Sunday, May 21, 2023

Avot 4:17: The Gift of Presence

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: “Do not appease your fellow in the time of their anger or comfort them when their dead lie before them.”  

It can be awkward and confounding to be fully present for our friends, family, and community members during their times of profound upset and loss. Even when we approach with the best of intentions, our responses all too easily fall short.  Too often, knowingly or unwittingly, our words and actions reflect our own anxieties rather than our fellows’ needs.  Out of our discomfort with their rage, we may urge them to “calm down.”  Ill at ease with their grief, we may offer trite reassurance.

Hence the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazaar’s teaching.  He reminds us that when we encounter others suffering, the best thing we can offer is our full, loving, quiet, non-judgmental presence. Instead of trying to “do something” we can simply be there with them in their anger or sorrow.  When words fall short, the act of being open and attentive can speak to the heart.

After time passes, there may be opportunity to share words of understanding and consolation.  But in the throes of anger and the depths of despair, it is wise to guard our tongues. 

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Avot 4:4 Embracing Death--and Life

Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said:Be humble of spirit, for the anticipated end of mortal humans is worms.”  

In his landmark 1973 book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker taught that many of our most profound personal and cultural ills are a result of our inability to come to terms with our mortality.  Instead of recognizing our impermanence, we fill our lives with distractions that offer temporary comfort at the expense of long-term growth.  Becker wrote: “Modern man [sic] is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.”  

Fifty years later, Becker’s premise rings even more true.  The overlords of Silicon Valley are famously obsessed with immortality, and our embrace of their technology renders us complicit in that destructive pipe-dream.  Now, more than ever, our denial of death is, in fact, a deep diminishment of life.  Instead of mustering courage, we surrender to our fear.  

For Ernest Becker, the path toward a meaningful life begins with acknowledging that “to live fully is to live with an awareness of the terror that underlies everything.”  So, too, Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh taught this truth two thousand years ago.  In reminding us of our ultimate end—worms—he affirms the Torah’s core wisdom of ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  A good life embraces our fleeting frailty as the impetus to make the most of the time we’re given.  To be born is to die.  If we run from that reality, we fritter away our days worshiping petty, false gods that tempt us with empty promises.  When we accept and affirm it, however briefly, we shine.

For a gorgeous musical meditation on this theme of mortality, listen to “Change” by Big Thief:

Change like the wind
Like the water, like skin
Change like the sky
Like the leaves, like a butterfly

Would you live forever, never die
While everything around passes?
Would you smile forever, never cry?
While everything you know passes?

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Avot 3:12: Knowledge and Virtue

Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa used to say: Anyone whose good deeds exceed their wisdom, their wisdom will endure.  But anyone whose wisdom exceeds their good deeds, their wisdom will not endure.

Our Jewish tradition is in love with learning.  For many centuries, when most of the world was illiterate, Jews valued literacy as an essential pre-requisite for both prayer and Torah study.  It is no accident that our Muslim neighbors named us “the People of the Book.”  This was especially true for the Talmudic Rabbis cited in Pirkei Avot, whose lives were grounded, first and foremost, on a foundation of lifelong learning.

But for all their emphasis on rigorous study, our Sages recognized that it does not always lead to ethical behavior.  Despite Socrates’ famous claim to the contrary, knowledge and virtue are not synonymous.  Learning is amoral—its virtuosity (or lack thereof) depends entirely on how it is applied.

As we commemorate Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Memorial Day—this week, it is important to remember that the Shoah was perpetrated by what many considered to be the most cultured nation in Europe.  Germany dominated academics and the arts, producing leading lights among philosophers, scientists, painters, composers, writers, filmmakers, and public intellectuals.  Yet many of these brilliant minds ultimately conspired with Nazism.  As Dr. Robert Jay Lifton wrote in his essential book, The Nazi Doctors: “An Auschwitz doctor could not only kill and contribute to killing but organize silently on behalf of that evil project. . . .”

In his later years, Abraham Joshua Heschel—a refugee from Nazi Germany who was both an extraordinary intellectual prodigy and a prophetic social justice exemplar—wrote: “When I was young, I admired clever people.  Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

As Rabbi Chanina recognized so long ago, wisdom without good deeds does not endure.

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Pesach 5783: Out of Narrowness, Toward the Promised Land

Haggadah: In every generation, it is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves as if we went out of Egypt

Along the journey of the Passover seder, there are many favorite milestones: the four questions, hiding and searching for the afikomen, singing Dayenu, recounting the plagues, playing the four children, opening the door for Elijah, singing “Who Knows One?” and “Chad Gadya”, the opening invitation Let all who are hungry come and eat and the closing Next year in Jerusalem!  And, of course, the four cups of wine and the festive meal.  All those moments—and many more—form memorable chapters in our freedom story.

Yet I believe the most important line in the Haggadah, which speaks to the essence of the Pesach experience, is this: In every generation, it is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves as if we went of Egypt/Mitzrayim.

For all of our tradition’s emphasis on honoring our past, this passage reminds us that, contrary to what many of us are taught, Passover is not about recalling what [may have] happened to our ancestors 3500 years ago—it is, instead, about our own lives, here and now.  The mitzvah at the heart of the holiday is not to remember our national history but to re-experience it every year as a timely call to renewal and liberation for ourselves and our communities.  The Holy One challenges each of us to reflect upon what enslaves us, individually and communally, and find ways to free ourselves from those burdens.  The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means “a narrow place.”  This spring festival of deliverance is the season to open our hearts and broaden our horizons, to do our part to move ourselves and our world a little closer to the Promised Land and its embodiment of justice, compassion, hope and peace.  In a time and place that is so often filled with narrow bigotries and hard-hearted attacks on the most vulnerable among us, let us draw upon this alternative vision and begin to lead the way toward its realization.

Chag Sameach!

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Avot 3:2 The Role of Government

Rabbi Chanina used to say: Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, people swallow each other alive.

Over the past few weeks, our passages from Avot have emphasized the importance of individual acts of justice and compassion.  Our deeds and choices matter.  Even if their impact seems small, we are obligated to do our part—Although is not incumbent upon us to finish the work, neither are we free to desist from it.  But there are many systemic inequities that individuals cannot right on their own. There can be no justice without the exercise of governmental power.

Rabbi Chanina had ample reason to loathe the government.  During his lifetime, Roman authorities brutally tortured and killed scores of Jewish teachers (including, by some accounts, Rabbi Chanina himself).  Yet he ardently urged his students to honor and even pray on behalf of the regime.  Why?  Because Chanina knew that as bad as things were under Roman rule, without a strong central government, life would be even worse.  He teaches us that human culture cannot thrive without some form of ruling authority capable of preventing the powerful from devouring the weak.  His legacy endures: Jewish communities worldwide still offer prayers on behalf of their governments every Shabbat morning.  

Two millennia later, Rabbi Chanina’s wisdom is more essential than ever.  Today’s far-right politicians espouse a “starve the beast” strategy, slashing taxes for billionaires and mega-corporations in order to deprive the government of the revenue it needs to provide the rest of the population with core social services like Medicaid and Medicare, Social Security, and public education.  As one of their key strategists, Grover Norquist, famously said, “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”  Here in our state, the Idaho Freedom Foundation follows the same model.

Rabbi Chanina recognized the peril of radical anti-government ideologies.  So, too, even earlier, did the authors of the Hebrew Bible.  The book of Judges presents a terrifying picture of society without governmental oversight.  Tribes slaughter one another, theft and lawlessness run rampant.  The text sums up this sad state in just one line: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; every person did what was right in their own eyes.”

Unless we reverse course, this is where we are headed.  May we heed Rabbi Chanina’s wise words and foster healthy respect for a strong and fair government that serves all its citizens, securing justice when the mighty would otherwise tyrannize the vulnerable. 

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Avot 2:17 Economic Justice

Avot 2:17Rabbi Yosei says: Let your fellow’s money be as dear to you as your own.

In most capitalist economic systems, the guiding ethic for transactions is to secure the best possible deal.  The goal of both buyers and sellers is to make (or save) as much money as they can, even if it means taking advantage of the other party.  For example, a successful merchant aims to sell at the highest price the market will bear.  On the other side, if someone shopping at a yard sale recognizes that a painting in the dollar bin is actually a lost masterpiece, our culture applauds their ability to use their savvy to make an enormous profit.

Jewish law does not work this way.  For us, commerce should be guided by justice.  While merchants are entitled to fair profits, they must not exploit their buyers.  And our shrewd yard sale shopper is required to tell the seller the true value of the painting rather than getting it for a “steal”—because failure to disclose takes advantage of another’s ignorance.  Leviticus teaches: “You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind”—which the Rabbis understand as blind in the matter at hand.

Rabbi Yosei boils this down to one line: “Let your fellow’s money be as dear to you as your own.”  When your outsized profit comes at another’s expense, it is, by definition, unethical.

This is profoundly counter-cultural in 21st century America—which is all the more reason to heed the words.  Unfettered market capitalism is inhumane.  Our tradition demands better.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Avot 2:15: Repent a Day Before You Die

Avot 2:15Rabbi Eliezer says. . . “Repent one day before your death.”

Rabbi Eliezer’s statement emphasizes the importance of teshuvah, of acknowledging our mistakes, making amends, and resolving to do better.  Most of us are familiar with teshuvah--repentance or return--as the central theme of the Days of Awe, running from the beginning of the month of Elul through Rosh Hashanah and concluding with Yom Kippur.  But while that sacred season may place extra emphasis on this process, the Rabbis are quick to note that the mitzvah of teshuvah applies every day of the year.  The Amidah prayer, which is traditionally recited thrice daily, invokes God’s assistance in this endeavor: Cause us to return, and bring us back in whole-hearted repentance.

Rabbi Eliezer’s maxim—Repent one day before your death—raises the obvious difficulty: Except in rare circumstances, we don’t know when we’re going to die.  This, of course, is precisely the point.  As Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz writes:

We must be in a continual state of self-repair to ensure that we are all doing all we can to improve ourselves, our relationships, and the state of the world.  Each day we repent for our mistakes and resolve them.  Each day, we strive to fortify the personal intent and strategic rigor to actualize our unique potential.  

To be a mensch is to recognize that we are all works-in-progress, to continue to learn and grow a little bit every day until we meet our inevitable demise.  Or, as Bob Dylan reminded us, anyone not busy being born is busy dying.