A Visitor to Beit Adar

Image: One very unhappy skunk. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar. “Beit Adar” means “The house of Adar.”

I woke this morning to the sound of three poodles barking. They were going absolutely bananas – something was wrong. I got my cane and went out back to investigate.

To my horror, the three of them were gathered around a skunk. I waded in and hollered “Leave it!” and when that didn’t work on one of them, used my cane to push her away. I locked the dogs in the house, much to their annoyance.

It seemed odd that the skunk had been sitting still for all the barking until I saw that she was stuck in a hole in the old wire fence. She had apparently used up her spray earlier, probably during the night, because I couldn’t get more than a slight whiff of the odor. She seemed exhausted.

(No, I do not know the gender of the skunk. I’m assuming, and perhaps projecting.)

I called Animal Control. The police department picked up, and they informed me that (1) Animal Control had been budget-cut out of existence and (2) I should call a pest control company. I called a couple of pest control companies, and they “don’t do skunks.” Slightly relieved (exterminators?!) I texted friends and family looking for suggestions.

My friend Jake texted me and said he was coming over. He threw a cloth over the skunk’s head and nipped the wires holding her. She backed out and headed down the hill. Now he’s out mending the fence for me.

So why put this on the blog? A couple of Jewish values came into play here.

  1. Chesed – kindness. Jake was kind to come over and help me. There was a time when I might have gone out there and cut the skunk free myself, but I am no longer able to do that sort of thing. He took time out of his day to help.
  2. Tza’ar ba’alei chayim is a negative commandment. We are commanded not to be unnecessarily cruel to animals. I did not let the dogs torment the skunk, even after I knew that she was unlikely to spray them. Jake was as gentle as he could be to the creature.  Leaving her caught in the fence would have been wrong. Killing her would also have been wrong, unless there was no way to free her.

Torah is not just about “spiritual” matters. In fact, within Torah there is no distinction between spiritual things and other things. Torah applies to all of life, even to a little skunk stuck in a fence.

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Eikev: Insight on Circumcision

Image: An infant, possibly Jesus? brought for circumcision. Photograph of a painting by Vincenzo Catena [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Parashat Eikev offers us a path to deeper understanding of brit milah [ritual circumcision] with its command, “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart and be no more stiff-necked.” (Deut. 10:16) What is the connection between circumcision and a stiff neck? Sukkah 52a offers a clue, saying:

R. Avira (or some say R. Joshua b. Levi) taught that… “Uncircumcised” is one of the names of the yetzer hara.”

Yetzer hara is usually translated “evil inclination” but I prefer “selfish inclination.” It is a necessary part of human nature, and we’re all born with it. It fuels our drive to survive as infants and toddlers: to wail when we are hungry or uncomfortable, to selfishly take whatever we need to survive. An infant doesn’t care that his nutrition may be coming at the detriment to his undernourished mother (hence the old saying, “every child costs a tooth”) – he simply sucks down the milk so that he can live. 

There is a story in the Talmud about the sages who decided they were going to extinguish the yetzer harah from their community:

They (The Ancient Sages) ordered a fast of three days and three nights, whereupon he (The Yetzer HaRa) was surrendered to them. He came forth from the Holy of Holies like a young fiery lion. He (one of the rabbis) said to them: Realize that if you kill him, the world goes down. They imprisoned him for three days, then looked in the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find it. Thereupon they said: What shall we do now? Shall we kill him? The world would then go down. Shall we beg for half-mercy? They do not grant ‘halves’ in heaven. They put out his eyes and let him go. – Yoma 69b

[They] “looked in the whole land of Israel for a fresh egg and could not find it.” – That is to say, without the selfish inclination, hens did not even ovulate – the world without the yetzer hara is sterile. The rabbis realized that we need the yetzer hara to survive.

The commandments of Torah are all aimed at subduing our individual and communal selfish inclinations. When we are selfish, or “stiff-necked,” we want our own way. We don’t want to think about the big picture or the greater good. We want to have food NOW, we want to have sex NOW, we want MORE. We don’t care what impact that has on others.

The mitzvot, commandments, are about limits: “You will bury the dead,” even though the dead cannot return the favor, cannot do anything for us. “You will love the stranger” even though strangers are scary and inconvenient, or easily plundered. “You will pursue justice” even though it might be more satisfying to pursue vengeance or profit. “You will eat only these foods” and “You will not commit incest” sets limits upon our most basic appetites. We may eat, but only certain foods. We may have sex, but only with the appropriate people.

Brit milah is a consecration of the male body to the covenant and to the behaviors associated with the covenant (mitzvot). The penis is the locus of male sexuality and a symbol of male power; removing the foreskin in the context of brit milah ritual is an expression of dedication to the behaviors associated with Torah. It is a pledge to control the human inclination to selfishness. However, that dedication should not end on the eighth day, nor be limited to males. Jews of all genders are commanded to live out the promise implied in brit milah, to control of our yetzer hara, our selfish inclination.

The Jewish reverence for the body underlines the seriousness of this act. We do not modify the body lightly or thoughtlessly. This outward sign of the covenant is not easy, but it is an expression by Jewish parents of seriousness about Jewish identity and Jewish behavior for themselves and their son, and yes, for the women in the family as well.

This d’var Torah appeared in a slightly different form in the Summer 2016 issue of the CCAR Newsletter.

The War Between Love & Prudence

Image: Two fire engines at the fire at Alco Iron & Metal Co. in San Leandro, CA. (Photo by Alameda Co Fire Dept, via SFGate.com) Notice the thick smoke.

Love the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:19

I participate in a local social media site called NextDoor.com. At its best, NextDoor is a way to share information and to make connections nearby, a rare and wonderful thing in this age of the World Wide Web. Like all social media, it has limitations, but it has great potential for good.

This past week I heard on the radio that there was a fire at a local salvage facility, Alco Iron & Metals. I was familiar with the business; I’d gone there a few times with my son, an artist who works in metals. I remembered it as a barely controlled chaos of all kinds of scrap metal and materials. A fire there had terrible potential.

I looked down the hill, and sure enough, a huge plume of smoke rose from the site. The wind was blowing south, not towards me. The radio warned local residents to shelter indoors and to keep pets inside, because the smoke was bad for people.

No kidding, I thought, thinking of the people downwind of the fire, choking on the burnt effluvia of the stuff I’d seen stacked at Alco. Most of it was metal, but metal is often painted or coated, or connected to plastic. Had I been downwind of that fire, I’d have flung my dogs in the car and gone seeking shelter away from the smoke.

A little later I checked in to the NextDoor site and saw that one of my neighbors had put out the welcome mat for anyone in the line of the smoke to come to her house to breathe clean air. I was dazzled by her hospitality – all she asked was for people to contact her privately and she’d send them her address!

I thought, “I should do that, too.” And then I hesitated. Thoughts flooded in: I did not know who might respond. I thought about all the times I have been warned against letting strangers in my home. I thought about the many times in Torah I am commanded to love the stranger.

I decided not to place a general invitation to my house. Instead, I thanked the other woman for her generosity.

I’m not happy with my response. This is not the person I strive to be.

I need to think through how I want to deal with people I don’t yet know in a time of trouble. I want to talk with the neighbor who opened her door. I want to think of more and better options for myself the next time something like this happens.

I know from my training that there are usually more than two possible responses to any situation. In this case, all I could think of was “open invitation” and “no open invitation.” I’m going to keep looking until I create a better menu for myself, so that when people are hurting nearby, I can respond more compassionately.

Have you ever faced a situation in which your desire to do the right thing and your fears were in conflict? How did you choose? How did you feel about your choice? In the aftermath, did you do any planning about future events?

Save a Life Today!

Image: “Save Life, Give Blood” motto between two connected hearts, one giving blood to the other. (Art by Novena Barberic via Shutterstock.)

In all the turmoil of politics and the news, it is easy to lose track of the important mitzvot available to us. Reader P.D.Fender reminded me of one today, something I’ve been intending to mention.

As advanced as medical science is, there is no substitute for human blood and its components. Every day in hospitals everywhere there is someone hanging on to life who will lose that battle unless some good soul has donated blood.

The American Red Cross has made it easy for donors. All a person has to do is go to the Red Cross donor website, enter their zip code, and all available locations for donating on a given day will appear. You can sign up electronically, so that you have an appointment and donation will not involve a long wait.

Each donation of whole blood has the potential to save three lives that would otherwise be lost to bleeding or to disease. Red blood cells also save those depleted by anemia. Platelets are used for treatment for dengue, leukemia and cancer patients, and plasma can replace clotting factors which may be depleted in bleeding or infection.

There are many reasons there is almost always a shortage of blood supplies. First, many people can’t be donors because their blood might hurt, not help the sick. You can check for your own eligibility at this site. Secondly, even those who are eligible to give can only give at specific intervals, so their bodies can recover. According to the Red Cross:

You must wait at least eight weeks (56 days) between donations of whole blood and 16 weeks (112 days) between Power Red donations. Platelet apheresis donors may give every 7 days up to 24 times per year. Regulations are different for those giving blood for themselves (autologous donors).

I used to be a regular whole blood donor. My veins are not easy, so it was a bit of a nuisance. On the other hand, every time I donated I knew that I was performing an important mitzvah, so it was well worth the trouble. Illness ended my ability to donate, because the drugs I must take would hurt, not help a patient. This mitzvah is no longer available to me.

I encourage all of my readers who are eligible to donate blood or blood components. I won’t lie to you and say, “It’s easy!” but it is not as difficult as you may fear if you have never given. There is no feeling in the world like knowing that you are saving a lives.

There is no substitute for human blood. This is something we can do for one another, no matter what nonsense is going on in Washington, no matter what horrors are in the news. It truly is the gift of life.

When We See Bullying – More Choices

Image: Boarding public transit – in this case, a tram in Amsterdam. Photo by Linda Burnett.

A poet, a veteran, and a recent college graduate stood up to a bully on a train in Portland, Oregon in May 2017. The man “allegedly started yelling what ‘would best be characterized as hate speech toward a variety of ethnicities and religions’ toward two young women in a Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light-rail train,” according to Portland police Sgt. Pete Simpson.  When the men tried to engage with the man, he turned on them with a knife, killing the veteran and the recent grad, and leaving the poet fighting for his life.

This horrible event was a maelstrom of choices.  A man allegedly chose to scream racist hateful speech at two women. Three men chose to intervene by engaging with the hostile man. He chose (again allegedly) to stab them. Another bystander chose to take the opportunity to take the wedding ring and backpack belonging to one of the murdered helpers.

I have been disturbed in the aftermath of this story by the number of voices I’ve heard asserting that it is “foolish” to intervene when bullying is taking place. It bothers me on many levels, not least that I’ve raised my sons to speak up when someone weaker is being bullied.  I believe, as Leviticus 19 directs us, that we must do something when the vulnerable are victimized. While I am heartbroken for those men and their families, I do not regret teaching my children to do something in such circumstances, nor do I hear their families regretting that their loved ones were kind, brave men.

Acts of hatred are increasingly common. It is not “foolish” to speak up for the vulnerable, it is a righteous act. The question in each of our minds must be, “What will be most effective?”

  1. One choice is to intervene directly with the person acting badly. That requires bravery and strength, and if that person is armed or violent, it can go badly. It isn’t a bad choice, but it is a risky choice.
  2. Another choice is to take the advice of the artist Maeril, and intervene with the victim, not the aggressor. The link will take you to a fuller description, but the gist is this: ignore the aggressor, engage the victim in a conversation. Ignore the aggressor. He is likely to then move off. (Again, if this sounds implausible, read the article and follow its links.) Psychologically, this is a less risky choice, but it still takes nerve.
  3. Another choice is to use our phones to call for help. Ideally there can be more than one person with a phone, so that one can call law enforcement while another records what is happening. It still requires nerve, but it is even less risky. (This assumes that law enforcement will be helpful. That is not always the case, but it is a choice to consider.)
  4. Another option is to create a distraction. I was taught in a self-defense class to scream “Help, fire!” if I had to flee from a rapist. People freeze in the presence of violence, but they will be more likely to call for help about a fire. Screaming and creating a disturbance is another choice for disrupting bullying, but crying “Fire!” on public transit is a bad idea. Singing loudly or banging on things might be a better choice – it might at least disrupt what’s going on.
  5. In some settings it may be possible to move to a distance to call for help. That’s a good option as long as the call is prompt. It isn’t really possible on moving transit.
  6. In any given situation, there will be other choices. The more choices I am prepared to see (besides be-a-hero/do-nothing) the more likely I am to succeed.

Which will be the best choice in a given situation? There’s no one answer to that. What we do know is that people who prepare for crises are those most likely to survive them. In Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, writer Amanda Ripley makes use of case studies from actual disasters (9/11, etc) and of psychology to seek out answers about who responds best to emergencies – who is most likely to survive. One of the simplest answers to come from her study is that people who have rehearsed a plan are most likely to survive a disaster.

In the same way, it makes sense for me, in this time of rising hate speech and crimes, to pay attention to my surroundings and to think about situations which might face me. For instance, when am I in a crowd on a regular basis?  For what sort of things might I want to have a plan?

I make a habit of knowing two ways out of every space I’m in. I was once in a fire as a child, and I acquired the habit of knowing exits. Especially in a crowded place (a movie theater, grocery store, or synagogue) I spot two exits before I settle down to pay attention to anything else.

In the same way, I have a couple of plans in place for bullying situations. Plan A is to approach the person being harassed (choice #2 above.) If I don’t feel safe doing that, I plan to grab my stomach or my head and start screeching bloody murder to create a distraction (and to force someone else to call for help, if only because I can scream very loudly.) But whatever I do, I will first remind myself that I HAVE CHOICES: what’s most likely to work in this situation?

I hope I am never again in a burning building. I hope I am never witness to violent bullying. But just as I am not going to sit there and die in a fire if I can help it, I am not going to sit by mutely when someone is being bullied. I am not a hero (aging disabled women aren’t really equipped for heroism) but I am committed to a life of Torah.

What are your plans, if you see bullying?

The Wrong Thing to Say

Image: Meme from the article below.

Good advice. I’m proud to repost it on CoffeeShopRabbi.  I have only recently discovered this blog, but I will continue to follow it.

Marilyn R. Gardner

crisis

  1. God will never give you more than you can handle. While some may believe it is theologically correct, depending on your definitions, it is singularly unhelpful to the person who is neck-deep in a crisis, trying to swim against a Tsunami. A wonderful phrase recently came from Support for Special Needs. They suggest changing this from “God will never give you more than you can handle” to “Let me come over and help you do some laundry.” This strikes me as even more theologically correct.
  2. It gets better. Yes, yes it does. But right then, it’s not better. And before it gets better, it may get way worse.
  3. When God shuts a door, he opens a window. Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe he just shuts a door. Maybe there is no window. There was no window for Job. There was a cosmic battle that raged as he sat in distress. There…

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Cleaning Up My Keyboard

Image: Woman cleaning a keyboard. (via shutterstock, all rights reserved)

I have lately realized I have a problem: I have some bad language habits. I use ableist language.

Ableist language is language that stigmatizes people with disabilities. They are lazy words that lean on some old, bad tropes to get the job done. I am determined to break these bad habits. One way of doing that is to make a list of words I’m going to quit using and commit to it publicly. I am capable of finding better words.

These are lazy words that lean on some old, bad tropes to get the job done:

Crazy – The problem with “crazy” is that it uses people with mental illness as a metaphor for something that I don’t like, disapprove of, or – occasionally – that I like. Either way, there are better choices.

Insane – Another one of those metaphors-gone-wrong.

Lame – “Lame” always means something bad or insufficient. People with mobility disabilities are neither.

Cretin – Oh, I used to love this word! Then I found out that it was a really ugly slur about people with mental disabilities. Oops.

Idiot / Idiotic – Another one I have used a lot, and I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I know better.

Blind – as in “That politician is blind to the truth.” – Yep, a metaphor. But it backfires and makes something bad out of literal blindness. I can do better.

Dumb – Originally it meant “unable to speak” but quickly came to mean “not very intelligent.” Now using this word is just… unoriginal. (See, I can learn.)

What ableist language do you use? If you are brave and want to do an inventory, take a look at this post from Autistic Hoya. Or you can ask yourself – does a word I use refer to a disability? Can I think of another word that will convey my meaning without using an innocent person’s life for a negative metaphor?

If you think this is all “politically correct nonsense,” imagine for a moment that some fact about you – say, the color of your eyes – has suddenly come into common use as a slur:

  • That idea is positively blue-eyed!
  • Ugh, she’s such a straight-hair!
  • Oy! If I have to listen to one more quote from that freckled commentator!
  • What’s the matter with you? Have you suddenly become brunette?

Jewish tradition teaches us that words are powerful. They create realities.

Let’s create some better realities – according to Genesis, it may be as simple as watching our words.