Monthly Archives: October 2020

Hillel and Shammai Strike Again

“Would it have been better had humans never been created?” This dark, brooding query carries the weight of postmodern existential angst. It sounds like something Kafka thought about as he dolefully sipped coffee in a Prague café.

In fact, the question was posed over two thousand years ago. It’s from the Talmud, Eruvin 13b. No one knows who asked it; the author remains anonymous. But the people who studied the question back then were considered the most extraordinary legal and philosophical minds of their generation. To this day, they remain icons and are revered as deeply ethical and thoughtful teachers.

Shammai and Hillel are the forebearers to our shared. Diverse Jewish tradition. Without them, there would be no such thing as rabbinic Judaism.

Both scholars and the academies they formed reflected intellectual acuity, devotion, and rigor to the study and practice of Judaism. Neither scholar pushed or practiced an ascetic lifestyle. They exemplified the Jewish tradition’s notion that “Life is with people.” Escape from the world, sitting for long periods of study in solitude, was frowned upon. We need others: for a prayer minyan, as witnesses, as a community. On this, Hillel and Shammai agreed.

But on so many other issues, these two men and their students were on absolutely opposite ends of the spectrum. They engaged in vigorous, passionate debate. When ruling on Jewish law issues, Hillel was generally seen as the more compassionate of the two. He would often take into consideration the particular context of an individual’s unique vantage point. Shammai believed in the principle itself as the most crucial element in a judgment. He was seen as being hard-edged and less forgiving. They were indeed the yin and the yang of Jewish tradition.

Would it have been better had humans never been created?” That both schools entertained the question is at first blush curious. The problem posed at least subtly questions God’s judgment. Is our existence an accident? Are we God’s mistake?

Hillel and Shammai do not question the integrity of the question. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that they studied it for 2 1/2 years, showing no small degree of dedication and seriousness of purpose. They pursue the most profound question humans ask: why? Why are we here? What is our goal? What is our place in the Universe?  It forces them to consider how we treat each other, how we behave, the things we do to the people we love and the people we hate…  It forces us to ask whether or not we have even earned the “right” to exist?

This question pushes us to the very limits of understanding. How can we imagine existence without human consciousness?  It is truly impossible to understand this except in the most theoretical ways. Yet the thinkers do not approach this philosophical, legal exercise as superfluous. They ponder its implications: what is our purpose? What is the meaning of our lives? Are we serving humanity as we should? Are we serving God as we should?

The first time I learned of this question and the fact that Hillel and Shammai, and their disciples chose to discuss it, I assumed I knew the ruling. Shammai, the dispassionate, rational thinker, would say that it would be better had humans not been created.  Hillel, the compassionate one, would say that, of course, it was better that we’d been created.

Imagine my shock when I discovered that, on this issue, Hillel and Shammai agreed! After 2 ½ years, both schools decided that iw would be better had humans not been created. What a statement! If this is so, if these scholars agreed that we were a mess, a failure unworthy of existence, then what are we to do?

Luckily for us, there is a coda in the Talmud. After reiterating that it would better had we never shown up, since we are here, we must examine our actions and seek to correct our mistakes.

We make a mess of things. We are very slow learners. Repetition compulsion is rampant. Meanwhile, the planet slowly deteriorates. Relations between the haves and the have-nots worsen. Then there’s Covid and well, the rest of it.

So what’s your pleasure? You can be part of the solution or a part of the problem. You can seek to make it better or just let it go like a balloon and watch as it all careens out of control. Hillel and Shammai teach us that life is hard – very hard. It’s not solemn or poetic – just true. While we’re here, we have a job to do.

Surrounded By Torah

I’ve learned how to be a proficient Torah roller. This is not generally acknowledged as an official job title, but it is in the realm of those things commonly called “a rabbi’s work.” There are many occasions when the Torah requires rolling. Every Shabbat, we move from one portion to the next. Sometimes, on holidays, there is a particular Torah assignment out of sequence with the weekly order. This necessitates moving from, let’s say, Exodus, all the way to Numbers, and then back again to the weekly sequence.

Preparing the Torah scrolls for the HHD is a big task unto itself. There are readings from Genesis, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, and the Torah scrolls must be rolled to the special chapters and verse designated for each sacred occasion.

Torah rolling is not an incredibly difficult job. One needs strong wrists. Your flexors and pronators have to be toned up. But that’s not the tough part. No, the hard part is finding where it is you’re rolling to.

It’s easy to find one’s place in the narrative chapters. I can just read along in the text until I find the correct part of the particular story. After all of these years, I have the Patriarchal/Matriarchal stories and the Exodus pretty well established in my memory. But whenever it comes to the sections – which are many – about the sacrifices, the structure of the Tent of Meeting, and priestly duties, I get easily confused. In my defense, this is due to the highly repetitive nature of the text, mixed in with various names of tribal chieftains, priests, and so forth. It never gets comfortable. It just gets murky!

The anxiety I feel when I am cut adrift on the sea of Torah, searching for the safety of a port – some familiar word or a phrase – must find its roots in my horrible sense of direction. The relief I feel when I do indeed see the right combination of words – oh, THAT vayomer Adonai el Moshe La-mor – is absolutely akin to when the signs on the highway match my GPS. Or as the song goes, “I once was lost /But now I’m found!”

Torah rolling is literally a hands-on task. Whenever I engage in this holy obligation, I think about those whose hands have been on the Torah before me. I think about all the B’nei mitzvah kids who’ve held the wooden spools, standing on the bimah, so nervous, so young. I think about all of the parents and grandparents who passed the Torah to that youngster with so much pride and with such great expectations. I think about the older, big Torah scrolls, about Rabbi Miller’s generation of B’nei mitzvah and their families and how they too held a Torah that I am rolling for a holiday reader.

Torah rolling ends up being a meditation of sorts. It’s a way I connect to the anxiety of getting lost, the relief of finding my way, and the strength of binding myself to the community I love, a community of spirit and tradition—a community of Torah.

A favorite holiday activity on Simchat Torah has been for us to completely unroll a Torah scroll and then surround our kids with it. What a great image! So much love, so much history, so much hope. Tonight we will not be doing that. But the metaphor abides, long after the scroll has been rewound to the right place.

At 500pm tonight, please come drive by the temple. Many of the staff will be outside, holding Torah scrolls, waving to you. Blow a kiss to the Torah; yell out hag sameach! It’s not the same as an indoor Simchat Torah – but it’ll do in a pinch…  And then, at 615pm, the mother-daughter team of Beth Kozinn and Peri Barest will join us for our weekly Shabbat Zoom, during which they will read the last verses of Deuteronomy and the first verses of Genesis.

From sitting in the sanctuary hearing someone chant Torah to dancing with a Torah to looking for the right Torah verses to rolling a parchment scroll of Torah to virtually chanting an Aliyah:

We will always surround ourselves with Torah and with blessing.

Shabbat Shalom and Moadim l’simcha,

rebhayim

#Hope

It’s a full moon tonight and the cicadas are singing their song, which is at least 40 million years old. There is a slight chill in the air and Halloween candy is on sale everywhere. The drama of life is in the groove, and the world keeps on turning. Everything is the same and everything is different. It’s part roller coaster and part Ferris wheel.

There is a storm of emotion all around us and inside of us, too.  We are moving from the intensity and introspection of Yom Kippur into the barely restrained joy of Sukkot, from a spiritually interior narrative to a delicious flashy outdoor observance, from beating our chests and asking God for forgiveness, to shaking a lulav and etrog and embracing the fertility of the Earth. It’s a bit dizzying. 

Sukkot comes at exactly the right time this year. We are more than ready for a healthy dose of positivity. In this dramatically wonderful moment, we receive an open invitation to acknowledge the sheer abundance of the Universe. 

I know; the climate change struggle can dampen our enthusiasm for this. Our eyes and hearts are so trained on the terrible mess we’ve made of it that sometimes we forget to look up at what we still have, and to exclaim, “Hallelujah!”, or something like that. Then we can go back to the soulcrushing work of wrestling for the future of the planet with those who see it as no more than a generator of capital.

Sukkot challenges us to lean into hope, to believe. Vaclav Havel, a great 20th century intellectual and a former president of the Czech Republic once wrote,  “I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”

Hope has become a hashtag in my head. I am trying to lean into all signs of it. With the chaos level ticking up – I know, how is that even possible? – it seems dramatically necessary to consider hope as a sort of ballast, to keep my soul together. 

Sukkot is a balm to the achiness of being squeezed into our respective homes. It’s a metaphor for the goodness of harvest, which we take for granted. Bathe in that gratitude, feel the hopefulness that comes with the crisp apple, the pumpkin patch, the Autumn leaves.

The hope comes from so many places. Tonight, in particular, it comes from the cyclic nature of Nature and the Jewish calendar. Sukkot will always be the night of the full moon. Sometimes it’ll be 80 degrees, and sometimes it will be snowing. But the moon will always be full, and we will always just have emerged from Yom Kippur. The hope from the alignment of stars and planets and galaxies shines on us with sweetness and joy. Perhaps this is what Havel means when he says that hope is something we get from elsewhere. 

As we hang on in this interregnum period of Fall, in a time we can still be outdoors together – the safest way there is – we give thanks for God’s presence, for each other, and for this community we have sculpted together. We give thanks for this holiday of Sukkot, a reminder of the bounty we share together. We are thoughtful about how tenuous it can be, how easily things can go wrong.

And on this Sukkot, we lean into hope, inspired to do whatever must be done, not for selfish, self-centered reasons, but because it’s the right thing, “even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.” Now more than ever, as Jesse Jackson once said, “Keep hope alive”. And as I say, hope keeps us alive.

Hag Sameach,

rebhayim