Bal Tashkeit: Do Not Destroy

auhi-800
Looks fancy to me.

Today my cell phone company taught me how to do a mitzvah. Who knew that they could help with mitzvot?

My old phone had many bad habits that were getting worse. I asked the customer service rep if I could repair it. I could, Mike said, but that would take two weeks. Can you give up your phone for 14 days? I can’t.

I fussed at Mike that I hate buying a new cell phone every two years. It’s wasteful of my money, it’s wasteful of rare minerals, it’s wasteful of the labor to make the phone, and so on. I’m sure poor Mike has heard it all before. Then the miracle happened: Mike informed me that there is another way.

Step 1: Buy a used reconditioned phone. Someone sold it back to the company, probably to buy something newer and fancier, and the company fixed it up and slapped a nice warranty on it.

Step 2: After I transfer all my contacts and dog photos to the new phone, I can sell the old phone back to the company, presumably to be fixed up and sold again or to be parts for other fixed-up phones.

Now I have a smartphone that meets my needs and cost much less. Better yet, it did not use additional scarce materials from worrisome sources. Best of all, I can continue this cycle. If the phone were simply old, not crotchety, I could donate it to a nonprofit and they could use it. Either way, it’s a mitzvah.

The name of the mitzvah is Bal Tashcheit: do not destroy. We derive this mitzvah from a curious source, the rules for war in Deuteronomy:

When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? –Deuteronomy 20:19

Our sages determined that the sin in cutting down those trees is waste. They expanded their understanding of those verses to include household waste and today it is a source for talking about the sin of environmental waste. We are stewards of the earth, not owners of it. We must not destroy resources just because it suits us to do so or is convenient.

And as for Mike, I thanked him. I don’t know where he is, but I hope he sleeps well tonight, having helped a rabbi do a little mitzvah.

A King in the Rabbi’s Garden

Monarch1
There is a miracle in this photo. Can you find it?

The photo above may look like a garden overgrown with milkweed. Look in the center of the photo, and you will see a tiny splash of orange. That little splash is a monarch butterfly, the third I have seen in my garden. I didn’t want to disturb him, and this is the best photo I could get. Still it is a miracle: this winter I’ve seen three monarchs in my garden!

Monarch butterflies used to be one of the great wonders of North America: clouds of them used to spend the winter on the California coast. There has been a dramatic decline in their numbers, because their larval food, Asclepias, or milkweed, is an unfashionable plant. Wild land is increasingly rare near the coast, and people are usually anxious to get milkweed out of their garden. The highway department has done its bit, too, with herbicides and plantings of prettier bushes near the freeways.

The monarch census at Pismo Beach, CA (1997-2009) is worrisome. Chart courtesy of www.monarchwatch.org
The monarch census at Pismo Beach, CA (1997-2009) is worrisome. Chart courtesy of http://www.monarchwatch.org

Now I’m part of a movement of people who are trying to restore the milkweed supply for the monarchs. My garden has several varieties of milkweed and no pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. I haven’t seen the Monarch caterpillars, but now I’ve seen three butterflies. Other people in the San Francisco East Bay are also growing food for the monarchs. There’s hope.

There is a midrash that that when God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden, God said, “Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

It is up to us to look around our corner of the world and see what we can do to repair its wounds. For each of us, that effort may take a different path, but it is important that each of us perform this mitzvah in whatever means is available to us. As Rabbi Tarfon said, we don’t have to finish the job, but we do have to make an effort.

I planted milkweed, lots of rangy plants with little blossoms . What a blessing, right before Shabbat, to receive a little messenger to tell me that it’s working!

Photo by Kenneth Dwayne Harrelson. For copyright info: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monarch_In_May.jpg
Photo by Kenneth Dwayne Harrelson. For copyright info: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monarch_In_May.jpg

Thou Shalt Not Embarrass

.תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק: כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood.

— Babylonian Talmud, Bava Mezia 58b

Imagine for a moment that you are in a synagogue, somewhere that every Jew should feel at home. The service is ending, and for the past several minutes your body has been sending increasingly urgent messages that you need to find a bathroom. You spot the restroom and as you place your hand on the door, three people behind you shriek “NO!!!” and everyone in earshot turns to look at you.

Just sit with that thought, with those feelings, for a moment.

A number of people I care about live with the possibility that this could happen to them at any moment, anywhere. Some are transgender, some are butch lesbians, some are straight but they don’t look stereotypically masculine or feminine.

Let me give you a clue: they are all human beings, made in the Divine Image.

A dear woman-friend of mine looks great in a suit. She dresses much better than do I. But there’s a look she gets on her face when someone has humiliated her at the door of the “ladies room” that I recognize in a heartbeat. I recognize it because I’ve seen it too many times.

I know a nice transman who dreads public bathrooms. He does everything in his power to avoid needing to use one, because no matter which one he goes to, someone may decide loudly that it’s the wrong one. He’s been lucky, no one has beaten him up. But the pain in his voice when he told me why he was visibly upset made me want to weep.

They aren’t the only ones, just two who are close enough to me that I am aware of their hurt. It doesn’t really matter what their gender is. Someone decides that they “don’t look right” and suddenly it’s open season. They look different, so it’s OK to humiliate them.

Jewish tradition tells us that we are forbidden to embarrass another person. It tells us that embarrassing another is the equivalent of shedding their blood. That commandment does not go away simply because the other person’s appearance makes us uncomfortable. I am not permitted to humiliate a human being because something about them is outside my experience.

“But what about danger?” some may ask, “What about men pretending to be trans so they can hang out in the ladies room and attack women?”

People who want to use the privacy of a bathroom to hurt other people go in there and lurk. They hide. They linger. They do not go in, pee, wash their hands, and leave. If you go into a restroom (either one) and see someone lurking, do the smart thing and LEAVE. Go tell someone with authority if you are worried. Don’t stand there and shriek. After all, if you are right and they are dangerous, they might hurt you!

Please, especially in places that should be safe for every Jew, don’t humiliate people in or out of the restroom. Embarrassing them does not make any of us safer.

If I were queen, I would put this sign up outside every restroom. Kudos to the University of Bristol’s (UB) LGBT + Society for this image:

transUB

A Time for Work, A Time For Change

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of (people) willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid road of human dignity.” – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Reverend Dr. King wrote those words over 45 years ago, but they remain true today. Then was the time for positive change, and now is also the time to make change in our institutions and in our hearts, if justice is truly to be done in the United States.

I have watched and listened as the recent violence in France has been discussed in the press. One thing seemed to me to stand out above almost everything else: it seems to be a human inclination to regard those different from ourselves with fear and anger. If we are to progress as human beings, we must fight against that inclination with every ounce of our being. Whether the perceived “other” is dark-skinned, or wearing a hijab, or Jewish, or has a foreign-sounding last name, underneath it all they are human, exactly like ourselves, and they deserve the respect and dignity we give everyone else.

Here in the United States we created a web of legal and cultural barriers to equality that still bedevil us, and it is up to us to do something about it. Lip service is worse than doing nothing at all; lip service is nothing but soothing laziness. This Martin Luther King Day, we white Americans need to challenge ourselves to do more, to do today, to speak up when something is not right and to keep speaking up until it is made right.

We cannot distract ourselves with list-making for persons of color – they are more than qualified to make their own to-do lists. We cannot distract ourselves with celebrations for work done 50 or 40 or 30 years ago; we need to focus on the work that remains undone. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by those who benefit from the current situation, either; our task is to hunger and thirst and work for justice until justice is manifest among us. This is our time; it is up to us.

 

For My Cousins, the Jews of France

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s never easy to be a Jew. It’s particularly hard to be a Jew on a week like this, when I read about the terror of the Jews of France and the terrible murders in Paris. Even though I am safe in California, the Jews of France are my cousins. I feel this even more sharply right now because I am aware that some of my readers are French Jews. To them I say: Mon cœur et mes prières sont avec vous! My heart and my prayers are with you.

When I feel helpless, I resort to something I’ve written about before: living on the Mitzvah Plan. There is little that I can do directly for my cousins in France, but I will not “tune out” because the news is unpleasant. The Mitzvah Plan will keep me aware and centered.

The basic idea is this: with 613 mitzvot to choose from, there are always mitzvot waiting to be done, from washing first thing in the morning to saying the bedtime Shema at night. Using the Mitzvah Plan, whenever I begin to be bothered with the thought patterns of fear or depression, I look for the first available mitzvah and do it. Then I look for the next one, and I do that. I keep doing mitzvot until I feel better. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to enjoy it, I just need to do a mitzvah.

This constant busy-ness with mitzvot keeps me from foolish or evil activities. If I am busy with mitzvot, I can be ready to help the Jews in trouble (with mitzvot!) but my activities will be bound by the commandments regarding speech.

  • I will not engage in negative talk [lashon hara] unless it is truly necessary to protect another from immediate harm.
  • I will not repeat anything about another even if I know it to be true, [rechilut] again unless it is truly necessary to protect someone from immediate harm.
  • I will not listen to or believe lashon hara. That means I will change the subject or move it to safer ground when someone else is speaking lashon hara.

So, while I may point out news reports from responsible sources to others (retweet them or post to facebook or email them to another) I will make myself too busy with mitzvot to spread opinion pieces that engage in lashon hara. I will be too busy with mitzvot to engage in conversation that speaks ill of “all Muslims” – for that too is lashon hara.

There are mitzvot I can observe that will help. Before Shabbat, I can give tzedakah to organizations that work to assist the Jews in France, Jews in Europe and organizations that fight anti-Semitism. I can send letters of encouragement to friends there, if I know anyone who may be affected. I can engage in the mitzvah of taking challah. I can pray, and feel my Shabbat table connected to the Shabbat tables of Jews who are in trouble or fear.

Some reader may be thinking, “That’s not much! Those things won’t make a big difference!” but to them I say, how can you know what difference they will make? And more to the point, if I am busy with mitzvot, I will be too busy to let an evil situation drag me into actions I will regret, and into attitudes I abhor. I will not become part of the problem, which is always a danger.

This Shabbat, my table will be larger. Even though there will just be two of us sitting there (one of us has a bad cold, so actual guests are not a good idea this week) we will be thinking of the Jews of France. We will include them in our feast, in hope that some of the peace at our table will be (or will have been) at theirs.

May the day come when every person on earth can live in peace, where none will be afraid.

A New New Year’s Resolution

resolutionConsidering New Year’s resolutions for the upcoming secular holiday?

You can make the same old resolution (lose weight, exercise, save money, etc) or you could try something new.

For those readers who are considering a new New Year’s resolution, let me offer you some possibilities:

Try a new mitzvah on this year. What mitzvah have you thought about but never actually taken on? Commit to trying out a new mitzvah, and give it a year. Here are some examples:

Take a class. It doesn’t have to be a heavy subject! Learn to bake challah. Learn about the Jewish history of chocolate. Learn about Passover customs. See what your area synagogues and adult education programs are offering!

Read a book (or set a number of books.) It might be an ambitious commentary on Torah, but it might also be something a lot lighter. Some of my favorites:

Watch more Jewish films and discuss with friends

Are there other New Year’s resolutions you are considering to deepen or enhance your Jewish life? I invite you to share them with us in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving Tuesday, Giving Tzedakah

There are many opportunities to give tzedakah.
There are many opportunities to give tzedakah.

Today is “Giving Tuesday.” It’s a new tradition, started last year, and while I am glad that people are giving charity today, it seems to me that the timing is backwards. We had the banquet on Thanksgiving, the shopping on “Black” Friday, the sales over the weekend, and “Cyber” Monday. The message seems to be that after we’ve had our dinner and done our shopping sprees, then we will give to the needy from what’s left.

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah (money to relieve suffering – a form of the word for justice, tzedek) before every holiday. That means giving tzedakah on Friday, before Shabbat, and before sundown brings in any other holiday or celebration.

You may be thinking, “Ouch! that’s a lot of tzedakah!” but the amount isn’t specified, just the timing. We give before we celebrate. It helps us better appreciate the good things in our lives. For someone on a very limited budget, the amount would be extremely small, since Jewish law forbids us giving more than we can afford, but for the poor person it gives the dignity of knowing that he or she contributed, too. For someone extremely wealthy, giving regularly from a budget for giving is a way to keep wealth in perspective.

Disciplined giving keeps us awake and aware of the world around us. We cannot ignore the needy, if we give so regularly (after all, we have to choose where to give!) Since Jewish holidays come at least once a week (think Shabbat,) ideally we give small amounts so regularly that giving becomes a habit, part of our nature. Over a lifetime of tzedakah, the greatest benefit accrues to the giver, because he or she becomes a better person.

Shabbat will be here Friday night, and Chanukah is coming at sundown on Dec 16. Whether or not you give on Giving Tuesday, I invite you to join me in this ancient spiritual practice of regular tzedakah.