Survival in A Tough Time

Image: Sonoma, CA, in better times. (jessebridgewater/pixabay)

Hurricanes. Wildfires.

A little over a week ago we said the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, “Who by water and who by fire,” expressing the fact that we simply do not know what the future will bring each person. And since then, we have seen so many bad things: the aftermath of hurricane and floods in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and the fires in the West, especially in Northern California this week.

The news from Washington is deeply upsetting to many of us. Who would have thought we’d see a President of the United States have a name-calling match on Twitter with one of the leaders of his own party? Who would have thought we’d see a name-calling game of nuclear chicken play out on Twitter between heads of state?

I have not posted for a week. Some of that was a bad back, but most of it was depression. As I’ve said before, I’m prone to it. It simply had to be lived through.

I did all I know to do, which was to pay attention, do mitzvot whenever I could, and try not to beat myself up. The fog has lifted a bit, and I know something: I must balance my attention. I must pay enough attention to what’s bad in the world to actively do battle with it. I must pay enough attention to the goodness in the world, especially to the goodness in other people, to maintain my soul.

One mitzvah leads to another. – Pirkei Avot, 4.2.

I watched on social media as neighbors leaped to each other’s aid here in California. A woman I know who is unemployed put the call out on Facebook that she was looking for a way to help. People in the Jewish community opened their guest rooms and couches. Friends opened Go-Fund-Me pages for households who lost everything. A friend of mine found transport out of harm’s way for a bunch of horses.

Firefighters and first responders risked their lives to get people to safety. Reporters, too, risked life and limb to keep us informed, those of us who were desperate for news. I am a long way from the wine country, but I will never forget the Oakland Hills Firestorm; I woke up dreaming about it before I knew about the new fires up north.

It has comforted me to see people responding to other people. It strengthened me when I contacted one woman about fire aid. I mentioned that I couldn’t drive due to my back, but I’d buy gas for someone else, whereupon she immediately asked if I needed help or shopping. Her offer warmed me like chicken soup.

Never forget, in these awful times, that one of the most powerful tools at our disposal is human kindness. In Hebrew, it’s the virtue of Chesed (KHEH – sed.) Our small acts of kindness – not “thoughts and prayers” but actual kindness, listening quietly, respecting difference, offering food, offering shelter, offering what we can – those things serve to strengthen the person on the receiving end and the giver as well. If someone gives me some – wonderful! If not, I can still give it to others and receive the benefit: a miracle!

We have many of us grown cranky since last November: it is HARD making phone call after phone call, writing little postcards, while worrying that North Korea might actually know how to get a bomb to our neighborhood. It is exhausting watching a bully in the Oval Office, watching him abuse his staff, insult veterans, and encourage white supremacists. So we get irritable. We feel tired. Some of us get depressed.

This week I re-learned the advice of Mr. Rogers’ mother:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. – Fred Rogers

So, look for the caring people. BE one of the caring people – not caring about Humanity at Large but caring about the human being right in front of you, the one who is tired or thirsty or who needs a friend.  As the liturgy and Masechet Peah of the Jerusalem Talmud tell us:

These are things that a person eats from their fruits in this world, and the foundation exists for the next world, honoring one’s father and mother and doing good deeds and bringing peace between one person and his friends. And Torah study is greater than all of them. – Peah, 1a, Jerushalmi

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Questions for Yom Kippur

Image: A group of Jews, walking towards dawn and dressed for prayer. (Afuta/Shutterstock)

What kind of person am I?

That’s the question at the bottom of Yom Kippur. We pause for a day and confront the unadorned self.

A passage in the very ancient text Pirkei Avot (Fundamental Teachings) highlights the problem in trying to see ourselves clearly:

There are four temperaments among people: the one who says “what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” – that’s an average temperament. And there are some who say that is the temperament of Sodom. A second type is one who says “what is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine”– that is an ignoramus. A third type is one who says “what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours”– that is a pious person. A final type is one who says “what is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine” – that is a wicked person. – Pirkei Avot 5:10

Extremes are easy.  The ignorant, the saint, the wicked person – those are caricatures, really. I suggest that the rabbis only bring them up in order to make a point about the first “temperament” they list.

The “average” person seems pretty reasonable and simple: they say, “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours.”

The mindset “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours” can be seen as a reasonable, even as a healthy way to see the world. The phrase “good boundaries” comes to mind.

Then the rabbis toss in a grenade: “And there are some who say that is the temperament of Sodom.” Wait – what?

The rabbis’ understanding of the people of Sodom was that they were a deeply selfish, inhospitable people. Unlike the Christian commentaries on the story of Sodom, which focus on sexual sins, rabbinic commentaries on Sodom focus on the way the people of Sodom treated visitors and poor people.

After a while travellers avoided these cities, but if some poor devil was betrayed occasionally into entering them, they would give him gold and silver, but never any bread, so that he was bound to die of starvation. Once he was dead, the residents of the city came and took back the marked gold and silver which they had given him, and they would quarrel about the distribution of his clothes, for they would bury him naked…

The cause of their cruelty was their exceeding great wealth. Their soil was gold, and in their miserliness and their greed for more and more gold, they wanted to prevent strangers from enjoying aught of their riches…

Their laws were calculated to do injury to the poor. The richer a man, the more was he favored before the law.   – from Legends of the Jews, by Lewis Ginsberg

The rabbis are raising making a point: living a good life requires periodic questioning. Where is the line between “good boundaries” and cruel selfishness? When I say, “That is not my problem” am I practicing reasonable self-care or am I being selfish?

The Torah recognizes that it is not easy for people to share with others. It sets measures for what must be shared, setting certain minimums of sharing as commandments:

When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield — in the third year, the year of the tithe — and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, orphan, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before Adonai your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments – Deuteronomy 26:12-13

By setting minimums, it allows a Jew to say, “I have fulfilled the commandment.” This way the anxiety about “how much is enough?” is laid to rest. However, it can also offer a shelter in legalisms, against which Isaiah and the other prophets railed:

Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram’s horn! Declare to My people their transgression, to the House of Jacob their sin. To be sure, they seek Me daily, eager to learn My ways. Like a nation that does what is right, that has not abandoned the laws of its God, they ask Me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God: “Why, when we fasted, did You not see when we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! – Isaiah 58:1-7

For the prophets, it was not enough to follow the letter of the law. The spirit of the Torah was even more important, and that spirit insisted that our willingness to share should be limited only by the need before us.

It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to ignore your own kin. Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly; Your vindicator shall march before you, the presence of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then, when you call, the Lord will answer; When you cry, the Lord will say: Here I am. – Isaiah 58:7-11

Centuries of living in the real world taught our ancestors that a balance had to be struck between needs and resources. Maimonides recognized that limitless giving was a problem, inserting the qualifier “providing the giver can afford it”:

It is a positive commandment to give charity to the poor, as is appropriate to the poor person, providing the giver can afford it, as it says, “You shall open your hand to the poor,” and “You shall strengthen the stranger who dwells with you,” and “Your fellow shall live with you.” – Matenot Aniyim, 7:1

He also raised the issue of the responsibilities of those asking for support:

One should always push himself, and live in straits rather than rely on others and not impose himself on the community.

Anyone who takes charity without needing it will come to need it before she dies…Anyone who is unable to survive without charity but refuses it is guilty of bloodshed…And anyone who needs charity but holds off as much as possible and takes as little as possible will come to see the time when she is able to sustain others from her own wealth. Concerning such as her it is written, “Blessed be the person who trusts in God.” – Matenot Aniyim 10:18-19

The 20th century brought a magnitude of need to the world that we had never seen before. Populations exploded. Ideologies abounded. Even for those who were secure, there was a feeling that there was not enough: not enough to share, not enough to go around. Some minority groups were scapegoated: “If it weren’t for them, we would feel secure!” We all know where that led.

After suffering through the travails of a POW camp during WWII, as well as the Holocaust (in which much of his family was murdered and all were threatened)  the great French philosopher and Talmudist Emmanuel Levinas rejected the notion of “mine” altogether:

… the problem of a hungry world can be resolved only if the food of the owners and those who are provided for ceases to appear to them as inalienable property, but is recognized as a gift they have received for which thanks must be given and to which others have a right. Scarcity is a social and moral problem and not exclusively an economic one. – Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, p. 132

Levinas suggests that we should all strive to have a pious temperament (“what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.”) I do not know if that is a reasonable expectation, but I know that Levinas developed his thought not in an ivory tower but in the cauldron of the Shoah. I have to take him seriously, whether ultimately I follow his path or not.

We have just begun the 21st century, and so far it has brought more challenges. All the things that were difficult in the 20th century (growing population, gaps between the have-nots and the haves, warring ideologies) are with us at what feels like an exponential increase. Add to that the influences of mass media and the internet: we live in a fog of words and we are afraid.

I am not offering answers today, I am raising questions. What do I owe others? What about people who scare me? What about people that I feel pose a risk to my security? What do I owe them? What do I owe my children? What do I owe myself?

Where are the healthy boundaries? When is it just fear and selfishness?

What kind of person am I?

Yom Kippur offers us time and space to consider these questions. Fortunately we do not consider them alone: we gather in synagogue to pray and to listen to the growling of our stomachs. The growls have much to tell us about our own fears and about the needs of others. Our fellows around us are there to remind us that we do not have to do this alone.

As a friend said to me the day I became a Jew: “The bad news is, you will never be alone again. The good news is, you will never be alone again. Welcome to the tribe.”

The Tzedakah Budget

Image: A spoon is balanced on a calculator. On one end, it is stuck into a potato. In the bowl of the spoon sit a stack of coins. Photo by stevepb/pixabay.

To those readers for whom the bare necessities take every dollar: I am truly sorry that you are in that situation. For your own dignity I hope you will find a few coins you can set aside for a cause you find worthy, but I also hope that you will feel free to ask for help you need, and that you can connect with someone who says “yes.”

For everyone else: Do you have a budget for giving tzedakah?

Tzedakah are funds for the relief of privation and suffering. They can take many forms:

  • a gift to a nonprofit organization that helps the needy
  • a gift for support of a Torah scholar
  • a gift to keep synagogue doors open
  • a gift to support Jewish education (which will make it more available to those who cannot afford to pay the full cost)
  • money or a gift card handed to a needy person on the street
  • the purchase of a meal for a hungry person on the street
  • financial or in-kind support for anyone who is in need
  • support for a relative who cannot make ends meet

All of these things qualify as tzedakah.

One of the things the sages warn us about is that while all Jews should give to help the needy, it is wrong to give beyond our means. In other words, there is no merit in bankrupting yourself (and thereby putting yourself in need of tzedakah.)

Tzedakah is a sacred duty, a mitzvah. So it makes sense to plan your tzedakah with a budget.

Our income is highly variable, so we tend to base our tzedakah on last year’s income. Linda and I try to give a certain percentage of income every year. We look at last year’s gross income, multiply by the percentage, and there we have our target. We don’t give money away, however, until it actually comes in. That way we don’t get ahead of ourselves in a leaner year. At any given time, we have a figure in mind for what we can spend, should spend, on tzedakah.

How to set the percentage? I like to compare our tzedakah budget to other items in our budget:

  • What percentage of income goes for necessities?
  • What percentage goes for luxuries, like cable, entertainment, or vacation?

Our budget reflects our true priorities. Shelter, food, clothing, health, taxes – those are things we must pay, although we may be able to adjust some of them with our choices. Other things may be optional, but we choose to make them a priority: synagogue membership, for instance. And then there are the true luxuries: cable TV, entertainment, etc.

I look to see where my spending on tzedakah fits in the list. Is it more than I spend on cable? Is it less than we spend on dinners out? That will tell me a lot about my true answer to Hillel’s famous questions:

Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Pirkei Avot, 1:14

To restate it: are we spending enough on ourselves and our dependents? Are we spending so much on ourselves and our dependents that we cannot share anything? What am we going to do about what we have learned about ourselves?

Our tzedakah budget is always a work in progress, and it changes when our lives hit a bump. That’s as it should be. The main thing, as with most other mitzvot, is to be aware of ourselves and our impact on the world.

 

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.

 

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.