Don’t be a Mono!

Image: Black Iguana (Ctenosaura similis) – or “garrobo,” Costa Rica, Prov. Puntarenas, Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio (Photo: some rights reserved.)

My son spent his college summers working in an orphanage in Costa Rica. One year I traveled down there to meet him on his break. He and some friends and I went to Manuel Antonio National Park to hike and see the wildlife.

Monkeys chattered in the trees above us. They were fuzzy and cute and definitely crowd-pleasers. We tourists kept taking their pictures and they ate it up. We saw wonders everywhere: sloths, lizards, insects, all kinds of creatures I had never seen before. The greenery was filled with beautiful animals. We stopped for a bit and a guide showed us a sloth up close through his telescope. I saw the soft fur, the long claws, and its soft snoring.

WHAP! Something landed hard on my head, jamming my sun hat down over my eyes. I felt dazed. The guide grabbed my arm, and my son hollered, “Mom!” The green world circled around me; I focussed on my feet.

There at my feet lay an equally dazed garrobo, the local name for a black spiny-tailed iguana or Ctenosaura similis. She was big, almost 2 feet long. I couldn’t figure out what she (?) was doing there, or why my head hurt so much. She was ugly and beat-up looking. She had lost part of her tail.

It turned out that one way the monkeys, or monos, amuse themselves is by catching the garrobos by the tail and hurling them. They think this is hysterically funny. Some mono had outdone himself with a Daily Double: he smacked the gringa (white lady) in the pink sun hat with the lizard.  The monos celebrated in the tree tops above us, giving the monkey equivalent of high-fives.

The guide and my son wouldn’t let me touch the garrobo, towards whom I felt a great kinship. They were worried that it might bite me, in its confused state, and apparently garrobo bites are serious business. They scavenge for trash, so their mouths are dirty.

I gathered very quickly that no one likes garrobosGarrobos are not cute. They have no soft fur. They are known to bite children and unwary fools visiting from California. The wild ones are not pretty like the iguanas some people keep for pets. They are grey and black and battered-looking.

We walked up the trail, leaving both the monkeys and the garrobo behind. It bothered me.

Later, I realized what bugged me so much.  The monkeys are cute and furry. The locals know they are not nice creatures, but they entertain tourists who bring money to town. Tourists think they are adorable: they have faces almost like human faces, and they hang from tails and long toes in trees, tiny acrobats.  As the guide said to me, “Everyone likes the monos.”

Except me. The mono banged me on the head. Worse, he used a garrobo to do it. The garrobos are as unpopular as the monos are popular. The difference between them is that garrobos are perceived to be ugly and dirty and the monos are perceived to be cute.

How often in this world do we decide who is “good” and who is “bad” by how people look? How often do we attack someone we don’t like by making fun of their appearance? What happens to the ugly, well-qualified woman who applies for a job? What about the ugly or awkward man – how often do we assume that he is also dangerous?

And what about the handsome people who behave badly – are we not inclined to give them a few more chances? The movie star accused of domestic violence? The good looking young athlete who “doesn’t need to rape anyone” so he couldn’t possibly have done it?

We must not judge people by their looks, even though the ancient wiring in our brains urges us to do so.  As Jews, we are given mitzvot (commandments) about how to treat people precisely because our instincts can deceive us.

  • Love the stranger.
  • Do not cause the blind to stumble.
  • Do not defraud your fellow.
  • Do not tease the deaf.
  • Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich.

Those are just a few mitzvot from Leviticus 19, with rules for interacting with other people. They don’t differentiate between the people we are inclined to like and those we are inclined to dislike. Nowhere in Torah does it say, “The pretty ones are good” or “the ugly ones are bad.”

In fact, our tradition directs us to judge others on their behavior. It urges us to go past our instincts, past our conditioning, past the easy answers to look at what a person does to determine their worth. In the Book of Ruth, a Moabite woman treats those around her with kindness and care. The fact that she is a member of a race much hated by the Jews of the time is neither here nor there: in fact, she merits becoming an ancestor of King David.

King David was beautiful; men and women fell in love with him. However, the prophet Nathan rebuked him, and God punished him, because he had one of his soldiers put in the front lines to be killed, so that David could enjoy the widow. David was physically beautiful, but he did an evil thing, and the Torah is clear that there are no excuses, even for beautiful princes.

The line I took away from my adventure in the rainforest was, “Don’t be a Mono! Mind the Garrobo!” Don’t be a pretty, privileged person who takes advantage of the weak, ugly person. Never forget that at the end of Creation, God said, “It is very good.” – even the garrobo.


What, Me Worry? (I worry.)

Image: Gabi, who just finished digging up the garden in search of “snakes.” Photo by me, all rights reserved.


It’s been a very odd year for some of us. The weather has been weird and the news has been exhausting. It seems like every day something new comes crawling out of my radio, and I find myself regarding the news like a mysterious bug in my kitchen. Do I need to worry about this thing? Where did it come from? What should I do about it? What will happen if I don’t do anything about it?

My dog knows what to do with mysterious bugs: Gabi eats them. She lived on the street for a while, and I imagine bugs were cheap unthreatening protein for her. When she first came to live with us, she was a scourge on spiders. Now she is downright nonchalant: she only eats them if she’s missed a meal.

Her hunter reflexes are never far from the surface, even though she’s a cute little toy poodle. When we used to go walking by Lake Chabot, she would size up the ducks and then dance by my side as if to say, “You want one? I’ll get you one! Just say the word!” I never said, “Go git ’em!” because I was pretty sure we’d get in trouble if she began retrieving ducks from the park. She had no doubts, though: those ducks were TOAST.

The photo above is from the day she dug up the drip watering system in the garden. I suspect that she thought the periodic hissing from the water flow was snakes, and she was going to get her some snakes, yes ma’am! She was puzzled when I wasn’t happy about the giant holes she dug trying to get at them. You can see her puzzlement in the picture, along with her muddy paws and snout.

Gabi is not given to worry. If it’s a bug, she eats it. If it’s a duck, she offers to go get it. If it’s a snake in the back yard, she stares at me reproachfully, knowing that she isn’t allowed to dig it up.

I am more of a worrier. I want to do the right thing, and in uncertain times and situations, I spend a lot of energy just figuring out what to do. I keep my earthquake kit stocked, and I wrote letters to my elected officials. Still, most of it feels like doing not much.

That is why prayer and study are essential in my life. Sometimes I have to remind myself to sit down and say the holy words and let them speak to me. Sometimes I have to remind myself to just quiet down and listen for God. Sometimes I study to find the answer to a question, and sometimes I study because it IS a Jewish form of prayer, and when I study, my mind quiets and I can hear the voice of the Holy One speaking to me through the texts.

Some might say, “Ha! Religion is the opiate of the people! I knew it!” but that’s not how I see it. Prayer and study help me see exactly who I am and who I strive to be. When I pray and study regularly, I sober up and quit worrying so much. I let go of the things I cannot control and do something about the things I can. I let go of fantasy concerns and simply move from mitzvah to mitzvah.

I cannot make peace in the Middle East. I cannot make Washington do what I think is best. In truth, I have no idea what would settle everything in either place. But it is in moving from mitzvah to mitzvah, climbing steadily through life, that I may reach the calm that sometimes eludes me, even in a difficult season.


Multiplying Goodness

Image: Hands touching. Photo by Andreas/Pixabay.

.מצווה גוררת מצווה; עברה גוררת עברה

A sacred duty leads to another sacred duty; a sin leads to another sin. – Avot 4:2

I had a great workout this morning; I felt good. I called my friend Jake, who is laid up, and asked him if he needed anything. He said he needed some fruit, but he didn’t want to be any trouble. “No trouble!” I said, and got some apples and oranges. When I got to his house, his wife Susan was out front. They know my knees are creaky, too, and she didn’t want me to have to climb the stairs. I gave her the fruit, gave her a hug, sent my love to Jake, and came home happy, all fired up for work.

I tell you this little story because it’s a very important one right now. As the sages tell us, “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah” – a good deed leads to another good deed. When we do a mitzvah (care for our bodies) we are energized to do another mitzvah (visit the sick). The second mitzvah leads to another (I’m now energized for work, which is teaching, another mitzvah.) So goodness multiplies in the world, all beginning with one mitzvah.

Does it always work? Yes, although we have to be open to the possibilities. Let’s say I woke up this morning feeling so bad that a workout wasn’t possible (it happens.) So then I should ask myself, OK, what mitzvah am I up for? Let’s say I feel really bad that day; super creaky with arthritis and pain. I can still pray, and that’s a mitzvah. When I pray, maybe it opens my heart. I have a beautiful idea for a blog post, or a lesson, or I remember I need to call Jake to ask how he’s doing. One mitzvah leads to another, and they carry me out of myself, out of the body that is too creaky to feel anything but pain.

I call this way of living, “Living on the Mitzvah Plan,” and I’ve written about it before. I’m writing about it today because the secret power of many mitzvot is that they carry us out of ourselves, either by connecting us to the Divine or by connecting us to another human being (who is made in the image of the Divine!)

Now we are living in a difficult time. Things on the news are deeply upsetting to some of us. It would be easy to fall into averot [sins]: calling people names, living without care for our bodies, neglecting people who need us, being mean to people and animals. The more averot we do, the worse we feel, and we do more and more of them! The whole world will fill with pain and sadness.

Want to feel better? Do a mitzvah!

If you are having trouble thinking of a mitzvah to do, try this one:

I wrote before about the women of Steps to Success. Their fundraiser only runs to the 31st of January. If you use this link to make even a small donation, it will be a great mitzvah (even according to Maimonides!) and it will make life much better for a person who is currently living a very hard life. It will help her lift herself and her children to independence. You will help to transform life for not only a woman in need, but for the generations after her!

And there will be another, more immediate mitzvah: I would like to give all donors an hour of study via Skype or in person. Mitzvah goreret mitzvah: one sacred duty leads to another.

Who knows where the goodness will lead?

My thanks to Paul and Serach, to Linda, and to Helen, all of whom have contributed to Steps to Success!  Paul and Serach, I do not have your contact information. Please use the contact form on the right hand part of your screen to get in touch with me – I want to thank you!


Lyrics & translation.


Do Torah Scrolls Die?

Image: 13th century manuscript from the Cairo Genizah, a letter by Abraham, son of Maimonides. Photo via wikimedia, public domain.

A regular reader asked, “Rabbi Adar, what becomes of the aged Torah scrolls?”

Torah scrolls, or Sifrei Torah, are the great treasures of the Jewish People.

It’s true: some Torah scrolls are very, very old but it is unusual to see one that is more than 100 years old because they are fragile, very much like human bodies.

Over the lifetime of a Torah scroll, a responsible custodian of the scroll (usually a congregation) will seek out a skilled sofer [scribe] from time to time who will repair damaged letters, re-sew weak seams, and even attach the old scroll to new etzim [rollers] if need be. Just as human beings may need repairs as we age, Torah scrolls need periodic repair.

But the time comes when a Torah scroll is past repair and past respectful use. At that time we consign the scroll to a genizah, a safe resting space for sacred books, or we bury it in consecrated ground. The most famous genizah is the Cairo Genizah, from the ancient synagogue in a suburb of Cairo. There, sacred writings were collected in a wall of the synagogue for over 1,000 years and include handwritten pages from Maimonides himself. In 1896-7 the members of that synagogue permitted the Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter to remove the materials for study after he reassured them that the writings would be handled with reverence and preserved.

I have officiated at the burial of sacred writings; it is a solemn event. Some congregations designate a grave at a Jewish cemetery for that purpose. Others include sacred books in the casket when learned members of the congregation die and are buried.

Great question!


Common Ground on Gun Safety

Image: Gun trigger lock, available for sale on Amazon for $12.89. Yes, I’m giving them a free ad.

Today is an anniversary for the United States, but particularly for families in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Four years ago today, a deeply disturbed young man used his legally-acquired guns to murder 20 small children and six educators in what should have been one of the safest places on earth: their elementary school.

The agony of their families is beyond my imagination, because I haven’t lost a dear one to a murderer, and I was fortunate to see both of my sons grow up to adulthood. The agony of our nation continues; we are divided on the issue of guns and their place in American life.

Some gun owners worry that legislation on guns will set us off on a slippery slope that will make it impossible for their families to be safe.

Others worry, with equal fervor, that without some serious gun control, we will continue to see unacceptable numbers of deaths from murders, accidents, and terrorist activity.

Both sides tend to discount the concerns of the other, which makes for short, angry conversations that go nowhere.

Some creative people are taking a third path: looking for ways to be more safe that does not require legislation. Emergency room personnel at Mercy Hospital in Kansas City give out free gun locks, no questions asked, to families who ask for them. I heard on the radio last night (but failed to hear details) about an emergency room in another city that gives a gun lock to families who come in with any sort of injury related to guns.

Seems to me that programs like these should be “mom and apple pie” to both gun owners and gun opponents. All the gun owners I know insist that a person can own a gun, keep it at home, and handle it safely. Perhaps the low hanging fruit of this issue is gun safety: making it easy and cheap for people to lock their guns away from people who shouldn’t be touching them.

That will not prevent another Newtown. What it might do, though, is to get us talking with one another again. How could it hurt?

לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה

You shall not stand upon the blood of your neighbor: I am God. – Lev. 19:16

14 Ways to Cope with Anxiety

Image: Art by PeteLinforth via Public domain.

I have family, friends and students who call and text me:

  • “Rabbi, I haven’t slept a full night since the election.”
  • “I am overwhelmed with anxiety. I can’t function.”
  • “Ruth, every day I shake and then break down in tears.”
  • “I looked on Facebook and then I threw up.”
  • “I have no idea how I am going to get through the next four years.”

I hear you. I hear your fears, and I hear your paralysis in anxiety. This post is my way of giving some rabbinical-friendly-motherly advice.

If you were not a fan of Donald Trump, you’ve had a bad shock. News reports from respectable sources led us to believe that Hillary Clinton would win the election. They were wrong: she won the popular vote, but Trump won the electoral vote, and that’s the one that counts. So you were misled, and you were surprised with bad news.

Now the news from both reputable and other sources is full of really scary words. I won’t repeat the words, they’ve already piled upon your surprise and created anxiety. You read them or heard them and now they are hurting you. Oof.

Here’s the facts: we are going to have many opportunities for mitzvot in the coming years, if Mr. Trump keeps his campaign promises. There will be work to do. If you are going to be useful in helping to preserve human rights, first you have to take care of yourself.

Remember: It is a mitzvah to attend to your physical and mental health.

Some ideas for taking care of yourself:

  • As you know, your favorite news source was wrong about the election. It’s OK to not listen to the news for a while if all the news is doing is paralyzing you.
  • Take a break from social media. It is full of clickbait stories that will needlessly upset you. Even if Facebook bans the ads for them, naive friends may be reposting “news stories” that are clickbait lies. At the very least, least don’t click on anything. Just connect to friends there.
  • Get outdoors. If you aren’t watching TV or using social media, you now have free time. Take a walk or if you are on wheels like me, take a joyride outdoors if you can.
  • Exercise.
  • Notice which friends calm you, and which ones upset you. Spend more time with the calmers, less with the upsetting people. Activism is one thing, anxiety is another. If you feel trapped with your anxiety, that’s not useful activism.
  • Meditate.
  • Go easy on caffeine. If you must drink coffee in the morning, stop drinking it by noon.
  • If you or anyone else are thinking of suicide, seek help immediately. You can do this by calling 911. “Thinking of suicide” includes joking about it, planning it, imagining it, and/or thinking about it a lot. It’s a serious matter.
  • Did you know that some strains of marijuana can exacerbate anxiety? Other strains may be helpful. If you have a prescription, check with your doc and see if the sort you are using is making your anxiety worse. This article has some information on anxiety and pot.
  • Pray. I find it helps to pray with a minyan. The repetitive good words of Jewish prayer remind me of the person I want to be, and connect me to the world beyond myself.
  • If your sleep or eating patterns are disrupted for more than a week, seek medical help and/or counseling. Short term anxiety over real fears can snowball into an anxiety disorder if it goes unchecked for too long. Take care of it.
  • There is still time to sign up for health insurance. Knowing that you are covered for the time being is one less thing to worry about.
  • Here’s what I do to get through difficult times: Living on the Mitzvah Plan.
  • Take action. Many felt helpless right after the election, but really, we aren’t helpless. There are things we can do. Here are some ideas for taking action against hate in America.

You are a human being, priceless beyond all imagining. Jewish tradition teaches that you are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, meaning that there is a spark of the Divine within you. Take care of yourself, and you will be able to take care of others. That is how the world will become a better place.

Have You Had Your Flu Shot?

V0016569 Mr. Punch wrapped up in blankets in front of the fire, eatin

Image: 19th c cartoon by John Leech, “Mr. Punch has the Flu.”Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.”

4,605 people died of flu in the United States in 2014 but less than half of the adults in the U.S. were vaccinated against the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Some will say, “It’s a personal choice.” You doctor will likely say that it’s a personal choice. Your local conspiracy buff may tell you it’s all a plot.

However, under Jewish tradition, it’s a mitzvah – a commandment – that we get a flu shot unless there are strong reasons against it, such as an egg allergy.

“Where are flu shots in the Torah?” I imagine someone asking indignantly. Well, here are some places:

You shall watch your lives very well. – Deuteronomy 4:15

Torah insists that we care for our bodies, that they are gifts of God. Flu is more likely to kill infants, old people, and people with suppressed immune systems, but has also killed people in otherwise good health. Flu is mostly preventable.

When you build a new house, then you shall make a railing for your roof, so that you bring not blood upon your house, if anyone fall from there. – Deuteronomy 22:8

We are commanded not only to preserve our own lives, but to prevent death or injury to others. While this commandment specifically has to do with a roof hazard, the rabbis interpreted it to mean that anytime we become aware of a risk associated with our home or our persons, we have to do something about it. Think about the people you contact every day: are any of them very young, very old, or immunity compromised? Are any of them caretakers or visitors to such persons? Then your case of mild flu could put someone vulnerable at risk of serious illness or death.

I once worked as a chaplain in a nursing home. Someone – we never knew who – came to visit while they contagious with a slight flu. (It had to be slight, because the nurses were ferocious about visitors who looked sick.) Over the next few days, it was as if the Angel of Death flew down the hallways; resident after resident sickened and died. Likely the person who brought the bug in never knew what they had done.

I get my flu shot every year. I strongly recommend that you get yours, unless there is a very good medical reason against it. We never know whose life, whose family we might preserve.