Taking Care of Business (or “Don’t Wait”)

In 24 hours, I’ve been to a bar mitzvah, an engagement party, an unveiling (memorial service where a grave marker is displayed), and sent Roya & Sarah off to visit her family in Memphis (the picture is from the airport).

If this was any more “circle of life”, I’d have swarms of cartoon animals doing elaborate choreography around me.

But this got me thinking a bit on the ephemerality of the moment- we live in the unquantized “now”, and to do otherwise is considered a terrible curse (Deut 28:67). Or do we?

How present are we actually? There is a whole cottage industry right now in bemoaning how modern technology brings us out of the moment, and makes us disconnected from each other (“Look Up” is a good example of that) – although I’ve seen enough pictures of people ignoring each other on trains reading newspapers to know this isn’t truly a modern phenomenon.

But I think the essence of the thing is still true, that each of the moments we have is precious, and how we choose to spend them offers revealing insight into our characters.

So given my postulated superiority of temporal presence, what’s the actual takeaway, other than “be here now”? I think it would be “don’t wait.” Anything worth doing is worth doing now.

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Fanfare for the Common Man (Shavuot 2014)

This is (more or less) the drasha (sermon) I delivered at Kesher Israel on the first day of Shavuot (Pentecost) this year. It seems to have been well received.

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Hag Sameah (happy festival)

Everyone who knows me personally will understand what I mean when I say that I am deeply honored and gratified to be able to address you from here on Yom HaBikkurim (the holiday of the first-fruits).

Two young fish are swimming along, and an old fish swims up and says to them, “enjoy the water today, fellas.” After he leaves, one young fish turns to the other and asks “what’s water?”

It’s an old joke – but it sets the stage for something that caught my attention when I thought about what to say today. You see, there’s something deeply countercultural which is evident in the book of Ruth, and it’s something which I believe we overlook in precisely the same way that the young fish overlook the water.

What do I mean? Well, let’s consider the setting of Ruth – this is the period of the shofetim, the Judges, back before there were Jewish kings. This is the same time which was famously described – negatively – as “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did as he pleased.” Perhaps this is where we get our reputation as a disorganized religion.

In the surrounding world, at about the same time- dating gets a little fuzzy back then – the Trojan war is occurring. While the Philistines and other Canaanites were direct competitors for resources and land, and the cult of Ba’al and some of the other local pagan deities were religious competitors, the ideas which actually lasted from that time period tended to come out of Hellenic culture.

Specifically, there is this idea of kleos, which can be translated variously as “fame” “glory”, or as Rebecca Goldstein has it – “Acoustic Renown”. Kleos basically was the sense that by engaging in mighty deeds – in extraordinary deeds – one would achieve fame, and this would be the key to living forever. The zenith of this is the subtitle of the Iliad, which is “the Kleos of Achilles”. Kleos was at the core of living the exceptional life, and in the Hellenic mindset, the non-exceptional, ordinary life was not worth living.

In fact, Achilles, the strongest of the Acheans, considers whether he would rather live a long and happy life, without kleos, or a short life, with it, and concludes that the short life with it is the only acceptable way to live.

So this was an important concept in Hellenic culture.

But more than that, I would argue that it’s an important element in our culture as well. We live in a time where it’s easy to get Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, and yet people clamor for the 16th minute. There seems to be no type of TV program sufficiently embarrassing that people won’t do it in search of becoming famous. Or, more darkly, consider that we can far more easily bring to mind the names of those who perpetrate heinous crimes than we can their victims. Kleos, indeed.

So what does this have to do with Ruth?

Well, Ruth seems to offer several character studies in behavior – as Rabbi Freundel has mentioned, she is one of the few figures in the Tana”kh whose commentary is entirely positive. Her relationship with Naomi also is a study in love and companionship. But for now, I’d like to focus on Boaz.

When we meet Boaz, whose name is quite literally “strength”, he acts in a thoroughly different manner. He’s just living his life – he’s a landowner, but he’s someone who makes sure to observe pe’ah– leaving the corners of his fields fallow for the poor to glean in them. When thrust into the actual story by meeting Ruth, he behaves honorably and politely toward her, inviting her to come glean.

Up until now, what we have is Boaz behaving honorably and justly, and if he had stopped there – dayeinu – it would have been enough. But the remarkable bit, to me, is what happens next: he instructs his workers to specifically leave a bit more out for her: effectively, what he’s doing is figuring a way to give her an additional bit of charity without her realizing it.

Now, this is remarkable. This is both the example of how to go lifnei mishurat ha-din – beyond the letter of the law, but just as importantly to do so privately. This is the most striking case, but if you look at each example of how Boaz behaves – sending Ruth out early to prevent her from getting slandered, representing himself before the elders, etc, the absence of a concern for kleos or its like is the dog that did not bark.

We see this developed further into places like the anonymity which figures into Rambam’s hierarchy of charitable giving. That is, the most preferable way to give charity (other than giving someone a job), is for neither the giver nor the recipient to know the identity of the other.

So why is the actual difference important? Why would it matter that they’ve got kleos and we don’t?

Let me propose a rationale: in Pirkei Avot (2:1), Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi describes the right path for a person, and says “Reflect on three things and you will not fall into transgression: know what is above you – a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and a book in which all your deeds are written.” So the deeds of people are recorded in the mind of God. Rabbi Yehudah is describing this in the context of judgement, but it also goes to the context of remembrance – God remembers small deeds, and will see even the hidden ones.

This is no less than a model of a way to live which rejects kleos as an ideal – rather than expecting that mighty deeds should live on in human memory, we should behave as Boaz and Ruth did, and as Micah says, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before the LORD your God.”

Nowadays, it would be easy to miss the kleos in the cultural water, just as it would be easy to miss the Jewish “anti-kleos” that we have – we are concerned about all people, not just the extraordinary ones. This comes out in “All Israel has a share in the world to come…”, “Whoever saves a life saves a world” and lots of other places – so to us, the ordinary life is absolutely worth living.