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

Say No to Snark

A fool’s lips bring strife...A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are the snare of his soul.
— Proverbs 18:6-7

We've all been in the unhappy presence of snark. We know people who make critical, cutting, biting or snide comments when they could have easily said the same thing in a more pleasant way. The problem with snarkiness is that people find it entertaining. There is always an audience for gratuitous meanness wrapped in a thin slice of humor. The Urban Dictionary coined a term for it - snarcastic - that cynical voice that makes us laugh at someone else's expense and then, hopefully, regret it.

I don't remember growing up with the word "snarky" and was trying to find out how long it's been in our lexicon of nasty behavior. The Grammarphobia blog notes this about the word's history: "The earliest published reference for the verb 'snark,' meaning to snore or snort, is from 1866, according to the Oxford English Dictionary." Apparently by 1882 it also meant to find fault with or to nag. In adjective form as a way to refer to someone as irritable, it's been around since about1906. Lewis Carroll used it in his poem "The Hunting of the Snark" as an imaginary figure.

So snark has been around a lot longer than most of us realize. In fact, why date it to 1882 when we can go all the way back to the biblical book of Proverbs to find evidence for it everywhere - even if it is not mentioned by name? Language that hurts, damages and dismisses others is referenced in virtually every chapter of Proverbs as bringing harm to the one who uses it and to its victims. Here are a few choice selections:

    "Death and life are in the power of the tongue..." (18:21)

    "An evil man is ensnared by the transgression of his lips. But the righteous will escape from trouble." (12:13)

    "The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly." (12:15)

    "Wise men store up knowledge, but with the mouth of the foolish, ruin is at hand." (10:14)

    "The one who guards his mouth preserves his life. The one who opens wide his lips comes to ruin." (13:3)

    "In the mouth of the foolish is a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will protect them." (14:3)

    "He who guards his mouth and his tongue, guards his soul from troubles." (21:23)

We all know that speech has this immense power, but we don't always harness that power responsibly. We love sarcasm. It's the foundation of the T-shirt and bumper sticker industry (Here's this week's bumper sticker winner: "I'm not speeding. I'm qualifying.") What we don't realize is how diminishing sarcasm can be for the growth and esteem of those on the receiving end.

But, wait, there's good news. A new paper published in Science and reported in The New York Times testing morality in everyday behaviors found that while there was no difference in the survey between behaviors of religious and nonreligious participants, it did find that good deeds are "contagious." In their words: "People on the receiving end of an act of kindness were about 10 percent more likely than the average person to do something nice themselves later in the day." The only down side of this research is that those who did acts of kindness were slightly more likely to commit a small act of rudeness "as if drawing on moral credit from their previous act."

This new study should give us renewed energy to help goodness go viral and be ever more careful about language that is mean, snarky, sarcastic or cynical. As Proverbs warns, we don't want our lips to be "the snare of the soul."

So please add these two questions to your Elul challenge:

    What can I not say right now because I am concerned about someone else's feelings and because it will reflect poorly on my moral choices? 

    What can I make a point of saying right now that will make someone else feel safe, open, special, holy and happy?

Shabbat Shalom