Sunday, May 21, 2023
Avot 4:17: The Gift of Presence
Sunday, May 7, 2023
Avot 4:4 Embracing Death--and Life
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
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
Sunday, February 26, 2023
Avot 2:15: Repent a Day Before You Die
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
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.
Sunday, January 22, 2023
Avot 1:15 A Little Hypocrisy Goes a Long Way
Avot 1:15—Shammai 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: https://richardnilsen.com/2014/04/01/in-praise-of-hypocrisy/
Sunday, January 15, 2023
Avot 1:14 Self, Others, and the Fierce Urgency of Now
Avot 1:14—Hillel 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 1:13—Hillel 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.”