Divre Harav – Summer/2019

The first part of this final mishnah of chapter two of Pirke Avot is most well known. It has even been put to music. No matter how long our live might last, most of us will die with some unfinished business. We might have unresolved relationships, unread books, unwritten books, unpublished articles, undiscovered breakthroughs, unshared wisdom, or we might just be waiting for the Vikings to win their first Superbowl. We might be able to minimize the number of broken relationships we leave behind, but with a finite life span, we will never be able to see all the movies, read all the books, learn Chinese, and, gosh darn it, why can’t the Vikings finish a season with a win!

Rabbi Tarfon’s suggestion is that along with whatever else we do with our lives, we make a deliberate effort to learn Torah. It is Torah, more than anything else, that will give our lives meaning. And I’ll add, not just learning Torah but living it as well. Doing mitzvot is a way of publicly proclaiming the importance of our covenantal relationship with God. It begins with healing the wounds within ourselves, continues by creating strong families and communities, and ultimately results in having done our part to heal the wounds of the world.

When we do the work of learning and living Torah, we subject our moral character to continual examination. And for this, we receive an abundant reward. We may not see the reward immediately, but Rabbi Tarfon takes it as a matter of faith that we will see it eventually, in the world to come.

So Vikings, I’m not giving up hope. Someday, I’ll see you win the Superbowl, as will Fran Tarkenton, Alan Page, Bud Grant, Carl Eller, Cris Carter, and the rest of the former great players. But the Timberwolves in the NBA finals …even my faith in Minnesota teams doesn’t stretch that far!


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Atid Lavo – A Time to Come
  • Olam Haba – The World to Come
  • Gan Eden – The Garden of Eden
  • Y’mot Hamashiah – Time of the Messiah

Divre Harav – May/2019

Rabbi Tarfon says, “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the employer is insistent!”

 Pirke Avot 2:20 

As we wind down chapter two of Pirke Avot, we conclude with two teachings of Rabbi Tarfon. The first is an overview of the human condition. “Our lives are short, the task of doing mitzvot is great, we look for shortcuts whenever possible even though the reward of the world to come is significant and God is demanding.”

The content of a full Jewish life is mitzvot, but the goal is twofold and has both a rational and a mystical component. One goal is Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. Tikkun is not itself a mitzvah, but is the result of doing mitzvot. Every mitzvah a Jew does, whether it is putting on tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, giving tzedakah, or paying a shiva call, affects the world. Maybe the mitzvah lifts up another person from despair, brightens their life with financial support, or maybe it elevates, educates, or transforms the doers in a way that makes them better human beings. Maybe the mitzvah brings light and love into the world, potentially creating a kindness chain reaction. The work of transforming the world is hard because on a planetary scale, the result of a single action is virtually negligible. However, remember the words of Margaret Mead — “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

The second goal of a full Jewish life is connecting oneself with the Divine. The Hasidic term for such a connection is ‘d’veikut.’ The ideal is to spend all of one’s waking (and sleeping?) moments in d’veikut, so that every action and interaction is infused with the acute awareness of the Divine. Also consider that human beings are part animal, part Divine, created in the image of God. Through religious practice, we nurture and grow the Divine seed within, to realize our full potential and purpose in the world. So a part of ourselves naturally seeks out a connection with God, as like seeks like.

It is these two goals that have defined my life and my career. My purpose in the world for nearly all of my professional life has been to serve as the rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Israel, to nurture and transform Jewish souls. Ask any congregational rabbi, and he or she will tell you that it is an exceptionally rewarding and frustrating career choice. We see people at their best, at the heights of joy, gratitude and celebration, and at their worst, in the pits of anger, despair, hopelessness, and mourning. Yet, I wouldn’t trade my 25 years here for anyplace else or any other career, and I look forward to celebrating with you over the weekend of May 31 to June 2.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Tikkun – repair
  • D’veikut – attachment
  • S’khar – wages, reward
  • Hesed – love

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.

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.