“When our love was strong, we could have made our bed on the blade of a sword. Now that our love is no longer strong, a bed sixty cubits wide is not large enough”
–Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 7a
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Eric Greitens is the author of The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how stories give us strength in trying times. Stories also have the power to repair and transform the reader and the writer.
The Jewish word tzedakah is usually translated as charity, but the word actually has a root that is closer to “justice,” and in this sense, tzedakah is understood not as something that is extra, but as something that is required. The allied Jewish concept of Gemilut Chasadim refers to the spirit in which the highest form of tzedakah is given, a spirit of all-loving kindness. We are required not only to repair the world and make it just, but we do this work best when we act with the spirit of loving-kindness.
We often live today with an impoverished moral vocabulary that limits our thinking about charity to questions about what we might do with our spare money, and our thinking about compassion to questions of what we might do with our spare time. If we give the resources of our time, our wisdom, and our wealth in the right way and at the right time, this can save lives. But there is a deeper power still. If we give in the spirit of loving-kindness practiced from one person to another, then we have tapped into an overwhelming power that can change our own lives just as we contribute service to others.
As a writer, the process of writing has allowed me to share stories of Marines hunting al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq and nuns who fed the destitute in Mother Teresa’s homes for the dying in India. Being able to relive these moments has enabled me to see how I’ve developed over the years. I’ve also had many readers tell me that the book has impacted them. Many have told me that they’ve been inspired to serve. And that, for me, is the most rewarding thing a writer can hear.
Eric Greitens’s newest book, The Heart and the Fist, is now available.
Eric Greitens‘ most recent book, The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.
In the preface of The Heart and the Fist, I explain to the reader that I’ve been lucky enough to learn from amazing warriors and humanitarians alike. Through this book, I hope to share how their work and their stories inspire me.
How do stories relate to the narrative of social justice and Judaism? The human mind is narrative; we tend to think in stories, and there is a strength in story and tradition. In some of our most dire times, we look to stories because they give us strength.
I spent time in Rwanda working with unaccompanied children who had survived the genocides. I spoke to many children, women, and men that had endured the unimaginable. One young man, who had studied English in Kigali and hid with his sister and two young neighbor girls during the violence, told me that during the violence he thought of Elie Wiesel—the Holocaust survivor—and he asked me if I’d read Night.
The world is full of stories of courage, too infrequently told. I’ve read accounts of courageous people who took risks to care, and they often drew upon stories from their faith and their family. These stories were enough to assure them that, though they may have felt alone at the time as the only person providing secret shelter, they were in fact standing in a deeper, wider stream of conscientious people throughout history who have stood against injustice.
Check back on Thursday for more from Eric Greitens, author of The Heart and the Fist.
Jewish law is based generally on the assumption that our emotions follow our actions. If we act charitably, we will become, over time, more compassionate human beings. We don’t wait for a moment of empathy to hit before we obligate ourselves to give. Yet we are commanded when it comes to certain emotions: we are supposed to love God, supposed to refrain from hate towards others and feel reverence for our parents.
During the Three Weeks, the summer stretch of time that is marked by two fasts commemorating the destruction of the Temples and any other persecution of Jews in history, we are obligated to mourn. Our mourning consists of many behaviors designed to minimize our sense of joy. But if you look carefully at the Shulkhan Arukh, the sixteenth century code of Jewish law written by Rabi Joseph Karo, you notice a small but stunning appeal to the emotions.
In addition to the Three Weeks as a calendar marking, there are a set of laws that we are supposed to observe to remind us of the loss of our holy Temples. We break a glass at a Jewish wedding and some have the custom of putting an ash mark on the forehead of the groom. In other words, our happiest moments are tarnished – if just a little bit – because we realize their incompleteness without our ancient spiritual center. These practices are still common today.
Less common is the idea that whenever a woman wears her full set of jewelry, she should leave out one piece. Whenever we set our tables for a holiday feast, we leave one place setting empty and whenever we build a home, we leave a space free of plaster near our front door. All of these practices share one common theme: emptiness.
It is near impossible to mourn something we have never experienced. The closest, perhaps most honest response to loss is to leave a space empty that should not be filled. This approach has characterized many memorials to loss in recent years. The Oklahoma bombings have been commemorated with a field of empty chairs. The 9/11 Pentagon plane crash has been marked in a similar way, with empty benches for the number of people who died in that terrorist attack.
Right at the end of the code of Jewish law that presents these practices, we read that no one should experience complete happiness in this life. This goes far beyond table settings and to the heart of what loss means. If you ask anyone who has lost a very close friend, a child or a spouse, they will tell you that although – over time – they live “normally,” they never experience complete happiness because a piece of themselves is always missing. That, I believe, is what our sages of old wanted us to experience – a loss of a collective spirit and connection to the divine that we can only approximate but never fully understand, that we carry with us always.
Dr. Erica Brown has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog. Her new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available, and she will be tweeting during the Three Weeks at @DrEricaBrown.
On Monday, Dr. Erica Brown asked, “What are the Three Weeks, anyway?” She will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council’s Author Blog.
We have become who we are as a people not only by celebrating our most joyous collective occasions, like Passover and Shavuot, but also by our capacity to mourn as a group for that which we’ve lost or never experienced. This is best embodied by the demands of the season – the Three Weeks – that are bookended by two fasts all grieving over the loss of the Temples, Jerusalem and other tragedies of Jewish history.
I’ve heard people complain that they can’t get worked up about something that happened so long ago and has little relevance to their lives today. But I imagine that pilgrimage to Jerusalem must have been a remarkable sight. Seeing people stream into the holy city from every possible direction with their families in tow must have created an expansive feeling of pride and unity, one that is hard to imagine in today’s Jewish world.
We don’t have many occasions that bring us together, let alone three pilgrimage holidays a year that characterized our ancient service. We should mourn the loss of this collective place of gathering, if only because we know its absence too intimately in contemporary Judaism. We have no such gathering place for our collective guilt, tears, happiness and consolation. It must have been special to have a central holy site to bring all of our tears and prayers of thanksgiving, to travel to with all our good and bad news. And even if we were waylaid and couldn’t make it to Jerusalem, there must have been comfort in merely knowing that such a place existed.
One of my beloved teachers calls the Kotel, the Western Wall, God’s office. I laugh every time he says it. But I know that the spiritual world looks different to those who feel that God has an “office” in this world even if you don’t live close by it.
Today, we are so distant from an appreciation of Jewish history that we do not even know how to mourn or even that we are supposed to mourn. The Three Weeks isn’t for “antique” Jews, those who live in some distant and unfathomable past. It is a period for all Jews to take stock of what community and peoplehood means from a spiritual and historic perspective. When we talk about redeeming the future we have to create a picture of what that collective future might look like. As Jews, we do that by looking back at our past first.
This is awesome: Aaron Feiglin, a farmer in rural Australia (and the son of one of the first Jewish settlers in Australia) still travels 3 hours outside of Melbourne every year to harvest and package his fruit. One of his grandchildren, Moish Feiglin — who’s also an awesome musician — accompanied him one year and made this video.
He’s also the subject of tomorrow’s Jewniverse. (And yes, this video is soundtracked with the Presidents of the USA’s song “Peaches,” but the Jewniverse has a much more homely and country-music-ified title — free peach to the person who guesses what it is!*) So, if you want to find out more information about the history of Jews in Australia, and why they love peaches so darn much — and why wouldn’t you? — then you’d better just subscribe really quickly.
* — If you’re close to the MJL office, and you’re not totally sketchy, I really will. Void after 11:00 AM EST on the day the Jewniverse comes out. Void if the grocery person on the corner doesn’t have peaches. Otherwise, we’re on.
In this post-Hebrew Hammer world of kitscharama, Jews have their own version of pretty much everything — from Jewish delis to Jewish dating sites and beyond. Case in point (today): the Jewish Groupon site JDeal.com. And today’s deal has caused quite a stir:
$38.00 for 40 consecutive days of prayer by a Torah scholar at the Kotel ($95 value)
This was instantly blasted by people all over Internetland. Just on my Facebook channels, here are some of the highlights:
* A coupon for tzedakah? With an expiration date to boot!
* Please excuse me while I microwave my head.
…some of which were persuasive arguments:
Looks like we have a new forum for hawking yeshuot [healing prayers] and tzedakah. And if you read the background, it is worse than hawking tzedakah. Let someone else take over tefillah for you (I think tefillah is something that is difficult for many of us and that we could develop greater understanding and skill in), and believe that we are getting closer to Hashem while our “heart’s desire” is fulfilled.
The concept of having someone else pray for you isn’t a new one. Two of Jacob‘s sons, Zebulon and Yissachar, had wildly different talents — one was a businessman, one was a Torah nerd of considerable rapport; the businessman supported the Torah scholar, and both reaped the rewards. These days, a lot of people in the yeshiva (read: fundamentalist) world use that story as an excuse for not getting jobs and spending their whole lives learning Torah, which does. not. work. — at least within a paradigm of communal self-sufficiency — but I’d never tell someone not to give tzedakah, any sooner than I’d advise someone not to pray.
Yes, we should all pray. We should all give tzedakah, too. (As for what exactly counts as tzedakah, I’ll probably take on some of you in the comments, but a really fascinating article from Rabbi Jill Jacobs answers that question eloquently.)
I’m not gonna do this JDeal. I’ve got my own favorite tzedakah recipients (they fed me while I was a poor scrappy Mission kid, and continue to dish out free Shabbos meals to anyone who wants one), and I’d love to save up the money so that I can one day go back to my yeshiva in Israel and do my own studying.* But if there’s someone out there who can’t show up for synagogue three times a day to say kaddish — or who can’t pray on their own, for one reason or another — why not sponsor someone else to do it for you? It’s not as good as doing it yourself, but it certainly can’t hurt.
* — (plus, I’m holding out for JDeal to do another 2-for-1 offer at Basil Pizza Shop. Nudge, nudge!)
The REALITY Israel Experience is a unique leadership development opportunity for selected Teach For America corps members to spend 10 days exploring Israel’s education and social justice systems, gaining exposure to top Israeli leaders and thinkers, and uncovering and recommitting to the values that drive their passion for public service. It is a program of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Samberg Family Foundation, in partnership with Teach For America and the ROI Community of young Jewish innovators.
I will admit it: I am not the best Jew. Bacon cheeseburgers are a personal favorite, I love a good New Orleans shrimp po boy, and I hate Seinfeld. I also messed around a lot in Hebrew school and as a result only remember three things: 3 words of Hebrew, lessons about the Holocaust, and a lesson about Masada.
Masada, in particular, truly gripped me. It was a mystery why people would voluntarily kill themselves–and yet, in such tragedy we find honor and beauty. I could never wrap my mind around it, and when I saw the itinerary for Teach for America’s REALITY program, I became excited when I saw we would be seeing Masada. I was enthusiastic about the opportunity to look for answers and to gain a deeper understanding as to why this tragedy happened and what we could learn about it.
Once on the trip, my thought process changed. Speeding through the West Bank and across the Judean Desert, I began to wonder why we care about such a tragedy. After all, Masada is in the absolute middle of nowhere, and the events happened almost 2000 years ago. And what separates my caring from anybody else’s–why should it matter to myself or anyone else that I care? It’s not as though Masada is a rallying cry for a movement.
In the past 17 years, the U.S. has been hit by bombings in Oklahoma City, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and several more devastating tornadoes. We see in these events the fragility of life and the beauty of the lives we lead. We need to understand and see the pain of others to fully appreciate our own lives. I do not write this as a pessimist seeing a failing in man, but rather simply see that in tragedy there is beauty and we as humans are complex enough to see the beauty and the darkness simultaneously and intertwined.
At the top of Masada such a hypothesis was confirmed. Even when others speak everything is silent. This place is about more than being peaceful and with one’s own thoughts: it is indeed confusing. All one can feel is an eerie aura that in the middle of this abyss, there was a bustling life. A major event happened, but you cannot see how. I stood in the middle and looked to the west and saw endless mountains and sand. In the east I saw the glistening Dead Sea (an appropriate name for my morbid yet hopeful thoughts). Within tragedy there is beauty and within beauty there is often tragedy.
It is easy to claim to care about a tragedy by taking pity or sending money, but unless we’re all Warren Buffett, let’s be honest: Sending 50 or 100 bucks is going to get lost the bureaucratic fold–that is not leading. Leading is being one of the first responders on 9/11, who showed they cared by risking (and often losing) their lives to save people. Leaders are the people who went into New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and not just cleaned up but reset the city’s focus to a new one of young exciting professionals and the center of educational reform. Leaders are the people who see the homeless and work to put a roof over everyone’s heads, not just to give a band-aid of a few dollars. On the surface of any tragedy, natural or man-made, physical or social, no one cares that I care; however, it is my job to lead and deep down make people care and fix it.
It is too late for me to help at Masada. I am 2000 years too late. However, I can help our youth. I can help inspire and do so in my own way. We are all on a mission to change lives–and change the educational system, which is a tragedy. I don’t just care about the tragedy, I take action on it.
And these are steps we can all take. We must not take the easy route to solving whatever it is we perceive to be tragedy, but rather we must take the active and leading route. It is with this mindset that I realized an important point: I may not be a great Jew…but I can be a great leader.
Jeremy Siegfriend teaches lower elementary Special Education in New Orleans. He has worked for a community court, Major League Baseball, NBC Olympics, and as a criminal investigator in Queens.
Dr. Erica Brown is the author of In the Narrow Places, a daily meditation for each day of the Three Weeks. She will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.
I recently spoke at a Melton graduation that marked a two year commitment of adults studying Judaism seriously through a global curriculum out of the Hebrew University. The rabbi who introduced me mentioned my current book In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks followed immediately by, ‘If you don’t know what the Three Weeks are, please sign up for Melton.” I was happy to be used as an advertisement for the course but less happy with the realization that this time period is virtually unknown outside of traditionally observant circles.
Let’s face it. It is odd to have any commemorative period referred to by the number of days it occupies, and the fact that it happens during the summer does nothing to help its popularity. The Three Weeks is officially called “bein ha-mitzarim” – between the straights or narrow places from the biblical book of Lamentations. This quiet quasi-month of mourning is marked by two fasts: the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av.
The three week period includes these fasts at both ends and a general mourning period in between which is solemnized by reducing our daily sense of joy. Traditional Jews do not go to public concerts or movies. Many men do not shave. We reduce our personal hygiene somewhat and minimize the role of music in our lives. But these small daily inconveniences have not necessarily added up to the period of introspection that should characterize this time on the Jewish calendar.
The 17th of Tammuz represents the beginning of the siege of ancient Jerusalem and the weeks that ensue take us sadly to the destruction of both the first and second Temples. The Ninth of Av is the strictest fast we observe after Yom Kippur. It is 24 hours in duration, and we are also forbidden from wearing leather shoes, washing or perfuming ourselves or engaging in sexual relations. Congregants sit on the floor in the evening, listening to the book of lamentations read in a haunting melody and then recite kinnot the next morning, a litany of complex, mostly medieval poems in acrostic fashion that take us from one calamity in Jewish history after another. It is an emotionally draining day. Adding to the hunger is the fatigue of loss that envelopes the mourners who reflect on how tragedy shapes us and our values.
Mourning does shape us. Recognizing what we have lost is an important way that we value what we have. And it is time that as community we stretch back farther than the Holocaust to realize just how persecution and loss has shaped our past and how survival and redemption constantly shape our present and future. The Three Weeks is a gift of collective introspection at a time when we need to enhance our sense of group values and our shared memories.
“Where there is no food there is no Torah; and where there is no Torah there is no food.”
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