Divre Harav – Summer/2018

[Hillel] would say, “The more flesh, the more worms; the more property, the more worries; the more wives, the more witchcraft; the more maidservants, the more licentiousness; the more slaves, the more robbery.

The more Torah, the more life; the more [time] sitting [at the feet of a teacher], the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding; the more righteous deeds, the more peace.

One who acquired a good name, acquired it for himself. One who acquired words of Torah, acquired life in the world to come. Pirke Avot 2:8

Following the list of tangible (and negative) assets that one might pursue, which I commented on in my article last month, Hillel turns to the intangible acquisitions of life; the things that build up one’s reputation rather that one’s balance sheet. Begin by learning Torah. To do that, one must find a teacher and devote the time necessary to learn. True understanding only comes with a careful study of all sides of an issue, all factors and relevant sources. The acquisition of Torah in the fullest sense leads to action, sharing Torah by means of one’s loving behavior towards all living beings and planet earth herself.

Hillel begins with a list of the negative consequences of materialism, followed by the positive consequences of the acquisition of non-material things. Material acquisitions are not in and of themselves evil, but the more you have, Hillel tells us, the less happy you’ll be. Acquiring Torah, wisdom, understanding, and engaging in positive action for others, on the other hand, leads to peace and, I think Hillel would say, happiness.

When I study Mishnah, I look for patterns that might help with interpretation. Here, we first have a paragraph of negative consequences and then a paragraph of positive consequences. Hillel then adds two more sentences, each beginning with “one who acquires …. On the face of it, neither of the final two sentences is negative, but my sense of order wants to see the first sentence as qualitatively poorer than the second, roughly following the pattern of negative, then positive. Focusing primarily on building one’s name is analogous to acquiring material possessions. I want my reputation to be gloriously big. When I die, someone is going to give a banger of a eulogy about me. It’s even more important the material objects – ”A good name is better than fragrant oil” (Ecc. 7.1). But if it ends there, then I have done nothing more than burnish my resume. There is a higher aspiration. The desire to learn Torah for its own sake, to master the core concepts of wisdom and goodness, is to elevate one’s humanity. And therefore, one who acquires Torah, acquires eternity. Such a person transcends ego, seeing himself or herself as part of an unlimited world, stretching across time and space. Such a person, says Hillel, acquires olam haba, the eternal hereafter.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • yeshiva – literally “sitting.” An academy of Torah study, where one sits and learns.
  • shem tov – a good name, a good reputation.
  • Olam Haba – The world to come.
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Divre Harav – May, 2018

[Hillel] would say, “The more flesh, the more worms; the more property, the more worries; the more wives, the more witchcraft; the more maidservants, the more licentiousness; the more slaves, the more robbery. The more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom; the more counsel, the more understanding; the more righteous deeds, the more peace. [If] one has gotten a good name, he has gotten it for himself. [If] he has gotten teachings of Torah, he has gotten himself life eternal.” Pirke Avot 2:8

Translations of this final saying of Hillel vary, depending on the translation’s desire to cover up Hillel’s decidedly pre-modern view of women and slaves. Because I don’t believe in altering translations to confirm to political correctness, I give you an accurate rendering of the mishnah. And in fact there is something to be learned from it. We’ll tackle the negative half this month, and positive half next month.

“The more flesh, the more worms.” Your body, no matter how big and powerful it might be, will someday return to the earth and decompose. To put it another way, we are mortal and each of will someday die. If this concept is difficult for you to wrap your mind around, consider installing the “WeCroak” app on your phone. Five times a day, your phone will alert you with a quotation reminding you that your journey in this world will someday end. It is inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying that to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times daily. The suggestion that we should not focus on the material is also the focus of the next phrase.

“The more property, the more worries.” Know anyone who believes that the way to happiness is through acquiring more and more possessions? Who works non-stop and ignores family and friendships in favor of buying another car, another piece of art, another pair of shoes, another home, a larger home? In the end, happiness is more often found by doing acts of lovingkindness than by acquiring things.

“The more wives, the more witchcraft.” I have no desire to defend this one, other than to note that Hillel slyly works in his belief that more than one life-partner, far more often than not, leads to conflict and unhappiness. It took another thousand years for European Jewry to formally come to the same conclusion and outlaw polygamy.

“The more maidservants, the more licentiousness.” The #metoo movement has proven that this phrase still, sadly, applies. Not with respect to female servants, but with female employees in general. Or perhaps even more generally, people in power, have a propensity to coerce and abuse their subordinates. More typically, men are the abusers, but women in positions of authority are not immune. The antidote for bad behavior is to remind ourselves of the seductiveness of the exercise of power and the ease of abusing it. Maybe someone should write an app called “WeHarass” that reminds executives five times a day of the danger of abusing their authority. 

Finally, “the more slaves, the more robbery.” Simple solution here … don’t own slaves. When you exist in a society which normalizes and takes advantage of class distinctions, you should not be surprised when those in the permanent lower class rebel against their perceived oppressors. I am not defending robbery, but I am suggesting that the way to reduce crime is not solely by locking up the criminals, but also by creating paths by which the underclass can succeed and prosper on their own merits.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • basar – meat
  • lehem – bread; in some contexts, food.
  • eved – slave
  • ba’al – owner, master; archaic word for husband
  • ish – man, husband
  • isha – woman, wife
  • harbeh – many, much
  • g’neivah – thievery; typically without the owner knowing, as in breaking and entering
  • gezel – robbery; typically, directly from a person as in a mugging

Divre Harav – February, 2018

[Hillel] would say, “A boor does not fear sin, and an ignoramus cannot be pious; a shy person does not learn, and an impatient person does not teach; not everyone engrossed in business becomes wise.” Pirke Avot 2:6a

The early first century rabbis, as they were constructing a post-Biblical Judaism, believed in a disciplined life informed by the purity practices of the Priestly sacrificial system. Exodus 19:6 suggests that all Israel are “a kingdom of priests,” and the early sages embraced the practice of living in a priestly state of purity as a replacement for the actual sacrificial system. This is the reason that we wash our hands before eating bread (and also before dipping a vegetable in salt water at the Seder). Their lives (and ours) are defined by boundaries designed to emphasize states of purity – kosher and treif, Shabbat and weekday, and night and day (times of prayer).

In this Mishnah, Hillel is focusing on the character traits that prevent a person from living a proper religious life. A wild, uncultivated, person does not respect boundaries and therefore will transgress, violating others’ property and persons. One can say that a person like Harvey Weinstein’s unrestrained exercise of power along with his lack of fear of sin led to his repeated sexual violations.

While a boor is like the proverbial bull in a china shop (note: apologies to actual bulls, who are actually quite graceful – see the Mythbuster video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xzw2iBmRsjs), the ignoramus’ lack of piety is based on ignorance of proper behavior rather than a willful disregard of boundaries. While rabbinic law does not condemn or prosecute a person for unknowingly violations of their norms of practice, neither do the rabbis praise such a person. We have seen in Avot 2:5 that Hillel believed strongly in education, and placed the responsibility squarely on the individual to set aside regular time to study.

Because proper behavior is learned, Hillel continues with instructions for the student and the teacher. Learning is more than memorized information. Learning is a process of exploring boundaries. When I teach Kashrut, permitted and forbidden food, there is always one student who wants to know if he’s starving in the middle of a desert and stumbles across a McDonald’s, can he eat a hamburger or must he continue starving until he finds kosher food. This students wants to explore the limits of the kashrut restrictions. Without this question, the student would never learn about pikuah nefesh, the concept that “saving a life” allows for the violation of kashrut or most other prohibitions. That’s what Hillel means – the person who is too shy to ask a question will not learn. And the teacher who is too material-focused to respond to students’ questions will miss the opportunity to teach concepts.

Finally, Hillel reminds us that mastery of one subject does not automatically imply wisdom in other areas. One can be very successful in business, but still not be learned in Torah. I’ll add that a rabbi who has devoted his life to Torah does not necessarily understand the intricacies of how a large corporation functions!

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Boor – empty space  or a wild, uncultivated field; applied to a person, it is equivalent to the english ‘boor.’
  • Am ha’aretz – “people of the land.” Used in first century Hebrew in the derogatory sense of “country folks,” as in those who did not follow rabbinic purity laws.
  • Hasid – a pious person. Also, a follower or disciple of the Rebbe, chief rabbi, of a sect of a type of mystical Judaism, such as Lubavitch, Ger, Satmar, Breslover, Belz, or Bobov.

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.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – December, 2017

Hillel says, “Do not separate from the community – do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death and do not judge your fellow until you are in their place. Pirke Avot 2:5a

Protestants are famous for disagreeing and forming new denominations. Jews are just as disagreeable, but tend merely to form new synagogues rather than new movements. Apparently, this is not a new phenomenon. Hillel, a first century BCE pre-rabbinic figure, cautioned people of his generation not to fracture the community. He then gives two specific warnings against behaviors that would lead people to separate from others in their community.

First, don’t be too sure that you are right and the other person is wrong. Don’t stake your participation in the community or your relationship with that individual on your correctness. Have the humility to open yourself up to the possibility that the opposite is true, that you are wrong and the opposing opinion is correct. It will not be until you have passed away and are called before the Holy Blessed One, the Supreme Judge, that you will know the whole truth of the matter.

Second, you might think the other person is dead wrong and be tempted to withdraw from the relationship. However, because you are not omniscient, you don’t know what led your fellow to make certain decisions and to choose a particular path. Were you in his or her shoes, you might have chosen to make the same set of decisions. Therefore, do not so quick to disconnect either with that person or with a community of people who make decisions that you do not fully understand.

Hillel was a strong proponent of remaining in relationship and learning from people who are different from you. He would be deeply disappointed at the degree to which our society is broken into segments who only read or listen to news that confirms what they already believe, and associate only with people of a like mind.

Don’t separate from the community even when remaining in the community is challenging, because that’s precisely when you have the most to learn and others have the most to learn from you. Be humble and non-judgemental and remain in the community with the goal of enriching yourself. For Hillel and for us, Judaism is not a religion to be practiced alone in one’s home. The concept of minyan urges us to pray in community, not because God hears communal prayers better than solo voices, but because we are more powerfully transformed by prayer when we are not alone.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

Common “first” names of synagogues:

  • Aidah (or Adat) – Congregation, (Congregation of …)
  • Kehillah (or Kehillat) – Congregation (Congregation of …)
  • Kahal (K’hal) – Congregation (Congregation of …)
  • Agudah (Agudat) – Congregation (Congregation of …)
  • Beit (often transliterated Beth) – House of …
  • B’nai – children of …
  • Anshei – People of …
  • Mishkan – Temple