Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Judaism’s Top 40 – Tishrei 8 – Ahavat ha-briyot / Tzaar Baale Hayyim: Love of all Creatures

Aside from the mitzvah of loving one’s fellow Jew and bearing responsibility for his/her destiny, it is also a mitzvah to love all of humankind, ahavat habriyot, in recognition that every human being is created in the image of God.  Beyond that, we also must feel the pain of all living creatures (the literal meaning of Tza’ar ba’ale hayyim).  Also related is kvod ha-briyot – human dignity.   Read here to see some of the many contemporary halachic rulings that have been made on the basis of maintaining human dignity, from euthanasia to gay rights.

Meanwhile, read here details, from an Orthodox perspective, of the extent of the Jewish concern for the pain of animals, and here for a more Progressive approach.  Finally, see here, an article of mine on Animal cruelty and Jewish law.

Judaism’s Top 40 – Tishrei 7 – Hakarat ha-Tov – Gratitude

Jews are eternally grateful.  The very word “Jew,” Yehudi, has within it word for gratitude (connected to Todah, which in Hebrew means “thank you.”) This is the ethos that lies behind the great Talmudic proverb which asks, "Who is rich?" and then answers, "Those who rejoice in their own lot." (Avot 4:1)

In raising children, we need to teach that true gratitude, however, includes more than obligatory thanks; they need to learn how to instinctively express hakarat hatov, or recognition of the good that another has done.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter once noticed that a fancy restaurant was charging a huge price for a cup of coffee. He approached the owner and asked why the coffee was so expensive. After all, some hot water, a few coffee beans and a spoonful of sugar could not amount to more than a few cents.

The owner replied: "It is correct that for a few cents you could have coffee in your own home. But here in the restaurant, we provide exquisite decor, soft background music, professional waiters, and the finest china to serve your cup of coffee."

Rabbi Salanter's face lit up. "Oh, thank you very much! I now understand the blessing of Shehakol -- 'All was created by His word' -- which we recite before drinking water. You see, until now, when I recited this blessing, I had in mind only that I am thanking the Creator for the water that He created. Now I understand the blessing much better. 'All' includes not merely the water, but also the fresh air that we breathe while drinking the water, the beautiful world around us, the music of the birds that entertain us and exalt our spirits, each with its different voice, the charming flowers with their splendid colors and marvelous hues, the fresh breeze -- for all this we have to thank God when drinking our water!"

Monday, September 29, 2014

Judaism's Top 40 - Tishrei 6 - Shmirat ha-Guf - Taking care of our bodies

Judaism, unlike other faith traditions, values the body every bit as much as the soul.  Natural physical inclinations like hunger and lust are not considered in themselves evil, and in fact often yield positive results.  Without lust, for instance, there would not be procreation.  The key is moderation. 

Maimonides was Mr. Moderation.  As a physician and rabbi, he understood that the key to a sound mind was to maintain a sound body.

In his Mishna Torah, Maimonides listed the top ten services that must be provided by any community. It is noteworthy that #1 on his list is health care. What was true 9 centuries ago is true today.

23) It is not permitted for a learned sage to live in a town which does not have the following ten things: a doctor, a blood-letter, a wash-house, a toilet, naturally occurring water such as a river or spring, a synagogue, a midwife, a scribe, a warden of charity and a Court of Law
which imprisons people.

See the entire chapter on health (it's fascinating - remember, he was a doctor) at http://www.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/healthliteracy/hl-classical-maimonides-hilchot.pdf
Did you know, for instance, that

...One should not eat until one's stomach is [very] full, but one should [only] eat until one's stomach is three-quarters full. Nor should one drink water during a meal, except a little mixed with wine, but once the food begins to digest one should what one needs to drink, but one should never drink too much, even when the food digests. One should nor eat unless one has checked oneself to make sure that one does not need to relieve oneself. One should not eat unless one has first relieved oneself, or until one's body gets warm, or unless one has worked at something else first. The general rule of the matter is that one should always answer one's body. In the morning, one should work until one's body gets warm, then one should wait until one's soul has settled, and then one may eat. It is good to wash in hot water after having worked, then wait a while, and then eat.

Who needs "Doctor Mom" when we can get the straight dope from "Dr. Rambam."

Judaism’s Top 40: Tishrei 5 – Sever Panim Yafot - Cheerfulness

Did you know that it is a mitzvah to smile? The sage Shammai was one of the most ornery people in all of Jewish history. He was famous for always being in a bad mood, often chasing people away when he was annoyed by their questions. So it is noteworthy that of all people, HE is the one who says in Pirke Avot, “Receive every person with a cheerful expression.”

The Talmud says of Yochanan ben Zakkai, the greatest rabbi of his era, that “no one greeted him first, even the Gentile in the marketplace.” He could have rested on his laurels and waited for people to come to him. He lived at a time when Jews were fighting Romans for survival – and, as always, Jews were fighting other Jews too. But it didn’t matter to him. Yochanan saw that every other human being is created in God’s image and he made it his business to greet them – and to do it FIRST.

And to that I will add the corollary – EVEN IF YOU DON’T MEAN IT! We all have our moods and that’s OK. But when you pass a person just at the moment you are thinking about last night’s horrifying 9th inning, and you make a face, that person will think you are upset with her. As a rabbi I have become especially attuned to how people try to read my body language. But this is really for everyone. People who are naturally shy or just depressed may not realize that that scowl appears to others as standoffish and angry. We’re not very good at reading faces – we’re even worse at reading faceless letters and e-mails. When you can’t look into the eyes, you can’t really see into the soul.

The medieval Talmudist Rabbi Menachem ha-Me’iri said that even when we resent a visitor’s intrusion we should STILL act as if we are happy to see him.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th century founder of the Mussar movement, saw a scholar with a forlorn look on his face during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The scholar said he was worried because these are the days when God is judging us. To which Salanter replied, “But other people won’t realize that that’s what’s bothering you. They might think that you are upset with them.”

Jewish law permits us to interrupt prayer in order to return a greeting. Why? Because that person who greeted you is also a manifestation of the divine image. Either way, we are still talking to God.
Never ignore a greeting, the Talmud instructs us, for to do so would be akin to robbery – to have stolen from the other the pleasure of being greeted! This ethical quality of cheerfulness is considered one of the middot, a prime Jewish virtue.

So what can we do to bring this virtue into our lives during these ten days? Six quick suggestions:

1)     Become like Yochanan ben Zakkai. Make it a game – be the one to greet first. I can imagine a student pulling a prank on him, standing behind a pillar, jumping out and shouting, “Shalom, Rabbi! HA!” You don’t have to hide behind a big Greek column or jump out from behind the bananas at Stop and Shop. But don’t go the other way! We don’t have to be so dramatic, but let’s try to be as enthusiastic. Don’t wait to be greeted. Be the first.
2)     And do it enthusiastically. Smile. The Talmud states, “The person who shows his teeth in a smile is better than the one who gives milk to drink.” From which the rabbis developed their “Got teeth?” marketing campaign and the ubiquitous Jewish smiley face.
3)     When you shake hands, mean it. A Hasidic master named Reb Arye, when greeting another, used to take that person’s hands in his own and hold them in a loving, caressing way that his students said was “electric with holiness,” sending God’s energy directly into the other person’s heart. There should be a degree of Kavvanah, feeling, in every greeting, whether a big bear hug, a simple wave or a high five. We need to recall always that greeting someone cheerfully is a holy act. It’s a prayer! Every handshake is a prayer!
4)     And every greeting should be a “Shalom.” As we shake or hug and as we lock eyes, the clasped hand is both pulling in and sending off. There is the excitement of greeting and the real concern about letting go, all in that word, all in that simple gesture.
5)     Make no exceptions. Halacha is clear that we especially should be greeting cheerfully those who are the weakest. When the queen of England comes by, by all means greet her – a high five is not recommended - in the film “The Queen,” the most moving scene was when Elizabeth finally went public to share the grief of her people after Diana’s death and took some flowers from a little girl and offered to place them on the pile outside the palace – and the girl said, “No – they’re for you.” Even a queen could use a little warmth from time to time. But we must also greet the poor, the downcast, the needy. Anyone here who has been to the homeless shelters when we’ve served dinner there knows exactly how powerful such a greeting can be.

6)     We must understand that doing these things takes us one big step toward being our happier people, a more Sacred community and a repaired world.