Worthy Reward: The Trading of Mitzvot

At the start of Parshat Eikev, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the benefits of keeping the commandments. There we read:

וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב-And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your fathers (Deuteronomy 7:12)

The simple reading of this is that obedience will be rewarded by God. But, what is the reward?

On this passage from our Torah portion Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev comments:

It is an accepted principle that the “so-‎called” reward that God grants us for performing the ‎commandments of the Torah is the least of all the pleasures that ‎we will experience. The major pleasure is the satisfaction we ‎derive from having been able to give the Creator a feeling of ‎satisfaction that God created mankind, and that at least part of ‎mankind, Israel, has seen fit to acknowledge this. This is what the ‎‎Mishna in Avot 4:2 meant when the author states that ‎שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה the true reward for performing the commandments is the ‎commandment itself. When we reflect on the significance of the ‎performance of the commandment we will realize that having ‎performed it was an unparalleled pleasure. Even the reward that ‎God has “saved up” for us in the hereafter pales into insignificance ‎when compared to the satisfaction of having been able to provide ‎‎God with pleasure.‎ This is what Moshe had in mind when he described the ‎‎mitzvah performance with the word ‎עקב‎ in our verse above. ‎This word, meaning “heel,” when used elsewhere in Scripture, is ‎used by Moshe to describe the minute part of the pleasure that ‎God’s “reward” provides for us when we compare it with the ‎pleasure we provided for ourselves by having been the ‎instrument to please the Creator.‎ (Kedushat Levi, Deuteronomy, Eikev 1)

In this sense the Kedushat Levi  is saying that the reward for our obedience is that God gets the reward . He also offers this idea that the essence of this “heel” of עקב is that the true reward for performing the commandments is the ‎commandment itself. Neither seems to be accessible rewards to me.

These words שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה are featured in this amazing music video by Mordechai Shapiro:

Besides being a crazy catchy song and having the video be filmed at camp ( Morasha), I love this video because it takes the notion of שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה in a little different direction. It is not just that your doing a mitzvah is its own reward, or as the Mishna in Avot says, Mitzah Goreret Mitzvah, that it will lead to your doing more mitzvot. Rather, the video explores a paying-it-forward notion. In this sense the reward of your doing a mitzvah is that it will lead to someone else’s doing a mitzvah.

I was thinking about this idea of Mitzah Goreret Mitzvah being a notion of paying-it-forward recently when talking with my colleague Jonah Wagan. He showed up to work complaining about Chabad Shaliach asking him again to put on Tfilin. I asked him if he objected to this practice. Jonah replied that he did not mind it, it was just that the interaction felt yucky. In conversation we explored the idea of what might change if he could enter into the interaction as an equal. So the next time he was asked to do this mitzvah with a Chabad Shaliach he resolved to offer the Shaliach the opportunity to do a Mitvah that was meaningful to him with him. Now Jonah is thrilled to do this mitzvah of putting on Tfilin as he does the mitzvah of raising money from the Shaliach for EschelMitzah Goreret Mitzvah; they trade mitvot. In so doing they enjoin each other to do more for the world.

I would encourage each of us to explore putting on Tfilin, supporting the holy work of  Eschel, or what ever might be your signature mitzvah. And then I think we should think about trading them with each other. If you join me in doing my mitzvah I will gladly join you in doing your mitzvah. In this trading mitzvot framework the “heel” of עקב  it the first step in a collaborative journey of equals to create a common path ( read here the literal meaning of the word Halachah) and fix the world. Now that seems like is a worthy reward.

 

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Bystander Effect: Tu B’Av and Kitty Genovese

Today we celebrate Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which is one of the happiest days of the year. But what are we celebrating? The Gemara shares six historical events that happened on this day.  The second one shared is particularly interesting to me. There we read:

Rabba Bar Bar Chana said in the name of Rav Yochanan: The Tribe of Benjamin was allowed to remarry into K’hal Yisroel after the incident of Pilegesh B’Givah. This occurred on the 15th and signified once again the unity of Israel. (Bava Basra 121a-b and Taanit 30b-31a)

But what is the incident of Pilegesh B’Givah? 

In Judges 19, a Levite’s pilegesh, concubine, leaves him to return home to Bethlehem. After four months, her husband visits her father’s home and attempts to persuade her to return with him. On the fifth day, the concubine leaves with this Levite man. They travel together to Givah, looking for a place to spend the night. An old man sees her and the Levite hanging out in the square. He invites them to spend the night at his home. While there, the perverse men of the city pound on the door requesting the old man to bring out the Levite in order to have sex with him. When the old man offers his virgin daughter and the concubine instead, they refuse. The Levite then forces his concubine into the hands of the mob. She is beaten and raped throughout the night. In the morning, the concubine is found by the Levite on the doorstep of the old man’s house. He tells her to get up and when there is no reply, he places her on the back of his donkey and travels home. Upon arrival, he takes a knife and cuts the concubine’s body into twelve pieces, sending the parts out through the land of Israel. The outraged tribes of Israel sought justice and asked for the miscreants to be delivered for judgment. The Benjamites refused, so the tribes then sought vengeance, and in the subsequent war.

It is noteworthy that when the Levite finds the pilegesh in the morning, it is unclear whether she is dead, as there is no reply. Even though the story is centered around a woman, she never speaks and is nameless. Her life and death are defined by the voices of men around her. It is evident that the victimized woman has no voice. In this context, there is an eerie echo of this case and the case of Kitty Genovese.

In the early hours of March 13, 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed outside the apartment building across the street from where she lived in an apartment in Queens. Two weeks after the murder, The New York Times published an article claiming that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, but none of them called the police or came to her aid. The incident prompted inquiries into what became known as the bystander effect or “Genovese syndrome”, and the murder became a staple of American psychology textbooks.

The bystander effect is a social psychological claim that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help. Several factors contribute to the bystander effect, including ambiguitygroup cohesiveness, and diffusion of responsibility that reinforces mutual denial of a situation’s severity. In the cases of Kitty Genovese and Pilegesh B’Givah we see this bystander effect. Sending her parts around the country served as a wakeup call to the entire nation. In the words of Rabbi A.J. Heschel when he said, “In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.” Tu B’Av needs to be a day in which we commit to hearing everyone’s voice, no one should be silenced. It is also a day of reconciliation with the tribe of Benjamin. To this ends, we experience true joy because we all take responsibility.

See:

Taking Liberty with Lady Liberty

Today’s Cartoon from the New York Times Magazine by Peter Kuper reminds me of this post I wrote a month ago: 

Seen This One Before: The Border Crisis, the Three Weeks, and My Father with a cartoon from October 1946. Here is from today:

This is from 73 years ago:

Sadly the more things change the more they stay the same. Enough already with the effort to Make America Great Again, first we need to work for a society that is profoundly good. Let’s learn to walk before we try to run.

Afflicted Women: ReReading Lamentations Today as a Man

On Tisha B’Av we remember the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. It is a time of mourning for our exile from our political, spiritual, and ancestral homeland. On Tisha B’Av we spend a day collectively reflecting on the plight of our ancestors—who suffered at the hands of their oppressors. But only spending time reconnecting with our own long history of persecution, we are missing a profound lesson of the day. We also reconnect to these memories so that we can empathize with others who are experiencing pain and suffering. 
To these ends we will sit on Saturday night and Sunday morning and read Lamentations. There we will read:
Our fathers sinned and are no more; And we must bear their guilt.
Slaves are ruling over us, With none to rescue us from them.
We get our bread at the peril of our lives, Because of the sword of the wilderness.
Our skin glows like an oven, With the fever of famine.
They have afflicted women in Zion, Maidens in the towns of Judah. ( Lamentations 5:7-11)
In this time of darkness, we experienced pain, suffering, and degradation. In his explanation of “violated women in Zion” the Ibn Ezra says, “all sex that is against her will is called ‘affliction.'” It seems that ultimate expression of declaring the line between “us” and “them” is that they raped our daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives. While sex aught to be an expression of intimacy, love, and closeness, here it is violent, a means of subjugation and objectification, and represents a deep division.
I have been thinking about this the last two weeks as we have seen the unfolding of the case Israeli teenagers falsely accused of rape being released from a Cypriot jail returning to a heroes welcome back at home. In her compelling analysis of this case Chen Sror Artzi wrote:
But the culture of rape, which has been around for millennia, does not skip anyone. The story of what happened in Cyprus is just a distilled version of a rotten culture, in which consent is deemed to be the yardstick, not desire or active willingness. (The Lesson We Should All Learn from the Cyprus Affair, Ynet)
Artzi is correct, that this rape culture has existed long before it was even reported here in Lamentations. One of the challenges is our black and white thinking. Even if it was consensual and not rape, it does not mean that these teens were right.  It is not just two options of right or wrong. And we need to stop just thinking about us and them.
How can we immerse ourselves in Lamentations and Tisha B’Av and not look deep inside and recognize that our boys did wrong? While it was not rape, what they did was clearly not love or an expression of closeness. Sharing that video was clear objectification. Our giving them a heroes welcome  represented a deep division.  Surely this young degraded British woman did something wrong by accusing them of rape, but she too is someone’s  daughter or sister. She was not raped, but she was surely afflicted. She too demands our empathy.
As a man, father of daughters and sons, husband, son, and human being I feel compelled to do more. But what can I do?

As men, it’s time to say clearly that we do not condone any sex — or any other behavior — that humiliates women, whether it’s consensual or not. As men, it’s time to teach our boys that a higher moral law must guide our conduct. That we are watching. As a community of men, we must take full responsibility for individual acts of violence against women and for a culture that systemically abuses and takes advantage of women.

Consensual. Irrelevant. A loophole. When it comes to our behavior as men, what another might accept — or what we might get away with in secret or under the law — does not absolve participation. It’s a short slide down a moral ladder from gang sexual humiliation of a woman to becoming the next Jeffery Epstein.

Where are the men? Where are the men who — at the airport — would have clopped those boys on the head and told them that they are a moral disgrace and a disappointment to true masculinity? Where are the men who stand for integrity and accountability, the men who would have required each of these boys to do acts of community service and to learn about healthy sexuality?

The global ManKind Project has launched a campaign in response to the #MeToo movement called #IamResponsible. ( Times of Israel)

As a man reading Lamentations I must wrestle with these “sins of the father”. We do not need to be enslaved by toxic masculinity. If we want to see change we must commit to breaking this chain afflicting all women in our society. Solovy offers us the ManKind Project pledge:

As men, we are committed to individual and collective evolution, we take responsibility for creating the society we want to live in and share for the generations to come. We are responsible for the GOLD and the SHADOW of masculinity, for the gentleness, fierce caring, and protection, AND for the abuse, violence, and domination. We are responsible as creators and as role models. We are responsible as victims and as perpetrators. We recognize the pervasive systemic factors that promote abuse of power and teach harmful gender roles to both boys and girls.

This year when reading Lamentations I will have to interpret it anew in the context of this Cyprus Affair, Jeffery Epstein case, and the larger #Metoo movement. There is nothing to celebrate this Tisha B’Av. When I think about the “women in Zion, Maidens in the towns of Judah” and all women who have been afflicted I will meditate on the words of Rabbi A.J. Heschel when he said, “In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.” 

The Kind of Story We Need Right Now: Love Without Cause

This year we will observe Tisha B’Av this Saturday night and Sunday. On Tisha B’Av we remember the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. It is a time of mourning for our exile from our political, spiritual, and ancestral homeland. On Tisha B’Av we spend a day collectively reflecting on the plight of our ancestors—now refugees who were forced to migrate. But only spending time reconnecting with our own long history of persecution, we are missing a profound lesson of the day. We also reconnect to these memories so that we can empathize with others who are experiencing pain and suffering. In the words of Dr.Brené Brown, “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.”

Maybe if we took some time to better understand why the Temples were destroyed we would empathize with other people who are currently suffering. While,the Rabbis provide us with a number of different rationales, the most famous of reasons for our destruction and exile was Sinat Chinam, hatred without cause. In the Talmud we learn:

But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, observing the laws, and giving tzedakah? Because therein prevailed Sinat Chinam,hatred without cause. That teaches you that senseless hatred is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together (Yoma 9b)

This is making a big claim as to the severity of Sinat Chinam, but what is hatred without cause? It seems to be groundless animosity brought on without provocation. I would not say that hatred as a response to something with a rationale is good, but at least in that situation there is a pathway to reconciliation. The challenge of Sinat Chinam is that it origin seems to be without cause and so it the recovery.

In many ways the paradigm of Sinat Chinam is found in the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. There in the Talmud we learn:

Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. This is as there was a certain man whose friend was named Kamtza and whose enemy was named bar Kamtza. He once made a large feast and said to his servant: Go bring me my friend Kamtza. The servant went and mistakenly brought him his enemy bar Kamtza. The man who was hosting the feast came and found bar Kamtza sitting at the feast. The host said to bar Kamtza. That man is the enemy [ba’al devava] of that man, that is, you are my enemy. What then do you want here? Arise and leave. Bar Kamtza said to him: Since I have already come, let me stay and I will give you money for whatever I eat and drink. Just do not embarrass me by sending me out.The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza said to him: I will give you money for half of the feast; just do not send me away. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Bar Kamtza then said to him: I will give you money for the entire feast; just let me stay. The host said to him: No, you must leave. Finally, the host took bar Kamtza by his hand, stood him up, and took him out.After having been cast out from the feast, bar Kamtza said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, although they saw how he humiliated me, learn from it that they were content with what he did. I will therefore go and inform [eikhul kurtza] against them to the king. He went and said to the emperor: The Jews have rebelled against you. The emperor said to him: Who says that this is the case? Bar Kamtza said to him: Go and test them; send them an offering to be brought in honor of the government, and see whether they will sacrifice it. (Gittin 55b- 56a)

Here is a great Bim Bam take on this classic story of hatred without cause.

For no obvious reason the host would not allow Bar Kamtza to stay at the party. And in response to this hatred without cause bar Kamtza helped set into motion the destruction of the Temple. What could have happened if bar Kamtza was allowed to stay at the party? Nothing bad and that is for sure.

Juxtaposed this story of someone not being allowed to show up at party I wanted to share with you a clip from Seth Meyers in a segment he calls, “The King of Story we Need Right Now.” This is an amazing story:

While bar Kamtza was told to leave the party, this guy showed up and showed up in a big way for a complete stranger. This is a story of love with no cause.  I share this with you because this is truly a story we need right now.

Unlike any time in recent history, we are living in a world of hatred without cause. We are seeing a tremendous spike in anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, incitement, acts of hatred, and a general lack of civility like no other time in recent American history. Right now, we are still reeling from the most recent wave of hate-fueled gun violence. It is especially clear that the toxic combination of hateful rhetoric and easily available weapons present a national crisis. Many of these shootings were influenced by white supremacist ideology, the aim of which is to annihilate “others”; in this case, immigrants and communities of color (or “invaders” as the El Paso perpetrator said). Hateful supremacist doctrine is an affront to us as Jews, who deeply empathize with the experience of being “othered.”

In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” In this era of alternative-facts it seems that there is no real cause for any of this hatred. Before we react we need to ensure that we know the facts and that we act with due cause. Anything else runs the risk of being divisive and destructive. And since it has no cause it is not clear how we might address what happened and repair what gets broken. In the mean time it would never hurt for all of us to share our love without cause.

As a companion to the resource of text and discussion to reflect on the immigrant experience in the spirit of the Three Weeks in the context of today’s events me and my team wanted to share other modalities to help people explore issues of xenophobia and senseless hatred on Tisha B’Av.

Holding Leaders Accountable: Words Matter

In Matot Masai, this week’s Torah portion, Moshe teaches the leaders of the tribes of Israel the laws governing the annulment of vows. I understanding the need these laws. We all make commitments that we cannot keep. As the saying goes, “A fellow who says he has never told a lie has just told one.” There in the parsha we read:

Moshe spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the Lord has commanded: If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips. ( Numbers 30:2-3)

While there is plenty one could say about the challenges of setting additional limitations for oneself, I am more interested in the value of words to create commitment and to set up a system of accountability. While all of Israel was told “do not render a false oath in My name and thereby desecrate it”(Leviticus 19,12), why does the leadership get a special communication here?

Rashi’s answer to this is simple. He write:

This does not mean that he spoke only to the princes of the children of Israel and not to the people also, but that he showed respect to the princes by teaching them first and that afterwards he taught the children of Israel. ( Rashi on Numbers 30:2)

It seems by design politicians tell people what they need to get into power. It is hard not to see that our leaders always need additional instruction when it comes to over-promising and under-delivering. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian writer and outspoken critic of the Soviet Union , said, “In our country the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.” Here in the United States under our current alternative-facts administration we see that lying has again become a pillar of the State. Is this message in our Torah portion really about showing “respect to the princes”?

Our leaders need to know that words do matter. They routinely make oaths, create obligations, and make pledges, that other people need to pay for with their effort, money, or even their lives. Maybe the”respect to the princes” is that our leaders need to know that we are listening and watching. Our leaders need to know that ultimately they will be held accountable for their words, their deeds, and their leadership.

The Sound of a Ripple

Pinchas, the main character from this week’s eponymous Torah portion, is very similar to Elijah, the main character from this week’s haftorah (I Kings 18:46-19:21). Both of them zealously and selflessly fight for their God and their people. In the haftorah we see Elijah fleeing the death sentence issued against him by Queen Jezebel. He runs to the Judean desert. While he slept, an angel awoke him and provided him with food and drink. Reenergized, Elijah went for forty days until he arrived at Mount Sinai and took shelter in a cave. The word of God came to Elijah and asked him for the purpose of his visit. He responded and God instructed him to leave the cave and stand on the mountain and experience God’s Presence. There was a great and strong wind splitting mountains and shattering boulders, but Elijah realized that God was not in the wind. Then came an earthquake followed by fire, but again Elijah understood that not in the earthquake nor the fire was God. After the fire there was a Kol Demama Daka- still small voice, and Elijah realized that the Divine Presence had appeared. Again God asked him why he was there and instructed Elijah to return and support the people.

It seems very mysterious, what is this “still small voice”? I was thinking about this a few months ago when I was working with Josh Lake and Caroline Rothstein on a program for the Cornerstone Fellowship based on Ripple the iconic song by the Grateful Dead.

In the classic Rabbinic Tradition, we explored this song as a primary text and added commentary on it in the from of a contemporary page of Talmud. I invite you to take a look at Ripple In Still Water or any of the other pages I have made. On this Daf we explored the meaning of the lyric:

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air (Ripple)

What does it mean that things might be “better left unsung”?  For Josh, Caroline and me, it resonated with this idea of the “still small voice” from our haftorah. As we wrote:

While Elijah thinks that God might be found in the large scale sensory experiences, God is in fact uniquely to be found in the subtle quiet moments when things are left unsung.

When reflecting on this and the people of Pinchas and Elijah, it is interesting to realize that not all zealotry is meant to be acted on or even heard. Some of the deepest acts of faith, family, and fraternity are subtle and even silent, like a ripple on still water.


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