And God passed before his face
And called out:
Long-suffering in anger,
Abundant in loyalty and faithfulness,
Keeping loyalty to the thousandth generation,
Shouldering iniquity, rebellion and sin,
And clearing - not clearing the guilty –
(rather) calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons and upon sons’ sons, to the third and fourth generation!
וַיַּעֲבֹר ה' עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא:
אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן
נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים
נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה
וְנַקֵּה לֹא יְנַקֶּה
פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים
עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים.
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Ki Tisa 2014
Three years ago, when Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mom” came out, my friend Dasee Berkowitz and I wrote a counter-piece about “The Spiritual Life of Parents”. It was an aspirational piece, to say the least. This week, as I was trying to recover from a high-strung parenting miscalculation involving a pinched piece of gum, a clenched fist and a busy school parking lot, I saw that Chua has a new book out. I decided to go back and read what we had written and see if I’ve been able to fulfill some of those aspirations, three years and with a third daughter now in the equation.
I mercifully gave myself a passing grade. But I was also reminded that this week’s Torah portion can be read as God confronting his own Parenthood, with a special recipe for maintaining one’s parenting hidden within:
Ki Tisa: The Sin of the Golden Calf. After the great wedding at Sinai, the Israelites have been adulterous (with a cow, no less). God wants to annul the marriage, offering to Moses that He destroy the Jewish people and restart the project with Moses as the new Abraham. Moses heroically confronts God and reframes the covenant: This is not just a Sinai marriage, he reminds God. It is also a covenant you made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and their offspring. The Jewish project is not an opt-in faith community, but a born-into People, with God as the parent. You can divorce your wife – but you cannot divorce your kids, claims Moses, and God submits. Or as Rabbi Meir puts it in the Talmud: בין כך ובין כך קרויים אתם בנים – “No matter what you do, you are forever called my children” (Kiddushin 36a).
Yet given the tendency of these children to test and anger their parent, given their affinity for rebellion, their ignoring and blocking out their parents pleas, their messiness and their premature desire for autonomy and independence… how will the parent master their emotions, manage love, patience and discipline in the child’s long journey to maturity?
It is here that God reveals to Moses the 13 attributes of Mercy:
Reading these passages in recent years, reciting them again and again on Yom Kippur, I’ve come to realize that God is asking Moses – and his descendants – to remind God of who He really is, or who He aspires to be. The Midrash has long since turned this list from a theological plea into an ethical creed: “Just as God is called showing-of-mercy – you too strive to be showing-of-mercy” (see Maimonides Deot 1:6). God’s thirteen attributes are our aspirational list to follow in God’s paths in our encounter with every person (indeed, Moshe Cordovero’s Palm of Deborah goes through each Divine attribute and translates it into a quality in interpersonal relations).
For me, God’s thirteen attributes of mercy are a powerful guide to Parenthood – not just God’s, but my own. I recite them to remind myself to be merciful, compassionate, slow to anger, truthful, abundant in loyalty… The real trick is to figure out which qualities to use at which moment: when “shouldering mistakes and iniquities” is best – and when “not clearing the guilty” is required (in hindsight, the incident with the gum and the clenched fist seems to have been the first). It is an ongoing internal rollercoaster – and it is undoubtedly the most rewarding one at that. And I am at my best when I remember that my struggle to be there for my child in the best way is the same struggle as being in the world in God’s image. I just might sometimes need a Moses to remind me of them.
As Dasee and I wrote in that piece three years ago:
During an average day of parenting we encounter our entire emotional range: from love and compassion to worry, impatience and even anger. Our kids know how to get under our skin - often because they present a mirror of our own behavior. Viewing our parenting encounters as opportunities for inner growth can turn an emotionally messy day into a source of self-understanding and self-improvement. This is not just psychologically sound – it is spiritual work in itself. As we use our daily encounters to become better parents, we find ourselves walking in the ways of the Divine.
P.S. If the ending of those verses sounds harsh, know that Rabbinic liturgical tradition cut the list short, dropping the stuff about “calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons,” thus leaving only the “13 Attributes of Mercy”. Even more chutzpadik, in prayer to this day we recite the list only until the word “clearing” ונקה, turning the verses’ question mark into an exclamation point: “Keeping loyalty to the thousandth generation, bearing iniquity, rebellion and sin, and clearing!”
Yet – not to end on too optimistic a note – here’s a different interpretation to those verses:
“Calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons” – why? Why should one person have to suffer on account of the sins of another? Perhaps the intent here is that God calls-to-account upon the parents the sins which they performed in educating their children. For the children’s sins are because of the iniquities of the parents – and it is the parents who are held responsible. (Iturei Torah pg. 269)
Thursday, February 6, 2014
Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Tetzaveh 2014
Twenty years ago, my grandfather asked me to mail some charitable donation cheques for him. I noticed the words “earmarked for overhead costs” on one of them and asked him about this. He answered with his typical evasive smile: “Well, we are Levites.”
I was confused. I already knew we came from the Tribe of Levi, and it was a fact I mostly resented. The underappreciated cousins of the Cohens – or Kohanim, that priestly tribe descended from biblical Aaron who star in this week’s Torah portion of Tetzaveh — we Levites were consigned to washing the priests’ hands. If the Temple were ever to be rebuilt, my career prospects hit a glass ceiling as glorified song leader, lyre in hand. Levites are the Art Garfunkel of the Jewish tribes.
In any case, what did this have to do with overhead costs?
When I pushed him, my grandfather said that, as a rabbi, social worker and activist, he had gained insight into the challenges of communal service. And as a Levite, he had a “genetic appreciation” for the gray work of communal professionals. Since he saw how others underappreciated these professionals and the true costs of doing communal work effectively, he felt it was his responsibility to donate specifically to overhead expenses.
I recalled this tale last summer when the usually sleepy nonprofit world was rocked by a campaign to .” The leaders of the country’s three leading sources of information on nonprofits –, , and rolled out research and analysis proving that, counter to popular belief, “.” While 62 percent of Americans believe that a typical charity spends more than it should on overhead, they recommended that “charities should spend more on overhead” in order to be healthy and effective. Instead of ferreting out miniscule overhead percentages, donors should focus on a nonprofit’s “transparency, governance, leadership and results.”
To this formidable campaign I contribute the modest offering of biblical precedent: “The Commandment of Donating to Overhead.” This week’s Torah portion of Tetzaveh, which discusses the role of the priests in the Tabernacle, opens with the following commandment (Exodus 27:20-21):
Command the Children of Israel,
to bring you pure oil of pressed olives
to keep the lamps burning continually…
Aaron and his sons are to keep
the lamps burning before God
from sunset until daybreak.
[This shall be] a law for the ages,
throughout your generations,
on the part of the children of Israel.
וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל,
וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר:
לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד.
בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד מִחוּץ לַפָּרֹכֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל-הָעֵדֻת,
יַעֲרֹךְ אֹתוֹ אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו מֵעֶרֶב עַד בֹּקֶר לִפְנֵי ה'.
חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹתָם, מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
|Depictions of the Temple Lamp in a mosaic |
from a 6th Century Synagogue floor in Hamat Gader
The Torah commands the Israelites to “keep the lights on” in the Tabernacle. Of the many donations the people of Israel are asked to make to support the sanctuary, this is the only one that is required on an ongoing basis.
Fittingly, this commandment became an actual “law for the ages,” long after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. An ancient rabbinic commentary makes the shift clear:
Even though the Temple has been destroyed and its candles extinguished, there still stand houses of prayer and houses of study, and in them in we must light candles, for those are called “micro-temples” (Midrash Ha’Gadol, Leviticus 6:2).
אע"פ שחרב המקדש ובטלו הנרות,
הרי בתי כנסיות ובתי מדרשות שמדליקין בהן והן נקראים "מקדש מעט",
שנאמר: "ואהי להם למקדש מעט" (יחזקאל יא:טז)
In Jewish communities throughout the ages, the commandment of “keeping the lights on” became one of the most powerful guiding principles. In every community — from 11th-century Spain, through 16th-century Italy, to 19th-century Lithuania — associations were formed whose key mandate was to fundraise for the oil to illuminate the sanctuary and other overhead costs. It comes as no surprise that their names were usually taken directly from the biblical verses quoted above: “Shemen la’Maor” (Oil for Lighting) or “Ner Tamid” (the Constant Candle)
While in the Jewish world the personal touch of candles has been replaced by electricity, visiting the sanctuaries of other religious communities reminds us of how this commandment continues to be played out literally in some churches and temples, where devotees bring candles and light them in the sanctuary. This individual, humble and illuminating act speaks volumes of the individual responsibility to keep our communal institutions running.
Not as directly illuminating as the candles — nor as humble — the plaques at the entrance to our communal institutions also remind us that these institutions depend on our donations. But while the appearance of these plaques might lead us to believe that the responsibility to sustain our institutions lies primarily with the wealthy, the candles remind us that it is up to each of us to contribute to the effort. Indeed, in one synagogue in Jerusalem every lightbulb is donated by a different member of the community!
So how does the commandment to donate oil to the Temple play out today? An individual obligation towards overhead costs for those communal institutions we believe in seems like a good first step. But where else can we make a difference in supporting the work of the modern day priests (and Levites!) who toil in the sanctuaries of our communal institutions – Jewish, urban, civic… to make sure the lights are kept on
from sunset until daybreak…
Thursday, January 30, 2014
“When it is time to leave the world, and for the soul to rise up wherever it rises to,
it is not the goal or aspiration that the soul stay only up high.
For the real fulfillment of the soul is that while it is "up there", it should also be down here.
Therefore one most strive to leave offspring and students, so that their da'at [wisdom, attainment, uniqueness] will remain down here, shining a light for the inhabitants of this lowly world. For when a person's da'at remains through children and students, it is considered as if that person itself is still in this world.”
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov | Likkutei Moharan II:8, Hassidic Rabbi, Ukraine 19th C
When we die, what will remain of us in this world?
Reb Nachman outlines his prescription for eternal life. Each person reflects a core “wisdom” – da’at - which epitomizes them; a quintessential learning, an attainment, unique to her. As long as your essential intuition lives in the world – you remain in this world. And it lives on through the creation of children and students who weave that intuition into their own lives.
Suddenly, the act of study becomes an act of reviving the dead – as long as the knowledge is then truly woven into life. By studying and carrying with me the da’at of previous generations – by being their student – I am keeping them alive.
This sounds great, but what is my “essential” da’at? And what if that da’at is distorted, misunderstood? (Milan Kundera’s “Immortality” explores this anxiety with hilarity).
I pondered these thoughts as we marked thirty days since Edgar M. Bronfman’s passing (see more below). In our community of Bronfman Fellows we marked his passing with a community-wide learning initiative, with one track dedicated to studying the Rabbinic tractate ofPirkei Avot.
Putting Reb Nachman’s intuition to the text of Avot, it became clear that this tractate is a project in conserving the “da’at” of those great teachers, attempting to become their students long after they have left this world. Each mishna attempts to “boil down” the quintessential wisdom of a sage into one or two sentences: “He would say”, “he would say”. There is something appalling about this process, reducing a wide ranging and variegated life into a one-liner (preferably with three parts). What a terrifying project, what a moving one. To be sure, the purpose of Pirkei Avot is the wisdom and ethics, not the individual legacy of the teachers. And yet, those two are deeply intertwined – the wisdom and the person who said it.
Yet the deepest lesson from Pirkei Avot might come from the last chapter of Pirkei Avot, chapter six. It does not arise from the text itself, but from the following curious fact: Chapter Six of Pirkei Avot does not actually exist. As late as Maimonides (12th C), Pirkei Avot has only five chapters. Yet open any copy of Pirkei Avot today, and you will discover not give, but six! Scholars have noted that this last chapter is a compilation of external texts, known in the 9th century as the “Chapter of Torah Acquisition”. Its inclusion in Pirkei Avot is due to a fluke of traditional Jewish study. The tradition was to study Pirkei Avot on the Shabbatot between Passover and Shavuot. The only problem was that there are six Shabbatot between these two holidays, and – oy vey - only five chapters to Pirkei Avot. The fitting “Chapter of Torah Acquisition” was called to serve as a filler to the itinerary of study. With time, well-meaning scribes added this chapter to their copies of Pirkei Avot. By the time printing came along, the chapter had been “rechristened” an organic part of Avot. From a scientific “objective” perspective this chapter is an inauthentic imposter. Yet the living traditions of Jewish communities, the circles of learners, have themselves given credence to these chapters. From a narrow historical perspective this chapter might not exist, but from the view of Judaism as it is lived by its children and students, there is nothing more authentic then Chapter Six of Pirkei Avot.
“And the parable is clear, to those who discern” as the Rabbis would say. What is one’s true da’at? Who you originally were, or how you are remembered by children and students? Who has authority over one’s legacy? What is “true Judaism” – or the true meaning of the Constitution – that which can be proven scientifically to be historically true, or that which is engrained in the lives of vibrant communities? To be sure, a healthy back and forth between these two poles is critical. But it is that which lives on in the memories and practices of a community – children and students - which promises eternal life. What one generation might view as inauthentic and secondary, could become the holy cannon of the next generation – as long as there are “children and students” who truly embed it in their lives. May we be so lucky as to merit a few…
P.S. One Mishna from Chapter Six of Pirkei Avot:
This week, following a moving and stately tribute celebrating Edgar M. Bronfman the businessman, the statesman, the philanthropist at Lincoln Center, over 100 Bronfmanim came together to celebrate Edgar Bronfman who invited us to study together. We concluded studying the Tractate of Pirkei Avot in a “Siyyum” meal and study session. We studied the following mishna from Chapter Six of Pirkei Avot, which discusses the 48 traits required in order to “acquire Torah”. It is a fascinating list – if anxiety inducing, as someone remarked. Studying it, one is invited to ponder: Which ones here do you agree with and which do you find troubling? What would be on your list? What does this mishna understand the “acquiring of Torah to be”? (one answer – Torah cannot be acquired alone, in a cave. It requires other people around you). Finally, which of these traits does our society, our community, value, and which has it abandoned?
THE ACQUISITION OF TORAH | PIRKEI AVOT CHAPTER 6 MISHNA 6
Torah is greater than Priesthood or Kingship,
for Kingship is acquired in thirty privileges, and Priesthood in twenty-four.
But Torah is acquired in forty-eight aspects:
In learning, a listening ear, aligned lips ,a discerning heart,
awe, reverence, humility, joy, purity,
apprenticeship to Sages, close reading with Friends, challenging Students,
calm deliberation, in Scriptures [Reading], in Mishnah [Repeating]
engaging in a minimum of business, sex [worldly pursuits], pleasures, sleep, chatter and frivolity.
In patience, good heartedness, trusting of Sages, taking suffering in stride.
By being one who knows his place, rejoices in one's portion, guards one's words, doesn’t claim merit for oneself.
By being loved, loving the Omnipresent, loving Humanity, loving Righteousness, loving Justice, loving Correction.
Doesn’t seek out honors, nor boasts of one's education, doesn’t give [legal] decisions light-heartedly.
Shares in the burdens of others, gives people the benefit of the doubt, leads them to Truth, leads them to Peace,
Settles his heart in his study, asks probing questions, answers queries honestly, listens and discuses, learns in order to teach, learns in order to practice,
hones one's teacher's wisdom, is precise in stating what he has heard, and one who in repeating learning credits the one who said it originally.
As we have learned, whoever repeats a statement in the name of the one who said it brings deliverance to the world. As it says, “And Esther told the King about the plot in the name of Mordechai” (Esther 2:22).
משנה קניין תורה | פרקי אבות ו:ו
גְּדוֹלָה תּוֹרָה יוֹתֵר מִן הַכְּהוּנָּה וּמִן הַמַּלְכוּת, שֶׁהַמַּלְכוּת נִקְנֵית בִּשְׁלֹשִׁים מַעֲלוֹת, וְהַכְּהֻנָּה בְּעֶשְׂרִים וְאַרְבַּע, וְהַתּוֹרָה נִקְנֵית בְּאַרְבָּעִים וּשְׁמוֹנֶה דְבָרִים, וְאֵלוּ הֵן:
בְּתַלְמוד, בִּשְׁמִיעַת הָאֹזֶן, בַּעֲרִיכַת שְׂפָתָיִם, בְּבִינַת הַלֵּב,
בְּאֵימָה, בְּיִרְאָה, בַּעֲנָוָה, בְּשִׂמְחָה, בְּטָהֳרָה,
בְּשִׁמּוּשׁ חֲכָמִים, בְּדִקְדּוּק חֲבֵרִים, בְּפִלְפּוּל הַתַּלְמִידִים,
בְּיִשּׁוּב, בְּמִקְרָא, בְּמִשְׁנָה,
בְּמִעוּט סְחוֹרָה, בְּמִעוּט דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, בְּמִעוּט תַּעֲנוּג, בְּמִעוּט שֵׁנָה, בְּמִעוּט שִׂיחָה, בְּמִעוּט שְׂחוֹק,
בְּאֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, בְּלֵב טוֹב, בֶּאֱמוּנַת חֲכָמִים, בְּקַבָּלַת הַיִּסּוֹרִין,
הַמַּכִּיר אֶת מְקוֹמוֹ, וְהַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ, וְהָעוֹשֶׂה סְיָג לִדְבָרָיו, וְאֵינוֹ מַחֲזִיק טוֹבָה לְעַצְמוֹ,
אָהוּב, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמָּקוֹם, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַצְּדָקוֹת, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַמֵּישָׁרִים, אוֹהֵב אֶת הַתּוֹכָחוֹת,
וּמִתְרַחֵק מִן הַכָּבוֹד, וְלֹא מֵגִיס לִבּוֹ בְּתַלְמוּדוֹ, וְאֵינוֹ שָׂמֵחַ בְּהוֹרָאָה,
נוֹשֵׂא בְעֹל עִם חֲבֵרוֹ, וּמַכְרִיעוֹ לְכַף זְכוּת, וּמַעֲמִידוֹ עַל הָאֱמֶת, וּמַעֲמִידוֹ עַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, וּמִתְיַשֵּׁב לִבּוֹ בְּתַלְמוּדוֹ,
שׁוֹאֵל וּמֵשִׁיב שׁוֹמֵעַ וּמוֹסִיף, הַלּוֹמֵד עַל מְנָת לְלַמֵּד וְהַלּוֹמֵד עַל מְנָת לַעֲשׂוֹת, הַמַּחְכִּים אֶת רַבּוֹ, וְהַמְכַוֵּן אֶת שְׁמוּעָתוֹ
וְהָאוֹמֵר דָּבָר בְּשֵׁם אוֹמְרוֹ, הָא לָמַדְתָּ כָּל הָאוֹמֵר דָּבָר בְּשֵׁם אוֹמְרוֹ מֵבִיא גְאֻלָּה לָעוֹלָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר "וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר לַמֶּלֶךְ בְּשֵׁם מָרְדְּכָי".
ר' נחמן מברסלב, ליקוטי מוהר"ן - מהדורא בתרא סימן ז:ד
וַאֲפִלּוּ כְּשֶׁמַּגִּיעַ זְמַנּוֹ לְהִסְתַּלֵּק, וְהַנְּשָׁמָה עוֹלָה וּמִתְדַּבֶּקֶת בְּמָקוֹם שֶׁעוֹלָה [...], אֵין זֶה תַּכְלִית וּשְׁלֵמוּת, שֶׁתִּהְיֶה הַנְּשָׁמָה רַק דְּבוּקָה לְמַעְלָה. רַק עִקָּר הַשְּׁלֵמוּת שֶׁל הַנְּשָׁמָה הִיא, שֶׁבְּעֵת שֶׁהִיא לְמַעְלָה תִּהְיֶה לְמַטָּה גַּם - כֵּן. עַל - כֵּן צָרִיךְ שֶׁיַּשְׁאִיר אַחֲרָיו בְּרָכָה, בֵּן אוֹ תַּלְמִיד, כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּשָּׁאֵר דַּעְתּוֹ לְמַטָּה גַּם - כֵּן בְּעֵת שֶׁנִּסְתַּלֵּק לְמַעְלָה [...] - כִּי הַתַּלְמִיד מְקַבֵּל דַּעַת הָרַב. [...] וְעַל כֵּן צְרִיכִין לְהַשְׁאִיר אַחֲרָיו בֵּן אוֹ תַּלְמִיד, כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּשָּׁאֵר דַּעְתּוֹ לְמַטָּה, שֶׁיָּאִיר בִּבְנֵי עוֹלָם הַזֶּה הַשָּׁפָל. כִּי כְּשֶׁנִּשְׁאָר דַּעְתּוֹ לְמַטָּה עַל - יְדֵי בֵּן אוֹ תַּלְמִיד, נֶחְשָׁב כְּאִלּוּ הוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ מַמָּשׁ נִשְׁאָר בָּעוֹלָם:
Thursday, January 23, 2014
Rav Yehuda said: One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of Damages [Nezikin].
Ravina said: One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of the Fathers [Ethics of the Fathers, Pirkei Avot].
Others said: One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of Blessings [Berakhot].
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 30a
Leading a virtuous life. Does anyone wonder about that anymore? Not the satisfying life, or the happy life; nor the life of impact. The Talmud asks a question about virtue, indeed of heroic virtue: How does one become a Hassid. Or as Calvin’s dad would put it: how best to build character?
To be fair, that is not how most people would translate the word Hasid. Hasid is often reduced to “pious”, meaning “deeply religious : devoted to a particular religion” according to Merriam-Webster, or “a combination of fervor and devotion to God”.
The term Hasid has been repeatedly reborn over the course of Jewish history. From the Hasidim dancing ecstatically at the Temple (1st C), to the prostrating Sufi Jews of Cairo (13th C), the Franciscan style Hasidim of Germany (13th C) and the spiritual revolutionaries of Eastern Europe (18th C). And then of course there are our contemporaries, who seem to share a preference for black clothes and facial hair, and the neo-Hasid’s who prefer colorful tallitot and shamanic chants.
Despite this rich history, most people assume Hasid=Pious, a term which, as Google shows, gets very little traction these days. Indeed, the second definition for pious offered by Webster’s is “falsely appearing to be good or moral”. Thankfully, this Talmudic argument invites us to redefine Hasid.
To be fair, the third answer offered above fits expectations most easily: “One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of Blessings [Berakhot]”. Berakhot, the tractate educating in the laws of prayer and blessings, implies that being a Hasid relates first of all to spirituality and gratitude. It is primarily about vertical relationships: God/Man. Indeed, the Mishna tells us that “The pious of former generations used to contemplate for one hour before they would begin prayer.” – which opens a window into ancient Jewish Meditation (I always saw those Hasidim as the ones who are to blame for Jewish prayer sprawling for hours and hours). To be sure, there is a strong argument to be made that a person well versed in the ethics of gratitude, investing time and effort in deepening a spiritual practice, would be setting to foundations of becoming a Hasid.
A very different definition of Hasid is evoked by Ravina’s position: “One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of the Fathers”. Ravina is probably referring to the Tractate of Mishna often called “Ethics of the Fathers”, Pirkei Avot. Avot fits into the category of “wisdom books” known across civilizations, from the biblical Proverbs to Tao Te Ching: short prescriptive aphorisms that shape behavior and world view. Avot recognizes that there is the “medium” personality and the
Donors fall into four types:
Those who wish to give and others not give – they rob others of merit.
Those who urge others to give but do not give themselves – they rob themselves of merit.
Those who give and urge others to give – those are the Hasidim.
Those who do not give and urge others not to give – these are the wicked. (Avot 5:16)
Where Berakhot is mostly a vertical, God/self relationship, Avot weaves a combination of vertical and horizontal God/other/self. If the Hasid of Berakhot is pious, the Hasid of Avot is ethical – if such distinctions can be made. Yet for all of its inspiring messages, Pirkei Avot takes place in a vaccum. It assumes that ethical behavior emanates simply from the individual, but does not account for the complex realities of interpersonal conflict, the pervasiveness of mistakes or the gray areas of moral decisions.
Which brings us back to the first and most counter-intuitive statement: “Rav Yehudah said: One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of Damages [Nezikin].” The Tractate of Damages (today consisting of three separate “gates” – Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra) covers 30 chapters of torts and contract law.. What do the ins and outs of financial compensation have to do with being a Hasid? Well, everything.
Where the words of Avot discuss the ideal person leading the ideal life, the Tractate of Damages takes the opposite approach: human beings – and their animals, belongings and agreements – are liabilities waiting to happen. When living in a society mistakes, losses and damages will occur. The challenge is how to fix things. This is not about ideal justice but rather about regaining balance in a broken world. It will never be whole, it will never return to the original state. One who can maneuver skillfully in such a world is a Hassid.
The centrality of the Laws of Damages to Jewish discourse is clear from their location in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, directly after the giving of the Torah at Sinai. To this day traditional Jewish Talmudic education for children begins with the rules relating to lost property – which “findings” belongs to you vs those for which you are responsible to seek out the owner, even though you have no idea who he is. One who wishes to raise a Hasid, first teach them that “Finders keepers, losers weepers” is wrong.
In order to administer the laws of damages properly, one needs to become deeply versed in human needs – physical and psychological. Damages educates one to embrace the perspective of the other, while constantly keeping an eye on the global good (the discussion of Ken Feinberg, damage compensation guru, reflects this point well - thank you Zach Luck for this connection!).
In Damages, as in Avot and Berakhot, there is the “average behavior” and then there are the Hasidim, who accept a higher bar of responsibility, a path of higher virtue. Right before our argument about the correct path to becoming a Hasid, the Talmud gives the following anecdote:
Our Rabbis taught: The Hasidim of former generations used to pick up thorns and broken glasses [from the public sphere] and bury them in the midst of their own fields, at a depth of three handbreadths below the surface so that the plough might not be hindered by them.
Rav Sheshet used to throw them into the fire.
Rava threw them into the Tigris river. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 30a)
Waste management is where societies’ values are tested, as the news from West Virginia showed us this week. As we know from environmental studies, waste management is not just about the vertical (God/man), or the horizontal (man/others), it is also about the future (now/later). Most significantly, the Hasid sees the public square as her personal responsibility, even at a cost to her own property. This deeper view of the public domain reflects a flipping of the common instinctual private property perspective (upon which our glorious nation is founded). In the common understanding, what is mine is mine, and communal space is very questionably mine. Since responsibility for it is shared, personal responsibility is highly diminished. The Hasidim stand this idea on its head. Another example of the Hasid of Damages reflects this position well:
Our masters taught:
One should not clear stones out of one's own domain and throw them into the public domain.
Once a man was clearing stones out of his own domain and throwing them into the public domain.
A Hasid saw him and said:
“Empty One, why do you remove stones from a domain that is not yours to a domain that is yours?”
The man just laughed at him.
After a time, the man was forced to sell his field, and, walking on that very public domain, he stumbled over the stones he had thrown.
He said, “How well that pious man put it: ‘Why do you remove stones from a domain that is not yours to a domain that is yours?’”
Bava Kamma 50b
ת"ר: לא יסקל אדם מרשותו לרה"ר.
מעשה באדם אחד שהיה מסקל מרשותו לרה"ר,
ומצאו חסיד אחד,
אמר לו: ריקה, מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך!
לימים נצרך למכור שדהו, והיה מהלך באותו רשות הרבים ונכשל באותן אבנים,
אמר: יפה אמר לי אותו חסיד "מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך"...
May this week be a calling for us to redefine not only where “our domain” is, but also what the term Hasid can inspire in our lives. Few of us might achieve that status, but at least it is something to aspire to.