Geopolitics and “New PhD Disease”

PhD

My father-in-law, a very wise man, often used to say with some amusement, “So-and-so is suffering from ‘New PhD disease.'”  New PhD disease had one major symptom: the person suffering from it had the delusion that because he had become a bona fide expert in one field, he had magically become an expert in every field. A New PhD in mechanical engineering might lecture at length on a question of theology. His cousin, the New PhD in Physics, might consider herself an expert on finance. And of course, their friend the New PhD in History knows everything there is to know about child development!

(Jim holds a doctorate in metallurgical engineering and had a long career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Since his PhD is no longer new, he claims expertise only on matters of metallurgy, fishing, and the vagaries of new PhD’s.)

I’ve been watching the debates about the Iran treaty, thinking that there certainly are a lot of New PhD’s in the world lately.

I am not going to tell you what to think about that treaty. I have some private opinions, but they are not of a quality that provides merit to my opinions. There are some subjects on which I feel I can say more than a bit: I have both academic and practical experience with economics and finance, and I know a thing or two about Jewish ethics, Biblical and rabbinic literature. What I know about geopolitics, nuclear weapons, and treaty compliance verification wouldn’t get me out of a wet paper bag.

The same is true for a lot of the people holding forth about this treaty. Even the people who might count as experts were spouting opinions long before they had a copy of the document in hand to read, which worries me. Personally, I like to check out the data before I offer an educated opinion on anything.

Here’s what I’m doing about this treaty: I’m praying. I’m praying that all those who vote on it will remember that the stakes are very high, far too high for this to be about personal likes or dislikes, or any petty consideration. I’m praying that however it comes out, the result in the long run will be peace. If there is some way to bring Iran back into the fold of respectable nations, to step back from bankrolling terrorism, that would be very good.

Mostly, I’m praying that whatever is decided, it does not lead to an escalation of woe in the region, because all the regular people there (Iranian, Iraqi, Israeli, Syrian, etc.) are suffering too much already. Sim shalom, Hashem – bring peace, God, and let it begin soon.

And please, God, help the New PhD’s stick to their dissertation topics!

Va’etchannan: Moses’ Mistake

Old man's hand

If we take it seriously, Parashat Va’etchannan (“And I pleaded…”) is full of love so tough that it breaks the heart.

The parashah begins with Moses pleading to enter the Land. God answers roughly, “Enough!” then directs him to go up Mount Pisgah (aka Mt. Nebo)  and take a good look at the Land, because he will not be allowed to enter. This passage troubles many who read it; on first reading it seems to be a punishment that far outstrips the crime.

After all, one of God’s early commands to Moses had to do with striking the Nile, and then striking a rock:

The Lord answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. – Exodus 17:5-6

Then, much later, during another water crisis, God gave Moses a slightly different command:

“Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.”

 So Moses took the staff from the Lord’s presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” – Numbers 20: 8-12

Every sage has some commentary to offer, and none of them agree. When I look at it, I see Moses making at least two serious mistakes: he doesn’t listen (strike vs talk to the rock) and he appears to take credit for God’s work (“must we bring you water?”) I also see God saying, “You did not trust me enough to honor me as holy.” A literal translation of verse 12 is tough to make: depending on what one does with the prepositions, either Moses did not give God enough credit before the Israelites, or something was lacking in Moses’ faith.

What if the two are really the same problem? Moses was accustomed to doing things the way he had always done them. God used to say, “hit the rock” and Moses hit the rock. When God commanded “Talk to the rock” Moses failed to register the change.

Also, Moses was cranky with the people and he did take rather much credit for what was about to happen. The humility for which he was rightly famous slipped a bit. What I see is an aging man who is really not up to adapting to new circumstances, exactly the situation as they enter the Land.

As we age, we get used to things being the way they “always were.” Whether we remember them accurately or not, we can become very stubborn about our way of doing things. And sometimes, out of pride, anxiety, or maybe a bit of hearing loss, we don’t listen very well.

At that point, when we’ve quit listening, and we’re set in our ways, we are no longer fit for leadership. God delivers the news to Moses very sharply; there is to be no discussion. While it seems unkind, maybe God knew that this was the only way Moses would hear it at all.

I think about Moses, sitting on Mt. Nebo, looking at the land he would never enter, and I feel very sad for him. It must have been bitter to hear that his time of leadership was nearly done. But it must have been bitterer still that he had to be told, instead of figuring it out for himself. Surely he knew that he would not live forever: after all, he had groomed Joshua for leadership. But apparently, at the crucial moment, he could not see it; he wanted to continue leading into the Land.

Lives were at stake. There were wars ahead, and a group of people to hold together despite the attractions of a seductive land and its strange gods. Joshua son of Nun was better equipped for the next phase of the journey; indeed, he had spent most of his life preparing for that role.

After this short passage, things seem to go back to normal: Moses resumes teaching the people his final lessons, a recounting of their journey. Then, in chapter 34 of Deuteronomy, the story on Mt. Pisgah resumes: God shows Moses the Land again, tenderly this time, the whole land. The text says “He buried him,” suggesting that God personally buries Moses in a secret grave on that mountain in Moab overlooking the Land of Israel.  It’s clear, from the conclusion, that God holds Moses in high esteem.

What can we learn from this? We can learn that even the greatest people who ever lived have their flaws, because they are human. We can treat a leader with honor and still say, respectfully, “It’s time for new leadership.” We can learn that only God or a very close friend should deliver a message like, “Enough!”

And if I am that leader, I can make way for new leadership before someone has to tell me.

Moses our leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, our teacher, was certainly one of the greatest men who ever lived. Some of his greatest teaching follows later in this same parashah: the 10 Commandments, the Shema. Still, that one day at the spring, when he struck the rock, he taught us a very important lesson: even the best and the brightest can make crucial mistakes.

Judaism and Mental Illness – a Question

Question

There has suddenly been a run on the post Judaism and Mental Illness, which I originally posted in October of 2013. In July alone, there have been nearly a thousand “hits” or readings of that column. What is going on?

I’m glad people are finding it useful – at least, I hope that’s what’s happening – but I have to confess, I’m curious too. If you know, would you post a comment and let me in on the secret?

Guilt and Responsibility

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It’s been very hot here today in Northern California. Normally we have a cool breeze from the ocean, but today there was only a hot wind from the east. Such weather makes everyone nervous: it’s fire season.

There’s a kind of foreboding that goes with hot windy days in fire season, especially in a drought year. Any tiny ember can start a huge fire, whether it’s from some fool tossing a cigarette butt or something more innocent, like a piece of equipment that happens to throw a spark. So those of us who have lived here for long pay attention and call the fire department if we even think we smell smoke.

Days like today I am reminded that Torah teaches us about communal values. In a few weeks, we’ll be saying Vidui, a prayer of confession. That prayer will include some sins that I know I have never committed. I have never personally committed murder, for instance, but I will confess it as if I had.

The first time I said that prayer with the congregation, it felt ridiculous. I didn’t murder anyone! I haven’t robbed anyone, or given bad counsel! I felt angry that I was supposed to say those things, even though I hadn’t personally done them. I felt misunderstood.

But now I understand the Vidui prayer differently. Even though I haven’t done those particular things, I am part of a community in which people may very well have done them. Even though I have not personally committed arson, I am part of a community in which some people are criminally careless with fire. (Witness all the illegal fireworks on July 4.) Even though I have not and would not make money from the exploitation of children, I live in a community notorious for its child sex trafficking.

What the Vidui teaches is that even if we don’t participate, if it happens in our community, we are responsible. As Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l said:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. – The Prophets, p. 19

I have never thrown a cigarette butt anywhere (I’ve never smoked.) But as part of my responsibility for fire safety in my area, I pay taxes for the fire department, and on days like today, I pay attention to any sign that there might be a fire. Anything less could cost lives. I am not guilty, but I am responsible.

I also live in a society that is racist to its core. People with dark skins suffer all manners of indignities I with my white skin do not suffer. I have never had any reason to be afraid of cops. I have never been trailed in a store. Nor is the suffering merely to dignity: my forebears benefitted from the accumulation of real estate wealth in the mid 20th century, and thanks to red-lining, African Americans did not. I have tried for most of my life to be a good, non-racist white person; I am not guilty of personal misbehavior since I learned better, but I am still responsible.

I am responsible to see to it that no one says racist things in my hearing without being challenged. I am responsible to see to it that my elected representatives vote for remedies to racist policies. I am responsible to keep my civil servants honest about their policies and the implementation of those policies. I am responsible to make sure that some of my tzedakah funds and volunteer time goes to address the wrong that still exists in my society. I am responsible not to interrupt, but to listen, when a black person shares their truth with me.

And as for all those other things, I’m responsible there, too. For instance, since there is that horrible child sex trafficking down on E 14th Ave. in Oakland, I support organizations that work to relieve the suffering, and I vote for elected officials who will work to end it. Since we live in fire danger country, I garden appropriately and do everything else the fire department suggests.

We don’t live on this planet alone. We can’t do whatever we want. And we cannot absolve ourselves with “it’s not my problem” when something is expensive or inconvenient or embarrassing. We are responsible to do what we can.

No Nagging Shabbat

NoNAGGING

So you have heard about Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. What you heard sounded very good, but the logistics are intimidating: no cooking, no electricity on and off, no work of any kind, no electronics. You look at your family and wonder how you are going to sell them on this idea.

Stop. Let me tell you about how I began to keep Shabbat more than 20 years ago.

It was about the time I began to study for conversion to Judaism. My enthusiasm was building, even though the other members of my family weren’t interested in going to services. I wanted to have some Shabbat at home, too.

My children were middle school age, so we were often frustrated with one another. Their rooms were disaster areas, they preferred wearing old rags to clothes, they were not industrious students, and I felt responsible for them.  There were a number of areas where it seemed that all I did was nag, nag, nag and I was sick of it.

One afternoon inspiration hit.

I had been reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel when suddenly light dawned: I knew what I wanted first for our “cathedral in time:” I wanted all the nagging to stop. I wanted to take a break from it, I wanted them to take a break from it, and I wanted us all to have as happy a Shabbat as possible. So that’s what I did: sat them down and declared a No Nagging Zone from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They were skeptical.

“No nagging at all?” the younger one said, “Even about my homework?”

“No nagging at all. I can resume reminding you at sundown. But get this: you can’t nag either: no whining to go to the store, or to take you to the movies, or whatever. You can ask, but no whining or nagging. If anyone tries something that feels like nagging to us, all we have to do is say, ‘Shabbat.'” They looked at each other and shrugged: yep, she’s lost her mind.

Over time, it became a habit. If I mentioned “homework” or “making your bed” or later “college applications” they’d look at me and say simply, “Shabbat, mom.” I’d back off (until sundown.) We all relaxed. We began to look forward to Shabbat. Conversations happened on Shabbat, because all the nagging options were closed.

Later I began to decide how I was going to keep Shabbat in other ways: what was “work” for me, and what kind of observance would align me with my Jewish community. But that first step towards the peace of Shabbat was maybe the best.

We say “Shabbat Shalom” and it’s worth pausing a moment to think about what that really means. Do we invite peace into our homes? Do we relax? Is Shabbat a time when family can become closer? For some families that happens with food and routines and traditional observance, but for me and mine it began with the No Nagging Zone.

What was your first step in beginning to keep Shabbat? If you grew up with Shabbat, what is your earliest memory of it?

What are Kinot and Piyyutim?

Francesco Hayez, "Destruction of the Second Temple" 1867, photographed by marsmet543

I’m spending the remainder of Tisha B’Av studying Rav Yosef Soloveitchik‘s commentary on the kinot associated with the day.

What is a kina? To explain that, I must first explain piyyutim. Piyyutim are Hebrew liturgical poems. Some are as old as the 3rd century CE, and many are from the Middle Ages. They are elaborations on the themes and emotions associated with the prayer service, especially the services on special days. One is most likely to encounter a piyyut during the High Holy Days, because there are many famous piyyutim associated with those services, and at those very long formal services we often read a few of them.

To get the full effect of a piyyut, it is best to hear it read in Hebrew, because the music of the language does not come through in translation. Many piyyutim are acrostics (the first letter in each line spell a word.) They take the theme of a service or prayer and then bring in images and word-play from midrashim associated with the words in the prayer. That’s why studying them with a commentary can be helpful: otherwise the ordinary person will miss a lot.

Kinot (singular kina) are a particular kind of piyyutim.  They are liturgical poems of lament, formal expressions of grief. The great majority of them are associated with Tisha B’Av.

Here is the beginning of a famous old kina attributed to Elazar ben Killir, who lived in the 6th century CE (translation mine):

On this night my children cry and keen,
For tonight my holy Temple is destroyed, and my palaces burned.
And all the house of Israel tells my agony,
And cries for the fire kindled by the Holy One.

On this night my children cry and keen.

I find that the poets of kinot can help to bring a particular day in the Jewish year to life for me. Just from this one verse, it immediately projects me into the reality of a Jerusalemite in 586 BCE or 70 CE: I am sitting in the ruins of the city, listening to my children sob. They’re hungry. We’re in shock. The unthinkable has happened: God has turned on us.

The kina goes on to elaborate the trials of homelessness, and it accepts that in fact, we brought these evils upon ourselves. The forces of Babylon and Rome were merely agents of the Eternal, taking away the blessings we foolishly took for granted: home, security, peace.

If you would like to hear some kinot chanted, the Milken Archive of Jewish Music has a very nice collection of them for sale online, and it makes samples available for free listening.

Reading the kinot, I am struck by the fact that many of the sufferings we remember on Tisha B’Av are felt by far too many people in our own day: homelessness, hunger, and fear. May we rise from today’s fast renewed in spirit to relieve the sufferings of others!

What is Sinat Chinam?

"Hatred" by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly

Sinat chinam (see-NAHT hee-NAHM) is  usually translated “baseless hatred.” It has also been translated as “useless hatred.” We practice sinat chinom when we hate another person or group of persons without having a good reason.

The sages teach us that the Second Temple was destroyed on account of sinat chinam. Jews quarreled fiercely and allowed those quarrels to escalate to mistreatment of one another. They forgot to look for the image of God in one another.

Hatred can be subtle. We hate when we can no longer see the other person as having the spark of the Divine within them, as human as ourselves. We tend to say, “I don’t hate anyone” because we know it is an ugly thing, but the proof of hate is not in our perceived emotions but in our behavior. Do we speak ill of a group of people we do not actually know? Do we deny others basic courtesy or rights? Do we ignore them, failing to give them the courtesy of our attention? Do we fail to speak up when others mistreat them?

Racism is a form of sinat chinam. Antisemitism is another. Political and religious disagreement can escalate into sinat chinam if we allow it.

As we begin the solemn day of remembrance of Tisha B’Av, let us search our hearts for sinat chinam, and cleanse ourselves of it with acts of love and compassion for those from whom we differ. Then perhaps we can begin to build a better world, healed and whole.

(Image: “Hatred” by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly, used under a Creative Commons license.)