Divre Harav – November/2017

[Rabban Gamliel says,], “Make God’s will into your will, so that God will make your will into his will. Nullify your will on account of his will, so that he will nullify the will of others for you.” Pirke Avot 2:4

Rabban Gamliel may be responding to the teaching of a sage from generations earlier, Antigonus of Sokho, who said, “Do not be like servants who serve the master in order to get a reward, but rather be like servants who serve the master with no expectation of reward.” [Pirke Avot 1:3] One proposes altruism as the guiding value, and the other proposes utilitarianism as the guiding value.

Although both sages are speaking of our relationship with God and attitude towards doing mitzvot, I suggest that part of the purpose of mitzvot bein adam la’Makom, mitzvot directed towards God, is to teach us the best way to behave towards our fellow human beings, other creatures, and the environment in which we live. Therefore, the ideal that Antigonus presents, that of a life of pure altruism, could also apply to doing acts of love for other people without expectation of reward. While a beautiful philosophy, it is not realistic. Most of us, much of the time, expect that when we do something for someone, that we will get something out of it. Perhaps it makes us feel good to help others. Perhaps we hope that we’ll get a favor back in return someday. Perhaps we hope that going above and beyond and treating customers well will result in more business in the future.

So Rabban Gamliel responds with his instructions for how to behave towards someone you love. If they have a desire, you should have the same desire. And there is nothing wrong with hoping that when you want something, that the person you love will want the same thing. The same thing applies to things that we don’t want – we want the person we love not to want them either. He suggests a very practical, utilitarian, philosophy. I’ll scratch your back because I want you to scratch mine.

There are problems with both philosophies. As I suggested, it is very difficult to maintain pure altruism, and holding this as an ideal discourages expressing of gratitude. By this, I mean that if I believe that your motivation ought to be pure, then I also might believe that you neither want nor need thanks or recognition for what you do for me. And regarding Rabban Gamliel’s approach, it is unreasonable to expect that two individuals (or a human being and God) can ever be so closely aligned that we get everything we want from the other.

The teaching texts of Judaism include both sages because life is a mixture of both philosophies. Sometimes, we do things for others because we know it is the right thing to do or because we love them, and sometimes we do things because we want or expect something in return. As in so many other areas of ethics, the goal is to find balance in the golden mean.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Makom – place. Also, a name for God, probably derived from the association of God with a sacred place like the Temple.
  • Ha-Kadosh, barukh hu – “The blessed Holiness,” more often translated as “the blessed Holy One.” Some scholars believe that the original form of this appellation for God was Ha-Kodesh, barukh hu. Kodesh is a participial noun, referring to the place of holiness, the Temple.
  • Ratzon – will or desire.
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Psalm 125

“Do good … to the good.” (125:4)

It ought to be self-evident that we should treat good people with kindness. But shouldn’t we go a step further? We should treat people well even if we don’t know whether or not they are good. And once we’ve established this, why stop there? We should treat people with kindness even if it appears they are selfish and don’t care about others, following the principle of dan l’khaf zekhut, judging people favorably. Just because they appear not to care doesn’t mean that there isn’t a reasonable justification for their behavior. So — “do good to the good and the apparently no-so-good alike,” and we will be better people for doing so.

Divre Harav – October/17

[Rabban Gamliel says,] “Be wary of the authorities, for they get friendly with a person only when it serves their needs. They look like friends when it is to their benefit, but they do not stand by a person in an hour of need.” Pirke Avot 2:3

By nature, I am not a cynical person. I am trusting, some might say naïve, and always believe the best of individual, institutions, business, and corporations. I am the polar opposite of Rabban Gamliel. He lived in the 2nd century under an oppressive totalitarian Roman government. He had no reason to trust that the authorities were making decisions in his best interest. I live in a representative democracy which for 241 years and counting is evolving into a country which honors and protects each of its citizens. I do not deny that our country has not always gotten it right. Its record of protecting non-white and non-Christian residents is not spotless. But I believe that the trajectory is headed in the right direction.

It seems to me that this is the proper Jewish approach. The world is not perfect but each generation can bring it closer to where it ought to be. And in each generation there are astoundingly good people whose merit saves the world. We call them the Lamed-Vav’niks, the 36 righteous people upon whom the existence of the world depends.

Happiness surveys show that traditionally religious people are happier than purely secular people. This is typically ascribed to the fact that religions which believe in a messianic era or an end-of-times are inherently optimistic, believing that it is possible to achieve perfection of human nature. Secular people pride themselves on realism and are more likely to see no reason that human nature or society is improving. When you believe that you are stuck in an infinite destructive loop, there is no reason to be happy. When you believe that things will get better, you have reason to be happy.

Therefore, I am proud of my country and the way that it stands by its citizens in their time of need, as through welfare and healthcare programs, the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or the life saving actions of the National Guard and the Coast Guard. I embrace my non-cynical naïveté and continually search for and see the good in everything and everyone.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Lamed-Vav – The Hebrew letters which stand for the numbers 30 and 6, respectively.
  • Emunah – faith
  • Amen – I agree (from the same root as emunah)
  • Imun – Training, Coaching. Also the name of a much loved but discontinued USCJ program to teach synagogue skills such as Torah/Haftarah reading and leading services to lay leaders.

Psalm 108

“Human help is worthless.” (108:13)

Pirke Avot teaches, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Everyone goes through periods when they need help. Those who are securely plugged into a community, whether it is a religious community or other kind of social network, have the resources upon whom to call when they need it. Those who isolate themselves from a community because of suspicion, mistrust, bias, or the arrogance of believing that they are strong enough to get by without help, will find themselves at a loss when they realize that can’t do it alone. Trust Pirke Avot.

Divre Harav – September/17

Rabban Gamaliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, says, “All who serve the public should serve them for the sake of Heaven. The merit of their ancestors helps them so that their righteous deeds will endure forever. [And God will say] ‘As for you, I credit you with a great reward, as if you had done [the work].’ ” Pirke Avot 2:2b

As an ideal, engaging in public service, whether for a congregation, a civic organization, or a government, is an act that ought to be done out of love of God rather than out of a desire to benefit. I don’t know what Rabban Gamliel would say about those who are paid to serve the public, but I imagine that he might allow it on the grounds that the public or non-profit sector can only attract competent talent by paying a competitive salary. Otherwise, only a very small class of people could afford to serve; the rest of us have to earn money to support ourselves and our families.

Nonetheless, to be most satisfied, a person has to be primarily devoted to serving the mission of the organization rather than the paycheck. You are happiest when do what you do because you love the work that your organization does, not because you love the bump in your bank account every two weeks. To be fair, this is also true when you work for a small business or a large corporation. If you believe in the product that your job helps to produce, you will be more effective than if you are working only for the money.

Next, Rabban Gamliel reminds us to be grateful to those who came before us. Our parents, who taught us a diligent work ethic. Those who helped build the company or served the community before us. Be mindful that our world is in a constant state of flux. Companies and communities evolve and adapt or die. However, if we see more and farther than our predecessors, it is not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature [attributed to 12th century Bernard of Chartres]. Our community and our economy exist because of those who preceded us and built it over hundreds of years.

Finally, Rabban Gamliel reminds us that no matter what role we have in the final product, God credits us with a reward as if we have done all of the work. Owners and managers would do well to keep this in mind. Without the employees who do the menial labor, without the skilled technicians who operate the machinery, without the marketing department and sales force who promote and sell the product, without the finance department who keeps the money flowing in and out, without the customer service department who keeps the customer happy, the product would not exist. A government leader who hoards the credit is going to have many unhappy people working for the city watching as its infrastructure crumbles.

This is a lesson in devotion and dedication, gratitude and acknowledgement of the past, and humility. As we stand before God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we stand with devotion to the teachings of our faith; dedication to the Torah; thanks to God and acknowledgement of the spiritual power of our heritage; and the humility to admit our shortcomings and learn to do better. I wish you a New Year 5778 of goodness and sweetness, may you be written and sealed in the books of life, happiness, and prosperity, and I look forward to greeting you on the holidays.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • L’shana tova tikateivu v’teikhateimu – May you be written and sealed for a good year.
  • Shana Tova – A good year.
  • G’mar Hatima Tova – May you be sealed for goodness.
  • Hag Sameah – A happy holiday.