Author Archives: Maya Bernstein

Innovating to Preserve Tradition

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Lisa Lepson, the Executive Director of the Joshua Venture group, writes in her piece “Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow:”

The Judaism that is evolving before our eyes isn’t really new or innovative. In fact, the whole concept of evolution is at the core of Judaism. What our social entrepreneurs are doing is making tradition relevant to us once more, fusing them with contemporary values and bestowing upon them new life. They are leading a vibrant “re-generation” of our cultural and spiritual heritage.

The holiday of Shavuot, a pillar in the Pilgrimage Festival series that also includes Passover and Sukkot, illustrates the Jewish dance between innovation and tradition, and embodies the concept of “making tradition relevant to us once more.”


The holiday has multiple names, revealing its multiple identities. Shavuot, which means “weeks,” refers to the fact that the holiday takes place seven weeks after the beginning of Passover (Deuteronomy 16:9 – 12); the Torah tells us to count from the time of the barley, or Omer, harvest, until the time of the wheat harvest, which we celebrate on Shavuot. The holiday is also called Chag HaBikkurim (Numbers 28:26), the Festival of the First Fruits. This time of year marked the ripening of Israel’s first fruits, and the Mishnah in Tractate Bikkurim describes how people from all over Israel marched to Jerusalem with their fruits in beautiful baskets to give to the priest in the Temple. Shavuot is also known as Chag HaKatzir, the Festival of the Harvest (Exodus 23: 16), since Shavuot marks the summer harvest in Israel.

Interestingly, none of these names reflects what we actually celebrate on Shavuot today. Yes, we continue to count the days from Passover to Shavuot, and refer to it as Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer, but most Jews have no idea when the barley or wheat harvest is in the land of Israel, and what, if anything, it has to do with Shavuot. What, instead, do we celebrate? Here’s where Shavuot, cloaked in an entirely new name, emerges with its new identity: Chag Matan Torateinu – the Festival of the Giving of our Torah.

We celebrate the receiving of the Torah, though nowhere in the Torah does it explicitly say that this holiday has anything to do with Torah. We speak of counting-down the days from our liberation from the bondage of Egypt to our time of true freedom, when we committed ourselves to God’s law. In synagogue, we re-enact the experience at Sinai, decorating the synagogue with greenery, and standing, as the Israelites stood, when the Ten Commandments are read. We have a custom to stay up all night engaged in Torah study, to make up for the fact that the Israelites overslept on the morning of Matan Torah. And, in all of the Shavuot liturgy, the holiday is referred to as “zman matan Torateinu,” the time of the giving of the Torah, to reinforce this identity of the holiday.

Where did this name, and this aspect of the holiday, which has completely replaced the Torah’s description of what we should be celebrating, come from? A group of social entrepreneurs, otherwise known as the Tanaim – the group of Rabbis who were forced to grapple with the challenges that emerged for the Jewish community after the destruction of the Second Temple.

Unlike the other pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot is completely land-dependent. On Sukkot, no matter where Jews reside, they can build a Sukkah and wave the four species, as dictated by the Torah. On Passover, matzah can be prepared and eaten anywhere. But the Rabbis quickly became aware that when Jews were uprooted from the land and deprived of the Temple and its rituals, Shavuot would, as Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes in his book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, “have withered on the vine.” They therefore, creatively, and with deep grounding in tradition, wove a new identity for this holiday, an identity which, essentially, allowed them engage in the radical act of transforming a sacred tradition. They hi-lighted the calculation that the Torah must have been given approximately seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt, and inspired the Jewish people to re-imagine the count-down from the barley sacrifice to the wheat sacrifice as a countdown from the Exodus to the full redemption – the receiving of the Torah.

According to Jewish tradition, God gave Moses the Torah in two forms – the written form and the oral form – Torah She’Bichtav, and Torah She’b’al Peh. One, etched in stone, was revered as God’s own words, given to Israel to guide and direct them. The other, by definition malleable and in constant flux, was a system of translating, interpreting, and making those words meaningful. According to the Rabbinic tradition, the realm of the oral Torah should have stayed oral, open to reinterpretation. It was never to have been written down: “R. Aba son of R. Hiya son of Aba said in the name or R. Yochanan: Those who write halachot (laws of the oral Torah) are like those who burn the Torah, and one who learns from them receives no reward.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Temurah 14b). The Rabbis feared that if the realm of the oral crossed into the realm of the written, it would devalue both realms, cheapening the eternal sacredness of the written Torah, and etching in stone that which should have been more informal and ephemeral in nature.

And yet, necessity demanded that the oral law be written down; later on in the same excerpt from the Talmud, the Rabbis conclude that “it is better for Torah to be uprooted than for Torah to be forgotten in Israel.” Their argument is profound: it is better to change the very nature of our system, the very essence of our traditions, in order to preserve that system, and maintain those traditions.

This concept is what the Rabbis are asking us to celebrate on Shavuot. When we observe this traditional, Torah-based holiday in this radically non-traditional, oral-law based way, calling the holiday by the name the Torah has given it, and celebrating it as the Rabbis re-imagined it, we are celebrating the paradox that is our religion. We are celebrating the complex, intertwined system of the oral and written traditions, and acknowledging that, in Judaism, the very purpose of innovation is to preserve that which is traditional and sacred, which in turn actually requires that the very nature of the tradition must be flexible and malleable.

This Rabbinic tradition is being carried out by today’s Jewish social entrepreneurs. The challenge we all face as a community is to ensure that our innovations are indeed preserving our traditions, and that those cultivating innovations have the respect, depth of knowledge, and humility to engage in this sacred dance.

Maya Bernstein works as the Director of Education for UpStart Bay Area, which supports Jewish innovation in the Bay Area. She blogs regularly for Lilith Magazine and e-Jewishphilanthropy.com.

Posted on May 17, 2010

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VeNahafoch Hu: The Force of Creative Destruction

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Purim is a celebration of reversals. The Book of Esther, which is traditionally read twice on the holiday, states in Chapter 9 verse 1:

Now in the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have rule over them; whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them.

This notion, of things being turned on their heads, called “venahafoch hu” in Hebrew, is at the core of this lively, raucous little holiday. The very purpose of our celebrating is intertwined with this overturning “from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a holiday” (Esther 9:22). As Rabbi Irving Greenberg  puts it in his essay “Confronting Jewish Destiny: Purim,” in his book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays:

Part of the dizzying paradox of Purim is the extraordinary and capricious reversals it reflects. Vashti is deposed as queen for showing modesty. Esther wins favor for the queenship because of her modesty…Mordecai, in one day, is raised from gallows candidate to prime minister. The very name of the holiday – Purim (meaning lottery) – suggests the absurdity and vulnerability of historical events when a turn of the wheel, a night’s insomnia, a moment of jealousy on the part of a drunken king, spells the difference between degradation and exaltation, between genocide and survival.

On Purim, we wear costumes, get drunk, and let go of the daily inhibitions – the cloak of order – that characterizes our lives, in order to acknowledge that our lives can change on a dime, and that a situation that looks devastating and grim can in fact become uplifting and celebratory.

But what is lurking beneath this notion of “venahafoch hu?” And what does it have to teach us, as a Jewish community, about our relationship to innovation and change, and those who turn, and sometimes overturn, the strictures of our community?

The Jewish Bible uses the term “hafach,” often translated as “turned,” in a number of different ways. Often, it is used to convey a reversal from one state to its opposite state, as in the case of the Megillah, or, as in Deuteronomy 33:6, “God turned the curse into a blessing for you.” It is also used to indicate any change, and not always necessarily as predictable as from a state to its opposite. Exodus tells of Moses’ staff, which turned into a snake (7:15) and of the water in the Nile river, which turned to blood (7:17), and the psalmist reminds us of God’s having turned the rock into a pool of water (Psalms 114:8).

The term is also used to convey destruction, as in Jonah’s warning to the people of Ninveh: “Another forty days and Ninveh shall be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). This is not only a change from one state to another, but a change from a state of order to a state of chaos, from civilization to destruction. And, finally, the term is used, simply, to convey movement. Lamentations refers to the heart that spins and turns within our midst (1:20), and Genesis describes the Garden of Eden as being guarded by the cherubim, holding a flaming sword “turning every which way” (3:24). This is not simply motion, but implies a spinning that is just barely in control, hovering at the edge of turmoil.

On Purim, then, we are not simply acknowledging that despair can turn to joyous exaltation. That is merely the tip of the Purim iceberg. The holiday, in fact, is intensely sobering. It reminds us that the world is spinning beyond our control, and, despite what we think, we cannot predict its direction, nor can we be certain that it won’t spin into a state of total destruction. This, perhaps, is why joy must be dictated during this month: mishenichnas Adar marbim be’simcha – when the month of Adar arrives we abound in joy (Talmud Megillah 29a) – because it is counter-intuitive to face the notion of “venahafoch hu” and to celebrate.

Perhaps this understanding of Purim can shed light on the Jewish community’s complex relationship to its innovators.

Our innovators keep us spinning. Paul Light, in his article “Social Entrepreneurship Revisited” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, describes social entrepreneurship as “a wave of creative destruction that remakes society.” Innovators are involved in all levels of the “venahafoch hu” process, changing things from one state to another, sometimes to their opposite states, and keeping the world in motion, even sending it into turmoil. Jewish social entrepreneurs, as they spin and blow through the community, hover on the brink of overturning the Jewish world as we know it.

The field of Jewish innovation, like the holiday of Purim, may appear celebratory and joyous on its surface. It marks the possibility of renewal, which, in the Jewish community, ultimately means survival. But, like Purim, there are cold depths beneath this surface. There is something profoundly threatening about the field.

New Jewish ideas and institutions often, and sometimes by definition, threaten traditional modes of operating and thinking in the Jewish world. In creating something new, Jewish social entrepreneurs sometimes destroy the old. In painting a new portrait of our community, they sometimes eradicate the faces and images that have defined us over time.

This Purim, perhaps our challenge as a community is to approach this field of innovation, this realm of “venahafoch hu,” with the same simultaneously tremulous and unwavering joy we bring into the month of Adar. Light writes: “social entrepreneurs are driven by a persistent, almost unshakable optimism.” This attitude of hope in the face of potential adversity is a very Jewish notion, one of which we are reminded during the month of Adar.

When we face the spinning world, the possibility of unending turmoil and the potential destruction of all that we hold dear, we are reminded to approach it with joy and hope, with an eye towards redemption and possibility, with merry-making and feasting. With a celebration of our innovators, and the belief that, ultimately, when the book ends, we will have survived, flourished, thrived, and come out stronger for all the motion.

Maya Bernstein works as the Director of Education for UpStart Bay Area, which supports Jewish innovation in the Bay Area. She blogs regularly for Lilith Magazine and e-Jewishphilanthropy.com, where this essay is cross-posted. 

Posted on February 24, 2010

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Why Stay Up All Night Studying Torah?

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Tonight, Jews across the world will pull an all-nighter. Some will sit in synagogue all night long; others will “shul-crawl,” going from one synagogue to another; others will sit in their homes, nibbling on cheese-cake and trying not to fall asleep on their couches; others  will camp out on Mt. Tamalpais, re-living the ancient Israelites’ experience of receiving the Torah; while others still are undecided about how and where – but are excited to greet the dawn.

Why is it customary to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot by staying up all night, engaging in, of all things, the learning of Torah? After all, aside from all of the current data on the benefits of sleep, don’t we remember Hector’s wise statement, in Book VII of Homer’s Iliad, that “it is a good thing to give way to the night-time?”

Here are three reasons for you to mull over tonight, between 2 and 3am – hopefully with a good pint of ice-cream at your side.

I.  Studying Torah at night is a Jewish value. It is not unique to Shavuot. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah Chapter 3:13, writes:

“Even though it is a mitzvah to learn both during the day and at night, one gains the majority of wisdom at night; therefore, anyone who wants to merit the Crown of Torah should be careful each night, and should not lose even one to sleep, food and drink, conversation, and the like – rather, one should engage in the study of Torah and words of wisdom.”

There is something special about studying Torah at night. Yehuda Arye Leib Alter, in his work Sefat Emet, writes that the Jewish people are like fish, who, though they are always surrounded by water, constantly need water to be nourished. “The water is nothing but Torah,” the Talmud in Baba Kama 82a says, and, through its nightly study, we attempt quench that which cannot be quenched. On Shavuot night, then, the night on which we commemorate receiving the Torah, we stay up all night, modeling that which we will do on many nights to come.

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Posted on May 28, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy