Divre Harav – September/2019

Akaviah ben Mehallalel says, “Reflect upon three things and you will not fall into the clutches of transgression: Know from where you came, to where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a full account [of yourself].

“From where do you come? From a putrid drop.

“To where are you going? To a place of dust, worms, and maggots.

“And before whom are you destined to give a full account? Before the King of kings of kings, the Holy Blessed One.”

Pirke Avot 3:1

Repentance begins with breaking down the ego. We might like to think we we have power and influence, that we are important because of our intellect or our wealth. Not so, says Akaviah ben Mehallalel. We are, in the words of this mishnah from Pirke Avot, no better than the fertilized zygote with which we began our existence. Similar to this sentiment is a passage early in the morning service, recommended by the Talmud as the essence of confession. In it, we acknowledge that compared to the power of God and the scope of human history, our existence as individual human beings is insignificant.

Master of all worlds! Not upon our merit do we rely in our supplication, but upon Your limitless love. What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our righteousness? What is our attainment, our power, our might? What can we say, Lord our God and God of our ancestors? Compared to You, all the mighty are nothing, the famous nonexistent. The wise lack wisdom, the clever lack reason. In your sight, all that we do is meaningless, the days of our lives empty. Human preeminence over beasts is an illusion, for all is futile. 

Not even our human origin makes us special. We grew from embryos, but so did everything else in the animal world. They are mortal and we, too, are born with the same ultimate fate of death.

Not until Akaviah’s third statement do we get a hint of our special nature: Human beings are uniquely destined to appear before God. My dog is not going to be judged upon his passing for each time he pooped in the house (something I’m going to take up with God someday). But our souls transcend our physical bodies. Our souls are a sacred gift from God. And the fact that we have a soul, that very thing that makes us special and privileged and gives us a covenantal relationship with God, it that which holds us accountable for all of our actions.

As we welcome September, we have approximately one month before Rosh Hashanah. So let me commend to you the exercise of doing a Heshbon Hanefesh, a spiritual self-assessment. At the end of each day (except on Shabbat), describe one good interaction with another person in which you were fully present, and one interaction that you could have handled better. It could be an interaction with a stranger, server, barista, or grocery story clerk; an email to a supervisor or coworker, friend or acquaintance; a phone conversation with customer service, a family member, or friend; or a face-to-face conversation with any of the above. Identify what you did well or what you could have done better. If you need to make amends for something you did wrong, identify the error and apologize. If you have other unresolved issues, error, or transgressions, take the month of September to take care of those as well.

And when I see you on Rosh Hashanah, we can wish each other l’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu with a full heart, knowing that we are starting the new year with a clean slate.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • din – judgement
  • Heshbon – account
  • din v’heshbon – a complete judgement, a full accounting. [grammaticaly, this is called a hendadys, in which two nouns combine, one modifying the other]
  • Heshbon HaNefesh – self-assessment; literally, accounting of the soul.

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.

Psalm 113

“From the rising of the sun until its setting …” (113:3)

In the ancient world, astronomical phenomena were unpredictable and thus were signs of Divine favor or displeasure. An eclipse was a portent of disaster. A comet was a sign of good tidings. The regular cycles of the sun and moon told people when to sow, when to reap, and when to celebrate. Stars and planets were and are objects of wonder. Someday, humanity might take steps to populate another world, but today, the distances and difficulties of travel are insurmountable. From our miraculous perch on the arm of a galaxy we call the Milky Way, we sit and observe and perhaps wait to be contacted.

Psalm 112

“A light shines in the darkness.” (112:4)

Jews celebrate by lighting two candles on Shabbat and major Festivals and elaborate none-branched candelabras on Hanukkah, and mourn by lighting a single candle at the shiva following a death and on a yahrtzeit, the anniversary of a death. A single flame, representing the human soul, dispels the darkness of sadness and loss. Two flames represent “observe” and “remember,” the first words of the fourth commandment to observe Shabbat in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the increasing light of the Hanukiah at the darkest days of winter, reminds us when two candles or two human souls converge, the light burns brighter.

Divre Harav – December 2016

The basic mitzvah of Hanukkah is to place the Hanukkiyah in a window or doorway so it is visible outside the home, thus publicizing the miracle. We tend to think of religious observance as a personal and private matter, and to some extent it is. My religious practice is my own business, not anyone else’s. It is not the government’s right nor my neighbor’s right to coerce me into spending my time or money in support of a religious institution – that’s how the establishment clause of the first amendment of the Constitution of the United States has been interpreted. However, that doesn’t mean that we, as individual religious people, are prohibited from sharing ourselves in the open marketplace of social and religious discourse. As Jews, we have a mitzvah to share our story with pride. The basic Hanukkah story, tossing aside the story of the long-burning oil for the moment, is that of a group of people who refused to compromise their basic belief in one God,  primacy of Torah, circumcision, sanctity of the Sabbath, and refusal to eat pork. We don’t need to be obnoxious about sharing the story. We’re not trying to save our neighbors’ souls. Rather, it is a matter of personal pride. Proud American might wear flag pins on their lapels. A rainbow bumper sticker shows support for LGBT issues. Pink ribbon pins draw attention to the need for increased funding for breast cancer research. The brightly lit Hanukkah menorah in the window proclaims religious freedom for all.

December is Jewish pride month. How many different foods can you fry in oil to remember lighting the menorah to rededicate the Temple? What is one thing you can do this month to show public pride in your Jewish identity that you would not otherwise do?

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hanukkiyah: The name for the nine branched Hanukkah menorah.
  • Brit: covenant
  • Milah: circumcision
  • Sufganiyot: Jelly donuts, a common Israel Hanukkah treat.
  • Sevivon: dreydel