Reasons for Hope, April 2018

Image: A violet blooms in the cracks of a parched landscape. (manfredrichter/pixabay)

I’m always looking for signs of hope.

  1. Today I went to get my blood drawn, a weekly routine. My phlebotomist today was a trainee instead of the usual person. My veins are not the easiest to find, and the stick took longer and was more uncomfortable than usual. On the plus side, she’s now logged a bit more practice on an arm like mine and she’ll improve. I could tell she was trying not to hurt me. She could tell that I was doing my best to be pleasant. We had sympathy for one another in the moment.1.
  2. I am encouraged that the heads of state of North and South Korea met and were civil to one another. I don’t know how significant that was but I choose to see it as progress.
  3. I talk with a broad range of people on Twitter. I know Twitter can be a sewer, but it has allowed me to exchange ideas with people I’d never have met otherwise. I am encouraged that we can talk about difficult things and still see the humanity in each other.

All three events have a common denominator. Each involves a one-on-one personal connection which bridges a challenge.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught that when we choose to see the other person in front of us, to really be present to them, and they do the same with us, it is a special kind of event. He called it the I/Thou encounter, and he wrote that the Holy One dwells in the connection between those two people.  We can’t always have such encounters, but when we do, we bring holiness into the world.

Normally, my connection with phlebotomists is more of an I/It transaction. They are there to do a job; I’m a patient. But today, the difficulties posed by her inexperience and my hard-to-find veins presented us with a couple of choices: we could be thoroughly frustrated by each other OR we could choose to see each other in our humanity. The latter course left us both happier, I have no doubt.

I have no inside knowledge about the meeting between dictator Kim Jong-Un of North Korea and President Moon Jae-In of South Korea. However, I was impressed that they met one-on-one, they shook hands, they spoke at some length privately, and they published a list of shared goals. In addition to saying they were going to work on de-nuclearization of the peninsula, they published a declaration:

In the declaration, both sides also declared a stop to all hostile activities against each other. They also agreed to link cross-border railways and roads, and pledged to turn the demilitarized zone into a “genuine peace zone”. – CBS Miami, 4/27/18

I know there is skepticism on the part of South Korea, with fears that they are being deceived by the North Koreans. I imagine there are similar fears on the other side. But the two leaders met. They looked in each other’s eyes. They were present to one another. This was the first such meeting in 65 years. Surely that is a reason for hope.

In the final example, I’m sure Martin Buber could not have imagined Twitter in his wildest dreams, nor would he have wanted to. There is no handshake there, no meeting of eyes. However, Twitter provides a venue in which I can have a discussion with a Pakistani-American grad student who is studying Hebrew because he cares about Jewish-Muslim relations. Do we agree on everything? Not by a long shot. But we can listen to one another, we can acknowledge one another, we can find points of mutual interest even when we don’t agree.  I know what steals his sleep at night. He knows that I lose sleep, too.

The same goes for a few others, mostly activists I’ve met on Twitter.  I’ve learned more about race in America by listening quietly to those voices on Twitter, and following their reading suggestions, than I ever learned in my formal education. I had to learn to squelch my defensiveness and my urge to say, “But not all white people…” I had to learn to listen without arguing, to truly listen. Trust builds that way. Conversations have room to develop. Holiness enters the world.

Sometimes, in our anxiety, we demand too much too quickly. We want the pain to be over. We try to skip over the hard work of listening, of being truly present to one another, because the needle hurts, because nuclear warfare is terrifying even to contemplate, because it is painful to engage with ancient injustices.

The problem with magic wands is that they wield one-sided power. If I could wave a magic wand and make the phlebotomist suddenly really good at her job, I would rob her of the process of learning. Worse, I would rob both of us of the opportunity to find God between us at a painful moment! Holiness would not enter the world, because instead we would have a tidy little I/It transaction.

If I could wave a magic wand and heal Korea, it would be fixed as I think it should be fixed, and not take into account what the Koreans themselves want. Any peace that fails to take their needs and dreams into consideration is doomed to fail.  Only by doing the hard work of listening and talking – in that order! – is there any hope for true healing of that terrible wound.

If I could wave a magic wand and heal race in America, it would not bring peace. That’s because what we require for true healing of this dreadful illness is mutual respect. Because of that pesky “mutual” element, that peace will only come in the holy space between people who choose to see each other in an I/Thou way, recognizing each other’s humanity, respecting even each other’s fallibility.

If I could wave a magic wand and “fix” the Middle East, it would look like what I want it to look for about 10 minutes – and then it would all blow up again. The repeated failures in the Middle East are the children of a series of “fixes” that go back to the Roman Empire, if not before. Neither the Romans, nor the Ottomans, nor the British under the Mandate, nor the United Nations have really listened to all parties in their attempts to “fix” the region. Even had they listened, their listening would not have been a substitute for the actual Palestinian and Jewish stakeholders being able to encounter one another in an I/Thou mode. At this late date, I have no solutions to offer about the Middle East, but that is as it should be. I am not one of the primary stakeholders: I don’t live there.

This is my hope for the world: that with all the means of communication available to us, we will be able to have more conversations across our divides. Is it a faint hope? You bet. There are forces that profit from discord, and they will stir the pot and make life difficult. What I can do, what we all can do, is seize the opportunity to be present and human to one another when those moments offer themselves to us. All we can do is bring holiness into the world at every opportunity.

When I see that happening, I have hope.


Animal Rights and Judaism

Image: A black and white cow. (wernerdetjen/pixabay)

What are the rights of animals in Jewish tradition?

All animals are under the care of human beings; we are responsible for their well-being.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:28

Animals are entitled to rest on Shabbat.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.

– Exodus 20:8-10

Jews should avoid causing unnecessary pain to an animal, including emotional distress. We are permitted to eat some animals for food, but they  must be treated kindly. Properly schechting an animal involves keeping it calm and then killing it as quickly as possible with a minimum of pain.

For the same reason, physically altering animals is forbidden: docking tails, shaping ears, etc. are unnecessary pain.

One highly difficult question has to do with neutering animals. Castration of any animal or person is explicitly forbidden in Torah (Leviticus 22:24.) Neutering females is somewhat less fraught, but many poskim (rabbis ruling on the question) think it is included under the rule against cruelty. Balancing the commandments and the requirements of public health can be a very complex puzzle.

When an ox or sheep or goat is born, it shall remain seven days with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as a food offering to the Lord. – Lev. 22:27

You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother.  And if he does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it. Then you shall restore it to him.  And you shall do the same with his donkey or with his garment, or with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he loses and you find; you may not ignore it.  You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again. – Deut. 22:1-4

Even if we dislike the owner of an animal, we may not take out our frustrations on his animals. A lost animal must be fed and sheltered, and an animal in distress must be rescued.

If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him.  -Exodus 23:4-5

Animals are entitled to eat when they are working and surrounded by food.

You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. – Deut. 25:4

Hunting for sport is forbidden; one may theoretically hunt for food, but shechting the animal (killing it in a kosher fashion) is extremely difficult under those circumstances, and really not practical.

R. Simeon b. Pazi expounded [on Psalm 1:1-2] : ‘Happy is the man that hath not walked’ — i.e., to theatres and circuses of idolaters ‘nor stood in the way of sinners’ — that is he who does not attend contests of wild beasts;  ‘nor sat in the seat of the scornful‘ — that is he who does not participate in [evil] plannings. And lest one say, ‘Since I do not go to theatres or circuses nor attend contests of wild animals, I will go and indulge in sleep.’ Scripture therefore continues, ‘And in His Law doth He meditate day and night.’ – Avodah Zarah 18b

We don’t find any hunters [in our tradition] besides Nimrod and Esau, and this is not the way of the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. . . There is an unseemly element in it, namely cruelty, and also a measure of danger. . . Therefore, one who listens to me will dwell securely and placidly in his house and not waste his time with such things. –  Rabbi Yechezkel ben Yehuda Landau, in Responsa Noda beYehuda II Yoreh Deah 10, 18th c.

Animals should be fed first, before the humans eat.

So says Rav Yehuda that Rav says: It is prohibited for a person to taste anything until he gives food to his animal, as it is stated in the verse: “And I will give grass in the field for your animals” (Deuteronomy 11:15), and only afterward is it written in that verse:“And you shall eat and be satisfied.” – Gittin 62a


The Torah of Flu

Image: A flu virus under an electron microscope (NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It’s flu season right now.

Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue.

While our ancestors did not know about viruses, they knew and respected the threat of disease. Our tradition teaches that caring for the body is a mitzvah, a positive commandment.

Furthermore, we must be attentive to the safety of other people’s bodies, to preventing illness and injury whenever we can.

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. –Deuteronomy 22:8

Our teachers applied this rule not only to the roofs of houses, but to anything that might damage another person’s body. In his code of law, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides has an entire volume titled, Hilchot Rotzeach uShmirat Nefesh, “The Laws of Murderers and the Protection of Life.” He is clear, and later scholars agree, that we are responsible for guarding ourselves and others against dangers in the world:

Both the roof and any other object of potential danger, by which it is likely that a person could be fatally injured, require that the owner take action… just as the Torah commands us to make a fence on the roof… and so, too, regarding any obstacle which could cause mortal danger, one, not just the owner, has a positive commandment to remove it… if one does not remove it but leaves those obstacles constituting potential danger, one transgresses a positive commandment and negates a negative commandment ‘Thou shall not spill blood’ – Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rozeach uShmirat Nefesh, 11:4t

What does this have to do with the flu? Influenza is not a minor illness. The flu can and does kill. Therefore, it is exactly the kind of danger Torah charges us to monitor and to guard against for both ourselves and for others.

First, we should protect ourselves from the flu.

  • That means it is a mitzvah to get a flu shot if our doctor recommends it.
  • It means washing our hands whenever they have come in contact with others, or with surfaces that may not be clean (for instance, handrails, doorknobs, bathroom surfaces.)
  • It means doing things that will keep our immune systems in the best possible order (getting enough sleep, eating well, avoiding sugar.)

Some people say that the vaccine is less effective against some strains of the flu. That is true, but doctors tell us that those who get the vaccine suffer less even if they get a different strain of flu.

Secondly, we should protect others from the flu.

Some people are more vulnerable to flu, including the very young, the very old, and the sick. They and those who cannot get a flu shot are dependent on the rest of us getting vaccinated. First, because the people with whom they come in contact are less likely to be carrying the virus, but secondly because of “herd immunity,” a concept that means the more people are vaccinated, the less flu will be going around. We each have a responsibility to do what we can to protect the vulnerable.

More things we can do to protect others:

  • Wash hands often. Avoid spreading the flu virus through touch.
  • Stay home when we are sick.  Stay home until symptoms have been gone 24 hours.
  • Keep sick children at home.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with tissue, or with cloth, or in the curve of your elbow. Coughing into a fist or a hand is likely to spread germs.
  • We can refrain from penalizing or teasing others for taking sick leave.
  • We can advocate for better sick leave policies, in the interest of public health.

Some people won’t be able to do some of these things. Some may be forced to work or to walk around sick. That makes it much more important for the rest of us do what we can to avoid spreading the flu.

It is a mitzvah to keep our bodies safe. It is a mitzvah to protect the bodies of others.



Keeping Our Agreements

Image: Six DACA registrants meet with President Obama in the Oval Office on 2/4/2015.

Keeping one’s word is a key principle in Torah. Much of Parashat Matot (Numbers 30:2 – 32:42) is dedicated to the topic. The sages dedicated two tractates of Talmud Nedarim and Shavuot to the importance and binding quality of the spoken word.

American civil law is less interested in spoken commitments (as the old saying goes, “a verbal commitment is worth the paper it’s written on.”) However, once a commitment is written down and its conditions met, it too is regarded as a deeply important matter, a binding commitment.

There is a battle on in the United States right now over such an agreement. After several blocked attempts at immigration reform in the Congress, the Obama Administration announced a policy under which individuals who had been brought to the United States as minors, and who met stringent standards for behavior past and present, could remain in the United States legally provided they registered with the Department of Homeland Security. Should they get in trouble with the law – trouble of any kind – they can be deported. They may not receive public assistance such as food stamps or welfare. To apply for the program,  immigrants must pay a $495 application fee, submit several forms, and produce documents showing they meet the requirements. This program was called DACA:  Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

On September 5, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the repeal of the DACA program. The Trump Administration justifies this repeal with a number of assertions, claiming that the program adversely affects native-born workers, that it caused the surge in unaccompanied minors, and that constitutional experts believe DACA to be unconstitutional. Fact checkers from the Associated Press and the Washington Post have refuted all of these claims. The DACA registrants are not “taking jobs” from native-born citizens. A 2016 study published in International Migration found that DACA did not significantly impact the number of minors arriving from Central America. No courts have yet ruled the DACA program unconstitutional. 

The fact remains that the government of the United States made an agreement with young people of good character, taking from them a fee of $495 and registration information, and in return saying: “As long as you behave yourself, you can live in the United States.” The agreements were written down, commitments were made, and fees were paid.

Granted, life is often unfair. There are those who would say to the DACA registrants, “Sorry, your parents broke the law. You are therefore a criminal. Go back to your parents’ country of origin.” Perhaps, if enough people in our country believe that, we should not let anyone else sign up for the DACA program. But having made the agreement, having accepted their fees, having required them to give us information about themselves, it seems to me that we have an obligation to those who have already registered.

I have at least two students whom I know to be DACA registrants. They were brought here as small children, under no choice of their own. They have been educated in the United States, and they want to find a path to citizenship, because this is the only home they have ever known. They have done nothing wrong – they both submitted to vetting that  proved they have been model individuals. That same vetting made them more vulnerable to deportation, since they are registered with the U.S. Government. Yet they trusted us; their great hope is to become part of us.

It is unfair to hold a child responsible for the misdeeds of their parents.

It is wrong to make an agreement and then renege on it.

I don’t know how this is going to work out. I do not know what is going to happen to my  students.

All I know is that I am calling my elected officials every day, and I tell them three things:

  • I believe in honoring agreements, in holding up my end of a deal.
  • I do not believe in punishing people for the misdeeds of their parents.
  • I believe that deporting these young people would be an act of profound injustice.

I believe that Torah demands that I do no less.



Jewish Ethics and the New Tax Bill

Image: A person with red fingernails uses a laptop and a calculator. (Firmbee/Pixabay)

The Tax Cut and Reform Bill has been passed by Congress, and presumably the President will sign it.  It’s a done deal. Now what?

I was one of the people who opposed the bill as immoral, because of the damage I anticipated to the poor, the working class, and the middle class. I hope and pray I was wrong about the bill. Certainly the Republicans who passed it are trumpeting all the good it will do for every American.  I hope they are right.

Some observations about Jewish ethical responsibilities as I contemplate this bill:

  1. Our obligation to give tzedakah remains a constant. The commandment is to give for the relief of suffering and deprivation. The commandment to contribute is not dependent on “deductions.” Even those who have very little are obligated to give something to tzedakah.
  2. Support organizations that help people in trouble. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that 13 million people will lose their health insurance. Any of them who get sick will suffer financially.  Who are those organizations? Jewish Family and Children’s Services is one option. Most large communities have one (the link I gave is to my local one.) Check the Google for your local option. Don’t forget the community food bank!  Their business is likely to increase, too, not least because of the effects of the bill on low income families, who lose in several ways.  Your rabbi’s discretionary fund may also help people in immediate emergencies in your community.
  3. We need to watch over the elderly in our lives, because of automatic cuts to Medicare. Again, this will generate more demand for tzedakah funds. The bill leaves elders more vulnerable financially and medically. It will also generate a whole new wave of financial scams, to which elders are particularly vulnerable.
  4. We need to safeguard the dignity of those who apply for help. If you are a supporter of a charity that serves people in trouble, ask them how they go about saying “no” to people. Maimonides is insistent that the dignity of the applicant is important; in his Laws of Gifts to the Poor, he makes a point of the fact that kindness is especially important when we have to say “no.” We must protect the privacy of requests, and also protect the dignity of anyone applying.
  5. Those who do benefit from the new law will have more money in their pockets. If we benefit, we might consider putting some of our windfall into increases in our tzedakah budgets.
  6. Our congregations will also be impacted if people have less money to spend, because more will require dues relief. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who was on a congregational board during the Great Recession in 2008. That recession caused layoffs in staff, delayed maintenance, and other painful disruptions. So again, if you have shekels to give, consider supporting your congregation, even if you aren’t able to deduct your gift. If we don’t have the shekels, then we can still volunteer, and critically, we can be kind and patient with staff.
  7. Support organizations that advocate for those who are suffering. When CNN reported that seven words, including the word “transgender” had been banned by the Trump Administration for use in CDC reports, a young transwoman I know contacted me, messaging me: “I’m truly scared by this…” The need to advocate for the vulnerable will only increase, if 2016 is any guide. Who we identify as “vulnerable” will depend on our politics, but if the only people you know who are vulnerable are yourself and your family, I recommend the words of Hillel, “If I am only for myself, who am I?”

That’s all I’ve been able to come up with so far. We’ll know more about the challenges ahead as lawyers and accountants study the bill.

As I said above, I hope I’m wrong. I hope that this new tax bill is everything Speaker Ryan and the President say that it is, a benefit to all Americans. But on the off chance that the naysayers were right, I’m also looking at my responsibilities as a Jew in a new and difficult economic landscape.

Our Orgy of Anger

Image: A young woman with steam coming out of her ears. (Komposita/Pixabay)

Yesterday I threw a tantrum and wrote about my anger and disgust at the prevalence of gun violence in the United States. The article hit a nerve: I rarely get such a large response to a post in its first 24 hours. Many of the replies I received had a single message: “Yes! I’m angry too!”

And when it comes to guns, we are really angry. Gun owners feel slandered by every other word from the anti-gun left. People who don’t like guns are angry when they hear  “thoughts and prayers” as the only response to gun violence.

So one group of people say the problem is guns. The other group of people say the problem is violent people, be they mentally ill or just plain bad. (“Guns don’t kill people” etc.) Neither group is inclined to change its mind; we are at an impasse, getting angrier and angrier. We luxuriate in our anger; we fairly radiate it.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Arthur Gross-Schaefer, taught me that we humans are prone to see only two answers to any given problem, and that the first thing to do when we are stymied is to look for other possibilities. Today I read an article that suggested another possibility at the root of our gun violence problem.

How to Stop Violence by psychologist Laura L. Hayes makes the case that it is a mistake to frame violent behavior as the product of mental illness. Mentally ill people are mostly harmless, despite what we may have learned in horror films. She cited some persuasive studies and figures:

Paolo del Vecchio of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has said, “Violence by those with mental illness is so small that even if you could somehow cure it all, 95 percent of violent crime would still exist.” A 2009 study by Seena Fazel found a slightly higher rate of violent crime in schizophrenics—but it was almost entirely accounted for by alcohol and drug abuse. Likewise, the MacArthur Violence Risk Assessment Study found that mentally ill people who did not have a substance abuse problem were no more violent than other people in their neighborhoods.

Dr. Hayes identifies out-of-control anger as the real culprit behind the cascade of gun violence. She suggests that the answer to the violence is not to identify the “bad people” but each of us to take responsibility for the anger epidemic in the country. She concludes:

Uncontrolled anger has become our No. 1 mental health issue. Though we have the understanding and the skills to treat the anger epidemic in this country, as a culture, we have been unwilling to accept the violence problem as one that belongs to each and every one of us. We have sought scapegoats in minority cultures, racial groups, and now the mentally ill. When we are ready to accept that the demon is within us all, we can begin to treat the cycle of anger and suffering.

I’d like to take her analysis a step further. Anger is at the heart not only of this wave of violence, but at the political dysfunction that has paralyzed the nation. Why work with a political opponent when we can cuss him out and have a vast chorus agree with us on FOX or MSNBC? Why work on solutions when we can “enjoy” a permanent rage state on social media, complete with friends and enemies?

We don’t talk like adults about those who disagree with us – and we rarely speak with them at all. We call them hateful words like “idiot” or “moron.” We ridicule their bodies. We make up names like “Orange Cheeto” and “Pocahontas.” We are righteous in our fury and we are loud. Then, when we are worn out with name-calling and rage, we collapse. Nothing improves.

Even within our bubbles, we are poisoned by our rage. Both major political parties seem to spend all their energy on self-destruction. On the left, it’s rare to bring people together now and get anything but combustion: witness the Dyke March debacle last summer and the polarization around Antifa.

Back to gun violence: Whether we focus on mass murders, urban drive-bys, or the epidemic of murder-suicides connected with domestic violence, anger is at the core. Whether the angry person wants revenge on someone in particular or on the world at large, if they don’t know how to deal with their anger in constructive ways, violence is the result.

Most of us learn not to let our anger go so completely out of control. However, as we give increasing permission for angry behavior in others. Our own self-indulgence in anger makes us part of the problem. 

Torah takes the issue of anger very seriously. Moses was barred from ever entering the Promised Land after he lost his temper and hit a rock with his staff.  (Numbers 20)  Readers debate whether that was fair or not, but the message in Torah is clear: losing one’s temper is a very serious matter.

Even God gets angry in the Torah narratives, and God’s uncontrolled anger usually results in disaster. In Exodus 32, God is so angry at the Golden Calf incident that Moses has to talk God out of destroying all the Israelites. This account is concluded with the following, telling line:

And the LORD repented of the evil which He said He would do unto His people. – Exodus 32:14

Even God repented losing God’s temper! This strongly suggests that the ability to keep one’s temper and deal with anger is a Jewish value.

Proverbs 16:32 tells us:

Better to be slow to anger than mighty, To have self-control than to conquer a city.

Rabbinic literature goes on at length about the importance of self-control. Early on, we hear from Shammai, a rabbi who is known to have resorted to violence at a prospective student. Shammai seems to have repented of that behavior, because one of the sayings that come down to us from him is:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance.” – Pirkei Avot, 1:15

Maimonides comments upon that verse:

“a pleasant countenance”: That is when he interacts with the creatures calmly and with pleasant and welcome words. – Rambam on Pirkei Avot 1:15:2.

…In other words, don’t run around angry. Learn to control yourself.

These are just a few examples from the tradition.

If I personally want to do something about the wave of gun violence, perhaps the place to begin are with the things over which I have some control. I can’t control what other people think. I am not the Queen of Congress. And maybe – just maybe – the people I disagree with are right: maybe if I got the laws I wanted, the only people with automatic and semi-automatic guns would be angry bad guys.

No, I will work on the violence problem by practicing self control and modeling it to others. Instead of ranting about how angry I am, I will channel my anger into effective political action – not just more anger on social media. Instead of passing my anger around, by writing more articles like yesterday’s, I will write about ways to maintain equilibrium in an upsetting world.

There’s more to say. For now, I will take a breath. I will say my prayers. I will do my best to be better tomorrow.

A High Tech Option for Cheshbon Hanefesh:

Image: Woman reading from her computer screen with cup in hand. (Shutterstock  377318731)

As the Days of Awe continue, sometimes we can get a kind of soul-freeze. We know we need to atone for something, but we can’t think what. Our minds go blank. What did I do? What did I fail to do? Why can’t I think?

One traditional approach to this situation is to look at lists of mitzvot or lists of sins. That is the way the Vidui is structured, for instance, to help us go through an “alphabet of sins” and realize our own. It is a prayer, but it is also a catalogue, designed to help us see ourselves more clearly.

I recently learned about an interesting resource online that can be a real help with heshbon hanefesh, the accounting of the soul. That resource is It is a place where people anonymously confess their sins, which are then posted to the scroll of sins.

Some are heartrending. Some are trivial. Some aren’t really sins. But they can be remarkably effective at shaking loose that soul-freeze, showing us our own sins in the words of others.

For example, this confession gave me plenty to ask myself:

I’m sorry I wasted so much time on social media, engaging in bittul Torah, rechilus, lashon hara, and filling my own mind and heart with negativity that doesn’t actually help anyone.

Translated, it means:

“I’m sorry I wasted so much time on social media, engaging in timewasting that could have been spent learning Torah, gossip, spreading rumors and unnecessary talk about others, and filling my own mind and heart with negativity that doesn’t actually help anyone.”

As a person who uses social media a great deal, this one gave me a lot to consider. Do I waste time on social media? Do I talk more than I learn? Do I engage in gossip there? Repeat poorly-sourced rumors? What AM I doing with social media – am I spreading Torah or indulging an addiction? And what is social media doing to or for me? Could I make better use of my time?

Should you choose to confess a sin on AtoneNet, it is important to remember that when a sin is against another person, it is not enough simply to confess it anonymously. For sins against another person or against ourselves a complete process of teshuvah is important.

Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between a person and God, but for a transgression against one’s neighbor, Yom Kippur cannot atone, until he appeases his neighbor. – M. Yoma 8:9

However we choose to do heshbon hanefesh, this is the time! Examine our hearts, check our calendars and checkbooks, think deeply about the patterns in our lives, and do the great work of teshuvah, which ultimately heals not only ourselves, but the world.


Compassion or Indifference? The Choice is Ours.

Image: Protestors in Denver hold up a sign: “Dreamers will be deported – What will YOU do?” Photo by Astrid Galvan, Associated Press.

One Hebrew word for mercy is rakhum (rah-KHUM.) It is closely related to the word for womb, richam (ree-KHAM.)

One of the oddest things about becoming a mother, for me, was finding out that even after someone has cut the umbilical cord, I remained connected to my children. There are very real ways in which the spiritual challenge of parenthood for me has been to accept that Aaron and Jim are no longer physically a part of me. When they were little, I took pride in everything good they did, and when they did something bad, I felt like I had done whatever it was.

That sense of connection to a parent keeps babies alive. Little babies would not survive if some adult did not put their needs first. One clever way our biology does that is by making mom a bit confused about where she leaves off and the new person begins. By the time she’s sorted it out, they are quite big and capable of foraging for themselves!

But back to rakhum: it is a quality that the Torah identifies as an attribute of the Holy One. During the High Holy Days, we repeat the words of Psalm 103 again and again in various forms:

.רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן יְהוָה;    אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חָסֶד

Rachum v’chanun Adonai; erekh apa’im v’rov-chesed.

The LORD is full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. – Psalms 103:8

Remembering the connection to womb, it makes sense: the Holy One created us, and a connection persists, like the connection between a mother and infant.

The opposite of compassion is indifference. Indifference says “You have no connection to me whatsoever.” Indifference does not care what happens to the other being.

The Shoah (Holocaust) brought us terrible lessons about the meaning of indifference. Survivor Elie Wiesel famously said:

The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

Indifference is a fact of nature. People as diverse as Adlai Stevenson, Carl Sagan, and Galileo have all commented on the indifference of nature to human frailty.

Nature is indifferent to the survival of the human species, including Americans. – Adlai Stevenson

The storms, earthquakes, and heat wave we have recently seen in the Western Hemisphere are examples of the indifference of nature. Hurricane Harvey didn’t care who drowned or became homeless. Irma had no mercy on the people of Barbuda. The earthquake in Mexico killed dozens of people in a few moments.

I remember the wreck of my own home in the 1989 earthquake in California. Suddenly the things I counted on to be stable (the GROUND! my HOUSE!) were in motion, the china cabinet walking across the floor, the framing making a noise like a scream. Then the whole thing sagged off its foundation, and to this day I am grateful that none of us were badly hurt.

The earthquake didn’t care about us. It was a fact of nature.

This week we have also seen human indifference, something more horrifying than any storm or earthquake. The Trump Administration saw fit to put an abrupt end to DACA, Deferred Action to Childhood Arrivals. The President claimed to feel for the young people whose lives were suddenly thrown into chaos, but blamed the Congress. Like Pontius Pilate in the New Testament, he simply washed his hands. The Attorney General made it clear that he didn’t care about DACA youth (“Dreamers”) and didn’t want them here. “We cannot admit everyone who would like to come here,” he said, ignoring the fact that none of the DACA youth asked to come; they were brought here without their consent as minors. They know no other home.

The lies that other uncaring people told in the press and in social media were astonishing: that the DACA youth were criminals, that they were here to “get handouts.” No one was admitted to DACA without a careful vetting process. Their records had to be squeaky clean. They had to be pursuing education. They were not eligible for benefits like Social Security, even though they had to pay Social Security taxes. The people who repeated those lies did not care enough to fact-check them: they were indifferent.

This is how evil works. It may claim to be practical, or logical, or even to care, but when you look at its works, what you will see is indifference.

In Parashat Ki Tetzei, we read:

If you see the ox of your fellow citizen gone astray; do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow citizen.  If your fellow citizen does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow citizen claims it; then shall you give it back to him… and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow citizen loses and you find; you can not remain indifferent. – Deuteronomy 22:1-3

Torah teaches us to care even about lost livestock. How much the moreso must we care about young people who have been put in a difficult situation by forces beyond their control?

Rakhum, mercy, is reckoned a virtue in Jewish tradition. We are human beings, not mindless forces of nature like earthquakes and hurricanes. As such, we have a duty in Torah to treat those we encounter with kindness. Maimonides teaches that even when we have nothing to give, we must speak kindly to the hungry person who asks us for food.

I hope and pray that the Congress will see fit to correct the evil that the executive branch has done. I have written to my Senators and representative; I will continue to write and call until this matter is resolved. I hope my readers will too.

A Company of Angels

Image: A parade in New Orleans to celebrate the anniversary of WWOZ Radio. A woman dancer leads the Treme Brass Band in white shirts and hats down Esplanade Avenue. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that when a person walks on the road, they are preceded by a company of angels who proclaim: “Make way for the image of the Holy Blessed One!” – Tehillim Rabbah 17:8

Every human being contains the spark of the Divine, the image of the Holy Blessed One.

I have it.

You have it.

The people you love the most have it.

The people you like the least have it.

The people who irritate you in traffic have it.

The little boy who kicks your seat on the airplane has it.

Think of the person who annoys you the most. Yes, even that person has it.

It is easy to see in some people, hard to see in others.

It exists, whether we see it or not.

It exists, whether we look for it or not.

It exists. Our approval is not required.


What We Can Do Today About Nuclear Threats

Image: “Baker Shot”, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear test by the United States at Bikini Atoll in 1946. Image via Wikimedia.

When I am extremely anxious, one of the ways I can help myself is by taking action.

I don’t have control of the “nuclear football.” I don’t have control of Kim Jong-Un and his decisions. I can’t do anything directly about the shouting match he is having with President Trump.

But my Jewish values demand that I do what I can to preserve life and not lay waste to the earth. Here’s something I can do.

Congressman Ted Lieu and Senator Edward J. Markey have introduced the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017.  It prohibits the President from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress.

To me, this is a no-brainer, and probably should have been done long ago.  I am going to contact my senators and my representative in Congress, asking them to step up and support the bill today. I want them to do what needs to be done to get it on the floor, up for a vote, and passed.

This is something I can do. I invite you to join me in doing what we can to limit the use – and the threat of use – of nuclear weapons.