Image: The kever (grave) of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. (PikiWikiIsrael)
I’ve had a lot of trouble writing blog posts lately. Part of it is that I’ve been living on the mitzvah plan, getting through one day at a time doing mitzvot. Individually, I’ve had health challenges and work challenges. And as with many of you, the stresses that come with membership in my various communities have taken a toll.
I am worried by the rise in hate speech and hate crimes. I am worried by the loss of civility that I see all around me. I am worried by the “all or nothing” attitude I hear from most of the voices I hear, the absolute unwillingness to compromise. I worry about Israel. I worry about the United States. I worry that we are entering a period of history when democracy is drowned out by fascism and corruption.
The ancient rabbis we know as Tannaim (rabbis from 10-200 CE) lived in very troubled times. They lived in the Roman province known first as Judea and later as Palestina, through two disastrous attempts to throw off Roman rule. Many of them were hunted men, and we remember ten of them every year on Yom Kippur in the prayer known as Eleh Ezkerah, “These I remember.”
Lately I feel close to those rabbis: Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, and the others. They lived at a time when history swirled around them. They did work that has lasted for centuries: they midwifed Rabbinic Judaism into being. They assembled the Mishnah. They made some terrible mistakes, too: Rabbi Akiva encouraged Shimon ben Kosevah to lead a revolt against Rome, renaming him “Shimon bar Kokhba,” Simon, son of the Star. The revolt ended in 135 CE with the Land in ruins and the Jews in exile.
Living in the middle of tumultuous times, they did not allow those times to paralyze them. Instead, they took action: Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai seized an opportunity to negotiate a place for a rabbinic school as Jerusalem was burning. Rabbi Akiva gave Shimon ben Kosevah his support, because he thought Shimon could lead a successful revolt. Rabban Gamaliel traveled to Rome to plead for his people with the Emperor Domition in 95 CE. Judah haNasi recognized a moment at which precious Torah knowledge might be lost forever, and broke with tradition to write down the first part of the Oral Torah, the Mishnah.
I look at what those rabbis did, under conditions of great stress and danger, and I am challenged to step up in my own time. I write postcards to my elected officials. I joined a study group on prison reform in California. I have committed to start a book group to study racism. I have amended my own coursework to better address the divisions in the Jewish world, and prepare my students to do better in their own generation. I try to keep my mind and calendar open for opportunities to do good, whether it is a little mitzvah no one will ever see or a public action, like showing up for a demonstration.
Tough times call for action. I know that you have your own worry lists. I am aware that your lives are full of challenges. Still, I implore you not to be paralyzed by the times. Find ways to make this world better, not worse. That action will take different forms for different people; we all have different strengths and abilities. But now, more than ever, it is important that we recall that we are God’s hands in this world. As Rabbi Tarfon (another tanna) taught us:
Rabbi Tarfon used to say: 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
If you are willing to share, I would love to hear what actions you are taking right now to make your part of the world better. It does not have to be earth-shaking; better that it is something small that can inspire me and others to continue to do our best, too.
I hope you will share your stories in the comments!