Friday, March 2, 2012

Laborious Covenants

In Shemot 32:15, we read: “Sheshet yamim ye’aseh melacha, u’vayom ha’shvi’i Shabbat shabbaton kodesh, Six days you shall work, and on the seventh day there will be the holy Shabbat.” We have been taught from a young age of Shabbat’s sanctity and beauty, and so, in reading this pasuk, many of us may skim over the “work” part and jump right to Shabbat. Avot D’Rabbi Natan, however, does no such prioritizing. The brit olam (eternal covenant) referred to in the next pasuk of Shemot is not just referring to Shabbat, but also to work. “K’shem she’ha’Torah nitna bivrit, kach ha’melacha nitna bivrit, Just like the Torah was given by covenant, so too is work given by covenant,” we learned this week in Avot D’Rabbi Natan.

To assert that work is part of our covenant with God is a very profound statement. Work, then, is not a means to Shabbat but rather has value in and of itself. Like God, we work, and, also like God, we rest. Perhaps what the rabbis mean here is that there is something about labor that creates a partnership between God and people. “According to the effort is the reward,” it says in Pirkei Avot. It makes sense (and is an accepted truth) that our grades will reflect the amount of studying we did or that our gardens will blossom according to the amount of care we put into them. This same principle can be applied to a relationship with God. Houses don’t build themselves and (unfortunately) calculus tests are not miraculously studied for without the time being applied. So too, a relationship with God doesn’t come to be if there is no human input. This linkage of labor and Shabbat reminds us that we need to work really, really hard to become God’s partners (even when it sometimes feels like there is little Divine output), and then we also have to stop that work and experience God.

After giving several examples of the importance of work, the text quotes Rabbi Tarfon. “Even the Holy One, Blessed be He, did not allow his Presence on Israel until they had done work, as it is written (Shemot 25), v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham, And they shall make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.” God’s presence is found only after the Children of Israel do the work of creating space in their encampment and finding time in their lives for God.

In the Psalm for Shabbat, we recite the phrase, “b’maaseh yadecha aranen, I rejoice in the works of Your hand.” By fulfilling both the labor and Shabbat aspects of our covenant, this statement can become one that is reciprocal. When I look around the world and see beauty and humanity, I can say to God: “I rejoice in the work of Your hand.” It is partly with this in mind that I strive to live a life in which I may merit having God say the same words back to me. When we work to fix the parts of the world that are not so beautiful and that lack humanity, our fervently whispered prayers are lovingly boomeranged back to us, as God affirms: “I rejoice in the works of your hands.” I often think about to what extent yismach Hashem b’maasav, God rejoices in His works (humans). But maybe the more pertinent question, and one that I feel more sure in answering, is how much God rejoices in the maasim of his maasav, the work (deeds) done by His work (humanity).

Alef Dalet Gordon wrote, “We lack the habit of labor--not labor performed out of external compulsion, but labor to which one is attached in a natural and organic way.” I often compartmentalize Zionism and rabbinic texts into separate groupings, but I love thinking about Gordon’s “natural and organic” labor as an integral piece of the Divine covenant. To have God dwell among us, we need to create a Covenant, one that encompasses working, creating, and doing with keeping and remembering. The authenticity of our Covenant lies in our ability to fully immerse ourselves in what we are doing. I find that there is nothing as satisfying as fully pouring myself into writing a paper or using all of my strength to shovel snow. Likewise, there is nothing like giving up all of my being to Shabbat.

As I write this, Shabbat is only a half-hour away. And so I must end here to attend to the non-labor part of our covenant. Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

We are Your children, and You are our Father

When God struck Miriam with leprosy, Moshe prayed for her. According to Avot d’Rabbi Natan, he intensified that prayer by drawing a circle, getting inside it, and telling God that he would not leave until his sister was healed. This tactic seems to work: “b’ota sha’ah” “at that very time” God tells Moshe that God will have mercy on her for Moshe’s sake.

Choni HaMe’agel famously used this strategy to pray for rain (and then to pray for the rain to stop when it worked too well, in a scene that always reminded me of Strega Nona’s spaghetti). My first thought was that this reflects a theology where God is dependent on people: God must need Moshe and Choni, or he would be able to say “All right, then. Stay there and die of thirst.” I understand how someone might make a neder that she would bring a sacrifice to the Temple if God answers her prayers, but here, Moshe and Choni assume that what God wants is us, and that assumption seems to be correct.

I have been thinking about this image of God who needs people lately, as part of my new obsession with the medieval Hebrew poet Yehuda HaLevi, which started a few weeks ago when my teacher Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky showed me one of his poems. In another of his poems, “Ya’alat Chen,” “The Graceful Doe,” a lover describes his relationship with a woman whom he loves and who seems to love him but who often rejects and hurts him. According to my very cursory looks at what people say about this poem on the internet, it could be either a straight-up human love poem or a poem from God’s point of view about God’s relationship with Israel. I’ll assume the latter for now. The Hebrew isn’t showing up right, so I’ll write using my own problematic translation, but here it is.

Much of the poem is spent describing how attracted God is to beautiful Israel, and how Israel rejects God over and over: “She trapped my heart with the breasts that rest on it—A heart like a rock, but it brought out two apples!” and “I was longing for her love like a drunkard for wine,” says God, and when he finally had his hands “grazing in her garden and touching her breasts,” she tells him to take his hands away. A reasonable person might ask whether he should really be in this relationship, but that does not seem like a question for him: he says that, if his lover ever leaves “[her] leaving will be his tragedy.” Here, God needs the need the lover, but just because he loves her, not for anything in particular.

The Choni  story provides a relationship where the lack of reciprocity might seem less troubling. After Choni stops the rain, Shimon ben Shatach tells him, “If you were anyone else, I would have put a ban of excommunication on you. But what can I do against someone like you, who need only tell God his needs and God fills them, the way a son can tell his father his needs and his father will fill them” (Ta’anit 19a). God does not want Moshe and Choni to stay in their circles forever, not because he needs them to be functional for him, but because he loves them. In fact, in God’s response to Moshe, God compares himself to Miriam’s father (and therefore also Moshe’s).  Moshe is often described the one who sees God face-to-face, but here, the relationship is markedly unequal, and that works for both parties. The tactic of staying in a circle until you get what you want might seem more appropriate to a sulky three-year-old than to the leaders of our people, but in these stories, we are God’s toddlers, and that is one of the things God loves most about us: in each of these stories, people tried ordinary verbal prayers, but God was more affected by the appeal to God's parental side and the reminder of our childlike vulnerability.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Scattered Souls

Our learning for this week was focused around the teaching from Pirkei Avot: “aseh lecha rav, u’kneh lecha chaver, v’hevey dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf zchut. Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person with the scales tipped in his favor.”

When we learned this text over the summer, one of its aspects that I particularly liked was the use of the verb aseh (make) rather than kneh (acquire) in reference to finding teachers. A teacher, implies the text, is not discovered but cultivated. More so, anyone can be made into a teacher, as it is a process of relationship building rather than a swift act of obtaining. Avot d’Rabbi Natan reads this text a bit more literally. “Melamed she’ya’aseh lo rav kavua. This teaches us that a person should have a fixed teacher.” From this teacher, a student should learn Torah, Mishna, midrash, halachah, and aggadah. In this way, if a teacher forgets a detail when teaching Torah, for example, this detail will still ultimately be imparted to the student when the teacher teaches Mishna.

I know very few people who have a rav kavua, a fixed teacher. In my personal experience, I have not only had different teachers for Tanach, Mishnah, and the rest of my Jewish learning, but I also have a whole other set of teachers from whom I have learned English literature, calculus, physics, and history. Furthermore, there is no one rabbi I would go to for psak, nor is there one denomination or ideology to which I fully subscribe. In speaking about students like me, Avot d’Rabbi Natan asserts that “nimtza adam ha’hu…b’lo tov u’vracha. A man like this will be found…to have neither goodness nor blessing.” Great…

A really interesting note on the commentary offered on the original line in Pirkei Avot (a meta-commentary?) reads: “Ha’lomed Torah me’harbe anashim yesh lo pizur hanefesh lachsov al leshono v’daato shel kol achad v’achad. One who learns Torah from many people has a spreading out of the soul because s/he has to think of the words and opinions of everyone.” Avital and I often talk about the Bifurcated Existence. We go to school and spend all day solving for x and analyzing Shakespeare, and then we come home and spend hours on Skype learning geonic commentaries on Pirkei Avot. It’s pizur nefesh (spreading out of the soul) to an even greater degree than what is referred to in the text. We both talk about wanting college to be a “unified experience,” but I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that.

On the one hand, I love the idea of having a rav kavua. It would largely eliminate the agony of choosing and being forced to make decisions. Sometimes I hate this pizur nefesh, this feeling of always having a foot in both worlds and never truly belonging in either. But there is also something about it that fascinates me. We are studying existentialism now in school, and I love imagining what Kafka would think of Kohelet or how Camus would read a Reb Nachman text. During my physics class, I often ponder how halachah would be different if we applied the physics definition of work to the idea of melacha. So what are those of us with fragmented souls to do?

We were very excited that our blog’s epigraph appeared in this week’s learning, as an explanation of the “acquire for yourself a friend” dictum. Immediately following the text that spurred our pizur nefesh crisis, it is precisely this text on friend acquisition that may serve as the answer to our dilemma. I may not have found that one teacher, but I have found friends that have helped in the process of karev pzureinu, bringing in all my scattered musings. When I learn with Avital, she is just as quick to quote Rashi as Kant or reference academic thought on medieval Jewish life as she is to bring up modern philosophical or psychological thought. Maybe I will find unity by acquiring friends who are equally as scattered. When there is no longer a need to compartmentalize, when Talmudic and political examples are both fair game to back up a point, then living in two worlds feels slightly less lonely. Friendship has the potential to create that immersive community that I am always seeking. Maybe when I talk about college feeling unified, I mean that I hope to find a community composed of all those who lack a rav kavua but are looking to acquire friends, a community of all those with leaking, seeping, spreading souls.

When we learn about acquiring a friend, Avot d’Rabbi Natan tells us that a person should find a friend to “galeh lo kol starav, seter Torah v’setet derekh eretz, reveal one’s secrets to, both Torah secrets and everyday secrets.” The best, though, is when these secrets are one and the same, and then neither Torah nor academic pursuits exist in isolation. When a person leads a life that is so infused with Torah to its core that seter Torah and seter derekh eretz are indistinguishable, and then, on top of that, has a friend with whom to share this, then that person is surely ma’le tova u’vracha, full of goodness and blessings.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Rabbi Eliezer the Genius

Rabbi Akiva, as Maya described in the last post, became a great Torah scholar through hard work: he studied each letter methodically and was unashamed of beginning at the very beginning with his young son. Avot d’Rabbi Natan sets him in opposition to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus. If Rabbi Akiva is a model of a scholar who works hard and methodically, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus is the model of the natural genius. When he was twenty-two, he had never studied Torah before, but he decided to go study with Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. His father (the classic disapproving father of the genius narrative) told him that he wasn’t going anywhere until he finished plowing a full furrow. Eliezer woke up early, plowed the furrow and left to go to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who quickly predicted that he would be a great Torah scholar.

After that, his father, Hurcanus, heard that he was studying Torah, and planned to come to Jerusalem to disinherit Eliezer. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was giving a public lecture. Hurcanus came and sat down in the crowd. In the middle of his lecture, Rabban Yochanan looked at Rabbi Eliezer and told him to teach. Eliezer said that he couldn’t, but his teacher pushed him, and when he started to teach, he said things that no one had ever heard before. At everything he said, Rabban Yochanan said “I have learned the truth.” When the lecture was over, Hurcanus stood up and announced that, although he had come to disinherit Rabbi Eliezer, he would actually give all of his possessions to him and disinherit his brothers.

It feels almost like a fairy tale: his father disapproved of him, he left home, he had special talents, his father eventually recognized them, and he became famous and powerful. Avot d’Rabbi Natan uses this story about Rabbi Eliezer as the example for “Hevei mitabek be’afar ragleihem”—“sit in the dust at [your teachers’] feet.” I’m not sure how exactly he did that here—it seems like he rose up to teaching his teacher very quickly. Is it just that he briefly refused to teach instead of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai? That doesn’t seem to me like enough to make him the example of that principle.

With Rabbi Akiva, there’s an implied moral: behave like him and you, too, could be a great scholar some day. But most of us will never get up with no preparation and teach amazing and startling things that will make all of our greatest teachers exclaim over us, so is there a message to this story? One thing we could learn is that, despite Rabbi Eliezer’s natural talent, if he had not decided that he wanted to study Torah, no one would have ever discovered him. It’s a good encouragement to try new forms of study, even if we have to abandon our plowing temporarily to do it. This reminds me of one of Maya’s (and my, but it was hers first) favorite psukim, from Megillat Esther: “Umi yodea im la’et kazot higat lemalchut?”—“Who knows if it is for this moment that you became queen?” I use this pasuk as a balance to my natural instinct to bide my time forever and not do anything: it reminds me that sometimes, we have opportunities that are risky, but offer a lot of potential good and may never be available again.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

To Engage in Torah

V’hevey mitabek b’afar ragleihem, Sit at the dust of their [the sages’] feet,” we are told in Pirkei Avot. Avot d’Rabbi Natan takes this quite literally: “Don’t sit before him; not on a bed, or on a chair, or on a bench. Rather, sit before him on the ground.” I find the humility a student shows for his/her teacher in this type of dynamic appealing in many ways. It’s full of kavod to the utmost degree. However, compare this with the relationship between Rabbi Yoshiya and Rabbi Matya ben Charash that we learned about in the very first perek. In this instance, despite the fact that the text clearly labels R. Matya as the student and R. Yoshiya as the teacher, they are described as “yoshvim v’oskin b’divrei Torah, sitting and engaging in the words of Torah.” This story contains the Learned and the Learner, the Transmitter and the Receiver, but it also implies a sense of equality. At one point, R. Matya even calls his teacher out for what he thinks is inappropriate behavior. R. Matya prefaces his critique with the phrase “v’af al pee she’atah rabi v’ani talmidecha, even though you are my teacher and I am your student [I am still going to criticize you]!” This is a very different relationship than sitting in the dust, eagerly waiting to be taught.

Today, I completed my last class in a course I have been taking at the University of Pittsburgh. The class was a lecture with 450 students. The professor was always prepared and quite competent. I learned a lot throughout the semester, but I was also continually frustrated by the fact that the class was so large that I couldn’t ask a question. V’hevey mitabek b’afar ragleihem, (although, in this case, referring to an accomplished neuroscience professor instead of Torah scholars) turned out to be less fulfilling than I had thought it would be. I recently read a piece from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, an educational philosophy book by Paulo Freire. In the book, Freire rejects what he refers to as the “banking method” of education, in which students are seen as vessels into which knowledge is poured. He proposes rather a “problem-solving” model of education, in which learners are seen as partners in the process of knowledge-seeking. This reading, and also my class, has gotten me thinking a lot about what actually constitutes education. Is v’heyey mitabek b’afar ragleihem the banking method, and Matya/Yoshiya is the problem-posing method? I am inclined to say no, that there is perhaps a time and a place for both talking to and talking with. I think our modern sensibilities first direct us towards rejecting sitting at the dust of their feet, but, in thinking more about it, having a Teacher like this doesn’t mean that one is excused from serious thought and struggle but that there is a person who can articulate goals and vision with more authority and push us to take that next step. (Question: Can a straight lecture ever count as “problem-posing?” Can a lecture with 450 people ever move beyond “banking?” Can sitting in the dust ever count as active, engaged learning?)

The next piece is one of my favorite lines that we have learned so far. “V’chol davar she’yetzei mi’piv kableihu alecha b’eimah b’yirah birtet u’ve’zeya, kederech she’kiblu avoteinu me’har Sinai b’eima b’yirah birtet u’ve’zeya, And every word that comes out of his [your teahcer’s] mouth, receive it with awe and fear and trembling, in the same way that our fathers received it from Mount Sinai, with awe and fear and trembling.” This is really an incredible statement: Not only is learning from a teacher that same as learning directly from Sinai, but Sinai itself actually reoccurs every time we learn. (v’al niseacha she’b’chol yom imanu!) This line is implying more than that we are renewing Torah learning. It is saying that revelation itself, with the joy and awesomeness that it brings, is within our grasp. Always. This idea brings to mind the story in Shir HaShirim Rabbah about Shimon Ben Azzai. When Ben Azzai learned Torah, we are told, esh melahaete svivotav, the fire flashed around him, v’hayu ha’dvarim smeichim k’netinatan m’sinai, and the words were as sweet as when they were given at Sinai.

The last part of this week’s learning related the famous story of Akiva, at the advanced age of forty, going off to study Torah. I would like to end by mentioning two phrases in this story that we found particularly intriguing. When Rabbi Akiva witnesses the water wearing away the stones of a well, the text tells us that he immediately “dan kal v’chomer b’atzmo”. That is, Akiva said to himself that if something soft (water) could mold something hard (rocks), how much more so could something hard (Torah) mold something soft (his heart). To relate this kind of reasoning back to oneself is incredibly perceptive. If we are to live our lives as a commentary on Torah, then we should apply hermeneutics to ourselves, right? Later, when Akiva goes off to learn Torah, he joins a class of the very youngest children who are learning the alef-bet. After learning every letter, he went and sat “beino l’vein atzmo, between him and himself.” What a great way to describe real learning. He contemplates the meaning of every letter of the alef-bet, and, as he sits between him and himself, he hears the various voice of the tradition arguing and discussing and contemplating. Perhaps problem-posing education can be an experience of immanence, as well.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Rabban Yochanan and Self-Delusion

In the second part of the fourth chapter, we have a collection of stories about Vespasian and the Roman armies, from the beginning of the siege until they finally captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. As a illustration of the importance of gemilut hasadim, gifts of loving-kindness, Avot d’Rabbi Natan brings a well-known story in which, after Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking with Rabbi Yehoshua. Rabbi Yehoshua said, “Alas, that this place where Israel atoned for its sins has been destroyed!” Rabban Yochanan replied, “My son, don’t worry—we have another form of atonement that is just as good. And what is it? Gifts of loving-kindness,” using the prooftext “chesed hafazti ve’lo zavach,” “I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifices.”

In the next story, we learn that, before the destruction of Jerusalem, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was an advocate for submission to the Romans. He urged the people to follow Vespasian’s suggestion that they surrender rather than waiting for him to destroy the city, and, when Vespasian offered him a favor, he asked only that he be allowed to set up a house of study in the nearby town of Yavneh.

From the combination of those two stories, we might have thought about Rabban Yochanan as a very modern Jew who does not need the Temple cult to feel confident that he will be able to atone for his sins. Of the three pillars of the world, he privileged the two that we are most comfortable with—study  and loving-kindness—over sacrifices. We might even expect him to be glad that the temple had been destroyed because it would force people to focus on the important parts of Judaism.

Rabban Yochanan may have actually felt those things, but not as simply as that. In the next story, we learn his reaction when the Temple was destroyed. He sat and trembled, and, when he heard that the Temple had been burnt, he tore his clothes as a mourner does. His students also tore their clothes, and they wept and cried and gave eulogies. They told the story of the High Priests who were in the Temple when it was destroyed, who took their keys and threw them up to God, saying “Master of the Universe! Take back these keys that you gave to us, since we are not trustworthy guardians to do the will of the King and eat from His table. Now take back these keys!” and jumped into the flames.

Rabban Yochanan’s complex reaction could illustrate a few different ideas. One is that, sometimes, the best option is not good. This reminds me of what a speaker we heard this summer in Israel said about the Israeli settlements: he said that he believes they eventually will need to be destroyed and given back, but we should acknowledge that that is not a good situation. On the day the settlements are destroyed, he said, he plans to mourn, but also help the settlers move out of their homes.

Another option is that he really does wish that we could keep the Temple, but acknowledges that it is not what is happening now. With this reading, he really agrees with Rabbi Yehoshua in the first story that the destruction of Jerusalem is a tragedy, but since he knows that God did it on purpose, he can be sure that God now desires loving-kindness and not sacrifices. If he had wanted sacrifices, he would not have let the temple be destroyed. And in the second story, it is not that he wants the people to surrender, but only that he knows that the Romans will inevitably capture Jerusalem. He is like Jeremiah walking around with his iron yoke—he doesn’t want Jerusalem to be captured; he’s just advocating realism. If it’s going to happen, let’s be as mentally prepared as possible.  This reading seems to explain the story about the priests slightly better: he includes them in his eulogy as an example of people who, knowing they have failed, acknowledge their failure and give up. 

With either reading, for Rabban Yochanan, one of the worst things is self-delusion. Which of these two bad options is worse? If we have chosen something, are we pretending that it is better than it is to satisfy ourselves?  What have we successfully have done? What is still possible? What cannot be done? Often, there are answers to those questions that are easier to face than the true ones. Rabban Yochanan demands that, even in the worst situations, we force ourselves to answer those questions truthfully.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Not by smoke and not by fire...

The fourth perek begins with the famous statement by Shimon HaTzadik: “On the three things the world stands—on Torah, on worship/sacrifice, and on acts of loving kindness.” The first area explored is the pillar of Torah. To prove that the world does indeed depend on Torah, the text quotes a passage from Hoshea: “Chesed chafatzti v’lo zavach, v’da’at Elohim me’olot, I desire kindness over sacrifices and knowledge of God over offerings.”

Although Torah exceeds them both, an olah, we are told, is better than a zevach because an olah is completely burned up for God, while part of a zevach is burnt and part is eaten by the Kohanim. Although an olah is preferable because it is exclusively for God, God apparently doesn’t desire burnt offerings. The difference between a zevach and an olah brings up a very basic question: Should we derive a benefit from the mitzvot we do, or should they be done for God’s sake alone? Despite the text’s apparent preferences for olot, the idea of a zevach is much more appealing to me, as it is a ritual act that creates a partnership between God and people. There is something that feels very noble about an olah, about setting something on fire and giving it entirely to God. But there is also something impersonal about it, something that makes it feel like a completely one-sided relationship. The zevach represents creating a relationship with God that takes into account both the self and the community.

Written after the destruction of the Temple, the adamant assertion the rabbis of Avot d’Rabbi Natan repeatedly make concerning the importance of Torah study over sacrifices feels like an attempt at consolation. For them, as for us, comparing zevachim, olot, and Torah study is essentially a moot point, as only one of these is actually an option. The most interesting and most compelling point, in my opinion, made about this subject reads, “V’talmud Torah chavivah lifnei ha’makom me’olot, lefi sh’im adam lamed Torah, yodea da’ato shel makom, And God finds learning Torah sweeter than offerings because if a man learns Torah, he knows the will of God.” Perhaps it is precisely the partnership/relationship of learning that makes the study of Torah greater than both types of sacrifices. When learning this, I was reminded of the words Rav Adin Steinsaltz shared with us this summer: “[When studying Torah,] I am searching for the truth. It is a connection of my mind with His mind and my attempt to understand…Learning is a kind of communication. The learning is a togetherness not done by any external act. We are building together.”

It’s interesting to note that, according to this text, the only requirement for knowing God’s opinion or will is learning Torah. Perhaps this is to say that the will of Hashem is Talmud Torah, not just the actions associated with halachah, and that any halachic decision that is arrived at through serious and honest Talmud Torah is one that aligns with God’s desire.