To Stand or Sit

“But as for you, stand here with Me
— Deuteronomy 5:27

There is an argument taking place among writers right now. Is it better ergonomically to write while sitting or to write while standing? Hemingway used to write while standing as did Nabakov. We've see an emergence of the writing desk and even the treadmill desk for those who can really multi-task. A. J. Jacobs devotes a section in his book Drop Dead Healthy to this question, saying "The desk is where most of the Crimes of Excessive Sedentary Behavior occur." Since he wrote this book to experiment with ways to achieve optimal health, he piled 3 cardboard boxes on top of each other on his desk and started to answer e-mails.

"It didn't go badly," he writes. "I shifted and rocked a lot. I kind of looked like an Orthodox Jew praying at the Western Wall, but with a MacBook instead of a Torah." His breakthrough came when he followed the advice of Dr. James Levine of the Mayo Clinic and rigged a desk on his treadmill, what some have called deskercise and others have termed iPlodding. He wanted to write the whole book on this desk and even includes a picture of his invention. He claims it helps him focus.

Because our sedentary behavior cause aches and pains, scholars of old also took on this question. Is it better to sit or stand while learning Torah?

In the Talmud [BT Megilla 21a], the beautiful imperative above - to stand with Me - was understood as an ancient way we partnered with God. "The phrase 'with Me' indicates, as it were, even the Holy One, Blessed be He, was standing [at Mount Sinai]." We never think of God as standing with us at Sinai but as giving us something. The idea that God was not only giving us teachings but also standing beside us to support the way that we received them has great value in helping us understand the nature of transmission.

The Talmud then extrapolates, as it so often does. If God stood with us at Sinai to teach us, then teachers must also stand by their students when teaching them: "From where is it derived that the teacher should not sit on a couch and teach his disciple while he is sitting on the ground? "But as for you, stand here with Me." To this, one sage added, "From the days of Moses until the time of Rabban Gamliel [grandson of Hillel], they would study Torah while standing." Standing was a way of honoring Torah and an act akin to receiving the Torah at Sinai again. It was also a way to honor the teacher/disciple relationship. If we want people to really learn, we go to where they are to teach them. Why did this practice change, the Talmud ponders? "When Rabban Gamliel died, weakness descended to the world, and they would study Torah while sitting." 

Sitting while teaching was a sign of weakness. The sages debated the point. In Deuteronomy, one verse says, "And I sat on the mount" while another says, "And I stood on the mount" (Deuteronomy 10:10). This is interpreted by the sage Rav to mean that "Moses would stand and learn Torah from God and sit and review what he learned." Rabbi Hanina said, "Moses was not sitting or standing but bowing." Rabbi Yohanan believed this means that Moses simply stayed in one place when he taught where Rava said, "Moses studied easy material while standing and difficult material while sitting."

We have constructed very set spaces for learning that may not optimize our study. Our imaginations are often locked into the classrooms of our childhoods: desks evenly spaced apart facing the teacher's desk in neat rows. Very little about real learning, the integration of knowledge and wisdom develop this way. The Talmud understood that when we learn we need movement.

The Talmudic passage also made me think of the expression "to stand with Israel." We mean that we are together in unity and support. But I thought of Rava's contribution to this debate. Moses studied easy material while standing and difficult material while sitting. It may be easier to stand with Israel than to sit with Israel, to consider the complex and nuanced ways we can support our homeland in crisis. Slogans, reverse racism, simple political bantering are ways that people tend to protest - to stand with Israel - but real, long-term solutions can never be reduced to a simple formula. They always involve loss, anguish, compromise, patience, diplomacy and resilience.

It's time to stand with Israel and to sit with Israel, too.

Shabbat Shalom

Let Silence Speak

“When I speak, I have reason to regret. But when I am silent, I have nothing to regret. Before I speak, I am master over my words; once the words leave my mouth, they rule over me.
— Rabbi Judah the Pious

I don't know about you, but I am getting a little tired of all the words spilled over the war in Gaza: the talking heads, the inane Facebook posts, the political rhetoric, the empty words, the angry words, the uncharitable words. So few of these words add clarity. They don't even add confusion. They just add to the mountain of talk that dissipates quickly when you see one profound visual image of anguish on either side.

I thought of this frustration when I encountered the following passage in the daily cycle of Talmud study this week: "What is the meaning of this that is written: 'For You, silence is praise [Psalms 65:2]? The best remedy of all is silence. When Rabbi Dimi came [from Israel to Babylonia], he said: In the West [Israel], they say, 'If a word is worth one sela, silence is worth two'" [BT Megilla18a]. I know what you're thinking: how much is a sela worth? Is it worth it to be quiet? Well in the days of the Talmud we used the Roman monetary system, and a sela was called a Tyrian Tetradrachm. 1,500 selas make up one talent, and 3,000 selas make the equivalent of a Biblical shekel, according to my research. What this means is that your silence is not worth very much, but it is worth twice your words!

One later Talmud commentator interprets this to mean that coming up with an appropriate comment is worth one sela, but refraining from making an inappropriate comment is worth twice as much. Wit is always trumped by restraint. This makes sense. While we may regret not sharing a poignant observation or clever retort, that missed opportunity will always be easier to live with than the insult, hurt or backhanded compliment that we do say. Rabbi Judah the Pious [R. Yehuda Ha-Hasid], a medieval scholar, says above that you cannot regret the words you do not say and that just the act of letting words leave your mouth allows them to master you rather than the other way around. Mastering silence - or zipping the lip - requires a level of personal discipline that speaking does not.

Because we also pay a psychic price for words we regret, we can understand how silence also protects us, not only others. And the proverb from Ethics of the Fathers: "I have found nothing better for my body than silence" [1:17] confirms this. Silence is not only a wise choice in regard to others but a way that we protect, nourish and defend ourselves physically because the price of poor judgment in words can create stress: ulcers and muscle aches, headaches and heartaches.

In Ecclesiastes we read the famous line "a time to speak and a time to be silent" [3:7], but how do we know what time is the right time for speech and the right time for silence? Here are five questions that may help you decide:

  • Will this hurt someone?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it helpful?
  • Does it make a genuine contribution to the discussion at hand?
  • How will I feel if the person I am speaking about hears this?

We are now in the nine day period leading up to Tisha B'av. We read the book of Lamentations. It starts not with a word but with a sigh. It is a time when people are often more cautious about physical danger. It is a good time to be more cautious about spiritual and emotional danger by watching out for gossip and lies, hurtful speech and criticism. Let your silence protect you as the better part of wisdom. Silence creates the sacred space to hear better. If the world remains unlittered by our words, there is more room for the words of others. Let silence speak.

Shabbat Shalom

You Are Not Alone

“Judaism has always looks upon the individual as if he were a little world; with the death of the individual, this little world comes to an end.”
— Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik

A number of Facebook posts this week requested that people in Israel attend Max Steinberg's funeral. As a lone solider  - a soldier who decides to serve in the IDF from another country and is thus without family - Max was one of 13 killed in the fighting this past weekend. Max's friends  - and even strangers - were understandably concerned that Max would not have a lot of people to send him off to his eternal resting place. 

Max's death and the death of anyone who gives his or her life in service to others raises the profound and niggling philosophical question of the rights of the individual in relationship to the community. What is my responsibility to others? What are the limitations of my responsibility? How do I achieve community?  The quote above, by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his article "The Community," stresses that each person must treat himself and be treated by others as no other. We will weave excerpts of his article into Max's story.

“Each individual possesses something unique, rare, which is unknown to others; each individual has a unique message to communicate, a special color to add to the communal spectrum.

Max joined the army six months after visiting Israel with Birthright. His parents had never been to Israel. His network of family and friends there was not deep. His mother told NBC news what any mother would have: "I never thought I'd have to bury my child. It's not supposed to be that way." His mother wanted him to be buried near her in Los Angeles, but when she got to Israel, she understood why he needed to be buried there, to be near what was newly important to him.

[A human being] is a single, lonely being, not belonging to any structured collectivity. He is also a thou-related being, who co-exists in companionship with someone else.

Max's family learned something about us. Death is a gruesome teacher. But when we mourn the loss of one person, we do so as a group, a collective entity that recognizes and acknowledges that we are not whole without the presence of even one. You cannot be Jewish alone. You always exist in companionship with someone else, even at moments when you are painfully on your own.

The originality and creativity in man are rooted in his loneliness-experience, not in his social awareness. The singleness of man is responsible for his singularity; the latter, for his creativity. Social man is superficial: he imitates, he emulates. Lonely man is profound: he creates, he is original.

Max's friends who posted their concern, need not have. Trust in our people. We show up. We are there because Max may have been a lone soldier but he was never a soldier alone. There was nothing to worry about - other than everything else to worry about - because 30,000 people were there to pay their respects to Max and to thank him for his service to his country and his people. 

Halacha [Jewish law] says to man: Don’t let your neighbor drift along the lanes of loneliness; don’t permit him to become remote and alienated from you...

Josh Flaster, who leads a group that supports lone soldiers in Israel described Max this way: "Max was a small guy with a big heart...He put himself at risk throughout his service to look after other soldiers who might have been in danger. He wasn't eight feet tall but he acted like he was."

Lonely man is a courageous man; he is a protester; he fears nobody; whereas social man is a compromiser, a peacemaker...

We attend funerals of soldiers who are strangers because they protected us even though we are strangers. We are a world full of strangers who often exist solely because of the kindness of strangers. 

...when lonely man joins the community, he adds a new dimension to community awareness. He contributes something which no one else could have contributed. He enriches the community existentially; he is irreplaceable

Max, I don't know you. And now I never will. But I know one thing about you. You are irreplaceable.

Shabbat Shalom