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

Psalm 28

“Pay them according to their deeds.” (28:4)

Reward and punishment do not always work out perfectly. Sometimes, good people do not prosper and evil people do not suffer. However, most of the time, in the long run, goodness is recognized. People are attracted to good people. They will have better and deeper friendships. Good people will tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. Truly good people do not do good things because of recognition or reward. Goodness is not a tool to be used as a means to get something. Good deeds are an end unto themselves.

Psalm 26

“I walk about in your faithfulness.” (26:3)

Trust is what allows society to function effectively. Retail stores, religious institutions, and places of entertainment may take precautions against miscreants, but for the most part they trust that people will follow the rules and not be destructive. A goal of terrorism is to undermine a society by making us afraid to shop or assemble in places of entertainment or worship. Terror destroys trust in our fellow human beings. “Innocent until proven guilty” is replaced by deep suspicion and mistrust. Rather than seeing a potential enemy in every encounter, let us see a human being created in the image of God.

Psalm 21

“You have set upon his head a crown of fine gold.” (21:4)

We might understand the function of a kippah to be a mark of identification as a Jew and a reminder to the wearer of his or her Jewish responsibilities. A gold crown is a kippah, a thousand times heavier. Every person wears a crown denoting him or her as a being created in the image of God. It’s the ultimate participation trophy, with a twist. The crown is a weighty burden that functions as a constant reminder to live up to the responsibility and privilege of being human.

Psalm 20

“May God grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill your every plan.” (20:5)

Is this a blessing or a curse? We want a lot of things, but not everything our heart desires is actually good for us or for the world. We make plans that fail when our desire overreaches our ability to ensure success. Sometimes, the best thing that can happen to us is to be reminded that our plans and our heart’s desires are not enduring, forcing us to take a second look at the priorities in our lives. May your heart’s desire and your every plan be aligned with your very best God-given potential.