What the Prez is Passing Over: Obama’s Public Rituals. Word 24

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Loudspeaker carrying police cars woke me up on Wed. morning with instructions about our roads closing for the 48 hours. Who  thought it’s a good idea for Obama to visit Jerusalem 4 days before Seder? The city has already been semi blocked off for two days, and with all the holiday prep in high gear-  – complex driving arrangements are not adding to the passover pressure. How the hell am I supposed to go get the fish meat  etc.  from machne yehuda market downtown on Friday morning with a motorcade crossing through town twice in each direction?? Not to mention that the West Bank is virtually cut off.
Ok. relax. we’re used to this. This is no Pharaoh. It’s the President. And besides. Holiday stress is as part of the ritual as the holiday feast, with no Jewish holiday more OCD than this one. Chametz/spring cleaning, Seder cooking, who’s coming or not to Seder situations and dramas, precursors to the big night, are, to quote a friend, “like birth pangs”, necessary pressures towards the release ritual which is that night about the privileges of freedom. Some bigger bangs, grander goals, are worth the efforts, and so is, let’s hope  this Presidential state visit. Means can sometimes justify the ends.
Mainly to figure out where not to drive this week, and when and how to pick up my mother’s extensive Seder shopping lists, I carefully scanned the presidential itinerary . It’s on every Israel news homepage, (tweets from the White House on ha’aretz masthead along with a official vid featuring Ben Rhodes explaining the trip’s goals.). Helpful. And a fascinating study in the art and price of public ritual.
Much has already been noted about the fact that the only (so-called) religious site that Obama will visit is the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. No Western Wall or Golden Dome. Handshakes, photo-ops, wreaths, speeches: The rituals of this visit are carefully orchestrated to be mainly political, cultural, and civic. perhaps deemed safer to leave hard core religious ritual out of it. At least the Arab-Jewish ones, I guess. His only prayer will be private, all his own. sort of.
There’s enough religious zeal in the air as is. cinder box, anyone? Very American separation of church and state.
Because rituals really do matter. All of them.
Presidential gestures or religious rites – they really do mean something when we actually focus on what they represent even when we’re cynical or jaded. What flower will be placed, and where; Who will recite the four questions, and how. Rituals magnify the meaning of our most sacred, simple values , and we screech, sometimes not even knowing it, when they go off the rails of our expectations and familiar frames. its always very specific.
The risk of rituals is that at best they’re very real. and real can be dangerously honest and raw.
Which is why we sometimes opt for not so real – auto pilot, refined, safer rites. Which is why, perhaps, Obama won’t visit the religious sites or speak his mind, and why so many of us will not really talk about freedom at our Seders, and won’t  say the real things we want to really say to each around the table at the political or pascal feast, and avoid the real and fake the rituals by route- but know it, and play along, and yearn, if we remember to, for when it’s real and juicy and felt and alive with tissues and all no matter how messy. You know – we know when ritual really works to move us closer to the truth.
At best it does and I hope it will these days ahead. Even just a little bit. and hopefully more.  When they really work- rituals change reality.
I trust there will be moments of magnificent meaning, wows,  within these upcoming different but somehow similar rituals, because of and despite of, the  carefully planned and choregprahed, top security, kosher for passover detail oriented ritualism up ahead. Not always when we expect them.
That’s where  Torah comes in.  Torah not as law – but as ritual. This  week’s text, Tzav, like so much of Leviticus, is about the many minute details of the Hebraic ritual machine. The laws of uniform, construction, sacrifice and constant burning on the altar (ego) is a perpetual sacred system – every detail matters to the very success of the human enterprise – the constant connection to the mystery. Without this connection the world goes unplugged. All this Torah OCD ritual minutia makes sense when we get this ancient mindset. The word that is used to describe this overall legal system is ‘Torah’. Usually Torah means ‘Law’ or ‘The Law’ – but in the context of the temple service the NJPS translation always chooses to translate it as ‘Ritual’, such as: “Command Aaron and his sons: This is the ritual (Torah) of the burnt offering…”  Lev 6:2

Rituals matter because they connect us to the bigger picture, symbols of the mystery we sometimes need to be reminded of, reconnected to. The pope in Rome, the president in Jerusalem and Ramallah, each of us around a Seder table, making gestures that, like simple sacred sacrifices, break or make the world.  Hopefully all the details are worth it, adding up to a much needed recharged reality, new and improved.
Anyway. welcome Mr president. We’re glad you’re here.
Next Year in Jerusalem? Maybe.
Shabbat Shalom – and a meaningful, delicious Passover. Let Freedom ring.


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

Are world leaders getting younger or am I getting older? (or both) Word #18

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.





It’s not that I feel old or unaccomplished at 43 but I was startled by how many of the new members of Knesset are younger than me, or just about my age. Whatever happened to “Elders”?  Are leaders getting younger or am I just getting older? Or both?

I watched the official swearing-in of the 19th Knesset on TV with my parents, and was really moved by the ceremony and esp. by the glowing faces of a few friends of mine, standing up to state their commitment to the government and the people and a better future for us all. One by one, each of the 120 members rose in their seats to declare “I commit’ to public service.

48 new members, 27 women, 39 religious Jews, 10 Muslims, 1 Christian, 1 Druze, 13 PhD’s, at least 15 currently single, 1 (out) LGBT rep. I don’t know how many live across the green line, how many are parents, or musicians, or happy. 16 are younger than 40. Or as the official webpage of Israel’s Foreign Ministry puts it:  “The 19th Knesset average age is young.“

When Obama (who at 51 is still on the youngish side) visits Israel this coming spring (Wouldn’t it be awesome if he comes for Seder?) he will meet Lapid – who’s a few months younger than him, Bennett who’s 40 and Stav Shafir – at 28 the youngest women to sit at the Knesset.  Feels like teen spirit? Not exactly, but it sure feels like fresh energy and a leadership that understands the world as is and as will be through a more contemporary lens, more digital than analogue. It’s mostly a good thing and hopefully can help make new realities happen.

But what about the sages of ages? That whole ‘the older you get -the wiser?’ Where, in our youth-obsessed culture, is there room and respect not just for young sexy and restless but also for the real role of elders? For patience, humility and the wisdom that comes with wrinkles?

Elders, back in the Biblical day meant those who had  beards. The word for Elder – Zaken, and the word for beard – Zakan are written the same way in Hebrew, though pronounced a bit differently. It’s a not so subtle statement about gender roles but also, possibly about age and status.  And the very first time in which an official gathering of the Seventy Bearded Elders of Israel is convened happens in this week’s Torah text, Mishpatim:

“Moses climbed, with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel” Ex 24:9

The scene is auspicious: Yet another rendition of the Revelation at Sinai, but in this version Moses does not arrive alone for the Summit Meeting with God.  He has an entourage: The High Priest and his two heirs are followed by the first official public body-politic of the Jewish people – seventy anonymous leaders. No names or stats are available, but we’ll assume no women, and no Ph’ds. Probably beards. Who were these founding fathers? How old were they? How were they chosen? What was their role? And why seventy?

We won’t know the answers to most of these questions. The number of elders, for instance, is a Talmudic debate. During the Second Temple era and right after the destruction there is mention of an assembly of seventy, or seventy two. But there is also talk of 120 members of the Great Assembly – the first Knesset. This was the number that inspired the first Israeli Knesset back in 1948.

There is another direct link between the first gathering of Elders in Exodus and the 19th Knesset. The 120 members, along with family members and guests gathered at the Chagall Lounge after the swearing-in ceremony to raise a glass and enjoy one last friendly moment before the political agenda start stirring the pots. Moses, the Torah, and the Seventy Elders were depicted by Chagall on one of the three tapestries that dominate the room since 1966.

Regardless of age, agenda, gender or faith – let’s hope that this new gathering of state leaders waste no time in making good on the many promises and, like Moses and his elders, bring us one step closer to Divine truth, shared responsibilities, and a better life for all. 

(and no, I’m not going to say a word about Sarah’s dress. )


Shabbat Shalom





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

Was Obama, just like Abraham, selected by God? This week’s word is “President”

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.



President נשיא



Was Obama, just like Abraham, selected by God?
Hear me out on this one. I’m not assuming that all those who voted Blue are thanking God for the elections just as many pious ones who voted Red are not, I hope, accusing the Almighty of their loss. I definitely don’t know enough about Mormon theology to know what they make of Mitt’s defeat.  But I do wonder about the role that this elusive power plays in politics, beyond the dutiful ‘God Bless America’ at the end of the re elected president’s moving victory speech.  At some delirious sleepless point this morning, eyes wet with tears and heart full of happiness, with the sun rising over Jerusalem, I found myself praying, and blessing, and feeling the presence of life’s grander Presence in the messy details of this mortal coil.

For the record – I may have still felt this way had Obama lost. Some moments transcend business as usual no matter the result. But one is allowed to have subjective feelings, and I want to believe that if there really is a God – She is on the side of progress, human dignity, social change, and unconditional love – black, white, red, blue, able, disabled, gay, straight, etc. – the President said it better.

what does Abraham have to with it? He may have been our first big leader to fuse politics and faith, recognised by others as a delegate of forces from beyond. In this week’s Torah text, Chayei Sarah, the Elder statesman buries his wife Sarah and then dies himself. But before he does so he is honored by the locals, thus giving us the first Biblical appearance of the Hebrew word NASI – President, or Prince. And in this instance he is not just named a leader – the Hittites, in Genesis 23  name him NASI ELOHIM – Divine President, or as most English Bibles translate it: A mighty prince.
I asked my father for a better translation this morning and he thought for a moment and suggested: God’s Elect.

Mr. president, you are the newly chosen father of a nation badly in need of a competent, courageous and compassionate adult in charge. Like Abraham, and like each and every one of the 33 presidents that came before you, you are recognized as Nasi Elohim, God’s elect. I wish for you – for all of – the humility of living up to this divine inspiration – and for all of this, to support you in the tricky road ahead, fiscal cliffs and all – after all, believing or not – In God We Trust.

Shabbat Shalom


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

Obama Wins Jerusalem: 4 Years Later + Again

Published by Quartz: www.qz.com


When the sun rose over Jerusalem four years ago I sobbed for joy because of the poetic justice of a black man’s triumph. I remember driving on streets named for American icons whose work had led to that triumph—Lincoln Street, then Martin Luther King Rd—as the early morning November fogs lifted, feeling full of praise for Barack Obama’s first presidential victory.

This morning, with the first rays of light, here I was again, as church bells rang out over Zion, driving to the sacred sites in the Old City and crying, this time because of a lesbian’s triumph—Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay woman elected to the US Senate—and because here I was, a gay Jewish man praying hard for four more years of honest human dignity for all. The news of Obama’s re-election broke minutes later.

So much has changed since that hopeful morning in 2008. Back then, Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was not yet Israel’s prime minister. The American billionaire Sheldon Adelson was not the owner of Israel’s most popular daily paper, Israel Hayom, a pro-Bibi organ which—thanks to its owner’s deep pockets—is free, and has undercut and undermined the rest of Israel’s print media. The cafes in the German Colony neighborhood were open all night with giant screens and viewing parties. When the news broke, just before dawn, champagne bottles popped open, people were yelling in the streets, and I wasn’t the only one crying with relief. At the American ambassador’s official breakfast at the King David Hotel, strangers hugged. I took home a historic souvenir—an Obama campaign sign with that famous “Hope” logo. There was so much of that then.

Some of it is back today. But last night the German Colony cafes were closed. Israelis—worried about our own upcoming elections that Bibi seems likely to win, fatigued by our internal politics, jaded by the lack of progress with peace and by the prevailing sense, true or not, that Obama hasn’t done enough—just don’t seem to care as much. Americans held house parties through the night, tweets and texts crossing oceans, but the 2008 excitement and follow-up euphoria seemed way more subdued. At 6:17am, the sun just up, I took a picture of the morning sky, cheered with friends on Facebook, then quickly dressed to drive to the ambassadors’ breakfast, yet again, waving on my way to Jerusalem’s ancient walls, which have witnessed so many leaders come and go.

Never mind the silent walls. I drive and cry because this morning it’s about Tammy Baldwin! Elizabeth Warren! and Obama’s second term! I cry knowing that the man who fought for my right to marry a man will care more for the rights of all. I pray—sincerely—to who or whatever is in charge of the winds of history that in this second term he’ll rise up to the challenge of peace in this region, not take no for an answer, and give it all he’s got. The dignity of the Palestinian people and the security of Israel is more at stake then ever.

Four years ago on this day, our oldest daughter, Alice turned two. From Jerusalem I sent her a deliriously happy birthday video. Today, she’s six and proudly wears an Obama T-shirt that says “Forward”. I am hopeful that like so many other children she will go through the first year of elementary school in a country quite divided but heading forward to more days of blazing dawns and hopes for changes, and dignity, and courage. Happy birthday, Alice. And happy new day, Mr. President.