First Comes the Deed
There is a Talmudic teaching that one should do something and the reason will follow – mitoch shelo l’shma, bah l’shma. Part of this counsel is the understanding that often emotion follows action, rather than preceding it. Act joyously and you will feel joy.
It is easy to get caught in theory and propose ways to live without living. The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus critiques those too enmeshed in theory this way in his Discourses:
“A carpenter does not approach you and say ‘Listen to me talk about the art of carpentry. He makes a contract for a house and builds it…Do the same…Eat like a man, drink like a man…get married, have children, take part in civic life, learn how to put up with insults and tolerate other people.”
Discourses on pluralism – or attacking others for their lack of same – are less important than demonstrating how you can absorb and understand views that are different from your own. Counsels to kindness matter far less than kind actions. Discourse is second to doing.
At the end of the Torah Moses is praised for “asher asah Moshe” – that which Moses did. What Moses said obviously mattered enormously, but only because his actions gave credibility and power to the words he spoke in God’s name.
Why Gandhi Couldn’t Be Jewish
When a family returns from a funeral in the Jewish tradition, there is a meal, seudat havra’ah, the meal of consolation. It is the first step in returning to life after loss. At the end of shiva, the seven days of mourning, the mourners rise and walk around the block. After grieving at home for a week, one must rejoin the outside world. Shiva is not to extend past seven days; as there is mandated mourning, there is a mandated end to mourning.
The Jewish emphasis on the sanctity and beauty of life is not only seen in difficult times. Gandhi could not have been an observant Jew — because he went on fasts that lasted for many weeks. In the Jewish tradition it is a mitzvah – a commandment – to eat three meals on the Sabbath. A Jew is not permitted to fast on the Sabbath day, with the sole exception of a Sabbath that falls on Yom Kippur. Excessive mourning and strict self-deprivation go against the ethos of appreciating and enjoying the life God has given. Each day is a blessing, and even after a loss we affirm – L’chaim! To life.
The Good Enough Child
The renowned English psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, famously proposed the idea of the “good enough mother.” Winnicott taught that parents should understand that they cannot provide everything the child demands. Yes, the child will grow frustrated, but the developing child’s frustration is essential to autonomy and to growth. Parents need not be – indeed never could be – perfect. It is good enough to be good enough.
As a Rabbi I have often seen the reverse. Children whose parents are at the end of life blame themselves for not being there for aging parents at every minute. Many who have spent days or weeks by the bedside of an aging parent are unable to be there at the exact moment of death and beat themselves up over this presumed omission.
I would like to extend Winnicott’s idea of the good enough parent to “the good enough child.” The Torah teaches “Do not cast me off when I am old” (Ps. 71:9). That is sane and sage and compassionate. It does not say that you must be devoted unfailingly to care for an aging parent. We are flawed creatures with multiple responsibilities and confusing choices. Neither parents nor children have to be perfect; they can, without guilt, be good enough.
Speaking God’s Name
There are various legends of the Golem, the creature of clay who is brought to life by a wonder working rabbi. The most famous involves that of Rabbi Judah Loew, the famed Maharal of Prague.
In these legends, it is God’s name that animates the creature. In the case of the Maharal, the Golem is finally destroyed because God’s name is pulled from his mouth. In the legend of Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, the name of God was on its forehead, and once removed, it “turned to nothing and returned to earth.”
The Golem was the fantastically powerful hero of a powerless people, but the way it came to life also teaches us something about the Jewish sense of destiny. So long as God’s name was in our mouths, on our foreheads (reminiscent of the tefillin), we could sustain ourselves. Should the day come that we no longer spoke God’s name, we would return to dust.
There is deep wisdom in folktales. The Jewish people always understood itself to have a mission in this world, and that was why God brought us into being. May God’s name never leave our mouths.
Is Israel A Miracle?
It is not easy to demonstrate miracles, but here are three things about the modern state of Israel that make one wonder:
1. The people who created the state came almost entirely from dictatorships and autocracies and yet created a democratic system of government.
2. The official language, Hebrew, is a language that had not been spoken as an everyday tongue for some 2,000 years. Yet it has produced novelists and poets of world class standing, including two Nobel prize winners in literature.
3. The Jewish people had been without self-governance and without an army for 2,000 years. They were decimated by the Shoah and surrounded by enemy states. Nonetheless Israel won the War of Independence against 7 countries and two irregular armies. Since that time, despite the constant threat of surrounding states, Israel has become a powerhouse in the region. One could multiply the remarkable stories about Israel, a place smaller than the state of New Jersey. It stands among the tech leaders of the world, and is in the forefront of medical and other advances. Do any one of these facts actually point to Divine intervention? I will leave it more prophetic spirits to declare, but it seems fair to say that, taken together it is all pretty miraculous.
“Why are you doing that?” “What’s that for?”
Modern society makes us captives of teleology. That is, we think we should be acting for a reason and aiming toward a goal. We are supposed to be living purpose driven lives and everything in it should be animated by some end, great or small.
But some of the best moments of life have no purpose but themselves. When children are playing, they are playing to play. When we become adults and take time to play, a vague guilt trails after us as though we should not be spending our time on something ‘frivolous.’ But beauty and joy and simple fun are not frivolous – they are among the most beautiful aspects of life.
The pandemic has given people time that they did not expect. Many of us have felt guilt for using it to watch interesting shows, read unexpected books, or play games online. A life of frivolous things is certainly wasted, but a life without them is narrow and pinched. Daydream alongside doing. Sometimes it is healthy, normal – human – to do nothing, and to do it well. Frivol a little today!
Two words spoken in the Torah sum up an entire world view. Negating those words, contradicting them, proving them untrue, is a noble and necessary mission. The words are “Lo Nukhal.”
In Genesis Jacob comes across a group of shepherds gathered around the well (Gen,29:2). The well is covered by a giant stone. When Jacob asks them why they do not remove the stone and water their sheep, they answer “Lo Nukhal” — we cannot. Jacob walked over and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well. Perhaps you can’t, his actions declared, but I can.
Everyone lives with limitations. There are limitations of natural endowments and limitations imposed on us by upbringing and society. And it is true, we cannot do everything. But we shall fail to do anything if our motto becomes that of the shepherds — lo nukhal. Achievements begin in the belief that they can indeed be achieved. Success in life requires confident daring. Perhaps that is why thousands of years later we do not know the name of a single one of the timid shepherds, but none have forgotten the man who became Israel.
The Lesson Of Father Abraham
We do not know why Abraham is chosen. Later however, God describes the special nature of Abraham’s mission: “I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and posterity” (Gen. 18:19). In other words, God saw in Abraham the capacity to educate others. Abraham is the original influencer – a teacher.
What does Abraham’s conduct teach us? He does not leave home alone. For the journey to Canaan along with his wife Sarah, Abraham brings his nephew Lot. They each prosper in the new land and quarrels break out between their herdsmen. Abraham has been the force behind the move, but what he says to Lot is, let us separate. You may take whatever land you choose, and I will take the rest.
This act of material and spiritual generosity is a profound lesson. Abraham teaches us to give others the dignity of their own choices, to not always claim what is due to you, and to value peace. When there is conflict, in a family, or in a nation, both gloating and recrimination make us weaker. Each side has its causes to advance and its field to tend. Compromise and understanding make us stronger. The voting is done. Now is the time to heal, as taught by our father Abraham.
Judaism begins in walking. God tells Abraham to ‘lech,’ go, and he and Sarah walk for many miles to the land that will be Israel. Jewish law is called halachah, which means walking. Angels are sometimes referred to as omdim, those who stand, as opposed to human beings, who walk.
Motion is life and change and growth. Movement of the body aids movement of the mind. An angel tells the depressed and motionless Elijah to walk back to the people, Miriam dances in joy at the sea, and Isaac, when he first sees his beloved Rebeka, is wandering in the field.
The onset of the pandemic has made movement more difficult for most of us. Nonetheless constant sitting is unhealthy for both the body and the spirit. When we are in mourning, we sit shiva; when the period is over it is traditional to walk around the block. Movement returns us to life. We do not sit in God’s ways, but “walk in My ways (Lev. 26:3).” The Psalmist advises, “Let them praise God’s name with dancing (149:3).” Walk and run and dance. If you are blessed enough to have limbs that can move, move!
Your Politics and Mine — and His and Hers
Of course your political views are correct, but may I take a moment to remind you of something?
Moses’ leadership was repeatedly challenged and Korach’s uprising against him seemed to have wide support. King David almost lost the battle with his son Absalom, who rebelled against him. After Solomon, the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel split when different sides proclaimed different Kings. The Maccabees eventually lost the support of the people. There were so many quarreling factions in rabbinic times that the rabbis themselves attributed the destruction of the Temple to the mutual animosity of Jews with varied allegiances.
Moving to modern times, Zionism was a ridiculed minority movement among Jews for most of its history before the second world war. Need I continue? Competing political loyalties have deep roots in our history. The one thing that seems not to change is the absolute certainty of each side (and I do not exempt myself!) that they are correct in every particular and for all time.
I urge you – go, vote your conscience. Please understand, however, that someone can disagree while voting theirs as well. Barring the ground splitting open in red or blue states, history will make the final call.