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.
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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.

Psalm 148

“He commanded and they were created.” (148:5)

What power this is, the power to express a desire and know that people will make it happen! This is a power I associate with the very rich or the very rich and powerful CEO who can afford to hire people to take care of every expressed wish. It is a god-like power, one that may seduce the user with delusions of divinity. I am far more impressed by the rich and powerful who have the humility to do things for themselves and others, than I am of seeing them pass the tasks off to their minions.

Psalm 147

“He counts the number of the stars; He names them all.” (147:4)

Dale Carnegie said, ““A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” To be able to recall a name and use it in conversation, to greet a person by name, to remember names of people we meet, are signs of caring at a deep level. Jewish tradition discourages us from counting people, thinking, perhaps, that to count them is to assign them an impersonal number rather than acknowledging their uniqueness with a name.

Psalm 146

“Put not your trust in the noble.” (146:3)

It is hard to avoid the trap of celebrity worship. There is something electric about being in the company of the influential, the powerful, and the famous. When we are in the company of politicians, actors, entertainers, or the uber-wealthy, we can be overwhelmed by the aura of their physical presence. They have talents and abilities and the power to get things done over and above that of the average mortal. Yet they also have outstanding moral faults and failures, just like every other human being. So value them for their abilities, but worship them not!