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

Happy Travels

The Lord himself will go before you. He will be with you; He will neither leave you nor forget you. Do not be afraid and do not worry.
— Deuteronomy 31:8

Have you recently taken a trip or a vacation? Read on.
 
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, we find verses that address the anxieties of travel. But before we have a look, we need to define travel anxiety. By worries, I don’t mean TSA delays, flight cancellations or bad airplane snacks. Those surface a host of inconveniences but don’t ever really amount to suffering. Ever notice that people’s airline/travel issues are terribly boring to listen to when someone else is in the passenger seat? We’ve all been there. Yet when we are the unhappy recipients of poor service, we love sharing our travel woes with anyone who will listen.
 
A recent New York Times article contends that airlines and hotels are finally acknowledging these stresses in their marketing campaigns. In “Travel is Stressful, but Do It with Us, Companies Say,” Martha White writes that companies are now incorporating the anxieties of travel as a way to show how their particular brand is ameliorating them. “Take Back What Seat 34E Took from You” is a new Westin campaign featuring a woman floating carelessly in the water. Instead of showing her in a cramped middle seat surrounded by people without good body hygiene, this woman is stretched out in the serene waters a Westin pool offers.
 
Last year, the Oregon Tourism Commission went with this slogan to address the pressure many people feel when they take a family vacation: “There are all kinds of things you can do in Oregon, but you don’t have to do any of them.” What a relief! Psychologist Dr. Jerry Kennard identifies three sources of vacation stress: money, people and situations. “Money relates to affordability and is involved in gift buying, travel, clothing, tips, transportation, etc. People are invariably relatives or even friends, but stress can also come from the loss of loved-ones who used to be part of your circle. Situations can range from unfamiliar houses, to hotels to different countries, customs and languages. Add to this disruption in routine, change of diet, possible sickness and the elements for a stressful experience are all in place.”
 
One would hardly think that religion features in such a discussion, but, in fact, just as a trip can offer the potential for a spiritual journey, it can also threaten our sense of spiritual stability. It is for this reason that our sacred texts confront issues of the insecurity and isolation of travel and the vulnerability that comes with going somewhere that is not familiar. In Psalm 91:11, God appears as the ultimate travel agent: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” That probably beats travel insurance.
 
Dangers on a trip can ruin a good time. That’s why Proverbs offers this assurance: “Then you will go safely on your way, and you will not hurt your foot. When you lie down, you will not be afraid. As you lie there, your sleep will be sweet,” [3:23-24]. So much for the Westin’s heavenly bed; if you have trouble sleeping when you’re away but you’re traveling with the Divine Spirit, your sleep will be sweet.
 
Another travel woe is getting lost. No worries. We’ve got a psalm for that: “For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory. The Lord says, ‘I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you,’” [32:7-8]. The GPS on high will get you there. And if you’re worried that you’ll be the worse for wear upon your return, we’ve got this guarantee: “The Lord keeps you from all harm and watches over your life. The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go, both now and forever,” [Psalm 121:7-8]. 
 
Sometimes people just need a vacation from the stress of planning a vacation. Now many packaged vacations include yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices just to overcome the anxiety of the trip. One way to make your next trip or vacation less tense is not to indulge yourself but to do some charitable work as an individual or a family wherever you land. A small service project won’t eliminate stress. It will, however, put it in perspective.
 
Shabbat Shalom.

 

A Leadership of Silence

I have never been eloquent...
— Exodus 4:10

This week, we will open up the book of Exodus in synagogues around the world a day after America's presidential inauguration. The time feels ripe to think about the relationship between speech and leadership. Words can communicate hope, or they can confirm hate. Words can lift the spirit or send listeners into a depressive tailspin. Words can be a tool of the arrogant or an obstacle to the humble.

Moses complained multiple times about his speaking inadequacies related to content, to the mechanics of speech and to his own unworthiness to represent his people. "'So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.' But Moses said to God, 'Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?'" [Exodus 3:10-11].

Moses could not agree to a plan that he felt unworthy to represent. Moses countered again. "Moses answered, 'What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, 'The Lord did not appear to you?' Then the Lord said to him, 'What is that in your hand?' 'A staff,' he replied. The Lord said, 'Throw it on the ground.' Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it," [Exodus 4:1-3]

This would surely have moved Moses to action, but still he protested. "Moses said to the Lord, 'Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.' The Lord said to him, 'Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.' But Moses said, 'Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else,'" [Exodus 4:10-13]

Later, in 6:12 and 30, Moses added an additional, puzzling complaint: he has uncircumcised lips, a very odd expression that suggests some kind of blockage that prevents his words from achieving the mellifluous peak necessary to be an influential leader. Moses failed to understand why he specifically was chosen, why anyone would listen to him and where the source of speech would come from for a man of few words. Although we have classically understood Moses to be a stutterer or have a stammer, this reading may be too literal. Moses may have felt stymied by his lack of elegance rather than by any physical problem. Rashi observes that verse 4:10 should be read this way: "In heaviness, I speak." Words were neither light nor trivial to him. This he regarded as a political liability. In politics, words can become weapons of insurrection or popularity or insincerity. These were realms not familiar to the young man born in trepidation and suddenly transferred to a house of royalty.

Avivah Gottleib Zornberg in her new and excellent book, Moses: A Human Life, comments that Moses' "...destiny is yoked with his people's in ways that he cannot at first fathom. Heaviness is everywhere, both inside his mouth and in his relation with a people who are 'his' only by way of a mother who has receded into oblivion. He has been shot into a future that he cannot recognize as his own." Instead of curing Moses of a speech problem that plagued him, God wanted Moses because of his speech deficiencies: "Moses' mouth is precisely what God has chosen. But He will be with his mouth, He will implicate Himself in the issues of his mouth. God invites Moses to open his whole being to a kind of rebirth. Already twice-born, he is to surrender to yet another transfiguration."

God used Moses mouth as a conduit until Moses developed his own gift for language. More importantly, Moses with his staff, his brother and his miracles showed his people that action is more important to leadership than words will ever be. Moses felt trapped by speech and would only be able to free himself and his people when he overcame this incapacity to let words inspire action. They need not be many words either. "Let my people go" may not constitute poetry, but as the language of freedom against oppression, these three Hebrew words and four English ones have been a clarion call to revolution for centuries.

Moses' humble objection to leadership set the standard for the rest of us. Even when we agree to a task, the question "who am I?" should be a whisper in our ears always. It helps us appreciate that great leadership is about influence rather than power, modesty rather than publicity, deeds rather than words.

Shabbat Shalom

The Things We Carry

...set it down before you pray.
— BT Bava Metzia 105b

What a strange and frightening week it's been. On Friday, a man gunned down five travelers in Fort Lauderdale's airport and hurt many others, sending the airport into a tailspin for days. On Sunday, in Jerusalem's Armon Ha-Natziv neighborhood, a terrorist plowed down four Israeli soldiers with a truck. On Monday, 16 JCCs up and down America's East Coast evacuated members because of bomb threats. Going on vacation or sending your child to a half day of organized play and learning has become freighted with existential angst. If someone is trying to scare us, it's working.
 
I flew in and out of the same Fort Lauderdale airport on Sunday and Monday and used the opportunity to look for ways that the newly dead were memorialized. I saw nothing. I am sure that there were signifiers of the tragedy somewhere, but what I saw instead were lots of news trucks and lots and lots of weary travelers. On Monday, I was teaching a class in Miami about the time that bomb threats were made at two JCCs in the area. I knew something was going wrong because a pulse of anxiety spread through the room, panicked moms were texting to find out about their pre-school age children or grandchildren, and those in charge of security were on high alert. Everyone wanted to know, "Is this real?"
 
When random acts and threats of danger happen in innocuous places, it makes us all more vigilant, more suspicious, more cautious and more anxious. It's not an anxiety that any of us want, but it's one that we are now forced to carry. I was thinking about this unwanted burden when I came across a fascinating passage in the daily study of Talmud this past Monday.
 
"With regard to one who carries a load on his shoulder, and the time for prayer arrives, if the load is less than four kav, he lowers it behind him while holding it and prays. If the load is four kav or more, he lowers it and then prays" [BT Bava Metzia 105b]. A kav is a talmudic measurement of about 24 egg bulks. Why the ancient scholars used eggs as a measurement of volume, I'll never know. They knew nothing about cholesterol then, but they did know that an egg bulk was a common enough feature of farm life. It was reasonable to assume that it represented a measurement all would be familiar with in their day.
 
If you are carrying less than the equivalent weight of 96 eggs, and the time comes for prayer, you are allowed to pray while holding your load. The assumption is that such a measurement is still manageable and would not distract you from having the proper intention in prayer. Why not put down your load anyway? If you were traveling, you might feel more secure holding on tightly to your belongings out of fear of loss or theft. But, the rabbis of old contend, if the burden is too great, then you must set it down before you pray. That load will irritate you and distract you. You will not be able to focus on the spiritual matter at hand. Maimonides [Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 5:5] and the Shulkhan Arukh, an authoritative 16th century code of law, concur [O.H. 97:5].

Prayer is a form of codified mindfulness. Prayer for Jews is not to be separated from labor but is meant to punctuate our ordinary routines. We break from travel, from plowing, from our desk jobs to say a few words of gratitude and praise, to remind us of our purpose and to shield us from threats to our values. And yet, if our prayers are encumbered by the weight of our work, we are told to lighten the load and then pray. We get weighed down and then the best of our thoughts cannot be properly articulated.
 
Reading Tim O'Brian's meditation on war and memory, The Things We Carried, was the first time I really thought about the pain that soldiers carry that has no real weight but is freighted by terrible trauma and the stresses of war. "They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity." He continues, "They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried." The burden is immense and simply too heavy to bear at times.
 
In an age of hate crimes and global terrorism, we all somehow become soldiers on the front-lines, even against our will and the better angels of our nature. This has psychic costs too complex to measure. It is as if, like the farmer with a heavy load, we are carrying something extra all of the time. A burden of worry. We want to put it down to pray, to extend love, to reach out in compassion, but we can't. Not yet. Danger lurks, and we must be on guard.
 
In such circumstances, the only way to lighten the load is to carry it together.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Dropping Plan B

Last made, but first planned.
— From "Lecha Dodi"

In the 16th century, Rabbi Solomon Alkabetz of Salonika, composed a poem to greet the Sabbath queen that has become an iconic song of rest robed in beauty: Lekha Dodi - Let us go, my beloved.  As was common with Hebrew acrostic poetry, if you put together the first letter in each of its stanzas, you will come up with the author's name. In the song, we greet God or the Sabbath as the beloved and rise up to see her and invite her in, giving her presence the pride of place.
 
In the song, we acknowledge the Sabbath as a wellspring of blessing. We shake off the cares of the week - "Arise, leave the midst of your turmoil" - to touch a little piece of transcendence. "Dress in your garments of splendor, my people," says the song, mirroring our own change of clothing to acknowledge the majesty of the royal Sabbath. We prepare for redemption. We note that light is coming with an appeal to rise and shine.
 
One particular stanza always moves me:

To greet Shabbat, now let us go.
Source of blessing, it has ever been so.
Conceived before life on earth began.
Last made, but first planned.

This stanza suggests that although the Sabbath was the last work of God's creation, it was conceived of first, the crowning achievement of this intense spurt of divine creativity. All of creation moves towards this shared end of rest and introspection.
 
Today, we might call this strategy design thinking. Design thinking often starts with the end product - where you want to go - and then establishes the best strategy to achieve those ends. It's a methodology using logic, intuition and imagination to approach complex problems more systemically.  According to the business website Fast Company, there are four stages to design thinking: 1) Defining the problem, 2) Creating and considering many options, 3) Refining directions, 4) Repeating. There's a lot written on design theory, but in my mind, Lekha Dodi sums it up beautifully: last made, but first planned.
 
To throw some more interesting research into the mix, Dr. Jihae Shin from University of Wisconsin-Madison's business school and Katherine Milkman from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School demonstrate that the best plans we make should not include a plan B. "Simply contemplating backup plans makes you want to achieve the primary goals less, which makes you put less effort into it," claims Dr. Shin. This is true both for individuals and teams. They conclude that it's best for two teams to come up with two different plans to tackle a problem or create a new strategy than for one team to create a plan A and a plan B. It seems that the moment you conceive that your optimal plan might not work, you are, in some small way, resigning yourself to something less than your best.
 
Creating a plan B may make us feel appropriately thoughtful, cautious and prepared for every circumstance. What this new research suggests is that such thinking can also undermine the achievement of a bigger dream, preparing us mentally to succumb to something more mediocre than our first, best idea just simply by the act of acknowledging another way to get something done.
 
Reading the reports of this study made me consider about our own creation narrative. There was no plan B. Maybe it's easy to achieve plan A if you're God. Mortal beings don't stand a chance. Or perhaps a more subtle view of the first chapters of Genesis has God evaluating and re-thinking creation once the world is up and running. In other words, rather than create a plan B, God tweaked the universe after plan A, tinkering and tinkering up to and including today.
 
Perhaps we will sing Lekha Dodi with a little more introspection, allowing the beautiful lyrics and melody to pose the question: what is the design thinking that guides my life, the goal or goals to which all of my efforts are ultimately directed? If we identify that end goal - our plan A - we might work towards it differently.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Jewish Year in Review 2016

Guide me in Your truth and teach me…
— Psalms 25:5

It’s been an interesting year, to say the least. Telling is the Oxford English Dictionary’s pick for word of the year: post-truth. Until it was chosen, I had no idea that this was actually a word. Here’s how our smart friends on the other side of the pond defined it: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Oy, I say.
 
Of course, the United States presidential election dominated the news day after day in 2016. There were certainly many Jewish stories to emerge from this political whirlwind, but, if you’re feeling like me right now, you’d rather think about something else, something perhaps more interesting and inspiring than post-truth politics and nasty campaigning, something like this breaking 2016 fashion news from Women’s Wear Daily: Ariel and Shimon Ovadia, of Ovadia and Sons, spent two days scrutinizing the way both single and married men dress in a Hasidic neighborhood in Jerusalem for their fall menswear collection. They sent models down the runway with black silk frocks with fabric buttons and tasseled belts. “The tonal looks and rich fabrics...lent a luxe feel to the collection.” Who knew?
 
And here’s what inspired me: the opportunity to reflect on the contributions of a number of remarkable MOTs (members of the tribe) who died in 2016 and who collectively helped shape the world as we know it. Holocaust survivor, writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel died (July 2) leaving us the mandate to continue his voice of moral consciousness. Nobel Prize winner for literature, Hungarian author, Imre Kertesz died at the beginning of spring (March 31). Like Wiesel, he wrote powerfully about the Holocaust.
 
Speaking of Nobel Prizes, it’s been a good year for the Jews. Oliver Hart took the prize in economics and Michael Kosterlitz joined two others who were awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on superconductors. Kosterlitz, whose major research is on endorphins at Aberdeen University, is the son of Hans Kosterlitz, a German-born biologist who left for Scotland in 1934 with the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.  The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences commended these winners for "theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter." Let me know if you have any idea what that means. This year’s controversial winner was musician and song-writer Bob Dylan or Shabtai Zisyl ben Avraham or Robert Allan Zimmerman. As we all know, he was too busy to get the prize. I just want the Noble Committee to know that if I get it, I will go to Oslo immediately.
 
Former president and prime minister of Israel, Shimon Peres, also died this year right before the High Holidays (September 28). An important link to Israel’s founding generation and the oldest person to serve as head of state, Peres was elected prime minister twice and served in twelve cabinets. Israel also lost Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad (March 17) who gave thirty years to military service.
 
On screen, we lost the beloved actor Gene Wilder (August 29) who entertained us as adults in “Blazing Saddles” and entertained us as kids in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Sitcom queen Doris Roberts also died (April 17). Called the Jewish Billy Graham, Esther Jungreis gave decades of her life to Jewish outreach before she died this past summer (August 23). This year, the oldest living Jewish woman died at 113. Goldie Steinberg, a Hadassah member and bubbie, died a month before turning 114 and said the secret of her longevity was a daily walk. Lesson learned. Let's put our sneakers on.
 
2016 was a banner year for another 113-year old. Yisrael Kristal, a Holocaust survivor who was born in 1903, had to postpone his bar mitzvah for 100 years since, at thirteen, his mother had already been dead for three years and his father was serving in the Russian army at the beginning of WWI. Kristal was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. When Auschwitz was liberated, he weighed only 82 pounds. He had lost a wife and two children.  Kristal moved to Israel and began his life anew and now has 30 great-grandchildren. His daughter, Shulamith Kristal Kuperstoch told The New York Times: “My father is a religious man, and it was his dream his whole life to have a bar mitzvah. It was a miracle after everything he has been through in his life. What else can you call it?”  
 
Hanukah is a great time to think about miracles like this. Another miracle and aspiration for 2017 comes from our quote for the week: “Guide me in Your truth and teach me...” Sometimes we need to learn to tell the truth again so that next year’s word of the year will be “post-lies.”
 
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukah!

 

Books Everywhere

Three possessions should you prize: a field, a friend and a book.
— Hai Gaon (939-1038)

You might not have caught this relatively short article tucked next to "Metropolitan Diary" in this week's New York Times. A woman named Barbara Rosten returned an overdue book to the Brooklyn Public Library. Ordinarily this would not make the papers except for this unusual fact: it was 57 years overdue. In 2013 a book was returned to the New York Public Library 36 years late, but Rosten may have the record. The book, you wonder? Gone with the Wind, a classic whose theme song in the movie version was the first dance at Rosten's wedding. The irony is that she kept the book longer than she kept the husband. She owed 5 cents a day for 20,842 days, but since she had the book long before computer cataloging, they didn't charge her. Instead, they are putting the book on display to remind others who use the library to bring back books on time.
 
The next book article of interest for this week appeared in The Wall Street Journal. At the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair, Dutch novelist Mano Bouzamour, a self-described book doctor, listened to life complaints in his pop-up clinic, pulled out a prescription pad and wrote down the name of a book he felt would ease his "patient's" suffering (naturally, he also recommends his own novel). Depressed or listless, this bibliotherapist can heal you with just the right book.
 
And then there was the book I finished this week: John Kaag's American Philosophy. It's really a memoir of his divorce and new life, an intellectual version of Wild or Eat, Pray, Love. Depressed and questioning the meaning of his life, he is saved by the discovery of a magnificent library belonging to the philosopher William Ernest Hocking on his New Hampshire estate, West Wind. The library contains rare classics in philosophy and poetry growing moldy and insect-ridden due to neglect. Kaag sets a goal of cataloging this library and preserving the rare books and, in saving them, he manages to rescue himself.
 
It's a shame the Hocking family had not read Judah ibn Tibbon's letter about books to his only son, Samuel. Books were extremely expensive in the medieval period, some worth as much as an expensive car or house, a rare book librarian once shared with me. In the 12th century, Ibn Tibbon had invested in a library for his son and wrote an ethical will about the care of this library: "Cover your bookcases with rugs and linens of fine quality," he recommends. "Preserve them from dampness and mice and injury, for it is your books that are your true treasure." He also gave a piece of advice that would have benefited the Brooklyn Public Library, "Never refuse to lend books to anyone who cannot afford to purchase them, but lend books only to those who can be trusted to return them."
 
We've all been there, Mr. ibn Tibbon.
 
Ibn Tibbon had professional reasons to give his son this advice. The ibn Tibbon family had two family businesses: medicine and translation. Books were critical reference tools and needed to stay in the family for their beauty and their utility. It's amazing then that Judah ibn Tibbon recommended great generosity in lending out books. Perhaps, in this way, he was like our Dutch novelist, the book doctor. Generally, when you love something, you don't want to share it. But when it comes to books, true book lovers cannot wait to share because they know the gift that a good book is. It offers escape, companionship, adventure, knowledge, new ideas and new landscapes. It allows us mental and emotional travels without asking us to pack our bags and go anywhere.  
 
Another medieval Jewish scholar, R. Judah of Regensburg and author of Sefer Hasidim, the Book of Piety, advises that if you have two children - one who likes books and the second who does not - leave your library to the second, even if he is the younger of the two. The first child who likes to read will always find books. He will seek them out. The challenge is to make a reader out of the second child, and gifting that child with an entire library may just help in that endeavor. To understand just how much R. Judah loved books, he advised that they should be placed in "stately array near the dead, so that the souls of the righteous may in death study, as they did on earth." Once a reader, always a reader.
 
Every year at this season, there is book news everywhere: lists of the past year's most notable books, books that make great presents and books to read on a cold winter's night in front of the fire with hot chocolate. For us, inheritors of a tradition of scholarship, every season is the right season for books. And now that we are nearing the close of 2016, we might take a little advice from current and old book news. Return books you owe. Catalog and preserve the books you have. And augment someone's library to grow their love of books.
 
Happy Reading, Happy Hanukah and Shabbat Shalom.

Trousergate

God, the Lord, made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
— Genesis 3:21

Forget about Brexit. The big news in the UK is that England’s prime minister, Theresa May gave an interview a few weeks ago in The Sunday Times Magazine in London wearing designer leather trousers that cost $1,250 dollars. Despite the fact that she spoke openly about her childhood and the difficult decisions facing her as a leader now, her constituents heard one thing: the price tag. Not surprisingly, the Twitter universe lit up with criticism. How dare she dress in such expensive clothes at a time of Britain’s austerity, warm in her leather trousers, while some have no money to heat their homes.

Never mind that many English male politicians dress in Saville Row suits that cost thousands of pounds or that America’s president-elect Trump favors Brioni suits, which I am told can sell for as much as $17,000. The focus on a woman’s leadership so often turns to looks. Criticisms flow about hair and clothing, weight and presence that seem to target female leaders much more often than their male counterparts. The storm in a British teacup has been called “Trousergate.” Personally, I’m getting tired of all these old and new gates: Monicagate, Camillagate, Riogate, Bloodgate and most recently, Pizzagate. It’s time for a new term.

On the other side of the pond, Ivanka Trump has been raked over the coals for selling a brand of soft feminism in her clothing line and then not saying a word when accusations flew about her father’s treatment of women. Again in the Twitter universe, there are opponents who started a campaign asking women not to support her brand. Yet clothing she wore in major political speeches on the campaign trial were then advertised on her website to instant success. She became her own billboard for advertising. The brand is growing by leaps and bounds. Not coincidentally, the leather trousers May wore are already sold out.

With all this clothing gossip, it’s not hard to understand why in Hebrew the word for clothing “beged” is the same root as the word for traitor “boged.” Clothing conceals and reveals, and therefore it involves a lot of decisions about how we present ourselves to the world. It gets to the heart of personal identity.

Our first clothes, according to the Hebrew Bible, were skins that God made for Adam and Eve. They grabbed leaves for covering the nakedness they suddenly experienced after eating from a mysterious tree that gave them knowledge. Many believe this story is a metaphor for the discovery of sexual knowledge that made them both self-conscious in the presence of each other. And this, too, reveals something about the ideal state of humanity and the real curse these primordial beings received. Virtually every time we get dressed, we engage in questions about who we are based on how we look. Who are we trying to impress? Have we dressed appropriately for the occasion or activity? Are we dressing to stand out or fade into the background? What psychic pleasure it must have been to have none of this nonsense upon which to perseverate.

Dr. Norman Cohen in Masking and Unmasking Ourselves: Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing and Identity writes, “The symbolic power of clothing, both in terms of what it hides as well as what it reveals, has everything to do with identity and how we perceive it.” He goes on to cite a beautiful piece of the Zohar, a medieval kabbalistic commentary on the Pentateuch. The Torah itself is described as a bride with many layers of clothing that hide her innermost beauty. The Zohar warns about just seeing the external layer and believing that the outer garment is all there is. “Come and see: There is a garment visible to all. When…fools see someone in a good-looking garment, they look no further. But the essence of the garment is the body; the essence of the body is the soul! So it is with Torah…This body is clothed in garments: stories of this world.”

To impart its wisdom, the Torah is robed in beautiful stories. According to the Zohar, “All those words, all those stories are mere garments.” They draw us in with their curb appeal. The fool sees only this literary covering, the amusement or drama each story offers. The wise reader understands that such stories, like garments, conceal and reveal themselves to those who have deep curiosity. In the peeling away of meaning, life lessons emerge as our finest teachers.

Many of the current political discussions involving clothing actually mask prejudices, gender biases and profound anxieties about leadership in general and specific leaders in particular. Like the Torah that clothes itself in external layers that invite curiosity, should we be uncovering what these conversations are really about, hiding as they do behind petty barbs.

Instead, perhaps we can turn to Job who made virtue and justice his clothing: “I put on righteousness, and it clothes me. My justice was like a robe and a turban” [29:14]. Dress in piety and you’ll always be dressed for true success. 

Shabbat Shalom

Triage This

My people take precedence...
— Bava Metzia 71a

According to Webster's, triage is "a system of assigning priorities of medical treatment based on urgency, chance for survival, etc. and used on battlefields and in hospital emergency wards." It further expands the definition to include "any system for prioritizing based on available resources." Its origins are from the French term "trier," to sift or sort. That makes a lot of sense. A moment of triage forces us to sift or sort our priorities and determine what rises to the top and what, by virtue of our limitations, we must discard or neglect.
 
Having stumbled across the most articulate statement of triage in the Talmud in the daily page a day, I have been mulling over the passage all week. Many of us are familiar with its contents but perhaps less familiar with its context. Here goes (with the translation of the Koren Talmud and its filling in of the text's glaring gaps):

"The verse states: 'If you lend money to any of My people, even to the poor person who is with you' [Exodus 22:24]. The term 'My people' teaches that if one of My people (a Jew) and a gentile both come to borrow money from you, My people take precedence. The term "the poor person" teaches that if a poor person  and a rich person come to borrow money, the poor person takes precedence. And from the term 'who is with you,' it is derived: If your poor person, meaning one of your relatives, and one of the poor of your city come to borrow money, your poor person takes precedence. If it is between one of the poor of your city and one of the poor of another city, the poor of your city take precedence."

This discussion takes place in the thick of debates around interest. It is forbidden for Jews to charge interest to fellow Jews, and the pages are replete with full-throated explanations for what is and what is not considered interest, down to the weight of a coin. This exacting standard of fraternal fairness does not, however, apply to non-Jews. This is not a statement alienating those who don't share the same faith. Business is business. It is a statement about social capital for those who do share the faith. It's a basic definition of family. People outside of families view money as a currency of transaction, but people within families should view money as a means of helping and supporting those within their innermost circle. We don't give our money away freely to support a "member of the tribe," but we don't have to make money from family either, or so the sentiment goes.
 
If you study the passage carefully, you notice that each part of it is parsed so that it creates a circle of ever increasing intimacy. Jew/non-Jew, rich/poor, relative who is poor/non-relative, poor of one's city/poor in another city. While this is quite binary, the boundaries are clear. Status, geography and genes all play a role when we are in a triage situation. It's not easy to create firm borders of duty, but having a clear articulation can take away some of the guess work. At the same time, having this code helps us put the onus on the Sages when we make decisions that may not be popular or may have either psychic costs.
 
Spelling this out unambiguously may be more important than we realize. In 2015, Robert Evans of the Evans Consulting Group studied Jewish giving patterns and wrote about it in e-philanthropy. He listed the three top gifts that Jews made that year ,and all three went to, predictably, a park trust, a university and a medical center. Each gift was over one hundred million dollars. Then Evans listed the three top gifts of that year by Jews to Jewish organizations, and they were between 15-25 million. That's still an awful lot of money, but it's a fraction of what mega-donors are giving to other charities.
 
Most of us will never have the luxury of this kind of giving, but many of us will make charitable decisions - especially at this time of year. Many of us will divide our time and dedicate a portion of it to volunteering. Many of us will read this year and some of us will devote some of that reading time to becoming more Jewishly literate. The beauty of triaging is that we are not saying that there is only one way to give, one way to volunteer, one way to allocate one's free time. Triaging reminds us that when we can't have it all, what we reach to first will often be the most reflective of our values.
 
We're a small people. As the saying goes, if we do not take care of ourselves, who will take care of us? There are probably a lot of people giving to universities and medical research  - all critical dollars in areas that advance causes we care about passionately. But a large gift to a small people goes even further.
 
Many may regard this behavior as too ethnic or too tribal, especially in a time of porous borders and open hearts. I understand that. But when I hear this reasoning, I can't help wondering if the person who said it takes care of his or her family first. We all have to make circles of commitment. A circle is not a wall. The need to belong is primal, and we must be wary of allowing feelings too primitive to dominate or care for the world at large. But at the end of the day, when we state our priorities, we also know ourselves just that little bit more
 
We have to start somewhere, so let's start at home.
 
Shabbat Shalom

The Genesis of Trust

The book of Genesis is filled with narratives of trust, the break-down of trust and the rebuilding of trust because it, more than anything else, is critical to the continuation of a relationship. Eve trusts a snake more than she trusted God. Adam trusted Eve when he ate of the forbidden tree. Both of them lost God's trust and paid a steep price for it. There is a midrash which records that the trees of the Garden of Eden were heard voicing amazement. "That one walking about turned out to be a thief, a deceiver who even thought to deceive his Creator." Alternatively, "The ministering angels were heard voicing delight: 'That one walking about will soon be dead and gone." The mythical trees in this fabulous garden were not silent observers. They were witnesses and critics. The saw right away that deceit was built into the story and would continue as a facet of the human condition.
 
In the Abraham narratives, Abraham lied about the status of his wife as his sister. Sarah lost the trust of her handmaid Hagar and vice-versa. Abraham trusted God to make good on the promise of a people in a homeland despite famine and infertility. Isaac's trust was breached when Rebekah manipulated Jacob into fooling his father. Jacob put his love in a son and his coat only to lose him. Jacob's other sons got rid of Joseph and handed their father a striped and bloodied coat. After the brothers come down to Egypt and benefit from Joseph's success, they still believe he is out to get them and will activate his plan after Jacob's death. They never regained trust as a family. The book of Genesis ends.
 
Now, in the thick of Genesis readings, we understand the ultimate cost of the deceit that travels as a pernicious undercurrent all through these family stories. When trust breaks down in a family, it seems impossible to regain. We end this biblical book on this somber note. It forces us to look inward and ask ourselves: do our lives have the drama and deceit of a biblical book? Has trust been broken that cannot be repaired?
 
In The Speed of Trust, Stephen M. R. Covey contends that one of our great leadership myths is that trust cannot be regained once its lost. Covey says that to regain trust after an act of betrayal or even an honest mistake requires the same path to restoration: increasing personal credibility and engaging in behaviors that inspire trust, that go out of the way to show you are good on your word. He also adds an important caveat: "...when you're talk about restoring trust, you're talking about changing someone else's feelings about you and confidence in you. And that's not something you can control. You can't force people to trust you." And although you can't force trust, you must do your utmost to regain it.
 
"Trust is a function of two things," Covey writes, "character and competence. Character includes your integrity, your motive, your intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, your skills, your results, your track record. And both are vital." In work or home situations, it's the combination of who you are and what you do that will determine whether or not someone should trust you. Covey advises us to think of our relationships as trust accounts with the understanding that withdrawals and deposits may be hard to measure.
 
A lot of biblical quotes on trust focus on God, like our quote above: "When I am afraid, I put my trust in You." It's easy to understand why we might put our trust in God when humans fail us, but we can't only put our trust in a Higher Being. Living in a world where everyone is a potential suspect, where the shoe is always about to drop is, simply put, exhausting. It saps the joy out of everyday living. Perhaps because so many narratives - from the beginning all the way to the end of Genesis - involve breaches of trust, we  - its readers - will see the terrible cost of deception and guard ourselves. It's a good time to ask about our own trust accounts and how they're doing.
 
Have you put deposits in someone else's trust account or are you in overdraft right now?
Whose trust do you have to earn?
Who needs your trust right now?
 
Shabbat Shalom

Table Peace

And a person shall not mistreat his friend, and you shall fear the Lord your God, for I am the Lord your God.
— Leviticus 25:17

This week, I read a USA Today article about a young woman who, because of her political Facebook posts about the election, was uninvited by her mother to the family’s Thanksgiving table. Sarah-Jane Cunningham will apparently be spending today with her own private turkey and her two cats in Boston. I assumed that ugly politics divides the holiday guest list in rare and isolated cases, even after reading a similar piece in The New York Times. It was only when I eavesdropped on a conversation last week that I came to wonder if this is a wider problem than I realized. “We were going to go home for Thanksgiving, but I just can’t respect people who voted for ______. I don’t want to be there for the holidays, and a lot of my friends have made the same decision.” Yikes.
 
This week, I also came across the famous Talmudic discussion of “hon’at devarim,” oppressing another with words, that is based on a verse from Leviticus above. The verb “to mistreat” is open to much interpretation. A few verses earlier, the same term in Hebrew is used to discuss financial mistreatment of another, usually regarding monetary exploitation. When our verse is used a bit later, the sages of the Talmud figured that money was covered so that left this new prohibition to mean something else: oppression with words.

There are a lot of ways that we can oppress someone with language, and this range is well-represented in the Mishna and accompanying Talmud that discuss this transgression [BT
Bava Metzia 58b]. 

One may not say to a seller, ‘How much are you selling this for?’ if he has no wish to purchase the item. If one is a penitent, someone should not say to him, ‘Remember your earlier deeds.’ If someone is the child of converts, one may not say to him, ‘Remember the deeds of your ancestors.

Let’s look at the last two examples first. While a person may volunteer information about his or her past, it is prohibited to “out” such a person. We leave that choice up to the person who has undergone a significant religious transformation. Some people may speak with ease about their spiritual journeys. For others, it is a source of shame, insecurity and vulnerability. It is not our place to expose someone else’s past and potentially compromise his or her dignity without prior consultation and permission.
 
The first case would seem, on the face of it, unlike the others in intensity and scope. Asking a seller the price of an item seems harmless enough. That’s true in today’s consumer market, but it may not be true even today, for example, at an art fair when the artist has not only made the paintings but is also trying to sell them. Creating false hope is not fair and, in some ways, can be an act of oppression for the thin-skinned who sees the failure of a sale as a rejection of talent.

The Talmud adds cases and details. One such case is to tell a person with an illness or one who lost a child that the suffering was brought on by his or her negligent religious behavior. The proof-text is one of the most difficult verses in Job, when Job's friends judged his suffering as a result of his spiritual deficiencies: “Is not your fear of God your confidence, and your hope the integrity of your ways? Remember, I beseech you, whoever perished being innocent?” (4:6-7). Suffering only happens to the wicked, they believe. Job must have done many wrong things to deserve his suffering. I don’t know about you, but I would un-friend these guys on Facebook.
 
Put the newspaper articles and the Talmudic passages together into a halakhic (legal) question: can questioning someone’s political judgment be considered “hona’at devarim,” oppressing someone with words? In other words, should Sarah-Jane Cunningham have consulted the Talmud before speaking to her mother? Disrespect works both ways, but since Mrs. Cunningham had the upper hand through her ability to withhold her invitation because of conflicting political views, I believe Sarah is the victim of this biblical transgression. I say, pack up the cats, put the bird in the freezer, and go home. And when poor Sarah enters her childhood home - which should always be a place of safety and love - she can make an agreement to keep the table peaceful by not having any discussion of politics.
 
People with the same political agenda might also want to give each other a break. Haven’t we talked about all this enough? Don’t we all need a Thanksgiving that is politics-free? I do.
 
And if your table cannot be a politically neutral zone, consider these three questions before the conversation starts:

  • Can all sitting here express their views comfortably and respectfully?
  • Can everyone here listen with curiosity and not with judgment?
  • Can we agree that we live in a remarkable country and that our chief task on this day is to be grateful?

Don’t forget that in the holy Temple of old, God also had a “shulkhan,” a table. Our tables are supposed to mirror God’s table: a place of gathering, a place of abundance, a place of holiness.
 
Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom

Promises, Promises

Your ‘yes’ should be just, and your ‘no’ should be just.
— BT Bava Metzia 49a

Can you, the sages of the Talmud want to know, renege on a gift you've committed to give? "Rabbi Yohanan says, 'One who says to another: I am giving you a gift, is able to renege on his commitment.'" Other rabbis are surprised at Rabbi Yohanan's position, "One is able to renege?" It seems unlikely. The answer would seem obvious: no. If you said it, you must have meant it. That supposition would work if human beings weren't so fickle, especially when it comes to money.
 
Rabbi Yohanan then clarifies his opinion. When it comes to a small gift, a person cannot renege if he has made a verbal commitment. If you said it, you have to do it. But a person can renege on a large gift because even the recipient knows that when it comes to large financial decisions, people change their minds. We grant a cushion of time for a person to reconsider. The nineteenth century satirist George Prentice quipped, "Some people use one half of their ingenuity to get into debt, and the other half to avoid paying it."
 
In a subsequent discussion about changing one's mind as a buyer, the Talmud has its own lemon law. The time a buyer has to change his mind after a purchase is "the time it takes for him to show it [the item] to a merchant or a relative" [BT Bava Metzia 49b]. We can easily imagine the scene. A buyer takes his new purchase home and his wife, son, first cousin chide him for overspending. "You paid what? I bought an even nicer one in the market for half the price." This measure of time is suited to the insecurity we have about the way we use our money. Many of us second-guess ourselves or beat ourselves up about poor decisions. The rabbis of the Talmud understood this and created a get-out clause.
 
But the rabbis also understood that a person who does this regularly or in certain instances is committing an act of bad faith and even brings a curse upon himself. One can regard this strange response as superstitious or the natural result of what happens to a person's reputation who consistently backs out of promises, just as the expression above says: make your 'yes' just and make your 'no' just. Mean what you say. If you don't, there are moral consequences. Because there was no formal punishment for reneging, the sages came up with a curse. Here it is if you ever need to use it: "May the One who exacted payment from the people of the generation of the flood, and from the people of the generation of the dispersion, and from the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah  and from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, exact payment from whomever does not stand by his statement" [BT Bava Metzia 49a]. You may think you're getting away with exploitation or dishonesty, but God is watching. Beware. Just look at the stories in the Good Book that show how people who were once in power got their comeuppance.
 
And there is one instance where the curse is definitely activated. Later rabbinic discussions conclude that if it is a gift to a poor person then one may not renege no matter the size of the gift. When you commit to give a gift to someone who really needs it, you have catalyzed optimism in that individual's future. That recipient is mentally imagining that tomorrow will be better than today. If you renege on that, you have taken away something much more precious than money alone; you have robbed that needy person of hope. According to a 16th century authoritative code of Jewish law, reneging on a gift to the poor is tantamount to reneging on a charitable gift [Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 202:8, 243:4].
 
As we close this painful election year, we're closing the door on lots of political promises. Will there be a just 'yes' and a just 'no'? Will people who have been promised change lose hope because those who promised reneged on their commitments? It's easy enough for us to be cynical when it comes to others. We must also turn inward. We are also closing a financial year when many charities will turn to us before the end of December. Are their commitments and pledges we have made that we must make good on? We cannot, according to Jewish law, renege on them. And, in general, while we can get out of verbal commitments, there is always, the Talmud reminds us, a price to pay for broken promises.
 
Shabbat Shalom

People are Strange

The way of people may be tortuous and strange...
— Proverbs 21:8

I'm not sure if you saw the news. The United States has a new president. Let the healing begin. The fragmentation, the divisiveness, the real hatred that this election surfaced is not going gently into the night. And the shame of it all is that a glass ceiling is still intact, and perhaps dashed the hopes of many other young women looking up from trying to break it. Of course, if you're going where no woman has gone before, you don't want it to be because you're a woman but because you're competent and qualified. An American female politician was recently asked if she was running for office as a woman. Her response: "Do I have a choice?"
 
The issue of female leadership has dogged the Jewish community. The stained glass ceiling impacts every denomination in different ways. Set against global politics, however, we're not looking so backwards. Even countries like Israel and the UK that have had females in their most senior leadership positions have rarely repeated the feat. It reminds me of the above quote from Proverbs: "The way of people may be tortuous and strange." Assumptions that gender, color or sexual orientation imply an inability to lead highlights woeful and often willful ignorance.
 
Our verse in this chapter of Proverbs is part of a textual weave of wise sayings that set good behaviors beside bad, strange behaviors beside just ones and intelligent motives beside foolish ones. It explores the way humans think to show us a mirror of our best and worst selves. "All the ways of a person seem right to him," says verse two, "But the Lord probes the mind." We justify our actions, not always sure of why we are drawn to temptation and wrongdoing. God knows. "No wisdom," concludes the second to last verse, "no prudence, and no counsel can prevail against the Lord." You can't be smarter than God.
 
But you can be smarter than other human beings by paying attention to right and wrong, intentions and motives and by leveraging self-awareness to do better and be better. "One who guards his mouth and tongue guards himself from trouble. The proud, insolent person, scoffer is his name, acts in a frenzy of insolence" (21:23-24). Much of the rhetoric of this ugly election was an illustration of the latter clause of this verse. It was a daily "frenzy of insolence," where words flew fast and furious and wounded quickly. If anything characterized this election, it was the sense of scarcity that underlined it all. There is one way only. That way is fear.
 
Now, looking forward, it will be interesting if - over time - our traditional notions of who can lead will incrementally crumble and be replaced by greater openness and a spirit of generosity rather than scarcity. Another more subtle aspect of scarcity is what some call the phenomenon of limited success: moral permission. Here's an illustration: if someone hires a female, a person of color or any other hire that is not "conventional" or expected for a certain position, rather than regard it as a breakthrough, it may ironically give license or permission to not hire more. We do a little so we can avoid doing a lot to advance a particular cause.
 
We see examples of moral permission as it applies to women all over the work world, and all over the Jewish world. If we create a study program, give a new title to a woman's position, have one speaker or hire one professional who is female, we have done what we need to do to show the world how open we are. Instead of this beginning a trend, it caps it. Been there, done that.
 
Moral permission never excuses creating a culture of genuine openness. In fact, in certain ways it would be better not to have bothered at all because it gives others the impression that we are more morally developed than we really are. "All rash haste makes only for loss," Proverbs reminds us (21:5). We all lose when those who traditionally hold the reins of power cannot share, cannot celebrate the success of the other, cannot learn from it and cannot challenge their own prejudice or bias.
 
The way of people may be torturous and strange, but it doesn't have to be. We can't allow vicious banter to become the new normal. Let's stop this right now. If you really want to make America great, open up the book of Proverbs and read chapter 21. "Justice done is a joy to the righteous." Amen.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Voting Matters

“…the Jewish people have been unceasingly active, and especially so in free America, where…they have stood from the very beginning ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with their fellow citizens of every creed, in every movement that has made for freedom and for liberty, for culture and for charity.”
— Simon Wolf

In 1895, Simon Wolf (1836-1923) published The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier and Citizen. To the left of the title page is a photo of the Statue of Religious Liberty in Fairmont Park, Philadelphia. The picture is worth a thousand words. The image is not a Jewish one but an American one that aligns Wolf’s message with the highest values that built the Republic. Wolf was a Jewish activist, a businessman and a diplomat. He enjoyed the friendship of four presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson. It’s not surprising that with his deep Washington connections, Wolf cared about Jews being outstanding citizens.

The editor of Wolf’s book, Louis Edward Levy, in his preface, explains why the book was necessary. It seems that Jewish involvement in politics was perceived as weak and their allegiance was called into question. In defense of the Jews, Wolf gathered letters of Jewish soldiers and officers and lists of Jewish soldiers from the revolutionary period, and those in the continental army, Jewish contributions to the colonial treasury, and their representation as soldiers in the war of 1812, the Mexican War and the Civil War.

With this book, Wolf, Levy contends, “shows us that the Jewish people of the New World, like their ancestors and brethren of the Old, have been unfailing in their devotion to their country’s cause; that they have performed an ample part on the conquest of our liberties and have fully shared in the struggles for the preservation of our institutions. He proves beyond cavil that from an early stage of our history down to the present day, men of the Hebrew race and faith have been counted in the van of the country’s progress and in the forefront of its defense…”

This commitment follows the strong recommendation of Jeremiah the prophet who adjured the Israelites in their Babylonian exile to build homes and plant vineyards, marry off their sons and daughters and “Seek the peace and prosperity of the place to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you, too, will prosper” (29:7). Pray for the foreign government and support it, if for no other reason than it will support you in turn. We don’t expect this of a prophet. We expect that life in exile would breed isolation and perhaps even paralysis. After all, the more you build in exile, the harder it will be to uproot oneself when the exiles ends. But this was not Jeremiah’s view. Wherever you are, build your life. Wherever you are, care about that place.

This brings us to voting. I understand how disenchanted people are with this election. Believe me. But what I find distressing is the number of people in casual conversation who have said recently, “I’m just not going to vote.” For more centuries than we can comfortably count, we were denied the most basic rights and privileges of citizenship. In those tense years, we were dependent on the kindness and mercy of the ruler, a relationship that did not always work in our favor. George Washington in his letter to the Touro Synagogue told its readers that they did not need to petition him – as they did – for his protection. Jew are protected and ensured civil liberties simply by virtue of their presence in the United States. Just like everyone else.

Too many people throughout our long history and America’s short history have been denied the right to vote. Make Simon Wolf proud of his tribe. Who are we to deny ourselves this basic right? We earned it. 

Shabbat Shalom

Goodbye

We will not forget you
— Text of Hadran

Peter Pan hated goodbyes: “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.” He assumed that with our farewell, a piece of memory dies. The images, the special moments, the feelings wane and then disappear as we move forward into a new reality. In Jewish life, we try to extend that reality by walking a guest out of our homes minimally the span of four cubits, about six feet. It’s a small gesture of tenderness that we are not anxious to let our guests leave us. We linger a little with them. 

Four cubits is a Jewish legal measurement of personal space. By walking four cubits out of our homes, we are, in effect, leaving our personal space to be in the space of those we have just entertained for a little bit longer. One of my earliest childhood memories is seeing my grandparents out of our car window. They hated saying goodbye and would always stand on the road waving and waving until they were no longer in view. It was a powerful way they communicated how important we were to them.

We also engage in a similar intellectual exercise when we say goodbye to a book we’ve been studying. The prayer is called the “Hadran” from the Aramaic word for “return.” In Hebrew H-D-R means “glory” and in thinking about some metaphysical merging of the terms, we try to glorify the completion of a lengthy period of study by committing ourselves to return to it. The Talmud [BT Shabbat 118a-119b] mentions that completing a sefer or Jewish book occasions a feast and Talmudic discourses were often created for this siyyum or completion. Often these discourses connected ideas from a tractate one was just completing with those one was just beginning. This spurned a genre of Hadran writings in the eighteenth century.

The text of the Hadran treats the book as if it were an animate object in relationship with its reader. We name it and recite the following line three times, as if trying to avoid Peter Pan’s farewell pitfall of forgetting: “We will return to you tractate ________ and you will return to us. Our thoughts are about you tractate ________ and your thoughts are about us. We will not forget you tractate ________ and you will not forget us, not in this world, and not in the world to come.” We romance the book and tell it that its contents will never leave us.

While this is wishful thinking for those of us whose memories aren’t what they used to be, we find it’s also deeply spiritual thinking, as the prayer continues: “May the words of Torah, Lord our God, be sweet in our mouths and in the mouths of all your people so that we, our children, and all the children of the House of Israel, may come to love You and want to study Your Torah on its own merit.” We understand that study is not only about the attainment of ideas but about the strengthening of a bond with God and with others that takes place through study. For us, study is not only about outcomes but about the process of who we become when we learn. 


Finally, we ask that God give us the endurance and stamina to do it all again: “May it be your will, God, my God, that as you have helped me finish tractate ________, thus will you help me begin other tractates and books and finish them. To learn and to teach, to protect and fulfill all the words of your Torah with love. May the merit of all the Tanaim and Amoraim [early scholars] and scholars stand with me and for my progeny so that the Torah does not leave my mouth and the mouths of my descendants forever. And may it be filled through me: when you walk it will guide you, when you lie down it will protect you, and when you wake, it will converse with you. For in me (Torah) your days will increase and years of life will be added for you. Length of days is in her right hand and in her left, wealth and honor. God will give strength. God will bless God’s nation with peace.”

When we study, we stand not only with our contemporaries but with all those before us who
also revered and treasured their learning. We study so that we can pass on our wisdom and protect our values and link ourselves to generations we have never seen.

This week, we said farewell to this month long celebration of holidays. Let’s hope it was a meaningful farewell, a long nostalgic wave to our calendar that says we will return next fall and do it all again. But as we clear the table and head back to “normal” life, it might be a good time to think about saying hello to a Jewish book that we work our way through, alone or with a study partner. And when we finish, we can join the long procession of scholars who said goodbye to their books only to say hello to others.

Shabbat Shalom

What Are We?

Utter meaningless. Everything is meaningless.
— Ecclesiastes 1:2

We all have moments when we resonate with Ecclesiastes’ maudlin opening: “Everything is meaningless.” Bible scholar Robert Alter translates “hevel” not as meaningless or vanity but as breath. All is vaporous and disappears as quickly as a human breath.  Yet, over Sukkot, when we read Ecclesiastes in the synagogue, this is usually not the sentiment we feel. It’s a harvest holiday. It’s referred to in Hebrew as our time of joy, not our time of existential angst. And, as Ecclesiastes continues, it does not get better. There is no happy ending: “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11)

These verses are reminiscent of others found in our wisdom literature. One in particular stands out. If you walk past Emerson Hall’s philosophy department at Harvard, you’ll find these bold words in capital letters chiseled in stone framing the top of the building. “WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM?” How’s that for an ego boost, as some of the world’s smartest young men and women walk through those doors? Remember: you’re nothing. But, in truth, this is faulty biblical advertising because the psalm continues: “What is man, that You are mindful of him and the son of man that You pay attention to him?” You have made him a little lower than the angels and have crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:5-6). Human buildings are a strange amalgam. We are nothing and something at the same time. 

The Bible scholar, Nahum Sarna, writing on this psalm, captures its dialectic nature:

In a pensive mood, the psalmist muses upon a double paradox. There is the seeming contradiction between God’s transcendence and His immanence: God is beyond the limits of human cognition; yet He has chosen to make His presence indwell in the life of humanity.

Emerson Hall, as I once wrote before, was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a great American writer and thinker who was also a Unitarian minister and headed the Transcendentalist Movement. He was a Harvard student twice. He was first accepted to Harvard at 14 and was graduated at 18 and then returned to study in Harvard’s divinity school and continued his relationship with the university. In the same vein as our quote, Emerson once said, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”

Thinking about the world and our Creator makes us feel small indeed. The human ego must humble itself before a complicated and vast universe of mystery. But to be human is also to assert oneself in that universe in God’s image. This dialectic tension surfaces strongly on Sukkot, where we hold symbols of the harvest, bless them and shake them, often in a sukka, a fragile and temporary building. The sukka reminds us that even buildings of brick and mortar, structures that seem durable and long-lasting, will not last forever. Nothing we humans make will last forever. For now, we are but breath. Breath disappears, true, but it is also that involuntary movement that reminds us that we are still alive, pulsing with gratitude, anxious to create something of importance in this small life we’ve been given. 

If the sign of adult maturity is the capacity to hold contradiction, then Sukkot reminds us to lean into our complex mix of majesty and humility.

Shabbat Shalom

A Universal Altar

Water symbolizes Your might...It reassures, with its drops, those in whom was blown the breath of life.
— Mussaf Prayer Service

A sukka is such a strange little makeshift building. It's usually such a temporary structure that it cannot be made large enough to accommodate many guests, even though we have a tradition of inviting guests and strangers into our sukkot. This itself is a lesson in hospitality. It doesn't matter what our homes look like, it matters how hospitable we are. But some sukkot, as discussed in the mishna, are so small that they could only fit the majority of one person in them. Sometimes we simply cannot build a big sukka so we kvetch out a little space to call our own. 
 
In contrast to the small size of a sukka, consider another less well-known law of sukkot in the ancient days of the Temple. Seventy sacrifices were offered on Sukkot, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world - a number widely assumed to embrace the totality of the ancient world. Each day, the animals offered lessened in number, exactly the opposite of the way one lights Hanukah candles. The Sefer Ha-Hinukh, a medieval compendium of the commandments, suggests that in the merit of this commandment, the enmity of the nations will lessen against Israel. If the sacrifices are offered in the name of foreign nations and they lessen in number over time, then, so too will any bad feelings towards Israel gradually be reduced. Sukkot demands that we create small, alternative homes for ourselves and large overt gestures to the outside world.
 
The Talmud in tractate Sukkot is a little more radical in its assessment of these sacrifices. Rabbi Yohanan, a famous talmudic sage, bemoans the Temple's destruction in an astonishing way: "Woe to the Gentiles who lost so much without realizing that they lost anything at all! When the Temple was standing, the altar gained penitence for them, and now, who will atone on their behalf?" Rabbi Yohanan not only saw the universality of Sukkot and the altar, but felt the pain of the other at losing this opportunity. Everyone must receive the privilege of atonement.
 
Rabbi Yohanan's statement, as merciful as it sounds, also questions the possibility of non-Jews receiving atonement through other agencies. He assumes that without the Temple, they have no other means. This may be an implicit criticism of other religions. Perhaps for this reason does Rashi take another interpretive stance.  In his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi wrote that the 70 sacrifices offered on Sukkot correspond to the 70 nations of the world who are judged, as is Israel, at this season for the year's rainfall.  Rashi is trying to explain what aspect of mercy we are seeking from God with all these sacrifices and identifying a universal concern that we all share.
 
Rain, rather than atonement, is our primary concern. Rashi most likely extracted his explanation from Zechariah 14. There, a strong and definitive case was made against nations who did not take advantage of the Temple's services to the broader community on Sukkot:


"All who survive of all of those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths. Any of the earth's communities that does not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bow low to the King of Hosts shall receive no rain."
 

These verses, harsh as they may sound, advise the whole world to concern itself as an organic, interdependent entity united by that which is pressing for all of humanity. Everyone needs rain, and no one is exempt from praying for it. Although this pre-dates our worry over the ecology by millennia, it reflects many of the same concerns.
 
The prayer for rain, uttered during the Musaf or additional service of Shmini Atzeret, touches us with its urgency and its poetry. There, too, despite the many expressions of a particularistic faith - from patriarchs associated with water to the high priest's water ablutions on Yom Kippur - there is an appeal to the basic needs of us all: "Water symbolizes Your might...It reassures, with its drops, those in whom was blown the breath of life."
 
Images of water and breath, Jew and non-Jew, home and universe, work together in concert as nature meets the divine. Sukkot allows us the dual benefit of living introvertedly and praying extrovertedly.
 
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Sukkot!

Can We Forgive?

…at the time when someone who has done wrong asks for forgiveness, one should forgive with a complete heart and a willing soul. Even if someone pained him and profoundly sinned against him…
— Maimonides, “Laws of Repentance” 2:10

Decades ago, the Nazi hunter and author Simon Wiesenthal wrote The Sunflower, a fictional scenario of an S.S. officer on his deathbed begging for forgiveness from a Holocaust victim. The officer was sincere in his regret, but the victim could only offer him silence - the silence that he felt was the response of so many others to Nazi war crimes: “...Ought I to have forgiven him?” ponders the survivor after the soldier’s death: “Today the world demands that we forgive and forget heinous crimes committed against us. It urges that we draw a line, and close the account as if nothing had ever happened...”
 
Wiesenthal challenges all of us who are not in this difficult position to ponder the same question: can we forgive? “The crux of the matter is, of course, forgiveness. Forgetting is something that time alone takes care of, but forgiveness is an act of volition, and only the sufferer is qualified to make the decision.” Wiesenthal then asked his readership what they would have done in the survivor’s place. He placed this question to writers and theologians and collected the responses in the book.
 
We tend to think it’s harder to ask for forgiveness than it is to forgive. Yet time and again, even after we have technically granted forgiveness, we realize that a residual pain lingers, that we cannot trust again or that a relationship has inherently changed. We have not totally forgiven. This is why Maimonides’ words above are particularly instructive. Let’s repeat them: “...at the time that someone who has done wrong asks for forgiveness, one should forgive with a complete heart and a willing soul. Even if someone pained him and profoundly sinned against him...” It’s not easy to have a complete heart and a willing soul, especially when someone has profoundly hurt you. Maimonides asks us to dig deep in the wells of compassion.
 
I am always struck when people tell me that they simply cannot forgive someone for an offense or an insult, even in this season of forgiveness. It’s almost as if there’s a mental list: I can forgive this but not that, this one but not that one. It’s a list that may never be shared or possibly not even articulated, but it’s there, an invisible barrier to complete healing.
 
There’s another statement of Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance, that speaks directly to the Wiesenthal case. In chapter four, Maimonides lists obstructions to repentance; 24 to be exact. He singles out five of these because “it is impossible for the person who commits them to repent completely.” One of them is “the one who maligns the many without mentioning a specific person from whom he can request forgiveness.” Wiesenthal’s fictional Nazi wanted forgiveness from the many. It can never be granted. There is no one specific to ask who could possibly forgive for this collective, tragic wrong-doing.
 
But what about us? We might watch our gossip against individuals but not hesitate to malign an entire community. We can ask forgiveness from a person. We cannot ask forgiveness from a community. This should give us pause when we’re about to make a cutting judgment, affirm a stereotype or dismiss a group who think or act differently than we do - especially in this tense election season.
 
Forgiveness is a volitional act. We have a choice when we are in the position to forgive completely. Maimonides encourages us to make a positive, compassionate choice. But when we malign a group, we cannot hope for complete forgiveness. It’s best then to be vigilant with our restraint, as Eleanor Roosevelt wisely advised: “To handle yourself, use your head; to handle others, use your heart.”
 
Shabbat Shalom