We often flow unaware from one moment on the calendar to the next. There are too many times where we fail to remember what we did last month, last week or even yesterday. There are too many times where the year breezes past us and before we know it, we are another year older. This pattern and this way of being is sharply interrupted by the ritual known as the Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer. In Biblical times the Omer was a grain offering brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and since then has transformed into a ritual with rhythm and movement all of its own.
Each night people from every corner of the globe count how many nights have elapsed from the second night of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the Revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Every night adds from the night before, slowly building and rising in anticipation and progression towards Shavuot. This ritual concretely and conceptually links the holiday of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. It makes a profound statement about the nature of the freedom won in Egypt by the ancient Israelites. It sets out to define the very state of what it means to be free.
If the Exodus from Egypt was an unshackling of the physical bonds that held the people of Israel to servitude and bondage then the Revelation at Sinai was the unshackling of the emotional, psychological and spiritual bonds that kept the people in an oppression of the soul and the heart. The 18th century Italian mystic and philosopher Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto underscored this when he commented that the reason Pharaoh increased the physical labor of the Israelites after Moses made his first plea for their release was to further suppress their spirit because the fatigue and tiredness of the body destroys the aspirations of the spirit.
This is the intention behind the count between Passover and Shavuot. The Talmudic rabbis teach that every person in each generation is obligated to see himself or herself as having left the servitude of Egypt and an intrinsic part of that process is the progressive march from the experience of physical freedom to a fuller freedom encompassing not just body but spirit as well. The rituals of the Passover seder help us reconnect into the experience of the Exodus and the deeply important ritual of the Omer help us walk and move through our own deserts towards a life of whole and total freedom.
The Omer brings us to a stop and to reflect that every day and every moment count. Every day is a unique and precious opportunity to walk the journey towards a freedom of purpose and a freedom of dignity.
This past week in synagogues throughout the world we rolled the Torah scroll forward and began reading from the Book of Leviticus. Each week during Shabbat services congregations all over will be reading the account of the sacrificial system that encompassed the ritual life of the Jewish people throughout their wanderings in the desert with the Tabernacle, and later with the construction of both the first and second Temples. These readings can feel foreign and removed from the lives we lead, as people disconnected from a religion that revolves around sacrifices, whether animal or grain based. What can there possibly be to learn from these sections of Torah?
Maimonides in his chief work of philosophy, The Guide to the Perplexed, suggests that the sacrificial system instituted in the Torah was a pedagogical tool meant to transform us and to change us in radical ways. What precisely is the educational aim of the sacrifices?
Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffmann, the 19th century rabbi of Berlin, in his introduction to the Book of Leviticus, connects the sacrificial system recorded in Leviticus to that near sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of his father Abraham in the Book of Genesis. That moment, bracketing the psychological and emotional dilemmas it presents, demonstrated in an extreme fashion the notion of self-sacrifice, of giving up something precious for a more lofty purpose. It involved taking a “leap of faith,” as the philosopher Soren Kierkagaard understood the near sacrifice of Isaac to be, that giving of yourself, sacrificing a part of what is important to you for someone or something else, will not only benefit the recipient but will benefit you as well. Thus, we can see the Torah’s sacrificial system as being the institutionalized mechanism by which the Jewish people live that value on a daily basis.
This very much is reminiscent of the famous line by President John F. Kennedy: “And so my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Kennedy was leading the country towards understanding that when we all invest into the project of building America, not only will America as a whole become stronger and greater, but each citizen, each person who puts of themselves into the project, will also reap the reward. Likewise, the impact and meaning we want and need from Judaism in our lives will only be realized and only be possible if we take the time and the energy to give of ourselves into it. We will receive according to what we put in and we will benefit and all those similarly invested will benefit from our efforts as well.
As we progress through Leviticus, let us ask ourselves: What am I ready to give of myself into the Jewish project so that it becomes richer, deeper, more profound and meaningful and will come to enrich, deepen and add meaning to my life as well?
Last week we celebrated the holiday of Purim in which we recall the survival of the Jewish people against the attempted genocide by Haman, the chief adviser to King Ahasuerus of Persia. Every year we rejoice on the holiday of Purim just a few short weeks prior to entering the season of Passover and I believe that this is not at all a coincidence.
The story of Purim is the story of a Jewish community that had forgotten who it was. It is the story of a highly acculturated and integrated community into the larger Persian society. A Jewish woman named Hadassah changes her name to the Persian Esther and marries the King and no one even comments on this intermarriage in the account offered in the Book of Esther. [However, there is much rabbinic conversation on this subject offered in the Talmud.]
It is within this backdrop that Esther’s uncle Mordechai resists the wholesale neglect of the particular in favor of the universal and takes a stand, which is decidedly not a bow, against the phenomenon. He is singled out by Haman in particular for punishment and the entire Jewish people broadly. In a society marked by expected cultural conformity, one cannot have any sub-group demonstrating their uniqueness, living a counter-cultural life, so the decree issued by the government under Haman is nothing less than total annihilation.
To save the Jewish people Mordechai guides Esther to see who she really is and to be true to herself and to her husband, the King. In so doing she raises her mask from upon her face and embraces her destiny. Esther becomes a symbol for all the Jews in the empire to also raise their respective masks, the societally and the self-imposed barriers to full Jewish expression, and through their collective action and their renewed pride, overcome the challenge set before them and survive.
The message of Purim is an essential one for the work of self-reflection that the time of Passover calls us to. Passover, as the foundational narrative of the Jewish people, is not only about our physical liberation from Egypt. It is not only about our miraculous rescue from the grip of oppression and the entering into the daylight of freedom from the nighttime of torment. Passover is about defining us as a people. It is about preparing us to be ready to stand at Mount Sinai only a short while later and receive the Book that would transform human civilization for all time.
To be able to experience a Passover in our lives and to be able to relive the account of the Exodus as our tradition commands of us (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5) we need to be able to lift the masks from our faces that work to hide us and to conceal us from ourselves and from others. The transition from Purim to Passover is about being ready to be capable of redemption. The first step in that redemptive process is reclaiming who we are – not who we act as or who we present ourselves as, but who we are at the deepest levels of our selves.
I have always been struck by car commercials. Car commercials to me seem unique in the world of advertising. Whereas other commercials tend to advertise the features of their product, which of course will make your life easier, happier and more fulfilled, a car commercial tends to depict the experience of simply having the car. The experience alone of having this new model of car will lift your life to the heights of ecstasy and elation. You may be driving everyday to work but when you get behind the wheel of this car you will gracefully be floating down the Swiss Alps. While other industries tell you how their product enables you to be happier; the car commercial assures you that the car itself is happiness.
Yet, we know while that new car may be safer, more comfortable and more gas efficient, it alone does not bring us genuine and lasting happiness. In fact one would be hard pressed to identify any single product that has brought us real happiness. Of course, we experience the joy of having something new and revel in discovering all of its features and unique aspects but soon the newness begins to disappear and along with it the temporary boost to our sense of joy.
How do we achieve a true, genuine and lasting happiness in our lifetimes? This is to put it simply perhaps the question of our time. As people who live in an era most defined as the era of the individual, we seek personal fulfillment and personal happiness to a greater extent than those in generations before us. Unfortunately, I don’t possess the definitive answer to this perplexing question (but if I did I would be sure to blog about it on MJL!) and I am inclined to think that there is no definitive answer to this question as so much of it is contextual and specific to each case. However, I would like to propose a perspective, a shift in orientation, that could provide an avenue for a life of genuine and lasting happiness.
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Kirschenbaum of Tel Aviv University articulates a dichotomy between rights and responsibilities, between Western law and Jewish law. He writes in his work Equity in Jewish Law (Ktav, 1991):
“Social, political, and legal theory in Western liberal society conceives man as a plenitude of rights; people do as they please unless constrained by the hedges of the law. The state governs the individual; the liberal democratic state governs the individual by enlightened laws. In contrast, the Jewish tradition measures the human being by the duties and responsibilities he bears…
Indeed, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, the Covenant subsequent to the Exodus – for which the Theophany took place – was not between God and the six hundred thousand Israelites who had come out of Egypt. It was between God and the Community of Israel. The formation of the community was thus a necessary concomitant of the Revelation.”
The Jewish experience is born out of community. When we come into the world our family celebrates our birth in the context of community. When we reach crucial developmental milestones in our lives, those are marked in communal ceremonies and rituals. Our wedding symbolizes this reality most profoundly when we stand under the chuppah, the canopy representing the intimacy of marital bonds, that is open to all sides and surrounded by our family and friends. Lastly, our final passing from this world is also observed within the embrace of community. This is not coincidental, as Rabbi Dr. Kirschenbaum noted, but rather is indicative of the founding narrative of our people. Judaism; its narratives, rituals and legal system is rooted in the communal. The effect of this is a shift towards responsibilities and a perspective that places each individual within the larger story of a people and a destiny, a shared past and an equally shared future.
Who is rich? The one who rejoices in their portion.
This statement from the Sages can mean much more than only a reflection on a life satisfied with one’s worldly affairs. Of course, it does deeply mean that, and that alone is a valuable lesson for a world dominated by sheer materialism, of which the advertising I mentioned earlier is only a small part, but possibly it is also a reading on who we are on an existential level. Do I exist solely as one individual absent a larger picture? Are my needs, wants, desires, passions and concerns the only dominating motive and drive for my life? A life wholly consumed by I, quickly turns to the reality of the finitude of our lives. Deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness arises out of a sense of futility and irrelevancy.
A life interwoven and bound up in the trajectory and narrative arc of a people that transcends generations can instill purpose, dignity and genuine happiness to our existence. My needs and wants are connected to the needs and wants of others. My story is part of the greater Jewish story. I am a link between all the generations that came before me and all those that will come after me. I am a guardian of a sacred trust that I have inherited and tasked with not only its preservation, for it is not an exhibit in a museum to be mummified and put on display, but its cultivation, furtherance and elevation.
This way of thinking and approach to living can foster lasting and true happiness. I offer it as a model to consider. It has proven successful for me and as one of my mentors and teachers Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Blanchard would often end his lectures with, I invite you to explore the possibility of this for your life.
Two weeks ago I wrote about the tragic loss of little Ayelet Galena z”l. I discussed how one young life was able to literally save the lives of twenty one other people. We can not and must not lose hope in our own potential in the face of all the goodness that was brought about due to the inspiration of one two year old girl and her valiant struggle.
This week I am reminded of the loss of yet another young life. Last year our community at Harvard suffered the tragic and sudden death of a beloved member of our student community, Ilya Chalik z”l. Ilya would have graduated along with the rest of the members of the class of 2011. His dream was to enter the medical profession, which fit his driving character trait of serving others perfectly.
Members of the community who knew Ilya gathered on campus this week to reflect on the one year anniversary since his death. As I listened to people share their stories and how they are coping one year later, I was struck by the same thought as I was a year ago: One life, one relatively young life, was able to bring together such disparate sectors of the broader community into conversation with each other. I thought of this a year ago when I flew with his Harvard tai-chi instructor to his funeral. I thought of this when I heard his friends from his diverse high school in Chicago reflect on how he impacted them. I thought of this when friends from college discussed their interactions with him from house life; from Hillel; from trips to Colombia and to Israel and from his work with various Asian societies on campus.
Ilya, through his friendships, his life and his deeds, wove threads linking people and magnified life for all who knew him. Students, reflecting on how Ilya impacted their life, commented that because of him they now have come to appreciate how beautiful a tree in fall is or how serene an afternoon in Harvard Yard could be. They have come to see life can mean more than performing well, it can be just as much about living well.
The lessons imparted to us by Ilya are shared by the single most defining ritual of the Jewish year of mourning, the Kaddish. The prayer traditionally recited daily by mourners has very little to do with mourning and with death. Rather, its central themes rest on the world that ought to be, glorifying God and optimism for the world and its inhabitants:
May the great name of God be exalted and sanctified throughout the world… May His kingship be established in your lifetime and in the lifetime of all of Israel… May there be abundant peace from Heaven and a good life upon us and all of Israel…
Kaddish is a daily reminder that the deceased lives on, in a sense, through the ways in which his or her striving for a more holy, more peaceful and more abundant life become a part of our ways and our lives. Death is an end, sometimes abruptly so, to the potential of one life, yet our ability to magnify that life and be magnified by it, can be tremendously realized through finding times to reflect and come together to remember.
And so as I left the space this week where fellow students, friends, teachers and mentors of Ilya gathered to reflect on one year since his loss, I felt a deep pain and sadness. I remember his warm presence at our Shabbat table. I remember his excitement about seeing the world and I remember the intense pain and mourning of his parents, his friends and the entire Harvard community. However, I also left that space feeling inspired and uplifted by hearing the ways in which Ilya’s life left a mark and forever changed the lives of so many others; how his ability to bring unique parts of society together in harmony has become stamped on the hearts and minds of so many others who knew him.
May the memory of Ilya Chalik z”l and all that he strove for, all that he believed in continue to inspire all who knew him and who have come to know him through hearing the stories of his life, to magnify the connections between people and the beauty of life. May we continue to work towards a day of abundant peace for us and for all people as Ilya worked so hard for in his short life.
This week has been a heavy one for the Jewish people and an indescribably difficult one for the parents of young Ayelet Galena zt”l who left this world Monday morning. Ayelet was two years old and was diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disorder called dyskeratosis congenita.
Ayelet’s struggle for life became everyone’s struggle. Her parents utilizing social media, particularly Facebook, updated her close to 6,000 “fans” on a regular basis. The images of little Ayelet simultaneously exhibiting so much will to life and yet so much suffering and pain, united thousands of people to do something. Many people prayed for her daily; others baked challah in her merit, while others re-posted the updates from her parents to their social circles often, thereby expanding the circle of support and care by leaps and bounds.
The loss of Ayelet is not just the loss of one beautiful little girl. It is not just the loss of the potential for her life and all that she might have accomplished. It is both of those things but also so much more. The Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin teaches us that the loss of a single life is as if an entire world was lost forever. There are generations of descendants from Ayelet the world will never know. There are countless people who would have been touched by her life who will not have that experience. In chaos theory there exists a concept called the butterfly effect in which one small change can bring about tremendous results that would be impossible to anticipate. The loss of Ayelet is not just a small change to the world, it is an enormous change, and the impact that she would have brought to her family, her people and the rest of humanity, will never be known.
Yet, the Mishnah also teaches us the converse as well. One who saves a life is as if she or he saved the entire world. And there is no doubt that the heart wrenching struggle for life waged by Ayelet and her family, broadcast to the world has brought about so much good. One often wonders how much they can truly impact the world. What difference can I really have in a global community of over seven billion people? The story of Ayelet is the loudest protest possible against the proposition that our lives do not and cannot matter. Each one of us can make such a tremendous difference.
Of all the actions that occurred to express support with Ayelet and her family, perhaps the most impactful of them all was the organization of countless cheek swabbing drives to add people to the bone marrow registry of Gift of Life and the also important fundraising drives for Gift of Life. Because of those cheek swabbing drives, when Ayelet tragically left this world on Monday morning, 21 people had found their lives saved through the bone marrow registry and the registration of all those new people. Twenty one people in this world owe their lives to the good will of complete strangers who were inspired at the very deepest levels to act because of Ayelet Galena zt”l. In other words, because of Ayelet there now exists another twenty one worlds of human life and meaning.
This is the impact of one person. One two year old child was able to galvanize people to give of themselves and restore life to another twenty one people. If we learn anything from the tragedy of the loss of Ayelet let it be two ideas: 1) Donate to Gift of Life and register with Gift of Life. Each registration to the list costs money; the more people who are registered the greater chance that another human being can live another day and if you have not done so already, take that simple cheek swab and become part of the registry. 2) Anytime you feel your life does not matter, anytime you are confident that the world would be no worse or better with or without you, remember Ayelet. The struggle of one small child restored life to twenty one people. Ponder and reflect on that because you never know how and in what way you will make that difference.
Every Thursday afternoon at my yeshiva college in Queens my Gemara rebbe (teacher of Talmud) would offer a short thought on the weekly Torah portion. These were usually filled with personal anecdotes from his life or dilemmas he helped students address in previous decades. There was one particular Thursday afternoon message that has remained with me from all those years ago and remains particularly relevant for our society.
It was the Thursday afternoon before winter vacation (or bein hazmanim as we called it in yeshiva) and many of us were anxious about the upcoming time away. Life in yeshiva is very structured and very busy. Every moment in the walls of the beit hamidrash, the study hall is spent delving into the complexities and intricacies of God’s revealed Law. How could we depart from that and enter the serenity and quiet of vacation? So it was on that Thursday afternoon that the rebbe got up and took a breath, making eye contact with each one of us, and said “vacation is kadosh,” vacation is holy.
To invest time in our own well-being and our mental, physical and spiritual health is to also be engaged in a sacred task. The Torah itself in Deuteronomy 4:15 enjoins us to guard ourselves exceedingly. We are commanded to not neglect our own health even when engaged in the most important work.
Americans on average work around 50% more than their European counterparts. We put in longer daily hours, take less vacation and retire later than much of the rest of the Western world. It is also true that so much of what we do is vital for the economy, for our local communities, for our families and for ourselves and yet for it, and for us, to be sustainable we have to learn how to take some time to rejuvenate and recharge. When discussing the Shabbat the Torah charges us to work thereby investing our work with sanctity – “six days you shall work,” but the Torah also commands rests and invests that with sanctity as well.
As I write this I am heeding my rebbe’s advice and my family and I are on vacation. I look forward returning to my work renewed and reinvigorated and my tefillah, my prayer is that more of us heed the call of the Torah to invest in ourselves and come to see the holiness of vacation.
Hanukkah has been for as long as I can remember one of my favorite Jewish holidays. Throughout my life different aspects of the holiday celebration stood out to me. When I was a child I loved playing dreidel and getting Chanukah gelt (tin foil wrapped chocolate coins) and singing Chanukah songs with my family. As time went on I was mesmerized by the miraculous story of the oil that lasted eight nights instead of only one and as a teenager I thought it was so cool that there was a holiday that celebrated Jewish military might and victory as a bright light on a rather depressing and tragic timeline of Jewish history. During the past few years I have begun to appreciate Chanukah for yet another element that I believe plays a crucial role in today’s society.
Oxford University Press published earlier this year a remarkable book authored by Dr. Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame entitled Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. The book is the result of an in-depth study done of 230 emerging adults (ages 18-23) from a broad array of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. The research gives us a glimpse into the contemporary value system that young adults are embracing and calling their own. It is one marked by incredible display of moral individualism and an equally serious inclination towards moral relativism. One quote from an interview recorded in the book succinctly demonstrates this phenomenon. The interviewee is discussing the morality of slavery and comments:
“Who am I judge? I mean back then, if that’s what you believed [that slavery is acceptable] and that’s what happened, you know that’s your right, if you thought it was right at the time. I wasn’t alive then, so I can’t really pas judgment on it, though in today’s world I would think it’d be utterly ridiculous, like I wouldn’t agree with it. But, like I said, it’s society, it changes.”
- Lost in Transition, pp. 27-28
It is within this cultural milieu that Chanukah enters and makes a remarkable statement: There are things in life that are so important that you have to be willing to stake your life on them. The first step is to discover what are those things in your life that are inviolable. Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the oil and it is a time for family gathering and dreidel games and chocolate gelt but even more than all that it is an annual reminder to first discover and then fortify the things we hold so truly dear and precious, that define us as who we are down to the very deepest level of our being.
Dr. Jon D. Levenson of Harvard Divinity School recently published an article in the Wall Street Journal which poignantly made this point. He wrote the following:
“But as the story of the martyrs shows, the victory was also associated with the heroic dedication of the Jewish traditionalists of the time to their God and his Torah. If Hanukkah celebrates freedom, it is a freedom to be bound to something higher than freedom itself.”
We can and must celebrate our generation’s openness to new ideas and genuine respect for the different viewpoints and perspectives that our society, in the words of Professor Diana L. Eck, acting like an exquisite jazz composition brings forward and yet we also must affirm our core identities and be able to civilly assert our unique perspectives into the public square. We can draw on the narrative of Chanukah to strengthen us in this endeavor and by so doing be able to be both compassionate listeners and appreciators of the perspectives of others and articulate and passionate advocates for our own unique values, viewpoints and perspectives.
Last week I had the privilege to lead a conversation with 20 or so Jewish young adults in Boston on behalf of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The topic that I had came prepared for was an exploration into the philosophy behind the legalism of Judaism: Why does Judaism emphasize commandment? What is the value of mitzvah as commandment in our day and age? I had prepared source sheets outlining various approaches from thinkers such as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. Joseph Soloveitchik and Nachmanides.
As soon as we began the conversation I quickly realized I needed to drastically shift my
priorities for the evening. It became clear that what was pressing on the minds of these intelligent, engaging and thoughtful young Jewish adults was the cost of admission to the Jewish community. Why is it that one of the first things they encounter upon entering a synagogue is a membership request form? Why can they not attend a Rosh Hashanah service without a ticket? One participant described her dismay at having attempted to visit the historic synagogue in a European city and being told to come back later for the official tour and that it would cost $54.
While it was possible to explain the technical ways in which Jewish communities are organized and how they are financed in distinction from religious traditions that have a central organizing body that funds individual meeting places, the emotional strength of their feelings of not being welcomed and embraced remained true. Is it possible to rethink the way we structure charitable giving in our communities or perhaps the way in which it is communicated? These are not simple questions with simple answers.
It was with this backdrop that I read a story in the New York Times entitled “Loans Without Profit Help Relieve Economic Pain.” This story details an age-old Jewish practice that within the context of a depressed economy and a severely hurting middle class, seems radical and counter-cultural. The thought behind this practice might very well be the redemptive force behind constructing a radically embracing community.
Jewish communities in fulfillment of the Biblical command to offer financial assistance to each other (Exodus 22:24) have established free-loan societies in every time and place throughout history. Indeed, some of the first communal organizations established in America were these free-loan organizations, called Gemachs (an abbreviation for the Hebrew “gemilut chasadim,” acts of loving kindness). The oldest one being the Hebrew Free Loan Society of New York established in 1892. People are offered small, interest-free loans with a weekly installment plan for repayment. The idea is simple with tremendous implications.
Imagine a society where when someone is suffering they know they can turn to the community for support. This sounds simple but in our cultural context this is not so simple. Paycheck late this week? Did not get the overtime hours this month you thought you were getting? Unexpected illness or house repairs? Where do you go? You could go to a paycheck loan storefront and be charged interest of anywhere up to 390% of what you borrowed. You could ask friends or family assuming they have the spare money to help you in the moment. No matter how one examines it, your options are limited.
Thus, the brilliance of the Gemach. Coming up short this month? Here is the help you need, with no interest. What do we ask in return from you? Nothing, except when times get better for you, remember to help others who are in need like you were. As the rabbi interviewed for the story in the New York Times said “You help the people who are struggling. And you try to preserve their dignity.”
To help others with no strings attached. To have as your aim the preservation of their inherent dignity. These are the ingredients necessary for the building blocks of creating a radically embracing community.
It seems to me that we do not do a lot of talking to each other anymore. There is lots of talking about each other or past each other but not a lot of talking to each other. Furthermore, the tone of our supposed dialogues have become increasingly fractious and divisive. One does not need to look very far to find examples of this phenomenon both from within the Jewish community and in the larger American situation.
Anything we do within our own small communities is now readily available for review by anyone with an Internet connection around the globe. We do not live in a world anymore where I can do what I want or say what I please without facing the potential criticism of a global audience. Yet, is critique always the right approach? The urge to condemn or critique can be strong. One can feel justified in their offering of condemnation, perhaps even righteous, but still is this the preferred approach?
The Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 31a, relates the oft-quoted story of the potential convert who came before the first-century sage Shammai, asking to convert on condition that all of Judaism be taught to him while standing on one foot. The Talmud records that Shammai angrily chased him away while whereupon approaching Hillel with the same request, he was immediately converted. Several other stories of a similar nature are offered with the same result: Shammai scolding while Hillel embraced them. It is the end of this particular passage though that most provocatively puts forth a different tactic from the one of critique and condemnation. The Talmud asserts that “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us [converts] from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.”
On a similar note, the Babylonian Talmud in several places (Eruvin 72b; Hullin 58a; Niddah 59b) demonstrates that the ability to permit something (in Hebrew “koah de’heteira“) is preferable over the opposite ability to prohibit. It takes a careful approach to matters, a nuanced view of a situation and knowledge of all the dimensions to a problem to genuinely permit. Any knee-jerk reactionary can scream from rooftops condemnations but a true mensch and scholar can be expansive and open.
The 16th-century Greek rabbinical judge of the northwestern city of Arta, Rabbi Benjamin Mattathias, in his work of legal rulings teaches that the power to permit is greater than the power to prohibit just as the sayings of scholars is greater than the sayings of prophets (She’alot U’Teshuvot Binyamin Ze’ev, sec. 7). Perhaps we can understand this comparison as telling us that while a scholar can modulate and adjust his or her perspective over time, can take in extenuating circumstances into his or her calculations, this is not possible for a prophet, who simply conveys a Divine message to the people. So too it is all too often easier to prohibit, less taxing and time consuming to just simply say no, but it is the person who weighs all the evidence, considers all the points and perspectives, that can authentically permit. (The same is also true, of course, if the conclusion one arrives at after careful study is a prohibitive one.)
In our world of condemnations, chastisements and ridicule I would like to suggest that the power of praise, while sometimes more difficult and not as natural, is preferable over the power of criticism. There has been lots said in rabbinic thought throughout the ages about the superiority of the koah de’heteira, the power of permitting things, but nowadays I think our time urges us to discuss publicly and openly the koah de’shevah, the power and preference for praise over critique, compliment over ridicule and thoughtfulness over cynicism.
In a society with more praise and less critique, more considerate reflection and less knee-jerk negativity, we might come that much closer to healing the rifts that are tearing us apart and dividing our communities.