Too Busy to Be Bad

“I do not want followers who are righteous, rather I want followers who are too busy doing good that they won’t have time to do bad.” – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk

Rabbi Morgensztern, more often referred to as the Kotzker Rebbe, was a Hasidic leader who lived from 1787 – 1859. He was born to a non-Hasidic family in Lublin, Poland but was attracted to Hasidism early in his life. Unlike the Baal Shem Tov, who was known for his pursuit of joy in Torah, the Kotzker Rebbe was a bit more stern. He was very much aware of the human inclination to evil [yetzer harah] but also determined to fight against it.

He never published any works, and was quoted as saying:

Not all that is thought need be said, not all that is said need be written, not all that is written need be published, and not all that is published need be read.

(Something tells me that he would not have approved of blogging.)

However, I love his quotation at the top of the screen. Whenever I read it, I think I should find myself another mitzvah to do. If we are not quite busy enough, then we might have time to sit around and congratulate ourselves, and then we would not be truly righteous! However, with 613 mitzvot to keep us busy, what excuse is there for getting into trouble?

If you find the Kotzker Rebbe intriguing, there’s a wonderful piece about him in the Jewish Virtual Library, and more of his sayings on yquotes.

Do you have a favorite saying by the Kotzker, or by any other Hasidic rebbe?

It is In Our Power: Creating a Better World

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. – Genesis 1:1-3

Chapter 1 of Genesis teaches us that words create worlds.

That’s all. You can get hung up on “days” or evolution if you wish, but the message there is plain as day: words create worlds.

Jewish tradition teaches us that this kind of creation did not stop with the first Shabbat: each of us has this beautiful, terrible power to create realities with our words. Jewish tradition teaches us that saying embarrassing words can cause wounds so real that they are the equivalent of murder.

Recently I saw a clip of a 1962 speech by Malcolm X, and in it he elucidates the ways in which our media create a reality that frames the way we interpret violence. His point was very Jewish: words create reality. If most of what we see of African Americans in the news is about criminal activity, then we are less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to any African American who is arrested or injured by police. If any good news about an African American is framed as a “remarkable accomplishment,” then we are inclined to think that most are not capable or not willing.

Words create worlds. When I hear that someone has been stopped for questioning, do I assume that they are guilty of something? What if I hear that a person I know has been stopped? What if I hear that a person like me has been stopped? And what if I hear that a person from a stigmatized category has been stopped? What do I think then?

We have to fight for the world in which we wish to live. We have to create a good world every day, with our speech and with the words to which we choose to listen. We have to speak that world, live that world, will that world into being. We have to root out the remnants of any other world from the dusty corners of our psyches and say: Begone! For only then will we be free enough to fulfill the command:

 Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: Justice, Justice, you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20

“The Highest Form of Jewish Giving” might be a surprise.

If you bring up the subject of tzedakah, money given for charity, many Jews will tell you two things:

1. Tzedakah is from the same Hebrew root as “justice.”  and

2. Maimonides taught a ladder of tzedakah, with making a loan as the highest form of tzedakah.

The first is true, the second is missing some bits.

1. Tzedakah is indeed from the Hebrew root associated with justice: tzadee, dalet, kuf.   The Hebrew for justice is tzedek.

2. Maimonides teaches us a hierarchy of virtue in giving tzedakah, from least to greatest:

  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

Adapted from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14

“Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant” is a far cry from “the highest form of charity is a loan.” Maimonides specifies, first of all, that he refers to an interest-free loan or a money gift to enable a person to start a business. Providing an interest-free loan or a gift for education or training might also qualify. The Talmud (Shabbat 63) suggests that an interest-free loan is preferable because it is more sensitive to the dignity of the recipient. However, the highest form of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is to form a business partnership with the intended recipient, which means taking on risks and serving as an ongoing partner in the venture. It isn’t for the faint of heart, and should not be undertaken lightly. We are forbidden to give tzedakah beyond our means.

There’s a third point about tzedakah that gets less press. Maimonides teaches that when we select a recipient for a share from our limited resources, we should look first nearby and for the most in distress. “Nearness” might mean physical nearness (give to the food bank in your own county before you give to the one far away) or it might mean familial nearness, so help for the cousin who can’t make rent takes precedence over a non-relative, or an organization that will survive without our gift. (I can imagine development directors groaning at this one, but that’s what the Rambam says, folks.)

Maimonides warns, like a good investment advisor, against putting all of one’s tzedakah funds in one place: figure out how much is possible, then divide the funds between two or more recipients. So even if hapless Cousin Susie could absorb all one’s tzedakah, at least a bit should go elsewhere. Also (returning to that principle of helping people be self-sufficient) it may be best to help Cousin Susie get out of her current situation by assisting her in making terms with creditors, or moving into more affordable housing, or whatever will contribute to a long term fix.

For a more complete explanation of Maimonides on giving, I recommend this article online or the book from which it is excerpted, The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money, by Dr. Meir Tamari. Dr. Tamari is both a rabbi and an economist, serving for many years as the Chief Economist of the Bank of Israel.

In an era of growing income inequality it can be overwhelming to make decisions about tzedakah. I appreciate that our forebears thought a lot about this question and left us a framework for decision making.

The Corners of My Field

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 23:22 (Parashat Emor)

It looks so simple, on the surface: when you gather the harvest, leave some for the poor. Why, then, do we need an entire tractate of the Talmud to talk about it, and why does Maimonides devote an entire volume of the Mishneh Torah to it?

The commandment may be simple, but human nature is not. The minute people heard “leave the corners, leave the gleanings” the questions began: how much of the corners? On every field of any size? And what exactly are gleanings? What if a worker drops an entire basket of produce? What if you don’t have a field, but a silver smithy? What if the harvest is really bad that year? What about… on and on.

There are also questions about the recipients: who gets the gleanings? Who are the poor? Who is the stranger? Why do they deserve free stuff?

Actually, that last question is a ringer. The rabbis addressed the question of fraud but they don’t question that a poor person deserves food to eat. Indeed, Maimonides says that while we can question a beggar’s request for money, if a person asks for food, if they say they are hungry, the observant Jew has to give, or at the very least, speak kindly when they say a regretful “no.”

I live in a part of the country where I am asked for money on the street on a regular basis. I have a son who trained as a social worker who feels very strongly that one should not give street people money. I have a colleague who has made a very cogent argument for giving money to people who ask for it on the street. And I hear Maimonides’ words scolding me when I pass someone and say, “No, I’m sorry, not today.”

I resolve my dilemma by giving as much cash as I can to my local food bank. Canned goods are nice, but the truth is they can do a lot more with cash. They can buy what people actually need as opposed to our fantasies of what they need. They can buy at steep discounts, too. My “harvest” doesn’t involve corners of fields or gleanings, it is in my checkbook, and so I give what I can.

There are a growing number of poor families and individuals in the United States. The recovery from the Great Recession has left many behind.  We live in a cruel economy at the moment, and funds for food stamps have been cut again and again. It is up to us to dig deep and give to organizations that feed hungry people. Our tradition demands no less.

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