Climate Change and Torah

Image: A California poppy, in my yard.

Climate change is doing a number on my neighborhood. Today the temperature was over 100°F for sure. If WeatherUnderground.com can be believed, the high was 107°F. I decided not to believe it.

It is June in the SF Bay Area. June is legendarily chilly here. Mark Twain joked that the coldest winter he ever experienced was in June in San Francisco. No more, apparently.

What does this have to do with Judaism? several things:

1. We learn from a midrash that when the Creator entrusted the Earth to Adam and Eve, God said to them, “Take care of it. It’s the only one I’m going to give you.”

2. We are commanded, bal tashkeit, “do not waste.” The verse in question has to do with trees, but our sages expanded it to a commandment to be careful in our use of natural resources.

3. We are commanded to preserve life. The strictest form of that commandment has to do with responding to someone in immediate danger of death. In a heat wave, we are responsible as a community to make sure everyone has water and a cool place to go. Alameda County is doing its best but I am concerned about the huge number of homeless people, and elders.

I hear a lot on the media about why we can’t do anything about climate change. The Green New Deal was pooh-poohed by conservatives, and they talk about what other countries are or are not doing, or they say the whole thing is “fake news.” Environmental advocates have been less than diplomatic in their rhetoric, which I understand but “I told you so” never contributed to progress.

If you have personally never been affected by climate change, there are lots of places where you can see it in action: my house, most port cities, and the farms in the Midwest. Or you can take a cruise to the island nation of Kiribati, which is quickly submerging into the Pacific.

We have made a mess, folks. I’m as responsible as any individual. We need to change. We need to think in terms of what we CAN do. We need to quit using others’ behavior as an excuse. Because as the midrash teaches, this is the only world we’ve got.

Who is That Person in the Mirror?

Image: Person aims a camera at a fragmented mirror. (pxhere, Public Domain)

Look in the mirror.  Look at the face that looks back at you.  What do you see?

Do you see a person

— who needs sleep?

— who needs to see a doctor?

— who drinks too much?

— who eats unhealthfully?

— who is too tired to know what she needs?

— who is depressed?

— who needs regular exercise and doesn’t get it?

— who hasn’t laughed in HOW long?

— who is secretly struggling with something he hopes no one else will notice?

— who needs help and won’t ask for it?

— who has been offered help but refuses to accept it?

— who is lonely?

— who is frightened about something?

— who hasn’t had a day off  in HOW long?

Modern secular culture encourages us not to take care of ourselves. We see advertisements for unhealthy foods, for “fun” gambling, for TV shows that are on late at night. We get caught up in the push for certain kinds of success. With our families scattered all over the country or the world, care for children or elders often falls on one or two family members, who get no help or relief. We avoid admitting to depression, mental illness, disabilities, because of the stigma they carry. We avoid asking for help because that would involve admitting that we need it.

These are sins against ourselves. When we fail to get enough sleep, good food, and enough exercise, we forget that our bodies are limited, that we are setting ourselves up for illness. When we fail to ask for or accept help, not only do we hurt ourselves, but we keep others from having the opportunity to do a mitzvah.

Ask: What could I change in my life so that I could get enough sleep? Help taking care of my aged parents or my child? Help doing whatever it is I need to do to take care of myself?

Then make a plan.  Do it.

If the answer to that question is, “Nothing,” or “I don’t know” then make an appointment to talk with someone who can help you find options: a rabbi, a therapist, a counselor, a friend.  Admit how hard it’s all gotten to someone who can hold that for you. Ask them to help you find some ways to lighten the burden.  Those ways exist, whether you can see them or not.

Make the call.  Do it.

Someone is waiting for you, and for me, in the mirror.

Mothers Day: A Mixed Message

Image: A bamboo candle and a small pink blossom (sonja_paetow / Pixabay)

To all those for whom Mother’s Day is a good day, may you get every bit of sweetness out of it! May you be present to those you love, may you connect with them in profound ways, may you make good memories you will keep for many years. May your mother and child reunion be joyful.

To all those for whom this holiday is painful because of a broken connection with your own mother or child, know that you are not alone. Do what you need to do to keep yourself safe: go to a movie, ignore the day, go for a run, do whatever will hold your soul together. It is hard, but know that the day will pass.

To all those who want children and do not have any, I know this day is especially painful. Seek out the friends that understand, if you are fortunate enough to have them. Do what you need to do to live with the pain. Write it out, exercise, anesthetize with a book or a movie, or pray: give God a piece of your mind. It’s OK to be angry; it isn’t fair.

To all those who have lost their mother, and who find this day excruciating in grief: I see you. May you be comforted among the mourners of this world, comforted in the arms of those who are still here to hug you. May your memories be at least as sweet as they are sad.

To mothers whose children have been taken from them, be it to death or to divorce or to some other awful loss, I see you. I know that this is a wound that cannot be healed; I know that there is a hole forever in your heart.

This is a day that is very important to some, and very difficult for others. If we have things we can be grateful for, may we be grateful. If we encounter someone who is in a very different mood than ours, may we be kind.

Shammai used to say: make your Torah study a fixed practice; speak little, but do much; and receive everyone with a pleasant face.

Avot 1:15

A Fence Around the Torah?

Image: Fence protects a tree trunk from a horse. (MichaelGaida/Pixabay)

There’s an expression rabbis sometimes use, “We build a fence around the Torah” to explain some rules for Jewish living.

There are two kinds of mitzvot (commandments) in Jewish practice: those derived directly from the Torah, which we call d’oraita (day-oh-RITE-ah) and those which come from the sages, which we call d’rabbanan (deh-rahb-bah-NAN.)

An example of a d’oraita commandment:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. .

Deuteronomy 12:1`4

This commandment is explicitly written in Torah. We may still have to discuss exactly what it means, but there it is, in the document.

D’rabbanan mitzvot do not appear in the Torah. One kind of d’rabbanan mitzvah is set to keep us from accidentally breaking a Torah commandment. For example, The Torah commands us not to work on Shabbat. The rabbis extended that idea to include not holding a tool on Shabbat, so that we do not accidentally forget and use the tool, and thereby break the Sabbath.

Even for those who are not halakhic Jews, who don’t observe Shabbat in the traditional way, this idea can be very useful. Determined that you will focus on family and not do business on Shabbat? You may decide to turn off your smartphone, or even put it in a drawer for the day.

Another example: at Passover, Ashkenazi Jews do not eat rice. Nowhere does it say in the Torah that rice is forbidden on Passover. In Ashkenazi tradition, rice, corn, and beans are not chametz but they might be mistaken for chametz (because cornmeal, for instance, looks similar to flour.) In that tradition, foods which might be mistaken for chametz that are therefore also forbidden, and they are classified as kitniyot. Kitniyot means “stuff that might be confused with chametz” and not eating it is a d‘rabbanan rule for Ashkenazi Jews. Recently, some Conservative authorities have questioned the idea: of course we can tell the difference – so is this fence a silly fence that limits our diets but do not make us better Jews?

A fence around the Torah is a rule intended to keep us from accidentally wandering off the path of Jewish practice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase this week, “Fence around the Torah.” There is an assumption in it that we build the fence to protect ourselves, to keep ourselves safely within the bounds of Torah. That’s a good, safe thing, reminiscent of baby-latches on kitchen cabinets and the fence that keeps my little dogs safely in my back yard.

But we live in world in which fences mean other things, as well. The security fence in Israel has put an end to the sort of bombings we suffered in 2000-2004, but at a very high cost: not only does it keep violence out, it is a form of violence itself. President Trump is insistent that the United States needs a fence to keep people from Latin America out. Some of us are old enough to remember the Berlin Wall, which kept East and West Germany separated, and kept people from escaping their East German government.

I want to examine the fences I build in my life. Am I protecting something valuable in a good and useful way? Or am I constructing a barrier that will only make matters worse? Do I build out of protection and strength, or in fear and weakness? What fences do I build to help myself be a better human being, a better Jew? Are any of my fences silly?

Good questions, all. What fences do you keep around the Torah in your life? What fences would you like to tear down?

Yitro’s Gentle Advice

Image: The word “STRESS” with hands reaching up from it. (geralt/pixabay)

In Parashat Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, the Priest of Midian comes to visit. He brought Moses’ wife and children to him, and stayed to see how things were going. After watching Moses administer the camp for a day, he had some feedback to offer.

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.

But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”

Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.”

But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.

You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you.

If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.”

Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.

Exodus 18:13-24

I love this exchange between Moses and Yitro. Moses has a new and overwhelming task: leading the Israelites. Yitro is an old hand at leadership.

Yitro offered his criticism after carefully laying the groundwork:

  1. He celebrated with Moses, without criticism.
  2. He watched and listened to Moses at work, without comment.
  3. He asked Moses to explain what he was seeing.
  4. Then he told Moses what he thought, beginning with the bottom line: “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well.”
  5. He made a suggestion for remedying the situation (delegate!)
  6. He deferred to God (“and God so commands you”) who was Moses’ boss
  7. And all this was expressed in terms of concerns for Moses and the Israelites. Never once did he belittle Moses or brag about his own abilities as a leader.

Yitro is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, for two reasons: (1) there is a tradition that he converted to Judaism and (2) he was so helpful and kind that he stands even today as a model for in-laws and helpful mentors everywhere.

A question we could all ask ourselves: When I have offered feedback, how does my manner of doing so compare to Yitro’s model?

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.

Sweating the Small Stuff

Image: Me, on my scooter with my traveling gear, at the airport in 2014.  (Photo by Linda Burnett)

I’m traveling at the moment, and I’m struck again by the power of small kindnesses.

This has been a particularly pleasant trip, made so by the friendly kindness of several strangers. Little things add up over a long journey; we never know what difference it will make to someone that we hold a door, or smile, or simply pay attention.

I’ve been the recipient of many small kindnesses in the past few days. I’ve done my best to acknowledge all of them and let them know I’m grateful.

I’m staying at a hotel where they seem to take the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) very seriously. In my room, there’s the name of a person on staff I can call if something isn’t properly accessible to me. I called him to ask for a different kind of chair, and got it immediately. The room is nearly perfect, and his attention to getting it right made it MORE than perfect.   I have already written to corporate headquarters about him, because I frequently stay at hotels in this chain, and this is quite extraordinary. I’d like to see it become the norm.

As we prepare our cheshbon hanefesh this month, our accounting of the soul, let’s not forget the small items. How did I make other people feel today?  How did I treat them? How could I do better?