Hate Reading

You shall not hate your fellow in your heart. Reprove your fellow and incur no guilt because of him.
— Leviticus 19:17

An all too common photo appeared in many newspapers this week. A spit of sidewalk was littered with flowers and placards, photos and small gifts in honor of the newly dead to crime and injustice. This time it showed a photo of a young woman, Heath Heyer, killed in a hate crime in Charlottesville, VA. While the circumstances are not insignificant, the photo is one to which we’ve almost become immune. Drawn in marker and stuck with masking tape to the asphalt was a sign “No Place for Hate!” Don’t be fooled. This slogan is only emotional wallpaper covering up layers and layers of hate.

When I was a kid, I remember my father would often say, “Never say hate.” We could dislike someone or something, but we were advised not to have such strong negative emotions that we weren’t able to redeem our bad feelings. “I have decided to stick with love,” said Martin Luther King Jr., “Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

The Talmud makes a fascinating assumption about hate. We can control it. A judge is not allowed to judge a case if he is too emotionally invested in a litigant: “One who loves or one who hates” cannot judge fairly, concludes the Talmud [BT Sanhedrin 27b]. But it’s unclear what constitutes hate until the passage continues: “One who hates is referring to anyone who, out of enmity, did not speak to the litigant for three days.” Hate is temporary. At most it lasts three days and then subsides. It would seem that perhaps a judge in an ancient Jewish court could technically preside over a case of someone he hated if three days had passed from the time he was most resentful and angry.

This is rather astonishing and is based on an assumption about the way Jews are supposed to interact as a community. “The Jewish people are not suspected” of hate. They will not bear false witness out of love or hate.  Therefore, in legal terms, we are allowed to be witnesses even in cases of high emotion since we are assumed to be emotionally neutral when it comes to judgment. The Maharshal, Rabbi Solomon Luria (1510-1573), says that if a person is really and truly an enemy, there is a concern that he will testify falsely out of revenge or vindictiveness so we prevent him from doing so. He defies the working assumption of fairness. This view is also held by Maimonides [Book of Judges, “Laws of Testimony,” 13:15].

Later the Talmud digs deeper and asks the reason that an enemy is disqualified from being a witness and concludes, “because he feels a sense of aversion” [BT Sanhedrin 29a]. He or she cannot be emotionally neutral. The same is true with love - “he feels a sense of affinity” - say the sages of old. Love also biases good judgment. Check your emotions at the courtroom door.

This concern about heated emotions extends to the judges themselves and not only the witnesses. Two scholars who hate each other, according to Rabbi Yossi, cannot sit in judgment as one. Their judgment is impaired. Perhaps they will care more about besting each other than doing what is fair and just for the litigant before them.

All of these laws are extensions of a biblical principle that ties hate and love together. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsmen. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord your God,” we read in Leviticus. Take the hate out of your heart so that you can love fully and authentically. Hillel distilled it into one principle: “What is hateful to you do not do to your brother.” Rabbi Akiva distilled it into another: “Loving one’s fellow is a central principle in the Torah.”

When you feel the tentacles of hate, do what is right and noble. Discuss your issue with the person who is the subject of your strong negative feelings: “Confront a kinsman and admonish him fiercely, in this way avoiding grudges and vengeance that breeds hatred...a proper attitude promotes love for one’s neighbor,” says scholar Baruch Levine in his commentary on this verse.

We are living in hate-saturated times. The Jewish assumption of character is that hate, if we experience it at all, is something that does not last long because we do not let it last long, not longer than three days. Let it go. Festering hatred is fragmenting this country and the world around us. It’s time to stand up to hate with love.

Shabbat Shalom

Mid-Life Question

The glory of the young is their strength, and the honor of the old is their gray hair.
— Proverbs 20:9

Look carefully at the quote above. Notice something missing? We jump from young to old and seem to forget midlife. Youth is associated with strength. Old age is associated with wisdom. So what's midlife associated with? For too many it's a time of resignation and disappointment, regrets and unfulfilled dreams and the recurring premonition that it will always be that way. Ecclesiastes tells us that everything has its season: "There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven," (3:1). So what time is mid-life for?

The young adult novelist, Laurie Halse Anderson observed that the problem is that midlife comes at an inconvenient time. "It's bad timing, but a lot of kids become teenagers just as their parents are hitting their midlife crisis. So everybody's miserable and confused and seeking that new sense of identity." My question is why the misery?

We've all heard of a mid-life crisis. Maybe we've even had one (or a few).  There seems to be a lot of writing about it - but maybe we should protest the term. Sure, for some people there's a real crisis of identity that age brings: questions of health, mortality, career choices and family dysfunction. But for a lot of people, it's more about the midlife question than the midlife crisis. What's next? What's my purpose? What's my contribution? My legacy? Pick the question. For some, it's all these questions and more. A question is not the same thing as a crisis. A question opens up possibilities; it can prompt the next chapter. A crisis shuts us down. It paralyzes.

In the past weeks, we've read quite a lot of Jeremiah in the annual Jewish calendar. He's associated with doom; it's easy to conclude that he's the perfect prophet of midlife. But then he offers us this: "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope," (29:11). In context, this is a message to exiles about the future. One eighteenth century commentator translates the word "future" as the end, indicating not tomorrow but in a time far from the current moment. Resigned to loss of place and identity, the people might think that they will have no name, no legacy. But that's not the end. An popular expression which is in Israel is "If the end if good, all is good. If it's not good, it's not the end." Not everything in life ends well, but what if we mentally or emotionally end it before it's really over?

The same commentary observes that we want the future to be good, and God knows this. God, if you will, assumes positive intent. And then uses the thought to reframe our seventy years in exile. These seventy years which you thought were bad were really good; they have the potential to be transformed through repentance and change. Nothing is static. Stasis is a choice. Make a different choice, the prophet advises.

In an important way, the cycle of Israel's nascent growth, challenges, exile and redemption is a pattern for all of humankind. It's also the pattern that Jeremiah followed. He began his career in his youth, when everything was possible. He retreated into the difficulties and severe hardships of destruction and ill-fated leadership in midlife but, as Rabbi Binny Lau concludes in his study of Jeremiah, "The book concludes by showing how salvation sprouts from the unlikeliest of places, from machinations that even prophets cannot predict." Ironically it was in exile that his career flourished, and he was given "a new lease on life." Lau then projects this on to the State of Israel as the next phase of biblical redemption, with all its challenges.

What's your next redemptive chapter? 

What's your midlife question?

Shabbat Shalom

The Tree of Hope

…Plant vineyards and eat the food they produce.

— Jeremiah 29:5

This Shabbat is called the Sabbath of Consolation. After the three week period of mourning that intensified in its last nine days, we finally feel the grief lifting. It’s made me wonder about consolation generally and what constitutes consolation for people. What comforts people after suffering or disappointment? For some it’s friends. For some it’s food. For some it’s travel. For some it’s charity. Some people find comfort in religion; others in art. For Victor Hugo, it was reading, “It is from books that wise people derive consolation in the troubles of life.” For Jews, it’s trees.

Trees have always been a sign of regeneration, of growth after decimation. Plant a tree, and the world feels better because the possibility of growth represents hope. We were born into a garden, and as its stewards were charged with the task of tending the garden. At the same time, the garden provided nourishment and beauty: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food...” (Genesis 2:9) Trees then and now represent that which is sturdy and reliable, aesthetically pleasing and materially satisfying. We are not allowed, Deuteronomy reminds us, to cut down a fruit tree in a time of war. The tree gives, and we receive, as we read later in Proverbs of the Torah, “It is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed [3:18].

A fan of Shel Silverstein, I personally never liked the book The Giving Tree and failed to understand why so many people bought it as a gift of the heart. It is a tree story where giving goes to such an extreme that the tree fails to teach what constitutes a relationship of meaning. The tree enables. Jewish trees give but as early as Genesis, we are told to care for them and be caretakers of the garden. They grow because we enable that growth. Their growth is supposed to mirror ours: “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives.” [Psalms 1:3] Hope itself is tied into the image of the tree: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” [Proverbs 13:12]

Each part of the tree is a metaphor for human development: the roots, the trunk, the leaves, the fruit, the shade. We are to be all these things. And we are to be them most when life is at its lowest. Jeremiah in exile reminds us to build houses and marry off children and plant, as the quote above suggests. That investment invites us to nurture something that takes time to grow but provides rich dividends. Job sees the role model of the tree as something that will continue even when we think there’s no possibility left: “At least there is hope for a tree. If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant” (14:7-9).

This regenerative power led to the worship of trees. They were regarded in the ancient world as magical. Botanist Nogah Hareuveni, in his book Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, observes that: “Human awe at the seemingly immortal “Tree of Life” seen all around in field and forest brought numerous tribes and nations to worship trees, attributing to them supernatural powers.” Jews do not ascribe supernatural powers to trees but natural powers to them. In times of sadness, the idea of gardening creates seeds of hope. For this reason, during the nine days of mourning the Temples' destruction, we are forbidden to plant. Perhaps, we should end this period by planting a tree, signaling that the tree of life continues to grow.

We plant trees in Israel to mark special occasions. It’s the gift that keeps giving. It communicates that something good is on its way. Be patient. Watch it grow. Find consolation in a future you planted. There lies hope.

Shabbat Shalom

Long Suffering

Men zol nit gepruft verren tsu vos me ken gevoint verren.”
Pray that you may never have to endure all that you can learn to bear.
— Yiddish Expression

I learned the painful but true saying above from a collection of sayings called Yiddish Wisdom, produced by Chronicle Books. I also learned how to say, "You can't sit on two horses with one behind" and "If your grandmother had a beard, she's be your grandfather" in Yiddish but haven't figured out the right context in which to use them.

I turned to this small collection because Yiddish has a rich and creative vocabulary for expressing pain. There is something appealingly inelegant about it that feels authentic to the way real people live and think. This is in contrast to many biblical texts that we read this season in a liturgical context to mark the Three Weeks of mourning over the loss of the two holy Temples and other tragedies of Jewish history commemorated during these days of ancient heartbreak. The prophets offered us their literary prose, their complicated metaphors and their daring antics to get the attention of a misbehaving people. Yiddish gives us a simple "OY."

OY is also the last two letters of the word JOY, perhaps a linguistic wordplay that makes no sense other than to communicate that one cannot experience deep and true happiness without an active range of emotions. "Az men ken not iberhalten dos shlechteh, ken men dos guteh nit derleben." If you can't endure the bad, you'll not live to witness the good, says this Yiddish aphorism. No one wants bad news. No one opts for sadness, but it shows up as a constant friend anyway. And maybe, as the saying recommends, we must invite in that sadness and not push it away because it holds the key to emotional depth that will also allow us to experience joy more completely.

I've always been taken by several lines in Rumi's poem, "The Guesthouse" that majestically express this conundrum: that deep pain is related to deep joy.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all...

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

Pain also inspires, which may explain why our prophets had so much to say about destruction and redemption. "A shver hartz redt a sach." A heavy heart talks a lot. The release of words unburdens us and frees up more space for other emotions, for slivers of positive thinking and optimism.

Sometimes, however, grieving does not easily let up its hold on us. "Altsding lozt zich oi smit a gevain." Everything ends in weeping. Our mortality is close by always, even if we create multiple mechanisms of distance. There are times when the veil that separates us from our mortality is perilously thin. The historic chronology of loss we experienced thousands of years ago which we encapsulate in the time frame of three weeks can feel long and onerous, but precisely because of that, we are put in a narrow tunnel that we need to walk through slowly to see the light. That mortality signals an urgency for meaning, for connection, for closeness and joy.

This relationship is not obvious to most...

The happiness expectation

That marks every summer vacation,

Leaves no room for mourning

For Jeremiah's scorning,

Or a day of thoughtful grieving

About our ancient disbelieving.

Our many infidelities

Were washed away with charities

In the hopes of consolation

At the failures of our nation.

Now so few really mark these days

In soulful or demanding ways.

Perhaps we can make room for sadness

Amidst the chaos and the madness,

Because our incapacity to welcome pain

Has become itself a human stain.

Yet when our hearts can court disaster,

They're wide enough to hold our laughter.

"Men zol nit gepruft verren tsu vos me ken gevoint verren." Pray that you may never have to endure all that you can learn to bear, says the saying above. Yet if you do and survive it, you just planted the seeds of resilience.

Shabbat Shalom

The Modern-Day Prophet

In wrath, remember mercy
— Habakuk 3:2

Who are today’s prophets? Some argue for public intellectuals who examine trends and are unafraid to speak their minds. According to Paul Simon, the prophets are graffiti artists: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenements halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.” For Yoko Ono, true artists are prophets. Joseph Addision believed it was the jester. Binny Lau, a contemporary Israeli rabbi and scholar, believes that journalists today “take on the role of moral and social critics,” but adds that “more often than not their criticism is laced with the venom of loathing.” In his book, Jeremiah: The Fate of the Prophet, Lau draws our attention to the word “jeremiad” that comes from the ethos of this prophet’s task: a work that mourns society and its imminent downfall. No wonder prophets were so unpopular.

Lau makes many important observations in his book about what a prophet does that have ramifications for us today. As we have entered the mourning period of the Three Weeks, when portions of Jeremiah’s writings - like his eponymous book and the book of Lamentations - are regularly read and studied, it seems an apt time to think about the nature of prophecy and who fulfills that role in today’s society. Lau writes that even though a prophet’s job is to chastise his people, it must always be criticism that emerges from deep love. “Even when the harshest reproach is called for, the prophet must consider himself a divine emissary whose role is to help redeem the people, not stand aloof and condemn.”

David Ben Gurion, on the occasion of his 84th birthday called Jeremiah the greatest prophet who arose before the destruction of Jerusalem. He was also, according to Ben Gurion, “the most despised, downtrodden, and daring.” And yet, despite all of this, the first Israeli prime minister believed that what made him an enduring model of Jewish leadership was his abiding affection for the Israelites: “Jeremiah loved his people and had faith in its posterity - and his faith has proven true until this very day.

Prophets very often put their very lives on the line when balancing truth and love. Jeremiah almost lost his life more than once. This career is not for the faint-hearted. In an obscure story recorded both in the book of Kings and then again in Chronicles, a group of 400 prophets were brought before King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah to consult on whether the two should join forces and wage war. The prophets all spoke in unison with the same pandering message. Jehoshaphat then asked if there was any other prophet who had not yet been invited to offer an opinion. There was one: Micaiah. Ahab couldn’t stand the man. He was always a contrarian, saying evil rather than good. Nevertheless, he was brought before the two for his judgment. At first, he echoed the diplomatic words of his colleagues but when pressed, Micaiah shared the bad news ahead.

Not surprisingly, a courtier in the room approached the prophet and slapped the him in the face. Ahab ordered Michaiah to be taken to the ruler of his city with the following instructions: “Put this man in prison, and give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely.” (See I Kings 22 for the entire story). The kings were determined to go out to war. But the prophet got the last word, “If you ever return safely...” Then he added, “Mark my words, all you people.”

That famous expression, “Mark my words,” the ancient version of “I told you so,” rings in our ears. The prophet is a verbal marksman, targeting with precision what he must say and to whom. The anger of the prophet is reflected in the anger of God, a different kind of anger than the one we usually associate with humans. Heschel has this to say about the kind of anger we see reflected in prophetic literature: “The anger of the Lord is instrumental, hypothetical, conditional...Let the people modify their line of conduct, and anger will disappear.” This kind of anger is a tool of reformation, in Heschel's words, “anger includes a call to return and to be saved. The call of anger is a call to cancel anger.” If the prophets teach us anything about how to live today, let it be this: to use anger constructively to bring ourselves and others to a path of greater goodness. “In wrath, remember mercy.”

Who do you think are today’s prophets and what do their business cards say? Drop me a line and let me know.

Shabbat Shalom



A liar is careful about upholding his lies.
— BT Bava Batra 167b

Forgeries are incredibly interesting. For one reason or another, the printed word is manipulated to either make the forger into someone of scintillating brilliance or to misconstrue the real author and the real agenda of a work. Art works are forged to make money or to hide theft. Signatures are forged to create credibility or to get someone in trouble. Forgers are driven by the animating belief that they will never be found out. Novelist Jonathan Gash writes in his book, Jade Woman that, "Once a faker's found out, he dies. Truly. It always happens." This suggests that perhaps a forger's identity is so tied up in the lives of others that his or her own personal identity weakens. There is shame in one's own existence that can get covered by adopting the persona, if only temporarily, of someone else.

The sages of the Talmud were very concerned with forgeries, and in a lengthy discussion on the production of scribal documents, insist that a number of measures be taken to protect innocents from the corrupting, deceptive practices of forgers, understanding, as the quote above suggests, that liars are careful about upholding their lies. They will stoop to new lows simply to maintain deception. After all, what's another lie to a liar?

To circumvent forgeries, the sages insisted that many official documents be signed in the presence of witnesses, that documents that were clearly erased be held suspect and that no spaces be left in the writing that might encourage a forger to insert a letter or a word that might change the document's meaning. They were worried that people might falsely change their names or confuse others when signing documents if they had the same name as another in the town. They advised leaving the last two lines of an official document empty to make sure that no one cribbed in another sentence or two to change the subject or object of a document once it had already been signed.

They cite a story about a document allegedly signed in front of the scholars Rava and Rabbi Aha bar Adda (BT Bava Batra 167a). The person named on the document came forward and claimed that although the signature was indeed his, he had never come before these scholars to sign anything. Rava sensed a forgery and said that although his own name was easy to forge, Rabbi Aha bar Adda's was not. He had a shaky hand.  When they caught the forger and pressed him on the matter, he confessed that he wrote the signature with his hands on the rope of an unstable footbridge, thus he was able to duplicate the handwriting with accuracy.

Judaism has suffered from some famous forgeries, most notable of which is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated text disseminated in multiple languages in the early part of the 20th century with immense anti-Semitic repercussions. It contents are allegedly the minutes of a meeting of Jewish statesmen with a global plan to take over the world's economy and subvert justice. This forgery, that still carries weight with anti-Semites even though it's been falsified, confirms a pre-existing agenda that feeds on falsehoods. The social philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism explains this curious fact: "...if a patent forgery like the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is believed by so many people that it can become the text of a whole political movement, the task of the historian is no longer to discover a forgery. Certainly it is not to invent explanations which dismiss the chief political and historical facts of the matter: that the forgery is being believed. This fact is more important than the (historically speaking, secondary) circumstance that it is a forgery." 

Why do we fall for fakes? We believe what we want to believe because it serves an important purpose for us. Take, for example, a famous forgery in Israel. In 1988, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, purchased a relic for $550,000. It was a small ivory pomegranate attributed to the era of the First Temple and the only evidence we have that dates from that period. I remember seeing the pomegranate myself and feeling overwhelmed. It was very small and well-lit and the fruit has always had symbolic significance for Jews. It is one of the seven species associated with Israel and mythically has 613 seeds, representing the number of mitzvot. We associate it with Rosh Hashana. I even went to the gift shop many years ago and bought a replica of it in sterling to wear as a pin. It didn't dawn on me that it could have been a fake. It felt like it was a small confirmation of truths I held dearly, now supported by archeology.

The Israel Antiquities Authority reveled that it was a very old relic but the First Temple inscription on it was fake. But that was not all. The Authority uncovered a sophisticated forgery ring in Israel that had produced a number of "important" artifacts dated from the Bible. One of them was an ossuary box reputed to hold the bones of James, Jesus' brother; another was an ancient tablet linked to King Joash during the days of Solomon's Temple.  Oy.

"You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another," say Leviticus (19:11). There are lots of ways we transgress this commandment. Maybe the ultimate transgression in a case of forgery is the failure to be our own authentic selves.

Shabbat Shalom

Praising Loudly

He who blesses his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be a curse to him.
— Proverbs 27:14

“He’s amazing.”

“But I heard he’s abusive at home.”

“She looks great.”

“True, but I heard she takes diet pills and her kids are starving.”

We’ve all heard conversations like this, high praise followed by instant critique.

Imagine, for a moment, that someone stood on a rooftop and yelled out your praises. It would feel great. How validating it would be to hear accolades flying through the air, landing every which way, for friends and strangers to hear. But Proverbs warns that such behavior can be devastating and, ultimately, a curse. Because of the faulty or vague pronoun reference at the end of the verse, we are not exactly sure who will be cursed. Perhaps the person with a loud voice who wakes others early in the morning will be cursed by his neighbors. Few would appreciate an alarm clock that sing someone else’s praises, although it might be affirming to have an alarm clock that sings one’s own.

A more likely interpretation is that the object of another person’s praise will be cursed. The Talmud seeks to understand why [BT Bava Batra 164b-165a). Once, the Talmud scholar Rabbi Shimon was sitting in front of his father and reading chapters from the book of Psalms. Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, his father, saw the book and admired its calligraphy. Humbly, Rabbi Shimon said, “I didn’t write it,” and credited another person’s handiwork. His father then retorted: “Turn away from uttering this malicious speech.”

Malicious speech? This makes no sense. Rabbi Shimon was praising a scribe, not criticizing one. The Talmud continues, arguing that this, indeed, makes no sense. “What malicious speech is there?” the scholars ask. “A person should never speak the praises of another, as out of the praise about him someone may come to speak to his detriment.” Ouch.

We humans are insecure creatures. Working from a scarcity model, when we hear too much praise of someone else, we falsely believe that its diminishes our own positive sense of self. Our egos are bruised or maybe, because of our own narcissistic tendencies, we interpret the praise of someone else as an implicit criticism of ourselves. Why am I not better, worthier, more talented? Am I not as good as this guy, the object of someone else’s adoration? We’ve all heard compliments given to others, and our first instinct is to find fault. We need praise, and yet we minimize the praise of others. It’s this that the Talmud warns us of in our human interactions.

There are commentaries that suggest that loud praise is a form of false flattery. “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that speaks proud things,” advises a verse in Psalms (12:4). Maybe the Talmud is suggesting that when someone screams another’s praises rather than sharing it person to person, they are doing so for their own personal gain. Again, we all know – and may be guilty of this ourselves – people who receive false praise because the one who compliments wants something from them: money, connections, support. This kind of praise is disingenuous and promotes a lack of authenticity in our relationships.

This prompts yet another rabbi to make the observation that there are three sins from which a person is not spared every day. In other words, try as we might, human beings are going to slip up in these arenas every single day: having sinful thoughts – the desire to do something wrong in one’s head, failing in prayer – engaging in the act of prayer but without proper intent, focus or concentration – and malicious speech. Try as we might, it’s virtually impossible to avoid speaking badly of others. To this, the Talmud also balks: “Can it enter your mind that someone cannot spend an entire day refraining from malicious speech?” Later, another rabbi concludes that, “Everyone sins with regard to malicious speech.” This, too, the rabbis question. The answer softens the blow; it’s a hint of malicious speech, something someone says that could be interpreted to be positive or negative or a backhanded compliment.

Reading these pages, it’s not hard to conclude that the best way to walk in the world is in silence. Why bother trying to work on refraining from gossip when even praise can be misinterpreted? Maybe the Talmud is actually suggesting that finding fault with others is a human addiction; it’s an everyday struggle tied into our own inadequacies and deep insecurities. And, like the advice given to other addicts, we need to take it one day at a time, one conversation at a time. Praising others helps us regulate our own ego needs, but that praise needs to be tempered in order to be heard and properly nurtured.

Praise, but praise quietly.

Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Yohanan said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, imparts wisdom only to those who already possess it.
— BT BRakhot 55a

Rabbi Yohanan's statement is deeply puzzling. If God imparts wisdom to those who already possess it, then what kind of gift is wisdom, and how do the rest of us get in on it? Do we show God our IQ or SAT scores or a solid GPA? Wisdom sounds a lot more expansive than these abbreviated, indexed and narrow measures of our intellectual abilities. I recently heard a talk on creativity that has made me mull over it in relation to Rabbi Yohanan's words.
We know much more today about how the creative mind works and what is needed to nourish creativity and what squelches it. Loosely defined, creativity is the use of imagination or the production of original, innovative ideas. We often associate creativity with the fashioning of artistic works that require a degree of inventiveness. But this, like our abbreviations above, is too narrow a way to think about creativity. There are creative problem-solvers and original thinkers in every arena of human endeavor. Steve Jobs once said that creativity is just connecting things. "When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things."
Creatives, those for whom creativity is more than the production of original work but a way of thinking and being in the world, have been described as "consistently original." This may mean that the way they act, think, work, dress or form relationships has elements of freshness and newness all the time. Creativity for them is not limited to one area; it spills over into everything. This description helped me understand Rabbi Yohanan's statement. The creative is constantly using wisdom to generate more wisdom, in the elastic sense of allowing the brain the freedom to take an idea and move it in many different directions, layer it and change it.
This characterization is reminiscent of a description of our chief biblical creative: Bezalel, who was tasked with the responsibilities of overseeing the creation of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, our portable sanctuary in the wilderness. God, the Hebrew Bible states, literally filled him "with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship..." [Exodus 31:3] A few chapters later, we have a repeat of these gifts and an extension of them to anyone with similar capabilities: "every wise-hearted person, in whom the Lord has put wisdom and understanding to know how to execute all the work for the service of the sanctuary, according to all that the Lord has commanded. And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab, and every wise-hearted person, in whose heart the Lord put wisdom, and to everyone whose heart stirred him to come to do the work," (Exodus 36:1-2).
Talent here is twinned with volition. One could argue that you don't need a lot of creativity to execute the exact plans you are given, unless, of course,  you have ever put together a piece of Ikea furniture. You need a certain kind of creativity to put together something in an intelligent way that maximizes and encourages the creativity of others. Bezalel's creative genius lay not only in his capacity to carry through on God's word but also to bring others into the work with him and expand them in the process. 

And this is another thing I recently learned about creatives: they need nourishment and recognition. Nothing kills a creative impulse more than no one noticing creative output. Perhaps nothing grows creativity more than the recognition by others that stimulates a desire to do more. In love and parenting, at school, work and in our volunteer giving, our ability to note, pay attention and comment on the work of others is a feedback loop that offers encouragement to keep on going. When no one notices our creative output, we being to question ourselves and our own worthiness. Bezalel, it seems, was able to nurture the creative gifts of others.
Creativity is also highly personal, as the dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp notes in her book on the subject: "In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn't scare you, doesn't shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it." Creating the right conditions for creativity helps bring out our own originality.
So where and when are you most creative?
Shabbat Shalom

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


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


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