Meet Rabbi Tarfon

Rabbi Tarfon's Grave (credit: www.pnay.co.il)
Rabbi Tarfon’s Grave (credit: http://www.pnay.co.il)

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. …You do not have to finish the task, but you are not free to give up. If you have studied much Torah much reward will be given you, for your employer is faithful, and he will pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come.  – Avot 2.20-21

Rabbi Tarfon is one of my favorites among the ancient sages. He was a rabbi of the generation between the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the defeat of the Bar Kochba Revolt (135 CE), a time of great upheaval for the Jewish People. Both of his parents were from priestly families, and he himself served in the Temple as a young man. More than one story about him mentions that his family was rich and that he enjoyed the “perks” that came from being a kohen.

However, Tarfon seems to have been a modest, empathetic man who had genuine concern for the poor. Whenever he received pidyon haben, ritual ransom money paid the priests to “redeem” first born sons, he returned it to the new parents. When he saw a bridal procession of very poor people, he asked his mother and sister to take their perfumes and cosmetics and offer them to the bride. He was creative: during a time of famine, he negotiated betrothals with 300 women so that he could legally share his tithes of priestly food with them!

Tarfon often disputed with Akiva, and he usually lost the argument.

One time they were sitting with other rabbis in an upper room in Lod, and they were asked: “Which is greater, study or action?” Tarfon answered, saying: “Action is greater.” Akiva answered, saying: “Study is greater.” All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action.” –Kiddushin 40b

However, he was good spirited about such things, valuing learning over ego.

Another time, Rabbi Akiva, who was poor, asked him for money, saying he had a good investment for Tarfon. Tarfon gave him the money. Later on, he found out that Akiva had given it all away to needy people. Akiva quoted Psalms, reminding him that such gifts are an “everlasting possession.” Tarfon hugged and kissed Akiva, saying, “My teacher and leader! My teacher in wisdom and my leader in conduct.”

On another occasion, when he lost an argument with Akiva, he said, “Happy may be Abraham our father, having such a son as Akiba; Tarfon saw and forgot, but Akiba understood of his own accord. Whosoever parts with you, Akiba, parts with life itself!”

The Talmud tells us that he was very loving to his wife and his children, and fond of his mother. One source tells us that he was murdered by the Romans for teaching Torah.

His most famous quotation is the one at the top of this page. He understood that it can be very stressful to live a life of Torah, that the expectations are high. At the same time, we can take comfort in knowing that effort and persistence are good in and of themselves.

I like to imagine Rabbi Tarfon teaching a student who is perhaps not as quick as the others. “Don’t worry, I see that you are making the effort!” he might say. Rabbi Tarfon understood what it was not to be the smartest guy in the room. He understood that a person’s worth lay in their character – as did his.

 

 

Va’era: It’s Not About Us

Open_Torah_and_pointerTo modern ears, there’s an odd digression in Chapter 6 of Exodus. Just as we become engrossed in the narrative of the struggle between God and Pharaoh over the Israelites, everything stops for a genealogy of Moses and Aaron in verses 14 – 29.

Why the digression?

Notice that the digression is bracketed by Moses’ plaintive cry, “See, my lips are uncircumcised! How is Pharaoh going to listen to me?” There are at least three ways to understand that repetition. The first is that Moses is truly desperate. Whatever he means by “uncircumcised lips,” he is frantic that he does not feel like the right man for a very important job. He’s not going to be side-tracked or ignored. And yet that’s what God seems to do as the text meanders off into a genealogical treatise on the line of Aaron.

The second possibility is that the digression is evidence that this story started out as oral history. In Sarna’s commentary on Exodus, he suggests that this digression is a literary device to separate the first part of the story from the next. He points out that this interruption comes at a low point in the story: the Israelites are suffering and so far, divine intervention has only made matters worse. Moses’ repeated line is the storyteller’s signal that we are getting back to the story now after the break.

There’s a third possibility: both times, God seems to ignore Moses’ objection. The genealogy seems to say, “Look, you are from a long line of people with the Right Stuff. Buck up!” The second time Moses’ says it, God pushes him aside:

See, I give you as God to Pharaoh,  and Aaron your brother will be your prophet!” – Exodus 7:1

or in a more vernacular form: “Lookit, Moshe, this is not about you!”

So often we get distracted from an important mitzvah by our own insecurities:

  • I can’t make a shiva call because I don’t have the right clothes.
  • I can’t speak up against a racial slur; no one listens to me.
  • I can’t chant Torah – my voice isn’t pretty.
  • I can’t give tzedakah – what I have to give will not make a difference.

Moses felt he couldn’t speak clearly and be heard. Because of that, he wanted God to call someone else, anyone else. But in this story, God wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

God says “I give you as God to Pharaoh.” It’s a curious phrase. Who can “be” God? And yet that is exactly what we are each called to be dozens of times a day, every time there is a mitzvah to be done. We are the hands of God in the world. We are the comforters at the shiva house, the ones who can speak up against slurs, the ones who give tzedakah to relieve suffering.

No matter whether we believe in a personal God or in a God beyond human understanding, most of the work we attribute to “God” in the world must be done by human hands. None of us are up to the job, the boundless needs of a suffering world. None of us will complete the task. And that’s OK – it’s not about us.

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: “The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”

He also used to say: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward of your labors. And know, that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.” – Pirkei Avot 2:15-16.

First Night of Chanukah: Not What I Planned

#ChanukahBlackLivesMatterI’ve been at my desk all day, ignoring the obvious: my body is especially gimpy today. Staying at my desk was tempting because:

  1. I have a lot of work to do, most of it desk-work.
  2. At my desk, I can pretend I’m not having an arthritis flare, even though sitting for long periods will absolutely make the flare worse.
  3. I had an investment in pretending, because I wanted to go to San Francisco tonight to be part of the #BlackLivesMatter march.

Fortunately for me, I have a wise spouse, who watched me get up from my chair and said, “I wish you were not going to that march tonight. You are in no shape for it.” After some hemming and hawing, I had to admit she was right. Even on the scooter, I was not in shape to be out in the rain, in a big crowd, far from home.

Inside my head, I feel fabulous, energized, full of love and Torah after the past week of retreats and travel. In the rest of my body, I feel about 100 years old. This is just a fact of living in a body with arthritis, old injuries and a bunch of other problems.

Sometimes we have to accept things as they are, and be grateful for what is possible, rather than grumpy about what isn’t. I’m grateful for the people who love me enough to tell me when I’m over-reaching, because I often fail to notice until it’s too late.

I remind myself what Rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying in Pirkei Avot: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. However you are not free to desist from it.” We have to try, but we do not have to push past the limits of our ability. I can contribute more to #BlackLivesMatter right now by teaching and writing. That’s the fact of it.

Do you have limitations against which you chafe sometimes? How do you cope, and how do you comfort yourself?

Running for the Mitzvah

Kalicard

I have a new decoration on my desk: it’s a home made thank you card done in colored pencils.

I was totally, utterly delighted by the card. Part of it has to do with the fact that it really is a charming little card: it’s a pop up card made with both artistry and humor. But the real delight in it is the gratitude. Every time I see the card, I feel happy and appreciated.

I generally like to translate the word mitzvah as “sacred duty.” I find that is a more palatable word for many people than “commandment.” But both of those words are heavy on the obligation: they say, “I do this because I am supposed to do it.” And yes, there are some mitzvot I do solely out of a sense of duty. I pay my taxes. I pick up after the dog. That sort of thing.

This little card reminds me, though, that many “duties” can be framed differently. Some people think of thank you notes as a chore. This person obviously didn’t – she was shining back her joy to me, and now I have the pleasure of feeling her gratitude. I am challenged: what if I approached the writing of thank you notes with such enthusiasm?

The sages tell us to run to do even minor mitzvot, for each good deed will lead to another. “Run” could simply be read “do it quickly” but perhaps there is another reading: do it with enthusiasm. This enthusiastic little card did more than say “thank you.” It reminded me that on my to-do list are many opportunities for mitzvot, many opportunities to “increase the joy.” Happy Adar!

Ben Azzai used to say: Run to perform a minor mitzvah and flee from sin, for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the reward of a sin is a sin. – Pirkei Avot 4:2

The Perfect Word

.ובמקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש

The absolute best thing about being a teacher is the opportunity to learn from one’s students.

I’m currently teaching a class on Pirkei Avot, the Verses of the Fathers, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. Today we talked about Chapter 2, and a question came up about the verse that is usually translated:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

I pointed out that in a spirit of greater inclusion, some translators translate anashim as “human beings” and ish as “human being.” One student offered the following translation, which I love:

In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch!

Originally, the Yiddish word mensch came from the German for “person.” By the 20th century, it had taken on an additional layer of meaning, that of a person who is decent and kind, one who embodies the best of humanity. The Jewish-English Lexicon offers Rosten’s translation: “An upright, honorable, a decent person.”

Perfect, no?

Reframing Privilege

Simple laboratory scales for balancing tubes

 Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?  – Pirkei Avot, 1:14

I’ve read some powerful writing about privilege this year: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, and so on. The most recent was When Life Hacking is Really White Privilege, which does a great job of explaining the gulf between those who have privilege and those who don’t. Another great article, a little older, is Straight White Male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi.  However, one thing has bugged me about a lot of these great articles: so…. what? What is the person with privilege supposed to do, besides feel badly? Is anyone listening to this preaching other than the choir?

I’d like to reframe the discussion slightly: What privilege do I have, and how do I use it?

 

Take an inventory: what advantages and disadvantages do you have in your life? No fudging: almost everyone has something in each column.  Here is my account:

 

Advantages (Stuff that comes with privilege): Financially secure upbringing, financially secure present, white, healthy, Jewish, cisgender.

 

Disadvantages (Stuff that increases the difficulty of the “game,” to use Scalzi’s analogy): Multiple disabilities, lesbian, fat, female, Jewish.

 

It’s good to acknowledge both. I’ve written before about my difficulty with accepting some of my disadvantages. Sometimes it can be awkward to accept one’s advantages in a world where privilege sometimes gets equated with villainy.  Let’s assume for the moment that the fact of being male or female, white or not, etc is morally neutral. Most of these things are the luck of the draw, in terms of who gets what and how society values it. (If you disagree regarding wealth, ask yourself, have you through your own labor risen in socioeconomic status in your lifetime? If so, ok. But most of us who are financially secure were born to financially secure parents, and we got a leg up.)

 

Depending on the how this all settles out, we may have some very legitimate gripes about what our disadvantages have brought us. The fact that I am disabled is morally neutral, but it feels unfair when the only way into a building is up a flight of stairs, and I hate it when people just walk away from me when we’re walking in a group. But for now, let’s concentrate on the advantages we have.

 

If you don’t have any advantages, then this article isn’t for you. If you are poor, sick, disabled, transgender, perceived to be female, and a racial minority, then you have enough problems without me picking on you. Move along, nothing for you to read here.

 

However, if you don’t qualify on ALL those fronts, you’ve got something going for you. It may not be much, and depending on the subtleties of how these things interact in your culture, the advantages may add up to a disadvantage (being black, male, and able brings its own difficulties in U.S. mainstream culture, aka all the people who are scared of black men). Some things, like “Jewish” may carry both privilege and problems depending on context. But in general, advantages work in your favor, and my question to myself and to my reader is, What are we doing with our privilege?

 

In my case:

 

  • What am I doing with the power that my relative wealth gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my white skin color gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my health gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being Jewish? (No, not an “in” with international conspiracies, but a grounding in Torah, and a perception by a lot of people that I’m smart and well-connected, whether I am or not.)
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being cisgender?

If you are reading this and thinking “What power is this crazy rabbi talking about?” then here’s what I mean:

 

  • I have free time that I would not have, if I were working 2 or 3 jobs.
  • I have disposable income, that is, I have choices that I would not have if I were constantly worried about making the rent, or worse, where I would sleep or how I would eat.
  • I am accepted without question in a lot of places that I would not be otherwise, because I’m white. I am assumed innocent, because I am white.
  • I am not sick, so I have have energy and attention I wouldn’t have if I were sick. Also, I do not have big medical bills to pay.
  • I feel grounded in Torah, and confidence comes with that.
  • I am perceived by some people as smart and well-connected, a perception which can be useful even when it isn’t true.
  • I am cisgender, so I don’t have to worry about being beaten up or otherwise messed over because they “can’t figure out if I’m a she or a he.”

So now:  what am I doing with my time, my choices, my acceptance, my health, my confidence, and others’ favorable perceptions of me? What am I doing with these privileges I have?

 

As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”  (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) It is fine to be “for myself,” to enjoy the good fortune in my life. It’s OK to enjoy being who I am. But I must also look to see who is not benefitting – are my goodies coming at someone else’s expense? And if it isn’t fair, I need to say so and I need to take action.

 

  • If I have free time, am I using some of it to benefit others?
  • If I have disposable income, am I contributing enough of it to tzedakah?
  • If I am healthy, do I make use of my health to benefit others?
  • If my gender or my sexual orientation or my race give me advantages, can I use those advantages to work for a fairer world? For whom shall I speak up? How loudly? Can I share my advantages? Am I willing to let go of some advantage in the interest of fairness?
  • If I have abilities, do I notice who is disabled in the ways I am abled, and do something about lack of access for others?

If we all played to our strengths, if we all used our positions of relative privilege to make this world better, it would be a revolution… a revelation… a miracle. But making that leap requires that we all take an honest look at who we are and what we have.

 

If not now, when?

 

 

 

 

Advice from Our Uncles

In this part of Titus' triumphal procession (f...
Decoration from the Arch of Titus in Rome, with spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Shemayah and Avtalion received the Torah from them. Shemayah said: Love work; hate domination; and do not get too chummy with the government. – Pirkei Avot 1.10

This is a quotation from Pirkei Avot (peer-KAY ah-VOTE), The Verses of the Fathers, a collection of sayings by early rabbinic teachers. Shemayah and Avtalion lived in the first century BCE (Before the Common Era). My friend and colleague Rabbi Amitai Adler teaches that while most translations go heavy on the formal language, these are homespun sayings meant as advice, much of it gained in the school of life. Hence, in my translation, words like “chummy,” and my private name for this document: “Advice from Our Uncles.”

Every now and then I return to Pirkei Avot for inspiration. I love its down-to-earth point of view and its timelessness. For instance, what a commentary on the arguments swirling around 21st century America!

Love work - Contribute to society, for the sake of your own dignity and for the good of society. Don’t live forever on the work of others, whether you are the heir of plutocrats or the recipient of public assistance. Also, love those who work: don’t exploit people who work with their hands. (By the way, under the present laws of the U.S., I am not convinced that anyone is needlessly feeding on the public dole: it is extremely difficult to qualify. I include this here on the chance that a reader personally knows someone who is scamming benefits. I do not know such a person, but I know people who go hungry because they can’t get benefits and haven’t been able to get a job in years.)

Hate domination - Shemaya and Avtalion knew domination: they lived under the domination of the Roman Empire. But it is interesting that they did not limit their hatred to any specific agent of domination. My interpretation? This is both permission to hate something (domination) but a subtle warning that not all domination is from the government. They knew the domination of ideology, also – Jewish society was beginning to splinter into various conflicting ideologies, that ultimately would give rise to sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Sinat chinam would destroy everything: the Temple, the society, local institutions, families, life as they knew it. Demagoguery is as destructive as any tornado.

Don’t get too chummy with the government - I can hear my libertarian friends cheering this one, but notice that it doesn’t say “get rid of the government” (in fact,  Pirkei Avot 3.2  warns us to pray for the government, because without it, people would eat one another alive!) This is about putting too much faith in “connections” – thinking that because we “know someone” the things that are wrong in the society can’t touch us. The ancient Sadducees thought that because they were noisy about being “friends of Rome” that the supporters of the Temple party would be safe from Rome.  Josephus’ account of the destruction of the Second Temple reminds us just how wrong they were.

Rabbi Meir Tamari wrote that over the centuries, apologists for various economic theories have tried to sell the idea that Torah teaches socialism, or communism, or capitalism, when it fact what it teaches is kindness and moderation in all things.

Love work, hate domination, and don’t get too chummy with the government: words to live by, I think. Work hard, and respect those who work. Love those who want to work, and don’t prevent them from getting decent work, or from getting paid for it. Hate domination in all its forms, and question anyone who wants to distract us and dominate us by pointing to scapegoats. Don’t get too chummy with the government: be skeptical, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to speak truth to power.

What do you think?