Divre Harav – December/2018

[Rabbi Eliezer continues,] “Warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but be careful of their coals, so you don’t get burned. For their bite is the bite of a fox, and their sting is the sting of a scorpion, and their hiss is like the hiss of a snake. And everything they say is like fiery coals.” 

 Pirke Avot 2:15b

Rabbi Eliezer was known for stubbornly sticking to his position despite the opposition of all of his colleagues. After one particular episode, his colleagues excommunicated him. Subsequently, the Talmud describes him as tearing through the world leaving a wake of destruction behind him.

A good discussion can be invigorating, warm and fun. But a debate between two hard-headed stubborn know-it-alls can be vicious. Each one is so convinced of the correctness of his thinking that he doesn’t bother to listen to his opponent’s responses. Each response is steeped in sarcasm, demeaning his opponent more than responding to his argument.

The epilogue of this mishnah, which departs from the expected pattern of three teachings from each sage, is most likely not originally part of Rabbi Eliezer’s teachings. A later editor, knowing Rabbi Eliezer’s propensity to engage in destructive argumentation, took the opportunity to warn us to beware of those who know so much that they think they can never be wrong, who refuse to learn from anyone else, whose every conversation is a lecture. Every sentence seeks be be a gotcha, a bite, sting, or strike. This is a common feature of dialogues on Twitter and in Facebook comments streams.

The holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the quality of stubbornness and zealotry in connection with the Maccabees, the name for the Hasmonean family who led the revolt against the Hellenized Syrian King. In the short term, their zealotry led to victory and saved Judaism. In the long term, their addiction to power created the circumstances which led to the Roman destruction of the Temple about two centuries later. It was the sages who opposed Rabbi Eliezer who created the Rabbinic Judaism which survived the loss of the Temple and dispersion of Jews.

Remember this lesson on Hanukkah. We celebrate not only the light of religious freedom from the darkness of tyranny, but also the fundamental values of our Jewish tradition, especially the idea of spreading love through our engagement with mitzvot.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hakham – sages, scholars
  • Hazal – An acronym for Hakkhameinu, zikhronam livrakha, our sages, of blessed memory
  • Davar – word
  • D’var Torah – a word of Torah, a lesson from Torah
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Divre Harav – November/2018

Rabbi Eliezer says, “Let your respect for your fellow be as precious to you as that for yourself. Don’t be easy to anger. Repent one day before you die.”

 Pirke Avot 2:15a

Rabbi Eliezer opens with the fundamental truth that unless you have respect for yourself, unless you believe that you have inherent worth and value, you will never be able to fully respect other people. Those with a poor self image, project their self-hatred onto others. Those who believe that they themselves are not worthy of respect, internalize the assumption that others carry the same internal flaws and are equally deserving of contempt.

Is it correct to say that no human being is flawless. This is one of the wise lessons implicit in the Hebrew Bible, suggested by the fact that it contains no perfect characters. Everyone, including God, has flaws. Everyone, at times, struggles with anger, regret, judgementalism, dishonesty, defensiveness, greed, forgetfulness, laziness, ungratefulness, timidity, and a host of other negative character traits. But when we consider and evaluate ourselves, we need to remember that we are also generous, benevolent, capable, empathetic, caring, loyal, hardworking, and strong. With focused attention, our positive traits can outweigh our negative traits, and can remind us that this is true of others as well.

For many, the strongest negative emotion is anger. Self-righteous anger makes us feel alive and important. It gets us noticed. It appeals to the primitive limbic center of the brain rather than the higher thinking upper cortex. We don’t make our best decisions when we are angry. That’s when we send email and texts that we later regret. That’s when we say things that later we wish we could take back. Rabbi Eliezer’s second piece of advice, to calm our instinctive anger response within our animal selves, is to encourage us to be fully human, rational, compassionate, thinking, beings.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer understands that each of us will feel remorse over things that we have said and done today. Don’t save them up for next Rosh Hashanah. You might not make it, you might forget before then, or the person you have wronged may not be around any more. As a spiritual exercise, he suggests taking time each day to review what we have done, and do teshuvah immediately. Sound advice!

 

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • kavod – respect
  • Haviv – cherished, beloved
  • Teshuvah – repentance

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

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.