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.

 

 

Advertisements

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.

Meet Hillel, Who Would Teach Anyone

Image: The entrance to the Tomb of Hillel the Elder, as it was around 1900. From the Jewish Encyclopedia, published by Funk & Wagnalls between 1901 and 1906. Public Domain.

Hillel the Elder is perhaps the most famous and most quoted of the early rabbis. He was born in Babylon about 110 BCE and died in Jerusalem about 10 CE. He was renowned in his own time as a teacher of Torah and had many students, who became known as Beit Hillel, the House (or School) of Hillel. His name is forever associated with his fellow scholar, Shammai, who had his own followers, known as Beit Shammai.

He is not called “Rabbi Hillel” because he is from a time just before the rabbis. Some writers give him that title, but in his case it is an anachronism.

 

All of our information about Hillel comes from sources written down long after his death, in some cases, hundreds of years after his death. What we know for sure is that he founded a great school of Torah study. The debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai became the model for beneficial disagreements, “arguments for the sake of heaven.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17)

The stories we have about Hillel himself depict him as a mild individual with a brilliant mind for Torah. One of the longest stories about Hillel is from Shabbat 31a, which is so good that I will quote it in its entirety:

The Sages taught in a baraitaA person should always be patient like Hillel and not impatient like Shammai. The Gemara related: There was an incident involving two people 

who wagered with each other and said: Anyone who will go and aggravate Hillel to the point that he reprimands him, will take four-hundred zuzOne of them said: I will aggravate him. That day that he chose to bother Hillel was Shabbat eve, and Hillel was washing the hair on his head. He went and passed the entrance to Hillel’s house and in a demeaning manner said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Hillel wrapped himself in a dignified garment and went out to greet him. He said to him: My son, what do you seek? He said to him: I have a question to ask. Hillel said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked him: Why are the heads of Babylonians oval? He was alluding to and attempting to insult Hillel, who was Babylonian. He said to him: My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they do not have clever midwives. They do not know how to shape the child’s head at birth.

That man went and waited one hour, a short while, returned to look for Hillel, and said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Again, Hillel wrapped himself and went out to greet him. Hillel said to him: My son, what do you seek? The man said to him: I have a question to ask. He said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked: Why are the eyes of the residents of Tadmor bleary [terutot]? Hillel said to him: My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they live among the sands and the sand gets into their eyes.

Once again the man went, waited one hour, returned, and said: Who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel? Again, he, Hillel, wrapped himself and went out to greet him. He said to him: My son, what do you seek? He said to him: I have a question to ask. He said to him: Ask, my son, ask. The man asked: Why do Africans have wide feet? Hillel said to him: You have asked a significant question. The reason is because they live in marshlands and their feet widened to enable them to walk through those swampy areas.

That man said to him: I have many more questions to ask, but I am afraid lest you get angry. Hillel wrapped himself and sat before him, and he said to him: All of the questions that you have to ask, ask them. The man got angry and said to him: Are you Hillel whom they call the Nasi of Israel? He said to him: Yes. He said to him: If it is you, then may there not be many like you in Israel. Hillel said to him: My son, for what reason do you say this? The man said to him: Because I lost four hundred zuz because of you.Hillel said to him: Be vigilant of your spirit and avoid situations of this sort. Hillel is worthy of having you lose four hundred zuz and another four hundred zuz on his account, and Hillel will not get upset. – Shabbat 30b-31a

This passage is followed by other stories about Hillel. Here is another, perhaps the most famous story of all:

There was another incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai whacked him with the builder’s cubit in his hand. This was a common measuring stick and Shammai was a builder by trade. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study. – Shabbat 31a

The image that emerges of Hillel is a man so willing to teach Torah that he will put up with some significant shenanigans from students. He means it when he says “no question is too stupid!” In the second story, Shammai rejects a jokester who seems to be mocking the Torah. Hillel summarizes the Torah, then admonishes him: Go study. Hillel has faith in the power of Torah study to change a life.

Hillel was a modest man who established a great school of rabbis. He is one of the foundational figures for Rabbinic Judaism, and a role model to all of us who try to do justice to Torah in our own time.

Talmud and the Absurd: The Elephant in the Sukkah

Here is a lovely bit of Talmud to study. When we need a break from a painful present, Jewish study can provide both rest and refreshment.

This particular story offers some of the arcana of sukkah construction – or does it? What are the rabbis up to in this passage?

The Talmud Blog

Since the 1990’s (and Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel), there has been a fair amount of discussion about the Talmud, the carnivalesque, and the absurd.  Put simply, the Talmud contains a fair number of passages, even halakhic ones, that we might say operate on a plain other than the normal sphere of human existence.  Amazingly, these passages interact in strange and unexpected ways with the more regular talmudic fare.  Much of this research has been driven by criticism developed in the study of literature that probes the meaning of “bizarre” texts and their relationship to the normative work. This is, for example, one of Socrates and the Fat Rabbis primary concerns, and it also powers a fascinating discussion about courtroom etiquette in Barry Wimpfheimer‘s  Narrating the Law.

This morning, reader Yair Rosenberg sent me Pshita‘s most recent creation – a children’s story that reworks the following talmudic discussion.

If…

View original post 579 more words

Our Biblical Cousins?

Some of the excavated ruins of Ugarit, or Ras Shamra. Photo by Loris Romito, via Italian Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

I have a word to tell you, a message to recount to you: the word of the tree and the whisper of the stone, the murmur of the heavens to the earth, of the seas to the stars. I understand the lightning that the heavens do not know, the word that people do not know, and earth’s masses cannot understand. Come, and I will reveal it. – Ras Shamra inscription

The Bronze Age city of Ugarit sat on the coast in northern Syria. The citizens of that city left an enormous library of clay tablets inscribed in Ugaritic, a Semitic language. From those writings, we know that they worshiped El, Asherah, and Baal, Canaanite deities mentioned in our Bible. Some of their poetry has close parallels in our Book of Psalms. As you can see from the example above, the writings were vivid and very beautiful.

The “golden age” of Ugarit came to an end about 1200 BCE, at a time of great upheaval in the ancient Near East. The invasions of the Sea Peoples (Philistines) coincided with the destruction of the city. This corresponds to the period described in the Book of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes. — Judges 21:25