A Tree Grows In Babylonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

Raising Kids to Give

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

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

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

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

The Public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

Your H.Q

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

Last Minute Surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Eternal Home

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

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

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

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

Shared Pot

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

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

Across the Sea

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

Name the last miracle that happened to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a miracle mind?

Shabbat Shalom


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.


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