. He addresses the angel with the type of remorse usually reserved for penitent sinners:
"And Balaam said to the angel of God: 'I have sinned; for I did not know that you stood on the path to stop me; and now, since you are displeased, I will turn back.'" (Numbers 22:34)

Balaam’s sin is the hitting of the donkey. In Hebrew, the word for donkey, ‘Hamor,’ is derived from the same root for ‘matter’ or ‘substance’. The great prophet is frustrated by reality and actually hitting the physical dimension of his life. The donkey is an extension of his body – but it is also a symbol for an animated, animalistic being in the world that is connected to life in a profound, sometimes disturbing way. Balaam’s sin is not just the violence – he hurts his loyal, innocent animal– it is the very expression of human short-sightedness. His is the sin of limited, selective vision and misplaced rage – he simply doesn’t see the big picture.

It turns out OK. He opens his mouth, much like his donkey does, and blessings emerge, including ‘how fine are your tents O children of Jacob’ – the poetry of a pagan prophet that made it into scripture and Jewish liturgy. But even though he gets the credit for philo-semitic sentiments – his earlier sins are not forgotten and never quite forgiven. A few weeks from now, the Torah will describe the big battle between Israel and Midyan – Balaam, enemy of Israel, will be among the slain.

So who’s a sinner and what’s a sin? Perhaps limited perspective – the choice of purposefully and selfishly refusing to see the full picture of what one’s life is about and how the actions one chooses influence the lives of others – for better or for worse – perhaps that’s the defining mode of sin – and that’s what makes a sinner.

Bernie will have lots of time to think about this, and other questions of ethical essence. Back from Chicago, packing up the Storahtelling office (we gotta move, thanks Bernie) I am grateful for the opportunity to also consider the ethics of what to do with wrong behaviors and how to deal with or forgive the ones whose sins have hurt the lives of those I love. Hate the sin – not the sinner, I’ve been taught. Mr. Madoff – you’re truly an ass, and quite the sinner but I hope you find some way to do more than say ‘I’m sorry’ to fix what you’ve done. Balaam’s prophecy – ‘this people shall rise like a lion, overcoming woe’ resonates deeply today. We shall overcome.