A Mensch in Election Season

Image: “2016 Election,” flag background. Art by MIH83 on pixabay.com.

In a place where there are no menschen, strive to be a mensch. – Pirkei Avot 2:5

A mensch is a decent human being, someone with integrity and a heart. The Hebrew in this ancient saying translates as “man,” but I find that mensch is a better translation. The general idea is, when everyone else is misbehaving, be a decent person.

I’ve written little about the current U.S. election on this blog. My topic here is “Basic Judaism” and I mostly try to stick to it. I certainly have opinions about the election, which I look forward to expressing on the mail-in ballot resting on my table as I type this. However, there are things that I feel I must say:

Hateful language is wrong, no matter how correct we believe our opinion to be. Hateful language takes many forms. Any time we choose to see another human being as less human than ourselves, we stray into the territory of hate. If we vocalize that belief, it’s hate speech.

It’s fine to disagree; Jewish tradition has long supported the idea that it is in disagreement that we often can find our way toward the truth. The sages spoke of “an argument for the sake of heaven” – one like that of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, who argued in the academy but who respected one another in the street and in their homes. Remember, the ultimate goal is not to “crush” the other but to find a way towards a future that will serve all of us.

“They started it” is not a good excuse on a playground. It doesn’t wash for adults. “They are just as bad” isn’t an argument, it’s a cop out.

How can we be menschen?  Here are some ideas:

  1. We can listen more than we speak.
  2. When the discussion falls below our standards, we can raise it up by asking questions that focus on values: “Why is this so important to you?”
  3. We can seek common ground: what do we share?
  4. We can vote for candidates who have behaved like menschen, in our opinion.
  5. We can refrain from spiteful language and behavior.
  6. We can be very careful about the stories we pass along via speech and social media: what’s the source? Does this really need to be passed along?
  7. We can be supportive of others who are trying to be constructive, even if we don’t agree with them about everything.
  8. If we hear someone else indulging in hate speech, we can challenge it effectively.

This has been a strange, horrible election cycle. As individuals, it is tempting to despair.

At times like these I look to the wisdom of the rabbis, and this quote from Shammai comes to mind:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant face.” – Pirkei Avot 1:15

  • Make your Torah fixed – Don’t lose your grip on Torah!
  • say little and do much – Listen more, speak less. Do good deeds. VOTE!
  • Receive every person with a pleasant face – Give everyone a chance to be a mensch, too.

May we survive this season, and move into better times as soon as possible!

Social Media Inventory, Part 1

Image: A checklist and tools. Photo by stevepb via pixabay.com.

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Take this inventory to do a personal review:

Nitai of Arbel says: “Distance [yourself] from a bad neighbor, do not befriend an evildoer and do not despair of punishment.” – Pirkei Avot 1:7

How do I spend my time online? Do I use this resource to learn and to converse with people who are a good influence on me? Or do I waste valuable time on worthless activities? Is there anything I do online that I feel I must keep secret? Is there anything I would be embarrassed to have come to light?

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation. – Pirkei Avot 5:15

What has my goal been in arguments online? According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a 13th century Catalan rabbi named Menachem Meiri taught that Hillel and Shammai argued in order to uncover the truth. They argued with great energy, but it was essentially a joint venture. The argument of Korach was based in ill-will: Korach wished to prevail over Moses, and humiliate him. Korach wanted to win the argument. So the first question: when I get into an argument with someone, am I like Hillel or like Korach?

When R. Eliezer was about to depart, his disciples paid him a visit and requested him to teach them only one more thing. And he said unto them: Go, and be careful, each of you, in honoring your neighbor; and when you are praying, remember before whom you stand and pray, and for the observation of these you will have a share in the world to come. – Minor Tractate Derech Eretz Rabbah, Chapter 3

How do I treat other people online? Am I a mensch?  Am I careful in honoring my neighbor? Do I treat other people with the respect due other human beings? Or do I count some as beneath any need for polite speech? Do I sometimes forget that every human being contains the divine spark, some element of the Holy One, perhaps very well hidden?

… continued at Social Media Inventory Part 2

Rabbi Tarfon’s Guide to Elul

Image: A tangle of cables on a power line. Image copyright by Ian Beeby on Freeimages.com.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is much, and the workers are lazy and the reward is great, and the Master of the house is pressing. He used to say: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. If you have learned much Torah, your reward will be much; and the Master of your work is trustworthy to pay you the wage for your activity. And know, the giving of reward to the righteous is in the future to come. – Pirkei Avot 2:15-16

One thing I have learned about myself is that if a task is too large, I simply freeze. I’m like a mouse under the gaze of a cobra: I cannot move. I go into “OVERWHELM” mode and stay there. And I like to think that Rabbi Tarfon knew something about this state, because of his wonderful piled-on sentence in the  quote that opened this post:

The day is short and the work is much and the workers are lazy and the reward is great and the Master of the house is pressing.

See? He can’t even distinguish between the scary parts and the good things. He is describing the way I feel when I begin this month of Elul:

Oh my goodness there is so much garbage in my soul and I don’t know where to begin and there’s only a month and I can’t even think and two days are gone already and I’m very distractible and gee this is very uncomfortable and have i looked at my email yet today?

No kidding. That’s the inside of my head. Fortunately for those of us who are overwhelmed, Rabbi Tarfon also gives very good advice: We don’t have to finish, we just have to do the work one step at a time.

Thanks to Rabbi Tarfon, I walk into my living room. I take out one of several good books and I start taking stock of my life. (This year I’m rereading This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared by Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l.) Step by step, I will do the work of Elul, first taking stock, then figuring out what actions I need to take. One by one, I will do those things. And a month from now, I may not be “finished” but I will have gotten a lot of work done.

You can do this too, no matter how overwhelmed you feel. Begin the task, and trust that whatever you accomplish, that is what you need to do this year.

And if you’d like to know more about Rabbi Tarfon, read Meet Rabbi Tarfon elsewhere on this blog. He’s one of my favorite rabbis and I hope you’ll like him too.

Turn It Again, Ben!

Ben Bag Bag used to say, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” – Avot 5:22

He may have one of the strangest names in Jewish history*, but Ben Bag Bag’s famous line is a favorite of mine. The “it” he refers to is the Torah. Read it over and over, he suggests, because there is always something new to find there.

I was reminded anew of the wisdom of this line this past Shabbat. On Yom Kippur, I went to the emergency room with severe difficulty breathing, gasping and gasping like a fish out of water. Tests revealed that my breathing was impeded by a number of blood clots in my lungs. Thanks to the skill of the doctors and nurses, I am breathing better now and feeling better every day.

Sitting in the service this week, I noticed a new way to understand a favorite prayer. In the context of prayers, the word neshamah (neh-sha-MAH) is usually translated “soul.” However, it may equally correctly be translated as “breath.” Suddenly the familiar prayer was transformed before my eyes:

My God, the breath You have given me is pure.
You created it, You shaped it, You breathed it into me,
You protect it within me.
For as long as this breath is within me,
I offer thanks to You,
Adonai, My God, God of my ancestors,
Source of all creation, Sovereign of all souls.
Praised are You, Adonai,
In whose hand is every living breath and the breath of humankind.

I have no guess as to how many thousands of times I have murmured that prayer, but it never before occurred to me that I was giving thanks for breath.

No matter how many times I say a prayer or read a line of Torah, I do not know when a new experience in my life will cause the words to light up with new meaning. Until last month, I did not fully appreciate the value of breath. I thought that “soul” was a more meaningful translation of neshamah.

Silly me.


*Ben Bag Bag’s full name was likely Yochanan ben Bag Bag, and one tradition teaches that his name is an acronym for “ben ger” and “bat ger” suggesting that his parents were converts to Judaism. Another tradition teaches that he was himself a proselyte, the cheeky fellow who asked Hillel to teach him all of Torah while standing on one foot!

Shimon Says: Listen!

Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel said: All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence. Studying Torah is not the most important thing rather fulfilling it. Whoever multiplies words causes sin. – Pirkei Avot 1:17

Here I am on the Internet, multiplying words – the irony does not escape me.  We live in talky times. Nothing goes uncommented: Bruce Jenner, Nepal, Supreme Court, Hillary, Iran, Syria, Baltimore, Baltimore, Baltimore.  The news is rarely merely reported; it is interpreted, commented upon, analyzed. Multiplying words.

We talk, but we rarely listen. When we listen, we wish to comment. We want our news to be interactive, because we all have something to say.

But Shimon tells us, “Listen.” Be quiet and just listen, really listen.

Listening without comment is hard work. Listening and just taking it all in will exhaust most people. Listening and imagining the world of the person talking will make a strong woman want to lie down for a while.

Talk is, as they say, cheap. It is easy to have opinions. It is easy to tell others what they should do, ought to do, need to do. It is hard just to listen.

And yet recall the time someone listened, really listened, to you. Recall what a gift it is, just to listen.

If this post inspires you to listen, here’s a project for listening.

Meet Ben Azzai: “Despise No One!”

Ben Azzai used to say: Despise no one and think nothing impossible, for every person has their day, and every thing has its place. – Pirkei Avot 4:3

So who was this Ben Azzai? His full name was Shimon Ben Azzai, and he lived in the early years of the second century. He was a brilliant student of the rabbis, famous for his diligence in study and for his piety. Despite his youth, his words appear in several places in the Talmud. However, his is a sad story, because he had a very short life. He died young in a tragic accident and never married, so he left no children.

There’s a very famous story in the Talmud about Ben Azzai’s death. He was one of four pious Jews who were doing mystical meditation or kabbalah. Rabbi Akiva was truly ready for the experience and survived it. Ben Zoma was driven mad by it. Elisha ben Abuya rejected the vision and caused great destruction. Shimon ben Azzai died.

When you hear that a student “should be married and older than 40” to study Kabbalah, this is the story behind that saying. Even though these four were brilliant, only Rabbi Akiva survived the mystical union with God, because he was the only one sufficiently prepared for the experience. Ben Azzai became the example of the pure, young, brilliant soul who flew too high and too fast, a Jewish Icarus.

So back to our passage from Pirkei Avot. The first time I read it, I was reassured by it. It seemed to say to me that there was hope for me, even though I was beginning my studies late in life, even though I struggled to learn Hebrew. “Despise no one, even yourself!” I imagined Ben Azzai saying to me.

Then I learned who he was, and the saying deepened in its meaning. “Despise no one” is a nice thing to say, but when it comes from the mouth of a young prodigy it is particularly touching. When one is young and brilliant, so brilliant that Rabbi Akiva invites one to study with him, one is rarely wise enough or humble enough to say, “Despise no one.” Now I imagine Ben Azzai saying it to himself: “Yes, Ben Azzai, you have been given brains and great teachers – but despise no one!”

“…for every person has their day…” Each of us has some important piece of Torah to do in our lifetime. We don’t know what that piece of Torah might be. Maybe I’ve already done mine; maybe it’s still ahead of me. But if I skip some mitzvah, dodge some responsibility, I might miss it, and what a tragedy that would be!

Ben Azzai argues for the importance of every life, no matter how humble. He is arguing even for the importance of things: every little part of creation has its place. We must never forget that every one of us is included in God’s summary of creation, on the sixth day:

And God saw every thing that God had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. – Genesis 1:31

Rabbi Chaninah: Pray for the Government!

Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim said: Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive. – Pirkei Avot 3:2

There are several passages in Pirkei Avot that warn against getting too comfortable with the government (e.g. Avot 1:10.) Lest we decide that Jewish tradition leans towards a particular ideology or form of government, Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim comes along to warn us that we may not like the government, but it still has its purpose. In his eyes, the purpose of government is to keep people from “swallow[ing] each other alive.” How’s that for vivid imagery?

To understand why he would say this, we have to look at Rabbi Chanina and the times in which he lived. He is identified here and elsewhere in the Mishnah as Segan HaKohanim, the deputy of the high priests. In fact, he was an essential member of the staff during the final days of the Temple. The office of Kohen Gadol, High Priest, had become a political appointment, and many of those who filled it were qualified because they were descendants of Aaron, but less than completely knowledgeable about their responsibilities. As Segan, Chanina served under several High Priests (hence the sobriquet “Deputy of the High Priests” plural.) He was the expert who saw to it that things were done properly, and should the High Priest become unfit, he had to be prepared to step in and serve in his stead:

R. Chanina Segan haKohanim said, “Why is a ‘Segan’ [Deputy] appointed? In case the high-priest became unfit for service, the ‘Segan’ [Deputy] should enter at once to do the service.” – Sotah 42a

Rabbi Chaninah was the man responsible for making sure that everything ran smoothly in the great Temple. He filled that role in an era of legendary upheaval. He served several different High Priests. He saw the political chaos leading up to the Great Revolt against Rome beginning in 66 CE, when different factions among the Jews fought each other as bitterly as later they would all fight against Rome. He watched the brutality of Rome come crashing down upon all the Jews. He was a witness to the horrors of the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the events following.

When Rabbi Chaninah speaks of men “swallowing each other alive,” he is speaking colorfully, but it is hardly an exaggeration. He could remember a time when the government was disliked by most residents of Judea, but life was livable. By the time he died (according to some sources, martyred by Rome) life in Judea had gone through utter chaos and had been returned to order by a brutal army.

If we were to update Chaninah’s words today, he might say: “Be careful what you wish for: there are worse things than a government you don’t like.”