Friday, March 21, 2014

Jewish Texts and their Relevance Today

22 Adar II 5774 / March 21-22, 2014
This D'var was billed as “Jewish Texts and their Relevance Today.” Let’s learn a little bit together and see whether or not we find some of our traditional texts relevant to our lives.

The first brief text I want to share with you comes from the Talmud - the basic compendium of Jewish law and thought, compiled and edited at the end of the 5th Century CE in Babylonia – and is one of my favorite:

“The members of the household of Rabban Gamliel did not used to say ‘Good health!’ in the House of Study so as to not interrupt their study.”  (Berachot 53a)

What’s going on here?

Well, for the Spanish speakers, you might recognize “Good health” as “Salud!”  And for the Hebrew speakers, as “Livriyut!” German and Yiddish fans: “Gezundheit!”

 And when do we say these things? After someone sneezes!

So what do we learn from this? That more than 15 HUNDRED years ago, people were saying “Gezundheit” or its equivalent when people sneezed!

To me, that’s amazing! Our traditional Jewish text, in the context of a broader conversation about when it’s appropriate to interrupt one’s study / immersion in sacred endeavors, reveals a connection point that we share with our ancestors in a very real way.

So the next time you hear someone sneeze, when offering up a “Gezundheit," "Bless You" or" Livriyut,” you’re forging your connection to a chain over 1500 years old.

Let’s look now at a 2nd text – it’s another one of my favorites. This particular text comes from the Mishna - the first compilation of the oral law, authored by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (approx. 200 C.E.) – in a section called “Pirkei Avot” – the Ethics of our Ancestors.

In this particular clause, which comes in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot (there are 5 total chapters), Shammai (1st century BCE), one of major rabbinic sages at the time, outlined three steps to enhance one’s life.  

"Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance."
(Avot 1:15)

So the three bullets Shammai outlines are:

1.    To have set times dedicated for Torah study (anyone who has tried to get into better physical shape by working out knows that having a routine is a key component!);

2.    To say little and do much (actions speak louder than words – the concept shared over 2000 years ago!); and

3.    To greet everyone with a smile.

So Shammai’s recipe for success? Develop meaningful routines, let your actions lead the way, and let your smile be infectious.  By the way – contemporary science is showing that smiling – even forcibly – decreases stress and increases happiness. I love it when 2,000 year old advice has practical contemporary applications!

Let’s now look at a few verses from this week's Torah portion, Shemini.  In Shemini, we find Aaron and his sons filling their priestly roles for the first time since their 7-day inauguration ceremony.

Leviticus Chapter 10: 1-3
Verse 1: And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, each took their fire pan and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered alien fire before God, which God had not commanded them.
Verse 2: And there came forth fire from before God, and devoured them; and they died before God.
Verse 3: Then Moses said to Aaron: This what God was referring to when saying “Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified;” And Aaron was silent.

So we learn that 2 of Aaron’s sons, the priests Nadav and Avihu, make an incense offering that went above and beyond what they were commanded to do, and which the Torah refers to as an “alien fire.” Alien in this case means “not holy,” as opposed to, say, fire emanating from Star Wars spacecrafts.

In response to this action, in Verse 2, we learn that “A fire came forth from God and devoured them, and they died before God.”

Talk about an unforgiving boss! On their first real unsupervised day on the job, Nadav and Avihu aren’t only fired – they’re literally consumed by fire and burnt to death due to their perceived mistake!  It’s no wonder that there are so many vacant Jewish Temple priest jobs on 

In Verse 3, we find what I perceive to be one of the most profound verses in the entire Torah. In response to finding out that two of his sons are dead, Aaron, the High Priest, who was the individual designated as Moses’s spokesperson and mouthpiece when confronting Pharaoh, is silent.

Needless to say, this isn’t the response you might expect from someone traditionally so vocal…

Perhaps Aaron was in a state of shock and/or was unable to process the information he had received.

Perhaps he was devastated, but was so duty-bound that he found comfort in the fact that his sons had died while serving and fulfilling God’s expressed desire to be sanctified (which we find in the first part of Verse 3).

Or perhaps Aaron said nothing in order to avoid interfering with the joy of the inauguration festivities taking place.

Simply put, there is no way to know how one will react upon losing a child, or loved ones in general. 

Our tradition puts a tremendous emphasis on comforting mourners, and by highlighting the textual archetype of a mourner who mourns in silence (especially a person we wouldn’t expect silence from), we learn that individuals process loss in different ways, and as a result modify our behaviors today accordingly.

When we visit with mourners, the natural tendency is to want to try and explain the loss to them in philosophical terms. “She/he is in a better place now;” “It’s all part of God’s plan;” etc.  But our job is not to be philosophers or theologians – rather, it’s simply to be Present.

We learn in the Shulchan Aruch, the standard code of Jewish law set forth by Rabbi Joseph Karo in 1563 C.E., that “when comforting a mourner, one should not initiate (the initial) conversation, but rather let the mourner speak his or her mind.” (Yoreh Deah 376:1) The mourner may want to laugh, cry, or, like, Aaron, remain silent; and trying to engage someone in conversation who prefers to remain silent defeats the entire purpose of seeking to comfort. 

Thus, we take our cues from the mourner. We don’t assume anything. We’re Present. And we can contemporarily appreciate the guidance offered in text-form 450 years ago, cultivated from a Torah text that’s at least 2500 years old.

Needless to say we are a text-rich tradition. Admittedly, we have texts that are incredibly challenging, and that without question expose the normative cultural values of the time, many of which we do not share today. My hope is that rather than simply discarding those pieces of our tradition that we deem archaic or outdated, that we commit to struggling with and learning what we can from them. We are the Children of Israel – the translation of the name “Israel” itself means struggling with the Divine. To struggle is our legacy – we’re not meant to take the easy way out. Our texts have incredible wisdom contained within them that can (and often times, without even realizing it, do) add meaning and value to our lives today. May we all be blessed, to borrow from Shammai, to make Torah and text study a permanent fixture of our lives, and may our lives be ever the richer as a result.

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