There is something both absurd and profound about the existence of a Jewish bathroom prayer. Bathrooms have the distinction of being one place where prayer and Torah are to be avoided. The underlying assumption being that what takes place in a bathroom is fundamentally at odds with the holy name. And yet Jewish tradition mandates a blessing be said upon completing our business and exiting.
As a child, this blessing was the bane of my existence. The words, which seems endless and cumbersome to my 6 year old self, were a chore. Not simply irrelevant, in my no so humble opinion, they stood between me and recess, returning to class, or hanging out with friends. And in all honesty, even when I grew to understand the words, I could not fathom the need for such a prayer.
Whether or not we see ourselves as particularly religious, few among us do not feel awe when confronted with a rainbow, a beautiful seascape or mountain view. And for those moment when our own words may fail us, our tradition provides us with options. These moments are so obviously praise worthy.
By contrast, the goings on of the bathroom by contrast seem base, necessary but by no means extraordinary. That is until they don’t work exactly as we need them to.
If you have ever toilet trained a puppy or a child, eaten the wrong foods or maybe too much matza at Passover, you know that the internal plumbing of a being is a finely tuned system not to be taken for granted.
And this speaks to the profound truth of the bathroom blessing.
Grand vistas may appear, extraordinary moments will happen but we do not need to wait for these to appreciate the holiness of the miracles of everyday life. Within the realm of healthy, everyday living, we can easily take for granted the small stuff. The ability to wake, to get out of bed are usually chores. Our tradition, by encouraging us to bless these moments provides us with the opportunity to reframe our understanding of what a miracle is.
The bathroom may not be a place for uttering the holy name, but that does not mean that what happens inside is not holy and miraculous. On the contrary, the very contradiction of Asher Yatzar points to a vision of everyday holiness that if taken seriously, as our tradition encourages us to do, has the power to imbue every moment in life with significant and profound meaning.
“Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who with wisdom fashion the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are You Lord, healer or all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.” (Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom).
Is Yom Hazikaron a good thing? This unusual question recently popped into my head while we were teaching our religious school students about the series of “Yom” holidays this month (Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut). Yom Hashoah was easy for them to understand, if somewhat hard to relate to. Yom Ha’aztmaut, which we explained to them as the Israeli Fourth of July, was easy on both accounts. But where students had the most difficulty grasping any meaning was Yom Hazikaron. I tried explaining it as Israel’s Memorial Day but soon realized that this description was completely ineffectual to them: unless one has a family member in the Armed Services, Memorial Day, in America, has little civic meaning. Instead, it has devolved into little more than the last school holiday of the year and the pop cultural start of summer. This, in turn, led me to wonder: which Memorial Day would I rather have, Israel’s or America’s?
In Israel, war is a perpetual reality. Virtually everyone serves in the army. There have been six wars fought since 1948, with the first four (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973) threatening Israel’s very existence. Even when it is not in formal war, Israel faces constant border skirmishes and rocket attacks from its hostile neighbors. And, perhaps most importantly, everyone has a relative or close friend who has perished in combat. Yom Hazikaron is marked in Israel with piercing air raid sirens, interrupting the evening and later the morning and bringing everyone together to commemorate the fallen. Ironically, for the generation I was teaching in religious school, America too has been in a perpetual state of war since 9/11. But because of our huge population, the remoteness of the armed conflict, and our strength compared to that of Afghanistan or Iraq, war for Americans lacks any existential resonance. We might worry about the financial impact of war and whether our troops are getting the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) treatment they deserve, but we do not worry about whether America will be wiped off the map tomorrow. When Memorial Day was first proclaimed on May 6, 1868, by General John Logan, to honor dead soldiers in the aftermath of the Civil War, I imagine it did express a similar sense of somber uncertainty. But today Memorial Day means little more than permission to wear white pants until Labor Day.
So the more interesting question to me is this: which Memorial Day is preferable, from a meta-perspective? Yes, Memorial Day in Israel certainly means more, but is that a good thing? Or would we prefer for Israel to reach a state of power and stability that it no longer fears the threat of annihilation that Yom Hazikaron hints at? From a psychological standpoint, don’t we want our children to grow up without losing friends and family to armed combat? Assuming conscription remains necessary given Israel’s small size, wouldn’t we prefer to military service in Israel to feel more like military service in Switzerland–an exercise of vigilance rather than preparing for the inevitable loss of life in war? On the other hand, Yom Hazikaron takes on a sacred feel that Memorial Day does not. Do we want to risk losing this sense of kedusha, of holiness? Do we like what it signifies about the value of each human life; of dedication to an obligation bigger than oneself?
I am eager to hear your thoughts. And in the meantime, may each of us take some time today to pause and reflect about the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many Israelis to enable each of us to have a Jewish Homeland to enjoy and celebrate.
We all know that one of the Ten Commandments is “Don’t steal.” But it’s also hard for us to imagine Bernie Madoff or Jeffrey Skilling in a hooded sweatshirt in a darkened alley mugging a little old lady. And yet clearly, Madoff and Skilling violated that two-word, easy-to-understand commandment. So we have to ask: how in the world were they able to justify it?
A large part of that justification is because different forms of stealing have different “feels” to them. Physically taking money from another person feels more violent, more immediate, and less justifiable of an action. “Cooking the books,” however, can easily feel explainable by the perpetrator. It’s pretty easy to follow the commandment “Don’t steal” if it simply means, “Don’t go around robbing people in the middle of the night.” But Skilling and Madoff did steal – and stole significantly more money than all the armed robbers in America combined.
In fact, when people don’t deal in cash directly, they actually are able to rationalize their actions, and thus end up stealing significantly more money from people.
Cash Keeps Us (More) Honest
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran a fascinating study in the MIT dorm rooms to examine what might allow people to steal without feeling all that guilty about it. At first, he put six Coke cans in a communal refrigerator. Within three days, all six cans were gone. No doubt, people thought, “No one will notice, and hey – free Coke!”
Why? As Ariely explains:
When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold, hard cash (except occasionally). And that’s my point: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money. (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 218-219)
There seems to be a psychological block that prevents most of us from simply forcibly taking cash from people, but allows us to rationalize small falsifications that ultimately end up being the same thing as stealing. And that is why, in fact, the Torah has more to say about honesty in business beyond just, “Don’t steal.” In Leviticus, the Torah even regulates what might happen one step away from money that might lead people to cheat.
Honest Weights and Measures
Leviticus 19 contains some of the most important and most famous laws in the Torah. The Ten Commandments appear here, as do the verses, “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole chapter is known as the “holiness code,” implying that beyond just being ethical, treating people fairly is truly a sacred obligation that God demands of us.
The very last laws in chapter 19 say, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah (a unit of dry measure) and an honest hin (a unit of liquid measure)…” (Leviticus 19:35-36)
Why did this law have to be written in the first place? The simple answer is: you don’t forbid something from happening unless it has already been occurring. So clearly, there were people who would falsify their weights and measures. Cheating and stealing are nothing new in today’s society!
And that’s what makes this commandment so important and valuable. If the Torah had simply said, “Don’t steal,” our natural ability to rationalize would have given people the opportunity to say, “Well, if I weigh down my grain a little bit, no one will really notice. And after all, everyone else is doing it, so it’s not really stealing.” Instead, the Torah teaches us, “Don’t cheat even – perhaps especially – when you’re one step removed from money.” It’s a lot easier to steal when you’re one step removed – and that’s why that commandment is needed.
The First Thing We Will Be Asked When We Die
The Rabbis even elevated honesty in business to become one of the highest values we need to live up to. In fact, in the Rabbinic mind, the first thing God will ask us when we die is not, “Did you believe in Me?” or “Did you pray?” No – according to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the first question we will be asked when we die is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”
We sometimes say that we know we are acting honestly if we can look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning. But perhaps that is not enough of a judge. After all, our ability to rationalize could make it very easy for us to say, “Well, it’s just a small thing I’m taking.” Moment by moment, we can easily find ways to steal that feel OK and won’t cause us to lose sleep.
So to truly bring ourselves up to our highest standards, the question should not be, “How do we feel about ourselves right now?” It should really be, “How do we want to feel about ourselves at the end of our lives?”
Only by having our day-to-day actions live up to the values we espouse can we truly be proud of the actions we take.
The schools of Hillel and Shammai disagree (surprise!) about the way Chanukah candles are to be lit. Are we to light one candle the first night and then add one each day, or are we to begin with eight candles, and subtract one each day?
The Shammaite approach is understood by later interpreters (BT Shabbat 21b) this way: Chanukah is a reflection of Sukkot, and by starting with eight candles on the first night, and then subtracting one candle each night, we mirror way in which the bulls were sacrificed during the fall harvest festival. The approach also has the advantage of more accurately reminding us of the legend of that little cruse of oil whose light lingered far longer than expected.
And yet, the approach of the Hillelites was accepted. We began lighting our chanukiyot last Tuesday night with one light, and will conclude this evening with eight. The rationale: “in matters of holiness, we ascend rather than descending.” Our eight nights of celebration have seen the light grow brighter and brighter, and tonight all of the candles will be lit.
There’s an optimism inherent in the light that grows stronger each day, and on the last few nights of the holiday it is as if the very heavens rise to meet our efforts at adding light to the world. The darkest, longest nights of the year are the mostly moonless nights near the end of the month of Kislev, always near the Winter Solstice. These are the first days of Chanukah. As Chanukah ends, a new moon appears in the western sky at sunset, a little brighter and for a little bit longer on each of the last nights of the holiday. With solstice behind us (at least in those years when Chanukah “comes late”), the nights grow shorter; the waxing moon means they grow brighter, too.
Jews in the northeastern states (where the preponderance of US chanukiyot will be lit) may have to take it on faith this year. But those of us in the rest of the country stand a good chance to see the moon of Kislev in the western sky at lighting time. Let’s take a moment — perhaps just after the candles have guttered — to stand in the light of that waxing moon. As this year’s lighting comes to an end, let’s recommit ourselves to the ascent. May we bring light.