Cut to the Chase: Moses, James Bond, Drama in DC: Word 25

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On the evening before Seder my father and I watch Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, on their home TV. He used to like action flicks, and with all the cooking going on in the kitchen it seemed like the perfect diversion.
I’ve not a big fan of gunblazing action but found myself riveted, towel in hand, matza balls waiting, sitting next to him and narrating some of what’s going on (‘no, that’s not the bad guy – he’s the good guy’) and tensing up with each and every chase scene. There are lots.  
“Did you like it?” I ask him later, he shrugs – it was OK. But later, when he’s getting ready to go upstairs he says to me: ‘good guys don’t always win.”

The next night we sit around the Seder table, intimate, just 8 of us, I get to lead, and skip around the hagada to focus on the key issues,  cut to the chase: What about this exodus story is important, meaningful, helpful to us today? Beyond the preservation of national legend, our master story – what here is useful to our personal soul journeys, our struggles with what holds us back and what helps us be more free?

Not everyone in my family is into the psychological rendering of passover, but they’re with me so far. Inspired by Skyfall I go to the chase scene, which is only alluded to in the classical hagada but is the one biblical quote I choose to read verbatim, trying to make the story as tense and anxiety provoking as the best of Bond:

“And the Egyptians chased them,  horses and chariots of Pharaoh, the army, and overtook them encamping by the sea..

The children of Israel looked up..and were terrified, and cried out to God, and yelled at Moses: There were not enough graves in Egypt?? We told you back in Egypt – leave us alone! It would have better for us to stay slaves in Egypt rather than die here in this wilderness.”(Ex. 14:9-12)It’s great text. Also chosen to be the Torah reading on the Sabbath of Passover. Much has been written on this first official Jewish National reaction to crisis: a sarcastic joke and terrified refusal of risk. What does this reaction tell us about our ancestors, about ourselves and our own choices?

What does it tell us about the fear that chases us on our fleeing from where we’re stuck to greater inner freedom.

“Imagine that you are in that chase scene,” I ask the Seder guests, well into our 2nd (really 4th) wine refill, “Who are you?  What’s your reaction? What will you do?”

We get into it: One of us will fight, two will hide, two will pray, three will run ahead into the sea.

The conversation drifted to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the new government, Iran, Syria, religious extremism, digital overdose and global warming: what are our different reactions to crisis, to change, when danger is on us like a hostile army? As individuals, as nations? Are we like the ancient children of Israel sarcastic and fearful of the future or do we leap into the sea and risk it all for progress? Or somewhere in between?

Right from Seder (‘best ever’  tweeted by niece) into the supreme court drama in DC. It’s not exactly a chase scene but there’s bad guys and good guys, and whatever happens in these next weeks and months this is certainly another major milestone in the public liberation project of the American people.  here, too, the reactions to major change, to the call for ‘exodus’ are telling – the choice to stick to familiar narratives and fears or go for a more complex but equalizing reality, with more dignity for all. The Phraonic forces are chasing, and who knows, in this version of the saga, they may still get the good guys. Like my father said – good guy doesn’t always win.

The chase is on.

Here’s hoping, praying, trusting that the good guys win, that not many get hurt in the chase, that progress will overcome the tyranny of terror.

Not just for James Bond, or for Moses, in blockbusters of biblical proportions and sacred myths of old –   but also in courts of justice – i hope that our master stories  will hopefully guide us to a much more promised land.

Happy Passover, Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

How many storytellers to fix a light bulb? Word #22

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.



How many storytellers does it take to fix a light bulb? (as in, tell, together, a single story?)
And how many is too much?
It’s been a while since I’ve attended an academic conference,  the ones with chaired sessions and scholars reading papers on panels and lots of coffee. Here I was, at  a prestigious onference on The Future of Jewish Storytelling held on the lush campus of Standford University for two full days of stories about stories. And a lot of coffee. But something was missing.
I was honored to attend and be invited to present. I heard  insightful talks, met  fascinating people, reconnected with old friends, made some new, delved into important conversations that now linger on.
But at the of the day it reminded me of Plato’s story of  people trying to describe an elephant by feeling it, part by part, in a dark cave. They describe a trunk, big legs, but not the thing itself. What’s the big picture. what is IT about? I get this doubt about the formats of ‘conference’, and similar forms of gathering that bring us together, sort of, almost, to delve deeper into what life’s all about.
Many stories were told at the conference, and theories shared, important seeds planted for future conversations, but the one big story, the big ‘why does this really matter’ remained, I think, the elephant in the room.  When talking about future – our future – what’s at stake – how is the Jewish literacy related to global concerns? how can our myths be in the service of a greater good?
It came up at one of the most interesting sessions – the most current now and next – digital tools for storytelling – including video games, vids and apps. The awesome Sarah Lefton showcased g-dcast’s new game  LEVITICUS!
But why spend time and money on recycling sacrificial systems? Why focus on these ancient stories at all? Is it about advancing Jewish learning – or should the future of our storytelling be about what they are deeply about – increasing our capacity to think, to feel, to love, to grow? Can we aim for both? for all?
The challenge is not just about content but also, very much so, about context: How to use the purpose and power of storytelling – real connection – in a screen base mode that at least in some ways perpetuates the tech-isolation that comes from ireality? We are all in the same room – but each glued, increasingly more often, to our private screen.
The ancient art of storytelling, the HOW and WHERE of telling stories, not just what stories we choose to tell, can be the very thing that brings us back together, unplugged and connected.
And that’s exactly what this weekly installments of our old story is about – the final touches of construction on the Hebraic container for sacred conversations,  story, ritual, connection. The weekly Torah text, Vaykhel-Pikuedi sums up the creation of the mobile, pop up place for the human-divine interaction. The Mishkan. It starts with the verb Vaykhel – Moses gathered, or assembled, the people, instructing them of sacred time and sacred space and how to come, and stay, together. Ex. 35:1
That sanctuary evolved with time to become our synagogues. What happens at many of these modern sanctuaries is not unlike what happens at academic conference – all the part are there but the big wow is somehow missing.
I’m excited to be thinking, working, visioning, with many others on this next phase of our collective gatherings, re-imagining why we gather where, and when, and how.
The origin of storytelling is around campfires and in forest clearings, people huddled to tap into meaning through the myths and memories of elders and magic makers of the spoken word. Rituals evolved around these stories, sacrifices, songs and pageants, sacred spaces, holy days.
If Jewish (and all other) storytelling has a future it’s about a reconnection to this primal past, the spirit of the campfire, even in its digital formation. The art of storytelling, changed, evolved but not forgotten is still what brings us closer – and what will help us truly reconnect.
We need new ways to tell our oldest stories. We need new ways to come together and connect to our truth, to the BIG story, to what has to be done so that we each wake up up to live out loud and make this fast-heating planet livable and just for all.
I don’t know how many storytellers it takes or not to fix a light bulb but I do know that the only way to get our future fixed is for as many of us as possible to gather, and tell a single story of nothing less than our soul’s salvation. Starting now.
Shabbat Shalom.


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

The Choosing People, Not The Chosen People: Word #16

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.





Joan Lavie voting Yesh Atid. Jerusalem 1/22/13

The wheel chair access polling station at a school near my parents home was a mess. A too narrow corridor with crowded wheel chairs and walkers, a very nervous and disorganized lady in charge, but lots of goodwill. There was excitement in the air and lots of people showing up, including a group of 10 residents with severe MS who wheeled themselves over from a neighboring institution. When it was finally my father’s turn to go in I wheeled him in, and joined him behind the screen to help him -physically – choose the right slip of paper. It was overwhelming – 32 tickets, an array of Hebrew letters. I pointed at each one and repeated who and what they represented, and then did it again. he thought for a moment and named his choice. (That’s his private business to share but I’ll say that I was more than happy to help and I was so glad he didn’t choose Bibi which he thought of the day before.) He dropped the envelope into the slot and nodded in approval. As soon as we started wheeling outside a commotion erupted- the elder grand rebbe of the Ehrloy chasidic dynasty was wheeled in – his wheelchair throne covered in plush golden fabrics.  An hour later, when asked, my father didn’t remember who he voted for exactly- his short term memory is sometimes erratic these days- but I’m quite sure, standing there with him inside the voting booth ( a rare, intimate, borderline legal but necessary moment) that he processed the information and made a sound and good choice.
How and why we choose what we do is a fascinating thing always, and was very much so this time round. My friend Shai was telling me yesterday how in the US people who are ‘floating votes’ get bad rap for being undecided but here in Israel – so many of us were wrestling with choices until the last minute – really debating the issues we care for vs. the practical thing to do.
Till the very last minute  people I know were debating and I too made up my final mind early on Tuesday morning, during a one on one with God. Never mind the details right now, but She made it clear to me that the choice is between fear and trust. She was also delighted about the fact that four parties are running with a woman at the lead, and that more smart and motivated women are entering the arena at these elections.
We spoke in Hebrew and then God started talking in Arabic, and I think She was saying (My Arabic is still quite raw) that more Arabic women should be heard in the arena, if only to balance out the Jewish masculine/macho majority. But cautioned me to be also pragmatic and not lose a vote to a party that will most likely not make it. There were four impressive Israeli Arab women running for seats this time around and on Tuesday morning it looked like at least 3 will make it.  2 did.  In obedience to Divine instructions, and in consult with other factors and data, I made my choice with clear direction as to which one of these brave ladies gets my vote. (Spoiler – she wasn’t elected but WILL be in the knesset in two years time, thanks to the rotation agreement of Hadash.)
I voted later in the afternoon at yet another school turned election station,  much calmer this time, along with my mother, who explained to me, during our short drive from home, what her deliberation were and who she chose and why:” I asked my doctor who she chose and why – and she said who and explained that he had good people,” she said “and I don’t like Lapid very much but I too like his choice of people, with accomplishments and good sense.” Her choice made perfect sense, much better than the more right wing vote she contemplated, I thought, and she tactfully didn’t ask me much about mine.  As it is, she chose a winner..
We shook hands afterwards, in the car, and said Mazal Tov to democracy. Will I be there again in four years? She asked me as we started the car. Will any of us? who knows? We choose things, in or our of ballots, and life happens…
And then what happened happened and the next days and weeks will tell us more. I think it looks good and interesting and a change for real.  But for now the end result is not the issue – the process is  – the privilege, the exercise of will and decision and choice and change, for good, in the world, each according to their own version. With all the flaws – this is still a humbling and important experience. It’s a privilege to choose and vote.
On Monday night we watched Obama’s inauguration speech on TV, moved by the dignity, his powerful words – some heard for the first time by a president – brought me to tears. Tuesday’s experience of reality making through Hebrew letters that conspire in small notes to make change through our choices became an almost mystical moment, casting a spell, a ripple  of change, perhaps improvements. Hopefully more than less. There’s good people up there now. My mother was right.
Choose People, Good People is always good advice. It’s what  Moses instructs Joshua, at the end of this week’s epic Torah text, B’shalach. “Choose the people who will fight for us against the tribe of Amelek”  (Ex.17:9) . This is happening five minutes after the song of the sea and the big euphoria of the Exodus. Bam. right into war and the choosing of people is the first thing that they have to as a nation to survive- pick leaders to battle the dangers. It’s not at all the same kind of choosing as the one we had this week but inherent in the action is the same primal drive – for security, for trusted leaders, good people who will stand up for real values, and fight  fear. Amalek, in many traditions, does not represent another race or nation – Amalek means Fear. And to stand up against fear we need good people, leaders, teachers, friends.
The people chosen this week, as Moses told Joshua, are our people – people for the greater good of this bigger reality, one way or another, I hope and trust – it’s all good choices. There are new leaders, some of them good friends, who will help us with more trust, less fear, less wars, more peace, and change for the better.
As for God. She was pleased when we had tea today and reminded me to always listen to my mother.


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

Mirror, Mirror, on the (Western) Wall, who’s the… Word 15

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.












The Western Wall is almost empty and pretty cold at 6:30 on this Tuesday morning.  A cat slinks away a long crack in one of the huge stones in the men’s section but none of the black-clad men busy praying loudly in small clusters notice. A few women  stand in solitary silent prayer, apart from each other, across the partition. A sanitation cleaner sweeps the floor all the way up to the wall itself, shoos the cat, and adds, along with the discarded tissues, all the carefully folded notes that were tucked into the cracks in the wall but were unlucky enough to fall to the ground during the night. *

I’m here with my family to celebrate my 13 year old nephew’s Bar Mitzvah season- today he’s binding himself in leather straps for the first time. Even my father, in a wheelchair, didn’t want to miss on this almost last grandson’s rite of passage.

We find a Table right alongside the partition, the women peer through the cracks in the fence, and the business as usual morning prayers progress with efficient speed. Cameras click on both sides of the partition, and some laughs, and it’s nice to be with the family, but I find it hard to join them in the prayers. I walk off to the side, close my eyes.

It’s not just that this is not my kind of prayer experience or valued form of contemplation. Too many words. Not a fan of speed read through psalms and pages, not anymore. It doesn’t work for me. And definitely not here.

I’ve come here all my life, as kid and soldier and student, sworn in to defend the homeland and detained for co-ed prayers, and I’ve prayed here and cried here, alone, and with others.

Most memorably and recently with rage.

I’ve been coming to the wall in the past months and years on the new moon, to support the Women of the Wall  in their right fight for dignity and religious expression.

This has become an immensely  important and complex symoblic fight for religious freedom in Israel. and it’s about to get more complicated.


As of two months ago the women can’t even enter this area with a prayer shawl, let alone wear one. Nor pray aloud.


And here I am today , a privileged Jewish male, free to pray as loudly as I want to, in my (‘It needs to be ironed” says my mother later) own talit worn any way I choose.

I can pray here freely – but actually I can’t.

How can someone pray in a place that is silencing the prayer of another?

I know this fight is right.

And when you think about it, the fight for religious freedom of expression is at the heart of the Jewish story – it’s the core of the Exodus saga and also found in this week’s Torah text – Bo.

From the get-go, Moses’ core demand of Pharaoh – Let My People Go – is not for freedom from labor- it’s for freedom to worship – or labor – for their own God.

let My people go,  So They Will Worship Me Exodus 10:3


The Hebrew word for ‘worship’ and ‘labor’ is the same – Avodah. The same word used to describe the slavery is the word used to articulate the demand for time off for religious freedom, a human dignity of choice of how to worship.


We always think of Moses as this great national liberator – and that does happen – but the initial fight is for religious freedom.   It isn’t clear if the demand to go worship is a pretense for escaping or a genuine plea for group bonding on religious grounds as  first step to national unity. Or all of the above. Either way Egypt refuses. And then it’s too late.


Mirror, Mirror, on the Western Wall: Who’s the Pharaoh here?

It’s also the Pharaoh, btw, past the locusts and down to the last two strikes- that finally relents to the Hebraic call for worship but on condition that only the men go. Moses refuses:  Everybody goes. Together. Ex. 10:11

Pigeons fly above us, someone quotes a poem by Yehuda Amichai about pigeons at the wall, and soon we will go home for bagels and coffee and a simple celebration and maybe one day this will all be something else and no prayers will be thrown into the trash.

And then I close my eyes again and try, and ask, for inner peace, and the courage to hope,  and  for all prayers to be prayed, here and everywhere – freely.  For all.

shabbat shalom





(*Now these personal petitions are trash. Do they still matter? Does the magic work if the notes are no longer  tucked in the cracks? does ‘it work’ if they stay?

and what does ‘work’  mean here anyway?


It works, we say, when something clicks right. Zeh Oved. And it’s the same, sometimes , with our prayers, true expressions of the soul that come from within, personal poetry, words cross our lips or written out by our fingers and tucked in a wall or talked to the stones or the sky. It’s like hitting SEND on a message you’ve crafted and are ready to send to the world. IT works when you’ve done your best to articulate your needs, request, suggestion, prayer. Regardless of reply, the rest will happen as it will.)


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.

Harder to change your mind or have a change of heart? Word 14.

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.



heavy כבד

What’s harder-  change of heart or change of mind? 

And how exactly are they different? 

There’s mental resistance to change and emotional drives that propel our behavior and somehow  both converge  too often to stop  many of us from making healthy changes that will improve our lives and those of others. 

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot in the past weeks. Something’s gotta give in my personal discipline and routine and I’m struggling with the shift from talk to walk and how free will (aka ye urges) gets in the way of long term commitments to productivity and well being. 
Yeah, that. My heart is heavy with the realization that old dogs and tricks ain’t easy. But I am not quite giving up yet. Just to be on the safe side I made no new resolutions for 2013.

I’m not the only one. At a fabulous Storahtelling B mitzvah This last Saturday in NYC the crowd of 200 including many teens  were asked – how many of you made new year resolutions? only 15 raised their hands. Why commit to something when you know you won’t come through? Someone explained and many nodded. 

I somewhat share the jaded outlook towards the potential for change but I refuse to buy it. Gotta change. But how?

Whether the reason for resistance  is in my heart or mind or both (and more?) – changing habits or decisions is a real struggle – maybe the most important inner one a person can deal with. There’s the big ones like obsessions and addictions or why Assad refuses to give up power in Syria, and there’s the ‘smaller’ vices that we’re used to and find hard to shake. We lug around some modes of living like heavy luggage, and refuse to let go.  We pay extra for the overweight. 

And that’s exactly what’s  going on in this week’s Torah tale, Va’Era. The King of Egypt is the Corporate CEO who does not want to change the system even though it’s clearly not what many of the cogs in the wheels want and the refusal to change may destroy the kingdom and himself.  Even threats like polluted rivers, amphibian takeover, extreme weather and contagious diseases that annihilate crops and livestock do not dissuade him. That is – he does make gestures towards change but keeps changing his mind – and heart- refusing the inevitable. One word keeps repeating in this narrative – ‘Heavy’. 

Over and over again he refuses to relent – right after a strike is over:  “But when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, his heart grew heavy, and he did not listen to them.” 

The heavy heart as symbolic of the refusal to change resonates. 
it’s interesting that in Biblical Hebrew the word ‘Lev’ means ‘mind’ while in modern Hebrew the same word means ‘heart’. 

By the time the king says yes to the freedom after the tenth strike that will come next week – he has already lost so much. 

(Never mind right now the complex theological issue here – it is God who makes the king’s heart heavy, leaving him no room for growth and transformation. So much for free will. The only way I can read this is as psycho-mystical layer – that God represents a voice within us that is deeper and higher than our ordinary consciousness and is challenging us to overcome our greatest fears to truly release what we need towards the greatest freedom.)

Can we learn from the Pharaoh’s bad example how to heed the call for healthy and difficult changes a little early on and avoid as much of the ten strikes as possible? Maybe that’s why the Exodus story is so core to our culture – it’s the master story about how to really change. 

So now I have a new year’s resolution. Writing this has helped clarify a simple goal for a small step  by step change that I will try to do daily, combination of mind and heart for a great new year. We’ll see what happens..


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999.