A Tree Grows In Babylonia

“orrect yourself and, only then, correct others.
— BT Bava Batra 60b

Last week, in the daily Talmud cycle, we studied one of my favorite stories. I have to share it. The Talmudic discussions on these pages are steeped in questions about ownership of property and the nature of public and private domains and the responsibility individuals have for the safety of public and semi-private areas. So far, this is interesting mostly for lawyers and property developers. Maybe not even. It can run a bit dry.

Suddenly we stumble on a wonderful story with legal consequences, which I will paraphrase, adding to the translation only words that are missing from the elliptical nature of any Talmud text:

"Rabbi Yannai has a tree that was leaning into the public thoroughfare. There was another man who had a tree that was leaning into the public space. The people there demanded that he take care of it. He came before Rabbi Yannai, who said to him "Go now and come back tomorrow. At night, Rabbi Yannai sent for a person to cut down his own tree. The next day, the man returned, and Rabbi Yannai said to him, 'Go cut down your tree.' He replied, 'But the Master also has such a tree.' 'Go and see. If mine is cut down, cut down yours. If mine is not cut down, you do not have to cut down yours.'"

Obviously, this man thought that asking a scholar with the same problem would allow him to keep his tree intact. He was not expecting this response. The scholars who discuss this story are troubled by what Rabbi Yannai's legal position was originally and why it changed. R. Yannai came to realize that the people who used this domain with its hanging trees felt comfortable telling a commoner to trim his tree but did not want to approach the rabbi out of respect. He, on the other hand, did not want to be treated any differently. Why, then they ask, did he not merely say to this man, "Cut down your tree and then I'll cut mine down?" That would have been a fair approach, but not the highest ethical approach to resolving this problem. They conclude that one must "Correct yourself, and only then, correct others." You can't require others to do what you are not first prepared to do yourself.

Here we might also make a fine distinction between role modeling and leading by example, even though these two descriptions are often used interchangeably. When someone serves as a role model, he or she often thinks about those watching and acts as an appropriate exemplar. There is, at least in my mind, a performative aspect to this, almost as if without an audience, the individual in question might let down his or her guard. When we lead by example, we are our best selves regardless of who is watching. We act the way we believe one should. If someone wants to learn from this example, they are welcome to, but we are not doing it to look better. We are doing it because it's the right thing to do, because it's the right way to be.

I believe Rabbi Yannai wanted to lead by example. Everyone can see his tree with its far-reaching limbs. Everyone was willing to give him a pass. He thought, as it states in the Talmud, that his tree was providing a service to others with its shade. It was not until this man approached him with his legal question that he realized his assumptions were incorrect. In fact, the proof that he led by example and not because people were watching is that he had the tree's limbs cut down at night, when no one was watching. He wasn't looking for a medal, for a community's approbation. He wanted to do the right thing because it was the right thing. He wanted to be better. Only then could he ask more of someone else.

"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self," wrote Ernest Hemingway. Rabbi Yannai with the cut of a few tree limbs became a better version of himself. Only then could he ask the same of someone else.

Shabbat Shalom

A Leadership of Silence

I have never been eloquent...
— Exodus 4:10

This week, we will open up the book of Exodus in synagogues around the world a day after America's presidential inauguration. The time feels ripe to think about the relationship between speech and leadership. Words can communicate hope, or they can confirm hate. Words can lift the spirit or send listeners into a depressive tailspin. Words can be a tool of the arrogant or an obstacle to the humble.

Moses complained multiple times about his speaking inadequacies related to content, to the mechanics of speech and to his own unworthiness to represent his people. "'So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.' But Moses said to God, 'Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?'" [Exodus 3:10-11].

Moses could not agree to a plan that he felt unworthy to represent. Moses countered again. "Moses answered, 'What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, 'The Lord did not appear to you?' Then the Lord said to him, 'What is that in your hand?' 'A staff,' he replied. The Lord said, 'Throw it on the ground.' Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it," [Exodus 4:1-3]

This would surely have moved Moses to action, but still he protested. "Moses said to the Lord, 'Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.' The Lord said to him, 'Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.' But Moses said, 'Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else,'" [Exodus 4:10-13]

Later, in 6:12 and 30, Moses added an additional, puzzling complaint: he has uncircumcised lips, a very odd expression that suggests some kind of blockage that prevents his words from achieving the mellifluous peak necessary to be an influential leader. Moses failed to understand why he specifically was chosen, why anyone would listen to him and where the source of speech would come from for a man of few words. Although we have classically understood Moses to be a stutterer or have a stammer, this reading may be too literal. Moses may have felt stymied by his lack of elegance rather than by any physical problem. Rashi observes that verse 4:10 should be read this way: "In heaviness, I speak." Words were neither light nor trivial to him. This he regarded as a political liability. In politics, words can become weapons of insurrection or popularity or insincerity. These were realms not familiar to the young man born in trepidation and suddenly transferred to a house of royalty.

Avivah Gottleib Zornberg in her new and excellent book, Moses: A Human Life, comments that Moses' "...destiny is yoked with his people's in ways that he cannot at first fathom. Heaviness is everywhere, both inside his mouth and in his relation with a people who are 'his' only by way of a mother who has receded into oblivion. He has been shot into a future that he cannot recognize as his own." Instead of curing Moses of a speech problem that plagued him, God wanted Moses because of his speech deficiencies: "Moses' mouth is precisely what God has chosen. But He will be with his mouth, He will implicate Himself in the issues of his mouth. God invites Moses to open his whole being to a kind of rebirth. Already twice-born, he is to surrender to yet another transfiguration."

God used Moses mouth as a conduit until Moses developed his own gift for language. More importantly, Moses with his staff, his brother and his miracles showed his people that action is more important to leadership than words will ever be. Moses felt trapped by speech and would only be able to free himself and his people when he overcame this incapacity to let words inspire action. They need not be many words either. "Let my people go" may not constitute poetry, but as the language of freedom against oppression, these three Hebrew words and four English ones have been a clarion call to revolution for centuries.

Moses' humble objection to leadership set the standard for the rest of us. Even when we agree to a task, the question "who am I?" should be a whisper in our ears always. It helps us appreciate that great leadership is about influence rather than power, modesty rather than publicity, deeds rather than words.

Shabbat Shalom

The Power of Invitation

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

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

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

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

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

Losing a Leader

Upon whom is there for us to rely? Only upon our Father in heaven.
— BT Sotah 49b.

As we put a close to 2015 and reflect on the year that has passed, we also create closure around iconic figures who died this year: Yogi Berra, Oliver Sacks, E.L. Doctorow, B.B. King, Robin Williams, John Nash, and Leonard Nemoy. In their respective fields, they each became known for a certain type of skill, intelligence, voice and idiosyncratic, beloved way of viewing the world. It's not hard to make a jump from the death of any of these figures to the closure, in some way, of the talent that each respectively represents. Will sports, literature, music, comedy, or medicine ever be the same? Yes and no.
Thinking about the loss of a leader and the loss of that leader's gifts, brings us to a fascinating passage of the Talmud. This past week we closed another tractate of Talmud [BT Sota 49b] and moved to a new volume. The last page closed with the sense of closure generally, recording what was lost when a number of famous sages died and a retrospective on what was lost when the Second Temple was destroyed.

When Rabbi Meir died, those who related parables ceased.

When Ben Azzai died, the diligent ones ceased.

When Ben Zoma died, interpreters ceased.

When Rabbi Akiva died, the honor of the Torah ceased.

When Rabbi Yosi died, the pious were no more.

When Yohanan ben Zakai died, the glory of wisdom ceased.

When Raban Gamliel the Elder died, the honor of the Torah ceased as did purity and asceticism.

When Rabbi Yishmael ben Pazi died, the honor of the priesthood ceased.

When Rabbi Yehuda the Prince died, humility and fear of sin ceased.

As the Talmudic text continues and discusses the destruction of the Second Temple, despair overtakes the language. It's not only that certain intellectual and spiritual losses were sustained when these individuals passed away, when they died it seemed that all they represented died with them. And when the text turns its focus on the Temple - the building at the heart of our ancient lives - and it lay in ruination, people bowed their heads down in shame, this passage tells us, and arrived at a conclusion: "Upon whom is there for us to rely?" the voice of the narrator asks, "Only upon our Father in heaven."
If we rely too heavily on mortals, we ignore our own mortality, the Talmud seems to suggest. People die, even famous people die. Even scholars, whose wisdom ages with them, die. Become too attached to them and you will experience a loss that is more intense than letting go of their person - you will have to let go of hope itself. If wisdom ceases, Torah ceases and interpretation ceases then the scholarly world itself dies. We understand these lines as the highest form of praise, and yet there seems to be something intensely un-Jewish about them.
It is then that two voices perk up and appear in our debate.
Rabbi Yosef challenged the despair: "Do not teach that humility ceased. There is one who is still humble: me." Rabbi Nahman challenged the one who taught this mishna: "Do not teach that fear of sin ceased. There is still one who feared sin: me."
When I first read this, I laughed. It sounded like a variation of the statement, "You won't find anyone more modest than I am," which undermines the very quality of humility. But in reading it again and thinking about its deeper meaning, it's not hard to understand why this is a perfect rebuttal of the pathos that can overtake us when we think we have lost the greatest generation. When that happens, we have to take stock of what the loss means and what the loss forces us to become.
We must each take responsibility to replace those who came before us and who represented something extraordinary to us and society at large. We can't foist that upon someone else. We have to stand up and recover from the pain and realize that all continues. We must evolve and replace that which we have lost. We can't bring back people who have died, but sometimes with their deaths, they become the most incredible teachers and mentors for the next generation. That generation is us.