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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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 – 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.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – December, 2017

Hillel says, “Do not separate from the community – do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death and do not judge your fellow until you are in their place. Pirke Avot 2:5a

Protestants are famous for disagreeing and forming new denominations. Jews are just as disagreeable, but tend merely to form new synagogues rather than new movements. Apparently, this is not a new phenomenon. Hillel, a first century BCE pre-rabbinic figure, cautioned people of his generation not to fracture the community. He then gives two specific warnings against behaviors that would lead people to separate from others in their community.

First, don’t be too sure that you are right and the other person is wrong. Don’t stake your participation in the community or your relationship with that individual on your correctness. Have the humility to open yourself up to the possibility that the opposite is true, that you are wrong and the opposing opinion is correct. It will not be until you have passed away and are called before the Holy Blessed One, the Supreme Judge, that you will know the whole truth of the matter.

Second, you might think the other person is dead wrong and be tempted to withdraw from the relationship. However, because you are not omniscient, you don’t know what led your fellow to make certain decisions and to choose a particular path. Were you in his or her shoes, you might have chosen to make the same set of decisions. Therefore, do not so quick to disconnect either with that person or with a community of people who make decisions that you do not fully understand.

Hillel was a strong proponent of remaining in relationship and learning from people who are different from you. He would be deeply disappointed at the degree to which our society is broken into segments who only read or listen to news that confirms what they already believe, and associate only with people of a like mind.

Don’t separate from the community even when remaining in the community is challenging, because that’s precisely when you have the most to learn and others have the most to learn from you. Be humble and non-judgemental and remain in the community with the goal of enriching yourself. For Hillel and for us, Judaism is not a religion to be practiced alone in one’s home. The concept of minyan urges us to pray in community, not because God hears communal prayers better than solo voices, but because we are more powerfully transformed by prayer when we are not alone.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

Common “first” names of synagogues:

  • Aidah (or Adat) – Congregation, (Congregation of …)
  • Kehillah (or Kehillat) – Congregation (Congregation of …)
  • Kahal (K’hal) – Congregation (Congregation of …)
  • Agudah (Agudat) – Congregation (Congregation of …)
  • Beit (often transliterated Beth) – House of …
  • B’nai – children of …
  • Anshei – People of …
  • Mishkan – Temple