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 143

“Do not enter into judgment.” (143:2)

The temptation to judge other people according to our standards and expectations is high. Despite protestations to the contrary, a religious life invites making such judgements because we have the yardstick of sacred scripture as both a measuring device and a stick with which to beat transgressors. Resist the temptation, unless there is a strong potential that you or someone else will otherwise be hurt. Instead, walk a mile in their shoes and try to understand why they do what they do. Cultivate compassion, rather than judgement.

Psalm 140

“Keep me from those prone to violence.” (140:5)

I have never felt seriously threatened with physical violence. When I lived in Manhattan, there were a few times that I was walking down a deserted street at night and remember wishing that there were more people around, but that’s the extent of my awareness of the forces of chaos and human evil.There are people who are more attuned to the potential for violent behavior among strangers than I am and who prefer to carry a weapon. I look to law enforcement as my friends and have never felt a desire to own a firearm to protect myself. If that makes me naive, then it is, to borrow a phrase from Paul Ricoeur, a willed naiveté with which I am perfectly content.

Psalm 131

“I do not aspire to great things.” (131:1)

I’ll give Shakespeare two out of three for “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” (Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 5). I don’t think people are born to greatness, but I do agree that some people aspire to greatness and achieve their dream; and others have unsought greatness thrust upon them. There is nothing wrong with people aspiring to greatness as long as they are prepared to live a full and meaningful life even if their dreams fail. Those like the Psalmist who do not aspire to great things nonetheless should aspire to make a difference through their lives. They should understand that they do not need to be great to be important.

Psalm 125

“Do good … to the good.” (125:4)

It ought to be self-evident that we should treat good people with kindness. But shouldn’t we go a step further? We should treat people well even if we don’t know whether or not they are good. And once we’ve established this, why stop there? We should treat people with kindness even if it appears they are selfish and don’t care about others, following the principle of dan l’khaf zekhut, judging people favorably. Just because they appear not to care doesn’t mean that there isn’t a reasonable justification for their behavior. So — “do good to the good and the apparently no-so-good alike,” and we will be better people for doing so.