A Commandment to Rejoice?

February 5, 2014
Some rejoicing is quiet and low-key, like a nap.

Some rejoicing, like a nap, is quiet and low-key.

When Adar enters, joy increases. – B. Taanit 29a

How can rejoicing be a commandment? We are commanded to rejoice on Shabbat and at “appointed times,” and to rejoice during the month of Adar – but how is such a thing possible? Isn’t joy an emotion?

The Torah has many subtle lessons about human psychology. True, when someone is sad, telling them, “Be happy!” or worse yet, “Smile!” is stupid and cruel. However, what the Torah commands is not emotion. The commandment is to engage in activities that bring delight (oneg.) On Shabbat, we are commanded to eat well, to eat three meals, to light candles, to say blessings, and to rest. These are also activities that will help to reduce the stress in our bodies. Good food in reasonable quantities can be enormously restorative. Lighting candles delights the eyes. Saying blessings encourages us to notice things outside ourselves, to wake up to tastes and smells and experiences. And most of all, rest is healing to the whole person, body and spirit.

During Adar, we are preparing for Purim, and after Purim, we are preparing for Passover. The anticipation of holidays can bring joy, true, but as we get ready to perform the specific mitzvot of Purim, our potential for joy increases.  We plan and prepare mishloach manot, small gifts of food for friends and strangers. Thinking about the enjoyment of others can carry us out of ourselves and distract us from troubles that may have occupied our minds.  Tzedakah is a mitzvah of Purim, another mitzvah that takes us outside our own troubles (and it is good to remember that while it is good to give charity, we are forbidden to give beyond our means!) The “festive meal” again involves good food, a restorer of health and energy. And finally, reading the megillah (Scroll of Esther) reminds us of a time when Jews faced a terrible fate, and it did not come to pass. It can be a reminder that our worst fears do not always come true.

Mourners are not expected to party. Rather, days of rejoicing give them a break from the activities of mourning (shiva, etc). When we see a kriah ribbon or a torn jacket, the rest of us know that this person needs to be treated gently, that they are not in a festive mood. Still they participate in the delight of the day, such as the Shabbat meal, because ultimately the purpose of the mourning period is to draw the mourner gently back into the life of community.

When you hear someone talk about oneg Shabbat, the delight of Shabbat, know that it doesn’t necessarily mean “delight” in the giggly, partying sense. Shabbat is not a magic Wonderland. It is a chance to rest, to heal, to gather our resources, to be with friends and family, to be restored. Sometimes that will look like a party and but usually it will be much quieter.

And if you have heard someone say, “When Adar enters, joy increases” but you do not feel the least bit joyful, know that you are not doing anything wrong. This is just the beginning of Adar! So you are starting a little low. Observe the mitzvot of the season: give a little tzedakah, prepare small gifts of food for friends, make plans to hear the megillah, join in the festive activities and meals at synagogue.

Or, if traditional mitzvot are not your thing, try “rejoicing” by treating yourself with love and care. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Look beyond yourself (yes, give a little tzedakah!) But either way, see what a month mitzvot and self-care will do.

We begin Adar in the depth of winter, and we emerge to spring. Let me know how it goes.

Image: LicenseAttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by mhofstrand


More Hospitality: “I cooked too much food!”

November 1, 2013

[Display of home-canned food]  (LOC)

(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Here is a suggestion from one of the Radical Hospitality enthusiasts:

What if, once a week, when I cook a meal, I cook more than I need?  Then call one of these people:

  • - Someone I know who is having a tough time
  • - Someone who cannot cook
  • - Someone whom I know is not eating well

…and say either:

  • - “I cooked too much food! Can I bring you some?”
  • - “I cooked too much food! Come help eat it!”

The worst that can happen is that you get no takers, in which case you pop the extra into the freezer and take it to the next shiva you attend as “food for later.”

I love this. I will admit that I am not quite ready to commit to once a week for this spiritual practice, but I am willing to commit to once a month. I’ll let you know how it goes.

One thing is bugging me about posting this. I’m aware that not everyone who reads this is financially or physically able to cook for others. There are too many people who don’t even have food for themselves. If you are such a person, I’m truly sorry. I hope you get an invitation to a meal, and I hope that your situation changes for the better very soon.

My thanks to the Radical Hospitality enthusiast who suggested this! If you have an idea for how to expand the love and the mitzvot in Jewish life via hospitality, don’t keep it all to yourself. Tell me, and I’ll post it, and give you credit if you want it. Or start your own blog. Or best of all, DO it and TEACH others to do it too!

I wish all my readers a Shabbat Shalom!


Disability & Mitzvot

September 16, 2013

I woke up this morning aching again. This has been going on for years, gradually getting worse. Some days it takes a couple of hours of warmup to walk. Since I have had minimal health insurance and have been terrified of losing it, I have not investigated the aches too closely. I hope that will change soon, now that my marriage is recognized by the Feds (no more DOMA, Thank you Supreme Court.)

Why am I bothering readers with this? Because the mystery aches, along with some old orthopedic problems, are the reason I am not building a sukkah this week. Putting it up and taking it down is just too much, especially with my classes coming so soon. I am quite certain I am not alone in this.

What do you do when a mitzvah is simply beyond you? I lean on my community. I will help a friend decorate her sukkah, and enjoy sitting in it with the people who come. And I can feel OK about that, because I will help make folks feel welcome there. Also I learn where the sukkah and sort-of-sukkahs are, and I help others find them.

I have been enthusiastic talking about Sukkot on this blog. I love Sukkot. But I didn’t want a reader to be sitting out there thinking that because you can’t afford a sukkah, or you have arthritis, that you are somehow falling short this Sukkot. Hospitality comes in many forms, and so does participation in this holiday.

Sukkot sameach! If you live in the East Bay, I’d be delighted to meet you in one of the several Sukkot available to us. Enjoy the holiday in all the ways available to you!


The Power of Love

August 26, 2013

English: An Aastra 53i VoIP handset. Photo tak...

It is taught: Rabbi Eliezer the great used to say: Why does the Torah warn in thirty six places – and some say, in forty six places – concerning the stranger? Because humanity tends towards evil. Why is it written ‘Do not wrong a stranger and do not oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’?  – Bava Metzia 59b

Over and over, the Torah repeats to us a commandment concerning the stranger, that we will not mistreat the stranger, that we will be kind to the stranger, that we will in fact love the stranger. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (“the great”), a first century rabbi, one of the greatest rabbinic minds in our history, commented upon it. He said that this commandment is repeated so often and in so many ways “because humanity tends towards evil.”

We tend towards evil especially where strangers, people not like ourselves, are concerned. The drive for survival wired our ancestors’ brains to think automatically in terms of “friend” and “enemy.” If someone is strange looking, he might be dangerous. “Better get her, before she gets me,” thinks the deepest parts of my brain, the parts that trained in scary places in the distant past, and less distant places, like high school and the business world.

Torah calls us beyond the programming we inherited from our ancient forbears.  It seems awfully risky to adopt “love” as our default approach. Our impulse to hate the stranger is embedded deep in the brain, so that it is intuitive to strike out at someone we see as a threat. It is surprising that the Torah commands it, but so it does, again and again and again.

On Aug 21, 2013, we were witnesses to a remarkable example of the wisdom of this Torah lesson. A young man walked into the Ronald McNair Discovery Learning Center in a suburb of Atlanta armed with assault weaponry and over 500 rounds of ammunition. One of the women he took hostage surely saw him as a stranger: he was white, she was black, he was armed, she was not, he felt he had nothing to lose, she feared for her life. And yet Antoinette Tuff looked at Michael Brandon Hill and she was able to see a human being, and to speak with him and to listen to him as a human being. And because she did that, no one died that day.

If you have not listened to the recording of their conversation made by the 911 operator, I recommend it. You can listen to it here: http://youtu.be/1kVpipSXRKA

I cannot imagine a higher-pressure situation than Ms. Tuff faced. But she chose to see Mr. Hill as a human being. She listened to him. She spoke to him from her heart. She did not talk down to him. Over the conversation: as he revealed the troubles that had led him to this very bad decision, she listened to him without judgment. “We all go through something in life.” She offered to walk out with him, to give himself up to the police.

She said, “We not going to hate you, baby.”

I don’t know that I could be that calm in the face of such a situation or could speak with such kindness to a man with a gun.  But I do know that’s what it sounds like to love a stranger.

What are we ordinary people to take from this? Perhaps the next time we see a stranger, we could observe our impulse to hate and fear that person, and then choose something different.  Perhaps we could choose love, and in doing so, choose life.


#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.

 


Why Do Good?

August 4, 2013
British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible ...

British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible – Matthew’s Gospel (Ge’ez script) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do good?

Recently I read a wonderful post by John Scalzi on his Whatever blog about Matthew chapter 6 (New Testament), the famous Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus is critical of those who do good in order to be seen doing it, arguing instead that a wise person will “lay up treasures in heaven” rather than pile up treasure in this life, or collect goodies in the form of other people’s approbation. Scalzi, who sometimes uses his blog as a soapbox for promoting causes, questions his own motives in doing good. Finally he concludes:

I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always.

All this led me to ask myself, why do I do good? Why do I “observe mitzvot” [keep sacred duties], as we Jews put it?

I do not think an afterlife very likely, and should I wake up in either heaven or hell I will be very surprised to do so. However I do believe  that we have it in our power to make heaven or hell here on earth, during our natural lives. Some of us have the power to make this life heaven or hell for those over whom we have a measure of power: children, employees, or dependents. All of us can make life heaven or hell for those who are stuck with us: family and neighbors.

When I choose to do good, like giving money to the food bank, I expand the reach of the heaven I make. I put food in the mouth of someone I do not know. When I give blood to the blood bank, I share my health with some unknown person.

When I choose to be polite or kind to the harried checker in the grocery store, I expand the reach of heaven to them: it is a measure of heaven to be recognized and respected as a human being.

When I choose to vote in such a way that I believe the greatest good will be served, even if it is at the expense of my own interest, I expand the reach of heaven on earth.

None of this requires metaphysics.

My understanding of Torah is that it is a body of teaching about the best methods for making the world better for myself and everyone else. The scroll itself is not always clear on the details or the execution.  We are still engaged in the struggle to apply it all properly, but it is the system that makes the most sense to me, whether or not there is an afterlife, whether or not there is a person named That Name We Don’t Say.

Why do I try to do good? Because suffering is lousy.  I will sleep better if I honestly believe I am at least trying to reduce the suffering in the world.

When asked to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”

All the rest is commentary. Go and study.


I’m Not Done: Thinking about Racism

July 20, 2013
Negro boy near Cincinnati, Ohio  (LOC)

Human Being (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Every time someone is reported to have done something racist and all his or her friends begin hollering that good ole George or Paula isn’t “a racist” as if that is the worst, worst thing in the world one person could call another, I want to bang my head on the wall.

For starters, can we quit worrying about who’s a racist and start talking about the effects of racist acts and words? I think we’ll get further in changing people’s behavior. A person who doesn’t intend anything bad can still do a bad thing. I can step on your foot without setting out to do so. The fact that I didn’t plot it with malice does not change the pain I cause when I do it, and i fact, I should look where I step. At the very least I should remove my foot from your instep immediately!

Jewish tradition has a lot to say about unintentional sin: we call such a sin a “chet,” using a term for a missed archery target. Chapter 4 of Leviticus prescribes the proper offerings for atoning for such sins when they have been committed against God. Treating another human being with disrespect or discrimination, even if we do so unintentionally, is such a sin against God, because all human beings are created in the image of God. Someone who calls our sin to our attention (because obviously we didn’t know about it, it was unintentional) is doing us a favor, giving us a chance to redeem ourselves.

These days, with no Temple available for purification or sacrifice, the remedy for sin is teshuvah. (For a description of how to go about teshuvah, check out “The Jewish Cure for Guilt.”) Defensiveness will not work: defensiveness makes these things worse, not better. When I argue that a person who is bringing an unintentional sin to my attention is hallucinating or malicious or “playing the race card” I am missing the point and compounding the error. Those who rebuke me are letting me know how my actions or words came across, and now it is up to me to correct that — with teshuvah.

Secondly, the effect of my words is not limited to the hurt feelings or sensibilities of the listener who speaks up. My words effect all the other people who hear them and who may therefore decide that speaking that way is OK. We teach others with our actions and our speech, not only our children but also other adults. We teach when we fail to speak up about offensive language – when I let something pass, I give it tacit approval. When racist behavior and attitudes are as socially unacceptable as the n-word, we’ll be making real progress.

If I did not intend for my words to teach racism, how much more important is it for someone to let me know that that’s what I communicated?  My intent has been obscured by clumsy words, and the words are teaching evil – better fix them, and fast!

Full disclosure: I was born in Tennessee in the mid-1950’s. My parents are white and during my lifetime, the family has been very prosperous. The only minority experience of which I was aware in childhood was that of being a Catholic in the very Protestant-Christian Southeastern US. I knew lots of  African Americans as a kid, but until I was fourteen, all of them were domestic servants or manual laborers. My parents were open about thinking segregation was a good thing back in the 1960’s. I lived in an environment where I heard the “n-word” all the time, and the only sense I had that there was anything wrong with it was that “nice women don’t say that, they say ‘colored.'” Before I started school, I was explicitly taught that people with any African ancestors were not as smart as white people, and that “civil rights” was an unAmerican movement.

Thank heavens my parents sent me to school with the Dominican Sisters who taught me, and modeled for me, that treating people of color differently was wrong because all human beings are equal before God.

However, the sisters could not flip a switch in my head so that I suddenly became enlightened and would never do another racist thing or think another racist thought. I have said and done things in my life that make me cringe to remember them. I have done what I can to make teshuvah for those words and actions. I continue to make teshuvah for mistakes I make in the present. I do not kid myself that I will ever completely unlearn what I was taught as a child, but I can make an effort to do better, and to teach differently than I was taught.

My background on the subject is very simple to unpack: I was explicitly taught racism, and I am spending my adult life learning to speak and act and think in better ways. This does not make me a bad person – if anything, it is the mark of a good person that I am trying to be better, but only as long as I continue to grow in Torah and treat other human beings with respect.

I realize that for some other whites, things may be a bit less clear. But it is my observation, with my ears that were tuned as a child to such things, that nobody in the United States is untouched by race. Not a single one of us is truly color blind except for very young children (and there have been studies that show that they learn racism early.). Defensiveness speaks volumes, whether it is a liberal insisting frantically that Clarence Thomas‘s race is not an issue or a conservative insisting the same about Trayvon Martin. The mantra of “I don’t care if they are white, black, green or purple” just underlines otherness, and it reeks of desperation. The key word in that phrase is “they,” who are not “us.”

By the way – if this discussion sends some readers to thinking about the ways in which you feel that African Americans have been racist, understand that I am not talking about those behaviors. I’m talking only about the ways that whites talk and behave towards African Americans. Switching over to the “reverse racism” discussion is the equivalent of one child on the playground hollering that another started the trouble: it’s a ploy to change the subject. I’m talking right now about OUR behavior, not anyone else’s, and yes, it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable.

Torah calls us to love the stranger, to love those whom we perceive to be different from ourselves. (Leviticus 10:10) The fact that it repeats this over and over again is a mark of how difficult it is to see someone different as a beloved child of God. How much the more so, if we have been programmed to see that person as dangerous, or stupid, or exotic?

Every time we say a blessing before a mitzvah, we say, “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who sanctifies us with mitzvot [commandments]…” We are given the commandments so that we may become holy. We are not required to already be holy, just to do the work that will take us towards holiness. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say (Pirkei Avot 2:21):

It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it. If you have studied much in the Torah much reward will be given you, for faithful is your employer who shall pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come. 

How will we know when we are finished with the task? When can we congratulate ourselves that we don’t need to worry about racism anymore? Not in my lifetime, for sure – I know what’s in my head. If the day comes that I don’t feel the slightest urge to change my behavior in the presence of a black male, when I don’t hear my father’s or my grandmother’s voices in my head, when I no longer notice that the new friend I made is a person of color I’ll let you know. Until then, I’m not done.


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