For My Cousins, the Jews of France

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s never easy to be a Jew. It’s particularly hard to be a Jew on a week like this, when I read about the terror of the Jews of France and the terrible murders in Paris. Even though I am safe in California, the Jews of France are my cousins. I feel this even more sharply right now because I am aware that some of my readers are French Jews. To them I say: Mon cœur et mes prières sont avec vous! My heart and my prayers are with you.

When I feel helpless, I resort to something I’ve written about before: living on the Mitzvah Plan. There is little that I can do directly for my cousins in France, but I will not “tune out” because the news is unpleasant. The Mitzvah Plan will keep me aware and centered.

The basic idea is this: with 613 mitzvot to choose from, there are always mitzvot waiting to be done, from washing first thing in the morning to saying the bedtime Shema at night. Using the Mitzvah Plan, whenever I begin to be bothered with the thought patterns of fear or depression, I look for the first available mitzvah and do it. Then I look for the next one, and I do that. I keep doing mitzvot until I feel better. I don’t have to think about it, I don’t have to enjoy it, I just need to do a mitzvah.

This constant busy-ness with mitzvot keeps me from foolish or evil activities. If I am busy with mitzvot, I can be ready to help the Jews in trouble (with mitzvot!) but my activities will be bound by the commandments regarding speech.

  • I will not engage in negative talk [lashon hara] unless it is truly necessary to protect another from immediate harm.
  • I will not repeat anything about another even if I know it to be true, [rechilut] again unless it is truly necessary to protect someone from immediate harm.
  • I will not listen to or believe lashon hara. That means I will change the subject or move it to safer ground when someone else is speaking lashon hara.

So, while I may point out news reports from responsible sources to others (retweet them or post to facebook or email them to another) I will make myself too busy with mitzvot to spread opinion pieces that engage in lashon hara. I will be too busy with mitzvot to engage in conversation that speaks ill of “all Muslims” – for that too is lashon hara.

There are mitzvot I can observe that will help. Before Shabbat, I can give tzedakah to organizations that work to assist the Jews in France, Jews in Europe and organizations that fight anti-Semitism. I can send letters of encouragement to friends there, if I know anyone who may be affected. I can engage in the mitzvah of taking challah. I can pray, and feel my Shabbat table connected to the Shabbat tables of Jews who are in trouble or fear.

Some reader may be thinking, “That’s not much! Those things won’t make a big difference!” but to them I say, how can you know what difference they will make? And more to the point, if I am busy with mitzvot, I will be too busy to let an evil situation drag me into actions I will regret, and into attitudes I abhor. I will not become part of the problem, which is always a danger.

This Shabbat, my table will be larger. Even though there will just be two of us sitting there (one of us has a bad cold, so actual guests are not a good idea this week) we will be thinking of the Jews of France. We will include them in our feast, in hope that some of the peace at our table will be (or will have been) at theirs.

May the day come when every person on earth can live in peace, where none will be afraid.

Hospitality For Growth

Lighting chanukiot at our Chanukah party.
Lighting the candles at our Chanukah party.

Long-time readers may remember my Hospitality Challenge: 16 months ago I challenged myself to grow in the mitzvah of hospitality. Yes, it is an actual mitzvah: Abraham and Sarah are famous for their hospitality. The Torah commands us to follow their example. After all, this is how all of us learn to “do Jewish:” not from a class or a book, but from observing the mitzvot with other Jews.

What I didn’t expect was that hospitality could also be an avenue for personal and spiritual growth.

Here’s where we started: I’m an introvert married to an introvert’s introvert. We are not great housekeepers, nor are we good cooks. We were both intimidated by the idea of opening our home to people who might (eep!) judge us on our housekeeping and cooking.

We’ve had fewer Shabbat guests than I originally hoped, but we have hosted more people in the past year than ever before.  We have celebrated almost every Jewish holiday with friends and family and some new friends (aka “strangers.”) Sukkot and Chanukah each saw a large gathering at the house. During the summer, I hosted regular Torah study gatherings here, and we’ve had countless folks over for an afternoon or an evening.

We’ve had great dinners, and burned dinners, gatherings where we were overrun with guests (who thought they’d all say yes?) and gatherings we canceled for lack of guests. There have been some wonderful people here, and a few who’ve been a challenge. And yet one thing has been constant: after the guests left, there was a glow that remained, a sense that home was indeed a holy place of warmth and friendship.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Nobody cares that the rabbi’s desk looks like a tag sale.
  2. If the main dish is a bust, the pizza place down the hill delivers.
  3. To carry out this mitzvah, I had to learn to ask for and accept help.
  4. People will bring food if you ask them to ahead of time.
  5. A plan for the evening is nice but not necessary.
  6. All guests go home eventually.
  7. Jewish warmth and Jewish blessings make everything glow.
  8. Jewish hospitality grows our Jewish souls.

Taking on this mitzvah has made me grow into a happier person and a better Jew. Here’s to 16 more months (and more!) of sharing the joy.

Giving Tuesday, Giving Tzedakah

There are many opportunities to give tzedakah.
There are many opportunities to give tzedakah.

Today is “Giving Tuesday.” It’s a new tradition, started last year, and while I am glad that people are giving charity today, it seems to me that the timing is backwards. We had the banquet on Thanksgiving, the shopping on “Black” Friday, the sales over the weekend, and “Cyber” Monday. The message seems to be that after we’ve had our dinner and done our shopping sprees, then we will give to the needy from what’s left.

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah (money to relieve suffering – a form of the word for justice, tzedek) before every holiday. That means giving tzedakah on Friday, before Shabbat, and before sundown brings in any other holiday or celebration.

You may be thinking, “Ouch! that’s a lot of tzedakah!” but the amount isn’t specified, just the timing. We give before we celebrate. It helps us better appreciate the good things in our lives. For someone on a very limited budget, the amount would be extremely small, since Jewish law forbids us giving more than we can afford, but for the poor person it gives the dignity of knowing that he or she contributed, too. For someone extremely wealthy, giving regularly from a budget for giving is a way to keep wealth in perspective.

Disciplined giving keeps us awake and aware of the world around us. We cannot ignore the needy, if we give so regularly (after all, we have to choose where to give!) Since Jewish holidays come at least once a week (think Shabbat,) ideally we give small amounts so regularly that giving becomes a habit, part of our nature. Over a lifetime of tzedakah, the greatest benefit accrues to the giver, because he or she becomes a better person.

Shabbat will be here Friday night, and Chanukah is coming at sundown on Dec 16. Whether or not you give on Giving Tuesday, I invite you to join me in this ancient spiritual practice of regular tzedakah.

Suffering in Paradise

Pahoa
US Geological Survey photo shows the lava crossing Cemetery Rd and Apa’a St in Pahoa.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the plight of the people of the Lower Puna district in Hawai’i in Suffering is Not a Show. Kilauea volcano’s most recent eruption took an unexpected turn this past summer when lava began oozing toward the homes of the small town of Pahoa.

Real estate in Lower Puna is among the cheapest in the Hawaiian islands because of the nearness of Kilauea. It is a gamble to buy land there, because the volcano is so close. On the other hand, if a person of ordinary means and no inheritance wants to own land, that is the only affordable property; much of the rest of the Island belongs to land trusts or owners with very deep pockets. Until June, the village of Pahoa was one of the fortunate places. Then the lava began moving their way, just before the brunt of Hurricane Iselle hit that part of the island.

Now these people of modest means are scrambling to get out of the way of the lava before it takes their property and burns their homes. If you would like to help them, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency recommends cash donations to any of these organizations:

American Red Cross, Hawaii Chapter

Aloha United Way

Hawaii Food Bank

Helping Hands Hawaii

Tzedakah is the Jewish word for money given for the relief of suffering. It is a mitzvah to assist someone in such a situation.

The Hawaiian people speak of Madame Pele, the deity of the volcano. They regard her with reverence and awe. As a Jew, I see the awesome power of the volcano. God in nature can indeed be fearful, but as a human being I can perform mitzvot, extending the mercy of God with my helping hand.

 

What’s a Mitzvah?

“What’s a mitzvah?” a reader recently asked.

If you look it up in the Hebrew dictionary, it will tell you that a mitzvah is a commandment.

“Commandment” in English implies that it comes from outside, and it isn’t my choice. And yet each mitzvah IS a choice: I can keep it, or I can neglect it. It’s up to me. These duties are rooted in Torah, but they are acted out in my life, and in the lives of my fellow Jews.

I prefer to think of mitzvot (that’s the plural) as my sacred duties. Whether they are as lofty as saying my prayers, or as mundane as paying workers on time, they increase the holiness in the world, and they are choices I make every moment of every day. I do not get a gold star for doing them. They are just what I do as a Jew.

This month I’m asking myself: which of my sacred duties have I neglected? Which have I done poorly, done for ego, done only when someone is looking? Which have I treated as truly sacred?

How can I do better?

This post is inspired by #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, also known as @imabima.

 

Can You Name 50 Mitzvot?

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zRecently, one of my readers over on twitter read “Living on the Mitzvah Plan” and asked for a list of mitzvot for working the plan.

If you haven’t read the article, the gist of it is in this paragraph:

The Mitzvah Plan isn’t just for depression. Bored? Do a mitzvah. Frustrated? Do a mitzvah. Insomnia? Do a mitzvah. What, you did it and you are still bored, frustrated or awake? Do another mitzvah. And another. Keep doing mitzvot until you feel better or the world changes. Then do another mitzvah.

The idea is that mitzvot can keep us busy when we need a plan for what to do. They can keep us busy and out of trouble. They can take us outside ourselves and give us some reason to feel better about ourselves.

So, @travelincatdoc, here’s a list for you, with examples:

  1. Care for the body (bathe, brush teeth, exercise, get enough sleep)
  2. Pay a bill. (Paying workers on time is a mitzvah.)
  3. Study some Torah (anything from reading a little to actual study of a commentary)
  4. Smile when you greet someone. (You don’t have to feel friendly, just act friendly.)
  5. Give tzedakah. Even very small amounts count.
  6. Say the appropriate blessing before eating. English is OK.
  7. Learn the appropriate blessing to say before eating.
  8. Refrain from participating in gossip (yes, NOT doing some things is a mitzvah.)
  9. Feed or water your animals.
  10. Befriend a stranger.
  11. Write a thank you note to someone.
  12. Say Shema when you get up and when you go to bed.
  13. Honor your parents.
  14. Do some small act of kindness for someone.
  15. Visit someone who is sick, or give them a call.
  16. Visit a mourner, or give them a call.
  17. Attend a funeral or shiva house.
  18. Attend a wedding and compliment the bride.
  19. Attend a Torah study class.
  20. Drive the car with an awareness of all the lives in your hands.
  21. Fix something at home that was unsafe.
  22. Teach a Jewish child to swim.
  23. Teach Torah to another Jew.
  24. Join a local minyan for weekday prayers, even once.
  25. Keep Shabbat.
  26. Keep the holidays.
  27. Apologize to someone you have injured.
  28. Accept an apology.
  29. Be honest in business.
  30. Pass up an opportunity to steal something.
  31. Help someone who is injured.
  32. Stand up for someone who needs help.
  33. Let go of a grudge.
  34. If you find lost property, try to return it.
  35. Treat a stranger kindly.
  36. Bless after eating. (Birkat HaMazon)
  37. Refrain from embarrassing another person.
  38. Refrain from hitting or cursing your parent.
  39. Get married.
  40. Tell the truth kindly.
  41. Rest on Shabbat.
  42. Rejoice on Shabbat and festivals.
  43. Repay a debt.
  44. Keep your word.
  45. Fulfill promises quickly.
  46. Do not leave something around the house that may cause injury.
  47. Refrain from murder.
  48. Refrain from cursing the ruler or government of your country.
  49. Refrain from idolatry.
  50. Love God.

Many of those commandments are worth their own articles. Are there any that surprise you? Any you’d like to add?

 

 

What’s the Point of Ritual?

TorahRitualmod

I teach Introduction to Judaism classes for adults who want a basic education in Judaism.

One of the temptations in planning such a class is to focus primarily on the “how to” aspects: how to keep Shabbat and holidays, how to hang a mezuzah, how to have a proper Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah, how to keep up in the service. Certainly it is important for people to feel comfortable and competent in doing those things, but if that’s all I teach, I’ve not done enough.

Before we perform a mitzvah, usually there’s a blessing, one that starts out:

Blessed are You, [The name of God] our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot…

And then we specify the mitzvah we are about to do. Often the words of the formula fly by as we focus on the mitzvah we are about to do, but there’s something important in there: the point, in fact. The point of mitzvot, the point of reading the scroll of Esther or sitting at the seder table or studying Torah is to sanctify us and to remind us of our role in this world. 

Some mitzvot are incomprehensible (Why avoid mixing linen and wool? Why wave the lulav?) but even the most mysterious of commandments encourage me to be aware of the world, to pay attention. They push me to stop and see, to wake up and notice. Combine them with Jewish study (another mitzvah!) and they direct that wakened awareness to the pursuit of Jewish virtues: towards lovingkindness, hospitality, humility, compassion, and justice.

If all I do is a bunch of quaint rituals, I’ve missed the point. The prophet Isaiah tells us that sacrifices and ritual are not enough by themselves to sanctify us in the first chapter of Isaiah:

“Why are all those sacrifices offered to me?” asks God. “I’m fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals! I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats! Yes, you come to appear in my presence; but who asked you to do this, to trample through my courtyards? Stop bringing worthless grain offerings! They are like disgusting incense to me! Rosh-Hodesh, Shabbat, calling convocations — I can’t stand evil together with your assemblies! (Isaiah 1:11-14)

Isaiah then reminds us that true holiness lies not in picturesque ritual, but in hands and heads that alleviate suffering, act justly and spread goodness in the world:

Get your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing evil, learn to do good! Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend orphans, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

We are entering the spring season of ceremony: Purim, then Passover, then Shavuot. We are approaching an annual opportunity for transformation. If we enter this time with an open heart and mind, then we can indeed be “sanctified by mitzvot” and become the hands of goodness in this world, seeking justice, defending the defenseless, finding hope for the destitute.

Whether we are beginners, in our first “Intro” class, or old hands at the Jewish holidays, let’s open our hearts and our minds to the meaning of these festivals, and transform: first ourselves, and then the world.

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