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Weekly Jewish Wisdom - by: Dr. Erica Brown

2010 Archive

The Stranger and the Angel

October 21, 2010 at 9:26 AM

I hear it said of somebody that he is leading a double life. I think to myself:
Just two?
- Leon Wieseltier

This Shabbat we encounter Abraham, our patriarch, welcoming guests into his home, people he did not know who turn out to be angels. Not long after, he prayed for the city of Sodom and insisted that God save the city for its righteous. In these two narratives, we find the first Jew modeling for us what it means not only to accept people into our lives who are not like us but to welcome them to our tables and to fight for the injustice done to strangers. It is a theme pronounced in the life of Abraham as an individual; it is a command placed upon the Jewish people as a nation once they leave the oppression of Egypt. Because we knew oppression in a foreign land, we must take special care to be warm and protective to others who face injustice of any kind.

In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham demonstrates the mitzvah of hachnasat orkhim, welcoming guests, in his treatment of the strangers. Every year, I encourage people to invite guests they don’t really know to their tables this Shabbat in Abraham’s honor. Our ancient teacher helps us understand that this mitzvah is not about social niceties and surrounding ourselves with friends. Who graces your table as guests? How often do we extend ourselves to those we don’t know: the new person in town, the woman recently divorced who may be eating alone, the college student far from home?

The call to the stranger seems harder today than ever. Tea Party politics, boisterous political partisanship, talk radio and reality TV seem to promote homogeneity everywhere we turn. Debates on illegal immigrants, homosexuals who serve in the army and health care have lost the core of humanity that each debate requires, lost as they are in the name calling and accusations. Those who are not like us seem to become more and more unlike us. And when that happens - when we demonize the other - we will never invite that other to the table.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor at The New Republic and an esteemed friend, takes on diversity and identity in one of my favorite books, Against Identity. There, he argues that the depth of concern over an issue should not mask its reasonableness: “The fervor with which a proposition is believed tells nothing about its truth. Except for its practical consequences, passion is beside the point.” The fact that you can argue a point with fierceness and intensity does not mean that the point is a good one. Being louder only creates distance between ourselves and those whose lives look very different from ours.

Elsewhere, Wieseltier argues that “Diversity means complexity. Identity means simplicity. Anybody who takes diversity seriously will see that identity is an illusion…The American accomplishment is not the multicultural society, it is the multicultural individual.” This echoes the quote above. Identity is not monolithic, and if we have so many shades of nuance within each of us, then that recognition should allow a modicum of understanding, a window to those who are different.

In that vein, I’d like to offer another reading of the Abraham story. When we invite strangers into our lives, their differences stretch us to think beyond our own sometimes narrow confines, and in that act they become angels. In Hebrew, the word for angels is co-terminus with the word for messengers. Strangers become messengers of another life, another voice, teachers who open worlds for us. But they can only become angels if we let them in and make room for them. We have had many such angels at our Shabbat table, and I am grateful for each and every one.

Shabbat Shalom

Fixing Problems

October 14, 2010 at 11:55 AM

"The purely righteous do not complain about evil but add righteousness; do not complain about heresy but add faith; do not complain about ignorance but add wisdom."
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook

Many leaders rise to power by virtue of being critics. They speak sharply and truthfully to the problems they see around them. The courage to speak truth to power often entitles them to have a position of power. There’s only one problem: future vision. It is not hard to articulate problems; it’s hard to fix them. Critics are a plenty. Visionaries are rare. Leaders are not complainers; they’re fixers. They, of course, have to have a firm handle on the nature of the problems they confront. But they are not content to observe a problem or merely articulate its particulars. For them, problems stimulate solutions.

Rabbi Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine and a friend to these pages, adds a beautiful spiritual dimension to moving beyond complaining. He adds that righteous people add pieces of themselves to compensate for whatever is lacking in the landscape before them. Instead of harping on what isn’t, they add a measure of what should be - righteousness, faith and wisdom to all that which they touch. They take problems and sanctify them, raise them, and reframe them.

This week, we meet the Torah’s first problem-solver: Abraham. Our founding father was actually himself found by God. In Genesis 12, God approaches Abraham and encourages him to break with his past and build a nation on uncertain ground. Historically, it was not unusual for people in the ancient Near East to be nomadic, wandering from place to place in search of food and water. God tells Abraham to solve the problem of wandering by creating something of beauty of permanence in one location. God, according to Martin Buber, was also solving a problem, that of a moral universe gone wrong. After creating a world and re-creating a world after the flood, human beings failed again in the Tower of Babel narrative. This time, in an attempt to create a better paradigm, God (and the text) moves from the universal to the particular and tries to grow a new world with a new leader.

In a powerful and well-known midrash (so well-known people mistakenly believe it actually appears in Genesis), Abraham critiques his father’s beliefs by breaking his idols and placing the hammer in the hands of the chief idol. Here, Abraham functions as a critic, one who sees the faults of a system and implodes them. But the Biblical text, instead ,prefers to paint Abraham as a visionary who partners with God in the creation of a people. He does not, Rabbi Kook’s words, complain about heresy but adds faith and wisdom and, in so doing, changes the world of faith as we know it.

This week, I came across an interesting "take" on the Abraham midrash. Family psychologist and writer, Dr. Brad Sachs sees Abraham’s idol-breaking as an act of differentiation, not dissimilar to that of an adolescent:

...adolescence is a stage in life during which it is crucial for children to begin to develop their own identity and to start differentiating themselves from us. We have not finished the job of parenting if we have not produced an autonomous, self-sufficient young adult, but the very nature of becoming autonomous and self-sufficient inevitably involves at least a partial repudiation of what we stand for – as the biblical Abraham heralded his adolescence by smashing his father’s idols, our children herald their adolescence by smashing our ideals.

It is true that to create the individuated self, children test the boundaries and limits of their parent’s ideologies, but ultimately, children cannot create a self that is only a reaction to what a parent is or isn’t. Children mature into adults who must create their own future visions. All of us emerge out of adolescence – a time of critique – with the challenge of creating our own path. For Abraham, the path was communal and not only personal. Breaking idols alone doesn’t create a faith. It only destroys the faith of another. Criticism never inspires. Visions of the future inspire. And Abraham gave us that future. Here we are.

Shabbat Shalom


October 07, 2010 at 10:00 AM

"If anyone makes his friend’s face turn white in public, it is as if he spilled blood."
Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b)

All week I have been haunted by an image of a young college student, shamed and anguished enough to take his life because his roommate made his private life public. I am haunted by the suicides that have followed in its wake. With so many beautiful young lives taken, we cannot afford to sit passively and read the news. Where is the outrage?

The Talmud devotes several pages to the cost of embarrassing someone else. It is an act likened to murder; the death of an 18 year old Rutgers student is the case study that makes this Talmudic statement jump off the page. And yet, physiologically what does the Talmud mean by a whitening of the face? When we embarrass someone else we make them blush. The face reddens. The Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot, medieval commentators on the Talmud, explain that true embarrassment whitens the face. All the blood that gathers in the face at the moment of embarrassment drains from the face leaving the skin white and ghastly. The Talmud focuses on the height of embarrassment - not only its sudden shock but the after-shock. The immediate impact of what was said to us or about us has left, and in its place are the awful consequences, the change of public opinion, the humiliation.

Many people are blaming technology for this suicide, but technology is only a servant to human intention. It is a method, not a cause. Maybe we blame technology to minimize the human accountability in this story. It is true that technology has vastly changed the way that we communicate and has challenged the boundaries of privacy. In an NPR interview this week, a professor of social media from Harvard contended that new forms of communication are indeed pushing the norms of identity.

In the "old days," we could bifurcate our public and private lives, who we were at work and school and who we were at home. But when we put up a picture of our last vacation or the birth of puppies on an internet profile, we blur those distinctions. Our co-workers can see us outside of our cubicles. So blurry are these distinctions that people are now using multiple names for their screen profiles so that potential employers cannot look them up and discover how much they had to drink last weekend. If you’re one of these people, think again. The capacity of technology to shape and manipulate identity is frightening. We need to be integrated, whole, ethical selves. We need to be people who have nothing shameful to hide.

Last week, in a fascinating confluence, Malcolm Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker called 'Small Change' on technology and social action and a movie was released about social networking. Gladwell questions whether the lunch counter revolution during the Civil Rights Movement would have ever happened had people been mobilized by Facebook and Twitter. He argues that the kind of sacrifices required to ameliorate societal ills like racism are beyond what social media can produce. In his words, technology "...makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact."

We get information quickly, but in order to act on  information to change lives we still need face-to-face relationships. Could it be, in light of our Talmudic aphorism, that we think less about the white face of another’s embarrassment when we do not see that face at all? Has technology removed the kind of relationship building that lets a crime like last week’s happen?

The poet Robert Browning struggled with his own lack of privacy and wrote, "I give the fight up: let there be an end, a privacy, an obscure nook for me. I want to be forgotten even by God." Browning may have wanted to give up the fight, but we cannot. God will not forget us nor will God allow us to forget that we are created in the divine image and that demands responsibility to find and protect the image of God in the face of every other human being.

Shabbat Shalom

Eat, Pray, Sleep

September 27, 2010 at 4:49 PM

“The sleep of a working man is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the needs of a rich man will not let him sleep.”
Ecclesiastes 5:11

I’ve been thinking of making my own feature length feature film about the end of this holiday season: eat, pray, sleep. It’s not an original plot, but you wouldn’t believe who I’ve lined up for the cast!

This past Shabbat we took out a book that we read in the synagogue once a year but whose lessons pierce us throughout a lifetime: Ecclesiastes or Kohelet in Hebrew. Year after year we confront the messages of its verses about the limits of wisdom, the emptiness of false pursuits, the mask of physical beauty. Each year, I look at a theme that emerges from its rich language and metaphors. This year’s theme? Sleep.

Sleep is generally not seen within a spiritual construct although as early as the ninth chapter of Talmud Brakhot, we have ancient sages discussing dream interpretation and learn that a certain number of members of the Sanhedrin  - the ancient high court – had to be able to interpret dreams. Naturally, the importance of dreamscapes surfaces in Genesis. Our patriarchs were dreamers who sought ways to actualize their subconscious ambitions. Sleep, therefore, is critical as a platform for dreaming. But is that all?

In Genesis, God puts Adam to sleep in order to find a solution to his loneliness. God anesthetizes him to produce Eve. And thus, not only is a solution born but a method is also promoted. Sleep helps us solve problems. We hear people say all of the time, ‘Let me sleep on it,” to indicate that they need to process an issue in an alternative way to the typical analysis done in daytime hours. Maimonides discusses at length the connections between sleep and prophecy.

Death is called sleep in the Bible more than 50 times. It is our eternal rest but because it is a sleep that we never rise from, we need to look elsewhere to see what the ancients had to say about the value of sleep. Sleep is also an escape in the Bible. We find Jonah, the reluctant prophet, falling into a deep sleep as part of his escape from God’s calling.

Kohelet reminds us that when you are productive and hard working, even with limited means, your sleep will be sound. It will be a result of hard work and pride in your accomplishments, however menial. Sleep in this equation is sweet. It is a reward and a relaxation of mind and body. Nietzsche understood that sleep comes often to those who understand its powers and can free themselves of the day’s burdens: “Sleeping is no mean art: for its sake one must stay awake all day.“

Yet, the rich man who worries over his finances and his material things cannot secure the sweet sleep of the laborer. Preoccupied by the distraction of acquisition, he cannot turn down the mind’s static. Sleep – that great spiritual gift of repose that allows us to heal our bodies and minds – eludes him. Ethics of the Fathers understood the psychic price we pay for materialism: “Many things lead to many worries.”

Our Biblical verse follows from another similar verse in the same chapter: “One who loves money is never sated by money, nor he that loves abundance with increase. This too is vanity.” No matter what you have it’s not enough. This sentiment will keep you up at night. It will wrestle you in your conscious and sub-conscious mind. Dale Carnegie once said, “If you can't sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there worrying.  It's the worry that gets you, not the lack of sleep.” And yet the lack of sleep is the physical price we pay for a spiritual deficiency.

The spirituality of sleep is confirmed in another Biblical location. The quiet mind that embraces God can achieve happiness in sleep, as it says in Psalms: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you Lord, alone allow me to live in safety” (Psalms 4:8). Not only is greed and a quest for success a good recipe for insomnia - add to it, a failure of belief. Trusting in God becomes a way to let go of our worldly concerns and slide into the sweet sleep of the laborer.

Shabbat is exalted as a time of rest, God’s rest and ours. We are advised to take our sleep seriously on this day. Nap time is part of the divine plan for achieving unity and harmony with the world.

Sleep well and sweet dreams.

A Holiday of Contradictions

September 21, 2010 at 4:42 PM

"Water symbolizes Your might...It reassures, with its drops, those in whom was blown the breath of life."
-Jewish Prayer for Rain

The poet, Walt Whitman in "Song of Myself" wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” He invites us into the world of contradiction, as does the holiday of Sukkot.

There are many visual images of Sukkot that communicate and inspire contradictory religious feelings. We take the four species in our hands, symbols of human accomplishment, and use them to praise God in thanksgiving.  Yet we also sit in a makeshift booth aware of human fragility and total dependence upon God. There is another, perhaps more neglected pair of opposites in this holiday season. Typically, a sukkah - our home away from home -is large enough for our families and perhaps a few guests. The mishna busies itself discussing all kinds of odd sukkot, stretching the parameters of what one would call a dwelling. These very minimal spaces remind us of our individual obligation to recreate historical time and join the children of Israel in their wilderness wanderings. Very few images communicate insularity and individuality the way a home does. It is a personal shelter, an island and a place as unique as those who live in it.

Sukkot, however, also demands overt gestures to the larger, outside world. Seventy sacrifices are offered on Sukkot, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world - a number widely assumed to embrace the totality of the ancient world. Each day, the animals offered lessened in number, exactly the opposite of the way one lights Hanukah candles. The Sefer Ha-Hinukh, a medieval compendium of the commandments, suggests that in the merit of this commandment, the enmity of the nations will lessen against Israel. If the sacrifices are offered in the name of foreign nations and they lessen in number over time, then, so too will any bad sentiments towards Israel gradually be reduced.

The Talmud in Tractate Sukkot is a little more bald in its assessment of these sacrifices. Rabbi Yohanan, a famous talmudic sage, bemoans the Temple’s destruction in an astonishing way: “Woe to the Gentiles who lost so much without realizing that they lost anything at all! When the Temple was standing, the altar gained penitence for them, and now, who will atone on their behalf?” Rabbi Yohanan not only saw the universality of Sukkot and the altar, but felt the pain of the other at losing this opportunity. Everyone receives the privilege of atonement.

Rabbi Yohanan’s statement, as merciful as it sounds, also questions the possibility of non-Jews receiving atonement through other agencies. He assumes that without the Temple, they have no other means. This may be an implicit criticism of other religions.  Perhaps for this reason does Rashi take another interpretive stance.  In his commentary on the Talmud, Rashi wrote that the 70 sacrifices offered on Sukkot correspond to the 70 nations of the world who are judged, as is Israel, at this season for the year’s rainfall.  Rashi is trying to explain what aspect of mercy we are seeking from God with these sacrifices, what is a universal concern that we all share, and why on Sukkot of all holidays do we extend this blessing to other nations.  It is rain rather than atonement which is our primary concern. Rashi most likely extracted his explanation from Zechariah 14. There, a strong and definitive case was made against nations who did not take advantage of the Temple’s services to the broader community on Sukkot:

"All who survive of all of those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King of Hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths. Any of the earth’s communities that does not make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bow low to the King of Hosts shall receive no rain."

These verses, harsh as they may sound, advise the whole world to concern itself as a unit with that which is pressing for all of humanity. Everyone needs rain; consequently, no one is exempt from praying for it. Although this pre-dates our worry over the ecology by millennia, it reflects much of the same concerns. The prayer for rain, uttered during the Musaf or additional service of Shmini Atzeret, touches us with its urgency and its poetry. There, too, despite the many expressions of a particularistic faith - from patriarchs associated with water to the high priest’s water ablutions on Yom Kippur - there is an appeal to the basic need of all of humanity: "Water symbolizes Your might...It reassures, with its drops, those in whom was blown the breath of life."

Images of water and breath, Jew and non-Jew, home and universe, work together in concert as nature meets the divine. Sukkot allows us the dual benefit of living introvertedly and praying extrovertedly.

Happy Sukkot and Shabbat Shalom

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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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