Staying Sane in the Age of Trump

Image: The word “stress” written in red pencil.  (pedrofigueras/pixabay)

A publication called Student Loan Hero reported in January that 60% of Americans are feeling stressed over the Trump Administration. Their survey was limited to questions about people’s financial fears. Add to that all the people worried about the future of democracy, those fearful of nuclear war with North Korea, and all those worrying about the wild stories circulating in the news, and it’s a stressful, stressful time.

How can we possibly manage all this stress?

I am a firm believer in the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.  – Reinhold Niebuhr

There are many things that I cannot control right now. One way to lower my stress is to take each thing that worries me and ask: “Can I do anything about this?” If the answer is “no” then I will be happier if I set it aside for a while. (I find, when I’m in a worrying mood, that telling myself I’m setting things aside “for now” is one way to assure myself that if the situation changes, I can get back to worrying about it.)

So, the next thing: are there mitzvot I can do?

This is only a partial list – there are lots and lots of mitzvot that can fill my life with holiness and meaning, and make the world a better place in the process.

We learn from our blessings that God “sanctifies us with mitzvot” – that is, that doing mitzvot properly will make us better people. I like to think that each mitzvah I do helps build me up for the day when I am called on for a larger, more difficult mitzvah. Each mitzvah is a little soul-workout that makes me stronger.

When the moment comes that I will need “the courage to change the things I can,” I want to be ready. So in the meantime, I will do mitzvot!









Tzedakah, Loans, and Human Dignity

Image: Three stacks of coins, with seedlings sprouting from the tops. (nattanan23/Pixabay)

If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them like a creditor; exact no interest from them. – Exodus 22:24

This verse in Parashat Mishpatim [Laws] establishes the top of Maimonides’ famous ladder of giving tzedakah: it begins im talveh (“if you lend”), not im noteh (“if you give”). Why is lending the preferred form of assisting the needy? And why, if that is the case, must there be no interest charged?

In the 11th century, Rabbeinu Bachya affirmed the teaching of Maimonides, and explained, “The loan is greater than the gift because it strengthens the recipient and he need not be ashamed of it.” He then quoted Shemot Rabbah 31:15:

When you lend money to my people, to the poor among you…  All the creations of the Holy borrow from one another. The day borrows [time] from the night and the night borrows [time] from the day… The moon borrows [light] from the stars… – Shemot Rabbah 31:15

Borrowing and lending are integral to creation; they predate the invention of money. For instance, manure lends its nutrients to the soil, the crop borrows moisture and nitrogen from the soil, the cow eats the crop for nourishment, and leaves its manure on the ground.  All creations of the Holy One borrow and lend from one another, and we are no different, borrowing and lending but remaining equal before God.

Both Maimonides and Bachya are concerned that we preserve the dignity of the recipient of tzedakah. Remember, embarrassing a person is strictly forbidden:

Anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though he were spilling blood.  – Bava Metzia 58b (Babylonian Talmud)

We must tread carefully when we give tzedakah. It is a mitzvah, but only if we can do it without embarrassing the recipient. Giving assistance in the form of a loan or a business partnership preserves the dignity of the needy person.  It is less demeaning to take a loan than it is to receive charity, because there is an implication that the misfortune is only temporary.

Why then does the tradition discourage charging interest on a helpful loan, say, enough to cover costs or compensate for the unavailability of funds? 

The answer is in the word k’noseh (“like a creditor”). A creditor is in a position of advantage over a debtor. A creditor holds the debt over the head of the borrower. That is not in keeping with the spirit of tzedakah, the root of which means “justice,” not “charity.” Also, interest accrues, and the borrower can wind up deeper and deeper in debt. Therefore we are forbidden to charge interest on such a loan.

For more about loans and tzedakah, see The Highest Form of Jewish Giving might be a surprise.

One popular option for fulfilling this mitzvah is to contribute to your local Jewish Free Loan Society,  To find it, go to the website of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans. By going through such an institution, we remove all embarrassment by making the face of the donor invisible, and normalizing the act of receiving assistance.


Keeping Our Agreements

Image: Six DACA registrants meet with President Obama in the Oval Office on 2/4/2015.

Keeping one’s word is a key principle in Torah. Much of Parashat Matot (Numbers 30:2 – 32:42) is dedicated to the topic. The sages dedicated two tractates of Talmud Nedarim and Shavuot to the importance and binding quality of the spoken word.

American civil law is less interested in spoken commitments (as the old saying goes, “a verbal commitment is worth the paper it’s written on.”) However, once a commitment is written down and its conditions met, it too is regarded as a deeply important matter, a binding commitment.

There is a battle on in the United States right now over such an agreement. After several blocked attempts at immigration reform in the Congress, the Obama Administration announced a policy under which individuals who had been brought to the United States as minors, and who met stringent standards for behavior past and present, could remain in the United States legally provided they registered with the Department of Homeland Security. Should they get in trouble with the law – trouble of any kind – they can be deported. They may not receive public assistance such as food stamps or welfare. To apply for the program,  immigrants must pay a $495 application fee, submit several forms, and produce documents showing they meet the requirements. This program was called DACA:  Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

On September 5, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the repeal of the DACA program. The Trump Administration justifies this repeal with a number of assertions, claiming that the program adversely affects native-born workers, that it caused the surge in unaccompanied minors, and that constitutional experts believe DACA to be unconstitutional. Fact checkers from the Associated Press and the Washington Post have refuted all of these claims. The DACA registrants are not “taking jobs” from native-born citizens. A 2016 study published in International Migration found that DACA did not significantly impact the number of minors arriving from Central America. No courts have yet ruled the DACA program unconstitutional. 

The fact remains that the government of the United States made an agreement with young people of good character, taking from them a fee of $495 and registration information, and in return saying: “As long as you behave yourself, you can live in the United States.” The agreements were written down, commitments were made, and fees were paid.

Granted, life is often unfair. There are those who would say to the DACA registrants, “Sorry, your parents broke the law. You are therefore a criminal. Go back to your parents’ country of origin.” Perhaps, if enough people in our country believe that, we should not let anyone else sign up for the DACA program. But having made the agreement, having accepted their fees, having required them to give us information about themselves, it seems to me that we have an obligation to those who have already registered.

I have at least two students whom I know to be DACA registrants. They were brought here as small children, under no choice of their own. They have been educated in the United States, and they want to find a path to citizenship, because this is the only home they have ever known. They have done nothing wrong – they both submitted to vetting that  proved they have been model individuals. That same vetting made them more vulnerable to deportation, since they are registered with the U.S. Government. Yet they trusted us; their great hope is to become part of us.

It is unfair to hold a child responsible for the misdeeds of their parents.

It is wrong to make an agreement and then renege on it.

I don’t know how this is going to work out. I do not know what is going to happen to my  students.

All I know is that I am calling my elected officials every day, and I tell them three things:

  • I believe in honoring agreements, in holding up my end of a deal.
  • I do not believe in punishing people for the misdeeds of their parents.
  • I believe that deporting these young people would be an act of profound injustice.

I believe that Torah demands that I do no less.



The Long List of Mitzvot

Image: A piece of paper with blanks and boxes for check marks, a check list. (TeroVesalainen/pixabay)

Every year, when I teach my students about the concept of mitzvot [commandments] some member of the class will ask for a list of the 613. I remember being the student who wanted the list, and I remember why I wanted it: I wanted to be sure that I had a good checklist, because I was determined to be a very good Jew.

The thing is, most Jews do not worry about 613 mitzvot. We just do our best to do all the mitzvot that we can.

The number originates in a sermon by Rabbi Simlai, a 3rd century rabbi who lived in the land of Israel:

Rabbi Simlai taught: There were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding tothe number of a person’s limbs. Rav Hamnuna said: What is the verse that alludes to this? It is written: “Moses commanded to us the Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 34:4). The word Torah, in terms of its numerical value [gimatriyya], is 611, the number of mitzvot that were received and taught by Moses our teacher. In addition, there are two mitzvot: “I am the Lord your God” and:“You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:2, 3), the first two of the Ten Commandments, that we heard from the mouth of the Almighty, for a total of 613. – Makkot 23b-24a

This text is the origin of the number 613.  It is a poetic way of saying, “The commandments of the Torah cover all aspects of life, all the days of the year and all the bones in our bodies.” Still, it provided many rabbis, Maimonides included, with a great puzzle: how to fit the mitzvot in the Torah to the number!

One of those lists is available online at Judaism 101. I remember as a student pouring over a similar list, trying to figure out how to do all those mitzvot as quickly as possible. Gradually I realized that part of doing mitzvot is learning about them – and learning about them is a lifetime process. Sometimes it’s learning about a minor holiday or practice. Sometimes it’s about building my skills for visiting the sick, supporting mourners, etc, Sometimes the learning is about how this ancient mitzvah will fit into my modern life – but learning is always a part of it.

I find it useful to scan these lists when I’m feeling a little too smug about my life. There will usually be a clue there about a mitzvah I have managed to ignore. Then I can embark on a cycle:

  1. Learn all I can about that mitzvah
  2. Imagine how it might fit into my life
  3. If appropriate, talk with other members of my household about that mitzvah
  4. Talk with a colleague I trust to get a rabbi’s point of view on that mitzvah
  5. Make a plan for improving my observance of that mitzvah
  6. Check in with myself about it from time to time.

This is not rocket science. Often it happens when I am saying the traditional prayers. For instance, there is a short listing of the mitzvot that reward us both in this world and in the next in the morning prayers:

These are the obligations without a limit. A person eats their fruit in this world, and sets up a reward in the world to come as well:

To honor father and mother;
To perform acts of love and kindness;
To attend the house of study morning and evening;
To receive guests;
To visit the sick;
To rejoice with the bride and groom;
To accompany the dead;
To pray with intention;
To bring peace between a person and his fellow.
And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all!

Something on that list will bother me, reminding me that I haven’t kept that mitzvah very well. Have I visited someone sick any time recently? Been to a funeral? Have I studied Torah regularly, beyond what my work requires? Then, when I spot the problem, I act to mend my ways.

Some mitzvot aren’t appropriate for me; Some are only for Cohanim (priests.) Some are only for farmers in the Land of Israel. Some have to do with the Temple cult, which can’t resume without the Temple. But there are still plenty of them to give me work to do!

So that’s the story of the 613 mitzvot.  Somewhere in those wonderful inconsistent lists, a mitzvah is waiting for each of us.  And when that one is running smoothly, there will be another.

Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.

One mitzvah leads to another. – Pirkei Avot 4:2


How to Help the Hurting

Image: A person opens his shirt to reveal the Superman logo. (NeuPaddy/pixabay)

We are in a vortex of natural and unnatural disasters as I write this (October, 2017.) The mass murder in Las Vegas, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and the hideous fires in the West are only the major ones. It seems like terrible things are happening all over the place. It’s part of the human condition that tzuris happens – bad things happen in every life.

One of the best impulses in the human heart is our desire to help.  Sometimes we can send cash. Sometimes we can volunteer to send goods to where they are needed. But sometimes we are faced with another human being in distress, and we need to know what to do. Fortunately for us, Jewish tradition has a lot to offer on the subject.

Our nervous systems are wired to feel distress when others feel distress. A crying baby gets a range of reactions from bystanders: compassion, irritation, anger, even headaches. Our reaction, whatever it is, is part of a natural response to the pain of another human being. We evolved to respond to wailing infants and to distressed members of our tribe: we hear or see distress, and we feel anxiety, an urge to do something. That anxiety has many expressions: compassion, an urge to fix what is wrong, irritation, anger, or even a headache.

We are wired to leap in and fix it, to make the crying stop. If the problem is a hungry baby, that’s one thing. But what if the problem is something that is complex to fix, or that cannot be fixed at all?

Our sages recognize this impulse and its hazards in the Mishnah:

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not assuage the anger of your friend at the time of his anger; do not console him at the time when his deceased lies before him. – Pirkei Avot, 4:18

It hurts us to listen to the pain of another, so we leap in and try to repair things. Sadly, some things are not easily fixed. When our dead lie before us, nothing can repair the damage. Even the slow healing of time is only a partial repair when the loss is profound. When we have been hurt, when we have been wounded, there is no quick fix. Rabbi Shimon advises us not to say anything that might seem dismissive. When the pain is greatest, “fixes” do not console. The pain is real. It has to be felt.

So what are we to do, when someone is mourning a loved one?  When people are crying about lost homes, or a livelihood destroyed? What are we to say to someone who has lost a place they loved? What can we say to the person who is choking on fumes from a far-away fire? What can we do for the person who has no visible loss but who feels overwhelmed by frightening events?

I am grateful for the guidance of our tradition as I navigate all this pain:

The reward for escorting a stranger is greater than any reward. It is a practice introduced by our father Abraham, a way of kindness which was habitual with him. He served food and drink to wayfarers and escorted them. Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence, as it is written: “He saw three men … he ran to meet them” (Genesis 18:2). Escorting them is even greater than receiving them. The sages have declared: “Anyone who does not escort his guests is almost guilty of bloodshed” (Sotah 46b). – Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, “Mourners,” 14:2.

One might read the passage above and say, “How does this address the question?” Let’s break it down:

  1. “Escorting a stranger” – the simplest way to read this is to talk about a newcomer to a place: a visitor, a tourist, an immigrant. However, anyone who has ever been in a major disaster will tell you that they feel like a stranger in a strange land. Nothing looks familiar anymore, even the things that haven’t changed. A single catastrophic loss can do that. So the “stranger” of our passage may well be the person who got shot at and survived, or whose home blew to bits, or whose neighborhood burt down. Sure, they are alive – but now they feel strange.
  2. “He served food and drink” – We can offer sustenance to those who are hurting. Water and food allows life to continue, and someone who has been through a trauma may need them more than they realize.
  3. “Receiving them” – We can provide a safe place to sit or lie down. A person cannot recover, even a little bit, if they cannot rest.
  4. “Escorting them” – What does it mean to escort someone? It means to accompany them, to walk alongside them for a while. If I escort someone to a place, I don’t hurl them from my car and drive away: I go with them. The Hebrew word is levayah (leh-vah-YAH.) A funeral is levayat hamet, accompanying the dead person to the grave. We do not abandon dead bodies; we go in groups with them to the grave and put it gently in the earth.
  5. “Escorting them is even greater” – When I accompany a stranger, I walk alongside them through their experience. It is their experience, not mine, so mostly I listen and look and keep them company. As Maimonides teaches, this is one of the greatest gifts we can give to a person who is suffering from estrangement: we can simply be with them.

How do these texts translate into actual help? Here are eight things we can do when we are faced with someone who is suffering:

  1. FIRST, DO NO HARM. No matter how badly we want someone to stop hurting, leaping to solutions isn’t helpful. I find that sometimes I have to remind myself as I listen to someone, “NO FIXING.” Since I have no magic wand, I cannot do or say anything that will magically make them feel better. Even if I had a magic wand, it could not repair the damage done by the experience of trauma.
  2. OFFER WATER. People who have lost a lot of fluid through sweating or crying need water. They may be so lost in pain that they are not feeling thirst. If they ARE thirsty, then so much the moreso I should give them water to drink!
  3. OFFER FOOD. “I’m fixing/getting a sandwich – want one?” is a way to offer food without stirring up feelings of indebtedness. This helps people on a multiplicity of levels, from needed nutrition to a feeling of social connction. This is not a time for a nutrition or (God forbid) weight loss lecture. “I’m having something – want some?” is a way to build a bridge back to a tiny oasis of normalcy.
  4. OFFER A SAFE PLACE. If you have the privilege of offering a guest room, that can be great. But that “safe place” can be a ride to a destination, a seat next to you, an afternoon at your house, or an invitation to your table for Shabbat dinner.
  5. OFFER SILENCE. Sometimes “receiving them” to a safe place can mean offering them the opportunity to be in your space without having to talk about the disaster at hand. The tradition teaches us to support mourners at shivah by being silent until they speak first, and letting them set the topic. When much of life seems like chaos, a quiet place with no demands can be a real haven.
  6. LISTEN. If they want to talk, listen to them. Make eye contact and pay attention. You are a witness to their experience. Resist the urge to say much. If they are a person who “thinks out loud” they may need to sort through their thoughts, and what they say may not make much sense. Do not interfere or advise unless they talk about a dangerous plan (e.g. “I’m going back to the fire zone to see my house – I don’t care what anyone says!”)
  7. MAKE REFERRALS. I think the most important thing I learned in my pastoral counseling classes was to make referrals. After you have really heard a person out, if you know of someone qualified to help with some aspect of their situation, put them in touch. There may be more “escorting the stranger” to do here: if going to the therapist, or the police, or the FEMA website is overwhelming to them, offer transportation or a chair next to you at a computer to do what needs to be done.
  8. BE A COMPANION. For however long or short your interaction, remember that you are neither their child nor their parent. Don’t make a suffering person take care of you, and don’t tell an adult what to do. Walk alongside them. Be good company as they traverse a strange landscape.
  9. REST. – No one can be a high quality helper 24/7.  When we are tempted to give advice, to meddle, to scold, or something else inappropriate, it is our sign that we are overdue for a break. Self-care is an important part of being a caring person. There is no shame in handing an unhappy person along to someone who is better equipped to deal with them right now.

None of us are Superman. We are each limited in some way. What we have to offer is our humanity.  May each of us rise to the challenge when the need arises!

“Never Again!”: Do We Mean It?

Image: Rohingya people at a clinic operated by the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO). Health clinics operated by the Myanmar government are closed to them. Photo: © EC/ECHO/Mathias Eick., Myanmar/Burma, September 2013.

No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them. – Elie Wiesel




The Nazi Holocaust.

The Rape of Nanking.

Ukrainian Holodomor (Forced Famine).


Native Americans.

Each of the names above should give every decent person the shivers. Each is an example of genocide. If any of them aren’t familiar to you, click the link to learn.

Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the U.N. General Assembly on 9 December 1948 defines genocide as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. 

One other thing that all genocides seem to have in common is that there are always some people who deny that it is happening or justify it with lies. Later on, they insist that it never happened, no matter how much evidence there is that it did indeed happen.

Right now most of the world seems to be in denial about yet another genocide, one taking place this very moment.

The United Nations human rights chief today lashed out at the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar which has led to more than 300,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh in the past three weeks, as security forces and local militia reportedly burn villages and shoot civilians.

“The situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, noting that the current situation cannot yet be fully assessed since Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators. – UN News Centre, 11 Sept 2017

The Rohingya people of Myanmar have had a precarious existence for a long time. They were explicitly excluded from citizenship in Myanmar under the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law. Since then they have been officially stateless. The government of Myanmar justifies this distinction with a claim that they are recent arrivals, illegal aliens. However, according to Human Rights Watch, the 1982 laws “effectively deny to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality. Despite being able to trace Rohingya history to the 8th century, Burmese law does not recognize the ethnic minority as one of the national races”.

For more in-depth information about the Rohingya people, see this article in the Lancet.

The international press has focused on the facts that most Rohingya are of the Muslim faith, and that some Rohingya people have fought back against their oppressors. As has happened in the past to other ethnic groups (Jews and African Americans, for instance) any effort to defend themselves is taken as evidence that they are bad people. If they don’t defend themselves, it’s seen as a sign of weakness and inferiority. This is right out of the genocide playbook.

Racism underlies Burmese attitudes about the Rohingya:

Ye Myint Aung, the Burmese envoy in Hong Kong, hoped to dissuade others from feeling sympathy for the Rohingya. His method for doing this was by revealing his shocking racism. The Rohingya, he said, “are as ugly as ogres” and do not share the “fair and soft” skin of other Burmese ethnic groups.

Therefore, the Burmese consul general concluded, “Rohingya are neither Myanmar people nor Myanmar’s ethnic group,” using the other name for Burma while trotting out his government’s long-standing contention that the Rohingya are interlopers in Burma and don’t deserve citizenship rights.

– from Why Does this Buddhist-majority Nation Hate these Muslims so much? – Washington Post, 2/15/2015

So what can we do, as a people who have vowed that this will “never again” happen to a group of people? Nicole Sganga wrote a wonderful article for the New York Times that covers the best options very well. I urge you to read the article and see what possibilities on that menu are open to you.

For those who worry about the fact that they are Muslim, let me suggest that the surest way to radicalize people is to give them no good options. These people have lived peacefully in Myanmar/Burma for centuries, and the surrounding states don’t want them. Nobody wants them. Compare that to the situation of the Jews in the 1930’s; it is no different.

Some may say that there is enough to worry about here in the United States. There is another assault underway on the availability of healthcare (at this writing, on Sept 18, 2017.) Many of us know and care about people who are threatened by the change in U.S. immigration policy. (At least one of my students is a DREAMer, and I am terribly worried for her – you may also know someone in that category and not be aware of it.) For Jews, there are ongoing worries about Israel.

But this is genocide. This is a deliberate effort to eradicate an entire ethnic group, and to drive any remaining remnant from the place that has been their home for centuries. For any of us who have said “Never again!” this is a situation we cannot ignore.

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This article was amended to add the genocide against Native Americans, thanks to a reader who pointed out my oversight.