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?

What’s the Omer, and Why Count It?

There are also "apps" for counting the omer.

We are now “counting the Omer,” the days from Passover to Shavuot. In case you’d like to know more about it, here are two posts from past years that should answer some of your questions, and perhaps raise more:

How To Count The Omer

Why Count the Omer? Five Reasons (and counting!)

Do you count the Omer? Do you use an app or other aid to do so? Have you ever made it all the way to Shavuot without an error? What do you get out of counting the Omer?

I look forward to your replies!

How I Deal With Antisemitic Comments

antisemitism

Visibility is a mixed bag for Jews. This weekend in all the excitement of being Freshly Pressed this blog saw a burst of traffic, “follows,” and “likes,” – thank you very much to those who contributed to that and welcome to new readers! It also got some really ugly antisemitic comments. I’ve been sitting quietly for while, thinking about how I want to handle the mixed blessings.

My comment policy has been pretty simple. Simple is good. I decided though to reiterate my old policy and give it its own page, so that I can point to the comment policy without having to look it up.

I will continue to delete antisemitic comments as soon as I see them. My experience in raising children and training dogs is that the less attention paid to bad behavior, the better. That doesn’t mean “ignore it” – it means don’t reward it by lavishing attention on it. Therefore I shall zap antisemitic comments and then look around and say to myself with deepest satisfaction: “What antisemitic comment? Heh.”

Questions are different. A question is at least on the surface a request for information. “Is it true that Jews are [fill in antisemitic stereotype here]?” will get a straight up serious reply from me, with historical background on its origins. Even if I suspect a question is cover for a nasty comment, I’ll entertain it because it’s an opportunity to teach.

In life, that’s how I try to deal with antisemitism also. If I am pretty sure a comment was made simply to get a rise out of me, I say, “That comment’s beneath my attention,” and move right on. If I think the comment was made out of ignorance, that’s a different matter: I’ll counter it with facts in as calm and kind a manner as I can muster. If people are listening who may be misled by the antisemitic statement, then it’s even more important for me to pursue the teaching moment, even if the ignorance is willful.

To anyone visiting this blog who wants attention (and goodness knows, most of us don’t get enough of it, unless we’re tabloid fodder) – ask a question. I love questions. I crave them. They give me topics for posts, and they give me a chance to have a conversation with the questioner, and get to know you a bit.

Thank you for reading, and bless you for asking questions!

For A Very Hard Year: The Movie Seder

streits

Passover 2009 was a time when it seemed like we could not get a break. I don’t remember all the troubles – it’s a fog now – but I had been struggling with depression and after six years in rabbinical school, I had only part time work as a rabbi. One son had a job so scary that I couldn’t think about it. The other son was having a tough time with bipolar disorder, and we were still adjusting to it. The previous year California voted in Prop 8, saying, yeah, you lesbians are worthless.

We didn’t have energy for a seder that year. Looking back, I think we were in the depths of Egypt and it was hard to even imagine a seder. I didn’t feel like going to someone else’s seder and smiling and making nice, and neither did Linda.

But we still had the commandment to observe the chag (festival.) I take these things seriously, and so does Linda. It wasn’t OK to just ignore it, no matter how tattered we felt.

So we came up with what I remember as The Movie Seder. Purists will be horrified, but that year it was perfect for us. We had a box of matza, we made a green salad, charoset and something basic for dinner, I think roast chicken.

At the kitchen table, we did the preliminaries: lit and blessed the candles, made kiddush, and washed without blessing. Then ate our salads and broke the matzah, moving to the living room couch. There we had more matzah, horseradish, greens, charoset and the roast chicken. We put on a recording of The Prince of Egypt and settled in to watch as we munched on the ritual food. When they got to the red sea, we broke into dessert (chocolate matzah!) We sipped wine all the way through; I’m sure we had four cups.

And I have to tell you, while it wasn’t a proper seder, at the end we felt hopeful. The music and the beautiful messages of the film had lifted us just a bit. Watching it together, eating together, talking about the movie reconnected us in ways I still don’t entirely understand. I just know that I rose from that seder “table” ready to trudge on through that year’s personal wilderness.

That seder was years ago. A lot has changed. We aren’t nearly so worried about either son. Prop 8 and DOMA are gone (good riddance) and we feel like citizens at last. I’m in a good place emotionally right now, and I have work I love. Linda survived cancer, again. Linda and I are solid, baruch Hashem. But I think of that funny little seder with great affection: it got us through a very bad time.

When you are deep in Egypt, sometimes your seder has to be basic. If you are having a rough year of your own, I encourage you to buy a box of matzah, a jar of horseradish, some salad greens, and a bottle of wine. Make the blessings. Put on a good Exodus film (I recommend The Prince of Egypt or The Ten Commandments) and relax with one of the great stories of all time. Be in it; in a rough time, that story tells us things we need to know.

The Haggadah teaches us that “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” Part of the reason this works is that over the course of a lifetime, most of us will have an experience of our own personal Egypt. If you are in Egypt today, I wish you deliverance.

L’shanah haba’ah birushalayim!

Next year, in Jerusalem!

#blogExodus 10: Join

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rabbiadar:

Every seder is unique. This is a glimpse of a seder most of us will never have a chance to see, a seder aboard a US Navy vessel. This blog is a particular favorite of mine.

Originally posted on To the Nth:

#blogExodus 5775 topics

My husband was kind enough to allow me to share the story of how he joined together with his Jewish community aboard the USS Enterprise despite the difficulties of deployment in the spring of 2011. I’ll turn it over to him for today’s post. Enjoy!


I knew before the deployment started that celebrating Passover would be a little challenging. But, like most things, it’s just a matter of finding the community and going for it. The Navy is very good about arranging to have rabbis come out to forward deployed areas for Jewish holidays. The only question that remained was whether to enjoy the holiday aboard Naval Support Activity Bahrain or try to stay overnight on the Enterprise.

I made that call once I saw an old friend from Jewish Midshipman Club (JMC) aboard the ship. He was a submariner on a shore tour. But, since he was attached to the…

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Pesach is Coming – Time to Ask Ourselves the Big Questions

rabbiadar:

If you are not yet familiar with Rabbi John Rosove’s blog, you have a treat in store. I recommend it highly. This piece on Big Questions is worth printing and tucking into your Haggadah.

Originally posted on Rabbi John Rosove's Blog:

To be curious is the first quality of the wise. Wise people know that they do not know and are open to learn something from everyone.

The Passover Seder will soon be upon us, and there is much about the Seder that is mysterious. Nothing is as it seems. Everything stands for something else. Deeper truths are there for the seeker. Everything in the Seder evokes questions.

I have compiled a list of questions that might be sent in advance to your Seder participants or asked around the table during the Seder itself. You may have questions of your own that you would wish to add.

Afikoman – Breaking the Matzah

Questions: What part of us is broken? What work do we need to do to effect tikun hanefesh – i.e. restoration of our lives? What t’shuvah – i.e. return, realignment of our lives, re-establishment of important relationships – do…

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Escape the Passover Anxiety Trap!

anxiety

Passover is coming at us like a freight train. I’ve gotten rid of my chametz, but my kitchen is buried in preparations: pans and ingredients are in piles only I understand and the refrigerator is filling up fast. I’ve located the Passover boxes with dishes and linens and seder-stuff.

Company is coming and I can feel some old anxieties rising. Will they have enough to eat? Will they like what I’ve planned? Are there enough dishes for everyone? Who will sit where? Will so-and-so behave nicely? What will I do if they don’t?

STOP.

I invite you to take the moment I took earlier this evening and go through your anxieties. Separate them into three lists: (1) things I can control, (2) things I can’t control, and (3) things that don’t matter anyway. The only worries that are worth my precious time right now are the things I can control.

It will be OK. There will be food. If I burn all of it, we’ll eat Hillel sandwiches and have a story to tell for years to come. They’ll all like something, and if they have any manners at all, they won’t announce what they don’t like. I have enough dishes. They can sit where they want, since that is what they’ll do anyway. And if someone misbehaves, that is their bad behavior, not mine. Again, maybe a story to tell someday.

It’s easy to get so wound up over a “perfect seder” that we forget what we are really doing: We’re gathering to tell the story and make it our own.