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
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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

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

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