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.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Avot 2:5--Always Room for One More

Avot 2:5—Hillel says. . . “Do not separate yourself from the community.

To be Jewish is to be part of a community.  Most of our practices cannot be achieved alone. Only by joining with family (biological and/or chosen), friends, acquaintances, and even strangers can we perform our tradition’s core mitzvot: Jewish learning, spiritual service, and acts of lovingkindness.  Recognizing this truth, Hillel urges us to maintain strong communal ties.

Why do we need this exhortation?  Because, as Hillel recognizes, community will inevitably be difficult.  To join with others is to acknowledge and accept the need for sacrifice, to be willing to not always get your way.  The price we pay for communal benefits is what Rabbi Mordecai describes as “a willingness to be reasonably unhappy.”  Communal life always includes some degree of conflict, and putting up with people you don’t necessarily like.  If we hold out for a community where no one ever insults, offends, or ignores us, we will always end up alone.   

My favorite teaching on this topic comes from Rabbi Harold Kushner’s marvelous book, When All You’ve Wanted Isn’t Enough.  Kushner recounts how, just before Yom Kippur, he runs into an unaffiliated Jew who insists on sharing why he won’t be coming to services: “I tried to get involved in your synagogue but I found it to be full of hypocrites.”  To which Rabbi Kushner is tempted to respond: “True.  But there’s always room for one more.”

Instead, he notes: “A synagogue that only admitted saints would be like a hospital that admitted only healthy people. It would be a lot easier to run, and a more pleasant place to be, but I’m not sure we’d be doing job we’re here to do.”

Community is hard—as all worthwhile endeavors are.  The paradox is that when we are most tempted to separate ourselves from communal life is usually precisely when we most need it.

May we all find and sustain community that both comforts and challenges us.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Avot 1:18 What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Justice and Truth?

Avot 1:18—Shimon ben Gamliel says. . . The world endures on three things: justice, truth, and peace.

Few among us would argue with Shimon’s identification of justice, truth, and peace as foundational virtues.  No one wants to live in a world grounded in inequality, lies, and conflict.  And yet, despite the protestors’ popular mantra, No Justice, No Peace, these core principals are often in tension with one another.  In tractate Sanhedrin, the Talmud concedes, “When there is strict justice, there is no peace, and where there is peace, there is no strict justice.”  Similarly, as Rabbi Yitz Greenberg points out, unvarnished truth is frequently incompatible with peace; in families, friend groups, and workplaces, harmony often demands the propagation of white lies, half-truths, and unspoken realities.  By way of example, when God tells an aging Sarah that she will bear a son, she laughs, declaring this unlikely since her husband is so old.  Yet in recounting this exchange to Abraham, God amends the story, saying that she blamed her own decrepitude rather than his.  From this, our Sages deduce that it is praiseworthy to shade the truth in order to maintain peace within one’s household. 

Another rabbinic parable teaches that before creating humanity, God consulted with four senior angels.  The Angel of Justice said, “Create them, for they will establish justice.  The Angel of Peace retorted, “Do not create them, for they will be in constant strife.”  The Angel of Mercy said, “Create them, for they will perform acts of lovingkindness”—and the Angel of Truth replied, “Do not create them, for they will be full of lies.”  What did God do, given this 2-2 deadlock?  God grabbed the Angel of Truth and hurled him to the earth.  By the time that angel made it back to heaven to protest—thereby fulfilling the teaching, truth shall spring up from the earth—God declared, “It’s too late—I’ve already created them.”

So how do we live with the very real tension between justice, truth, and peace?  We must learn to compromise, to recognize that life always involves tradeoffs, and remember that different contexts call for different responses.  The pursuit of peace above all else leads to the appeasement of evil.  A relentless insistence upon absolute justice leaves no room for empathy or atonement.  And an uncompromising demand for unyielding truth creates deep hurt and shame.  Only when we learn to balance these three noble causes can we truly thrive together. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

July 2024 Retirement announcement

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven

-Ecclesiastes 3

Today I write to share with you my plans to retire as of June 30, 2024.  At that point, I will mark thirty years at CABI, and thirty-six years—double chai—in the rabbinate. Over that long and fruitful time, through so many seasons together, it has been my enormous privilege to work with you.  I am profoundly grateful for our sacred partnership, grounded in a shared vision of inclusive Jewish community that boldly advances learning, spiritual growth, kindness, and social justice.  From the very beginning, I felt that I truly belonged in the CABI community, and that feeling has only deepened as we have celebrated, grieved and grown together.  I love my work, which is an extraordinary blessing for me, as a rabbi and as a Jew.  

One of my primary professional goals has always been to finish strong and leave a solid foundation for my successor. In that spirit, over the next year and a half, I will be working closely with our board and staff toward our mutual goal of a smooth and successful transition.

As my retirement date gets closer, there will be ample opportunity to reminisce and celebrate. During that time, I will reflect on what comes next for me.  But for now, and in the coming months, I will devote my energy and intention to the ongoing holy labor of strengthening our CABI community, and meeting our mission of empowering people to lead meaningful Jewish lives.  Thank you for sharing that journey with me for the past three decades, and through the forthcoming year and a half.


Rabbi Dan

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Avot 1:15 A Little Hypocrisy Goes a Long Way

Avot 1:15Shammai says: “Make your Torah study a fixed practice, say little and do much, and greet everyone with a friendly face.”

In this passage, Shammai—who is best known as Hillel’s intellectual rival and interlocutor—offers solid, straightforward advice.  Who would argue against the virtue of regularly scheduled study time, the priority of actions over words, or the significance of kindly social interaction?

Yet even a cursory look into Shammai’s biography, as elucidated in numerous Talmudic passages, raises significant questions about this statement.

Of course it is good to receive others with a “friendly face”—but we do not expect to hear this suggestion from Shammai, who was widely known for his strict judgment and stern demeanor.  His most memorably encounter was with a mildly obnoxious potential convert—whom he struck over the head with a yardstick. Considered in this wider context, Shammai’s teaching may strike us as highly hypocritical.

So what might we make of the discrepancy between Shammai’s wisdom and his concrete actions?  For the most part, we rightly regard hypocrisy as an exasperating vice.  Yet as the longtime etiquette and advice columnist Judith Martin—aka Miss Manners—points out, there are times when it can be a kind of virtue: “Why abandon proper standards of society just because we can’t always live up to them?”  Her approach echoes that of the 17th century French writer La Rochefoucauld, who defined hypocrisy as “the homage that vice pays to virtue.”

Shammai’s actions did not always live up to his highest ethical intentions, but if those intentions were aspirational—if they sometimes inspired him to achieve above his default nature—then they were not for naught.

If that’s hypocrisy, we’re all in the club.  May we rise to our best as much as we can, and when we fail to meet that mark, may we try again—and again—always aiming up.

For more on this topic, see Richard Nilsen's excellent article, "In Praise of Hypocrisy" here:

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Avot 1:14 Self, Others, and the Fierce Urgency of Now

Avot 1:14Hillel would say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?

This is undoubtedly the best-known passage in Avot, and one of the most cited quotes from the entire Jewish tradition.  Hillel’s ancient wisdom has been employed as the title of numerous books and movies, incorporated into several song lyrics, and even boldly emblazoned on the walls of a leading national chain of fitness centers.  And as catchy as it is in English, it’s even more memorable in Hebrew, where it rhymes.

The opening line reminds us of the importance of self-care and determination.  As individuals, and as part of the Jewish people, we can and should advocate for our own legitimate interests.  Self-abnegation and mortification serve no one, only rendering us impotent in a world that cries out for all hands on deck.

A key to understanding the second line is to note the shift in pronouns.  We begin with “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”  but continue “If I am only for myself, what am I?”  If our locus of concern ends with ourselves, Avot implies, we become less than fully human.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead offered a powerful illustration of this truth.  She asked her students, “What is the oldest evidence of human civilization?”  They responded with the expected answers: a clay pot, iron tools, the domestication of plants and animals.  

“No,” Mead replied, “those are all early indicators but here is what I believe to be the first and most important sign of civilization”—as she held up a human femur and pointed to a thickened area where the bone had been fractured and then solidly healed.  She continued: “In nature, crippling wounds are fatal, because those who suffer them are left for dead.  But this healed bone shows that a group must have cared for the injured person—hunted on their behalf, brought them food, provided shelter and active concern for their welfare—making significant personal sacrifices to save the lives of a friend or family member.  That is the beginning of true human society.”

If we are only for ourselves, what are we?

The final line--If not now, when?--speaks to what Dr. King eloquently called “the fierce urgency of now.”  In a world rife with cruelty, division and deep injustice, we are all called to do our part.  Let’s find strength and solace in the knowledge that we are in it together.

On that note, I leave you with a link to a new song by the wonderful singer-songwriter Iris DeMent called “Workin’ On a World.”  It’s powerful medicine for apathy, offering, in the words of music critic Ann Powers, “a hallelujah for the good done by those who lay the path toward good even if they may not walk its full length.”

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Avot 1:13 Move or Die

Avot 1:13Hillel would say. . . “One who does not increase, decreases.” 

There are a few species of sharks—great whites, whale sharks, makos—that cannot breathe while staying still.  These fish rely on a process known as obligate ram ventilation, which requires them to swim with their mouths open.  The faster they go, the more water is pushed through their gills.  If they stop swimming, they receive no oxygen.  If they don’t move, they die.

Hillel argues that when it comes to learning, we are, metaphorically-speaking, just like those sharks.  There is no neutral zone, no steady state—if we do not constantly increase our knowledge, we lose it. 

Life is dynamic.  To fail to move forward is, indeed, to fall behind.  To be fully human—which is to say, to be a mensch—is to continually learn and grow from our mistakes.

As Samuel Beckett wrote: “Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

The story is told of a rabbi who posed a question to her student: “Two people are perched on ladders reaching from earth to heaven.  One is on the tenth rung, the other on just the second.  Which one is in a better place?”

“That’s easy,” replied the student, “the one on the tenth rung.”

“Not necessarily,” said the rabbi.  “It depends on whether, and which way, they’re moving.”