Triage This

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

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

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

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

The Genesis of Trust

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

Table Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promises, Promises

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

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

People are Strange

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

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

Voting Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

Goodbye

We will not forget you
— Text of Hadran

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

What Are We?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom

A Universal Altar

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

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


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

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

Can We Forgive?

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

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

To Love Again on Rosh Hashana

...Turn me back, and I will return, for You, Lord, are my God.
— Jeremiah 31:18

In the haftarah on the second day of Rosh Hashana -Jeremiah 31:2-20 - we enter Jeremiah's complex universe of exile and its travails. Yet we only read half of a 40 verse chapter. As a result, we miss out on verses that seem a clear fit for the season, like this one: "For I will be their God and they will be my people" (31:33) or "For I will forgive their iniquities, and remember their sins no more" (31:34). Clearly the sages of old picked this text and parsed it with a specific goal in mind, namely that we absorb certain prophetic lessons.
 
Rabbi Binny Lau, in his wonderful book Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet contends that Jeremiah believed it was time for the divided nation of the Jews  - Judah and Samaria - to come together, the children of Rachel and Leah to be re-united. To accomplish this he must bring the Northern tribes, represented by Ephraim, back into the fold. Rabbi Lau depicts Jeremiah as a diplomat of sorts who shuttled between the two places in his attempt to fix the breech. "Like a professional mediator conducting political negotiations, flitting back and forth between the parties, Jeremiah tries to present each one with what it wants to hear, what it stands to gain."
 
In our chapter, we focus on the Northern tribes. Jeremiah wanted to entice these tribes back so he engages in a three-pronged seduction: the appeal of affection, happiness and nostalgia:


"And with a great love I have loved you, so I have drawn you close to Me tenderly. I will rebuild you, My maiden Israel, and you will be built; you will again play your tambourine and go out and dance with joy. You will again pant and enjoy the fruit. For the day will come when watchmen will shout from the hills of Ephraim, 'Come let us go up to Zion, to the Lord, our God'" (31:2-5)
 

If you come back, you will return to our romance, to innocence, to fiscal security. Most importantly, if you return, you will remove the distance that has set in between the people and their God. In order to accomplish this, Jeremiah recalled a favoritism for Ephraim and called him a  treasured son. He could never get away with saying the same thing in Yehuda. Such a memory would only cause additional strife, but to Ephraim, it is a welcome tease, as the prophet recalled the intensity of love and high regard Ephraim once enjoyed. Wouldn't Ephraim, Jeremiah agues, want to experience all of these feelings again?
 
Jeremiah also mentioned Ephraim's weeping grandmother, Rachel. If nostalgia fails, try guilt. Look at your grandmother crying on the border, waiting for you to come back. These tears produce self-reflection, and Jeremiah conjured Ephraim's response. "Chastise me, and I will be chastised, like an untrained calf; turn me back, and I will return, for You, Lord, are my God" (31:18). In Hosea, Ephraim is called a trained calf, but here Jeremiah calls him an untrained calf (10:11). The trained calf is a precocious image. In the metaphor, a young and arrogant calf thinks he can handle a harness on his own. Jeremiah wanted to emphasize community, that we cannot live alone, that we bear responsibility collectively, that we experience joy and grief together. He tried to weaken Ephraim's hard shell by making him into a calf that is unsteady on his feet, who is open to guidance, to chastisement, to the petition of the prophet.
 
By creating the picture of a desirable future, Jeremiah began with a grand dream of God's love, of Israel's influence over the nations, of a people finally reunited and able to heal the wounds of fracture. But to achieve these lofty goals, those who seem impenetrable have to crack open. The promise of geographic return can only work with the emotional and spiritual desire to return. In his JPS commentary, scholar Michael Fishbane also alerts us to one of the most touching repeated words in this haftarah. It appears four times in these twenty verse, and it is a word of only three Hebrew letters: O-D, again. We read it in verses four and five, in twelve and twenty. Again you will take up timbrels...Again you will plant vineyards...They shall never languish again...My thoughts will dwell on him (Ephraim) again...
 
Jeremiah reminds us that life and love go through cycles of intimacy and distance. In times of distance, we cannot imagine that there ever was affection and joy. In times of heady romance, we can never imagine despair and enmity. Jeremiah uses the word "od" to remind Ephraim that he is in a low part of a cycle that can once again turn but only if he is ready to return, if he wants the picture that Jeremiah created for him.
 
Now perhaps it is more clear why Jeremiah 31 is particularly appropriate for Rosh Hashana. Jewish time works in a spiral, a cycle that brings us back each year through holidays and seasons that demand different emotions. As we enter the Elul and Tishrei cycle, we may become aware of a gnawing distance, of being unprepared, of feeling unworthy. We may have Ephraim's hard and impenetrable shell and need the moving prayers of these days to crack us open. We may experience, nationally, a sense of our fractured existence as a people and need to remind ourselves of the obligation of togetherness. We may be far away when God beckons us to come closer. In that closeness, we will dance, we will raise our instruments, we will experience joy. We will celebrate.

And we will do all of this together. Again.
 
Shabbat Shalom

The Season of Change

Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies.
— Leviticus 22:2-3

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that fall is the time people make their most serious changes. In other words, September is the new January . September catalyzes small changes in how we live, what we buy and what goals we set. "Families put routines back in place, enforce bedtimes and pack lunches. People clear clutter out and vow to plan and cook healthy meals." The fall is apparently the most popular time to make weddings - who knew? It is also when gym memberships spike, Weight Watcher memberships jump, grocery store sales rise and skincare product sales bump.
 
So tell us something we didn't know. For Jews, the fall has always been our reflection time, and it wouldn't be the first time, our people have set the trend. "The Lord said to Moses, 'Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies'" (Lev. 23:2-3) Rashi, on 23:2, states that the verse is written this way to stress the discipline of placing oneself in such a calendar: "Regulate the festive seasons in such a manner that all of Israel becomes practiced in them." The idea of calling or proclaiming special days obligates people to make a conscious attempt to sanctify time, to be in touch with seasonal changes and to create regular occasions for celebration.
 
Bible scholar Baruch Levine stresses that by emphasizing all the Israelites, the verses demanding our observance of holidays, democratizes the process. Holidays are not only for priests. They are for all of us and must be proclaimed by us all. He also points to the act of partnership that is intended in this chapter: "The dates of the festivals and the regularity of a Sabbath every seventh day were set by God, and yet the Israelites are also commanded to proclaim them as sacred. These two acts are not contradictory, but, rather, complementary. The sanctity of the Sabbath and festivals is not achieved by God's act alone. It requires a combination of divine and human action."
 
In the same chapter, we have special verses to designate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur:


"The Lord said to Moses, 'Say to the Israelites: 'On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of Sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the Lord.' The Lord said to Moses, "The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the Lord. Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God..." (Lev. 23:23-29).

"You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a day of Sabbath rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your Sabbath" (Lev. 23:31-32).
 

The baseline of both days is the Sabbath, in terms of not working and making it a day of rest. Then the special rituals that make the days unique are listed and discussed at much greater length in the Talmud. These days will always fall out in the fall, making the crisp change of air a signal to transition.
 
The Wall Street Journal pointed to this time of the year as a period of self-improvement (or at least the beginning of self-improvement projects) but never explained why. Maybe the weather has a lot to do with it. In the middle of winter when many resolutions are made and broken, it can be hard to have the discipline when fighting the cold to go to the gym or stay off the carbs or take on a new hobby. The summer can create the kind of lethargy and vacation mentality that also gets in the way of discipline. But in the fall, we may feel a need to improve on the failings of the hotter months, and the change of climate helps strengthen our resolve to change. It changes, and we change.
 
Revisiting the Jewish calendar each year gives us the anchor and stable base of time and ritual upon which to create a platform for our most important innovation project: ourselves. What will you be changing?
 
Shabbat Shalom

What's In a Name?

A good name is more desirable than great riches;
a good reputation more than silver and gold.
— Proverbs 22:1

Proverbs tells us that a good name is of great value. Ecclesiastes contends that, “A good name is better than precious ointment...” (7:1) Ointment is the thin layer we put on our skin that offers protection and fragrance. It’s what others sense when they approach us. Ethics of the Fathers challenges us to acquire a good name and calls a good name a crown (1:7) and that a good name is something we uniquely own: “One who acquires a good name, acquired it for himself” (2:7).
 
But what if you don’t like your name or you don’t like the name you gave one of your children? A poll recently conducted in Great Britain concluded that close to 20% of parents regret the names they gave their children. All the major newspapers reported the findings. One out of five parents is a whopping number of disappointments. And if the parents don’t like the names, what chance is there that the kids like the names they were given? Slim, indeed. Of the 245 women who regretted the names they gave their children, a full 12% always knew it was a bad choice even before the baby was born, and 32% made the discovery within the first six weeks. Ouch.
 
Oh the agony and time expended for nine months selecting the perfect name only to be upset about it for a lifetime. The chief cause (25%) is that the name picked was too popular at the time and may not have captured the child's uniqueness. Eleven percent felt that the name created too many spelling or pronunciation problems. Two percent of those interviewed by the parenting website Mumsnet, that conducted the survey, actually changed the name because it troubled them so much. Example? Let’s say, as one parent reported, you named your child right before a terrorist group adopted the same name or picked Elsa right before the film “Frozen” came out.
 
The founder of the website chalked this up to just one of the many mistakes young parents make that they will later regret because the role and its many responsibilities is new and often difficult.
 
What’s in a name? A great deal. Adam’s first task in Genesis was to name animals. In our mystical tradition, when Adam named them, he understood their essence. When we name babies, however, we often do so without knowing anything about who they will become. We often name children after people we hope they will emulate, qualities we value or figures from our past who we wish to honor or who have had a great deal of influence over us.
 
But even in the Bible, a name can be a mistake. Ask Abigail. When the young strapping warrior David needed provisions and came to her estate, her husband Nabal refused him. After the text offers their names, it provides a description of the wife and the husband. “She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband was surly and mean in his dealings” (I Samuel 25:3). Nabal saw no reason to help a stranger. “Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Why should I take my bread and water and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers and give it to men coming from who knows where?” (25: 11). Betraying the Abrahamic tradition of hospitality where we are kind to strangers precisely because we do not know them, Nabal felt that because they were strangers, he had no responsibility to them at all.
 
Nabal in Hebrew means a disgusting person, a fool, someone of no class or poor taste. Abigail, realizing David’s budding majesty and embarrassed by Nabal’s lack of generosity, ran out to greet David and bowed low to the ground in humility. Unbeknownst to her husband, she brought David and his troops 200 loaves of bread, five sheep, wine, grain, raisins, figs - all in abundance.  Abigail told David to excuse her husband’s behavior and to seek no revenge for his stinginess. “Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just as his name. His name means fool and folly goes with him...” (25:26). Conveniently for her, Nabal, after hearing who David really was, suffered heart failure and died ten days later. When David caught wind of the news, he sent for Abigail, and she became his wife.
 
Nabal’s name was actually his downfall instead of his crown. His wife hated his name and perhaps also hated the man behind it. “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increase fear of the thing itself,” was advice Harry Potter once got. Nabal lived up to the name he was given but only in the worst and most ironic way.
 
Do you like your name?  
Is there something you can do now to earn an even better name?
 
Shabbat Shalom

Walk This Way

And you shall show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.
— Ex. 18:20

The Talmudic sage Rabbi Hiyya was approached by a woman and asked to authenticate a coin [BT Bava Kamma 99b-100a]. While he was not in the business of currency, a scholar may be called upon to offer his wisdom in areas far outside his realm of expertise. As it so happens, the sage authenticated the coin, but the woman had a hard time using it and eventually returned to Rabbi Hiyya. When he realized her troubles, he asked his assistant to note the problem and to replace the coin.  Was he obligated to do so, asks the Talmud?
 
In a word: no.

In a word: yes.

Technically speaking, Rabbi Hiyya owed this woman nothing. He gave what he thought was his best judgment and could not be penalized for it. And yet, Rabbi Hiyya felt some degree of responsibility for this unnamed woman. Perhaps she was poor and the way she held onto the coin indicated to this scholar that she could ill afford this kind of mistake. Perhaps Rabbi Hiyya was touched by her reverence for him. Alternatively, Rabbi Hiyya understood that there are duties and expectations of scholars and leaders that go beyond the letter of the law.

The Talmud itself continues with a discussion of Rabbi Hiyya's supererogatory behavior and finds justification in it from a teaching of Rabbi Yosef. "Rabbi Yosef taught concerning the verse: 'And you shall show them the way wherein they must walk and the work that they must do' (Exodus18:20)." What way are we bound to walk and what kind of work must we do? These questions interested Rabbi Yosef, and he parsed the verse and allowed it to unfold in an accordion of intellectual and humane responsibilities.
'And you shall show them:' this is referring to the core of their existence (Torah study).
'The way:' This is referring to acts of kindness.
"They must walk:" This is referring to visiting the sick.
"Wherein:" This is referring to burial of the dead.
"The work:" This is referring to conducting oneself in accordance with the law.
"That they must do:" This is referring to conducting oneself beyond the letter of the law.
This indicates that the Torah mandates that people conduct themselves beyond the letter of the law."

What is the work we must do? We must have the intelligence and presence of mind to live by the law and also know when to go beyond it. Not everything can be dictated by a rule. Often, acts of kindness and holiness are dictated by a generous impulse. We often squash that impulse. Rabbi Yosef asked us to pay greater attention to it.

Maimonides, who was a great believer in Aristotle's golden mean, wrote that when it comes to character traits, one should achieve a middle ground of temperament. And yet, even so, he acknowledged that there are people of piety who acquire saintly status by acting above the letter of the law [Hilkhot Da'ot 1:5]. Maimonides was particularly concerned with the behavior of scholars and demanded that they act above reproach and above the letter of the law so that they live up to the reputations they earned [Hilkhot Yesodai HaTorah 5:11]. Scholarship is always, in Jewish tradition, supposed to seep into who we are. And while we may not expect rabbis and leaders to go beyond the law, we are often quick to catch them for not doing so.

Many people, in building up to the High Holiday season, take on additional mitzvot. That's living by the law, just more of it. Sometimes its not always about doing more, but about doing what we do already but in a better, deeper, more sincere and more pious way. Walk this way, Rabbi Yosef, advises us, and you will walk to better places and with a better quality of people. Teshuva, repentance, is not always about refraining from what is wrong but doing more of what is right.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Stop Embarrassing Me!

A month in which there is no embarrassment and shame...
— Traditional Blessing for Rosh Hodesh

This Shabbat we welcome the Hebrew month of Elul, the warm-up for the High Holiday season and all it demands of us. Last Shabbat we announced the new month with a special prayer, said by the prayer leader holding the Torah. The ushering in of the new month is a solemn testimony and ritual, and we sing it with hope, anticipation and often a degree of anxiety. What will this new month bring? This slight tremor of worry is amplified when we know something momentous will be happening on the calendar in the weeks to come.
 
In the prayer, we make many requests of the new month: it should be a time of joy and friendship, love, honor and riches. We also ask that it not be a time of embarrassment and shame, not for us or for others. We should not be shamed nor should we shame. This expression seems out of line with our other happy and bouncy expectations.
 
And yet, the severity of this wrongdoing grabs our attention. After all, the Talmud takes a forceful approach to this sin: "One who embarrasses another is as if he shed his blood" [BT Bava Metzia 58b]. The Talmudic adage less well-known on the same page is that all who go to hell will come out except those who shame a neighbor. The Hebrew Bible contains many verses that describe the experience of shame, perhaps most importantly the law of not embarrassing someone who requires money as a loan: "When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not enter his house to take his pledge. You shall remain outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you" [Deuteronomy 24:10-11].

One who embarrasses another is as if he shed his blood


There are also biblical narratives that communicate the pain of shame. The prophet Elisha, for example, experiences shame when he is taunted and challenged by contenders for his position. They searched for Elijah who went up in a whirlwind, disregarding Elisha's pleas. "But when they urged him until he was ashamed, he said, 'Send.' They sent therefore fifty men; and they searched three days but did not find him."[II Kings 2:17]. Later, when Elisha gave the gift of a son to a woman who helped him, and the child died, Elisha was humiliated by his actions: "He fixed his gaze steadily on him until he was ashamed, and the man of God wept" [II Kings 8:10]. The powerful prophet weeping communicates the damage that embarrassment causes.

But what of the damage? In the Talmud's daily cycle, we are currently studying the payments due to someone who suffers personal injury. Shame is among those five payments. The others are damages, pain, medical care, and loss of livelihood. There can be costs associated with humiliation that involve no medical injury. Someone who slaps another across the face, shames him but there are unlikely to be medical costs associated with this act.
 
The Talmud raises some fascinating questions about humiliation. How does one estimate a psychic cost, for example? Do people who are rich or poor experience humiliation differently? My personal favorite is if one must pay "humiliation charges" if the victim humiliates himself anyway. Here's what the mishna states: "One who humiliates a naked person or a blind person or a sleeping person is liable, but a sleeping person who humiliates another is exempt" [BT Bava Kamma 86b]. A sleeping person cannot be held liable for his actions. But what about a naked person who displays himself freely? If one were to humiliate him, damages must be paid even though his behavior brings shame to himself.
 
The gemara, in explicating this mishna, throws out a question: "Is a naked person subject to humiliation?" And it offers an illustration. Let's say a gust of wind came and blew up a person's tunic and then another person lifted his clothes even higher to embarrass him further? Show him the money. Nature operates without intention but not human beings. There is no need to make a situation more disgraceful. In that vein, the Talmud makes little distinction, as it often does, between a minor and others. If a child is old enough to be embarrassed then it is forbidden to shame him, and one must pay expenses associated with that shame. Families can also experience shame when one of its members is publicly humiliated.
 
It is difficult to atone for humiliating someone else. The Talmud determined a payment scheme, but money cannot make up for shame. And so as we approach these months of teshuva, repentance, we understand that maybe it is not so odd to ask for a month without shame. The scars caused by humiliation are deep. Some made long ago never heal. It makes us pause and ask ourselves if we have the emotional discipline to hold back on a snarky comment or a public insult or a dismissive jibe that makes us look good at another's expense. And we pray that we aren't the victims of such comments.

Yes, let it be a month without shame or embarrassment, and then perhaps it will be a month of greater joy.

Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov

Evicted

And when a person shall sanctify his house to be holy to the Lord...
— Leviticus 27:14

In ancient biblical days - and particularly in the days of the Temple - people consecrated the worth of property, objects and even themselves to support the Temple or to support Israelite leadership. One would evaluate what something or someone was worth (a complex process) and give that amount to a charitable cause. It was a way of evening out the economic playing field. If I buy a new house, I may translate this blessing into supporting God's house, as we see from the verse above. Donations may have been consecrated by kings from spoils of war, giving back to the spiritual source that helped them achieve victory. The Talmud on the verse above proposes that "Just as one's house is in one's possession, so too anything that one consecrates must be in his possession" [BT Bava Kamma 69b]. You have to own what you give away, just as what you give away is often mirrored by what you own.
 
A house is an interesting choice of designation, and it shows how important a house is in the life of a human being; it becomes a marker of personal worth. In Jewish life, we use the Hebrew word "bayit" to signify not only a house but a gathering space for study - beit midrash - for prayer - a beit keneset - and for the center of our ancient community - a beit ha-mikdash, our holiest house. In Jewish life we move from house to house, imbuing sacredness to each space by virtue of the activities that take place there. A person needs a home, an anchor of stability; in this changing, chaotic world, every soul needs to be an island of repose.
 
In this spirit, it was very hard to digest this line in Matthew Desmond's latest book: "Every year in this country, people are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands but by the millions." In his study of poverty in the American city, Evicted, he writes how much people are taken advantage of because they don't live in homes they own. "'Every condition exists,' Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, 'simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.' Exploitation. Now, there's a word that has been scrubbed out of the poverty debate." He traces the lives of people who have been evicted and the landlords who evict them. It is a gripping and heartbreaking read.
 
This vicious cycle is nearly impossible to break, especially when exploitation centers on the basics: food and housing. "If the poor pay more for their housing, food, durable goods and credit, and if they get smaller returns on their education and mortgages (if they get returns at all), then their incomes are even smaller than they appear. This is fundamentally unfair," Desmond writes. Desmond tells us something we've always known about housing: "Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their homes and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block." If this is true, then we understand the deeper costs of eviction: "Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life's journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition of poverty."
 
Perhaps this is what the prophet Jeremiah understood when he taught Jewish exiles how to live in their host countries. After the destruction of our shared spiritual house - the Temple - Jeremiah advised us to build homes and settle in exile, a counterintuitive message, to be sure. "This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 'Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.'" [Jeremiah 29:5-7].
 
Historically, we may have been evicted, but we will and we have rebuilt. Now it's time to turn our attention to those who haven't.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Going for the Gold

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

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

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

Black Shoes

I am in mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem...
— BT Bava Kamma 59b

Marilyn Monroe once said, "Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world." I am not sure you can conquer the world with stilettos. They would certainly slow me down. But we are about to study a shoe story that gives the opposite message. Shoes can also be a sign that you are retreating from the world as it is, retreating out of loss. 

As we approach Tisha B'Av this coming Sunday and recount immense tragedies across our history, I thought I would share a Talmudic story of intrigue about public mourning that may take us back in time. One day Rabbi Eliezer Ze'eira was caught wearing black shoes in the market of Nehardea, an ancient Babylonian town packed with scholars. I wasn't really sure what the offense was in this, but it must have been great because, as the Talmudic passage continues, officials from the Exilarch's house found him and asked him by what right he has to wear black shoes in public. His reply was terse and moving: "Because I am in mourning over Jerusalem."
 
We have many Talmudic passages that deal with the excessive mourning of scholars upon the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. The legal justification for amplifying mourning comes from a verse in Isaiah: "to appoint those that mourn for Zion" (61:3). There were sages who refused meat and wine since these were part of Temple rites. Even to this day, many weddings in Jerusalem feature only small bands because of the ban on live music after the Temple's ruin. The black shoes, however, triggered something very powerful in the eyes of these onlookers that was not positive.
 

Fresco from Pompeii depicting two upper-class Romans wearing black shoes. From the Koren Talmud, Bava Kamma 59b

Fresco from Pompeii depicting two upper-class Romans wearing black shoes. From the Koren Talmud, Bava Kamma 59b

We have a fresco from Pompeii that depicts upper-class Romans in black shoes (You can see this in the image above, taken from the Koren Bava Kamma). It seems that shoes were a statement of one's social class (think Manolo Blahnik today), and shoes with black straps were worn by Gentiles and not by Jews. Medieval Talmudic commentators suggest that Jews may have worn shoes with black soles and white straps or, a later commentary suggests that Romans wore glossy black shoes, and Jews customarily wore matte black shoes. Whatever the meaning of footwear was back then, it was enough to agitate these officials and prompt this odd conversation:
 
"They said to him, 'Are you a man of such importance to mourn Jerusalem (in public)?' They thought this presumptuous, and they brought him to prison to incarcerate him." Black shoes must have been a really big wardrobe malfunction for this rabbi. It turns out that mourning in public with this display of importance was a crime of sorts. Rabbi Eliezer turned to them and said that he was allowed to don black shoes for one reason: 'I am a great man (gavra rabba)." Modest, too.
 
In other words, Rabbi Eliezer was a person of note who felt that he could engage in this mourning ritual because of his scholarship. He did not regard it as a haughty behavior but as a significant one. The officials, however, were not backing down. "How do we know you are a scholar?" they asked. He responded with a test. "Either you ask me a matter of law or I will ask you a matter of law." The rabbi challenged them to come up with a question he couldn't answer, or he would ask one that showcased his knowledge. They allowed him to ask, and they discussed a matter of legal minutiae. He told them to confirm his answer with that of another great sage, Samuel. "Samuel is alive and his court exists," he claimed. Off they went to Samuel's court, where this exceptional scholar told the officials that Rabbi Eliezer was correct. When they heard this, they released Rabbi Eliezer, and the Talmud moves on to another legal issue.
 
People did not wear shoes in the Temple precincts but did need strong shoes for the pilgrimage to the Temple. Some sages interpreted the verse from Song of Songs, "How beautiful are your steps in sandals" [7:2] as a specific reference to the beauty of people marching together to this Jewish spiritual center, the heart of the ancient Israelites. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1796) understood Rabbi Eliezer's actions as a way of honoring these collective journeys to Jerusalem to pray and to live in community. Every time he looked down, he would have seen this reminder of where he wished his feet would take him.
 
Strange, no? In BT Ta'anit, we learn that one who mourns Jerusalem will one day rejoice in a rebuilt Jerusalem [30b]. Rabbi Eliezer felt that he needed to make a public statement about his loss; he was not behaving in what we might call self-righteousness, as the officials assumed. He may have intentionally gone to the market in his black shoes because it was a place congested with people, people who may have forgotten the significance of the Temple's loss. His footwear was not only a reminder for him. In public, it was a reminder for everyone who saw him that we walk always in a small dark shadow because of this loss.

Shabbat Shalom

Justice Needs Practice

…practice love and justice and wait for your God always.
— Hosea 12:6

Several places in the Talmud discuss the case of one murder committed by multiple hands. Maimonides gathers together these opinions in forming his own, which he shares in the “Laws of Murder” in his magnum opus, the Mishnah Torah. There are fourteen hefty chapters in this book because Maimonides is dealing with one of the most significant crimes in the Torah, the taking of a life.

“If ten people strike one person with ten different stick and he dies, they are all not held liable for execution by the court." The law applies whether or not they struck him one after the other or they struck him at the same time. These laws are sourced in Leviticus 24:17, ‘If one strikes any person mortally, he should be put to death;’ through implication we learn that death is not required unless one person alone is entirely accountable for the person’s death. The same law applies if two people push a colleague into the water and hold him there or several people are together and an arrow leaves them and kills someone, none is held liable.” (4:6)

This question of accountability in the case of a murder is not easy to resolve. On the one hand, murdering someone is a capital offense and treated with the full weight of Jewish law during times of Jewish sovereignty. On the other hand, in a case where multiple people are involved, it is near impossible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that any one individual is responsible.

Maimonides does delineate a case with a different outcome, however. “A different ruling is rendered in the following instance. Ten people threw stones at one person, one after the other. None of the stones was sufficiently heavy enough to cause death. Afterwards, another person cast a heavy stone that could cause death. The last person who threw the stone should be executed.”[4:7]

All things being equal, Jewish law does not implicate any one individual in the collective murder of one person. All bear the shame, but none bears the actual liability. When all things are not equal – one person has a much heavier stone than the others – the one who casts the final death blow is held responsible, even if everyone participated in this crime.

I pondered this last week for several days after the last police officer was acquitted in the Freddy Gray case that took place last year in Baltimore. Remember the case? On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore police officers for possession of an illegal switchblade. He died 7 days later. When Gray was transported in a police van after his arrest, he allegedly suffered a coma and was said to have died because of spinal injuries. How did this man die?

The six officers involved were suspended with pay as an investigation ensued. Charges of homicide were waged against the police officers. Each case was presented separately in court. Last week, on July 27th, all the charges were dropped. The case garnered particular attention because Gray’s death was followed by days of violent protests and looting, especially on April 27th, 2015, the day of Freddie’s funeral. A state of emergency was declared in Maryland by the governor, and the National Guard was finally brought it to bring the city to order. It was a frightening and tense time and surfaced many of this country’s fears about police officers, about vigilante justice, about race.

After all the charges were dropped, when many expected the protests to resurface with an even more ferocious aggression, the streets were quiet. Most of the officers who were convicted are back at work. But all is not normal. There have been heated calls for criminal justice reform, for a more independent investigation, for police reforms. The Executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, Chuck Wexler, was cited in The New York Times with this pessimistic end note: “We’re nowhere.” He shared the disappointment many feel: “Both sides walk away from this feeling like they didn’t get justice – the people who were concerned about Freddie Gray, and the people who are concerned about cops doing their job.”

If Maimonides had been the judge, the outcome would likely have been the same. No one person could be indicted beyond a reasonable doubt with taking Gray’s life. But collectively, there is no doubt that something terrible happened in that van that day that reminds us to be vigilant in upholding the sacredness of every life. “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” we will soon read in Deuteronomy 16:20. We repeat the word justice, the commentators tell us, for all kinds of reasons: for emphasis, for additional vigilance, for a call to action. But perhaps we also read it twice because there is earthly justice and heavenly justice. There are people who get away with crimes because we simply cannot prosecute them, but it does not mean that they didn’t happen. Justice somewhere, at some time must be served.

Shabbat Shalom

Turning Political Darkness to Light

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you or forsake you. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged.
— Deuteronomy 31:8

Looking back on the past two weeks of political conventions has been frustrating. Everyone I talk to is depressed about the elections. All the disparaging talk and name-calling, the focus on personalities rather than responsibilities, the rhetoric and the bullying are taking a mental toll. Current polls on the trust levels of both candidates conclude that the majority of Americans don’t really trust either nominee, and this comes at a time when America is desperate for strong moral leadership. How we will look back at this strange time in American history: will it be a turning point or not? Will it push the country in the direction of integrity or not?
 
The most vulnerable time in the life of a people is the baton change of leadership. Letting go of the familiar - even if the familiar is flawed - for the unknown surfaces doubts and anxieties about the future. We think about the larger impact of such shifts - on immigration, on the economy and on foreign policy - and then our more local concerns. How will this change of leadership specifically affect me: my family, my job security, my health benefits?
 
The statement above in Deuteronomy appears at a transitional moment in Jewish history. Moses’ brother and sister died. It was apparent that his life, too, would soon slip away, letting one great generation of the Bible be eclipsed by a newer generation with its own challenges. Moses spoke to his people at a time when he could no longer fight the inevitable: “I am now 120 years old, and I am no longer able to lead you. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not cross the Jordan.’” This admission of vulnerability and mortality must have been devastating for him and his audience. He had served the people for over 100 years. Letting go of his leadership meant letting go of his very life.
 
To ensure a smooth transition, Moses stressed that God would be with the people no matter what. Leaders come and go, but an enduring divine presence would never leave. The two verses before the one above create a context in which to understand Moses’ wish for the people as he is about to leave them. Moses used the same words that God would use repeatedly when Joshua took his place: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them (your enemies), for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (31:6) Then Moses gave Joshua the moral authority of the camp with a similar pep talk: “Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land...’” (31:7)
 
Moses called upon God to provide a successor so that Moses would know that his investment would carry through to the next generation. He wasn’t looking for a simple replacement. Really great leaders want to be overshadowed by the greatness of the next leader. “Succession planning doesn’t start with people. It starts with the requirements of the position,” states professor of business David Ulrich. It’s not only about personality. Succession planning is understanding what the job demands first.
 
The former CEO of Xerox, Anne M. Mulcahy, wrote that, “One of the things we often miss in succession planning is that it should be gradual and thoughtful, with lots of sharing of information and knowledge and perspective, so that it’s almost a non-event when it happens.” I hate to break it to her, but for us presidential elections are never non-events. Some are more thoughtful and transparent than others. Some offer more information and greater perspective than others. Voting today often feels like entering a fierce confrontation rather than a national succession planning venture. And because of the vehemence today, many of us are feeling embattled instead of excited.
 
Moses brought light to the people by emphasizing what endures when change is taking place. Maybe we need to take a page out of his political playbook to fight the depression. Instead of focusing on who will be president for a few years, let’s start talking about what got us here hundreds of years ago and what will endure long past these anguished days of politics: our freedoms, our strength, our collective national bond. I have to remind myself that we might feel depressed about our leadership, but we should never be depressed about our country.
 
Shabbat Shalom