You're Invited

All the days of the poor are terrible, and for the good-hearted it is always a feast.
— Proverbs 15:15

 I came across this verse on a page of Talmud, knowing that while it's meaning seemed obvious from a surface glance, that our ancient scholars would play with it and engage in their usual mental gymnastics [BT Bava Batra 145b-146a]. Poverty creates misery so it's not hard to understand that all the days of the poor would be terrible. And we all know that while we associate poverty with one's financial circumstances, there are, sadly, many manifestations of it, as Mother Teresa famously observed: "Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty." The second part of the verse is less self-evident since feasting is attached to being good-hearted instead of to wealth alone. This suggests that poverty and wealth, as understood here, are states of mind, attitudes about our lives through the prisms of scarcity and abundance.

At first, this verse in the Talmud is analogized to modalities of learning. Some methods and subjects of study are rich and energizing. Others may be routine or depleting. We all know the experience of being at a banquet of knowledge, where the presence of great minds at work helps ideas run fast and furious. This may happen in a wonderful class or course or while reading a stimulating book or because of an edifying conversation.

The exegesis of the verse then takes a quick and unexpected turn:

"This is referring to one who has a wicked wife. 'And for the good-hearted it is always a feast,' this refers to one who has a good wife." It seems that the rabbis focused on the terms "all" and "always." Poverty and bounty that are a daily and constant feature of life suggest other ways our lives are framed in the day-to-day. When core relationships, like marriage, are not working, every day is a struggle. When they are characterized by contentedness, they are enriching and hopeful.

Rabbi Yannai, however, treats this verse not as a statement of who is in your life but who you are; it's about personal identity: "'All the days of the poor are terrible;' this refers to one who is delicate. 'And for the good hearted it is always a feast,' this refers to one who is pleasant." A delicate person in Jewish law is called an istinus; this individual is fastidious about cleanliness and order to a degree that can become an obstacle to personal happiness. In modern parlance, we might say that someone like this suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Whether or not the rabbis believed that this worldview had reached the level of disease, they certainly understood that it could cramp one's joy and that a relaxed - chillaxed (as my children say) - approach to life and its many adventures will feel banquet-like in comparison.

This internal framing continues. Rabbi Yohanan says "'All the days of the poor are terrible,' this refers to an empathic person; and for the good hearted it is always a feast;" this refers to a cruel person. And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says, 'All the days of the poor are terrible,' this is referring to a person who has an impatient nature. 'And for the good hearted it is always a feast,' is referring to a person who is of a patient nature." It's not hard to understand why patience and impatience could lead a person to very different qualities of life. Rabbi Yohanan's interpretation is harder, more troubling and, ultimately, more profound. Too much empathy can create emotional poverty. I was recently speaking with a college student who beautifully described how taking on the burden of others was very important to her because it took them off someone else's shoulders. When I asked her if she was sure this transference took place, she said "Probably not. "When I asked her how this makes her feel, she shrugged and said, "It's exhausting."

Rabbi Yohanan is not suggesting that we be cruel and not compassionate. The Talmud famously says that if one is cruel then we question if that individual is indeed Jewish. Empathy should be part of the DNA of every one of us. But he does warn us about how compassion without boundaries can create deep unhappiness. Protecting oneself while still maintaining compassion is an art and an important skill so that we can keep on giving. Being drained or even exploited can lead to powerful resentment and anxiety.

Reading these various interpretations makes us wonder if we see life as a daily struggle or life as a delicious banquet, one we are invited to join. The banquet is not what makes us whole-hearted; because we are whole-hearted, we can see a banquet even when a simple meal is placed before us.

Shabbat Shalom

Does Charm Harm?

“Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.”
— Proverbs 31:30

A recent Wall Street Journal Magazine article had six luminaries reflect on charm. An author and director associated the word with "a smile that's very disarming and inviting." The columnists, in turn, described charm as warmth and natural charisma or cleverness and confidence. A novelist observed that when she was growing up charm meant knowing the rules of polite society and playing by them. "Real charm," she believes, "is about authenticity." The most charming people she knows "have knowledge of self through cultural and spiritual authenticity." I realized that this surfeit of good feeling - this charm - was not something I had ever associated with the word. I was drawn to the words of the actor Sam Elliott in this column, "...the word charm has two faces. On one side, you have those really delightful people, the ones we all love to be around. But on the flip side there is a kind of charm that is less sincere, that's used to manipulate others." It's hard for me to trust a charmer, and I believe I have the Hebrew Bible to thank for this.  

Our first biblical charmer was the snake in Genesis, a snake charmer, if you will. "Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, 'Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" (3:1). He slithered with guile, a kind of deceit that is seductive because it appeals to some deep need to subvert authority and gain attention while having our more selfish needs satisfied. Eve had everything she could have wanted, but she also had a Boss. The snake lulled her into thinking that she has just as much power if not more. She did not have to listen. Without the snake, she would have spent the rest of her days in a bountiful garden.

In Proverbs, this sense of being manipulated by something or someone who leads one astray is confirmed in several other verses: "A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers," (17:8). "He who hates disguises it with his lips, but he lays up deceit in his heart. When he speaks graciously, do not believe him..." (26:24-25). His charm is shallow; his duplicitousness has been honed into a fine tool to cheat others with his smooth talk.

Narratively, we find this sense of charming in the story of the would-be king, Avshalom, third son of David. He was not an heir to the throne but wished to be. And we learn another, not insignificant, detail about this prince; he was handsome: "In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Avshalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot, there was no blemish in him," (II Samuel 14:25). His looks served him well when it came to manipulating people and drawing them into his campaign for the throne.

A chapter later, we learn that he woke up early and went to city gates, the place where law was adjudicated. He inquired after every person, asking what city he hailed from.  Whatever city that was, Avshalom claimed to be from there as well. Before making his request, he tried to ingratiate himself with others by creating a false sense of kinship. In other words, laying on the charm. Then he told the stranger exactly what he wanted to hear. "'See, your claims are good and right, but no man listens to you on the part of the king.' Moreover, Avshalom would say, 'Oh that one would appoint me judge in the land, then every man who has any suit or cause could come to me and I would give him justice.' And when a man came near to prostrate himself before him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. In this manner, Avshalom dealt with all Israel who came to the king for judgment; so Avshalom stole away the hearts of the men of Israel." Charm worked its magic, one person at a time.

For charm to work, there must be a charmer and a charmee - one who indulges the manipulator and falls for the deceit. No wonder we conclude the Proverb's passage, "A Woman of Valor" with a verse that begs us to be careful: "Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised." Charm, in this sense is the opposite of authenticity. Charm here is linked to the vanity of beauty. Good looks are a divine gift, not a tool with which to manipulate others.

Saul, our first king, also suffered from good looks and was ultimately undone. God even had to warn the prophet Samuel to be wary: "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart,"(I Samuel 16:7). 

And so should we. 

Shabbat Shalom

Un-Steatling

Why should you steal?
— BT. Bava Basra 133a

Credit is a fascinating intangible commodity. We don't get enough of it. We deny we want it. And we get resentful if we don't get it. But giving credit is a fundamental Jewish value, and the animus behind the above Talmudic statement. One scholar was indignant when another cited an opinion without proper attribution. He accused him of no less than stealing. Intellectual property lawyers take note. These opinions were delivered orally, and yet even so, they were regarded as treasured ideas that "belonged" to someone.

During a heated debate about the intricate rules of inheritance, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Nahman said to Rabbi Huna, "Why should you steal?" He was not accusing him of a taking an object that belonged to someone else but taking someone else's idea without giving the credit. He continued to remonstrate his colleague that if he sided with a particular sage then he must state his name. Naming the masoritic line - the link of scholars who hold a position down to its originator- is a standard feature of virtually every page of the Talmud. For those unacquainted with Talmud study who encounter these name lists, it may seem frustrating or extraneous, but, in reality, who you learn something from is a sacred aspect of the teaching.

Amy Gallo in her HBR article, "What to Do When Someone Takes Credit for Your Work?" (April 29, 2015), discusses the niggling problem of being forgotten when it comes to getting credit. Why should that matter, she asks? It matters very much: "That all goes into the bank account of how much value you bring to the organization and plays into promotion decisions, raises, and assignments. And you can't assume that people will notice the time and effort you put in," she writes, quoting Brian Uzzi, professor of leadership and organizational change at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.

She offers some advice to those who are sitting at their desks seething because someone took the pat on the back while they strained to make it happen. Take time to calm down, and don't call out a colleague in front of others. The goal is not humiliation. Assume positive intent. It's likely an oversight and not deliberate. What will you gain by outing this mistake? Instead ask the person why it happened rather than accuse. Talk about how to right the wrong if the person acknowledges it. If not, Gallo suggests a more focused conversation with a supervisor about good working partnerships, modeling giving credit and being proactive about articulating who has worked on what in a collaborative project so that the contributors are clearly identified.

Ethics of the Fathers shares many observations about credit - giving it and not creating the impression that your work is your own. For example, Rabban Yohanan, the son of Zakkai, who received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai said: "If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit for yourself; it is for this that you have been created." (2:8) Don't take credit even for your own accomplishments because this is what you were put in the world to do - to learn, to study, to grow. In a later chapter, we are adjured to treat with respect and recognition, anyone who has taught us anything: "One who learns from his fellow a single chapter, or a single law, or a single verse, or a single word, or even a single letter, he must treat him with respect." (6:3). Later in the same chapter, in a lengthy mishna, we learn that Torah is acquired with 48 qualities. These include: study, listening, verbalizing, comprehension of the heart, awe, fear, humility, joy, purity and "precision in conveying a teaching, and saying something in the name of its speaker."

This particular aspect of learning acquisition is the only one with a biblical proof-text: "One who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world, as is stated: "And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai" (Esther 2:22). Mordechai discovered a plot against the king. When Esther relayed this message to the king, she did so in Mordechai's name. It would have been easy enough to take the credit and promote herself inside the palace. Mordechai would never have known. But she knew.

We can understand the powerful seduction of taking credit for someone else's brilliant idea to look brilliant ourselves. But stealing their shine to augment our own prizes making a good impression over being a person of impressive virtue. And that should be enough.

Shabbat Shalom

Going Grey

Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is found on the path of righteousness.
— Proverbs 16:31

Mark Twain famously said that wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been. It’s a nice thought but perhaps a bit naïve. I find Sonja Henie, the Norwegian athlete, a bit more convincing: “Jewelry takes people’s minds off your wrinkles.”

I’ve been thinking about wrinkles this week. This doesn’t mean I’ve spent a lot of time in front of the mirror but rather pondering a rabbinic observation I came across a few days ago. A talmudic discussion of Moses’ mother, Yoheved, reveals her youthfulness, a word-play based on using the Hebrew word “daughter” to describe this elderly woman: “Her signs of youth re-emerged. The flesh became smooth, the wrinkles were straightened out, and beauty returned to its place” (BT Bava Batra 120a). Wow. What skin cream did that woman have, and how can I get some?

The gemara seems to affirm what both beauty counters world-over and NASA are working on: fighting gravity. The desire to go back in time and make the old young again is surprising given the general biblical and rabbinic praise of wisdom and old age. Getting old is not a guarantee that one gets wise, but we hope that the two will come together when looks takes a backseat in our lives.

In our ongoing study this season, this understanding seems to be at the heart of a statement in Ethics of the Fathers (6:8) that uses the quote above from Proverbs to praise the elderly. “R. Shimon b. Yehuda, in the name of R. Shimon b. Yohai, says ‘Beauty and strength and riches and honor and wisdom and old age and grey hair and children, all beautify the world,’ as it says: ‘Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is found on the path to righteousness;’ and it says: ‘The glory of young men is their strength, and the majesty of the elders is their grey hair;’(Proverbs 20:29) and it says: ‘Then crown of elders are children’s children and the glory of children is their parents’ (Proverbs 17:6).

This mishna lists multiple ways to bring greater beauty to the world, and two of them are old age and grey hair. Children are also included, offering the sense that a beautiful world stretches across the lifespan. As is typical in rabbinic literature, R. Shimon b. Yohai brings in biblical proof-texts to strengthen his point. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch believes that “the acquisition of long years of living marks the old man as a person to whom honor is due. But a hoary head as such is a mark of distinction only if the life of the man has been a good and righteous one.”

Pitting one rabbinic statement against another, we have to ask if getting old is seen as a positive or a negative in the Talmud.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg in Sage Advice offers his interpretation of the mishna: “…there is strong theme in Talmudic literature – undoubtedly enhanced and made credible by the dualism of body and spirit endemic to Hellenistic culture – that pleasures of the body are unimportant because they are at best fleeting and marginal. At worst, they turn into indulgences and become the enemies of righteous living…” Nevertheless, Rabbi Yitz suggest that this mishna “suggests that a beautiful body is also a value. R. Shimon proclaims that worldly honor for the righteous and a vital, respected old age for the religious are desirable.”

In other words: the answer is both. There may have appropriate pushback in the ancient Jewish world to value age above Hellenic notions of youthful beauty and strength. But this messaging does not tell the whole story. What keeps someone youthful is not changing the way they look but keeping a youthful attitude into old age, one that values curiosity and newness, intelligence and adventure.

Wrinkles are an outward sign that the skin has matured and settled into a face with character, as the Italian actress Anna Magnani once said, “Please don’t retouch my wrinkles. It took me so long to earn them.”

Shabbat Shalom

How Much is Too Much?

The more possessions, the more anxiety.
— Ethics of the Fathers 2:8

Many years ago, I stepped into an elevator and saw the following sign: "If what you have isn't making you happy, why will more of it make you happier?" It was a sobering morning. And it was a gift and a reminder about the limitations of ownership. Wouldn't it be better to be an

inquiring mind than an acquiring one? Can we appreciate something without having to own it? After all, Ethics of the Fathers - our subject of study until Shavuot - reminds us that the more we own, the more worry we create for ourselves.

 

Vivek Shanbhag is the author of a new small gem of a novel, Ghachar Ghochar. Shanbag has been called an Indian Chekov, and it's not hard to see why when you read this story of a family unraveling. They were a small but close family, united in their poverty and an us-versus-them approach to the world. When they open a wholesale spice company on the brink of their ruin, they suddenly find themselves wealthy. Everything changes. They move out of the old neighborhood, convinced they will visit often and maintain the old relationships that they soon forget. Their close-knit bonds begin to fray under the pressures that ownership creates. The lassitude that sets in from not having to work hard or work at all is responsible for the destruction of not one marriage but two. The narrator makes a general observation about money: "It's true what they say - it's not we who control money, it's the money that controls us. When there's only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind."

 

I thought of Shanbhag's words in the context of our quote above. "Marbe nekhasim, marbe da'aga," bemoans Hillel in the Mishna. The more possessions, the more anxiety. When you have little, there's also little to worry about. The more you own, the more you have to maintain, care for and protect your assets. You become suspicious of anyone who might damage your portfolio or your status. You no longer own things. The things begin to own you. It's no wonder that the central protagonist of another novel, Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler, changes her life by reducing what she owns, thing by thing, until she lets go of it all. What may seem nightmarish to many becomes a source of liberation for her.

Hillel's saying expands far beyond this terse aphorism, as Hillel explores why more of what we have will not necessarily make us more whole. Hillel rejects too much sexuality, materialism, triviality, lewdness and theft - none of which can lead to any good. He also includes areas where more of something will be more beneficial to the human condition: "The more Torah the more life, the more schooling the more wisdom; the more counsel the more understanding; the more righteousness the more peace. If a man has acquired a good name he has gained something which enriches himself; but if he has acquired words of the Torah he has attained afterlife."

There are certain things in life we cannot get enough of, primarily in the arena of wisdom and character. Get enough of those and you get something else that money can never buy: a good name, one that lives after you.

Central to Hillel's challenge is one two-part question: what do you need less of and what do you need more of in your life? I was recently asked an open-ended question as part of an ice-breaker: what would I want to get? The word "get" always confounds me. I often conflate it with greed. As usual in ice-breaker sessions, I panic. Someone else will obviously say something more true, more clever or more funny. Someone wanted a yacht or a bigger house, pretty standard answers. I have all that I need, so nothing material came to me, even as I racked my brain. Who doesn't like buying things? But if I could "get" something, it would definitely be more whimsical like world peace or piety.

Even as I said this, I realized what Hillel really means in his Mishna. You can buy lots of things and spend lots of time and energy with the wrong focus. What you are really trying to "get" is a handle on a life that matters, one that prioritizes goodness and knowledge. The more you invest in it, the more you will want to invest. And that "more" will never be satisfied nor should it. Investing in things is a pre-occupation that keeps taking. Investing in character and wisdom is a pre-occupation that keeps giving. We should want more of it.

Shabbat Shalom

A Jewish Option B

Do not comfort your friend in the hour when his dead lies unburied before him...”
— Ethics of the Fathers 4:18

In our ongoing study of Ethics of the Fathers, we come across several pieces of wisdom attributed to Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar. Here, in 4:18, he helps us understand when, as a friend, we must hold back. "Do not try to pacify your friend in the hour when he is in a rage; and do not comfort him in the house when his dead lies unburied before him; and do not question him in the hour when he is making a vow; and do not make an effort to see him in the hour of his disgrace."

Every act of restraint mentioned here protects the emotional fragility of someone caught in the throes of anguish or humiliation.  In his commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg observes that in the four cases cited, "the overt message of our words and actions" become "the contradictory subtext of the actual effects of our intervention with another. In other words, our good intentions are contradicted by the facts on the ground. We are saying the right things, but due to insensitivity to the other person's state, our actions are having the opposite effect." Communication works two ways. Words are given and received and sometimes, without paying careful attention, they are not received well. Timing is everything.

This mishna calls for two words: situational awareness. Friends shouldn't interfere when emotions are high and one's circumstance or one's dignity is low. This does not mean it is inappropriate to intervene when calm presides. We need our friends to question our anger or our judgment and to provide a guiding hand and a comforting soul when we have the capacity to hear what they have to say. As Dionne Warwick sang so well, "That's What Friends Are For."

My friend Adena recently bought me Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy. We'd all like an Option A life but few of us will have one. Sandberg writes movingly of her pain. Her husband died in a hotel gym on vacation (yet another reason I don't go to the gym). She found him and shares the exquisite difficulty of sharing this news with her children. The woman who told us to lean in does not hold back. She makes herself very vulnerable in these pages, and I wonder what she might have about this teaching from Ethics of the Fathers.

In one of her most moving chapters, the authors tell us what it means to be a friend to one who has suffered immense loss. Sandberg was stuck by friends who restrained themselves so much it was as if they ignored this huge, seemingly unavoidable news in her life. "Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn't know what to say to me or my kids. Their discomfort being around us was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room went unacknowledged, it stated acting up, trampling over my relationships. If friends didn't ask how I was doing, did that mean they didn't care? Did they not see the giant muddy footprints and piles of manure?

Sandberg also points out that the when the person experiencing these losses remains silent, it can isolate friends, family and colleagues. It seems it's impossible to get it right. But this was not Sandberg's issue. She was very open about her grief. She writes about weeping openly at work, thus, the discomfort of others became all the more shocking and disappointing. "The deep loneliness of my loss was compounded by so many distancing daily interactions that I started to feel worse and worse. I thought about carrying around a stuffed elephant, but I wasn't sure that anyone would get the hint."

Naturally, many people refrain from saying anything because they don't want to cause the sufferer more pain, not realizing, of course, that this itself was a cause of pain. She also shares some helpful advice. Avoid platitudes, especially this one: everything happens for a reason. Suffering does not benefit from competition so try not to one up someone else's suffering or focus on oneself at the expense of the person who needs to be comforted. They include a great card image: "When life gives you lemons, I won't tell you a story about my cousin's friend who died of lemons."

Instead of asking "How are you?" a question which seems inappropriate - how should I be given my suffering? - ask instead, 'How are you today?" Messages like "I'm thinking about you. It must be really hard for you right now" provided comfort. Letting someone know that he or she is not alone can also minimize the distance. I'll add, from a parenting perspective, help your kids lean in when it comes to addressing other kids and adults who are struggling. Teach your children not to be afraid of approaching the pain of others.

Shabbat Shalom

In Praise of Uncertainty

Certainty or doubt? Go with the certainty.
— Bav Metzia 97b

Last week, in our ongoing study of Ethics of the Fathers, we talked about precision, based on a statement of the Talmudic sage, Rabban Gamliel, who pre-empted his exhortation to be exact in giving charity with four resounding words: "Stay away from doubt." That seems, right now, to be the least of our problems. No one seems to doubt themselves enough. Just look at one Twitter feed if you don't believe me. Every day, we encounter the presumption of certainty as the unqualified assert their strident opinions on politics, current events and celebrity gossip. It's got me wondering about this intense need to be certain and what deep human insecurities it masks. It also reminds me of what the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt."

The Talmudic principle above appears in several places and serves as a decision-making, law-adjudicating principle. "Certainty or doubt - go with the certainty." Elsewhere the Talmud says, "One who has bread in his basket is not like one who does not have bread in his basket" [BT Yoma 74b]. This is the Aramaic equivalent of "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The medieval commentator, Rashi, observes that this means having food one day is no guarantee for tomorrow, offering a different reading than the literal sense of the expression. Both, however, involve certainty and doubt. If you have before you a doubt and a certainty, go with a reality you know and what you already have. This is a terrific way to walk in the world when you are risk-averse.

Elsewhere, the Talmud offers a similar view: "Doubt cannot negate certainty,"(BT Pesakhim 9a, BT Hullin 10a). When something you know is rock solid, it's near impossible to break through the armor. While this sounds reasonable and mimics much of human experience, we all know that doubt can creep in when it's least invited and make us question what we believe to be true. In the arena of love, parenting, and friendship, it is not hard to make someone feel insecure. One sharp question, nagging suspicion or morsel of gossip can do great injury.

In the introduction to Alan Mittleman's excellent new book Human Nature and Jewish Thought: Judaism's Case for Why Persons Matter, he makes a persuasive case for uncertainty: "...certitude is not our birthright, nor does it come easily or cheaply. The desire for certitude arises from within our experience of perplexity, from within the interplay of light and dark, knowledge and ignorance, that always attends our quest for knowledge. The desire for certitude wants to override that interplay. It signals impatience with the shifting balance between the two; it represents a panic for resolution. We need to get over the panic and live, fully and well, with a lack of resolution."

The desire to control, to dominate, to live with abiding confidence can obstruct our capacity to be truly open to change, creativity and personal development. "The lack of certainty does not stop us, Mittleman claims, "from advancing our needs and concerns. We make our way toward whatever certainties are possible for us from the middle, moving outward. The form of life that we lead is already saturated with norms, principles, beliefs and convictions. We don't need the certitude of an ultimate truth, speaking to us as if from the outside."

We know what we know. But we're greedy when we want to know everything that can be known and even what cannot be known. We want surety when it cannot be guaranteed. And perhaps the frustration that this will guarantee will never be ours morphs into the strange problem of sounding certain about everything. When we do that, we alienate people who are comfortable living with ambiguity and humility in a world of mystery. I don't know about you, but I would hate to live in a world without mystery. I'm not sure of many things, but, without a doubt, I am sure of that.

Shabbat Shalom

Precision Matters

...Stay away from doubt; and do not accustom yourself to tithe by estimation.
— Raban Gamliel, Ethics of the Fathers 1:16

In our transactional consumer culture, we have come to expect less and less from companies that are trying to sell us something, which seems to be just about everyone today. Online transactions can make anyone a clothing merchant or a taxi driver. We want to believe everyone is trustworthy, but it's become harder and harder. We use car mechanics, lawyers and doctors and anyone else with specialized knowledge hoping that they are straight with us about repairs, billable hours and the tests we need.

The Talmud spends pages and pages debating exacting standards with weights and measures, following the biblical dictum of Leviticus: "You shall do not wrong in judgment, in measurement of capacity. You shall have just balances, just weights..." (Leviticus 19: 35-36). Precision measuring makes for honest business, and nothing less will do. The Talmud lauds Rabbi Safra, saying that he fulfilled the verse in Psalms to "speak truth in his heart" (15:2) because he held himself accountable to what he thought but did not say during his negotiations. In the statement above, we want to make sure people are precise with their charitable giving as well.

In Deuteronomy, we read: "You shall not have in your bag differing weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house differing measures, a large and a small. You shall have a full and just weight; you shall have a full and just measure, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord, your God, gives you" (25:13-16). Market cheats had stones of differing weight in their pockets or bags that looked the same to deceive customers. It was a repugnant practice, and we have admonitions throughout the Hebrew Bible against what must have been common practice:

  • "Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, saying, 'When will the new moon be over, to that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, to make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger.' And to cheat with dishonest scales, so as to buy the helpless for money and the needy for a pair of sandals, and that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?" (Amos 8:4-6)
  • "Thus says the Lord, God, 'Enough, you princes of Israel; put away violence and destruction, and practice justice and righteousness Stop your expropriations from My people,' declares the Lord God. "'You shall have just balances, a just ephah and a just bath.'" (Ezek 45:9-10)
  • "Differing weights and differing measures, both of them are abominable to the Lord." (Prov. 20:10)
  • "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight." (Prov. 11:1)
  • "Is there yet a man in the wicked house, along with treasures of wickedness and a short measure that is cursed? Can I justify wicked scales and a bag of deceptive weights?" (Micah 6: 10-11)

The sages of the Talmud assess some of these verses for practical teachings and discuss the very minutiae of using weights accurately, like how often a measuring vessel should be cleaned to assure that residue does not add any additional weight or how to ensure that the small deposits in the scale's pan in a liquid measure be tipped appropriately in the buyer's favor since even this small amount was measured out for him. Market inspectors need to check regularly for accuracy of measures.

Most significantly, they wanted to demonstrate how important this commandment is to preserving the integrity of the land and the nation. Rabbi Levi suggests that falsifying weights and measures deserves a greater punishment than forbidden sexual relations. One reason provided is that regarding a breach with another human being, "there is repentance." When a person cheats strangers again and again, there is no way to achieve repentance because you cannot compensate or apologize to all your customers (BT Bava Batra 88b). Lastly, the Talmud states that it is worse to rob human beings than to rob God - like withholding a gift from the Temple.

The verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy stress both God and the land of Israel to demonstrate that a person may try to deceive another, but God's watchful eye is ever present. When the Israelites made their desert trek, God wanted them to know that the country they were inheriting needed to uphold a high moral standard or it would reject their residency. Precision in weights and measures is a small, everyday behavior to build a community of trust and a reputation as a place where ethics reigns. People who measure meticulously, especially when others don't, role model integrity, as we read in Proverbs 16:11: "A just balance and scales belong to the Lord; all the weights of the bag are His concern."

Shabbat Shalom

Curiosity

The embarrassed do not learn.
— Hillel, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:6

 We've all been there. We need to ask someone what to do or how something works, but we're too embarrassed. Asking might humiliate us. People will think we don't know what we're doing; maybe we don't really know what we're doing. The indignity of asking will simply confirm it. The fact that Einstein told us that it is OK to ask questions does nothing to ameliorate this gnawing sense of inadequacy: "The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing."

For the next several weeks, between Passover and Shavout, we will be studying an aphorism from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, as is a customary practice in this season. Today's will focus on curiosity.

Asking questions is a manifestation of curiosity: the rapacious desire to know, the expansive capacity to stand in awe and wonder. It's fundamental to the holiday we just finished and to just about every aspect of a faith based on scholarship. It reveals our humanity and humility, and helps us be vigilant against the arrogance of certainty. Sa'adia Gaon, a great early medieval sage and communal leader, observed in his philosophical work, Emunot Ve'Daot (Beliefs and Opinions), that a person who fails to admit his or her own inabilities will "never fashion a ring." If you think you know everything, you will never learn anything.  It's for this reason that one of the sages of the Talmud names the anxiety and the problem. "The embarrassed do not learn." 

Learning involves vulnerability and letting go of the face-saving tendency to project mastery. Ask questions and stop worrying about the humiliation of not knowing, we are adjured. In one Talmudic passage, a student was ridiculed by other students for asking a question until the teacher scolded his disciples: "Even such an obvious question a person should submit to his teacher and not be content with silence" (BT Nidda 27a). The silent sit in confusion and misunderstanding. Those not embarrassed to ask will reap rich rewards in knowledge. Making fun of those who ask questions is not only the mark of the intellectual snob, it can also devolve into self-sustaining ignorance.

There is, however, a circumstance where asking a question that generates shame may be off-limits, as we find in yet another Talmudic case: "Rabbi Elazar said to Rabbi Shimon ben Elyakim, "Do you ask me publicly, in the study hall, about a matter for which earlier sages did not give a reason, in order to embarrass me?" (BT Bava Batra 81a). A student confronted a teacher in a public space. This question was asked in a beit midrash, a study hall, likely crammed with students. Perhaps all of them would have hushed their loud intellectual jousting to hear what Rabbi Shimon had to say. But that is not the way Rabbi Shimon heard the question. Since there is a textual tradition that the particular teaching in question was not accompanied by a reason, Rabbi Shimon regarded this as an inappropriate challenge to his authority. Perhaps these two scholars had a history together that made Rabbi Shimon wary.

A commentator on the Talmud, Menahem Meiri (1249-1306), learns from here that it is inappropriate for a student to ask his teacher a question if he knows that the matter was discussed by earlier authorities, and no answer was provided. Rabbi Shimon may have felt that he was not only protecting himself and his contemporaries from public humiliation but was also defending those who came before him.

The difference between these two Talmudic cases - namely the teacher who protects the student and the student who intimidates the teacher - surfaces the thin, invisible line between curiosity and hostility. Our tradition loves questions, but questioners should be careful to make sure that they are asking out of genuine curiosity and not to prove they are smarter than the teacher by belittling the person at the front of the room.

We've all been in enough classrooms to recognize this kind of student. We may even be this kind of student. We've been raised to question authority but not always to valorize it. Remember: once you cross the boundary of impropriety, it may be hard to recalibrate the relationship between teacher and student, even though we are all students.

I've always loved what Dorothy Parker wrote about curiosity: "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." So go ahead. Ask. Please. Just ask nicely.

Shabbat Shalom

To a Master Teacher

It is a positive commandment to cleave to the wise and their disciples.
— Maimonides, “Laws of Character,” 6:2

Every once in a while, you get lucky enough to study with teachers who make subjects come alive, who bring passion and erudition to what you learn together, who serve as living role models. Rarer still is if you get all this in one person. Perhaps this is why Ethics of the Fathers recommends that when you find a true teacher, you must actively make that teacher into your teacher. “Sit at the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily” (1:4).

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik has a beautiful essay on the role of the teacher and sage in a new collections of his writings: Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah. To fulfill the mandate to sit at the feet of scholars, he writes, a person must be willing to submit to the authority of the teacher. This, for Rabbi Soloveitchik, is not only within the intellectual realm but also in what he calls “a volitional-emotional gesture.” He also says that a student must “surrender to one’s teacher on an ontic level.” I know what you’re thinking. I have no idea what he’s talking about. Here, the Rav elaborates on a relationship that very few have with a master teacher: “To be in the presence of the master is a joy which borders on rhapsody. To be away from him is anguish. The pupil is always lonesome for his master and driven by an irresistible passion to him.” Reverence also creates a sense of distance, the separation we create out of respect.

Few have this relationship with a teacher because very few students invest in relationships with teachers. They may feel intimidated or not smart enough. Often, students think that the teacher should do the work of investment. But that is where the Rav challenges us: sit at their feet, and you will be changed because of this meaningful friendship. Don’t ask them to come to you. But know, that being a good teacher means waiting for students who seek this relationship and devoting yourself to them once they devote themselves to you.

I was thinking about this essay when I learned of the death of a beloved teacher the week before Passover, Rabbi Amnon Haramati. He taught in the Yeshivah of Flatbush for 45 years; a former head of the school estimated that upon his retirement, Rabbi Haramati likely taught 10,000 students. During his retirement, he taught hundreds of classes to adults and was constantly sought out as a resource. And, just as the teacher is a role model, Rabbi Haramti embodied the gifts of patience, tenacity, religious moderation and tolerance and a mission to make the world a better place through knowledge.

Before he arrived in the classroom as a teacher at the ripe age of 16, Rabbi Haramati's life was intertwined with the birth of the State of Israel. He was born in 1930 in Jerusalem, where he was buried. At 17, in 1948, he fought in the War of Independence, armed with a rifle, one hand grenade and four bullets. He was severely injured, declared dead and found alive in a morgue by a nurse. He then suffered blindness and regained his sight. His brain injuries were such that he was told he would never be able to retain information. This is all the more astounding to anyone who studied with him because of the vast and breathless mastery he had of so much Tanakh. His life was one miracle after another.

The afternoon before he was suddenly taken from our community, I saw him shopping with his wife of 64 years. I wished them both a joyous Passover, and they wished me the same. Imagine the shock of finding out that Rabbi Haramati collapsed the next morning on his way to synagogue. At his shiva, I was told to peek into his study. His books were open on his desk, that was covered with his Hebrew notes for a class he had given the night before on the theme of Passover. And there was his watch, between the notes, measuring time even though its owner could no longer.

In scores of places I've traveled, when asked where I live, I respond, “Silver Spring.” Someone would often follow-up with another question, "Oh, do you know Rabbi Haramati? He taught me." I would send Rabbi Haramati regards, and he would say "Hu haya ha-talmid sheli." He was my student, as if this relationship lasted long after graduation. This is what I wrote to his son when I heard the news. “Henry Adams said, 'A teacher effects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.’ Your father's heart may have stopped beating, but his influence will never stop because he ushered generations of students into the depth and richness of our tradition.”

May his memory be for a blessing. May it stir us to find other great teachers and to sit at their feet.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover

Bitter and Sweet

The questions of the Haggada are designed to stimulate an exploration of our freedom. We are to relive history, and we do so through a series of symbolic foods. But some of the questions we ask seem to have obvious answers, so much so that the very questions appear trivial and hardly a trigger for study. Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we ask this question?

Maror is certainly the easiest food on the Seder table to explain. Here is how the Haggada answers the question:

Because the Egyptians embittered our fathers' lives in Egypt, as it is said: 'They made their lives bitter with hard service, with mortar and with bricks, and with all manner of service in the field; all their service which they made them serve with rigor.'

Based on a biblical verse from Exodus, the bitterness of the taste reflects the bitterness of our ancient lives as slaves.

It is no coincidence that our redemption is traced in food images. There are the foods associated with Egypt which we pine for but we cannot access. There is manna, the transitional food associated with the wilderness journey that will stop in Joshua 5, just as we were about to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. There are the lush, sweet foods of the Land of Israel, described through the seven species: "For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land-a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing..." (Deut 8:7-9).The fruits trees and vines of Israel will yield and yield and yield. They will suggest a permanence and autonomy in their own land that our people could never achieve in Egypt with its bitter foods and bitter work.

This sour after-taste was not only related to the work, but also to the foods we ate in Egypt that we then hankered for in the midst of our long desert trek. In Numbers 11, we mourn the foods we could no longer have: the onions, the garlic, the leeks. And the list goes on. I have the occasional food craving, but it's never for any of these foods. The ancient historian Herodotus identifies these as slave foods, inexpensive foods that mirrored the suffering by being themselves bitter. We were consumed by our bitterness and then needed to consume it. When bitter tastes filled our mouths for so long, they became hard to get out of our heads.

Perhaps this explains the most enigmatic food of the Seder table: the Hillel sandwich. We mix the bitterness of maror with the sweetness of haroset and matza into a sandwich that always crumbles indelicately all over the tablecloth. This sandwich will never compete with a hot pastrami on rye or even the humble peanut-butter and jelly sandwich on white, but it wins as a symbolic food packed with meaning. The Hillel sandwich, with its combination of contradictory tastes and textures - the sharpness of horseradish combined with the nutty, fruity paste of apples, wine and walnuts and the texture and crisp of matzah- reflects the complexities of any traumatic experience that creates an epistemic transformation.

Redemption is confusing and messy. There was no finish line to suggest when our ancient slave lives ended and our new free lives began. There were events, to be sure, but in the realm of internal change, there was no set line to cross. Change is hard, even if what we are leaving is pain and anguish. There are the smells and the tastes of the past, the good memories that stay, the bad associations that wane over time. All of this we eat together. But perhaps something even deeper is going on with this sandwich.

The sandwich teaches us to make the bitter of the past sweet because otherwise we will become what we eat: bitter creatures whose only memories are of suffering and anguish. We all know kvetchers and people who have experienced genuine tragedies who turn all the past to pain and become sour and difficult. There is an art to blessing our pain because it becomes our teacher. It teaches us how to live. Jews have a mandate to make a blessing on the bad as well as the good, maybe because something bad can turn into something good, can turn into an unexpected blessing.

The Hillel Sandwich teaches us that when we ingest pain or review the pain of our past, we should dip a bit of it into haroset so that the last, sweet taste in our mouth lingers. Every part of the past, even a difficult one, is not pain. And every pain can become a tool for a future of blessing. Let the joy linger in our mouths...and in our minds...and in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover

A Tree Grows In Babylonia

“orrect yourself and, only then, correct others.
— BT Bava Batra 60b

Last week, in the daily Talmud cycle, we studied one of my favorite stories. I have to share it. The Talmudic discussions on these pages are steeped in questions about ownership of property and the nature of public and private domains and the responsibility individuals have for the safety of public and semi-private areas. So far, this is interesting mostly for lawyers and property developers. Maybe not even. It can run a bit dry.

Suddenly we stumble on a wonderful story with legal consequences, which I will paraphrase, adding to the translation only words that are missing from the elliptical nature of any Talmud text:

"Rabbi Yannai has a tree that was leaning into the public thoroughfare. There was another man who had a tree that was leaning into the public space. The people there demanded that he take care of it. He came before Rabbi Yannai, who said to him "Go now and come back tomorrow. At night, Rabbi Yannai sent for a person to cut down his own tree. The next day, the man returned, and Rabbi Yannai said to him, 'Go cut down your tree.' He replied, 'But the Master also has such a tree.' 'Go and see. If mine is cut down, cut down yours. If mine is not cut down, you do not have to cut down yours.'"

Obviously, this man thought that asking a scholar with the same problem would allow him to keep his tree intact. He was not expecting this response. The scholars who discuss this story are troubled by what Rabbi Yannai's legal position was originally and why it changed. R. Yannai came to realize that the people who used this domain with its hanging trees felt comfortable telling a commoner to trim his tree but did not want to approach the rabbi out of respect. He, on the other hand, did not want to be treated any differently. Why, then they ask, did he not merely say to this man, "Cut down your tree and then I'll cut mine down?" That would have been a fair approach, but not the highest ethical approach to resolving this problem. They conclude that one must "Correct yourself, and only then, correct others." You can't require others to do what you are not first prepared to do yourself.

Here we might also make a fine distinction between role modeling and leading by example, even though these two descriptions are often used interchangeably. When someone serves as a role model, he or she often thinks about those watching and acts as an appropriate exemplar. There is, at least in my mind, a performative aspect to this, almost as if without an audience, the individual in question might let down his or her guard. When we lead by example, we are our best selves regardless of who is watching. We act the way we believe one should. If someone wants to learn from this example, they are welcome to, but we are not doing it to look better. We are doing it because it's the right thing to do, because it's the right way to be.

I believe Rabbi Yannai wanted to lead by example. Everyone can see his tree with its far-reaching limbs. Everyone was willing to give him a pass. He thought, as it states in the Talmud, that his tree was providing a service to others with its shade. It was not until this man approached him with his legal question that he realized his assumptions were incorrect. In fact, the proof that he led by example and not because people were watching is that he had the tree's limbs cut down at night, when no one was watching. He wasn't looking for a medal, for a community's approbation. He wanted to do the right thing because it was the right thing. He wanted to be better. Only then could he ask more of someone else.

"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self," wrote Ernest Hemingway. Rabbi Yannai with the cut of a few tree limbs became a better version of himself. Only then could he ask the same of someone else.

Shabbat Shalom

Raising Kids to Give

You shall surely give to him, and do not give him with a heavy heart.
— Deuteronomy 15:9

Every Jewish holiday contains a mechanism for giving tzedaka. The happiness we typically associate with a holiday is dimmed if we cannot share it with others in need. Maimonides calls the joy of one who feasts at a holiday without providing for others "belly happiness." It's the narcissistic happiness of one who enjoys a full belly while others go with empty stomachs, envious of the food abundance of some and the inequity of their condition.
 
Passover is no exception. We are told explicitly in a Mishna that we are not allowed to give a poor person fewer than four cups of wine. We might easily delude ourselves into thinking that for a person who has nothing, one or two cups of wine would be plenty. But then we would be separating ourselves from them in the performance of this commandment. The Mishna does not tell us to provide four cups but rather that we not give less than four. Wealth can fool us into a sense of false generosity. In Zaide Smith's masterful new novel Swing Time, her central character ponders inequality and its cost: "No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless."
 
In an attempt to fight this thoughtless with the approaching holiday, I was cheered to see a Wall Street Journal article with this title, "How Can you Raise Your Child to Be a Philanthropist?" (March 20, 2017). I would have much preferred a more modest title, like how to raise a child to give, but if you've ever read the "Mansion" section of the WSJ, it can create the false impression that all its readers are senior wealth managers raising junior philanthropists. The article spoke of starting them early, of the importance of supporting a charity over time, about researching causes with children. It's important that kids see their parents volunteering or sitting on boards and using their skills to help others. "Focus on the emotional uplift the good work does for the people who are helped. And reflection. Teach your children to think about why they are charitable, what it means to them. And biographies of charitable/philanthropic 'heroes.'" This is all good advice ,but it seems to miss something more primal about giving.
 
To fill in the hole, we turn to the medieval Spanish scholar Rabbi Yona of Gerona, where he interprets the verse above from Deuteronomy:

"The Torah wants us to develop an attitude of kindness and remove stinginess from our hearts. 'You shall, rather, surely give him, and do not give him with a heavy heart.' This verse requires us to distance ourselves from the trait of miserliness, but rather, to be generous. It is therefore not sufficient to simply give money; one must implant within himself a spirit of generosity... 'Do not harden your heart and do not close your hand from your indigent brother' (Deut. 15:7). We are hereby instructed to remove from ourselves the negative trait of cruelty and to plant instead the seeds of compassion and kindness, as it says, 'and you shall go in His ways' (Deut. 28:9)" (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:35-36).
 

Giving charity is not primarily about the mechanics of researching and investing, volunteering and leading. These are all manifestations of charity but do not touch upon what it really is: an inclination to give that derives from a deep sense of blessing and abundance that results in wanting to level social and financial inequalities. That's why you can't give a poor person two cups of wine when you have four, even if it is more than he ever dreamed he would have at his Seder. If you are truly charitable, it's not a hand out but a hand up, bringing that person to where you are.
 
Charitable giving can come across to those on the receiving end as a way to assuage the guilt of the one who has more. Giving lessens the guilt. But that does not create any real spirit of generosity. If you want to teach your children to give, take the focus away from money and shine it on expansiveness and gratitude. Teach justice and fight for it. Talk about inequalities in what children see all around them. Talk to them about why you are an agent for change.
 
Ironically, I think the article could have been renamed "How Can You Raise Your Parents to Be Philanthropists?" I say that because I see in so many children a natural sense of fairness, indignation when they sense injustice and a desire to make things better that their parents may be too jaded to notice. The innocence of the child makes the giving so much sweeter.
 
Four cups of wine for everyone at the Seder may one day grow advocates for social justice. Let the Seder be the philanthropist's classroom. Let the children teach the grown-ups.
 
Shabbat Shalom

The Public

Any matter that is said in the presence of three is not subject to the prohibition of malicious speech.
— Bava Batra 39b

"Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead," quipped Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard's Almanac. This seems to be a reasonable explanation of the Talmudic aphorism above, otherwise stated as two's company; three's a crowd. Rabba bar Huna, who issued this statement is not granting permission for three people in each other's company to say something malicious. What he is saying is that when something malicious is said in the presence of three, it is assumed to have already gone public. What, one wonders, would Rabba bar Huna have thought of Facebook?

This assumes that when people speak lashon ha-ra - malicious gossip about others, even if it is true - that the prohibition is not only about content but also about crowd. Two people whisper; three can easily turn into dozens. As one can imagine, there was some rabbinic discomfort with this idea. A medieval Talmud commentator, Rabbeinu Yona, suggests that this is only the case where what one says can be understood in more than one way, with one interpretation that is positive and one negative. Being good-spirited, we assume that the speaker only meant it positively, while others may have heard it differently. Rabbeinu Yona also suggests that this refers to a conversation about someone who has sinned and will not hear rebuke as a way to figure out how to exert communal pressure to help him improve. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that this is less about the speaker and more about the listener. The listener should assume that what is being said in a group of three is public knowledge. In other words, be wary when you say something to more than one person. News like this will travel fast.

One of the most fascinating and disturbing challenges of social media is that those who use these platforms to diminish others rarely understand the impact of what they are communicating precisely because there is no public at the moment of writing. Alone with a laptop, the writer never comes face-to-face with the "victim" or even face-to-face with a bystander who might raise an eyebrow, shake a head or indicate that a boundary has been crossed. Cyber-bullying has caused no end of deep emotional pain. Alone without a public in which to receive the immediate feedback of body language, the writer can work his or her way into a frenzy of indignation with immense psychic costs to others. It is not only mean. It is cowardly.

Contrast this with a wonderful passage of the Talmud where two scholars debate the problem and parameters of slander (BT Erkhin 15b-16a):

Rabba said: Whatever is said in the presence of the person concerned is not considered lashon ha-ra.
 Abaye countered: All the more so; it is rude as well as lashon hara!
Rabba replied: I hold with Rabbi Yossi who asserted, "I never said anything about a person that would make me look back to see if that person were standing behind me.

How many of us can make Rabbi Yossi's assertion that we never said anything about a person that would cause us to look both ways to check if he or she was present. This is a high standard of ethical conduct, indeed. Personally, I am always in someone else's office when a colleague says, "Shut the door." Worse, I am aware of the times I have made the same request. When we request a shut-the-door conversation it is because we do not want the public to hear, but it is here when the public may actually save us from shaming or besmirching another. Think about this the next time you shut that door.

In Words that Help, Words that Heal, R. Joseph Telushkin writes:

Every year, tens of thousands of families are split asunder and close friendships are broken because contending parties refuse to fight fairly. In a dispute with someone, you have the right to state your case, express your opinion, explain why you think the other party is wrong, even make clear how passionately you feel about the subject at hand. But these are the only rights you have. You do not have the moral right to undercut your adversary's position by invalidating him or her personally...Words have consequences, and if you use them to hurt people, your victims will find ways to hurt you in return.

We stop this cycle not by refraining from gossip but by loving life more, as we read in Psalms 34:13-14: "Who is eager for life, who desires years of goodness? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit." If negative speech makes us negative, then positive speech helps us not only live our humanity, it also helps us love our own lives more. And that's the best kind of public.

Shabbat Shalom

Your H.Q

When the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy.
— BT Ta’anit 29a

How’s your happiness? There is a well-known expression in the Talmud applicable at this time of year: “When the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy.” During the Hebrew month of Av, the Talmud continues, when we mark the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of our holiest sanctuary, we are supposed to reduce our happiness (BT Ta’anit 29a), what I call a halakhic (legal) seasonal affective disorder. It sounds as if our emotions can be turned on and off like a light-switch.

Happiness is foundational to the religious mindset. The psalmist says: ‘Serve the Lord with happiness…” (100:2), and when we bring out first fruits to the Temple, we recite a prayer that reinforces the emotional state of joy that this moment should be for us: “And you should rejoice in all the good that the Lord has given you..” (Deut. 26:11). We are even warned and punished if we do not rejoice in what we are given because happiness is the desired ontological state of the religious human being: “Because you did not serve the Lord joyfully and gladly in a time of prosperity...” (Deut. 28:47). It is a curse to be unable to muster joy at a time of blessing.

Rebbe Nahman tells us it is a mitzva to be happy always, despite what Arthur Green documents about his deep depressive tendencies in Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav. And yet R. Nahman continually fought his melancholic impulse: “...For it is known that a man must be very careful to be always happy, and to distance sadness very, very much… The same applies to the way you look at yourself. You must judge yourself favorably and find the good points that exist in you. This will strengthen you so you won't fall into despair (Likutei Moharan Kama, Torah 282).

But why Adar? Why not every month of the year? It seems that indeed one month, this month, did give us a boost and that there is something nuanced about happiness in this season that is particular to this month. Our text? The Megillah. In 9:22, we read, “The days when the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness…” became an occasion to share a feast together and give gifts to friends. We are joyful because as a community, we transformed ourselves emotionally from doom and despair to gladness. This is the happiness of justice prevailing. This is so intrinsic to Adar, as a just season for the Jews that a code of law recommends that if you have to go to court with a gentile (in periods where we had an adversarial relationship), you should set the trial date in Adar (based on BT Ta’anit 29a).

In Adar we are not supposed to be happy; we are supposed to increase our happiness. So it’s time to use Adar to amplify our H.Q. – our Happiness Quotient. What is your baseline? Where are you from 1-10 (with 1 being miserable and 10 being exuberant)? Now imagine adding just a point or two this month. Here are some questions to help:

  • Do you have a happy place and are you spending enough time there?
  • What people – family, friends and colleagues – make you feel happy and are you spending enough time with them?
  • Think of three areas of your life that have to go well in order for you to feel happy. •    What is one thing that you own that makes you happy?
  • Name one mitzva, holiday or Jewish ritual that makes you happy.
  • Do you make time to acknowledge or celebrate your accomplishments and the blessings in your life or are you too harsh on yourself?
  • Do you share or communicate your happiness with others?
  • Do you let other people rob you of your happiness?
  • What about work, school or retirement makes you feel happy?

Does giving tzedaka and/or volunteering contribute to your personal happiness? This month we’re asked to challenge our baseline happiness and enhance it. My guess is that if we all work hard on increasing our personal happiness in the month of Adar, it may not end when Adar ends but just may spill over into every other month of the year.

Shabbat Shalom

Last Minute Surprises

That night the king could not sleep...
— Esther 6:1

The past few months have brought a lot of high-profile, last-minute shake-ups. Pollsters were wrong about the presidential elections. If you left the room two minutes before the end of the Superbowl, you would have missed an astonishing and unexpected win. If you missed the very last award of the Oscars last week, you didn't see a group of people on stage with their jaws wide open when the right winner was announced and the retinue of the wrong ones had to get off the stage. Oy.
 
What makes each event so dramatic is that our expectations are upended very late in the game. We move mentally in the groove that's been set, but as it travels it may change rapidly and leave us all emotionally and physically unprepared. That's why I hate surprises. But many people love them for this very reason. They make life feel unpredictable. They give people who lost hope, a magical injection of hope on steroids, and they let us know that we need to pay more attention. Every once in a while, if we're paying careful attention, we will enjoy the reward. We all want, maybe even need, to believe that the impossible happens sometimes.


We just welcomed the Hebrew month of Adar, which comes with its own holiday of surprises. Purim celebrates the impossible, and perhaps we have so many rituals connected to the holiday to immerse us in the belief that the impossible sometimes happens. Because it happened in an ancient walled city thousands of years ago, who's to say that it cannot happen again to us? The chapter that arguably surfaces the most surprises is chapter six, when through a series of "coincidences," King Ahashversoh finally sees two influential ministers for who they really are. We will read a swath of the megillah to see how this plays out.

"That night the king could not sleep; so he ordered the book of the chronicles, the record of his reign, to be brought in and read to him. It was found recorded there that Mordecai had exposed Bigthana and Teresh, two of the king's officers who guarded the doorway, who had conspired to assassinate King Ahashverosh. 'What honor and recognition has Mordecai received for this?' the king asked. 'Nothing has been done for him,' his attendants answered. The king said, 'Who is in the court?' Now Haman had just entered the outer court of the palace to speak to the king about impaling Mordecai on the pole he had set up for him. His attendants answered, 'Haman is standing in the court.' 'Bring him in," the king ordered. When Haman entered, the king asked him, 'What should be done for the man the king delights to honor?' Now Haman thought to himself, Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?'" (Esther 6:1-7)
 

The king's sleep is described in Hebrew as interrupted. He is unable to rest, Rashi says, because he suspects that Haman is up to no good with his new beautiful bride Esther. Historical chronicles are brought, as Rashi notes, to help him go back to sleep. Others are of the view that history is so interesting that once the king was awake, he should spend his time on something worthwhile: history. When reading his empire's chronicles, the king realizes that a loyal servant who blocked an assassination attempt had not been rewarded. Perhaps the assassination attempt itself had not reached the king's ears and reading it for the first time, he felt insecure. Insecurity coupled with suspicion helps explain the king's sudden and startling question, "Who is in the courtyard?"

Just as the king is thinking about rewarding Mordechai, Haman enters the scene readying the gallows for Mordechai's death. The king takes advantage of this moment to test Haman and see how close this minister wants to get to Ahashverosh's throne. The answer: very close.
 
This escalation of tension is built one surprise and a time. Each surprise leads to another that culminates in the biggest surprise, the gift the Jews are given to defend themselves when under attack. The underdog wins yet again because these surprises reveal something powerful about two antagonists. The king is finally able to see Mordechai for he is and Haman for who he is. Only after the acts of seeing in chapter six, does the plot truly thicken. One man's insomnia leads to the redemption of an entire people. Who would have thought?
 
Esther is a story that gives us hope, one surprise at a time. The oppression of its early beginnings, as the wheels of injustice are set in place, give way to a longer view that justice will eventually reign. We are only prepared for this big surprise through a series of small surprises strung together. It is this necklace of hope that leaves us with the scroll's most powerful teaching. Celebrate each small surprise, and the great surprises will eventually become a cause for great celebration. Hope thrives on the element of surprise.
 
When is the last time you were truly surprised?
 
Shabbat Shalom

An Eternal Home

Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.
— Genesis 23:4

Jewish cemeteries are often referred to as beitei kvarot, literally houses of graves. They are also known by many euphemistic names: a beit hayim, a house of life or a beit olam, a house of eternity. In Yiddish, a cemetery is called a heylige-ort, a holy place or a gute-ort, a good place. You might say we use these names to deny our mortality, to suggest that we will live forever. Alternatively, you might say that we speak of the plots that hold our dead as holy places of the living because their very existence reminds us to live a good life, a worthy life, a life of purpose. Those who are memorialized there help our families live on, anchored to our history and to our past.
 
There's something unsettlingly quiet and contemplative about these spaces that make us wonder what will one day be chiseled in stone about us. We might see the outstretched hands that signal that a priest was buried in this spot or a jug of water to indicate a Levite. There might be a crown to suggest a person of importance or candlesticks for a pious woman. A mohel's tombstone might have two chairs or a hand holding a lancet. A tzedaka box often graces the tombstone of the charitable, and books the grave of a scholar. A lion might mark someone of strength and leadership. Thus, we walk through a field of stones that represents the myriad individuals that make our communities rich, diverse and sacred. We walk through Jewish cemeteries and note long lives and short lives, recognizable last names and strange ones. Every once in a while, we catch our own last names on a stone and take a sharp breath in.
 
The mitzva to build cemeteries is very, very old, as old as the first Jew. When Sarah died, Abraham's first purchase of land in Canaan was a burial place for his wife that would one day be peopled by our most formidable ancestors. A careful look at the text is suggestive:

"Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife and spoke to the Hittites. He said, 'I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.' The Hittites replied to Abraham, 'Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.' Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. He said to them, 'If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you'" (Genesis 23:3-10).

Abraham introduces his desire to buy a plot by saying that he has a vulnerable status. He is a stranger. He lives there but has no land there. Perhaps he becomes most aware of his difference when he loses his wife, his partner in building a new faith community. He knows what we have all come to know; where we bury our dead and where we choose to be buried ourselves tells us about the relationship we have to a place. It may also help us understand why it is important for a person to own his or her plot (BT Bava Batra 112a) and have a genuine claim to the land. According to Jewish law, even paupers are entitled to plots paid out of communal funds. Abraham did not want a hand-out. He wanted to know that this his wife was buried in a place that was his, that he could clean, nurture, care for and visit unobstructed.
 
This week, following the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, a Muslim student asked me if there was anything she could do, disgusted as she was by yet another hate crime. I was touched. After we spoke, I thought a lot about what all of us can do. Of course, people can try to repair the damage, clean up and send money. But then I realized that maybe something more expansive is called for. Maybe this is a good time to support the local hevre kadisha, a society of volunteers who prepare the dead for burial. Maybe this is a good time to clean up and restore to reverence the many non-desecrated Jewish cemeteries that need some love. And maybe, just maybe, this is a good time to buy your own plot and secure a more eternal home.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Shared Pot

A pot belonging to partners is neither hot nor cold.
— BT Bava Batra 24b

Now that I have your attention...This is a classic case of bait-and-switch. You were probably misled by the title into thinking that we were going to discuss the sharing of cannabis (which would go nicely with The Forward's recent recipe for weed-infused matza balls, called affectionately, potza balls). But no. We are actually going to discuss a shared pot as in the kind that used to be the only kind of pot: a utensil or "a container, typically rounded or cylindrical and of ceramic ware or metal, used for storage or cooking."
 
But before that we are going to talk about e-mails. Ever put a lot of people on an email with a specific request and wonder why no one responds? In the psychological literature, this behavior has a name: the diffusion of responsibility. If it is not clear that one individual is singled out for a task, then the others automatically assume that someone else is doing it or, better yet, has already done it. This apparently grows stronger when the people included number three or more. If only one person is identified as responsible, chances are much higher that the reply button will be pressed and that the work will get done.
 
This can be irritating when you are assigning tasks as a boss, supervisor or parent. Sometimes we hide behind or within the masking of a group to avoid work. This has been called social loafing.
But diffusion of responsibility can also be more than annoying; it can present deeply moral problems when it explains the kind of group-think that allows bullying behavior to take place without comment or pushback or gives a certain license for inaction when standing on principle is more ethically appropriate. "Just following orders" is a way we disappear into the anonymity of the group and fight back more altruistic impulses.
 
This also may explain the significance of the well-known expression from Ethics of the Fathers: "In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man" (2:5). Pushing aside the gender problem, the teaching is simple. Any human being should assess the behaviors of others, and when they are found morally lacking, step into the breach. Do not wait for someone else to do the right thing. You may be waiting for a very long time.
 
Many years ago, I was teaching a leadership class and asked people, as a way of getting to know them, to write a quick six-word biography. This is a fun but tough exercise. With only six words to choose from, it's hard to know if you should list characteristics, tell a very, very short story or describe what you care about. Each participant made different choices. Only one told the story of himself as a moral agent. "Always do the right thing, period." The rest of the group nodded in recognition, as if they each wished they had written the same thing. His answer stuck with me all these years later. I bet he wasn't waiting around for someone else to volunteer first.
 
Now back to our Talmudic adage: "A pot belonging to partners is neither hot nor cold." The sages had their own understanding of the diffusion of responsibility two thousand years ago, even if they lacked the modern terminology. No one takes responsibility for something that belongs to many people. If people purchased a pot together, not one of the owners could tell you the temperature of its contents. The contents of the pot would surely have been hot or cold, but there was no one there to say either way. I only know one other expression with a pot - a watched pot never boils. Restated the rabbinic way: a pot owned by many is sadly never watched.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Across the Sea

Ten miracles were wrought for our ancestors in Egypt and ten at the sea.
— Ethics of the Fathers 5:5

Name the last miracle that happened to you.

Some of us may say, “This morning when I woke up.” Some people may list many relatively prosaic things that happen in the course of an ordinary day which to them are nothing short of miraculous: a beating heart, a child’s smile, a safe and loving home, a good job, a good friend.

Others may dismiss the question outright. “I don’t believe in miracles.” That’s that. With one curt phrase, the skeptic puts the matter to rest.

This week’s Torah reading leaves us high and dry, quite literally. We left Egypt, with a final and dramatic break: the splitting of the sea with all of its magnificent tension. The Egyptians on their chariots were in hot pursuit of us, realizing that their labor forces had just exited. The Jews looked forward to the sea and backwards to their captors and at once cried out to God over their ill-fated future. Moses tried to calm them by asking them to observe God’s might, using a set of passive verbs: “Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” [Exodus 14:13-14]. They needed only to stand and watch their deliverance. After all, this was their role throughout the Exodus story. In Egypt, they were not agents of their present or their future.

God had different plans for them. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground,’” [Exodus 14:14-15]. This was not an occasion to stand on the sidelines. It was finally time for them to make history with two short words in English and one in Hebrew: “Ve-yisa-u,” Go forward. Jump into the uncertainty because only the leap of faith can change you. Moses, representing their complaints to God, was told to stop shouting and move forward. We can visualize the choking dust their wheels produced as they sped through the desert only to be met with the trouncing powers of water unabated.

It is this human agency that I believe explains two very odd teachings in Ethics of the Fathers, an ancient collection of adages. In 5:5, we read, “Ten miracles were wrought for our ancestors in Egypt and ten at the sea.” Not stopping there, the next mishna seems to reiterate the statement without adding anything new except that one statement was about the Israelite experience and one about the Egyptian experience: “Ten plagues did the Holy One, blessed be He, bring upon the Egyptians in Egypt and ten at the Sea.” There are a few tens we might not be so sure of. We are sure that there were ten plagues for the Egyptians but not so sure what constitutes ten miracles for the Israelites. We are also not sure in either statement, what ten miracles or ten plagues happened at the sea.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on this expands the question: “We have but scant knowledge of these ten plagues which struck the Egyptians at the Reed Sea.” He seems equally unsure what miracles happened to us but concludes that we “remained untouched by the plagues with which the Egyptians were stricken.” This could be a reference to a midrashic reading that says that for every plague on the Egyptians, a miracle was performed for the Israelites. The problem is, of course, that none of this is contained in the biblical text.

But it may be a bi-product of a miracle mind. What’s a miracle mind, you ask? When a person has an experience of a particularly extraordinary nature, he or she may become aware not only of its large implications but also of its many smaller component parts. As a result, these, too, take on a miraculous character, expanding and amplifying the experience, as Walt Whitman wrote, “Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.”

Each miracle is not one miracle but many. Ten is a number suggesting abundance. Each Israelite experienced this momentous event within the lens of a myriad of breath-taking parts. That can happen to us when we take the time to note our blessings not with a big brush but in small, detailed and specific ways.

Do you have a miracle mind?

Shabbat Shalom

Consolations

Anyone who gives a nominal amount to a poor person receives six blessings, and whoever consoles him with words receives eleven...
— BT Bava Batra 9b
I heard the teaching that a person who gives charity to a poor person receives six blessings, and someone who offers consolation receives eleven blessings but had no idea how the Talmud arrived at these numbers. Nor did I understand why consolation almost doubles the blessings of charity itself. I also wasn't quite sure what consolation could be offered that would make someone of unfortunate circumstances feel whole again.
 
I found the answer to my first question in the Talmud itself. Basically, the rabbis took the bulk of chapter 58 of Isaiah and ran it through their somewhat unusual methods of exegesis and came up with this categorization. Let's take a look at the passages of Talmud where these texts appear:
 
"One who gives a peruta (a nominal amount) to a poor person receives six blessings, as it is written 'Is it not to share your bread with the hungry that you shall bring the poor that are cast out into your house? When you see the naked that you cover him?' (Isaiah 58:7) 'Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your health shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call and the Lord shall answer; you shall cry and He shall say, 'Here I am'" (Isaiah 58:8-9).

This is a stunning expression of causation. Isaiah understands the altruistic impulse as natural, as our human purpose. When we share bread and our homes and cloth those who lack means, as one verse suggests, the six blessings of the next two verses will ensue. These small acts will bring light and health, righteousness and glory. God will answer us in our time of need if we are attuned to the needs of others. God himself says "hineni," as it were, to us when we are present in the lives of those who need us most. It would seem that from the point of view of social justice and kindness, it doesn't get better than this. But it actually does.
 
This is how the Talmud continues:

"And whoever consoles a poor person with words receives eleven blessings, as it is stated: 'And if you draw out your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall your light shine in darkness, and your gloom shall be as the noonday. And the Lord shall guide you continually, and satisfy your thirst in drought...And they that shall be of you shall build the old waste places, you shall raise up the foundations of many generations,'" (Isaiah 58-10-12).

In this depiction, the giver is not offering bread but words to the afflicted soul, discovering what ails the person with these emotional needs and touching that person deeply.  There are many forms of poverty. In addition to the previous blessings, we add light, the continual presence of God, the redemption of ruins, and the gift of legacy. Generations that follow will be inspired by this example and follow it.
 
Maimonides and other medieval commentators on this page of Talmud believe that this teaches that even one who cannot give money, should offer words of consolation and not feel that this gift is less worthy. They also derive the way charity should be given. When a person gives a charitable gift, he or she should do so pleasantly. If one gives it with anger or begrudgingly, he loses the merit he gained, even if it is a large sum. This is codified in Jewish law (Maimonides, "Laws of Giving to the Poor" 10:4-5, Shulkhan Arukh Y.D. 249:3-4).
 
The capacity to go outside ourselves and sympathize, commiserate, and give solace to one who is suffering cannot be bought with money. Food and clothing take care of immediate needs, but the validation and compassion that comes with consolation can linger for decades. We hang our humanity on small kindnesses. These are days where consolation is necessary. Many of us are angry or confused or dejected. We need consolation, and we need to offer it to others, especially those who are not like us.
 
A few pages later in the Talmud, Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua, was ill and fainted. His father asked him what he saw in his near-death state: "I saw an inverted world. Those above were below and those below were above." His father's response: "You have seen a clear world."
 
When our world order turns upside down, it is hard to find balance. But sometimes a word of consolation lifts us up above the fray and creates order out of chaos and deeper wisdom and understanding.
 
Shabbat Shalom