The rabbinic sage Hillel admired Aaron, the brother of Moses, as someone who had many good traits. Among those traits mentioned in our Text is loving one's fellow creatures (Ohev et HaBriyot).
Surely the middah (virtue) of Ohev et HaBriyot (loving all creatures) must embrace all the creatures God created, including animals, birds, and insects. A Hasidic source teaches that we must never speak derogatorily of any creature of God. Rabbi Susan Freeman suggests that we turn that comment into the positive, ie. speak positively of every creature of God, whether cow, wild animal, or bird. In fact, if you have ever had a pet, you know that you can feel love for an animal.
“Abraham,” the Zaddik said.
“But Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land,” said the disciple.
“All right, so Moses,” the Zaddik answered.
In the article, I trace my own evolution on this topic to my relationship with my cousin Jeff Avick, who spoke here in 1993 about his coping with HIV. He said, "The God that I learned about in my home was a God of love, understanding, mercy and reason. That God has given me real strength...His love for us is not measured by the absence of hardships. His love for us is the life he's given us."
Six years later, when I last saw Jeff in hospice, curled up in a fetal position and barely breathing, I understood that no God of mine could have afflicted him so mercilessly. Rather, I sensed the sanctity in every heroic gasp of air, in each moment of survival. I reached back for every bit of kindness I could summon, and held his hand.
At his funeral, which took place in my synagogue's sanctuary, I read a poem Jeff had written decades earlier, when he was a teenager, called "Valentine to Man."
"I listened to the music -
And it sounded so sweet that I shouted
up to heaven:
"Let me love."
And God spoke to me and He said...
"You do love.
You feel the sun rise and exalt as it travels
Its long journey over its old road.
You see the great green wonder rolling in and out,
taking life from its depths of turbulence to its shores of peace
You hear the music of nature singing to you
Ringing sweetly in your ears.
You laugh and you cry, small yet large
against the majesty of life.
And while there is no one, nothing -
You do love...
And you breathe and sing along with the awkward,
AND YOU KNOW ME,
And you love."
I've reflected on Jeff's words as the world has become more accepting of people in their infinite variety, and more embracing of all who don't fit so neatly into the categories that used to comprise what we called "community" but was in fact was leaving far too many behind.
Not only have I been freed from old, crusty preconceptions, my God has as well. My God is now, unequivocally, a God of love, not a God of exclusion, not a God who afflicts good, loving people with dreaded diseases to punish them for being so good and loving.
Some come out of the closet. I came off the fence.
Either one is a leap of faith, an act of great courage. It is also an act of return - a return to our true values, our deepest held beliefs, to who we were all along. (Click here for the full article.)
...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."
He does not break into his fellow's speech.
He is not in a rush to reply.
He asks what is relevant and replies to the point.
He speaks of first things first and of last things last.
Of what he has not heard he says, "I have not heard,"
And he acknowledges what is true.
And the opposites apply to the clod." (Pirkei Avot 5:9)
Mensch•Mark For Elul 10
- First we shall deal with the laws of
accurate weights and measures. We are admonished in the book of
Vayikra (19:35-36): "You shall not falsify measures of length,
weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, an honest weight,
an honest ephah, and an honest hin ".
The Mishnah rules (Bava Batra 5:10 = 88a) that
The wholesaler must clean out his measures once every thirty days and the householder once every twelve months... The retailer cleans his measures twice a week and polishes his weights once a week; and cleans out his scale before every weighing.
Throughout the Talmudic period, the rabbis appointed agronomoi - a Greek word for market commissioners - whose job it was to inspect measures and weights and to fix prices for basic commodities (Bava Batra 89a). The agronomoi eventually disappeared, but the ideal was still there as late as the nineteenth century when Rabbi Israel Salanter wrote: "As the rabbi must inspect periodically the slaughtering knives of the shochtim in town to see that they have no defect, so must he go from store to store to inspect the weights and measures of the storekeepers" (Dov Katz, Tenuat Hamussar, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 281).
Today, these laws are just as applicable as they were in biblical times. Wholesalers and retailers must check their scales and cash registers on a regular basis, not just because civil law demands it, but also because Jewish law requires it.
- The secondcategory of Jewish business law is called ona'at mamon or monetary deception. It is based on a verse in the book of Vayikra (25:14): "When you sell anything to your neighbor or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not deceive one another".
- The third category we shall discuss is
related to the second. It is called ona'at devarim or verbal deception.
It is based on another verse in the same chapter of Vayikra (25:17):
"Do not deceive one another, but fear your God, for I the Lord am
your God." Since the other verse had explicitly mentioned monetary
deception, the rabbis concluded that this verse refers to verbal
deception. And thus we learn in the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 4:10 = 58b and
parallels): "Just as there is deception in buying and selling, there
is deception in words. A person should not say to a merchant: 'How much
does this cost?' if he has no intention of buying it".
But why not? What's wrong with comparison shopping? Nothing! But in this case he is not asking in order to compare prices. He is asking out of idle curiosity, which gives the merchant false hopes. Therefore the mishnah says "he has no intention of buying it" and a parallel beraita (Bava Metzia 58b) states that he doesn't even have any money.
As for our own day, once again the law of ona'at devarim is very applicable. Let us say that Reuven goes into a warehouse outlet in order to buy a computer, but he wants a demonstration before he spends $1000. The warehouse outlet is not equipped for demonstrations. The salesman says to Reuven: "go to the IBM showroom down the block and ask for a demonstration, then come back here and buy the computer at our low low price". Reuven complies and gets a free demonstration plus a discount.
In this case, Reuven has committed ona'at devarim - verbal deception. When Reuven asks for the demonstration at the IBM store, he has absolutely no intention of purchasing the computer there. He merely wants a free demonstration. The IBM salesman is being deceived. He either loses a real customer while waiting on Reuven, or feels badly when Reuven walks out on him after a half-hour demonstration. This is ona'at devarim (cf. Tucker pp. 261-262 and Levine, Economics and Jewish Law, pp. 8-9).
- The fourth category of Jewish business
law is called gneivat da'at, which literally means "stealing a
person's mind". We would call it false packaging or false
labeling. Interestingly enough, it is not based on a specific verse from
the Bible, but was derived by the Sages from the laws of theft and the
laws of honesty. We learn in the Mekhilta (D'nezikin, Chap. 13, ed.
Lauterbach, Vol. 3, p. 105): "There are seven kinds of thieves: the
first is he who steals the mind of his neighbor.".
The Talmud gives a number of specific examples of such false packaging or false labeling.
We are all familiar with these kinds of false packaging. A wholesaler takes an inferior brand of shirt and puts on Pierre Cardin labels. You buy a box of perfect-looking tomatoes or strawberries, only to discover upon opening the box at home that they were packaged with the bad spots facing down. And we all know how used cars are touched up and polished for the sole purpose of overcharging the customer. These are all good examples of gneivat da'at, clearly forbidden by Jewish law.5) The next category we shall discuss is called "putting a stumbling block before the blind". We would call it giving someone a bum steer. This law is based on Vayikra Chapter 19 (v. 14): "You shall not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God, I am the Lord". Our Sages interpreted this verse in a very broad fashion (Sifra ad. Loc.):
- Considering the scope of Jewish business
law, it is not surprising that it also has a clear opinion regarding tax
evasion. 1800 years ago the Amora Shmuel established the legal
principle that in civil matters dina d'malkhuta dina - "the law of
the land is the law" (Bava Kama 113a and parallels). In its
discussion of this principle, the Talmud specifically includes taxation as
a secular law that must be followed. This, for example, is the way
Maimonides summarizes this law (Gezeilah 5:11 and cf. Hoshen Mishpat 369:6):
but a tax fixed by the king of 33% or 25% or any fixed sum. a person who avoids paying such a tax is a transgressor because he is stealing the king's portion, regardless of whether the king is Jewish or not.
So we see, Jewish law requires us to pay our taxes in a scrupulous fashion because in civil matters "the law of the land is the law".
- In addition to all the laws we have
mentioned, the halakhah contains a number of ethical principles which go
one step beyond what we would normally expect a businessman to do. Here
are two examples among many:
A. The first principle is called "lifnim mishurat hadin", which means "beyond the letter of the law". Here is one classic case. According to Jewish law, a purchase has not been concluded until the buyer has physically "lifted up" the item being bought (Bava Metzia 4:2 = 44a). In light of this fact, the following story is quite surprising:
It happened that Rav Safra had some wine for sale, and a potential buyer came to him while he was reciting the Shema. The customer said "Sell me this wine for such and such a price". Rav Safra did not answer [so as not to interrupt the Shema]. Assuming that he was unwilling to settle for the price offered, the customer added to his original offer, and said, "Sell me this wine for such and such a price". Rav Safra still did not answer. [Presumably, this cycle was repeated, with ever-escalating prices.] Upon finishing the Shema, Rav Safra said to him: "From the time you made your first offer, I had resolved in my mind to sell it to you. Therefore I may take no greater amount [than your first bid]". (Sheiltot Vayehi, No. 38, ed. Mirsky, Vol. 2, p. 252 and parallels).
The Sheiltot, an early code of Jewish law, went so far as to make Rav Safra's behavior a halakhic norm for all Jews. It rules:
There is no question if he said 'I will sell you this', but even if he merely resolved in his mind to sell something [at a particular price], even if he did not articulate it, he should not go back on that resolution.
This decision was not included in later codes of Jewish law, yet the concept of "lifnim mishurat hadin" remained an ideal, which Jews strive to emulate until today.
Indeed, Rav Safra's behavior was repeated by a German Jew some 1600 years later.
The firm of Beer, Sondheimer and Company is reported to have owed its tremendous expansion to the following fact. On a Friday in 1870, just before the Franco-German War broke out, Mr. Beer left his office for the Sabbath rest. He had large holdings in copper and other metals necessary for the waging of war. The porter received a number of telegrams, which he presented on Sunday morning to his employer. They came from the War Ministry and offered to buy all metals in the possession of Mr. Beer; each successive wire increased the price. When Mr. Beer, on Sunday, went through these messages, he informed the War Department that he would have accepted the first offer and that he had failed to answer it because it was the Sabbath. He was, therefore, prepared to let the government have all his merchandise at the rate originally suggested to him. The War Ministry was so impressed by this example of living Judaism that they made the firm its main supplier and thus established its global significance. (Jung in Kellner, p. 341).
B. The second ethical principle is taken from the biblical verse (Bemidbar 32:22): "V'heyitem nekiyim meihashem umeiyisrael" - "And you shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel". This principal dictates that those in a position of trust must be above suspicion. Thus, in Talmudic times, charity collectors were not permitted to exchange copper coins which they had collected, for their own silver coins, because this might give the impression of impropriety. Therefore, they were only allowed to exchange the coins with outsiders (Bava Batra 8b and parallels). Similarly, when surplus food accumulated in the soup kitchen, the overseers could not buy the food themselves but had to sell it to others (ibid.).
This principle of "above suspicion" finds easy application in the modern business setting. A manager or a treasurer of a company can frequently secure reimbursement of business expenses without submitting receipts. The principle of "v'heyitem nekiyim", however, requires him to submit the appropriate documentation in order to avoid suspicion of embezzlement (Levine, Economics and Jewish Law, pp. 16-17).
- The last two principles I shall mention are especially relevant to Jews living in a non-Jewish society. They apply not only to business ethics but to all of our relations with our non-Jewish neighbors. They are called Kiddush Hashem, or the sanctification of God's name, and Hillul Hashem or the desecration of God's name. They stem from a verse in Vayikra (22:32): "You shall not desecrate My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel - I am the Lord who sanctifies you". This verse means that any good or holy act that a Jew does, sanctifies God's name in the eyes of his Jewish and gentile neighbors, while any bad or profane act that a Jew does, desecrates God's name in the eyes of the public. When a Jew cheats on his taxes, the tax official does not say "Max Goldberg is a cheat", but rather "Jews are thieves, what an unethical religion". When a Jewish retailer overcharges, the customer does not say "Joe Schwartz is a thief", but rather "Jews are thieves, what an unjust God".
(Midrash Prov.) Among the sages and scholars, wisdom traditionally meant common sense (sechel) and good judgment in everyday matters-knowing, for example, when to speak and when not to, when to act and when not to (Voices of Wisdom). No single set of rules can tell us what we should do in every circumstance or how to navigate our way through new situations. All we can do is to consult that inner good sense we have been cultivating in our hearts through study and deeds, and hope that it will enable us to make good decisions.
As I prepare to face the enormity of Auschwitz for the first time, it occurs to me that since the Shoah, rabbis have become like Toyota salesmen. What, after all, are we selling, but a product once revered, but now proven to be a grand farce. The myth has been summarily detonated, the brand exposed. Just as “Made in Japan” now has reverted to its original derogatory, postwar meaning (cheap, fake, laughable), “Made at Sinai” now feels like its “Made in Japan.”
Oh, we rabbis have been trained well. We’ve developed numerous diversionary strategies to refocus the question (“Where was God? Well, where was MAN?”) or simply to foster a perpetual state of denial (“We can’t know God’s ways”). Some have chosen to relinquish some of God’s omnipotence, others go much farther. But for the most part, we focus on beating home the message that Judaism still has an important function to serve, even if there’s a gaping hole under the hood. Some deny that the hole exists, clinging naively to pre-Auschwitz fantasies. It is astonishing how many otherwise intelligent, modern, skeptical Jews buy this theological nonsense, slickly packaged by various ultra-Orthodox groups. But most rabbis, while not denying the seriousness of the challenge, prefer to set the questions aside, suggesting that maybe the next generation will solve the problem.
Over the decades, there have been brilliant attempts to deal with this dilemma. Some, like Richard Rubenstein’s existentialist “After Auschwitz,” have been powerfully honest. Such radical theologies proliferated in the ‘60s, during the so called “Death of God” era. Since then, God has survived quite nicely, thank you, but those bold theologies have yellowed with age. The question of Auschwitz remains as vivid as ever, but after 65 years, we seem to be tiring of asking it.
It makes me wonder: If Toyotas never get fixed, but for 65 years company propagandists spew forth the message that the cars are really safe, will we start believing in them again? Will the producers just wear us down until we tire of asking the questions? That strategy seems to have worked with other products. Some people actually think that cable news is really news. Some Jews believe that the same God who was silent in Auschwitz actually caused Iraqi Scuds to miss their targets in TelAviv. The madness has worn us down.
Perhaps the antidote to such madness is a different kind of madness. The day after we march on Auschwitz, my group will stop off on the way to Warsaw in a quaint town called Chelm, for Jews the eternal capital of absurdity. Chelmites are mythical Jews from a real town, known for their propensity to take logic to its bizarre extreme.
Two men of Chelm went out for a walk, when suddenly it began to rain."Quick," said one. "Open your umbrella.""It won't help," said his friend. "My umbrella is full of holes.""Then why did you bring it?""I didn't think it would rain!"
A New York based Klezmer group named Golem wrote a song recently about a Chelmite who leaves on a journey to Warsaw, gets lost and ends up back in Chelm. "He's so stupid that he thinks he's actually in Warsaw,” bandleader Annette Ezekiel told SPIN.com. “The moral is any place can be any place else -- it doesn't matter where you are."
But for me, it will matter a lot. I’ll be coming from Auschwitz, the darkest place in Jewish history, and then I’ll be staying over in Chelm, the funniest. Chelm will be the place where I wash my hands after visiting this countrywide cemetery, a way station before I head to Jerusalem for the second part of the March.
Two points about Chelm. First, laughter provided a great outlet for those suffering from hunger, poverty and hatred, as the Jews of Poland did for so long. But rather than laugh at real people, the Jewish genius invented a mythical community to laugh at. Not only is that practical (as opposed to laughing at Poles, who might respond by killing you), it is far more ethical to make fun of fake people than real people.
Second, Chelm might hold the key to our getting beyond the theological quandaries of our age. If the commanding voice of Auschwitz has muffled the God of Sinai for the time being, maybe we need to pay more attention to the God of Chelm. The Yiddish aphorism, “Man plans, God laughs,” just might be the most apt theological response to an age of absurdity. It’s not that God is laughing at us, simply that God has taught us that laughter is the only way one can respond to a world of unfathomable evil and unspeakable tragedy, while clinging to life and dignity.
Maintaining some semblance of sanity requires a modicum of insanity, an art we’ve been perfecting for centuries, ever since we figured out how a poor peasant living in rags could be transformed into royalty through the simple act of lighting candles, drinking wine and blessing hallah on a Friday night. If that isn’t a little taste of madness, what is? The first Jewish kid, whose life was replete with tragedy, was nonetheless named laughter (Isaac). We’ve been re-living Isaac’s story ever since.
Would you buy a used Toyota from this God? Perhaps not. But at least the divine gift of laughter gives us the courage to stare directly into that gaping hole in the chassis and laugh at the absurdity of it all, while gasping in amazement that, despite everything, we are alive.
"One who overestimates one's own intellectual abilities is liable to denigrate the dignity and sanctity of the Torah and its teachers and bearers, thus blocking his or her own path towards wisdom. Hence, awe and reverence born of humility will protect one from missteps and errors in practical observance and moral judgment." (pp.413-414)
If an individual is convinced of the depth of his or her own abilities and intelligence there is very little room for learning and growth. Humility gives us that space within ourselves for personal development.
Rav Abraham Issac Kook taught that humility should lead to joy, courage, and inner dignity.
"Then I bowed and prostrated myself to Adonai and blessed Adonai, the God of my master Abraham, who led me on a true path to get the daughter of my master's brother for his son." (Genesis 24:48)
In this week's text, Eliezer is speaking about his good fortune in finding the right wife for Isaac, the son of his master Abraham. Being set on the true path, in this case by God, led to Eliezer's success.
"And it came to pass that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul?. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul." (1 Samuel: 18:1; 18:3)
The friendship of Jonathan and David as described in the First Book of Samuel is perhaps one of the most poignant examples in the Tanach of the power of human relationships. Their friendship is held up as the ideal-a friendship in which neither made demands on the other, yet each gave unstintingly of himself.
"Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to the Torah." (Avot 1:12)
Aaron, the brother of Moses, was considered an exemplar of a peacemaker among his people. It is told that when Aaron saw two people at odds with each other, he would approach each one separately, without the other one's knowledge, and say,"Why are you fighting with your friend? He begged me to approach you and arrange a reconciliation." With this tactic, Aaron was able to bring about peace between the two people. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p. 38)
"Who studies gladly for a single hour will learn vastly more than one who studies glumly for hours on end." (Hayyim of Valozhin, a Lithuanian talmudist of the 18th century)
One of the 48 qualities needed to acquire Torah is the ability to concentrate on one's studies. Concentration is focusing one's undivided attention for a particular purpose.
"Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina said: What is implied by the verse 'Iron sharpens iron' (Proverbs 27:17) It tells you that just as one piece of iron sharpens another, so two scholars sharpen each other's mind by discussion of the Law." (Sefer Ha Aggadah - Legends of the Jews, 428:260)
"Ben Zoma said: Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion." (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a also found in Pirkei Avot 4:1)
Being content with one's portion is an age-old Jewish concern. In the book of Proverbs, we read, "A joyful heart makes a cheerful face; A sad heart makes a despondent mood. All the days of a poor person are wretched, but contentment is a feast without end." (Proverbs 15:13 and 15)
"A wise person is a student who makes his/her teacher wiser." (Chaggigah 14a)
How can a student make his/her teacher wiser? For a student to learn, she must be willing to ask questions and challenge a teacher. This in turn gives the teacher the opportunity to learn as well. The ideal teacher-student relationship is one in which both are in the pursuit of knowledge and truth and neither is interested in merely proving himself/herself right.
"Ben Zoma said: Who is honored? Those who honor others." (Avot 4,1)
Our Jewish sources are extremely clear on the question of honor, as revealed by our Text. We are reminded that we should focus our energies on honoring others, rather than ourselves.
Special To The Jewish Week
I received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary this spring. I appreciate the recognition, but it has prompted some disquieting questions.
Reform and Conservative rabbis often get these diplomas, usually after about 25 years of service. So the honor has more to do with survival than accomplishment. I suppose it could be said that enduring 25 years in the rabbinate, particularly in the pulpit, is deserving of special recognition. There have been times when I wondered whether a Purple Heart might be more appropriate, or maybe a Nobel Peace Prize.
But why a doctorate? Why measure success in a spiritual profession on purely intellectual terms? Once upon a time, rabbinical seminaries were bastions of cold-fish, Litvak elitism, often then wedded to its secular, German sister, the venerable “Wissenschaft des Judentums (the science of Judaism).” But these same schools are now committed to taking Judaism out of the ivory tower, promoting, as JTS put it in its new strategic plan, “Scholarship in Service to the Jewish Community.” So shouldn’t the rabbi of the 21st century be recognized as a person of the people, not some highfalutin D.D.?
And what, really, is a Doctor of Divinity? I hear that in the United Kingdom, a D.D. is the highest honor a university can give, higher than Doctorates in law, medicine, science, letters or music. But American universities have no such hierarchy, and here it almost sounds like a degree they might confer at Hogwarts for having mastered potions and the dark arts.
How should people address me? Debretts, a website that calls itself “the modern authority on all matters etiquette, taste and achievement” favors “Dr. Cohen” over “Rabbi Cohen” for invitations and salutations. With the Jewish establishment subtly agreeing that “My kid the doctor” trumps “rabbi” on the parental aspiration scale, that trampling sound you hear is another generation of our best and brightest running away from the rabbinate.
And why should I need an honorary title at all? Shouldn’t my life-work of facilitating Jewish journeys be sufficient? Plus, my wife, who is a psychologist, worked long and hard to earn her doctorate. It makes me feel a bit uneasy about accepting one simply because I’ve survived.
The title “rabbi” signifies a mastery of knowledge, but it means much more. In fact, maybe my original diploma, which described the calling as “rabbi, teacher and preacher,” should be updated to include more contemporary aspects of the job description, including rabble rouser, healer, marketing expert, surrogate mommy, divine exemplar, standup comic, youthful elder, dispassionate zealot and guy-who-can-unjam-the-Xerox-machine.
That’s not to say I didn’t accept this honor. For one thing, it came with lunch. And it was a deep privilege to share this moment with my family and leadership of my congregation, as well as a few dozen colleagues who were similarly honored. Many of them have become major figures on the Jewish scene and all have dedicated their life’s work to the service of the Jewish people and God. I am proud of them and want to see their achievements recognized.
We’ve been rabbis at a time when the profession has changed dramatically, and we’ve been the agents of that change. The paradigm of rabbi as aloof scholar, shepherd and diplomat has been replaced, to a large degree, by other models. The rabbi has become more of a guide, a teacher who leads by example and can point people toward resources that will enable them to find their own solutions to life’s dilemmas.
In what Rabbi Elie Kaunfer has aptly called an era of empowerment, Jews are not looking for simple answers, but engagement, direction, inspiration and the kind of encouragement that can propel a lifelong quest. They are looking less for a rabbi and more for a rebbe, in the original chasidic sense, a mentor who can take Judaism out of stuffy academies and let holiness breathe, sing and dance through the lives of real people.
Maybe the new title should reflect other honorifics given rabbis over the centuries, like “Mar” (Master)” or “Rav” (“The Great One” — I like that, but I am not worthy). There’s always “Shlita,” an acronym for “May he live a long and good life, Amen” and “Nasi” (Prince or President).
Throughout the Middle Ages, you had really made it as a rabbi when you became known by your initials. Rambam (the acronym for the Hebrew letters reysh, mem, bet, mem) and Rashi (reysh, shin, yud) were the FDR and LBJ of their day. Maybe each of us should be given an official nickname, whether it be our initials (mine would be “the RaYaMM — Rabbi Yehoshua ben Micha’el V’Miryam), or maybe something more folksy. The Talmud uses nicknames like “Honi the Circle Drawer.” Some of my classmates were also superb circle drawers as well, especially during Talmud class. How about “Reb Danny the Doodler?”
Finally, here’s an opportunity to introduce new fields of rabbinic specialization. As The Jewish Week’s new online Ethicist , maybe I should ask that my honorary doctorate be in the field of Menschology. Many of us could also claim expertise in Jewish Geography, Kiddush Gastronomy, Guilt Management and Mass Miscommunication.
So I gratefully accept my new title and will work hard to truly earn it. But the only degree I am really seeking is a degree of difficulty. With the month of Shavuot now in our rear-view mirror, mountainous challenges still await us, and even loftier opportunities. To scale those, American Jews don’t need doctors.
We need rabbis.
"The one who understands his (her) lesson will not readily forget it." (Talmud Yerushalmi: Berakot, 5.1)
Many translations of Pirkei Avot have been published and in each edition the translator has added his or her own nuances to its meaning.
"Mark well these three things, and you will not fall into the clutches of sin. Know where you came from, where you are going, and to whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning." (Akavyah ben Mahalalel, Pirkei Avot, 3:1)
Our text, taken from Pirkei Avot, serves as a reminder that part of maintaining a balance in life is knowing and accepting our own place in the larger scheme of things. (Voices of Wisdom, Klagsbrun, p.6) The text goes on to suggest that we all begin and end our lives in exactly the same way and that we are all ultimately accountable to God.
"The former generations made the study of Torah their regular concern and their daily work their occasional concern, and they succeeded in the one and in the other. The recent generations have made their daily work their regular concern and their study of Torah their occasional concern, and they have succeeded neither in the one nor in the other." (Babylonian Talmud 35b)
This text summarizes the essential issue of miyut derech eretz—minimizing involvement in worldly concerns so that one is able to devote more attention to the study of Torah.
"A faithful friend is a powerful defense. One who has found such a friend has found a treasure." (Ben Sira 6:14; also known as Ben Sirach, who was the author of a book of proverbs called Ecclesiasticus, i.e., The Wisdom of Ben Sira)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offered two explanations for the middah nosay b'ol im chavayro—"to share the burden with one's friend": one who wishes to acquire Torah must seek to ease his or her neighbor of the burden of daily living. So too, this individual should seek to render assistance to every fellow-seeker of Torah knowledge. (Chapters of the Fathers, Hirsch, p.109)
"What is the straight path a person should choose? That which does him/her honor and wins him/her the esteem of others." (Avot 2,1)
This middah reminds us that we are constantly required to make choices related to our behavior. It encourages us to develop a love for doing things in a straightforward way. Our text, taken from Pirkei Avot, offers us some guidelines for making those choices based on honor and esteem.
"Faith is the essence of Torah." (Mivhar Hapeninim)
According to our Text, faith (emunah) is the most important element in Torah. This idea is developed even further in the commentary on this middah found in the Pirkei Avos Treasury. There it is suggested that faith in the authenticity of the teachings of the Sages is the foundation of Torah study. (p.417)
"The fruit of boasting is hatred." (Mivhar Hapeninim)
This week's text comes from a work called Mivhar Hapeninim, a book of proverbs attributed to Solomon Ibn Gabirol, a Spanish poet and philosopher of the 11th century. Clearly, Ibn Gabirol is warning us that being boastful or arrogant engenders hatred. In contemporary language, Ibn Gabirol is warning us not to "show-off." We can apply his advice to our learning, to our income and to our material possessions. We should not flaunt what we know, what we own or who we are, for this attitude will cause others to hate us. The Talmud teaches that even the members of his or her own household do not accept an arrogant person…at first they will show respect, but in the end the arrogant person becomes repugnant to them. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 47a )
"Happy is the person who You discipline, Adonai, the person You instruct in Your teaching." (Psalms 93:4)
There are several explanations in Jewish tradition for the purpose of suffering. For each explanation the rabbis provided a proof text or reason from Scripture. One explanation is that suffering is seen as punishment for a person's sin or wrongdoing: "No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of misfortune." (Proverbs 12:21) Another explanation describes God as a parent and just as a parent sets limits (which may include punishments), so does God. The text affirms this by telling us: "Bear in mind that Adonai your God disciplines you just as a parent disciplines a child." (Deuteronomy 8:5)
"One who is too self-confident in handing down legal decisions is a fool, wicked and arrogant of spirit." (Avot 4:7)
The sages teach that a judge must always view himself as one standing on the edge of Gehinnom (Hell) with a sword over his neck. Afraid to make a mistake, one who judges or makes decisions does not want to be defined by this text.
This week's text comes from the book of Kings, which recounts a dream of King Solomon. In the dream God appears to Solomon and asks Solomon what gift he desires. Solomon wisely asks for "an understanding heart" in order to judge the people by distinguishing between good and bad, innocent and guilty.