Shimon Says: Listen!

Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel said: All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence. Studying Torah is not the most important thing rather fulfilling it. Whoever multiplies words causes sin. – Pirkei Avot 1:17

Here I am on the Internet, multiplying words – the irony does not escape me.  We live in talky times. Nothing goes uncommented: Bruce Jenner, Nepal, Supreme Court, Hillary, Iran, Syria, Baltimore, Baltimore, Baltimore.  The news is rarely merely reported; it is interpreted, commented upon, analyzed. Multiplying words.

We talk, but we rarely listen. When we listen, we wish to comment. We want our news to be interactive, because we all have something to say.

But Shimon tells us, “Listen.” Be quiet and just listen, really listen.

Listening without comment is hard work. Listening and just taking it all in will exhaust most people. Listening and imagining the world of the person talking will make a strong woman want to lie down for a while.

Talk is, as they say, cheap. It is easy to have opinions. It is easy to tell others what they should do, ought to do, need to do. It is hard just to listen.

And yet recall the time someone listened, really listened, to you. Recall what a gift it is, just to listen.

If this post inspires you to listen, here’s a project for listening.

Meet Ben Azzai: “Despise No One!”

Ben Azzai used to say: Despise no one and think nothing impossible, for every person has their day, and every thing has its place. – Pirkei Avot 4:3

So who was this Ben Azzai? His full name was Shimon Ben Azzai, and he lived in the early years of the second century. He was a brilliant student of the rabbis, famous for his diligence in study and for his piety. Despite his youth, his words appear in several places in the Talmud. However, his is a sad story, because he had a very short life. He died young in a tragic accident and never married, so he left no children.

There’s a very famous story in the Talmud about Ben Azzai’s death. He was one of four pious Jews who were doing mystical meditation or kabbalah. Rabbi Akiva was truly ready for the experience and survived it. Ben Zoma was driven mad by it. Elisha ben Abuya rejected the vision and caused great destruction. Shimon ben Azzai died.

When you hear that a student “should be married and older than 40” to study Kabbalah, this is the story behind that saying. Even though these four were brilliant, only Rabbi Akiva survived the mystical union with God, because he was the only one sufficiently prepared for the experience. Ben Azzai became the example of the pure, young, brilliant soul who flew too high and too fast, a Jewish Icarus.

So back to our passage from Pirkei Avot. The first time I read it, I was reassured by it. It seemed to say to me that there was hope for me, even though I was beginning my studies late in life, even though I struggled to learn Hebrew. “Despise no one, even yourself!” I imagined Ben Azzai saying to me.

Then I learned who he was, and the saying deepened in its meaning. “Despise no one” is a nice thing to say, but when it comes from the mouth of a young prodigy it is particularly touching. When one is young and brilliant, so brilliant that Rabbi Akiva invites one to study with him, one is rarely wise enough or humble enough to say, “Despise no one.” Now I imagine Ben Azzai saying it to himself: “Yes, Ben Azzai, you have been given brains and great teachers – but despise no one!”

“…for every person has their day…” Each of us has some important piece of Torah to do in our lifetime. We don’t know what that piece of Torah might be. Maybe I’ve already done mine; maybe it’s still ahead of me. But if I skip some mitzvah, dodge some responsibility, I might miss it, and what a tragedy that would be!

Ben Azzai argues for the importance of every life, no matter how humble. He is arguing even for the importance of things: every little part of creation has its place. We must never forget that every one of us is included in God’s summary of creation, on the sixth day:

And God saw every thing that God had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. – Genesis 1:31

Rabbi Chaninah: Pray for the Government!

Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim said: Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive. – Pirkei Avot 3:2

Since readers in the United States had their income tax deadline this week, I thought this passage from the Mishnah might be appropriate.

There are several passages in Pirkei Avot that warn against getting too comfortable with the government (e.g. Avot 1:10.) Lest we decide that Jewish tradition leans towards a particular ideology or form of government, Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim comes along to warn us that we may not like the government, but it still has its purpose. In his eyes, the purpose of government is to keep people from “swallow[ing] each other alive.” How’s that for vivid imagery?

To understand why he would say this, we have to look at Rabbi Chanina and the times in which he lived. He is identified here and elsewhere in the Mishnah as Segan HaKohanim, the deputy of the high priests. In fact, he was an essential member of the staff during the final days of the Temple. The office of Kohen Gadol, High Priest, had become a political appointment, and many of those who filled it were qualified because they were descendants of Aaron, but less than completely knowledgeable about their responsibilities. As Segan, Chanina served under several High Priests (hence the sobriquet “Deputy of the High Priests” plural.) He was the expert who saw to it that things were done properly, and should the High Priest become unfit, he had to be prepared to step in and serve in his stead:

R. Chanina Segan haKohanim said, “Why is a ‘Segan’ [Deputy] appointed? In case the high-priest became unfit for service, the ‘Segan’ [Deputy] should enter at once to do the service.” – Sotah 42a

Rabbi Chaninah was the man responsible for making sure that everything ran smoothly in the great Temple. He filled that role in an era of legendary upheaval. He served several different High Priests. He saw the political chaos leading up to the Great Revolt against Rome beginning in 66 CE, when different factions among the Jews fought each other as bitterly as later they would all fight against Rome. He watched the brutality of Rome come crashing down upon all the Jews. He was a witness to the horrors of the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the events following.

When Rabbi Chaninah speaks of men “swallowing each other alive,” he is speaking colorfully, but it is hardly an exaggeration. He could remember a time when the government was disliked by most residents of Judea, but life was livable. By the time he died (according to some sources, martyred by Rome) life in Judea had gone through utter chaos and had been returned to order by a brutal army.

If we were to update Chaninah’s words today, he might say: “Be careful what you wish for: there are worse things than a government you don’t like.”

Hillel: Do Not Separate Yourself!


Hillel used to say: Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.  –Pirkei Avot 2:5

Here’s one of my favorite sayings by Hillel, who said a lot of famous things.

Whenever I find myself drawing away from Jewish community, I think of this passage. I usually have what I think are excellent reasons: someone was unkind, I was feeling bored, there’s some sort of squabble going on and I hate squabbling, etc. I have been a member of the same Jewish community for most of 20 years, and from time to time these things come up.

But whenever I notice that I have pulled away with these excellent reasons, I am reminded of this passage: “Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.” Now I will grant that this is a multi-part verse, but notice the word “and.” These two phrases were meant to go together.  Hillel is saying to me, “Oh? You have separated yourself for excellent reasons? And who has decided those reasons are excellent, pray tell?”

At that point I have to admit that the only person I’ve consulted is myself. I’ve decided to separate from the community because I’m hurt, or mad, or bored, or whatever. Hillel reminds us that when we are feeling all “I vant to be alone”-ish, we are not necessarily employing our best selves or our best judgment. That moment, when I most want to pull away and sulk or feel superior, is exactly the moment when I should be talking to someone.

When I talk, it should be either to the person with whom I have the problem, or with someone who can help me put it into proper perspective so that I can do something about it. Simply “venting” to a friend or an outsider can do terrible damage, because it spreads poison without actually resolving anything.

Talking to the person with whom I have the problem, or to someone who can help me resolve matters is a lot harder than fussing to my friends. A good advisor will listen to me, but they also won’t let me get away with judgmental talk or cryptic statements. Talking with them ultimately means re-engaging with the community.

And if it turns out my reasons really are excellent, a good advisor will affirm that. There are times when a situation is so destructive that the only thing to do is leave. A good advisor will help me discern if that’s the case, and help me figure out what I need to do to leave with integrity. That’s very different from hiding out at home in a bad mood.

Hillel is often contrasted with his colleague Shammai. Of the two, Hillel has the reputation for being patient and kind. I suspect that while he may indeed have been patient and kind, he was also a shrewd old bird who would not let his students get away with foolishness. Certainly he doesn’t let me get away with much, every time I read him!

Avot: Meet Shammai

Tomb of Shammai

Shammai used to say: Make your Torah permanent, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance. (Avot 1:13)

It’s traditional to study Pirkei Avot during the time between Passover and Shavuot, and I thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the less-familiar sayings in it. The entire text of this section of the Mishnah is available online in both Hebrew and in several different translations.

Shammai was a first century rabbi, one of several pairs of teachers mentioned in rabbinic literature. His opponent and pair was Hillel, one of the most famous of the early rabbis. Shammai was an irascible fellow, if we believe some of the stories told about him. He didn’t suffer fools. However, judging from this aphorism, he aspired to be more like calm, kind Hillel.

“Make your Torah fixed” – has been translated many different ways. Often it’s translated “study Torah at a fixed time very day.” However, I don’t see anything about time in the text. I think he’s telling his students (us) to fix Torah in our minds. Don’t “sort of learn” it: learn it, memorize it, engrave it on our minds.

“Say little and do much” – What counts for more, words or deeds? It is easier to talk about what we are going to do than to actually make the time and effort to do something. What is the good of talking about politics if we don’t vote? What good does it do to talk about writing a thank you note, if we never actually write it?

“Receive every person with a pleasant countenance.” – In Shabbat 31a, there are several stories about people approaching Shammai, wanting to convert to Judaism. Shammai chases them away because they ask rude or stupid questions. Hillel is more patient. It is amusing, therefore, to read here that Shammai says to “receive every person with a pleasant countenance” – really? What about the fellow at whom he threw the builder’s tool?

I admit that there are some lessons I teach that I do not yet practice perfectly, including this one. I worry sometimes about hypocrisy. The only way I know to deal with that is to be honest about my own imperfections.

What do you make of Shammai’s words? And what do you think about the fact that he taught a lesson he had not yet mastered?

Running for the Mitzvah


I have a new decoration on my desk: it’s a home made thank you card done in colored pencils.

I was totally, utterly delighted by the card. Part of it has to do with the fact that it really is a charming little card: it’s a pop up card made with both artistry and humor. But the real delight in it is the gratitude. Every time I see the card, I feel happy and appreciated.

I generally like to translate the word mitzvah as “sacred duty.” I find that is a more palatable word for many people than “commandment.” But both of those words are heavy on the obligation: they say, “I do this because I am supposed to do it.” And yes, there are some mitzvot I do solely out of a sense of duty. I pay my taxes. I pick up after the dog. That sort of thing.

This little card reminds me, though, that many “duties” can be framed differently. Some people think of thank you notes as a chore. This person obviously didn’t – she was shining back her joy to me, and now I have the pleasure of feeling her gratitude. I am challenged: what if I approached the writing of thank you notes with such enthusiasm?

The sages tell us to run to do even minor mitzvot, for each good deed will lead to another. “Run” could simply be read “do it quickly” but perhaps there is another reading: do it with enthusiasm. This enthusiastic little card did more than say “thank you.” It reminded me that on my to-do list are many opportunities for mitzvot, many opportunities to “increase the joy.” Happy Adar!

Ben Azzai used to say: Run to perform a minor mitzvah and flee from sin, for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the reward of a sin is a sin. – Pirkei Avot 4:2

The Perfect Word

.ובמקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש

The absolute best thing about being a teacher is the opportunity to learn from one’s students.

I’m currently teaching a class on Pirkei Avot, the Verses of the Fathers, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. Today we talked about Chapter 2, and a question came up about the verse that is usually translated:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

I pointed out that in a spirit of greater inclusion, some translators translate anashim as “human beings” and ish as “human being.” One student offered the following translation, which I love:

In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch!

Originally, the Yiddish word mensch came from the German for “person.” By the 20th century, it had taken on an additional layer of meaning, that of a person who is decent and kind, one who embodies the best of humanity. The Jewish-English Lexicon offers Rosten’s translation: “An upright, honorable, a decent person.”

Perfect, no?