Mitzvot Beyond Measure

August 17, 2013
English: Martin Buber in Palestine/Israel עברי...

Martin Buber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mishnah Peah 1:1 - These are the things for which there is no measure: the corner of the field [which is left for the poor], the first-fruits offering, the pilgrimage, acts of lovingkindness, and Torah learning.

One might get the feeling, learning Torah, that Jews are always accounting for things: taking a census (three times in the book of Numbers alone, in Chapters 1, 2, and 26), counting days after Passover (the Omer), and counting years in the desert, tribes, wives, children, generations – you name it. If you press further and read into the Mishnah and Gemara, the rabbis worry a lot about measures, distances, and other numbers.

And yet we begin each day’s prayer with a passage from Mishnah Peah which lists the things we do not count or measure: the portion of the field left for the poor, the first-fruits offering, the pilgrimage, acts of lovingkindness, and Torah learning. According to the Tosefta (additional Mishna-era writings) that means that a Jew is obligated to do these things, but the amounts are up to the individual.  If a person left a tiny area of each corner unharvested, gave a pittance of his first fruits, merely showed up for the pilgrimage feasts, that was enough. It might not be meritorious, but he would be within the letter of the law. Nowhere does the Torah command  acts of lovingkindness: they are implied in other commandments, such as helping the orphan and widow, not standing by when a neighbor is bleeding, loving the stranger, but it is a vague implication, not a clear commandment. Torah learning is commanded (“Keep these words” and “teach them to your children”) but the extent of Torah learning is, again, up to the individual.

What might we learn from this? Perhaps one thing we can learn is that an acknowledgement of human individuality is built into Torah. While much of Torah lis concerned with the good of the community, our ancestors recognized that we are not all alike. Some people are naturally inclined to study; for others even a little study goes a long way. Some individuals can be generous: either they are wealthy and they can afford to give, or they are generous by nature, and inclined to give. Others may face restraints that make it impossible to give much, or to participate much in other mitzvot.

However, these things “without measure” also give us something precious: room to grow. At one stage of life, a person’s ability to give or to participate may be limited by any of a number of factors: their knowledge of the mitzvah, their inclinations, the facts of their life, their income, and so on. Later on, we may grow into mitzvot that we neglected or observed only minimally when we were younger.

It also suggests that while it is tempting to be compare to our neighbors (“How much are the Levys giving to the fund?” or “Most people don’t go to services every Shabbat.“) – this passage is a reminder that other people’s mitzvot do not matter when we are deciding about our own. “How much did the Levys give?” is not the way to determine what we will contribute to the communal good or a good cause. Nor should we be ashamed, if we are doing the best we can with one of these mitzvot.

The month of Elul is about taking stock of our own lives, not about comparisons with others.  Martin Buber wrote about a famous rabbinical tale in which Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”

Let this month of reflection be a month for becoming our best selves, living lives of mitzvot beyond all accounting!

 


#BlogElul – This I Can Believe

August 13, 2013

Right before Shacharit at home

I have always found the notion of “belief” rather troublesome.

It reminds me of the story from the Gospel of John, when Jesus told doubting Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  That story bothered me, which is the nutshell version of why I became a Jew.

I chose to be a Jew. I chose it not because of any belief, but because of things I see, things I can believe. I see a way of life that offers me a path to goodness transcending human failure. I see a tradition that demands that I yearly examine myself and ask, sharp-tongued, am I being my best self? I see communities of people who care for and about one another, who care for and about the world, who make room for difference.

(Yes, I know there are Jews that don’t do those things. Show me any group of human beings who never foul up and then we’ll know that there is alien life among us.)

I saw a community that made room for me, a fat disabled lesbian with a Southern accent, and who then turned to me and said, “Bring it!” I saw a prayer book full of words that I could say or choose not to say, words with which to wrestle, words that if I let them flow over my brain long enough would show me where I next needed to grow.  I saw a history full of role models to emulate, from the kind patience of Hillel to the audacity of Doña Gracia Mendez to the scholarship and devotion of Rabbi Regina Jonas.

I saw a community that had room for belief, but that also honored disbelief. I saw a tradition that valued words almost more than anything– except actions.

I saw a religion that did not claim to be the One True Path. It is one of many paths to holiness and wholeness.

In that, I can believe.

This post is part of #BlogElul 5773 / 2013, a month-long themed blogburst orchestrated by imabima. I can’t promise that I’ll post every day, but I hope to share at least a few posts on these themes over the month to come. For other people’s posts on these themes, search using the #BlogElul hashtag.

Reblogged on the Reform Judaism blog.

 


#BlogElul – Know What’s Ahead

August 10, 2013

blogelul2013

The first funeral at which I officiated by myself took place at graveside on the afternoon before Kol Nidre.

I remember it vividly.  My feet were planted uneasily on the distinctive grass typical of cemeteries, a thick spongy carpet of thatch. Before me was a plain wooden casket suspended over a hole in the ground. The raw earth looked like a wound; it disappeared into darkness below. The desert sun above beat down on our heads and a hot wind ruffled the pages of my rabbi’s manual.

The dead woman’s name was Ruth. The eerie quality to saying my own name at graveside was magnified by the fact that I did not know this Ruth at all, nor did I know her family. I was simply performing a mitzvah, called to it by the fact that I was the newest rabbi in town, and it was my turn in the rotation for unaffiliated Jews. I had assembled a hesped [eulogy] from the recollections of her relatives, but they were taciturn people and I had not yet developed much skill at drawing stories out of strangers. Skills or no, the hesped had the proper effect: the meyt [dead person) was remembered with dignity and the mourners began their process of grieving with tears.

Fortunately they did not know that the rabbi was well and properly freaked out.

I hardly remember the Kol Nidre service that night. My place in it as the new part-time assistant was small, and I was free to pray as long as I remembered to sit like a lady and keep a calm face on the bimah. I was busy, though, busy processing the afternoon’s revelation, that someday some other rabbi would stand by a hole in the ground and say those words before they lowered my body into it. Someday I would die and they would bury me. It was unpleasant, but as I worked through it, I realized it was a gift. That visceral knowledge of my own mortality taught me that I have no time to waste on this earth.

The Psalmist wrote that our “days are like grass.”  Most of the time we are able to avoid that knowledge. Thinking about it too much isn’t healthy. Thinking about it too little is just as bad.

It’s Elul, time to think about it again.

Someday I will die. What must I get done before that day comes?

This post is part of #BlogElul 5773 / 2013, a month-long themed blogburst orchestrated by imabima. I can’t promise that I’ll post every day, but I hope to share at least a few posts on these themes over the month to come. For other people’s posts on these themes, search using the #BlogElul hashtag.


12 Facts about the Month of Elul

August 6, 2013
English: A man demonstrates sounding a shofar ...

sounding a shofar at a synagogue in Minnesota. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Elul is the name of the last of 12 months in the Jewish Calendar.
  2. Elul is not mentioned in the Bible.
  3. Most years it begins in August of the secular calendar. In 2013, it begins at sundown on August 6.
  4. Traditionally, it is a time for looking back over the year past, taking stock, and making apologies and amends for mistakes and wrongs.
  5. For religiously observant Jews, it is a time for teshuvah (click the link for more about teshuvah.)
  6. Both of these forms of retrospection are a preparation for the High Holy Days.
  7. During Elul many synagogues sound a blast on the shofar [ram's horn] at morning services. The sound of the shofar is said to awake the sleeping soul.
  8. Many observant Jews also recite Psalm 27 every day from 1 Elul through Hoshana Rabbah, the end of Sukkot.
  9. Selichot, special services of penitential prayers, are offered during Elul.
  10. Many Jews visit the graves of relatives or friends during Elul. It is a form of respect for the dead, and also a reminder that our lives are finite (a theme of the High Holy Days.)
  11. A greeting for Elul is “K’tiva chatimah tovah” – “May you be written and sealed for good.” This is a reference to one of the major metaphors of the High Holy Days, the Book of Life. 
  12. For more about Elul, check out this article by Rabbi Reuven Hammer.

Good and Evil

September 14, 2012
Random Crazy Hat Girl!!

Photo credit: rileyroxx

We learned it as kids: Good has the white hat, Evil the black hat. But along comes some nut in an orange and yellow sombrero, and the whole thing falls apart.

Perhaps the answer is for me to quit checking out other people’s hats and look quietly inside my own heart for a while.


9/11/2012: After Trauma, what?

September 11, 2012
Paramedics

Paramedics (Photo credit: Werner Vermaak)

Today is September 11, 2012. It’s eleven years since Osama bin Laden sent 19 hijackers to murder 2,977 human beings in an act of infamy. I remember thinking eleven years ago that the High Holy Days would never come around for me again without those memories.

Some experiences mark us forever. Any American over the age of six on September 11, 2001 will never forget that date. Any American my age or older will never forget  November 22, 1963. I was only a little girl, but I remember exactly where I was the moment the news came through of President Kennedy’s assassination.

As with moments of national trauma, there are moments of individual trauma that mark a person forever. No one ever “gets over” a rape or the murder of a loved one. The man who discovers that the savings of a lifetime have been swindled away, leaving nothing but insecurity for the future will never forget the moment when he understood what had been done to him.  The parents who lose a child will never be the same.

In a little over a week, we will read the prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, which begins, “We will ascribe holiness to this day.” It affirms that we do not know what lies before us in the year ahead: we do not know who will live, and who will die, or by what means any of this will happen. The prayer is graphic and dreadful. It pulls no punches; it reminds us that none of us are immune to tragedy.

Many find this prayer upsetting and troubling. It seems to say that God punishes the wicked with sorrows, and that the good will not suffer.  Any reasonable person knows that is foolishness. Bad things happen to good people all the time, willy nilly. When the towers fell eleven years ago, they fell without reference to the morals of the people killed inside them.

What shall we do, then, with the line in the prayer, “But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree”? (See below for the translation.) It comes almost at the end, just before a paragraph on the mercy of God. But for those who have suffered a terrible loss, where is the mercy?

I do not believe that we can ward off misfortune even with teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah. I believe, instead, that those are the means with which we may  work towards a life after tragedy.  There is no “meaning” to be had from suffering except the meaning that we build out of it, if we so choose.    Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the tools with which we can build that meaning.

Teshuvah involves taking responsibility for our own actions and changing our own behavior as needed. It reminds us what is in our control, and what is not. Tefillah is prayer, which can power and shape the changes we choose to make. Tzedakah is giving for the purpose of relieving the misery of others: it takes us outside ourselves and our troubles, to notice and act to relieve the troubles of our fellow human beings.

Our immediate instinct when terribly injured is often to seek revenge. When the wrong done is so great that there is no way to make it right, we want to lash out and make the agent of that wrong suffer as much or more than we. History shows, though, that revenge rarely settles anything. We may intend to “teach a lesson” but in fact all we do is set off another round of wrong. If you don’t believe me, look at the Hatfields and the McCoys, at the Treaty of Versailles, or at the action in any schoolyard in town.

If, this Elul, you are carrying the burden of a tragedy, first of all, my sympathy. You didn’t sign up for it, and you didn’t deserve it.  I do not believe that God “sends” misery to people to test them, or to punish them, or any such thing. We cannot avoid  falling victim to these things, but we can choose our response to them. I have personally found teshuvah (personal responsibility), prayer, and charitable giving to have remarkable healing power, not to “get me over” my private sorrows but to carry me back into life.

No one who lived through September 11, 2001 will ever forget it, nor should we. It is up to us, learning what we have learned, knowing what we know, to find a way forward, towards a future of peace, of shalom. So it is for individuals who suffer individual trauma,  not to forget, but to find a way, at last, to choose life.


Sinning Against Myself

September 5, 2012
Brooklyn Museum - Mother and Child Gazing at a...

Brooklyn Museum – Mother and Child Gazing at a Mirror (Wikipedia)

Look in the mirror.  Look at the face that looks back at you.  What do you see?

Do you see a person

– who needs sleep?

– who needs to see a doctor?

– who drinks too much?

– who eats unhealthfully?

– who is too tired to know what she needs?

– who is depressed?

– who needs regular exercise and doesn’t get it?

– who hasn’t laughed in HOW long?

– who is secretly struggling with something he hopes no one else will notice?

– who needs help and won’t ask for it?

– who has been offered help but refuses to accept it?

– who is lonely?

– who is frightened about something?

– who hasn’t had a day off  in HOW long?

Modern secular culture encourages us not to take care of ourselves. We see advertisements for unhealthy foods, for “fun” gambling, for TV shows that are on late at night. We get caught up in the push for certain kinds of success. With our families scattered all over the country or the world, care for children or elders often falls on one or two family members, who get no help or relief. We avoid admitting to depression, mental illness, disabilities, because of the stigma they carry. We avoid asking for help because that would involve admitting that we need it.

These are sins against ourselves. When we fail to get enough sleep, good food, and enough exercise, we forget that our bodies are limited, that we are setting ourselves up for illness. When we fail to ask for or accept help, not only do we hurt ourselves, but we keep others from having the opportunity to do a mitzvah.

Ask: What could I change in my life so that I could get enough sleep? Help taking care of my aged parents? Help doing whatever it is I need to do to take care of myself?

Then make a plan.  Do it.

If the answer to that question is, “Nothing,” or “I don’t know” then make an appointment to talk with someone who can help you find options: a rabbi, a therapist, a counselor, a friend.  Admit how hard it’s all gotten to someone who won’t tell on you. Ask them to help you find some ways to lighten the burden.  Those ways exist, whether you can see them or not.

Make the call.  Do it.

For sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone: those include the sins against ourselves.

Someone is waiting for you, and for me, in the mirror.


Second Commandment

August 31, 2012
English: Left to right: iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPh...

Idol?

Do not make a graven image for yourself, or any kind of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth. You shall not bow down to them and serve them, for I the Eternal your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those that love me and keep my commandments. - Exodus 20: 3-4

A closer look, a restatement, a meditation:

Do not make a graven image for yourself, or any kind of likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.A manufactured thing is different from a living thing, like a human being, an animal, or even a landscape.

you shall not bow down to them   –  Do not put any manufactured thing at the center of your life.

and serve them – Manufactured things should serve human beings, not the other way around.

for I the Eternal your God am a jealous GodThis is a high-stakes situation! Mess up the priorities, and there will be trouble, to wit:

visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those that hate meMessing up our priorities and favoring manufactured things, human-made things, over the living world can cause a whole bunch of trouble for our children and grandchildren.

showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those that love me and keep my commandments.Conversely, keeping our priorities in order can make it much more likely that our great-great-grandchildren can live in peace in the living world.


Keep the Change

August 30, 2012

“Keep the change.”

Is the change just what’s leftover, or is it a generous bonus?

What do I leave behind me, not just on cafe tables, but in every room where I spend time? Do people smile when they see what I’ve left, or do they feel cheated?

These are questions worth asking. Everywhere I go, I leave something “on the table.” It may be just a feeling or an impression but it affects others. How do others feel when I’ve left the room?

What do I leave behind me? Hurt feelings, or warmth? Pain, or relief? Confusion, or confidence?

If I don’t like the answers to those questions, what needs to change?


The Sound of the Shofar

August 26, 2012

A shofar made from a ram's horn is traditional...

When I hear the sound of the shofar [ram's horn] it seems to echo down the centuries.

The first time I heard it, I was surprised at the rawness of the sound. The shofar is not a fancy musical instrument. It is merely the hollowed-out horn of a ram.  There is no mouthpiece, no reed, no metal in it whatsoever.

If you have the opportunity to handle one, you will see that it is just an old piece of horn. And yet this simple object can work wonders on the Jewish heart. It wakes up our souls during the month of Elul. It thrills us on Rosh HaShanah. On Yom Kippur, it shakes us to our core. It awakens ancient memories.

When you hear the shofar, close your eyes. Feel time drop away from you. You are one with all the Jews of history: one with Joshua, one with David, one with the Maccabees. Feel the disturbance in your soul, the urgency of the shofar’s call.

Listen to what the shofar is saying to you.

Click here for the sound of a tekiah gedolah, a long blast on a shofar. 


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