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Weekly Jewish Wisdom - by: Dr. Erica Brown

A Little Perspective

“Every single person must say, ‘The world was created for me.’”

BT Sanhedrin 37b

 

A few weeks ago, I came across a book of Native American wisdom and encountered a saying by Big Elk (1770-1853), the chief of the Omaha Native Americans. Big Elk lived at a time of hardship and transition for his tribe. Foreigners threatened to take his land, and the Sioux were a warring tribe against his. But the biggest danger he faced was small pox, which had come to America via Europeans and was a rampant cause of death among Native Americans. Big Elk needed to give his people a sense of hope and perspective on managing a difficult past and having strength to face the future. Here is what he told his tribe:

“Do not grieve. Misfortunes will happen to the wisest and best of men. Death will come, always out of season. It is the command of the Great Spirit, and all the nations and people must obey. What is past and what cannot be prevented should not be grieved for…Misfortunes do not flourish particularly in our lives – they grow everywhere.”

No one can escape the clutches of death nor will excessive mourning bring anyone back. Sometimes we believe that we are the only ones to suffer, but misfortune is not ours alone. We share it. It grows everywhere.

Contrast this to a fascinating legend in the Talmud about the sage Hanina ben Dosa:

“Hanina ben Dosa was walking on the road when rain fell upon him. He said: ‘Master of the Universe, the entire world is comfortable and Hanina is suffering. The rain stopped. When he came to his house, he said: ‘Master of the Universe, the entire world is suffering [for lack of rain] and Hanina is comfortable. The rain returned” [BT Yoma 53b].

Rather than accept the ways of the world, Hanina asked that they be manipulated to suit his own needs. He was willing to forgo the benefits of rain for others simply to ensure his own personal comfort. He only asked that the rain return when he got to the shelter of his own home. If this is not narcissism, what is?

And yet, we read in another passage of Talmud excerpted above that the world is created for our own individual benefit. “And the King of Kings the Holy One Blessed Be He minted every person with the stamp of Adam
And not one of them is the same as his fellow
For this reason, every single person must say, ‘The world was created for me.’” If the world was created for each of us, then Hanina did nothing wrong in praying for his own comfort at the expense of the rest of the world.

Talmud commentators were obviously troubled by Hanina’s audacious request and tried to soften it. One said that Hanina had no fields as a poor man, and could not, therefore, empathize with the suffering of his fellow farmers who needed rain for their sustenance. Another claims that Hanina was not asking God to change the world for him but rather making an observation about the world. Something that can be good for almost everyone can be bad for us and vice-versa.

It would be interesting to have Hanina ben Dosa in conversation with Big Elk. Big Elk may have told Hanina to man up and get an umbrella. Hanina may have told Big Elk that only those who really believe in their uniqueness will change the world and Big Elk should be careful not to encourage people to resign themselves to suffering. If you really believe that the world was created for you, then you also become a better custodian of it. You have greater responsibility for it. You have the power to change and improve it.

In this story, God listens to Hanina not because he accepted the perspective of the world but because he believed that he had a right to be comfortable and dignified. Not that the world had to serve him but that he had the power to change the universe. This perspective does not obligate us less when it comes to being stewards of the universe but obligates us more.

What would you do differently if you believed that you could really change the world?

Shabbat Shalom

Posted by: dcadmin (January 02, 2014 at 9:17 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

Changing Years, Changing Lives

"Righteous people say little and do much."
BT Bava Metzia 87a

 

"Every minute - every single second - there are a million things you could be thinking about. A million things you could be worrying about. Our world - don't you feel we're becoming more and more fragmented? I used to think that when I got older, the world would make so much more sense. But you know what? The older I get, the more confusing it is to me. The more complicated it is. Harder. You'd think we'd be getting better at it. But there's just more and more chaos. The pieces - they're everywhere. And nobody knows what to do about it."

These words from a conversation in David Levithan's young adult fiction, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, create a picture of a frustration. The sadness in the world at times feels crushingly overwhelming. John-Paul Flintoff articulates this paralysis concretely in How to Change the World. "Surprisingly often, we find ourselves impaled on a paradox: we desperately want to do something, but have no idea what it may be." This impulse often escalates in intensity as a new year approaches. There is a new chance to make this the year that we end poverty, hunger, cancer, etc.

But our impulse to do good in the world is often thwarted by the practical problem of how to do so. To help us change the world, Flintoff includes and index called "198 Ways to Act" excerpted from Gene Sharp's The Politics of Nonviolent Action and includes suggestions we might expect demonstrations, pressure applied to political figures, boycotts, leaflets and includes rude gestures, self-exposure to the elements, satyagrahic fasting (look that one up), mutiny, mock funerals, silence, teach-ins and, of course, protest disrobings.

Many of these suggestions involve communication in different modalities. But the rabbinic response seems, instead, to prefer silence and action, as the Talmud says above. "To be is to stand for," as Rabbi A. J. Heschel says. Standing is not speaking. In fact, sometimes speech masks inactivity. We talk about goodness instead of embodying it.

Our expression for social change, tikkun olam, is most famously expressed at the end of traditional prayer services "Le-taken olam b'malchut Sha-dai." Critics of the tikkun olam impulse in contemporary Jewish life complain that too much energy is spent on environmental awareness or poverty in other countries but very little is expended on embracing Jewish law and ritual. We are a small people and if we do not help each other, who will take care of us? The Alenu prayer tries to focus our works under the shadow of the kingdom of God. Social justice is twinned with spirituality.

Permit me to offer an alternative reading. Perhaps the idea of fixing the world in the kingdom of God is recognizing our humility when we set out to repair something we deem broken. There is often a smug or self-righteous approach that accompanies social justice work that is condescending and intimidating. Even the presumption that we can change the world sounds arrogant. I can barely change my shoes on harder days.

Flintoff returns us to more modest goals: "if we are really interested in changing the world, we have to put other people first. Every attitude we assume, every word we utter, and every act we undertake establishes us in relation to others." Tikkun olam is less about changing the world in this view and more about attuning ourselves to the needs of others through curiosity and empathy.

Leviathan captures this sentiment majestically in his novel:

"Then it hits me. Maybe we're the pieces,"

"What?"

"Maybe that's it. With what you were talking about before. The world being broken. Maybe it isn't that we're supposed to find the pieces and put them back together. Maybe we're the pieces. Maybe, what we're supposed to do is come together. That's how we stop the breaking. Tikkun olam."

Maybe it is audacious to think that this is the year we will change the world. Maybe it is enough to believe that this is the year we will change the brokenness ourselves. And maybe that too is audacious.

Shabbat Shalom

Posted by: dcadmin (December 26, 2013 at 1:41 PM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

The Sound of Greatness

“The Sages taught: Three sounds travel from one end of the world to another, and these are: The sound of the sphere of the sun, and the sound of the crowds of Rome, and the sound of the soul at the moment that it leaves the body. And some say: even the sound of a woman giving birth.”

BT Yoma 20b

 

 

A few weeks ago, a hoax traveled the blogosphere. Rapper Kayne West said, "I am the next Nelson Mandela," He claimed, "By the time I'm 95, I'm going to be a bigger hero than he ever was.” West never said these remarks. They were in a satirical article about him. How does gossip like this make its way around the world? It may have something to with the fact that West, in other settings, compared himself to God, Andy Warhol, Shakespeare, Picasso, and Walt Disney - an impressive list of influencers where Mandela could have feasibly been located.

Lots of sounds travel around the world. Gossip is one such noise. In the Talmudic passage above, three strange sounds go across the globe: the sun, crowds in Rome and death.

The sun does not make a sound, but as it travels across the sky, we see it as a huge star that controls the way time and tides work in our world. Rome was an ancient political authority that stretched across the world; the bustle in its streets making it appear as the center of the universe. Both the sun and Rome in this curious statement seem to be dominant forces, but the Maharsha [1551-1631: Polish Talmud scholar R. Samuel Eidels] eludes to the fact that Rome’s power did not last forever because just as the sun disaapears, Rome’s power was also “eclipsed.”

The Talmud is prone to exaggeration, a term called “guzma” in Aramaic. But on the last sound – the sound of the soul leaving the body - perhaps there is a profound kernel of truth that still resonates for us today. People of greatness are not often ready to leave this world. There is still something to do. The heart protests at the thought of non-existence. Research tells us that high-achievement types struggle more with their mortality. We turn to the Bible’s pages to hear Moses’ anguished cries to God to let him live and cross into the Promised Land.

Poet Dylan Thomas captures this fight to the end in one of this most beloved poems:

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rage at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

The sound of death in the Talmud may not only be that of the dying man or woman. It may be the sounds that stream across the world in sadness at losing someone of greatness. This week, we heard those sounds. News reports of Nelson Mandela’s death are those sounds: the vigils, the multi-page editorials, the despair that a leader like him has left us and can no longer continue work that still needs to be done.

            Last Thursday, I woke to news that a beloved rabbi of my youth had died, Rabbi Ezra Labaton of the Magen David Synagogue in West Deal, New Jersey. He was a scholar, a leader, a devoted servant to his community and his reach was far and wide. That afternoon, I learned that Nelson Mandela had died. The day ached with loss, the loss of extraordinary people who – each in his own universe – were a force for good. Celebrities may make the paper. But years of service to others and to the great causes of our day, make a life worth remembering.

The sages, the Talmudic passage continues “asked for mercy so that the sound of the soul at the moment it leaves the body would no longer be heard. God eliminated it.” If people were preoccupied by sounds of death, they could not live. God in an act of mercy stilled the sound.

I believe those sounds are still here when a person of greatness leaves the world. We cry out in pain, and we cry out in wonder: who will lead us?

But the Talmud does not end there. It ends with one last sound: the sound of a woman giving birth. The natural first reading is that the cry a woman belts out at this time can be heard around the world. Having given birth to four, I can still hear that sound. But maybe that is not a deep or hopeful enough reading. Maybe it is the cry of the child, not the mother. It is the cry of potential. It is the way a child says, “I have arrived in this world. Pay attention to me. Nurture me. Love me. And maybe I will be the next one to do great things in the world.”

 

Shabbat Shalom

Posted by: dcadmin (December 12, 2013 at 9:18 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

Sweet Revenge

"Any Torah scholar who does not avenge himself and bear a grudge like a snake is not considered a Torah scholar."

BT Yoma 22b-23a

We all know people who hold grudges so long that they cant even remember what they were angry about in the first place. The words no longer matter. The negative emotional associations they have with the person who offended are so overwhelming and insulting that the feelings linger. Try as we might, we have difficulty unseating these feelings. And perhaps this makes us feel bad because we know that the Torah forbids any form of revenge or bearing grudges, as we read in Leviticus 19:18: You shall not take revenge nor bear any grudge.

But then we read the statement above and it makes us wonder. How is it that a Torah scholar who is insulted should actually bear a grudge, and not only a little grudge, a grudge of snake-like proportions? No doubt, this sort of venomous anger will not go away. In fact, this person loses his scholarly credibility if he does not bear a grudge. It makes no sense.

The Talmud, being a document of dissent and debate, asks this question and raises the Leviticus verse. The last person we would expect to bear a grudge is the one who studies the stuff in the original. The Talmud then discusses the prohibition of revenge and says that the Leviticus text is specifically about monetary revenge rather than personal insult. What is revenge? One said to his fellow: Lend me your sickle, and he said, No. The next day, he (the one who refused) said to the other, Lend me your ax. And he said, I will not lend to you just as you did not lend to me. That is revenge.

What then is bearing a grudge? Thats the Talmuds next question: If one said to his fellow, Lend me your ax, and he said, No, and the next day he (the one who refused), said to him, I am not like you, who would not lend to me. That is bearing a grudge.

In the first instance revenge monetary stinginess is, in many ways, an act of personal insult. I am saying that I do not trust you with my things, and you, in turn, are telling me that a deficiency of trust will come back to bite me. It is a zero-sum game, this game of revenge.

In the second instance, bearing a grudge seems to be an act of moral superiority. You give me something not to help me but to show that you are better than me, a bigger, more generous person. But in truth, you are not a generous person because you could not give me something without hurting me at the same time.

The Talmud distinguishes between monetary insult and personal insult in this way: in a case of finance, you can control how you spend your money or share your possessions and make choices. We hope you will make choices that engender trust and parity but if you cannot, at least be gracious to those who cannot. But the Torah scholar is not representing himself alone. The Torah scholar represents a universe of ideas and values that is being insulted and must protect that universe with ferocity. The scholar must uphold the honor of the Torah, its students and its institutions. The shame that a scholar experiences is the shame we all bear. For example, one may not support a particular president, but one should not call a president by his first name or last name without reference to his office. It protects the honor of the office even if the candidate in question does not represent ones politics.

In the chapter Who Gets Hurts? in William Irvines book about insults, A Slap in the Face, he writes that when we have self-confidence, we regard ourselves as being worthy. We feel proud of ourselves and wealthy enough in self-esteem that we can afford to let others have fun at our expense. This is not permission to insult us, but a possible explanation of why some people nurse old wounds for a lifetime, and others let them slide. Perhaps in this piece of Talmud, there was a worry not only about the status of scholars in society but also a need to help them de-personalize an insult and understand when it was directed to the enterprise of study and not to them as individuals.

Learning should never be diminished and insulted if we prize it as foundational to our Jewish identity. And we must protect the dignity of those who represent it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Posted by: dcadmin (December 05, 2013 at 11:48 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

Just Dozing

“What does it mean to doze?”

BT Pesakhim 120b

 

 

This is an odd question for the Talmud. In its usual spirit of debate, the Talmud has a fine disquisition on the nature of the snooze, specifically on the difference between sleeping and dozing. Having given many talks that have been sleep aids for others, my personal distinction is that a dozer at a lecture nods, hits chin to chest and then bounces up again before repeating, while a sleeper usually puts ear to shoulder, lightly (or heavily) snores while a rivulet of saliva moves from closed lips to the neck. I have obviously studied this close-up.

 

This debate actually appears at the end of this tractate of Talmud, and those who study Talmud daily came across it last week in the context of eating the paschal lamb. The sacrifice may have been eaten at a late hour, and one can imagine that such a feast would make a person sleepy and generally lethargic. The sacrifice was also eaten in groups; the small communities that formed around each offering were the basis of our larger community that spawned into a nation through the experience of the exodus. If, the mishna says, some participants at the Seder fell asleep and interrupted their meal, they may continue eating when they wake up. If, however, everyone in the party fell asleep, then they were forbidden from continuing their meal because no one in that group maintained vigilance for the mitzva.

 

In a discussion of the mishna, the ensuing gemara or exposition on the mishna, the sages distinguish between dozing and sleeping. If one merely dozes but makes a full, conscious come-back, then the ritual stream has not been broken. But sleeping signals that one has ended one activity and moved on to another. In fact, elsewhere the Talmud concludes that sleeping is 1/60th of death itself. A sleeping person cannot put his or her fully conscious self into anything. Edgar Allan Poe hated sleep and called it a little slice of death. Gandhi famously said,

“Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”

 

What then is dozing? Rabbi Ashi replied in the Talmud that: “One is asleep but not asleep, awake but not awake, and if he is called, he will answer but will be unable to make a reasonable answer. When they later inform him of what happened, he will remember it.” This entering and exiting of awareness does not constitute an all-out interruption of an activity. The Hebrew word for dozing is onomatopoeic – “le-namnem,” and creates an audial and visual image of nodding.

 

And then the Talmud illustrates with an example. Abaye was sitting next to Rava – two very famous wise men of the Talmud – at the Seder. Abaye saw Rava nodding off after beginning the afikoman or last piece of matza and asked, “Is the master sleeping?” Rava was awake enough to respond and told his study partner that he was just dozing. You never want to catch a sage off his game.

 

The debate engages us in a fascinating tangle about consciousness in the performance of commandments and invites us to challenge our own level of awareness and intention as we walk through daily routines. When you doze, according to the Talmud, you are somewhat aware of your surroundings, but you cannot exactly place where you are. When you are asleep, you have no idea.

 

What happens when you go through life not sleep-walking but doze-walking, being there and not there, awake and not awake? When it is brought to your attention, you sit up and realize the truth of what I read on the t-shirt touting coffee: “Life is short. Stay awake for it.”

 

Shabbat Shalom

Posted by: dcadmin (October 24, 2013 at 9:30 AM) | Comments (0) | Permalink

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About Dr. Erica Brown

Dr. Erica Brown
Dr. Erica Brown is the Scholar in Residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the author of several books on Jewish life and leadership. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member at the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow, winner of the Ted Farber Professional Excellence Award, and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education.

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