Friday, September 16, 2022

More Than Just a Sweet New Year


The Torah reading of Ki Tavo includes a lengthy passage filled with curses, the misfortunes that will visit the Jews if they abandon the covenant. This is the second time in the Torah that there is a set of curses; but this section of curses is much longer, and far gloomier, than the previous one in Parashat Bechukotai.


But the Talmud manages to strike a positive note about the curses. It tells us that Ezra, at the very beginning of the Second Temple, established that this Parsha be read before Rosh Hashanah, "that the year should end, and with it, its curses". Placing this Torah reading just prior to Rosh Hashanah expresses the hope that the difficulties of the past year be left behind as we enter a new year.


There is a Sephardic liturgical poem, achot ketanah, that is read on Rosh Hashanah; its refrain repeats the words "May the year end, and with it, its curses". In the final stanza it adds the phrase "may the new year begin and with it, its blessings". (In Hebrew, the words for “end” and “begin” are homonyms, similar sounding words that are spelled differently.) And this is now a popular phrase in Hebrew: Tichleh Shana v’Kililoteha. Tachel Shana u’Virchoteha;  "May the year end, and its curses, and the new year begin with is blessings".


The appeal of this phrase is obvious; who wouldn’t want an end to curses, and a beginning of blessings? For this reason we dip an apple in honey on Rosh Hashanah, and add a prayer for "a good and sweet year." And it is not just apples; many have the custom to dip the Shabbat challah in honey from Rosh Hashanah until Simchat Torah.


From a religious perspective, sweetness is not an obvious aspiration. Some religious traditions require unending discipline and seriousness. H.L. Mencken quipped that Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” To stand in awe of God is seen as a continuous experience of fear and trembling.


In the Jewish tradition, we intertwine many significant religious experiences with sweetness. There was a medieval custom, cited in the 14th century Sefer Kolbo, that when a young child is first brought to study Torah, they are offered cakes and sweets. Then the child is shown the letters of the Hebrew alphabet on a board, and taught them; afterwards, honey is placed on each letter, and the child gets to lick the honey. This ritual, which is still practiced today, is meant to convey a message to the child that the Torah is very sweet.


The Torah must be a joy. Many Jewish philosophers see creation as an act of love, a gift of joy to mankind; and that should be reflected in our religious lives. But it is unfortunate that some parents and educators instruct children with a puritanical type of Judaism, one that drains the joy out of the religious experience. All too often, children raised in that environment rebel, not wanting to take any part in a Judaism of negativity and bitterness.


Sweetness has become a part of Jewish culture as well. In 2012, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that Jews have the highest well-being of any of the American faith groups. Being happy is as Jewish as chicken soup, and joy is an important mitzvah.


But realists understand that unending sweetness is impossible. In my early years in the rabbinate, I would announce before Parashat Ki Tavo that with the reading of the Torah, we are now leaving the curses of the previous year behind. But after a few years, I realized that announcing it on a yearly basis sounded absurd; every year new curses popped up that now had to be left behind. The yearly announcement ended up emphasizing that curses are perennial, with new ones occurring every year. Sweetness doesn’t last forever.


The Midrash Tanchuma offers a very different perspective on the curses in Ki Tavo. It connects the curses with the first words of the next Parsha, “you are standing here today”. The Midrash says that the point of this juxtaposition is to express that “even after all the suffering (of the curses) occurs, you can still remain standing.” Instead of looking for hope, this Midrash focuses on the importance of resilience.


It might be sweet to get past curses; but it is more important to know how to get through curses, to remain standing when everything goes wrong. A well lived life requires courage and determination along with sweetness and satisfaction.


Sweetness is not our final goal; happiness and meaning are not one and the same. In a 2013 study, a group led by Professor Roy F. Baumeister studied both the interconnection, as well as the differences, between happy lives and meaningful lives. Often, meaningful lives were fairly happy as well, but not always. The researchers found that “happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life," while “the unhappy but meaningful life..(is)...seriously involved in difficult undertakings." Those who pursued meaningful lives, even if it limited their happiness, were true givers, people who made substantial differences in society.


At times, we are forced to choose between meaning and happiness. And in those moments, sweetness is no longer a priority. John Stuart Mill put it best when he wrote “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” This echoes the Talmud, which says one should serve God without interest in a reward and do what is right simply because it is right, even if it is painful to do so. In the choice between happiness and meaning, meaning comes first; Judaism believes that it is better to be a good person than a happy person.


Nowadays, the pursuit of sweetness comes first. The American Council on Education has been surveying incoming college freshmen since 1966. In 1967, 82.9% of freshmen felt that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was essential; in 2015, only 46.5% felt that was an important objective. (In contrast, in 1967, 43.5% of freshmen considered it essential to be “well off financially." By 2015, that number had gone up to 81.9%).


But If only happiness is the goal, then life is diminished. As the character Estragon says in Waiting for Godot: “What do we do now, now that we are happy?”.


Jews cherish happiness; but we know that there is still more to life. In centuries of challenges and persecutions, a quick conversion could have immediately improved the quality of life for any Jew. Some did take that route; but we are here today because so many remained loyal to their roots, no matter how difficult it was. Had our ancestors decided that happiness was the ultimate goal, there would not be any Jews left today.


Professor Marc Michael Epstein tells a powerful story from his days working in the rare book department at Sotheby’s. Inevitably, elderly people would show up with older books of little value, assuming they were important antiques. One day, one such elderly man arrived, with a book of Psalms printed in 1920; it was worth pennies, if that much. Not knowing how to break the news, Epstein asked the man: “What did you pay for this?”, hoping to let him down slowly in conversation. In response to the question, the man became far more serious; Epstein describes how “the old man drew himself up to his full 5 feet, 2 inches. ‘For this, I paid seven days’ Auschwitz bread,’ he replied... It seems that the Nazis had caught him with the little Psalm book, and, as a penalty for possessing it, imprisoned him without food—only water to drink—for an entire week." Epstein was overwhelmed by the response, and turned to the elderly man: “This,” I stammered, “is too valuable for us to sell.” Some things are more valuable than money; and there is more to life than just sweetness.


As we start the new year, we come to leave the past behind, ready to celebrate a sweet future. But even at times like this we must never forget that some things are more important than happiness, and some goals are more noble than joy.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The God of the Powerless


Ruth swearing her allegiance to Naomi, Jan Victors, 1653, Oil on Canvas

“Loser” is a nasty epithet in a culture that honors winners. And America loves winners. General George Patton once said in a rousing speech to the troops, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi epitomized this attitude when he said, “Winning is not just everything, it's the only thing.”

This focus on winning is certainly an excellent motivator. As Patton put it, “Americans play to win all the time. That's why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war.” The mindset of winning is transformative.

But there is a dark side to a culture that focuses on winners; it changes the way we see the losers of life, the weak and the powerless. At best, they receive pity; at worst, they are treated as unwanted, uncomfortable reminders of the possibility of failure and defeat.

The Torah has a very different perspective regarding those who live on the margins of society. It commands us as follows: “You shall not pervert justice due the stranger or the orphan, nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this thing.” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18). On the surface, this is a commandment for judges, who must be sure not to mistreat the widow, stranger and orphan who appear before them. One is obligated to treat the powerless and vulnerable with equal rights.

Several commentaries wonder why there is a unique commandment against perverting justice for the stranger and orphan. Isn’t any perversion of justice considered to be wrong? The commentary of Rav Yoseph Bechor Shor explains that “It was necessary to command specifically about them, because the wicked will often pervert the judgment (of the orphan and stranger).” It is easy for the unscrupulous to exploit the powerless; that is why there needs to be a specific law protecting the stranger and orphan from miscarriages of justice.

But others take this prohibition a step further. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that this verse goes beyond the administration of justice in courts and speaks about the judgments of the human heart. The attitude we take toward the unfortunate is a judgment as well; and it is a perversion of justice to treat them with condescension and prejudice.

This command insists that we uproot the subtle discrimination the vulnerable face. Don’t subvert the social standing of the stranger, widow and orphan; welcome with open arms those who have faced failure and defeat, and integrate them into your community.

What is also unclear is how the reason “you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt” connects to treating the widow and orphan properly. Ibn Ezra, among others, says this explanation only refers to the stranger; the Egyptians exploited the Jews, who were strangers, and enslaved them. Chizkuni says that the connection relates to vulnerability. The slave, along with the stranger, orphan, and widow, are all subservient to others; and former slaves should feel a particular sense of connection to the widow and orphan as well.

Both of these explanations focus on empathy; a Jew should feel a sense of compassion for the vulnerable, because we were once slaves in Egypt.

But another group of commentaries, including the Ramban, Seforno, and Rav Yoseph Bechor Shor, offer a very different interpretation. They explain that the reference to slavery reminds us that God cares about slaves, and all who are weak and downtrodden. God heard the calls of the slaves in Egypt and redeemed them, because God cares for the vulnerable.

It is instinctive to associate the might of God with the mighty; and that is precisely what happens in the pagan imagination. But Judaism takes the opposite route. God is not the God of the powerful; He is the God of the powerless.

The Talmud (Megillah 31a) explains: “Wherever you find a reference in the Bible to the powerful might of the Holy One, Blessed be He, you also find a reference to His humility.” What is meant by ‘God’s humility’? The Talmud explains that it refers to how God cares for the orphan, the widow, and the brokenhearted. God stands in service of those who have been humbled, and cares for those who need His help the most.

For this reason, the Jewish retelling of history is unique. Rabbi Jose Faur has argued that “Western historiography expresses the perspective of the persecutor…. From its early period and throughout the ages, Judaism expressed the perspective of the persecuted.…. Indeed, the history of the people of Israel begins when they were slaves under Pharoah. It continues as the history of a nation ravaged by aggressors…As it is recited in the Haggadah on the Passover night, ‘In every generation and generation they stand up against us to exterminate us, and the Almighty Lord saves us from their hands.’"

Faur offers multiple citations from rabbinic literature in support of this thesis. He cites the Midrash, which explains why certain animals are Kosher, and brought as sacrifices: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘The ox is pursued by the lion, the goat is pursued by the leopard, the lamb by the wolf; do not offer unto Me from those that pursue but from those that are pursued.’” (Vayikra Rabbah 27: 6). The only animals fit for the Temple are the weak and the meek. 

Similarly, Maimonides, when discussing the proper attributes of Torah scholar (Deot 5:13) says, “The rule is that he should be among the pursued and not the pursuers, among those who accept humiliation but not among those who humiliate [others].”

Faur argues that these texts represent a uniquely Jewish perspective, which becomes the foundation of how Jews see history. Underlying this idea is the belief that God listens to the call of slaves, widows, and orphans, and that He is the God of the powerless.

This recognition sustained the Jews in exile. Once defeated, the Jews should have assimilated, and taken on the gods of the victors. Ezekiel mentions that some Jews did advocate assimilation during the times of the Babylonian exile. And this was the logical path; like the old proverb states, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”

What held the Jews back was an abiding belief that God was with them in exile. They heard God’s voice call, “I will be with him in his distress” (Psalms 91:15). A God of the powerless would stay with the Jews while they were being persecuted; and He would one day redeem them and bring them home. 

The idea that God listens attentively to the widow, orphan, and stranger changes one’s perspective on history, exile, and theology. And it teaches us a lesson about prayer as well.

The Talmud in Taanit (24a) tells a story of rabbinic failure. There was a drought, and in response, the great Babylonian Rabbi, Rav, decreed a fast; but rain did not come. Then, in the synagogue, “a prayer leader descended to lead the service and recited: ‘He Who makes the wind blow’, and the wind blew. He continued and said: ‘And Who makes the rain fall’, and the rain came.

Rav said to the prayer leader: What are your good deeds? He said to him: I am a teacher of children, and I teach the children of the poor as to the children of the rich, and if there is anyone who cannot pay, I do not take anything from him. And I have a fishpond, and any child who neglects his studies, I bribe him with the fish and calm him, and soothe him until he is able to read.”

The schoolteacher quietly cared for the humble and needy; and in doing so, he was truly doing God’s work. This merit raised his prayers on high, far above those of the great rabbi.

Rav prays but fails; but then a simple schoolteacher brings about a miracle. How is that possible? Because God is the God of the powerless. And God listens to those who speak his language.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Survivor Guilt & the Atonement of the Innocent


My friend Johnny was lucky. He lived in a Belarussian village near the Lithuanian border, and in 1941, the day before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Johnny was conscripted into the Red Army. Because of this, Johnny was taken east just ahead of the SS killing machine. He survived the Holocaust, but his father and siblings did not. Until the end of his life, Johnny would wake up in middle of the night, tormented by the question of why he survived to an old age, and his brothers and sister were murdered in their teens.


Survivors’ guilt is so powerful that it doesn’t weaken with the passage of time. Johnny was still grappling with the murder of his family during the Holocaust as a 95-year-old great-grandfather.


Many survivors were burdened by similar feelings. Primo Levi described survivors' guilt this way: “Are you ashamed because you are alive in place of another? And in particular, of a man more generous, more sensitive, more useful, wiser, worthier of living than you?”


Survivors’ guilt has been the subject of multiple studies. And these types of guilt feelings are not unique to Holocaust survivors; others who experience the deaths of colleagues, such as soldiers or survivors of accidents, experience similar feelings of guilt. Bereaved parents are often afflicted by guilt, wondering why they couldn’t do more for their children. Sometimes it is the innocent who call out for atonement.


Our Torah reading includes an unusual atonement ritual, the eglah arufah, which offers insights into the meaning of psychological guilt. A dead body is found, and the murder remains unsolved. The elders of the nearest city then perform a multifaceted ritual in response. First, a calf is decapitated; afterwards, the elders wash their hands and declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.” Then the Kohanim call out "Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.”


This ritual of eglah arufah is extremely puzzling. Why does an unsolved murder require atonement? And why do the elders have to declare their innocence?


Some commentaries see this ritual as a publicity stunt which shapes the communal mood. The Rambam offers the fascinating view that the purpose of the eglah arufah "is evident…. As a rule, the investigation, the procession of the elders, the measuring, and the taking of the heifer, make people talk about it; and by making the event public, the murderer may be found out, and he who knows of him, or has heard of him, or has discovered him by any due, will now name the person that is the murderer." This explanation doesn’t see the eglah arufah ritual as purposeful in itself; instead, its goal is to draw attention to the unsolved murder and get people to report any leads they may have to the leaders of the community.


But other commentaries take a very different view. They see the eglah arufah as directly related to questions of innocence and responsibility; and they comment on two aspects. First, they analyze what the elders' statement “Our hands did not shed this blood” might be referring to; as Rashi puts it, “Would it enter anyone’s mind that the elders of the court are suspected of bloodshed?”


The Talmud Yerushalmi offers two opinions as to what this declaration means. One opinion is the elders are declaring that they did not let the murderer go free and fail to bring him to justice. This declaration is an acknowledgment of one type of social responsibility for the murder; the elders must promote law and order and be vigilant in locating and prosecuting criminals.


The other opinion in the Yerushalmi is that the elder’s declaration is about the victim. They are declaring that they did not overlook the victim and did not fail to offer him appropriate food and protection to embark safely on his journey. It is a communal responsibility to take care of visitors, one that can be a matter of life and death.


A fascinating view is offered by the Malbim and Rashi's commentary to the Talmud. Both see the declaration of communal responsibility as being about charity; if a community fails to feed the poor, the indigent will be driven by hunger into a life of crime. In order to obtain food, these indigent criminals will be willing to kill or be killed. The dead body is either that of the victim of a crime, or a criminal killed in self-defense; but either way, if the community had provided for the hungry to begin with, this death would never have occurred.


These are three ways that the community could possibly bear responsibility for the victim’s death. But now a far more important question needs to be asked: Is this eglah arufah meant as an indictment of the community, or its exoneration? The very ritual of the eglah arufah is self-contradictory; the elders wash their hands and proclaim innocence, while the Kohanim pray for atonement, which implies guilt.


Ibn Ezra views the eglah arufah as an indictment of the community, for two reasons. First, he says that the community “erred and did not guard the dangerous roads.” And then he adds that the shocking death indicates that God is highlighting a moral failure in the city, “because if the city had not committed a similar deed, then the murder of a person near their city would not have occurred; God’s thoughts are deep and infinitely beyond our comprehension.”


This understanding sees the eglah arufah as a response to moral failure. The community might not have committed the murder, but they are still responsible for it; they should have instituted policies that could have prevented this crime.


Others take a very different view. The medieval commentary of the Minchat Yehuda says the eglah arufah ritual expresses the community's innocence, and they are in effect declaring that “just as the calf is flawless and the ground is flawless, so too we are without flaw and innocent of this sin.” Only the murderer is guilty of this crime.


But this view is puzzling. Ultimately, the eglah arufah appears to be a sacrifice, and the Kohanim are asked to offer the community atonement. But if the community is completely innocent, why should they be required to perform a ritual of atonement?


The answer to this question brings us back to survivors' guilt. Even without guilt, one can have guilt feelings. And for this reason, there is obligation to bring an eglah arufah, because even the innocent need atonement.


The purpose of the eglah arufah is to bring meaning to those guilt feelings. By killing the calf, the community reenacts the cold-blooded murder; and the initial feelings of failure, shame and guilt are immediately reawakened. The ritual continues with the oscillating inner dialogue of guilt; even though one is innocent, and can wash their hands of this crime, they still choose to pray for atonement, to justify themselves as worthy. The eglah arufah is a reenactment of survivor guilt; and by dedicating a sacrifice to it, the eglah arufah turns these guilt feelings into something sacred and meaningful.


Eglah arufah is an atonement for the innocent, a way of recognizing that guilt feelings have profound meaning as well.


This is a very different way of seeing guilt. In general, guilt feelings have a bad name; psychologists from Freud onward have seen guilt as an unwanted neurosis to be treated and healed. A Holocaust survivor’s fixation on the fate of lost family members could easily be dismissed as unhealthy guilt feelings, the undesirable residue of years of trauma.


But this analysis overlooks spiritual insights into guilt. Martin Buber wrote an essay entitled Guilt and Guilt Feeling to respond to Freud's views on guilt. He argued that there is a second type of guilt, existential guilt, which is taking responsibility for an “injury” to the world order; in a broken world, ethical people will feel the need to justify their existence. This is exactly what the eglah arufah is all about; and this ritual is a way of incorporating “existential guilt” into our lives, making the trauma of an unexpected death into a holy sacrifice, and a way to raise our moral consciousness.


Buber's insights offer a different perspective on survivors' guilt as well. After witnessing the death of their friends and family, these survivors felt challenged to prove themselves worthy of being the lucky ones. This existential guilt led many survivors on a quest to rebuild a world that was lost. They would speak to school students about their experiences and charge them with fighting hatred and antisemitism. They sacrificed in order to rebuild the Jewish homeland in Israel; as one observer noted, survivors “bought a $500 Israel Bond every year even if they didn’t have a dime.” Or they did simple acts of kindness; Eddie, the “candy man” in my previous synagogue, decided to respond to the bitterness he had experienced by making life sweeter for the next generation.


These survivors were grappling with guilt feelings. They were seeking atonement, even though they were innocent. And their quest continues to impact our community until today.