Psalm 131

“I do not aspire to great things.” (131:1)

I’ll give Shakespeare two out of three for “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” (Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 5). I don’t think people are born to greatness, but I do agree that some people aspire to greatness and achieve their dream; and others have unsought greatness thrust upon them. There is nothing wrong with people aspiring to greatness as long as they are prepared to live a full and meaningful life even if their dreams fail. Those like the Psalmist who do not aspire to great things nonetheless should aspire to make a difference through their lives. They should understand that they do not need to be great to be important.

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Psalm 130

“Yours is the power to forgive.” (130:4)

You control one of the greatest superpowers, the power to forgive. Be not stingy nor overly generous with forgiveness. Forgiving too quickly missed the opportunity help the other person appreciate how hurtful his or her actions were, and learn how to repair the damage. Withholding forgiveness is more damaging to you than the other person, because it keeps your hurt alive while the other person has moved on. You have the superpower of forgiveness. When used wisely, you can profoundly change both your life and the other’s.

Psalm 129

“Greatly have they oppressed me since my youth.” (129:1)

Anti-Semitism is a real phenomenon, even in the free and open society of the United States. However, it is important to be able to distinguish degrees of anti-semitism. Seventy years ago (and more), Jews were restricted in where they could live, where they could golf, what country club they could join, and where they could go to school, in addition to common incidents of physical intimidation. Forty years ago, bullying was not uncommon in school, although it was mostly verbal or mildly physical, but Jews were mostly free of other restrictions. Twenty years ago, schools began taking a hard stance against bullying of any form. Be aware and defend yourself, but know that there has never been a better time to be Jew in the world.

Psalm 128

“May you see your children’s children.” (128:6)

Leaving aside the rich and deep Jewish conception of the eternal soul, life in heaven, and the resurrection of the messianic era, what many of us want is to see our legacy in our lifetime in the form of children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, if we are blessed with longevity. However, just as we learned, while raising children, not to expect that they will be carbon copies of ourselves, we need to remember that our grandchildren might not have the same interests and passions for business, community support, and institutions as we do. We can only hope to be blessed to see our genetic legacy and that they perpetuate our basic values for their grandchildren.

Divre Harav – November/2017

[Rabban Gamliel says,], “Make God’s will into your will, so that God will make your will into his will. Nullify your will on account of his will, so that he will nullify the will of others for you.” Pirke Avot 2:4

Rabban Gamliel may be responding to the teaching of a sage from generations earlier, Antigonus of Sokho, who said, “Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to get a reward, but rather be like servants who serve the master with no expectation of reward.” [Pirke Avot 1:3] One proposes altruism as the guiding value, and the other proposes utilitarianism as the guiding value.

Although both sages are speaking of our relationship with God and attitude towards doing mitzvot, I suggest that part of the purpose of mitzvot bein adam la’Makom, mitzvot directed towards God, is to teach us the best way to behave towards our fellow human beings, other creatures, and the environment in which we live. Therefore, the ideal that Antigonus presents, that of a life of pure altruism, could also apply to doing acts of love for other people without expectation of reward. While a beautiful philosophy, it is not realistic. Most of us, much of the time, expect that when we do something for someone, that we will get something out of it. Perhaps it makes us feel good to help others. Perhaps we hope that we’ll get a favor back in return someday. Perhaps we hope that going above and beyond and treating customers well will result in more business in the future.

So Rabban Gamliel responds with his instructions for how to behave towards someone you love. If they have a desire, you should have the same desire. And there is nothing wrong with hoping that when you want something, that the person you love will want the same thing. The same thing applies to things that we don’t want – we want the person we love not to want them either. He suggests a very practical, utilitarian, philosophy. I’ll scratch your back because I want you to scratch mine.

There are problems with both philosophies. As I suggested, it is very difficult to maintain pure altruism, and holding this as an ideal discourages expressing of gratitude. By this, I mean that if I believe that your motivation ought to be pure, then I also might believe that you neither want nor need thanks or recognition for what you do for me. And regarding Rabban Gamliel’s approach, it is unreasonable to expect that two individuals (or a human being and God) can ever be so closely aligned that we get everything we want from the other.

The teaching texts of Judaism include both sages because life is a mixture of both philosophies. Sometimes, we do things for others because we know it is the right thing to do or because we love them, and sometimes we do things because we want or expect something in return. As in so many other areas of ethics, the goal is to find balance in the golden mean.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Makom – place. Also, a name for God, probably derived from the association of God with a sacred place like the Temple.
  • Ha-Kadosh, barukh hu – “The blessed Holiness,” more often translated as “the blessed Holy One.” Some scholars believe that the original form of this appellation for God was Ha-Kodesh, barukh hu. Kodesh is a participial noun, referring to the place of holiness, the Temple.
  • Ratzon – will or desire.