The Tree of Hope

…Plant vineyards and eat the food they produce.

— Jeremiah 29:5

This Shabbat is called the Sabbath of Consolation. After the three week period of mourning that intensified in its last nine days, we finally feel the grief lifting. It’s made me wonder about consolation generally and what constitutes consolation for people. What comforts people after suffering or disappointment? For some it’s friends. For some it’s food. For some it’s travel. For some it’s charity. Some people find comfort in religion; others in art. For Victor Hugo, it was reading, “It is from books that wise people derive consolation in the troubles of life.” For Jews, it’s trees.

Trees have always been a sign of regeneration, of growth after decimation. Plant a tree, and the world feels better because the possibility of growth represents hope. We were born into a garden, and as its stewards were charged with the task of tending the garden. At the same time, the garden provided nourishment and beauty: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food...” (Genesis 2:9) Trees then and now represent that which is sturdy and reliable, aesthetically pleasing and materially satisfying. We are not allowed, Deuteronomy reminds us, to cut down a fruit tree in a time of war. The tree gives, and we receive, as we read later in Proverbs of the Torah, “It is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed [3:18].

A fan of Shel Silverstein, I personally never liked the book The Giving Tree and failed to understand why so many people bought it as a gift of the heart. It is a tree story where giving goes to such an extreme that the tree fails to teach what constitutes a relationship of meaning. The tree enables. Jewish trees give but as early as Genesis, we are told to care for them and be caretakers of the garden. They grow because we enable that growth. Their growth is supposed to mirror ours: “He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives.” [Psalms 1:3] Hope itself is tied into the image of the tree: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” [Proverbs 13:12]

Each part of the tree is a metaphor for human development: the roots, the trunk, the leaves, the fruit, the shade. We are to be all these things. And we are to be them most when life is at its lowest. Jeremiah in exile reminds us to build houses and marry off children and plant, as the quote above suggests. That investment invites us to nurture something that takes time to grow but provides rich dividends. Job sees the role model of the tree as something that will continue even when we think there’s no possibility left: “At least there is hope for a tree. If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant” (14:7-9).

This regenerative power led to the worship of trees. They were regarded in the ancient world as magical. Botanist Nogah Hareuveni, in his book Tree and Shrub in Our Biblical Heritage, observes that: “Human awe at the seemingly immortal “Tree of Life” seen all around in field and forest brought numerous tribes and nations to worship trees, attributing to them supernatural powers.” Jews do not ascribe supernatural powers to trees but natural powers to them. In times of sadness, the idea of gardening creates seeds of hope. For this reason, during the nine days of mourning the Temples' destruction, we are forbidden to plant. Perhaps, we should end this period by planting a tree, signaling that the tree of life continues to grow.

We plant trees in Israel to mark special occasions. It’s the gift that keeps giving. It communicates that something good is on its way. Be patient. Watch it grow. Find consolation in a future you planted. There lies hope.

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

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


God is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
— Psalms 34:18

Last Shabbat morning, we woke to shattering news on the other side of the world. It was the kind of news that triggers instant denial. It can't be. Not again. Denial morphed into incredulity which morphed into pain and a sense of profound loss and then, at least for me, the pain turned to anger at the senselessness of it all. What happens when nowhere is safe anymore, when anyone you pass on the street may want your life in a place you've gone to relax and enjoy a night out? What happens to our shared commitment to humanity when it seems like the threads holding us together are unraveling?

Last Shabbat morning, a joyous bar mitzva celebration was punctured by the bad news. A board member stood up and thanked the congregation. He had arrived that morning sad and forlorn; he spoke of his heavy heart. At the end of the morning - through the joy of celebration and collective prayer - he said he was leaving a little lighter. It was not all better or even mostly better. Just a little better. The rabbi got up and recited a poem that traveled in cyberspace after the attacks in Paris. It was written by the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire and articulates the global tensions of the moment. My daughter sent it to me after Shabbat. The rabbi of her synagogue also read it to the congregation.

later that night

I held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?




In our fragmented world, there are few experiences which transcend time and place. We never want fear and terror to be one of them. When we think of everywhere, we want to think of kindness, goodness, charity, God, humanity, compassion, and grace traveling everywhere on the atlas this one torn person holds on his lap. But there are too many terrible experiences that are on the map of everywhere: sorrow, suffering, grief, abuse, violence. And it makes me think of a verse from Psalms: "You keep count of my wanderings and put my tears in your bottle and into your book" (56:9).

Have you ever tried to capture your tears in a bottle? I think I must have in my more dramatic teenage years. When you experience angst, especially because of another person, it's hard to hold back the impulse to collect your tears and mail them off to the person responsible, as a warning or a criticism or a plea for help. In this verse we speak of God paying careful watch when we are lost and struggling. We don't have to put our tears in a bottle. God does that for us and keeps track in some metaphysical book of what happens to us. "God is near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit," we read above. Near means close by in our heartache. It does not mean God saves us from pain but rather, stands by us in tragedy. Sometimes the tragedy is that we naively believe that life is all about happiness and not about negotiating suffering with dignity and fighting injustice constantly.

The God of the first psalm is not an Actor but an Observer and an Accountant, Watcher and Listener. The God of the second is a Partner and Friend. These are more passive roles because we must be the main actors on this world stage. We cannot afford to be observers and accountants. There is too much work to do. Where there is suffering, we must seek justice and extend kindness. Let's each commit to one small kindness this coming Friday to offset last Friday's cruelty. Please share yours with me. I need it. 

Where is suffering? Everywhere. 

Where is love? Everywhere.

Shabbat Shalom

Stand Tall

Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the universe, who has straightened the bent over.
— Morning Blessings

We rarely get good news in the papers these days so when there is news to celebrate, it is often eclipsed by tragedy or tucked into a remote corner. This week we take note of a big piece of good news that’s worth a moment of reflection and appreciation. According to The New York Times, “ has been one full year since polio was detected anywhere in Africa, a significant milestone in global health..."

Doctors and health experts are celebrating what they consider a fragile success. When the global polio eradication campaign began in 1988, 350,000 children worldwide had polio. Last year that number dropped to 359. We are on the brink of eradicating all polio across the globe - something unimaginable is just on our horizon. This kind of accomplishment, only capable with the intervention of modern medicine, is worth a blessing. And I think I’ve found the perfect one, culled from our daily morning blessings: “Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the universe, who has straightened the bent over.”

Polio is an infectious disease that usually causes a weakening of the muscles in the legs but can also spread to the head, neck and elsewhere. It is an ancient illness and can and still does have a crippling effect when not treated. Although Dr. Jonas Salk revolutionized the polio equation in the 1950s with his vaccine,  the World Health Organization still declared it a public health emergency as late as 2014 because pockets of the poorest populations in Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan and other countries had still not overcome its reach. Now that Africa has been polio-free for a year, medical experts hope that additional pressures will be put on other countries to make polio a disease of the past.

Because of the crippling nature of the disease, a blessing on polio’s eradication might focus on the fact that God helps those bent over stand tall. The Talmud offers us a string of morning blessings that still appear in traditional prayerbooks today that travel with us through the process of waking up, from the moment we open our eyes and through the acts of getting out of bed, washing and dressing. Performed slowly, this choreography of rising can frame the entire day with a posture of gratitude, figuratively and literally. To me, one of the most touching of these blessings is “zokef kefufim,” - to straighten the bent over, in which the very Hebrew letters seem to mimic in its design the word’s meaning - especially the first letter of each word.

In Torah Yoga, Diane Bloomfield writes about the power of body and spirit in alignment regarding the spine: “Because your spine is your infinite spirit clothed in nerves, bones and muscles, every time you straighten and strengthen your spine, you are revealing more of your underlying infinite spirit.” As we age, Bloomfield writes, the spine often compresses without conscious work to keep it straight and aligned and the ease with which children bend down and straighten is compromised as we get older. Making this blessing is a way that we heighten our awareness of the spine as the defining anchor of our skeletal structure and spiritualize the experience of standing straight.

We find an inherent contradiction in the book of Ecclesiastes: “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is missing cannot be recovered” (1:15). It seems as if that which is crooked will forever stay that way until we read later in the same book: “Consider what God has done: who can straighten what He has made crooked?” (7:3). Within human realms, it is near impossible to straighten that which is bent over, but when we invite God to partner with us, it seems there is nothing beyond our capacity to heal, as we read in Psalms, “The Lord upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down” (145:14).

We are fortunate that this blessing helps us capture and sanctify this moment in time when divine intervention and medical innovation have brought us to a historic accomplishment. But the blessing should not be reserved for medical cases alone. All of us have the power to lift up the fallen, to act in God’s image and pick up those who are bowed low in suffering. We may not all be physicians, but we all have the ability to heal. In honor of this milestone, let today be a day that you use your friendship and love to bring the gift of healing to someone in need.

Shabbat Shalom

A Little Perspective

“Every single person must say, ‘The world was created for me.’”

BT Sanhedrin 37b


A few weeks ago, I came across a book of Native American wisdom and encountered a saying by Big Elk (1770-1853), the chief of the Omaha Native Americans. Big Elk lived at a time of hardship and transition for his tribe. Foreigners threatened to take his land, and the Sioux were a warring tribe against his. But the biggest danger he faced was small pox, which had come to America via Europeans and was a rampant cause of death among Native Americans. Big Elk needed to give his people a sense of hope and perspective on managing a difficult past and having strength to face the future. Here is what he told his tribe:

“Do not grieve. Misfortunes will happen to the wisest and best of men. Death will come, always out of season. It is the command of the Great Spirit, and all the nations and people must obey. What is past and what cannot be prevented should not be grieved for…Misfortunes do not flourish particularly in our lives – they grow everywhere.”

No one can escape the clutches of death nor will excessive mourning bring anyone back. Sometimes we believe that we are the only ones to suffer, but misfortune is not ours alone. We share it. It grows everywhere.

Contrast this to a fascinating legend in the Talmud about the sage Hanina ben Dosa:

“Hanina ben Dosa was walking on the road when rain fell upon him. He said: ‘Master of the Universe, the entire world is comfortable and Hanina is suffering. The rain stopped. When he came to his house, he said: ‘Master of the Universe, the entire world is suffering [for lack of rain] and Hanina is comfortable. The rain returned” [BT Yoma 53b].

Rather than accept the ways of the world, Hanina asked that they be manipulated to suit his own needs. He was willing to forgo the benefits of rain for others simply to ensure his own personal comfort. He only asked that the rain return when he got to the shelter of his own home. If this is not narcissism, what is?

And yet, we read in another passage of Talmud excerpted above that the world is created for our own individual benefit. “And the King of Kings the Holy One Blessed Be He minted every person with the stamp of Adam
And not one of them is the same as his fellow
For this reason, every single person must say, ‘The world was created for me.’” If the world was created for each of us, then Hanina did nothing wrong in praying for his own comfort at the expense of the rest of the world.

Talmud commentators were obviously troubled by Hanina’s audacious request and tried to soften it. One said that Hanina had no fields as a poor man, and could not, therefore, empathize with the suffering of his fellow farmers who needed rain for their sustenance. Another claims that Hanina was not asking God to change the world for him but rather making an observation about the world. Something that can be good for almost everyone can be bad for us and vice-versa.

It would be interesting to have Hanina ben Dosa in conversation with Big Elk. Big Elk may have told Hanina to man up and get an umbrella. Hanina may have told Big Elk that only those who really believe in their uniqueness will change the world and Big Elk should be careful not to encourage people to resign themselves to suffering. If you really believe that the world was created for you, then you also become a better custodian of it. You have greater responsibility for it. You have the power to change and improve it.

In this story, God listens to Hanina not because he accepted the perspective of the world but because he believed that he had a right to be comfortable and dignified. Not that the world had to serve him but that he had the power to change the universe. This perspective does not obligate us less when it comes to being stewards of the universe but obligates us more.

What would you do differently if you believed that you could really change the world?

Shabbat Shalom