Divre Harav – November/2017

[Rabban Gamliel says,], “Make God’s will into your will, so that God will make your will into his will. Nullify your will on account of his will, so that he will nullify the will of others for you.” Pirke Avot 2:4

Rabban Gamliel may be responding to the teaching of a sage from generations earlier, Antigonus of Sokho, who said, “Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to get a reward, but rather be like servants who serve the master with no expectation of reward.” [Pirke Avot 1:3] One proposes altruism as the guiding value, and the other proposes utilitarianism as the guiding value.

Although both sages are speaking of our relationship with God and attitude towards doing mitzvot, I suggest that part of the purpose of mitzvot bein adam la’Makom, mitzvot directed towards God, is to teach us the best way to behave towards our fellow human beings, other creatures, and the environment in which we live. Therefore, the ideal that Antigonus presents, that of a life of pure altruism, could also apply to doing acts of love for other people without expectation of reward. While a beautiful philosophy, it is not realistic. Most of us, much of the time, expect that when we do something for someone, that we will get something out of it. Perhaps it makes us feel good to help others. Perhaps we hope that we’ll get a favor back in return someday. Perhaps we hope that going above and beyond and treating customers well will result in more business in the future.

So Rabban Gamliel responds with his instructions for how to behave towards someone you love. If they have a desire, you should have the same desire. And there is nothing wrong with hoping that when you want something, that the person you love will want the same thing. The same thing applies to things that we don’t want – we want the person we love not to want them either. He suggests a very practical, utilitarian, philosophy. I’ll scratch your back because I want you to scratch mine.

There are problems with both philosophies. As I suggested, it is very difficult to maintain pure altruism, and holding this as an ideal discourages expressing of gratitude. By this, I mean that if I believe that your motivation ought to be pure, then I also might believe that you neither want nor need thanks or recognition for what you do for me. And regarding Rabban Gamliel’s approach, it is unreasonable to expect that two individuals (or a human being and God) can ever be so closely aligned that we get everything we want from the other.

The teaching texts of Judaism include both sages because life is a mixture of both philosophies. Sometimes, we do things for others because we know it is the right thing to do or because we love them, and sometimes we do things because we want or expect something in return. As in so many other areas of ethics, the goal is to find balance in the golden mean.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Makom – place. Also, a name for God, probably derived from the association of God with a sacred place like the Temple.
  • Ha-Kadosh, barukh hu – “The blessed Holiness,” more often translated as “the blessed Holy One.” Some scholars believe that the original form of this appellation for God was Ha-Kodesh, barukh hu. Kodesh is a participial noun, referring to the place of holiness, the Temple.
  • Ratzon – will or desire.
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Divre Harav – October/17

[Rabban Gamliel says,] “Be wary of the authorities, for they get friendly with a person only when it serves their needs. They look like friends when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a person in an hour of need.” Pirke Avot 2:3

By nature, I am not a cynical person. I am trusting, some might say naïve, and always believe the best of individual, institutions, business, and corporations. I am the polar opposite of Rabban Gamliel. He lived in the 2nd century under an oppressive totalitarian Roman government. He had no reason to trust that the authorities were making decisions in his best interest. I live in a representative democracy which for 241 years and counting is evolving into a country which honors and protects each of its citizens. I do not deny that our country has not always gotten it right. Its record of protecting non-white and non-Christian residents is not spotless. But I believe that the trajectory is headed in the right direction.

It seems to me that this is the proper Jewish approach. The world is not perfect but each generation can bring it closer to where it ought to be. And in each generation there are astoundingly good people whose merit saves the world. We call them the Lamed-Vav’niks, the 36 righteous people upon whom the existence of the world depends.

Happiness surveys show that traditionally religious people are happier than purely secular people. This is typically ascribed to the fact that religions which believe in a messianic era or an end-of-times are inherently optimistic, believing that it is possible to achieve perfection of human nature. Secular people pride themselves on realism and are more likely to see no reason that human nature or society is improving. When you believe that you are stuck in an infinite destructive loop, there is no reason to be happy. When you believe that things will get better, you have reason to be happy.

Therefore, I am proud of my country and the way that it stands by its citizens in their time of need, as through welfare and healthcare programs, the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or the life saving actions of the National Guard and the Coast Guard. I embrace my non-cynical naïveté and continually search for and see the good in everything and everyone.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Lamed-Vav – The Hebrew letters which stand for the numbers 30 and 6, respectively.
  • Emunah – faith
  • Amen – I agree (from the same root as emunah)
  • Imun – Training, Coaching. Also the name of a much loved but discontinued USCJ program to teach synagogue skills such as Torah/Haftarah reading and leading services to lay leaders.

Divre Harav – September/17

Rabban Gamaliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, says, “All who serve the public should serve them for the sake of Heaven. The merit of their ancestors helps them so that their righteous deeds will endure forever. [And God will say] ‘As for you, I credit you with a great reward, as if you had done [the work].’ ” Pirke Avot 2:2b

As an ideal, engaging in public service, whether for a congregation, a civic organization, or a government, is an act that ought to be done out of love of God rather than out of a desire to benefit. I don’t know what Rabban Gamliel would say about those who are paid to serve the public, but I imagine that he might allow it on the grounds that the public or non-profit sector can only attract competent talent by paying a competitive salary. Otherwise, only a very small class of people could afford to serve; the rest of us have to earn money to support ourselves and our families.

Nonetheless, to be most satisfied, a person has to be primarily devoted to serving the mission of the organization rather than the paycheck. You are happiest when do what you do because you love the work that your organization does, not because you love the bump in your bank account every two weeks. To be fair, this is also true when you work for a small business or a large corporation. If you believe in the product that your job helps to produce, you will be more effective than if you are working only for the money.

Next, Rabban Gamliel reminds us to be grateful to those who came before us. Our parents, who taught us a diligent work ethic. Those who helped build the company or served the community before us. Be mindful that our world is in a constant state of flux. Companies and communities evolve and adapt or die. However, if we see more and farther than our predecessors, it is not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature [attributed to 12th century Bernard of Chartres]. Our community and our economy exist because of those who preceded us and built it over hundreds of years.

Finally, Rabban Gamliel reminds us that no matter what role we have in the final product, God credits us with a reward as if we have done all of the work. Owners and managers would do well to keep this in mind. Without the employees who do the menial labor, without the skilled technicians who operate the machinery, without the marketing department and sales force who promote and sell the product, without the finance department who keeps the money flowing in and out, without the customer service department who keeps the customer happy, the product would not exist. A government leader who hoards the credit is going to have many unhappy people working for the city watching as its infrastructure crumbles.

This is a lesson in devotion and dedication, gratitude and acknowledgement of the past, and humility. As we stand before God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we stand with devotion to the teachings of our faith; dedication to the Torah; thanks to God and acknowledgement of the spiritual power of our heritage; and the humility to admit our shortcomings and learn to do better. I wish you a New Year 5778 of goodness and sweetness, may you be written and sealed in the books of life, happiness, and prosperity, and I look forward to greeting you on the holidays.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • L’shana tova tikateivu v’teikhateimu – May you be written and sealed for a good year.
  • Shana Tova – A good year.
  • G’mar Hatima Tova – May you be sealed for goodness.
  • Hag Sameah – A happy holiday.

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