Social Duty or Spiritual Discipline?

Image: “THANK YOU” written by a fountain pen. Artwork: marcelmajid/pixabay.

This has been a challenging summer. On May 1 I got really, really sick. On June 30 my mother died. Through it all, people have been very kind to me, understanding about cancelled classes, sending sweet notes, and supporting my local family through shiva and mourning. I realized anew what a remarkable and loving support system we have in our congregation, Temple Sinai, and in an extended “family of choice” who have been rocks for me and Linda.

Now I’m working my way through the thank-you notes, which is something I learned from my mother. Her lessons did not cover social media, but I decided that if someone reached out via social media, it was appropriate to say “thank you” through that medium. Real visits, real cards and letters, and real food require more than email, though: for those I’ve been writing traditional thank-you notes.

As I’ve been writing them, I’ve had a chance to reflect on something I never noticed before: thank-you notes have a function beyond saying “thank you.” That’s their main job, of course, but I have benefitted from taking time to go down the list and reflect briefly on what someone did for me before I have written them a note. This one sent a note from vacation – how kind, to take time out from vacation! Another sent over food, and was careful to observe my dietary needs, which are complicated since May.  Yet another sent me photographs she thought I’d enjoy, from when my own children were little – how thoughtful! A busy colleague, a solo rabbi in a congregation, took time out to write words of comfort tailored just to me, and I know he has so little time.

All of these provided comfort when they first arrived. Now, as I write the notes, they provide more, since I am less in shock and more in a place to appreciate the care and thought. The thank-you notes are forcing me to pay attention to the people who took time to send me affection.

These little notes that I wrote so dutifully as a child and as a young woman are now much, much more than a duty. They are an opportunity to learn many important things, not least of which is that I have much for which to be grateful.

Thus I have begun to understand that thank-you notes are a spiritual discipline. They are not exciting to write, far from it, and they can be positively annoying when I cannot find an address. But there is a huge benefit from going down the list, from note to note, writing a few every day, inscribing the envelope, thinking what to say, even slowing down so my penmanship is legible.

Human relationships are holy. That is one of the great messages of Torah, that every encounter is a potential moment for holiness. Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekuda, a great medieval teacher of ethics, taught that to cultivate an awareness of the presence and goodness of God, we should be mindful of the kindnesses done to us by other human beings and take special care to say “thank you” for those kindnesses. This tiny preliminary step is critical for our spiritual development according to Bachya.

In a few weeks we will begin the month of Elul, the annual month of soul-searching and repair of regrets. Perhaps this year we can also make it a month of gratitude, a month of thank-you notes, a month of growth.

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Do Jews Believe in the Evil Eye?

Image: Cartoon of a blue eye. (Art by meri_asaro/pixabay)

If you spend much time around Ashkenazi Jews, sooner or later you will hear someone say, “Kenahora, pu pu pu.” If you play close attention to the context, you’ll notice that they said it after an optimist predicted something good or commented on something good: a new baby, a beautiful child, a future happy occasion. Ashkenazi Jews use the phrase much the same way others might say “Knock on wood.” It’s a way of warding off misfortune, aka “the Evil Eye.”

Kenahora is a combination of the Yiddish words kein [no,] and the Hebrew ayin [eye] and hara [evil.] Pu pu pu is a stand-in for spitting three times, one traditional way to avert misfortune. Together, they are the Yiddish equivalent of knocking on wood, throwing salt over one’s shoulder, and other superstitions.

The Sephardic equivalent is to say Mashallah, an Arabic greeting [May God preserve you from the evil eye] or El dyo que mous vouadre de aynara i de ojo malo [God save us from misfortune and the evil eye.]

Another tactic for warding misfortune away from children is to immediately follow a compliment with a qualifier, for example, “She’s very pretty but she is fussy” or to smear a little dirt on the child’s face. In some communities, there is a belief that the color red can ward off evil.

Folklore studies reveal that every culture has something of this sort, often centering on a belief that one can put a curse on someone by staring at them.

While the “evil eye” is indeed mentioned in the Mishnah, our teachers have usually warned us against trying to control the world via hexes and spells. A Jew is supposed to reply on God and on the good sense God gives us, not on superstitious remedies. Even some of the mentions in the Mishnah and the Talmud may suggest a certain ambivalence about the folk belief, for instance:

Rabbi Yehoshua says: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of others remove a person from the world.” Pirkei Avot 2:11

Maimonides interpreted this to mean that greed and jealousy will cause a person to isolate themselves – he was extremely opposed to superstition of any kind. A 15th century Italian rabbi known as Bartenura agreed with Maimonides and then added that some people in their greed may look with an evil eye on the children or belongings of others. Rabbi Yonah Gerondi, a 13th century Spanish rabbi, wrote that:

[The evil eye] is one who is not happy with his lot and places his eye on his fellow who is wealthier than he, [thinking] when will I be as wealthy as the great wealth of this man? And this causes evil to himself and to his fellow. – Rabbi Yonah, Commentary on Pirkei Avot 2:11

We can see that while it is possible to deal with “the evil eye” only as folklore or superstition, in the wiser parts of Jewish tradition we also take a practical lesson from it, that envy and jealousy can poison people and communities. Bragging can attract it by encouraging envy in others (what other purpose is there to bragging, other than to stir up envy in others?)

So while we may adopt the custom of saying “Kenahora, pu pu pu” the wise Jew will say it not to ward off evil spirits, but as a self-reminder that bragging is unkind and may backfire, and envy hurts the envious more than anyone else!

 

 

How Did This Happen?

Image: The word “Eicha” (How) in Hebrew letters. 

Eicha?! How?!

That’s the howl that begins the book of Lamentations. That’s the cry of every human heart that suffers a terrible injustice.

How did this happen?

How am I to cope?

How am I to go on living?

EICHA?! HOW?!

The truth is that the world is full of dangers and terrible events, much of it seemingly random. We look to God for justice and mercy and it seems that there is no answer, just a silence. It seems unfair. It is unfair.

I do not know why dreadful things happen. I don’t know why some parents have to bury their children. I don’t know why cruel people seem to go about their business unscathed. I don’t know why cancer and other sicknesses take so many before their time, and I don’t know why the treatments have to be so hard to endure. I do not have easy answers to any of these things.

I believe that some hurts cannot be healed.

Nevertheless, I believe we are given as gifts to one another. We cannot repair a broken heart, but we can sit with the suffering person and let them know they are not alone. We can be there for one another in bad times.

We can give one another room to grieve. We can witness one another’s pain. We can say, “Yes, you are mad at God right now, and I will sit here beside you.” We can summon the strength to not try to fix it.

This is why we are given mitzvot – so that we will know how to be with one another. The world can be a terrible place, but with good deeds, we can make it a little kinder.

Humor and Jewish Survival

Image: Mask with glasses, nose, and mustache. Photo by nito/shutterstock. Rights reserved.

 

Twice in the last week, someone near me has questioned the value of comedy as a tool for resistance in the current political situation. The first was my son, who argued that people are too busy laughing to take a constitutional crisis seriously. The second was a colleague, who questioned how much good the comics were really accomplishing.

This set me to thinking about Jewish humor and Jewish survival, two topics that I am convinced are closely linked.

According to William Novak and Moshe Waldoks in their introduction to The Big Book of Jewish Humor, Jewish humor tends to be mocking. As they write:

Jewish humor is usually substantive; it is about something. It is especially fond of certain specific topics, such as food (noshing is sacred), family, business, anti-Semitism, wealth and its absence, health, and survival. Jewish humor is also fascinated by the intricacies of the mind and by logic, and the short if elliptical path separating the rational from the absurd….

Jewish humor tends to be anti-authoritarian. It ridicules grandiosity and self-indulgence, exposes hypocrisy, and kicks pomposity in the pants. It is strongly democratic, stressing the dignity and worth of common folk. – Introduction, p xix

The Jewish Bible is full of humor. The late scholar J. William Whedbee examines six books of the Bible in The Bible and the Comic Vision. He argues that we cannot truly understand some stories in the text unless we appreciate the humor in each tale.

The king in the Book of Esther is a drunken fool. He staggers from one drinking party to another making a mess of things until he is rescued by the same Jews that his evil courtier, Haman, wishes to kill. Then, via the holiday of Purim, he became a convenient stand-in for every tyrant who followed him in persecuting the Jews.

Modern American Jewish humor has its roots in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where much of life seemed hopeless and there was little way to fight back against the vast power of the Czar. Still it was possible to laugh at the man, despite his almost (almost!) godlike power, as these lines from Fiddler on the Roof remind us:

“Rabbi, may I ask you a question?”

“Certainly!”

“Is there a proper blessing… for the Czar?”

“A blessing for the Czar?  Of course!  May God bless and keep the Czar… far away from us!” – Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein

Jews have been a stiff-necked people since the time of Moses, and one expression of those stiff necks is a propensity for making fun of the great and powerful. Whoever the oppressors, Pharaoh, the Czar, or one’s in-laws, one way to remember that they are not God is to laugh at them. As Mel Brooks says:

By using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths. – Interview in Der Spiegel, March 16, 2006

That is also why the great and the powerful hate humor directed at them: it cuts them down to size and undermines their power over us. Given the power arrayed against the Jewish people for much of our history, it’s a good thing we learned to laugh at tyrants.

Beyond tyrants, Jewish humor takes aim at tyranny: the tyranny of propriety, of hypocrisy, of all the unfairness in life. It can aim at money and political power:

Why is it that if you take advantage of a corporate tax break you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something so you don’t go hungry, you’re a moocher? – Jon Stewart

Or at our own vanities:

“I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.” – Joan Rivers

Or even at death itself:

I intend to live forever, or die trying. – Groucho Marx

I don’t think that comedy can change the things that are wrong with the world. I have faith that it can focus our minds and insist that we pay attention:

The ‘what should be’ never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is no ‘what should be,’ there is only what is. – Lenny Bruce

Comedy at its best is courage: courage to face the things that are really, really hard, no matter how scary they may be.

Sickroom Exegesis

I’d been feeling below par for a while. I kept imagining reasons that might be so, but mostly I pushed the feeling aside. Then one morning while working out, I realized something was truly wrong. My trainer took me to the emergency room and after a bunch of tests, it emerged that I had blood clots in my lungs again.

A lot of people don’t survive their first pulmonary embolism. I’ve now survived two.

I am grateful: for the doctors and nurses at San Leandro Hospital, for CT scans and science, for my trainer Brittany, who did not let me shrug it off again, and for good health insurance. Without any one of those messengers of the Holy One, I might be dead now.

Once they wheeled me into the room where I am now picking this out on my phone, I saw the sign in the photo above. It says “Goals” and under that, “No S.O.B.” and “No Pain.” Just as with Torah, I see this text as having levels of meaning.

The pshat, or simple literal meaning, is that the doctors hope for me to get to the point that I have no shortness of breath (S.O.B.) and no pain. Those are certainly my goals, too!

But on a deeper level, I wonder, what is it telling me? I am in a situation where I have little control. Indeed, I’m here because my body is out of control. I’m scared. I’m annoyed. I’m tethered (via needles!) to machines I only dimly understand. It would be easy to be cranky and whiny. But there in front of me is a mitzvah, a commandment: “Don’t be an S.O.B.! Don’t be a pain!”

I am reminded of a sermon I once heard. A chaplain was speaking to a group of residents in a Jewish nursing home. He said, “I hear some of you say, ‘I am retired! I have no job any more!’ but the truth is, a Jew always has a job!” He looked around the room. “Anyone know what that job is?”

They looked back at him blankly. He said, “A Jew’s job is to be a mensch! No matter what your body can or can’t do, you can be a mensch.”

It is good to be reminded of these things when I feel scared and uncertain. I can be a mensch. Or as my little sign puts it in a negative commandment, “Thou shalt not be a pain.”

We are living in uncertain times. Many things frighten some of us. We realize how little control we have of much of life. It is tempting to lash out, to behave badly.

But even under the most difficult circumstances, a Jew has a job. We are commanded to live lives of Torah, to be kind to the vulnerable, to deal honestly. We are commanded to care about our impact upon others.

My nurses were amused by my exegesis of the sign in my hospital room. I like being reminded that even in an undignified hospital gown, even with scary news, even with small and large irritations, I have a job that I can do.

That’s what it means to be a Jew.

Why Is Creation Messy?

Image: Watercolor in bright colors, very messy. Artist: Prawny at Pixabay.

I received a wonderful question yesterday from Channah Yael and her Chavrusot, and thought that today would be a very appropriate day to answer it:

Why did Hashem create life to be messy?
G-d could have done it any way. Why this way?
What purpose does messiness have in our lives
and in the great plan of Creation?

The world is indeed messy. It is deeply distressing sometimes to see how messy it is. This morning I read an article in the Wall Street Journal,  The Children of the Opioid Crisis, about children who grow up with a single parent addicted to opioid drugs. My heart ached as I read about little ones who are traumatized by what they have seen and heard. Even the more fortunate among them – those who have relatives who can step in and care for them – suffer dreadful after effects of physical hunger and neglect.  I want to howl to heaven, Eicha?! – How?! – How can the Holy One allow such suffering of innocents?

So I look to the Torah and our tradition for answers. One answer is that the Holy One created us b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ; וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָאָרֶץ, וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ, הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ.

God said, “Let Us make humanity in Our image, after Our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” – Genesis 1:26.

Then, curiously, this is reinforced by repetition in the next verse:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ:  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם.

God created humanity in God’s own image, in the image of God created God them; male and female created them. – Genesis 1:27

So the Holy One created each of us, male and female, with the ability – and perhaps the responsibility – to “rule” our fellow creatures. One aspect of this is our intelligence. Another aspect of it is our ability to make choices. We have free will: the ability to choose between two or more possibilities. This concept is so important that the Torah repeats it immediately: we are made in the image of God, all of us; we have certain godlike aspects.

That was at Creation. The Torah does not immediately make clear what God hoped to see after giving humanity this property, but it does go on with the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, followed at length by other choices human beings made, many of them destructive choices.

Eventually, the Holy One gave Torah to us, to inform our choices. (e.g. “Choose life!” – Deuteronomy 30:19) We are still free to make choices. Sometimes we choose what we think is best, only to discover that it did not lead where we hoped. Sometimes we are selfish in our choices, and choose what we want because we want it. Sometimes we are not sure what to do, and make no decision, and that, too, is a choice.

There are other parts of creation that do not have choices, and those are messy too. The laws of nature are immutable, and sometimes result in pain and sorrow: I drop a can of soup, and smash my foot. The soup can and the planet Earth obey the law of gravity. My foot, which got in between them, absorbs the force with predictable results. Even the orderly parts of creation can be messy when they collide!

Our godlike power to make choices makes creation messy. The fixed laws of nature make things messy, too.

I suppose that the great Oneness we call God could have existed alone in splendor, its ruach Elohim [spirit/wind of God] blowing over the tohu v’vohu [chaos]. However, God chose (there’s that word again!) to separate light from darkness and create the world we know. God chose a messy world.

One of the quirks of the literary style of Torah is that it seldom tells us much about motivation. We are left to draw our own conclusions about them most of the time. So here are my conclusions:

I think it is safe to conclude that God did not want a doll house. God did not create a static world in which nothing bad ever happens. The closest thing to that is Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, and even there, the messiness was baked in: human beings had free will.

What I learn from this is that messiness itself is holy, created by God. This messiness inherent to the world is often a puzzle for us to solve. We have been given intellects and hearts to use in solving these puzzles.

Back to those poor children in the Wall Street Journal article: they are innocents who are suffering from the addiction of their parents. Perhaps the parents made bad choices. Perhaps they didn’t: they got hooked on drugs that they had previously needed for an injury. Either way, parents suffer, children suffer, the grandparents who take them in suffer, and society suffers in many different ways. It is up to me, as an observant Jew, to ask what I can do to alleviate the suffering, all the while understanding that I cannot “fix” some things about it. I can only embrace the suffering human beings, acknowledge their suffering, and do what little I can about for them.

Even for the person on the street, someone who may be an addict, whose story I do not know, there are things I can do. I can acknowledge their humanity by treating them as human beings. I can, if I choose (!) give them choices in the form of money: money they may choose to spend well or poorly. I cannot save them. What I can do is recognize what we have in common: we are human, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, and sometimes we suffer.

I believe that it is when I personally make the choice to embrace those suffering people, despite the discomfort that makes them seem alien to me, that I can approach the holiness God hopes for me. And when we do it corporately, as Am Yisrael, we fulfill our destiny as a people.

I want to howl “Eicha!?” to the God who made the world this way. Ultimately I do not and cannot understand. But in the moment, I have choices. I have things to do.

 

 

 

“And Yitro heard” – Midrash

Image: Postage Stamp, Israel, 1060: The Tomb of Yitro, WikimediaIsraeli postage stamp catalog, Catalog Number: 219

Yitro priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out from Egypt. – Exodus 18:1

This is one of my favorite Torah portions, because there is midrash on it that I love.  One set of midrash begins with two little words (in Hebrew):

וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ

And Yitro heard

The rabbis explode into speculation: What did Yitro hear? How did he hear it?  The verse appears to tell us, but on inspection it is impossibly vague. We want details!

The Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, a collection of midrash, offers us some of the rabbis’ thoughts about this in what I can only describe as a rather excited-sounding jumble:

Rabbi Yehoshua thought he heard about how Israel won the battle with Amalek!

Maybe he heard the thunder at the giving of the Torah!

Maybe he heard about it, because the kings of the world went to Bilaam and said, Is this like the Flood? Is the God of Israel going to kill us all?

Rabbi Eliezer said Yitro heard the splitting of the [Red] Sea, which was heard from one end of the world to the other (!)  – Even a harlot in Jericho heard it!

The above is my paraphrase of the passage from the Mekhilta, 18:1:1. I love the interplay of rabbinic voices, the speculation on the possibilities, scouring out the possibilities from the the Torah, the book of Joshua, and even the Psalms.

The point is, Yitro was described in chapter 2 of Exodus as a “priest of Midian.” (Exodus 2:16) He was a desert chieftain. While we moderns may think of him as a minor player in the story of Exodus, the rabbis saw him differently. To the rabbis, this verse in Exodus is the moment when the rest of the world comes to admire Israel. This verse in Exodus is recognition.

Keep in mind that the rabbis of 3rd century Roman Palestine, from which this collection dates, were living in a time and place in which Jews were despised. The Temple was gone, and they were beginning to realize that it would be a long time before it would be rebuilt. Jerusalem was gone, replaced by a Roman city dedicated to Zeus. Many of their compatriots were gone, either slain in the revolts or hauled away as slaves.

For them, Yitro, the “Priest of Midian,” is a grand figure, a representative of the outside world. Yitro has heard of the exploits of Israel, of her battles, of her miracles, and he has come to see for himself! The rabbis of the 3rd century CE reassure themselves that Israel has been the wonder of the world, and it will be the wonder of the world again someday.

It is human to fear that lost glories are lost forever, or to fear that we only imagined the good things in the past. What I love about the rabbis in this situation is that they take three little words – And Yitro heard! – and from them they spin a net of reassurance for themselves: Israel is beloved of God. Israel was, and is, and will be great.

I am grateful to Rabbi Lewis M. Barth for introducing me to the Mekhilta and its joys. Any mistakes here are mine and mine alone.