Venti!

While many of my friends count today as 27 (3 weeks and 6 days for those in base-7), and some others ascribe assorted other significance to today, for me, what today really adds up to is 20.  Yep, עשרים, or in Starbucks’ parlance “extra-awesome-size”.

So why 20?  Because 20 years ago today, I met Sarah for the first time.  I would not have guessed that a college student who was willing to meet a stranger, but insisted on doing so in front of a different dormitory, would turn out to be the one person in the world who is absolutely perfect for me.  

There’s one person who completely shares my sense of humor, who exposes me to new and awesome things, who challenges my assumptions, and who makes me want to be a better person to be good enough to be with her.

And we met by sheer hashgaha pratit (Divine Providence).  If that’s not enough evidence of God’s handiwork in this world, maybe the fact that she’s the best mother I could imagine or want for Roya makes the miraculous unliklihood a little more clear.

So happy anniversary, love, now and forever.

Check, Please

I’ve had several doses of talk about “privilege” thrown at me recently.  I’ve spent a little time thinking about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the folks who toss this stuff about and treat it with great importance are as clever, and as wrong, as the phlogiston chemists.  Now, what do I mean by that?

“Privilege” as described in the relevant circles, is effectively an unearned advantage due to one’s nature – there can be white privilege, Jewish privilege, etc etc etc, and that intersectionality (sic) is effectively the idea that various portions of one’s identity as they interact with other portions create something wholly different which is qualitatively greater than the sum of the parts.

Duh.

A lot of words are spent slicing and dicing groups using particular jargon, to no practical effect whatsoever.  Why is this?  Because at the root of the issue is the fact that we are not members of a group first and individuals second – rather, we are individuals first, who have some characteristics we share in groups.  The whole privilege conversation completely falls apart when considering that the variation between individuals who share certain characteristics will necessarily be greater than the differences between the average of the characteristics.

That is, all cats are NOT gray after midnight.  So in our real world, the one with the messiness in it, what does it mean to say “you have privilege” about someone’s membership in a particular group?

Absolutely nothing.

In the original sense of pragmatism, there is no information which is gained as a result of these descriptions, and actions don’t change as a result, and therefore these are at best distinctions without a difference.  Yep, that’s the real problem here – the actual predictive power of this language is right up there with blaming weather on water sprites, and all the jargon serves to do is alienate the person being “othered” in that context.  That is, it changes the person being described from “thou” to “it”.  It serves as a way to immediately discredit the opinion of the person described as “privileged,” and find a discrete place for them in a postmodern hierarchy of victims, where to be oppressed is necessarily equivalent to being virtuous.

I’ve had this sort of language tossed at me by several people, who range from the saintly to the less-so.  I’ll speak to the saint: this language has the opposite effect of your intention, and the line of reasoning is sterile, not fertile.

How about this for a suggestion: treat people as individuals, as all being made in the image of God, and approach groupings as a way to search for what we have in common rather than what divides us.

The best thing I’ll do this week

I have the ability, like all employed people, to grumble about how frustrating my customers are: they occasionally find ways to get under my skin and leave me all itchy with complaints.  It isn’t breaking rocks in the sun, but the frustrations are real.

And my synagogue has done well, all things considered, but like any other organization, it’s got it’s ups and downs, and it is not without its share of frustrations.  

But today, I’m all sorts of sore, mostly from carrying Roya around and playing with her all day.  At Westminster Park, she crawled and climbed her way up that large twisty slide, and threw herself headfirst down it.  What followed was a look of terror followed by squeals of excitement – and the inevitable “again!”

So I’ll go forward this week, and encounter lots of daily nuisances, but am fortified by the reminder of what actually matters.

  

Dayeinu (“It Would Have Been Enough for Us”)

This is the drasha (sermon) I delivered on the eighth day of Passover this year.

=====

Shabbat Shalom and Ḥag Sameaḥ,

If you asked what the main theme of Passover is, an obvious answer would be “freedom.”  After all, that’s what we’ve been mentioning in every amidah – z’man ḥeruteinu is the time of our freedom.  Another obvious answer would be “matzah” – it is ḥag ha-matzot, right?  Other choices could  be “love” – between individuals as we read in shir hashirim today, including the allegorical love between God and Israel as per some commentators; or perhaps the might of God – that for the sake of redeeming Israel He was willing to wholly upend natural law in such a dramatic manner.  Those are all great topics, but what I’d like to explore a bit is something else which finds its way into a few places: gratitude.

First, the most obvious example, from the seder, we read dayeinu – it would have been enough.  After each of a list of remarkable things God has done for us, we say that that itself is sufficient.  But in truth, if God had split the sea but not brought us through it dry, we would have ceased to exist as a people.  If He had brought us to the desert and not fed us, we would have starved and ceased to exist as a people.  And so on for most of the elements in the song.  So a literal reading doesn’t make a whole lot of sense here – it has to be getting at something a bit deeper.  I’ll get back to what that is after we go to another part of the service.

We read what the rabbis call the “Egyptian Hallel” – psalms 113-118 – at the Seder and every morning.  It acquired this name, in contrast with the other psalms featuring “Hallelujah”, due to the presence of psalm 114 – B’tzet Yisrael me-mitzrayim “When Israel came out of Egypt,” and the thematically-aligned section Min ha-meitzar – “In my distress,” but more literally “out of the narrow places”, and the word meitzar is closely related to mitzrayim – Egypt.

When I look at this collection of psalms, a few verses jump out at me, specifically some from psalm 116:

Mah ashiv LaH, kol tagmulohi alai – How can I repay the LORD for all His goodness to me?  A good question.  And then the end of that psalm we see the answer to the question: Lekha ezbaḥ zevaḥ todah, uv’shem H ekrah; nederai LaH ashaleim, negda na l’khol amo; b’ḥatzrot beit H, b’tokhaykhi Yerushalayim Hallelujah – to You I will bring a Thanksgiving offering and call on the LORD by name; I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of His people, in Your midst, in Jerusalem, praise God.

I would like to suggest that this phrasing is no mere poetic flourish – it’s instructional rather than metaphoric: the way we repay God for His goodness is (1) by bringing an offering, (2) calling on Him by His proper name, (3) fulfilling our vows (4) in public, (5) at the temple.  So of these five concepts, the first (bringing an offering) and the last (at the temple) are not doable today, in absence of a functioning beit hamikdash, but what about the other three?

We do call upon God by name: every time we say Shabbat Shalom at a minimum, we greet each other with God’s name “Shalom” – but is that what it means in this context?  I would suggest that in the context of thanking God for goodness, it would mean “properly attributing to God those things which are His blessings”.  And what might those blessings be?   From the prosaic rain in its season, to the memory of the deeds of the good people who have gone before us, to the small daily miracles evident in the created world, to our awareness of the created world itself.  God’s handiwork is quite clearly apparent the the warp and weft of existence.

How about fulfilling the vows?  Well, we’re instructed that our yes should be a yes, and our no should be a no – and we should endeavor not to vow at all.  So where is the instruction for gratitude in the verse?  The vow in question is that of bringing an offering, but we have to remember Shmuel’s admonition: Haḥafetz laH b’olot u’zevaḥim kish’moah b’kol H? Hinei: sh’moah mizevaḥ tov lehak’shiv mayḥaylev elim – Does the LORD desire offerings as much as He desires listening to the Word of the LORD?  Behold: to obey is better than a good offering, and attention is better than the fat of rams.  So perhaps today, where this leaves us is that consciously following God’s words is the the way to fulfill the vows undertaken by our ancestors.

The final element – “in public” is obvious: while much good can be done and should be done privately, each act of public thanks for blessings stands as a testimonial to God’s goodness and Hashgaḥa Pratit – the Devine guidance of human affairs.  We even name those acts kiddush Hashem – a sanctification of God’s name.

So with these three elements in hand – that we obey God, attribute our blessings to Him, and thank Him publicly, let’s return to Dayeinu.

This liturgical prayer serves a very specific purpose in its place in the Haggadah: by saying that these steps would individually have been enough, we’re saying that our cup of blessing has run over, and are embracing Ben Zoma’s dictum from Pirkei Avot: Mah Ashir? Hasameaḥ b’ḥelko – “who is rich?  One who rejoices in his portion”.

It’s a moment where we publicly count our blessings, and thank God for them individually and collectively.  But there is a challenge here – can we behave with gratitude and appropriate thanks for all of the individual blessings we have been given, or will we blind ourself to what we have and where we are in the glare of eventual promises?

I speak of the last line of the song, which captures where we are now: eilu hikhnisim l’eretz Yisrael v’lo-vanah lanu et beit habeḥirah, dayeinu– If He had brought us to Eretz Yisrael and not built for us the Temple…

(beat)

Tefillat Ḥagigit services will be on Wednesday, April 22.

May we merit to fulfill all the commandments of God in gratitude.

Shabbat Shalom and Ḥag Sameaḥ.

Everyone old is n00b again

We had some friends stay over the weekend with us, and it was delightful. They have a toddler a few months older than Roya, and I learned two things (which I assume are eye-rollingly obvious to more experienced parents):

1. No two children naturally have the same nap time. Corollary: each set of parents have different strategies for maximizing the coveted sleep.
2. Children learn from each other fast.

Their toddler walks fine, he demonstrated to Roya that stairs were possible to climb, and presto: climber monkey!

I remain awestruck by watching her figure things out – “you mean if I put my foot like this and push, I’ll be standing?” “Wait, you mean I could hold my own spoon??? Woah.”

Now all I need to figure out is how to mount a gate at the bottom of the stairs without completely wrecking the oddly-shaped railing…

A Fight Worthy of the King

Sarah and I went to see the 2015 Elvis’ Birthday Fight Club last night, and it was a return to greatness. We missed last year due to Roya’s impeding birth (although it turns out we could have made it). So now it turns out that we’ve seen 3 of the 5 so far, and only those odd-numbered years. Yep, we saw the chicken defeat Colonel Sanders (color commentary: “Col. Sanders is battering the chicken!”)

The show is a monument to dada and mockery, but done in a mostly good-natured manner. Two years ago, they ventured into the gross a bit overmuch, but they returned to form and stayed away from too much of the scatalogical humor. This year, one treat was the use of “Run to the Hills” as entrance music for one competitor.

The royal rumble with prior year’s contestants was particularly amusing (although I think the entrances were better than the actual fight). There is an encore performance this upcoming weekend, so I give no spoilers here, but merely state that it’s epic in a certain way. We didn’t win the velvet Elvis giveaway, sadly.

Recommended.

Last [year], I gave you my heart…

Last year was a mixed bag for me.

On the one hand, the rabbi of my synagogue betrayed the community in a devastating manner- undermining confidence in institutional and hurting a whole lot of people, with the implication that litigation will now roll over the community like a wave of suck. The feeling of today, the tenth of Tevet, the day on which Jerusalem was besieged, don’t feel inappropriate.

On the other hand, our daughter was born, and I think the experience of being a dad is about the coolest thing ever. Our community (the same one which is getting slammed so badly, first by the actions of the rabbi, and now by lawsuits and recriminations) was extremely kind, generous, and loving – welcoming Roya with open arms. Beautiful. My parents also have been wonderful- we’ve spent a lot more time with one set, and the other set are moving here to be closer. Only good things there.

I think the gripping hand is that the year gave me a great example in how God’s hand is what guides events, and how much of life is actually outside individual control. I can at best control my own actions, which are now not even a majority in my own house.

I hope those things which are out of control are positive for all of us in 2015.

This is the Place (Vayeitze 5771/2010)

I gave this drasha four years ago at Kesher Israel, and wanted to rescue it from my old blog.

This week’s parsha is vayetzei, and it’s chock full of drama: the scheming of Laban, followed quickly by Jacob’s use of sympathetic magic in animal husbandry; the struggle between Leah and Rachel, and the births of nearly all of their children, culminating in the decision to return to the promised land. However, I’d like to focus on an incident at the very beginning of the story: Jacob sleeps, and receives a vision in a dream – he sees angels ascending and descending a ladder, and hears the voice of God reiterating and reaffirming the Abrahamic promise to him. He awakes, and famously says: Akhen yesh H’ bamakom hazeh; v’anokhi lo yada’ti (“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know”).

There are several interesting questions raised by this verse. First, what is it that Jacob did not know? Rashi says that Jacob didn’t know that this was a holy place, and that if he had known that, Jacob would not have slept there. This isn’t completely satisfying to me: if Jacob had followed Rashi’s advice, would he have received the vision which came in a dream? Further, the words Rashi uses, makom kadosh (“holy place”) are qualitatively different from the words of the text itself.

Jacob didn’t say that the place was kadosh – sanctified, he said yesh H’ bamakom (there is God in this place), and there is a hint at a deeper significance in the difference. It seems to me that what Jacob did not know up until that moment was, as the p’shat (plain meaning) says, that God was in that particular place.

But what precisely does that mean?

A basic property of an object is location, and a presumption of both ancient and modern physics is that two different objects can not occupy precisely the same space. This is the essence of what it means for something to exist. The atoms described by Democritus and the electrons and other fermions described by Wolfgang Pauli with his exclusion principle demonstrate their solidity by excluding all other substances from their borders. One of the things which these basic physical understandings teach us about objects is that the location of the object can be described as the set of all possible locations, minus the set of of all of the locations where the object is not.

Is it possible that Jacob meant “I did not know that God was here,” with its implications that the error was merely one of geography – that God would be in the place he had been, and in the place he in which he had just found himself, but perhaps not in some third place? This would imply that his lack of knowledge was the equivalent of not knowing whether one has cinnamon in one’s pantry: a simple, easy matter which can be verified empirically. This understanding does seem to fit the plain meaning in the text, and Jacob’s subsequent action of erecting a pillar as a memorial at that place is consistent with this approach, but is inadequate in the face of the larger challenge of Jewish faith: Maimonides’ third principle of faith states that God not only does not have a body, God is entirely unlike anything which is actually embodied.

As we’ve seen, one of the necessary properties of “embodiment” is location. God’s disembodiment implies that the set of locations where God is not has to be empty – God must be everywhere, everywhen, in all places and at all times.

So perhaps then Jacob’s error could be the presumption that there was a place where God was not.

The idea that there would be a human-comprehensible place in the absence of God should not be confused with the concept of Hester Panim – literally, the “hiding of the Face of God” – but which is metaphorically understood to mean the freedom and space which God gives to His creations to use their free will. In Hester Panim, the presence of God is still announced by the countless miracles which are required for life to continue – helium fusion causing solar energy, photosynthetic reactions, the Krebs cycle of respiration, and replication via meiosis being but the most obvious. When there is Hester Panim, God is hidden – He is not missing.

Jacob would have had ample precedent in treating God as having location: all of the prior occasions when God makes his presence known to people are couched in anthropomorphic terms: walking with God, God appearing, and of course God sending a variety of human-shaped messengers. So then, if Jacob would have had said precedent, why would his reaction have been so extreme? He says Mah norah hamakom hazeh (“how awe-inspiring is this place”), a reaction which is entirely out of place as a response to the other visions and encounters which the Patriarchs had had with God to that point.

This reaction indicates a hint of the Maimonidean insight: that what it was that Jacob had not known unto this point was not that God wasn’t in this particular place, but rather that God is in *all* places. The reason the place is awe-inspiring is that it served as the place where the full awesome nature of the Holy One, Blessed is He, was felt by His chosen patriarch.

There is another reason why the phrase anokhi lo yadati is significant. In the recorded stories of the patriarchs, we have Abraham arguing with God regarding God’s righteousness, Abraham deceiving two different foreign kings regarding his relationship to Sarah, Sarah laughing in the face of God’s prophecy, Sarah exiling Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham binding Isaac and preparing him to be sacrificed, Isaac deceiving the Philistine king about his relationship to Rebecca, Jacob bargaining slyly with Esau, Rebecca assisting Jacob in deceiving Isaac, and Jacob fleeing from Esau’s wrath. However, up until this point, none of the people in the patriarchal family had admitted the slightest error.

The admission of ignorance is the first step on the journey to wisdom, and the admission of error is the first step on the journey to righteousness: our mistakes are the best teacher, if we admit to them and learn from them. Jacob’s admission of his error and ignorance in this matter lays the groundwork for the t’shuva, the repentance, shown by Judah, and for the entire Jewish nation to embrace forgiveness and repentance as a national characteristic throughout our history.

So then, the moment which provoked Jacob to proclaim the awe he felt in the place was more than a simple thing: it is a cornerstone upon which the first flowerings of our understanding of the importance of both repentance and of seeing God’s omnipresence can be built.

A Bitter Pill

It’s been a little more than a week since my synagogue was rocked by the arrest of Rabbi Freundel.  Elanit spoke eloquently about the first-order effect on Shmini Atzeret;.  Since that time, I’ve seen all sorts; of reactions and even more additional information.

My perspective on the matter might be a bit different from some others.  I’m a convert – and one of Freundel’s converts, no less, but I didn’t have quite the horrific experience which many of the recent (female) converts describe.  I came to Judaism after a long journey through a bunch of different religions (up to and including paganism) – I was reading Rabbi Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy, and I realized that this was exactly what I had been looking for for years.  I initially contacted a nearby Conservative rabbi who enrolled me in the conversion class and gave me a reading list.  Around the time he dismissively brushed off the idea of taharat hamishpaha, I realized he wasn’t the rabbi for me. I switched sponsoring rabbis, and then finished the conversion with the Conservative movement about 2 years after I had started.
Two notes about that: first, the mohel didn’t show up, so my hatafat dam brit was performed by one of the (non-mohel) rabbis there, using a diabetic finger-stick. Relatively high on the unpleasant scale, that was. Second, of the three rabbis, one later left town after allegations about discretionary fund mismanagement, and another got featured on “To Catch a Predator” (in the wrong way).

I was attending the third rabbi’s synagogue, but quickly found myself too far to the right for the Conservative movement. When I went to a local Orthodox minyan, the gabbai checked with his rabbi, and told me I wouldn’t be counted. D’oh!

I called Rabbis Tessler and Freundel, and RBF returned my call first. When I went to meet with him, I wore a suit (dress up to meet the rabbi, ‘natch), and had tzitzit (fringes) out, and at the time had a full beard. He later told me that his first thought was “this guy must be here to talk about his girlfriend,” and that he was really surprised to hear that I wanted to convert myself. By this point I had already taken a year of Hebrew at U Maryland.

After ratcheting up my observance a bit, I converted with him about six months later (shortly after simhat torah 5758). The mohel showed up, and was one of my beit din. My big surprises were getting my circumcision inspected – to make sure that I didn’t need to go have it re-done surgically – no, that wasn’t traumatic at all, and the other surprise was that the men’s mikvah in Silver Spring wasn’t heated at all. In October. Yep, composing an impromptu declaration of faith while standing in extremely cold water was my idea of a good time.

But that was the end of the crummy part.

Sarah and I got married shortly after, and RBF performed the ceremony – his wife Sharon walked Sarah down the aisle, and we got introduced to Kesher Israel by the lovely wedding the community threw for us. We babysat for the Freundel kids when they were little, attended their bar & bat mitzvahs, and even one of their weddings. Sharon was the person we spoke to about our daughter’s name to make sure we weren’t walking into an accidental Hebrew language trap (or picking a name with bad associations).

I’ve been fully welcomed into the community, serving as a mashgiah (kosher supervisor), gabbai (sexton), ba’al tokea (shofar blower), speaker, sheliah tzibbur (prayer leader), board member and later officer, and then president of the mikvah. I’ve taught classes in practical Judaism (primarily directed for converts and the newly observant), and innumerable times I’ve been the person RDBF would send someone to talk to after their first meeting with him (generally after morning minyan) – I would tell people that they’d be evaluated by the questions they asked: “why do we keep kosher” is asked by a person in a different place in the process than “I just bought a chicken and it had a broken leg – is it still kosher?”

So I’m heartbroken. With the actions of which R’ Freundel has been (compellingly) accused, I feel like I just had a big chunk of family taken away.

The betrayal is really raw – this isn’t a private porn addiction, an affair, or the like: this is the perversion of a fundamental Jewish institution. It’s a betrayal of the years we all spent building the mikvah (especially given all of the flack we got during the construction). It’s a betrayal of all of the trust we’ve built since then.

I remember conversations with RDBF on many occasions when some Jewish religious leader or other would get into an ethical or sexual scandal – I would lament that I would wish that being immersed in the study of Torah would have served as a prophylactic against that sort of behavior – that is to say, that being learned would make someone better. He said he understood my disappointment.

He has been a mentor to me, and now that crumbles through my fingertips. I keep hoping that I’ll wake up, and this will turn out to have been the longest dream ever, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

There are a lot of stages of grief, and I’m probably holding at anger, mostly, but in the words of a good friend, sampling of the different emotions is like a misery tapas.

It isn’t supposed to be like this, with the chief of police on the bimah – people asking (legitimate) questions like “how do I talk about this to my kids”? That just twists the knife. I don’t think I was videotaped (but it’s possible – there were men’s hours recently), but I feel terrible for all of the people who have been. I feel terrible for Sharon and the extended Freundel family, who also didn’t ask for this, and now suffer for something they didn’t do.

I’ve never been prouder of the community and our leadership – Elanit (KI) and Adela (NCM) both acted with all due speed and without hesitation. Not every institution is as responsible or as committed to ethical behavior. But I sure wish they weren’t put into the position to have had to do this. This is horrible.

It is worth noting that many articles are calling for “the keys to the mikvah to be in the hands of women” and the like. That’s nice, but that doesn’t have anything to do with this case, because 5 of the 6 National Capital Mikvah presidents have been women (including the current and immediately past president). The current president of Kesher Israel likewise is a woman. Clearly, being run by women didn’t keep the local rabbi from causing a deep hurt. However, being run by the right women – the best people for the job – meant that their responses have been clear and compelling. The problem is, as Juvenal asked, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” (who watches the watchmen?) – when the person at the root of the web of trust defects, it is nearly impossible to prevent and is devastating.

But back to the issue – this sucks mightily. I miss my friendship, which was apparently gone before I realized it. I miss the trust I had – the sense of innocent search for truth, and the feeling that I had a friend and ally. I miss the feeling that someone was actively trying to protect converts, and actively trying to hold the center against the pull of the left and the pull of the right.

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

I know to me it leaves an ashen aftertaste.

Parshat Bereshit 2014 (or, “From the Peanut Gallery”)

Because of the events which unfolded this past week related to Kesher Israel, I was asked on Tuesday to give the sermon this shabbat. Below is what I said.

====

Shabbat Shalom.

This week’s parsha, Bereshit, opens with God creating the world ex nihilo – from nothingness – and describes that primordial nothingness as tohu va’vohu – void and confused. We move through the days of creation, observing the complexity of the created world increase from inanimate objects to plants, animals, and finally the zenith of His created work – the human being. One might think this would be a story of how the perfectly created people would live in perfection.

However, it is not.

Those first human beings, in relatively quick order, manage to be disobedient, deceitful, and murderous. Hava listens to the voice of the snake, eats the forbidden fruit, and then gets Adam to do the same. For this, they are cast out of the garden with a curse. Their oldest children, Kayin and Hevel, follow suit when Kayin commits the first murder, and then lies to God upon being challenged. For this, Kayin is also cast out to wander the earth.

Our sages tell us that the reason for the sixth day being described as “very” good was that God placed in us conflicting desires: the good inclination – the yetzer ha-tov, which wants to constructively obey God’s commands, and an evil inclination – the yetzer ha-ra, which includes the impulsive, the acquisitive, the angry, and the carnal. Our task as people, and a fortiori as Jews, is to yoke the yetzer ha-ra so that our actions – regardless of their initial genesis – can serve God.

In the cases of Adam, Hava, and Kayin, it’s clear that whatever else happened in their lives, they were overcome by their yetzer ha-ra, and while God had conciliatory things to say about it – they were all punished severely for their transgressions. Their actions tore at the fabric of their (small) society, and the nature of their punishment reflected the sense in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that that which is crooked cannot be made straight (Ecc 1:15). It was a permanent punishment – Adam and Hava never made it back to the garden in their lives, because innocence lost cannot be regained. Kayin’s wanderings likewise did not cease – no earthly repentance could repay the loss of Hevel’s life, which we judge to have infinite value.

This could be viewed as the earliest example of “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

These two examples have another thing in common: the transgressions and punishment completely take over the characters, so that their good qualities are all but forgotten in the stories themselves and in how they are remembered. If one were to describe Kayin, “that guy who murdered his brother” pretty much sums up the totality of how he is remembered – no attention is paid to how dutiful he was as a son, or any of the good he did his life – that one act became the defining aspect of his persona through history.

Or to put it in the words of Kohelet again, “zevuvay mavet yavish ya- biah shemen rokeah yakar mahokhmah mikavod sikhlut m’at” – “dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s oil; wisdom and honor are outweighed by a little stupidity.” (Ecc: 10:1)

Kohelet isn’t saying that the wisdom and honor go away, or that they do not matter, rather that the damage which can be done by a little stupidity will be what is remembered.

The last thing that these two examples have in common is that the people involved in them act in a similar way when confronted by God – they first attempt to escape blame, and then try to deny responsibility. Adam blames Hava, Hava blames the serpent, and God is angry with all of them. Kayin impudently challenges God with “am I my brother’s keeper?” when given the opportunity to admit what he has done. This, too, is an all-too-human trope – David famously asked “Shegi’ot mi yavin?” – “who can discern his own errors?” (Ps. 19:12)

We are charged with learning both positive and negative examples from the Bible, most famously expressed as “ma’aseh avot simanim l’banim” – the deeds of the ancestors are signs to their descendants.

What does that give us here?

We learn from their examples that the yetzer ha-ra is powerful enough to overcome the reluctance to sin even when one is right in front of God. And more – the three things I find in common here are that the individuals were drawn to follow their yetzer ha-ra, sinned, denied their own role in the sin, and were punished with exile, and the remembrances of their transgressions vastly outweighs the memory of the good they did in their lives.

Judaism teaches us that a corrective to the yetzer ha-ra is engaging the yetzer ha-tov – and we have an opportunity to do that here, now. We can increase our commitment to community service, to study of Torah, and to acts of loving-kindness. We can financially support our community efforts to repair our building, in addition to our other charitable acts. And we can call out to God for His assistance – as David wrote, “the LORD is close to all those who call upon Him in truth.” (ps 145:18)

May we merit to yoke our yetzer ha-ra to the service of God and His commandments.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 48 other followers