Divre Harav – October/2018

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai had five disciples, and asked each of them, “Go and look about: what is the path of goodness to which one should cleave?”

Rabbi Eliezer said, “a good eye.”
Rabbi Yehoshua said, “a good colleague.”
Rabbi Yosi said, “a good neighbor.”
Rabbi Shimon said, “one who sees consequences.”
Rabbi Elazar said, “a good heart.”

Pirke Avot 2:13

Rabbi Eliezer’s response, “a good eye,” is typically understood to refer to a generous spirit. It is to see the world around you without judgement and to assume the people around you are behaving with good intentions. This is not an easy trait to cultivate. When we are hurt, we might become angry and assume that the person who did us harm intended evil. Instead, try to assume that it was an unintended mistake. Give the benefit of the doubt. See goodness in others.

Rabbi Yehoshua urges us to be a good friend and a good colleague. Be supportive of others. We all have our down days when we need a boost from a friend or co-worker. Notice when that is happening to another person. Be attentive to the needs of those around you.

Rabbi Yosi reminds us that fulfilling our wants, needs, and desires should not come at the expense of our neighbors. Be mindful of how your behavior impacts others. Your strong perfume or cologne might trigger a reaction from someone else in a closed room. Talking during a movie, a meeting or a service is a distraction to those paying attention or engaged in meditation or prayer. 

Rabbi Shimon tells us to be aware that everything we do has consequences. When we make a mistake and cause damage, it is our responsibility to clean up after ourselves. If we hurt another person, when inadvertently or on purpose, we are responsible for our action and need to make amends. Take responsibility for the consequences of your actions. Don’t place the blame on someone else. You, and no one else, are responsible for your behavior.

Rabbi Elazar gets right to the heart of the matter. The way you live your life is determined by the quality of your heart and mind. If you have a pure heart, then you will see the world with generosity; you will be supportive of those around you, being a good friend and a a good neighbor; and you will have the foresight to see how our behavior affects others.

At the end of the mishnah (not quoted above), Rabbi Yohanan says that he prefers Rabbi Elazar’s answer because his view includes all of the others. For the purposes of character development, I prefer the narrower views of the others. Focus on one aspect at a time, as taught by the first four sages, and at the end of the process you will have developed Rabbi Elazar’s good heart.

 

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • ayin – eye
  • haver – friend. Also colleague, comrade, and member (as in haver kenesset, member of the Israeli parliament)
  • shakhen – neighbor
  • nolad – Something which is born. Can also refer to a new moon. Related to the word yeled, child. One who sees the nolad is one who can see consequences.
  • lev – heart
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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.

Want to learn modern Hebrew on your own? Download the free Duolingo app (for iOS, Android, and Windows mobile).

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