Sometimes Silence is a Mitzvah

Image:  A woman sits silently, arms folded. (ivanovgood/pixabay)

And Rabbi Ile’a said in the name of Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon: Just as it is a mitzvah for a person to say that which will be heeded, so is it a mitzvah for a person not to say that which will not be heeded. Rabbi Abba says: It is obligatory for him to refrain from speaking, as it is stated: “Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). — Yevamot 65b

In the midst of a discussion of the command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” (Genesis 1:28) the Talmud goes on a little side trip. The wording is a bit awkward in this translation (from the excellent Sefaria.org website).  I shall rephrase:

Rabbi Ile’a said, according to Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon, “It is a mitzvah to rebuke another person when the rebuke will be heeded. It is similarly a mitzvah for a person to refrain from rebuking another when they know their words will not be heeded.” Rabbi Abba agreed: “That one is obliged to refrain from speaking, as Proverbs 9:8 says, ‘Do not reprove a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you.'”

This passage reminds me of times when I have engaged in arguments with online trolls – people who enjoy starting quarrels and upsetting people for the fun of it. A fictional example:

TRUEBELIEVER: COFFEESHOPRABBI is a stupid libtard!

COFFEESHOPRABBI: Please don’t use words that stigmatize people with disabilities.

TRUEBELIEVER: Stupid libtard! Stupid libtard! #StupidLibtard!

COFFEESHOPRABBI: I’m not calling you names. Why are you calling me names?

TRUEBELIEVER: MAGA! MAGA! MAGA!

As Maureen points out in the comments, the “Block” function on most online systems is the best option at such times. When I’m thinking clearly, I answer the first line – namecalling – with a block. No conversation, no second chances, just silence.

My time is better spent encouraging voters to get to the polls, or calling my representatives. So is yours.

Rabbi Ile’a was right.

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Who’s Afraid of the Big Blood Moon?

Image: Giuseppe Petricca took this image of a “supermoon” total lunar eclipse on Sept. 27, 2015, from Pisa, Italy.

Periodically the news has stories about “blood moons.” According to Space.com:

A “blood moon” happens when Earth’s moon is in full eclipse. While it has no special astronomical significance, the view in the sky is striking as the usually whiteish moon becomes red or ruddy-brown.

This are normal, predictable natural events, but you would not know that from much of the news coverage they get. The longest total eclipse of the 21st century will take place on July 27 and will be visible from South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. For more about the science of this remarkable event, read “Blood Moon 2018: Longest Total Lunar Eclipse of Century” on Space.com.

Some Christian preachers are making much of the fact that this particular “blood moon” (aka eclipse) will be visible from Jerusalem. They believe that this moon is a harbinger of the end of the world. They cite verses in the prophet Joel, chapter 2, and in the Christian scriptures of Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2 and Revelations, chapter 6.

So what’s in that passage of Joel?

Before them earth trembles, heaven shakes, sun and moon are darkened, And stars withdraw their brightness.

And the LORD roars aloud at the head of His army; for vast indeed is His host, numberless are those that do His bidding. For great is the day of the LORD, Most terrible—who can endure it? 

“Yet even now”—says the LORD— “Turn back to Me with all your hearts, and with fasting, weeping, and lamenting.” 

Rend your hearts, rather than your garments, and turn back to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment.  – Joel 2:10-13.

This passage is typical of the Hebrew prophets: it is a call to repentance. Scholars disagree about the time when it was written. It has few details to identify a particular date. What is clear about it is the call to a return to just ways: “Rend your hearts, rather than your garments, and turn back to the LORD your God.”

What we can take from the “blood moon” is a sense of wonder at the mysteries of creation. We get lost in our smartphones, in our computer screens, and we forget to see the miracles all around us.

Then, having taken notice of the natural world, perhaps we will be moved to take better care of it, lest in our foolishness and waste we so alter creation that we destroy it.

A Bitter Psalm for Our Times

Image: B&W Photo of a crying child. (PublicDomain/Pixabay)

We live in a time when terrible things are happening to our nation and the world. Sometimes I cannot believe what I see on the news, then I talk with people who’ve been there and seen that with their own eyes, and I am forced to believe that there are babies in cages, children shuttled all over who knows where, and a nation built by immigrants led by someone who uses words like “infestation” to describe human beings.

People that I trust have personally witnessed the detention of children. They are not in “summer camp” or “boarding school.” They are held in prison-like conditions, without their parents knowing their whereabouts, and without knowing when or how they will see their parents again. Some appear to have been transported around the country to foster care, which sounds good until we realize that the foster parents have no information about the parents, or how long the separation may last. There seems to be a lack of concern at both the Department of Homeland Security and at the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as in the Oval Office itself.

Discussions about the alleged guilt of the parents is completely beside the point. The persons receiving this punishment are children, innocent children who have done nothing to anyone. To those who blame the parents, I say, “Do you know for a fact that each individual parent is a fraud?”

What we DO know for certain that such a separation from family is permanently damaging to children. We know it from Holocaust survivors who were “hidden children” or “kindertransport children” , even those who were able to reconnect with relatives, and even those who were adopted by very nice people. Without exception, the people I know who survived in that way are grateful for their survival, and feel a profound sense of loss even in old age.

It is only human to weep in the face of such trauma and such evil – but what are we to do besides weep? Many good people have been demonstrating, reporting what they know about the locations of children, calling their elected officials, and doing other good works – gemilut hasadim – acts of lovingkindness – to right these great wrongs.

Meanwhile, our Congress has been busy remaking the safety net that stands between the working poor and utter disaster. They have made use of our distraction (by the great crime on our borders) to pass a budget that gives tax cuts to billionaires while cutting  Medicare and Medicaid.

These wrongs are nothing new in history. Here is what the psalmist had to say about cruel and unjust rulers in his own time:

Psalm 58

For the leader; “Do not Destroy.” Of David. A michtam.

O mighty ones, do you really decree what is just? Do you judge mankind with equity?

In your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands you deal out violence in the land.
The wicked are defiant from birth; the liars go astray from the womb.
Their venom is like that of a snake, a deaf viper that stops its ears
so as not to hear the voice of charmers or the expert mutterer of spells.
O God, smash their teeth in their mouth; shatter the fangs of lions, Eternal One!
let them melt, let them vanish like water; may their arrows be blunted when they aim their bows;
like a slug that melts away as it moves; like a stillborn child that never sees the sun!
Before the thorns grow into a bramble, may God whirl them away alive in fury.
The righteous man will rejoice when he sees revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Men will say, “There is, then, a reward for the righteous; there is, indeed, divine justice on earth.”

This is an ugly psalm, with shocking sentiments. It gives voice to the anger that a good person feels when such cruelty is done by the powerful. It is also a reminder that while such evil may prevail for a while, in the end there is only the judgement of history and, for believers, the judgement of God.

If you are angry at what is being done to innocent children, know that you are in good company. But know, also, that all of us who are U.S. citizens are complicit in these evils: our tax dollars are paying for these crimes. We must raise our voices in any way we can, keeping in mind that we want to do less harm to the families, not more. In my next post I will address some specific actions we can take.

Woe to those who have done such things, and woe to those who do not care.

Have Mercy: more on suffering

Image: Statue of a man holding his head. (strecosa/pixabay)

One of the strangest books in the Bible is the Book of Job.

The book begins with God and Satan (“The Adversary” for Jews) having a little bet. God points out to Satan that Job is a really good guy. Satan retorts that Job is only good because God protects him.

“Stop protecting him,” taunts Satan, “And he’ll curse your Name.”

God says to Satan, “Do what you like! Just don’t kill him.”

So Satan showers troubles upon Job. He takes away Job’s wealth, kills his children, and destroys his health. But throughout it all, Job never curses God. Friends come to Job saying that he must have sinned and he must repent, but Job keeps insisting that he has done nothing wrong. Finally God appears in a whirlwind, declares them all fools, and Job collapses, declaring himself “dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)

There’s a bit at the end of the book in which God gives Job new wealth, a nice new house, new children, and everything seems super. Most scholars agree that it seems to be a very late addition, as if someone later insisted on a Hollywood ending. Anyway, any parent will tell you that you cannot simply replace dead children and make it all better.

Job admits to us that sometimes life really, really stinks despite everything we do.

That is exactly why I think the book of Job ought to be read more often, and with greater attention. Tsuris (Yiddish for trouble) finds many people who don’t deserve it. This is a terrifying fact of life.

In our terror that tsuris will find us, we attempt to find reasons for bad luck. We ask the cancer patient if he smoked, we drive only “safe” cars, we explain every ill in terms of something that someone did wrong. But there is no vitamin, no regimen, no diet, no car, no product, no magic talisman that will keep all bad things from happening to us. We are human, and we are prone to trouble. (Job 5:7)

I am all for medicine, and science, and research, and doing what we can with our brains to make life easier, better, and longer. I wear my seatbelt, and I do what my doctor tells me to do. Certainly science has given us wonderful tools to reduce human misery. But it is arrogant foolishness to look at a suffering person and say, “I would not have made her mistakes” with its corollary “…so that will never happen to me.” It is arrogant foolishness and it is cruel.

The book of Job is an extraordinary admission in a book that often seems to say “Be good and you are guaranteed only good things.” Job admits that sometimes life stinks, no matter what we do.

The true comfort in Job is hidden in plain view. Job’s wife suffers all the same losses that Job did. She loses ten children to death. She, too, is reduced to poverty. She becomes the caretaker for a sick husband. And yet only once, early on, does she speak, and for that commentators have vilified her ever since:

“Do you still hang on to your integrity? Curse God and die!” – Job 2:9

She is standing by him, caring for him, watching him suffer, suffering herself, and her rage and pain erupt. Then we don’t hear another word from her. But at the end of the book, there she is, ready to bear ten more children. She loved him, and she stuck by him. Their covenant held solid. Archibald MacLeish got it right in the play J.B.: the answer to human misery is love.

We need to consider as a society that when people have troubles, we often abandon them. We assure ourselves that it must be their fault. We worry about freeloaders. We worry about frauds and fakers. And people with genuine trouble, people who have been given steep challenges are left to become homeless, to starve, to struggle with impossible scenarios.

Mention “disability” and someone will pipe up about fakers. Mention “food stamps” and someone will tell you about frauds. Mention “homelessness” and some helpful soul will tell you it’s really about moral degeneracy, and drugs, and mental illness – and mention “mental illness” and someone will say that poor parenting is to blame.

Real people sometimes have real troubles and need help. We have to find our way out of the morass of fear, selfishness and arrogance and deal with that fact.  May that day come soon.

God put us here for one another. Whether it is a spouse, or a friend, or a stranger, anyone who reaches out to another with love and kindness is an agent of the Holy One.

May we all have mercy on one another.

 

 

A Judge of Character

Image: Two tape measures curled across a field (Alicja/Pixabay)

Rabbi Ilai used to say, “A person may be revealed in three ways: how they drink, how they spend, and how they express anger. And some say, they also reveal their true nature in their laughter.” – Eruvin 65b

Using this standard, how do we each reveal ourselves?

How do I behave when I drink? – Slow Lorist suggested a set of questions I prefer to my original version: It’s valuable to see how someone interacts with their own impairment…or with the potential for it. Do they drink to excess, or stop while they’re tipsy? (This is “how they drink” taken literally, and I think it makes more sense that way.) Do they eat as soon as they realize they’re hungry, and keep snacks on hand so they don’t spend a long time in that underfed snappish state? Do they apologize for what they did while they were at less than their best?

What does my behavior about money reveal about me? – Money is a limited resource, even for the wealthiest people. What do we do with our limited resources? What does my spending say about my priorities? When I overspend, on what do I overspend?

How do I express anger?  – Do I express my anger directly to the person with whom I am angry, or do I express it to a third party? Do I express anger at all? When and to whom say that I am angry? When I am angry, do I act out physically as well? When I do something inappropriate in my anger, what then? Do I blame it on the person or situation that made me angry, or do I take responsibility for my own emotions?

What makes me laugh? – Do I laugh at myself? Do I laugh at other people? Do I laugh when I am nervous? What sorts of things do I find funny? What does that reveal about me?

Are these standards you might use when deciding upon a person’s character? How do you decide if someone is a person of character?

 

Opening the Gates to Shabbat

Image: Iron gates opening to a stone path. (Tama66/Pixabay)

If you have ever been to a Shabbat dinner, or to a Reform service, you will recognize the prayer Kiddush Leyl Shabbat (Kiddush for Shabbat Evening) by the tune, as in this YouTube video by Rabbi Justin Kerber:

Kiddush Leyl Shabbat is a blessing. It begins with the regular blessing over wine and then moves on to bless Shabbat specifically. I like to think of it as a “toast to Shabbat” that I make every Friday evening.

Recently our Introduction to Jewish Experience class did a text study on the words, because these ancient words can open doors for exploring the meaning of Shabbat. Here is an English translation, with a few notes in italics to spark your thoughts:

Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Some people refer to this first blessing as the “short Kiddush.” No, actually it is the blessing over wine, and it is a blessing you can say over any glass of wine or juice from vine-grown fruit. Kiddush is specific to Shabbat, and includes the blessing for wine. So for that part of Kiddush, keep reading:

Praise to You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe
Who sanctified us with commandments, and favored us, 

Eternal is a name I substitute for the four-letter name of God that Jews do not pronounce. Other choices are HaShem (the Name) and Adonai (my Lord.) What name do you prefer to use for God? Why that one?
What does it mean to be “sanctified with commandments”?
How do commandments make us holy?

and with love and intent gave us the holy Sabbath,
as a reminder of the work of Creation.

see Genesis 2:1-3. God rested on the seventh day. Why did God rest? Does God need rest? 

As first among our holy days,

Shabbat is the most important Jewish holiday

it recalls the Exodus from Egypt.

Shabbat not only recalls Creation, it recalls the Exodus as well.  What is the connection between Shabbat and freedom

You chose us and set us apart from the nations.

see Genesis 12:1-3  How does keeping Shabbat set us apart? How does it draw us closer?

In love and favor You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance.

What associations do you have for the words “in love and favor” and “inheritance”? What does this suggest to you about Shabbat?

Praise to You, Eternal, who sanctifies Shabbat.

What about this prayer intrigues you? Is there anything in it that disturbs you? What does it mean to you? What does Shabbat mean to you?

Shabbat table
Shabbat

Image: A loaf of challah, a pair of candlesticks, and a kiddush cup full of wine. (Shutterstock)

Learning Hebrew: Reading the Joseph Story

Image: Part of the story of Joseph in the Torah Scroll.

Whenever we reach Parashat Vayeshev, this week’s portion, I can taste tuna fish. That may seem like a weird association, but this portion is linked in my heart to the lunchtime study group in which I learned to read Biblical Hebrew.

Like most adult learners in the US, my Hebrew studies started with the Aleph-Bet and “Prayer Book Hebrew,” the prayers in the synagogue service. There’s a giant step from knowing what the prayers say to reading the Torah, and Rabbi Steven Chester chose the Joseph story to carry us across that chasm in 1997.

Each week we had a short passage to translate. We were supposed to translate the whole thing, but each of us was responsible for “our” verse, meaning that each of us knew ahead of time exactly what we, personally, would translate aloud. We were a group of middle-aged learners, bobbing our heads to find the sweet spot in our progressive lenses in order to see the text.

Rabbi Chester was patient and kind, never shaming anyone. That was good, because I had no natural gift for it, and my translations were awful. I would go to class thinking “this CAN’T be right,” and sure enough, it wasn’t. Rabbi used our mistakes to review grammar or to show us (again)  how to break down a word to find it in the dictionary.

Our glacial pace through the text meant that we studied it deeply, noticing the choices about grammar and the repetition of certain words in the text. It was my first taste of learning a text on that level: word by word, even letter by letter. I was enchanted.

Sometimes Rabbi Chester enriched our study by showing us a midrash on a particular scrap of the text. This was also his sneaky way of introducing us to the glories of midrashic texts and rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic, since he always gave us those texts in both the original and translation. We’d read the translation, but the original words would wink at me, promising more: more meaning, more depth, more nuance.

That class marked the beginning of my love for text study. It met Wednesday at lunchtime for years, and now as a teacher myself I marvel at his chutzpah and patience in leading us into that tangle of grammar and vocabulary. It was an unusual and bold way to teach Biblical Hebrew. It was also a brilliant choice, because the powerful current of the narrative kept us going. Who could quit, halfway through that story?

By the time we came to the end of Genesis 50, my translations were less ridiculous, and I felt confident enough to tackle other parts of Torah on my own. I learned the most important lesson for Hebrew study: stick with it long enough, and it will begin to sink in.

Foolish, feckless Joseph grew up to be a tzaddik, and I had begun to grow towards becoming a rabbi. And every year, when we read this narrative again, it stirs old memories of sitting around a table, munching our lunches and puzzling out the mysteries verse by verse.

Thank you, Rabbi Chester.