“A Tzaddik Knows the Soul of His Beast”

Image: Three domesticated alpacas. (Kasjan Farbisz / Pixabay

Parashat Noach (Noah) tells the Biblical version of the story of Noah and the Ark. Makers of children’s storybooks have long focused on a sanitized version of the story to tell a charming tale about a boat full of animals that boarded “two-by-two.” Midrash offers us some hair-raising details – definitely not for kiddos! – about what happened on an ark with lions, tigers, and bears.

This Torah portion also offers an opportunity to talk a little bit about Jewish values regarding our treatment of animals. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that there are a number of Torah passages that address our behavior and attitudes about the beasts around us:

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 daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.

Exodus 19:9-10

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.

Deuteronomy 22:6

You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.

Deuteronomy 22:10

You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing.

Deuteronomy 25:4

There is a Jewish legal term for these laws and their corollaries, which are developed further in discussions in Talmud and elsewhere. It is tza’ar ba’alei chayyim, the prevention of cruelty to animals. Human beings are permitted to make use of animals to do work, and we are permitted to eat some animals, within limits, but we are not allowed to be cruel.

The laws of kashrut specifically forbid cruelty in slaughter, including frightening the animal. The method of slaughter is a swift severing of trachea, carotid artery, and esophagus by a scalpel-sharp knife in one stroke, so death is very quick and as painless as possible. Some Jews go a step further and eschew eating meat altogether.

Our tradition regards careful attention to animals as the mark of a tzaddik, a truly righteous individual.

יוֹדֵ֣עַ צַ֭דִּיק נֶ֣פֶשׁ בְּהֶמְתּ֑וֹ וְֽרַחֲמֵ֥י רְ֝שָׁעִ֗ים אַכְזָרִֽי׃

A righteous man knows the soul of his beast, But the compassion of the wicked is cruelty.

Proverbs 12:10
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Pittsburgh Yahrzeit: How You Can Participate

Image: Tree of Life Memorials (White House Photo)

A year has passed since the murders of Jews in Pittsburgh. I was glad to hear that the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has come up with a way for those of us who live far from Pennsylvania to participate and honor their memory.

The JFNA are calling on all Jews and allies to take a moment to pause on this coming Sunday, Oct. 27 to mark one year since the Tree of Life Congregations shooting in Pittsburgh, Pa. Eleven people were murdered there on Oct 27, 2018.

Use this link to sign up to participate.

We will remember their lives and their families in a virtual service around the world. Anyone signing up will receive a text at 5 p.m. Eastern Time (2 pm Pacific Time) with a video reading of a prayer for mourning and the names of the 11 individuals who were killed. Following the prayer, subscribers will be able to tune into a live stream of Pittsburgh’s public memorial service and submit a message of support by text.

Hillel’s Bathhouse Lesson

Image: A person in a hat lounges in a pool of water. (Free-Photos/Pixabay)

A midrash about the importance of self-care:

There it is written, “The merciful man does good to his own soul (Proverbs 11:17),” this [refers to] Hillel the Elder, who, at the time that he was departing from his students, would walk with them. They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you walking to?” He said to them, “To fulfill a commandment!” They said to him, “And what commandment is this?” He said to them, “To bathe in the bathhouse.” They said to him: “But is this really a commandment?” He said to them: “Yes. Just like regarding the statues (lit. icons) of kings, that are set up in the theaters and the circuses, the one who is appointed over them bathes them and scrubs them, and they give him sustenance, and furthermore, he attains status with the leaders of the kingdom; I, who was created in the [Divine] Image and Form, as it is written, “For in the Image of G-d He made Man (Genesis 9:6),” even more so!…

Vayikra Rabbah 34:3

I love this story because the first-century sage Hillel teaches his students about taking care of themselves, and he’s very clever about it. He first intrigues his students by going on a mysterious errand after class. His students, always hoping to learn from him, ask him where he’s going. He says, “To fulfill a mitzvah!” They ask which mitzvah, and he surprises them when he says, “I’m going to the bathhouse!”

I can just imagine them saying, “C’mon, is that really a mitzvah?” And he gives them an analogy: Just as a custodian cares for the statues of kings, we care for the image of God in the form of our own bodies. The custodian is paid to do it (receives his sustenance from his job) and keeping the statue clean is a way to honor the person pictured. How much more so should we honor the Divine Image in ourselves?

Hillel was teaching that self-care is really an expression of the love of God, because we are made in the image of God. So we should keep ourselves clean, and decently fed, and exercised, and go to the doctor when we’re sick. Those things are not just “self-indulgence” – they are another way of honoring God.

Hillel lived in turbulent times in the land of Israel, and may have suspected that even harder times were ahead. By teaching his students this important lesson about caring for themselves, he was also teaching them things they needed to know if they were going to be well enough to teach their own students in the difficult years ahead.

How Do Jews Pray for the Sick?

Image: A figure is sick in bed, thermometer in mouth. (OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay)

One Jew says to another, “I am so sad, my mother is sick.”

The other replies, “I will make a mi shebeirach for her – may she have a refuah shleimah!”

The beginner, listening, wonders, “What just happened?”

Mi Shebeirach (mee sheh-BEH-rakh) is the name of a group of prayers the most common of which is a prayer for the sick. They may be said as part of the Torah service, between Torah readings, but increasingly they are also said both publicly and privately outside the Torah service.

The words mi shebeirach are the opening words of the prayer, and they mean “may the One who blessed.” Here is what it says, in English:

May the One who blessed our ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah — bless and heal the one who is ill: ________________ son/daughter of ________________ . May the Holy Blessed One overflow with compassion upon him/her, to restore him/her, to heal him/her, to strengthen him/her, to enliven him/her. The One will send him/her, speedily, a complete healing — healing of the soul and healing of the body — along with all the ill, among the people of Israel and all humankind, soon, speedily, without delay, and let us all say:  Amen!

Refuah schleimah (reh-FOO-ah SHLEY-ma) or (reh-foo-AH shley-MAH) means “a complete healing.” It is important to keep in mind that a “complete healing” might mean “a cure” but it also might mean a peaceful conclusion to the illness. We do not assume that God is in the business of dishing out miracles, but it is possible for there to be wholeness (shleymut) without a return to the exact same level of previous health. Therefore we can say this prayer even for someone we believe to have a terminal illness: in that case, if there is no chance of a return to health, we can hope for the easiest possible progress of disease and for shalom, peace, at the end of life.

Whether prayer can affect the course of illness is the subject of debate. It can be very comforting to a sick person or their loved ones to know that others care and are praying for healing. If for any reason the sick person is uncomfortable with the practice, however, it is important to respect their wishes.

Some congregations maintain a “mi shebeirach list” of people who are sick and who wish prayers said for them. It can serve not only as a list of people who wish for prayers, but also as an opportunity to send a card or offer a visit.

For the Hebrew and transliteration of the Mi Shebeirach, see this page on ReformJudaism.org.

Feeling stressed? Re-commit to Self-Care!

Image: A teddy bear with a stethoscope pressed to its chest. (Pexels.com)

Feeling stressed?

I’m re-committing to self-care today. In a very wigged-out world we have to do what we can to maintain ourselves. I thought I’d share my list with you, in case you’ve been feeling ragged and need some care.

A note: We all have our limits and our challenges. Your self care will have to be personalized for your situation. Don’t hurt yourself or anyone else!

By the way, all of these things are mitzvot. They fall under the headings of “caring for the body,” “preserving life,” prayer, and moderation in appetites of all kinds. The list is in no particular order, because everything on it is important.

  1. Take all medications as prescribed. I am usually good about this, but it bears repeating.
  2. Drink more water. A lot of things I like to drink (coffee, tea, etc) are diuretics, so they don’t help with dehydration as much as I like to think. Water, water, water!
  3. Pray/Meditate every day. Meditation is part of my prayer practice: there is prayer in which I say words, and meditation in which I listen for the “still, small voice.”
  4. Move the body. Sitting at the computer, sitting at the TV, sitting sitting sitting is bad for both body and soul. I need to move my body every day, joyfully if at all possible.
  5. Guard against sunburn. Wear a hat, wear sunscreen, carry an umbrella if need be.
  6. Listen to the body. Cultivating awareness of hunger and thirst, of moods, of the truth of what I’m feeling is very important for my health.
  7. Eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’ve had enough. Intuitive eating has already saved my life and my sanity more than once. I recommit to it.
  8. Get enough sleep! Sleep deprived people have more accidents and have lowered resistance to illness.
  9. Limit social media and the news. Both are a world of stress these days, and beyond the headlines there is little I truly need. It is always worth asking if an activity is contributing to my ability to improve the world, or limiting it.
  10. Talk things out in a safe place. Sometimes talking things out can relieve a lot of stress, provided I’m careful to choose a listener who is responsible and discreet: a therapist, my rabbi, or a trusted friend.
  11. Say “no” to gossip. Rechilut (gossip) covers everything from celebrity “news” to involving myself in drama that is not my business. All of it is bad for me and for the world.
  12. Hug my beloveds. Beloveds include my wife, our children and their spouses, our dogs, and my dear friends. “Hug” can mean an actual hug, a statement of love, or a decision to assume the best when I am tempted to be cross with someone.
  13. Give tzedakah. The giving of tzedakah (giving money to relieve the suffering of another) reminds me of the power I have to help others. When I am feeling stressed and powerless, it helps to recognize that I still have the ability to help another person.
  14. Perform acts of kindness to others. Just as tzedakah reminds me that I am not destitute, an act of lovingkindness (gemilut chasadim) forces me to recognize the ways in which I am able. I cannot walk up stairs, but I can still drive the car and give someone a ride to shul.
  15. Be gentle with myself. I will say nasty things to or about myself that I would never, ever say to a stranger, much less a family member. “Gentle” means gentle – it doesn’t mean making excuses! Sometimes I need a talking-to (“Ruth, get off the computer and go outside to play!”) but I commit to leaving out the cruel adjectives and names with which I am prone to hurt myself. Just like every other human being, I am b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of the Holy One, so I have to treat myself with respect and mercy!

Do you have any other suggestions for ways to maintain our health and sanity in stressful times?

We Must Not Stop Caring

The news is full of pictures of the camps on the southern border of the United States. The photo above is from one such news item, from “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border” from npr.org. I know that many of you are, like me, horrified at these reports.

I have been told that these camps existed during the Obama administration. If so, shame on us- this policy does not fit with my understanding of what America is supposed to be. We are slamming the door not only to immigrants like our own ancestors, but slamming doors on refugees from violence, people seeking asylum from terrible danger. I don’t care when it started; I want it to stop, and to be replaced by a fair and coherent immigration policy, something that both Republican and Democratic administrations have so far failed to produce.

I’ve written letters and made calls for months, and the news has only gotten worse. I’ve sent donations, and seen no progress. It is very, very easy to get weary, to decide that nothing will help, and to feel how tired I am of all this worry and activity. That weariness is a temptation to stop caring so much.

Ever since I first heard about the so-called detainment camps and the separation of children from their parents, I have protested it using the verse Deuteronomy 10:19: “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I’ve quoted those words so often, with so little result, that they have begun to seem meaningless.

Verses do that sometimes. They become rote, syllables that I repeat. At that point I step back and look at the larger context of the thing I’ve been quoting:

Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.

You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Listen to the violence in that passage! “Cut away the thickening about your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more.” This verse is sometimes translated literally as “circumcise your hearts” but I prefer this translation because it brings the metaphor closer – we are not talking about brit milah here (upon which we moderns can get sidetracked into debate) – we’re talking about heart surgery!

We who have been sending in our tax dollars to pay agents to orphan children by taking them from their parents —

We who have been leaving mothers and fathers weeping for their children —

We who have been treating strangers like animals, caging them and denying them basic needs like soap and toothbrushes —

We who have been doing this out of fear (“they will rape our women”) or out of greed (“they will get our jobs”) need to change our hearts today!

We who have acquiesced to it by blaming the bad stuff on the president and his people, by saying, “I didn’t do that” or “that’s not US!” need to change our hearts today!

O God, who knows the hearts of all, please help us cut away the calluses on our hearts, please help us to care. Help our caring to find a better way: a just and coherent immigration policy, with the support it needs to succeed.

The worse the news, the longer it goes on, the more urgent it is that we care and that we continue taking action. If you would like a list of possible actions you might take to care and to act, Slate Magazine recently posted an excellent list.

We must not stop caring!

Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment

Image: Stacks of coins that appear to be sprouting seedlings. (Pixabay)

On June 21 I had the pleasure of returning to Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV, the first congregation I served as a new rabbi, right out of school. Rabbi Sanford Akselrad was kind enough to invite me to preach.

I talked about a topic dear to me: the mitzvah of tzedakah. The title of the sermon was “Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment.” Since I generally preach from an outline rather than a full text, to keep my words and delivery fresh, I can’t reproduce the sermon here. However, I can give you the gist of it.

We usually talk about mitzvot as commandments or sacred duties: something we do. However, there is another angle from which too see mitzvot. Mitzvot are actions we take that also cause change within us.

Notice the blessings we say before performing a mitzvah:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who sanctifies us with mitzvot, and has commanded us to immerse ourselves in the words of Torah.

— Blessing before the Study of Torah

Before a mitzvah, when we say this blessing, we say that God makes us holy through our performance of the mitzvah. That is quite a claim.

So how does this work?

Take tzedakah, for instance: we normally think of it as our sacred duty to give money for justice or for the relief of suffering. We might think that tzedakah is all about the other person.

But it is also a powerful tool for human spiritual development. Let me explain with a story.

I have a little dog, Gabi. She does not particularly like potato chips, but if we have them, she manages to get one. She grabs a chip and runs a little distance off, hovering over the chip. If any other dog approaches, she growls. If I tell her to drop it, she will very grudgingly give it to me. As long as she has the chip she will not eat it, instead guarding it no matter what other fun thing might be going on.

In short, she makes herself miserable guarding that chip.

Look at the word “miserable.” What do the first five letters spell?

Tzedakah is the sacred duty to give money to a suffering human being, or to an agent who will help suffering beings. It is also a powerful antidote to miserliness, the misery that comes from hanging on too tightly to money.

When we give tzedakah, we remind ourselves that we actually have ENOUGH, enough that we can give away a bit. How much we give depends on our means. Jewish tradition teaches us not to give so much that we endanger ourselves. No, we are only commanded to give a little.

Giving that little bit will remind us that we have more power than we realize. One little tzedakah payment may be small, but when it combines with others, it transforms lives. It can save a person from starving to death. It can pay legal fees to free a prisoner. It can pay tuition so a person can learn and eventually support themselves.

That is POWER.

When we give tzedakah in its higher forms, when we give anonymously, we can fight back against our need for attention and approval. Maimonides teaches us that the mitzvah is fulfilled even if we give a tiny amount, grudgingly, and demand big thanks and a brass nameplate. But it is much more meritorious, he tells us, to give anonymously and to do so without public recognition. That kind of giving trains us away from narcissism. When we give quietly, we cultivate a true humility and become a better person.

So there it is: tzedakah may be the mitzvah of giving, but we still can receive much in return. As the blessing says, God gave us mitzvot to make us holy, to make us better people. In the case of tzedakah, it can take something that can be the source of tremendous stress and anxiety, and transform it into goodness in the world and in ourselves.

Shabbat shalom!