When Torah Entered the World

Image: A person performs hagbah, raising the Torah for all to see at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal (Canada). (2010 Photo by Geneviève Afriat, some rights reserved.)

When Torah entered the world, freedom entered it.
The whole Torah exists only to establish peace.

Its highest teaching is love and kindness.
What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.

That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.
Those who study Torah are the true guardians of civilization.

Honoring one another, doing acts of kindness,
and making peace: these are our highest duties.
But the study of Torah is equal to them all,
because it leads to them all.

Let us learn in order to teach.
Let us learn in order to do!

– “Reading the Torah on Shabbat” in Mishkan Tefilah, p 375

These lines were written by John Rayner z”l and Chaim Stern z”l, two leading scholars of 20th century liberal Judaism.

I love reading these words during the Torah service. Each line gives me something to ponder. Sometimes I think one could make a whole course of study out of it, taking one line at a time, considering its sources, and reflecting on its meaning.

Some lines in here are very familiar, like Hillel’s famous admonition:

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person.
That is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it. – Shabbat 31a

Others are not familiar, but thought-provoking:

When Torah entered the world, freedom entered it.

What does that mean? Was there a time before Torah? When did Torah enter the world? What does “freedom” mean in this context? (See what I mean? Lots to ponder here.)

There is also a line that makes me laugh, then feel very serious:

Those who study Torah are the true guardians of civilization.

I want to laugh, thinking about all the various Torah study groups I have attended: ordinary folks around a table, striving to understand Torah, sharing knowledge, trotting out their individual soapboxes sometimes. We’re the true guardians of civilization? Really? Then I think, uh-oh, if we are the true guardians of civilization, then the world is in a pot of trouble!  And I look at the world, and soberly I think, “Yeah, we are” and “Yeah, it is.”

We are not the only true guardians of civilization (thank goodness!) We guard it along with the Koran-study-ers, and the New Testament study-ers, and the many other sincere people who study to learn how to be good human beings, who recognize that goodness isn’t easy and we aren’t born knowing how to be good. And it is still a very big job.

At the end, Rabbis Rayner and Stern do not let us off the hook. Study for its own sake (Torah lishma) is very pleasurable, but it is not enough:

Let us learn in order to teach.
Let us learn in order to do!

So, let us learn, and teach, and do!

See you in the world!

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Angry that US Agencies Separate Families? Some Things to Do.

Image: A crying child. (TaniaVdB/Pixabay)

Last week I wrote Human is Human is Human, looking at the fact that my government, to whom I pay taxes, is using those resources to punish immigrant families by separating parents from children at the borders.  While this is not the first appearance of this behavior in American history, it is reprehensible. Several readers had good suggestions for action. I’ve seen several other suggestions online. Here’s a compilation of options for those who want to right this wrong:

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is an organization dedicated to protecting immigrant children. Support them with donations and publicity; they don’t get a lot of attention and they do great work. ( from Slow Lorist)
Support the ACLU in their legal work on this issue.
Contact Your Elected Officials. Write, tweet, email, phone – you know the drill. Be clear, be concise, say how you feel and what you want. Avoid swear words and hyperbole, and don’t make threats. (The link will take you to the League of Women Voters page that can get addresses and other contact info.)
Educate Yourself. Two different issues have been conflated by some concerned individuals. This link will take you to an article in which the Washington Post sorts the issue out a bit. It’s a very important article.  This article from the Political Charge blog has both good information and excellent suggestions for action.
Use Social Media Judiciously. If you are a user of social media, you can help by several strategies.  First – I cannot say this strongly enough! – educate yourself on the issue. Focus what you want to say. Then when you are ready to say it, you can do these things:
– On Twitter: We can boost the signal of Congresspersons and Senators who express concern about this issue. Retweet them. “Like” their messages. This accomplishes two things: it brings attention to the issue and it rewards legislators who are doing the right thing. This is one time when we CAN influence someone even if we aren’t in their district. Remember that these are the people who actually have the power to do something.
– On Twitter: We can boost the signal of particularly good messages on the subject. One of the beauties of Twitter is that we don’t have to generate content: we can save time by making good content go farther.
– On Twitter: Beware of coarse language, name-calling, etc. It does not add emphasis to what we say. Instead of calling someone a bad name, say, “I’m angry about….” Be direct.
– On Facebook: We can link to good, informative articles if we are sure they are good information. We can refrain from publicizing dubious info.
– In both venues: Boost what’s good. Ignore what’s bad, or reply with a link to better information. Ignore, mute, or block bad actors. Fighting with them excites and rewards them, and attracts attention to them, which isn’t going to help.
– In both venues: Remember that not everything we read can be trusted. The more sensational a story is, the less likely it is to be true. See what the major journalistic outfits (NYT, Washington Post, NBC, ABC, CBS, BBC, NPR) have to say before we spread a story.
These principles apply in other social media venues as well – I mention these because they are the ones I use.
I hope that something here is helpful. Let’s do what we can.
If you are interested in following me or interacting on Twitter, you can find me at @CoffeeShopRabbi. 

The Map Home: Why I Attend Services

Image: Rufous hummingbird feeding on Crocosmia flowers. (birdiegal/Shutterstock)

My health problems have made me less regular at services than I’d like. Last week I was falling into a dreadful funk: I was cranky, I was fed up with the world, I had made a couple of stupid mistakes that were really bothering me, and generally, I was an unhappy camper. I decided I had to get to services, despite the aches.

 

Some people wonder why anyone goes to services. We make the trip to shul, we sit in the pews, we see friends, we sing songs, and we say the same prayers every time. What is there that heals my soul?

Truth is, I never know what I’m looking for: I just know that I will find it in the service. There might be a line in a prayer that I haven’t noticed in a while that speaks directly to my troubles of the moment. We say a lot of prayers on Friday night, and I’ve said all of them thousands of times, but if I come with an open heart, there will be something that fits my need.

This past week it was a line in the prayer that caught my eye while we were reading something else:

Days pass, and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.

I realized why I’d been feeling so cranky: my world of late has constricted terribly. I’m busy with tech problems at work, problems that have to be solved but don’t really interest me. I’m frustrated with chronic pain. I’m frustrated by the news: I don’t like much of what I see on the TV or hear on the radio. I realized that I had allowed myself to “walk sightless among miracles.”

I can fix that, I thought.

On Sunday, I did my work, but I took time to go out in the yard and just look around me. I saw the hummingbirds doing their work. I saw my dog examine a bug. I saw a hawk flying high above the hillside. I felt a lot better.

Nothing had changed, but everything had changed. I spent the time I might have spent catching up on news catching up on the hummingbirds. I had to return to the tech problems, and the physical problems, and all the other stuff, but I did it with a lighter heart.

That’s what services do for me. They remind me how to return to myself.

Human is Human is Human

Image: A child holding hands with her mother. (Stocksnap/Pixabay)

This past week a story entered the news that took things to a new low, or so I thought until someone on Twitter (I wish I could remember who) pointed out to me that it isn’t “a new low” – it’s an old bad low that we never really left behind.

That story is the forced separation of parents and children at the U.S. borders.

The Democrats are right: it’s reprehensible, sinful, evil.

The Republicans are right: similar things happened under the Obama Administration too. In fact, it has a long history, going all the way back to the earliest days in our republic. This does not justify the current policy. Given that we know about the horrific damage such separation does to children and parents, and we should be even more anxious to avoid it at all costs.

Human beings are human beings are human beings. I could stretch that tautology out to the stars, and it would not change. Human beings are not “animals,” and they are not “vermin.”

Jewish tradition teaches us that each human being is created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27.) We may argue about who or what God is, but the message remains the same: all human beings share some essential, precious quality that must be treated with respect.

Hillel taught, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. That is the whole Torah; the rest is its interpretation. Go and study.” (Shabbat 31a)

When we treat other human beings as if they are lesser than ourselves, we sin.

I can hear the “Yes, but…’s” crowding into the minds of my readers. Yes, there are people that threaten our well being, maybe even our safety. And yes, we have a teaching that says that if a rodef (pursuer) is trying to kill me, I can and perhaps should defend myself with enough force to kill them. (Sanhedrin 73a)

None of that suggests that I should see that threatening person as any less than human. I am allowed to defend myself. I am not allowed to describe another person as subhuman, no matter how badly they behave. I am certainly not allowed to treat innocent little children with cruelty, even the children of people who behave badly.

Name-calling is serious business. It is even more serious when a government adopts de-humanizing language. History shows us that we can draw a direct line between that language and atrocity. From the beginning, Europeans justified the enslavement of Africans by attributing a subhuman nature to them. The genocide of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and disabled people in the Holocaust of the 1940’s began with official descriptions of those groups of human beings as subhuman. Nazis called Jews “rats.” In the Rwanda genocide, Hutus called Tutsis “cockroaches.” In American history, the genocide of Native Americans was justified by calling them “savages” and “animals.”

The shifts in language made the behavior that followed easier. Therefore it is critical that we pay attention to language that implies that any group of people is subhuman.

To return to the situation at hand, we have already reached the point of a language shift. Judging from the polls, a significant portion of our populace has no problem with the President’s use of the language “animals” for groups of Hispanic immigrants. We have the inhumane history of slavery and Jim Crow. We have the inhumane, illogical rationalization of Japanese American internment with General Order 9066.

It is time for a change in our national attitude about who gets to be a human being. Jefferson wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

We all know, of course, that he was inconsistent. Jefferson enslaved human beings. But still he left this ideal for us. I believe the promise of these lines is still in our future.

What can we do in the face of the separation of little children from their parents at the U.S. Border?

  1. First and foremost, we can become more conscious of our own use of language. Language that denies the humanity of another person is dangerous.  Better to avoid any language that de-humanizes others, especially if I am going to have credibility in arguing against that use of language by anyone else.
  2. We can object when we hear de-humanizing language from the people with whom we usually agree. In this polarized climate, people on the other end of the spectrum are unlikely to hear anything I say, but I can make a difference with those who see me as an ally. I can stop accepting de-humanizing language from anyone.
  3. We can vote and we can encourage others to vote. We are in primary season now. Are you registered? Is everyone you know registered? On voting day, does everyone in your part of town have a way to vote? Organizations like the League of Women Voters need our support in getting out everyone’s vote.
  4. We can support the ACLU in its efforts to stop the separation of parents and children at the border.
  5. We can write letters to the editor, op eds, and facebook posts. Remember to defuse counter arguments within your text: the fact that this has been done by previous administrations does not excuse or justify the inhumane treatment of little children.

Do you have ideas for action? I’d love to hear them in the Comments.

5/27/18: Slow Lorist made a suggestion so good that I am moving it up into the text (but watch Comments for more good suggestions!):

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is an organization dedicated to protecting immigrant children. Support them with donations and publicity; they don’t get a lot of attention and they do great work.
And call your reps, send them postcards, write them letters—tell them that this issue matters to you!

 

An Apology to My Readers

Image: Me at the computer with my assistant, Gabi the poodle. Photo by Linda Burnett.

I thought polls would be an interesting addition to the blog.

I thought I’d figured out how to do them.

I thought I had written a pretty good poll.

And now I know I have a lot to learn about poll making and WordPress.com.

I am going to keep working on using polls, but this week’s attempt was a not-ready-for-the-Internet production.

I’m really sorry I made a mess.

I will leave it up because some of the comments are really quite interesting, but due to the problems with the poll, don’t try to draw any conclusions from the “results.”

Now, back to the keyboard to figure this thing out!

Thank you for your patience and readership.

 

What’s Your Jewish Food Observance?

I’m curious about the Jewish food observance of my readers. If you want to add something to your answer, you can do so in the “Comments.” Thanks for participating!

What is Shalom?

Image: The word “Shalom” in Hebrew letters, in blue. Public domain.

Shalom.” It is often the first word a Hebrew student learns to read. It is the Hebrew word the most non-Jews are likely to know. If you ask for a definition, most people will tell you “Peace, Hello, or Goodbye,” and they won’t be wrong.

But that isn’t the whole story.

Shalom is a positive value, far more than just the absence of war. It signifies wholeness. One can be not-at-war and still be miserable. However, a miserable person by definition lacks shalom.

Like most words in Semitic languages it is based on a root of three consonants: shin, lamed, mem.  From that root we get many words: shalam, complete; nishlam, finished; l’shalem, to pay a bill; meshulam, repay; shlaymut, wholeness. What they have in common is a sense of integrity, of nothing missing or awry.

When I greet you with “Shalom!” I am wishing you wholeness of body and spirit. When I use a related greeting, “Mah shlomkhah?” the literal translation is “How is your peace?”

Shalom is not an abstract. It depends on real conditions in the world. A hungry person, a fearful person, or a hurt person cannot have shalom. Shalom includes bodily needs as well as spiritual ones. When we deny the needs of others, we deny them shalom.

Shalom also requires participation. We deny ourselves shalom when we bear a grudge. We deny ourselves shalom when we mistreat our bodies so that they get sick. We deny ourselves shalom when we tell ourselves we need something we cannot have, or when we refuse things we actually need. We deny ourselves shalom when we sin and choose not to make teshuvah.

At the close of the Kaddish, we pray for peace:

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleynu, v’al kol Yisrael, Veyimru: Amayn.

May the Maker of peace on high, make peace upon us, and upon all Israel. And we say: Amen.

When we say these words, it is both a prayer and a commitment to action. We are saying, “Please, God, give us shalom!” while at the same time saying, “I am ready to do what it takes to make shalom!”

Are we?