Fishing for Ideas

The light of the eyes gladdens the heart...
— Proverbs 15:30

According to this verse in Proverbs, there is a direct line between the eyes and the heart. Having taught this verse and its interpretation many times, I've found three distinct understandings of what kind of light has the power to make the heart happy. Rashi believes that aesthetic sights have this impact: mountains and lakes, for example. Beauty provides light and makes us joyful. Rabbi David Altshuler, an eighteenth century exegete, claims that removing oneself from doubt creates happiness, in other words personal en-light-enment. Gersonides (1288-1344), a French commentator, believes that what gladdens the heart are the gifts of the intellect; when the light bulb goes off we find ourselves experiencing deep pleasure.

Let's stay with this last view for a moment. We can appreciate that the world of ideas offers personal satisfaction, but it also generates challenge and restlessness. Where do great ideas come from anyway? In an interesting comparison, the Talmud equates idea-catching to fishing. "This is analogous to a fisherman pulling fish from the sea. When he finds big ones he takes them and when he finds small ones, he takes them as well." You present one significant idea but then add additional responses or justifications to prove a point, even if they are not as compelling. But there is a contrary opinion, of course: "This is analogous to a fisherman pulling fish from the sea. He takes small ones then finds big ones, discards the small ones and keeps the big ones" [BT Bava Kamma 41b-42a]. If you are fishing for ideas, and you come across a really terrific one, you let go of the earlier iterations. In other words, do you keep minor ideas along with the main one or when you discover something really big, do you throw away the smaller ideas because you don't need them anymore?

 In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant, professor at Wharton, contends that original thinkers are not always good at judging their own ideas but,

If originals aren't reliable judges of the quality of their ideas, how do they maximize their odds of creating a masterpiece? They come up with a large number of ideas. Simonton [professor of psychology Dean Keith Simonton] finds that on average, creative geniuses weren't qualitatively better in their fields than their peers. They simply produced a greater volume of work, which gave them more variation and a higher chance of originality.

Grant also writes that, "Being original doesn't require being first. It just means being different and better." In his book and his interesting TED talk of the same title, he confesses that he is a pre-crastinator. He gets work done before deadlines. As a professor, he has a lot of student procrastinators who convince themselves that they get their best ideas last minute. Who generates better ideas: early birds or late ones? In truth, neither. He argues that original thinking often emerges when someone begins the creative process early, takes a break and returns to it later, getting the benefit of additional cooking time. "Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity" and then adds this zinger: "Timing accounted for forty-two percent of the difference between success and failure."

From a spiritual perspective, we believe that great ideas can be inspired by higher thinking, prayer and mindfulness. We often say of geniuses that they are touched by God. In Jewish tradition, we pray to have the brain power to make good decisions, come up with innovative ideas and handle situations with intellectual maturity. In the blessing immediately before the Shema, we pray that God should, "...have compassion on us and put into our hearts the comprehension to understand and to be intellectually creative, to listen, to learn and to teach, to preserve, to practice and to fulfill all the words of instruction in Your Torah." Moments later in the Amidah or Eighteen Benedictions, we make a formal request for divine intelligence: "You favor humans with perception and teach mankind understanding. Grant us from Your perception, understanding and intellect. Blessed are You, God, Grantor of perception."

We ask God to grant us a sliver of divine intelligence, suggesting, with humility, that all our great ideas may not belong to us at all. If we're lucky, we stumble upon a few and feel grateful that our own originality is built on the shoulders of the giants who came before us.

Shabbat Shalom

The Blues

Dear Officer,
These must be deeply troubling days for you, watching the news, watching the streets. I was talking to a friendly security guard once, and I asked him about his family. He and his wife are both retired police officers who do freelance work. He told me that his son is in a police academy, studying to be an officer. "You must be so proud that he followed in both of your footsteps," I said. He paused, looked at me quite seriously and replied: "No. We told him not to do it. It's a terrible time to be a police officer." That was last year. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to count yourself as part of a police force today.
Jews have always valued the role of the police. We thank you profoundly for your service. In Deuteronomy, we read, "You shall appoint judges and police officers at all your gates that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice," [16:18].  There is something regal about this verse, its weighty assumption that appointing people to guard over justice will ensure a civil society where fairness and safety reign. Immediately preceding this verse is the commandment that Jews celebrate the three major festivals - Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot - with a pilgrimage to the Temple. There, God will bless the people. Two Bible commentators connect these very different verses this way: no matter if you are obligated in the observance of these festivals and will, upon arriving, consult the priests there about Jewish law, "it will not be sufficient unless there are judges and officers at all your gates" [Hizkuni]. In other words, the spiritual world, in order for it to unfold, depends on upholding the integrity of society as a whole. You try to do that for us everyday.
Another interesting connection between these two disparate passages is articulated by the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin [1816-1893], namely, that blessing will be found when people honor those who judge and assure their safety. If you want a blessed community, make sure that you demonstrate proper respect to those who work for the public good.
Hate to get all scholarly on you, but I wanted to share a modern reading of this verse with you from Jeffrey Tigay. He takes a different approach in hi commentary on Deuteronomy:

Prominence is given to the limits established by God on the rights of each authority. By dispersing authority and prestige among various officials and limiting their powers, Deuteronomy seeks to prevent the development of a single, strong focus of prestige and power. That these limitations are here made known to the public is an important and original feature of the Torah. It lays the ground for public supervision and criticism of human authorities, and prevents them from gaining absolute authority and prestige.  Knowledge of these limitations empower citizens to resist and protest abuses of authority.

There are real concerns about abuses of power within the police now. I don't have to tell you that. We see this tension in the interpretation above - is this verse about protecting judges and the police or about protecting the people - makes for lively debate and helps us understand some of the living tensions we are all experiencing in these dark days of episodic protests, riots and violence by police and against them.

Yet, with all the conversations about race and police brutality that are shaking the country, many question the behavior of officers without considering their public service and their safety. Without in any way justifying police violence, in the shadow of Dallas, we all have to feel the sting and irony of this painful situation. Police don't always make us feel safe, and officers like you may not feel safe because protesters are lashing out at you. It makes a mockery of authority. In our ancient Talmudic tradition, we read this: "Pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive."
We know there are bad police, but that's not who you are. You've given your professional life to the service of our community. Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), former prime minister of the UK, had this to say about your commitment: "The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence." We are told in Deuteronomy to appoint officers. It's not enough to appoint police officers. We have to find ways to honor and appreciate you more because you help us live up to our own highest expectations of ourselves.
God bless you,


Where is God?

If I have problems with God, why should I blame the Sabbath?
— Eli Wiesel

In One Generation After, Elie Wiesel – of blessed memory - tells a short story that is long on meaning. Every morning, the beadle of a synagogue rushed to the bimah – the reader’s platform – and shouted with pride and anger: “I have come to inform you, Master of the Universe, that we are here.” Massacre after massacre hit the village, but the beadle survived and kept up his daily pounding on the lectern: “You see, Lord, we are still here.” The last massacre left the beadle alone in the deserted synagogue. He came up to the Ark and “whispered in infinite gentleness: ‘You see? I am still here.’ He stopped briefly before continuing in his sad, almost toneless voice: ‘But You, where are You?’” 

As we collectively mourn the loss of a great contemporary hero, much ink has been spilled on Elie Wiesel’s concern for humanity and memory, how he masterfully bore witness to tragedy and dignified the survivor, forcing the world into an uncomfortable look in the mirror at its complacency.  Challenging us, he demanded that memory not only preserve and shape the past but that it also set a moral agenda for the future. Less has been written, however, about Wiesel’s theology, how despite anger at God, he maintained his own observance and his own wrestling with God, a continuous if not tormenting presence.

In answer to the question of his faith leaving him during the Holocaust, he deflected in a fictive conversation. “I said I refuse to speak about God, here in this place. To say yes would be to lie. To say no – also. If need be, I would confront Him with an angry shout, a gesture, a murmur. But to make of Him – here – a theological topic, that I won’t do! God – here – is the extra bowl of soup pushed at you or stolen from you, simply because the man ahead of you is either stronger or quicker than you. God – here – cannot be found in humble or grandiloquent phrases, but in a crust of bread…Which you have had or are about to have?...which you will never have (Dialogues I).

Wiesel found God guilty in his literary court but and still went to the synagogue to pray. He loved old Jewish melodies, and his own melodious speaking voice was hypnotizing whenever I heard him lecture. As I looked at the string of his books in our personal library, I noticed so many more were about Hasidic tales than about survivor fears, as if nostalgia gripped him and made him a storyteller for magical sects that he was not a part of after the war. The Hasidic tale also provides a framework for lived theology; it may have allowed him permission to fight God without walking away from God.

Wiesel has been likened to an ancient prophet and inspired me to open A. J. Heschel’s book, The Prophets, to seek in its pages something descriptive of this man. Heschel did not disappoint, with this description of a prophet’s worldview: “It is a divine attentiveness to humanity, an involvement in history, a divine vision of the world in which the prophet shares and which he tries to convey. And it’s God’s concern for man that is at the root of the prophet’s work to save the people.” 

Today, many people valorize heresy as a sort of intellectual status symbol, suggesting that sophisticated people are beyond faith. Elie Wiesel helped us grieve the past with immense pride as a moral ambassador who was unabashedly Jewish. He also left a legacy of complicated faith that challenges us to reinvestigate what it means to live in relationship to God, not only through the tragedy of Auschwitz but also through the abundance of Jewish life after that horrible chapter closed.

Shabbat Shalom

What is Rest?

Our God and God of our ancestors, find favor in our rest...
— Traditional Shabbat Afternoon Prayer

In Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now, Maya Angelou shares a compelling definition of rest: "Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence. Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us." In her words, our concerns and anxieties don't willingly leave us, but we can make a conscious decision to leave them, at least for a brief respite so that we can recover the energy to enter the fray again.

Rest is more than a good idea. God actually demands and models it, as we read in the opening chapters of Genesis. "By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that which He had done" [Genesis 2:2-3]. God worked so we work. God rested so we rest.
Yet we are not sure what we are supposed to do when resting. Is it the absence of activity or engaging in alternate activities? Is it doing something or doing nothing? I was thinking about this one late Shabbat afternoon in a prayer service. We ask, in our silent meditation, that God accept our rest. In other words, it has to be a rest that is divine-worthy. So let's say I go to sleep, but I wake up and do not feel rested, that might not get God's metaphoric stamp of approval. It does raise the bar on what a great rest might look and feel like. The passage that precedes this statement hints at what divine-worthy rest looks like:
"Splendor of greatness and a crown of salvation is the day of rest. You have given Your people...a rest of love and generosity, a rest of truth and faith, a rest of peace and tranquility, calm and trust; a complete rest in which You find favor. May your children recognize and know that their rest comes from You, and that by their rest they sanctify Your name." It seems like our rest needs to be loving and generous, truthful, faithful, peaceful, calm, trusting and complete. And it needs to be recognized as God-sanctioned. Instead of offering clarity, this prayer seems to make rest harder to attain. Imagine a mattress store advertising its wares this way: our beds are guaranteed to make you generous and trusting.
My other question is why tell us this as we're almost parting from Shabbat? It would make more sense to put this up front, say on a Friday night, to create rest expectations or, my newest made-up expression, "great restpectations." Instead we insert it in our prayers when we've already gotten up from a nap. I was discussing this with my friend, Adina Israel, and she suggested that the language used here is not uncommon. We hope, after we do particular Jewish rituals, that they have been done well, the prayer equivalent of a survey or evaluation. Rate your resting, 1 to 10. Would you recommend this rest to a friend? It comes at the near-end of Shabbat to help us look back retrospectively and ask ourselves if we truly rested, and if we achieved not only physical recovery and calm but an inner calm that allows us to be less harried, more generous, more loving, more trusting. If you wake up from a nap grouchy, your Shabbat rest may not be what God had in mind.
You can disconnect from technology and not really disconnect mentally from the week behind you. Shabbat can become just another busy day, one over-stuffed with social activities and obligations of a different kind. But rest was built into creation as a weekly gift of recovery and renewal, and it should be so deep that it makes us better human beings.
What can you do to feel really rested?
Shabbat Shalom

A Spiritual Bucket List?

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
— Psalms 90:12

This summer is a great time to check things off of your bucket-list. The pace is slower. Vacations often create opportunities to travel the world or to start or deepen a hobby. If you go on, you can create your own bucket list and compare your lists to others. The last time I looked, the site claims 48,924 participants with 889,936 goals. That's a lot to do. Better get them done quickly. You might run out of time.
This time-limitation helps us appreciate the verse above, the wisdom to live life fully awake. “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” [Psalms 90:12] And it pays to start now, according to the Hebrew Bible, because we don’t control time. “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring,” [Proverbs 27:1].” We make our plans, and then find out that there are other plans waiting for us. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” [Proverbs 16:9]. On the other hand, when we live life to the fullest, we do have a sense of the spiritual abundance that God has in store: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy...” [Psalms 16:11].
Popular bucket-list goals on include skydiving (of course), swimming with sharks, spending the night in an underwater hotel and experiencing zero gravity.  I got the feeling as I scanned the popular lists that doing some of these activities may actually precipitate death. This would most certainly compromise the actualization of any other goals on a bucket list.
You can imagine that the other winner category on are sites around the globe to visit before you go, ala 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I wish the author would have picked a number less ambitious like 11. That would have been more doable. I might have even bought a second volume. There are a lot of travel goals on the bucket-list site: visiting Stonehenge, standing in the Sistine Chapel, straddling the Equator, eating sushi in Japan. These do seem worthy of a bucket list. But they require significant financing, time and careful planning.
Kissing passionately in the rain (shared by 944 others), giving blood (581) or laughing until you cry (475), however, just seemed too banal to merit a place on any list. That was also true for learning CPR or eating a slice of Spam. Really? You can’t do better than that? People, where is your imagination?
I struggle with society’s understanding of a bucket-list. If we are going to check off anything, it better be the experiences that make life worth living before the checklist runs out. I have opted for a different bucket list, one that has emotional, spiritual or intellectual goals that offer depth, breadth and heft to life. What about organizing a family reunion this summer or writing down your memoirs, going to a silent retreat or reconciling with a sibling? Few of us can say that we have really prayed, really spent meditative time in wonder or told a friend just how much he or she has meant to us. Let’s say at 87 you jumped out of a plane with a parachute and a prayer and can tweet that to all your friends. It’s still not going to fix the broken relationship you have with your estranged son.
We have many deathbed scenes in Tanakh, enough to help us realize that although our biblical heroes did not use the rather crass term “bucket list,” they had a very deep understanding that the last words, blessings and demands one makes are listened to with a different kind of attention. There is also a strong sense, whether standing beside Abraham, Jacob or King David’s deathbed that these towering figures needed to say what they did before they left this world to those who were staying.
You will not be repeating this life. Every day is a chance to squeeze a little bit more out of this blessed existence. So what are you waiting for?
 Shabbat Shalom

After Orlando

For what are we?
— Exodus 16:7

For most of us, the very word “Orlando” surfaces images of childhood fantasies. Whether you are at Disney World, Universal Studios or an actor playing a Mormon missionary and dreaming of the place you’d most like to be stationed, Orlando represents something innocent in the minds of most Americans. Until now...
When events like this shatter a piece of our comfortable assumptions about safety, security and tolerance, we often move from the initial stage of bewilderment to anger and then to questioning basic assumptions about our shared humanity. It is this last stage that is most pernicious because it eats away at hope and optimism. Years ago, I came across this translation of a passage from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi of what was then Palestine, in the introduction to Herbert Wiener’s Nine and Half Mystics. It gave him hope. It's always given me hope.

As long as the world moves along accustomed paths, as long as there are no wild catastrophes, man can find sufficient substance for his life by contemplating surface events, theories and movements of society. He can acquire his inner richness from this external kind of “property.” But this is not the case when life encounters fiery forces of evil and chaos. Then the “revealed” world begins to totter. The man who tries to sustain himself only from the surface aspects of existence will suffer terrible impoverishment, begin to stagger...then he will feel welling up within himself a burning thirst for that inner substance and vision which transcends the obvious surfaces of existence and remains unaffected by the world’s catastrophes. From such inner sources, he will seek the waters of joy...

Rabbi Kook adds an important stage to traveling through the kind of emotions many of us are experiencing this week. When an event pushes us deeply out of the complacent and familiar, we are forced to search for a language of reason and meaning to get us out of the existential mess. When our revealed world - the one we know - totters, we stagger but then find that this itself releases a desire for something greater and more meaningful to carry us above the pain.
In the biblical verse above, Moses and Aaron encounter an Israelite nation who complain sharply against God because they were hungry and unsure of their collective future. They murmur so harshly that Moses asked himself and Aaron: what are we? Rashi interprets this to mean: “Of what importance are we?...Your sons, your wives, your daughters and the mixed multitude” are murmuring against us.  On the face of it, this is a crushing moment in the leadership of two biblical heroes. But in mystical literature, this reads as a turning point. Only when Moses and Aaron humbled themselves with this question, were they truly able to rise in service to the people.
How does this work? Fasten your seatbelts and we will read Rabbi Kook’s interpretation of this verse through the translation of Daniel Matt in The Essential Kabbalah:   

The greater you are the more you need to search for your self. Your deep soul hides itself from consciousness. So you need to increase aloneness, elevation of thinking, penetration of thought, liberation of mind - until finally your soul reveals itself to you, spangling a few sparkles of her light.”

Rabbi Kook believed that were an individual to reach this very elevated station of personal growth, he or she would abandon the ego and his or her individuation, melting into a state of unity, “becoming one with everything that happens.” At this stage, “you gather everything, without hatred, jealousy, or rivalry. The light of peace and a fierce boldness manifest in you. The splendor of compassion and the glory of love shining through you. The desire to act and work, the passion to create and to restore yourself, the yearning for silence and for the inner shout of joy - all these band together in your spirit, and you become holy.” [Orot Ha-Kodesh 3:270]
In other words, when we reach a true state of righteousness, we don’t see the differences among us. We rise above all the fractiousness and smallness of being human and achieve wholeness. For Rabbi Kook, this is not a serene, lonely state but a fierce boldness with the capacity to allow love to shine through oneself to others.
Now is the time for a fierce boldness of love and unity that comes from every person transforming the same question - “What are we?”  - from the rhetorical, self-deprecating question of our human capacity for evil to the “What are we?” question of how little divides us ultimately when we overcome judgment and jealousy, pettiness of heart and smallness of spirit.
So what are you?
Shabbat Shalom

Ruth and Food

She ate her fill and had some left over.
— Ruth 2:13

Forget the cheesecake. If we really wanted to eat a genuine Shavuot menu, we’d pass out the roasted grain and bread dipped in vinegar. I know what you’re thinking. Yum. Where can I get some of that? Answer: I have no idea. Maybe Bethlehem, where the story takes place? These are the foods mentioned in the Book of Ruth. In the Hebrew Bible generally, we have food mentioned very rarely; we have little idea what our heroes and she-roes of old ate and drank. When these details are offered to us, they generally communicate something far beyond the food itself.
Because Elimeleh, Naomi and their two sons leave a place called “House of Bread” to Moab, a tribal nation that denied us food during our wilderness sojourn, we sense that something will go very wrong in the story. What we don’t expect is the death of three family members and the devastating loss and grief that Naomi experienced as a result. In addition to the famine in Canaan that precipitated the move to Moab, this family lived in a time of great political, spiritual and social unrest. We know that simply by a few Hebrew words from the book’s first verse: “And it happened in the days when the judges ruled...” The Book of Judges offers us sordid tales of violence, our first bouts of idolatry, political instability, and faith under fire. It is also a book where food or hospitality are denied. Gideon was denied bread, and the “hospitality” of chapter 19 takes us straight back to Sodom.
Yael Ziegler, in her excellent book Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy does a deep dive into the comparison of these two books, that take place at the same time but offer divergent portraits of society. Along with many contrasts, Ziegler notes the generous giving of food in the Book of Ruth: "Ruth records repeated situations in which characters generously provide food for each other...Food, given generously and unhesitatingly, becomes the symbol of a society in which social cohesiveness and basic decency form the core.” The opposite is also the case in the Book of Judges, as she observes: “During this era, the Nation of Israel has lost all semblance of social cohesiveness, along with a basic decency to offer food to those in need. Food symbolizes the depth of alienation that prevails in this society.”
Here are a few salient examples of the way that food serves as a love language in the book: “At mealtime, Boaz said to her, ‘Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in vinegar.’ When she sat down with the harvesters, he offered her some roasted grain. She ate her fill and had some left over” [Ruth 2:13]. Boaz had been kind enough in letting Ruth remain in his field and protecting her from the clutches of his workers. He tells her to take water but when she makes her way over, he offers her much more. First water. Then bread. Then roasted grain. Ruth, who harvests in poverty, is actually full from this meal and then she pays the kindness forward. She saves the leftovers and delivers them to her mother-in-law.
Later in the same chapter, we find Ruth harvesting with great zeal and endurance; she offers the gift of her labors to her mother-in-law, coupling kindness with security. Her intake was so great, it delights and tells Naomi that they will be safe this season. They will not go hungry: “So Ruth gleaned in the field until evening. Then she threshed the barley she had gathered, and it amounted to about an ephah. She carried it back to town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gathered. Ruth also brought out and gave her what she had left over after she had eaten enough. Her mother-in-law asked her, ‘Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!’” Naomi understood immediately that Ruth had landed in the fields of someone good-hearted, pairing her daughter-in-law’s work ethic with someone else’s generosity.
As a close to the humiliating mistake of going to the threshing floor in the middle of the night to seek Boaz in marriage, Boaz gives her a present. The shawl that she threw across him signifying marriage would not be used for this purpose but another: “He also said, ‘Bring me the shawl you are wearing and hold it out.’ When she did so, he poured into it six measures of barley and placed the bundle on her.” [3:5]. She did not go home a bride but did go home “armed” with a gift that would assure her and Naomi that love and security were on the immediate horizon.
On Shavuot, we honor our past not by the kind of cheesecake or blintzes we serve but in how we serve them. The Book of Ruth reminds us that food is a powerful symbol of generosity. Put and extra dollop of love in your meals. And maybe it’s not only the food on our holiday table that matters but who surrounds us at the table. Ruth and Boaz nudge us to give food away to those who are hungry, needy and anxious about their next meal. No one should feel empty on our holidays. Celebrate Shavuot with a gift to a food pantry or volunteer in a food shelter.
The simple act of serving food with love on Shavuot is delicious.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Holidays.


Working Hard or Hardly Working?

She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.
— Ruth 2:7.

Last week I saw a middle-aged man wearing a popular T-shirt: “Hard work never killed anyone, but why risk it?” I’m used to seeing this kind of thing on teenagers but never on someone his age. Did he buy it for himself, or worse, did his boss purchase it for him? We’ll never know, and I wasn’t about to ask. The slogan feeds into a certain attitude about work that sanctifies laziness and makes it into an art form. Even Anne Frank admitted the attraction of laziness but believed that only work could bring a true sense of satisfaction.

In Genesis, God works and then rests and demands that we do the same. God also had a six-day work week, embedding in creation the notion of purpose that comes through industry. Perhaps in no biblical character is this work ethic more apparent than in Ruth. One might argue that Jacob worked very hard and under poor, exploitative conditions, for his father-in-law Laban, but he did this out of love. Ruth works simply to sustain herself and her mother-in-law. She was also a woman in a man’s world, as testified by the verse where Boaz makes sure that no men harass her in the fields while she is gleaning.

Ruth asked special permission to work, understanding that gleaning in the fields as pauper, widow and convert would have been degrading to her mother-in-law, who left Bethlehem as a woman of means and returned empty: “And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.’ Naomi said to her, ‘Go ahead, my daughter.’”[Ruth 2:2] At this point, there was little either could do but rely on the kindness of strangers.

But the fact that Ruth was prepared to work does not indicate that she worked hard. Our proof comes from a third-party observer. Boaz had an overseer who spent his days supervising the activity in the fields. When Boaz spots a new young woman gleaning, he notices her hard work and asks the overseer about her. “The overseer replied, ‘She is the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi. She said, ‘Let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She came into the field and has remained here from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter.’”[Ruth 2:6-7]

Nothing like a little workplace gossip. People of the town knew that a Moabite woman had come back with their old neighbor Naomi. Her conversion did not seem to register. As far as they were concerned, she was still a foreigner, but she won the admiration of this supervisor because she worked all day with nary a break in the hot Middle Eastern sun.

The Talmud states that a father is obligated to teach his child a trade. [BT Kiddushin 29-30]. Failure to do so may result in thievery because the child who becomes an adult with no dignified way to make a living may resort to crime. People need money to live. Yet later on in the same tractate, sages weighed in on preferred trades. Don’t be a donkey or camel driver, a pot maker, a sailor a shepherd or a store-keeper. Some of these professions were associated with deceit or long absences. One sage naturally believes that Torah is the perfect trade, as it “preserves one from all evil and in his youth it provides one with a future and a hope in his old age.” 

The Talmud also makes a general observation about work. “Rabbi Meir says, ‘A person should always teach his son a clean and easy trade and pray to the One to Whom wealth and property belong, as there is no trade that does not include both poverty and wealth. Poverty does not come from a particular trade, rather all is in accordance with a person’s merit.’” Work goes in cycles of success. Be righteous and you may find more success in what you do. 

In any event, no matter what your work, Ruth teaches us not only the value of kindness but the importance of hard work. And if you don’t learn it from Ruth, then try Babe Ruth: “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.”

Shabbat Shalom

The Hidden and Revealed Name

This is My name forever.
— Exodus 3:15

One of the great religious wonders in Jewish tradition is how to pronounce God’s name; the sense of its ineffability adds to the oblique question of who and what God is. In Exodus 3, after Moses questioned who he was to take on his leadership role, he immediately transitioned to who God is, in verses that wrap the mystery in an enigma: “Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Glad we cleared that up.

According to the Ten Commandments, we are not allowed to take God’s name in vain, which is not hard when we have no idea what God’s name actually is or how to pronounce it. To clarify, we use an English term that makes it all better: the Tetragrammaton. Judges of this weekend’s National Spelling Bee might try this one to slip up an ambitious young speller.
It turns out that in this past week’s Talmud cycle, the issue of why God’s name is not made public is discussed, using the verse above as a prooftext: “This is My name forever.” In Hebrew, the words forever and hidden are linguistically related, leading to this incident: “Rava planned to expound the way to say God’s hidden name in a public teaching. A certain elder said to him, “It is written so that it can be read l’alem - keep it hidden” [BT Kiddushin 71a].
Then the passage adds this confounding detail: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: ‘Not as I am written, am I pronounced.’” As it turns out, long ago, the sages would tell anyone who wanted to know, God’s 12-letter name. But then people used it disrespectfully so the priests used to say it only when blessing the people, but sang it absorbed in a melody. Thus, it would remain concealed. One sage, it’s recorded, inclined his ear to hear it. People will always be curious.
According to this debate, if people were to treat God’s name respectfully, then God’s name would be used more publicly. No one wants to get too casual with the Almighty. The Talmud continues to this effect: “

Rabbi Yehuda says in the name of Rav: ‘The 42-letter name of God may be transmitted only to one who is discreet, and humble and stands at least half his life and does not get angry and does not get drunk and does not insist he is right. And anyone who knows this name and is careful with it and guards its purity is believed above and treasured below and fear of him is cast upon the creatures and he inherits two worlds, this world and the World to Come,” [BT Kiddushin 71b].

So now we understand who gets to use God’s name: people who are Godly. What underlines most of the above description is the characteristic of humility. Those modest in spirit are trusted not to abuse God’s name.
This brings us to one of the heroes of our upcoming holiday, Shavuot: Boaz. We meet Boaz in the Book of Ruth in what appears to be a preoccupied moment. “Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, ‘The Lord be with you.’ They answered, ‘The Lord bless you!’” It’s a tender moment of elevated greeting that leads to a legal precedent. The Talmud concludes that when you greet someone, you should do so in the name of God [BT Brakhot 54a].
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon among our people. Bearing Boaz in mind, I often greet people with “Shalom” - which is a name of God  - and part with people by saying “God bless” or “God bless you.” It feels like a little insertion of everyday holiness, and I enjoy when people say this to me. After all, we need all the blessings we can get. When I say this to non-Jews after a transaction, they regularly bless me back. But if you say this to Jews, they often raise an eyebrow and say simply, “Goodbye.”
This fascinating debate about the use of God’s name is, at heart, an attempt to keep a healthy balance between spiritual intimacy and proper reverence. What we find in Boaz is a man who saw in his employees, and Ruth in particular, a shadow of God - and as a result, he treated them with utmost care and respect.
Shabbat Shalom

No Man is an Island

Sing His praise from the end of the earth!
— Isaiah 42:10

Small sign in a shop window in Nantucket, “How to Live on an Island: Stretch, Listen in on shells, Put living things back, Cultivate quiet…Sugar yourself with sand, Float…Ebb and Flow…

This week Porter Fox wrote an article in The New York Times about his childhood on an island off the coastline of Maine. The article was called, “Everything is Different on an Island,” a thought I have had often, fascinated as I am by the small scrims of land that create an isolation Fox finds hard to describe. He wrote that, “… there is no escape from an island. The borders are finite and the surrounding ocean deep. Waves, wind and flotsam drift in with the breeze and tide, somehow drawn to the island’s singular existence. The thing is, a solitary entity in the middle of a void becomes the void. The sea is everything. The island is a vanishing point on a map. It is disconnected from the outside and, when you inhabit it, it becomes your world.”

This immersion and isolation make an excellent combination for writers and painters, scientists and those who seek to leave lives of convention. Little did I realize that islands occupy an interesting place in our sacred literature. Perhaps the most well-known appearance of islands is found in Esther 10:1. “King Ahaseurus imposed taxes throughout the empire, to its distant islands.” If you want to show just how insidious and far-reaching taxes are, make sure they get to the farthest island in your kingdom!

Their relative smallness also made islands a symbol of human insignificance in the presence of the Almighty, particularly in the Book of Isaiah (See Isaiah 11:11, 40:15-17, Jeremiah 31:10). In the Book of Jeremiah, we find such a use: "For cross to the islands of Kittim and see and send to Kedar and observe closely and see if there has been such a thing as this! Has a nation changed gods when they were not gods? But My people have changed their glory for that which does not profit” (Jeremiah 2:10-11).

In the Hebrew Bible islands can also be symbols of distance and isolation, as if to suggest that God’s presence is expansive, reaching even the most remote corners on earth. “Sing to the Lord a new song. Sing His praise from the end of the earth! You who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and those who dwell on them.” (Isaiah 42:10). “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations and declare on the islands far off and say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him and keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock’” (Jeremiah 31:10)

The reverse is also true. Not only will God reach these distant places because a good shepherd keeps his flock together no matter how disparate, but people will hear of God and come from the remotest parts on earth to bring tribute and honor the Divine Presence: "Surely the islands will wait for Me, and the ships of Tarshish will come first, to bring your sons from afar. Their silver and their gold with them, for the name of the Lord your God, and for the Holy One of Israel because He has glorified you” (Isaiah 60:10). The idea of people responding to God’s call from afar – from islands - echoes in several other biblical verses (Isaiah 24:15, 42:4, 51:4-5). 

In a similar usage in the book of Isaiah, we find islands ironically as places so far away that they do not know of God, as in this verse: “"I will set a sign among them and will send survivors from them to the nations: Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meshech, Tubal and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have neither heard My fame nor seen My glory and they will declare My glory among the nations” (Isaiah 66:19). In a similar thread, despite their distance from mainland and convention, those on islands are not beyond the law (Isaiah 59:18, Ezekiel 25:16-17, 39:6). 

When the poet John Donne wrote “No Man is an Island,” one of the first poems I studied seriously in school, he wanted to communicate the artificial nature of isolation. We think we are alone, but we are never alone: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” 

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Our prophets had a similar message to communicate much earlier. Islands can be a spiritual oasis, a place to go away to find oneself, to find God. But they can communicate a false distance from humanity, as Isaiah, our island prophet said long ago, “Listen to Me, O islands, and pay attention, you peoples from afar The Lord called me…” (Isaiah 49:1). We are a community. We are not islands.

Shabbat Shalom

Celebrating Homeland

We do not rejoice in victories. We rejoice when a new kind of cotton is grown and when strawberries bloom in Israel.
— Golda Meir

This week marks both Israel's Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and Israel's Independence Day so it's a great time to do an IQ test (Israel Quotient). How well do you know the ancient and modern history, language, politics, music, theater and literature of the country? When's the last time you visited? How often do you speak to someone from Israel? How knowledgeable are you about current events?

These questions make an underlying assumption about the Holy Land. It will always be here. It will always be a refuge, an in-gathering of global Jewry, a place of Jewish strength and identity, a mecca for those of different faiths. Yet there are still people who remember well the days before the State, when this assumption of Israel's existence was not even a dream, let alone a reality. And it's a good reminder to check in sporadically with our own feelings and commitments to the Zionist enterprise, which has so often come under biting criticism from without and within.

In the medieval period, Maimonides - who traveled to Israel with his family but settled in Fostat, the old city of Cairo - had this to say about the early relationship of scholars and the land: "Great sages would kiss the borders of the land, kiss its stones, and roll in its dust, as it states in Psalms 102:15: 'Behold, your servants hold her stones dear and cherish her dust.'" [Laws of Kings 5:10 ] If anyone has seen people get off a plane at Ben Gurion airport and kiss the ground, you can imagine the sages of old marveling at Israel's existence and never taking it for granted but treating it like the miracle ground it is.

And yet, when the country was founded, there were sharp attacks from some on the religious right who were not convinced that the timing was right. They believed (and some continue to believe) that Israel is a land and not a state and only when it's declared a state from heaven above, will they move there or, if they are there, respect and treat it as an independent political entity. Others believed that the Balfour Declaration and the UN decision were the actual signs from heaven above that it was indeed time.
In Kol Dodi Dofek (Listen, My Beloved Knocks), Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik famously challenged the right wing religious position using chapter five of Song of Songs. The beloved knocks on the door of his lover. She takes so much time answering that she misses him and then goes into a frenzy at the possibility that he may not come back for fear of rejection. "God who conceals Himself in His dazzling hiddenness" during our great suffering "suddenly manifested Himself and began to knock." This knocking was a way of awakening us to the possibility of an immense collective transformation, " a result of the knocks on the door of the maiden wrapped in mourning, the State of Israel was both Fate and Destiny." In 1948, God knocked on our door, as if to say that this is the miracle we waited for and needed after a war-decimated Europe almost put an end to us.
No one believes Israel is problem-free. Today, we are more divided about Israel politically than ever. Many don't rely on Israel to shape their own Jewish identities anymore nor do they support the country unequivocally. Rabbi Haim Sabato was in conversation with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015) before his death and recorded this ongoing dialogue between these two great scholars in a new book Seeking His Presence. There, Rabbi Lichtenstein takes a sober view of the matter:

"I wish I could tell you that all we dreamt of in returning to Zion has come true. I wish I could tell you that all the problems and concerns have been resolved and that all is just as it should be. I wish I could feel that we have arrived "to the rest and inheritance" (Deut. 12:9), diplomatically, politically, societally, spiritually - in terms of sanctity, Torah and fear of Heaven. But I don't want to deceive you. Even if I wanted to, I would not be able to. You would see through it."

Even so, he observed that what we have is truly worth celebrating. Israel, he writes, is "not a perfect alternative" but "the best chance to safeguard the identity of the Jewish people, in quantity, in strength and in ideas." Israel is the global Jewish project, the place of our inspiration and hope. "The Zionist position," Rabbi Lichtenstein states, "adopted by the rabbis and other religious adherents of the movement as well, believed not only that man is capable and authorized to take up this mantle but that man is obligated to do so. He is obligated to fashion an optimal world, both spiritually and physically."  

Perhaps one of the reasons we don't celebrate Israel enough is that we set our aspirations for this optimal world so high that we and others judge ourselves much more severely when we fail than we would other countries. Let's all take a step back and a deep breath in, especially this week, and list our small and great victories, not on the battlefield but as Golda Meir declared, when "a new kind of cotton is grown and when strawberries bloom in Israel."
Happy Birthday Israel. Shabbat Shalom.

Jewish Crystal Balls

Rabbi Yossi: A person does not place himself in a situation of uncertainty.
— BT Kiddushin 51b

I laughed out loud this week when I read Michael Wilson's article "Tarot Cards in the Age of Yelp" in The New York Times. How on earth do you rate a psychic? Is it based on a prediction you like? Maybe you get fewer stars for a negative prediction. It seems like a rough business, but at least any psychic worth his or her salt (crystals) knows in advance what rating you are going to give.
Psychics have been in the news quite a bit lately, mostly for crazy scams that have led to law suits. I even noticed, for the first time, a radio advertisement for California Psychics. On their website, they claim that two reasons that people choose them is that they are very selective. Only two out of every 100 are deemed worthy. They also have a policy  that "if it's not the best psychic reading you've ever had, it's FREE." Another laugh out loud moment. I think people must choose them for the weather.
So what does Jewish law have to say about this? Maimonides, the rationalist, had quite a bit to say, actually, and he never knew that there was a California. In his "Laws of Idol Worship" he devotes an entire chapter to defining different aspects of astrology and divination and why they are prohibited.  Here is a brief sampling from chapter eleven:

It is forbidden to practice soothsaying as idolaters do: "Do not act as a soothsayer." [Leviticus 19:26] What is a soothsayer? For example, those who say: Since my piece of bread fell out of my mouth, or my staff  fell from my hand, I will not travel to this place today, since if I were to go I would not be able to accomplish my goals. [Excerpt from law #4]
What is a diviner? This is a person who does particular acts that cause him to fall into a trance, clear his mind of thought and then predict the future, saying, "This will happen" or "This will not happen;" or "You must do such and such or be careful to do so." Some diviners who use sand or stones. Others bow to the ground, make strange motions and scream. Others look at a metal or crystal mirror, use their imaginations and speak. Still others carry a staff, lean on it and tap it until they fall into a trance and speak. [Excerpt from law #6]
Who is a fortuneteller? A person who tries to predict auspicious times, using astrology saying, "This day will be a good day" or "This day will be a bad day," "It is appropriate to perform a particular task on a certain day"; or "This year" or "This month will not be opportune for this particular matter." [Law #8]
It is forbidden to tell fortunes, even if one does not act on it but merely relates the falsehoods that the fools consider to be words of truth and wisdom. Anyone who performs a deed because of an astrological calculation or arranges his work or his travels to accommodate a time that was suggested by the astrologers is punishable, as it states: "Do not tell fortunes." [Leviticus 19:26] [Law #9]

Maimonides wrote these laws over 850 years ago, but they seem eerily resonant given the popularity of psychics today. The question is why this surge in popularity. I believe it can be explained by Rabbi Yossi's observation made over two thousand years ago in the Talmud: "A person does not place himself in a situation of uncertainty." The drive to predict the future is the ultimate way humans confront the insecurity of a life unknown. People hate uncertainty and will go to great and irrational lengths to avoid it. Today we are arguably in a time of great uncertainty. We face global political instability, threats of terrorism and are just recovering from financial recession. Is it a wonder that people want to know what's next?
Maimonides fought against this need ferociously because he believed in the fundamental power of free will and argued against any practice that vitiated it. He did not want people to predict the future. He wanted people to shape the future. He closed chapter 11 with the rationale for the Torah taking a strident approach to prediction of any kind. It is "emptiness and vanity that attracts the feebleminded and causes them to abandon all the paths of truth."
Shaping the future requires a lot more autonomy, energy and honesty than predicting it.
Shabbat Shalom

Stable Instability

Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and the sea turned into dry ground
— Exodus 14:21

The last days of Passover can seem anticlimactic, given that the Seder/s are already "passed over." And yet, it is on these last days that we re-create the crossing of the sea, arguably the eleventh plague for the Egyptians who pursued the Israelites and the final and most spectacular miracle of our redemption. On the last days of Passover, we read the Torah portion about crossing the sea and cannot help but notice a biblical refrain that gives the narrative the feeling of a momentous song: "the sea on the dry ground." This expression is chanted with a different musical notation that alerts us to pay attention and be swept away musically, much the way our ancestors were in the heady moment of a final act of freedom. We begin with the verse above and then continue with the verses below:
"The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left." (14:22)
The Israelites marched through the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left." (14:29)
"For the horses of Pharaoh, with his chariots and horsemen, went into the sea; and the Lord turned back on them the waters of the sea, but the Israelites marched on dry ground in the midst of the sea." (15:19)
Many biblical books later, when we crossed the Jordan, instead of the Reed Sea, we find a repeated image of dry land in the midst of the sea. God told Joshua to command the priests transporting twelve stones representing the tribes across the Jordan to come out of the water, after the Israelites had already crossed: "the feet of the priests stepped onto the dry ground and the waters of the Jordan resumed their course, flowing over its entire bed as before" (Joshua 4:18).
This expression can simply highlight the miraculous nature of the event: the astonishing fact that we could go through water on dry land. This contradiction is not unlike other plagues that had opposing natural forces in combination, like the hail that contained fire. This would surely augment the miracle capacity within each miracle. But perhaps there is something deeper that the text wants to draw us to with this expression and its repetition, and to understand it we must find other places where sea and dry land appear together.
We turn no further than the very first chapter of the Hebrew Bible: "God said, 'Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.' And it was so. God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters, He called seas. And God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:9). Sea and dry land, once a singular unit, was separated in the creation of two distinct earthly topographies. Later, Noah's raven, the one he sent out on a search expedition to know if he could release his family and the animals he stewarded, "went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the land" (Genesis 8:6). But the process of the earth drying took much time: "the waters began to dry from the earth; and when Noah removed the covering of the ark, he saw that the surface of the ground was drying. And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh of the month, the earth was dry" (Genesis 8:13-14). It was then that God told Noah it was time to leave the ark. Earth and water had to be separated and distinct yet again for a new and improved universe to emerge.
In the book of Jonah, a prophetic maritime adventure, the sailors on the ship Jonah boarded wanted clues to his identity that would explain why the storm around them was so treacherous. Jonah summed up his identity in a curious phrase: "I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, God of the heavens, who made sea and dry land" (Jonah 1:9). Later, this same God had created a fish to swallow Jonah and then, after Jonah prayed and reconciled himself with his mission, "it spewed Jonah out upon dry land" (Jonah 2:11).
An ark and a fish are images of dry land within water. They are containers, much like Moses' basket on the Nile, that served as temporary modes of protection against the dangers of the sea. They were, metaphorically speaking, the dry land amidst the sea. Psychologically one can argue that they provided stability in an inherently unstable place. God, Jonah's God, is both the God of dry land and the sea. He, too, is a place - Makom - of stability in a world of instability, a spiritual anchor in chaos. Redemption is predicated on our capacity to make ourselves temporarily unstable for the sake of greater stability.
When we repeat the almost incomprehensible refrain - the sea on dry ground - we are invited not only to experience wonder at the miracle but to take risks to make miracles happen. Had we not taken those initial steps into the water, the water wouldn't have parted. We make miracles when we are prepared to trust that nothing is truly stable. The best we can hope for is a stable instability, that keeps us both strong and vulnerable in an exquisite balance. The American marital arts expert and actor Bruce Lee once said, "If you want to learn to swim, jump in the water. On dry land, no frame of mind is ever going to help you."
Sometimes we crave stability too much. You want to make miracles? Jump. 
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover!

Slave Pains

One who calls another a slave should be ostracized
— BT Kiddushin 28b

Soon we will sit at our Seder tables taking the imaginative journey from freedom to slavery. Although we are commanded to relive this experience, we all know that whatever we say and do will only be a poor simulation of what our ancestors suffered. Even the joy of freedom will be hard to muster since it is something we take for granted today. One way to put ourselves into the mindset of the slave is to compare the Egyptian treatment of us as slaves to the institution of slavery and its limits in the Hebrew Bible.
Slavery was permitted in the days of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud but not regarded as a desideratum in Jewish law. It was seen as an inevitability of its day that needed strict guidelines since the exertion of power over another human being is never to be taken lightly. Individuals could sell themselves into slavery to pay off debt. Others were captives of war. It would be more accurate to call an "eved" an indentured servant than a slave, given our associations with slavery in the past centuries. This kind of barbaric forced work at the risk of death is completely forbidden in Jewish law and punishable by death: "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:16)
The following verses illustrate some of the Jewish restrictions on power in this relationship that are the exact opposite of the outcry described by our ancestors at the hands of a cruel and hard-hearted Pharaoh:

  • "If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished." (Exodus 21:20)
  • "If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth." (Exodus 21:26-27) 
  • "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:12)
  • "Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves. (Exodus 23:12) 
  • "Now if a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave acquired for another man, but who has in no way been redeemed nor given her freedom, there shall be punishment..."(Leviticus 19:20) 
  • "You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you." (Deuteronomy 23:15) 
  • "If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave's service. He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers. For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God." (Leviticus 25:39-43) 
  • "If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment." (Exodus 21:2)
  • "Do not slander a slave to his master or he will curse you and you will be found guilty." (Proverbs 30:10) 
  • "He who pampers his slave from childhood will in the end find him to be a son." (Proverbs 29:21) 

Finally, the Talmudic statement above, says it all. We don't even use the word "slave" lightly and ostracize someone who does for denying the freedom of agency that we believe is inherent in all human beings regardless of status. Maimonides, in his "Laws of Indentured Servants" helps us understand how to negotiate the tensions of having too much power over another. He contends that one can deal with a slave harshly yet,

...although this is the law, the way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a servant. One must provide for them from every dish and every drink. The early sages would give their servants from every dish on their table. They would feed their animals and their servants before sitting to their own meals...So, too, you should not denigrate a servant, neither physically nor verbally. The Torah made him your servant to do work, not to be disgraced. Do not treat him with constant verbal abuse and anger, rather speak to him pleasantly and listen to his complaints. Such were the good ways in which Job took pride when he said, "Did I ever despise the judgment of my servant and my maid when they argued with me? Did not my Maker make him, too, in the belly; did not the same One form us both in the womb?"

The integrity of the human being is always what ultimately matters. The same God made us all. We should feel uncomfortable that slavery appears in the Torah at all. And every time we fail to use our own human agency to prevent injustice, we, too minimize that godliness in ourselves and others. We opt into another form of slavery when we compromise our freedom, as Harriet Tubman so beautifully said, "I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves."
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover. May it be a time of true freedom.

Honor Thy Parents

Honor your mother and father, then you will live a long, full life in the land which the Lord is giving you.
— Exodus 20:12

The regular Talmud cycle this week focuses in large part on the commandment children have to honor their parents. This principle is among the most well-known of biblical adages. Even parents who don’t give a farthing about religion still quote it in moments of abject desperation. Let’s face it, parenting can be rough. It’s always nice to smooth the edges with a little respect. I just got a copy of Danya Ruttenberg’s new book, and the subtitle says it all: Nurturing the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting.

The Talmud begins its discussion comparing the honor one owes God to the honor one owes a parent. Cursing God and cursing parents is strictly forbidden in biblical law. This parallelism makes sense following this proviso: “The Sages taught that there are three partners in the forming of a person: the Holy One, Blessed be He, and his father and mother” [BT Kiddushin 32b]. The Talmud continues, “When a person honors his father and mother, the Holy One, Blessed be He, says, ‘I ascribe credit to them as if I dwelt between them and they honor Me as well.’” Honoring parents helps God live within us.

The Talmud also posits that the opposite is true: “When a person causes his father and mother suffering, the Holy One, Blessed be He, says, ‘I did well in not dwelling among them, for if I had dwelled among them they would have caused Me suffering as well.’” A failure to understand the pain a parent can suffer at the hand of a child’s cruelty or ingratitude diminishes the Divine Presence, cause a shrinkage of that which is beautiful and holy.

And yet, honoring one’s parents can be a very difficult mitzva. Maimonides in discussing it calls it a mitzva gedola – implying perhaps both its significance and its challenge. I recall in pain studying this specific set of laws with a class of high school seniors in one of my first years of teaching. A very bright young woman who usually participated actively in class discussions was withdrawn and silent. When the other students left, she began to weep. This, she said, was not a commandment she could observe. In an abusive relationship with one of her parents, she lived in fear. Honor and respect were simply asking too much. Abuse is extreme. Children can also suffer immeasurably from selfish, narcissistic, or difficult parents who withhold praise or who outright abandon them. 
Beverly Engel in her book Divorcing a Parent takes this sentiment head on:

Why isn't there a commandment to ‘honor thy children’ or at least one to ‘not abuse thy children’? The notion that we must honor our parents causes many people to bury their real feelings and set aside their own needs in order to have a relationship with people they would otherwise not associate with. Parents, like anyone else, need to earn respect and honor, and honoring parents who are negative and abusive is not only impossible but extremely self-abusive. Perhaps, as with anything else, honoring our parents starts with honoring ourselves. For many adult children, honoring themselves means not having anything to do with one or both of their parents. 

While we might appreciate Engel’s anguish, Judaism would never condone such an approach. The Talmud discusses legal cases where a parent embarrasses a child publicly, and the child should say nothing in response. If a parent steals from a child or, as the Talmud case presents it, a parent takes a money purse from a child and throws it into the sea, a child should remain mum. A child can take a parent to court to retrieve the lost money, but cannot disagree outright. This is even the case when a parent transgresses Jewish law. A child must be very careful in correcting a parent in order to avoid shaming him.

Why? There is a basic and fundamental understanding in Jewish law that we exist because our parents put us into the world and this fact catalyzes certain fundamental responsibilities: in the event that a parent cannot feed, clothe or transport himself, a child is obligated to do these functions or provide for them, much the way parents did these for their children. The reciprocity comes from responsibility to the one who creates you. Note: there is no commandment to love one’s parents.

Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet had this to say about parents: “Don’t ask for advice from them and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is strength and blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.” 

For parents with parents, many of us become keenly aware that we never understood or fully appreciated all that was done to raise us until we raised our own children. And we learn over time to forgive our parents for not living up to our expectations because of the mistakes we make with our own children. We, too, will come up miserably short. But, in the end, we are here because they put us here. And maybe sometimes, in the words of the Haggada, it is enough.

Shabbat Shalom

Exodus: A Synopsis

Then Israel entered Egypt…
— Psalms 105:23

The story of the Exodus dots the Hebrew Bible. One of its most fascinating appearances is in Psalm 105, a brief overview of Israelite history from Abraham onwards, in case you didn’t have time to read all Five Books. It is in this synopsis, that we encounter what those who lived later thought were the most salient or durable memories for our preservation. After all, a précis should give just enough relevant detail to be informative without too many specifics.

So what is the elevator speech of the Exodus? Let’s have a look at how the psalm collapses 15 chapters into 15 verses:
Then Israel entered Egypt; Jacob resided as a foreigner in the land of Ham. The Lord made his people very fruitful; he made them too numerous for their foes, whose hearts he turned to hate his people, to conspire against his servants. He sent Moses his servant, and Aaron, whom he had chosen. They performed his signs among them, his wonders in the land of Ham. He sent darkness and made the land dark— for had they not rebelled against his words? He turned their waters into blood, causing their fish to die. Their land teemed with frogs, which went up into the bedrooms of their rulers. He spoke, and there came swarms of flies, and gnats throughout their country. He turned their rain into hail, with lightning throughout their land; he struck down their vines and fig trees and shattered the trees of their country. He spoke, and the locusts came, grasshoppers without number; they ate up every green thing in their land, ate up the produce of their soil. Then he struck down all the firstborn in their land, the first-fruits of all their manhood. He brought out Israel, laden with silver and gold, and from among their tribes no one faltered. Egypt was glad when they left, because dread of Israel had fallen on them. [105:23- 38]

1)    We moved to Egypt. Our host country became our enemy.
2)    God sent Moses and Aaron to be our leaders.
3)    There were many plagues.
4)    We left with wealth.
5)    The Egyptians were relieved that we left.

Boy, the entire Seder just got a whole lot shorter. Yet there are a few details here that are missing in the original, and these make us curious about the additions. One noticeable feature is the reference to Egypt as the land of Ham. The land of what?

As it happens, the identification of Ham with Egypt is information offered in I Chronicles: “The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan” [1:8]. This correlation also appears elsewhere in psalms: “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea” [106:21-22]. Josephus, a historian of Jewish antiquity, claimed that Ethiopians descended from Cush the son of Ham: "For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites." [Antiquities1.6]. It would seem that Ham’s children dominated the northeast regions of Africa.

One might claim that the identification of Ham with Egypt is geographical. But it seems as if a richer interpretation awaits. Ham was one of Noah’s three sons who left the ark. As it happens, in Genesis 9, Ham saw his father Noah naked and drunk in his tent and went out to belittle Noah to his brothers. Noah awoke, startled at what his youngest son did and cursed Ham’s son. He wanted Ham to feel that the consequence of dishonoring a parent is that Ham would be dishonored by his children. Noah’s curse is specific: “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”  Noah’s other sons were quick to cover up their father and turn their gaze away from him. 

In this story, Noah was making an observation about his family and about humanity, the new world he was consigned to repopulate. In this new world there would continue to be evil - immorality, enmity, envy and small-mindedness – represented by one of his sons. There would be children who could be saved by a parent and still ridicule a parent. But in this new world, this behavior would be overshadowed by goodness, by children who honored and obeyed. Those who are little in spirit would become little in stature. Instead of being leaders, they would be slaves – slaves to pettiness and thoughtlessness.

In this vast epic narrative that is the story of our people, Egypt would forever be associated with slavery, a place that reduced people to suffering and, as a result, was itself to be humbled. Our small suffering people rose above our situation when we left Egypt and were commanded to bring others out of suffering as a result.  Thus, the story of Genesis is replayed on a national scale in the story of Exodus and replayed throughout history when the underdog stakes a claim for justice and goodness.

Shabbat Shalom

Believe Me

and he credited it to him as righteousness.
— Genesis 15:7

There are a lot of clichés and catch-all expressions floating in this depressing and bellicose presidential election. My least favorite is "Believe me." Believe me, I'm tired of believe me. In general, if someone says "Believe me" (especially if it is repeated for effect), "Trust me," or "I am a good person," I am automatically suspect. Good people do not advertise. Trustworthy people generate credibility with deeds rather than words. Believability takes time to establish. You need a lot of deposits in a trust account to secure a relationship built with confidence.
And yet, believability is foundational to our entire Jewish life. Faith - emmuna - requires suspension of the rational and a willingness to step into the unknown to achieve transcendence. We find this embodied very early on in biblical history. Abraham, who wrestled with the command to build a nation when his wife was barren, contemplated various solutions, from adopting his nephew or his house-servant, to surrogacy. After rejecting the first two proposed solutions, God took Abraham outside to show him the countless stars that would one day become his offspring. That takes faith.
It was a vision unseen of an incomprehensible future but this did not deter Abraham, as we read in Genesis: "'Look up at the sky and count the stars, if indeed you can count shall your offspring be.' Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness." [Gen. 15:5-7] Who credited whom? Abraham believed despite all odds, and God considered him righteous. Or perhaps because Abraham believed God, he deemed God righteous and was willing to bank on this shared dream. Either way, emmuna - belief - involves risk.
So if we are supposed to believe and take risks for our beliefs, why be suspect of a person who says believe me? Our suspicion reflects a long-standing Jewish tradition of establishing credibility, referred to in rabbinic literature as ne'emmanut. For example, in most instances of Jewish law, one witness to an event is not sufficient. Trust but verify is our motto in Jewish courts. If a person who does not keep kosher but says that he or she will prepare you a kosher meal, according to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, we do not believe him. [Igrot Moshe YD I:54]. This is not because this person is not trustworthy; he may merely have a different notion of what kosher is. We trust his good will; we are suspect only that he may not share the same standards.
If a person begging asks you for food, you should give him food without question. But if a person asks you for clothing, we research whether or not there is real need or if it's a sham request. [Shulkhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 251:10] Here, an important distinction exists between immediate and urgent care, represented by hunger, and longer-term needs, like the purchase of clothing, that can be more costly. Our assumption - and it is written into our DNA in Jewish law- is that if you are an MOT, you are a compassionate person. As such, we do not want your generosity exploited by others who take advantage of your kindness. When a person is hungry, we believe him. When he's looking for a wardrobe, however, we are more suspect.
"Trust," writes Stephen M.R. Covey in The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything, "is equal parts character and competence... You can look at any leadership failure, and it's always a failure of one or the other." So when someone says believe me, we look away from the words and examine the record. "A person has integrity," Covey writes, "when there is no gap between intent and behavior..." Most importantly, Covey leaves us with something to ponder when we want the trust of others: "In a high-trust relationship, you can say the wrong thing, and people will still get your meaning. In a low-trust relationship, you can be very measured, even precise, and they'll still misinterpret you." 
Shabbat Shalom

Feasting, Fasting and Forgetting

And the King and Haman sat down to drink, while the city of Shushan was bewildered.
— Esther 3:15

Scholars have long regarded the Megillah, the scroll of Esther, as a story told between feasting and fasting. Food, that constant draw for our people, often tells us a great deal about daily life and special occasions. The Book of Esther is no different. We begin with a 187-day drinking binge at Ahashverosh’s palace then fast for 3 days with Esther and her maidens. We join Esther in her triangle of intrigue with Haman and the King over libations and eat with merriment and share gifts of food over our triumph. Basically, we cannot stop eating. 

But in this festival of food, there is one small oft-neglected scene that reveals a great deal about its central characters. After Haman has petitioned the King to annihilate the Jews and was given his ring as a stamp of approval and power, Haman and the King toasted their wicked decision: “The couriers went out, spurred on by the King’s command, and the edict was issued in the citadel of Shushan. The King and Haman sat down to drink, while the city of Shushan was bewildered.” [3:15] Rashi states that those who were confused were the Jews of Shushan – good, law-abiding citizens were totally blind-sided. But why only Jews? Confusion spread about who this king was; one day he invites his kingdom to party with him and the next, it’s off with your heads. Royal flip-flopping makes for bad governance.

There are many ways to view this postscript to their decree. Perhaps the King and Haman were drinking to forget, to blur the momentousness or potency of this decision. After all, what king would so ruthlessly subject one of his peoples to destruction without creating agitation throughout his entire empire? This decree was not only of interest to the Jews but to everyone in the king’s 127 provinces. What real benefit would such havoc wreak when his own capital city was already confused and perhaps dazed by what this unpredictable king had in store for the future?

None of the traditional commentators, however, comment on the fact that this scene is reminiscent of what Joseph’s brothers did right after they deposited him in a pit: “And they took him and threw him into the pit; and the pit was empty. There was no water in it. And then they sat down to a meal…”[Gen. 37:25] The13th century exegete, the Hizkuni, writes: “They sat at a distance but not that far away, lest they be able to hear his cries from there.” They would enjoy their meal all the more knowing that they finally rid themselves of this troubling brother who stole all their father’s love. Or they lacked even the smallest degree of empathy and had no trouble enjoying themselves at a heart-wrenching moment for their brother.

The Sforno, a 16th century Italian commentator, says that throwing Joseph in a pit presented no difficulty for them, nor did it prevent them from enjoying a pleasant repast. Nahum Sarna is sharper in his comments, contending that they had “callous indifference to their brother’s anguished pleas. The action allows time for further discussion of Joesph’s fate in the absence of Reuben. At the same time, it provides an interlude until a fresh and final opportunity for vengeance develops.”

It is heartless to drink and be merry upon signing a decree to murder an entire nation without cause. Perhaps more than the decree itself is this act an indication of how murder can take place only at the hands of those who lack any compassion, who can dull themselves to the pain of others.

The author Marty Rubin writes that, “A heart that can break is better than no heart at all.” Having had our hearts so badly broken in this story, we of all people understand that only those who experience true sorrow have a chance at true compassion and happiness, the kind of joy we experience at the end of the Megilla. It is this joy that we pack up and deliver to others on Purim, and it is this joy that we swallow in large gulps as we enjoy a festive meal in community. If theirs was the sin of callousness, we redeem the Purim story when we serve food to stranger and friend with extra love and care. 

So this year, redeem this moment. Give one food package – mishloah manot – to someone who is not expecting it.

Happy Purim. Shabbat Shalom

The Power of Invitation

Here I am. You called me.
— I Samuel 3:5

"I believe there's a calling for all of us. I know that every human being has value and purpose. The real work of our lives is to become aware. And awakened. To answer the call." If Oprah Winfrey says it, it must be true. The great awakening of what we are here to do is never obvious nor is the path linear, and yet many of us feel an extraordinary tug to do something out of the ordinary, to answer a voice that gets louder and louder as our days get numbered. Long before Oprah advised us to answer the call, God did. God called dozens of prophets to take up a vocation, to lead, to serve. And it is this sentiment, this power of invitation that frames our next biblical book. 

 "The Lord called to Moses" opens up the book of Vayikra or Leviticus, the biblical book we begin this Shabbat as part of our Torah reading cycle. Rather than jump to the rest of the book, with its detailed discussion of sacrifices and the protocols and procedures of the Mishkan or portable Temple, let us just focus on one word: the first word. Why did God call Moses?
As we closed the book of Exodus last week, we read of the magnificent and ceremonial finish of the Tabernacle's completion. Moses "finished the work," the text tells us, completing the long, collaborative process of building a home where God and human desires were to intersect. It was there that people could offer their thanks and proffer their praise. It was there that they could beg for atonement and hope for forgiveness. It was the heart of the camp, and all the tribes were positioned around it with it as the center. Yet when it was completed, there was no longer any room for our fearless leader: "Moses could not enter the Tent of the Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle" [Exodus 40:35]. This notion, that God's cloud filled the space, is mentioned several times in this short closing paragraph.
But a Tent of the Meeting is hardly a good meeting place if those you meet with cannot enter. It is at this juncture that God called Moses back in- Vayikra. When it comes to holiness, when it's a matter of aspiration and reach, we often wait until we're called. We don't initiate. We are intimidated or afraid or lack the confidence to push ourselves forward. It at such moments that the call becomes critical. It is the invitation to be more of ourselves, to be in communion with God and others, to shine. It reminds us of the powerful words of Daniel: "And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever," [Daniel 12:3].
Because Moses was called, he understood that if he wanted people to accept the commandments, he, too, had to call them. We have a midrash which suggests this very reading: "The rabbis said: You find that when God gave the Torah to Moses, He gave it to him after calling. How do we know this? Since it is said, 'And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mount; and Moses went up' (Exodus 19:20). Also Moses our teacher, when he came to repeat the Torah to Israel, said to them: 'Just as I received the Torah with calling so too will I hand it over to God's children with calling. From where do we know this? From what is written in the context: 'And Moses called to all of Israel and said to them...'[Midrash Rabba, Deuteronomy 7:8] Because Moses had been invited to lead, he understood that it was incumbent upon him to call others to this sacred task.
I know what you're thinking. God hasn't called me recently. To this, I find the words of the Scottish Baptist, Oswald Chambers, particularly inspiring:

God did not direct His call to Isaiah - Isaiah overheard God saying, '. . . who will go for us?' The call of God is not just for a select few but for everyone. Whether I hear God's call or not depends on the condition of my ears, and exactly what I hear depends upon my spiritual attitude.

We don't have to wait for a calling. We might need to open our eyes and ears a little more. And we might need to take a page out of Moses' playbook and call others who might otherwise stand on the sidelines. There is still history to make. There is still purpose to discover. Just think of one person you could call upon to grow through the giving of greater responsibility or more leadership.
What better time to make that call than when we read this week's Torah portion: Vayikra - and he called - leading up to Purim when Esther hesitated then answered the call and saved our people as a result. Now's the time to actualize ourselves and help others achieve more by stretching farther and reaching higher. Answer the call.
Shabbat Shalom

Role Reversal

The city of Shushan was cheerful and joyous. For the Jews it was a time of light and happiness, gladness and honor.
— Esther 8:15-16

Chodesh Tov. Happy new Hebrew month. As we welcome the Hebrew month of Adar II, we are getting closer to Purim, a time we celebrate an ancient triumph with modern resonances. The Talmud tells us that when we usher in Adar, we must enhance our joy [BT Ta'anit 29a]. This is an active proposition, and it is incumbent  upon us to think of ways to increase our happiness. But what exactly is this happiness about? 
We experience happiness for many reasons: pride at doing the right thing, joy at seeing a child's blissful face, immersion in nature, satisfaction at a job well done, a special personal accomplishment. There is the happiness of song, of play, of silliness. Purim offers us the happiness of reversal. In fact, immediately after the scroll is read in the synagogue, we traditionally sing a piyut or prose/poem called "Shoshanat Ya'akov" which specifically mentions the reversal of fate in the story. The recitation of this poem is codified as law in the Shulkhan Arukh, an authoritative 16th century code of Jewish law [O.H. 690:16]. Why? Perhaps you heard the story read but missed its underlying message. The song affirms and cements it, and its words are the last words of the megilla experience.
An evil minister wanted our annihilation; a Jewish beauty queen emerged from the shadows of silence, and a dramatic role reversal changed our fate. Mordechai rode the horse Haman had chosen for himself. Esther gave Mordechai the king's ring that Haman wore. The book ends with the Jews spared, with Esther vindicated and with Mordechai positioned as second to the king.  No wonder there was happiness and joy, gladness and honor. There is true bliss when something we thought would bring us down bypasses us. There is a sense of dignity restored, as suggested by the pairing of gladness and honor. We all hold on to the hope that when we are down on our luck - sometimes even in abject darkness - that light will prevail. Something will change. Some injustice will be corrected or grace bestowed upon us even when we don't deserve it.
This message was communicated most powerfully in Hannah's prayer when she deposited her son Samuel with Eli the High Priest. Hannah was barren; she was humiliated and prayed with great intensity that if God gave her a child, she would give him back to God's service. Instead of an ecstatic burst of thanksgiving, Hannah is bewildered and humbled by how fate can change so rapidly. No one can afford the luxury or arrogance of security. One day you have it all; the next it is all taken away. Just ask Job. You spend a lifetime having nothing, and one day your dream really does comes true. Just ask Hannah. Sometimes it has to do with you, and sometimes it has to do with what seems like random forces that religious people call God. Here is a clip of Hannah's powerful words on reversal:

"The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength. Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away. The Lord brings death and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth; He humbles and He exalts." [I Samuel 2:4-7]

Hannah had cause for exaltation. But the mother of seven children who loses them is also in her prayer, as is the warrior who loses while the weak soldier triumphs. Hannah is an observer of the human condition. It's interesting that nowhere in the Book of Esther is any similar observation made. Perhaps because it is a book of action and not contemplation. Another reason may be that Hannah offered this prayer years after Samuel was born, when she had time to digest just how strange and wonderful and terrible life can be from moment to moment. We travel with Esther and Mordechai as they ascend, descend and ascend again. We may be so busy going up and down that we forget to look back.
Abraham Ibn Ezra (d. 1167) on the verse above notes the different terms to refer to happiness and contends that tzahala "means light, as with a person who was sitting in darkness who went out into the fresh air of the world, and it was the very opposite of any middle ground. Such is what happened to the Israelites." Going from darkness to bright, eye-blinking light cannot be easy. It is the kind of blinding happiness when a miracle occurs suddenly, and fate is overturned in an instant, turning darkness to light in an outburst of surprise.

Fate, of course, works in two directions, as Hannah soberly reminds us. But for now, for this month, it is our spiritual duty to think of how fate has smiled upon us. So many challenges turned out to be blessings in disguise and then there are outright gifts that we never could have imagined. We pinch ourselves to make sure our good fortune is real.
Purim invites us to contemplate the happiness of reversals our people experienced historically and apply them to ourselves as a way to enhance our own happiness. And maybe in the process of articulating our personal reversals, we will discover even more profound joy.
Shabbat Shalom