Divre Harav – September/2018

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai would say, if you have learned much Torah, don’t claim credit for yourself, because it is for this you were created. Pirke Avot 2:9

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai may be talking about Torah study, but his lesson can be easily generalized to a life attitude encompassing humility. When you do something because you are supposed to do it, because it is your job, he suggests that you should not expect a constant stream of praise and recognition for doing it. A bank teller who handles a deposit correctly doesn’t deserve a bonus, although a thank you from the customer is always polite. A teller who processes an unusual transaction or handles a complicated request deserves a bit more credit and a sincere thank you, but still, it’s just part of the job.

Praise, recognition and appreciation should be given out in just the right amount. Too much, and it begins to sound false and lose its value. Not enough, and volunteers and employees feel undervalued. Some schools or sports leagues give out participation awards and each person gets a trophy in order to praise everyone equally. Other schools refrain from recognizing the outstanding students because it might make the less outstanding students feel bad, because it might engender excessive competition, or because the competition itself might be biased in favor of economically privileged students. Rabbi Yohanan takes a different approach, focusing on curbing the individual’s expectation of recognition, cautioning us not to expect praise from others for our achievements, although we ought to graciously accept such praise as given to us. Nothing he says, though, contradicts the idea that we should cultivate a habit of expressing gratitude and praise for the exceptional achievements of others.

Here’s another example within the volunteer world of the synagogue. The chair of our women’s Hevra Kadisha, Geri Hoffman, never likes it when I thank her after she and her committee do their work of preparing a body for burial. She tells me that she doesn’t do it to get thanked, that she and her committee do it because that’s what we as Jews, that’s what we as a synagogue community, are supposed to do. The Hevra Kadisha takes care of those who have passed away because it is a mitzvah. Geri’s attitude is perfectly in line with Rabbi Yohanan’s statement that we not take credit for things we were created to do, as well as the concept that they volunteer to do it because it is a hesed shel emet, the purest form of love, that which we do for someone who cannot express gratitude. 

Nonetheless, I mention Geri because I am grateful for what she and her committee does. I am also grateful for Ed Miller and the men’s Hevra Kadisha. The congregation as a whole needs to know that we have committees which do this perhaps difficult, but critically important, task. Women who want to learn more about volunteering to participate in this mitzvah should contact Geri at 949-6088, and men should contact Ed Miller at 293-6064.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hevra Kadisha – Sacred Society, the name of the who wash and dress bodies for burial.
  • taharah – “purification,” the name of the process of washing a dead body.
  • takhrikhim – the burial shrouds
  • shomer – the person who guards the body from the time of death to burial.

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Divre Harav – Summer/2018

[Hillel] would say, “The more flesh, the more worms; the more property, the more worries; the more wives, the more witchcraft; the more maidservants, the more licentiousness; the more slaves, the more robbery.

The more Torah, the more life; the more [time] sitting [at the feet of a teacher], the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding; the more righteous deeds, the more peace.

One who acquired a good name, acquired it for himself. One who acquired words of Torah, acquired life in the world to come. Pirke Avot 2:8

Following the list of tangible (and negative) assets that one might pursue, which I commented on in my article last month, Hillel turns to the intangible acquisitions of life; the things that build up one’s reputation rather that one’s balance sheet. Begin by learning Torah. To do that, one must find a teacher and devote the time necessary to learn. True understanding only comes with a careful study of all sides of an issue, all factors and relevant sources. The acquisition of Torah in the fullest sense leads to action, sharing Torah by means of one’s loving behavior towards all living beings and planet earth herself.

Hillel begins with a list of the negative consequences of materialism, followed by the positive consequences of the acquisition of non-material things. Material acquisitions are not in and of themselves evil, but the more you have, Hillel tells us, the less happy you’ll be. Acquiring Torah, wisdom, understanding, and engaging in positive action for others, on the other hand, leads to peace and, I think Hillel would say, happiness.

When I study Mishnah, I look for patterns that might help with interpretation. Here, we first have a paragraph of negative consequences and then a paragraph of positive consequences. Hillel then adds two more sentences, each beginning with “one who acquires …. On the face of it, neither of the final two sentences is negative, but my sense of order wants to see the first sentence as qualitatively poorer than the second, roughly following the pattern of negative, then positive. Focusing primarily on building one’s name is analogous to acquiring material possessions. I want my reputation to be gloriously big. When I die, someone is going to give a banger of a eulogy about me. It’s even more important the material objects – ”A good name is better than fragrant oil” (Ecc. 7.1). But if it ends there, then I have done nothing more than burnish my resume. There is a higher aspiration. The desire to learn Torah for its own sake, to master the core concepts of wisdom and goodness, is to elevate one’s humanity. And therefore, one who acquires Torah, acquires eternity. Such a person transcends ego, seeing himself or herself as part of an unlimited world, stretching across time and space. Such a person, says Hillel, acquires olam haba, the eternal hereafter.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • yeshiva – literally “sitting.” An academy of Torah study, where one sits and learns.
  • shem tov – a good name, a good reputation.
  • Olam Haba – The world to come.

Divre Harav – May, 2018

[Hillel] would say, “The more flesh, the more worms; the more property, the more worries; the more wives, the more witchcraft; the more maidservants, the more licentiousness; the more slaves, the more robbery. The more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding; the more righteous deeds, the more peace. [If] one has gotten a good name, he has gotten it for himself. [If] he has gotten teachings of Torah, he has gotten himself life eternal.” Pirke Avot 2:8

Translations of this final saying of Hillel vary, depending on the translation’s desire to cover up Hillel’s decidedly pre-modern view of women and slaves. Because I don’t believe in altering translations to confirm to political correctness, I give you an accurate rendering of the mishnah. And in fact there is something to be learned from it. We’ll tackle the negative half this month, and positive half next month.

“The more flesh, the more worms.” Your body, no matter how big and powerful it might be, will someday return to the earth and decompose. To put it another way, we are mortal and each of will someday die. If this concept is difficult for you to wrap your mind around, consider installing the “WeCroak” app on your phone. Five times a day, your phone will alert you with a quotation reminding you that your journey in this world will someday end. It is inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying that to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times daily. The suggestion that we should not focus on the material is also the focus of the next phrase.

“The more property, the more worries.” Know anyone who believes that the way to happiness is through acquiring more and more possessions? Who works non-stop and ignores family and friendships in favor of buying another car, another piece of art, another pair of shoes, another home, a larger home? In the end, happiness is more often found by doing acts of lovingkindness than by acquiring things.

“The more wives, the more witchcraft.” I have no desire to defend this one, other than to note that Hillel slyly works in his belief that more than one life-partner, far more often than not, leads to conflict and unhappiness. It took another thousand years for European Jewry to formally come to the same conclusion and outlaw polygamy.

“The more maidservants, the more licentiousness.” The #metoo movement has proven that this phrase still, sadly, applies. Not with respect to female servants, but with female employees in general. Or perhaps even more generally, people in power, have a propensity to coerce and abuse their subordinates. More typically, men are the abusers, but women in positions of authority are not immune. The antidote for bad behavior is to remind ourselves of the seductiveness of the exercise of power and the ease of abusing it. Maybe someone should write an app called “WeHarass” that reminds executives five times a day of the danger of abusing their authority. 

Finally, “the more slaves, the more robbery.” Simple solution here … don’t own slaves. When you exist in a society which normalizes and takes advantage of class distinctions, you should not be surprised when those in the permanent lower class rebel against their perceived oppressors. I am not defending robbery, but I am suggesting that the way to reduce crime is not solely by locking up the criminals, but also by creating paths by which the underclass can succeed and prosper on their own merits.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • basar – meat
  • lehem – bread; in some contexts, food.
  • eved – slave
  • ba’al – owner, master; archaic word for husband
  • ish – man, husband
  • isha – woman, wife
  • harbeh – many, much
  • g’neivah – thievery; typically without the owner knowing, as in breaking and entering
  • gezel – robbery; typically, directly from a person as in a mugging

Divre Harav – April, 2018

When [Hillel] saw a skull floating on the water, he said to it, “Because you drowned others, they drowned you. In the end, they who drowned you shall be drowned.” Pirke Avot 2:7

I’m sitting next to Hillel on the bank of the Jordan river back in the day when it was more than a trickle. We see a skull float by. I’m thinking, “Gross! Yuck! Poor guy.” And Hillel, great sage that he is, comes up with the perfect formulation of Jewish Karma. All right, so next to Hillel, I’m kind of s schlepper. But my skills shine when it comes to knowing how to Google!

Hillel is enamored with Exodus 21:23-25, “the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” Let’s see where that might lead (thanks to Reb Google):

In 1914, a member of the Canadian House of Parliament named Mr. Graham argued against the death penalty. He said, “We can argue all we like, but if capital punishment is being inflicted on some man, we are inclined to say: ‘It serves him right.’ That is not the spirit, I believe, in which legislation is enacted. If in this present age we were to go back to the old time of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ there would be very few honorable gentlemen in this House who would not, metaphorically speaking, be blind and toothless.”

Or more concisely, in Fiddler on the Roof, a man says, “We should defend ourselves. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” And Tevye responds, “Very good. And that way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.

Now as it happens, I’m not dead set again the death penalty, but I do believe that the evidentiary requirements for carrying it our should be extra-high. Not just guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but “beyond any shadow of doubt.” Hillel’s observation, however, is not limited to the arena of  punishment by human courts. The Karma he describes means that when we put out destructive energy, at some point in the future we will find ourselves facing the backlash from our negative behavior. All behavior, positive and negative, has inescapable consequences. Every action produces waves of energy which bounce around, affecting the world around us. Eventually, the waves will inevitably come back towards us, whether by human or divine agency.

The idea that our behavior affects our fate is a cornerstone of Judaism, hammered into our heads in the month and a half leading up to Yom Kippur. I tip my hat to our sage Hillel, whose immersion in the waters of Torah was so deep that he viewed everything that passed before through the lens of Jewish theology.

Hebrew Words of the Month (body parts connected to letters of the Hebrew alphabet):

  • Ayin – eye
  • Shen – tooth
  • Peh – mouth
  • Yad – hand
  • Rosh – head
  • Kaf – palm

Divre Harav – March/2018

[Hillel] would say, “In a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.” Pirke Avot 2:6b

It’s hard to translate this teaching of Hillel into gender-neutral English. A literal English translation would be, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” The word eesh can also mean a person, but “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person” doesn’t capture the sense of what Hillel was trying to say. His exhortation can be understood on two levels. First, it seems clear to me that he was thinking of the story from Exodus 2:11-12 in which Moses …

“… went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

However, the next day … (verses 13-14)

“… he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, ‘Why do you strike your fellow?’ He retorted, ‘Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ ”

Clearly, when Moses looked around, there were people watching the Egyptian beating the Hebrew, but no one was willing to intervene. The witnesses spread the word about what Moses had done both among the Israelites and the Egyptians. Not too long afterwards, Pharaoh found out and sought to kill Moses.

Hillel must have had this story in mind. In a place where there are no good people willing to step forward and fight for justice, be such a person. The Yiddish word for man, which in its Jewish and American usage has implications of moral goodness, is thus the best way to translate the mishnah: “In a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.”

However, Hillel may have had something else in mind as well. “In a place where there are no people,” where no one is around to watch you, nonetheless you should still behave like a mensch. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Understood in this way, Hillel is reminding us that even when no human being is around to witness our behavior, God is a witness. Both ways of understanding this teaching of Hillel are worthy guides to a life of goodness.

 

Hebrew Words of the Month. The seder (order) of the Seder:

  • Kaddesh – Recite the blessing over wine and sanctification of the day of Pesah.
  • Ur’hatz – Ritually wash your hands by pouring water over them.
  • Karpas – Eat the leafy greens vegetable.
  • YahatzBreak the middle matzah in half.
  • MaggidTell the story of the Exodus.
  • Rah’tza – Ritually wash your hands by pouring water over them.
  • MotziHamotzi, blessing over bread.
  • Matzah – the blessing over the mitzvah of eating matzah.
  • MarorBlessing over maror, bitter herbs.
  • Korekh – “Hillel” sandwich of matzah and maror.
  • Shulhan Orekh – Arrange the food on the table.
  • Tzafun – The hidden matzah, the Afikomen.
  • BarekhBirkat Hamazon, grace after the meal.
  • HallelPraise God.
  • Nirtzah – God accepts and is satisfied by our Seder.