It’s “Just Business,” Right?

Image: A man fastening his tie. Photo by unsplash/pixabay.

In the film The Godfather there’s a very famous line, spoken by Michael Corleone: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

Michael Corleone is in the process of becoming a criminal, and the “business” to which he refers is a crime. I wonder sometimes if the people who say “It’s strictly business” about their own dealings realize that they are quoting a criminal.

Usually when a person uses the phrase, they are implying that if something is business, then the usual moral laws don’t apply. Perhaps the action in question is technically legal, or a loophole is found that can make it fall outside the purview of the civil law. And so they say, “It’s just business,” meaning, “Don’t bother me with that morality stuff – that’s for sissies.” Or simply: “It doesn’t matter. It’s just business.”

However, that’s not how Jewish tradition approaches business at all. In the Talmud, behavior in business is seen as so telling of a person’s character that it is the first question God asks at the Seat of Judgment:

When a man is brought before the [heavenly] court he is asked:  “Were you trustworthy in business?” – Shabbat 31a

An enormous block of the Talmud is taken up with business behavior, and it is the topic of a significant chunk of the medieval codes (Mishneh Torah, Shulkhan Aruch) as well. There are mitzvot having to do with weights and measures, with accounts payable and receivable, with payroll, and a myriad other aspects of business life.

Sometimes these mitzvot are remarkably similar to what an MBA would recognize as “Business Ethics” and sometimes not. That’s the reason that the second question at the Seat of Judgment is “Did you set a time for Torah study?” We are not born knowing how to live a life of Torah; we have to study with other Jews and struggle with the texts and the tradition.

The news is full of “just business” that might qualify as Torah transgressions: waste and destruction of natural resources, misleading claims, and dangerous workplaces, to name just a few. I am sure that the people responsible for companies that indulge in such practices tell themselves that they are doing it to stay competitive, that such moral qualms are a luxury they can’t afford.

Torah teaches us that everything we do matters. It matters if we deal fairly with others. It matters what we do with the natural world. It matters when a landlord doesn’t maintain their building. It matters when an employee’s children go to bed hungry. It matters when I pay a few dollars less in taxes and a bridge falls down.

It. All. Matters.

Torah is challenging. Torah is expensive (ask anyone who keeps kosher.) Torah is almost always the harder way of doing things. But at the end of a life of Torah, we can look back and see ways in which the world is a bit better for our having lived in it.

And that is what matters, isn’t it?

The Ghost Ship Fire

Image: A woman grieving, black and white. Photo by unsplash/pixabay.

The first I knew about it was when my phone rang by my bed. It was my ex-father-in-law and still dear family, Jim Scott, asking if I’d heard from “the boys.” My sons are in their 30’s, but to some folks they’ll always be “the boys.” No, I hadn’t… why?

Friday night there was a terrible fire in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. I had heard about it on the radio before I went to sleep, described as a “warehouse fire.” I hadn’t thought much about it. By morning the building was being described as an artist collective, and there had been a party there, then a fire with many, many casualties.

“I am sure they weren’t there,” I said, on automatic pilot. “I’ll get back to you.” I phoned the elder son, the artist, and he was slow to answer (not a morning person – but neither am I.) He works in an artist collective, but in another part of town, and my mama-instinct told me he hadn’t been there, but we needed to hear his voice. He answered, thank God.  I ascertained that he was alive, and told him to call his granddad immediately.

I texted his brother the musician, and yes, he was fine. I told him to get in touch with Granddad. Then I began thinking about all the mothers and grandfathers and friends everywhere hearing about that fire. I looked on Twitter for news.

People, when something like this happens, remember that survivors and friends are combing social media and the news, hoping for information. Out of human decency, please DON’T:

ANALYZE the situation based on little information, and PLACE BLAME.

BLAME the victims for being foolish. (The things I saw used ruder words.)

MAKE JOKES. (I can’t believe I need to say that.)

SPEAK HATEFULLY about groups to whom the victims might (or might not) belong (in this case, African Americans, Californians, liberals, Oaklanders.)

MAKE GHOULISH SPECULATIONS (Again, can’t believe I have to say that.)

As I write, on Sunday afternoon, they are still searching for bodies in the ashes. So far, all my sons’ friends are accounted for, but as Aaron said to me, friends of friends died in that fire. This was close to home.

Think carefully before posting anything but sympathy in the wake of a tragedy. Please. It is a mitzvah to comfort mourners, but surely it is one of the worst of sins to torture them.

brothers

This is a photo of my sons that I took about a year ago. Good guys, both of them.

Update, 12/4/16, 7:34pm, PST: At this writing 33 bodies have been recovered from the scene, and 7 of them identified. I know of two people whose families and friends await news; I hope I don’t learn of more. 

Judaism and Pregnancy

Image: A pregnant woman by the sea. Photo by pexels/pixabay.

When I wrote about Hasidah and Jewish infertility support recently, I realized I’d never written about Jewish pregnancy. There are a few Jewish customs which may seem odd to those outside our community.

A few things to know:

What to say: Do not say “mazal tov” or “congratulations” until the baby is safely born! Instead say, “B’sha’ah tovah” (b-shah-AH toe-VAH) to the parents until that time. It means, “In a good hour” which means, “May everything go well.” You can also say, “Wonderful! I’m happy for you.”

About gifts: Many Jewish families do not collect things for the baby in the home of the parents-to-be. While some will tell you this is about “tempting the evil eye” or some such, it has practical implications as well, since there are no guarantees about pregnancy. Ask what the family is doing about gifts, and follow their lead.

About the name: It is an old Jewish tradition to keep the name of an infant private until the bris or naming (usually at eight days.) If they seem coy about telling you the names they’ve picked out, it’s because they are observing that custom.

Good books about Judaism and new babies:

Anita Diamant, The New Jewish Baby Book also How to Raise a Jewish Child

Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November MSSW, Jewish Spiritual Parenting

Shabbat Shalom! – Toledot

Image: Logo of Hasidah, a nonprofit organization that supports Jewish couples suffering with infertility.

Toledot – “Generations” – Another eventful parashah carries us beyond Abraham and Sarah to the generations that follow. It begins with a situation that repeats again and again in Torah: a couple have trouble conceiving.

Isaac pleaded with the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. – Genesis 25:21

This verse will be achingly familiar to many modern readers, although most situations of difficult conception or infertility are not so easily remedied. There is a wonderful organization, Hasidah, which supports and assists Jewish couples who experience infertility. They describe themselves thus:

Hasidah is the voice of hope and compassion that raises awareness of infertility, connects people to support resources, and reduces financial barriers to treatment in the Jewish community.

That last item is significant: infertility treatments, while effective, are horrifically expensive and are usually not covered by insurance. If you have tzedakah money available, sending a donation to Hasidah is a mitzvah, indeed. I serve as a rabbinic partner to Hasidah, and know it to be a well-run organization.

Rebekah conceived, and she delivered twins after a difficult pregnancy. Toledot takes us through that story, and the stories of Jacob and Esau that follow.

Our teachers this week:

When Isaac Speaks: Infertility and Spiritual Awakening by Rabbi Idit Jacques

Toldot, a story of siblings by Rabbi Eleanor Steinman

Peace with Security by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Toldot: No More by Anita Silvert

Then why am I? by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Bless me too! by Rabbi Nina J Mizrahi

More generations and more branches in our family tree than we notice by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

What’s With Those Wells? by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

 

It’s Kislev!

Image: A chanukiah (menorah) lit for the final night of Chanukah. Photo by kevindvt/pixabay.

I missed the first of the month, so I can’t say, “Rosh Chodesh Tov!” but it’s not too late to remind you that the last two days were Rosh Chodesh Kislev.

The most famous thing about Kislev is that on the 25th of the month, we will begin the celebration of Chanukah.

The name “Kislev” (KEES-lev) comes from the Akkadian word kislimu, which means “thickened.” Since it’s a month in which rains come to the Middle East, perhaps it’s a reference to the mud that come with heavy rain. The Akkadians were an early civilization in Mesopotamia, and much of the modern-day Jewish Calendar comes from Mesopotamia.

Why Mesopotamia? Because that’s where our ancestors were exiled after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. There was an earlier calendar, with its New Year in the month of Nisan in the springtime; remnants of that calendar may still be found in the Torah, which speaks of Nisan as “the first month.”

This month we remember a struggle between the Maccabees and the Hellenizers that took place in the 2nd century BCE (Before the Common Era.)  For that story, check out the summary in MyJewishLearning.com.

 

What Type of Jew are You?

Image: 3 Jews, All different, all Jewish. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Rabbi John Rosove published this post on his blog today and I feel sure it will interest many of you. Read through his post and ask yourself where you fit in  this particular scheme. 

Do these findings surprise you, and if so how? 

Does reading this article change your idea of a “good Jew” in any way? How?

I look forward to your comments!

“What Type of Jew are you?” – A Response to Shmuel Rosner’s JJ Column – http://wp.me/p1HarO-1f4

Thanks for Life and Breath

Image: Girl blowing a bubble. Photo by AdinaVoicu / Pixabay.

Mornings are tough for me. I’m a night person by nature, jittery in the morning, and now age and arthritis have added a new edge to rising in the morning. I have written in the past about my reworking of the Asher Yatzar, the blessing for bodily function, which is one of the morning prayers. Now I’d like to look at another of the morning prayers, the one that gets me moving. Specifically, this prayer gets me breathing properly and directs my attention outside myself, which prepares me for everything else.

 

  1. The soul that You have given me, O God, is pure!
  2. You created and formed it, breathed it into me,
  3. And within me You sustain it.
  4. So long as I have breath, therefore,
  5. I will give thanks to you. – Mishkan Tefilah, p 292.

This is not the whole prayer. I say it in Hebrew, but it is fine to say it in English. The key to this prayer is that the word for soul in Hebrew, neshamah, is also the word for breath. So one can say this prayer in thanks and gratitude for breath. In fact, we can combine the words of the prayer with breath:

  • Inhale during lines 1 and 2.
  • Hold the breath, and appreciate it, during line 3.
  • Exhale during lines 4 and 5.
  • Pause for a moment, then repeat.

After a few repetitions of that prayer, I’m ready to move. I am less focused on aches and pains and energized by the oxygen in my system. My attention is outward, towards God and creation, rather than inward towards my own thoughts. I’m ready.

I wish you peaceful sleep, and an energetic awakening!