Long Suffering

Men zol nit gepruft verren tsu vos me ken gevoint verren.”
Pray that you may never have to endure all that you can learn to bear.
— Yiddish Expression

I learned the painful but true saying above from a collection of sayings called Yiddish Wisdom, produced by Chronicle Books. I also learned how to say, "You can't sit on two horses with one behind" and "If your grandmother had a beard, she's be your grandfather" in Yiddish but haven't figured out the right context in which to use them.

I turned to this small collection because Yiddish has a rich and creative vocabulary for expressing pain. There is something appealingly inelegant about it that feels authentic to the way real people live and think. This is in contrast to many biblical texts that we read this season in a liturgical context to mark the Three Weeks of mourning over the loss of the two holy Temples and other tragedies of Jewish history commemorated during these days of ancient heartbreak. The prophets offered us their literary prose, their complicated metaphors and their daring antics to get the attention of a misbehaving people. Yiddish gives us a simple "OY."

OY is also the last two letters of the word JOY, perhaps a linguistic wordplay that makes no sense other than to communicate that one cannot experience deep and true happiness without an active range of emotions. "Az men ken not iberhalten dos shlechteh, ken men dos guteh nit derleben." If you can't endure the bad, you'll not live to witness the good, says this Yiddish aphorism. No one wants bad news. No one opts for sadness, but it shows up as a constant friend anyway. And maybe, as the saying recommends, we must invite in that sadness and not push it away because it holds the key to emotional depth that will also allow us to experience joy more completely.

I've always been taken by several lines in Rumi's poem, "The Guesthouse" that majestically express this conundrum: that deep pain is related to deep joy.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all...

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

Pain also inspires, which may explain why our prophets had so much to say about destruction and redemption. "A shver hartz redt a sach." A heavy heart talks a lot. The release of words unburdens us and frees up more space for other emotions, for slivers of positive thinking and optimism.

Sometimes, however, grieving does not easily let up its hold on us. "Altsding lozt zich oi smit a gevain." Everything ends in weeping. Our mortality is close by always, even if we create multiple mechanisms of distance. There are times when the veil that separates us from our mortality is perilously thin. The historic chronology of loss we experienced thousands of years ago which we encapsulate in the time frame of three weeks can feel long and onerous, but precisely because of that, we are put in a narrow tunnel that we need to walk through slowly to see the light. That mortality signals an urgency for meaning, for connection, for closeness and joy.

This relationship is not obvious to most...

The happiness expectation

That marks every summer vacation,

Leaves no room for mourning

For Jeremiah's scorning,

Or a day of thoughtful grieving

About our ancient disbelieving.

Our many infidelities

Were washed away with charities

In the hopes of consolation

At the failures of our nation.

Now so few really mark these days

In soulful or demanding ways.

Perhaps we can make room for sadness

Amidst the chaos and the madness,

Because our incapacity to welcome pain

Has become itself a human stain.

Yet when our hearts can court disaster,

They're wide enough to hold our laughter.

"Men zol nit gepruft verren tsu vos me ken gevoint verren." Pray that you may never have to endure all that you can learn to bear, says the saying above. Yet if you do and survive it, you just planted the seeds of resilience.

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

To Plant or Not to Plant

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…
— Ecclesiastes 3:1-2

There is a time to plant and a time not to plant. Right now in the Jewish calendar year, we are not supposed to plant. During the nine days leading up to and including the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, we diminish activities of happiness and risk; this includes gardening for pleasure. The sixteenth-century code of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh, writes: “As we enter the month of Av, we diminish joy...from the first of the month until the fast, we reduce business dealings, housing construction for the purpose of happiness [like a house a man might build for his son, the groom]...and refrain from planting for pleasure...” [O.H. 551:1-1].

This conclusion is a little surprising since Jeremiah, our prophet of doom and the “narrator” - if you will - of Tisha B’Av writes this in chapter 29 about Jews in exile.

“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.’   

 The very same author who gave us the pathos of Lamentations, also advised us to conduct ourselves with dignity and practicality in exile. Marry, build homes, plant gardens and pray for your host country. In many ways, this attitude has served as a recipe for Jewish success in exile. We mourn our losses and do not believe that life in the Diaspora is our ultimate collective goal as a people yet while we are on foreign soil, it’s best not to cry. It’s best to plant.

And yet, even with this admonition, there are times when our pain is too acute for the pleasure of the garden and the sense of enduring presence that it offers. These nine days are that time.

You may wonder, if you’re not a gardener, how planting gives one pleasure. In fact, you may feel quite the opposite: that digging and plowing and sowing is a source of unnecessary physical exertion and, therefore, permitted and encouraged during this season of Jewish anguish. Freud, however, tells us that flowers “are restful to look at. They have neither emotions nor conflicts.” Plants are a source of calm; the feast of the eyes is a balm for the restless soul. Cicero believed, not so much in the aesthetic of gardens as the practical sense of security one might enjoy knowing that one’s food needs can be met at home. “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

There is a spiritual side to planting and seeing the fruit of one’s labors quite literally that may also provide joy. Since so many human attempts at change and continuity fail, watching a seed ripen into a plant and then a fruit or vegetable provides a distinctive kind of happiness and sense of self-sufficiency and pride - all wrapped up in one exquisite tomato.

It is this joy that we avoid at times like this. The writer and food activist Michael Pollan, adds another dimension into our understanding of the seduction of gardening: “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.” Gardening sometimes provides us with the pleasure of believing that we have control of nature, even if it’s only a small patch, of forces that are so often intimidating and beyond human control. This, Pollen, hints, is only an illusion. We may think we control nature because our small corner of it is neatly manicured, but we are wrong in the ultimate sense.

These nine days, we reduce our happiness and minimize our risk and relinquish control to the Ultimate Gardner who gave us the very first garden to work and to watch.

Shabbat Shalom