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?

Advertisements

Don’t Assume: Taste the Wine

Image: My son Jim Scott. (Jimbo Scott Music: All rights reserved.)

Rabbi said: don’t look at the container but at that which is in it: there is a new container full of old wine, and an old [container] in which there is not even new [wine].

Pirkei Avot 4:20

This snippet from Pirkei Avot [Verses of the Fathers] is valuable because it offers an important lesson about choosing a teacher, and it applies as well to many situations. Don’t assume that because someone “looks the part” they are the best qualified for the job.

A story: A few years ago, I was just out of the hospital, still on oxygen, but I had promised weeks before to officiate at a funeral. My doc said, “Ok, but someone else has to drive you.” My son Jim (photo above) volunteered to help. He put on his best suit and tie, and I gave him a kippah to wear. At the funeral, everyone called him “Rabbi” and didn’t listen when he corrected them.

Jim looked like a rabbi out of Central Casting: dark suit, big beard, with a kindly manner. However, Jim isn’t even Jewish, much less a rabbi. (I converted when he was in his teens.) In real life, he’s a musician.

Our brains look for patterns, which is why stereotypes are so powerful. We might look at a surgeon and think, “Not old enough to be a doctor!” But if we look on her office wall, she’s highly credentialed – it was our assumption that a pretty young woman couldn’t be a surgeon.

As Rabbi Judah HaNasi says above, taste the wine! Ask questions. Don’t say, “Oh, honey, you look like my niece! You can’t be a surgeon.” Say, “Where did you do your residency?” In looking for a rabbi, or a doctor, or a friend, even, look for what they do and what they have done. Appearances are deceiving.

Who or What is Chazal?

Image: A page from a medieval Jerusalem Talmud manuscript. Found in the Cairo genizah. Public Domain.

“Chazal say…” a more advanced rabbinical student said to me, in answer to a question. I heard, “Chagall says…” and was very confused. I’d asked a question about halakhah (Jewish law) – why is he quoting a Jewish artist?

Chazal (Kha-ZAHL) is a collective noun meaning “the sages,” the ancient rabbis, from the “Men of the Great Assembly,” up through the closing and final redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, roughly from 500 BCE until about 650 CE. Think of it as a fancier way of saying “the ancient rabbis.”

Rabbis talk about those rabbis in terms of eras of rabbis:

First there was the age of the Men of the Great Assembly, which ran from the time of Ezra the Scribe up until about the time of the Maccabees. One of the last of that era was Shimon the Righteous:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים:

Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world stands upon three things: the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of piety.

Pirkei Avot 1:2

Then there was the age of the Zugot, or Pairs of teachers, the last and most famous of whom were Hillel and Shammai. They all lived in Palestine, the land of Israel. They saw Rome come to power in the land, and were alive during the time of a fellow called Jesus.

Next came the Tannaim, which means “repeaters.” They were the rabbis who formulated the Mishnah. They taught during the difficult period just before and after the destruction of the Temple, from about 20 BCE – 200 CE.

The rabbis after the redaction of the Mishnah are called the Amoraim, which means “those who speak.” They are the rabbis of the Talmud. Some of them lived and taught in Babylonia, and some lived and taught in Palestine. They lived from 200 until 500 CE.

The last era of rabbis who are Chazal is a rather shadowy group called the Savoraim, the “reasoners.” They lived in Babylonia, and were responsible for putting the Talmud into its final form from 500-600 CE.

So now you know that Chazal is not Chagall! Had there been no Chazal, likely Chagall would have painted differently; most of his subject matter was deeply embedded in the Jewish tradition shaped by Chazal.

Mothers Day: A Mixed Message

Image: A bamboo candle and a small pink blossom (sonja_paetow / Pixabay)

To all those for whom Mother’s Day is a good day, may you get every bit of sweetness out of it! May you be present to those you love, may you connect with them in profound ways, may you make good memories you will keep for many years. May your mother and child reunion be joyful.

To all those for whom this holiday is painful because of a broken connection with your own mother or child, know that you are not alone. Do what you need to do to keep yourself safe: go to a movie, ignore the day, go for a run, do whatever will hold your soul together. It is hard, but know that the day will pass.

To all those who want children and do not have any, I know this day is especially painful. Seek out the friends that understand, if you are fortunate enough to have them. Do what you need to do to live with the pain. Write it out, exercise, anesthetize with a book or a movie, or pray: give God a piece of your mind. It’s OK to be angry; it isn’t fair.

To all those who have lost their mother, and who find this day excruciating in grief: I see you. May you be comforted among the mourners of this world, comforted in the arms of those who are still here to hug you. May your memories be at least as sweet as they are sad.

To mothers whose children have been taken from them, be it to death or to divorce or to some other awful loss, I see you. I know that this is a wound that cannot be healed; I know that there is a hole forever in your heart.

This is a day that is very important to some, and very difficult for others. If we have things we can be grateful for, may we be grateful. If we encounter someone who is in a very different mood than ours, may we be kind.

Shammai used to say: make your Torah study a fixed practice; speak little, but do much; and receive everyone with a pleasant face.

Avot 1:15

The Terrible Tale of Shimon ben Shatach

Image: Queen Salome Alexandra of Judea, the sister of Shimon ben Shatach, from Guillaume Rouillé‘s Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum . Public Domain.

Shimon ben Shatach says, “Examine the witnesses thoroughly, and be careful with your words, lest from them they learn to lie.

Pirkei Avot 1:9

Shimon ben Shatach was a Torah scholar, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a rabbi during the first century BCE. He is most often remembered for the saying above.

There is a sad and terrible story connected with that saying. Shimon was a well-connected man. His sister was Queen Salome Alexandra, the wife of King Alexander Jannaeus, who ruled as Queen after her husband’s death in 76 BCE. While Shimon had to go into exile for a while, because the King did not like rabbis, for most of his life he enjoyed great power and respect despite the fact that he was not a wealthy man.

As co-chair of the Sanhedrin, Shimon was called upon to make many judgments, and he was known to be extremely strict. A young man came to him telling a story about eighty Jewish women who were practicing witchcraft in the city of Ashkelon. According to Rashi (on TJ Sanhedrin 6) Shimon went to Ashkelon and arranged a trick to convict the women he believed to be witches. Rashi does not explain to us why Shimon, the righteous judge, believed the witchcraft charge on the word of one person, contrary to the rules of the Jewish court. The convicted women were hanged to death. The rabbis discussing the case in TJ Sanhedrin 6 note that this was extremely unusual, and cite it as an exception to the rule without explaining it. (Modern day feminists might well argue that the “exception” had to do with the fact that the accused were women, and their alleged crime was “witchcraft,” which before modern times might well mean “women not adhering to male expectations.”)

The relatives of the dead women were furious, and plotted revenge against Shimon. They plotted together to fabricate evidence against Shimon’s son, accusing him of a capital crime, and Shimon’s son was convicted and sentenced to death. On the way to his execution, the young man wept and insisted on his innocence so eloquently that the witnesses recanted, confessed their lies and said that he was indeed innocent. Shimon wanted the sentence reversed, but his son said to him, “Father, if you want salvation to come through you, let the law take its course.” (“Simeon ben Shetah,” Jewish Encyclopedia, v. 14, p. 1563)

Why might the son have said such a thing? Under the rules of the court, witnesses who were discovered to be lying were subject to whatever punishment the accused would suffer. In this case, all the relatives of the women that Shimon had caused to be executed would themselves be executed if the judgment was reversed. Perhaps the son was saying, better to execute one man than to compound the execution of eighty women with the execution of all their relatives!

Most sources say that Shimon’s saying at the top of this page has to do with his belief that had the judges on his son’s case been more careful in cross-examination, they would have seen through the lie and not convicted his son.

Having seen Rashi’s account of the story, I wonder if the saying came out of Shimon’s regret for his own behavior as a judge in the case of the alleged witches. For one thing, the tradition says that a person may be put to death for a crime only when there are two witnesses – and yet there is no account of more than one witness accusing the women. Mishnah Makkot 1:10 says that a court that executes more than one person in a seven year period is a destructive court – yet Shimon had overseen the execution of eighty women!

While our tradition has been lenient with Shimon ben Shatach, very little about his story suggests to me that he was a righteous judge. However, in this saying, his most famous, I hear the rueful voice of a man who recognized that his bad behavior had led others to sin, a sin that bore terrible consequences for the son he loved.

Also, Shimon ben Shatach lived in the very early years of rabbinic Judaism. Later rabbis would become very careful about capital punishment, putting so many hurdles in front of it that it would be very difficult to convict anyone of a capital crime. Perhaps the story of Shimon ben Shatach had something to do with that.

One God, Many Relationships

Image: Digits create a visual pattern stretching out to infinity. (geralt/pixabay)

Anyone who studies Judaism for more than ten minutes will notice that Jews do not agree on much about God except that whatever God is, is One.

Some Jews think of God in very personal terms. Some Jews believe in God in only the most abstract terms. And some Jews do not believe in God at all. This puzzles outsiders, who think that we should at least agree on theology. How can Jews say we are one faith when we have multiple theologies?

The way I like to explain this is to point to one of our most important prayers. It is called the Tefilah [“the Prayer,”] or the Amidah [“Standing,” because we stand when we say it] or the Shmoneh Esray [“18” even though there are 19 parts to it.] It starts with a blessing the prayer books label Avot [“Fathers.”] Here is the egalitarian version:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, God of our fathers and mothers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah; the God, the Great, the Mighty and the Awesome, God of Gods, who bestows kindness, who creates everything, remembering the love of our fathers and mothers, and bringing redemption to their children’s children for the sake of the Divine Name. Sovereign, Deliverer, Helper and Shield, Blessed are You, Eternal One, Sarah’s Helper, and Abraham’s Shield. – my translation of the Hebrew version in Mishkan Tefilah, p76.

If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s a passage in there that seems awfully redundant:

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah

Centuries ago, a rabbi asked, “Why do we say the prayer that way? Why not “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”? (He was too early to be interested in an egalitarian version.) 

The answer the other rabbis gave was that each of the patriarchs (and matriarchs) had their own relationships with and perceptions about God. They did not all experience God in the same way. Abraham had regular conversations with God. Sarah only met God once, and she got in trouble for laughing. The same with the other patriarchs and matriarchs; they each encountered God in different ways and degrees.

So it is with us modern-day Jews. Belief, for us, is a bit of a side-trip anyway. The essence of Torah is doing. As Hillel said when he was asked to teach Torah standing on one foot: 

That which is hateful to you do not do to others. This is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and study. – Shabbat 31a 

Meet Nittai of Arbel

Image: The ancient synagogue of Arbel. (Photo by Bukvoed, via wikimedia.)

Nittai of Arbel says: “Keep your distance from bad neighbors, do not ally yourself with the wicked and do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – Pirkei Avot 1:7

We do not know much about Nittai of Arbel, but we have his words, and we can decipher them by thinking about his times. In the second century BCE, the Second Temple was still standing, and the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) were on the throne. You’d think it would have been a great time for the Jews, but it was a time of treachery and bad behavior.

Nittai was a country boy who rose to be av beit din (vice president) of the Sanhedrin, working and teaching alongside the Nasi (president) Joshua ben Perachya. The two of them are remembered together among the Zugot, pairs of very early rabbinic teachers.

“Keep your distance from bad neighbors” and “do not ally yourself with the wicked” sound like bitter experience speaking.  They might be a reference to Nittai’s experience with John Hyrcanus. The ruler, a nephew of Judah Maccabee, had such a taste for Greek culture that the Pharisees (the early rabbis) questioned whether he had sufficient Jewish values to function as high priest. He was enraged at the criticism and Joshua ben Perachya had to flee for his life to Egypt.

Nittai would have been left alone to lead the early rabbis, who were in deep disfavor for questioning John Hyrcanus.

“Do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – It must have been frustrating to see a bad ruler on the throne, and to feel that neither God nor humanity were doing anything to stop him. John Hyrcanus did a number of things that eventually caused grave trouble: he forced the entire nation of Idumeans to convert to Judaism, and he invited an alliance with Rome, which had a tendency to swallow its allies. He was popular in his time, but much of what he did led to disaster.

“Do not abandon hope when faced with calamity.” – If hope dies, then all is truly lost. The ancient rabbi, Nittai of Arbel, is telling us that we must continue to seek what is good, and to do what is right. We cannot control history, but we can be faithful to the values of Torah.