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.

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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.

Psalm 94

“Rise up, judge of the earth.” (94:2)

To call upon God to judge and punish the guilt and exonerate the innocent is not to abrogate our responsibility to support a just society. However, the teaching from Pirke Avot (1:6), “Judge every person with the assumption of merit,” the Rabbinic equivalent of of the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” ought to rein in our zeal to condemn and punish. When you are angry because you think someone perpetrated an injustice against you, imagine yourself in their place before judging them (Pirke Avot 2:4). Ask yourself: might you be misreading their intent or lack thereof? Might they be distracted by a stressful situation unknown to you?

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

Divre Harav – March, 2017

Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says, “Calculate the loss incurred in doing a mitzvah against the reward, and the reward for committing a transgression against the loss for doing it.” Pirke Avot 2:1

A set of four of Rabbi Yehudah’s aphorisms open chapter two of Pirke Avot. This one immediately follows the caution to treat all mitzvot seriously, because we don’t know the relative reward values of mitzvot (I wrote about this in my article last month – you can find it archived at AhavasIsraelGR.org or, along with all of my writings, at EmbodiedTorah.com). Now we are being told to take into account that there is in fact a reward for doing mitzvot and a penalty for committing sins. Even though we don’t know how much that reward or penalty might be, Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi implies that it is substantially more than the loss or gain incurred by doing the mitzvah or engaging in the sinful behavior.

Focusing on mitzvot first, Rabbi is up front about the fact that there is a cost involved in doing a mitzvah. Doing a mitzvah takes time and some mitzvot cost money as well. He doesn’t hide the fact that living a Jewish life is not always easy. Waking up early to get to the synagogue for minyan takes effort. There is a cost to build a Sukkah, purchase a lulav and etrog, buy kosher meat, give tzedakah, or take time off for the Jewish holidays. We might quantify the reward in terms of the greater happiness at living a life infused with celebrations and the observance of God’s Torah, or greater satisfaction at living a live of meaning and service to others, or we might classify the benefit as the unquantifiable delight of a greater reward in the World to Come.

Turning to the punishment for sin, Rabbi seems to assumes that no one would commit a sin if there were not some gain in doing so. While there are some mean and nasty people who torment others simply for the sheer joy of it, most transgressive acts have a tangible benefit. Theft, fraud, embezzlement, misappropriation of intellectual property, or adultery are all way to describe stealing something that does not belong to you. Assault and murder and even simply telling a lie are typically ancillary to robbery or protection against monetary loss or loss of reputation leading to financial loss. Although Bob Woodward never uttered  the words “Follow the money” outside of the movie “All the President’s Men,” the idea behind this journalist’s creed unraveled Watergate.

So Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi warns us that the short term financial gain of a sin is outweighed by either the loss of freedom should you get caught or the long term damage in the World to Come; and the short term cost in time and money and effort of doing a mitzvah is outweighed by its long term benefits. Can I prove this to you? No! But you can help me answer a question regarding the benefit gained from the time I spend writing these columns — ‘How many people read to the end?’ If you’ve gotten this far, send me an email or leave me a phone message with your name and the word “lottery” in it. You’ll help me disprove the hypothesis that I’m the only one who reads what I write! All who participate will be entered into a lottery for $20 worth of scrip of their choice. The winner will be announced on the occasion of the Festival of Lotteries, Purim, March 11.

 

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • payis – lottery
  • mif’al hapayis – The name of the Israeli national lottery
  • goral – fate
  • hargalah – raffle, lottery
  • mispar hahazak – power number