How Can a Non-Jew Comfort a Jew?

Image: Two people hold hands, one comforting the other. (Pixabay)

Someone reached the blog today with a great question: “How can a non-Jew comfort a Jew in a time of —?” Unfortunately, the line was cut off, but I still love the question.

The main way that Jews comfort one another is with presence. That means we spend time with the person who is suffering. If they are nearby, we might actually be physically present with them; if they are far away, we might do it with a phone call or a card.

“But what do I SAY?” I can imagine the questioner asking me.

If the trouble is grief over the death of a loved one (or for that matter, a pet) we say very little. In fact, it is a tradition is Judaism to speak to mourners only when they speak first. Instead, we spend time with them, we feed them, we do housework for them, we help keep life going for them.

Things not to say: “He’s in a better place,” “She’s with Jesus now,” “You’ll get over it.” We assume that death is a terrible blow to the bereaved, and accept that some people do not ever completely heal from some losses. We do not necessarily believe in an afterlife (we might, or might not) and theological discussions are a bad idea at such a time. Instead, just be present to the person – comfort them with the fact that you are still their friend.

If the trouble is something else, it is still good to stay away from theology. “It’s all part of God’s plan” is actually not very comforting to a lot of people, not only Jews. Instead, try, “I’m here for you.”

Be careful with offers of prayer. It is fine to offer to keep someone in your prayers but it may be misunderstood. For some Jews, there is an echo of being prosetylized at in the past. Offering to pray with a Jew is best done with silent prayer. Jews do not pray in Jesus’ name.

Be very slow to give advice. In fact, don’t give advice unless the person asks for it. If you are bursting with excellent advice, ask first: “Would you like my advice?” and if the answer is no, back off. I know, it’s hard, but one of the ways to be a really good friend is to not give advice when it isn’t wanted.

Comforting a Jew is very much like comforting a non-Jew. We’re all human. Life is sometimes hard. What is more comforting than anything is the warmth of human presence and an extended hand.

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Ceremonial Handwashing for Jews?

Image: A person washing hands with soap in a white sink. (Shutterstock 2604171440)

A reader asked: “I was recently at the home of friends for Shabbat dinner, and they all trooped into the kitchen to wash their hands before the blessing for bread. They washed with a funny two-handled cup in the sink, and mumbled a blessing as they did it. What was going on?”

Reader, what you saw was netilat yadayim, the washing of hands. There are specific moments in Jewish life when we wash our hands. In Reform households that observe this mitzvah, you’ll most often see it as handwashing before the blessing for bread (motzi) with a meal.

The blessing you heard was as follows:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, vitzivanu al netilat yadayim.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-Is, who sanctifies us with commandments, and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.

The procedure is to remove rings, then pour the water over each hand with the cup. A natlah, or two-handled cup may be used for this purpose. Then the person dries their hands and they may refill the cup for the next person coming. Some individuals simply use the tap for washing.

Jews practice ritual handwashing at the following times:

  1. Before breaking and blessing bread made with the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye) (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
  2. Upon rising from sleep (with the blessing netilat yadayim above)
  3. When leaving a cemetery
  4. When leaving the bathroom
  5. After touching the private parts
  6. Before prayer
  7. Before the the Kohanim (priests) bless the people in synagogue

Why the ritual handwashing? The Torah verse usually cited as the source is in Leviticus:

Anyone whom the one with the discharge touches without having rinsed his hands in water shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. – Leviticus 15:11

It is part of a passage about the treatment of persons who have discharges from their bodies, and the verse is taken as an asmachta, a hint, that rinsing one’s hands is a mitzvah. Centuries later, with the advent of germ theory, we learned that regular handwashing is indeed a very good idea.

Taking time to wash my hands thoroughly and mindfully was required when I was a chaplain, so that I would not spread disease from one patient to another. I soon learned that it gave me an opportunity to pause and clear my mind between encounters with people.

It is another Jewish practice that can enrich my life by slowing me down a bit. Now I wash with soap and water and scrubbing (more effective than a ritual pour) but it is a spiritual discipline with measurable effects in the real world, a mitzvah because it prevents the spread of dirt and disease.

This video, from the Jewish Living Series of the Perelman Jewish Day School, demonstrates the traditional ritual of handwashing before the blessing over bread.

Wrestling With God: the problem of suffering

Image: Two men wrestling (skeeze/Pixabay)

A reader wrote to me:

I find myself in the middle of a trying time, and it’s put me in an odd place that challenges my thinking about life, purpose, hope, Hashem, surrender, etc, and not entirely in a good way. … Wrestling with Hashem or, well, feeling lost or abandoned, specifically, is the kind of thing I’m looking for.

 

 

Jewish tradition teaches us that every life has tsuris (trouble.) Bad things happen. Some bad things are relatively small and some are true tragedy. Some make us sad for a while, and some things leave a mark that will stay with us forever. Some people have a year with one tragedy after another, and others appear to live charmed lives but may have secret sorrows that few of their friends know about.

Some misfortunes come from nature (earthquakes, tornadoes) and some from human carelessness or cruelty. The latter can be particularly difficult when the other person justifies their behavior, or simply doesn’t care. On the other hand, when an earthquake destroys my home, how am I to understand God’s role in what my insurance company may call “an act of God”?

When these things happen, we may indeed feel lost or even abandoned by God. It may set off a spiritual crisis: what is the point of being good, if bad things will happen anyway? What is the role of God in my suffering? What can a righteous person do when everything has gone horribly wrong?

Jewish tradition offers many answers to these questions, and we are free to find the answer that best fits our situation.

Deuteronomy says that trouble comes when we have been bad; if we are good, nothing bad will happen to us. Almost immediately, though, other books of the Bible explored why it is that bad things happen to good people, and the rabbis followed up with more discussion which continues to this day.

It is reasonable, when faced with misfortune, to ask, “Did I bring this on myself?” If the answer is “yes” then it is an opportunity to learn, and to make teshuvah if my mistake harmed anyone else. We have to take responsibility for our mistakes and misdeeds.

If the misfortune is the result of human misbehavior, it is reasonable for us to seek justice. Torah has many examples of people seeking justice. Ordinary Hebrews came to Moses and later to the judges for justice. (Exodus 18: 13-24) Tamar sought justice from Judah, who avoided her. She took extraordinary steps to receive what she was due, and he eventually acknowledged that she had been right. (Genesis 38) The daughters of Zelophehad believed that a law was unjust, and appealed to Moses. God agreed that the law was unjust and corrected it. (Numbers 27)

Sometimes we seek justice and cannot find it. Psalm 58 is a cry against the injustice of human beings and institutions. It ends with confidence in the justice of God, that God will punish authorities who judge unfairly. It is a very satisfying prayer to read when one feels wronged.

This brings us to the question of what to do when it is God who seems to be unfair. If God is both powerful and good, then why do bad things happen to innocents? The Book of Job explores the question. First we have the so-called comforters, who have read Deuteronomy and insist that Job must have done something to deserve his terrible losses. Job rejects their advice, and expresses frustration with the mysteriousness of God. He demands answers of God. In reply, God gives the “Whirlwind” speech in chapter 38, asserting that God’s plans are mysteries beyond the human mind.

The Book of Lamentations offers us another model, one that is uniquely Jewish. We are in a covenant relationship with God, and we can lament our loss and our pain. Lament is the passionate expression of grief or sorrow. The voices in Lamentations acknowledge that the people of Judah did not heed the warnings of the prophets, but they grieve and complain about their suffering. A great city and a beautiful Temple were destroyed. People died. Terrible things happened. And as the voices express all of the emotions, they are confident that God listens. God has to listen, because there is a covenant. We can pray prayers of lamentation when we are suffering. We can say, “God, pay attention to my suffering! I do not meekly accept it!” In other words, we can be angry with God.

Another answer from tradition: Some of the ancient rabbis and mystics suggested that the answer to injustice lay in the afterlife. If things are not fair in this world, they will be set right in the next.

Some authorities suggest that suffering is a test. In the first line of Genesis 22, God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. In the story, God sends an angel at the last minute to stop Abraham from killing Isaac, once he has passed the test. Certainly we can frame sufferings as a test, but it is for many an unsatisfying answer.

Other answers say that suffering teaches us things, that it is an opportunity to grow spiritually, or even that it is a special gift from God. To all that, I say a doubtful “maybe.” It is certainly possible to learn and grow from suffering. It is also possible to be destroyed by it. I would never, ever say to someone who is suffering, “You will be a better person for suffering this.”

My favorite text on suffering from the tradition is aggadah in the Talmud:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba had fallen sick. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya replied, “Neither they nor their reward!” Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan revived him. Later, Rabbi Yochanan was ill, and Rabbi Chanina went to see him. He asked the same question. Events proceeded exactly as in the first story: Rabbi Chanina asked, Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” Rabbi Chanina asked for his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan was revived. [The text then asks why Rabbi Yochanan needed help, since he had been able to revive Rabbi Chiya. The answer:  “A captive cannot release himself from prison.” – a paraphrase of Berakhot 5a

Each of the rabbis who suffers is asked if his suffering is dear to him, and each rabbi says, “neither they nor their reward!” In other words, if it is a lesson, they don’t want the lesson. If there is a reward for it in the next life, they don’t want that. If it is a test, or a gift, or whatever it is – they don’t want it! They don’t want to suffer.

Then each time, the visitor says, “Give me your hand.” And what revives them is the touch of another person. They cannot heal themselves; but in relationship with another human being, they get relief.

The answer to suffering, for me, is not about God. I think the Book of Job and Maimonides are right: I am not capable of understanding God. What comfort there is comes from the touch of another hand. I have to reach out: I have to take some initiative to connect. But when I am suffering, if I will reach out, if someone will return the touch, my suffering will be reduced.

That is why it is so important that we respond to the suffering of others when we are able. God is not going to appear in a fiery chariot from the sky to fix suffering. God has created each of us with a heart and hands that can reach out. We are here to do the work of God in the world. If we have the power to fix something, wonderful! But even when we cannot fix anything, we can be present. We can notice. We can care.

As the activists of Black Lives Matter say, #SayTheirNames. We can acknowledge suffering, we can be witnesses to it. We can have the courage to remain aware and present even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

 

This world is full of trouble. People get sick. Old age is hard. Pets die. Children suffer. Children die! Sometimes unjust leaders are in charge. Even the most powerful of us need help sometimes, for as the story says, a captive cannot release himself from prison. What we can do is reach out to one another. Sometimes we can fix things; usually what we can do is extend a hand and say, “You are not alone. I’m here with you.”

And in that moment of connection, the Holy One is there.

 

 

Chatati

Image: In ancient times we used a scapegoat to atone for our sins. Now we just have to take responsibility for ourselves. A little goat.

Chatati means “I sinned.” I intended to delete an abandoned draft (4 Rabbis) and accidentally published it. Then I deleted it. And now my regular readers are wondering where the new post went!

I am very sorry. Rabbi Adar’s Adventures in Bloggerland continue. I shall be more careful going forward!

Have You Had Your Flu Shot?

V0016569 Mr. Punch wrapped up in blankets in front of the fire, eatin

Image: 19th c cartoon by John Leech, “Mr. Punch has the Flu.”Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.”

4,605 people died of flu in the United States in 2014 but less than half of the adults in the U.S. were vaccinated against the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Some will say, “It’s a personal choice.” You doctor will likely say that it’s a personal choice. Your local conspiracy buff may tell you it’s all a plot.

However, under Jewish tradition, it’s a mitzvah – a commandment – that we get a flu shot unless there are strong reasons against it, such as an egg allergy.

“Where are flu shots in the Torah?” I imagine someone asking indignantly. Well, here are some places:

You shall watch your lives very well. – Deuteronomy 4:15

Torah insists that we care for our bodies, that they are gifts of God. Flu is more likely to kill infants, old people, and people with suppressed immune systems, but has also killed people in otherwise good health. Flu is mostly preventable.

When you build a new house, then you shall make a railing for your roof, so that you bring not blood upon your house, if anyone fall from there. – Deuteronomy 22:8

We are commanded not only to preserve our own lives, but to prevent death or injury to others. While this commandment specifically has to do with a roof hazard, the rabbis interpreted it to mean that anytime we become aware of a risk associated with our home or our persons, we have to do something about it. Think about the people you contact every day: are any of them very young, very old, or immunity compromised? Are any of them caretakers or visitors to such persons? Then your case of mild flu could put someone vulnerable at risk of serious illness or death.

I once worked as a chaplain in a nursing home. Someone – we never knew who – came to visit while they contagious with a slight flu. (It had to be slight, because the nurses were ferocious about visitors who looked sick.) Over the next few days, it was as if the Angel of Death flew down the hallways; resident after resident sickened and died. Likely the person who brought the bug in never knew what they had done.

I get my flu shot every year. I strongly recommend that you get yours, unless there is a very good medical reason against it. We never know whose life, whose family we might preserve.

 

 

I Think My Friend is an Antisemite!

I thImage: A cholla cactus in bloom. Photo from pixabay.com.

Someone found this blog by typing “A friend of mine turned out to be antisemitic. How do I handle that?”

Ouch. It’s never pleasant to learn about potential conflict with a friend. I am assuming that this is someone you believe to be a friend, not a boss, a casual acquaintance, or someone on Twitter. Here are some thoughts about addressing the situation with a friend:

1. Find out more. Maybe you have misunderstood. But even if you heard right, there’s more to learn. Ask, “What makes you say that?” or “Why do you feel that way?” After all, maybe they hate “pews,” not “Jews.” (Sometimes it is good for people to listen to themselves, too. Your inquiry offers them a chance for self- reflection.)

2. Listen carefully. Did you hear right? Second, if indeed their words were antisemitic, find out what’s going on. Are they speaking out of ignorance or out of malice? Do they merely need better information, or are we talking about deep-set Jew hating?

3. Respect the person. Escalating to rage won’t teach or persuade. Calling names won’t help things. If they have bad info, say you disagree with their information, and offer a source for better info. Remember, this person is also made in the image of the Divine, even if they have just said something dreadful.

4. You can be honest. Tell them how you feel. Exactly what that is will depend on your emotions. “Hearing your words, I am angry / sad / hurt / speechless / etc” Again, don’t call names. This is assuming they are a friend; if so, they care how you feel.

5. If the problem is ignorance, offer information. You don’t have to be the educator: point them to a blog like this one or a book or a rabbi. Do not say, “Google it.” Google can lead to some dreadful misinformation, up to and including neo-Nazi sites.

6. If they really hate Jews, ask yourself if you can be friends. Personally, I could not be friends with someone who thought I was sub-human or evil. This also goes for someone who insists the most Jews are unacceptable but I am “different.” I’d have to tell them I was disappointed in them and then dust myself off and move on. Your decision is up to you.

7. Talk it out. Whatever the outcome, it’s an unpleasant experience. Have a chat with a trusted friend or your rabbi. A good talk will help you shake it off.

P.S. I wrote this post assuming that the person asking is a Jew or a member of a Jewish community. If you are not Jewish, these steps may also work for you. Alternatively you could say, “Dude. Do you have any idea how antisemitic you just sounded?” and see where the conversation goes from there.

O Daughters, My Mothers!

Image: Five sisters sitting on a beach. Public domain.

Recently I received a question from  a reader asking me why I am a Reform Jew. The best answer I can give to that question appears in Parashat Pinchas:

Then the daughters of Zelophehad came forward. Zelophehad was son of Hepher son of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh son of Joseph, a member of the Manassite clans. The names of his daughters were: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders, and all the congregation, at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they said,  “Our father died in the wilderness; he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but died for his own sin; and he had no sons.  Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers.  And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.” – Numbers 27:1-11

Take a moment and read the passage closely. It begins with the five women, and identifies them as the daughters of Zelophehad, with a genealogy explaining precisely who they are. Then we get their individual names.

It is a moment of high theater: the five women stand at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, the stage upon which great dramas happen in the Torah narrative. They are not summoned there; they take a stand. They take that stand before Moses, before Eleazar, before the leaders of the clans, and before the people.

Then they state their case: their father is dead. He was not a follower of Korach but died because he sinned, and he had no sons. Then they state the problem: under the inheritance laws as they stood, their father’s name would be forgotten, and they would be left without an inheritance, (therefore unmarriageable.) Then they ask directly for what they want: “Give us a possession among our father’s brothers.”

Moses has no answer for them; they have raised a problem he has not considered, so he takes their case before God. And God says something amazing: God says the women are right! And God sets out a revised version of the inheritance laws.

But this is not the last we hear of the daughters of Zelophehad. Indeed, all of Chapter 36 is devoted to the issue they raised:

The heads of the ancestral houses of the clans of the descendants of Gilead son of Machir son of Manasseh, of the Josephite clans, came forward and spoke in the presence of Moses and the leaders, the heads of the ancestral houses of the Israelites; they said, “The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the Israelites; and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. But if they are married into another Israelite tribe, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestors and added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry; so it will be taken away from the allotted portion of our inheritance. And when the jubilee of the Israelites comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they have married; and their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our ancestral tribe.”

Then Moses commanded the Israelites according to the word of the Lord, saying, “The descendants of the tribe of Joseph are right in what they are saying. This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, ‘Let them marry whom they think best; only it must be into a clan of their father’s tribe that they are married, so that no inheritance of the Israelites shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for all Israelites shall retain the inheritance of their ancestral tribes.  Every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the Israelites shall marry one from the clan of her father’s tribe, so that all Israelites may continue to possess their ancestral inheritance.  No inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for each of the tribes of the Israelites shall retain its own inheritance.’”

The daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord had commanded Moses.  Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, married sons of their father’s brothers. They were married into the clans of the descendants of Manasseh son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.

These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded through Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. – Numbers 36: 1-13.

Again, read closely: The uncles and cousins of the daughters of Zelophehad come forward with a new problem. God’s solution to the daughters’ problem was going to cause their tribe to lose land to other tribes. You can practically hear the men crying out, “Not fair!”

Moses again asks God what to do, and God revisits the revised decree. Now the daughters may inherit, but if they marry they must marry within the clan, to prevent the problem raised by the uncles and cousins. The daughters of Zelophehad – again listed by name, unlike their male relatives – agree to the revision.

There are several things that strike me in this narrative, but the one I’d like to focus on here is the fact that Torah law is presented as something that can change to address human needs. In fact, the text seems to be saying that God didn’t think of everything; there were some issues that the original Torah failed to address.  In this text, God isn’t troubled by imperfection in Torah. God revises and then revises again until everyone’s needs are met.

I am the first to admit that this is a radical reading of the text. An orthodox reader would point out to me that humans petition and God makes the revisions; the humans don’t make changes willy-nilly. I would counter to that that in this stage of Israel’s existence, one could do as the Daughters did and march up to the Tent of Meeting and get a meeting with God. This is a privilege unique to that generation.

Later generations would deal with issues like this in other ways: one of the most famous such questions is addressed in the story of Akhnai’s Oven:

The rabbis are disputing whether a particular design of oven is ritually clean or unclean. Rabbi Eliezer, a great scholar, says, “Clean” but the rest say “Unclean.” Each side calls upon miracles and wonders, but neither side will give in. Rabbi Eliezer is supported by a bat kol, a Heavenly Voice, which argues that Rabbi Eliezer is always right. Rabbi Joshua retorts by quoting Torah, “It is not in heaven!” And a later rabbi tells us what he meant by that, that the Torah was given, and after that, the rule follows the majority (human) opinion! And then God laughs, saying, “My children have defeated me!” (a paraphrase of Bava Metzia 59a-b)

Why am I a Reform Jew? Because the Torah itself tells us that not all cases are covered in the Written Torah! And the Oral Torah tells us that not all cases are decided and final, either. Sometimes we learn better. Sometimes we get new information. Sometimes a situation comes up that needs a new answer.

Does this mean, as some critics of Reform say, that Reform Jews believe in nothing? Nonsense. I and other observant Reform Jews do our best to live Torah out to the best of our understanding, in the light of study and the whole body of Jewish tradition.

Does this mean, as some critics would say, that there are Reform Jews who use the flexibility of Reform to justify doing exactly as they please, with no reference to tradition? Sure, just as there are Orthodox and Conservative Jews who use the practice of teshuvah [repentance] as a license to do whatever they please in the moment. It’s no better to say, “I will repent on Yom Kippur” than it is to say, “I’m Reform, I can do what I want” – if anything, it’s worse, because the former is explicitly forbidden. We cannot have a reasonable discussion about these things by comparing the worst of one group with the best of another.

I am a Reform Jew. I believe that God gave us Torah along with the freedom to wrestle with its puzzles. I am not free to “do what I want.” I am free to struggle, as Jews have always struggled, to stay on a path towards holiness described by the sometimes mysterious words of Torah. I am going to be wrong sometimes; I accept that. I will do my best, informed by my study and my reflections with my Jewish community.

I believe, in fact, that the early sages – those gentlemen arguing about Ahknai’s Oven! – were doing exactly the same thing, trying to carve out a path towards holiness through the wilderness of the world. Their decisions were not always “the halakhah” [Jewish law] – as the bat kol pointed out, the halakhah always followed Rabbi Eliezer. Their decisions were what they deemed the best path at their time in history.

At our best, we do our best, whatever our understanding of Torah. Whenever I am perplexed, I return to the words of the prophet Micah:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

[God] has told you, Human, what is good, and what the Holy One requires of you: to do justly, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8