Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
I happened to look at a letter I received many years ago from someone I barely knew. At the request of a mutual friend, I had reached out in a moment of crisis with some guidance from the wisdom of our tradition. I encouraged this person to acknowledge the circumstances of his undoing, apologize and seek forgiveness. I referenced the Talmudic dictum that long predates the Fifth Amendment – a person may not testify against himself in court, both because of self-interest and because he may not view himself as wicked.
The letter was appreciative, but still very raw. “I will try to remember the good man I have tried to be,” he wrote, in the midst of his recognition of a terrible mistake.
In the years since, I have had no contact with this man, but I wonder where the particular behavior fits in his sense of self. He has gone on to do good, coming closer to the “good man I have tried to be” than I imagine he thought possible. I hope he has been forgiven, most especially by himself, but I cautioned him that he would have to recognize that what he did would never be forgotten. What I did not add would have been salt on a wound: it is a good thing to be reminded of your shortcomings every now and then, and better still to remember them yourself.
As I am writing this a public figure is dealing with a perverse addiction that looks like it will cost him his family and his livelihood. Addiction is not a “clean” illness – one with identifiable causes, symptoms and treatments – and judgment (and jokes) will abound. Self-awareness is not a cure for compulsion, just to be clear.
But a lapse in judgment that leads to falling short of the “good man I have tried to be” is the very definition of sin. And the awareness that I am not immune from the temptations of sinfulness is the major step in not repeating bad behavior.
I know; that sound so religious. It sounds so “Old Testament.” It is.
The hunk of Deuteronomy that is read in synagogues this week (11:26-16:17) seems to be an eclectic collection of social, moral and ritual instruction. Any excerpt from it can provide an endless amount of learning. But taken as a whole, it feels like the life my correspondent needs to live.
You can argue about the organization of the topics and the division of the weekly units of focus in the Torah, but what we have inherited has a legacy of its own. For close to two thousand years Jews have considered these verses together, and their proximity is therefore as much fair game as their content.
We so love to point out the compassion and consideration inherent in instructions like "If there is anyone among you in need...willingly lend enough for the need..." (15:7-8). We point to the wisdom, unintentionally scientific, of "Do not eat anything that dies of itself..." (14:21). We have built celebrations and inspirations on the mandate for our festivals to remember our liberation (16:3, 12) and to be only joyous (16:15).
But we tend to ignore the merciless instructions in immediate proximity to destroy the social infrastructure of the Land if it is tainted by paganism, or to put to death the dissident who is enticed by pagan practices – including leveling an entire town if the inhabitants are "led astray."
Our sagacious ancestors understood that some of the more difficult passages of the Bible (like these) were simply unacceptable in the context of the compassion and consideration with which they were juxtaposed. So they set about fencing them in. The requirement to annihilate the pagans in the Land was specific to one generation. The imitation of pagan practices had to be with malice aforethought. The circumstances of an entire town "going astray" were very specific and virtually unattainable. They maintained the sacred immutability of the text while acknowledging the bruising impact it could have on the highly mutable human soul to act in such a way.
An awful lot of times in our society we remember the good people we try to be while selectively forgetting the times we have fallen short of that mark. We like to remember the best of who we are and compare it to the worst of who others are, as my friend and teacher Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff often says. In these times of extreme pronouncements from furious fanatics, it is not unusual to hear political figures or even heads of state declare the moral bankruptcy of an opponent based on some generalized judgment while the singular effort of one admirable character becomes the benchmark for their own supporters.
But as summer hurtles into the season of reflection and penitence on the Jewish calendar – and the intensity of political campaigns on the American calendar – it is a good thing to be reminded of our shortcomings now, and even better to remember them ourselves. When we are tempted to point to the sins of others and to entire communities "led astray," it is worth recalling the good people we try to be, but sometimes aren't.
What does it take to be a good Jew?
Every answer I ever heard to that question was exhausting. In some circles, it involves the performance of as many of the 613 commandments as possible. Of course, that means knowing the 613 commandments, and nobody has an exact list.
In other circles, it means considering each of those 613 commandments and concluding which among them lead you to holiness and which do not. Also a lot of work.
Just having a sandwich seems like it requires a Ph.D. Kosher meat, bread prepared with a ritual set-aside, condiments with no dairy ingredients, blessings before and after, a waiting period before that ice cream cone that may be anywhere between one and six hours…never mind, I’ll have a carrot.
We have mostly given up asking this question because it sounds so judgmental from the get-go. But from pretty much the beginning of Jewish peoplehood (specifically, from the time in the wilderness) to today, our teachers and their students have wanted to know the essence of being a good Jew. Moses, who initiated the process of religious law, figured out that something concise was necessary. In the weekly reading from Deuteronomy (10:12), he tries to distill being a good Jew into five easy pieces: Fear God, walk in God’s ways, love God, serve God with fullness of intention, and keep the commandments.
Well, maybe the pieces aren’t so easy.
Micah (6:8) tried three: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Amos (5:4) and Habakkuk (2:4) tried one: Seek Me and live, and The righteous shall live by his faith. Lots of aspiration, very few metrics.
A few years ago, the estimable Rabbi David Wolpe challenged some of us to come up with a bumper sticker slogan to describe the what is means to be a good Conservative Jew. Our particular movement was founded on an intellectual foundation, emerging from the Wissenschaft des Judentums approach in 19th-century Germany. The phrase means “Jewish studies,” but it means using the critical methodologies applied to secular literature to understand the sacred writings of Judaism (except, at the time, the Bible). If you are dozing already, then you will understand why Rabbi Wolpe cracked up when I suggested the slogan read “I (heart) WISSENSCHAFT”
In the end, we are stuck. There are somewhat objective standards to being a good Jew, but just as they become obvious, they wind up in flux. While German Jews were experimenting with Wissenschaft, the Jews in small town America typically enforced Shabbat observance by denying burial to those who spent their lives working on Saturday. The fledgling Zionist movement was considered heresy by most of Orthodoxy and Reform, and later became the sine qua non of 20th century Jews. Marrying a Jew was the marker of being a good Jew until the critical mass of married Jews didn’t.
I know you are reading this column expecting me to have an answer to my question. I don’t. I don’t know what it takes to be a good Jew any more. I know plenty of religiously faithful Jews who are exquisite examples of the human family. I also know plenty who are ritually diligent and morally reprehensible, as well as plenty who are belligerently non-religious and ethical exemplars. I know believers who refuse to be observers, and observers who refuse to be believers. I am not sure I would commend any of them to the person seeking to know how to be a good Jew, though I likewise cannot accept that it is all simply a matter of personal taste.
I will choose instead the example of Rabbi Eleazer ben Dordia. You can look up his story in the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 17a, near the bottom). Before he was a rabbi, which is to say one hour before he died, he was addicted to sex with prostitutes. In the midst of his last encounter, his partner of the moment, who must have known his reputation, used a crude metaphor to suggest that his life had the unpleasantness and impermanence of a cloud of methane. Eleazar looked at the natural world seeking an advocate for his rehabilitation among the beautiful and unmovable realms of sky, sea and earth. When he ran out of options, he came to this realization: This matter rests on me alone.
With that, he died of a broken heart. A heavenly voice proclaimed Rabbi Eleazar ben Dordia to have been given his place in eternity. The lesson concludes that some people take a lifetime to earn a heavenly reward, and others take but an hour.
I am not recommending a life of abandon followed by a deathbed conversion. I am suggesting that whether you live a life guided by the tradition or come to an awareness of your shortcomings at the end of your days, being a good Jew begins when you take responsibility for the life you are living. Beyond that, I have only one piece of advice: The matter rests on you alone.
The punchline from the Tom Lehrer song “National Brotherhood Week” gets a roaring laugh in the recording on “That Was the Year That Was.” When the song was sung on the way to debate and forensic competitions during my high school years, that’s the line that was sung with the most gusto. I pause to point out that, like Tom Lehrer, most of the people on the bus with me were Jews.
There is some peculiar delight we seem to take in being hated. We do not seem to have the capacity to enjoy our accomplishments, our achievements and our relative security. We hold onto others’ hatred with a passion. For far too many of us, outrage has replaced joy as the primary Jewish emotion.
Maybe I am focused on this topic because of the just-concluded observance of Tisha B’Av, the national day of mourning on our calendar. If we officially believed in luck, this ninth day of the summer month of Av would be our bad luck day. Both Temples were destroyed on this date, hundreds of years apart, and historical record and legend put a variety of catastrophes on this date over the centuries as well. Tradition makes this a fast day and summer always seems to conspire to add to the misery with heat and humidity.
For a very long time, I have advocated for the diminishment of Tisha B’Av. I do not observe it. By our own standards, we have come as far as we can to create the circumstances for God to reconstruct the Temple with the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty over the Holy Land. And all but the most piously crazy among our people understand that the first stone laid by human hands for the third Temple will be the first rock thrown for the third world war. I have to wonder how many Jews really, really want a return to animal sacrifice and patriarchal nepotism at the expense of prayer. At least that’s how I see it.
But Tisha B’Av comes every year. I am provoked on this subject because of the Olympics, which are occurring simultaneously with our season of dismay. Jewish athletes are doing very well in a variety of sports. Members of the Israeli team, whose outfits were among the snappiest in the parade of nations, have landed two bronze medals as of this writing, both in judo. There was even an acknowledgment of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes during the ’72 Olympics in Munich under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee.
But what was the headline of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency story that landed in my inbox this weekend? “3 Ways Israel Has Been Snubbed in Rio.” To almost universal disapproval, athletes from three Arab states have refused to engage in various ways with Israeli Olympians. In fact, the story of judoka Or Sasson defeating his Egyptian opponent was eclipsed by the sore loser’s refusal to bow or shake hands after the match. My email, Facebook feed and Twitter feed have been filled with angry posts, reposts and re-reposts that boil down to the single expletive: “Y’see!?!?!” These are the folks who put the “huff” in Huffington Post.
There is a reason that we Jews have been blessed with a specific name for hating us. You can practice racism against any race, sexism against either sex, xenophobia against any xeno. But when you are anti-semitic, you hate Jews. (Not “Semites,” by the way. The term was invented in the late 19th century as a polite way to say “anti-Jewish.”) There is a lot of Jew hatred going around.
But it should not define us. It should not delight us so much to find new examples that it obscures the genuine privilege it is to be a Jew in today’s world – free people in our own land, elected to high office, eligible to learn at any institution of higher learning, welcomed into every profession, admired above any minority group. The best indicator that things are good for us, especially in the United States, is that exponentially more non-Jews want their children to marry ours than wish us harm – including the next President of the United States.
This problem is perpetual for us, but there has always been a counterbalance. Look, for example, to chapter 4 of Deuteronomy. Moses does not spare his reproofs of the people, but every negative ends with “count your blessings.” Rather than dwelling on the dark nature of a rebellious people (and there’s plenty of evidence), Moses reinforces time and again the value of faith, covenant and (dare I use this word) optimism. Not once does he proclaim, “And the Lord our God defeated the Egyptians, leading us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm – but Pharaoh refused to shake my hand.”
Come back to joy, my friends. Return to delight. Luxuriate in gladness. Lift up the pride in our accomplishments. And not, by the way, just to show how much better we are than other people. We are not that much better, we have just used our finely-tuned ability to be outraged into heat-seeking attention to the failings of other people, especially when they fail in our direction.
If you show up in synagogue this week, listen to the words of Isaiah: Comfort, comfort. And if you don’t show up in shul, listen to the words of Bob Marley: Every little thing is gonna be all right. Try to be a light for the nations of the world. They don’t need us to point out the darkness that surrounds them.
I can’t remember the name of the comic who talked about going back to his home town after many years. As he walked around the old neighborhood he saw his childhood friend near the park, ran up and gave him a big hug, saying, “You haven’t changed a bit!”
Then he realized his friend wasn’t ten years old any more.
I find myself recognizing lots of people in crowds these days. They transport me back to when I was as young as they look! Some of it is wishful thinking, I am sure. Some of it the propensity of our brains to fill in information with which they are familiar. And some of it is that there are infinite personalities but a finite number of ways to arrange noses, ears and mouths.
When these faux-familiar experiences happen, I like to think that it is one of the ways we see ourselves in others. And when we see ourselves in others, it is harder to “other-ise” those people.
Jews in the US are struggling right now with the Black Lives Matter movement. We want to recognize our own selves in the cri de coeur. Like a lot of Americans who are not black, some of us have struggled with the All Lives – Blue Lives – Black Lives debate. The name of the movement is borne of pain of a very particular kind. Even if the intent is solidarity, appropriating the name to include others only heightens the pain – and we know that from the attempts to appropriate our history of suffering.
In fact, many of us took deep offense when BLM included a plank in its action platform that took aim at Israel’s relationship with Palestinians. By using language redolent of racist policies in South Africa past and calling for economic sanctions reminiscent of our own boycotts of businesses that legitimized anti-Jewish practices, the authors of the manifesto triggered a sense of shock and outrage among many who believed they were acting as allies. (Those who dismissed Black Lives Matter as reverse racism only found justification for their own prejudices.)
Jews, especially politically progressive Jews, want to recognize themselves in Black Lives Matter, and they want African Americans to recognize them back. But even if we are walking around the old neighborhood, we’re not ten years old any more.
At the very beginning of Moses’s long valedictories in Deuteronomy, he warns the Israelites about “recognizing faces in judgment” (1:17). The idiom mostly likely is a caution about impartiality, but it really emphasizes the tendency of people to seek something of themselves in others – we call it empathy. The cautionary statement applies equally to both litigants in a case and, by extension, to both sides in a lawsuit. The judge’s sympathies are irrelevant to justice to be served; the individual’s sympathies are irrelevant to judgments on issues.
Doesn’t that seem to be paradoxical (if not contradictory)? We become more compassionate when we see our commonality with others, yet it is dispassionate reflection that seems to lead to the wisest and most just conclusions!
I remember something I learned as an undergraduate (a very long time ago) about a study of prejudice in perception conducted in the middle of the last century. Social scientists created a drawing of a bus. Standing next to each other were two men of similar height and posture. The white man was dressed in overalls and holding a tool box. The black man was dressed in a suit and holding a brief case. The scientists posited that ingrained prejudices being what they were, most people would reverse the races of the laborer and the businessman after a quick look.
They found a group willing to act as their subjects at a gathering of pharmacists. They administered the test and discovered that most participants accurately identified which man was which. But they also discovered that 100% of the subjects noticed a detail that was incidental to the scientists. Outside the window of the bus, partially obscured, was a sign for a drug store with the iconic “r-x.” The participants identified with the detail closest to themselves and made them central against the intent of the originators.
Moses’s caution to the Israelites in matters of judging makes the same point. When you “recognize” the person before you, that point of mutuality defines your perception. In times of personal need, such a connection may generate exactly the kind of compassion that motivates support and encouragement. But in times when a certain objectivity is necessary, such a connection may skew your perception and frustrate the real concern at hand.
I have read the statements of the authors of the Black Lives Matter document about their characterization of Israel. I disagree with their rationale, but I understand this much: it is the drug-store sign in the window. Making it the centerpiece of this struggle with racism and justice serves a Jewish perception of our place in the world, but does not focus on the Black Lives Matter concerns. In fact, it creates the opposite effect. We have appointed ourselves judges and insisted on recognizing ourselves.
More than one Jewish observer has said, “I believe black lives matter, but I do not believe Black Lives Matter.” As an expression of Jewish pain, I subscribe to that statement. If BLM leaders seek to develop compassion for Jewish supporters, they will recognize themselves in our cri de coeur. But if the manifesto is to be considered as a reflection of the African American experience in the United States, then my fellow Jews need to see not themselves in the document but the people whose experiences it represents.
My friend Ron Wolfson, an extraordinary educator, likes to recall the “trip-tix” his family used on their vacations. The American Automobile Association (Triple-A) would put together spiral-bound packets of maps, about the size of a reporter’s note pad, with segments of a trip from beginning to end. You didn’t have to unfold a road map the size of a picture window to get from Omaha to Niagara Falls; you followed page one out of Nebraska until you finally arrived at the Canadian border on page 28. Ron used the metaphor in some of his work on journeys through life and Judaism.
Of course, this was all before Google Maps.
The great thing about trip-tix after the vacation was that it was a visual reminder of each segment of the travel. You could slip a snapshot (remember?) of a state capitol or a flat tire into just the right map. You could jot down the name of the diner with the perfect blueberry pie next to the town in which you found it. You could press a wildflower plucked from the side of the road while your little brother was peeing in the brush.
Very retro, I know. Very late-twentieth-century. But these documents were not a whole lot different from the recitation of the 42 stops made by the Israelites on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. We read them now with impatience when they appear near the end of Numbers because the places mean nothing to us. The stories are lost, except the few recorded in the Bible. For someone on that pilgrimage (and for many anonymous someones who descended from them), each place was special. Ritmah – that’s where I met your father. Hashmonah – that’s where your sister got lost. Hor ha-gidgad – we thought that name was so funny we fell over laughing. Abarim – I was the last of my friends still living when we landed there.
A good app connected to a GPS will probably do the same thing and allow you to link to digital photos and the video of your little brother peeing in the brush. And it all will get stored in the cloud so that when you want to revisit those places you can pull them up. And you absolutely will want to revisit those places. Because underlying all of these technologies is a question we ask ourselves all the time: how the heck did I get here?
It’s not merely the silent scream of men like me who don’t ask for directions. It is an existential question we need to ask. If I don’t know how I arrived here, how will I know where to go next?
In early morning prayers and on Friday nights we recite a devotional poem with a mystical back-story. It begins ana b’ko’ach (actually, v’ko’ach) and it is a plea to God to deploy the divine might on our behalf. The poem has forty-two words, and part of the mystical back-story is that each one stands for one of those stops in the wilderness. Chanting it can have the effect of making you conscious of the journey of your ancestors and remind you of the journey of your life. A friend of mine elegantly and eloquently delivered forty-two short talks to our congregation over the course of many years finding sweet and soul-searing vignettes about her own wilderness. (If you are reading this, friend, it is time to get them into a book already.)
One of the ways we mark this history of the United States is by the presidencies that guided us. It took 42 presidents to get us to the 21st century, and looking back we remember the stops we made through the history that occurred. Washington – we were so filled with determination. Lincoln – that’s where we lost your brother. Kennedy – my heart broke. Reagan – it began to mend. Pressed into the trip-tix are the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase, the 13th and 19th Amendments, the Voting Rights Act, the ADA. And, of course, plenty of little sons and brothers peeing in the brush.
A road trip comes with instructions. History does not. A road trip predicts the journey by the destination. History is the other way around. But either way, at this time four years from now we will look at the written record, the trip-tix or our GPS and, inevitably, we are going to ask “how the heck did we get here?” May that question be about the blessings that are ours.