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/2019

Rabbi Simeon says, “Be meticulous in the recitation of the Shema and the Amidah. When you pray, don’t make your prayer a prescribed routine, but let it be a [plea for] mercy and grace before the Blessed Holy One. As it is said, ‘For God is gracious and merciful, patient and abounding in love, taking pity on evildoers’ (Joel 2:13). Do not regard yourself as an evil person.” Pirke Avot 2:18

There are two main elements of traditional morning (or evening) prayers. The first, the Shema, is not technically prayer. Rather, it is the recitation of three Biblical passages whose function is to first accept God’s authority over our lives; second, to accept the obligation of mitzvot; and third, to use tzitzit as a concrete reminder of mitzvot. To summarize: Love Adonai, your God, with all your heart by listening to God’s commandments and tying tassels to the corners of your garments as a reminder of those mitzvot.

The Amidah is the name for the prayer section of our service, defined as a time when we are speaking directly to God, at least partly with a petitionary agenda. Although our liturgy has a fixed text for the Amidah, Rabbi Simeon’s instructions are to make the words of prayer our own. Put your heart into your prayers, focusing on asking for love, mercy, and grace not just for ourselves, but primarily for others around us. To focus only on our own needs during prayer is not only selfish, but also indicates that we think we have some special deficit that God needs to address. God may take pity on evildoers, but Rabbi Simeon cautions us not to assume that we are one of those evildoers in need of God’s special attention. Thus, most of our prayer should be focused on the needs of others rather than our own.

There has long been tension between fixed liturgy and prayers of the heart, or in Hebrew, between keva and kavanah. Keva describes fixed themes of prayer and can guide us towards non-selfish prayer. Kavanah encourages us to engage in a conversation with God in which we can share our particular burdens and joys. Individual, spontaneous prayer reflects the highs and lows of our spirit in the moment; fixed prayer reflects ongoing self-reflection and the highest ideals and aspirations of our relationship with God’s world.

Finally, the word tefillah connotes some degree of self-reflection. When we prayer, we not only offer petitions for our and the world’s needs, but we also reflect on how well we have done living up to our potential, living fully as one created in the image of God.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Tefillah – Prayer, self-reflection
  • keva – fixed liturgy
  • kavanah – focused direction of thought and prayer

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.

Divre Harav – Summer, 2017

Rabban Gamaliel, son of R. Judah the Patriarch, says, “Torah study is commendable when combined with a profession, for the effort of the two together drives away sin. Torah, when not combined with work, inevitably leads to idleness and sin.”
Pirke Avot 2:2a

Torah should not be confined to a vacuum. It should live out in the world, in the workplace, and in places of entertainment. It is most meaningful when it is integrated into one’s life. To be shut away in the confines of the Beit Midrash (House of Study) is to learn Torah that is never challenged by or applied to the larger world. When the learner takes Torah into the workplace and applies to it his or her life, such Torah teachings deeply affect both the learner and the world around.

Ahavas Israel believes that the best way to promote Jewish continuity is to encourage those who engage in Torah both inside and outside the synagogue. We teach and preach a sophisticated Torah. We encourage our members to expose their children to the power of the Torah for adults by coming to Shabbat services, by having weekly Shabbat meals as a family, by considering kashrut when eating both inside and outside the home, by celebrating Festivals inside and outside the synagogue, and by engaging in acts of gemilut hasadim. Torah best infuses your life when you live according to the values and lessons of Torah, even and especially at those times when it is not convenient or comfortable.

Obviously, not every Ahavas Israel family embraces every action on the list above. But being serious about even just one mitzvah has beneficial results. Here is one example, from a family who came to shul with their children from a young age through high school for two or three Shabbat services a month, 12 months a year, as well as sending the children to religious school through 12th grade. The child chooses a college with a very small Jewish population, a handful of Jewish faculty, but no formal Jewish programming. This young person initiated contact with a Hillel outreach professional and created a Jewish presence by bringing Hillel to campus, and took the initiative to plan and lead a Passover Seder. The is the power of the Torah learned by participation in the Ahavas Israel community.

Another example, from a family who came to Shabbat services weekly, ate weekly Shabbat dinners together, kept kosher, and took advantage of our generous Jewish camp scholarship program. Based on a lesson the children learned in Religious school, they began as teens to keep kosher outside of their home. I participated in the weddings of all the children, in whose kosher homes they are now actively passing along Judaism to their children. The more seriously you take Torah, the more powerful the Torah of the Ahavas Israel community can be.

Want to explore Torah at Ahavas Israel? Start with our new monthly Beit Midrash program. For more information, see the article under “upcoming events.”

 

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Talmud Torah – Torah study
  • Beit Midrash – House of study
  • Derekh Eretz – “the way of the land,” variously translated as proper manners or a profession.
  • Melakhah – creative work, often referring to prohibited labors on Shabbat.
  • Avodah – service or worship, though it an also mean work.

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