Tag Archives: Pirkei Avot

Not Just Checking the Box – Tzav 5779

One of the most fundamental concepts in Jewish life is that of Torah lishmah, learning the words of our tradition merely for the sake of learning. Consider the following from Pirqei Avot (6:1):

רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר כָּל הָעוֹסֵק בַּתּוֹרָה לִשְׁמָהּ, זוֹכֶה לִדְבָרִים הַרְבֵּה. וְלֹא עוֹד אֶלָּא שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ כְדַי הוּא לוֹ

Rabbi Meir says: Anyone who involves himself in Torah for its own sake merits many things, and moreover the entire world is worthwhile for his sake; He is called “friend,” “beloved,” “lover of the Omnipresent,” “one who loves humankind,” “delighter of the Omnipresent,” “delighter of [all] creatures.” He is clothed in humility and reverence, and it prepares him to be righteous, devout, upright and trustworthy, and it distances him from sin, and draws him near to merit. We enjoy from him counsel and comprehension, understanding and strength, as it is said (Proverbs 8:14): “Mine is counsel and comprehension, I am understanding, mine is strength.” It gives him kingship and dominion, and [the ability to] investigate in judgment, and the secrets of the Torah are revealed to him, and he becomes like an ever-strengthening spring, and like a river that does not stop. He is modest and long-tempered, and forgives insult to him; And it enlarges him and raises him above all [that God] made.

Torah lishmah is the key to perfecting ourselves. All of the fundamental human traits that we desire—humility, lovingkindness, reverence, uprightness, faith, compassion, gratitude, modesty, forgiveness and so forth—flow from learning, from analyzing, from interpreting the words of our tradition.

I recall reading some time ago that the difference between the Western approach to education and that of the East is that while in the East education is understood to be the way to improve yourself, in the West we use education as a means to acquire skills that help us manipulate the world to our own personal benefit. The difference is one of focus: internal vs. external. Torah lishmah, like the Eastern tradition, is primarily an internal activity. It leads us to be better people.

***

The university admissions fraud scandal, revealed two weeks ago is, unfortunately, not too surprising. In an educational system that is already clearly skewed in favor of those who grow up with means, does it surprise anybody that people who can afford to pay half a million dollars to guarantee their kid admission to Yale will do so, even through illegal channels.

But in many ways, it is symptomatic one of the greatest challenges that our society faces. We are all striving to push, to achieve, to do, that we rarely take time to consider our values. We take for granted that we must push harder, but we sometimes cannot see the humanity around us: the loved ones who need us most, the neighbors, and indeed neighborhoods in distress, the ways in which our personal choices might undermine the common good.

We are so obsessed with quantifiable achievement—grades, test scores, numbers of hours spent in extra-curriculars—that we enable a framework in which our children spend more and more time in activities that will make their university applications stand out from the crowd, that will give them the edge. We are so in love with brands – Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, etc. – that we encourage our teens to check more boxes, to “diversify,” to extra-curricular themselves to the point of exhaustion.  

What do we want our children to be? Do we want them to be overstretched automatons? Do we want them to be successful money-making machines? Or do we want them to focus on the non-quantifiables?

In my experience, when asked, parents tend to say things like, “I want my child to be a good person, to make good choices, to know right from wrong, to be respectful, to be happy.” Nobody ever says, at least not in front of a rabbi, “I want my child to live in a fancy neighborhood and drive an expensive car.”

So how did we get here? Are we all just fooling ourselves?

Greed, avarice, egotism, selfishness. These are the traits that have enabled the bad actors who produced this scandal. And who is responsible for this? We are. We all are. Because no matter what we might tell ourselves, our children seem to think that the key to happiness in life is getting into a well-known university. Because they are all running themselves ragged chasing after that fantasy. And where do they get that idea? From us. Adults.

Marissa Tait, Beth Shalom’s Youth Director, tells me that our teens are all over-scheduled. Taken in isolation, each one of the following activities are important and laudable:  They take SAT classes, do sports, go to JLine, various school clubs, sing with HaZamir, and of course they are staying up every night until midnight or later doing their homework for all of their AP classes.

They are all deeply invested in these things. However, with the expectation, according to author William Deresiewicz in his book, Excellent Sheep, that every college applicant has 7-10 extra-curriculars, might it be possible that these kids hardly have time to be kids? As parents, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we are giving our children the tools necessary to build the character traits that will make them benei Adam, human beings?

How can you appreciate what you have learned if you have no time to do so? How can you improve yourself, building on the values your education endows you with, if you are too busy checking all the boxes? How can you acquire depth, recognize historical patterns that continue to play out today, acknowledge the poetic vulnerability of the human soul if you do not have time in which to reflect?

Entirely coincidentally, the Making Caring Common Project of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education issued a report this week about how parental messaging regarding the focus on college admissions is actually damaging to teens.

The report notes that

…an intense focus on academic achievement has squeezed out serious attention to ethical character both in a large majority of high schools and a large number of families. Many parents—particularly, middle- and upper-income parents—seeking coveted spots for their children in elite colleges are failing to focus on what really matters in this process. In an effort to give their kids everything, these parents often end up robbing them of what counts.

Furthermore, the process

…corrodes the development of core aspects of young people’s ethical character, often fueling their self-interest, compromising their integrity, and depleting their capacity to either know themselves deeply or to authentically articulate their identity in a college application.

The point we have reached is a destructive one. The literature shows that rates of anxiety and depression have been rising for some time.

So what is the antidote to all of this?

Among the strategies that the report suggests are,

  • “Help your teen contribute to others in meaningful ways”;
  • “Advocate for elevating ethical character”; and
  • “Model and encourage gratitude.”

Hmm. Where might one learn these things?

Pulling back the lens, considering our teens and all the rest of us, what we need is not the checking of boxes and the micro-management of our packaged identities. What we need instead is meaning. Connection. Highlighting the holy moments. And we have a framework for that: it’s called Judaism.

Yes, Shabbat. Yes, holidays. Yes, highlighting the holy moments through lifecycle events such as bar mitzvah. Yes, tefillah / prayer that is self-reflective. All of those things are valuable.

But all the moreso, real learning. Studying the words of our tradition. Torah lishmah. Torah for its own sake. Because that is how we improve ourselves; that is how we internalize the true value of tzedaqah / charitable acts of righteousness, gratitude, empathy, humility, and so forth.

Talmud: Berakhot 35b

אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי יהודה ברבי אלעאי: בא וראה שלא כדורות הראשונים דורות האחרונים, דורות הראשונים עשו תורתן קבע ומלאכתן עראי – זו וזו נתקיימה בידן, דורות האחרונים שעשו מלאכתן קבע ותורתן עראי – זו וזו לא נתקיימה בידן

Rabba bar bar Ḥana said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, son of Rabbi El’ai: Come and see that the latter generations are not like the earlier generations. The earlier generations made their Torah study a regular activity and their work occasional, and these were both successful for them. However, the latter generations who made their work regular and their Torah occasional, neither work nor study was successful for them.

We need to make sure that Torah lishmah is an essential feature of our lives. We need to focus more on the soul, on improving our internal character.

Here at Beth Shalom, particularly through Derekh, offer all those tools, for adults, for teens, for everybody. We are offering Torah lishmah, Torah for its own sake in many ways, through programs and discussions that take place not only on Shabbat, but all week long.

Come take advantage of them. You will improve yourself and your life, and the more that we do so the greater chance we have of building a better world, one that reflects all of the values that we say we hold dear. And just maybe we will together help teach our children to be benei Adam, human beings.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/23/2019.

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Increase the Love: Ha’Olam / The World – Yom Kippur 5779

Wait! You might want to read the first three items in the series before you read this one:

Increase the Love: Ani / The Self – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 1

Increase the Love: HaMishpahah / The Family – Rosh Hashanah 5779, Day 2

Increase the Love: Beyahad / Community – Kol Nidrei 5779

***

In the final installment of this High Holiday sermon cycle, we are widening the circle a whole lot more today. Beyond ourselves, beyond our family, beyond our community, it is upon us to love the world. Today we address the fourth letter in אהבה / ahavah / love: the second heh is for העולם / ha’olam / the world. The idea that I am trying to keep in front of us all this year, this prime year of 5779, is to increase the love.

Because the world needs some lovin’. Think of where we are right now. Think of all the tumult going on in the world. Forget American politics: think of how Great Britain has been torn apart over Brexit. Think of natural disasters – hurricanes and typhoons. Think of the Rohingya Muslims who have been slaughtered by the Buddhist population of Myanmar. Think of the violence that has erupted in India because of fake news stories shared on social media. Think of nationalist governments in Russia and Hungary that are busy eroding freedoms and judicial authorities, and the other nations like Italy and Sweden and Poland that are moving that way. Think of the tidal wave of refugees around the world, people uprooted from their homes by war and malfeasance. Think of the mess that is Syria.

Something that we say when we enter the Ten Days of Teshuvah / Repentance (of which today is the tenth day) is a line from the prophet Isaiah: “Shalom, shalom larahoq velaqarov.” Greetings, greetings to all who are far and all who are near. In this season of teshuvah, repentance, and renewal, we see ourselves as connected to everybody, be they close or far away geographically or spiritually. We remember them all; we welcome them all.

love lady bugs

We, the Jews, have been on this planet for thousands of years. For much of this time we have lived as strangers in strange lands, sometimes at peace with our neighbors, sometimes not.

But at this particular moment in time, when there are 7.6 billion people on Earth, far more than it can handle; when sin’at hinnam / baseless hatred is running high all over the world; when political rifts divide us so angrily, and social media bubbles and algorithms exacerbate those rifts; when terrorism and war and displacement have ruined so many lives and upended stable political orders, there is only one thing that can save us:

Ahavat olam. Love of the world.

We invoke love explicitly in tefillah / Jewish prayer in the paragraph right before we say the Shema, the essential credo of Judaism. In the morning, we remember that the gift of Torah is the essential statement of God’s love for us Jews; in the evening, we mention God’s eternal love for the people of Israel: Ahavat olam beit Yisrael ammekha ahavta. With an eternal love have You loved the house of Israel.

And yet, that phrase, ahavat olam, can also be translated as “love of the world.” The suggestion then would be that God loves us with the same love with which God loves the entire world. All people. I like that reading.

And just as God loves the whole world, so should we. It is the farthest reach of Maimonides’ concentric circles of caring. And even though all love must start within us and flow outward, even though Maimonides tells us that our first obligation to perform tzedaqah / acts of righteousness is for those closest to us, we cannot neglect the rest of the world.

In Israeli scholar Yuval Harari’s take on the cognitive history of humanity called Sapiens, he tells the following story:

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon. In the months leading up to their expedition, the Apollo 11 astronauts trained in a remote moon-like desert in the western United States. The area is home to several Native American communities, and there is a story – or legend – describing an encounter between the astronauts and one of the locals.

One day as they were training, the astronauts came across an old Native American. The man asked them what they were doing there. They replied that they were part of a research expedition that would shortly travel to explore the moon. When the old man heard that, he fell silent for a few moments, and then asked the astronauts if they could do him a favor.

‘What do you want?’ they asked.

‘Well,’ said the old man, ‘the people of my tribe believe that holy spirits live on the moon.  I was wondering if you could pass an important message to them from my people.’

‘What’s the message?’ asked the astronauts.

The man uttered something in his tribal language, and then asked the astronauts to repeat it again and again until they had memorized it correctly.

‘What does it mean?’ asked the astronauts.

‘Oh, I cannot tell you. It’s a secret that only our tribe and the moon spirits are allowed to know.’

When they returned to their base, the astronauts searched and searched until they found someone who could speak the tribal language, and asked him to translate the secret message. When they repeated what they had memorized, the translator started to laugh uproariously. When he calmed down, the astronauts asked him what it meant. The man explained that the sentence they had memorized so carefully said, ‘Don’t believe a single word these people are telling you. They have come to steal your lands.’

moon

Human history has demonstrated over and over that the members of Homo Sapiens do not love each other enough. And we have certainly not loved God’s Creation. Another poignant detail that Harari includes in his book is that wherever humans have lived, they have more or less destroyed the natural environment – the flora and fauna, the topography, the rivers and lakes and oceans.

Our member Jordan Fischbach spoke about this at a Lox & Learning session this past Sunday morning: Pittsburgh currently averages zero days per year where the temperature is over 95 degrees F; in 30 years, the average will be 20 days/yr over 95 degrees. Sea levels are rising, and they may rise as much as eight feet by the end of this century. Remember when the flooding like we are seeing right now in North Carolina and in Houston last year was unusual? Given all the data, we know that we are responsible for climate change, yet are failing to address the challenge.

But maybe – just maybe – we are at a moment in which we can change. That is, after all, the whole point of these days, the Ten Days of Teshuvah / Return, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and concluding today.

At the Rabbinical Assembly convention last April, a rabbinic colleague of mine, Rabbi Susan Grossman in Columbia, MD, spoke about how she had found that some members of her community were unable to talk to each other in today’s political climate: people were not going to Thanksgiving dinners with their family because of deep ideological disagreements. (I have heard of similar cases here in PGH.) So she developed a plan to work on this – she brought in a group that helps facilitate conversations that bring people together.

She also told the following story, which I found particularly moving:

During one of our many interfaith programs, I met a woman wearing a hijab and a beautifully embroidered Bedouin dress. I complimented her on her dress and we got to talking. She was a Palestinian pediatrician, the grandmother of two little boys, one of whom was playing on the beach when he was hit and killed by an Israeli rocket during the Gaza War a few years ago. She stood stiffly before me, clearly bitter and angry. My heart broke for her. How could it not? I opened my hands, palms up, inviting her to take them. She did. We took a step toward each other; two mothers sharing tragic news. I looked into her eyes and said truthfully, deeply, that I was so sorry; losing a child, a grandchild, is the worst thing that can happen to anyone; what a tragedy it is that we haven’t found a way for both Israelis and Palestinians to live in their own states in peace.

Her stance softened, sadness replaced the anger I first had seen. She looked at me, gauging me, and I, her. I acknowledged how I could not compare my experience to hers and began to share how Hamas rockets had rained down on me and the families with me when we were in Israel in the days leading up to the Gaza War. I asked her if perhaps we could work together for all our children’s sake. She squeezed my hands, gave a small nod, and said, ‘You are a good Jew.’ I replied, ‘There are many.’ We returned together to the program. I doubt I changed this woman’s attitude about Israel at all. But perhaps next time she meets a Jew she won’t automatically see an enemy.

Every Shabbat morning, and on all holidays here at Beth Shalom, when we recite our Prayer for the Country, we invoke the messianic vision of Isaiah: “Lo yisa goi el goi herev, velo yilmedu od milhamah / Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they anymore learn war.”

Now, while many of you know me to be an optimist, I am not a Pollyanna, a naif who believes that Isaiah’s vision can be implemented overnight. Although once upon a time, John Lennon’s lyric, “Imagine all the people, sharing all the world” lit a fire in my idealistic teenage soul, in the decades since I have come to understand that everything is a little more complicated than that. Humanity will always be a work in progress.

But I do know this: an essential question of the current moment is this: How can we all live here together without destroying each other and the planet?

It might be easy to throw up our hands and say, the world is a lost cause. There is no way that anything I can do can change the trajectory of all the forces in play. I can’t solve climate change. I can’t stop the Iranians or the North Koreans from producing nuclear weapons. I can’t even get people who are driving by on my street to slow down for the sake of children playing nearby.

But everything that we can do to take even simple steps toward increasing the love in this world might help.

Do you remember the Lorax?  The book by Dr. Seuss?  “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”  It contains a powerful message about the use and abuse of God’s creation for selfish purposes.

lorax1

The book concludes by highlighting a word that is absolutely perfect for Yom Kippur.  One word: “Unless.”

This day of prayer, fasting, and self-denial can come and go, and we can be unchanged; we can fail to be transformed by it, unless:

  • Unless we commit ourselves to being responsible for one another.
  • Unless we learn to be sensitized to the needs of others, and step out of our own worlds into theirs.
  • Unless we understand that the long-term needs of the wider society are more important than our own short-term personal needs or desires, and that working for the benefit of the community and the world not only benefits us as individuals but is vital in the long term.
  • Unless we internalize that all of our choices matter – paper or plastic, wind or solar or coal, incandescent, CFL, or LED, and on and on.
  • Unless we see ourselves as connected to the entire world: to the 12-year-old sewing sneakers in Vietnam, to the denizens of Brazilian favelas, to starving Yemeni victims of that country’s civil war, to those terrorized by Boko Haram in Nigeria, to undocumented immigrants in our own neighborhood.
  • Unless we look past ourselves, past our families, and past our own immediate Jewish community to the greater challenges that we face on our planet.

unless

And yes, that’s what this day is all about: increasing the love by improving ourselves, by taking the next step forward.

So given that Judaism is a tradition of action, and that our goal is to increase the love, what can we do?

We can follow the advice of our rabbis on this day. In a little while, when we recite the Untaneh Toqef prayer, we will conclude by saying, “Utshuvah utfillah, utzdaqah ma’avirin et ro’a hagezerah.” Repentance, prayer, and charity will annul the severity of the decree.

  1. Teshuvah / Repentance: we need to look seriously at how we have behaved – as individuals, of course, but also as a nation, as a people, as a species – and determine how to move forward in a way that is healthier for all of us. That might mean working on behalf of fair wages for migrant workers in America, or working toward finding a cure for Zika, or considering the relationship between our economy and our carbon footprint.
  2. Tefillah / Prayer: There is nothing wrong with actually praying, of course, but perhaps we might read this as awareness: be aware of what is going on in the world, and try to figure how your actions might affect people in your neighborhood or far away. Check out the damage that meat consumption causes to the environment. Google the true cost of cheap clothing. Consider how refugees are turning European politics upside-down.
  3. Tzedaqah / Acts of righteousness: Put your money and your time where your mouth is. Find a charity that is doing something good in the world. There are many. You have to do some research first (always a good idea to check out any charity on the website charitynavigator.org), but there is so much to be done, so many ways to love this world.

Love of the world has the power to lessen the severity of the decree, to strengthen bonds between people, to change the outcomes for the better. And you might not be able to love the world enough by yourself, but if we all commit to doing just a little something, imagine the power that we all have together. As Pirkei Avot, the 2nd-century collection of Jewish wisdom tells us, “Lo alekha hamelakhah ligmor, velo atah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena.” It’s not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to give up on it. Consider the following:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean.  The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they will die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and thousands of starfish?  You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.  Then, smiling at the man, he said. “I made a difference for that one.”

Think about it, ladies and gentlemen. You can leave this service today unmoved by our ancient liturgy and the words of our tradition. You can break the fast tonight and be exactly the same person tomorrow that you were yesterday.

Or you can use this day, this holiest day of the year, to figure out how to increase the net love in the world. You can figure out a new way to reach out. Maybe you’d like to volunteer in helping refugee families here in Pittsburgh adapt to a new life. Maybe you can advocate on behalf of those who need food or shelter. Maybe, if you have the means, can help fund a charitable organization to help children in Africa get access to better nutrition.

All you have to do to act on ahavat olam, love of the world, is to step forward, to pick up a starfish, and toss it into the water.

Love. Ve-ahavta lere’akha kamokha. Love your neighbor as yourself; increase the love.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Yom Kippur day, 9/19/2018.)

 

 

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