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
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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

Divre Harav – September/2018

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai would say, if you have learned much Torah, don’t claim credit for yourself, because it is for this you were created. Pirke Avot 2:9

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai may be talking about Torah study, but his lesson can be easily generalized to a life attitude encompassing humility. When you do something because you are supposed to do it, because it is your job, he suggests that you should not expect a constant stream of praise and recognition for doing it. A bank teller who handles a deposit correctly doesn’t deserve a bonus, although a thank you from the customer is always polite. A teller who processes an unusual transaction or handles a complicated request deserves a bit more credit and a sincere thank you, but still, it’s just part of the job.

Praise, recognition and appreciation should be given out in just the right amount. Too much, and it begins to sound false and lose its value. Not enough, and volunteers and employees feel undervalued. Some schools or sports leagues give out participation awards and each person gets a trophy in order to praise everyone equally. Other schools refrain from recognizing the outstanding students because it might make the less outstanding students feel bad, because it might engender excessive competition, or because the competition itself might be biased in favor of economically privileged students. Rabbi Yohanan takes a different approach, focusing on curbing the individual’s expectation of recognition, cautioning us not to expect praise from others for our achievements, although we ought to graciously accept such praise as given to us. Nothing he says, though, contradicts the idea that we should cultivate a habit of expressing gratitude and praise for the exceptional achievements of others.

Here’s another example within the volunteer world of the synagogue. The chair of our women’s Hevra Kadisha, Geri Hoffman, never likes it when I thank her after she and her committee do their work of preparing a body for burial. She tells me that she doesn’t do it to get thanked, that she and her committee do it because that’s what we as Jews, that’s what we as a synagogue community, are supposed to do. The Hevra Kadisha takes care of those who have passed away because it is a mitzvah. Geri’s attitude is perfectly in line with Rabbi Yohanan’s statement that we not take credit for things we were created to do, as well as the concept that they volunteer to do it because it is a hesed shel emet, the purest form of love, that which we do for someone who cannot express gratitude. 

Nonetheless, I mention Geri because I am grateful for what she and her committee does. I am also grateful for Ed Miller and the men’s Hevra Kadisha. The congregation as a whole needs to know that we have committees which do this perhaps difficult, but critically important, task. Women who want to learn more about volunteering to participate in this mitzvah should contact Geri at 949-6088, and men should contact Ed Miller at 293-6064.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hevra Kadisha – Sacred Society, the name of the who wash and dress bodies for burial.
  • taharah – “purification,” the name of the process of washing a dead body.
  • takhrikhim – the burial shrouds
  • shomer – the person who guards the body from the time of death to burial.

Want to learn modern Hebrew on your own? Download the free Duolingo app (for iOS, Android, and Windows mobile).

Divre Harav – March/2018

[Hillel] would say, “In a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.” Pirke Avot 2:6b

It’s hard to translate this teaching of Hillel into gender-neutral English. A literal English translation would be, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” The word eesh can also mean a person, but “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person” doesn’t capture the sense of what Hillel was trying to say. His exhortation can be understood on two levels. First, it seems clear to me that he was thinking of the story from Exodus 2:11-12 in which Moses …

“… went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”

However, the next day … (verses 13-14)

“… he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, ‘Why do you strike your fellow?’ He retorted, ‘Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ ”

Clearly, when Moses looked around, there were people watching the Egyptian beating the Hebrew, but no one was willing to intervene. The witnesses spread the word about what Moses had done both among the Israelites and the Egyptians. Not too long afterwards, Pharaoh found out and sought to kill Moses.

Hillel must have had this story in mind. In a place where there are no good people willing to step forward and fight for justice, be such a person. The Yiddish word for man, which in its Jewish and American usage has implications of moral goodness, is thus the best way to translate the mishnah: “In a place where there are no mensches, strive to be a mensch.”

However, Hillel may have had something else in mind as well. “In a place where there are no people,” where no one is around to watch you, nonetheless you should still behave like a mensch. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Understood in this way, Hillel is reminding us that even when no human being is around to witness our behavior, God is a witness. Both ways of understanding this teaching of Hillel are worthy guides to a life of goodness.

 

Hebrew Words of the Month. The seder (order) of the Seder:

  • Kaddesh – Recite the blessing over wine and sanctification of the day of Pesah.
  • Ur’hatz – Ritually wash your hands by pouring water over them.
  • Karpas – Eat the leafy greens vegetable.
  • YahatzBreak the middle matzah in half.
  • MaggidTell the story of the Exodus.
  • Rah’tza – Ritually wash your hands by pouring water over them.
  • MotziHamotzi, blessing over bread.
  • Matzah – the blessing over the mitzvah of eating matzah.
  • MarorBlessing over maror, bitter herbs.
  • Korekh – “Hillel” sandwich of matzah and maror.
  • Shulhan Orekh – Arrange the food on the table.
  • Tzafun – The hidden matzah, the Afikomen.
  • BarekhBirkat Hamazon, grace after the meal.
  • HallelPraise God.
  • Nirtzah – God accepts and is satisfied by our Seder.

Divre Harav – January/2018

Hillel says, “Do not say that something is impossible to understand, because ultimately you will understand; and do not say when I have time I will study, lest you are never have time.” Pirke Avot 2:5b

When my children were young, it would occasionally happen that they had a school assignment that was particularly difficult for them and after a few minutes of struggling to figure it out, they would give up. I had to teach them persistence – that there is value in the struggle, that hard work and time will usually elicit results.

Let’s agree up front that there are some things that are beyond our ability to solve. A person drawn to a career in business or educated in liberal arts will probably never be capable of solving problems of mathematical topography or theoretical physics. But a good teacher should be able to explain it to me so that I can understand the principle behind very complicated math or physics.

In most areas of learning, if we put in enough time and effort, we can figure it out and reach a level of understanding. But it isn’t easy. It easier to put it away until later and turn on the football game, kill some virtual invaders, or escape into someone else’s reality. Procrastination is an insidious affliction. If we’re tired, who can argue if we want to take a break? We’ll finish the project later. But when we walk away, unless we have a specific time when we’ve committed to return, there’s always something to distract us and keep us from coming back.

Hillel understood the nature of procrastination, and that’s why he urged us to set time aside at regular intervals to study. I have a weekly Hevruta with a rabbi from Denver. We have set aside an hour on Wednesday mornings to learn together, and I also set aside time earlier in the week to prepare for our learning. Because it is a near-sacred hour on my calendar, only to be moved when it is unavoidable, I rarely miss a week. Part of the power of Hevruta learning is that he is counting on me and I am counting on him. So I can’t just cancel on a whim because I don’t want to disapoint my friend. An additional benefit to Hevruta learning is the chance to learn from someone different than oneself. I study with a Reconstructionist rabbi. We’re approximately the same age, but his rabbinical training and career experience are completely different than mine, and so too the lessons he bring out of the text we study together are different than the lessons I learn.

Talmud Torah is a mitzvah, learning Torah is one of the sacred obligations of a Jewish life. The goal of our Beit Midrash dinners is to encourage you to engage yourself in this mitzvah, to spend some time studying, and to give you the opportunity to experience Hevruta study. The next dinner is scheduled for Monday night, January 22. You must RSVP to attend, to me at Rabbi@AhavasIsraelGR.org or 949-2840. I hope to see you here.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hevruta – a study partner
  • Limmud – study
  • Talmud Torah – Torah study; sometimes, an institution of Torah study
  • Torah Lishma – learning for its own sake, as opposed to learning for practical use
  • Beit Midrash – Place of study.