Divre Harav – February, 2017

Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says, “Be as cautious in a minor mitzvah as in a major one, for you do not know what reward comes for a mitzvah.” Pirke Avot 2:1

I suspect that few of us believe that we receive a tangible, quantifiable, reward for doing mitzvot. I’m not talking about a sense of accomplishment or a sense of satisfaction, but some actual benefit, whether it be finding a better or quicker place in heaven after we die or receiving a material benefit on earth. Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, religious leader of the rabbis of his generation and the editor of the Mishnah, alludes to a widespread believe that the performance of mitzvot carry a reward. However, he downplays this belief. The reward does not necessarily correspond to the act, he says. We should treat all religious behavior as is equally important, whether it be lighting Shabbat candles, putting on tefillin, fasting on Yom Kippur, or feeding the hungry.

The Talmud’s description of the process of conversion to Judaism describes teaching the potential convert some of the major and minor mitzvot, warning him of the punishment for disobeying and describing in general terms the reward of the world to come for the righteous. If he accepts the obligations of Torah, they circumcise him and as soon as possible, immerse him in a mikvah while teaching him some major and minor mitzvot (again). Women are taught major and minor mitzvot while standing in the mikvah, and then immerse. The Talmud never precisely defines a major mitzvah vs. a minor mitzvah, here too assumes that there is a reward for observance, but declines to define the reward.

The “Butterfly Effect,” a tem coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz, is named for the idea that the path and severity of a hurricane could be influenced by minor disturbances in the air such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. Lorenz discovered that when modeling weather, small actions can have very large effects. The same idea holds within the social model of a community, local, regional, national, or beyond. We never know how the smallest actions we take might effect larger consequences. Our actions on a small scale might influence others in ways we never anticipated.

Rabbi Yehudah’s message is that all of our actions have significance. We should never think of our lives as inconsequential. At the same time, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that we can manipulate events for our benefit. Ultimately, we are called upon to be holy people and bring holiness into the world through our actions, large and small; to be good, without the expectation of being recognized or rewarded.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kal – easy; light; facile

Kal has three opposites, depending on the precise meaning:

  • Kasheh – difficult
  • Kaved – heavy
  • Hamur – serious

Divre Harav – January, 2017

The Mishnah of Pirke Avot is often translated as “Ethics of our Fathers” which describes the content of the Mishnah, but has nothing to do with its Hebrew title. A Perek is a chapter, and Avot are “fathers,” but the word is used in Rabbinic literature to refer to primary or fundamental categories. Thus, my teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Zahavy, translated the title of this tractate as “Chapters of Principles.” Most of Pirke Avot is a list of rabbis from the period of the Mishnah and Gemarah and a favorite saying of each one, naming a fundamental principle in which they believe.

Chapter two begins with the editor of the Mishnah, Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi]. He says, “What is the upright path which a person should choose for oneself? Whatever brings honor to one’s maker and honor from one’s fellow human beings.” Pirke Avot 2:1

Rabbi Yehudah’s question is the fundamental question we should think about when we get up in the morning and before we engage in any behavior that affects other people. If you are known to be Jewish, a person of faith, then you need to be aware that anything you do, good or bad, will be associated with Judaism and the “Jewish God.“ How am I going to behave today, what am I going to do that which will reflects well on God, what can I do today to increase people’s respect for Jews and Judaism? How will my behavior cause other people to respond to me? Will their respect and admiration for me increase or decrease if I take this action?

For example, before sending an email, or before speaking your mind in public, ask yourself – will this honor God, and how will this make people think of me. We live in a world today in which communication is lightning fast and this creates an expectation of an equally speedy response. This may means that we answer with very little thought, without having thoroughly read or carefully considered the question. Rabbi Yehudah’s question encourages us to slow down and think before answering, and consider whether our response brings honor to our maker and enhances our reputation among our fellow human beings.

Another example: I deal weekly with a set of people who read my Mlive.com Ethics and Religion Talk column and post comments. Some of them use a real name, some have corresponded with me privately so I know who they are, but most are anonymous. Perhaps this increases their inclination to use insulting or degrading language, or make outlandishly false claims against a position they disagree with. I have noticed that websites which require registration and verified real names tend to have a higher level of discourse than those who permit anonymity. If I don’t know who you are, you are able to cast insults without worrying that your reputation will be damaged. Rabbi Yehudah’s question should encourage each of us to pause before hitting the ‘submit’ button when we post on social media, and consider whether our response brings honor to our maker and enhances our reputation among our fellow human beings, whether they know our name or not.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Mishnah – A second century Rabbinic expansion of the Jewish law and ethics of Torah.
  • Gemarah – a third to sixth century discussion and expansion of the Mishnah.
  • Talmud – The volumes in which Mishnah and Gemarah are published together.
  • Masekhet – One of the 63 tractates of the Mishnah.

Psalm 149

For Adonai takes pleasure in God’s people (149:4)

The Yiddish word for this kind of pleasure is Nahas, coming from the Hebrew Nahat. Although this is not the Hebrew word used in the Psalm, it reminds me of the Yiddish expression, sheppen nahas fun kinder, deriving pleasure from the mere existence of children. Of course, if the children misbehave, refuse to leave the nest and get a job, or get arrested, we’re no longer sheppen nahas! But when they bring home artwork that only a mother could love, work their hardest and struggle to meet expectations, or celebrate Bar/Bat Mitzvah or graduations, the accomplishment itself is a delight.

I imagine that God takes pleasure when we try. We make mistakes and don’t always succeed and often need help. But as long as we put forth the effort, learning and growing over the course of our lives, God is proud of us because we are God’s children. A midrash imagines the questions God will ask us at the entrance to the world to come. I understand the questions as “Have you fulfilled your personal potential, have you been the best version of you, have you done the things in this world that you alone were created to do?”

We will fall short. We will leave things undone. But Pirke Avot (2:16) teaches that we don’t need to finish the work, we only need to make our contribution.

“[Rabbi Tarfon] would say, “It’s not your job to finish the work, but you’re not free to walk away from it.”

Psalm 148

God establishes a law and does not violate it. (148:6)

Every morning when I read this Psalm this verse catches my attention. It suggests that God is self-limiting. God created a world in which apples predictably fall down and skilled pitchers can throw a baseball with a certain spin to make it make it curve over the plate and we can take a walk without worrying that that there will be a temporary gravity outage and we, along with our atmosphere, will drift off into space. We can rely on predicable and repeatable chemicals reactions so our medications function reliably and our bread rises and bakes golden brown. Our physical world functions according to unchanging rules because God created it that way. From the first moment after the cosmic bang or the Divine word saying “Let there be light,” time moved at a steady pace and the physical matter of the universe coalesced and cooled and condensed in order to provide energy and material for life.

Pirke Avot (5:6) teaches that God built certain miracles into the fabric of the world during the first week of creation.

Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they:

(1) the mouth of the earth [Num. 16:32]; (2) the mouth of the well [Num. 21:16-18]; (3) the mouth of the ass [Num. 22:28]; (4) the rainbow [Gen. 9:13]; (5) the manna [Ex. 16:15]; (6) the rod [Ex. 4:17]; (7) the Shamir [a worm which cut blocks of stone so iron tools were not needed, cf. Deut. 27:5, I Kings 6:7]; (8) the letters, (9) writing, (10) and tablets [of the ten commandments, Ex. 32:15f.].

Without knowing advanced physics, the ancient rabbis instinctively understood that God doesn’t interrupt the natural order willy-nilly and posited that the exceptions to natural law were pre-programmed into creation from the beginning. Assuming that God is an infinite omnipotent creator who can rewrite the code of the world at any time, the Psalmist asserts that for the sake of humanity God agrees to let the world continue to exist by the original set of rules.

If setting limits and abiding by them is a Divine trait, it is also a trait worth emulating.

“Greet everybody cheerfully.”

I spent this past Shabbat (the first of the second month of my Sabbatical) at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El of Highland Park, IL.  The Assistant Rabbi, Michael Schwab, led a brief study session on Pirke Avot after Shabbat Minha.

‏“אֱמוֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה וֶהֱוֵוי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת”‎

“Shammai said:  … Say little and do much; “Greet everybody cheerfully” (Avot 1:15)

Rabbi Schwab observed that Shammai’s directive is an important part of how we embody Torah.  First of all, an embodied Torah is a Torah of action.  Whether we’re talking about ritual or ethical mitzvot, our Torah is expressed with our bodies.  Shammai encourages us to spend more time engaged in the action of Torah, and less time engaged in non-Torah talk.  Second, Shammai saw every human interaction as the opening up of a moment of opportunity to affect another person.  It doesn’t take many words — just a smile and perhaps the person’s name brings warmth and joy into the world.  What better way to embody Torah!