"It is better to lavish gifts on the poor than to feast heavily or to give presents to one's friends. For there is no greater joy than bringing gladness to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the convert."
Maimonides, Laws of Purim, 2:17
Millions of dollars are spent exchanging gifts that people don't like. This past week has been a retailer's nightmare: collecting, sorting and exchanging unwanted presents. To help the industry recover, Amazon just presented its latest patented development: a special computer program designed to help people receive the gifts they want. Those awful sweaters from Aunt Betty? Now you can preprogram your Amazon account to change any of Aunt Betty's gifts bought through them into instant gift cards. The best part? Amazon will send you notification of what Aunt Betty intended to get you so you can send a thank-you note for the original present while enjoying a gift you really wanted. Retailers say that this could revolutionize gift-giving. Sounds like a great solution to a perennial problem. It's a win- win. Isn't it?
It's a win-win for business but may be a lose-lose in the department of integrity and honesty, that dynamic duo of good character that places a premium on acts and intentions. What might Jewish law have to say? I don't know, but what immediately came to mind is a little known law in Leviticus (25:17): "Do not wrong one another, but fear your God for I am the Lord your God." Some translate "wrong one another" as "do not take advantage of one another."
The Talmud, in explicating this law, interprets this verse as a statement about language. It looks at ways in which we use words to deceive or hurt others: reminding them of a past they would rather forget, using words that have particular negative connotations to hurt others or assigning a cause for someone else's tragedy.
All of these are instances where we use words to oppress someone else emotionally. Yet, there is another example that this clause is extended to cover: using words to deceive people. In Jewish law, you are not supposed to invite someone to a party when you know they can't come. You look good, and you don't actually have to tolerate their company. You can't tell someone the best way to get somewhere by car when you actually want a lift to that very place and it's the long way. You can't buy someone a present from Walmart and put it in a box from Bloomingdales that makes you look like a big spender when you're really a cheapskate.
What do all these examples have on common? They all point to manipulating others in a self-serving way while looking good ourselves. We look more hospitable, more magnanimous, and more thoughtful than we really are - and we accomplish this through deceit. The biblical verse ends in a telling way: "but fear your God." Why God? In each of these instances no one will know where that present came from or is going to but you and God. If you live as if God is watching, you may be a bit more scrupulous.
The Amazon patent raises many interesting ethical questions and also a general question about human interchange. What is the role of a gift? It is odd that people drain their savings and spend weeks picking out gifts that are often exchanged the week after. Gift giving in our society has created many psychic and financial pressures: to get it right, to know exactly what another person wants and needs, to make the right impression. When gift-giving becomes less about pleasure and more about pressure, we've missed the point.
To stop the madness, we turn to Maimonides, that 12th century Jewish thinker, who writes above that we must lavish gifts on the poor rather than enjoy feasting and gift-giving among those who already have so much. Maimonides writes this in reference to holidays when it is all too easy to indulge ourselves. In this translation, he asks us not only to give to the poor - doling out the leftovers or the unwanted clothing that gets bagged and taken to second-hand stores. He asks us to lavish gifts on those who are truly needy to bring them joy. I'll be impressed when Amazon patents a way to make sure that the widow and the poor, the orphan and the convert get what they need from us - a gift card of goodness.
"Pessimism in Judaism is usually premature."
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Mark Twain, who has been occupying a lot of literary attention for his “recent” autobiography, once defined an optimist as a “day-dreamer more elegantly spelled.” Discussions of optimism tend towards the saccharine, often filled with clichés and unrealistic hopes. Sometimes we hold on to false hope because it is the last scrap that separates us from despair.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the closest we come to having a Jewish royal, makes the statement above in his latest book, Future Tense. There, he draws a picture of God that emerges from this week’s Torah reading with the famous Hebrew statement “Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh.” In English, this expression is generally rendered with a Popeye-like disregard for others: “I am what I am.” Accept me. Don’t question me. This is who I am. But the literal Hebrew translation is very far from this meaning. Instead, God’s self-description is “I will be what I will be.” Just as the Israelites are in a process of transformation, a state of becoming, so too, does God mirror this condition in God’s self-description as if to suggest that the relationship between God and the people has yet to be determined.
What are we to learn from this strange act of self-identification as we open up Exodus this week, our story of oppression and redemption? We can never judge the quality of a life – an individual or the life of a nation - at any given point because we are always in a state of becoming. If we are always becoming then pessimism is always premature. Rabbi Abraham Kook, a great mystic of the last century and Palestine’s first chief rabbi, observes in his work The Lights of Repentance that life mimics a river with many tributaries but only when looked at in retrospect. As we are traveling down the path to self-actualization we view all these twists and changes as aberrations from a master plan. Only when we look back on life do we realize that we are a product not only – or mostly – of clear objectives laid out neatly but of all the small, unexpected turns that comprise a self in the making.
In this, we find a powerful connection to the closing of Genesis. Joseph is able, in retrospect, to view the harm his brothers did him as part of a lager cosmic plan that helped him become a platform for the economic salvation of Egypt and his own family. Sitting in a pit alone he never could have imagined one day becoming viceroy in Egypt.
But then again, how often have we cut ourselves short because we failed to imagine an alternate universe of possibility. We can’t always make a new start, but we can make a new end. And if the end is not good, then perhaps it’s not the end. That is one of the great lessons of nation building that Exodus teaches us first in the very appellation that God uses to describe the nature of the divine.
And we also learn it from a very special woman. One chapter after Pharaoh decrees that all male children are to be thrown into the sea, Moses’ mother gives birth to a boy. Rather than the two words I would have uttered “Oy vey,” the text instead says “Ki tov” – It was good. These are the very words used multiple times in Genesis when God evaluated the newly created world. Moses’ mother uses them as an affirmation not of what is but what can be. Her words have immense predictive weight. She refashions the future with the birth of a leader and refused, even in the darkest of hours, to give in to the magnetic pull of pessimism.
If it’s not good, then the Jewish response is that we must make it good. We must live in the future tense. The story isn’t over yet.
"Remove not the ancient border."
Mishna Peah 7:3
In Helen Simonson's lovely debut novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, a very English major and widower finds himself attracted to a Pakistani woman who runs the shop where he buys his tea. Mrs. Ali also lost her spouse, yet both manage to find each other despite significant cultural and class differences that otherwise would have gotten in the way. The novel presents the age old theme of love conquering all but, on the way to a happy ending, we confront obstacles that are thick and ancient in the way we shape our identities and the external factors that wedge differences between us.
Major Pettigrew fights against certain well-entrenched battles of class while maintaining the air of civility that he is not willing to compromise in an era of rudeness. What can we and do we want to change and what principles do we live by that seem immutable or that we wish to preserve at all costs? This question lies at the very foundation of Jewish law in its confrontation with modern living. Every denomination in Judaism is asking this question, even if some move slower than others in questioning old fences and challenging traditional markers.
The recommendation to keep ancient borders intact is found as early as Proverbs 22:28: "Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your forefathers." This is easy enough to understand. When our ancestors created boundaries, literal or metaphorical, they were establishing principles by which their future progeny would live. And yet, each generation adjusts itself to those boundaries, pushing and pulling on them to find a contextual fit that works with successive generations.
We find this proverb employed in a fascinating way in the Mishna, a compilation of over 4,000 ancient short passages of Jewish law dated to roughly the first and second centuries of the Common Era. In the laws of Peah , the corner of the field left for the poor at the time for the harvest, the rabbis clearly struggled with codifying certain practices that were not strictly laws but represented the way that charity had always been given.
The first appearance of this proverb, "Remove not the ancient border" is in chapter 5:6 of Peah. In addition to the corner of the field that is dedicated to the benefit of the poor, harvesters were not allowed to collect sheaves that had fallen or those that had been forgotten. These, too, were left for the poor and vulnerable. One who does not allow the poor to glean in his field or reserves certain grain or produce for select poor is "robbing them" according to the Mishna and of him, the Mishna says, "Remove not the ancient border."
Later on, in a detailed discussion of grape harvesting, the Mishna again employs the same principle referring to a farmer who places a basket underneath grape clusters when collecting, thereby denying the poor whatever grapes have fallen to the ground. To such a man who robs the poor of their due, the Mishna again admonishes "Remove not the ancient border."
Robert Frost dedicated a poem to the notion that good fences make good neighbors. We know who we are keeping out and who we are keeping in. Our pieces of Jewish law use borders in a different way; they are psychic structures that tell us that good neighbors are those who are inflexible when it comes to generosity. They aren't willing to renege on ancient traditions of care and compassion to keep a few sheaves of wheat or fallen grapes.
Sometimes we challenge ancient boundaries that we didn't make but must live by. At other times, it is these very boundaries which preserve the best of human spirit; we dare not touch them. Remove not the ancient border. Instead, allow the border to shape and delineate character and identity.
"What is man, that You are mindful of him and the son of man that You pay attention to him?" You have made him a little lower than the angels and have crowned him with glory and honor." Psalms 8:5-6
As a graduate student, I loved walking past Emerson Hall, home of Harvard's philosophy department. No doubt, those who passed through its august doors felt themselves to be budding philosophers, high-minded and perhaps among the smartest in the world. And yet, every time you walked through those doors you confronted your ego in the bold, chiseled words in capital letters that graced the building's front: "WHAT IS MAN THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM?" That put your GPA in perspective. Well, at least for some of us.
Emerson Hall was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a great American writer and thinker who was also a Unitarian minister and headed the Transcendentalist Movement. He was first accepted to Harvard at 14 and was graduated at 18 (another fact to put the ego in its place) and then returned to study in Harvard's divinity school and continued a relationship with the university. In the same vein as our quote, Emerson once said, "All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."
This week I happened to have been studying one of my favorite psalms: number 8, where this verse is housed. We can perhaps best appreciate the verse in its proper biblical context. The line immediately preceding ours reads: "When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained..." then we find our question, "What is man?" Imagine for a moment being under a clear sky and under the majestic canopy of stars. You are mesmerized by the universe and feel blessed to be a part of it. Suddenly, the awe turns to inadequacy. Who are you - a small, finite speck- in the face of such loftiness? Why should God be mindful of such a speck?
And yet, the question itself provokes a contradictory response in the psalmist. You might think that there is little point to human life until you read the answer. God created human beings only slightly lower than angels and endowed them with the capacity for greatness (this part of the quote was conveniently left off of Emerson Hall). Each day, each moment, is a chance to scale the heights of human possibility, to reach those angels just beyond our grasp.
The Bible scholar, Nahum Sarna, writing on this psalm, captures its dialectic nature: "In a pensive mood, the psalmist muses upon a double paradox. There is the seeming contradiction between God's transcendence and His immanence: God is beyond the limits of human cognition; yet He has chosen to make His presence indwell in the life of humanity."
The human ego must humble itself before a complex and vast universe of mystery. But to be human is also to assert oneself in that universe in God's image. The paradox is well captured in a famous Chasidic teaching. We each have two pockets. In each pocket is a slip of paper. One piece of paper says, "Bishvili nivra ha-olam," for my sake was the whole universe created. The other piece of paper says, "Ani afar va'efer," I am but dust and ashes. In the words of my friend Rabbi Ed Feinstein, "What does it mean to be a human being? It means to live with two pockets."
"I created you and appointed you as a covenant people, a light of nations, opening eyes deprived of light, rescuing prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon of those who sit in darkness."
Out of all the holidays in the Jewish year, Hanukah is the holiday that most emphasizes the power of light. The mandate to place a menorah in our windows to publicize an ancient miracle is about two thousand years old. We shine light from our homes as a symbol of the oil the Hasmoneans found in the Temple and were able to use to light the Temple’s elaborate menorah again and rededicate the sanctuary.
In addition to the historical resonances in our candle lighting, we can’t help but be mesmerized by the flames. Fire has been a magnet for human attention- whether we read it in the tale of Prometheus or in Moses’ wonder at a bush in flames that was, nevertheless, not consumed. With each additional candle on Hanukah, we are aware of the incremental changes that are made in a room when we double or triple the light.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God uses the metaphor of light to help us understand our role in changing the human condition. Most people see the expression an “or la-goyim” – a light to the nations – as a statement of superiority or elitism. In the verse above, where the expression actually appears, we find that it bears neither meaning; it is a statement of responsibility. To be a light to others is to identify all who abide in darkness and shed light on their situation.
Specifically, Isaiah’s command is three-fold. The first task of someone who seeks to be a light to others is to “open eyes deprived of light.” We could understand this as a physical disability or as an intellectual wall. There are many people who reside in mental darkness; they have strong opinions not informed by facts or swayed by conversation. Or they may be illiterate and unable, as a result, to open their minds to a universe of thought. Words become obstacles. To be a person of light is to help grow access in these places of darkness.
The second and related task is to extricate people from prisons of confinement. This does not mean helping convicts escape. There would be nothing just in that. In our first example, people are trapped internally. In our second, they are trapped by external circumstances. We need only to think of domestic abuse victims to understand what confinement might mean. There are so many people who suffer in silence because they don’t have the resources, inner strength or support to fight back. To be a light in this instance is to be a lobbyist, an advocate, a fighter and a voice for those who don’t have one.
The last light we have to generate to fulfill Isaiah’s vision of a better world and an upheld covenant is to reach those who sit in dungeons of darkness. The verse moves gradually to more severe situations that, in turn, require more of us. When we think of a prison cell we imagine a little window with bars, but when we think of a dungeon, we call to mind a place beneath the ground that enjoys no light at all. To me, this represents situations that seem absolutely hopeless and intractable. But we can’t give up because it seems hard, near impossible. That’s merely when we begin.
To make Hanukah meaningful we need to get beyond the presents and the gelt and get back to Isaiah’s vision of light. This Hanukah give yourself the best gift. Buy books for a low income school, take your kids to a shelter, bring a coat to a homeless person, make a donation to an organization that fights domestic abuse or volunteer to teach an adult to read. With every candle, we bring more light into the holiday and into our lives. In a broken world – in a world of darkness – be the candle.
Shabbat Shalom and a joyous Hanukah!