Why Do Good?

British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible ...
British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible – Matthew’s Gospel (Ge’ez script) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do good?

Recently I read a wonderful post by John Scalzi on his Whatever blog about Matthew chapter 6 (New Testament), the famous Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus is critical of those who do good in order to be seen doing it, arguing instead that a wise person will “lay up treasures in heaven” rather than pile up treasure in this life, or collect goodies in the form of other people’s approbation. Scalzi, who sometimes uses his blog as a soapbox for promoting causes, questions his own motives in doing good. Finally he concludes:

I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always.

All this led me to ask myself, why do I do good? Why do I “observe mitzvot” [keep sacred duties], as we Jews put it?

I do not think an afterlife very likely, and should I wake up in either heaven or hell I will be very surprised to do so. However I do believe  that we have it in our power to make heaven or hell here on earth, during our natural lives. Some of us have the power to make this life heaven or hell for those over whom we have a measure of power: children, employees, or dependents. All of us can make life heaven or hell for those who are stuck with us: family and neighbors.

When I choose to do good, like giving money to the food bank, I expand the reach of the heaven I make. I put food in the mouth of someone I do not know. When I give blood to the blood bank, I share my health with some unknown person.

When I choose to be polite or kind to the harried checker in the grocery store, I expand the reach of heaven to them: it is a measure of heaven to be recognized and respected as a human being.

When I choose to vote in such a way that I believe the greatest good will be served, even if it is at the expense of my own interest, I expand the reach of heaven on earth.

None of this requires metaphysics.

My understanding of Torah is that it is a body of teaching about the best methods for making the world better for myself and everyone else. The scroll itself is not always clear on the details or the execution.  We are still engaged in the struggle to apply it all properly, but it is the system that makes the most sense to me, whether or not there is an afterlife, whether or not there is a person named That Name We Don’t Say.

Why do I try to do good? Because suffering is lousy.  I will sleep better if I honestly believe I am at least trying to reduce the suffering in the world.

When asked to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”

All the rest is commentary. Go and study.

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Jewish Astronomy: The Moon

Full Moon Over Jerusalem
Full Moon Over Jerusalem (Photo credit: zeevveez)

Did you know that you can tell where you are in the Jewish month, just by looking at the night sky?

Every Jewish month begins on the New Moon, when the sky is darkest. We call that day Rosh Chodesh, “Head of the Month.”  In ancient times, that’s how the calendar was set: experienced Jews would look at the sky from the Temple Mount and decide when it was the New Moon. They would then make the official announcement of the arrival of the new month.

So if the moon is dark, it’s a new Jewish month. To find out which month, consult a Jewish calendar.  <- If you click on that link, it will take you to the niftiest Jewish calendar imaginable. If I could access only one website, it would be hebcal.com, no kidding.

If the moon is waxing (appearing to grow larger) then we are in the first half of the month. If it is waning (appearing to grow smaller) a new month is coming. Some Jewish holidays (Purim and Passover, for example) begin near the 15th of the month: no surprise there, it’s the Full Moon!

This is also the reason that the Jewish calendar sometimes seems crazy relative to the secular calendar. The Jewish year is lunar (matched to the moon) with periodic adjustments to keep it in sync with the seasons (the solar year.) So some years the holidays seem “early” or sometimes “late.” Really, they’re right on time.

The best thing to do is to get a Jewish calendar and use it. But some things you can know just by looking at the sky: “It’s Rosh Chodesh!” you can say, whenever you see the New Moon.

“Why bother with a separate calendar?” some might ask. The beauty of the Jewish Calendar is that it brings us into sync with the rhythms of nature.  Days begin at sundown, not at a mark on a clock. Months begin when the moon is dark; they swell and then fade.  While we can learn details and names from a calendar or a website, the plain facts of Jewish time are in the sky above us, if we are only willing to go outside and look. 

What’s a Mezuzah?

Polski: Mezuza

 

— A mezuzah (meh – ZOOZ – zah) is a box or case which we attach to the doorframe of a Jewish home.

 

— The little box or case contains a piece of parchment called a klaf. (See photo below.)

 

— The parchment has Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 written on it by a specially trained scribe, in Hebrew:

 

Hear, O Israel: The Eternal our God, the Eternal is one.  Love the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them.  Then theLord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.  Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates,  so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.

 

— By putting the mezuzah up, the Jews who live in this home fulfill the commandment to “write [these words] on the doorposts.”

 

— The box and the parchment serve as a reminder that a Jewish home is a holy place.

 

— Some Jewish homes have mezuzot (plural) on all the doorways except the bathroom doors. Others put a mezuzah only on the main entrance.

 

English: The Shema parchment of a Mezuzah.
A typical Klaf

 

For more about the mitzvah [commandment] of the mezuzah, read more in this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

 

What’s Tu B’Av?

 

Tu B’Av is a minor but fun Jewish holiday. After the mourning of Tisha B’Av, this is a lovely little day to be happy and to celebrate love.

  • Tu B’Av = Fifteenth of the Month of Av. In Hebrew, the letters that form the number 15 can also be pronounced “Tu.”
  • Today in Israel, it’s called Chag HaAhavah, the Holiday of Love, and it’s a favored day for weddings. Think of it as Jewish Valentine’s Day.
  • In Temple times, in Jerusalem, the grape harvest began on the fifteenth of Av and ended on the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur. On both those days, single girls dressed in white and went to dance in the vineyards in the afternoon. It was a traditional time for courtship.
  • There are no big religious observances for the day. However, it’s a good day to get married, a good day to fall in love, and a great day to tell your loved ones “I love you.”

 

“Oy! What To Cook for Shabbat?” said the Non-Cook.

Shabbat Dinner Table
Shabbat Dinner Table (Photo credit: feministjulie)

I got a request this week from @farrahudell on Twitter: “How about 8 easy recipes next? I’m good on ritual, cooking not so much…”

Guess what – I am not much of a cook, either. I have a few things I do well, but that’s it.  The question behind the question, though, is one worth asking: what to do, if you are not a very good or a very confident cook? What if you hate to cook? Here are some ideas for those readers:

1. IT’S A TRADITION! – Is there a meal you and your household like and that you are comfortable cooking? Make that Shabbat dinner every week! If someone asks, tell them it is your tradition. If your tradition is to eat grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for Shabbat, that’s lovely. A guest who criticizes the menu is way out of line: don’t invite them back. (If it is someone you must ask back, maybe add a green salad next time, or her favorite dessert.)

2. BUY A GOOD COOKBOOK – If you like to cook but don’t know any “Jewish” recipes, buy a cookbook! There are some great Jewish cookbook writers: Joan Nathan, Leah Koenig, Arthur Schwartz, to name a few. Epicurious.com offers a list of “Our Seven Favorite Jewish Cookbooks.” But also keep in mind that the food does not have to be a particular kind of “Jewish” food to be great for Shabbat. Jews have lived just about everywhere – the real question is, is it something your household enjoys?

3. FOLLOW A JEWISH FOOD BLOG – If you like to find your recipes online, and want something a bit less traditional-Ashkenazi, check out Michael Twitty’s Afroculinaria. Michael’s recipes make me want to cook. Even more, they make me want to eat.  There are lots of good Jewish food blogs – just browse around on wordpress.com or any of the other places bloggers do their thing.

4. ASK AT SYNAGOGUE – Suggest to your synagogue that a cooking class would be fun. Or just ask around and find out who’s a good cook, and ask him/her for some lessons. As Rabbi Hillel said in the first century, “The shy will not learn.” Ask!

5. JOIN WITH OTHERS – If your life is stressful and you’d really like to just “come to dinner” three Shabbats a month, what about forming a Shabbat chavurah? If you rotate among households, then it’s less work and everyone can pitch in together to do the dishes afterwards. Or rotate houses and bring potluck.

6. NO SHAME IN TAKEOUT – If you hate to cook, don’t have time to cook, or you don’t have anywhere to cook, there is no shame in takeout for Shabbat. Again, get something you like, that your household likes, and don’t stress over it. This is Shabbat, you’re supposed to enjoy it! Home made challah is lovely, but challah from the store isn’t bad, either. I recall one very special Shabbat dinner when we ate cheese pizza and  salad.

Also: keep in mind that through the centuries, while Jews have tried to make Shabbat dinner a special meal, sometimes it was also a very simple meal. Some of the nicest Shabbat dinners I’ve had were very plain: soup and challah, salad and challah, a roasted chicken and some salad, etc.

One last note, but an important one: Shabbat is not a time for scolding and nagging. It’s not a great time to introduce picky toddlers to new foods, or to insist that your 8 year old eat her Brussels sprouts. It’s absolutely not a time to nag someone whose diet you’d like to change, even with “hints.” Let it be a gentle time, with easy things to eat, pleasant conversation, and love.

This blog came about in response to someone who wanted recipes, and I’ve pretty much weaseled out of the recipes. (Trust me, you are not missing anything.) But here is one recipe I’ll share:

RABBI ADAR’S EASY CHICKEN SOUP

Count your guests, and put that many chicken thighs (with skin and bone) into a large pot (1 per guest.) Add one peeled and quartered onion, a handful of peppercorns, a small bunch of fresh dill, and some celery tops. Cover with water. Bring almost to a boil then simmer until the chicken is falling apart. Strain the whole thing through a sieve or cheesecloth, saving both the soup and the stuff you drained out. Pick the meat off the bones, chop it or tear it into manageable pieces and replace in the soup. Salt to taste. Serve.

Variations: At the end, you can add any of these to the soup:  (1) cooked noodles (2) chopped greens (bok choy, kale, etc.) (3) other vegetables.  Add enough veggies and it’s a one pot meal.

Whatever you decide, enjoy! Remember that Shabbat is for rest, for joy, for sharing. If your current practice leaves you feeling guilty, stressed-out, angry, or overwhelmed, it needs adjustment.  Do whatever you need to do to make Shabbat what it is meant to be, an oasis of joy and rest!

Listening to Isaiah: Thoughts for Tisha B’Av

homeless
homeless (Photo credit: Bagunçêiro)

During the three weeks before Tisha B’Av, Jews read the three Haftarot of Affliction warning us about the penalties for ignoring our responsibilities as Jews.  Those readings are a bracing antidote to fusses over fine details of liturgy or who-slighted-whom in the High Holy Day honors. A little taste from the first chapter of Isaiah:

Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands  I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

According to Isaiah, unless we care about those who suffer, and we do something about poverty and injustice, we have missed the point of Torah.

John Scalzi at the Whatever blog points to an interesting article that includes a calculator for the cost of raising a family in several major metro areas in the U.S. and compares it to the official federal poverty line, which is currently $23,550 for a family of four. The same article points out that a single adult with a full time minimum wage job will make $15,080.  To sum up, in my own neighborhood:

  • Cost for a family of four to live in the SF Bay Area with a minimum level of security:  $84,133.
  • Federal poverty line for that same family: $23,550.
  • Minimum wage job, 1 adult: $15, 080.  Even with 2 adults working: $30,160.

Contemplate those figures for a few minutes.

In my own personal circle of acquaintance, I know of several folks who lost jobs during the Great Recession and who have not managed to find work again above the minimum wage level. Most are middle-aged adults who have responsibility for teenaged children and/or aging parents. They are not stupid people, nor are they lazy people. They are unlucky people in fields where employers would prefer to fill positions with younger employees who don’t have as much experience and therefore cost less.

I know of another person who worked at a job she loved for many years. It wasn’t the sort of thing that made a lot of money, but she saved what she could. However, she could not afford disability insurance, and when her knees and back gave out (it was a physical job) she, too, was middle-aged and uninteresting to employers. She’s been tangled in the red tape of public assistance for months, and I am worried that she will become homeless.

I know way too many young people for whom college wasn’t an option, because they had no wealthy relatives and they have a healthy fear of the crippling debt that a college education requires of such people these days, even for a state college. The ones who went to college are in a different pickle: they are mostly underemployed and drowning in debt. See, they had to work summers to pay for college (even with the debt) and wealthier peers spent that time at unpaid internship jobs. A resume with a well-chosen internship on it trumps one with none – so the poorer student cannot compete.

Seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

I’m focusing here on the personal economic misery among people I know, but the cost to us all is staggering. The great boom of the 1950’s and 1960’s was fueled by a large educated workforce in the United States. Now no one but the wealthy can afford to go to school. (If you are grumping about “part time jobs” and “scholarships” you have not sent anyone to college lately.)

Back in 590 BCE, Isaiah preached that if Israel did not take care of her poor, disaster would result. God was fed up with the fancy ritual that substituted for the Torah virtues of hesed [lovingkindness] and tzedakah [relief of the suffering.]

I do not have the eloquence of Isaiah, but if Tisha B’Av has any meaning for us today, it is that we neglect the care of the poor at our peril. When we focus so tightly on the Temple edifice, we fail to hear the voice of the speaker in Lamentations, the scroll we will read this Tuesday: he does not wail at length about the loss of that edifice. He weeps for the suffering that he has seen, the destruction and waste of a great city.

This Tisha B’Av, whether you fast or not, let us consider what we personally are going to do about the suffering all around us. Have we given as much tzedakah as we can to the agencies that relieve suffering? Have we explained to our elected officials that we are not going to vote for them again unless they can manage to get something done?  have we organized with others on behalf of those who suffer? Have we done everything in our power to see to it that every neighbor can go to sleep at night feeling “minimally secure?”

Jeremiah and Isaiah are crystal clear that our fast does not matter, is in fact offensive, if we are not doing something to right the wrongs around us. Nor do I think that we get points for indignation, unless we are actually Doing Something.

Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of mourning, but if it is only that, then we are trapped in the past, a dead religion.

Torah is more than a museum piece. This Tisha B’Av, let us arise, let us say, “Torah is alive, it lives in each of us, and there is work to be done!”

Coming Attractions: Classes for Fall

A Jewish group studying text together
A Jewish group studying text together

I’m in the final stages of work on my teaching schedule for the fall and winter.

Sunday morning I’ll be teaching at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA:  Exploring Judaism at 9 am, and a text study class (still undefined) at 10:10 am.

Sunday afternoon I will teach a class on the books of Joshua and Judges at Lehrhaus Judaica.  Time still TBD.

Wednesday evening I’ll be teaching at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA: Intro to the Jewish Experience at 7:30pm.

Thursday evening I’ll teach Beyond the Basics, a new class for those who wish to learn more about the Jewish Year, text study, and some concepts that hold Jews worldwide together. Time and location still pending.

And of course, I’ll still be meeting in coffee shops and other places with anyone who wants to learn!

Questions for my readers in the East Bay area of California:

  1. When are the best times for you to attend a class?
  2. What do you want to study?
  3. What are the barriers to study for you?