Looking to See: The Blessings of Thriving

We learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Meir said, ‘A person is obligated to bless 100 blessing every day, as the Torah says: ‘Now Israel, mah– what does God ask from you, but only to fear Hashem your God, to go in all God’s ways, and to love God, and to serve Hashem your God, with all of your heart and with all of your soul. To guard the commands of Hashem and His statutes which I command you today, for your good.(Deut. 10:12-13)  (Menachos 43b)

Instead of Rabbi Meir reading  Mah– meaning what he reads it me’ah– meaning 100. But, why say 100 blessings every day?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting at the Positive Judaism Summit at UPenn Hillel.  There we discussed the benefit to our wellness of having a regular gratitude practice. This seems rather intuitive. Having a gratitude practice makes us attune ourselves to good things in the world. The process of looking helps us see. 

The wisdom of Rabbi Meir got much deeper when I thought about it within the context of the theme of yesterday’s conference which was “From Survive to Thrive: A New Approach for Jewish living in the 21st Century”. What might Rabbi Meir say about Positive Psychology?

Looking at Rabbi Meir’s proof text we see something very revealing. We start with fearing God but end with loving God. We start in trying to follow an invisible God’s ways and end with leading in service. Maybe the key to moving from survival to thriving is this move from fear to love. Similarly it is critical to move from following the invisible to leading in service to others. We can make this shift daily by conditioning ourselves with the spiritual technology of 100 blessings. In so doing we habituate ourselves to thrive. 

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Hosting Adar

One of my favorite stories tells of the origin story of the Besht. We read: 

Reb Eliezer, the father of the Ba’al Shem Tov, lived in a small village in the Ukraine and was particularly devoted to the mitzvah of hospitality. It was his practice to send emissaries to bring visitors to his home, and after he had filled their needs with food and drink, he would supply them with more provisions for their journey. In heaven they were very impressed by his practice, but the heavenly prosecutors claimed that Reb Eliezer had not yet reached the level of hospitality that Abraham and Sarah had reached. Just as with Job the devil asked for permission to test him, however, upon hearing of this, the prophet Elijah said that it is not proper that the devil be the one to carry out this mission, because Reb Eliezer might not be able to withstand his exacting judgment.

And so it was that one Shabbat afternoon, in the guise of a poor man on foot, Elijah descended to visit the Reb Eliezer. Upon entering Reb Eliezer’s home, he called out, “Good Shabbos!” It appeared to Reb Eliezer that his guest had desecrated the Shabbat, God forbid, and was not even embarrassed by his deeds, yet he did not become angry at him.  Instead, Reb Eliezer immediately offered the pauper food for the third Shabbat meal and after Shabbat was over, he served him the Melave Malka meal. The following morning, on Sunday, Reb Eliezer provided his guest with a generous donation, still making no mention of the sin of desecrating the Shabbat. 

Then Elijah revealed himself to him and announced, “I am the prophet Elijah, and in merit of your exceptional deed, you will be privileged to bear a son who will light up the eyes of Israel.”(adapted from  Reshimot Devarim 4, p. 35)

This story speaks to the centrality of hachnasat orechim-hospitality in Jewish life. 

I was thinking about it today as the second day of Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheni. As we learn in the Gemara:

Mi’SheNichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha– One who welcomes Adar increases joy. ( Taanit 29)

Nichnas and hachnasat have the same root. This makes me translate this differently. One who hosts Adar increases joy.

This makes me go back to the story of Reb Eliezer. What does it take to really be a good host? Yes it means opening up our homes, but that is the easy part. The hard part is opening up our hearts. In Adar we need to get into the spirit of putting on the mask of being hospitable so that we can actually get to the level of Abraham and Sara If we do that we will increase joy by lighting the eyes of Israel. 

Hodesh Tov

I Love Israel: Growing Past Hope

For the past week I have had the Winona Oak and Chainsmokersearworm Hope stuck in my head.  This song tells the story of a woman’s reflection of the abusive relationship that she had with a partner when she was younger.  The chorus is particularly sticky. They sing:

You made me feel high
‘Cause you had me so low, low, low
You only seemed tall
‘Cause you stunted my grow-grow-growth
I only wanted you ’cause I couldn’t have you
Now that I know
That wasn’t love, that wasn’t love, that was just hope

The protagonist realizes that what she thought was a strong relationship was just an immature dependency. The song is catchy and worth a listen:

I really did not give it much more thought until the merger between right-wing parties Habayit Hayehudi and Otzma Yehudit, whose members are supporters of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Rightly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under fire for endorsing this merger. While one should not be surprised with the rise of nationalism and xenophobia all over the world (e.g. Brexit and MAGA), but it is still saddening to see this strand of hatred and fear-mongering in Israel.

For Jews around the world, Israel represents our aspirations for a different future. We see this most clearly in Hatikvah, our national anthem. There we sing:

Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope two thousand years old,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

In my mind Israel is the realization of thousands of years of our yearning and suffering in Diaspora. This pernicious move to the right to normalize Kahane in the name of keeping us a “free nation in our land”, is actually losing the hope itself.

Thinking about  Hatikvah in this moment I found myself singing Hope by the Chainsmokers. Normalizing racism like Kahane isn’t love, that is just hope. After over 70 years of this imperfect but majestic history of the State of Israel, we need to grow up. We need to reflect on what kind of relationships we want to have and what kind of nation we want to be. We need to be bold and say that we love Israel, and immature hope is insufficient. If we push ourselves past hope to love we will expect more from our leadership and ourselves. Netanyahu is only perceived to be high in the polls because he has kept us so “low, low, low.” We need to reflect on this moment and “grow-grow-grow.”

Making Shabbat: Some Thoughts on Ki Tisa, Shabbat, and Relationships

Arguably Shabbat is one of the most significant gifts of the Jews. In Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about additional aspects of the significance of this day of rest. There we read:

Speak to the Israelite people and say: nevertheless , you must keep My sabbath, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Lord have consecrated you. You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, La’asot et Hashabbatmaking the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed. ( Exodus 31:13-17)

Shabbat is a sign between God and the Jewish people and a means of our becoming holy. While one might want to focus on the death penalty for breaking the Shabbat, after a conversation with my deal friend Shalom Orzach I am more interested in the idea “La’asot et Hashabbatmaking the sabbath” ( Exodus 31:16). As I have discussed in the past in making the world God was making a place for us to exist. God rested on Shabbat from that work, so we could be together. Similarly by instructing us  to rest from our kind of work on Shabbat, we are invited to be the host for God in our lives. At  the core of the Tabernacle, the Temple, and Shabbat is a profound notion of hospitality. The logic seems to follow that the 39 categories of work that went into building the Tabernacle are the same varieties of Asiyahmaking things that are prohibited on Shabbat. While making things is what is prohibited on Shabbat ( evening meriting the death penalty) it is also what we are instructed to do -” le’asot- making Sbabbat. What does Asiyah mean?

I was thinking about this question when I got to thinking about  the teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia in Perkei Avot . There we learn:

Yehoshua ben Perachia says, “Aseh– Make for yourself a rabbi, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious.” (Avot 1:6)

What does it mean to make a  rabbi? Is that not the work of rabbinical schools? What is the nature of this Asiyah?  What is the connection between what God did to create the world, the creative activity we do six days a week that is prohibited to do make on Shabbat, what we do in making Shabbat itself, and do in making a Rabbi?

I think that an answer to all of this might be suggested in our Torah portion. Might it all be about making the sign between God and the people of Israel? Essential to all of these asiyot– makings is the forging of relationships.  According to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachia, how does this relationship we make with a rabbi compare to the relationship we acquire with a friend? It might be that in all of these relationships there is a respect, deference, and creation of limits. While this might be off-putting in that this variety of relationship comes with hierarchy, these moments of yielding to another  make a certain kind of kedusha– holiness in the world. The commandment to make Shabbat invites us to limit ourselves and make room in our lives for others and maybe even the Other. By seeing ourselves as a smaller part of something much larger we make a “covenant for all time.”

Shabbat Shalom

The Practice in Hospitality : Terumah and Making Space for Others

As Torah portions go, this is a big week. In Terumah we start getting the blue print for the Tabernacle. If that was not significant enough, the Tabernacle is itself the blueprint for our experience of Shabbat. The 39 categories of work that went into building the Tabernacle are the same varieties of labor that are prohibited on Shabbat. So while I don’t assume that we will return to the cult of the tabernacle or ritual slaughter in the third Temple any time soon, Shabbat with all of its assorted rituals is a fixture of my life. Here in Terumah there is a clear plan for what will be built and made, but that is not where they start off this large-scale project. Rather, they start off with themselves. As we read:

‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering.( Exodus 25:2)

While their gifts are going to fit into a very clear and focused plan, their gifts were from the heart. At the center of our national narrative is a collaborative non-profit project that celebrates the diverse offerings of every individual while working toward a common goal. And about this project God says:

And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)

The text does not say “make this building so that I can dwell in it“- the Tabernacle, but rather in “them”. When building the Tabernacle we were building a place for God to be with us.  When we made space for God to be our guest we were transformed into the host and in so doing God was in us.

In making the world God, the Lord of Hosts, was making a place for us to be. God rested on Shabbat from that work, so we could be together with us God’s guests. Similarly by instructing us  to rest from our kind of work on Shabbat, we are invited to be the Host for God in our lives. At  the core of the Tabernacle, the Temple, and Shabbat is a profound notion of hospitality.

This fundamental notion of making space for guests brings us back to the advent of Judaism. There we see Avraham in his post-op discomfort standing in his tent vigilantly looking out for would-be guests. From the beginning being Jewish is less a disposition toward God and more about behaviors that make us open to others in our lives. Maybe if we made enough room for all of the people we would have enough room for God in our lives. In this sense Judaism is less of a faith and more of a practice in hospitality.

 

Year of the Earth Pig

Today marks the beginning of the twelfth of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac related to the Chinese calendar. In the continuous sexagenary cycle of sixty years, this is the start of the year of the Earth Pig. In the Chinese Mythology these 12 animals correspond to the 12 animals that won the Great Race. See this video:

The pig came in dead last due to its sloth. It seems that pigs get a bad rap from many cultures.

In Judaism the pig is the symbol of hypocrisy. As the midrash goes, the pig pretends to be a kosher animal. The pig sticks out its split hooves when it is resting, as if to advertise its being kosher, while internally it does not chew its cud (Bereishit Rabbah 65:1).

In a Jewish context it is also interesting to reflect that the pig is the end of the Chinese Zodiac cycle. In Hassidut we learn, “Why is the pig called [in Hebrew] chazir? Because in the future, God will return [le-hachazir] it to Israel” ( Likkutei Sichot 29:128). In the end in the messianic era the internal physiology of the pig will change so that indeed it chews its cud. ( Ohr ha-Chaim on Leviticus 11:7)  In so doing the pig will have the have both kosher signs.

To me it makes sense to take a pause on today the Chinese New Years to think about how each of us might work on being less hypocritical in our lives. What can each of us do to ensure that our insides match our outsides? In so doing I have no doubt that we will be starting a new beginning and hastening the messianic era. Happy New Year.

Bonus Question: If Jews flock to Chinese restaurants on the Gregorian New Year, do Americans head to Jewish delicatessens on the Chinese New Year?

Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Empathy

As anyone who ever reads my blog knows, I am a bit of hasid of Dr.Brené Brown. There is something she shared that I have been thinking about lately. She said, “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”  I always assumed that empathy was a trait. What does it mean that empathy is a choice? Does that mean that it is more nurture than nature?

I was thinking about this question this week while reading Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion. There we read, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20). If the Torah wanted to it could just have instructed us not to wrong or oppress the stranger and left it at that. Instead it goes on to give us a rationale. We should not do wrong by the stranger because we  “were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This commandment seems to be a profound lesson in empathy.  The reason that we should not marginalize anyone else is because we ourselves endured a national experience of being strangers in a strange land.  In this way our collective  slavery is the foundation of our morality.

This mandate to look out for the stranger is not limited to this one commandment. We learn in the Ein Yaakov:

We are taught: Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: “Why does the Scripture in thirty-six, according to others in forty-six places, warn regarding strangers? Because his original character is bad [into which ill treatment might cause him to relapse].” Why is there added “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Exodus 22:20)? We are taught: Rabbi Nathan says: “Do not reproach your neighbor with a blemish which is also your own” (Ein Yaakov, Bava Metzia 4:12)

Be it 36 or 46 times it a rather pervasive and systemic message in the Torah to look out for those who might be marginalized. But what does it mean regarding our assumptions around human nature? I do not agree that we are bad from the start. That being said it seems that Rabbi Nathan thought that the best way to deal with this limitation is the commandment from this week’s Torah portion. By empathizing with the stranger we can uproot this flaw. Essentially Rabbi Nathan was saying that “those in glass houses should not throw stones.” Like Brené Brown’s lesson from above, we are commanded to be vulnerable and look inward if we hope to evoke empathy for others.

This reminds me of something that Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson taught. He wrote:

Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’

Be it a commandment or a choice the importance of looking out for the stranger seems pretty straight forward. The lesson plans or effort needed for becoming an empathetic person seem truly complex. This is hard work, but something we need now more than ever.

-See related post on the 36: The Laws of the Stranger


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