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.