The ability to see flaws is both innate and easy; the crack or stain presents itself to our eye. The ability to see virtue is less easy, but practicing a vision of merit in others can change us as well. When I read the following testament, my sense is not that the author, almost 1,000 years ago, as naïve; I read him as a noble soul.
A sage said: “I never met a man in whom I failed to recognize something superior to myself: if he was older, I said he has done more good than I; if younger, I said I have sinned more; if richer, I said he has been more charitable; if poorer, I said he has suffered more; if wiser, I honored his wisdom; and if not wiser, I judged his faults lighter.”
The Talmud writes of the compensation due to one who is injured: “One who injures another is liable to pay compensation for that injury due to five types of indemnity: He must pay for damage, for pain, for medical costs, for loss of livelihood, and for humiliation.” (BK 83b).
These are the words of the Mishna. The Gemara goes on to elaborate all these types of losses. Notice that the final loss is humiliation. To be injured has social implications, and some injuries are more damaging to one’s social standing or self-esteem than others. In recognizing this, thousands of years ago, the Talmud acknowledges that injury to one’s psyche is as real as injuries to one’s body.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” is a questionable bromide we learned as children. But sticks and stones can break more than bones. As a society we are still making progress in healing the shame from those who have been hurt, disabled, or sidelined. The Talmud teaches us to see one another in all our human dimensions and to take the health of our minds as seriously as we take the health of our bodies.
“In former times, the faces of corpses of the poor were covered to hide the marks of poverty: only the faces of the rich corpses were uncovered.
In former times, the poor used a bed made of reeds to carry the deceased while the deceased of the rich were carried on stately, ornamental beds.
In former times, the food brought to the house of mourners was carried in silver and gold baskets for the rich mourners while for the poor mourners the food was placed in baskets of willow twigs. In former times, the poor mourners drank wine out of cheap colored glass, but the rich drank out of white crystal glass.”
The Rabbis erased these distinctions and democratized death. The same grieving hearts mark the death of rich and poor alike. Traditionally, the mogul and the pauper are both buried in a plain pine box.
In this world, there will always be those with more and those with less. Before God, we are measured not by opulence, but by the openness of our hands and the honesty of our hearts.
More than one biblical story pivots on the occurrence of a significant dream, or a vision of the night. The Talmud takes dreams seriously, although it understands their limitations: “even a dream that will be fulfilled contains some nonsense (Ber. 55a).”
Maimonides writes that the Patriarchs experiences prophesy only in dreams. This statement leads to an objection from Nachmanides, the Ramban. According to Maimonides, Jacob’s wrestling with the angel must have been a dream. If so, asks Ramban, why does Jacob limp afterward?
A later scholar, the Ritva, has a beautiful answer. Powerful dreams can touch us and change our lives. So charged a dream would have changed Jacob not only psychically, but even physically. Our nighttime visions, whatever their source, can spill over into our days. When we sleep a different dimension of the self opens, and struggles we thought we left behind are engaged anew. We can indeed be changed by our dreams.
Are the holidays holier than the rest of the year? One could make the argument that holiness inheres in specialness. On the holidays, we wear our best clothes, gather to pray special prayers, and try to focus on things spiritual. Once the holidays end, life returns to the run of daily concerns that make up life.
But there is a Jewish principle, tadir ushaino tadir, tadir kodem — when a mitzvah is frequent, and another infrequent, the frequently observed mitzvah takes precedence. This side argues that holiness is found in the commonplace. Surely there is nothing holier than greeting one another on a new day or reading to a child as they drop softly to sleep each night. A well lived life shines through the quotidian, the routine of living, no matter the spice of special occasions.
The ‘holiday season’ is here, and there is a sadness as holidays recede but also a sense of relief. Each time has its own kind of sacredness. Peaks, plains and valleys, all are essential terrain. For the questing soul, each day, God awaits.
One way of being grateful is to throw oneself into an empathetic future. Sure, relatives can be difficult to sit with at the Thanksgiving dinner table. What will I feel when they are gone? How will I yearn for these moments, even those that irritate or upset me, when I can no longer be with people whom I love?
It is a paradox of human nature that we realize this truth but seem unable to absorb it. My late teacher Rabbi David Lieber once told me that we can foreknow things but we cannot forefeel them.
As we gather around our Thanksgiving tables, let us remember and miss those who are not there, be grateful for those who are, and make a promise to sustain sympathy so that our celebrations will ring in the memory of the younger group throughout the years. Just as Thanksgivings of the past warm our memories and touch our hearts.
This week records something remarkable in the Torah. Sarah and Abraham both die and for the first time in Jewish history, there is a next generation. The admonition we read in the Shema – “And you shall teach it to your children” (Deut. 11:9) – is the building block of the future.
Isaac in that special sense has a harder task than Abraham, because it is often harder to continue than to begin. After all, Abraham and Sarah brought something new in the world following the word of God; Isaac must first follow the word of Abraham and Sarah.
Together with Rebeka, Isaac is a tenuous thread, the single linkage between the awesome command given to Abraham and the dramatic events and promises given to Jacob and the twelve tribes. But he succeeded, proving what the child in synagogue told my colleague years ago when asked how she came to learn her Torah lessons so well: “It runs in the family.”
It may be that the most important biblical passage for our time is found in the book of Joshua:
“…he looked up and saw a man standing before him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and asked him, ‘Are you one of us or of our enemies?’ He replied, ‘No! I am captain of the Lord’s host.’’ (Joshua 5:13,14).
“No!” The angel does not accept Joshua’s categories. Not everyone must be on one side or another; God has no team. In every group, there is some justice, some wisdom, some goodness. Certainly, there are things to oppose and to fight in this world, but the notion that one party or faction is repository of all virtue is fatuous and dangerous. Listen to the angel: God is greater than parties. If we catch some of that spirit, perhaps we can begin to heal the deep divisions that beset our nation and our world.
Have we grown into the person we were meant to be? Have we realized our potential or betrayed it?
The story is told of the renowned scholar, Rabbi Hayim of Volozhin, that when young, he was an indifferent student. One day, he decided to abandon his studies and go to a trade school instead. He announced his decision to his parents, who reluctantly acquiesced.
That night, the young man had a dream. In it, he saw an angel holding a stack of beautiful books. “Whose books are those?” he asked the angel. “They are yours,” was the answer, “if you have the courage to write them.” The dream changed the young man’s life, and Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin was on his way to discover who he was meant to become. Perhaps if we listen to our inner angels, we can do the same.
When God calls in the garden, Adam explains, “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” The midrash comments: “naked of mitzvot.”
The theme of being stripped bare is common in modern art. The sculptures of Giacometti, the writings of Kafka, and Coetzee’s Michael K. all depict people reduced to the essence, and they are afraid.
We cover ourselves with possessions, with titles, with connections and refinements to help us feel safe. We fear being naked, not in the physical sense, but in the metaphysical sense — denuded of all the things that protect us from the vagaries of the world.
The Midrash insists that to be naked is not to be stripped of possessions, or attachments; it is to be stripped of good deeds. One who is cloaked by righteousness is not naked. The snake in the garden is arum, a Hebrew word suggesting both nakedness and craftiness. The connection is clear: to be without goodness is to be truly exposed. With mitzvot one need not feel unprotected or afraid.