Friday, November 25, 2016

The Most Important Mitzvah of All / Parshat Chayei Sara 2016-5777

Mark Twain once said, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” Can you be kind yet also deaf and blind to the true meaning of kindness? Many years ago, I met a friend at an eatery in a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Baltimore. As I waited, two women came in, both wearing sheitels. One said, “I did a chesed [kind deed] today.” “How wonderful!” exclaimed her friend with enthusiasm. The second woman then asked, “What did you do?” but the first woman replied, “More zechut [merit] for olam ha-ba [the world-to-come].” Her friend responded politely but looked chagrined. The first woman had ignored her friend’s question and reflected that her kind deed would earn her a greater reward in the world-to-come. The deed had little meaning for her beyond the brownie points it would earn her with God, redeemable in the next life.

The attitude the first woman expressed is related to a teaching attributed to no less than Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, who said: והוי זהיר במצוה קלה כמצוה חמורה (“Be as attentive to a minor mitzvah as to a major one”). Rabbi’s statement admits that there are “minor” commandments and “major” commandments but his reasoning establishes the motivation for attentiveness to all mitvzot: שאין אתה יודע מתן שכרן של מצוות (“for you do not know the reward for each of the mitzvot”). I imagine that, in his time, before the rabbinic tradition was well established and widely accepted by the Jewish people, Rabbi’s appeal to the world-to-come was a powerful motivator. It continues to be a powerful incentive for many, as it was for the first woman. But for those whose view is more expansive (the second woman), or those who do not believe there is a literal world-to-come (or aren’t sure), or those who don’t believe that religious and moral decisions should be made according to one’s selfish expectation of gain, Rabbi’s teaching is problematic.

Not surprisingly, it is but one of many teachings that have come down to us. Overwhelmingly, our tradition asserts that chesed (deeds of loving kindness) is the most important mitzvah we can perform, and this week’s parashah, Chayei Sara, illustrates what the Rabbis themselves tell us many times in many ways. Chayei Sara opens with a report of the death of the matriarch Sarah. Her husband, Abraham, undertakes to bury her; the story of how he goes about it teaches us much about chesed. The mitzvah of participating in a burial is a chesed shel emet—the truest kind of kindness—because it is entirely altruistic. The deceased cannot know and appreciate what you have done, nor ever pay you back. That is why serving on a chevra kaddisha (burial society)—washing and preparing the body for burial—is a position of great righteousness and honor in the community. Abraham purchases not merely a plot for burial, but the entire cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite. He pays top dollar to acquire the cave and the field in which it sits. He spares nothing to fulfill the mitzvah of chesed shel emet for his beloved Sarah.

Kindness permeates this parashah. Following Sarah’s death, Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to Nahor to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer has full authority to choose a suitable mate for Isaac. How does he proceed? Eliezer has a test in mind: The young woman who exhibits an inherent proclivity for chesed is the most suitable wife for Isaac. Moments later, Rebekah arrives. Eliezer races over to her and says, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.” Rebekah replies, “Drink, my lord. I will also draw water for your camels until they finish drinking.” (Genesis24:15-20) Torah tells us that Eliezer, meanwhile, stood gazing at her, silently wondering whether Adonai had showered his mission with successful (Genesis 24:21). Eliezer cannot be much in doubt, because he gives Rebekah a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets. Rebekah invites the stranger back to her family’s home, an invitation that again demonstrates her quality of chesed. And while Torah makes it clear that her father, Laban, after one look at the gold jewelry is prepared to send his daughter away with this stranger, Torah is equally clear that Rebekah’s salient quality—the one Eliezer sought and found in her—is kindness. 

The parashah closes with the death of the patriarch Abraham and here, too, we see chesed shel emet at work. Isaac and Ishmael, who separated long ago and have not seen one another since, and probably have entirely understandable bitter feelings toward one another, nonetheless come together one last time to bury their father next to their mother in the Cave of Machpelah. Their act of chesed is prioritized over everything they have experienced and feel toward one another.

Some are accustomed to thinking that tzedakah is the premier mitzvah, but the Sages teach otherwise:

 ת"ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים

Our Rabbis taught: Chesed is superior to tzedakah in three ways: Tzedakah is done with one’s money, but chesed is done with one’s money or with one’s person. Tzedakah is given only to the poor, but chesed may be given to both the poor and the rich. Tzedakah is given only to the living, but chesed may be shown to the both the living and the dead. (BT Sukkah 49b)

And in the Talmud, the Sages explain (BT Sotah 14a) that God fulfills the mitzvah of chesed, not assigning or relegating it to others, both because the mitzvah is so important and because God wants us to know that we, too, should fulfill the mitzvah ourselves. The Sages provide four examples, complete with verses that demonstrate that God performed these deeds: (1) God clothes the naked. God provided Adam and Even with coats of skins when they left the Garden of Eden. Therefore, we, too, should clothe the naked. (2) God visits the sick. God visited Abraham while he was recuperating from his circumcision. Therefore, we, too, should visit the sick. (3) God consoles mourners. God blessed Isaac in his bereavement over his father, Abraham. Therefore, we, too, should console mourners. (4) God buries the dead. God buried Moses. Therefore, we, too, should bury the dead.

The ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, Lao-Tzu, taught: “Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” This is a fine reminder that kindness is dispensed in words, thoughts, and deeds, and that each has a far-reaching impact on others. The Dalai Lama taught: “There is no need for temples, no  need for complicated philosophies. My brain and my heart are my temples; my philosophy is kindness.” His thinking is echoed by the Rabbis in Avot d'Rabbi Natan 4:21: R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah teaches his master, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai, who mourns the Temple and loss of the altar as a means of atonement that chesed is no less effective as a means of atonement. R. Yehoshua quotes the prophet Hosea, who says, I desire chesed and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).

The day before Thanksgiving, I stood on a long, long line at a dollar store. Four teens at the head of the line checking out were counting out 50 pairs of gloves, dozens of packs of tissues, and a number of other things I couldn’t see. At one point, one of them came back to the rack near where I stood on line to collect more gloves. “Who’s getting these?” I asked her. “We’re taking them to a homeless shelter in Washington, DC,” she replied. No sooner had the teens finished checking out, than one of them, consulting their shopping list, realized that they were short one pack of tissues. She asked the cashier to ring up the additional item. The cashier wasn’t sure what to do because she was  about to ring up the next customer. That customer pointed to the back of the long, long line and told the teen she would now need to wait on line again. But the woman behind him said to the teen, “Just take the tissues. I’ll have them add it to my bill. Go in peace,” and another customer on line said to this woman, “God bless you for your kindness.” 

Each day we are faced with choices large and small. Will we act with kindness and fulfill the mitzvah of chesed?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Friday, November 18, 2016

Now What? / Parshat Vayera 2016-5777

Many people have remarked that the recent presidential election is unprecedented. In the past week I’ve heard: “I’ve never seen anything like it.” “This is terrifying.” “We’ve never had a candidate or a campaign like this one.” “I’ve never felt this awful after an election.” (I also heard many unprintable comments.) Several people have reported that they are wondering if they should move to another country.[1] This election is a first in many ways.

On the Torah front, in contrast, you might be having a sense of deja vu: This week’s parashah is Vayera and includes the Akeidah (the Binding of Isaac). Yes, we’re reading Genesis chapter 22 again, just six weeks after reading it on Rosh Hashanah. What can it teach us now, in the wake of the presidential election, and in the face of the fear and despair gripping so many and a political divide greater than any most people alive can recall in their lifetimes?

The harrowing and terrifying tale of the Akeidah is told in only nineteen verses, yet it is anything but simple, and the many interpretations that have been layered on top of it elevate it to one of the most complex biblical stories of all. Scores of interpreters have sought to make sense of a deeply troubling and frightening story.

The bare bones of the story are: God instructs Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice on a mountain God will specify. Abraham unhesitatingly complies and surrenders the child for whom he waited and longed and who was born when he was one hundred years old. In an act of complete self-effacement in the face of the divine, Abraham binds Isaac to an altar and prepares to slit his throat to please God. But God not only does not want this sacrifice, God forbids it. A ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s stead. Isaac lives to inherit the covenant from his father, and passes it on to his son, Jacob.

For many of the Chachamim, the story is a paradigm for what they understand to be the ideal divine-human relationship: Abraham completely subjugates his will, and even his moral compass, to obey the divine command of God. Imagining the thoughts and feelings of Abraham and Isaac, traveling together for three days to Mount Moriah, the Rabbis introduce Satan, the prosecuting attorney in the heavenly court, into the drama. Satan prods, pokes, provokes.

And rose up, and went (Gen. 22:3). On the way, Satan ran ahead of Abraham, appeared before him in the guise of an old man, and asked, “Where are you going?” Abraham: “To pray.” Satan: “Why should one going to pray have fire and a knife in his hand, and kindling wood on his shoulder?” Abraham: “We may stay there a day or two, and we will have to slaughter an animal, bake bread, and eat.” Satan: “Old man, do you think I was not there when the Holy One said to you, ‘Take your son’? Old man, you are out of your mind. A son who was given you at the age of one hundred and you are setting out to kill him!” Abraham: “Even so.” Satan: “And should God test you even more severely, will you still stand firm?” Abraham: “Yes, even more and more severely.” Satan: “But tomorrow God will call you murderer for shedding the blood of your son.” Abraham: “Even so.”[2]

Satan’s attempts to dissuade Abraham from obeying God and to convince him that God will accuse him of murder on the day after he slaughters Isaac fail. Abraham is steadfastly determined to obey God.

Satan next appeals to Isaac’s love for his mother, Sarah, and tells Isaac that he will break his mother’s heart if he goes along with Abraham, who is a deranged old man.

Seeing that his efforts were in vain, Satan left Abraham and, disguising himself as a young man, stood at Isaac’s right and said, “Where are you going?” Isaac: “To study Torah.” Satan: “While still alive or after your death?” Isaac: “Is there a man who can study after his death?” Satan: “O hapless son of a hapless mother! How many fasts did your mother fast, how many prayers did she utter until at last you were born! And now this old man has gone mad in his old age and is about to slit your throat.” Isaac: “Nevertheless, I shall not deviate from the will of my Maker and from the bidding of my father.” [3]

Like Abraham, Isaac remains adamantly determined to comply with God’s command. Casting morality aside, Abraham and Isaac follow a path of destruction. Only God’s intervention prevents Isaac’s death. As dramatic as these midrashim are, blind obedience does not seem to shed constructive light on our current situation.

Another rabbinic interpretation suggests that Abraham was either clueless, or a fanatic who misinterpreted God’s command:

…take your son, your favored son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moria and offer him up (והעלהו ve’ha’aleihu) there. They recited a mashal (parable): It is like a king who said to his admirer, “Offer up (העלה ha’alei) your son on my table.” The admirer, a knife in his hand, brought his son. The king said, “Did I tell you to offer him so as to eat him? I said, ‘Raise him up [exalt him] in love!’” Nimshal (application of the parable): this is what is written: …it never occurred  (עלי עלה לא lo alah alay) to Me (Jeremiah 19:5) – this verse refers to Isaac.[4]

While “cluelessness” and “fanaticism” have been applied to the recent campaign and election, this doesn’t seem to be a constructive line of analysis. And it certainly does not raise our mood, engender hope, or foster a constructive engagement with the issues at hand.

Several modern interpretations have criticized Abraham for failing to refuse God’s immoral command. Abraham, who negotiated with God over the fate of the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah, betrays the very principles of justice and compassion that God taught him when it came to his son. These interpretations suggest that it is little wonder that God never again speaks directly with Abraham again. While some political leaders have been condemned for betraying their values to support their party, this interpretation does little to help us a chart a course for the challenges facing our nation.

Given so many dead ends, I turn in another direction, not toward a midrash or interpretation of
the Akeidah, but toward a poem which draws on the imagery of the Akeidah. The poem is by Israel’s poet laureate, Yehudah Amichai. Amichai was born in Germany in 1924; his family made aliyah in 1936 and he lived in Jerusalem until his death a week prior to Rosh Hashanah, 2000. Amichai served in the British Army and the Israeli Defense Forces for wars of 1948, 1956, and 1973. He longed for peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, and was a founder of Peace Now. In 1982, he was awarded Israel’s highest honor: the Israel Prize.

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the "Chad Gadya" machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

Both the Arab and the Israeli are searching for those who have gone missing in the same area around Mount Zion: the goat of the one and the child of the other. Two people engaged in the same activity of searching and worrying, both calling out for their missing one, both feeling vulnerable and frightened. One can easily imagine that the Israeli father feels that the Arab poses a danger to his son, and the Arab feels that the Israeli poses a danger to his goat. The image of a father and his vulnerable son on the mountain evokes the image of Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah—will Isaac survive and return home with his father?

Both the Arab and the Israeli fear the “Chad Gadya” machine, a reference to the Aramaic song sung at the end of the Pesach seder about a cascade of devastating and linked events: the goat is eaten by the cat that is devoured by the dog that is beaten by the stick that is burned by fire that is doused with water that is drunk by an ox that is killed by a slaughterer who is cut down by the malakh ha-mavet (the angel of death). Finally, in the end, God destroys the malakh ha-mavet—but by then everything is dead or has been destroyed. The Chad Gadya cascade of violence and retaliation, reprisal and retribution, becomes Amichai’s metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it also evokes what has recently passed for public discourse in our own country (political gut-punching is perhaps a better description): two sides talking past one another, thinking the worst of one another, fearing one another, demonizing one another.

In the end, the goat and the child are found together in the bushes—evoking an image of the ram, caught in the thicket by its horns (Genesis 22:13). The search is over, and its conclusion comes with insight and understanding between the Arab and the Israeli, who have shared comparable experiences. Amichai’s commentary closes the poem: “Searching for a goat or for a child has always been the beginning of a new religion in these mountains.” This is a reference to the three “Abrahamic” religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam[5] whose differences have led to hatred, atrocities, and wars, overshadowing the much they share in common.

The Arab and the Israeli, in their vulnerability and fear, have come to understand something significant about one another. They have heard one another’s voice in the valley between them, and this has brought them together to the spot where the child and the goat sit under the bush.[6]

Each side of our political divide needs to seek an honest and non-ideological understanding of the “Other” that will allow us to chart a path forward that addresses the needs of those whose vision and viewpoint we do not share. Perhaps if we begin by trying to understand one another’s fears and vulnerabilities—these brought the Arab and the Israeli together—we, too, can meet in the valley. We need to listen, to learn, and to reflect on the perspective of a great many people in this country whose experience is not our own. And then we need to engage in every way we can to promote justice for everyone and protect those who, in this new age, are most vulnerable.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[1] You may have heard that the Canadian immigration web site crashed just after the election results were announced.
[2] From The Book of Legends: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, ed. by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky.
[3] Op. cit.
[4] Genesis Rabbah 56:8.
[5] Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah, understood to be the same as the Temple Mount. Jesus took his disciples Peter, James, and John to pray on a mountain (Matthew 17:1ff). Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven from Jerusalem (this is known as the Night Journey).
[6] Perhaps also an allusion to Ishmael (viewed as the progenitor of the Arab nations), whom Hagar left sitting alone under a bush so she wouldn’t see him die.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Whence Evil? / Parshat Noach 2016-5777

Do you recognize the design at the left? It is a woodcut by the Swiss graphic artist, M.C. Escher. Escher completed this piece shortly following his 62nd birthday. If you look closely, you will see that he has created a “sphere” of interlocking, tessellated angels and demons tiling the entire piece. 

Most every culture and religious tradition has its versions of “angels” and “demons.” While there are significant differences in how these emblems of righteousness and wickedness are conceived and function, one commonality is that they open conversations about human moral behavior. Escher’s tessellated angels and demons seem to suggest that good and evil exist intermixed in close proximity in each of us. None of us is wholly good or utterly evil. We are like Escher’s woodcut: a mosaic of good and evil. 

Parshat Noach addresses the subject of evil head-on; it tells the story of a flood that engulfed the world in God’s unsuccessful attempt to rid Creation of evil. According to the Torah, God brought the flood in response to human evil that has grown so violent and widespread, so vile and noxious, that God quite literally reverses Creation: the very waters that emerged from the Garden of Eden to water the world and make it habitable to plant and animal life now converge to erase virtually all life from the planet. Only one family and enough animals to reproduce and repopulate the world after the watery cataclysm survive, secured in a wooden ark that weathers the 40-day typhoon and many subsequent months of bobbing along on the ocean. Torah’s purpose is to explore God’s response to human evil. Torah does not flinch in telling us what a mistake God made, so much so that God vows never to repeat it—the rainbow serves to remind God of this promise. But Torah does not tell us why the people turned evil, only that they did. 

When the Rabbis explore the story of the Flood, they first question Noah’s righteousness. Torah seems confident that Noah—and Noah, alone, in his generation—is righteous. ...Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age... (Genesis 6:1) But the Rabbis question even this statement: 

This is the line of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, he was blameless in his generation (Genesis 6:9). R. Yochanan said: In his generation but not in other generations. But Reish Lakish said: [If] in his generation, then in other generations. R. Chanina said: A parable for R. Yochanan[’s opinion]: To what is the matter analogous? To a barrel of wine lying in a cellar full of vinegar. In its place, its aroma wafts [i.e., is noticeable and comparatively pleasant]. When not in its place, its aroma does not waft [i.e., is not noticeable]. R. Oshayah said: A parable for Reish Lakish[’s opinion]: To what is the matter analogous? To a flask of fragrant balsam oil lying in a filthy place. In its place, its aroma wafts [and is noticeably pleasant]; and all the more so in a fragrant place. (BT Sanhedrin 108a)

R. Yochanan tells us that Torah includes the seemingly superfluous words, “in his generation,” because had Noah lived in any other generation, he would not have been deemed righteous. The people in his generation were so evil that comparatively, Noah was good. Noah can only be considered good when compared with people whose wickedness and corruption were so extreme that God saw fit to destroy them. For R. Yochanan, Noah’s righteousness is a relative matter.  This is not a rousing accolade of Noah. R. Yochanan’s student, study partner, and brother-in-law, Reish Lakish, understands Torah’s comment entirely differently. “In his generation” exalts Noah’s righteousness: If Noah acts righteously even when everyone around him is wicked and corrupt, then he must be exceptionally righteous and he would certainly be deemed righteousness in any time or place. For Reish Lakish, Noah’s righteousness is an absolute fact, and all the more meritorious given the immoral environment in which he lived. R. Chanina and R. Oshayah offer parables that drive home their colleagues’ points about Noah’s goodness being relative or absolute. Given how much human behavior (our behavior!) is influenced by others, and how much people excuse with the words, “Everyone’s doing it!” the conversation of R. Yochanan and Reish Lakish gives us much to ponder.

When the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) discusses the Flood story, the Rabbis seeks to identify if not the source of human evil then at least a significant source of evil. In doing so, they draw heavily from the Book of  Job, and in particular chapter 21, so let us turn to that text first. Job has been visited by his “friends,” Eldad, Bilhaz, and Zophar (friends like this you don’t need and I hope you are never afflicted with them). Finding Job in great distress and suffering (he has lost his children, as well as his flocks, herds, and wealth, and is stricken with painful afflictions), his visitors explain in excruciating detail that suffering is God’s recompense for evil. Since Job is suffering, they reason, he must have committed evil. That being the case, Job should acknowledge his evil, repent, and ask God’s forgiveness. Job is having none of it. He has lived a righteous life; he has been good and generous to other people and loyal to God. He tells his “friends” that they speak nonsense, since anyone can see that the world is inhabited by evil people who thrive.

Why do the wicked live on, prosper, and grow wealthy, and their children are with them always [recall Job’s children have all died] and they see their children’s children [Job will never see grandchildren](Job 21:7-8)

The Rabbis use the verses of Job’s caustic response to his friends’ assertion that suffering is God’s recompense for evil in order to craft a rabbinic explanation for a source of human evil. (They are italicized and noted in the paragraph below, which is found in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 108a.)

The Rabbis taught in a baraita: The generation of the flood became arrogant only because of the bounty that the Holy One Blessed be God lavished upon them. What is written concerning them? Their houses were secure, without fear; they do not feel the rod of God (Job 21:9). And it is written, Their bull breeds and does not fail; their cow calves and never miscarries (Job 21:10). And it is written, They let their infants run free like sheep, and their children skip about (Job 21:11). And it is written, They sing to the music of timbrel and lute, and revel to the tune of the pipe (Job 21:12). And it is written, They shall spend their days in happiness, their years in delight (Job 36:11), and it is written, They go down to Sheol in peace (Job 21:13). And this caused them to say to God: “Leave us alone, we do not want to learn Your ways. What is Shaddai that we should serve [God] What will we gain by praying to [God]?” (Job 21:14-15) They said: Do we need [God] for anything other than a bit of rain? We have rivers and streams from which to supply ourselves. The Holy Blessed One said, “With the very bounty that I lavished upon them, they are provoking me! With that [same bounty] I will punish them!” As it is said, As for Me — I am prepared to bring the flood (Genesis 6:17). (BT Sanhedrin 108a)

In the Talmud’s description, the generation of the flood enjoy the blessings of prosperity and, attributing their bounty entirely to their own hand, fail to recognize their indebtedness to God for the good fortune they enjoy. They come to the conclusion that God is superfluous to their lives, except perhaps for a “bit of rain”—the one thing they cannot purchase or manufacture. In the ancient world, when this text was written, rain was hardly a minor aspect of life, as “a bit of rain” suggests. It was all-important. Drought spelled disaster: famine could easily overtake even the wealthy. Yet those who were smugly secure in their wealth, seeing it as their entitlement rather than blessing, misjudge everything, including the vital importance of rain.

The Rabbis’ comments about evil that ensues from smug entitlement in the place of gratitude applies not only to the generation of the Flood, but to every generation. Torah warns against this:

[Do not] say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is Adonai your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that [God] made on oath with your ancestors, as is still the case. (Deuteronomy 8:17-18)

The Rabbis’ warning (for all generations) is that this attitude can give rise to deeds and failures to act that lead to corruption, violence, and the erosion of society. For example: If my wealth is all mine and I am beholden to no one, I might choose to live my life walled off from all those whom I consider different from myself. If I believe I owe no thanks to God, Who deems it appropriate to share my wealth (since in reality I am the caretaker for the true owner: God), then I might decide to keep it all for myself and ignore the needs of others. If my life is Easy Street and I erroneously see that as my entitled due, failing to recognizes the advantages and opportunities with which I have been blessed, then the suffering of others may cause me no concern and evoke in me neither compassion nor response.  Angels and demons in close proximity.

When you look around today, does some of this look familiar to you? The Rabbis are keenly aware that attitudes translate into actions that either build or erode society.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman