Divre Harav – September/2018

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai would say, if you have learned much Torah, don’t claim credit for yourself, because it is for this you were created. Pirke Avot 2:9

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai may be talking about Torah study, but his lesson can be easily generalized to a life attitude encompassing humility. When you do something because you are supposed to do it, because it is your job, he suggests that you should not expect a constant stream of praise and recognition for doing it. A bank teller who handles a deposit correctly doesn’t deserve a bonus, although a thank you from the customer is always polite. A teller who processes an unusual transaction or handles a complicated request deserves a bit more credit and a sincere thank you, but still, it’s just part of the job.

Praise, recognition and appreciation should be given out in just the right amount. Too much, and it begins to sound false and lose its value. Not enough, and volunteers and employees feel undervalued. Some schools or sports leagues give out participation awards and each person gets a trophy in order to praise everyone equally. Other schools refrain from recognizing the outstanding students because it might make the less outstanding students feel bad, because it might engender excessive competition, or because the competition itself might be biased in favor of economically privileged students. Rabbi Yohanan takes a different approach, focusing on curbing the individual’s expectation of recognition, cautioning us not to expect praise from others for our achievements, although we ought to graciously accept such praise as given to us. Nothing he says, though, contradicts the idea that we should cultivate a habit of expressing gratitude and praise for the exceptional achievements of others.

Here’s another example within the volunteer world of the synagogue. The chair of our women’s Hevra Kadisha, Geri Hoffman, never likes it when I thank her after she and her committee do their work of preparing a body for burial. She tells me that she doesn’t do it to get thanked, that she and her committee do it because that’s what we as Jews, that’s what we as a synagogue community, are supposed to do. The Hevra Kadisha takes care of those who have passed away because it is a mitzvah. Geri’s attitude is perfectly in line with Rabbi Yohanan’s statement that we not take credit for things we were created to do, as well as the concept that they volunteer to do it because it is a hesed shel emet, the purest form of love, that which we do for someone who cannot express gratitude. 

Nonetheless, I mention Geri because I am grateful for what she and her committee does. I am also grateful for Ed Miller and the men’s Hevra Kadisha. The congregation as a whole needs to know that we have committees which do this perhaps difficult, but critically important, task. Women who want to learn more about volunteering to participate in this mitzvah should contact Geri at 949-6088, and men should contact Ed Miller at 293-6064.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hevra Kadisha – Sacred Society, the name of the who wash and dress bodies for burial.
  • taharah – “purification,” the name of the process of washing a dead body.
  • takhrikhim – the burial shrouds
  • shomer – the person who guards the body from the time of death to burial.

Want to learn modern Hebrew on your own? Download the free Duolingo app (for iOS, Android, and Windows mobile).

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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

Psalm 131

Adonai, my heart is not proud nor my look haughty …. (131:1)

It feels good when people praise me. When I teach or write something that elicits positive feedback, I am proud of myself. I have to remind myself, however, that several of the people who have told me that I am the best teacher they have every learned from, the most compassionate listener, the most useful advisor, have later turned out to have had ulterior motives. Our egos love to be stroked, but the people who do the stroking too often have their own agendas. They want something out of us, so their praise comes with strings attached. The moment we no longer serve their purposes, suddenly we are no longer their teacher, advisor, or confidant.

Cultivating humility means keeping one’s ego in check. The more powerful the leadership position, the more advisors one has, the more vulnerable one is to believing the stories that they tell. Remind yourself that no matter how important others make you feel, in the scope of history among the billions of people on earth, you are just a momentary presence. Within a generation or two or three of your passing, you will be forgotten. If you are lucky, one of your descendants, perhaps sharing your name, will happen upon your grave marker and leave a small stone as a token. But the substance of your life, other than your name or a couple of dates, will be gone.

While you exist, your life can have infinite meaning but do not mistake meaning for transcendent importance. Live your life so that you make a difference, but remember that ultimately, the only one who can make a difference, generation after generation, is God.

A Comment on How Difficult it is to FIGURE THINGS OUT

In the field of Jewish ethics, Reb Simha Bunum suggests a way for the human being to balance humility and self worth:

“Rabbi Bunum said to his disciples: “Everyone must have two pockets, so he can reach into the one or the other, according to his needs. In his right pocket are to the words:’For my sake was the world created,’ and in his left:’ I am earth and ashes.”

Anochi Afar va-efer  (from Gen. 18:27)

and

Bishvili nivra ha-olam (from Sanhedrin 37a)

[from Volume 2 of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, p. 249]

The comic strip “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal,” by Zach Weiner has a slightly more complicated take on the same basic idea: