Divre Harav – April, 2018

When [Hillel] saw a skull floating on the water, he said to it, “Because you drowned others, they drowned you. In the end, they who drowned you shall be drowned.” Pirke Avot 2:7

I’m sitting next to Hillel on the bank of the Jordan river back in the day when it was more than a trickle. We see a skull float by. I’m thinking, “Gross! Yuck! Poor guy.” And Hillel, great sage that he is, comes up with the perfect formulation of Jewish Karma. All right, so next to Hillel, I’m kind of s schlepper. But my skills shine when it comes to knowing how to Google!

Hillel is enamored with Exodus 21:23-25, “the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” Let’s see where that might lead (thanks to Reb Google):

In 1914, a member of the Canadian House of Parliament named Mr. Graham argued against the death penalty. He said, “We can argue all we like, but if capital punishment is being inflicted on some man, we are inclined to say: ‘It serves him right.’ That is not the spirit, I believe, in which legislation is enacted. If in this present age we were to go back to the old time of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ there would be very few honorable gentlemen in this House who would not, metaphorically speaking, be blind and toothless.”

Or more concisely, in Fiddler on the Roof, a man says, “We should defend ourselves. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” And Tevye responds, “Very good. And that way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.

Now as it happens, I’m not dead set again the death penalty, but I do believe that the evidentiary requirements for carrying it our should be extra-high. Not just guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but “beyond any shadow of doubt.” Hillel’s observation, however, is not limited to the arena of  punishment by human courts. The Karma he describes means that when we put out destructive energy, at some point in the future we will find ourselves facing the backlash from our negative behavior. All behavior, positive and negative, has inescapable consequences. Every action produces waves of energy which bounce around, affecting the world around us. Eventually, the waves will inevitably come back towards us, whether by human or divine agency.

The idea that our behavior affects our fate is a cornerstone of Judaism, hammered into our heads in the month and a half leading up to Yom Kippur. I tip my hat to our sage Hillel, whose immersion in the waters of Torah was so deep that he viewed everything that passed before through the lens of Jewish theology.

Hebrew Words of the Month (body parts connected to letters of the Hebrew alphabet):

  • Ayin – eye
  • Shen – tooth
  • Peh – mouth
  • Yad – hand
  • Rosh – head
  • Kaf – palm
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Psalm 97

“Light is sown for the righteous.” (97:11)

Goodness is its own reward – sometimes yes, sometimes no. We do get recognized, thanked, and sometimes rewarded for good behavior. But the ideal is to behave with pure, altruistic, goodness for its own sake. Because we are human beings with egos, the Psalmist plants a suggestion that a reward is sown for the righteous. We may not get the spotlight today, but someday, perhaps in the World to Come, we will reap the harvest and be rewarded for the things we have done for others.

Psalm 95

“Come, let us bow down and kneel.” (95:6)

Judaism incorporates some bowing into daily liturgy and a little bit of symbolic not-quite-kneeling. A few times a year, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, traditional Jews take kneeling one step further into full prostration. Excessive bowing has the appearance of false, obsequious, groveling, but careful, judicious, but serious, bowing, is useful to one’s character to remind oneself that no matter how powerful we might feel, that our power is limited. We bow to show our humility before God, and we bow to remind ourselves to behave with humility before others

Psalm 54

“Adonai, who supports my life.” (54:6)

The human body, or any living system, plant or animal, is a miracle of complexity. Whether by evolution or by the word of God, life is a wonder. The individual life-form, from its cellular level functions to its large-scale interaction with its environment, has to function nearly perfectly in order to survive. I choose to express my gratitude for my existence to a God who created me and infused me with a life-force and sustaining energy. When the time comes for my life to end, I will gratefully return both my physical and metaphysical being to the Creator.

Divre Harav – April, 2017

In the third and final part of the first mishnah of chapter two of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says:

“And watch out for three things, so you will not come into the clutches of transgression – know what is above you: (1) An eye which sees, and (2) an ear which hears, and (3) a book, in which all your actions are written down.” Pirke Avot 2:1

Above our ark in the sanctuary we have the words, Da lifnei mi ata omed, “Know Before Whom You Stand.” While the source for this statement in Talmudic source is in the plural (B’rachot 28b), as if speaking to the congregation as a whole, it is commonly found at the front of Sanctuaries in the singular, parallel to the grammar of Rabbi Yehudah’s warning, “know what is above you.”

Is God really continually spying on us? Are our private lives being monitored by someone other than the NSA?

I don’t have a definitive answer to this, because it depends on whether we are speaking about the world of literal truth or metaphorical truth. Literally, God has no eyes, no ears, and no hands with which to write down our every error, sin, and transgression. Metaphorically, God has all of those sensory organs and appendages. Literally, God is not monitoring and recording our every action. Metaphorically, God is doing just that.

Why has our tradition created such a metaphor? In what way it is useful in helping us to become a faithful people of God and Torah? The answer is obvious, but problematic. If we live our lives as if we are being graded — and the grades count — then we will be careful to behave in better ways. If we believe that God is paying attention, then we will communicate with each other kindly, gently, and with empathy.

What is problematic about behaving ourselves and acting like good people, you might ask However useful this metaphor might be, we should remember that it is only a metaphor, not literal truth, because our goal ought to be higher than just behaving like good people. My High School science teacher had a poster on his walls, which said something like, “The mark of a truly good person is what he does when he knows no one is watching.” When we reach the level of character development of which we can say, I know that no one, including God, will know if I take this ethical shortcut, post this anonymous unkind comment, sneak into this movie, but I am not going to do it anyway, then we will have become true mensches.

Now, regarding the question of whether the NSA is actually spying on us or just metaphorically spying on us, that I can’t answer either. I’ve already said too much, and they might be listening!

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • • ayin – eye
  • • ozen – ear
  • • peh – mouth
  • • af – nose
  • • mah’shava – thought
  • • da’at – awareness