#BlogElul – Commit!

Image: Pages of a contract are held together with a lock and key. The artist titled it “Binding Contract.” (stevepb/pixabay

Strange word, “Commit.” According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary, it means “to carry into action deliberately,” and also “to obligate, or bind.”

Hebrew separates those two meanings into two different words:

Levatze’a means “to perform, to carry out, to execute.”

L’kha’yev means “to compel, to bind, to oblige.”

L’kha’yev is the verb the rabbis use to talk about the positive commandments, the “Thou shalts.” For example, a Jew is obligated – committed! – to be honest in business.

In English, the combination of the two meanings in the one word offers us a pun:

When I commit a sin, to what or to whom am I committing myself?

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What is Teshuvah?

Image:  An archer takes aim with a bow and arrow. (skeeze/pixabay)

Teshuvah means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah:”

  1. We notice what we’ve done wrong,
  2. We acknowledge that it is wrong,
  3. We take responsibility for it,
  4. We apologize and make amends, and then
  5. We make a plan for not doing it again.

SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that I aimed at something and I missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person I am for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when I am next in that situation.

Very Important:  The point of the teshuvah is not to beat ourselves up, it’s to make ourselves better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  According to Maimonides, until I am in that situation again and behave differently, I cannot be certain that my teshuvah is complete.

In Judaism, the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind. It does not matter how lousy I feel about what I did, it matters that I address what I have done with the people I’ve hurt and do what I can to make sure there are no repeats.

Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  Sometimes it means getting into treatment, or joining a 12 step group. A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat myself up, it’s to make the world better by making my behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. When I feel embarrassed at what I have done, that’s part of the process. Making teshuvah will help with the shame.

Each day of our lives is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.

What is Cheshbon Hanefesh?

Image: An accounting ledger filled out in blue ink.  (cpastrick/pixabay)

Cheshbon hanefesh is usually translated, “the accounting of the soul.” We do cheshbon nefesh every year during the month of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, because without taking inventory, how can we know what we need to change?

Hebrew is an interesting language in that it has both a “holy” life and a “secular” life. I put thise words in scare quotes because I think those are often artificial categories – in fact, for a Jew, the interaction of the holy and the ordinary is often the place where Torah comes to life.

Cheshbon has many meanings, but the one you will most often hear on the street in Israel today is “the bill.” I ask for a cheshbon when I am done with my meal. It lists what my party has ordered, the cost of each item, and a total.

Nefesh is another word with sacred and secular meanings. (The ha in front of nefesh means “the.”) In the prayer book, nefesh is usually translated as “soul,” although in the Bible it is often more correctly translated “life” as in:

וַיִּבְרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־הַתַּנִּינִ֖ם הַגְּדֹלִ֑ים וְאֵ֣ת כָּל־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּ֣ה ׀ הָֽרֹמֶ֡שֶׂת אֲשֶׁר֩ שָׁרְצ֨וּ הַמַּ֜יִם לְמִֽינֵהֶ֗ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־ע֤וֹף כָּנָף֙ לְמִינֵ֔הוּ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב׃

God created the great sea monsters, and all the living creatures of every kind that creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms, and all the winged birds of every kind. And God saw that this was good. – Genesis 1:21

This version translates v’et kol-nefesh hakhayah as “all the living creatures.” It is not usually understood to imply that the swarming things of the deep have souls like human souls, rather, it indicates that they are alive – many of them, for just a brief time.

So perhaps when we talk about the month of Elul as a time for heshbon nefesh, we can expand a bit from the perhaps precious notion of “an accounting of soul” – and ask, “What does my life add up to right now?”

  • In what ways have I made the world better? In what ways have I made it worse?
  • How do I affect the lives of others? Are their lives easier or harder because of my behavior?

The questions themselves take us out of the realm of self. We ask not “who or what has been good for me?” but “for whom or what have I been good?”

Cheshbon hanefesh is not for beating ourselves up. Jewish tradition ascribes to each human being an infinite, unmeasurable worth. There is no such thing as a “worthless” human being in Judaism. This is not about our worth as individuals; it is about the worth of our behavior as individuals. What are we doing with our lives?

Cheshbon hanefesh is the essential prelude to meaningful change. If we approach the process humbly and sincerely, it can provide us with a map for more worthy living.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is There a Greeting for Tisha B’Av?

Image: Stones of the Western Wall, or Kotel in Jerusalem. (ddouk/pixabay)

It’s a trick question: on Tisha B’Av, Jews observing the day refrain from greeting one another. If someone who does not know the custom greets them, they will either simply incline their heads or answer the greeting very softly, so as not to give offense or hurt feelings. As with Yom Kippur, it is a solemn day and therefore it is inappropriate to say “Happy Tisha B’Av.”

However, there are some Hebrew words it will help to know if you attend services or interact with other Jews that day:

Tisha B’Av (tee-SHAH b’AHV) or (TISH-ah Bahv) – The Ninth of Av, on which we remember the destruction of the Temple and other disasters in Jewish history.

Av (AHV) – The eleventh month of the Jewish year.

Eicha (AY-khah) – A Hebrew word meaning “How?” it is also the name of the Book of Lamentations in the Bible.

Megillat Eicha (meh-gee-LAHT AY-khah) – the Scroll of Lamentations, which we read on Tisha B’Av.

Megillah – a scroll, especially one of the “Five Scrolls” read on certain days of the Jewish Year.

Tzom (TZOHM) – a fast. The fast for Tisha B’Av is from sunset to sunset. Those who keep the fast refrain from eating, drinking, sexual activity, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and studying Torah. It is similar to the fast for Yom Kippur. Just as on that day, children and people who are sick or pregnant should not fast.

Beit Hamikdash  (BAYT ha-mik-DAHSH) – The Holy Temple. The first Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The second was destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans.

The Kotel  (KOH-tel) – The Western Wall, a retaining wall that is all that remains of the Second Temple. Jews do not refer to it as the “wailing wall,” but as the Western Wall or the Kotel.

 

What is Shalom?

Image: The word “Shalom” in Hebrew letters, in blue. Public domain.

Shalom.” It is often the first word a Hebrew student learns to read. It is the Hebrew word the most non-Jews are likely to know. If you ask for a definition, most people will tell you “Peace, Hello, or Goodbye,” and they won’t be wrong.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Shalom is a positive value, far more than just the absence of war. It signifies wholeness. One can be not-at-war and still be miserable. However, a miserable person by definition lacks shalom.

Like most words in Semitic languages it is based on a root of three consonants: shin, lamed, mem.  From that root we get many words: shalam, complete; nishlam, finished; l’shalem, to pay a bill; meshulam, repay; shlaymut, wholeness. What they have in common is a sense of integrity, of nothing missing or awry.

When I greet you with “Shalom!” I am wishing you wholeness of body and spirit. When I use a related greeting, “Mah shlomkhah?” the literal translation is “How is your peace?”

Shalom is not an abstract. It depends on real conditions in the world. A hungry person, a fearful person, or a hurt person cannot have shalom. Shalom includes bodily needs as well as spiritual ones. When we deny the needs of others, we deny them shalom.

Shalom also requires participation. We deny ourselves shalom when we bear a grudge. We deny ourselves shalom when we mistreat our bodies so that they get sick. We deny ourselves shalom when we tell ourselves we need something we cannot have, or when we refuse things we actually need. We deny ourselves shalom when we sin and choose not to make teshuvah.

At the close of the Kaddish, we pray for peace:

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleynu, v’al kol Yisrael, Veyimru: Amayn.

May the Maker of peace on high, make peace upon us, and upon all Israel. And we say: Amen.

When we say these words, it is both a prayer and a commitment to action. We are saying, “Please, God, give us shalom!” while at the same time saying, “I am ready to do what it takes to make shalom!”

Are we?

 

Online Classes Starting Soon!

Image: A laptop sits on a desk at home beside a notebook.

Lehrhaus Judaica is a non-denominational center for Jewish learning, and in recent years, we’ve grown our online offerings.  This winter we’re offering a variety of classes online. Click on the class name to go to the catalog, where you can see a video about the class, get a fuller description, dates and times, tuition figures, and links for registration.

I’m happy to answer questions about the classes; feel free to leave them in the comments section. However, most of the answers you want will be in the catalog, to which I’ve supplied links.

Israel & Texts: A class for those who want to learn more about Jewish texts in the context of Jewish history and the land of Israel.  I’ve written at length about the class here. No Hebrew required.

Beginning Prayer Book / Biblical Hebrew: An introduction to Hebrew basics, taught by Dr. Jehon Grist, whom I can recommend heartily because I learned from him, myself.

Intermediate Prayer Book / Biblical Hebrew: This course will take you from “beginner” status into actually reading Biblical texts. Also taught by Dr. Grist.

Advanced Biblical Hebrew 3: The Book of Esther: Join a group of advanced Hebrew students working on translation of the Book of Esther. Quoting from Dr. Grist’s description of the class: “We will translate and analyze selected passages from this amazing story, visiting both the ancient Persian Empire and additional versions of the text to discover how Esther’s tale developed and what its meaning is for us today.”

Traditions of Judaism: An 8-week spring course on the various expressions of Judaism: Movements, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, American Judaism, etc. I’m the teacher for this one.

Israel at 70: An Ancient and Modern Adventure: This is the recommended pre-tour course for the Lehrhaus/Tiyul Jewish Journeys trip to Israel with an optional extension to Petra, but is also open to those who want to learn more about our original homeland. Dr. Grist, an accomplished archaeologist with deep roots in the land will lead this course.

The Book of Esther(Tuesday evenings) Dr. Jehon Grist and I are studying Esther together. He comes at it as an academic, a translator, and as an archaeologist. I come at it from a rabbinic perspective. Then each of us teaches a course on the book! This link is to my version of the class, available both at Temple Sinai in Oakland or online.

The Book of Esther – (Wednesday evenings) The same as above, but with Dr. Jehon Grist teaching. Our project is to look at the scroll of Esther with new eyes and perhaps get some new insights before Purim. We’ll have one meeting post-Purim to share how our study has influenced our experience of the holiday. Dr. Grist will teach the class at Congregation Bnai Israel in Berkeley, CA, as well as online.

The Jews of Italy: A Journey of 2,000 Years – A web-based course on the history of Judaism in Italy, taught by Dr. Jehon Grist. Whether you’re planning a trip to Italy or simply interested in exploring the topic digitally, we’ll help you discover the people, places and key events that make this one of the most compelling stories of the Jews in Europe.

Traditions of Continuity and Diversity: The Rise of Rabbinic Judaism and Classical Christianity –  Judaism and Christianity have a long and sometimes uncomfortable relationship. The goal in this class is to provide a firm historical basis to begin anew a more fruitful discussion and true dialogue based on mutual respect and appreciation. This course will presume no previous historical knowledge of this era and will use audio-visual, textual, and lecture and discussion formats to carry us through the material. Jews, Christians, and anyone else interested in the topic are encouraged to attend. The class will be taught by the Rev. Bruce R. Bramlett. He is an Episcopal priest and theological scholar. He has spent his academic career exploring and understanding the long, complex , and often tragic history of the Jewish-Christian encounter throughout the west.

 

What is “Mazal Tov”?

Image: The stem of a wine glass, with a label saying “Mazal tov!” (Iwona Kellie via Wikimedia, some rights reserved.)

If you are a consumer of American pop culture, you are likely familiar with the Jewish saying, Mazal tov! (מזל טוב, MAH-zel tahf or mah-ZAL tohv.) Everyone yells it at the end of the Jewish weddings in the movies, right?

Colloquially, mazal tov! means “congratulations!”  We say it when someone has a happy moment. We might say it to a new parent, a graduate, or the parent of a bat mitzvah girl. In all those cases, the speaker is rejoicing with the fortunate person, and the proper reply is “Thank you!”

Literally, mazal tov means “Good fortune!” or even more literally, “Good stars!” Mazelot are the constellations of stars, and for many centuries, they were thought to determine one’s luck in life, even among Jews. Even though science has debunked astrology and modern Jews do not put stock in it, the practice survives in the expression.

On a deeper level, mazal tov recognizes that the good things that happen to us are only partially dependent on our own accomplishments. Luck is a factor in all human experience; bad things happen to good people, and good things sometimes happen to bad people. The fact of fortune or misfortune does not tell us about the moral status of that individual.

This stands in contrast to some other theologies, including one expressed in the Book of Deuteronomy, which asserts boldly that sinners will have bad luck and that the faithful will have good luck. (See Deuteronomy 28 for examples.) While this is an alluring idea (“people get what they deserve,”) as a theory it does not stand up to real life experience. Most Jewish thinkers have moved on to a more nuanced view, in which we recognize that our life experiences are a mixture of our own efforts and chance, and that the role of God in such matters is mysterious.

So if mazal tov means “good fortune,” what should one say to wish another person luck? That phrase is בהצלחה, b’hatzlecha (buh-HATZ-luh-KHAH.) We use it in the same situations in which an English speaker would say, “Good luck.” Literally, it means “in (or to) your success.”

Also, remember that mazal tov is only appropriate for a matter that is resolved. We do not say mazal tov to news of a pregnancy, because there are still many things that can go wrong. Rather, we say b’sha’ah tovah (buh sha-AH to-vah) “at a good time.” In this case, we do not want to make any assumptions about the luck of the parents or child, since traditionally such assumptions are seen as tempting fate!