Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In Selma, Alabama, I learned to pray with my feet.”
In English, we have a tendency to use the words “religion” and “faith” as interchangeable, and it is possible that it works for some religions, but for Judaism, it most emphatically does not work. Jews believe many different things: at the extremes, I know good Jews who are thoroughgoing atheists, and equally good Jews who have regular conversations with a God for whom the pronouns are male. The only real deal breaker for normative Judaism is monotheism: if a person believes in multiple gods or subdivisions of God or persons-within-God they are over the line.
Deeds, including speech, are another matter. I am still a Jew, but I cannot claim to be a “good Jew” if I stand by while my neighbor bleeds, if I do nothing while the vulnerable go hungry, if I do not pursue justice. That, with monotheism, was the great message of the Jewish prophets: see chapter five of the prophecy of Amos if you doubt me.
So it is appropriate today, more than 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, to remember that we pray with our feet, our hands, our keyboards, our wheels, our habits of consumption, and our speech to and about others.
By the way, the images I use on this blog are all either in the public domain, or they have a Creative Commons license. There’s a wordpress widget that finds them for me and keeps me from sinning against my fellow creative person (and out of copyright trouble.)
Tractate Niddah (30b) of the Talmudrecords a folktale that I find comforting and infuriating: while we are in utero, an angel comes and teaches us the whole of the Torah. Then as soon as we are born, the angel slaps us on the mouth so that we will forget it all. The mark that is left is the philtrum, the vertical dent between the mouth and nose.
Thus when we study Torah, we are not learning for the first time; we are instead striving to remember the Torah that we already know. As a teacher, my task is to help my students remember.
I find that when I remember that, I am a much better teacher.
The best apology is like an egg: simple, bald, fragile. If I fumble it, I’ll really make a mess.
“Forgive me,” is a start.
The next step is the real kicker. “For” — for failing to acknowledge you, for failing to remember your name, for failing to think, for failing. Or for doing: for saying cruel words, for acting out, for lying, for stealing, for betraying.
A good apology takes responsibility. It says, “I did it.” It does not shift blame, it says, “I’m sorry” and “I did it.”
Then sit back. Wait. See what happens.
There may be anger. There may be sorrow. There may be fake forgiveness or self-serving forgiveness, as the Gingeet Rabbi has described in her blog. Or there may be a really good conversation in which you will learn something. This is the thing about a good apology: no matter how predictable you think the other person is, you can’t know for sure what comes after the apology. The better the apology, the more unpredictable the response.
Gabi is my little dog. I met her one Friday afternoon after I’d spent the afternoon doing some pastoral visits that left me angry and sad. I did not want to bring that energy into Shabbat with me, so I called my friend Julie and asked if I could stop by her place and play with the dogs for a bit.
Julie is one of the good angels of Poodle Rescue of Las Vegas, and she often has a foster dog or two around. That day she had a silver toy poodle with a big white bandage. The tiny dog was found on the street in Las Vegas sporting a huge tumor under one foreleg. She was filthy and her fur was matted from months of neglect. Animal Control notified Poodle Rescue, and Julie and Colleen saw to it that she got the health care and the grooming she needed.
When I walked into the house, that tiny dog began bouncing and trying to get my attention. I picked her up, and she snuggled into my shoulder as if she’d been my doggie forever. I was amazed by her trust, despite neglect, despite the cruelty of the street. She trusted me.
In the book of Genesis it says:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
Many human beings have used that verse to support the idea that animals are here to serve us, that we can do whatever we want with them. That’s not how I read it. I believe we have been given our power over animals in trust. We are responsible to see to it that they are treated with decency, with respect, with the same care that their Creator would give them, no less. Judaism traditionally recognizes decency towards animals as a mitzvah.
If we have animals in our lives, if we have pets, or if we eat animals or animal products, how do we carry out that responsibility of trust? How can we as individuals and as a society do better?
Something to ponder.
If you are interested in acquiring a pet, consider adopting a rescue animal. Your local shelter has many animals that need homes. If you want a specific breed, try Googling “rescue” and the name of the breed. Your BFF may be waiting in a foster home near you.
Mishnah Peah 1:1 – These are the things for which there is no measure: the corner of the field [which is left for the poor], the first-fruits offering, the pilgrimage, acts of lovingkindness, and Torah learning.
One might get the feeling, learning Torah, that Jews are always accounting for things: taking a census (three times in the book of Numbers alone, in Chapters 1, 2, and 26), counting days after Passover (the Omer), and counting years in the desert, tribes, wives, children, generations – you name it. If you press further and read into the Mishnah and Gemara, the rabbis worry a lot about measures, distances, and other numbers.
And yet we begin each day’s prayer with a passage from Mishnah Peah which lists the things we do not count or measure: the portion of the field left for the poor, the first-fruits offering, the pilgrimage, acts of lovingkindness, and Torah learning. According to the Tosefta (additional Mishna-era writings) that means that a Jew is obligated to do these things, but the amounts are up to the individual. If a person left a tiny area of each corner unharvested, gave a pittance of his first fruits, merely showed up for the pilgrimage feasts, that was enough. It might not be meritorious, but he would be within the letter of the law. Nowhere does the Torah command acts of lovingkindness: they are implied in other commandments, such as helping the orphan and widow, not standing by when a neighbor is bleeding, loving the stranger, but it is a vague implication, not a clear commandment. Torah learning is commanded (“Keep these words” and “teach them to your children”) but the extent of Torah learning is, again, up to the individual.
What might we learn from this? Perhaps one thing we can learn is that an acknowledgement of human individuality is built into Torah. While much of Torah lis concerned with the good of the community, our ancestors recognized that we are not all alike. Some people are naturally inclined to study; for others even a little study goes a long way. Some individuals can be generous: either they are wealthy and they can afford to give, or they are generous by nature, and inclined to give. Others may face restraints that make it impossible to give much, or to participate much in other mitzvot.
However, these things “without measure” also give us something precious: room to grow. At one stage of life, a person’s ability to give or to participate may be limited by any of a number of factors: their knowledge of the mitzvah, their inclinations, the facts of their life, their income, and so on. Later on, we may grow into mitzvot that we neglected or observed only minimally when we were younger.
It also suggests that while it is tempting to be compare to our neighbors (“How much are the Levys giving to the fund?” or “Most people don’t go to services every Shabbat.“) – this passage is a reminder that other people’s mitzvot do not matter when we are deciding about our own. “How much did the Levys give?” is not the way to determine what we will contribute to the communal good or a good cause. Nor should we be ashamed, if we are doing the best we can with one of these mitzvot.
Martin Buber recorded a famous rabbinical tale in which Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”
Let let our concern be for becoming our best selves, living lives of mitzvot beyond all accounting!
On a wet day in March of 1971, I stood in the sheriff’s office in Williamson County, Tennessee, peering across the room towards an eye chart. I say “towards” because I couldn’t see the chart; I just knew the general direction. Sheriff Huff was testing me for my driver’s license, and this was part one: he asked me to remove my glasses, and then told me to read the letters on the chart. After I allowed as how I could not exactly find the chart, he laughed with a big hooting laugh and said, “Wa’al, honey, Ah don’t have t’ worry about you drivin’ without your specs. You caint find the car without ’em!” And boy, howdy, was that the truth.
It’s still true, decades later. So every six months I stop by the optometrist’s just for a “tune-up” to get my frames adjusted, and every two years I’m in his chair, peering through the phoropter (that’s that thing in the picture above ) so that Dr. Rivera can see if my eyesight has changed. It’s a ritual:
Which is better? <click> A? <click> Or B?
Whirr. <click> A? <click> Or B?
Whirr. <click> A? <click> Or B?… and so on.
It takes time to get it right, time and experimentation. And because he is extra careful, Dr. Rivera always checks the prescription with my eyes dilated, so the little muscles in my eyes can’t fake either of us out. That part of it is unpleasant, but it’s the only way to be sure it is the proper prescription.
Cheshbon Hanefesh – Accounting for the Soul – can be a little like my trips to the eye doctor. It takes time and effort to get past my own self-deceptions, to root out the ways in which I may be deceiving myself:
“I’m just fine”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“No one will know.”
All of those lines are like the little muscles in my eyes, struggling to hold things together after the lens isn’t working for me anymore.
During the month of Elul, I have to sit down and take time. I have to listen carefully to myself, listen not only to the voice of my conscience but to my kishkes [Yiddish for guts.] There are no magic drops to help me, but I want to see clearly. Sometimes I have to ask for help. Sometimes it just takes time and humility. But when I’m done, I will be able to do the things I need to do to make my corner of the world better.
So, nu? Is it time for a little adjustment? Don’t put it off. Once you’ve done it, then we can all sing with Johnny Nash: