Three weeks had passed since they had put my daughter’s hand in a cast. A small misstep while working with her coach on goalie throws brought her hand into contact with his head. He was fine but her thumb was injured enough to warrant a cast. Writing, typing, and pouring milk had been hard but showering had been really complex and washing hands completely out of the question. It had been three weeks of soccer, band, and playing with our bearded dragon, all with hand wipes and a wash cloth. The moment the cast came off, she hopped off the chair and ran the water over her hands.
The moment could not have been more perfect.
Jewish tradition is filled with blessings. There are blessings for seeing rainbows, meeting great leaders, or getting up in the morning. Each of these myriad of blessings has a particular specialized use and meaning. The hand washing blessings that fit the moment so perfectly was traditionally intended for the ritual hand washing one does before one eats bread. Strictly speaking the blessing was not intended for a celebratory hand washing.
Lately I’ve run into several situations where the “wrong” blessing turns out to be exactly right. There is a traditional blessing meant to be said when a child reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah. Until that moment, the sins of the child are considered to be the responsibility of the parents, but upon reaching the age of maturity that responsibility passes to the child. The parents get to utter the blessing for being released (asher p’tarani) from “ha-zeh” literally this one or this thing. The impersonal nature and the element of irony (I still feel responsible for my teenage son several years after his bar mitzah) had me- like many contemporary parents- forgoing this blessing.
In the last few weeks, however, with no bat/bar mitzvah in sight, being released from “ha-zeh” was exactly the right blessing. A friend finished up a decade of medical training. Sure there are all sorts of celebratory mazal tovs that could and were offered. But by the end of her high intensity, sometimes less than perfect experience, there was a need to recognize the release from the burden that the training sometimes was -and so this blessing of releae was a great choice. The impersonal final nature of this blessing was also the perfect fit for a friend who after years of struggle to be granted a Jewish divorce. Lacking an official prayer of thanksgiving for a divorce, “Thank you God for releasing me from this thing” was exactly right.
Even when there is a “right blessing” it is not always what comes to my mind. One morning I got a short email from a good friend whose school age child had without warning suffered a collapse of his intestines. He was in significant pain and danger. When news came that a difficult procedure had succeeded in restoring function, midst my tears the words that poured out were not those of the blessing for passing through a life threatening event but the words of Asher Yatzar, usually said after going to the bathroom. Thanking God for making all the openings open, was exactly right.
I know there will be those who object to using the wrong blessing in a non-traditional setting, but I’d love to hear from others who have found important new uses for the ancient wisdom of our tradition.
Two days ago my colleague, Amy Small, wrote a powerful piece putting the news glut on the Petraeus scandal into perspective as neighborhoods continue to reel after Hurricane Sandy and many are still without light or heat in their homes. While I wholeheartedly agree with her call for priorities, particularly when it comes to what gets the media’s attention and our own, I find myself reflecting on the Petraeus case this week, and looking at another aspect of the story. I think it is because I can empathize with many who feel such disappointment in a man who was held in such high esteem.
And what I notice is that it is not unusual in these situations, when the esteemed fall off the pedestal that we have put them on, for our society to take things to the other extreme. Disgust is expressed; more than disappointment, so often the whole being and legacy of an individual is put down and not just the specific behavior that is the focus of attention. I’ve noticed many commentators on the radio and TV in recent days questioning Petraeus’ judgment on all matters, given his clear poor judgment on the matter of an illicit relationship.
My reflections and empathy stem, I think, from my own experience of watching an admired teacher fall from grace. When it happened, it also involved inappropriate relations that, as is so often the situation with men in positions of power and influence, were largely inappropriate because of the unequal power relations involved. While it was questionable whether the behaviors were illegal, there was no question that they were morally and spiritually deeply flawed.
How do we react when someone we have learned from and admire acts in a way that deeply disappoints or, more, causes hurt and harm to others? Is it possible to maintain a connection or a friendship? As a rabbi, should I continue to share wisdom in the name of the teacher I learned from? Should one simply stop speaking of the person, or do we have an obligation to speak out and loudly about their deficiencies so that they become known to all?
Clearly the answers to these questions will depend on the nature of the behavior. Sometimes we must speak out. Sometimes we simply walk away in disappointment.
In my own life I have tried to walk the line, distinguishing between the behavior and the broader legacy, teaching or guidance received. I continue to share the wisdom of my teacher and recognize its value. I do not speak of him, knowing that we live in a society that so often conflates words with personality, and I do not wish to lead others to flock around him. But the line that I try to walk is one where I recognize, with humility, that our leaders who disappoint are often holding up a mirror to our own souls. We may be repulsed, but is it solely because of our leaders’ behavior, or because we are reminded that even people who do great things are flawed human beings?
And, if those we mistakenly placed on pedestals can fall off them so easily, that must surely mean that each and every one of us, even if we think of ourselves as good people, are equally capable of revealing our flaws and weaknesses at any time. And that is a picture we don’t like to look at. So we ostracize and demonize the one, blotting out their good, so that we can more easily label them and their actions as ‘not us.’ But, in the quiet of a moment alone, if we are willing to take a good, hard look in the mirror, we find that its really not quite that simple.
When selecting a name for our youngest child, I was campaigning hard for “Jedediah” should the baby be a boy. The diminutive form, “Jed,” sounds so strong and I was taken by meaning of this name, “God’s beloved.” It seemed to be a wonderful name to bestow upon a child. But, like with so many things, my husband provided the voice of common sense and gently persuaded me to rethink my choice. “Though the Hebrew “Yedidyah” sounds beautiful, “Jedediah” might make things a bit rough on the playground.” And so, our third child carries the name “Jacob.”
It is a beautiful name. And one that he wears well. He is a Jacob. Never Jack nor Jake. Only his sister, and only on the rarest of occasions, may call him “Jakey.” His nickname, Koby (from Yaakov), is one that he accepts only from family members. Jacob wears his name so well that it seems ridiculous that we ever considered anything else.
Jacob is the youngest of three children. Lillian, the aforementioned sister, is our proverbial middle child. And Benjamin is our first-born. Benjamin, however, is not like other first-borns. He has Asperger’s Disorder — a high-functioning form of autism. It is a condition that radically affects the family dynamics.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, Rebekah seeks an answer as to why her pregnancy is so difficult. God responds,
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”
And the older shall serve the younger.
How many times had I read that passage without making the connection.
There are things that at five years of age Jacob can do and accomplish that Benjamin, at twelve, cannot do or has only just learned. Watching Jacob move easily from each newly-acquired skill to the next, we catch glimpses of his older versions. The day will come when Jacob will surpass Benjamin socially and otherwise. It is a day that is anticipated with both pride and sadness.
As parents, we must constantly remind ourselves to regard each of our children independently. Benjamin, Lillian, and Jacob have their own strengths and weaknesses. They have interests, both shared and separate. It is difficult — painful, even — to see Benjamin lag behind his siblings. Yet, to wish that Jacob will always remain behind his brother is unrealistic and unfair. And so we celebrate Jacob’s development even as he bypasses Benjamin’s abilities. It is bittersweet.
But bypassing and surpassing are not the same as supplanting. Jacob’s name means “to supplant” and there are times it seems as though his “normalcy” will jettison him into the role of older brother. But we cannot neglect the meaning of Benjamin’s name: “son of my right [hand].” Benjamin, my sweet Benjamin, is my first-born. It is by him that I became a parent. It is through him that I learned to see the world with new eyes. Though our lives are challenged in countless ways by his autism, he cannot be replaced as the child of my soul.
Our matriarch, Rebekah, put so much stock into the phrase …the older shall serve the younger that she forgot one of the cardinal rules of motherhood; no one can truly take the place of one’s first born child. At least, no one should.
For some of us in New Jersey and New York the last couple of weeks post-Sandy have been very difficult. Tensions have been high among those who have endured considerable disruption in their lives. Some people have suffered terrible losses.
Every time I heard complaining about the stresses of living without power or heat, without fuel for our cars or mass transit, I thought of the many people who were living in dark apartment buildings without elevators or heat. I thought of the poor and infirmed, and I thought of those who had no family or friends to help them.
I was reminded of the tremendous challenges of income inequality and the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in our country. Will this storm’s aftermath teach us to create a more equitable society? Will we remember the outpouring of compassion in the days post-storm and work to help those who are struggling in the months ahead? Will the hard hearts of the self-protected be softened?
Many people in my area are talking about installing permanent generators onto their homes. The “new normal” for the middle class who can afford it will now include storm preparedness. But what about those who can’t afford it?
These thoughts consumed me as we struggled to return to normalcy in my area this week. But that is not what I heard as the lead story on the news this morning. The airwaves were filled with the scandalous story of our CIA director’s affair. With every possible angle of analysis being discussed on the radio, I became more and more agitated as I listened. The personal tragedy of the Petraeus family is sad. But it is just that – a personal tragedy.
When one commentator emphatically exclaimed that Petraeus’ indiscretion was “morally reprehensible!” I winced. It is not that the general’s extramarital affair wasn’t a sin. Of course it was immoral. But for goodness sake, if we are going to invest such intense emotional energy in decrying “morally reprehensible” behavior, why not direct it at the greed and insensitivity to human needs that is so rampant in our culture? Continue reading
There are many directions one can take to answer this question. Yesterday I came across a marvelous teaching of the Netivot Shalom. He frames it in a particular textual peculiarity Genesis 24:1
1. And Abraham was old, advanced in days, and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything.
The question he raises is why the phrase “advanced in days” is needed. The verse says he was old. Is this not the definition of advanced in days? Basing himself on the traditional understanding that the Torah uses an economy of language, the seemingly needless phrase must teach us something more than just telling us Abraham was old.
He suggests that “advanced in days” is a way of describing how Abraham lived. Each day was lived to the fullest, which for Abraham meant each day was infused with an act of hesed, loving-kindness or compassion. Abraham in Jewish tradition is the exemplar of hesed, the person who opened his tent to wayfarers. The Netivot Shalom says that to live a day without an act of hesed is to uproot the very existence of that day. It is as if that particular day did not happen.
He connects this to a verse in Psalms 89:3 “The world will be built with/through hesed.” (Admittedly this may not be the simple meaning/translation of the verse but it does reflect the Hebrew). He develops this further through the concept articulated in the daily liturgy that God renews creation daily. To renew creation each day means that we must perform each day an act of hesed or loving-kindness/compassion for someone. It is the act of hesed that creates each day anew.
The legacy of Abraham in this teaching is compassion/loving-kindness practiced on a daily basis. This is not to reduce the importance of other commandments or to reduce the complexity of Abraham’s life in any way. Rather it is an expression of the importance of hesed, its creative component, and its accessibility to all. To model Abraham is to be a compassionate human being. To experience God’s hesed is to to practice hesed. The Netivot Shalom also warns us that to act in the opposite manner is to be destructive. Withholding compassion improperly and acting in a negative manner can destroy the day you have lived.
We have all been witness to multiple acts of compassion/hesed that people have performed as a result of Sandy. People of course must remember that many people are still in need and must be hesed personalities each day. But I do wonder in the light of the election how hesed/compassion could be part of the national conversation instead of the millions upon millions essentially wasted on the political campaigns. What if opposing sides on the abortion argument could agree to be pro-life, not as a political agenda, but to work together to provide safe and secure environments for children to be raised independent of one’s belief whether there is a right to abortion. A truly compassionate society does cost money. Imagine if all that campaign money had actually gone to help people and not to bloated self-promotion.
I think that it would be wrong to let the day go by without saying something about the election. But I don’t really want to talk about the candidates or their platforms, or what they should have done differently or better, or why this one won or lost. Instead, since a lot of the struggle was over how our government should spend its money, I think it would be worthwhile to ask what kinds of competing economic visions we have for our country, and what Judaism might say about them.
In very general terms, one group has concentrated on the idea of personal responsibility – that each of us ought to be able to stand on our own two feet and not depend upon others, and that if someone works hard enough, they will succeed; the other group, also in very general terms, considers the government to be the external structure for community, and (sometimes) tries to implement programs that will serve to strengthen individuals who are having trouble helping themselves and to create safety nets for them and considers success to often be a matter of luck.
Both of these approaches are valued in Judaism. Our sages tell us unequivocally that “just as shabbat is a covenant, so is work a covenant” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan). And Maimonides criticizes strongly someone who chooses not to work, instead taking charity, even “anyone who decides to study Torah and not work, making his living from charity, desecrates Gods name and disgraces the Torah. Any Torah that is not accompanied by work will lead to its own undoing and cause sin.” In other words, supporting oneself and one’s family is very important, and work is not simply a means for support, but in itself can be a holy task.
At the same time, Judaism also unequivocally states that we are obligated to care for others who have less than we do. Our sages have told us – in numerous and varied places- that we have an obligation to support the poor. Unlike the root of the word “charity” (from “caritas”) tzedakah is not given because one is moved to give, but – as with so many things in Judaism- because we are commanded to give, and we have an obligation to do so. The word itself comes from the word “tzedek” – justice.
It is unfair to label either of the groups “coldhearted,” or “irresponsible,” as I have seen some do: there is plenty of charitable individual giving from the “personal responsibility” group. Nevertheless, Judaism is fairly clear that it doesn’t see individual giving as a sufficient (although it is a necessary) response to poverty. This is for two reasons. First, the tendency to see one’s wealth as something that one has earned out of one’s own sweat, and with no help from others is noted by the Torah itself: Continue reading
It’s not over until…
When the Simpsons go to see Carmen at the Springfield Opera House Homer asked Bart when the show will end. Bart replied, ‘it’s not over till the fat lady sings.’ To which Homer then points to a zoftig soprano on stage and says, ‘is that one fat enough for you, son?’
If you are glad that it is finally Election Day because you think that ‘it will finally be over’, then you’re wrong. “It” being the mind-numbing, ping-ponging Romeny-said-then-Obama-said twenty-four hour news cycle and the billion dollar ad campaigns. And the idea of it being over is wrong. As it stands right now, even in a country where 25% of us are clinically obese there isn’t a fat lady large enough to end this show. The Infotainment industry will not allow it.
My fear is that regardless of who is elected the division created and divisiveness employed in the last two elections have created a powerful schism in the fabric of our country. Regardless of the results of this election, we will remain a country divided. See Thomas Friedman’s piece, ‘The morning after the morning after,’ in the Sunday NYTimes.
Rabbi A. J. Heschel taught, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Rabbi Heschel’s insight should remind us that we must put pressure on our elected leaders, in control of government or in opposition, that we demand action on the 99% of issues where there is agreement. We will not tolerate inaction for the sake of political point scoring or posturing for the next round. As a nation we are above that.
In the Talmudic academy of old, as hot and contentious a place as the US Congress can be, rabbis of diametrically opposed view rallied hard against the other’s position. But there are rules for such a machloket, such a disagreement. First and foremost, the two sides must list everything regarding the issue at hand on which they agree. The Talmud might use the term “chulei alma” – ‘the entire world agrees’, even these two seemingly opposing rabbis about 99% of the issue at hand. Than, ‘mai benaihu’- ‘what is between them’. It is on the minutia of the tiny 1% of a problem that rabbis might agree to disagree.
Regardless of my fear that the battle is done but the war that divides us politically will continue, I pray and hold out hope.
Based on the wisdom of the Talmud understanding of how we go about disagreeing, we must demand two things after this election, regardless who wins the Presidency and who controls Congress: A) Left and Right must publicly and honestly debate the 1% of issues upon which they disagree. B) Right and Left must not use the 1% of issues upon which they disagree as hostage to acting upon the 99% that they do agree upon.
The recent reports of women being dragged from the Kotel — the Western Wall — while Torah scrolls were ripped from their hands and subjected to other tactics of intimidation and force by the Israeli police are unnerving, to say the least, to read and listen to. Israel is indeed a modern democracy with a state religion, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is not the only contemporary democratic state with an official religion. Americans unaccustomed to overt state sanctioned religion may find it incomprehensible that instruments of the state would enforce the rules, practices and customs of a religious sect yet this is commonplace in many countries.
David Landau in a Haaretz opinion piece argued that non-Israeli Jewry protesting the enforcement of Israel’s state religion at the Kotel is nothing short of libelous by portraying Israel as a country mired in medieval-isms and religious obscurantism. He asked those who protest Israel’s actions at the Kotel to consider what the state response would be to someone performing non-Catholic worship at the Vatican or Catholic worship at the Diocese of Canterbury in England.
Landau’s argument though only extends to a certain point. Yes, the state would enforce the normative religious practice of the state religion in institutions or buildings that represent that state religion. However, the state would also simultaneously enforce the rights of the protesters acting out in civil disobedience at those sites. The harassment and physical violence inflicted upon the protesters would be prosecuted to at least the same extent as those doing the protesting would be held accountable. It is a basic right of modern democracy to protest and the modern democratic state has as much responsibility to protect the integrity of the legally recognized status quo as it does to protect the well-being of those who disobey it.
This, however, is not the entire point. If we seek to compare and contrast Israel’s treatment of the complex situation at the Kotel with that of other modern polities with a state religion and stop there we will have missed the full picture. Israel is not just a modern democratic state with an official religion, it is also a Jewish state and as such it bears a unique prism by which to view this issue.
Jewish civilization throughout history has not been known for its architecture nor its artwork. Indeed, a traditional Biblical injunction exists proscribing many forms of art. (Nonetheless, Jews throughout history and contemporary times have designed art not conforming to that injunction but a full discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) Jewish civilization is known for two primary contributions to the wealth of human development: a culture of ideas and a society of engagement with the Divine.
Our buildings do not define us. It is our books and our relationship with God that has been the hallmark defining characteristic of the Jewish story. We do not venerate places; we appreciate the potential that a place has for furthering our religious, spiritual and/or intellectual growth. This is true even when it comes to the greatest and most significant Jewish building project ever undertaken, not once but twice, the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the present-day Kotel is but a retaining outer wall of the Second Temple complex. It wasn’t the Temple building that made the Temple holy, it was the profundity of that space and the power of the rituals performed therein that infused it with holiness. When the Temple leadership become corrupt and when the Jewish people drifted far away from the principles and ideals that it represented it was destroyed.
Thus, perhaps the most critical problem that this Kotel quandary presents is that there is a Kotel quandary in the first place. To acknowledge that the Kotel presents the potential for holiness is absolutely clear. Yet, the politics of power and of control and the perspective that the Kotel itself is vested with a singular ability to intensify our prayers and meditations before God is bordering on idolatry. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a seminal Orthodox Israeli public intellectual, declared shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that brought the Temple Mount under Israeli control, that the Kotel should be transformed into a disco or as he called it a Diskotel because he astutely understood the grave possibility that Jews would begin to worship the Kotel instead of God.
So instead of battling for various religious outcomes for the Kotel: status quo, three partitions (men, women and mixed), no partitions, timeshare model, etc., let us throw our hands up in the air and dance. Let us go back to the business of being Jewish: wrestling with ideas and with God and let us stop wrestling over a wall.
But then, at about 6:30, I got a call from our landlord — he lost power.
Then, at about 7 pm, I started seeing Facebook statuses from people nearby saying, “No power.” So I knew it would just be a matter of time.
And indeed, about half an hour later, our lights flickered, flickered, and then went totally kaput. We joined the millions upon millions of people who lost power during Hurricane Sandy.
By Tuesday, our cell phone was running low on power, and our service was spotty at best. And we wondered — while we could hear the news through our battery-powered radio, if we had no internet and no phone, how would we connect with others? I felt very isolated — I wanted both to hear what was going on, and I wanted to tell others I was all right.
During the storm, people were certainly following the news, but even more, they were following their friends’ news. As Clay Shirky notes in Cognitive Surplus, our definition of “media” has changed — it’s no longer the one-way monologue of TV and radio; it’s now the conversation (both online and offline) that connects us with others.
I, too, felt a need to not only hear what others were going through, but to share my experience, as well. And what was fascinating was that I seemed to use the exact same words that so many people used to describe what was happening to them.
Facebook even provided their top ten status updates during the storm, and they probably sound a lot like what you saw or wrote:
1. we are ok
2. power – lost power, have power, no power
4. hope everyone is ok
6. made it
Those phrases convey not only information, but emotion, as well. As Rabbi Rebecca Schorr just taught us, these words remind us that we share not only information but experiences with others — both joyous and scary. We have a need not only to know what is going on, but to share important events with others.
And what has inspired me the most (especially as someone who still has no power) is seeing neighbors, churches, synagogues, libraries and community organizations reaching out to others saying, “We have power — come to us.”
Indeed, while we hope that our life is easy, with few storms to toss us around, when disasters do happen, we truly see our ability and our need to connect with others. And even more striking, we see just how much it brings out the best in everyone.
Here’s hoping everyone is able to find a place of warmth, light and safety.