Posts Tagged 'avot'

Juneteenth: Between Revelation and Relevance

One of my favorite mishnayot in Perkei Avot starts:

Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi said: every day a bat kol (a heavenly voice) goes forth from Mount Horev (Sinai)… ( Avot 6:2)

Surely Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi believed that there was an event of transmission of the Torah at Sinai. If it was a singular event, what did he mean? Is it the a same message going out from the Mount Horev radio tower on the daily or does that message change? If it does changes did he think that that revelation at Sinai was incomplete?  What are the implications of a daily progressive notion of revelation?

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This idea seems to be connected to the teaching of Ben Bag Bag who taught:

Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein. And look into it; And become gray and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it. (Avot 5:22)

There was an event of revelation and there is an additional mandate to help that message go forth and be turned into something that is relevant.  This work is not reserved for one period in our lives.  This is a daily practice that is year-round and life-long. While the Torah might have gone out at Sinai centuries ago, it is our work to make sure it is heard every day.

I was thinking about this today on Juneteenth. On June 19th we commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the US. The holiday was first celebrated in Texas, where on that date in 1865, in the aftermath of the Civil War, slaves were declared free under the terms of the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. While that day was a revelation of a truth that we are all free and equal, it is clear that our society is still not living up to this promise of treating people equally. It has been 155 years and there is still much work for us to do every day to ensure that we are all living up to this truth. What do we need to turn and turn again in our society to uproot systemic racism? There is still so much work to be done to reform our police force that targets people of color. We still have so much work for do to deal with bias at every level of our society.

I am not sure what we need to do, but I know that we need to do more. I do want to offer one insight from Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi. In the same mishna he taught:

And it says, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not harut [‘graven’] but herut [ ‘freedom’].( Avot 6:2)

Even when it is written in the law – harut that we are all free, there is still a lot of work to do to make sure we are actually all free- herut . We cannot hide behind the law, we need to do the daily work of making sure that we are living up to our aspiration and that all of us are safe and free. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

The revelation of freedom is incomplete until we all treat each other with respect and dignity.

Do Not Separate Yourself

This past week I had the pleasure of going to a number of camps. At one camp I was asked to do a session  with their LIT-Leaders in Training program. This is the program for their eldest campers who are being trained to become staff. After exploring their different leadership styles and how they are needed in different situations we learned a Mishnah from Perkey Avot. Together we learned:

Hillel would say: Do not be separate from the community. Do not believe in yourself until the day you die. Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place. Do not say something that is not readily understood in the belief that it will eventually be understood. And do not say “When I am free I will learn,” for perhaps you will never be free. (Perkey Avot 2:5)

The Mishnah reinforced the message that we need to recognize that all different styles of leadership are needed for the community to be successful. We needed to bring their talent to the group.  We cannot be judgmental of the other people before we come to a profound understanding of where they are in their lives. In knowing where they are we will communicate with them more effectively. We need to practice situational leadership  to ensure that we are heard. And of course, the process of learning helps us sharpen our understanding of our own leadership styles which will in turn help the community move forward.

In preparing for that lesson I found another girsa– version of the Mishnah. Instead of it saying “אל תפרוש מן הצבור – Do not be separate from the community” it said “אל תפרוש עצמך מן הצבור- Do not separate yourself from the community”. Most times the Mishnah is already translated this second way, what is the implications of this extra word?

It is one thing to see yourself as separate from your community, it is another to have to separate yourself into different parts in relation to your community. In many of our lives we are forces to be different people to different social crowds. Camp is a very special community in which we are all encouraged to strive for a certain unity of being. In unifying the separate parts of ourselves we are able to bring a better version of ourselves to make a better community.

In the wake of the landmark Supreme Court Decision to strike down DOMA and Prop 8 it is important to celebrate our nations move toward a more perfect union with equality for all. With these laws out of our way  less of us are being asked to “separate ourselves”. The question now is, will more of us bring our whole selves to our communities? We have the opportunity to make better communities, but there is still a lot of work left to do to make a more perfect community.


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