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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Psalm 142

“No one cares about me.” (142:5)

In the course of a busy life, there are times when we might feel invisible, as if others are passing us by as if we don’t exist. It may not be malicious, just our busy family and coworkers engaged in their day, but nonetheless the feeling of being ignored hurts. As we go through our day, might we make it a point to notice and acknowledge the people we pass by? Perhaps make a point to smile, exchange a greeting, or ask a question that shows that we recognize and care about them. Show that you care.

Psalm 120

“Save my soul from a lying lip.” (120:2)

Rabbi Ishmael said: “One who engages in lashon hara (gossip) is guilty of a sin equal to the three prohibitions for which a Jew must accept death–idolatry, adultery, and murder” (Talmud Arakin 15b). The very essence of my being is attacked when I am the subject of gossip. If the lashon hara is false, the damage to reputation is obvious. But even if it is true my soul suffers terribly, for the gossiper has damaged my opportunity to benefit from fully repenting. Even if I ultimately do teshuvah (repent) for whatever it is that I did, the gossip will most likely have spread much faster and farther than my repentance.

Psalm 119

“In my heart I treasure your word.” (119:11)

The words of the person or persons who are the elders of our community or whom we consider to be our mentors are gold. We treasure them and store them away in our hearts. Long after the person is gone, we take out their words in times of need and the words comfort us and give us wisdom to solve the problems. We freely pass them along to others who might benefit. A body passes away, but when we share words of wisdom, they live forever.

Psalm 105

“The promise God gave for a thousand generations.” (105:8)

A thousand generations is approximately 20,000 years, four times longer than recorded human history. In essence, then, God’s promise is eternal. In contrast, our word is often easily broken. Sometimes we go back on promises because of circumstances outside of our control, sometimes they become too inconvenient or expensive, and sometimes we simply forget. The Psalmist is giving us a high bar to live up to — the idea that we can be better at only making promises when we can deliver, that we should consider our words, once uttered, to have the longevity of all human history.