Living Well

You're Invited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

Going Grey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

How Much is Too Much?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

A Jewish Option B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

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

Going for the Gold

Maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God - for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator, if he is unwell...
— Maimonides, "Laws of Character," 4:1

Has watching the Olympics inspired you to exercise or stretch your fitness goals? I've been pondering this question for the last two weeks and have sadly concluded that I've actually spent more time as a couch potato in front of the TV during the Olympics than I have all year. Having said that, I do feel nightly awe at the way human beings can push the body to be stronger, faster, more agile and more disciplined. Watching these athletes is almost a religious experience.
 
In many faith traditions, the body and soul are regarded as fierce adversaries. The soul is trapped in the body or a victim of the body's desires. The body pushes the soul off the straight and narrow track. This has hardly been the Jewish way. The body is a holy vessel that holds the soul. As such it needs careful tending. Many rabbis over the centuries have pointed to two verses in the beginning of Deuteronomy as proof that we must not harm the body, and we must take excellent care of it. "Do take utmost care and watch over yourselves scrupulously..." [4:9] and "Carefully guard your souls..." (4:15). The Olympics this year happens to converge with the reading of these verses. Coincidence? Maybe not.
 
The chief medieval proponent of a healthy spiritual and physical regime is Maimonides. As a physician and philosopher, the care of both body and soul was essential to his worldview. As a keen follower of Aristotle's golden mean, he stressed the need for moderation in the fulfillment of one's physical needs, particularly in his anthology: "Laws of Character." One should, for example, never eat to full satiation or avoid the benefits of sleep. At the same time, Maimonides advised that people tend the body so that it can house the soul and not for the sake of the body alone. "A person should live by virtue of medicine, but he does not follow a proper path if his sole intention is that his entire body and limbs be healthy and have children who will do his work and toil for him. Rather, he should intend his body to be whole and strong in order for his inner soul to be upright to know God. For it is impossible to understand and become knowledgeable in wisdom when one is starving or sick or when one of his limbs pains him" [3:3].

Maimonides repeated this trope often: "Since maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God - for one cannot understand or have any knowledge of the Creator if he is ill - he must, therefore, avoid that which harms the body and accustom himself to that which is healthful and helps the body become stronger." [4:1] He even suggested a morning routine: "The rule is that he should engage his body and exert himself in a sweat-producing task each morning. Afterwards, he should rest slightly until he regains composure and then he should eat." [4:2]
 
I am not sure Maimonides gave out guarantees, but he was quite confident that if one followed his advise, he would live long and keep Maimonides gratefully unemployed: "Whosoever conducts himself in the ways which we have drawn up, I will guarantee that he will not become ill throughout his life, until he reaches advanced age and dies. He will not need a doctor. His body will remain intact and healthy throughout his life." (4:20)
 
Maimonides believed that taking care of one's body was an expression of wisdom and a way to ensure longevity to engage in spiritual pursuits: "Just as the wise person is recognized through his wisdom and his temperaments and in these, he stands apart from the rest of the people, so, too, he should be recognized through his actions - in his eating, drinking, intimate relations, in relieving himself, in his speech, manner of walking and dress, in the management of his finances, and in his business dealings. All of these actions should be exceptionally becoming and befitting" [5:1]. For a person who is truly wise, intelligence penetrates every life arena.
 
So maybe as the 2016 Olympic summer comes to an end, it's a good time to consider ramping up your exercise routine and committing to better self-care so that you can live better, longer, stronger and more soulfully. Go for the gold.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Giving Tuesday

Anyone to whom a painful incident has happened must announce it publicly so that the public will pray for mercy on his behalf.
— BT Sotah 32b

Wait a minute, it's not Thursday. Why are you getting Weekly Jewish Wisdom today? Because it's Giving Tuesday, and we can't miss this opportunity to think about giving today in a Jewish way. We don't miss an opportunity to give because of an obscure statement in the Talmud that surfaced in last week's daily Talmud study cycle. If anyone has suffered, he or she has an obligation to announce it so that others can pray on his or her behalf.

This is an outgrowth of a law from Leviticus 13:45 that involves a leper announcing his presence among other people. We might think the leper tells others he is approaching with a clapper or a cry to keep people away because of contagion. This may be a medical reality, but the Talmud has an existential reality in mind. When someone announces pain, our responsibility is to come to his or her aid. There cannot be a pronouncement without a response. It is not the Jewish way.

Later on, the Talmud - in its discussion of prayers that can be recited in any language versus those that must be said in Hebrew - concludes that, "When it comes to praying for divine mercy, one may pray in any language one desires," [BT Sota 33a]. People need opportunities to pray for others and to pray for themselves. There is no shame in making oneself vulnerable. The recognition of others and the recognition of our own vulnerabilities is the key to our humanity.

In his seminal article, "The Community," Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik asked, "How is the community formed? The answer is simple: two lonely individuals create a community in the manner that God created the world. What was God's instrument of creation? The word." For Rabbi Soloveitchik, words are the building blocks of community; they are the cement that holds us together. "To recognize a person means to affirm that he is irreplaceable. To hurt a person means to tell him that he is expendable, that there is no need for him." Recognizing a person is taking that person in totally, hearing that person's needs, triumphs, pain. That is why Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that all prayer is in the plural; prayer is an act of recognition of the other.

"The prayer community, it is self-evident, must at the same time be a charity-community, as well. It is not enough to feel the pain of many, nor is it sufficient to pray...We give, we pray for all because we are sensitive to pain; we try to help..." The word is a recognition of the other; the word turns into prayer and prayer turns into action.

If the Talmud tells us to make a public announcement about pain or need to inspire help, then Giving Tuesday is an opportunity to respond publicly and collectively to that pain and share some amazing generosity to inspire us to turn words into action.

David Weissman has been working on behalf of this charity for decades. For hours a day he turns gasoline into love.

So here's something that inspired me. My husband and I were in an Uber this week and talked to the driver about his experience, his hours and the change in the industry that is happening as a result of Uber. He said he retired and started driving for a charity he really cares about. Twenty percent of his earnings goes to the company, 20% to gas and car maintenance and the remaining 60% goes to charity. What charity, we wondered, was the lucky beneficiary of all this driving time? The Israel Sports Center for the Disabled, a pioneer in sports rehabilitation. For over 50 years, the center has helped thousands: those born with disabilities and those who have been injured in military or terrorist incidents. David Weissman, our driver, has been working on behalf of this charity for decades. For hours a day he turns gasoline into love.

If you're thinking about where to give today - no matter the amount - think about David behind the wheel so that kids and adults in wheelchairs can feel empowered and make a donation to the Israel Sports Center for the Disabled in David's honor. Click here.

Today's the day. Turn someone else's cry into a prayer, a word into a deed, and a deed into an act of redemption.

An early Shabbat Shalom to you all.

Live Long and Prosper

“In the merit of which virtues were you blessed with longevity?
— BT Megilla 28a

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy - the biblical book in which we are currently immersed - we find mitzvot framed as ways to lengthen our lives or the quality of our lives. It reminds me of an old TV ad for yogurt featuring seniors with the wrinkled face of walnuts all eating yogurt as the secret to longevity. Health scams often attract people with the promises of youthful aging or stopping the clock - a skin cream that is the elixir of life, a vitamin or an exercise that is the key to getting older and getting better.

 The Talmud sage Rabbi Nehunya ben HaKana [not to be confused with Hakuna Matata] was once asked the question above by his disciples. They rightfully wanted to know from their master teacher what he did to live to such a ripe old age. This begins a larger Talmudic discussion where the sages spill their longevity secrets. Free of cost, I will be sharing many of them with you. Combine them with yogurt eating and you just may live forever!

Rabbi Nehunya: "In all my days, I never attained veneration at the expense of someone's degradation. Nor did my fellow's curse go up with me upon my bed. And I was always openhanded with money." When asked later, by others, he added: "In all my days I never accepted gifts. Nor was I ever inflexible by exacting a measure of retribution against those who wronged me. And I was always openhanded with my money." This rabbi was able to live with an inner security that came from giving: giving people goodwill, granting them forgiveness, and sharing his material wealth (a fact he stresses twice when asked).

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha: "In all my days I never gazed at the likeness of a wicked man." This rabbi achieved old age by surrounding himself with good people who generated positive influences that kept him young at heart and in mind.

Rabbi Zeira: "In all my days I was never angry inside my house. Nor did I ever walk ahead of someone who was a greater Torah scholar than me. Nor did I ever walk four cubits without words of Torah nor without wearing tefillin. Nor did I ever sleep in a study hall, neither a deep sleep nor a brief nap. Nor did I ever rejoice when my fellow stumbled. Nor did I ever call my fellow by a derogatory nickname." This rabbi lived a long time because he abided in humility and sensitivity to others. He was also able to make the most of a meaningful moment by staying fully awake in his own life.

What fascinates me, in addition to the answers, is the sheer premise made by these ancient rabbis more than two thousand years ago. They believed that with great reflection and wisdom, they could hazard a guess about their longevity. Instead of berating themselves for all that they did wrong in the past and might repeat in the future, they were able to look back with pride at the lives of virtue that they crafted. They could identify behaviors and tendencies that made the quality of life deep and worthwhile.

You don't have to be old to do that. You do have to take some time to ask why God blessed you with the very particular life you lead. You do have to believe that you were created in the divine image at this specific point in time and history to make certain contributions. In what merit are you here right now? What have you done to deserve this life, in the most positive sense? 

This Shabbat - as we begin to cap the summer and welcome the High Holidays - perhaps we can each take some time to reflect as individuals and as families about our larger question of purpose the way that the sages did and to pat ourselves on the back for the good that we do.

 What acts of virtue or acts of restraint have you done to receive the gift of life today?

 Shabbat Shalom