Teshuvah: Doing the Work

Image: Woman pointing angrily at man; man in defensive posture. (eurobanks/Shutterstock)

We’re in a time of change, when norms are shifting and emotions are high. Things that did not get much reaction from the public at large five years ago have become serious debates: racism, sexism, homophobia. This is actually progress, but it sure isn’t comfortable.

Every time someone is revealed to have done something racist or sexist or homophobic we seem to have to go through the same little dance:

  1. “News Flash! Joe Blow (JB) has been accused of a racist act or words.
  2. Talking heads talk. Much wagging of tongues and fingers.
  3. JB insists, “My heart is in a good place! I’m a good guy!”
  4. Other talking heads: “… young and stupid. Give him a break.” or
  5. Other talking heads: “OK he did it but he’s not a RACIST.”
  6. JB hires PR firm specializing in crisis management.
  7. JB says, “If I offended anyone, I apologize…”
  8. Item is crowded out of news cycle by the next outrage fest.
  9. Rinse and repeat.

In the end, nobody seems to learn much of anything, and everyone is even angrier than before.

Jewish tradition offers us another way. It’s called teshuvah. That word is sometimes translated “repentance” but it’s more than “I’m sorry” and it is a lot more productive than the meaningless apology-lite in step #7 above.

Good teshuvah can sometimes take a big mess and turn it into a net win for everyone, because it involves sincerity and actual change. Here’s how it looks:

  1. “News Flash! Joe Blow has been accused of [insert racist item here.]
  2. Talking heads do their thing.
  3. JB meets with advisors, discovers why everyone is mad at him.
  4. JB issues a statement. “Yes, it was offensive. There is no excuse.”
  5. JB says, “I am very sorry that my words/actions hurt people.”
  6. JB says, “I am going to learn about this and do better.”
  7. JB says, “Here is my action plan for making sure that I never do this again, and maybe fewer other people will do it in future, too.”
  8. JB executes action plan.
  9. JB says, “I accept the consequences of my actions.”

Notice that the person doing most of the talking is Joe Blow, not the talking heads and not a crisis-management PR specialist.

Here is an important fact about human nature: we all mess up. We hurt people’s feelings. We do stupid things. We may do or say something racist or sexist or otherwise offensive. We are fallible. The important thing, Jewish tradition teaches, is that we own our behavior and we make sure that whatever it was doesn’t happen again. Most of all, WE do the work, not the people who suffered from our mess-up.

You don’t have to be a public figure to mess up. And good news: teshuvah can work for us low-profile types too. It isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but I can tell you from personal experience that it works.

Teshuvah: Yes, it’s a Jewish thing, but anyone who wants can give it a try.

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Why 2 Months of Adar?

Image: The Gezer Calendar, a 10th c. BCE Jewish calendar (from approximately the time of Solomon.) via Wikimedia, some rights reserved.

If you have been looking at a Jewish calendar for this year, you may have noticed something odd. This year, 5779, has TWO months of Adar.

The Jewish calendar requires a bit of adjustment every few years to keep the seasons aligned with our lunar calendar. The most obvious form of adjustment are the years when we adjust by adding a month to the calendar. This year is one of those years.

When we add a month, we add a month of Adar, and instead of giving it a new name, we call it Adar I, or Adar Aleph. The regular month of Adar is Adar II, or Adar Bet.

My first question when I learned this was, “Do we get two Purims?” Alas, or maybe fortunately, we do not celebrate Purim twice. The holiday of Purim will be celebrated in Adar Bet, at sundown on March 20, 2019 this year.

However, Adar itself has special qualities, as this passage from the Talmud teaches:

Rav Yehuda, son of Rav Shmuel bar Sheilat, said in the name of Rav: Just as when Av begins one decreases rejoicing, so too when the month of Adar begins, one increases rejoicing.

B. Ta’anit 29a

Adar is traditionally understood to be a lucky, happy month. So in a leap year like this one, our joy is doubled. Thus, on Tuesday I shall wish everyone a happy Rosh Chodesh (new month) of Adar I, to be followed next month by another happy month of Adar II.

Happy Adars!

Free Sample for Regular Readers!

Image: Studying from a Torah Scroll with my study partner, Fred Isaac. Photo by Linda Burnett.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I teach an online class called Introduction to the Jewish Experience. In the winter, the topic is “Israel & Texts,” an exploration of the library of books that have shaped Jewish experience since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Tomorrow, Feb 3, 2019, I’m going to open that class to auditors for one meeting only. In other words, you can get a free sample of the class simply by clicking the link below.

Class meets from 3:30 to 5 pm Pacific Time (6:30 Eastern, 5:30 Central, 4:30 Mountain, etc.) The topic will be “Torah, Tanakh, and Midrash.” I’ll explain what those are, and we’ll learn where they came from and what Jews do with those texts.

Why am I doing this? I have several bees in my bonnet about the NFL and American football. I’d like to give anyone who forgoes the annual concussion-fest of “SuperBowl” a little treat, and this is what I have to offer.

I am not going to publicise this via Twitter for obvious reasons – only those who subscribe to this blog or is a friend on Facebook will see it.

Three requests. By clicking on the link below you agree to all three of these requests:

  1. When you click the link and enter the Zoom classroom, your microphone will be muted. Please leave your microphone off during the class and let the registered students do the talking and asking questions.
  2. You are welcome to send me your questions at my email rabbiadar-at-gmail-dot-com, and I will answer them in upcoming blog posts.
  3. Please do not publicise this offer via social media of any sort. I am not set up to wrangle vast numbers of pop-in visitors.

And now, THE LINK.

See you in class!

Meet the Velveteen Rabbi

If you do not already know her through social media, I recommend you read some of my colleague Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s work. Her writing is well worth your time and attention.

Here’s a taste, a “d’varling” on Parashat Mishpatim:

https://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2019/02/right-speech-sapphire-sky.html

Yitro’s Gentle Advice

Image: The word “STRESS” with hands reaching up from it. (geralt/pixabay)

In Parashat Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, the Priest of Midian comes to visit. He brought Moses’ wife and children to him, and stayed to see how things were going. After watching Moses administer the camp for a day, he had some feedback to offer.

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.

But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”

But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.

You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.

If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”

Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.

Exodus 18:13-24

I love this exchange between Moses and Yitro. Moses has a new and overwhelming task: leading the Israelites. Yitro is an old hand at leadership.

Yitro offered his criticism after carefully laying the groundwork:

  1. He celebrated with Moses, without criticism.
  2. He watched and listened to Moses at work, without comment.
  3. He asked Moses to explain what he was seeing.
  4. Then he told Moses what he thought, beginning with the bottom line: “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.”
  5. He made a suggestion for remedying the situation (delegate!)
  6. He deferred to God (“and God so commands you”) who was Moses’ boss
  7. And all this was expressed in terms of concerns for Moses and the Israelites. Never once did he belittle Moses or brag about his own abilities as a leader.

Yitro is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, for two reasons: (1) there is a tradition that he converted to Judaism and (2) he was so helpful and kind that he stands even today as a model for in-laws and helpful mentors everywhere.

A question we could all ask ourselves: When I have offered feedback, how does my manner of doing so compare to Yitro’s model?

NO. MORE. HOSTAGES.

Image: Two American hostages in Iran. Nov 4, 1979.

The “partial government shutdown” has now been going on for over a month. Federal workers are working without pay or not working at all – and will never be paid. People are losing their homes, dodging bill collectors, and having to worry about food for their kids.

All this, because the present administration takes hostages.

The Trump Administration decided to discourage asylum-seekers from applying to the U.S. at our southern border. To accomplish this, they have separated parents from children, in many cases not bothering to track where those children went after the separation. Their apologists say, “Well, don’t break the law” – but those children will be scarred forever and will probably hate the U.S.

All this, because the present administration takes hostages.

Not quite 40 years ago, our country was enraged and horrified when 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage and held for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981. There was a lot of talk then about how dishonorable this was as a tactic for international relations. There was a lot of talk then about the savagery of a government that would do such a thing. There was a lot of talk, and we’ve had a hostile relationship with the government of Iran ever since.

But now we have an administration that takes hostages: little children, people running from unimaginable trouble, and its own workers.

It’s time we stood up to this government that has no shame and no morals. I’m contemplating what an all-day-5-days-a-week picket of the federal building in Oakland would do to my body, and I want to cry at the thought, but I feel a moral imperative to take action.

Ideas, my readers? What shall we do? Watching TV and railing on Twitter isn’t enough. Arguing about Women’s Marches isn’t enough. Sending letters doesn’t seem to be doing the job.

I’ve had enough.

Two Jews, Three Opinions!

Image: Two arrows on a blackboard, facing opposite directions (Geralt/pixabay)


And God said to Moses: “I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.”

Exodus 32:9

News flash: Jews argue.

We argued in Canaan, we argued in Egypt, we argued in the wilderness, and once we got to the Promised Land, we argued some more. We argue with our closest relatives, and we argue with outsiders. We argued with the Romans through two bloody rebellions that nearly wiped us out. Our Talmud is the record of centuries of debate. “Two Jews, three opinions” is a popular saying and it carries the truth: Jews argue, even with ourselves.

Visit a synagogue on Saturday morning, and you will find a group of regulars doing Torah study together, chewing over the text, arguing.
Visit any beit midrash [house of rabbinical study] and you will see pairs of students arguing with one another, striving over the interpretation of scripture (and interpretations of interpretations of scripture) as to exactly what the words mean. Study of this kind is an art form, and a form of prayer. It hones the mind and shapes the character.

The most fundamental rule for these arguments is in Pirkei Avot, a first or second century collection of rabbinic advice, part of the Mishnah. It reads:

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation.

Pirkei Avot 5:17

Hillel and Shammai were great scholars of Torah who lived in the 1st century BCE. They disagreed sharply about many things, as did their students after them. However, Mishnah Yevamot tells us that despite their tough disagreements:

Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel [refrain from marrying women] from Beit Shammai. [With regard to] purity and impurity where these ruled [a matter] pure and these ruled [it] impure, they did not refrain from using [utensils] the other deemed pure.

M. Yevamot 1:4

In other words, despite their bitter arguments in the academy, they respected one another. They allowed their children to marry each other (accepted each other as Jewish) and they were willing to eat in each others’ homes (even though they disagreed about kashrut.)

The sages of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel argued the merits of their cases, but as we can see from the friendly relations they maintained, they did not descend into ad hominem arguments. They did not attack or belittle an opponent in order to undermine his argument. Instead, they kept their methods of argument on the high road.

The example of Korach has to do with both motive and method. In Numbers 16-17, the chieftan Korach challenges the authority of Moses. Korach wanted power. He wanted the respect and honor that he saw Moses getting. He was willing to stir up the community and divide it in order to get his way. He and his followers died a horrible death as a result.

Lately I’ve seen a number of arguments among Jews that saddened me, because they engaged in tactics more like Korach’s than those of Hillel and Shammai. They were arguments in which individuals sought to “win” the argument by making ad hominem attacks on their opponents, saying that so-and-so isn’t a “real Jew” or so-and-so is a convert.

News flash: Jews disagree. One of the things we disagree about is the exact location of the “who is a Jew” line. There are Orthodox standards, and Conservative standards, and Reform standards, and the standards of the Israeli Law of Return. Traditionally, this is a subject upon which we take someone’s word unless there is a urgent reason to raise a question.

But even if someone is “faking” their Jewishness, using that to discredit them is a logical flaw. It weakens rather than strengthens the argument. It is stronger to base an argument on facts and persuasion, rather than a cheap shot.

We need to get back to arguments for the sake of heaven, arguments like those of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, conducted with mutual respect and derech eretz [common courtesy.]

“Two Jews, Three Opinions” – it is a well-known fact that Jews disagree. We differ, we argue, we nitpick, we split hairs, we pilpulIt’s part of who we are as a people. When we have done it badly, we have brought disaster down upon ourselves, but when we do it well, for the sake of heaven and the pursuit of truth, then it is truly sublime.