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.
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Divre Harav – January/2018

Hillel says, “Do not say that something is impossible to understand, because ultimately you will understand; and do not say when I have time I will study, lest you are never have time.” Pirke Avot 2:5b

When my children were young, it would occasionally happen that they had a school assignment that was particularly difficult for them and after a few minutes of struggling to figure it out, they would give up. I had to teach them persistence – that there is value in the struggle, that hard work and time will usually elicit results.

Let’s agree up front that there are some things that are beyond our ability to solve. A person drawn to a career in business or educated in liberal arts will probably never be capable of solving problems of mathematical topography or theoretical physics. But a good teacher should be able to explain it to me so that I can understand the principle behind very complicated math or physics.

In most areas of learning, if we put in enough time and effort, we can figure it out and reach a level of understanding. But it isn’t easy. It easier to put it away until later and turn on the football game, kill some virtual invaders, or escape into someone else’s reality. Procrastination is an insidious affliction. If we’re tired, who can argue if we want to take a break? We’ll finish the project later. But when we walk away, unless we have a specific time when we’ve committed to return, there’s always something to distract us and keep us from coming back.

Hillel understood the nature of procrastination, and that’s why he urged us to set time aside at regular intervals to study. I have a weekly Hevruta with a rabbi from Denver. We have set aside an hour on Wednesday mornings to learn together, and I also set aside time earlier in the week to prepare for our learning. Because it is a near-sacred hour on my calendar, only to be moved when it is unavoidable, I rarely miss a week. Part of the power of Hevruta learning is that he is counting on me and I am counting on him. So I can’t just cancel on a whim because I don’t want to disapoint my friend. An additional benefit to Hevruta learning is the chance to learn from someone different than oneself. I study with a Reconstructionist rabbi. We’re approximately the same age, but his rabbinical training and career experience are completely different than mine, and so too the lessons he bring out of the text we study together are different than the lessons I learn.

Talmud Torah is a mitzvah, learning Torah is one of the sacred obligations of a Jewish life. The goal of our Beit Midrash dinners is to encourage you to engage yourself in this mitzvah, to spend some time studying, and to give you the opportunity to experience Hevruta study. The next dinner is scheduled for Monday night, January 22. You must RSVP to attend, to me at Rabbi@AhavasIsraelGR.org or 949-2840. I hope to see you here.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Hevruta – a study partner
  • Limmud – study
  • Talmud Torah – Torah study; sometimes, an institution of Torah study
  • Torah Lishma – learning for its own sake, as opposed to learning for practical use
  • Beit Midrash – Place of study.

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

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.

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.