Divre Harav – Summer, 2017

Rabban Gamaliel, son of R. Judah the Patriarch, says, “Torah study is commendable when combined with a profession, for the effort of the two together drives away sin. Torah, when not combined with work, inevitably leads to idleness and sin.”
Pirke Avot 2:2a

Torah should not be confined to a vacuum. It should live out in the world, in the workplace, and in places of entertainment. It is most meaningful when it is integrated into one’s life. To be shut away in the confines of the Beit Midrash (House of Study) is to learn Torah that is never challenged by or applied to the larger world. When the learner takes Torah into the workplace and applies to it his or her life, such Torah teachings deeply affect both the learner and the world around.

Ahavas Israel believes that the best way to promote Jewish continuity is to encourage those who engage in Torah both inside and outside the synagogue. We teach and preach a sophisticated Torah. We encourage our members to expose their children to the power of the Torah for adults by coming to Shabbat services, by having weekly Shabbat meals as a family, by considering kashrut when eating both inside and outside the home, by celebrating Festivals inside and outside the synagogue, and by engaging in acts of gemilut hasadim. Torah best infuses your life when you live according to the values and lessons of Torah, even and especially at those times when it is not convenient or comfortable.

Obviously, not every Ahavas Israel family embraces every action on the list above. But being serious about even just one mitzvah has beneficial results. Here is one example, from a family who came to shul with their children from a young age through high school for two or three Shabbat services a month, 12 months a year, as well as sending the children to religious school through 12th grade. The child chooses a college with a very small Jewish population, a handful of Jewish faculty, but no formal Jewish programming. This young person initiated contact with a Hillel outreach professional and created a Jewish presence by bringing Hillel to campus, and took the initiative to plan and lead a Passover Seder. The is the power of the Torah learned by participation in the Ahavas Israel community.

Another example, from a family who came to Shabbat services weekly, ate weekly Shabbat dinners together, kept kosher, and took advantage of our generous Jewish camp scholarship program. Based on a lesson the children learned in Religious school, they began as teens to keep kosher outside of their home. I participated in the weddings of all the children, in whose kosher homes they are now actively passing along Judaism to their children. The more seriously you take Torah, the more powerful the Torah of the Ahavas Israel community can be.

Want to explore Torah at Ahavas Israel? Start with our new monthly Beit Midrash program. For more information, see the article under “upcoming events.”

 

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Talmud Torah – Torah study
  • Beit Midrash – House of study
  • Derekh Eretz – “the way of the land,” variously translated as proper manners or a profession.
  • Melakhah – creative work, often referring to prohibited labors on Shabbat.
  • Avodah – service or worship, though it an also mean work.

Divre Harav – May/17

I’m taking a break this month from my stroll through Pirke Avot (chapter 2) to report on my trip to Washington, DC to attend my first AIPAC policy conference this past March. AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Every year, AIPAC supporters gather in DC for three days of sessions featuring speakers on various issues of Israel, such as technology, security, medicine, manufacturing, business, and entertainment. Speakers also include the political leadership of the United States and Israel, although this year we also heard from former leaders in Canada and the United Kingdom as well. AIPAC is a bipartisan organization, whose goal is to develop relationships with each of the 535 members of Congress as well as the Executive branch of the government, regardless of political affiliation.

It was an extraordinary experience to sit in the Verizon Center with 18,000 Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel, young and old and hear from the Democratic and the Republican leadership of both the House and the Senate, as well as the Vice President. I heard from Policy Conference veterans that 10 years ago the conference drew 4000 attendees. This year, there were over 4000 high school and college students alone! Eight years ago, there were 40 people at the lunch for rabbis and cantors; this year, I sat in a room with 900 people.

AIPAC is a phenomenal organization with a very clear mission: To strengthen the US-Israel bond. We learned how foreign aid to Israel supports US manufacturing. We learned how the Israeli defense program makes both Israel and the United States more secure. We learned how Israeli water technology is benefiting the region surrounding Israel and has been an important tool in addressing drought in California. We heard global experts addressing paths and obstacles to Middle East security. And much more.

The final day of the conference is a lobbying day. Many of the participants get on buses to Capitol Hill to meet with their Senators and Representatives. Each year, AIPAC prepares bipartisan materials to focus on a specific legislative agenda to support Israel. This year, we were asked to talk about three issues:

  • • A bill to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities, such as ballistic missile development, strengthening American sanctions against those who support such activities.
  • • A bill to expand existing U.S. anti-boycott laws to international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union which participate in organized anti-Israel boycotts.
  • • Robust foreign aid, which ensures America’s strong world leadership role, and security assistance and cooperative missile defense programs with Israel.

For more information on AIPAC’s legislative agenda, see http://www.policyconference.org/article/Resources.asp. And for a shining example of a powerful address, see this 17 minute video of the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, talking about how she is addressing the UN’s anti-Israel bias – http://video.policyconference.org/watch/toWdJqgHqFigsvr2m1PAE3.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Artzot Habrit (abbreviated in Hebrew, aleph-heh-bet) – United States (literally, “lands of the covenant” or perhaps “States of the Constitution”).
  • Umot Ha-me’uhedet (abbreviated in Hebrew, aleph-heh-mem) – United Nations
  • Nasi – President
  • Rosh Memshallah – Prime Minister (literally, “head of government”)
  • Haver Kenesset – Member of Parliament
  • Haver Congress – Member of Congress

Divre Harav – April, 2017

In the third and final part of the first mishnah of chapter two of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says:

“And watch out for three things, so you will not come into the clutches of transgression – know what is above you: (1) An eye which sees, and (2) an ear which hears, and (3) a book, in which all your actions are written down.” Pirke Avot 2:1

Above our ark in the sanctuary we have the words, Da lifnei mi ata omed, “Know Before Whom You Stand.” While the source for this statement in Talmudic source is in the plural (B’rachot 28b), as if speaking to the congregation as a whole, it is commonly found at the front of Sanctuaries in the singular, parallel to the grammar of Rabbi Yehudah’s warning, “know what is above you.”

Is God really continually spying on us? Are our private lives being monitored by someone other than the NSA?

I don’t have a definitive answer to this, because it depends on whether we are speaking about the world of literal truth or metaphorical truth. Literally, God has no eyes, no ears, and no hands with which to write down our every error, sin, and transgression. Metaphorically, God has all of those sensory organs and appendages. Literally, God is not monitoring and recording our every action. Metaphorically, God is doing just that.

Why has our tradition created such a metaphor? In what way it is useful in helping us to become a faithful people of God and Torah? The answer is obvious, but problematic. If we live our lives as if we are being graded — and the grades count — then we will be careful to behave in better ways. If we believe that God is paying attention, then we will communicate with each other kindly, gently, and with empathy.

What is problematic about behaving ourselves and acting like good people, you might ask However useful this metaphor might be, we should remember that it is only a metaphor, not literal truth, because our goal ought to be higher than just behaving like good people. My High School science teacher had a poster on his walls, which said something like, “The mark of a truly good person is what he does when he knows no one is watching.” When we reach the level of character development of which we can say, I know that no one, including God, will know if I take this ethical shortcut, post this anonymous unkind comment, sneak into this movie, but I am not going to do it anyway, then we will have become true mensches.

Now, regarding the question of whether the NSA is actually spying on us or just metaphorically spying on us, that I can’t answer either. I’ve already said too much, and they might be listening!

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • • ayin – eye
  • • ozen – ear
  • • peh – mouth
  • • af – nose
  • • mah’shava – thought
  • • da’at – awareness

Divre Harav – March, 2017

Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says, “Calculate the loss incurred in doing a mitzvah against the reward, and the reward for committing a transgression against the loss for doing it.” Pirke Avot 2:1

A set of four of Rabbi Yehudah’s aphorisms open chapter two of Pirke Avot. This one immediately follows the caution to treat all mitzvot seriously, because we don’t know the relative reward values of mitzvot (I wrote about this in my article last month – you can find it archived at AhavasIsraelGR.org or, along with all of my writings, at EmbodiedTorah.com). Now we are being told to take into account that there is in fact a reward for doing mitzvot and a penalty for committing sins. Even though we don’t know how much that reward or penalty might be, Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi implies that it is substantially more than the loss or gain incurred by doing the mitzvah or engaging in the sinful behavior.

Focusing on mitzvot first, Rabbi is up front about the fact that there is a cost involved in doing a mitzvah. Doing a mitzvah takes time and some mitzvot cost money as well. He doesn’t hide the fact that living a Jewish life is not always easy. Waking up early to get to the synagogue for minyan takes effort. There is a cost to build a Sukkah, purchase a lulav and etrog, buy kosher meat, give tzedakah, or take time off for the Jewish holidays. We might quantify the reward in terms of the greater happiness at living a life infused with celebrations and the observance of God’s Torah, or greater satisfaction at living a live of meaning and service to others, or we might classify the benefit as the unquantifiable delight of a greater reward in the World to Come.

Turning to the punishment for sin, Rabbi seems to assumes that no one would commit a sin if there were not some gain in doing so. While there are some mean and nasty people who torment others simply for the sheer joy of it, most transgressive acts have a tangible benefit. Theft, fraud, embezzlement, misappropriation of intellectual property, or adultery are all way to describe stealing something that does not belong to you. Assault and murder and even simply telling a lie are typically ancillary to robbery or protection against monetary loss or loss of reputation leading to financial loss. Although Bob Woodward never uttered  the words “Follow the money” outside of the movie “All the President’s Men,” the idea behind this journalist’s creed unraveled Watergate.

So Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi warns us that the short term financial gain of a sin is outweighed by either the loss of freedom should you get caught or the long term damage in the World to Come; and the short term cost in time and money and effort of doing a mitzvah is outweighed by its long term benefits. Can I prove this to you? No! But you can help me answer a question regarding the benefit gained from the time I spend writing these columns — ‘How many people read to the end?’ If you’ve gotten this far, send me an email or leave me a phone message with your name and the word “lottery” in it. You’ll help me disprove the hypothesis that I’m the only one who reads what I write! All who participate will be entered into a lottery for $20 worth of scrip of their choice. The winner will be announced on the occasion of the Festival of Lotteries, Purim, March 11.

 

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • payis – lottery
  • mif’al hapayis – The name of the Israeli national lottery
  • goral – fate
  • hargalah – raffle, lottery
  • mispar hahazak – power number

Divre Harav – February, 2017

Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says, “Be as cautious in a minor mitzvah as in a major one, for you do not know what reward comes for a mitzvah.” Pirke Avot 2:1

I suspect that few of us believe that we receive a tangible, quantifiable, reward for doing mitzvot. I’m not talking about a sense of accomplishment or a sense of satisfaction, but some actual benefit, whether it be finding a better or quicker place in heaven after we die or receiving a material benefit on earth. Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, religious leader of the rabbis of his generation and the editor of the Mishnah, alludes to a widespread believe that the performance of mitzvot carry a reward. However, he downplays this belief. The reward does not necessarily correspond to the act, he says. We should treat all religious behavior as is equally important, whether it be lighting Shabbat candles, putting on tefillin, fasting on Yom Kippur, or feeding the hungry.

The Talmud’s description of the process of conversion to Judaism describes teaching the potential convert some of the major and minor mitzvot, warning him of the punishment for disobeying and describing in general terms the reward of the world to come for the righteous. If he accepts the obligations of Torah, they circumcise him and as soon as possible, immerse him in a mikvah while teaching him some major and minor mitzvot (again). Women are taught major and minor mitzvot while standing in the mikvah, and then immerse. The Talmud never precisely defines a major mitzvah vs. a minor mitzvah, here too assumes that there is a reward for observance, but declines to define the reward.

The “Butterfly Effect,” a tem coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz, is named for the idea that the path and severity of a hurricane could be influenced by minor disturbances in the air such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. Lorenz discovered that when modeling weather, small actions can have very large effects. The same idea holds within the social model of a community, local, regional, national, or beyond. We never know how the smallest actions we take might effect larger consequences. Our actions on a small scale might influence others in ways we never anticipated.

Rabbi Yehudah’s message is that all of our actions have significance. We should never think of our lives as inconsequential. At the same time, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that we can manipulate events for our benefit. Ultimately, we are called upon to be holy people and bring holiness into the world through our actions, large and small; to be good, without the expectation of being recognized or rewarded.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kal – easy; light; facile

Kal has three opposites, depending on the precise meaning:

  • Kasheh – difficult
  • Kaved – heavy
  • Hamur – serious