Divre Harav – May/2019

Rabbi Tarfon says, “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the employer is insistent!”

 Pirke Avot 2:20 

As we wind down chapter two of Pirke Avot, we conclude with two teachings of Rabbi Tarfon. The first is an overview of the human condition. “Our lives are short, the task of doing mitzvot is great, we look for shortcuts whenever possible even though the reward of the world to come is significant and God is demanding.”

The content of a full Jewish life is mitzvot, but the goal is twofold and has both a rational and a mystical component. One goal is Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. Tikkun is not itself a mitzvah, but is the result of doing mitzvot. Every mitzvah a Jew does, whether it is putting on tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, giving tzedakah, or paying a shiva call, affects the world. Maybe the mitzvah lifts up another person from despair, brightens their life with financial support, or maybe it elevates, educates, or transforms the doers in a way that makes them better human beings. Maybe the mitzvah brings light and love into the world, potentially creating a kindness chain reaction. The work of transforming the world is hard because on a planetary scale, the result of a single action is virtually negligible. However, remember the words of Margaret Mead — “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

The second goal of a full Jewish life is connecting oneself with the Divine. The Hasidic term for such a connection is ‘d’veikut.’ The ideal is to spend all of one’s waking (and sleeping?) moments in d’veikut, so that every action and interaction is infused with the acute awareness of the Divine. Also consider that human beings are part animal, part Divine, created in the image of God. Through religious practice, we nurture and grow the Divine seed within, to realize our full potential and purpose in the world. So a part of ourselves naturally seeks out a connection with God, as like seeks like.

It is these two goals that have defined my life and my career. My purpose in the world for nearly all of my professional life has been to serve as the rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Israel, to nurture and transform Jewish souls. Ask any congregational rabbi, and he or she will tell you that it is an exceptionally rewarding and frustrating career choice. We see people at their best, at the heights of joy, gratitude and celebration, and at their worst, in the pits of anger, despair, hopelessness, and mourning. Yet, I wouldn’t trade my 25 years here for anyplace else or any other career, and I look forward to celebrating with you over the weekend of May 31 to June 2.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Tikkun – repair
  • D’veikut – attachment
  • S’khar – wages, reward
  • Hesed – love

Divre Harav – April/2019

Rabbi Eleazer says, “Be diligent in the learning of Torah. Know how to reply to a heretic. And know before Whom you toil and Who your Employer is.”  Pirke Avot 2:19

On a basic level, Rabbi Eleazer suggests that a Jew should know what we believe and why we believe it, and be able to explain and justify it to one who challenges us. Ultimately, though, he also suggests that the reason for studying Torah deeply is to understand and define our relationship with God (our “employer”).

But what if Rabbi Eleazer had been contemplating engaging with another person of deep and sincere faith, rather than a heretic? It would still be the case that in order to have a meaningful religious conversation, a Jew should be steeped in Torah.  The dialogue, in that case, would not be for the purpose of refuting the other, but rather with the desire to learn about the other’s worldview and even to learn from the other. A full understanding of God is only possible through learning about the covenants that God makes with the world through Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Buddhism, Baha’i, and other traditions.

This positive attitude towards interfaith dialogue and understanding was all but impossible in the ancient or medieval world. At the best of times, other religions were tolerated. Under typical circumstances, religion was intertwined with ethnicity, and protecting one’s tribe meant conflict, subservience, domination, or uneasy temporary alliances with neighboring tribes. The religious faith of one people mandated subjugating the religion of conquered people. A conquered and enslaved people have long memories, so thousands of years after Jewish enslavement by Egyptians, we still tell the story and use the negative memory to promote our set of competing values. A history in which Christianity claimed to be the sole true inheritor of Biblical Israelite religion institutionalized antisemitism. Remnants of this suspicion of Christians can be found in the Hagaddah, especially near the end with the traditional reading upon opening the door to Elijah, Shefokh hamat’ka al hagoyim:

Pour out Your wrath upon those who do not know You and upon the governments which do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his dwelling place (Psalms 79:6-7). Pour out Your fury upon them; let the fierceness of Your anger overtake them (Psalms 69:25). Pursue them in indignation and destroy them from under Your heavens (Lamentations 3:66).

However, a Haggadah entitled “A Different Night” by Noam Zion and David Dishon includes an additional passage said to have first appeared in a medieval (1521) Ashkenazi Haggadah from Worms. although it may have more modern origins. 

Pour out Your love on the nations who have known you and on the kingdoms that call upon your name. For they show loving-kindness to the seed of Jacob and they defend your people Israel from those who would devour them alive. May the live to see the sukkah of peace spread over your chosen ones and to participate in the joy of your nations.

In a world in which antisemitism is increasing, I continue to recite the traditional version. But in a world in which there is more dialogue, understanding, and cooperation between faith traditions than at any time in history, I also recite the second text. May your Passover Seder be filled with love, Torah, and the spirit of God.

Hebrew Word of the Month:

  • Apikoros – heretic, from the Greek philosopher Epicurus, representing the world view that God neither intervenes in human affairs nor holds us accountable after we die.
  • Heima – anger.

Divre Harav – March/2019

Rabbi Simeon says, “Be meticulous in the recitation of the Shema and the Amidah. When you pray, don’t make your prayer a prescribed routine, but let it be a [plea for] mercy and grace before the Blessed Holy One. As it is said, ‘For God is gracious and merciful, patient and abounding in love, taking pity on evildoers’ (Joel 2:13). Do not regard yourself as an evil person.” Pirke Avot 2:18

There are two main elements of traditional morning (or evening) prayers. The first, the Shema, is not technically prayer. Rather, it is the recitation of three Biblical passages whose function is to first accept God’s authority over our lives; second, to accept the obligation of mitzvot; and third, to use tzitzit as a concrete reminder of mitzvot. To summarize: Love Adonai, your God, with all your heart by listening to God’s commandments and tying tassels to the corners of your garments as a reminder of those mitzvot.

The Amidah is the name for the prayer section of our service, defined as a time when we are speaking directly to God, at least partly with a petitionary agenda. Although our liturgy has a fixed text for the Amidah, Rabbi Simeon’s instructions are to make the words of prayer our own. Put your heart into your prayers, focusing on asking for love, mercy, and grace not just for ourselves, but primarily for others around us. To focus only on our own needs during prayer is not only selfish, but also indicates that we think we have some special deficit that God needs to address. God may take pity on evildoers, but Rabbi Simeon cautions us not to assume that we are one of those evildoers in need of God’s special attention. Thus, most of our prayer should be focused on the needs of others rather than our own.

There has long been tension between fixed liturgy and prayers of the heart, or in Hebrew, between keva and kavanah. Keva describes fixed themes of prayer and can guide us towards non-selfish prayer. Kavanah encourages us to engage in a conversation with God in which we can share our particular burdens and joys. Individual, spontaneous prayer reflects the highs and lows of our spirit in the moment; fixed prayer reflects ongoing self-reflection and the highest ideals and aspirations of our relationship with God’s world.

Finally, the word tefillah connotes some degree of self-reflection. When we prayer, we not only offer petitions for our and the world’s needs, but we also reflect on how well we have done living up to our potential, living fully as one created in the image of God.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Tefillah – Prayer, self-reflection
  • keva – fixed liturgy
  • kavanah – focused direction of thought and prayer

Divre Harav – February/2019

Rabbi Yose says, “Let your colleague’s money be as precious to you as your own. Prepare yourself to study Torah, for it will not come to you as an inheritance. And let everything you do be for the sake of Heaven.”
Pirke Avot 2:17

My assumption is that each teaching of Pirke Avot contains a life lesson from the rabbi who shared it. So what is Rabbi Yosi trying to teach us?

  • That it is your responsibility, not your colleagues, friends, family, or government, to put forth the effort to earn a living.
  • That nothing worthwhile comes without effort; there is no such thing as a free lunch.
  • And that the effort you expend in order to potentially acquire something valuable is worthwhile, even if ultimately you receive nothing.

I don’t mean to say that as a society, we ought not provide a safety net to support those who otherwise would not have enough money for food or shelter. People do have legitimate reasons for not being able to find a job that pays a living wage. But when we accept public resources or loans from Jewish institutions, we may not forget that the funds are precious gifts of tzedakah or taxes, and we are obligated to use them responsibly for the intended purpose.

Lottery winners and trust fund babies aside, we earn a living, literally or metaphorically, by the sweat of our brow. Unless we’ve been blessed with unearned funds, acquiring enough wealth to retire in comfort demands effort. Acquiring the precious gift of knowledge also demand effort. For this acquisition, there is no shortcut, no way to inherit knowledge from parents.

We’ve all had the experience of working hard for something, only to have the deal fall through at the last minute. Were our efforts entirely in vain? No – we learn something from the experience that will help us in the future. If we failed because of our own mistake, we can learn from that. If we failed because we could have worked harder or smarter or produced a better product, we can learn from that. The bottom line is that we created something, learned a new skill, gained valuable experience, or learned a lesson that might help us in the future. Imagine all of life’s challenges as opportunities to learn potentially valuable lessons in and of themselves, so any financial benefit becomes an additional unexpected reward.

Of course, Rabbi Yosi is applying this lesson to the acquisition of Torah in particular. So here is an additional lesson:

  • Treat the wisdom of your colleague with the same honor as your own, even if you come to different conclusions.
  • Work hard to acquire the wisdom of Torah. It is an inheritance that comes no other way.
  • And the highest form of learning is to study Torah for no reason other than the pure joy of learning.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • mamon – money
  • kesef – silver
  • zahav – gold
  • yahalom – diamond

Divre Harav – January/2019

Rabbi Joshua says, “The evil eye, the selfish impulse, and hatred for people take a person out of the world.” Pirke Avot 2:16

Rabbi Joshua gives us three things to avoid, all behaviors that take a person out of the community and isolate him or her from society. Being a part of a community is a major part of the teachings of Pirke Avot. In the language of this mishnah, being a part of the world means being a part of a community.

The words ‘evil eye’ might bring up associations with superstitions, sorcery and magical curses. On a less mystical level, I think of the ayin hara as an eye roll, a look of contempt, the wordless gesture denigrating the very essence of the person towards whom it is directed. It’s the snide comment and the sotto voce comment about someone at a meeting. The problem with such behavior is not only that it is disrespectful, but also that it does not open up a conversation that might lead to learning by all parties. Disagreeing respectfully means sharing your disagreement openly, creating room for a discussion, and perhaps coming to a resolution or compromise.

What I call the ‘selfish impulse’ is more often called the evil impulse or the evil inclination. But the yetzer hara is not as simple as an evil part of our nature to be searched out and destroyed from our being. It is also described as a necessary part of our human nature, our sexuality, our drive to earn a living. It is the part of us which seeks pleasure and comfort. So Rabbi Joshua’s caution is not to focus only on our selfish needs without taking the needs of others into account.

Finally, Rabbi Joshua adds a general term for hatred of people, which can also mean hatred of all of God’s creations (human and animal). I think of sin’at habriyot in terms of racist, sexist, homophobic, antisemitic, Islamophobic statements, in which a person expresses hatred towards large swaths of humanity.

Judaism is a rich tradition of ritual commandments, prayer, holiday celebrations, and life cycle events, but again and again, we see our classical rabbis summarize the essential point of all of our Jewish behaviors as encouraging us to be decent people. We see that here in Rabbi Joshua’s teaching. Don’t be derisive, selfish, or hateful. Be a contributing member of a loving, supportive society. In Hillel’s words, ”All the rest is commentary.”

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • yetzer – urge, inclination
  • tov – good
  • ra – evil
  • briyot – creatures – human, animal, reptile, rodent, insect.
  • motzi – take out