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Aleph Beta Reacts
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My name is David Block, I work on content and curriculum development here at Aleph Beta and joining me today is Rivky Stern - say hi Rivky.
Rivky Stern: Hi. How are you David?
David Block: I'm doing well thank you.
Rivky is actually the Head of Production here at Aleph Beta. She oversees all of the content production, the audios, the videos, so everything that we have here at Aleph Beta we owe to Rivky.
Rivky Stern: Yeah, you're welcome. I'm really nervous David. I mean, thank you so much for having me…
David Block: [Stop thinking like that, 0:36] talk regularly.
Rivky Stern: No, I mean, I'm really excited to be a guest here but I'm really nervous to be here.
David Block: We're really excited to have you and we are really excited to talk with all of you about our new Pesach course.
Rivky Stern: We always do sort of a mini watch party with the staff on the day before release, and as we were watching them together, I was really incredibly proud of the video editors, they really pulled together an amazing course. Powerful and uplifting and upsetting in all the ways that Pesach really is. All of these things are really a piece of it.
David Block: So shout out to our video editors [Shoshana and Lisa 1:02].
Rivky Stern: Hopefully in the next of couple of weeks you'll be able to have one of them on and they could talk through the process for all of our listeners.
David Block: I can tell they're very excited.
Rivky Stern: Yeah.
David Block: So on that note let's actually jump right in. So Rivky you said that this course was very meaningful to you, very powerful. So kind of share with us, what did the course mean to you? How did it impact you personally?
Rivky Stern: That's a good question. One of the things that I kept thinking about as I was going through it, is does having faith mean that you believe that G-d exists? That doesn't seem so much like what the text is talking about. Rabbi Fohrman really breaks it down as a way of sort of us understanding that having faith is really believing that G-d understands what you've gone through and that G-d will redeem you and pull you out of what's happened to you.
When you've gone through something - like what the Israelites in Egypt had gone through, you can't just be convinced with tricks. If someone came up to you and pulled a rabbit out of a hat, would you be like, G-d is with me, I totally feel it 100 per cent? When I was listening to this I was thinking about - obviously as we often do - I was thinking about the Holocaust and if my grandfather - he was in hiding for a long time. If someone came up to him and was like, don't worry G-d has been with you the whole time, here's a way that I'm going to prove it and did a like a little trick, my grandfather would be like, this means nothing to me. He wouldn't feel closer to G-d, he wouldn't feel like there was a repairing of a relationship - either with G-d or with sort of what he had been through, what our people had been through.
Then you're thinking about what redemption means - either redeeming the Holocaust, or redeeming Egypt or redeeming the Crusades, or redeeming the Inquisition. Redeeming such an event that has hurt people and hurt a nation. It felt really, really difficult to me to understand.
David Block: Really all of the plagues could be seen as these little magic tricks that try to show both Egypt and the Israelites that G-d is with them. But it wasn't just about those big light shows, really it was about that empathy. It's a really powerful point that the most important thing, the thing that would get the Israelite people to actually believe in G-d is to realize not that G-d is all-powerful and that this is exactly what's going to happen to them and how they're going to be redeemed and when. But it's simply that they actually feel understood. That they actually feel that their pain is felt and shared.
To be honest, I think that at the very least, I can't relate exactly to what the Israelites went through in Egypt, I certainly can't relate to what my grandparents and my family went through in the Holocaust. But I can relate to what it feels like when someone else realizes your pain, that you don't feel so alone. That's one of the most powerful things you can do in any relationship, to kind of have empathy and say, listen, I know I'm not helping you at this moment, or whether I can help you at all, but I'm with you in the pain.
Rivky Stern: Yeah, David, I really relate to that. You know, Rabbi Fohrman talks about how Pharaoh could have repaired the relationship, he could have apologized, he could have acknowledged, he could have really tried to erase that pain.
But on a much smaller scale, the way you were saying, I think about getting in a fight with my sister and how powerful it is, even when it's a stupid fight, when my sister calls me the next day and says, what you said made a lot of sense, and I totally hear why me saying that was really hurtful. I didn't mean it that way, but you're right, I was insensitive and that was wrong of me. People talk about how fighting can actually be good for a relationship, and that means productive fighting. That means when I hurt someone I acknowledge what I've done.
David Block: You know a lot of pop psychology and a lot of books talk about how the most important thing to do when you're having a disagreement with someone is to first hear and then be heard. That's exactly what G-d is doing here. G-d is saying, listen I promise you're going to see what I'm going to do for you, the ways in which I'm going to redeem your suffering. But for right now, I hear you, you're not alone.
So I don't mean to continue the morbid conversation but it's actually striking how similar a lot of the elements of the Exodus story really are to our own history in the Holocaust, World War Two. Particularly regarding the lies that Pharaoh told the people. The question you kind of have to ask…
Rivky Stern: Yeah.
David Block: …and that's what Rabbi Fohrman dealt with, was how do you get an entire nation - how do get them on board? What does that propaganda kind of look like? One of the things that was most striking is that if you can convince the people that the victims are really a threat, then you see them as the aggressors. Then of course it's moral and right and just to do whatever you can to kind of stop them. If you can make them a threat, if you can make them seem smarter and stronger than you, so then it almost is moral…
Rivky Stern: Yeah.
David Block: …to oppress those people.
Rivky Stern: I was thinking the same thing. You know, I think if we expand the conversation, I think we can talk about slavery in America. This idea of making them into a threat, we have so many documents talking about how these people are savages, they're animals. Talking about dehumanization, they're crafty, they're dangerous, this is actually to civilize black people, otherwise they'd be running free, they'd ruin everything. That feels also very striking to me. There was a cover article in The Atlantic - do you ever read The Atlantic?
David Block: I read what you send me in The Atlantic.
Rivky Stern: Okay, so there was a cover article about a year ago from Ta-Nehisi Coates - I might have mispronounced that, I struggle with it every time.
David Block: It sounds perfect.
Rivky Stern: Thank you, I appreciate that.
David Block: It's probably very wrong.
Rivky Stern: Where he talked about this idea of reparations. It was actually his most read, most shared article, he was brought all over the country to speak about it - he is an incredible writer, everything he writes is amazing. But this really struck a nerve for people. He talked about…
David Block: I hope we get endorsements and funds from The Atlantic.
Rivky Stern: [Laughs]. Well I think also he listens to this podcast…
David Block: [Everyone there 6:18]…
Rivky Stern: He's a big fan.
David Block: Everyone listens to this podcast.
Rivky Stern: So The Atlantic is going to call soon.
He basically talked about reparations is not meant to be a practical thing. It's not like, okay, this is the amount of money that was taken from you when you had to run away from Poland and you had to leave your artwork, okay so this is the amount of money you get. It's much bigger than that. Reparations is saying, this is how we as a people have wronged you as a people. There's no way to fix what we have done, but we have to grapple with the injustice that we have done. We can't just say, we did a bad thing, I'm sorry, let's move on, let's make things better, fine. We have to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, this is how we've done things.
Rabbi Fohrman talks about how Paraoh couldn't do that. Pharaoh wasn't able to look at himself. He had to just double down and double down and keep going. Germany to a certain extent has been able to stand up and say, we don't know how to fix this but we've completely messed up. America - this is Coates' argument basically - America hasn't really stood up. But I think in a way when I listen to this, I can also think to myself, this isn't over. We talk about the Bible as a living, breathing document, this is still happening.
David Block: It's interesting, when those countries - when the aggressors actually give those reparations, it's almost as if that's the first step to correcting the dehumanization. It's almost like, listen…
Rivky Stern: Yeah.
David Block: …as you said, I can't repay it, but I can recognize that we did something wrong. We did dehumanize you and that's not okay, and by giving you things, by acknowledging you, it kind of makes a big difference. The truth is, is that I think the concept of dehumanizing is probably more common in our lives - or at least in my life - than I think. Every time you make a joke that might have a stereotypical undertones, whenever you cut someone in line, whenever you get angry, you can't possibly understand what someone else did. All of those things are really kind of dehumanizing others, and it's really a struggle to be able to take a step back and say, people are more complex than that. It's very easy to kind of say, oh well I'm me and they're just things. But that's really what leads to - I don't want to say it leads to these terrible genocide, but that's really the beginning.
Rivky Stern: Yeah, I think that's a good point. I think it's in the micro scale and in the macro scale. I think in the macro scale we have, G-d forbid, you end up with genocide. Look I'm not going to say that these issues are simple - you talk about something like immigration. Immigration is incredibly complex, this is not a political podcast, that's not what we're doing here…
David Block: Ooh we should make a political podcast.
Rivky Stern: Okay we're going to put that on list, because there's a lot to accomplish.
David Block: After our cartoon character podcast.
Rivky Stern: Oh my goodness it's going to be amazing guys, tune in for that.
But we talk about something like immigration, I think it's very easy to dehumanize people who are alien to us as a nation, as people who - you know, sometimes I find myself doing this too. I'll go to a country where I am the minority, either the racial minority or the language minority, and I'm like, what are these people doing? But I'm the one who is the ridiculous one. They're like, what is she saying?
David Block: Wait, can I give an example?
Rivky Stern: Please.
David Block: Rivky is often very sensitive to when we make fun of foreign accents, when we do an Indian accent or even a British accent. It's always in good fun, people do impressions all the time. I always found it weird that it bothered her so much. But if I can be so bold, I think…
Rivky Stern: Please.
David Block: …this is part of it. Because when you're able to kind of make fun by putting on another accent and speaking funny like other people, you really do dehumanize them. You pretend that they don't have exactly the same emotions and that in their country they sound perfectly normal and we're the ones who sound crazy.
Rivky Stern: I mean I wasn't even thinking about that, but I think that's true. I think that probably…
David Block: I'm not saying I'm going to stop…
Rivky Stern: [Laughs]. I think that I am particularly sensitive to it and I think that's why I try to show you how dumb you are when you do things like that. I'm trying to help.
David Block: Oh it's…
Rivky Stern: You're welcome.
David Block: So if we can kind of change tracks just for a moment?
Rivky Stern: Please, yeah.
David Block: At the night of the Seder, we're supposed to try to relive the experience as if we ourselves went through it, which always seemed impossible to me. I didn't go through it, I've no idea what they experienced. But it's not a game that we're playing, oh can you relive exactly what the Israelite people went through? It's that you don't really experience the freedom, the salvation, unless you really get what they went through. There's no way that we can really achieve what we're supposed to achieve on Pesach in that we recognize what G-d did for us and we recognize all the miracles et cetera, unless we appreciate why we needed them in the first place.
What you said before about Vaya'aminu - that the Israelite people finally believed as they watched what happened to the Egyptians behind them when they're standing at the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. It really brings us full circle. It brings us right back to the value of the signs. What was the point of G-d showing us the signs at the beginning? So Rabbi Fohrman gave the example of the Star Wars music, that at the end you realize hey, the music that's playing now with the triumphant part of the story was the same music that was playing back earlier. It kind of shows how the entire time was leading up to this point.
Another example - and this is something that I think it was [Illu's 11:02] example, when Babe Ruth years ago was at the plate and he had this famous point to center field with his bat. At the time it looked ridiculous and when he hits that home run there, then it's like the greatness of that moment is totally amplified, because you realize, ah that's what he was doing before. It made the moment that it actually happened so much more powerful. So as the Israelites are standing on the bank of the Sea of Reeds and they see that everything that's happened culminated in that moment. They take a look back and they go, oh, now I get it.
That's kind of a really hard thing to do in our own lives when something difficult in our lives happens and you take a step back when it's over and you look back at the various pieces that led up to that point. You're like, oh, that's why that made sense, or that's how it played into this final thing. It really makes the whole thing much more powerful at the end.
Rivky Stern: Yeah, I just think - it's such a small thing. When I was in college, in my first semester, I had no idea what courses to take…
David Block: What did you want to be?
Rivky Stern: I wanted to be in high school I think, was the answer. [Laughs].
David Block: So your goal was not to become the production manager at Aleph Beta.
Rivky Stern: No, it's weird - that was the second option.
David Block: There's a second option?
Rivky Stern: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I didn't know what courses to take and I knew that the schedule for Jewish Holidays was Thursday, Friday, Shabbat. It was going to be a three-day Chagim, so I was like it would be amazing if I could figure out a schedule that everything was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, so I wouldn't have to miss classes. I had four out of my five classes set up, but I needed one more class. So I was like just looking through the course guide online, just trying to figure out something, and I found one class that fit into it, History of Africa 101. That course was probably one of the most meaningful, inspirational, life changing courses - I ended up majoring in Africana Studies. This little thing of, oh I would like all my classes to fit into a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday morning schedule, it was the kind of thing that there was no way I could have seen it until afterwards. It's such a small example, but I really felt like there was something nudging me there.
David Block: It's a really cool example. I know we were joking about it, but it's actually a really powerful example.
So I guess the question is, wouldn't it be cool if we were able to recognize that moment as it was happening? Instead of having…
Rivky Stern: Yeah, that's the struggle…
David Block: …to wait, right?
Rivky Stern: Even like we talk about Am Yisrael was able to turn around and say, oh okay fine, the whole thing works together. Even just being able to see that, it's so difficult in retrospect and it's almost impossible as it's happening.
David Block: I guess that really is the struggle - at least for me. When I get caught up in schoolwork either as a student or as a teacher, and it's really difficult then to take a step back and realize what I'm doing, to appreciate it, to even see G-d and G-d's hand - if you want to make it a little bit religious - in everything that I'm doing. Until you can really take a step back and breathe afterwards. But I also know that that's not the ideal. I always feel like the extent to which I can actually be mindful while I'm doing things - not just mindful of G-d but mindful of really everything going around me, I'm just a happier person. But it's so difficult because everything is so distracting.
So I've dabbled in some mindfulness exercises and like meditated stuff…
Rivky Stern: David you need to tell us all about that.
David Block: Yes, in our next podcast. We should have a meditation podcast.
Rivky Stern: Oh my gosh, are you writing these down?
David Block: Yeah of course.
But I guess the point is that - and I think it's one of the goals at least for me, of really what I'm working on over the Pesach holiday, we're appreciating our freedom, and we're also realizing everything that G-d did for them throughout the process, we have the advantage of being able to look from the very end of the story on what happened the entire time.
Rivky Stern: Yeah, like with Dayenu.
David Block: That's really cool. That's actually really cool. Dayenu is something we say at the Seder that at each moment it says, listen if G-d only did X for us, that would have been enough. Oh but the fact that He went even a step further, amazing, that's - we're so appreciative. So it sort of seems hard to relate to, but I think the point is exactly that. We kind of have that advantage on Pesach, to look back on the whole thing and say, whoa, that is awesome.
Rivky Stern: It makes us feel closer. When G-d is redeeming our relationship He's doing every single thing to make us feel close to Him again. When I read through Dayenu - I mean, on a good year when I read through Dayenu, I feel closer to G-d with every single step. I feel like, He did this and He did - oh my gosh, it's incredible and I feel that. To a certain extent I feel that now as we're speaking about it even.
David Block: Going back, it makes me wonder whether the point of Pesach through saying all those things is for us to be able to recognize each one of those Dayenus…
Rivky Stern: Yeah.
David Block: …each one of those things as they happen. Like hey, I'm giving you the big picture now, so that next time you won't need the big picture to realize G-d as it's happening. It's not easy.
Rivky Stern: I want to be able to walk outside and see things. I want to be able to have almost that sense of seeing G-d in my life. I remember speaking to you about this after we did that series about Yosef sort of seeing G-d in his life, in the last four Parsha videos of Sefer Bereishit. Yosef really sees something similar to what the nation of Israel sees here, is he sees this sort of culminating moment of, oh, that's why all these little pieces happened in my life. When Rabbi Fohrman talks about that I remember us talking about this David and thinking when do I really see G-d in my life? As Rabbi Fohrman pointed out, you can feel almost embarrassed yourself, like, am I missing these signs every day? I know that I'm not catching them, it's scary.
David Block: It's very scary and it's very hard to have answers. I'll just share one thing that - not that I'm great at it, but when I remember to do this, it's actually - it kind of helps me zone into that moment. It's going to sound silly but it's actually just breathing deeply.
Rivky Stern: Genius.
David Block: That's right, I breathe. No. But the truth is when you go outside on a cold morning, on my way to work, and I don't really want to be there, because I really want to be in bed for at least another five hours.
Rivky Stern: Minimum.
David Block: When I just take a second to stop and just take a deep breath and feel it, it really kind of captures the moment for me. It frames everything else that happens after that in a more meaningful way. I think it's something we have to work on and something you have to constantly reflect about, and see what works and what doesn't work. When do I feel most connected, when do I feel most disconnected? But that's okay, it's kind of a work in progress and if we're serious about it - I don't know, maybe we can start to do the things that make us feel closer?
Well Rivky, this was awesome.
Rivky Stern: David, thank you so much for having me, I was really, really nervous, but I really enjoyed this.
David Block: Listen, the point of what we do here always is not really give a fancy lecture on a textual study or on a Holiday, it's really to make the Torah meaningful and relevant as it is and as it should be. So there are just a few of our thoughts, and we'd really love to hear what you have to say about it, how you reacted and really how the material impacted you or affected you personally.
So please, as always, leave comments and let us know what you think. We really hope to hang out with you again very soon.
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